“Enter,” she calls in Sadhese, and another figure comes through the tent flaps. She is dark-skinned and plump, with full cheeks and long-lashed black eyes.
She speaks, her voice a song. “We bid farewell, but ’twas not true, for when I think your name—”
I know the poem well. She sang it sometimes when I was a boy and couldn’t sleep.
“—you stand with me in memory,” I say, “until I see you again.”
The woman opens her hands outward, a tentative offering. “Ilyaas,” she whispers. “My son. It has been too long.”
For the first six years of my life, after Keris Veturia abandoned me in Mamie Rila’s tent, the Kehanni raised me as her own son. My adoptive mother looks exactly as she did the last time I saw her, six and a half years ago, when I was a Fiver. Though she is shorter than me, her embrace is like a warm blanket, and I fall into it, a boy again, safe in the Kehanni’s arms.
Then I realize what her presence here means. And what Afya has done. I release Mamie and advance on the Tribeswoman, my rage building at the smug look on her face.
“How dare you bring Tribe Saif into this?”
“How dare you endanger Tribe Nur by foisting your favor upon me?”
“You’re a smuggler. Getting us north doesn’t endanger your Tribe. Not if you’re careful.”
“You’re a fugitive of the Empire. If my Tribe is caught helping you, the Martials will destroy us.” Afya’s smile is gone now, and she is the shrewd woman who recognized me at the Moon Festival, the ruthless leader who has brought a once-forgotten Tribe to glory with remarkable swiftness.
“You put me in an impossible situation, Elias Veturius. I’m returning the favor. Besides, while I might be able to safely smuggle you north, I cannot get you out of a city with a full Martial cordon around it. Kehanni Rila has offered to help.”
Of course she has. Mamie would do anything for me if she thought I needed aid. But I won’t see anyone else I care about hurt because of me.
I find that my face is inches from Afya’s. I glare into her dark, steely eyes, my skin hot with wrath. At Mamie’s hand on my arm, I step back. “Tribe Saif is not helping us.” I wheel on Mamie. “Because that would be idiotic and dangerous.”
“Afya Jan.” Mamie uses the Sadhese term of endearment. “I would speak with my impertinent son alone. Why not prepare your other guests?”
Afya gives Mamie a respectful half bow—aware, at least, of my adoptive mother’s stature among her people—before gesturing Gibran, Izzi, Laia, and Keenan out of the tent. Laia looks back at me, brow furrowed, before disappearing with Afya.
When I turn to Mamie Rila, she’s eyeing Laia and grinning.
“Good hips,” Mamie says. “You’ll have many children. But can she make you laugh?” Mamie waggles her eyebrows. “I know plenty of girls in the Tribe who—”
“Mamie.” I recognize an attempt at distraction when I see it. “You shouldn’t be here. You need to get back to the wagons as soon as you can. Were you followed? If—”
“Shush.” Mamie waves me quiet and settles onto one of Afya’s divans, patting the seat next to her. When I don’t join her, her nostrils flare. “You might be bigger than you were, Ilyaas, but you are still my son, and when I tell you to sit, you sit.
“Skies, boy.” She pinches my arm when I comply. “What have you been eating? Grass?” She shakes her head, her tone serious now. “What happened to you in Serra these last weeks, my love? The things I’ve heard …”
I’ve locked the Trials deep within. I have not spoken of them since the night I spent with Laia in my quarters at Blackcliff.
“It doesn’t matter—” I begin.
“It has changed you, Ilyaas. It does matter.”
Her round face is filled with love. It will be filled with horror if she knows what I did. This will hurt her far more than the Martials ever could.
“Always so afraid of the darkness within.” Mamie takes my hands. “Don’t you see? So long as you fight the darkness, you stand in the light.”
It’s not that simple, I want to shout. I’m not the boy I was. I’m something else. Something that will sicken you.
“Do you think I don’t know what they teach you at that school?” Mamie asks. “You must believe I am a fool. Tell me. Unburden yourself.”
“I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want anyone else hurt because of me.”
“Children are born to break their mothers’ hearts, my boy. Tell me.”
My mind orders me to stay silent, but my heart screams to be heard. She is asking, after all. She wants to know. And I want to tell her. I want her to know what I am.
So I speak.
When I finish, Mamie is quiet. The only thing I haven’t told her is the true nature of the Commandant’s poison.
“What a fool I was,” Mamie whispers, “to think that when your mother left you to die, you would be spared from the Martials’ evil.”
But my mother didn’t leave me to die, did she? I learned the truth from the Commandant the night before I was to be executed: She had not abandoned me to the vultures. Keris Veturia held me, fed me, and then carried me to Mamie’s tent after I was born. It was my mother’s last—her only—kindness to me.
I nearly say as much to Mamie, but the sorrow on her face stops me. It doesn’t make a difference now anyway.