A torch against the nigh.., p.20
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.20
 

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

  "We can't help you," Afya says to the Scholars. "I will not bring down the Martials' wrath upon my Tribe."

  "They're killing everyone," one of the women says. "No survivors, miss. They're even killing Scholar prisoners, massacring them in their cells--"

  It is as if the earth at my feet has dropped away. "What?" I push past Keenan and Afya. "What did you say about Scholar prisoners?"

  "The Martials are butchering them." The woman turns to me. "Every single prisoner. From Serra to Silas to our city, Estium, fifty miles west of here. Antium is next, we hear, and after that, Kauf. That woman--the Mask, the one they call the Commandant--she's killing them all."

  XXVIII: Helene

  "What are you going to do about Captain Sergius?" Harper asks as we make for Antium's Black Guard barracks. "Some of the Gens on Marcus's list are allied with Gens Sergia. He has heavy support within the Black Guard."

  "It's nothing a few whippings won't fix."

  "You can't whip them all. What will you do if there is open dissent?"

  "They can bend to my will, Harper, or I can break them. It's not complicated."

  "Don't be stupid, Shrike." The anger in his voice surprises me, and when I glance at him, his green eyes flash. "There are two hundred of them and two of us. If they turn on us en masse, we're dead. Why else wouldn't Marcus just order them to take out his enemies himself? He knows he might not be able to control the Black Guard. He can't risk them directly defying him. But he can risk them defying you. The Commandant must have put him up to it. If you fail, then you're dead. Which is exactly what she wants."

  "And what you want too."

  "Why would I tell you any of this if I wanted you dead?"

  "Bleeding skies, I don't know, Harper. Why do you do anything? You don't make sense. You never have." I frown in irritation. "I don't have time for this. I need to figure out how I'm going to get to the Paters of ten of the best-guarded Gens in the Empire."

  Harper is about to retort, but we've reached the barracks, a great, square building built around a training field. Most of the men within play dice or cards, cups of ale beside them. I clench my teeth in disgust. The old Blood Shrike is gone for a few weeks and discipline has already gone to the hells.

  As I pass through the field, some of the men eye me curiously. Others give me blatant once-overs that make me want to rip their eyes out. Most just seem angry.

  "We take out Sergius," I say quietly. "And his closest allies."

  "Force won't work," Harper murmurs. "You need to outwit them. You need secrets."

  "Secrets are a snake's way of doing business."

  "And snakes survive," Harper says. "The old Blood Shrike traded in secrets--it's why he was so valuable to Gens Taia."

  "I don't know any secrets, Harper." But even as I say it, I realize it's not true. Sergius, for instance. His son talked about many things that he probably shouldn't have. Rumors at Blackcliff spread quickly. If anything that Sergius the younger said was true . . .

  "I can deal with his allies," Harper says. "I'll get help from the other Plebeians in the Guard. But we need to move swiftly."

  "Get it done," I say. "I'll speak with Sergius."

  I find the captain with his feet up in the barracks mess hall, his cronies gathered around him.

  "Sergius." I don't comment on the fact that he doesn't stand. "I must solicit your opinion on something. Privately." I turn my back and make for the Blood Shrike's quarters, seething when he doesn't follow immediately.

  "Captain," I begin when he finally walks into my quarters, but he interrupts.

  "Miss Aquilla," he says, and I practically choke on my own saliva. I haven't been addressed as Miss Aquilla since I was about six.

  "Before you ask for advice or favors," he goes on, "let me explain something. You'll never control the Black Guard. At best, you'll be a pretty figurehead. So whatever orders that Plebeian dog of an Emperor gave you--"

  "How's your wife?" I hadn't planned to be so direct, but if he's going to be a dog, then I'll have to crawl down to his level until I get him on a leash.

  "My wife knows her place," Sergius says warily.

  "Unlike you," I say, "sleeping with her sister. And her cousin. How many bastards do you have running around now? Six? Seven?"

  "If you're trying to blackmail me"--the sneer on Sergius's face is practiced--"it won't work. My wife knows of my women and my bastards. She smiles and does her duty. You should do the same: Put on a dress, marry for the good of your Gens, and produce heirs. In fact, I have a son--"

  Yes, you cretin. I know your son. Cadet Sergius hates his father. I wish someone would just tell her, the boy once said of his mother. She could tell Grandfather. He'd kick my ass of a father out into the cold.

  "Maybe your wife does know." I smile at Sergius. "Or maybe you've kept your dalliances a secret and learning of them would devastate her. Maybe she would tell her father, who, in rage at the insult, would offer her shelter and withdraw the money that funds your crumbling Illustrian estate. You can't very well be Pater of Gens Sergia with no money, can you, Lieutenant Sergius?"

  "That's Captain Sergius!"

  "You've just been demoted."

  Sergius first turns white, then an unusual shade of purple. When the shock drains from his face, it's replaced by a helpless rage that I find quite satisfying.

  He straightens his back, salutes, and, in a tone suitable to addressing a superior officer, speaks. "Blood Shrike," he says. "How may I serve you?"

  Once Sergius is barking my orders to his toadies, the rest of the Black Guard fall into line, albeit reluctantly. An hour after walking into the commander's quarters, I am in the Black Guard war room, planning the attack.

  "Five teams with thirty men each." I point to five Gens on the list. "I want Paters, Maters, and children older than thirteen in chains and waiting at Cardium Rock by dawn. Younger children are to remain under armed guard. Get in and out quietly, and keep it clean."

  "What about the other five Gens?" Lieutenant Sergius says. "Gens Rufia and its allies?"

  I know Pater Rufius. He's a typical Illustrian with typical prejudices. And he was once a friend to my father. According to Father's missives, Pater Rufius has attempted to pull Gens Aquilla into his traitorous coalition a dozen times already.

  "Leave them to me."

  *

  The dress I wear is white, gold, and supremely uncomfortable--probably because I haven't worn one since I was a four-year-old forced to participate in a wedding. I should have put one on sooner--the expression on Hannah's face alone, like she's swallowed a live snake--would have been worth it.

  "You look beautiful," Livvy whispers as we file into the dining room. "Those idiots will never see it coming. But only"--she gives me a warning look, her blue eyes wide--"if you rein yourself in. Pater Rufius is smart, even if he is foul. He'll be suspicious."

  "Pinch me if you see me doing anything stupid." I finally notice the room, and my jaw drops. My mother has outdone herself, laying the table with snow-white china and long, clear vases of winter roses. Creamy tapers bathe the room in a welcoming glow, and a white whistling thrush sings sweetly from a cage in the corner.

  Hannah follows Livvy and me into the room. Her dress is similar to mine, and her hair is done up in a mass of icy curls. She wears a small gold circlet atop--a not-so-subtle nod to her approaching nuptials.

  "This won't work," she says. "I don't understand why you don't just take your guards, sneak into the traitors' houses, and kill them all. Isn't that what you're good at?"

  "I didn't want to get blood on my dress," I say dryly.

  To my surprise, Hannah cracks a smile and then quickly raises a hand to her face to hide it.

  My heart lifts, and I find that I am grinning back at her, just like when we shared a joke as girls. But a second later, she scowls. "Skies only know what everyone will say when they learn we invited them here only to trap them."

  She steps away from me, and my temper snaps. Does she think I want
to do this?

  "You can't marry Marcus and expect to avoid getting blood on your hands, sister," I hiss at her. "Might as well get into the habit of it."

  "Stop it, both of you." Livvy looks between us as, outside the dining room, the front door opens and Father greets our guests. "Remember who the actual enemy is."

  Seconds later, Father enters, trailing a group of Illustrian men, each flanked by a dozen bodyguards. They secure every inch, from the windows to the table to the drapes--before allowing their Paters to file in.

  The head of Gens Rufia leads, his yellow-and-purple silk robes straining against his paunch. A portly man, gone to seed after leaving the military, but still sly as a hyena. When he spots me, his hand goes to the sword at his waist--a sword I doubt he remembers how to use, judging from those flaccid arms.

  "Pater Aquillus," he brays. "What is the meaning of this?"

  My father glances at me with an expression of surprise. He is so sincere that for a second, even I'm fooled.

  "This is my eldest," Father says. "Helene Aquilla." He uses my name purposefully. "Though I suppose we must call her Blood Shrike now, right, darling?" He pats my cheek patronizingly. "I thought it would be good for her to learn a bit from our discussions."

  "She is the Emperor's Blood Shrike." Pater Rufius doesn't remove his hands from his sword. "Is this an ambush, Aquillus? Is that what we've come to?"

  "She is the Emperor's Blood Shrike," Father says. "And as such, she is useful to us, even if she doesn't have a whit of sense about how to use her position. We'll teach her, of course. Come, Rufius, you've known me for years. Have your men search the premises if you must. If you see anything alarming, you and the others can depart."

  I smile openly at Pater Rufius, making my voice warm and winsome, the way I've seen Livvy do when she's charming someone into giving her information. "Do stay, Pater," I say. "I wish to honor the new title bestowed upon me, and it is only through watching experienced men such as yourself work that I will be able to do so."

  "Blackcliff isn't for mice, girl." He doesn't take his brick of a hand off his sword. "What game are you playing?"

  I look at Father as if bewildered. "No game, sir," I say. "I am a daughter of Gens Aquilla, above all else. As for Blackcliff, there are . . . ways to survive there, if one is a woman."

  Even as surprise registers in his eyes, a look of mingled disgust and interest passes across his face. The look makes my skin crawl, but I steel myself. Go on, you half-wit. Underestimate me.

  He grunts and sits. The other four Paters--Rufius's allies--follow suit, and Mother sweeps in shortly after, followed by a taster and a row of slaves bearing trays groaning with food.

  Mother seats me across from Rufius, as I requested. Throughout the meal, I let my laugh go high. I toy with my hair. I act bored during key parts of the conversation. I giggle with Livvy. When I glance at Hannah, she's chattering with another of the Paters, distracting him utterly.

  When the meal is over, Father stands. "Let us retire to my study, gentlemen," he says. "Hel, my dear, bring the wine."

  Father doesn't wait for my response as he leads the men out, their bodyguards following.

  "Go to your rooms, both of you," I whisper to Livvy and Hannah. "No matter what you hear, stay there until Father comes for you."

  When I approach the study a few minutes later with a tray of wine and tumblers, the Paters' many bodyguards are arrayed outside. The space is too small for them to fit within. I smile at the two men flanking the door, and they grin back. Idiots.

  After I enter the room, Father closes the door behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder. "Helene is a good girl, and loyal to her Gens." He brings me into the conversation seamlessly. "She'll do as we ask--and that will get us closer to the Emperor."

  As they discuss a potential alliance, I carry the tray around the table and past the window, where I pause for an indiscernible moment--a signal to the Black Guard waiting on the grounds. Slowly, I serve the wine. My father takes a leisurely sip of each glass before I hand them off to the Paters.

  I pass the last glass to Pater Rufius. His piggish eyes fix on mine, his finger brushing against my palm deliberately. It is easy enough to hide my disgust, especially when I hear the faintest thud outside the study.

  Don't kill them, Helene, I remind myself. You need them alive for a public execution.

  With a small, secret smile just for Pater Rufius, I slowly pull my hand away from his.

  Then, from the slits cut into my dress, I draw out my scims.

  *

  By dawn, the Black Guard have rounded up Illustrian traitors and their families. City criers have announced the impending executions at Cardium Rock. Thousands of people surround the square that stretches around the bone pit at the base of the Rock. The Illustrians and Mercators in the crowd have been ordered to voice their disapproval of the traitors--lest they face a similar fate. The Plebeians need no encouragement.

  The top of the Rock slopes down in three terraces. Illustrian courtiers, including my family, stand upon the closest terrace. Leaders from less powerful Gens stand on the top tier.

  Near the edge of the cliff, Marcus surveys the crowd. He wears full battle regalia, an iron circlet upon his head. The Commandant stands beside him, murmuring something into his ear. He nods and, as the sun rises, addresses those gathered, his words carried through the crowd by the criers.

  "Ten Illustrian Gens chose to defy your Augur-chosen Emperor," he roars. "Ten Illustrian Paters believed that they knew better than the holy seers who have guided us for centuries. These Paters bring shame to their Gens through their treasonous actions. They are traitors to the Empire. There is only one punishment for traitors."

  He nods, and Harper and I, standing on either side of a writhing, gagged Pater Rufius, drag the man to his feet. Without ceremony, Marcus takes Rufius by his garish robes and casts him over the side of the cliff.

  The sound of his body hitting the pit below is lost in the cheers of the crowd.

  The next nine Paters follow swiftly, and when they are nothing but a mass of broken bones and shattered skulls at the base of the cliff, Marcus turns to their heirs--kneeling, chained, and lined up for all of Antium to see. The flags of their Gens fly behind them.

  "You will swear your fealty," he says, "upon the lives of your wives and sons and daughters. Or I swear by the skies that my Blood Shrike will wipe out each of your Gens one by one, Illustrian or not."

  They trip all over each other to swear. Of course they do, what with the screams of their now-dead Paters echoing in their heads. With each oath proclaimed, the crowd cheers again.

  When it is done, Marcus turns again to the masses. "I am your Emperor," his voice booms out across the square. "Foretold by the Augurs. I will have order. I will have loyalty. Those who defy me will pay with their lives."

  The crowd cheers again, and, almost lost within the cacophony, the new Pater of Gens Rufia speaks to one of the other Paters beside him.

  "What of Elias Veturius?" he hisses. "The Emperor casts the finest men in the land to their deaths, while that bastard eludes him."

  The crowd does not hear the words--but Marcus does. The Snake turns to the new Pater slowly, and the man shrinks away, his eyes straying fearfully to the edge of the cliff.

  "A fair point, Pater Rufius," Marcus says. "To which I say: Elias Veturius will be publicly executed by Rathana. My Blood Shrike has men closing on him. Don't you, Shrike?"

  Rathana? That's only a few weeks away. "I--"

  "I hope," the Commandant says, "that you will not bore his Majesty with more excuses. We would not wish to learn that your loyalties are as suspect as those of the traitors we just executed."

  "How dare--"

  "You were given a mission," Marcus says. "You have not succeeded. Cardium Rock is thirsty for the blood of traitors. If we do not slake that thirst with the blood of Elias Veturius, perhaps we will slake it with the blood of Gens Aquilla. Traitors are traitors, after all."

  "Y
ou can't kill me," I say. "Cain said doing so would bring your own doom upon you."

  "You are not the only member of Gens Aquilla."

  My family. As the import of his words washes over me, Marcus's eyes light with that unholy joy he only seems to feel when he's got someone by the gut.

  "You're engaged to Hannah." Appeal to his lust for power, I think frantically. Make him see that this will hurt him more than you, Helene. "Gens Aquilla is the only ally you have."

  "He has Gens Veturia," the Commandant says.

  "And I can think of, oh"--Marcus glances at the new Illustrian Paters just yards away--"about ten other Gens that will adamantly back me. Thank you for that gift, by the way. As for your sister"--he shrugs--"I can find another highborn whore to marry. It's not as if there's a shortage."

  "Your throne is not secure enough--"

  His voice drops to a hiss. "You dare to challenge me about my throne--my allies--here, in front of the court? Never presume to think you know more than me, Blood Shrike. Never. Nothing angers me more."

  My body turns to lead at the cunning calculation in his eyes. He steps toward me, his malice like a poison that saps my ability to move, much less think.

  "Ah." He tilts my chin up and searches my face. "Panic, fear, and desperation. I prefer you like this, Blood Shrike." He bites my lip, sudden and painful, his eyes open the whole time. I taste my own blood.

  "Now, Shrike," he breathes into my mouth. "Go fetch."

  XXIX: Laia

  That woman--the Mask--the one they call the Commandant. She's killing them all.

  All the Scholars. All the Scholar prisoners.

  "Skies, Keenan," I say. The rebel understands immediately, just like me. "Darin."

  "The Martials are moving north," Keenan whispers. The Scholars don't hear him, their attention fixed on Afya, who has yet to decide their fates. "They likely haven't even reached Kauf yet. The Commandant is methodical. If she's going south to north, she won't change the plan now. She still has to get through Antium before she gets to Kauf."

  "Afya," Zehr calls from the edge of the camp, spyglass in hand. "Martials incoming. Can't tell how many, but they're close."

  Afya curses, and the Scholar man grabs her. "Please. Just take the children." His jaw is clenched, but his eyes fill. "Ayan is two. Sena is six. The Martials won't spare them. Keep them safe. My sisters and I will run--we'll lead the soldiers off."

 
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