I skid, my boots still coated in blood from the butchery in the tunnels. At the thought of Elias’s face afterward—the loathing in his eyes—I shudder. I wanted to tell him that he did what he had to do to save us. But I couldn’t get the words out. It was all I could do not to retch.
Sounds of suffering rend the air—Martial and Scholar, adult and child, mingled into one cacophonous scream. I hardly hear it, focused as I am on avoiding the broken glass and burning buildings collapsing into the streets. I look over my shoulder a dozen times, expecting to see the Commandant on our heels. Suddenly, I feel like the girl I was a month ago. The girl who abandoned her brother to Empire imprisonment, the girl who whimpered and sobbed after being whipped. The girl with no courage.
When the fear takes over, use the only thing more powerful, more indestructible, to fight it: your spirit. Your heart. I hear the words spoken to me yesterday by the blacksmith Spiro Teluman, my brother’s friend and mentor.
I try to transform my fear into fuel. The Commandant is not infallible. She might not have even seen me—her attention was so fixed on her son. I escaped her once. I’ll escape her again.
Adrenaline surges through me, but as we turn from one street to the next, I stumble over a small pyramid of masonry and sprawl onto the soot-blackened cobblestones.
Elias lifts me back to my feet as easily as if I’m made of feathers. He gazes ahead, behind, to the windows and rooftops nearby, as if he too expects his mother to appear at any second.
“We have to keep going.” I yank at his hand. “We have to get out of the city.”
“I know.” Elias angles us into a dusty, dead orchard bound by a wall. “But we can’t do that if we’re exhausted. It won’t hurt to rest for a minute.”
He sits, and I kneel beside him unwillingly. The air of Serra feels strange and tainted, the tang of scorched wood mingling with something darker—blood, burning bodies, and unsheathed steel.
“How are we going to get to Kauf, Elias?” This is the question that’s plagued me since the moment we slipped into the tunnels from his barracks at Blackcliff. My brother allowed himself to be taken by Martial soldiers so that I’d have a chance to escape. I will not let him die for his sacrifice—he’s the only family I have left in this blasted Empire. If I don’t save him, no one will. “Will we hide out in the country? What’s the plan?”
Elias regards me steadily, his gray eyes opaque.
“The escape tunnel would have put us west of the city,” he says. “We’d have taken the mountain passes north, robbed a Tribal caravan, and posed as traders. The Martials wouldn’t have been looking for both of us—and they wouldn’t have been looking north. But now …” He shrugs.
“What’s that supposed to mean? Do you even have a plan?”
“I do. We get out of the city. We escape the Commandant. That’s the only plan that matters.”
“What about after?”
“One thing at a time, Laia. This is my mother we’re dealing with.”
“I’m not afraid of her,” I say, lest he think that I’m the same mouse of a girl he met at Blackcliff weeks ago. “Not anymore.”
“You should be,” Elias says dryly.
The drums boom out, a barrage of bone-shaking sound. My head pounds with their echo.
Elias cocks his head. “They’re relaying our descriptions,” he says. “Elias Veturius: gray eyes, six foot four, fifteen stone, black hair. Last seen in tunnels south of Blackcliff. Armed and dangerous. Traveling with Scholar female: gold eyes, five foot six, nine stone, black hair—” He stops. “You get the point. They’re hunting us, Laia. She is hunting us. We don’t have a way out of the city. Fear is the wise course right now—it will keep us alive.”
“Heavily guarded because of the Scholar revolt,” Elias says. “Worse now, no doubt. She’ll have sent messages across the city that we haven’t yet cleared the walls. The gates will be doubly fortified.”
“Could we—you—fight our way through? Maybe at one of the smaller gates?”
“We could,” Elias says. “But it would lead to a lot of killing.”
I understand why he looks away, though the hard, cold part of me born in Blackcliff wonders what difference a few more dead Martials make. Especially in the face of how many he has already killed, and especially when I think of what they’re going to do to the Scholars when the rebel revolution is inevitably crushed.
But the better part of me recoils at such callousness. “The tunnels then?” I say. “The soldiers won’t expect it.”
“We don’t know which ones have collapsed, and there’s no point going down there if we’ll just hit a dead end. The docks, maybe. We could swim the river—”
“I can’t swim.”
“Remind me to remedy that when we have a few days.” He shakes his head—we’re running out of options. “We could lie low until the revolution dies down. Then slip into the tunnels after the explosions have stopped. I know a safe house.”
“No,” I say quickly. “The Empire shipped Darin to Kauf three weeks ago. And those prisoner frigates are fast, are they not?”
Elias nods. “They’d reach Antium in less than a fortnight. From there, it’s a ten-day journey overland to Kauf if they don’t run into bad weather. He might already have reached the prison.”