A torch against the nigh.., p.32
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.32
 

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

  We reach the Blood Shrike's clearing. She fastens a saddle onto her horse, and when she hears our footsteps and turns, her silver face tightens. The Mask quickly makes himself scarce.

  "I know you don't like me," I say before she can tell me to get lost. "But I'm here for two reasons." I open my mouth, trying to find the right words, and decide that simplest is best. "First, I need to thank you. For saving me. I should have said it before."

  "You're welcome," she grunts. "What do you want?"

  "Your help."

  "Why in the bleeding skies would I help you?"

  "Because you're leaving Elias behind," I say. "You don't want him dead. I know that. So help me save him."

  The Blood Shrike turns back to her horse, yanking a cloak from one of her saddlebags and pulling it on.

  "Elias won't die. He's probably trying to break your brother out right now."

  "No," I say. "Something went wrong in there." I step closer to her. Her stare cuts like a scim. "You owe me nothing. I know that. But I heard what he said to you at Blackcliff. Don't forget us." The devastation in her eyes at the memory is sudden and raw, and guilt twists in my stomach.

  "I won't leave him," I say. "Listen to that place." Helene Aquilla looks away from me. "He deserves better than to die in there."

  "What do you want to know?"

  "A few things about layout, locations, and supplies."

  She scoffs. "How in the hells are you going to get in? You can't pose as a slave. Kauf's guards know the faces of their Scholar slaves, and a girl who looks like you won't be quickly forgotten. You won't last five minutes."

  "I have a way in," I say. "And I'm not afraid."

  A violent gust of wind sends blonde strands fluttering like birds around her silver face. As she sizes me up, her expression is unreadable. What does she feel? She is more than just a Mask--I learned that the night she brought me back from the brink of death.

  "Come here," she sighs. She kneels down and begins to draw in the snow.

  *

  I'm tempted to pile Keenan's things outside and light a fire, but the smoke would only attract attention. Instead, I hold his bag away from myself, as if it's diseased, and walk a few hundred yards from the cave, until I find a stream running swiftly down to the River Dusk. His pack lands with a splash in the water, and his weapons soon follow. I could do with a few more knives, but I don't want anything that belonged to him.

  When I return to the cave, I sit down, cross my legs, and decide that I will not move until I have mastered my invisibility.

  I realize that each time I succeeded, Keenan was out of sight and often far away. All that self-doubt I felt when he was around--could he have planted it on purpose, to suppress my power?

  Disappear! I scream the word in my mind, queen of the desolate landscape therein ordering her ragged troops to a last stand. Elias, Darin, and all the rest I must save depend on this one thing, this power, this magic that I know lives within.

  A rush pours through my body, and I steady myself, looking down to see that my limbs shimmer, translucent, as they did during the raid on Afya's caravan.

  I whoop, loud enough that the echo in the cave startles me, and the invisibility falls away. Right. Work on that, Laia.

  All that day, I practice, first in the cave and then out in the snow. I learn my limits: A branch I hold while invisible is also invisible. But anything living or anchored to the earth appears to float in midair.

  I am so deep within my own head that at first, I don't hear the footsteps. Someone speaks, and I spin around, scrambling for a weapon.

  "Keep your hair on, girl." I recognize the haughty tone even before she lowers her hood. Afya Ara-Nur.

  "Skies, you're jumpy," she says. "Though I can't say I blame you. Not when you have to listen to that racket." She waves her hand in the general direction of the prison. "No Elias, I see. No brother either. And . . . no redhead?"

  She raises her eyebrows, waiting for an explanation, but I just stare at her, wondering if she's real. Her riding clothes are stained and filthy, her boots wet with snow. Her braids are tucked beneath a scarf, and it doesn't look like she has slept in days. I could kiss her, I'm so happy to see her.

  She sighs and rolls her eyes. "I made a promise, girl, all right? I vowed to Elias Veturius that I would see this through. A Tribeswoman breaking a sacred vow is foul enough. But to do it when another woman's life is at stake? That is unforgiveable--as my little brother reminded me every hour of every day for three days straight, until I finally agreed to follow you."

  "Where is he?"

  "Almost to the Tribal Lands." She sits on a nearby rock and massages her legs. "At least, he better be. Last thing he said to me was that your friend Izzi didn't trust the redhead." She looks at me expectantly. "Was she right?"

  "Skies," I say. "Where do I even begin?"

  Night has fallen by the time I finish filling Afya in on the past few weeks. I leave out a few things--in particular the night in the cellar safe house.

  "I know I failed," I say. She and I sit in the cave now, sharing a meal of flatbread and fruit that she has brought. "I made stupid decisions--"

  "When I was sixteen," Afya interrupts, "I left Nur to carry out my first trade. I was the oldest, and my father spoiled me. Instead of forcing me to spend interminable hours learning to cook and weave and other boring rubbish, he kept me close and taught me about the business.

  "Most of our Tribe thought he indulged me. But I knew I wanted to be Zaldara of Tribe Nur after my father. I didn't care that there hadn't been a female chieftain for more than two hundred years. I only knew that I was my father's heir and that if I wasn't chosen, the role of Zaldar would go to one of my greedy uncles or useless cousins. They'd marry me off to some other Tribe, and that would be that."

  "You pulled it off beautifully," I guess with a smile. "And now look at you."

  "Wrong," she says. "The trade was a disaster. A travesty. A humiliation for both myself and my father. The Martial I planned to sell to seemed honest enough--until he manipulated me and tricked me out of my goods for a fraction of what they were worth. I returned from the trade a thousand marks poorer, with my head low and my tail between my legs. I was convinced my father would have me married off within a fortnight.

  "Instead, he smacked the back of my head and barked at me to stand up straight. Do you know what he said? Failure doesn't define you. It's what you do after you fail that determines whether you are a leader or a waste of perfectly good air."

  Afya stares hard at me. "So you've made a few bad decisions. So have I. So has Elias. So has everyone attempting to do something difficult. That doesn't mean that you give up, you fool. Do you understand?"

  I mull over her words and recall the past few months. It takes only a split second for life to go horribly wrong. To fix the mess, I need a thousand things to go right. The distance from one bit of luck to the next feels as great as the distance across oceans. But, I decide in this moment, I will bridge that distance, again and again, until I win. I will not fail.

  I nod at Afya. Immediately she claps me on the shoulder.

  "Good," she says. "Now that that's out of the way, what's your plan?"

  "It's--" I search for a word that will make my idea not look like complete lunacy, but realize that Afya would see right through me. "It's insane," I finally say. "So insane that I can't imagine how it will work."

  Afya lets out a peal of high laughter that rings through the cave. She is not mocking me--there is genuine amusement on her face as she shakes her head.

  "Skies," Afya says. "I thought you told me you loved stories. Have you ever heard a story of an adventurer with a sane plan?"

  "Well . . . no."

  "And why do you think that is?"

  I am at a loss. "Because . . . ah, because--"

  She chuckles again. "Because sane plans never work, girl," she says. "Only the mad ones do."

  XLIX: Elias

  A whole night and day pass before Tas returns. He
says nothing, looking pointedly at my cell door. There's a slight shift in the flickering torchlight beyond my cell--one of the Warden's Masks watches us. Finally, the Mask outside the cell leaves. I bend my head in case he decides to return, keeping my voice quieter than a whisper.

  "Tell me you have good news, Tas."

  "The soldiers moved the Artist to another cell." Tas looks over his shoulder at the door, then draws swiftly in the grime on the cell floor. "But I found him. The block is arranged in a circle, yes? With the guard quarters in the center and"--he marks an X at the top of the circle--"the Artist is here," he says. Then he marks an X at the bottom. "You are here. The stairs are in between."

  "Excellent," I whisper. "The uniforms?"

  "Bee can get one for you," he says. "She has access to the laundry."

  "You're certain you trust her?"

  "She hates the Warden." Tas shudders. "More than me, even. She will not betray us. But, Elias, I have not spoken to the Skiritae leader, Araj. And . . ." Tas looks apologetic. "Bee said there's no Tellis to be found anywhere in the prison."

  Ten burning hells.

  "Also," Tas says, "the Scholar cleansing has begun. The Martials have built a pen in the prison yard where they are being herded. The cold has killed off many, but"--his voice trembles in anticipation and I sense he's been working himself up to this--"something else has happened--something wonderful."

  "The Warden has erupted in boils that will kill him slowly?"

  Tas grins. "Almost as good," he says. "I have a message, Elias, from a girl with golden eyes."

  My heart practically falls out of my chest. It can't be. Can it be?

  "Tell me everything." I glance toward the door. If Tas is in my cell for longer than ten minutes, one of the Masks will come to check on us. The boy's hands work swiftly as he cleans my wounds and replaces my bandages.

  "She found Bee first." I strain to hear him. A few cells over, the guards have begun an interrogation, and the prisoner's screams echo across the block.

  "Bee thought it was a ghost, because the voice came out of nowhere. The voice led her to an empty barracks room, and the girl appeared out of thin air. She asked Bee about you, so Bee came to get me."

  "And she--she was invisible?" At Tas's nod, I sit back, stunned. But then I begin to think back to the times she seemed to almost fade out of view. When did it begin? After Serra, I realize. After the efrit touched her. The creature only laid hands on Laia for a second. But perhaps that second was enough to awaken something within her.

  "What was her message?"

  Tas takes a deep breath. "I found your scims," he recites. "I was happy to see them. I have a way in and can keep out of sight. Afya can steal horses. What of the Scholars? Executions have begun. The boy says there's a Scholar leader who can help. If you see my brother, tell him I'm here. Tell him I love him."

  "She said she'd return at nightfall for your answer."

  "All right," I say to Tas. "This is what I want you to tell her."

  For three days, Tas carries messages back and forth between Laia and me. I'd have thought her presence here was a sick trick of the Warden's if it wasn't for the fact that I trust Tas and that the messages he brings back are so eminently Laia--sweet, slightly formal, but with a strength behind the words that speaks of her determination. Tread carefully, Elias. I do not wish to see you injured further.

  Slowly, painstakingly, we pull together a plan that is part her, part me, part Tas, and complete madness. It's also heavily dependent on the competency of Araj, the man who leads the Skiritae. A man I've never met.

  The morning of Rathana dawns like all other mornings in Kauf: without any indication that it is morning, other than the sounds of the guards changing shifts and a vague internal sense that my body is waking up.

  Tas arrives with a bowl of watery gruel, which he drops quickly in front of me before streaking out. He is pale, terrified, but when I meet his eyes, he gives me the briefest of nods.

  After he leaves, I force myself to my feet. It takes most of my breath to stand, and my chains seem heavier than they did just last night. Everything hurts, and beneath the pain, weariness seems to have penetrated my very marrow. This is not the tiredness of interrogation or a long journey. It is the exhaustion of a body that's nearly done fighting.

  Just get through today, I tell myself. Then you can die in peace.

  The next few minutes are nearly as torturous as one of the Warden's interrogation sessions. I hate waiting. But soon enough, a promising smell wafts into my cell.

  Smoke.

  A second later, urgent voices. A shout. The ringing of alarm bells. The echoing, frantic boom of drums.

  Well done, Tas. Boots pound past the door, and the already bright torchlight outside intensifies. The minutes pass, and I rattle my chains impatiently. Fire spreads quickly, especially if Tas has been dribbling as much fuel in the soldiers' section as I told him to. Already, smoke pours into my cell.

  A shadow passes by my door and looks in--no doubt to make sure I'm still securely chained--then moves on. Seconds later, I hear the key in the lock, and it opens to reveal Tas's small form.

  "I could only find the cell keys, Elias." Tas scurries in and shoves a thin blade and a bent pin at me. "Can you pick the locks with this?"

  I curse. My left hand is still clumsy from the damage the Warden did with his pliers, but I take the picks. The smoke grows thicker, my hands clumsier.

  "Hurry, Elias." Tas eyes the door. "We must still get Darin out."

  The locks on my manacles finally creak open, and a minute later I unlock the ankle shackles. The smoke in my cell is thick enough that Tas and I must crouch to breathe, but still, I force myself to pull on the guard uniform he's brought me. The uniform cannot hide the stink of the interrogation cells or my filthy hair or wounds, but it's enough of a disguise to get through Kauf's hallways and into the prison yard.

  We pull wet kerchiefs around our faces, easing the sting of the smoke. Then we open the door and dart out of my cell. I try to move swiftly, but every step is pain, and Tas quickly darts out of sight. The smoky stone hallways are not yet aflame, though their wooden beams will catch soon enough. But the soldiers' quarters in the middle of the block, filled with wood furniture and littered with pools of fuel, courtesy of Tas, are fast turning into a solid wall of fire. Shadows move through the smoke, and shouts echo. I lurch past the stairwell, and moments later I look back to see a Mask waving away the smoke and heading up and out of the block. Excellent. The guards are bolting, as I expected them to.

  "Elias!" Tas appears out of the smoke ahead of me. "Hurry! I heard the Masks say that the fires upstairs are spreading!"

  All the damn torches the Warden uses to light this place are finally coming to good use. "Are you sure we're the only prisoners down here?"

  "I checked twice!" A minute later, we make for the last cell at the north end of the block. Tas unlocks the door, and we enter in a cloud of smoke.

  "It's me," I rasp to Darin, my throat already raw. "Elias."

  "Thank the bleeding skies." Darin scrambles to his feet and holds out his manacled hands. "I thought you were dead. I wasn't sure whether to believe Tas or not."

  I set to picking the locks. I can feel the air growing hotter and more poisonous by the second, but I make myself work methodically. Come on, come on. The familiar snick sounds, the shackles fall away, and we bolt from the cell, keeping low to the ground. We're nearly to the staircase when a silver face suddenly looms out of the smoke ahead of us. Drusius.

  "You sly, conniving little mongrel." Drusius grabs Tas by the neck. "I knew you had something to do with this."

  Begging the skies for enough strength to at least knock Drusius off his feet, I spring forward. He sidesteps and shoves me into a wall. Just a month ago, I'd have been able to use his brutish attack to get the best of him. But the poison and the interrogations have stripped me of my swiftness. Before I can stop him, Drusius wraps his hands around my neck and presses. A streak of filthy bl
ond hair flashes past. Darin dives into Drusius's stomach, and the Mask stumbles.

  I cough for breath and drop to one knee. Even during the Commandant's whippings or the Centurions' harsh training, I sensed my own resilience, buried deep where it could not be touched. But now, as I watch Drusius flip Darin onto his back and knock him senseless with a blow to the temple, I cannot harness that strength. I cannot find it.

  "Elias!" Tas is beside me, shoving a knife into my hand. I make myself lunge at Drusius. My leap is more like a crawl, but I have enough fighter's instinct left to drive the dagger into the Mask's thigh and twist. He howls and grabs me by the hair, but I stab his leg and stomach again and again, until his hands stop moving.

  "Get up, Elias." Tas is frantic. "The fire is spreading too swiftly!"

  "C-can't--"

  "You can--you must." Tas pulls at me now, using all of his weight. "Pick up Darin! Drusius has knocked him out!"

  My body is frail and slow, so slow. It is worn out by the seizures, the beatings, the interrogation, the poison, the endless punishment of the past few months.

  "Rise, Elias Veturius." Tas smacks my face, and I blink at him in surprise. His eyes are fierce. "You gave me a name," he says. "I want to live to hear it on the lips of others. Rise."

  I growl as I drag myself to my feet, as I move to Darin, kneel, and lift him over my shoulders. I stagger at his weight, though Kauf has left him far lighter than a man of his height should be.

  Desperately hoping that no other Masks emerge, I lurch toward the stairs. The interrogation block is fully engulfed now, the beams of the roof aflame, the smoke so thick that I can hardly see. I stumble up the stone steps, Tas steadfast at my side.

  Break it down to what you can do. One foot. One inch. The words are a garbled chant in my head, fainter and fainter when faced with the screaming panic of my failing body. What will happen at the top of the stairwell? We'll open the door to chaos or order, and either way, I don't know if I'll be able to carry Darin out of the prison.

  The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. I'm not ready for my release. Not yet. Not yet.

  Darin's body grows heavier by the second, but I can see the door that leads out into the prison now. I reach for the handle, pull it down, push.

 
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