I salute, and the man grunts a response, not bothering to look up from the knife he’s sharpening. “Sir,” I say. “I’m here to see about a prisoner transfer—”
He lifts his head just in time for his eyes to widen fractionally at the fist flying into his temple. I stop his fall, relieve him of his keys and uniform jacket, and ease him to the ground. Minutes later, he is gagged, bound, and stuffed into a supply closet nearby.
Hopefully, no one opens it.
The day’s transfer sheet is nailed to the wall beside the door, and I scan it quickly. Then I unlock the first door, the second, and the last, to find myself in a long, dank hallway lit by a single blue-fire torch.
The bored legionnaire manning the entry station glances up from his desk in surprise.
“Where’s Corporal Libran?” he asks.
“Ate something that turned his stomach,” I say. “I’m new. Came in on the frigate yesterday.” Surreptitiously, I drop my eyes to his tags. Cpl. Cultar. A Plebeian then. I offer a hand. “Corporal Scribor,” I say. Upon hearing a Plebeian name, Cultar relaxes.
“You should get back to your post,” he says. At my hesitation, he grins knowingly. “I don’t know about your old posting, but the Warden here doesn’t allow the men to touch the solitary prisoners. If you want jollies, you’ll have wait until you’re assigned to the pits.”
I bite back my disgust. “Warden told me to bring him a prisoner at seventh bell,” I say. “But he’s not on the transfer sheet. You know anything about it? Scholar lad. Young. Blond hair, blue eyes.” I force myself not to say more. One step at a time, Elias.
Cultar grabs his own transfer sheet. “Nothing on here.”
I let a touch of irritation enter my voice. “You sure? Warden was insistent. The boy’s high-value. Whole countryside is talking about him. They say he can make Serric steel.”
I still my features into a semblance of boredom. Bleeding hells. Cultar knows who Darin is. Which means the boy is in solitary.
“Why in the bleeding hells would the Warden ask for him?” Cultar scratches his head. “Boy’s dead. Has been for weeks.”
My euphoria vanishes. “Dead?” Cultar looks at me askance, and I flatten my voice. “How’d he die?”
“Went down to the interrogation cells and never came out. Served him right. Jumped-up little rat. Refused to give his number during lineup. Always had to announce his filthy Scholar name. Darin. Like he was proud of it.”
I sag against Cultar’s desk. His words sink in slowly. Darin can’t be dead. He can’t be. What will I say to Laia?
You should have gotten here faster, Elias. You should have found a way. The enormity of my failure is staggering, and though Blackcliff trained me to show no emotion, I forget it all in this moment.
“Bleeding Scholars moaned about it for weeks when they heard,” Cultar, utterly oblivious, chuckles to himself. “Their great savior, gone—”
“Jumped-up, you called him.” I yank the legionnaire toward me by his collar. “Much like you, down here doing a job any idiot Fiver could, yammering about things you don’t bleeding understand.” I head butt him hard and shove, my rage and frustration exploding through my body and pushing my good sense aside. He flies back and hits the wall with a sick thud, his eyes rolling up into his head. He slithers to the floor, and I give him a last kick. He won’t be waking up any time soon. If ever.
Get out of here, Elias. Get to Laia. Tell her what’s happened. Still enraged from the news that Darin is dead, I drag Cultar to one of the empty cells, toss him inside, and turn the lock.
But when I head to the door leading out of the block, the latch rattles.
Doorknob. Key in lock. Lock turning. Hide. My mind screams the words at me. Hide!
But there’s no place to do so other than behind Cultar’s desk. I dive down, pulling my body into a ball, heart thumping and knives at the ready.
I hope it’s a Scholar slave coming in to bring the meals. Or a Fiver delivering an order. Someone I can silence. Sweat beads on my forehead as the door opens, as I hear a light step on the stones.
“Elias.” I go utterly still at the Warden’s thin voice. No, damn it. No. “Come out of there. I’ve been waiting for you.”
My family or Elias.
My family. Or Elias.
Avitas follows me as I leave Cardium Rock. My body feels numb with disbelief. I do not notice him dogging my heels until I’m halfway to Antium’s northern gate.
“Leave me.” I wave a hand at him. “I don’t need you.”
“I’m tasked with—”
I whirl on him, a knife to his throat. He puts his hands up slowly, but without the wariness he’d have if he thought I was actually going to kill him. Something about it makes me even angrier.
“I don’t care. I need to be alone. So stay away from me, or your body will soon find itself looking for a new head.”
“With respect, Shrike, please tell me where you’re going and when you’ll return. If something happens—”
I’m already walking away from him. “Then your mistress will be pleased,” I call back. “Leave me be, Harper. That’s an order.”
Minutes later, I’m departing Antium. Not enough men manning the north gate, I find myself thinking, a desperate attempt to keep my mind off what Marcus has just told me. I should chat with the captain of the city guard about that.