A torch against the nigh.., p.22
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.22

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

  "You're asleep on the bleeding job," I roar at him. Auxes, particularly Plebeians, are spat on by everyone else at Kauf. Most tend to be extra nasty to the Fivers and the prisoners--the only people at Kauf they can boss. "I should report you to the Kennel Master."

  "Sir, please--"

  "Stop yipping. Had enough of that from the dogs. One of the bitches attacked when I tried to take her out. Ripped my clothes straight through. Bring me another uniform. A cloak and boots too--mine are covered with dog scat. I'm twice your size, so make sure it fits. And don't bleeding tell the Kennel Master. Last thing I need is that bastard cutting my rations."

  "Yes, sir, right away, sir!"

  He darts out of the kennel, so frightened that I'll turn him in for sleeping on duty that he doesn't look twice at me. While he's gone, I feed the dogs and muck out the pens. An aux showing up earlier than usual is strange but not noteworthy, considering the Kennel Master's lack of organization. An aux showing up and then not performing his assigned task would set off alarm bells.

  When the Fiver returns, I'm stripped to my breeches, and I order him to leave the uniform and wait outside. I toss my old clothes and shoes in the fire, shout at the poor boy again for good measure, and turn north, to Kauf.

  Half of the prison is rooted inside the darkness of the mountain behind it. The other half erupts from the rock like a diseased growth. A wide road snakes down from the enormous front gate, running like a rivulet of black blood along the River Dusk.

  The prison walls, twice as high as Blackcliff's, are almost ornate, with friezes, columns, and gargoyles hewn from the pale gray rock. Aux archers patrol the crenellated ramparts, and legionnaires man four lookout towers, making the prison difficult to break into and impossible to break out of.

  Unless one is a Mask who has spent weeks planning it.

  Above, the cold sky is lit green and purple by undulating ribbons of light. The Northern Dancers, they're called--the spirits of the dead battling for eternity in the skies--at least according to Martial lore.

  I wonder what Shaeva would say about it. Maybe you can ask her in a fortnight, when you're dead. I feel for the store of Tellis in my pocket--a two-week supply. Just enough to get me to Rathana.

  Other than the Tellis, a lock pick, and the throwing knives across my chest, my belongings, including my Teluman scims, are hidden in the cave where I plan to stow Darin. The place was smaller than I remembered, half-collapsed and covered in debris from mudslides. But no predators had claimed it, and it is large enough to camp in. Darin and I should be able to lie low there until Laia arrives.

  I narrow my focus to Kauf's yawning portcullis. Supply wagons snake up the road leading to the prison, bringing winter foodstuffs before the passes are snowed in. But with the sun not yet up and a guard change imminent, the deliveries are chaotic and the guard sergeant isn't paying attention to who is coming and going from the kennels.

  I approach the caravan from the main road and sidle in among the other gate guards searching the wagons for contraband.

  As I peer into a crate of gourds, a truncheon slams into my arm. "Already checked this one, you dolt," a voice says behind me, and I turn to face a surly, bearded legionnaire.

  "Apologies, sir," I bark out, quickly bolting to the next wagon. Don't follow. Don't ask my name. Don't ask my squad number.

  "What's your name, soldier? I haven't seen you before--"

  BOOM-boom-BOOM-BOOM-boom.

  For once, I'm bleeding thrilled to hear the drums, which signal the guard change. The legionnaire turns, distracted for a moment, and I dart into the crowd of auxes heading into the prison. When I look back, the legionnaire has turned to the next wagon.

  Too close, Elias.

  I keep slightly behind the aux squad, my hood up and scarf wrapped close. If the men notice an extra soldier among them, I'm dead.

  I fight to ease the tension in my body, to keep my gait steady and exhausted. You're one of them, Elias. Bone tired after the graveyard shift, ready for grog and bed. I pass through the snow-dusted prison yard, twice the size of Blackcliff's training field. Torches--blue fire and pitch--illuminate every inch of the space. The prison's innards, I know, are similarly lit; the Warden employs two dozen auxes whose sole job is to make sure those torches never go out. No prisoner of Kauf can ever claim the shadows as allies.

  Though I risk being called out by the men I'm with, I work my way to the middle of the group as we approach the main prison entrance and the two Masks flanking it.

  The Masks cast their eyes over the men entering, and my fingers twitch toward my weapons. I force myself to listen to the low conversation of the auxes.

  "--double shifts because half the pit platoon got food poisoning--"

  "--new prisoners arrived yesterday, a dozen of them--"

  "--don't see why we bothered processing them. Commandant's on her way, captain said. New Emperor has ordered her to kill every last Scholar here--"

  I stiffen at the words, trying to control the anger flooding every pore. I knew the Commandant was scouring the countryside for Scholars to kill. I didn't realize she was attempting to exterminate them entirely.

  There are more than a thousand Scholars in this prison, and they will all die under her command. Ten hells. I wish I could free them. Storm the pits, kill the guards, incite a revolt.

  Wishful thinking. Right now, the best thing I can do for the Scholars is get Darin out of here. His knowledge will at least give his people a chance to fight back.

  That is, if the Warden hasn't destroyed his body or mind. Darin is young, strong, and obviously intelligent: the exact type of prisoner the Warden likes to experiment on.

  I pass into the prison, the Masks none the wiser, and head with the other guards down the main corridor. The prison is arranged in an enormous pinwheel, with six long halls as spokes. Martials, Tribesmen, Mariners, and those from beyond the Empire's borders occupy two blocks of the prison on the east side. Scholars occupy two blocks on the west. The last two blocks house the barracks, mess hall, kitchens, and storage.

  At the very center of the pinwheel sit two sets of stairs. One leads up to the Warden's office and Masks' quarters. Another leads down, down, down to the interrogation cells. I shudder, pushing the thought of that foul little hell from my mind.

  The auxes around me drop their hoods and scarves, so I fall back. The scruffy beard I've grown in the past few weeks is an adequate disguise as long as no one looks too closely. But these men will know I wasn't on duty with them at the gate.

  Move, Elias. Find Darin.

  Laia's brother is a high-value prisoner. The Warden will have heard the rumors that Spiro Teluman spread about the boy's smithing prowess. He'll want to keep him separate from the rest of Kauf's population. Darin won't be in the Scholar pits or the other major prison blocks. Prisoners stay in the interrogation cells for no more than a day--any longer and they come out in a coffin. Which leaves solitary confinement.

  I move quickly past the other guards on their way to their varied postings. As I pass the entrance to the Scholar pits, a blast of stinking heat hits me. Most of Kauf is so frigid you can see your breath cloud the air. But to keep the pits hellishly hot, the Warden uses enormous furnaces. Clothing disintegrates in weeks in the pits, sores fester, wounds rot. Weaker prisoners die days after getting here.

  When I was a Fiver stationed here, I asked a Mask why the Warden didn't let the cold kill off the prisoners. Because heat makes them suffer more, he said.

  I hear proof of that suffering in the wails that echo through the prison like a demon's chorus. I try to block them out, but they punch through my mind anyway.

  Go, damn it.

  As I approach Kauf's main rotunda, an uptick in activity catches my attention: soldiers moving swiftly away from the center staircase. A lean, black-clad figure descends the steps, his masked face gleaming.

  Damn it. The Warden. The one man in this prison who will know me on sight. He prides himself on remembering the details of everythin
g and everyone. I curse quietly. It's a quarter after sixth bell, and he always enters the interrogation cells at this time. I should have remembered.

  The old man is yards from me, speaking with a Mask at his side. A case dangles from his long, thin fingers. Tools for his experiments. I force down the disgust rising in my throat and keep walking. I'm passing the stairs now, just yards from him.

  Behind me, a scream pierces the air. Two legionnaires march past, escorting a prisoner from the pits.

  The Scholar wears a filthy loincloth, and his emaciated body is covered with sores. When he catches sight of the iron door that leads to the interrogation block, his cries grow frantic and I think he's going to break an arm attempting to escape. I feel like a Fiver again, listening to the misery of the prisoners, unable to do anything but seethe with useless hate.

  One of the legionnaires, sick of the man's howls, lifts a fist to knock him unconscious.

  "No," the Warden calls from the stairs in his eerie, reedy voice. "The scream is the purest song of the soul," he quotes. "The barbarous keen yokes us to the low beasts, to the unutterable violence of the earth." The Warden pauses. "From Tiberius Antonius, philosopher to Taius the Tenth. Let the prisoner sing," he clarifies, "so his brethren hear."

  The legionnaires drag the man through the iron door. The Warden moves to follow but then slows. I am nearly across the rotunda now, close to the hallway that leads to solitary confinement. The Warden turns, scanning the corridors on five sides before his eyes land on the one I'm about to enter. My heart nearly drops out of my chest.

  Keep walking. Try to look grumpy. He hasn't seen you for six years. You have a beard. He won't recognize you.

  Waiting for the old man's gaze to pass is like waiting for the executioner's ax to fall. But after long seconds, he finally turns away. The door to the interrogation cells clangs shut behind him, and I breathe again.

  The corridor I enter is emptier than the rotunda, and the stone stairway leading to solitary confinement is emptier still. A lone legionnaire stands guard at the block's entry door, one of three that lead to the prison cells.

  I salute, and the man grunts a response, not bothering to look up from the knife he's sharpening. "Sir," I say. "I'm here to see about a prisoner transfer--"

  He lifts his head just in time for his eyes to widen fractionally at the fist flying into his temple. I stop his fall, relieve him of his keys and uniform jacket, and ease him to the ground. Minutes later, he is gagged, bound, and stuffed into a supply closet nearby.

  Hopefully, no one opens it.

  The day's transfer sheet is nailed to the wall beside the door, and I scan it quickly. Then I unlock the first door, the second, and the last, to find myself in a long, dank hallway lit by a single blue-fire torch.

  The bored legionnaire manning the entry station glances up from his desk in surprise.

  "Where's Corporal Libran?" he asks.

  "Ate something that turned his stomach," I say. "I'm new. Came in on the frigate yesterday." Surreptitiously, I drop my eyes to his tags. Cpl. Cultar. A Plebeian then. I offer a hand. "Corporal Scribor," I say. Upon hearing a Plebeian name, Cultar relaxes.

  "You should get back to your post," he says. At my hesitation, he grins knowingly. "I don't know about your old posting, but the Warden here doesn't allow the men to touch the solitary prisoners. If you want jollies, you'll have to wait until you're assigned to the pits."

  I bite back my disgust. "Warden told me to bring him a prisoner at seventh bell," I say. "But he's not on the transfer sheet. You know anything about it? Scholar lad. Young. Blond hair, blue eyes." I force myself not to say more. One step at a time, Elias.

  Cultar grabs his own transfer sheet. "Nothing on here."

  I let a touch of irritation enter my voice. "You sure? Warden was insistent. The boy's high-value. Whole countryside is talking about him. They say he can make Serric steel."

  "Ah, him."

  I still my features into a semblance of boredom. Bleeding hells. Cultar knows who Darin is. Which means the boy is in solitary.

  "Why in the bleeding hells would the Warden ask for him?" Cultar scratches his head. "Boy's dead. Has been for weeks."

  My euphoria vanishes. "Dead?" Cultar looks at me askance, and I flatten my voice. "How'd he die?"

  "Went down to the interrogation cells and never came out. Served him right. Jumped-up little rat. Refused to give his number during lineup. Always had to announce his filthy Scholar name. Darin. Like he was proud of it."

  I sag against Cultar's desk. His words sink in slowly. Darin can't be dead. He can't be. What will I say to Laia?

  You should have gotten here faster, Elias. You should have found a way. The enormity of my failure is staggering, and though Blackcliff trained me to show no emotion, I forget it all in this moment.

  "Bleeding Scholars moaned about it for weeks when they heard," Cultar, utterly oblivious, chuckles to himself. "Their great savior, gone--"

  "Jumped-up, you called him." I yank the legionnaire toward me by his collar. "Much like you, down here doing a job any idiot Fiver could, yammering about things you don't bleeding understand." I head butt him hard and shove, my rage and frustration exploding through my body and pushing my good sense aside. He flies back and hits the wall with a sick thud, his eyes rolling up into his head. He slithers to the floor, and I give him a last kick. He won't be waking up any time soon. If ever.

  Get out of here, Elias. Get to Laia. Tell her what's happened. Still enraged from the news that Darin is dead, I drag Cultar to one of the empty cells, toss him inside, and turn the lock.

  But when I head to the door leading out of the block, the latch rattles.

  Doorknob. Key in lock. Lock turning. Hide. My mind screams the words at me. Hide!

  But there's no place to do so other than behind Cultar's desk. I dive down, pulling my body into a ball, heart thumping and knives at the ready.

  I hope it's a Scholar slave coming in to bring the meals. Or a Fiver delivering an order. Someone I can silence. Sweat beads on my forehead as the door opens, as I hear a light step on the stones.

  "Elias." I go utterly still at the Warden's thin voice. No, damn it. No. "Come out of there. I've been waiting for you."

  XXXI: Helene

  My family or Elias.

  My family. Or Elias.

  Avitas follows me as I leave Cardium Rock. My body feels numb with disbelief. I do not notice him dogging my heels until I'm halfway to Antium's northern gate.

  "Leave me." I wave a hand at him. "I don't need you."

  "I'm tasked with--"

  I whirl on him, a knife to his throat. He puts his hands up slowly, but without the wariness he'd have if he thought I was actually going to kill him. Something about it makes me even angrier.

  "I don't care. I need to be alone. So stay away from me, or your body will soon find itself looking for a new head."

  "With respect, Shrike, please tell me where you're going and when you'll return. If something happens--"

  I'm already walking away from him. "Then your mistress will be pleased," I call back. "Leave me be, Harper. That's an order."

  Minutes later, I'm departing Antium. Not enough men manning the north gate, I find myself thinking, a desperate attempt to keep my mind off what Marcus has just told me. I should chat with the captain of the city guard about that.

  When I look up, I realize where it is I am headed. My body knew before my mind. Antium is built in the shadow of Mount Videnns, where the Augurs lurk in their rocky lair. The path to their caves is well trod; pilgrims set out before dawn every day, climbing high into the Nevennes to pay homage to the red-eyed seers. I used to think I understood why. I used to think Elias's frustration with the Augurs smacked of cynicism. Blasphemy, even.

  Conniving tricksters, he'd said. Cave-dwelling charlatans. Perhaps, all this time, he was right.

  I pass the few pilgrims making their way up the mountain, and I am fueled by rage and something I don't care to identify. Something I las
t felt when I swore fealty to Marcus.

  Helene, you are such a fool. I realize now that some part of me hoped Elias would escape--no matter what happened to the Empire as a result. Such weakness. I loathe that part of myself.

  Now I can have no such hope. My family are blood, kin, Gens. And yet I didn't spend eleven months of every year with them. I didn't make my first kill with them at my side or walk Blackcliff's haunted, deadly halls with them.

  The trail winds up two thousand feet before flattening out into a pebble-strewn bowl. Pilgrims mill in a crowd at the far end beside an unobtrusive cave.

  Many approach the cave, but some unknown force stops them a few yards from its entrance.

  Just try and stop me, I scream in my mind at the Augurs. See what happens.

  My anger propels me past the knot of pilgrims and straight to the entrance of the cave. An Augur waits there in the darkness, her hands folded before her.

  "Blood Shrike." Her red eyes glimmer from beneath the hood, and I strain to hear her. "Come."

  I follow her into a corridor lit with blue-fire lamps. Their glow tinges the glittering stalactites above us a startling cobalt.

  We emerge from the long corridor into a high, perfectly square cave. A large pool of still water sits at its very center, lit by an opening in the cave rock directly above. A solitary form stands beside the pool, gazing into its depths.

  My escort slows. "He awaits you." She nods to the figure. Cain. "Temper your anger, Blood Shrike. We feel your rage in our blood the way you feel the bite of steel on your skin."

  I stride toward Cain, my hand tight on my scim. I will crush you with my anger. I will flatten you. I stop short before him, a vile curse upon my lips. Then I meet his sober gaze, and shudder. Strength fails me.

  "Tell me he'll be all right." I know I sound like a child. But I can't stop myself. "Like before. Tell me that if I hold to my oath of fealty, he won't die."

  "I cannot do that, Blood Shrike."

  "You told me that if I held true to my heart, the Empire would be well served. You told me to have faith. How do you expect me to have faith if he's going to die? I have to kill him--or my family is lost. I have to choose. Do you--can you--comprehend--"

 
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