A torch against the nigh.., p.11
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.11

         Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir
 

  Even days old, the tracks are clear. No one has disturbed this place.

  "It's a trap." Faris lifts his torch to illuminate the shadowy corners of the empty lot. "That crackpot Cook was trying to get you to come here so she could ambush us."

  "It's a riddle," I say. "And I've always been good at riddles." This one took me longer than most--days have passed since Cook's visit. "Besides, an old crone against three Masks isn't really an ambush."

  "She got the jump on you, didn't she?" Faris's cowlick tufts out, as it always seems to when he's agitated. "Why would she even help you? You're a Mask. She's an escaped slave."

  "She's got no love for the Commandant. And"--I gesture to the ground--"it's clear the Commandant is hiding something."

  "Besides, there's no ambush to be seen." Dex turns to a door in the wall behind us. "But there is salvation half-touched by shadow. The door faces east. It's only in shadow for half the day."

  I nod to the kiln. "And that's the sleepless spire of suffering. Most of the Scholars who work there are born and die in its shadow."

  "But these tracks--" Faris begins.

  "There are only two silver-skinned she-demons in the Empire," I say. "And one of them was getting tortured by Avitas Harper that night." Harper, suffice it to say, wasn't invited on this little outing.

  I examine the tracks again. Why didn't the Commandant bring backup? Why didn't she tell anyone she saw Elias that night?

  "I need to talk to Keris," I say. "Find out if--"

  "That's a terrible idea," a mild voice calls from the darkness behind me.

  "Lieutenant Harper." I greet the spy, glaring at Dex as I do so. He grimaces, handsome face uneasy. He was supposed to make sure Harper didn't follow us. "Skulking in the shadows as usual. I suppose you'll tell her all about this?"

  "I don't need to. You're going to give it away when you ask about it. If the Commandant tried to hide what happened here, there's a reason. We should learn what it is before revealing we're on to her."

  Faris snorts, and Dex rolls his eyes.

  Obviously, idiot. That's what I'm going to do. But Harper doesn't need to know that. In fact, the stupider he thinks I am, the better. He can tell the Commandant that I'm no threat to her.

  "There is no we, Harper." I turn away from him. "Dex, check the reports from that night--see if there's anyone around here who saw anything. Faris, you and Harper track the horse. It's probably black or chestnut and at least seventeen hands. Quin didn't like variety in his stables."

  "We'll track the horse," Harper says. "Leave the Commandant, Shrike."

  I ignore him, swing into my saddle, and make my way to Villa Veturia.

  *

  It's not yet midnight when I arrive at the Veturia mansion. There are far fewer soldiers here than when I visited a few days ago. Either the Emperor has found another residence or he's away. Probably in a brothel. Or off murdering children for fun.

  As I'm escorted through the familiar halls, I wonder briefly about Marcus's parents. Neither he nor Zak ever spoke of them. His father is a farrier in a village north of Silas, and his mother is a baker. What must they feel, with one son murdered by the other and the living one now crowned emperor?

  The Commandant meets me in Quin's study and offers me a seat. I don't take it.

  I try not to stare as she sits at Quin's desk. She wears a black robe, and the blue swirls of her tattoo--oft theorized about at Blackcliff--are just visible at her neck. I've only ever seen her in uniform. Without it, she seems diminished.

  As if sensing my thoughts, her eyes sharpen. "I owe you thanks, Shrike," she says. "You saved my father's life. I didn't want to kill him, but he wouldn't have given up the rulership of Gens Veturia easily. Getting him out of the city allowed him his dignity--and a smoother transition of power."

  She isn't thanking me. She was enraged when she learned her father had escaped Serra. She's letting me know that she knows I was the one who helped him. How did she find out? Persuading Quin not to storm Blackcliff's dungeons to save Elias was practically impossible, and sneaking him out under the nose of his guards was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. We were careful--beyond careful.

  "Have you seen Elias Veturius since the morning he escaped from Blackcliff?" I ask. She doesn't betray a flicker of emotion.

  "No."

  "Have you seen the Scholar Laia, formerly your slave, since she escaped from Blackcliff the same day?"

  "No."

  "You are the Commandant of Blackcliff and adviser to the Emperor, Keris," I say. "But as Blood Shrike, I outrank you. You do realize I could haul you into interrogation and have you purged."

  "Don't pull rank with me, little girl," the Commandant says softly. "The only reason you're not already dead is that I--not Marcus, I--still have use for you. But"--she shrugs--"if you insist on a purging, I will, of course, submit."

  I still have use for you.

  "Did you, on the night of Veturius's escape, see him at a storage building on the eastern wall of the city, fight him there, lose, and get knocked unconscious while he and the slave escaped on a horse?"

  "I just answered that question," she says. "Was there anything else, Blood Shrike? The Scholar revolution has spread to Silas. At dawn, I'm to lead the force that will crush it."

  Her voice is as mild as ever. But for a moment, something flares in her eyes. A well-deep flicker of rage. It's gone as quickly as it appeared. I'll get nothing from her now.

  "Good luck in Silas, Commandant." As I turn to leave, she speaks.

  "Before you go, Blood Shrike, congratulations are in order." She allows herself a slight sneer. "Marcus is finalizing the paperwork now. Your sister's betrothal to the Emperor does him great honor. Their heir will be legitimately Illustrian--"

  I am out the door and across the courtyard, my head filled with a rushing that makes me sick. I hear my father when I asked him what he'd traded for my freedom. Nothing important, daughter. And Livia, a few nights ago, telling me Hannah was acting strange. Like she knows something we don't.

  I tear past the guards and vault onto my horse. All I can think is: Not Livvy. Not Livvy. Not Livvy.

  Hannah is strong. She's bitter. She's angry. But Livvy--Livvy is sweet and funny and curious. Marcus will see it, and he will crush her. He'll enjoy doing it.

  I reach home, and before my horse has had a chance to stop, I'm sliding off and shoving through the front gates--straight into a courtyard packed full of Masks.

  "Blood Shrike." One of them steps forward. "You are to wait here--"

  "Let her through."

  Marcus saunters out the front door of my house, my mother and father flanking him. Bleeding skies, no. The sight is so wrong that I want to scrub it from my eyes with lye. Hannah follows, head held high. The shine in her eyes bewilders me. Is it her, then? If so, why does she look happy? I've never hid my contempt of Marcus from her.

  As they enter the courtyard, Marcus bows and kisses Hannah's hand, the epitome of a well-behaved, highborn suitor.

  Get the bleeding hells away from her, you pig. I want to scream it. I bite my tongue. He's the Emperor. And you're his Shrike.

  When he rises, he inclines his head to my mother. "Set a date, Mater Aquilla. Don't wait too long."

  "Will your family wish to attend, Your Imperial Majesty?" my mother asks.

  "Why?" Marcus curls his lip. "Too Plebeian to go to a wedding?"

  "Of course not, Your Majesty," my mother says. "Only I have heard tell that your mother is a woman of great piousness. I expect that she would observe the Augurs' suggested mourning period of four months quite strictly."

  A shadow passes over Marcus's face. "Of course," he says. "It will take as long for you to prove that Gens Aquilla is worthy."

  He approaches me, and at the horror in my eyes, he grins, all the more savage for the pain he's just felt in remembering Zak. "Careful now, Shrike," he says. "Your sister is to be in my care. You wouldn't want anything to happen to her, would you?"

&nbs
p; "She--you--" While I gibber, Marcus strides out, his guards trailing. When our slaves have closed the courtyard gates behind him, I hear Hannah's quiet laugh.

  "Won't you congratulate me, Blood Shrike?" she says. "I am to be Empress."

  She's a fool, but she's still my little sister, and I love her. I cannot let this stand.

  "Father," I say through gritted teeth. "I would speak with you."

  "You should not be here, Shrike," my father says. "You have a mission to complete."

  "Can't you see, Father?" Hannah whirls on me. "Ruining my marriage is more important to her than finding the traitor."

  My father looks a decade older than he did yesterday. "The betrothal papers have been signed by the Gens," he says. "I had to save you, Helene. This was the only way."

  "Father, he is a murderer, a rapist--"

  "Isn't that every Mask, Shrike?" Hannah's words are a slap in the face. "I heard you and your bastard friend speaking ill of Marcus. I know what I'm getting into."

  She swoops toward me, and I realize she's as tall as I am, though I don't remember when that happened. "I don't care. I will be Empress. Our son will be heir to the throne. And the fate of Gens Aquilla will forever be secure. Because of me." Her eyes glow with triumph. "Think on that as you hunt down the traitor you call friend."

  Don't punch her, Helene. Don't. My father takes my arm. "Come, Shrike."

  "Where's Livvy?" I ask.

  "Sequestered in her room with a fever," Father says as we ensconce ourselves in his book-stuffed study. "Your mother and I didn't want to risk Marcus picking her instead."

  "He did this to get at me." I try to sit but just end up pacing. "The Commandant probably put him up to it."

  "Do not underestimate our Emperor, Helene," Father says. "Keris wanted you dead. She tried to persuade Marcus to execute you. You know her. She refuses to negotiate. The Emperor came to me without her knowledge. The Illustrians have turned on him. They use the escape of Veturius and the slave-girl to question his legitimacy as Emperor. He knows he needs allies, so he offered your life for Hannah's hand in marriage--and the full support of Gens Aquilla."

  "Why not throw our weight behind another Gens?" I say. "There must be some who covet the throne."

  "They all covet the throne. The infighting has already begun. Who would you choose? Gens Sissellia is brutal and manipulative. Gens Rufia would empty the Empire's coffers in a fortnight. All would object to any other Gens ruling. They will tear each other apart vying for the throne. Better a bad Emperor than a civil war."

  "But, Father, he's a--"

  "Daughter." Father raises his voice--a rare enough occurrence that I fall silent. "Your loyalty is to the Empire. Marcus is Augur-chosen. He is the Empire. And he needs a victory badly." My father leans across his desk. "He needs Elias. He needs a public execution. He needs the Gens to see that he is strong and capable.

  "You are Blood Shrike now, daughter. The Empire must come first--above your desires, your friendships, your wants. Above, even, your sister and your Gens. We are Aquilla, daughter. Loyal to the end. Say it."

  "Loyal," I whisper. Even if it means my sister's destruction. Even if it means a madman running the Empire. Even if it means I have to torture and kill my best friend. "To the end."

  *

  When I arrive at the empty barracks the next morning, neither Dex nor Harper mentions Hannah's betrothal. They are also wise enough not to remark on my black mood.

  "Faris is at the drum tower," Dex says. "He heard back about the horse. As for those reports you had me look through . . ." My friend fidgets, pale eyes on Harper.

  Harper almost smiles. "There was something off about the reports," he says. "The drums gave conflicting orders that night. Martial troops were in disarray because the rebels cracked our codes and scrambled all the communiques."

  Dex's mouth drops open. "How did you know?"

  "I noticed it a week ago," Harper said. "It wasn't relevant until today. Two orders given that night went unobserved in the chaos, Shrike. Both transferred men from the eastern part of the city elsewhere, thereby leaving that entire sector unpatrolled."

  I curse under my breath. "Keris gave those orders," I say. "She let him go. She wants me tied up in the hunt for Veturius. With me gone, she can influence Marcus without interference. And"--I glance at Harper--"you're going to tell her I figured it out. Aren't you?"

  "She knew that the moment you walked into Villa Veturia with questions." Harper fixes his cool gaze on me. "She doesn't underestimate you, Shrike. Nor should she."

  The door bursts open, and Faris lumbers through, ducking his head to avoid the frame. He hands me a slip of paper. "From a guard post just south of Raider's Roost."

  Black stallion, eighteen hands, Gens Veturia markings, found on routine camp raid four days ago. Blood on saddle. Beast in poor condition and showed signs of hard riding. Tribesman in possession was questioned but insists horse wandered into his camp.

  "What in the bleeding skies was Veturius doing at Raider's Roost?" I say. "Why go east? The fastest way to escape the Empire is south."

  "Could be a ploy," Dex says. "He could have traded the horse outside the city and turned south from there."

  Faris shakes his head. "Then how do you explain the beast's condition and where it was found?"

  I let them argue. A chill wind blows through the open barracks door, rifling the reports on the table, bringing in the smell of crushed leaves, cinnamon, and distant sands. A Tribal trader trundles past with his cart. He's the first Tribesman I've seen in Serra in days. The rest have left the city, in part because of the Scholar revolt and in part because of the Fall Gathering in Nur. No Tribesman would miss it.

  It hits me like a lightning bolt. The Fall Gathering. Every Tribe attends, including Tribe Saif. In the middle of all those people, animals, wagons, and families, it would be child's play for Elias to slip past Martial spies and hide among his adoptive family.

  "Dex." I silence the discussion. "Send a message to the garrison at Atella's Gap. I need a full legion mustered and ready to depart in three days. And saddle our horses."

  Dex lifts his silver brows. "Where are we going?"

  "Nur," I say as I walk out the door for the stables. "He's heading to Nur."

  XV: Laia

  Elias suggests we rest, but sleep won't find me this night. Keenan is equally agitated; an hour or so after we've all bedded down, he gets up and disappears into the woods. I sigh, knowing I owe him an explanation. Delaying it will make the road to Kauf more difficult than it already promises to be. I rise, shivering from the cold and pulling my cloak closer. Elias, on watch, speaks quietly as I pass.

  "The poison," he says. "Don't tell him or Izzi. Please."

  "I won't." I slow, thinking of our almost-kiss, wondering if I should say anything. But when I turn to look at him, he's studiously staring out at the forest, his broad shoulders taut.

  I follow Keenan into the woods and run to catch his arm just as he's moving out of view.

  "You're still upset," I say. "I'm sorry--"

  He throws off my arm and spins about, his eyes flashing dark fire.

  "You're sorry? Skies, Laia, do you have any idea what I thought when you weren't on that barge? You know what I've lost, and you did it anyway--"

  "I had to, Keenan." I didn't realize it would hurt him. I thought he would understand. "I couldn't let Izzi face the Commandant's wrath. I couldn't let Elias die."

  "So he didn't make you do any of this? Izzi said it was your idea, but I didn't believe her. I assumed he'd--I don't know--used coercion. A trick. Now I find the two of you together. I thought you and I . . ."

  He crosses his arms, his bright hair falling into his face, and looks away from me. Skies. He must have seen Elias and me by the fire. How to explain? I never thought I'd see you again. I'm a mess. My heart is a mess.

  "Elias is my friend," I say instead. Is it even true? Elias was my friend when we left Serra. Now I do not know what he is.

  "You're
trusting a Martial, Laia. Do you realize that? Ten bleeding hells, he's the son of the Commandant. The son of the woman who killed your family--"

  "He's not like that."

  "Of course he's like that. They're all like that. You and me, Laia--we can do this without him. Look, I didn't want to say it in front of him because I don't trust him, but the Resistance has knowledge of Kauf. Men inside. I can get Darin out of there, alive."

  "Kauf isn't Central Prison, Keenan. It's not even Blackcliff. It's Kauf. No one has ever broken out of there. So please, stop. This is my choice. I choose to trust him. You can come with me if you wish. I would be lucky to have someone like you along. But I'm not leaving Elias. He's my best chance of saving Darin."

  Keenan looks for a moment as if he wants to say more but then simply nods.

  "Your will, then," he says.

  "There's something else I need to tell you." I never shared with Keenan why my brother was taken. But if rumors of Darin and Teluman have already reached the Roost, then he's certain to hear about my brother's skills at some point. He might as well hear it from me.

  "Izzi and I heard the rumors while we were traveling," he says after I finish explaining. "But I'm glad you told me. I'm--I'm glad you trust me."

  When he meets my eyes, a spark jumps between us, heady and powerful. In the mist, his eyes are dark, so dark. I could disappear there. The thought pops unbidden into my mind. And not mind if I never found my way out.

  "You must be exhausted." He lifts a palm to my face, hesitant. His touch is warm, and when his fingers fall away, I feel empty. I think of how he kissed me in Serra. "I'll be there soon."

  In the clearing, Izzi sleeps. Elias ignores me, his hand laid casually across the scim in his lap. If he's heard Keenan and me talking, he gives no indication of it.

  My bedroll is cold, and I huddle within, shivering. For a long time, I lie awake, waiting for Keenan to return. But the minutes pass, and he stays away.

  *

  We reach the border of the Serran Mountain Range mid-morning, with the sun high in the east. Elias takes point as we zigzag out of the mountains and down a switchbacking trail to the foothills. The dunes of the Tribal desert roll away beyond those foothills, a sea of molten gold with an island of green a dozen or so miles away: Nur.

 
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