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 one else did.”
“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.”