“—double shifts because half the pit platoon got food poisoning—”

“—new prisoners arrived yesterday, a dozen of them—”

“—don’t see why we bothered processing them. Commandant’s on her way, captain said. New Emperor has ordered her to kill every last Scholar here—”

I stiffen at the words, trying to control the anger flooding every pore. I knew the Commandant was scouring the countryside for Scholars to kill. I didn’t realize she was attempting to exterminate them entirely.

There are more than a thousand Scholars in this prison, and they will all die under her command. Ten hells. I wish I could free them. Storm the pits, kill the guards, incite a revolt.

Wishful thinking. Right now, the best thing I can do for the Scholars is get Darin out of here. His knowledge will at least give his people a chance to fight back.

That is, if the Warden hasn’t destroyed his body or mind. Darin is young, strong, and obviously intelligent: the exact type of prisoner the Warden likes to experiment on.

I pass into the prison, the Masks none the wiser, and head with the other guards down the main corridor. The prison is arranged in an enormous pinwheel, with six long halls as spokes. Martials, Tribesmen, Mariners, and those from beyond the Empire’s borders occupy two blocks of the prison on the east side. Scholars occupy two blocks on the west. The last two blocks house the barracks, mess hall, kitchens, and storage.

At the very center of the pinwheel sit two sets of stairs. One leads up to the Warden’s office and Masks’ quarters. Another leads down, down, down to the interrogation cells. I shudder, pushing the thought of that foul little hell from my mind.

The auxes around me drop their hoods and scarves, so I fall back. The scruffy beard I’ve grown in the past few weeks is an adequate disguise as long as no one looks too closely. But these men will know I wasn’t on duty with them at the gate.

Move, Elias. Find Darin.

Laia’s brother is a high-value prisoner. The Warden will have heard the rumors that Spiro Teluman spread about the boy’s smithing prowess. He’ll want to keep him separate from the rest of Kauf’s population. Darin won’t be in the Scholar pits or the other major prison blocks. Prisoners stay in the interrogation cells for no more than a day—any longer and they come out in a coffin. Which leaves solitary confinement.

I move quickly past the other guards on their way to their varied postings. As I pass the entrance to the Scholar pits, a blast of stinking heat hits me. Most of Kauf is so frigid you can see your breath cloud the air. But to keep the pits hellishly hot, the Warden uses enormous furnaces. Clothing disintegrates in weeks in the pits, sores fester, wounds rot. Weaker prisoners die days after getting here.

When I was a Fiver stationed here, I asked a Mask why the Warden didn’t let the cold kill off the prisoners. Because heat makes them suffer more, he said.

I hear proof of that suffering in the wails that echo through the prison like a demon’s chorus. I try to block them out, but they punch through my mind anyway.

Go, damn it.

As I approach Kauf’s main rotunda, an uptick in activity catches my attention: soldiers moving swiftly away from the center staircase. A lean, black-clad figure descends the steps, his masked face gleaming.

Damn it. The Warden. The one man in this prison who will know me on sight. He prides himself on remembering the details of everything and everyone. I curse quietly. It’s a quarter after sixth bell, and he always enters the interrogation cells at this time. I should have remembered.

The old man is yards from me, speaking with a Mask at his side. A case dangles from his long, thin fingers. Tools for his experiments. I force down the disgust rising in my throat and keep walking. I’m passing the stairs now, just yards from him.

Behind me, a scream pierces the air. Two legionnaires march past, escorting a prisoner from the pits.

The Scholar wears a filthy loincloth, and his emaciated body is covered with sores. When he catches sight of the iron door that leads to the interrogation block, his cries grow frantic and I think he’s going to break an arm attempting to escape. I feel like a Fiver again, listening to the misery of the prisoners, unable to do anything but seethe with useless hate.

One of the legionnaires, sick of the man’s howls, lifts a fist to knock him unconscious.

“No,” the Warden calls from the stairs in his eerie, reedy voice. “The scream is the purest song of the soul,” he quotes. “The barbarous keen yokes us to the low beasts, to the unutterable violence of the earth.” The Warden pauses. “From Tiberius Antonius, philosopher to Taius the Tenth. Let the prisoner sing,” he clarifies, “so his brethren hear.”

The legionnaires drag the man through the iron door. The Warden moves to follow but then slows. I am nearly across the rotunda now, close to the hallway that leads to solitary confinement. The Warden turns, scanning the corridors on five sides before his eyes land on the one I’m about to enter. My heart nearly drops out of my chest.

Keep walking. Try to look grumpy. He hasn’t seen you for six years. You have a beard. He won’t recognize you.

Waiting for the old man’s gaze to pass is like waiting for the executioner’s ax to fall. But after long seconds, he finally turns away. The door to the interrogation cells clangs shut behind him, and I breathe again.

The corridor I enter is emptier than the rotunda, and the stone stairway leading to solitary confinement is emptier still. A lone legionnaire stands guard at the block’s entry door, one of three that lead to the prison cells.