“Well,” Afya says when the aux soldier is finished. “Happy?”
“Not remotely,” the Mask says. A second later, Afya swears. I hear a heavy thump, a gasp, and what sounds like the Tribeswoman choking back a scream.
Disappear, Laia, I think to myself. You’re invisible. Gone. Small. Smaller than a scratch. Smaller than dust. No one can see you. No one knows you’re here. My body tingles, like too much blood rushing to my skin all at once.
A moment later, the second portion of the compartment rolls back. Afya is slumped against the side of her cabin, one hand at her swiftly bruising neck. The Mask stands inches away, and as I stare up into his face, I find that I am paralyzed with fear.
I expect him to recognize me. But he has eyes only for Miladh and Ayan. The boy erupts into wails at the sight of the monster before him. He claws at his father, who desperately tries to shush him.
“Scholar trash,” the Mask says. “Can’t even hide properly. Get up, rat. And shut your brat up.”
Miladh’s eyes cut to where I lie, and then widen. Swiftly, he looks away, saying nothing. He ignores me. They all ignore me. As if I’m not there. As if they can’t see me.
Just like when you snuck up on the Commandant in Serra, like when you hid from the Tribesman at Raider’s Roost. Like when Elias lost you in the crowd in Nur. You wish to disappear, and you do.
Impossible. I think it must be some strange trick by the Mask. But he makes his way out of the wagon, shoving Afya, Miladh, and Ayan before him, and I am left alone. I look down at myself and gasp. I can see my own body, but I can also see the grain of the wood through it. Tentatively, I reach out for the edges of the smuggler’s compartment, expecting that my hand will go through, the way ghosts’ hands do in the stories. But my body is as solid as ever; it’s simply more translucent to my eye—and invisible to others’.
How? How? How? Did the efrit in Serra do this? These are questions I must answer—but later. For now, I grab Darin’s scim, and my dagger and pack, and tiptoe from the wagon. I stick to the shadows, but I might as well walk in front of the torches, because no one sees me. Zehr, Riz, Vana, and Gibran all kneel on the ground, their hands bound behind their backs.
“Search the wagons,” the Mask snarls. “If there are two Scholar scum here, there are bound to be more.”
A moment later, one of the soldiers approaches. “Sir,” he says. “There’s no one else.”
“Then you haven’t looked hard enough.” The Mask grabs one of the torches and lights Gibran’s wagon on fire. Izzi!
“No,” Gibran shouts, trying to break free from his bonds. “NO!”
A moment later, Izzi staggers out of the wagon, coughing at the smoke. The Mask smiles.
“See?” he says to his fellow soldiers. “Like rats. All you need is to smoke them out. Burn the wagons. Where this lot is going, they won’t need them.”
Oh skies. I need to move. I count the Martials. There are a dozen of them. The Mask, six legionnaires, and five auxes. Seconds after they light the fires, Miladh’s sisters emerge from their hiding spots, carrying little Sena with them. The girl is unable to rip her terrified gaze from the Mask.
“I found another!” one of the auxes calls from the other side of the camp, and, to my horror, he drags Keenan out.
The Mask looks Keenan over, grinning. “Look at that hair,” he says. “I’ve a few friends who fancy redheads, boy. Pity my orders are to kill all Scholars. I’d have made a good bit of gold off you.”
Keenan clenches his jaw, searching for me in the clearing. When he doesn’t find me, he relaxes and puts up no fight as the Martials tie him up.
They’ve found everyone. The wagons burn. In moments, they’ll execute all of the Scholars and likely drag Afya and her Tribe to prison.
I have no plan, but I move anyway, reaching for Darin’s scim. Is it visible? It can’t be. My clothes clearly aren’t, and neither is my pack. I make my way to Keenan.
“Don’t move,” I whisper into his ear. Keenan stops breathing for a second. But he doesn’t so much as twitch beyond that. “I’m going to cut the bonds on your hands first,” I say. “Then your feet. I’m going to hand you a scim.”
There’s no indication that Keenan has heard. As I saw through the leather binding his hands, one of the legionnaires approaches the Mask.
“The wagons are destroyed,” he says. “We have six Tribespeople, five Scholar adults, and two Scholar children.”
“Good,” the Mask says. “We’ll—aah—”
Blood fountains from the Mask’s neck as Keenan flies to his feet and whips Darin’s scim up and across the Martial’s throat. It should be a killing blow, but this is a Mask, after all, and he backs away quickly. He presses his hand to the wound, his features twisting into a snarl of rage.
I run to Afya and cut through her ropes. Zehr is next. By the time I’ve gotten to Riz, Vana, and the Scholars, all hell has broken loose in the clearing. Keenan grapples with the Mask, who is attempting to wrestle him to the ground. Zehr dances around the blades of three legionnaires, shooting arrows so fast that I don’t see him draw the bow. At the sound of a scream, I whirl and find Vana clutching her bloody arm as her father fights off two auxes with a cudgel.
“Izzi! Back!” Gibran shoves my friend behind him as he brandishes a sword against another legionnaire.
“Kill them!” the Mask bellows to his men. “Kill them all!”