A Torch Against the Night, p.31Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir
"He cannot kill her. All who have been given the Star, even if only for a few moments, are protected from him by its power. He can't kill you either."
"But I never . . ." Touched it, I was going to say, until I realize that I asked Laia if I could see it months ago, in the Serran Range.
"The Nightbringer must have ordered the Warden to kill you," Shaeva says. "But his human slaves are not as obedient, perhaps, as he would like."
"The Warden didn't care about Laia," I realize. "He wanted to understand the Nightbringer better. "
"My king confides in no one." The Soul Catcher shivers at the crisp air. For a moment, she looks barely older than me. "The Commandant and the Warden are likely his only allies--he does not trust humans. He will have told them nothing of the armlet or the Star, lest they find a way to turn the knowledge against him."
"What if Laia had died some other way?" I ask. "What would have happened to her armlet?"
"Those who bear pieces of the Star do not die easily," Shaeva says. "It protects them, and he knows that. But if she had, the armlet would have evanesced into nothingness. The Star's power would have weakened. It has happened before."
She puts her head in her hands. "No one understands how deep his hatred for humans runs, Elias. If he frees our brethren, they will search out the Scholars and annihilate them. They will turn on the rest of humanity. Their bloodlust will know no reason."
"Then we stop him," I say. "We get Laia away before he can take the armlet."
"I cannot stop him." Shaeva's voice rises in impatience. "He will not let me. I cannot leave my lands--"
A tremor rolls through the Forest, and Shaeva twists around. "They know," she hisses. "They'll punish me."
"You can't just leave. I have to find out if Laia's all right. You could help me--"
"No!" Shaeva rears back. "I can have nothing to do with this. Nothing. Don't you see? He--" She reaches for her throat and grimaces. "The last time I crossed him, he killed me, Elias. He forced me to suffer the torture of a slow death, and then he brought me back. He released the sorry creature that had ruled the land of death before me, and he chained me to this place as punishment for what I did. I live, yes, but I am a slave to the Waiting Place. That is his doing. If I cross him again, skies know what he will inflict upon me. I am sorry--more sorry than you can know. But I have no power over him."
I lunge for her, desperate to make her help me, but she spins out of my grasp and darts down the bluff, disappearing within seconds into the trees.
"Shaeva, damn it!" I start after her, swearing when I realize how futile it is.
"Aren't you dead yet?" Tristas emerges from the trees as the Soul Catcher disappears. "How much longer are you planning to cling to your miserable existence?"
I should ask you the same. But I do not, for instead of the malice I've come to expect from Tristas's ghost, his shoulders slump, as if an invisible boulder rests on his back. Distracted as I am, I order myself to turn my full attention to my friend. He looks drawn and desperately unhappy.
"I'll be here soon enough," I say. "I have until Rathana. That's six days away."
"Rathana." Tristas wrinkles his forehead in thought. "I remember last year. Aelia proposed to me that night. I sang all the way home, and you and Hel gagged me so the Centurions wouldn't hear. Faris and Leander teased me for weeks."
"They were just jealous that you'd met a girl who truly loved you."
"You defended me," Tristas says. Behind him, the Forest is still, as if the Waiting Place holds its breath. "You always did."
I shrug and look away. "That doesn't undo the evil I've done."
"Never said it did." Tristas's ire returns. "But you're not the judge, are you? It's my life you took. It's my choice whether I wish to forgive you or not."
I open my mouth, about to tell him that he shouldn't forgive me. Instead I think of Izzi's reprimand. You always think everyone is your responsibility. . . . We're our own people, and we deserve to make our own decisions.
"You're right." Hells, it's hard to say. Harder to make myself believe. But as I speak, the anger clears from Tristas's eyes. "All your choices have been taken from you. Except this one. I'm sorry."
Tristas cocks his head. "Was that so hard?" He walks to the edge of the bluff and peers down at the River Dusk. "You said I didn't have to do it alone."
"You don't have to do it alone."
"I could say the same to you." Tristas puts a hand on my shoulder. "I forgive you, Elias. Forgive yourself. You still have time left among the living. Don't waste it."
He turns and leaps off the bluff in a perfect dive, his body fading. The only sign of his passing is a slight ripple in the river.
I could say the same to you. The words kindle a flame within me, and the thought that first flickered to life with Izzi's words now grows into a blaze.
Afya's strident assertion sounds in my head: You shouldn't just leave, Elias. You should ask Laia what she wants. Laia's angry pleadings: You close yourself up. You shut me out because you don't want me to get close. What about what I want?
Sometimes, Izzi had said, loneliness is a choice.
The Waiting Place fades. When cold seeps into my bones, I know I am back in Kauf.
I also know exactly how I can get Darin out of this damned place. But I can't do it alone. I wait--planning, plotting--and when Tas enters my cell the morning after I learn the truth about Keenan, I am ready.
The boy keeps his head down, shuffling toward me as timid as a mouse. His skinny legs are marked with a fresh whipping. A dirty bandage encircles his frail wrist.
"Tas," I whisper. The boy's dark eyes snap up. "I'm getting out of here," I say. "I'm taking the Artist with me. And you too, if you wish. But I need help."
Tas bends over his crate of bandages and ointments, his hands shaking as he changes a poultice on my knee. For the first time since I've met him, his eyes shine.
"What do you need me to do, Elias Veturius?"
I do not recall hauling myself back up Kauf's outer wall or making my way to the boathouse. I only know that it takes longer than it should because of the anger and disbelief clouding my sight. When I arrive within the cavernous structure, dazed by what I've just learned about the Commandant, the Warden awaits me.
This time, he's not alone. I sense his men lurking in the corners of the boathouse. Glints of silver catch the blue torchlight--Masks, with arrows pointed at me.
Avitas stands beside our boat, one wary eye turned toward the old man. His clenched jaw is the only sign that he's upset. His anger calms me--at least I am not alone in my frustration. As I approach, Avitas meets my gaze and nods curtly. The Warden has filled him in.
"Don't help the Commandant, Warden," I say without preamble. "Don't give her the influence she wants."
"You surprise me," the Warden says. "Are you so loyal to Marcus that you would reject Keris Veturia as Empress? It's foolish to do so. The transition would not be seamless, but in time the populace would accept her. She did, after all, crush the Scholar revolution."
"If the Commandant was meant to be Empress," I say, "the Augurs would have chosen her instead of Marcus. She does not know how to negotiate, Warden. The second she takes power, she'll punish every Gens who has ever crossed her, and the Empire will fall to civil war, as it nearly did just weeks ago. Besides, she wants to kill you. She said as much in front of me."
"I am well aware of Keris Veturia's dislike," he says. "Irrational, when one considers that we serve the same master, but she is, I believe, threatened by my presence." The Warden shrugs. "Whether I aid her or not makes no difference. She will still launch the coup. And it is very possible that it will succeed."
"Then I must stop her." And now we've come to it: the crux of our discussion. I decide to forgo subtlety. If the Commandant intends to launch a coup, I have no time. "Give me Elias Veturius, Warden. I cannot return to Antium without him."
"Ah yes." The Warden ta
"What do you want, Warden?"
The Warden gestures for me to walk with him down one of the docks, away from his men and Harper. The Northman shakes his head sharply when I follow, but I have no choice. When we are out of earshot, the old man turns to me.
"I hear, Blood Shrike, that you have a specific . . . skill." He fixes his eyes on me hungrily, and a chill rolls up my spine.
"Warden, I don't know what you've heard, but--"
"Do not insult my intelligence. Blackcliff's physician, Titinius, is an old friend. He shared with me recently the most remarkable story of recovery he's witnessed in his time at the school. Elias Veturius was hovering on the edge of death when a southern poultice saved him. But when Titinius tried the poultice on another patient, it didn't work. He suspects that Elias's recovery was due to something--someone--else."
"What," I say again, my hand straying to my weapon, "do you want?"
"I want to study your power," the Warden says. "I want to understand it."
"I don't have time for your experiments," I snap. "Give me Elias and we'll talk."
"If I give you Veturius, you will simply abscond with him," the Warden says. "No, you must remain. A few days, no more, and then I'll release you both."
"Warden," I say. "There's a bleeding coup that's going to take down the Empire. I must return to Antium to warn the Emperor. And I cannot return without Elias. Give him to me and I vow by blood and by bone that I will come back here for your . . . observation as soon as the situation is under control."
"A pretty vow," the Warden says. "But unreliable." He strokes his chin thoughtfully, an eerie light in his eyes. "Such a fascinating philosophical quandary you face, Blood Shrike. Stay here, submit to experimentation, and risk that, in your absence, the Empire will fall to Keris Veturia? Or go back, stop the coup, and save the Empire, but risk forfeiting your family?"
"This isn't a game," I say. "My family's lives are at stake. Bleeding hells, the Empire is at stake. And if neither of those things matter to you, then think of yourself, Warden. Do you think Keris will just let you lurk up here after she becomes Empress? She'll kill you the first chance she gets."
"Oh, I think our new Empress will find my knowledge of the Empire's secrets . . . compelling."
My blood seethes in hatred as I glare at the old man. Could I perhaps break into Kauf? Avitas knows the prison well. He spent years here. But there are only two of us and a fortress of the Warden's men.
I remember, then, what Cain said to me when all this began, just after Marcus ordered me to bring him Elias.
You will hunt Elias. You will find him. For what you learn on that journey--about yourself, your land, your enemies--that knowledge is essential to the Empire's survival. And to your destiny.
This. This is what he meant. I do not yet know what I have learned about myself, but I understand now what is happening within my land, within the Empire. I understand what my enemy is planning.
I was going to bring Elias to Marcus for execution to show the Emperor's strength. To give him a victory. But killing Elias isn't the only way to do that. Crushing a coup led by one of the Empire's most feared soldiers would work just as well. If Marcus and I take down the Commandant, the Illustrian Gens will be loath to cross him. Civil war will be averted. The Empire will be safe.
As for Elias, my gut twists when I think of him in the hands of the Warden. But I cannot concern myself with his welfare any longer. Besides which, I know my friend. The Warden won't be able to keep him locked up for long.
"Empire first, old man," I say. "You can keep Veturius--and your experiments."
The Warden regards me without expression.
"Callow is the hope of our youth," he murmurs. "They are fools. They know no better. From Recollections, by Rajin of Serra--one of the only Scholars worth quoting. I believe he wrote that a few moments before Taius the First lopped his head off. If you do not want your Emperor's fate to be similar, then you'd best be on your way."
He signals to his men, and moments later the door of the boathouse thuds shut behind them. Avitas pads silently to my side.
"No Veturius, and a coup to stop," Avitas says. "Do you want to explain your thinking now," he asks, "or on the way?"
"On the way." I step into the canoe and grab an oar. "We're already out of time."
Keenan is the Nightbringer. A jinn. A demon.
Though I repeat the words in my head, they do not penetrate. Cold seeps into my bones, and I look down, surprised to find I've fallen to my knees in the snow. Get up, Laia. I cannot move.
I hate him. Skies, I hate him. But I loved him. Didn't I? I reach for my armlet, as if pawing at myself will make it reappear. Keenan's transformation flashes through my mind--then the mockery in his warped voice.
He's gone, I tell myself. You're still alive. Elias and Darin are in the prison, and they have no way out. You have to save them. Get up.
Perhaps grief is like battle: After experiencing enough of it, your body's instincts take over. When you see it closing in like a Martial death squad, you harden your insides. You prepare for the agony of a shredded heart. And when it hits, it hurts, but not as badly, because you have locked away your weakness, and all that's left is anger and strength.
Part of me wants to mull over every moment spent with that thing. Did he oppose my mission with Mazen because he wanted me alone and weak? Did he save Izzi because he knew I'd never forgive him if he left her behind?
No thinking. No considering. You must act. Move. Get. Up.
I stand. Though I am at first unsure of where I am going, I make myself walk away from the cave. The snowdrifts reach my knees, and I plow through, shivering, until I find the trail Helene Aquilla and her men must have left. I follow it to a trickle of a stream and walk along the waterway.
I don't realize where I am walking until a figure steps out from the trees in front of me. The sight of the silver mask threatens to make my stomach plunge, but I harden myself and draw my dagger. The Mask puts up his hands.
"Peace, Laia of Serra."
It is one of Aquilla's Masks. Not the fair-haired one or the handsome one. This one reminds me of the freshly sharpened edge of an ax. This is the one who walked right past Elias and me in Nur.
"I have to speak to the Blood Shrike," I say. "Please."
"Where is your redheaded friend?"
The Mask blinks. I find his lack of cold implacability unnatural. His pale green eyes are almost sympathetic. "And your brother?"
"Still in Kauf," I say warily. "Will you take me to her?"
He nods. "We're breaking camp," he says. "I was scouting for the Commandant's spies."
I halt. "You--you have Elias--"
"No," the Mask says. "Elias is still inside. We have something pressing to attend to."
More pressing than catching the Empire's top fugitive? A slow ember of hope kindles in my belly. I thought I'd have to lie to Helene Aquilla and tell her I wouldn't interfere with her extraction of Elias. But she's not planning on leaving Kauf with him anyway.
"Why did you trust Elias, Laia of Serra?" The Mask's question is too unexpected for me to hide my surprise. "Why did you save him from execution?"
I consider lying, but he'd know. He's a Mask.
"Elias saved my life so many times," I say. "He broods and makes questionable choices that put his own life at risk, but he's a good person." I glance over at the Mask, who stares impassively ahead. "One--one of the best."
"But he killed his friends during the Trials."
"He didn't want to," I say. "He thinks about it all the time. He'll never forgive himself, I think."
The Mask is silent, and the wind carries the moans and sighs of Kauf to our ears. I clench my jaw. You're going to have to go in there, I tell myself. So get used to it.
"My father was like Elias," the Mask says after a moment. "My mother said he always saw the good when no
"Was--was he a Mask too?"
"He was. Strange trait for a Mask, I suppose. The Empire tried to train it out of him. Perhaps they failed. Perhaps that's why he died."
I do not know what to say, and the Mask remains silent also, until Kauf's ominous black bulk appears in the distance.
"I lived there for two years." He nods at the prison. "Spent most of my time in the interrogation cells. Hated it at first. Twelve-hour guard shifts, seven days a week. I became numb to the things I heard. It helped that I had a friend."
"Not the Warden." I inch a bit away from him. "Elias told me about him."
"No," the Mask says. "Not the Warden, nor any of the soldiers. My friend was a Scholar slave. A little girl who called herself Bee, because she had a scar shaped like a ziberry fruit on her cheek."
I stare at him, nonplussed. He doesn't seem like the type of man to befriend a child.
"She was so thin," the Mask says. "I used to sneak her food. At first, she feared me, but when she realized I didn't mean her harm she started talking to me." He shrugs. "After leaving Kauf I wondered about her. A few days ago, when I took a message to the Warden from the Shrike, I went looking for Bee. Found her, too."
"Did she remember you?"
"She did. In fact, she told me a very peculiar story of a pale-eyed Martial locked in the interrogation block of the prison. He refuses to fear the Warden, she said. He befriended one of her companions. Gave him a Tribal name: Tas. The children whisper of this Martial--carefully, of course, so the Warden doesn't hear. They're good at keeping secrets. They've taken word of this Martial to the Scholar movement within the prison--to those men and women who still hold out hope that they'll one day escape."
"Why are you telling me this?" I look around, nervous. A trap? A trick? It's obvious that the Mask is speaking of Elias. But what is his purpose?
"I can't tell you why." He sounds almost sad. "But strange as it sounds, I think that one day you, of all people, will understand best."
He shakes himself and meets my eyes. "Save him, Laia of Serra," he says. "From all that you and the Blood Shrike have told me, I think that he is worth saving."
The Mask watches me, and I nod at him, not understanding but relieved that he is, at least, more human and less Mask. "I'll do my best."
A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir / Fantasy / Young Adult / Romance & Love have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes