The Commandant has found us.
My mother hides her anger with practiced cunning. She wraps it in calm and buries it deep. She tramples the soil on top, puts a gravestone on it, and pretends it’s dead.
But I see it in her eyes. Smoldering at the fringes, like the corners of paper blackening just before they burst into flame.
I hate that I share her blood. Would that I could scrub it from my body.
She stands against the dark, high wall of the city, another shadow in the night but for the silver glint of her mask. Beside her is our escape route, a wooden door so covered in dried vines that it’s impossible to see. Though she holds no weapons in her hands, her message is clear. If you wish to leave, you go through me.
Ten hells. I hope Laia heard my warning whistle. I hope she stays away.
“You took long enough,” the Commandant says. “I’ve waited hours.”
She launches herself at me, a long knife appearing so swiftly in her palm that it’s as if it popped out of her skin. I dodge her—barely—before lashing out at her with my scims. She dances away from my attack without bothering to cross blades, then flings a throwing star. It misses me by a hair. Before she reaches for another, I rush her, landing a kick to her chest that sends her sprawling.
As she scrambles up, I scan the area for soldiers. The city walls are empty, the rooftops around us bare. Not a sound comes from Grandfather’s storage building. Yet I cannot believe that she doesn’t have assassins lurking close by.
I hear shuffling to my right, and I lift my scims, expecting an arrow or spear. But it’s the Commandant’s horse, tethered to a tree. I recognize the Gens Veturia saddle—one of Grandfather’s stallions.
“Jumpy.” The Commandant raises a silver eyebrow as she scrambles back to her feet. “Don’t be. I came alone.”
“And why would you do that?”
The Commandant flings more throwing stars at me. As I duck, she darts around a tree and out of range of the knives I send hurtling back at her.
“If you think I need an army to destroy you, boy,” she says, “you are mistaken.”
She flicks opens the neck of her uniform, and I grimace at the sight of the living metal shirt beneath, impenetrable to edged weapons.
“I took it from Helene Aquilla.” The Commandant draws scims and engages my assault with graceful ease. “Before I gave her to a Black Guard for interrogation.”
“She doesn’t know anything.” I dodge my mother’s blows while she dances around me. Get her on the defensive. Then a quick blow to her head to knock her out. Steal the horse. Run.
A bizarre noise comes from the Commandant as our scims clash, their strange music filling the silence of the depot. After a moment, I realize it is a laugh.
I’ve never heard my mother laugh. Never.
“I knew you’d come here.” She flies at me with her scims, and I drop beneath her, feeling the wind of her blades centimeters from my face. “You’d have considered escaping through a city gate. Then the tunnels, the river, the docks. In the end, they were all too troublesome, especially with your little friend tagging along. You remembered this place and assumed I wouldn’t know about it. Stupid.
“She’s here, you know.” The Commandant hisses in irritation when I block her attack and nick her on the arm. “The Scholar slave. Lurking in the building. Watching.” The Commandant snorts and raises her voice. “Tenaciously clinging to life like the roach that you are. The Augurs saved you, I presume? I should have crushed you more thoroughly.”
Hide, Laia! I scream it in my head, but don’t call out, lest she find one of my mother’s stars embedded in her chest.
The storage building is at the Commandant’s back now. She pants lightly, and murder glimmers in her eyes. She wants this finished.
The Commandant feints with her knife, but when I block, she swipes my feet out from under me, and her blade comes down. I roll away, narrowly avoiding death by impalement, but two more throwing stars whistle toward me, and though I deflect one, the other cuts into my bicep.
Gold skin flashes in the gloom behind my mother. No, Laia. Stay away.
My mother drops her scims and draws two daggers, determined to finish me. She vaults toward me with full force, using darting strokes to wound me so that I won’t notice until I’m breathing my last.
I deflect her too slowly. A blade bites into my shoulder, and I rear back, but not fast enough to avoid a vicious kick to my face that drops me to my knees. Suddenly, there are two Commandants and four blades. You’re dead, Elias. Gasps echo in my head—my own breaths, shallow and pained. I hear her cold chuckle, like rocks breaking glass. She comes in for the kill. It is only Blackcliff’s training, her training, that allows me to instinctively lift my scim and block her. But my strength is gone. She knocks my scims from my hands, one by one.
From the corner of my eye, I spot Laia approaching, dagger in hand. Stop, damn it. She’ll kill you in a second.
But then I blink, and Laia is gone. I think I must have imagined her—that the kick has rattled my mind, but Laia appears again, sand flying from her hand and into my mother’s eyes. The Commandant jerks her head away, and I scramble for my scims in the dirt. I bring one up as my mother meets my eyes.
I expect her gauntleted wrist to come up and block the sword. I expect to die bathed in her gloating triumph.
Instead, her eyes flash with an emotion I cannot identify.