“What did you tell him?” The guard is well away now. I reach for the door handle and pull it open with painful slowness, lest it creak.
“Whatever I could to make the pain stop. Stupid things: That she loves the Moon Festival. That she could watch kites fly for hours. That she likes her tea with enough honey in it to choke a bear.”
The pit of my stomach drops away. Those words are familiar. Why are they familiar? I turn my attention to Darin in full, and he looks at me uncertainly.
“I didn’t think it would help him,” he says. “He never seemed satisfied, no matter what I told him. Anything I said, he’d demand more.”
It’s a coincidence, I tell myself. Then I remember something Grandfather Quin used to say: Only a jackass believes in coincidence. Darin’s words swirl in my head, linking to things I don’t want them to, drawing lines where there should not be any.
“Did you tell the Warden that Laia loves lentil stew in the winter?” I ask. “That it made her feel safe? Or—or that she didn’t want to die without seeing the Great Library of Adisa?”
“I used to tell her about the library all the time,” Darin says. “She loved hearing about it.”
Words float through my head, snippets of conversation between Laia and Keenan overheard as we traveled. I’ve been flying kites since I was a boy, he’d once said. I could watch them for hours … I would love to see the Great Library one day. And Laia, that night before I left, smiling as she drank the too-sweet tea that Keenan handed her. Good tea is sweet enough to choke a bear, he’d said.
No, bleeding hells, no. All that time, lurking among us. Pretending to care about her. Trying to get in good with Izzi. Acting like a friend when he was really a tool of the Warden.
And his face before I left. That hardness that he never showed to Laia but that I sensed was there from the beginning. I know what it is to do things for the people you love. Damn it all, he must have told the Warden of my arrival, though how he could have gotten a message to the old man without using the drums is beyond me.
“I tried not to tell him anything important,” Darin says. “I thought—”
Darin falls silent at the sharp voices of approaching soldiers. I close the door, and we back up into Darin’s cell until they pass.
Only they don’t pass.
Instead they turn down the hallway leading to this cell. As I cast about for some way to defend myself, the door flies open and four Masks pour in, truncheons raised.
It’s not a fight. They are too fast, and I am injured, poisoned, and starved. I drop—I know when I’m outnumbered, and I can’t withstand any more serious injuries. The Masks desperately want to use those truncheons to pound my head in, but they don’t, instead cuffing me roughly and yanking me to my feet.
The Warden strolls in, hands behind his back. When he sees Darin and me confined next to each other, he doesn’t appear surprised.
“Excellent, Elias,” he murmurs. “Finally, you and I have something worthwhile to discuss.”
The red-headed Scholar reaches for his scim but halts at the simultaneous hiss of two blades leaving their scabbards. With a slight shift of weight, he eases himself in front of Laia.
She sidesteps him, her glare formidable. She is not the same, frightened child I healed in Blackcliff’s slaves’ quarters. That bizarre protectiveness grips me, the same emotion I felt for Elias in Nur. I reach out and touch her face. She starts, and Avitas and Faris exchange a glance. Immediately I pull away. But not before I discern from the touch that she is well. Relief sweeps through me—and anger.
Did my healing mean nothing to you?
She had a strange song, this girl, with a fey beauty that raised the hair on the back of my neck. So different from Elias’s song. But not discordant. Livia and Hannah took singing lessons—what would they call it? Countermelody. Laia and Elias are each other’s countermelodies. I am just a dissonant note.
“I know you’re here for your brother,” I say. “Darin of Serra, Resistance spy—”
“He’s not a—”
I wave off her protestations. “I don’t bleeding care. You’ll probably end up dead.”
“I assure you, I won’t.” The girl’s gold eyes spark, and her jaw is set. “I made it here despite the fact that you were hunting us.” She takes a step forward, but I give no ground. “I survived the Commandant’s genocide—”
“A few patrols to round up rebels is not—”
“Patrols?” Her face twists in horror. “You’re killing thousands. Women. Children. You bastards have an entire skies-forsaken army parked in the Argent Hills—”
“Enough,” the redhead says sharply, but I ignore him, my mind is fixed on what Laia just said.
—an entire bleeding army—
—the Bitch of Blackcliff is planning something … It’s big this time, girl—
I need to get out of here. A hunch has taken root in my mind, and I need to consider it.
“I am here for Veturius. Any attempt to rescue him will result in your death.”
“Rescue,” Laia says flatly. “From—from the prison.”
“Yes,” I say impatiently. “I don’t want to kill you, girl. So stay out of my way.”
I stride from the cave into the heavy snowdrifts, mind churning.
“Shrike,” Faris says when we’ve nearly reached our camp. “Don’t take off my head, but we can’t just leave them alive to carry out an illegal prison break.”