“Bee thought it was a ghost, because the voice came out of nowhere. The voice led her to an empty barracks room, and the girl appeared out of thin air. She asked Bee about you, so Bee came to get me.”
“And she—she was invisible?” At Tas’s nod, I sit back, stunned. But then I begin to think back to the times she seemed to almost fade out of view. When did it begin? After Serra, I realize. After the efrit touched her. The creature only laid hands on Laia for a second. But perhaps that second was enough to awaken something within her.
“What was her message?”
Tas takes a deep breath. “I found your scims,” he recites. “I was happy to see them. I have a way in and can keep out of sight. Afya can steal horses. What of the Scholars? Executions have begun. The boy says there’s a Scholar leader who can help. If you see my brother, tell him I’m here. Tell him I love him.”
“She said she’d return at nightfall for your answer.”
“All right,” I say to Tas. “This is what I want you to tell her.”
For three days, Tas carries messages back and forth between Laia and me. I’d have thought her presence here was a sick trick of the Warden’s if it wasn’t for the fact that I trust Tas and that the messages he brings back are so eminently Laia—sweet, slightly formal, but with a strength behind the words that speaks of her determination. Tread carefully, Elias. I do not wish to see you injured further.
Slowly, painstakingly, we pull together a plan that is part her, part me, part Tas, and complete madness. It’s also heavily dependent on the competency of Araj, the man who leads the Skiritae. A man I’ve never met.
The morning of Rathana dawns like all other mornings in Kauf: without any indication that it is morning, other than the sounds of the guards changing shifts and a vague internal sense that my body is waking up.
Tas arrives with a bowl of watery gruel, which he drops quickly in front of me before streaking out. He is pale, terrified, but when I meet his eyes, he gives me the briefest of nods.
After he leaves, I force myself to my feet. It takes most of my breath to stand, and my chains seem heavier than they did just last night. Everything hurts, and beneath the pain, weariness seems to have penetrated my very marrow. This is not the tiredness of interrogation or a long journey. It is the exhaustion of a body that’s nearly done fighting.
Just get through today, I tell myself. Then you can die in peace.
The next few minutes are nearly as torturous as one of the Warden’s interrogation sessions. I hate waiting. But soon enough, a promising smell wafts into my cell.
A second later, urgent voices. A shout. The ringing of alarm bells. The echoing, frantic boom of drums.
Well done, Tas. Boots pound past the door, and the already bright torchlight outside intensifies. The minutes pass, and I rattle my chains impatiently. Fire spreads quickly, especially if Tas has been dribbling as much fuel in the soldiers’ section as I told him to. Already, smoke pours into my cell.
A shadow passes by my door and looks in—no doubt to make sure I’m still securely chained—then moves on. Seconds later, I hear the key in the lock, and it opens to reveal Tas’s small form.
“I could only find the cell keys, Elias.” Tas scurries in and shoves a thin blade and a bent pin at me. “Can you pick the locks with this?”
I curse. My left hand is still clumsy from the damage the Warden did with his pliers, but I take the picks. The smoke grows thicker, my hands clumsier.
“Hurry, Elias.” Tas eyes the door. “We must still get Darin out.”
The locks on my manacles finally creak open, and a minute later I unlock the ankle shackles. The smoke in my cell is thick enough that Tas and I must crouch to breathe, but still, I force myself to pull on the guard uniform he’s brought me. The uniform cannot hide the stink of the interrogation cells or my filthy hair or wounds, but it’s enough of a disguise to get through Kauf’s hallways and into the prison yard.
We pull wet kerchiefs around our faces, easing the sting of the smoke. Then we open the door and dart out of my cell. I try to move swiftly, but every step is pain, and Tas quickly darts out of sight. The smoky stone hallways are not yet aflame, though their wooden beams will catch soon enough. But the soldiers’ quarters in the middle of the block, filled with wood furniture and littered with pools of fuel, courtesy of Tas, are fast turning into a solid wall of fire. Shadows move through the smoke, and shouts echo. I lurch past the stairwell, and moments later I look back to see a Mask waving away the smoke and heading up and out of the block. Excellent. The guards are bolting, as I expected them to.
“Elias!” Tas appears out of the smoke ahead of me. “Hurry! I heard the Masks say that the fires upstairs are spreading!”
All the damn torches the Warden uses to light this place are finally coming to good use. “Are you sure we’re the only prisoners down here?”
“I checked twice!” A minute later, we make for the last cell at the north end of the block. Tas unlocks the door, and we enter in a cloud of smoke.
“It’s me,” I rasp to Darin, my throat already raw. “Elias.”
“Thank the bleeding skies.” Darin scrambles to his feet and holds out his manacled hands. “I thought you were dead. I wasn’t sure whether to believe Tas or not.”
I set to picking the locks. I can feel the air growing hotter and more poisonous by the second, but I make myself work methodically. Come on, come on. The familiar snick sounds, the shackles fall away, and we bolt from the cell, keeping low to the ground. We’re nearly to the staircase when a silver face suddenly looms out of the smoke ahead of us. Drusius.