“Can’t.” I take out my throwing knives and begin sharpening them. “I made Laia a promise.”
“A Mask who keeps his promises. That I’d like to see.”
“Then take a good long look.” Calm, Elias. “Listen,” I say. “I understand you want to help. But taking more people along just complicates—”
“I’m not some child you’ll have to babysit, Martial,” Keenan snarls. “I tracked you here, didn’t I?”
Fair enough. “How did you track us?” I keep my tone civil, but he acts as if I’ve just threatened devastation upon his unborn children.
“This isn’t a Martial interrogation room,” he says. “You can’t force me to tell you anything.”
Laia sighs. “Keenan …”
“Don’t get your knickers in a bunch.” I grin at him. Don’t be an ass, Elias. “Just professional curiosity. If you tracked us, someone else might track you.”
“No one followed us,” Keenan says through clenched teeth. Skies, he’ll grind them down to nubs if he keeps this up. “And finding you was easy enough,” he continues. “Rebel trackers are as good as any Mask. Better.”
My skin prickles. Rubbish. A Mask can track a lynx through the Jutts, and such skill is won through a decade of training. No rebel I’ve heard of can do the same.
“Forget all that.” Izzi cuts through the tension. “What are we going to do?”
“We find a safe place for you,” Keenan says. “Then Laia and I will go on to Kauf and get Darin out.”
I keep my eyes on the fire. “How are you going to do that?”
“You don’t have to be a murdering Mask to know how to break into a prison.”
“Considering you couldn’t break Darin out of Central Prison when he was there,” I say, “I beg to differ. Kauf is about a hundred times more difficult to break out of. And you don’t know the Warden like I do.” I nearly say something about the old man’s chilling experiments, but I stop myself. Darin is in that monster’s hands, and I don’t want to frighten Laia.
Keenan turns to Laia. “How much does he know? About me? About the rebellion?”
Laia shifts uncomfortably. “He knows everything,” she says, finally. “And we’re not leaving him.” Her face goes grim, and she meets Keenan’s gaze. “Elias knows the prison. He can help us get inside. He’s done guard duty there.”
“He’s a bleeding Martial, Laia,” Keenan says. “Skies, do you know what they’re doing to us right now? Rounding Scholars up by the thousands. The thousands. Some are enslaved, but most are killed. Because of one rebellion, the Martials are murdering every Scholar they can get their hands on.”
I feel sick. Of course they are. Marcus is in charge, and the Commandant hates Scholars. The revolution is the perfect excuse for her to exterminate them like she’s always wanted.
Laia pales. She looks to Izzi.
“It’s true,” Izzi whispers. “We heard that the rebels told the Scholars who weren’t planning on fighting to leave Serra. But so many didn’t. The Martials came for them. They killed everyone. We almost got caught ourselves.”
Keenan turns to Laia. “They’ve shown the Scholars no mercy. And you want to bring one with us? If I didn’t know how to get into Kauf, it would be one thing. But I can do this, Laia. I swear it. We don’t need a Mask.”
“He’s not a Mask.” Izzi speaks up, and I hide my surprise. Considering the way my mother treated her, she’s the last person I expect to defend me. Izzi shrugs at Keenan’s incredulous look. “Not anymore, anyway.”
She wilts a bit under the dirty look Keenan casts her, and my ire is ignited.
“Just because he’s not wearing his mask,” Keenan says, “doesn’t mean he’s left it behind.”
“True enough.” I find Red’s eyes, meeting his fury with cold detachment—one of my mother’s most galling tricks. “It was the Mask in me who killed the soldiers in the tunnels and got us out of the city.” I lean forward. “And it’s the Mask in me who will get Laia to Kauf so we can get Darin out. She knows that. It’s why she set me free instead of escaping with you.”
If Red’s eyes could light a blaze, I’d be halfway to the tenth pit of the hells right now. Part of me is satisfied. Then I catch a glimpse of Laia’s face and feel immediately ashamed. She glances between me and Red, uncertain and anguished.
“It’s pointless to fight,” I make myself say. “More importantly, it’s not up to us. This isn’t our mission, Red.” I turn to Laia. “Tell me what you want.”
The grateful look that crosses her face is almost worth the fact that I’m probably going to have to put up with this idiot rebel until the poison kills me.
“Can we still make our way north with the help of the Tribes if there are four of us? Is it possible?”
I stare across the fire and into her dark gold eyes, the way I’ve tried not to for days. When I do, I remember why I haven’t looked: The fire in her, the fervent determination—it speaks to something at my very core, something caged and desperate to be free. A visceral desire for her grips me, and I forget Izzi and Keenan.
My arm twinges, sudden and sharp. A reminder of the task at hand. Convincing Afya to hide Laia and me will be difficult enough. But a rebel, two runaway slaves, and the Empire’s most wanted criminal?