A torch against the nigh.., p.24
A Torch Against the Night,
Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir
I hang up my weapons and go to the window. The stars are obscured, the purple-black sky promising snow. "I should go to my parents." They heard what Marcus said--everyone on top of that damned rock did, and there's no bigger bunch of gossips than Illustrians. The entire city must know of Marcus's threat to my family.
"Your father came by." Avitas hovers by the door, his Masked face suddenly uncomfortable. I suppress a wince. "He suggested you keep your distance for now. Apparently your sister Hannah is . . . upset."
"You mean she wants to drink my blood." I close my eyes. Poor Hannah. Her future rests in the hands of the one person she trusts the least. Mother will try to soothe her, as will Livia. Father will coax, then coerce, then order her to stop her hysterics. But in the end, they'll all be wondering the same thing: Will I choose my family and the Empire? Or will I choose Elias?
I turn my mind to the mission. North, Dex had said. And the girl is still with him. Why would he take her deeper into the Empire? Even if he had some pressing reason to remain in Martial territory, why put the girl at risk?
It's like he's not making the decisions. But who else would be? The girl? Why would he let her? What could she possibly know about escaping the Empire?
"Blood Shrike." I jump. I'd forgotten that Avitas was in the room--he's so quiet. "Shall I bring you some food? You need to eat. I asked the kitchen slaves to keep some warm for you."
The girl--Laia, the old woman said. Don't touch her.
They must have grown close while enslaved. Maybe the Cook knows something. After all, she figured out how Laia and Elias escaped Serra.
All I have to do is find her.
But if I start looking, someone will inevitably blab that the Blood Shrike is searching for a white-haired, scar-faced woman. The Commandant will hear, and that will be the end of Cook. Not that I care about the old hag's fate. But if she knows anything about Laia, I need her alive.
"Avitas," I say. "Does the Black Guard have contacts in Antium's underground?"
"The Black Market? Of course--"
I shake my head. "The city's unseen. Urchins, beggars, transients."
Avitas frowns. "They're mostly Scholars, and the Commandant's been herding them for enslavement or execution. But I know a few people. What are you thinking?"
"I need to get a message out." I speak carefully. Avitas doesn't know Cook helped me--he'd go straight to the Commandant with such information.
"Singer seeks meal," I finally say.
"Singer seeks meal," Avitas repeats. "That's . . . it?"
Cook seems a bit crazy, but hopefully she'll understand.
"That's it. Get it to as many people as you can, and swiftly," I say. Avitas looks at me quizzically.
"Did I not say I wanted this done quickly?"
A ghost of a frown on his face. Then he's gone.
After he leaves, I pick up Dex's message. Harper didn't read it. But why? I have never sensed malice in him, true. I've never sensed anything at all. And since leaving the Tribal lands, he's been . . . not friendly, exactly, but slightly less opaque. What game is he playing now, I wonder?
I file Dex's message away and drop into my cot, boots still on. Still, I cannot sleep. It will take Avitas hours to get the message out and hours more for Cook to hear it--if she hears it at all. I know this, yet I jump at every sound, expecting the old woman to materialize as suddenly as a wraith. Finally, I drag myself over to my desk, where I read through the old Blood Shrike's files--information he's gathered about some of the highest-ranking men in the Empire.
Many of the reports are straightforward. Others less so. I did not, for instance, know that Gens Cassia had hushed up the murder of a Plebeian servant on their premises. Or that the Mater of Gens Aurelia had four lovers, all Paters of noted Illustrian houses.
The old Shrike kept files about the men of the Black Guard too, and when I spot Avitas's file, my fingers are moving before I can think twice. It's as lean as he is, with just one piece of parchment within.
Avitas Harper: Plebeian
Father: Combat Centurion Arius Harper (Plebeian). Killed in service, age twenty-eight. Avitas age four at time of death. Remained with mother, Renatia Harper (Plebeian), in Jeilum until selection for Blackcliff.
Jeilum is a city west of here, deep in the Nevennes tundra. Isolated as the ten hells.
Mother: Renatia Harper. Died age thirty-two. Avitas age ten at time of death. Subsequently kept by paternal grandparents during school leaves.
Spent four years under Blackcliff Commandant Horatio Laurentius. Remaining Blackcliff training carried out by Commandant Keris Veturia.
Showed great potential as Yearling. Remained average during tenure of Commandant Keris Veturia. Multiple sources report Veturia's interest in Harper from early age.
I turn the paper over, but there is nothing more.
Hours later, just before dawn, I wake with a jerk--I've fallen asleep at my desk. I scan the room for the scraping noise that disturbed me, dagger in hand.
A hooded figure hunches at the window, her glittering eyes hard as sapphires. I throw back my shoulders and lift the blade. Her scarred mouth twists into a nasty smirk.
"That window is thirty feet off the ground, and I locked it," I say. A Mask could get through, certainly. But a Scholar granny?
She ignores my unspoken question. "You should have found him by now," she says. "Unless you don't want to find him."
"He's a bleeding Mask," I say. "He's trained to throw people off his scent. I need you to tell me about the girl."
"Forget the girl," Cook snarls, dropping heavily into my room. "Find him. You should have done it weeks ago, so that you could be back here, keeping an eye on her. Or are you too stupid to see that the Bitch of Blackcliff is planning something? It's big this time, girl. Bigger than her going after Taius."
"The Commandant?" I snort. "Went after the Emperor?"
"Don't tell me you think the Resistance thought of that on their own?"
"They're working with her?"
"They don't know it's her, now do they?" The derision in the Cook's voice slices as sharply as any scim. "Tell me why you want to know about the girl."
"Elias isn't making rational decisions, and the only thing I can think is that she--"
"You don't want to know more about her." Cook almost sounds relieved. "You just want to know where he's going."
"I can tell you where he's going. For a price."
I raise my blade. "How's this for a trade: You tell me, and I don't gut you."
A sharp bark from the Cook makes me thinks she's having some sort of fit--until I realize this is her version of a laugh.
"Someone beat you to it." She pulls up her shirt. Her skin, disfigured from some long-ago torment, is further marred by an enormous, rotting wound. The smell of it hits like a fist, and I gag.
"Certainly smells like it, doesn't it? Got it from an old friend--just before I killed him. Never tended to it. Heal me, Little Singer, and I'll tell you what you want to know."
"When did this happen?"
"Do you want to catch Elias before you sisters go splat, or do you want a bedtime story? Hurry. Sun's almost up."
"I haven't healed anyone since Laia," I say. "I don't know how I'll--"
"Then I'm wasting my time." She reaches the window with one step and pulls herself up with a grunt.
I step forward and grab her shoulder. Slowly, she comes back down.
"All your weapons on the desk," I say. "And don't you dare hide anything, because I will search you."
She does as I ask, and when I've ensured that she doesn't have any nasty surprises tucked away, I reach for her hand. She snatches it away.
"I have to touch you, you mad old bat," I snap. "It won't work otherwise."
She curls her lip in a snarl and offers me her hand reluctantly. To my surprise, it trembles.
Fear curls up in my belly. I want this to work--and I don't want it to work. It's the same feeling I had when I healed Laia. Now that I've seen the wound and Cook's asked for help, it feels necessary to fix it, like a tic I can't stop. The lack of control, the way my whole body yearns toward this, frightens me. It is not me. It is nothing I've ever trained for or wanted.
If you wish to find Elias, do it.
A sound fills my ears: humming--my own. I don't know when it began.
I look into Cook's eyes and dive into that blue darkness. I have to understand her all the way through to her core if I wish to remake bones and skin and flesh.
Elias felt like silver, a bolt of adrenaline beneath a cold, clear dawn. Laia was different. She made me think of sorrow and a green-gold sweetness.
But the Cook . . . her insides slither like eels. I flinch away from them. Somewhere behind the roiling blackness, I catch a glimpse of what she once was, and I reach for it. But in doing so, my hum becomes suddenly discordant. That goodness within her--it's a memory. Now the eels take the place of her heart, writhing with mad vengeance.
I change the melody to catch hold of this truth at her core. A door springs open inside her. I go through, walk down a long corridor that is strangely familiar. The floor sucks at my feet, and when I look down, I half expect to see the tentacles of a squid wrapped around me.
But there is only darkness.
I cannot bear to sing Cook's truth out loud, so instead I scream the words in my head, looking into her eyes all the while. To her credit, she doesn't look away. When the healing begins, when I've captured her essence and her body begins to knit itself back to health, she doesn't even twitch.
Pain grows in my side. Blood drips down into the waist of my fatigues. I ignore it until I'm gasping, when I finally force myself to release Cook. I feel the injury I've taken on from her. It's much smaller than the old woman's, but it still hurts like hell.
Cook's wound is a bit bloodied and raw, but the only sign of infection is the lingering smell of death.
"Take care of that," I gasp. "If you can get into my room, you can thieve yourself herbs to make a poultice."
She peers down at the wound and then at me. "The girl has a brother linked to the--the--the Resistance," she stutters for a moment, then goes on. "The Martials sent him to Kauf months ago. She's trying to get him out. Your boy is helping her."
He's not my boy is my first thought.
He's bleeding insane is my second.
A Martial or Mariner or Tribesman sent to Kauf might emerge eventually, chastened, purged, and unlikely to defy the Empire again. But Scholars have no way out that doesn't involve a hole in the ground.
"If you're lying to me--"
She climbs up into the window, this time with the spryness I last saw in Serra. "Remember: Hurt the girl and you'll regret it."
"Who is she to you?" I ask. I saw something inside Cook during the healing--an aura, or shadow, some ancient music that made me think of Laia. I frown, trying to remember. It's like dredging up a decade-old dream.
"She's nothing to me." The Cook bites out the words as if even the thought of Laia is repugnant. "Just a foolish child on a hopeless mission."
When I stare at her uncertainly, she shakes her head.
"Don't just stand there gawping at me like a stunned cow," she says. "Go save your family, you stupid girl."
"Slow down." Keenan, panting as he runs beside me, reaches for my hand. The brush of his skin is a welcome shot of warmth in the freezing night.
"In the cold, you don't realize how much you're pushing yourself. You'll collapse if you're not careful. And it's too bright out, Laia--someone could see us."
We're nearly to our destination--a safe house in a stretch of farmland far north of where we parted from Afya a week ago. There are even more patrols up here than farther south, all hunting the Scholars fleeing the Commandant's merciless attacks in cities north and west of here. Most of the patrols, however, hunt Scholars during the day.
Keenan's knowledge of the land has allowed us to travel at night and make good time, especially since we've been able to steal horses more than once. Kauf is now only three hundred miles away. But three hundred miles might as well be three thousand if the damned weather doesn't cooperate. I kick at the thin layer of snow on the ground.
I grab Keenan's hand and urge him forward. "We need to reach that safe house tonight if we want to make for the mountain passes tomorrow."
"We won't get anywhere if we're dead," Keenan says. Frost beads on his dark lashes, and patches of his face are purplish blue. All of our cold-weather gear was burned with Afya's wagon. I have the cloak Elias gave me weeks ago, but it was meant for a Serran winter, not this biting cold, which gets under the skin and clings like a lamprey.
"If you exhaust yourself into illness," Keenan says, "one night of rest isn't going to fix it. Besides, we're not being careful. That last patrol was yards away--we nearly walked right into it."
"Bad luck." I'm already moving on. "We've been fine since then. I hope this safe house has a lamp. We need to look at the map Elias gave us and work out how we're going to get to that cave if the storms get bad."
The snow swirls down in thick patches, and nearby, a rooster caws. The landowner's mansion is just visible a quarter mile away, but we veer away from it and head for an outbuilding near the slaves' quarters. In the distance, two hunched figures trudge to a barn, buckets in hand. The place will be swarming with slaves and their overseers soon. We need to take cover.
We finally make it to the cellar door behind a squat granary. The door's latch is stiff from cold, and Keenan groans as he tries to pry it up.
"Hurry." I crouch beside him. In the slaves' hovels a few dozen yards away, smoke rises and a door creaks. A Scholar woman, her head wrapped in cloth, emerges.
Again, Keenan digs his dagger into the latch. "Bleeding thing won't--ah." He sits back, the latch having finally come loose.
The sound echoes, and the Scholar woman spins around. Keenan and I both freeze--there's no chance that she hasn't seen us. But she simply waves us into the cellar.
"Quick," she hisses. "Before the overseers wake!"
We drop into the cellar's dimly lit interior, our breath clouding above us. Keenan bars the door as I inspect the space. It is a dozen feet wide, a half dozen feet long, and cramped with barrels and wine racks.
But a lamp hangs from the roof on a chain, and below it, a table boasts fruit, a paper-wrapped loaf of bread, and a tin tureen.
"The man who runs this farm is a Mercator," Keenan says. "Scholar mother, Martial father. He was the only heir, so they passed him off as a full-blooded Martial. But he must have been closer to his mother, because last year, when his father died, he started helping runaway slaves." Keenan nods at the food. "Looks like he's still at it."
I pull Elias's map from my pack, unroll it carefully, and clear a space on the ground. My stomach rumbles with hunger, but I ignore it. Safe houses usually have little room to move, let alone light enough to see. Keenan and I spend every hour of the day sleeping or running. This is a rare chance to discuss what's to come.
"Tell me more about Kauf." My hands shake with cold--I can hardly feel the parchment between my fingers. "Elias drew a rough layout, but if he fails and we have to go inside, it won't be--"
"You haven't said her name since she died." Keenan cuts through the torrent of words spilling from my mouth. "Do you know that?"
My hands shake more violently. I fight to still them as he sits in front of me.
"You only talk about the next safe house. About how we'll make our way out of the Empire. About Kauf. But you won't talk about her or what happened. You won't talk about this strange power of yours--"
"Power." I want to scoff. "A power that I can't even tap into.
"Perhaps if you talked about it, it would help," Keenan suggests. "Or if you ate more than a bite or two. Or slept more than a few hours."
"I don't feel hungry. And I can't sleep."
His gaze falls upon my shaking fingers. "Skies, look at you." He shoves the parchment away and envelops my hands in his own. His warmth fills up an emptiness inside. I sigh, wanting to fall into that warmth--to let it wrap around me so that I forget all that's to come--even for a few minutes.
But that's selfish. And stupid, considering that at any moment, we might be caught by Martial soldiers. I try to take my hands away, but as if Keenan knows what I'm thinking, he pulls me near, pressing my fingers against the heat of his stomach and throwing his cloak around us both. Beneath the rough weave of his shirt, I can feel the ridges of muscle, hard and smooth. His head is bent as he looks at our hands, red hair hiding his eyes. I swallow and look away from him. We've traveled together for weeks, but we've never been this close before.
"Tell me something about her," he whispers. "Something good."
"I didn't know anything." My voice cracks, and I clear my throat. "I knew her for weeks? Months? And I never even asked her anything worthwhile about her family or what it was like when she was young or--or what she wanted or what she hoped for. Because I thought we had time."
A tear snakes down my face, and I pull a hand from him and dash it away. "I don't want to talk about this," I say. "We should--"
"She deserves better than you pretending she didn't exist," Keenan says. I look up, shocked, expecting anger, but his dark eyes are sympathetic. It makes it worse somehow. "I know it hurts. Of all people, I know. But pain is how you know you loved her."
"She loved stories," I whisper. "Her eye would fix on me, and I could see when I told them that she'd lose herself in whatever I was saying. That she could see it all in her head. And later, sometimes days later, she'd ask me questions about them, like that whole time she was living in those worlds."
"After we left Serra," Keenan says, "we'd been walking--running, really, for hours. When we finally stopped and settled into our rolls for the night, she looked up and said, 'The stars are so different when you're free.'" Keenan shakes his head. "After running all day, eating hardly anything, and being so tired she couldn't take another step, she fell asleep smiling at the sky."
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes