Afya’s nostrils flare. “In that case,” she says, “fight them from the Tribal lands. You certainly can’t do it from Kauf Prison.”
“Listen,” I say, “I don’t think—”
The Tribeswoman whirls, as if the sound of my voice has triggered an explosion that’s been building for hours. “You,” she hisses. “You’re the reason we’re in this mess. The rest of us bled while you—you disappeared.” She twitches with fury. “You went into that smugglers’ compartment, and when the Mask opened it, you were gone. Didn’t realize I was transporting a witch—”
“Afya.” Keenan’s voice holds a note of warning. He’s said nothing about my invisibility. There hasn’t been time until now.
“I didn’t know I could do it,” I say. “It was the first time. I was desperate. Maybe that’s why it worked.”
“Well, it’s very convenient for you,” Afya says. “But the rest of us don’t have any black magic.”
“Then you need to leave.” I hold up a hand as she tries to protest. “Keenan knows the safe houses we can stay in. He suggested it before, but I didn’t listen.” Skies, how I wish I had. “He and I can get to Kauf alone. Without wagons, we can move even faster.”
“The wagons protected you,” Afya says. “I made a vow—”
“To a man who’s long gone.” The frost in Keenan’s voice reminds me of the first time I met him. “I can get her to Kauf safely. We don’t need your help.”
Afya rises to her full height. “As a Scholar and a rebel, you don’t understand honor.”
“What honor is there in a useless death?” I ask her. “Darin would hate that so many died to save him. I can’t order you to leave me. All I can do is ask.” I turn to Gibran. “I think the Martials will turn on the Tribesmen eventually. I vow that if Darin and I make it to Marinn, I will get you word.”
“Izzi was willing to die for this.”
“Sh-she had nowhere else to go.” The stark truth of my friend’s loneliness in this world hits me. I swallow back the grief. “I shouldn’t have brought her along. It was my decision, and it was the wrong one.” Saying it makes me feel hollow inside. “And I won’t make that decision again. Please, go. You can still catch up with Vana.”
“I don’t like this.” The Tribeswoman casts Keenan a look of distrust that surprises me. “I don’t like it at all.”
Keenan’s eyes narrow. “You’ll like being dead even less.”
“My honor demands that I escort you, girl.” Afya puts out the lamp. The barn seems darker than it should be. “But my honor also demands that I not take a woman’s decision about her own fate away from her. Skies knows there’s enough of that in this blasted world.” She pauses. “When you see Elias, you tell him that from me.”
That is all the goodbye I get. Gibran storms out of the barn. Afya rolls her eyes and follows.
Keenan and I stand alone, the sleet drumming the earth in a steady tattoo around us. When I look into his eyes, a thought enters my head: This is right. This is how it should be. This is how it always should have been.
“There’s a safe house a half dozen miles from here.” Keenan touches my hand to pull me from my thoughts. “If we’re swift, we can get there before dawn.”
Part of me wants to ask him if I have made the right decision. After so many mistakes, I yearn for the reassurance that I haven’t ruined everything yet again.
He will say yes, of course. He will comfort me and tell me this is the best way. But doing the right thing now does not undo every mistake I have already made.
So I do not ask. I simply nod and follow as he leads the way. Because after all that has happened, I do not deserve comfort.
THE DARK PRISON
The Warden’s rail-thin shadow falls over me. His long, triangular head and thin fingers bring to mind a praying mantis. I have a clear shot, but my knives do not leave my hands. All thoughts of murder flee my mind when I see what he is holding.
It’s a Scholar child, nine or ten years old. Malnourished, filthy, and as silent as a corpse. The cuffs on his wrists mark him not as a prisoner but as a slave. The Warden digs a blade into his throat. Rivulets of blood trickle down the child’s neck and onto a filthy shift.
Six Masks follow the Warden into the block. Each wears the sigil of Gens Sisellia, the Warden’s family. Each has a notched arrow pointed at my heart.
I could take them, even with the arrows. If I drop fast enough, use the table as a shield—
But then the old man runs his pale hand through the child’s lank, shoulder-length hair with chilling tenderness.
“No star more fair than the bright-eyed child; for him I would lay down my life.” The Warden delivers the quote in a clear tenor that matches his neat appearance. “He’s small”—the Warden nods to the boy—“but wonderfully resilient, I’ve discovered. I can make him bleed for hours if you wish.”
I drop the knife.
“Fascinating,” the Warden breathes. “See, Drusius, how Veturius’s pupils widen, how his pulse accelerates, how, even when faced with certain death, his eyes dart, seeking a way out? It is only the presence of the child that stays his hand.”
“Yes, Warden.” One of the Masks—Drusius, I assume—responds with flat disinterest.