A torch against the nigh.., p.23
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.23

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

  "Blood Shrike," Cain says. "How is a Mask made?"

  A question for a question. Father did this when we argued philosophy. It always irritated me.

  "A Mask is made through training and discipline."

  "No. How is a Mask made?"

  Cain circles me, his hands in his robes, watching from beneath his heavy black cowl.

  "Through rigorous instruction at Blackcliff."

  Cain shakes his head and takes a step toward me. The rocks beneath me quaver. "No, Shrike. How is a Mask made?"

  My anger sparks, and I yank it back like I would the reins of an impatient horse.

  "I don't understand what you want," I say. "We're made through pain. Suffering. Through torment, blood, and tears."

  Cain sighs.

  "It's a trick question, Aquilla. A Mask is not made. She is remade. First, she is destroyed. Stripped down to the trembling child that lives at her core. It doesn't matter how strong she thinks she is. Blackcliff diminishes, humiliates, and humbles her.

  "But if she survives, she is reborn. She rises from the shadow world of failure and despair so that she might become as fearful as that which destroyed her. So that she might know darkness and use it as her scim and shield in her mission to serve the Empire."

  Cain lifts a hand to my face like a father caressing a newborn, his papery fingers cold against my skin. "You are a Mask, yes," he whispers. "But you are not finished. You are my masterpiece, Helene Aquilla, but I have just begun. If you survive, you shall be a force to be reckoned with in this world. But first you will be unmade. First, you will be broken."

  "I'll have to kill him, then?" What else could this mean? The best way to break me is Elias. He has always been the best way to break me. "The Trials, the vow I made to you. It was all for nothing."

  "There is more to this life than love, Helene Aquilla. There is duty. Empire. Family. Gens. The men you lead. The promises you make. Your father knows this. So will you, before the end."

  His eyes are unfathomably sad as he lifts my chin. "Most people," Cain says, "are nothing but glimmers in the great darkness of time. But you, Helene Aquilla, are no swift-burning spark. You are a torch against the night--if you dare to let yourself burn."

  "Just tell me--"

  "You seek assurances," the Augur says. "I can offer you none. Breaking your fealty will have its cost, as will keeping it. Only you can weigh those costs."

  "What will happen?" I don't know why I ask. It's futile. "You see the future, Cain. Tell me. Better that I know."

  "You think knowing will make it easier, Blood Shrike," he says. "But knowing makes it worse." A millennia-old sadness weighs upon him, so consuming that I have to look away. His whisper is faint, and his body fades. "Knowing is a curse."

  I watch him until he's gone. My heart is a vast chasm, empty of everything but Cain's warning and a staggering fear.

  But first you will be unmade.

  Killing Elias will destroy me. I sense that truth in my bones. Killing Elias is my unmaking.

  XXXII: Laia

  Afya gave me no time to say goodbye, to mourn. I slipped Izzi's eyepatch off, threw a cloak over her face, and fled. At least I escaped with my pack and Darin's scim. Everyone else has only their clothes and the goods stowed in the horses' saddlebags.

  The horses themselves are long gone, stripped of any sigils and sent galloping west the moment we reached the River Taius. Afya's only words of farewell to the beasts were wrathful mutters about their expense.

  The boat she stole off a fisherman's pier will soon be gone too. Through the sagging door of a mold-fuzzed barn in which we have taken refuge, I can see Keenan standing at the riverside, sinking the boat.

  Thunder rumbles. A drop of sleet shoots through the hole in the barn's roof and lands on my nose. Hours remain until dawn.

  I look to Afya, who holds a dim lamp to the ground as she draws a map in the dirt while speaking to Vana in a low voice.

  "--and tell him I'm calling in this favor." The Zaldara hands Vana a favor coin. "He's to get you to Aish and get these Scholars to the Free Lands."

  One of the Scholars--Miladh--approaches Afya, standing firm against her blazing anger.

  "I am sorry," he says. "If one day I can repay you for what you've done, I will, a hundredfold."

  "Stay alive." Afya's eyes soften--just a touch--and she nods to the children. "Protect them. Help any others you can. That's the only payment I expect I'll get."

  When she's out of earshot, I approach Miladh, who is now attempting to fashion a sling from a length of cloth. As I show him how to drape the cloth, he eyes me with nervous curiosity. He must be wondering about what he saw in Afya's wagon.

  "I don't know how I disappeared," I finally say. "That was the first time I even realized I had done it."

  "A good trick for a Scholar girl to have," Miladh says. He looks at Afya and Gibran, speaking quietly on the other side of the barn. "In the boat, the boy said something about saving a Scholar who knows the secrets of Serric steel."

  I scuff my foot against the ground. "My brother," I say.

  "This isn't the first time I've heard about him." Miladh tucks his son into the sling. "But it is the first time I've had cause to hope. Save him, Laia of Serra. Our people need him. And you."

  I look to the little boy in his arms. Ayan. Tiny dark crescents curve beneath his lower lashes. His eyes meet mine, and I touch his cheek, soft and round. He should be innocent. But he's seen things no child should. Who will he be when he grows up? What will all this violence make him? Will he survive? Not another forgotten child with a forgotten name, I plead. Not another lost Scholar.

  Vana calls out and, with Zehr, leads Miladh, his sister, and the children into the night. Ayan twists about to look at me. I make myself smile at him--Pop always said you could never smile too much at a baby. The last thing I see before they are lost in darkness is his eyes, so dark, watching me still.

  I turn to Afya, locked in conversation with her brother. From the look on her face, interrupting them would result in a fist to the jaw.

  Before I decide what to do, Keenan ducks into the barn. The sleet falls steady now, and his red hair is plastered to his head, almost black in the darkness.

  He halts when he sees the eyepatch in my hand. Then he takes two steps and pulls me to his chest without hesitation, wrapping his arms around me. This is the first time we've had a moment to even look at each other since we escaped the Martials. But I am numb as he holds me close, unable to relax into him or to allow his warmth to drive away a chill that set into my bones the moment I saw Izzi's chest torn open.

  "We just left her there," I say into his shoulder. "Left her to--" To rot. To have her bones picked clean by scavengers or tossed into some unmarked grave. The words are too horrible to speak.

  "I know." Keenan's voice cracks, and his face is chalk-white. "Skies, I know--"

  "--can't bleeding make me!"

  I jerk my head around to the other end of the barn, where Afya looks as if she's about to crush the lamp in her hand. Gibran, meanwhile, seems as if he's more like his sister than is currently convenient for her.

  "It's your duty, you fool. Someone must take control of the Tribe if I don't come back, and I won't have it be one of our idiot cousins."

  "You should have thought of that before you brought me along." Gibran stands nose to nose with Afya. "If Laia's brother can make the steel that brings the Martials down, then we owe it to Riz--and Izzi--to save him."

  "We've dealt with the Martials' cruelty before--"

  "Not like this," he says. "They've disrespected us, robbed us, yes. But they've never butchered us. They've been killing Scholars, and it's making them bold. We're next. For where will they find slaves if they've killed all the Scholars off?"

  Afya's nostrils flare. "In that case," she says, "fight them from the Tribal lands. You certainly can't do it from Kauf Prison."

  "Listen," I say, "I don't think--"

  The Tribeswoman whirls, as if the sound o
f my voice has triggered an explosion that's been building for hours. "You," she hisses. "You're the reason we're in this mess. The rest of us bled while you--you disappeared." She twitches with fury. "You went into that smugglers' compartment, and when the Mask opened it, you were gone. Didn't realize I was transporting a witch--"

  "Afya." Keenan's voice holds a note of warning. He's said nothing about my invisibility. There hasn't been time until now.

  "I didn't know I could do it," I say. "It was the first time. I was desperate. Maybe that's why it worked."

  "Well, it's very convenient for you," Afya says. "But the rest of us don't have any black magic."

  "Then you need to leave." I hold up a hand as she tries to protest. "Keenan knows the safe houses we can stay in. He suggested it before, but I didn't listen." Skies, how I wish I had. "He and I can get to Kauf alone. Without wagons, we can move even faster."

  "The wagons protected you," Afya says. "I made a vow--"

  "To a man who's long gone." The frost in Keenan's voice reminds me of the first time I met him. "I can get her to Kauf safely. We don't need your help."

  Afya rises to her full height. "As a Scholar and a rebel, you don't understand honor."

  "What honor is there in a useless death?" I ask her. "Darin would hate that so many died to save him. I can't order you to leave me. All I can do is ask." I turn to Gibran. "I think the Martials will turn on the Tribesmen eventually. I vow that if Darin and I make it to Marinn, I will get you word."

  "Izzi was willing to die for this."

  "Sh-she had nowhere else to go." The stark truth of my friend's loneliness in this world hits me. I swallow back the grief. "I shouldn't have brought her along. It was my decision, and it was the wrong one." Saying it makes me feel hollow inside. "And I won't make that decision again. Please, go. You can still catch up with Vana."

  "I don't like this." The Tribeswoman casts Keenan a look of distrust that surprises me. "I don't like it at all."

  Keenan's eyes narrow. "You'll like being dead even less."

  "My honor demands that I escort you, girl." Afya puts out the lamp. The barn seems darker than it should be. "But my honor also demands that I not take a woman's decision about her own fate away from her. Skies know there's enough of that in this blasted world." She pauses. "When you see Elias, you tell him that from me."

  That is all the goodbye I get. Gibran storms out of the barn. Afya rolls her eyes and follows.

  Keenan and I stand alone, the sleet drumming the earth in a steady tattoo around us. When I look into his eyes, a thought enters my head: This is right. This is how it should be. This is how it always should have been.

  "There's a safe house a half dozen miles from here." Keenan touches my hand to pull me from my thoughts. "If we're swift, we can get there before dawn."

  Part of me wants to ask him if I have made the right decision. After so many mistakes, I yearn for the reassurance that I haven't ruined everything yet again.

  He will say yes, of course. He will comfort me and tell me this is the best way. But doing the right thing now does not undo every mistake I have already made.

  So I do not ask. I simply nod and follow as he leads the way. Because after all that has happened, I do not deserve comfort.

  PART III

  THE DARK PRISON

  XXXIII: Elias

  The Warden's rail-thin shadow falls over me. His long, triangular head and thin fingers bring to mind a praying mantis. I have a clear shot, but my knives do not leave my hands. All thoughts of murder flee my mind when I see what he is holding.

  It's a Scholar child, nine or ten years old. Malnourished, filthy, and as silent as a corpse. The cuffs on his wrists mark him not as a prisoner but as a slave. The Warden digs a blade into his throat. Rivulets of blood trickle down the child's neck and onto a filthy shift.

  Six Masks follow the Warden into the block. Each wears the sigil of Gens Sisellia, the Warden's family. Each has a notched arrow pointed at my heart.

  I could take them, even with the arrows. If I drop fast enough, use the table as a shield--

  But then the old man runs his pale hand through the child's lank, shoulder-length hair with chilling tenderness.

  "No star more fair than the bright-eyed child; for him I would lay down my life." The Warden delivers the quote in a clear tenor that matches his neat appearance. "He's small"--the Warden nods to the boy--"but wonderfully resilient, I've discovered. I can make him bleed for hours if you wish."

  I drop the knife.

  "Fascinating," the Warden breathes. "See, Drusius, how Veturius's pupils widen, how his pulse accelerates, how, even when faced with certain death, his eyes dart, seeking a way out? It is only the presence of the child that stays his hand."

  "Yes, Warden." One of the Masks--Drusius, I assume--responds with flat disinterest.

  "Elias," the Warden says. "Drusius and the others will divest you of your weaponry. I suggest you not fight. I wouldn't want to hurt the child. He's one of my favorite specimens."

  Ten hells. The Masks surround me, and in seconds I am stripped of weapons, boots, lock pick, the Tellis, and most of my clothes. I do not resist. If I want to break out of this place, I need to conserve my strength.

  And I will break out. The very fact that the Warden didn't kill me indicates that he wants something from me. He'll keep me alive until he gets it.

  The Warden watches as the Masks manacle me and shove me against a wall, his pupils pitch-black pinpricks in the white-blue of his eyes.

  "Your punctuality pleases me, Elias." The old man keeps the knife loose in his hand, about an inch from the boy's neck. "A noble trait, and one that I respect. Though I confess, I don't understand why you're here. A wise young man would be well away to the Southern Lands by now." He looks at me expectantly.

  "You don't actually expect me to tell you, do you?"

  The boy whimpers, and I find the Warden pushing the knife slowly into the side of his neck. But then the old man smiles, revealing small, yellowing teeth. He releases the child.

  "Of course I don't," he says. "In fact, I hoped you wouldn't. I have a feeling you'd just lie until you convinced even yourself, and lies bore me. I'd much rather pull the truth from you. I haven't had a Mask as a subject for quite a while. I fear my research is quite outdated."

  My skin prickles. Where there's life, I hear Laia in my head, there's hope. He might experiment on me. Use me. But as long as I live, I still have a chance of getting out of here.

  "You said you've been waiting for me."

  "Indeed. A little bird informed me of your arrival."

  "The Commandant," I say. Damn her. She's the only one who might have figured out where I was going. But why would she tell the Warden about it? She hates him.

  The Warden smiles again. "Perhaps."

  "Where do you want him, Warden?" Drusius says. "Not with the rest, I assume."

  "Of course not," the Warden says. "The bounty would tempt the lesser guards to turn him in, and I'd like a chance to study him first."

  "Clear out a cell," Drusius barks at one of the other Masks, nodding to the row of solitary cells behind us. But the Warden shakes his head.

  "No," he says. "I have somewhere else in mind for our newest prisoner. I've never studied the long-term effects of that place on a subject. Particularly one who demonstrates such"--he looks down at the Scholar boy--"empathy."

  My blood chills. I know exactly the part of the prison he's talking about. Those long, dark hallways with air curdled from the smell of death. The moans and whispers, the scratches on the walls, the way you can't do anything even when you hear people screaming for someone, anyone to help them . . .

  "You always hated it in there," the Warden murmurs. "I remember. I remember your face that time you brought me a message from the Emperor. I was mid-experiment. You went pale as the underbelly of a fish, and when you ran back out into the hallway, I heard you retching in a slop bucket."

  Ten bleeding hells.

  "Yes."
The Warden nods, his expression pleased. "Yes, I think the interrogation block will do very nicely for you."

  XXXIV: Helene

  Avitas awaits me when I return to the Black Guard barracks. Midnight approaches, and my mind slumps in exhaustion. The Northman says nothing of my haggard appearance, though I'm certain he can read the devastation in my eyes.

  "Urgent message for you, Shrike." His sallow cheeks tell me he hasn't slept. I don't like that he stayed awake until I returned. He's a spy. That's what spies do. He hands me an envelope, the seal of which is untouched. Either he's getting better at espionage or for once he didn't open it.

  "New orders from the Commandant?" I ask. "Gain my trust by not reading my mail?"

  Avitas's lips tighten as I tear open the letter. "It arrived at dusk with a runner. He said it left Nur six days ago."

  Blood Shrike,

  Mamie refuses to crack despite the deaths of several Tribesmen. I've held her son in reserve--she thinks he's dead. She did let one thing slip. I think Elias went north, not south or east, and I think the girl is still with him.

  The Tribes know of the interrogations and have rioted twice in response. I need a half legion at least. I've put in requests at every garrison within a hundred miles, but everyone is short.

  Duty First, Unto Death,

  Lieutenant Dex Atrius

  "North?" I hand the letter to Avitas, who reads it through. "Why in the bleeding skies would Veturius head north?"

  "His grandfather?"

  "Gens Veturia's lands are west of Antium. If he cut straight north from Serra, he'd have gotten there faster. If he was headed for the Free Lands, he could have just taken a ship from Navium."

  Damn it, Elias, why couldn't you have just left the bleeding Empire? If he'd used his training to get as far away from here as fast as possible, I'd never have caught his trail, and my choice would have been made for me.

  And your family would die. Bleeding skies, what's wrong with me? He chose this.

  What did he do that was so wrong? He wished to be free. He wished to stop killing.

  "Don't try to puzzle it out now." Avitas follows me into my room and sets Dex's message on my desk. "You need food. Sleep. We'll start on it in the morning."

 
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