A torch against the nigh.., p.3
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.3

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

  Before my doubts creep up again, he drops his hand and flits across the depot as lightly as the dust clouds rising from the brick kiln.

  I follow his movements, painfully aware of the flimsiness of this plan. Everything that has happened so far is the result of willpower or sheer, dumb luck. I have no idea how to get safely north, beyond trusting Elias to guide me. I have no sense of what it will take to break into Kauf, beyond hoping that Elias will know what to do. All I have is a voice inside telling me I must save my brother, and Elias's promise that he will help me do so. The rest is just wishes and hope, the most fragile of things.

  Not enough. It's not enough. The wind whips my hair about, colder than it should be this late in the summer. Elias disappears into the courtyard of the storage building. My nerves crackle, and though I inhale deeply, I feel as if I cannot get enough air. Come on. Come on. The wait for his signal is excruciating.

  Then I hear it. So quick that I think for a second that I'm mistaken. I hope that I am. But the sound comes again.

  Three quick notes. Sharp, sudden, and filled with warning.

  The Commandant has found us.

  IV: Elias

  My mother hides her anger with practiced cunning. She wraps it in calm and buries it deep. She tramples the soil on top, puts a gravestone on it, and pretends it's dead.

  But I see it in her eyes. Smoldering at the fringes, like the corners of paper blackening just before they burst into flame.

  I hate that I share her blood. Would that I could scrub it from my body.

  She stands against the dark, high wall of the city, another shadow in the night but for the silver glint of her mask. Beside her is our escape route, a wooden door so covered in dried vines that it's impossible to see. Though she holds no weapons in her hands, her message is clear. If you wish to leave, you go through me.

  Ten hells. I hope Laia heard my warning whistle. I hope she stays away.

  "You took long enough," the Commandant says. "I've waited hours."

  She launches herself at me, a long knife appearing so swiftly in her palm that it's as if it popped out of her skin. I dodge her--barely--before lashing out at her with my scims. She dances away from my attack without bothering to cross blades, then flings a throwing star. It misses me by a hair. Before she reaches for another, I rush her, landing a kick to her chest that sends her sprawling.

  As she scrambles up, I scan the area for soldiers. The city walls are empty, the rooftops around us bare. Not a sound comes from Grandfather's storage building. Yet I cannot believe that she doesn't have assassins lurking close by.

  I hear shuffling to my right, and I lift my scims, expecting an arrow or spear. But it's the Commandant's horse, tethered to a tree. I recognize the Gens Veturia saddle--one of Grandfather's stallions.

  "Jumpy." The Commandant raises a silver eyebrow as she scrambles back to her feet. "Don't be. I came alone."

  "And why would you do that?"

  The Commandant flings more throwing stars at me. As I duck, she darts around a tree and out of range of the knives I send hurtling back at her.

  "If you think I need an army to destroy you, boy," she says, "you are mistaken."

  She flicks open the neck of her uniform, and I grimace at the sight of the living metal shirt beneath, impenetrable to edged weapons.

  Hel's shirt.

  "I took it from Helene Aquilla." The Commandant draws scims and engages my assault with graceful ease. "Before I gave her to a Black Guard for interrogation."

  "She doesn't know anything." I dodge my mother's blows while she dances around me. Get her on the defensive. Then a quick blow to her head to knock her out. Steal the horse. Run.

  A bizarre noise comes from the Commandant as our scims clash, their strange music filling the silence of the depot. After a moment, I realize it is a laugh.

  I've never heard my mother laugh. Never.

  "I knew you'd come here." She flies at me with her scims, and I drop beneath her, feeling the wind of her blades centimeters from my face. "You'd have considered escaping through a city gate. Then the tunnels, the river, the docks. In the end, they were all too troublesome, especially with your little friend tagging along. You remembered this place and assumed I wouldn't know about it. Stupid.

  "She's here, you know." The Commandant hisses in irritation when I block her attack and nick her on the arm. "The Scholar slave. Lurking in the building. Watching." The Commandant snorts and raises her voice. "Tenaciously clinging to life like the roach that you are. The Augurs saved you, I presume? I should have crushed you more thoroughly."

  Hide, Laia! I scream it in my head, but don't call out, lest she find one of my mother's stars embedded in her chest.

  The storage building is at the Commandant's back now. She pants lightly, and murder glimmers in her eyes. She wants this finished.

  The Commandant feints with her knife, but when I block, she swipes my feet out from under me, and her blade comes down. I roll away, narrowly avoiding death by impalement, but two more throwing stars whistle toward me, and though I deflect one, the other cuts into my bicep.

  Gold skin flashes in the gloom behind my mother. No, Laia. Stay away.

  My mother drops her scims and draws two daggers, determined to finish me. She vaults toward me with full force, using darting strokes to wound me so that I won't notice until I'm breathing my last.

  I deflect her too slowly. A blade bites into my shoulder, and I rear back, but not fast enough to avoid a vicious kick to my face that drops me to my knees. Suddenly, there are two Commandants and four blades. You're dead, Elias. Gasps echo in my head--my own breaths, shallow and pained. I hear her cold chuckle, like rocks breaking glass. She comes in for the kill. It is only Blackcliff's training, her training, that allows me to instinctively lift my scim and block her. But my strength is gone. She knocks my scims from my hands, one by one.

  From the corner of my eye, I spot Laia approaching, dagger in hand. Stop, damn it. She'll kill you in a second.

  But then I blink, and Laia is gone. I think I must have imagined her--that the kick has rattled my mind, but Laia appears again, sand flying from her hand and into my mother's eyes. The Commandant jerks her head away, and I scramble for my scims in the dirt. I bring one up as my mother meets my eyes.

  I expect her gauntleted wrist to come up and block the sword. I expect to die bathed in her gloating triumph.

  Instead, her eyes flash with an emotion I cannot identify.

  Then the scim hits her temple with a blow that will have her sleeping for at least an hour. She drops to the ground like a sack of flour.

  Rage and confusion grip me as Laia and I stare down at her. What crime has my mother not committed? She has whipped, killed, tortured, enslaved. Now she lies before us, helpless. It would be so easy to kill her. The Mask within urges me to do it. Don't falter now, fool. You'll regret it.

  The thought repulses me. Not my own mother, not like this, no matter what kind of monster she is.

  I see a flash of movement. A figure skulks in the shadows of the depot. A soldier? Perhaps--but one too cowardly to come out and fight. Maybe he has seen us, maybe not. I won't wait to find out.

  "Laia." I grab my mother by the legs and drag her into the house. She's so light. "Get the horse."

  "Is--is she--" She looks down at the Commandant's body, and I shake my head.

  "The horse," I say. "Untether him and take him to the door." As she does so, I cut a length of rope from the coil in my pack and bind my mother, ankle and wrist. After she wakes it won't hold her long. But combined with the blow to her head, it should give us time to get well away from Serra before she sends soldiers after us.

  "We have to kill her, Elias." Laia's voice shakes. "She'll come after us as soon as she wakes up. We'll never make it to Kauf."

  "I'm not going to kill her. If you want to, then hurry. We're out of time."

  I turn away from her to scan the gloom behind us again. Whoever was watching us is gone. We have to assume the wors
t: that it was a soldier and that he'll sound the alarm.

  No troops patrol the top of Serra's ramparts. Finally, some luck. The vine-covered door opens after a few sturdy pulls, its hinges creaking loudly. In seconds, we are through the thick city wall. For a moment, my vision doubles. That damned blow to the head.

  Laia and I creep through an immense apricot grove, the horse clopping beside us. She leads the beast, and I walk ahead of her, my scims out.

  The Commandant chose to face me alone. Perhaps it was her pride--her desire to prove to herself and me that she could destroy me single-handedly. Whatever the reason, she'd station at least a few squads of soldiers out here to catch us if we broke through. If there's one thing I know about my mother, it's that she always has a backup plan.

  I'm thankful for the inky night. If the moon were out, a skilled bowman could pick us off easily from the walls. As it is, we blend in with the trees. Still, I don't trust the darkness. I wait for the crickets and night creatures to go quiet, for my skin to go cold, for the scrape of boot or creak of leather.

  But as we make our way through the orchard, there is no sign of the Empire.

  I slow our pace as we approach the tree line. A tributary of the Rei rushes nearby. The only points of light in the desert are two garrisons, miles from us and from each other. Drum messages echo between them, referring to troop movements within Serra. Distantly, horses' hooves pound, and I tense--but the sound moves away from us.

  "Something's not right," I tell Laia. "My mother should have put patrols out here."

  "Maybe she thought that she wouldn't need them." Laia's whisper is uncertain. "That she would kill us."

  "No," I say. "The Commandant always has a backup plan." I wish, suddenly, that Helene were here. I can practically see her silver brows furrowed, her mind carefully, patiently untangling the facts.

  Laia cocks her head at me. "The Commandant makes mistakes, Elias," she says. "She underestimated both of us."

  True, and yet the niggling feeling in my gut won't go away. Hells, my head aches. I feel like retching. Like sleeping. Think, Elias. What was that in my mother's eyes just before I knocked her out? An emotion. Something she wouldn't normally express.

  After a moment, it hits me. Satisfaction. The Commandant was pleased.

  But why would she be satisfied that I'd knocked her senseless after she tried to kill me?

  "She didn't make a mistake, Laia." We step out into the open land beyond the orchard, and I survey the storm building over the Serran Mountain Range, a hundred miles away. "She let us go."

  What I don't understand is why.

  V: Helene

  Loyal to the end.

  The motto of Gens Aquilla, whispered into my ear by my father moments after I was born. I've spoken those words a thousand times. I've never questioned. Never doubted.

  I think of those words now, as I sag between two legionnaires in the dungeons below Blackcliff. Loyal to the end.

  Loyal to whom? My family? The Empire? My own heart?

  Damn my heart to the hells. My heart is what landed me here in the first place.

  "How did Elias Veturius escape?"

  My interrogator cuts through my thoughts. His voice is as unfeeling as it was hours ago, when the Commandant threw me into this pit with him. She cornered me outside Blackcliff's barracks, backed by a squad of Masks. I surrendered quietly; she knocked me unconscious anyway. And somehow between then and now, she stripped me of the silver shirt gifted to me by the Empire's holy men, the Augurs. A shirt that made me near invincible after it sunk into my skin.

  Perhaps I should be surprised that she managed to get it off me. But I'm not. Unlike the rest of the bleeding Empire, I've never made the mistake of underestimating the Commandant.

  "How did he escape?" The interrogator is back at it. I suppress a sigh. I've answered the question a hundred times.

  "I don't know. One moment I was supposed to be chopping his head off, and the next, all I could hear was my ears ringing. When I looked on the execution dais, he was gone."

  The interrogator nods to the two legionnaires holding me. I gird myself.

  Tell them nothing. No matter what. When Elias escaped, I promised I'd cover for him one last time. If the Empire learns that he got away through the tunnels, or that he's traveling with a Scholar, or that he gave me his mask, the soldiers will track him more easily. He'll never leave the city alive.

  The legionnaires shove my head back into a bucket of foul water. I seal my lips, close my eyes, and keep my body loose, though every part of me wants to fight off my captors. I hold on to one image, the way the Commandant taught us during interrogation training.

  Elias escaping. Smiling in some distant, sun-drenched land. Finding the freedom he'd sought for so long.

  My lungs strain and burn. Elias escaping. Elias free. I drown, die. Elias escaping. Elias free.

  The legionnaires yank my head from the bucket, and I draw a deep gulp of air.

  The interrogator tips my face up with a firm hand, forcing me to look into green eyes that glimmer pale and unfeeling against the silver of his mask. I expect to see a hint of anger--frustration, at least, after hours of asking the same questions and hearing the same answers. But he is calm. Almost placid.

  In my head, I call him the Northman for his brown skin, hollow cheeks, and angular eyes. He is a few years out of Blackcliff, young to be in the Black Guard, let alone as an interrogator.

  "How did he escape?"

  "I just told you--"

  "Why were you in the Skulls' barracks after the explosion?"

  "Thought I saw him. But I lost him." A version of the truth. I did lose him, in the end.

  "How did he set the charges in the explosives?" The Northman releases my face and paces around me slowly, blending into the shadows but for the red patch on his fatigues--a screaming bird. It is the symbol of the Black Guard, the Empire's internal enforcers. "When did you help him?"

  "I didn't help him."

  "He was your ally. Your friend." The Northman pulls something from his pocket. It clinks, but I can't see what it is. "The moment he was to be executed, a series of explosions nearly leveled the school. Do you expect anyone to believe that was a coincidence?"

  At my silence, the Northman motions for the legionnaires to dunk me again. I breathe deep, locking everything else out of my mind but that image of him free.

  And then, just as I go under, I think of her.

  The Scholar girl. All that dark hair and those curves and her damned gold eyes. How he held her hand as they fled through the courtyard. The way she said his name and how, on her lips, it sounded like a song.

  I swallow a mouthful of water. It tastes of death and piss. I kick out and fight the legionnaires holding me. Calm down. This is how interrogators destroy their prisoners. One crack, and he'll drive a wedge into it and hammer until I split open.

  Elias escaping. Elias free. I try to see it in my mind, but the image is replaced by the two of them together, entwined.

  Maybe drowning wouldn't be so horrible.

  The legionnaires pull me up as my world goes dark. I spit out a mouthful of water. Shore up, Aquilla. This is when he breaks you.

  "Who's the girl?"

  The question is so unexpected that for one damning moment, I'm unable to wipe the shock--or the recognition--from my face.

  Half of me curses Elias for being stupid enough to be seen with the girl. The other half tries to quash the dread blooming in my gut. The interrogator watches the emotions play out in my eyes.

  "Very good, Aquilla." His words are deadly quiet. Immediately, I think of the Commandant. The softer she spoke, Elias once said, the more dangerous she was. I can finally see what the Northman pulled from his fatigues. Two sets of joined, metal rings that he slips onto his fingers. Brass beaters. A brutal weapon that transforms a simple beating into a slow, bloody death.

  "Why don't we begin there?"

  "Begin?" I've been in this hellhole for hours. "What do you mean, be
gin?"

  "This"--he gestures to the bucket of water and my bruised face--"was me getting to know you."

  Ten bleeding hells. He's been holding back. He's ratcheted up the pain little by little, weakening me, waiting for a way in, for me to give something up. Elias escaping. Elias free. Elias escaping. Elias free.

  "But now, Blood Shrike." The Northman's words, though quietly delivered, cut through the chant in my head. "Now, we'll see what you're made of."

  *

  Time blurs. Hours go by. Or is it days? Weeks? I can't tell. Down here, I don't see the sun. I can't hear the drums or the belltower.

  A little longer, I tell myself after a particularly vicious beating. Another hour. Hold out for another hour. Another half hour. Five minutes. One minute. Just one.

  But every second is pain. I'm losing this battle. I feel it in the blocks of time that disappear, in the way my words jumble and trip over one another.

  The dungeon door opens, closes. Messengers arrive, confer. The Northman's questions change, but they never end.

  "We know that he escaped with the girl through the tunnels." One of my eyes is swollen shut, but as the Northman speaks, I glare at him through the other. "Murdered half a platoon down there."

  Oh, Elias. He'll torment himself about those deaths, not seeing them as a necessity but as a choice--the wrong choice. He'll keep that blood on his hands long after it would have washed off mine.

  But some part of me is relieved that the Northman knows how Elias escaped. At least I don't have to lie anymore. When the Northman asks me about Laia and Elias's relationship, I can honestly say that I know nothing.

  I just have to survive long enough for the Northman to believe me.

  "Tell me about them--it's not so hard, is it? We know the girl was affiliated with the Resistance. Had she turned Elias to their cause? Were they lovers?"

  I want to laugh. Your guess is as good as mine.

  I try to answer him, but I'm in too much pain to do more than moan. The legionnaires dump me on the floor. I lay curled in a ball, a pathetic attempt to protect my broken ribs. My breath escapes in a wheeze. I wonder if death is close.

  I think of the Augurs. Do they know where I am? Do they care?

  They must know. And they've done nothing to help me.

  But I'm not dead yet. And I haven't given the Northman what he wants. If he's still asking questions, then Elias is free, and the girl with him.

 
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