“I noticed it a week ago,” Harper said. “It wasn’t relevant until today. Two orders given that night went unobserved in the chaos, Shrike. Both transferred men from the eastern part of the city elsewhere, thereby leaving that entire sector unpatrolled.”
I curse under my breath. “Keris gave those orders,” I say. “She let him go. She wants me tied up in the hunt for Veturius. With me gone, she can influence Marcus without interference. And”—I glance at Harper—“you’re going to tell her I figured it out. Aren’t you?”
“She knew that the moment you walked into Villa Veturia with questions.” Harper fixes his cool gaze on me. “She doesn’t underestimate you, Shrike. Nor should she.”
The door bursts open, and Faris lumbers through, ducking his head to avoid the frame. He hands me a slip of paper. “From a guard post just south of Raider’s Roost.”
Black stallion, eighteen hands, Gens Veturia markings, found on routine camp raid four days ago. Blood on saddle. Beast in poor condition and showed signs of hard riding. Tribesman in possession was questioned but insists horse wandered into his camp.
“What in the bleeding skies was Veturius doing at Raider’s Roost?” I say. “Why go east? The fastest way to escape the Empire is south.”
“Could be a ploy,” Dex says. “He could have traded the horse outside the city and turned south from there.”
Faris shakes his head. “Then how do you explain the beast’s condition and where it was found?”
I let them argue. A chill wind blows through the open barracks door, rifling the reports on the table, bringing in the smell of crushed leaves, cinnamon, and distant sands. A Tribal trader trundles past with his cart. He’s the first Tribesman I’ve seen in Serra in days. The rest have left the city, in part because of the Scholar revolt and in part because of the Fall Gathering in Nur. No Tribesman would miss it.
It hits me like a lightning bolt. The Fall Gathering. Every Tribe attends, including Tribe Saif. In the middle of all those people, animals, wagons, and families, it would be child’s play for Elias to slip past Martial spies and hide among his adoptive family.
“Dex.” I silence the discussion. “Send a message to the garrison at Atella’s Gap. I need a full legion mustered and ready to depart in three days. And saddle our horses.”
Dex lifts his silver brows. “Where are we going?”
“Nur,” I say as I walk out the door for the stables. “He’s heading to Nur.”
Elias suggests we rest, but sleep won’t find me this night. Keenan is equally agitated; an hour or so after we’ve all bedded down, he gets up and disappears into the woods. I sigh, knowing I owe him an explanation. Delaying it will make the road to Kauf more difficult than it already promises to be. I rise, shivering from the cold and pulling my cloak closer. Elias, on watch, speaks quietly as I pass.
“The poison,” he says. “Don’t tell him or Izzi. Please.”
“I won’t.” I slow, thinking of our almost-kiss, wondering if I should say anything. But when I turn to look at him, he’s studiously staring out at the forest, his broad shoulders taut.
I follow Keenan into the woods and run to catch his arm just as he’s moving out of view.
“You’re still upset,” I say. “I’m sorry—”
He throws off my arm and spins about, his eyes flashing dark fire.
“You’re sorry? Skies, Laia, do you have any idea what I thought when you weren’t on that barge? You know what I’ve lost, and you did it anyway—”
“I had to, Keenan.” I didn’t realize it would hurt him. I thought he would understand. “I couldn’t let Izzi face the Commandant’s wrath. I couldn’t let Elias die.”
“So he didn’t make you do any of this? Izzi said it was your idea, but I didn’t believe her. I assumed he’d—I don’t know—used coercion. A trick. Now I find the two of you together. I thought you and I …”
He crosses his arms, his bright hair falling into his face, and looks away from me. Skies. He must have seen Elias and me by the fire. How to explain? I never thought I’d see you again. I’m a mess. My heart is a mess.
“Elias is my friend,” I say instead. Is it even true? Elias was my friend when we left Serra. Now I do not know what he is.
“You’re trusting a Martial, Laia. Do you realize that? Ten bleeding hells, he’s the son of the Commandant. The son of the woman who killed your family—”
“He’s not like that.”
“Of course he’s like that. They’re all like that. You and me, Laia—we can do this without him. Look, I didn’t want to say it in front of him because I don’t trust him, but the Resistance has knowledge of Kauf. Men inside. I can get Darin out of there, alive.”
“Kauf isn’t Central Prison, Keenan. It’s not even Blackcliff. It’s Kauf. No one has ever broken out of there. So please, stop. This is my choice. I choose to trust him. You can come with me if you wish. I would be lucky to have someone like you along. But I’m not leaving Elias. He’s my best chance of saving Darin.”
Keenan looks for a moment as if he wants to say more but then simply nods.
“Your will, then,” he says.
“There’s something else I need to tell you.” I never shared with Keenan why my brother was taken. But if rumors of Darin and Teluman have already reached the Roost, then he’s certain to hear about my brother’s skills at some point. He might as well hear it from me.