Thursday, May 7, 2015

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Five hundred years ago, the Martials conquered the Scholar lands. Once the home to the world’s finest libraries and universities, the Scholar Empire is now enslaved and oppressed by the Martials. Now most of the people don’t know the difference between an armory and a school.

Laia’s parents and sister were killed by the Empire. She and her brother Darin live with their grandparents. When Darin sneaks back home in the hours before dawn one night, Laia confronts him about his sketchbook that she found. He wants to know if she said anything to Nan and Pop. She didn’t. He warns her not to tell a soul what she saw. It is too dangerous. Everyone’s life would be at risk. Laia asks if he is working for the Empire after all that they have done to their family. He is silent and Laia assumes the worse. Starting to berate him, Darin tells her that it isn’t what she thinks. Suddenly, he gets very quiet and whispers, “raid”. Daytime raids are held for the Empire to assert their dominance but nighttime raids are for covering up things that the Martials don’t want anyone to find out about. Laia questions why they are being raided if he is working for the Empire. He’s not and asks her to hide the sketchbook. It contains details about how the forges of Serra create the most precious asset of the Empire: “the unbreakable, curved scims that can cut through three men at once.” The Martials hoard their secrets of metalcraft and execute anyone who ventures too close to the forges. Laia wonders who Dariin is working for if not the Empire and how to get close enough to the forges to uncover their secrets. She drops the sketch book out of the window, into a bush.

Nan and Pop are now awake and tell their grandchildren to run for it. They will hold back the soldiers as best they can. They are to run through the backyard and hide in the east end of the Quarter. They all gasp when they catch sight of a liquid silver face outside of the window. A Mask awaits and that makes the situation even worse. There is more pounding on the front door along with an irritated voice. Darin comments that the voice can’t belong to the Mask and he and Laia exchange a look. If the Mask isn’t at the front door, where is he? Darin promises to keep her safe. They reach the back gate and Darin releases the latch. Darin pulls Laia behind him. Sensing nothing, Laia steps out and comes face to face with the Mask. The Mask subdues Darin and eyes Laia leerily. He takes them back into the house where Nan and Pop are bound and kneeling on the floor. Darin joins them but the Mask keeps Laia by his side. The Mask questions Darin about the sketchbook and threatens Nan. Laia tells him where to find it. A soldier retrieves it and the Mask flips through the pages. He wants to know about his association with the Resistance. Darin feigns ignorance. Some time in prison should loosen up his tongue, states the Mask. Pop speaks up, demanding that they leave the boy alone. In the blink of an eye, the Mask strikes down Pop. Nan screams and Laia knows that her grandfather is dead. Nan stumbles towards the Mask but he quickly slits her throat. Now, an hour before dawn, the Mask orders Darin taken away and the house burned to the ground. The Mask holds Laia’s gaze as the soldiers flanking her grin. Suddenly, Darin springs up, his bindings free, and tackles the Mask to the ground. The soldiers are stunned and Darin is able to grab’s the Mask’s knife before they can act. He yells at Laia to run and she knows if she stays, the Mask will rape and kill her. Backing away, the Mask notices Laia as Darin screams. He orders her brother to be taken to an interrogation cell and tells her to run. Laia flees into the night.

Running through the Quarter, Laia loses her pursuers. With no family left, she realizes that she has nowhere to go. Wandering the alleys of the Quarter, Laia notices a grate that leads to the catacombs of Serra. They are rumored to house the Scholars’ Resistance. If Laia can find them, maybe they can rescue Darin. Down in the catacombs, Laia feels like a hunted animal. Even though the Emperor states that the Scholars are free under his rule, they aren’t allowed to own property or attend school and live in fear of being enslaved. Only her thoughts of Darin keep her from going mad. After hours of literally feeling her way around, Laia hears a sound. Dropping to find a weapon, light floods the tunnel and she finds herself surrounded. A man’s voice asks a woman to check Laia for weapons. He calls her Sana and Laia realizes that it’s a Scholar name but she is too afraid to ask if they are part of the Resistance. She discovers Laia’s armband. Laia begs to keep it saying it is the only thing she has left of her mother’s. Suddenly, the leader, Keenan, realizes that they are about to be discovered by an aux patrol and the group goes to disperse. Sana doesn’t want to leave Laia behind but Keenan is steadfast in his refusal. He wants Sana to take Laia’s silver armband. Sana will not steal from her own people. She pushes Keenan and her hood falls back. Laia notices her tattoo and realizes that she is a part of the Resistance. Keenan says that now they must take Laia back with them.

The rebels take Laia back to their hideout. Taking off her blindfold, Keenan wants Sana to drug Laia and send her on her way. Sana thinks Laia looks familiar and Laia tells her that she sold jams at the market. Sana is about to ask why she was in the catacombs when Keenan voices his displeasure over Laia still being there. Someone lets it slip that Sana is the leader of the faction. Laia asks for help rescuing Darin but Keenan says that they are stretched too thin. Laia bravely says that it isn’t his decision. He looks her over and notices the armband. Keenan leaves to get someone named Mazen.

In the Quarter, no one knew who Laia’s parents were but someone in the Resistance is bound to notice her appearance. She stares at Sana’s tattoo because her father gave her mother the same one. Sana tells her the Resistance has changed. Mazen believes that they need to attack but Sana disagrees. Keenan comes back with Mazen. Laia interrupts by saying that he is the leader of the Resistance. She asks for his help since his men turned in Darin. Mazen looks to Keenan who confirms that two recruits were just found dead. He didn’t know what big thing they were working on. Laia keeps quiet over the sketchbook but pleads again. Mazen begins to walk off. Laia realizes that it is now or never. She tells Mazen who she truly is. Someone with the Resistance betrayed her parents and she has kept her identity a secret until now. Shocking everyone, the leaders of the divided factions of the Resistance meet privately to decide what to do. Mazen will attempt to free Darin if Laia agrees to spy on the commandant of Blackcliff.

Elias Veturia has been training with Helene Aquilla nearly every day for the past fourteen years at the Blackcliff Military Academy to become Masks. Helene is fiercely loyal to the Empire while Elias’ hatred of it grows by the day. He is making plans for desertion. They are both Senior Skulls and have just completed their last year of training. Elias’ Mask hasn’t melded to his skin yet, the only student not permanently marked. The reason is that he takes it off every chance he gets. The Commandant of the Academy is the only living female Mask until graduation the next day when Helene graduates. She is also Elias’ mother and they have a mutual hatred of one another..

Heir to Gens Veturia, Elias is a member of one of the oldest and most respected houses in the Empire. The first six years of his life were spent with the Tribesmen who taught him compassion and mercy instead of brutality and hatred. If he is successful, he would become the first student to desert after graduation. Elias has spent the past seven months planning his escape through the catacombs. At dinner that night, talk amongst the Senior Skulls turns to whether or not this will be the year the Augurs choose a new emperor. The current emperor is seventy with no heirs. Just like his grandfather, Elias doesn’t believe in their powers. Helene silently warns him to keep his doubts to himself. Soon, talk turns towards the morning’s execution of a ten year old student who ran. Marcus taunts Elias over his sympathy towards the traitor. Helene pleads with him to agree with Marcus and he finally relents. Marcus continues with his insults by calling Elias a bastard and talking about him deserting. (Elias has no idea who his father is.) Helene tells Elias to leave and cool off. Elias wonders how Marcus knows about his secret plans.

Outside, Elias wishes he could have seen Serra when it was still the capital of the Scholar Empire. Suddenly, a voice speaks at his side. “All things change Elias Veturius. You are no boy now, but a man, with a man’s burden upon your shoulders and a man’s choice ahead of you.” Elias places a dagger against his throat. Steady as a rock, his mind races as to where the man has come from Elias says, “Who the hell are you?” The man pulls off his hood and Elias finds himself in front of an Augur. The Augur knows of his beliefs about the them and his desertion plans. The Augur mentions that the price will be high. He is not there to punish Elias, his future will be punishment enough. The Augur tells Elias that they built Blackcliff 500 years earlier as a place to train the future emperor when the current line dies out. The Augurs know of Elias’ plans because of their ability to read minds. Knowing those plans, they knew that they would need to speak to him soon. This particular Augur, Cain, brought Elias to Blackcliff from his foster family. Cain tells Elias that he cannot escape his destiny. Tomorrow, Elias must make a choice; desertion or duty If he deserts, he will leave the Empire behind but his enemies will always hunt him. If he chooses duty, Elias will have a chance of unimaginable greatness and freedom. Elias will know his destiny when the time comes.

Who in the Resistance betrayed Laia’s parents? Will the Resistance be able to rescue Darin? Was Darin secretly working for them? Does Laia follow her parents’ lead and join the Resistance? Why does Mazen want a spy working for the Commandant? What are his plans? Who can Laia trust? What is Elias’ destiny? Why did the Augurs choose him? Will he choose to stay and face an uncertain future or will he run? Why does Helene help him? What is the story behind his mother? Why does she seem to hate him? Why was he chosen to be at Blackcliff? Who can Elias trust? What happens when Elias and Laia cross paths?

As of now, book two hasn’t been sold.

Visit Sabaa Tahir’s website.

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