A torch against the nigh.., p.33
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.33

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

  It does not open.

  "No!" Tas leaps up, clawing at the door handle, pushing with all of his might.

  Open it, Elias. I drop Darin and yank at the enormous handle, peering at the locking mechanism. I fumble for makeshift lock picks, but when I shove one into the lock, it breaks.

  There must be another way out. I spin around and drag Darin halfway down the stairwell. The wood beams that hold up the weight of the stone have caught fire. Flame races overhead, and I am convinced that the world has dropped away but for Darin, Tas, and me.

  The shudders of a seizure take me, and I sense the approach of an inexorable darkness that dwarfs everything I've endured until now. I fall, my body worse than useless. I can only sputter and choke as Tas leans over me, shouting something I cannot hear.

  Is this what my friends felt in the moment of death? Were they also consumed by this futile rage, made more insulting because it meant nothing? Because, in the end, Death would take his due, and nothing could stop him?

  Elias, Tas mouths at me, his face streaked with tears and soot. Elias!

  His face and voice fade.

  Silence. Darkness.

  Then a familiar presence. A quiet voice.

  "Arise." The world comes back into focus, and I find the Soul Catcher leaning over me. The stark, empty boughs of the Forest of Dusk stretch like fingers overhead.

  "Welcome, Elias Veturius." Her voice is infinitely gentle and kind, as if she's talking to an injured child, but her eyes are the same empty black they've been since I've known her. She takes my arm like an old friend would. "Welcome to the Waiting Place, the realm of ghosts. I am the Soul Catcher, and I am here to help you cross to the other side."

  L: Helene

  Avitas and I arrive in Antium just as Rathana dawns. As our horses clatter through the city gates, stars still glint above and sunrise has not yet graced the jagged mountains to the east of the city.

  Though Avitas and I scoped out the land around the capital, we saw no sign of an army. But the Commandant is clever. She might have slipped her forces into the city and hidden them in multiple places. Or she might be waiting until nightfall to unleash her attack.

  Faris and Dex join up with us as we enter the city, having spotted our approach from one of the watchtowers.

  "Hail, Shrike." Dex clasps my hand as he steers his horse to fall in with mine. He looks like he hasn't slept in a year. "The Masks of the Black Guard are deployed and await your orders. I had three squads secure the Emperor. Another squad is out scouting for the army. The rest have taken over the city guard."

  "Thank you, Dex." I am relieved he doesn't question me about Elias. "Faris," I say. "Report."

  "The girl was right," my big friend says. We weave through the wagons, men, and animals entering Antium at this early hour. "There is an army. At least four thousand men--"

  "It's the Commandant's," I say. "Harper can explain." When we clear the traffic, I kick my horse into a gallop. "Think carefully about what you saw," I call to Faris. "I need you to bear witness before the Emperor."

  The streets are starting to fill with Mercators out early to stake out the best spots for the festivities of Rathana. A Plebeian ale merchant trundles through the city with extra barrels of his goods to supply to the taverns. Children hang up blue and green lanterns that symbolize the day. Everyone seems so normal. Happy. Still, they clear the way when they see four Black Guards galloping through the streets. When we reach the palace, I leap off my horse, nearly mowing down the groom who comes to take the reins.

  "Where is the Emperor?" I snap at a legionnaire on gate duty.

  "In the throne room, Shrike, with the rest of the court."

  As I hoped. The leaders of the Empire's Illustrian Gens are early risers, particularly when they want something. They'll have begun lining up to petition the Emperor hours ago. The throne room will be packed with powerful men, men who can bear witness to the fact that I saved the throne from the Commandant's predations.

  I have spent days planning my speech, and as we approach the throne room, I go over it again in my head. The two legionnaires guarding the throne room doors attempt to announce me, but Dex and Faris step ahead of me, shove them out of the way, and open the doors for me. It's like having two walking battering rams at my side.

  Black Guard soldiers line the room at intervals, most standing between the colossal tapestries that depict the deeds of past Emperors. As I make for the throne, I spot Lieutenant Sergius, the Black Guard who was stupid enough to address me as Miss Aquilla the last time I was here. He salutes respectfully as I pass.

  Faces turn toward me. I recognize the Paters of a few dozen Mercator and Illustrian Gens. Through the enormous glass ceiling, the last stars give way to daylight.

  Marcus sits on the ornately carved ebony throne, his usual sneer replaced by a look of cold wrath as he listens to a report from a courier who looks fresh from the road. A circlet of sharp points, patterned with Blackcliff's four-sided diamond, adorns his head.

  "--pushed past the border and are harassing the villages outside Tiborum. The city will be overrun if we do not get men out there immediately, my lord."

  "Blood Shrike." Marcus notices me and waves off the legionnaire giving his report. "It is good to lay eyes upon you again." He flicks his glance up and down my form but then grimaces and puts a finger to his temple. I am relieved when he looks away.

  "Pater Aquillus," he says through gritted teeth. "Come and greet your daughter."

  My father emerges from the rows of courtiers, my mother and sisters trailing. Hannah wrinkles her nose when she sees me, as if she's smelled something foul. My mother nods a greeting, her knuckles white as she clasps her hands in front of her. She looks too afraid to speak. Livvy manages a smile when she sees me, but I'd have to be a fool not to notice that she's been crying.

  "Greetings, Blood Shrike." Father's pained glance takes in Avitas, Faris, and Dex before returning to me. No Elias, he seems to say. I give him a reassuring nod, trying to communicate with my eyes. Do not fear, Father.

  "Your family has been kind enough to grace me with their presence daily since you left." Marcus's mouth curves into a smile before he pointedly looks behind me. "You've returned empty-handed, Shrike."

  "Not empty-handed, Emperor," I say. "I come bearing something far more important than Elias Veturius. As we speak, an army marches on Antium, lead by Keris Veturia. For months, she has siphoned off soldiers from the Tribal lands and the border regions to create this treasonous army. That is why you're getting reports of Wildmen and Barbarians attacking our outlying cities." I nod to the courier. He backs away, not wanting to get involved in any discussion between the Blood Shrike and the Emperor. "The Commandant means to launch a coup."

  Marcus cocks his head. "And you have proof of this supposed army?"

  "I saw it, my lord," Faris rumbles from beside me. "Not two days ago, in the Argent Hills. Couldn't get close enough to recognize the Gens represented, but there were at least twenty standards flying." The Empire supports 250 Illustrian Gens. That the Commandant could muster the support of so many gets Marcus's attention. He tightens a big fist on his throne.

  "Your Majesty," I say. "I dispatched the Black Guard to take control of Antium's walls and to scout beyond the city. The Commandant will likely attack tonight, so we still have a full day to prepare the city. But we must get you to a safe loca--"

  "So you did not bring me Elias Veturius?"

  Here goes. "My lord, it was either bring Veturius back or report this coup. Time did not allow both. I thought the security of the Empire mattered more than one man."

  Marcus regards me for a long moment before his gaze shifts to something behind me. I hear a familiar, hated gait, the thunk-thunk of steel-bottomed boots.

  Impossible. I left before she did. I rode without stopping. She might have reached her army before us, but we would have seen her if she was headed to Antium. There are only so many roads that lead here from Kauf.

  A slice of darkn
ess in the recesses of the throne room catches my attention: a hood with suns glaring out from within. A swish of a cloak and he's gone. The Nightbringer. The jinn. He brought her here.

  "I told you, Emperor." The Commandant's voice is smooth as a snake's coils. "The girl is deluded by her obsession with Elias Veturius. Her inability--or unwillingness--to catch him has led her to concoct this ridiculous story--and to deploy valuable members of the Black Guard in a haphazard and senseless way. An ostentatious move. No doubt she's hoping that it will support her claim. She must think us fools."

  The Commandant circles me to stand beside Marcus. Her body is calm, her features unruffled, but when she meets my eyes, my throat goes dry at her fury. If I were at Blackcliff I'd be sagging from the whipping post right about now, breathing my last.

  What in the bleeding skies is she doing here? She should be with her army right now. I eye the room again, expecting to see her men pour in through the doors at any moment. But though I see Gens Veturia soldiers throughout the throne room, they don't look as if they're readying themselves for battle.

  "According to the Commandant, Blood Shrike," Marcus says, "Elias Veturius managed to get stuck in Kauf Prison. But you knew that, didn't you?"

  He'll know if I lie. I bow my head. "I did, Your Majesty. But--"

  "Yet you didn't bring him with you. Though he likely would have been dead by now anyway. Is that correct, Keris?"

  "It is, Your Majesty. The boy was poisoned somewhere on his journey," the Commandant says. "The Warden reports that he has been having seizures for weeks. The last I heard, Elias Veturius was a few hours from death."

  Seizures? When I saw Elias in Nur, he looked ill, but I assumed it was because of a hard march from Serra.

  Then I remember what he said--words that made no sense at the time but that now send a knife through my gut: We both know I'm not long for this world.

  And the Warden, after I told him I'd see Elias again: Callow is the hope of our youth. Behind me, Avitas takes a sharp breath.

  "The Nightweed she gave me, Shrike," he whispers. "She must have had enough to use on him."

  "You"--I turn to the Commandant, and everything falls together--"you poisoned him. But you must have done it weeks ago, when I found your tracks in Serra. When you fought him." Is my friend dead, then? Truly dead? No. He can't be. My mind will not accept it.

  "You used Nightweed because you knew it would take him a long time to die. You knew I'd hunt him. And as long as I was out of your way, I wouldn't be able to stop your coup." Bleeding skies. She killed her own son--and she's been playing me for months.

  "Nightweed is illegal in the Empire, as everyone here knows." The Commandant looks at me like I'm covered in dung. "Listen to yourself, Shrike. To think that you trained at my school. I must have been blind to let a novice like you graduate."

  The throne room buzzes, going silent when I step toward her. "If I'm such a fool," I say, "then explain why every garrison in the Empire is undermanned. Why didn't you ever have enough soldiers? Why aren't there enough on the borders?"

  "I needed men to quell the revolution, of course," she says. "The Emperor himself gave those transfer orders."

  "But you kept asking for more--"

  "This is embarrassing to watch." The Commandant turns to Marcus. "I am ashamed, my lord, that Blackcliff produced someone so weak-minded."

  "She's lying," I say to Marcus, but I can well imagine how I must sound-- tense and shrill against the Commandant's cool defense. "Your Majesty, you must believe me--"

  "Enough." Marcus speaks in a voice that silences the entire room. "I gave you an order to bring in Elias Veturius, alive, by Rathana, Blood Shrike. You failed to carry out that order. Everyone in this room heard what the punishment for your failure would be." He nods to the Commandant, and she signals her troops.

  In seconds, the men of Gens Veturia step forward and seize my parents, my sisters.

  I find that my hands and feet have gone numb. It's not supposed to be like this. I'm being true to the Empire. I'm holding my fealty.

  "I promised the Paters of our great families an execution," Marcus says. "And unlike you, Blood Shrike, I mean to keep my vow."

  LI: Laia

  THE MORNING OF RATHANA

  When it is still dark outside, Afya and I leave the warmth of the cave and head out toward Kauf in the frigid morning. The Tribeswoman carries Darin's sword for me, and I've strapped on Elias's scims. Skies know he'll need them when we're fighting our way out of the prison.

  "Eight guards," I say to Afya. "And then you must sink the spare boats. Do you understand? If you--"

  "Skies, shut it, would you?" Afya waves an impatient hand at me. "You're like a Tibbi bird from the south that chirps the same few words over and over until you want to strangle its pretty neck. Eight guards, ten barges to secure, and twenty boats to sabotage. I'm not an idiot, girl. I can handle it. You just make sure you get that fire inside the prison nice and hot. The more Martials we barbecue, the fewer to hunt us down."

  We reach the River Dusk, where we must part ways. Afya digs her booted toes into the dirt.

  "Girl." She adjusts her scarf and clears her throat quietly. "Your brother. He . . . might not be what he was. I had a cousin sent to Kauf once," she adds. "When he came back, he was different. Be prepared."

  The Tribeswoman edges to the shore of the river and flits away into the darkness. Don't die, I think, before turning my attention to the monstrous building behind me.

  The invisibility still feels strange, like a new cloak that doesn't quite fit. Though I've practiced for days, I do not understand how the magic works, and the Scholar in me itches to learn more, to find books about it, to speak to others who know how to control it. Later, Laia. If you survive.

  When I'm certain I'm not going to reappear at the first sign of trouble, I find a path leading up to Kauf and carefully step in footprints larger than mine. My invisibility doesn't guarantee silence, nor does it hide signs of my passage.

  Kauf's studded, spiked portcullis is flung wide open. I see no wagons making their way into the prison--it is too late in the season for traders. When I hear a whip crack, I finally understand why the gates aren't shut. A cry breaks the quiet of the morning, and I see several bent, gaunt figures shuffling out of the gate under the unforgiving eye of a Mask. My hands go for my dagger, though I know I can do nothing with it. Afya and I watched from the woods as pits were dug outside the prison. We watched as the Martials filled those pits with dead Scholars.

  If I want the rest of the Scholars in the prison to escape, I cannot reveal my position. But still, I force myself to watch. To bear witness. To remember this image so that these lives are not forgotten.

  When the Scholars disappear around the eastern edge of Kauf's wall, I slide through the gates. This path is not unfamiliar to me. Elias and I have exchanged messages for days through Tas, and I've come this way every time. Still, I stiffen as I pass the eight legionnaires who stand watch at the base of Kauf's entry gate. The space between my shoulder blades twinges, and I look up at the battlements, where archers patrol.

  As I cross the garishly lit prison yard, I try to avoid looking to the right at the two giant wooden pens where the Martials keep the Scholar prisoners.

  But in the end, I cannot help but stare. Two wagons, each half-filled with the dead, are parked beside the closest pen. A group of younger, maskless Martials--Fivers--load in more dead Scholars, those who haven't survived the cold.

  Bee and many of the others can get them weapons, Tas had said. Hidden in slop buckets and rags. Not knives or scims, but spearheads, broken arrows, brass beaters.

  Though the Martials have already killed hundreds of my people, a thousand Scholars still sit in those pens, awaiting death. They are ill, starved, and half-frozen from the cold. Even if everything goes as planned, I do not know if they have enough strength to take on the prison guards when the time comes, especially with such crude weaponry.

  Then again, it's not as if we
have many other choices.

  At this hour, there are few soldiers wandering the blindingly bright halls of Kauf. Still, I sneak along the walls and steer clear of the few guards on duty. My eyes flit briefly to the entrances that lead to the Scholar pits. I passed them the first day I came here, when they were still occupied. Moments after, I had to run to find a place to retch.

  I make my way down the entry hall, through the rotunda and past the staircase that, according to Helene Aquilla, leads up to Masks' quarters and the Warden's office. Time for you soon enough. A great steel door looms ominously on one side of the rotunda wall. The interrogation block. Darin is down there. Right now. Yards away.

  Kauf's drums thud out the time: half past five in the morning. The hallway that leads to the Martial barracks, kitchen, and storage closets is far busier than the rest of the prison. Talk and laughter drifts from the mess hall. I smell eggs, grease, and burned bread. A legionnaire veers out of a room just ahead of me, and I stifle a gasp as he passes within a hair's breadth. He must hear me, because his hand falls to his scim and he looks around.

  I don't dare to breathe until he moves on. Too close, Laia.

  Go past the kitchens, Helene Aquilla told me. The oil storage is at the very end of the hall. The torch-lighters are always coming and going, so whatever you're planning, you'll have to move quickly.

  When I find the closet, I am forced to wait as a sullen-faced aux wrestles out a barrel of pitch and rolls it down the hall. He leaves the door cracked open, and I eye the closet's contents. Drums of pitch line its base like a row of stout soldiers. Above them sit cans the length of my forearm and the width of my hand. Blue-fire oil, the translucent yellow substance the Empire imports from Marinn. It reeks of rotted leaves and sulfur, but it will be more difficult to spot than pitch when I dribble it all over the prison.

  It takes me nearly a half hour to empty out a dozen canisters in the back hallways and the rotunda. I stuff each can back in the closet when it is empty, hoping no one notices until it's too late. Then I pack three more cans into my now bulging bag and enter the kitchen. A Plebeian lords over the stoves, bellowing orders at Scholar slave children. The children whiz around, their speed driven by fear. They are, presumably, exempt from the culling going on outside. My mouth twists in disgust. The Warden needs at least a few drudges to continue doing the chores around here.

 
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