Then the scim hits her temple with a blow that will have her sleeping for at least an hour. She drops to the ground like a sack of flour.
Rage and confusion grip me as Laia and I stare down at her. What crime has my mother not committed? She has whipped, killed, tortured, enslaved. Now she lies before us, helpless. It would be so easy to kill her. The Mask within urges me to do it. Don’t falter now, fool. You’ll regret it.
The thought repulses me. Not my own mother, not like this, no matter what kind of monster she is.
I see a flash of movement. A figure skulks in the shadows of the depot. A soldier? Perhaps—but one too cowardly to come out and fight. Maybe he has seen us, maybe not. I won’t wait to find out.
“Laia.” I grab my mother by the legs and drag her into the house. She’s so light. “Get the horse.”
“Is—is she—” She looks down at the Commandant’s body, and I shake my head.
“The horse,” I say. “Untether him and take him to the door.” As she does so, I cut a length of rope from the coil in my pack and bind my mother, ankle and wrist. After she wakes it won’t hold her long. But combined with the blow to her head, it should give us time to get well away from Serra before she sends soldiers after us.
“We have to kill her, Elias.” Laia’s voice shakes. “She’ll come after us as soon as she wakes up. We’ll never make it to Kauf.”
“I’m not going to kill her. If you want to, then hurry. We’re out of time.”
I turn away from her to scan the gloom behind us again. Whoever was watching us is gone. We have to assume the worst: that it was a soldier and that he’ll sound the alarm.
No troops patrol the top of Serra’s ramparts. Finally, some luck. The vine-covered door opens after a few sturdy pulls, its hinges creaking loudly. In seconds, we are through the thick city wall. For a moment, my vision doubles. That damned blow to the head.
Laia and I creep through an immense apricot grove, the horse clopping beside us. She leads the beast, and I walk ahead of her, my scims out.
The Commandant chose to face me alone. Perhaps it was her pride—her desire to prove to herself and me that she could destroy me single-handedly. Whatever the reason, she’d station at least a few squads of soldiers out here to catch us if we broke through. If there’s one thing I know about my mother, it’s that she always has a backup plan.
I’m thankful for the inky night. If the moon were out, a skilled bowman could pick us off easily from the walls. As it is, we blend in with the trees. Still, I don’t trust the darkness. I wait for the crickets and night creatures to go quiet, for my skin to go cold, for the scrape of boot or creak of leather.
But as we make our way through the orchard, there is no sign of the Empire.
I slow our pace as we approach the tree line. A tributary of the Rei rushes nearby. The only points of light in the desert are two garrisons, miles from us and from each other. Drum messages echo between them, referring to troop movements within Serra. Distantly, horses’ hooves pound, and I tense—but the sound moves away from us.
“Something’s not right,” I tell Laia. “My mother should have put patrols out here.”
“Maybe she thought that she wouldn’t need them.” Laia’s whisper is uncertain. “That she would kill us.”
“No,” I say. “The Commandant always has a backup plan.” I wish, suddenly, that Helene were here. I can practically see her silver brows furrowed, her mind carefully, patiently untangling the facts.
Laia cocks her head at me. “The Commandant makes mistakes, Elias,” she says. “She underestimated both of us.”
True, and yet the niggling feeling in my gut won’t go away. Hells, my head aches. I feel like retching. Like sleeping. Think, Elias. What was that in my mother’s eyes just before I knocked her out? An emotion. Something she wouldn’t normally express.
After a moment, it hits me. Satisfaction. The Commandant was pleased.
But why would she be satisfied that I’d knocked her senseless after she tried to kill me?
“She didn’t make a mistake, Laia.” We step out into the open land beyond the orchard, and I survey the storm building over the Serran Mountain Range, a hundred miles away. “She let us go.”
What I don’t understand is why.
Loyal to the end.
The motto of Gens Aquilla, whispered into my ear by my father moments after I was born. I’ve spoken those words a thousand times. I’ve never questioned. Never doubted.
I think of those words now, as I sag between two legionnaires in the dungeons below Blackcliff. Loyal to the end.
Loyal to whom? My family? The Empire? My own heart?
Damn my heart to the hells. My heart is what landed me here in the first place.
“How did Elias Veturius escape?”
My interrogator cuts through my thoughts. His voice is as unfeeling as it was hours ago, when the Commandant threw me into this pit with him. She cornered me outside Blackcliff’s barracks, backed by a squad of Masks. I surrendered quietly; she knocked me unconscious anyway. And somehow between then and now, she stripped me of the silver shirt gifted to me by the Empire’s holy men, the Augurs. A shirt that made me near invincible after it sunk into my skin.
Perhaps I should be surprised that she managed to get it off me. But I’m not. Unlike the rest of the bleeding Empire, I’ve never made the mistake of underestimating the Commandant.