A torch against the nigh.., p.9
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       A Torch Against the Night, p.9

         Part #2 of An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir
 
Changing the subject, of course. No wonder Elias was always so irritated by the Augurs. I force myself to look around. The house is unfamiliar.

  "Mask Laurent Marianus. His wife, Inah." Cain nudges aside a charred beam with his foot and picks up a roughly carved wooden horse. "Their children: Lucia, Amara, and Darien. Six Scholar slaves. One of those was Siyyad. He loved Darien like a son."

  Cain turns the horse over and gently sets it back down. "Siyyad carved this for the boy two months ago, when Darien turned four." My chest tightens. What happened to him?

  "Five of the slaves tried to flee when the Scholars attacked with torches and pitch. Siyyad ran for Darien. He found him, holding his horse, hiding beneath his bed in terror. He pulled him out. But the fire was too swift. They died quickly. All of them. Even the slaves who tried to run."

  "Why are you telling me this?"

  "Because the Empire is filled with homes like this. With lives like these. Do you think that Darien's or Siyyad's lives matter less, somehow, than Elias's? They do not."

  "I know that, Cain." I feel chagrined that he would need to remind me of the value of my own people. "But what was the point of everything I did in the First Trial if Elias is just going to die anyway?"

  Cain turns the full force of his presence upon me. I shrink back.

  "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."

  I feel like retching at his feet. I trusted you. I believed you. I did what you wanted. And now my fears will come to life for my trouble. Hunting Elias--killing him--that's not even the worst part of the nightmares. It's the feeling inside as I do it. That's what makes the dreams so potent--the emotions that roll through me: satisfaction as I torment my friend, pleasure at the laughter of Marcus, who stands beside me, looking on in approval.

  "Do not let despair take you." Cain's voice softens. "Hold true to your heart, and the Empire will be well served."

  "The Empire." Always the Empire. "What about Elias? What about me?"

  "Elias's fate is in his own hands. Come now, Blood Shrike." Cain lifts a hand to my head, as if offering a blessing. "This is what it means to have faith, to believe in something greater than yourself."

  A sigh escapes me, and I wipe the tears from my face. This is what it means to believe. I wish it weren't so hard.

  I watch as he drifts away from me, deeper into the ruins of the house, finally disappearing behind a scorched pillar. I don't bother following. I already know he's gone.

  *

  The Black Guard barracks stands in a Mercator section of the city. It is a long, stone building with no markings but a silver, open-winged shrike embossed on the door.

  The second I enter, the half dozen Masks within stop what they are doing and salute.

  "You." I look to the closest Black Guard. "Go and find Lieutenant Faris Candelan and Lieutenant Dex Atrius. When they arrive, assign them quarters and arms." Before the guard can even acknowledge, I move on to the next. "You," I say. "Get me every report from the night that Veturius escaped. Every attack, every explosion, every dead soldier, every looted store, every eyewitness account--all of it. Where are Shrike's quarters?"

  "Through there, sir." The soldier points at a black door at the end of the room. "Lieutenant Avitas Harper is within. He arrived just before you."

  Avitas Harper. Lieutenant Harper. A chill rolls across my skin. My torturer. Of course. He too is a member of the Black Guard.

  "What in the bleeding skies does he want?"

  The Black Guard looks surprised for a moment. "Orders, I believe. The Emperor assigned him to your task force."

  You mean the Commandant assigned him. Harper is her spy.

  Harper waits at my desk in commander's quarters. He salutes with unsettling blankness, as if he didn't just spend five days in a dungeon tormenting me.

  "Harper." I sit down opposite him, the desk between us. "Report."

  Harper says nothing for a moment. I sigh in open irritation.

  "You've been assigned to this detail, yes? Tell me what we know about the whereabouts of the traitor Veturius, Lieutenant." I put as much disdain in the word as possible. "Or are you as ineffective a hunter as you are an interrogator?"

  Harper doesn't react to the jibe. "We have one lead: a dead Mask just beyond the city." He pauses. "Blood Shrike, have you chosen your force for this mission?"

  "You and two others," I say. "Lieutenant Dex Atrius and Lieutenant Faris Candelan. They'll be inducted into the Black Guard today. We'll call in backup as needed."

  "I do not recognize the names. Generally, Shrike, inductees are chosen by--"

  "Harper." I lean forward. He will not have control over me. Never again. "I know you're the Commandant's spy. The Emperor told me. I can't get rid of you. But that doesn't mean I have to listen to you. As your commander, I order you to shut up about Faris and Dex. Now take me through what we know of Veturius's escape."

  I expect a retort. Instead, I get a shrug, which is somehow more infuriating. Harper details Elias's escape--the soldiers he killed, sightings of him in the city.

  A knock comes at the door mid-report, and to my relief, Dex and Faris enter. Faris's blond hair is a mess, and Dex's dark skin is ashen. Their singed capes and bloodied armor are evidence of their activities the past few days. Their eyes widen when they see me: cut, bruised, a mess. But then Dex steps forward.

  "Blood Shrike." He salutes, and despite myself, I smile. Trust Dex to remember protocol, even when faced with the shattered remnants of an old friend.

  "Ten hells, Aquilla." Faris is aghast. "What did they do to you?"

  "Welcome, Lieutenants," I say. "I assume the messenger told you of the mission?"

  "You're to kill Elias," Faris says. "Hel--"

  "Are you prepared to serve?"

  "Of course," Faris goes on. "You need men you can trust, but Hel--"

  "This"--I speak over him, lest he say something that Harper can report back to the Emperor and the Commandant--"is Lieutenant Avitas Harper. My torturer and the Commandant's spy." Immediately, Faris clamps his mouth shut. "Harper is also assigned to this mission, so beware of what you say around him, as it will all be reported back to the Commandant and Emperor." Harper shifts uncomfortably, and a bolt of triumph shoots through me.

  "Dex," I say. "One of the men is bringing in the reports from the night Elias escaped. You were his lieutenant. Look for anything that might be relevant. Faris, you're with me. Harper and I have a lead outside the city."

  I am thankful that my friends accept my orders stoically, that their training keeps their faces blank. Dex excuses himself, and Faris follows to procure horses. Harper stands, his head tilted as he looks at me. I cannot read his expression--curiosity, perhaps. He reaches into his pocket, and I tense, remembering the the brass beaters he used on me during my interrogation.

  But he only pulls out a man's ring. Heavy, silver, and embossed with a bird, wings spread, beak wide in a scream. The Blood Shrike's ring of office.

  "Yours now." He takes out a chain. "In case it's too big."

  It is too big, but a jeweler can fix that. Perhaps he expects me to thank him. Instead, I take the ring, ignore the chain, and sweep past him.

  *

  The dead Mask in the dry flats beyond Serra sounds like a promising start. No tracks, no ambush. But the moment I see the body--hanging from a tree and bearing clear signs of torture--I know Elias didn't kill him.

  "Veturius is a Mask, Blood Shrike. Trained by the Commandant," Harper says as we head back to the city. "Is he not a butcher like the rest of us?"

  "Veturius wouldn't leave a body out in the open," Faris says. "Whoever did this wanted the body found. Why do that if he doesn't want us on his trail?"

  "To throw us off," Harper says. "To send us west instead of south."

  As they argue, I mull it over. I know the Mask. He was one of four ordered to guard Elias at his execution
. Lieutenant Cassius Pritorius, a vicious predator with a taste for young girls. He'd done a stint at Blackcliff as a Combat Centurion. I was fourteen then, but I kept one hand on a dagger when he was around.

  Marcus sent the other three Masks guarding Elias to Kauf for six months as punishment for losing him. Why not Cassius? How did he end up like this?

  My mind leaps to the Commandant, but it doesn't make sense. If Cassius angered her, she'd torment and kill him publicly--all the more to build her reputation.

  I feel a prickling on my neck, as if I'm being watched.

  "Little ssssinger . . ."

  The voice is distant, carried on the wind. I whirl in my saddle. The desert is empty but for a tumbleweed rolling past. Faris and Harper slow their horses, staring back at me quizzically. Walk on, Aquilla. It was nothing.

  The next day of the hunt is equally useless, as is the one after that. Dex finds nothing in the reports. Runners and drum messages bring false leads: Two men killed in Navium, and a witness swears Elias is the murderer. A Martial and a Scholar reportedly checking in to an inn--as if Elias would be fool enough check in to a bleeding inn.

  By the end of the third day, I'm exhausted and frustrated. Marcus has sent two messages already, demanding to know if I've made any headway.

  I should sleep in the Black Guard barracks, as I have the past two nights. But I am sick of the barracks and particularly sick of the feeling that Harper is reporting my every move back to Marcus and the Commandant.

  It's nearly midnight when I arrive at Villa Aquilla, but the lights of the house blaze, and dozens of carriages line the road outside. I take the slaves' entrance in to avoid family, and run straight into Livvy, who is supervising a late dinner.

  She sighs at my expression. "Go in through your window. The uncles have taken over the bottom floor. They'll want to speak with you."

  The uncles--my father's brothers and cousins--lead the main families of Gens Aquilla. Good men, but long-winded.

  "Where's Mother?"

  "With the aunts, trying to keep a rein on their hysteria." Livvy raises an eyebrow. "They're not happy about the Aquilla-Farrar alliance. Father asked me to serve dinner."

  So she can listen and learn, no doubt. Livia, unlike Hannah, has an interest in the running of the Gens. Father is no fool; he knows what an asset that can be.

  As I leave through the back door, Livvy calls, "Watch out for Hannah. She's acting strange. Smug. Like she knows something we don't."

  I roll my eyes. As if Hannah could possibly know anything I would care about.

  I leap into the trees that curl toward my window. Sneaking in and out--even injured--is nothing. I used to do it regularly during leave to meet Elias.

  Though never for the reason I wanted.

  As I swing into my room, I berate myself. He's not Elias. He's the traitor Veturius, and you have to hunt him. Maybe if I keep saying the words, they'll stop hurting.

  "Little singer."

  My entire body goes numb at the voice--the same one I heard in the desert. That moment of shock is my undoing. A hand clamps over my mouth, and a whisper sounds in my ear.

  "I have a story to tell. Listen carefully. You might learn something worthwhile."

  Female. Strong hands. Badly calloused. No accent. I move to throw her off, but the steel held steady against my throat stops me. I think of the body of the Mask out in the desert. Whoever this is, she's deadly, and she's not afraid to kill me.

  "Once upon a time," the strange voice says, "a girl and a boy tried to escape a city of flame and terror. In this city, they found salvation half-touched by shadow. And there waited a silver-skinned she-demon with a heart as black as her home. They fought the demon beneath a sleepless spire of suffering. They brought the demon low and escaped victorious. A pretty tale, is it not?" My captor puts her face close to my ear. "The story is in the city, little singer," she says. "Find the story, and you'll find Elias Veturius."

  The hand over my mouth drops away, as does the blade. I turn to see the figure darting across my room.

  "Wait!" I turn and put my hands in the air. The figure halts. "The dead Mask in the desert," I say. "You did that?"

  "A message for you, little singer," the woman rasps. "So you wouldn't be stupid enough to fight me. Don't feel badly about it. He was a murderer and a rapist. He deserved to die. Which reminds me." She tilts her head. "The girl--Laia. Don't touch her. If any harm comes to her, no force in this land will stop me from gutting you. Slowly."

  With that, she is moving again. I leap up and unsheathe my blade. Too late. The woman is through the open window and scuttling away across the rooftops.

  But not before I catch sight of her face--hardened by hatred, mangled beyond belief, and instantly recognizable.

  The Commandant's slave. The one who is supposed to be dead. The one everyone called Cook.

  XII: Laia

  When Elias wakes me the morning after leaving the Roost, my hands are wet. Even in the pre-dawn gloom, I see the Tribesman's blood running down my arms.

  "Elias." I frantically wipe my palms on my cloak. "The blood, it won't come off." It's all over him too. "You're covered--"

  "Laia." He is by my side in an instant. "It's just the mist."

  "No. It's--it's everywhere." Death, everywhere.

  Elias takes my hands in his own, holding them up to the dim starlight. "Look. The mist beads on the skin."

  Reality finally takes hold as he pulls me slowly to my feet. Just a nightmare.

  "We need to move." He nods to the rock field, barely visible through the trees a hundred yards away. "There's someone out there."

  I don't see anything out in the Jutts, nor do I hear anything beyond the creaking of branches in the wind and the chirping of early-rising birds. Still, my body aches with tension.

  "Soldiers?" I whisper to Elias.

  He shakes his head. "Not sure. I saw a flash of metal--armor, or perhaps a weapon. It's definitely someone following us." At my unease, he offers a quick smile. "Don't look so worried. Most successful missions are just a series of barely averted disasters."

  If I thought Elias's pace out of the Roost was intense, I was mistaken. The Tellis has nearly restored him to his former strength. In minutes, we have left the rock field behind and are making our way through the mountains as if the Nightbringer himself is on our heels.

  The terrain is treacherous, pocked with overflowing gulches and streams. Soon enough, I find that it takes all of my concentration just to keep up with Elias. Which isn't a bad thing. After what happened with Shikaat, after learning what the Commandant did to Elias, I want nothing more than to push my memories into a dark closet in my mind.

  Over and over again, Elias eyes the trail at our backs.

  "Either we lost them," he says, "or they're being very clever about keeping themselves hidden. I'm thinking the latter."

  Elias says little else. His attempt, I assume, to keep his distance. To protect me. Part of me understands his reasoning--respects it, even. But at the same time, I feel the loss of his company keenly. We escaped Serra together. We fought the wraiths together. I cared for him when he was poisoned.

  Pop used to say that standing by someone during their darkest times creates a bond. A sense of obligation that is less a weight and more a gift. I feel tied to Elias now. I do not want him to shut me out.

  Midway through the second day, the skies open up and we are deluged. The mountain air turns cold, and our pace slows until I want to scream. Every second seems like an eternity I must spend with thoughts I want desperately to suppress. The Commandant poisoning Elias. Shikaat dying. Darin in Kauf, suffering at the hands of the prison's infamous Warden.

  Death, everywhere.

  A forced march in bone-numbing sleet simplifies life. After three weeks, my world has narrowed to sucking in the next breath, forcing myself to take the next step, finding the will to do it again. At nightfall, Elias and I collapse in exhaustion, soaked and shivering. In the morning, we shake the frost off our cl
oaks and begin again. We push harder now, trying to make up time.

  When we finally wind down from the higher elevations, the rain lets up. A chilly mist descends over the trees, sticky as cobwebbing. My pants are torn at the knees, my tunic shredded.

  "Strange," Elias mutters. "Never seen weather like this so close to the Tribal lands."

  Our pace eases to a crawl, and when sunset is still an hour away, he slows.

  "There's no use going on in this muck," he says. "We should reach Nur tomorrow. Let's find a place to camp."

  No! Stopping will give me time to think--to remember.

  "It's not even dark yet," I say. "What about whoever is following us? Surely we can--"

  Elias gives me a level look. "We're stopping," he says. "I haven't seen any sign of our tail in days. The rain's finally gone. We need rest and a hot meal."

  Minutes later, he spots a rise. I can just make out a cluster of monolithic boulders atop it. At Elias's request, I start a fire while he disappears behind one of the boulders. He is gone for a long time, and when he returns, he's clean-shaven. He's scrubbed off the dirt of the mountains and changed into clean clothes.

  "Are you sure this is a good idea?" I've nursed the fire to a respectable little flame, but I peer into the woods nervously. If our tail is still out there--if they see the smoke--

  "The fog masks the smoke." He nods to one of the boulders and gives me a quick once-over. "There's a spring there. You should clean up. I'll find dinner."

  My face heats--I know how I must look. Ripped fatigues, covered in mud up to my knees, scratches on my face, and wild, uncouth hair. Everything I own smells of sodden leaves and dirt.

  At the spring I strip away my shredded, disgusting tunic, using the one clean corner to scrub myself off. I find a patch of dried blood. Shikaat's. Swiftly, I cast the tunic away.

  Don't think about it, Laia.

  I peer behind me, but Elias is gone. The part of me that can't forget the strength of his arms and the heat of his eyes during the dance at the Moon Festival wishes he had stayed. Looked. Offered the comfort of his touch. It would be a welcome distraction to feel the warmth of his hands on my skin, in my hair. It would be a gift.

  An hour later, I'm scrubbed raw and dressed in clean, if damp, clothes. My mouth waters at the smell of roasting rabbit. I expect Elias to get up the second I appear. If we're not walking or eating, he leaves on patrol. But today, he nods at me, and I settle in beside him--as close to the fire as possible--and comb the snarls from my hair.

 
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