We make our way east, following the crowd streaming toward the storytellers’ stage. Our presence among the Tribesmen is noted—and not with the reluctant tolerance I’m accustomed to. As we pass, I hear more than one insult muttered. Harper and I exchange a glance, and he signals the squads we run into until we have two dozen auxiliary troops at our backs.
“Tell me, Blood Shrike,” Harper says as we near the stage. “Do you really think you can take him?”
“I’ve beaten Veturius in combat a hundred times—”
“I don’t mean can you take him down. I mean when the moment comes, will you be able to put him in chains and take him to the Emperor, knowing what will happen?”
No. Bleeding, burning skies, no. I’ve asked myself the same thing a hundred times. Will I do right by the Empire? Will I do right by my people? I cannot object to Harper asking the question. But my answer comes out as a snarl anyway.
“I suppose we’ll find out, won’t we?”
Ahead, the storytellers’ theater sits at the bottom of a steep, terraced bowl, and it’s aglow with hundreds of oil lamps. A thoroughfare runs behind the stage, and beyond that, a vast depot filled with the wagons of those who will leave directly after the farewell tale.
The air crackles with expectation, a sense of waiting that has me clutching my scim with a white-knuckled grip. What is going on?
By the time Harper and I arrive, thousands of people pack the theater. I see immediately why Dex needed backup. The bowl has more than two dozen entrances, with Tribesmen flowing in and out freely. I deploy the auxes I’ve gathered to each gateway. Moments later, Dex finds me. Sweat pours down his face and blood streaks the brown skin of his forearms.
“Mamie’s got something up her sleeve,” he says. “Every Tribe she met with is here. The auxes I brought with me have already gotten into a dozen fights.”
“Blood Shrike.” Harper points to the stage, which is surrounded by fifty fully armed men of Tribe Saif. “Look.”
The Saif warriors shift to let a proud figure through. Mamie Rila. She takes the stage, and the crowd shushes each other. When she raises her hands, any lingering whispers are silenced—not even children make a sound. I can hear the wind blowing off the desert.
The Commandant’s presence prompted a similar silence. Mamie, however, seems to elicit it out of respect instead of fear.
“Welcome, brothers and sisters.” Mamie’s voice echoes up the terraced bowl. I silently thank the Language Centurion at Blackcliff, who spent six years teaching us Sadhese.
The Kehanni turns to the darkened desert behind her. “The sun will soon rise on a new day, and we must bid each other farewell. But I offer you a tale to take with you into the sands on your next journey. A tale kept vaulted and locked. A tale that you will all be a part of. A tale still being told.”
“Let me tell you of Ilyaas An-Saif, my son, who was stolen from Tribe Saif by the dread Martials.”
Harper, Dex, and I haven’t gone unnoticed. Nor have the Martials guarding the exits. Hisses and ululations erupt from the crowd, all directed at us. Some of the auxes move as if to draw their weapons, but Dex signals a halt. Three Masks and two squads of auxes against twenty thousand Tribesmen isn’t a fight. It’s a death sentence.
“What is she doing?” Dex says under his breath. “Why would she tell Elias’s story?”
“He was a quiet, gray-eyed infant,” Mamie says in Sadhese, “left to die in the swelter of the Tribal desert. What travesty, to see such a beautiful, strong child abandoned by his depraved mother and exposed to the elements. I claimed him as my own, brothers and sisters, and took great pride in doing so, for he came to me in a time of great need, when my soul searched for meaning and found none. In the eyes of this child, I found solace, and in his laughter, I found joy. But it was not to last.”
I already see Mamie’s Kehanni magic working on the crowd. She tells of a child beloved by the Tribe, a child of the Tribe, as if Elias’s Martial blood is incidental. She tells of his youth and of the night he was taken.
For a moment, I too find myself riveted. My curiosity transforms into wariness when Mamie turns to the Trials. She tells of the Augurs and their predictions. She speaks of the violence the Empire perpetrated upon Elias’s mind and body. The crowd listens, their emotions rising and falling with Mamie’s—shock, sympathy, disgust, terror.
And that is when I finally understand what Mamie Rila is doing.
She is starting a riot.
Mamie’s powerful voice echoes across the theater, mesmerizing all who hear it. Though I cannot understand Sadhese, the movements of her body and her hands—along with the way Elias’s face pales—tell me that this tale is about him.
We have found seats about halfway up the terraces of the storytellers’ theater. I sit between Elias and Afya amid a crowd of men and women from Tribe Nur. Keenan and Izzi wait with Gibran a dozen or so yards away. I catch Keenan craning his neck, trying to make sure I’m all right, and I wave to him. His dark eyes drift to Elias and back to me before Izzi whispers something to him and he looks away.
In the green-and-gold clothes Afya gave all of us, we are, at a distance, indistinguishable from the other members of the Tribe. I retreat further into my hood, thankful for the rising winds. Nearly everyone has their hoods up or cloth over their faces to protect themselves from the choking dust.
We can’t take you directly to the wagons, Afya said as we joined her Tribe in walking to the theater. There are soldiers patrolling the depot—and they’re stopping everyone. So Mamie’s going to create a little distraction.