“How long will it take us to get there?”

“We have to go overland and avoid detection,” Elias says. “Three months, if we’re swift. But only if we make it to the Nevennes Range before the winter snows. If we don’t, we won’t get through until spring.”

“Then we cannot delay,” I say. “Not even by a day.”

I look over my shoulder again, trying to suppress a growing sense of dread. “She didn’t follow us.”

“Not obviously,” Elias says. “She’s too damned clever for that.”

He ponders the dead trees around us, turning a blade over and over in his hand.

“There’s an abandoned storage building near the river, up against the city walls,” he finally says. “Grandfather owns the building—showed it to me years ago. A door in the back courtyard leads out of the city. But I haven’t been back in a while. It might not be there anymore.”

“Does the Commandant know of it?”

“Grandfather would never have told her.”

I think of Izzi, my fellow slave at Blackcliff, warning me about the Commandant when I first arrived at the school. She knows things, Izzi had said. Things she shouldn’t.

But we have to get out of the city, and I have no better plan to offer.

We set out, passing swiftly through neighborhoods untouched by the revolution, sneaking painstakingly through those areas where fighting and fire rage. Hours pass, and the afternoon fades to evening. Elias is a calm presence beside me, seemingly unmoved by the sight of so much destruction.

Strange to think that a month ago, my grandparents were alive, my brother was free, and I’d never heard the name Veturius.

Everything that has happened since then is like a nightmare. Nan and Pop murdered. Darin dragged away by soldiers, screaming at me to run.

And the Scholar Resistance offering to help me save my brother, only to betray me.

Another face flashes in my mind, dark-eyed, handsome, and grim—always so grim. It made his smiles more precious. Keenan, the fire-haired rebel who defied the Resistance to secretly give me a way out of Serra. A way out that I, in turn, gave to Izzi.

I hope he’s not angry. I hope he’ll understand why I could not accept his help.

“Laia,” Elias says as we reach the eastern edge of the city. “We’re close.”

We emerge from the warren of Serra’s streets near a Mercator depot. The lonely spire of a brick kiln casts the warehouses and storage yards into deep shadow. During the day, this place must bustle with wagons, merchants, and stevedores. But at this time of night, it’s abandoned. An evening chill hints at the changing season, and a steady wind blows from the north. Nothing moves.

“There.” Elias points to a structure built into the walls of Serra, similar to those on either side but for a weed-choked courtyard visible behind it. “That’s the place.”

He observes the depot for long minutes. “The Commandant wouldn’t be able to hide a dozen Masks in there,” he says. “But I doubt she’d come without them. She wouldn’t want to risk me escaping.”

“Are you sure she wouldn’t come alone?” The wind blows harder, and I cross my arms and shiver. The Commandant alone is terrifying enough. I’m not sure she needs soldiers to back her up.

“Not positive,” he admits. “Wait here. I’ll make sure it’s clear.”

“I think I should come.” I am immediately nervous. “If something happens—”

“Then you’ll survive, even if I don’t.”

“What? No!”

“If it’s safe for you to join me, I’ll whistle one note. If there are soldiers, two notes. If the Commandant is waiting, three notes repeated twice.”

“And if it is her? What then?”

“Then sit tight. If I survive, I’ll come back for you,” Elias says. “If not, you’ll need to get out of here.”

“Elias, you idiot, I need you if I want to get Darin—”

He puts a finger on my lips, drawing my gaze to his.

Ahead of us, the depot is silent. Behind, the city burns. I remember the last time I looked at him like this—just before we kissed. From the taut breath that escapes him, I think he remembers too.

“There’s hope in life,” he says. “A brave girl once told me that. If something happens to me, don’t fear. You’ll find a way.”

Before my doubts creep up again, he drops his hand and flits across the depot as lightly as the dust clouds rising from the brick kiln.

I follow his movements, painfully aware of the flimsiness of this plan. Everything that has happened so far is the result of willpower or sheer, dumb luck. I have no idea how to get safely north, beyond trusting Elias to guide me. I have no sense of what it will take to break into Kauf, beyond hoping that Elias will know what to do. All I have is a voice inside telling me I must save my brother, and Elias’s promise that he will help me do so. The rest is just wishes and hope, the most fragile of things.

Not enough. It’s not enough. The wind whips my hair about, colder than it should be this late in the summer. Elias disappears into the courtyard of the storage building. My nerves crackle, and though I inhale deeply, I feel as if I cannot get enough air. Come on. Come on. The wait for his signal is excruciating.

Then I hear it. So quick that I think for a second that I’m mistaken. I hope that I am. But the sound comes again.

Three quick notes. Sharp, sudden, and filled with warning.