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.”
A whole night and day pass before Tas returns. He says nothing, look ing 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.