A torch against the nigh.., p.36
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.36
 

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

  My blood rises now, my warrior's instincts at full tilt. I sweep up the fallen soldier's spear and send it flying into the shoulder of the third aux. The fourth hesitates, and I take him down with a shoulder to his gut. His head cracks against the cobblestones, and he does not move again.

  A spear whizzes by my ear, and pain explodes in my head. It's not enough to stop me.

  A dozen spearmen break from the prisoners. They know now that I am more than just an escaped prisoner.

  "Run!" I roar at the gaping prisoners, pointing at the gap in the cordon. "Escape! Run!"

  Two Martials bolt through the cordon and make for Kauf's portcullis. For a moment, it seems as if the entire yard watches them, holding its breath. Then a guard shouts, the spell is broken, and all at once, dozens of inmates surge out, not caring if they are impaling their fellows on spears. The Martial spearmen attempt to fill the gap, but there are thousands of prisoners, and they've caught the scent of freedom.

  The soldiers running toward me slow at the shouts of their comrades. I heave Darin up and race for the Scholar pens. Why in the ten hells aren't they open yet? There should be Scholars flooding the yard.

  "Elias!" Tas darts toward me. "The lock is stuck. And Laia--the Warden--"

  I spot the Warden scuttling across the yard with Laia in a chokehold. She kicks at him desperately, but he's lifted her off the ground, and her face turns red from lack of air. No! Laia! I'm already moving for her, but I grit my teeth and force myself to stop. We need those pens open if we want to get the Scholars out and loaded onto the boats.

  "Get to her, Tas," I say. "Distract the Warden. I'll deal with the lock."

  Tas runs, and I drop Darin beside the Scholar pen. The legionnaires guarding its entrance have bolted toward Kauf's in an attempt to stop the mass exodus of prisoners, and I turn my attention to the lock. It's jammed good and tight, and no matter how I twist, it does not open. Within the pens, a man shoves his way forward, only his dark eyes visible through the slats. His face is so filthy that I cannot tell if he is old or young.

  "Elias Veturius?" he says in a harsh whisper.

  As I unsheathe my scim to break the lock, I venture a guess. "Araj?"

  The man nods. "What's taking so long? We've--Behind you!"

  His warning saves me a spear through the gut, and I barely dodge the next. A dozen soldiers close on me, undistracted by the chaos at the gate.

  "The lock, Veturius!" Araj says. "Quickly."

  "Either give me a minute," I hiss through gritted teeth, flicking my scims to divert two more spears, "or make yourself useful."

  Araj barks an order to the Scholars within the pen. Seconds later, a barrage of rocks flies over the top and rains down upon the spearmen.

  Watching this tactic is like witnessing a pack of mice flinging pebbles at a horde of ravening cats. Fortunately for me, these mice have good aim. Two of the closest spearmen falter, giving me enough time to spin and break the lock with a swipe of my scim.

  The door bursts open, and with a roar, the Scholars explode from the pen.

  I swipe up a Serric steel dagger from one of the fallen spearmen and hand it to Araj, who barrels out with the rest. "Open the other pen!" I shout. "I have to get to Laia!"

  A sea of Scholar prisoners now crowds the yard, but the Warden's form pokes out above them. A small group of Scholar children, Tas among them, attack the old man. He lashes out with his scim to keep them at bay, but he's loosened his hold on Laia, and she thrashes in an attempt to break free.

  "Warden!" I bellow. He turns at my voice, and Laia kicks her heel straight back into his shin while biting the flesh of his arm. The Warden jerks up his scim, and one of the Scholar children slips close and bashes his knee with a heavy skillet. The Warden roars, and Laia tumbles away from him, reaching for the dagger at her waist.

  But it's not there. It gleams now in Tas's hands. His small face twists with rage as he lunges for the Warden. His friends swarm all over the old man, biting, clawing, bringing him down, taking their revenge on the monster who has abused them since the day they were born.

  Tas plunges the dagger into the Warden's throat, flinching from the geyser of blood that erupts. The other children scurry away, surrounding Laia, who pulls Tas to her chest. I am beside them moments later.

  "Elias," Tas whispers. He cannot take his eyes off the Warden. "I--"

  "You slew a demon, Tas of the north." I kneel beside him. "I am proud to fight by your side. Get the other children out. We're not free yet." I look up at the gate, where the guards now battle a horde of crazed prisoners. "Meet us at the boats."

  "Darin!" Laia looks at me. "Where--"

  "By the pens," I say. "I can't wait until he wakes up and I can give him hell. I've had to drag him all around this bleeding prison."

  The drums thud frenziedly, and over the chaos, I can just barely hear the answering drums of a distant garrison. "Even if we escape onto the boats," Laia says as we race for the pens, "we'll have to get out before we reach the Forest of Dusk. And the Martials will be waiting, won't they?"

  "They will," I say. "But I have a plan." Well, not exactly a plan. More like a hunch--and a possibly delusional hope that I can use my new occupation to do something quite mad. It's a gamble that will depend on the Waiting Place and Shaeva and my power of persuasion.

  With Darin slung over my shoulder, we head for Kauf's entry gate, inundated with prisoners. The crowd is rabid-- there are too many people fighting to get out, and too many Martials fighting to keep us in.

  I hear a metallic groaning. "Elias!" Laia points at the portcullis. Slowly, ponderously, it begins to drop. The sound gives new heart to the Martials beating back the prisoners, and Laia and I are driven farther from the gate.

  "Torches, Laia!" I shout. She snatches two off a nearby wall, and we wield them like scims. Those around us instinctively cringe from the fire, allowing us to force a path through.

  The portcullis drops another few feet, almost at eye level now. Laia grabs my arm. "One push," she shouts. "Together--now!"

  We lock arms, lower the torches, and ram our way through the crowd. I shove her beneath the portcullis ahead of me, but she resists and whips around, forcing me to come with her.

  And then we are beneath, through, running past the soldiers battling prisoners, making straight for the boathouse, where I see two barges already a quarter mile down the river and two more launching from the docks, Scholars hanging off the sides.

  "She did it!" Laia shouts. "Afya did it!"

  "Bowmen!" A line of soldiers appears atop Kauf's wall. "Run!"

  A hail of arrows rains down around us, and half the Scholars racing for the boathouse with us go down. Almost there. Almost.

  "Elias! Laia!" I spot Afya's red-black braids at the boathouse door. She waves us into the structure, her eyes on the bowmen. Her face is slashed, her hands covered in blood, but she quickly leads us to a small canoe.

  "As much as I'd enjoy a boating adventure with the unwashed masses," she says, "I think this will be faster. Hurry."

  I lay Darin down between two benches, grab an oar, and push off from the boathouse. Behind us, Araj pulls Tas and Bee onto the final Scholar barge and launches it. His people pole it forward with panicked speed. Swiftly, the current pulls us away from the ruin of Kauf--and toward the Forest of Dusk.

  "You said you had a plan." Laia nods to the soft green line of the Forest to the south. Darin lies between us, still unconscious, his head resting on his sister's pack. "Might be a good time to share it."

  What do I say to her of the trade I made with Shaeva? Where do I even begin?

  With the truth.

  "I'll share it," I say quietly enough that only she can hear. "But first, there's something else I need to tell you. About how I survived the poison. And about what I've become."

  LVI: Helene

  ONE MONTH LATER

  Deep winter roars into Antium on the back of a three-day blizzard. Snow blankets the city so thickly that the Scholar sweepers work
around the clock to keep the thoroughfares clear. Midwinter candles glow all night in windows across the city, from the finest mansions to the poorest hovels.

  Emperor Marcus will celebrate the holiday at the imperial palace with the Paters and Maters of a few dozen important Gens. My spies tell me that many deals will be struck--trade agreements and government postings that will further cement Marcus's power.

  I know it to be true, because I helped arrange most of those deals.

  Within the Black Guard barracks, I sit at my desk, signing an order to send a contingent of my men to Tiborum. We have wrested the port back from the Wildmen who nearly took it, but they have not given up. Now that they've smelled blood in the water, they will return--with more men.

  I gaze out the window at the white city. A thought flits through my mind, a memory of Hannah and me throwing snowballs at each other long ago, when Father brought us to Antium as girls. I smile. Remember. Then I lock the memory away in a dark place--where I will not see it again--and turn back to my work.

  "Learn to lock your damned window, girl."

  The raspy voice is instantly recognizable. Still, I jump. The Cook's eyes glint beneath a hood that hides her scars. She keeps her distance, ready to slip back out the window at the first sign of a threat.

  "You could just use the front door." I keep a hand on a dagger strapped to the underside of my desk. "I'll make certain no one stops you."

  "Friends now, are we?" The Cook tilts her scarred face and shows her teeth in an approximation of a smile. "How sweet."

  "Your wound--has it healed fully?"

  "I'm still here." The Cook peers out the window and fidgets. "I heard about your family," she says gruffly. "I'm sorry."

  I raise my eyebrows. "You went through the trouble of sneaking in here to pay your condolences?"

  "That," the Cook says, "and to tell you that when you're ready to take on the Bitch of Blackcliff, I can help. You know how to find me."

  I consider the sealed letter from Marcus on my desk. "Come back tomorrow," I say. "We'll talk."

  She nods and, without so much as a whisper, slips back out the window. Curiosity pulls at me, and I walk over and peer out, scanning the sheer walls above and below for a hook, scratches, any indication as to how she scaled an unscaleable wall. Nothing. I'll have to ask her about that trick.

  I turn my attention to Marcus's letter:

  Tiborum is under control, and Gens Serca and Gens Aroman have fallen in line. No more excuses. It is time to deal with her.

  There is only one her he could be talking about. I read on.

  Be quiet and careful. I do not want a quick assassination, Shrike. I want utter destruction. I want her to feel it. I want the Empire to know my strength.

  Your sister was a delight at the dinner with the Mariner ambassador last night. She quite put him at ease about the shift in power here. Such a useful girl. I pray she remains healthy and serves her Empire for a long time to come.

  --Emperor Marcus Farrar

  The Fiver on message duty jumps when I open my office door. After I give him his task, I reread Marcus's letter and wait impatiently. Moments later, a knock sounds.

  "Blood Shrike," Captain Harper says when he enters. "You called?"

  I hand him the letter. "We need a plan," I say. "She disbanded her army when she realized I was going to tell Marcus of the coup, but that doesn't mean she can't muster it again. Keris won't go down easily."

  "Or at all," Harper mutters. "This will take months. Even if she doesn't expect an attack from Marcus, she will expect an attack from you. She'll be prepared."

  "I know that," I say. "Which is why we need a plan that actually works. That starts with finding Quin Veturius."

  "No one has heard from him since his escape in Serra."

  "I know where to find him," I say. "Pull a team together. Make sure Dex is on it. We'll leave in two days. Dismissed."

  Harper nods, and I turn back to my work. When he doesn't leave, I raise my eyebrows. "Do you require something, Harper?"

  "No, Shrike. Only . . ." He looks more uncomfortable than I've ever seen him--enough to actually alarm me. Since the execution, he and Dex have been invaluable. They supported my reshuffling of the Black Guard--Lieutenant Sergius is now posted on Isle South--and unwaveringly backed me when some of the Black Guard attempted to rebel.

  "If we're going after the Commandant, Shrike, then I know something that might be of use."

  "Go on."

  "Back in Nur, the day before the riot, I saw Elias. But I never told you."

  I lean back in my seat, sensing that I'm about to learn more about Avitas Harper than the previous Blood Shrike ever did.

  "What I have to say," Avitas goes on, "is about why I never told you. It's about why the Commandant kept an eye out for me in Blackcliff and got me into the Black Guard. It's about Elias. And"--he takes a deep breath--"about our father."

  Our father.

  Our father. His and Elias's.

  It takes a moment for the words to sink in. Then I order him to sit, and I lean forward.

  "I'm listening."

  *

  After Harper leaves, I brave the slush and muck of the streets to head to the courier's office, where two packages have arrived from the Aquilla villa in Serra. The first is my midwinter gift for Livia. After checking to make sure it's intact, I open the second package.

  I catch my breath at the glimmer of Elias's mask in my hand. According to a Kauf courier, Elias and a few hundred Scholar fugitives disappeared into the Forest of Dusk shortly after breaking out of the prison. A dozen Empire soldiers tried to follow, but their mangled bodies were found on the Forest's borders the next morning.

  No one has seen or heard from the fugitives since.

  Perhaps the Nightweed killed my friend, or perhaps the Forest did. Or perhaps, somehow, he found some other way to evade death. Like his grandfather and mother, Elias has always had an uncanny skill at surviving what would kill anyone else.

  It doesn't matter. He's gone, and the part of my heart where he lived is dead now. I tuck the mask in my pocket--I'll find a place for it in my quarters.

  I head for the palace, Livvy's gift nestled under my arm, mulling over what Avitas told me: The Commandant kept an eye on me in Blackcliff because it was my father's last request. At least, that's my suspicion. She's never acknowledged it.

  I asked the Commandant to give me the mission to shadow you because I wanted to learn about Elias through you. I didn't know any more about our father than what my mother told me. Her name was Renatia, and she said my father never fit the mold that Blackcliff tried to force him into. She said he was kind. Good. For a long time, I thought she was lying. I've never been those things, so it couldn't be true. But perhaps I just didn't inherit my father's better traits. Perhaps they went to a different son.

  I berated him, of course--he should have said something long ago--but after my anger and incredulity settled, I understood the information for what it was: a crack in the Commandant's armor. A weapon I can use against her.

  The guards of the palace let me pass into the imperial wing with only nervous glances at each other. I have begun rooting out the enemies of the Empire--and I started here. Marcus can burn in the hells for all I care, but Livvy's marriage to him puts her in danger. His enemies will be hers, and I will not lose her.

  Laia of Serra had the same type of love for her sibling. For the first time since meeting her, I understand her.

  I find my sister sitting out on a balcony that overlooks her private garden. Faris and another Black Guard stand in the shadows a dozen feet away. I told my friend that he didn't need to take the posting. Guarding an eighteen-year-old girl is certainly not a coveted position for a member of the Blood Shrike's force.

  If I'm going to kill, he'd said, I'd rather do it while protecting someone.

  He nods a greeting to me, and my sister looks up.

  "Blood Shrike." She stands but doesn't hug me or kiss me the way she once would hav
e, though I can tell she wants to. I nod to her room curtly. I want privacy.

  My sister turns to the six girls who sit near her, three of whom are dark-skinned and yellow-eyed. When she first wrote to Marcus's mother, requesting that the woman send three girls from Marcus's extended family to serve as her ladies-in-waiting, I was stunned, as was every Illustrian family that had been passed over. The Plebeians, however, still talk about it.

  The girls and their Illustrian counterparts disappear at Livia's gently given order. Faris and the other Black Guard move to follow us, but I wave them off. My sister and I enter her bedchamber, and I lay her midwinter gift on the bed and watch as she tears it open.

  She gasps when the light shines off the ornate silver edges of my old mirror.

  "But this is yours," Livia says. "Mother--"

  "--would want you to have it. There's no place for it in the Blood Shrike's quarters."

  "It is beautiful. Will you hang it up for me?"

  I summon a servant to bring me a hammer and nails, and when he returns, I remove Livvy's old mirror and plug the spy hole behind it. Marcus will just have his spies cut a new one. But for now, at least, my sister and I can speak in private.

  She sits on the vanity chair beside me as I hammer in a nail. When I speak, I keep my voice low.

  "Are you all right?"

  "If you're asking the same thing you've asked every day since the wedding"--Livvy lifts an eyebrow--"then yes. He hasn't touched me since the first time. Besides, I approached him that night." My sister lifts her chin. "I will not have him thinking I fear him, no matter what he does."

  I suppress a shudder. Living with Marcus--being his wife--is Livvy's life now. My disgust and loathing of him will only make that more difficult. She did not speak to me of her wedding night, and I haven't asked.

  "I walked in on him talking to himself the other day." Livvy looks at me. "It wasn't the first time."

  "Lovely." I hammer in a nail. "An Emperor who is sadistic and hears voices."

  "He's not crazy," Livvy says thoughtfully. "He's in control until he speaks about doing violence to you--just you. Then he gets twitchy. I think he sees his brother's ghost, Hel. I think that's why he hasn't touched you."

  "Well, if he is haunted by Zak's ghost," I say, "I hope it sticks around. At least until--"

 
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