“Did you know,” the Warden says, “that a single set of pliers can be used to break every bone in the human hand if pressure is applied in the correct manner?”
It takes four hours, ten mangled fingernails, and skies know how many broken bones for the Warden to get the truth about the Tellis out of me. Though I know I could last longer, I eventually let him have the information. Better that he think me weak.
“Most strange,” he says when I confess that the Commandant poisoned me. “But, ah”—understanding lights his face—“Keris wanted the little Shrike out of the way so she could whisper what she liked to whomever she liked without interference. But she didn’t want to risk leaving you alive. Clever. A bit too risky for my taste, but …” He shrugs.
I twist my face in pain so that he doesn’t see my surprise. I’ve wondered for weeks why the Commandant poisoned me instead of killing me outright. I’d finally decided she simply wanted me to suffer.
The Warden opens the cell door and pulls on the lever to loosen my chains. I thud gratefully to the floor. Moments later, the Scholar boy enters.
“Clean the prisoner,” the Warden says to the child. “I don’t want infection.” The old man cocks his head. “This time, Elias, I let you play your games. I found them fascinating. This invincibility syndrome you seem to have: How long will it take to break it? Under what circumstances? Will it require more physical pain, or will I be forced to delve into the weaknesses of your mind? So much to discover. I look forward to it.”
He disappears, and the boy approaches, weighed down by a clay pitcher and a crate of clinking jars. His eyes flicker to my hand and widen. He crouches beside me, his fingers as light as a butterfly as he applies various pastes to clean the wounds.
“It’s true what they say then,” he whispers. “Masks don’t feel pain.”
“We feel pain,” I say. “We’re just trained to withstand it.”
“But he—he had you for hours.” The boy’s brow furrows. He reminds me of a lost starling, alone in the darkness, searching for something familiar, something that makes sense. “I always cry.” He dips a cloth in water and wipes away the blood on my hands. “Even when I try not to.”
Damn you, Sisellius. I think of Darin, suffering down here, tormented like this boy, like me. What horror did the Warden unleash upon Laia’s brother before he finally died? My hands burn for a scim so I can separate the old man’s insectile head from his body.
“You’re young,” I say gruffly. “I cried too when I was your age.” I offer him my good hand to shake. “My name is Elias, by the way.”
His hand is strong, if small. He lets go of me quickly.
“The Warden says names have power.” The boy’s eyes flit to mine. “All of us children are Slave. Because we are all the same. Though my friend Bee—she named herself.”
“I won’t call you Slave,” I say. “Do—do you want your own name? In the Tribal lands, families sometimes don’t name children until years after they are born. Or maybe you already have a name?”
“I don’t have a name.”
I lean against the wall, biting back a grimace as the boy splints my hand. “You’re smart,” I say. “Fast. What about Tas? In Sadhese, it means swift.”
“Tas.” He tries the name out. There is the hint of a smile on his face. “Tas.” He nods. “And you—you are not just Elias. You are Elias Veturius. The guards talk about you when they think no one is listening. They say you were a Mask once.”
“I took the mask off.”
Tas wants to ask a question—I can see him working himself up to it. But whatever it is, he chokes it back when voices sound outside the cell and Drusius enters.
The child rises quickly, gathering his things, but he’s not fast enough.
“Hurry up, filth.” Drusius closes the distance in two strides, aiming a vicious kick at Tas’s stomach. The boy yelps. Drusius laughs and kicks him again.
A roaring fills my mind, like water rushing up against a dam. I think of Blackcliff’s Centurions, their casual, daily beatings that ate away at us when we were Yearlings. I think of the Skulls who terrorized us, who never saw us as human, only as victims for the sadism bred into them, layer by layer, year by year, like complexity builds so slowly into wine.
And suddenly, I am leaping for Drusius, who has, to his detriment, gotten too close. I snarl liked a crazed animal.
“He’s a child.” I use my right hand to punch the Mask in the jaw, and he drops. The rage within breaks free, and I don’t even feel the chains as I rain down blows. He’s a child who you treat like garbage, and you think he doesn’t feel it, but he does. And he’ll feel it until he’s dead, all because you’re too sick to see what it is you do.
Hands tear at my back. Boots thunder, and two Masks veer into the cell. I hear the whistle of a truncheon and dodge it. But a punch to the gut takes the wind out of me, and I know that any moment I’ll be knocked into unconsciousness.
“Enough.” The dispassionate tone of the Warden cuts through the chaos. Immediately, the Masks back away from me. Drusius snarls and rises to his feet. My breath comes heavy, and I glare at the Warden, letting all my hate for him, for the Empire, fill my gaze.
“The poor little boy getting vengeance for his lost youth. Pathetic, Elias.” The Warden shakes his head, disappointed. “Do you not understand how irrational such thoughts are? How useless? I shall have to punish the boy now, of course. Drusius,” he says crisply, “bring a parchment and a quill. I will take the child next door. You will record Veturius’s responses.”