“Mudslide because of the flooding, likely. Let’s eat, stock up, and start tracking Veturius.”
A blast of warm air from the roaring hearth hits us as we enter the outpost, and I take a seat beside the fire as Faris speaks quietly to the four auxes hovering. As one, they nod vigorously at whatever he’s saying, casting nervous glances in my direction. Two disappear into the kitchens while the other two tend to the horses.
“What did you tell them?” I ask Faris.
“That you’d purge their families if they spoke of our presence to anyone.” Faris grins at me. “I assume you don’t want the Warden to know we’re here.”
“Good thinking.” I hope we do not need the Warden’s aid in tracking Elias. I shudder to think what he’d want in trade.
“We need to scout the area,” I say. “If Elias is here, he might not have gone in yet.”
Faris’s breathing hitches and then continues as before. I glance at him, and he appears suddenly and deeply interested in his meal.
“What is it?”
“Nothing.” Faris speaks far too quickly and mutters a curse when he realizes that I’ve noticed. He sets down his plate.
“I hate this,” he says. “And I don’t care if the Commandant’s spy knows.” He gives Avitas a dark look. “I hate that we’re like dogs hunting a kill, with Marcus cracking his whip at our backs. Elias saved my life during the Trials. And Dex’s too. He knew what it felt like … after …” Faris looks at me accusingly. “You’ve never even spoken of the Third Trial.”
With Avitas watching my every move, the wise path would be to give a speech about loyalty to the Empire right now.
But I am too tired. And too sick at heart.
“I hate it too.” I look down at my half-eaten food, my appetite gone. “Bleeding skies, I hate everything about it. But this isn’t about Marcus. It’s about the survival of the Empire. If you can’t bring yourself to help, then pack your things and go back to Antium. I can assign you to another mission.”
Faris looks away, jaw clenched. “I’ll stay.”
Quietly, I release a sigh. “In that case”—I pick up my fork again—“maybe you can tell me why you clammed up when I said we should scout the area for Elias.”
Faris groans. “Damn it, Hel.”
“You were stationed at Kauf at the same time as him, Lieutenant Candelan,” Avitas says to Faris. “You, Shrike, were not.”
True—Elias and I ended up at Kauf at different times when we were Fivers.
“Did he go somewhere when things in the prison were too much?” There’s an intensity to Avitas that I’ve rarely seen. “An … escape?”
“A cave,” Faris says after a moment. “I followed him once when he left Kauf. I thought—skies, I don’t know what I thought. Probably something stupid: that he’d found a hidden stash of ale in the woods. But he just sat inside and stared at the walls. I think … I think he was trying to forget the prison.”
A great emptiness opens up inside me when Faris says it. Of course Elias would find such a place. He wouldn’t be able to bear Kauf without it. It’s so like him that I want to laugh and break something at the same time.
Not now. Not when you’re so close.
“Take us there.”
At first, I think the cave is a dead end. It looks as if it’s been abandoned for years. But we light torches anyway and search every inch of it. Just as I’m about to order us to move out, I catch a glimpse of something glimmering deep within a crack in the wall. When I go to pull it out, I nearly drop it.
“Ten hells.” Faris grabs the bound, crossed scabbards from me. “Elias’s scims.”
“He’s here.” I ignore the dread pooling in my stomach—you’ll have to kill him!—and pretend it is the adrenaline rush of a hunt. “And recently. The spiders have covered everything else.” I hold up a torch to the webs in the crack.
I look about for signs of the girl. Nothing. “If he’s here, then Laia should be too.”
“And,” Avitas adds, “if he left all of this here, he can’t have believed he’d be gone for long.”
“You’re on watch,” I say to Faris. “Remember, this is Veturius we’re dealing with. Keep your distance. Don’t engage. I need to go down to the prison.” I turn to Avitas. “I suppose you’ll insist on coming with me?”
“I know the Warden better than you,” he says. “It is unwise to go barging into the prison. There are far too many of the Commandant’s spies inside. If she knows you’re here, she’ll try to sabotage you.”
I lift my eyebrows. “You mean she doesn’t know I’m here? I assumed you’d told her.”
Avitas says nothing, and as his silence grows longer, Faris shifts uncomfortably beside me. I see the faintest of cracks in Harper’s cold façade.
“I’m not her spy anymore,” he finally says. “If I were, you’d be dead by now. Because you’re too close to capturing Elias, and her orders were to kill you quietly when you got this close—to make it look like an accident.”
Faris draws his scim. “You filthy, traitorous—”
I hold up a hand to stop him and nod for Avitas to continue.
He pulls a thin paper envelope from his fatigues. “Nightweed,” he says. “Outlawed in the Empire. Skies only know where Keris got it. A little bit kills you slowly. A little more and your heart expires. The Commandant planned to say that the pressure of the mission was too much for you.”