“How did he escape?” The interrogator is back at it. I suppress a sigh. I’ve answered the question a hundred times.
“I don’t know. One moment I was supposed to be chopping his head off, and the next, all I could hear was my ears ringing. When I looked on the execution dais, he was gone.”
The interrogator nods to the two legionnaires holding me. I gird myself.
Tell them nothing. No matter what. When Elias escaped, I promised I’d cover for him one last time. If the Empire learns that he got away through the tunnels, or that he’s traveling with a Scholar, or that he gave me his mask, the soldiers will track him more easily. He’ll never leave the city alive.
The legionnaires shove my head back into a bucket of foul water. I seal my lips, close my eyes, and keep my body loose, though every part of me wants to fight off my captors. I hold on to one image, the way the Commandant taught us during interrogation training.
Elias escaping. Smiling in some distant, sun-drenched land. Finding the freedom he’d sought for so long.
My lungs strain and burn. Elias escaping. Elias free. I drown, die. Elias escaping. Elias free.
The legionnaires yank my head from the bucket, and I draw a deep gulp of air.
The interrogator tips my face up with a firm hand, forcing me to look into green eyes that glimmer pale and unfeeling against the silver of his mask. I expect to see a hint of anger—frustration, at least, after hours of asking the same questions and hearing the same answers. But he is calm. Almost placid.
In my head, I call him the Northman for his brown skin, hollow cheeks, and angular eyes. He is a few years out of Blackcliff, young to be in the Black Guard, let alone as an interrogator.
“How did he escape?”
“I just told you—”
“Why were you in the Skulls’ barracks after the explosion?”
“Thought I saw him. But I lost him.” A version of the truth. I did lose him, in the end.
“How did he set the charges in the explosives?” The Northman releases my face and paces around me slowly, blending into the shadows but for the red patch on his fatigues—a screaming bird. It is the symbol of the Black Guard, the Empire’s internal enforcers. “When did you help him?”
“I didn’t help him.”
“He was your ally. Your friend.” The Northman pulls something from his pocket. It clinks, but I can’t see what it is. “The moment he was to be executed, a series of explosions nearly leveled the school. Do you expect anyone to believe that was a coincidence?”
At my silence, the Northman motions for the legionnaires to dunk me again. I breathe deep, locking everything else out of my mind but that image of him free.
And then, just as I go under, I think of her.
The Scholar girl. All that dark hair and those curves and her damned gold eyes. How he held her hand as they fled through the courtyard. The way she said his name and how, on her lips, it sounded like a song.
I swallow a mouthful of water. It tastes of death and piss. I kick out and fight the legionnaires holding me. Calm down. This is how interrogators destroy their prisoners. One crack, and he’ll drive a wedge into it and hammer until I split open.
Elias escaping. Elias free. I try to see it in my mind, but the image is replaced by the two of them together, entwined.
Maybe drowning wouldn’t be so horrible.
The legionnaires pull me up as my world goes dark. I spit out a mouthful of water. Shore up, Aquilla. This is when he breaks you.
“Who’s the girl?”
The question is so unexpected that for one damning moment, I’m unable to wipe the shock—or the recognition—from my face.
Half of me curses Elias for being stupid enough to be seen with the girl. The other half tries to quash the dread blooming in my gut. The interrogator watches the emotions play out in my eyes.
“Very good, Aquilla.” His words are deadly quiet. Immediately, I think of the Commandant. The softer she spoke, Elias once said, the more dangerous she was. I can finally see what the Northman pulled from his fatigues. Two sets of joined, metal rings that he slips onto his fingers. Brass beaters. A brutal weapon that transforms a simple beating into a slow, bloody death.
“Why don’t we begin there?”
“Begin?” I’ve been in this hellhole for hours. “What do you mean, begin?”
“This”—he gestures to the bucket of water and my bruised face—“was me getting to know you.”
Ten bleeding hells. He’s been holding back. He’s ratcheted up the pain little by little, weakening me, waiting for a way in, for me to give something up. Elias escaping. Elias free. Elias escaping. Elias free.
“But now, Blood Shrike.” The Northman’s words, though quietly delivered, cut through the chant in my head. “Now, we’ll see what you’re made of.”
Time blurs. Hours go by. Or is it days? Weeks? I can’t tell. Down here, I don’t see the sun. I can’t hear the drums or the belltower.
A little longer, I tell myself after a particularly vicious beating. Another hour. Hold out for another hour. Another half hour. Five minutes. One minute. Just one.
But every second is pain. I’m losing this battle. I feel it in the blocks of time that disappear, in the way my words jumble and trip over one another.
The dungeon door opens, closes. Messengers arrive, confer. The Northman’s questions change, but they never end.
“We know that he escaped with the girl through the tunnels.” One of my eyes is swollen shut, but as the Northman speaks, I glare at him through the other. “Murdered half a platoon down there.”