Drusius wipes the blood from his mouth, jackal eyes shining. “With pleasure, sir.”
The Warden grabs the Scholar child—Tas—cowering in the corner and pitches him out of the cell. The boy lands with a sickening thump.
“You’re a monster,” I snarl at the old man.
“Nature weeds out those who are lesser,” the Warden says. “Dominicus again. A great man. Perhaps it is good that he did not live to see how sometimes the weak are left alive to totter about, sniveling and puling. I am no monster, Elias. I am Nature’s assistant. A gardener of sorts. And I’m very handy with shears.”
I strain against my chains, though I know it will do no good. “Damn you to the hells!”
But the Warden is already gone. Drusius takes his place, leering. He records my every expression while beyond the locked door, Tas screams.
The feeling in my bones when I awake in the cellar safe house cannot be regret. But it is not happiness either. I wish I could understand it. I know it will only eat at me until I do, and with so many miles yet to travel, I cannot afford for my focus to erode. Distraction leads to mistakes. And I’ve made enough of those.
Though I don’t want to think that what happened earlier between Keenan and me is one of those mistakes. It was heady. Intoxicating. And filled with a depth of emotion that I did not expect. Love. I love him.
When Keenan’s back is turned, I swallow the concotion of herbs that Pop taught me about—one that slows a girl’s moon cycle so that she cannot get with child.
I look to Keenan, quietly changing into warmer clothing in preparation for the next leg of our journey. He senses my regard and comes over to where I’m lacing my boots. With a shy affection that’s so very unlike him, he caresses my cheek. An uncertain smile lights his face.
Are we fools? I want to ask. For finding comfort in the midst of such madness? I can’t bring myself to say the words. And there’s no one else to ask.
A desire to speak to my brother sweeps over me, and I bite my lip angrily to keep my tears at bay. I’m certain Darin had sweethearts before he began apprenticing with Spiro. He would know if this unease, this confusion, was normal.
“What’s bothering you?” Keenan pulls me to my feet, holding tight to my hands. “You don’t wish that we didn’t—”
“No,” I say quickly. “I just … with everything going on, was it … wrong?”
“To find an hour or two of bliss in such dark times?” Keenan says. “That’s not wrong. What is there to live for if not the moments of joy? What is there to fight for?”
“I want to believe in that,” I say. “But I feel so guilty.” After weeks of keeping my emotions bottled and corked, they explode forth. “You and I are here, alive, and Izzi is dead, Darin is in prison, Elias is dying—”
Keenan wraps an arm around me and tucks my head beneath his chin. His warmth, his wood-smoke-and-lemon scent soothe me immediately.
“Give me your guilt. I’ll hold on to it for you, all right? Because you shouldn’t feel this way.” He pulls back just a bit and tips my face up. “Try to forget the anxiety for a bit.”
It’s not that simple! “Just this morning,” I say, “you asked me what the point was in being human if I didn’t let myself feel.”
“I meant attraction. Desire.” His cheeks go a bit red, and he looks away. “Not guilt and fear. Those you should try to forget. I could help you forget”—he cocks his head, and heat flashes through me—“but we should get moving.”
I muster a weak smile, and he releases me. I cast around for Darin’s scim, and by the time I buckle it on, I’m frowning again. I don’t need a distraction. I need to work out what in the skies is going on in my own head.
Your emotions make you human, Elias said to me weeks ago in the Serran Range. Even the unpleasant ones have a purpose. If you ignore them, they just get louder and angrier.
“Keenan.” We start up the cellar stairs, and Keenan unhooks the lock. “I don’t regret what happened. But I can’t just will away the guilt.”
“Why not?” he turns back to me. “Listen—”
We both jump when the cellar door opens with a blistering squeal. Keenan draws, notches, and aims his bow in one motion.
“Hold,” a voice says. The figure raises a lamp. It’s a young, curly-haired Scholar. He curses when he sees us.
“I knew I saw someone down here,” he says. “You need to leave. Master says there’s a Martial patrol on the way and they’re killing every free Scholar they find—”
We do not hear the rest. Keenan grabs my hand and drags me up the steps and out into the night. “That way.” He nods at tree line to the east of us, beyond the slaves’ quarters, and I fall into a jog as I follow him, my pulse frantic.
We pass through the woods and turn north again, cutting through long, fallow fields. When Keenan spots a stable, he leaves me and disappears. A dog barks, but the sound is suddenly cut off. A few minutes later, Keenan returns, a horse in tow.
I’m about to ask about the dog, but at the grim look on his face, I keep silent.
“There’s a trail through those woods up ahead,” he says. “Doesn’t look heavily traveled, and the snow’s falling hard enough that our tracks will be covered within an hour or two.”