“Take care of that,” I gasp. “If you can get into my room, you can thieve yourself herbs to make a poultice.”
She peers down at the wound and then at me. “The girl has a brother linked to the—the—the Resistance,” she stutters for a moment, then goes on. “The Martials sent him to Kauf months ago. She’s trying to get him out. Your boy is helping her.”
He’s not my boy is my first thought.
He’s bleeding insane is my second.
A Martial or Mariner or Tribesman sent to Kauf might emerge eventually, chastened, purged, and unlikely to defy the Empire again. But Scholars have no way out that doesn’t involve a hole in the ground.
“If you’re lying to me—”
She climbs up into the window, this time with the spryness I last saw in Serra. “Remember: Hurt the girl and you’ll regret it.”
“Who is she to you?” I ask. I saw something inside Cook during the healing—an aura, or shadow, some ancient music that made me think of Laia. I frown, trying to remember. It’s like dredging up a decade-old dream.
“She’s nothing to me.” The Cook bites out the words as if even the thought of Laia is repugnant. “Just a foolish child on a hopeless mission.”
When I stare at her uncertainly, she shakes her head.
“Don’t just stand there gawping at me like a stunned cow,” she says. “Go save your family, you stupid girl.”
“Slow down.” Keenan, panting as he runs beside me, reaches for my hand. The brush of his skin is a welcome shot of warmth in the freezing night.
“In the cold, you don’t realize how much you’re pushing yourself. You’ll collapse if you’re not careful. And it’s too bright out, Laia—someone could see us.”
We’re nearly to our destination—a safe house in a stretch of farmland far north of where we parted from Afya a week ago. There are even more patrols up here than farther south, all hunting the Scholars fleeing the Commandant’s merciless attacks in cities north and west of here. Most of the patrols, however, hunt Scholars during the day.
Keenan’s knowledge of the land has allowed us to travel at night and make good time, especially since we’ve been able to steal horses more than once. Kauf is now only three hundred miles away. But three hundred miles might as well be three thousand if the damned weather doesn’t cooperate. I kick at the thin layer of snow on the ground.
I grab Keenan’s hand and urge him forward. “We need to reach that safe house tonight if we want to make for the mountain passes tomorrow.”
“We won’t get anywhere if we’re dead,” Keenan says. Frost beads on his dark lashes, and patches of his face are purplish blue. All of our cold-weather gear was burned with Afya’s wagon. I have the cloak Elias gave me weeks ago, but it was meant for a Serran winter, not this biting cold, which gets under the skin and clings like a lamprey.
“If you exhaust yourself into illness,” Keenan says, “one night of rest isn’t going to fix it. Besides, we’re not being careful. That last patrol was yards away—we nearly walked right into it.”
“Bad luck.” I’m already moving on. “We’ve been fine since then. I hope this safe house has a lamp. We need to look at the map Elias gave us and work out how we’re going to get to that cave if the storms get bad.”
The snow swirls down in thick patches, and nearby, a rooster caws. The landowner’s mansion is just visible a quarter mile away, but we veer away from it and head for an outbuilding near the slaves’ quarters. In the distance, two hunched figures trudge to a barn, buckets in hand. The place will be swarming with slaves and their overseers soon. We need to take cover.
We finally make it to the cellar door behind a squat granary. The door’s latch is stiff from cold, and Keenan groans as he tries to pry it up.
“Hurry.” I crouch beside him. In the slaves’ hovels a few dozen yards away, smoke rises and a door creaks. A Scholar woman, her head wrapped in cloth, emerges.
Again, Keenan digs his dagger into the latch. “Bleeding thing won’t—ah.” He sits back, the latch having finally come loose.
The sound echoes, and the Scholar woman spins around. Keenan and I both freeze—there’s no chance that she hasn’t seen us. But she simply waves us into the cellar.
“Quick,” she hisses. “Before the overseers wake!”
We drop into the cellar’s dimly lit interior, our breath clouding above us. Keenan bars the door as I inspect the space. It is a dozen feet wide, a half dozen feet long, and cramped with barrels and wine racks.
But a lamp hangs from the roof on a chain, and below it, a table boasts fruit, a paper-wrapped loaf of bread, and a tin tureen.
“The man who runs this farm is a Mercator,” Keenan says. “Scholar mother, Martial father. He was the only heir, so they passed him off as a full-blooded Martial. But he must have been closer to his mother, because last year, when his father died, he started helping runaway slaves.” Keenan nods at the food. “Looks like he’s still at it.”
I pull Elias’s map from my pack, unroll it carefully, and clear a space on the ground. My stomach rumbles with hunger, but I ignore it. Safe houses usually have little room to move, let alone light enough to see. Keenan and I spend every hour of the day sleeping or running. This is a rare chance to discuss what’s to come.