“Every garrison we went to in the Tribal lands was short on soldiers,” I say. “Even Antium didn’t have a full complement of guards for the walls. Why do you think that is?”
Faris shrugs, bewildered. “The men were sent to the borderlands. Dex heard the same.”
“But my father told me in his letters that the border garrisons needed reinforcements. He said the Commandant requested soldiers too. Everyone is short. Dozens of garrisons, thousands of soldiers. An army of soldiers.”
“You mean what the girl said about the Argent Hills?” Faris scoffs. “She’s a Scholar—she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
“The Hills have a dozen valleys big enough to hide an army in,” I say. “And only one pass in and one pass out. Both of those passes—”
Avitas swears. “Blocked,” he says. “By the weather. But those passes are never blocked so early in winter.”
“We were in such a hurry, we didn’t think twice about it,” Faris says. “If there is an army, what is it for?”
“Marcus might be planning to attack the Tribal lands,” I say. “Or Marinn.” Both options are disastrous. The Empire has enough to deal with without a full-scale war. We reach our camp, and I hand Faris the reins to his horse. “Find out what’s going on. Scout the Argent Hills. I ordered Dex back to Antium. Have him keep the Black Guard at the ready.”
Faris’s eyes shift to Avitas, and he tilts his head at me. You trust him?
“I’ll be all right,” I say. “Go.”
Moments after he leaves, a shadow steps out from the woods. My scim is half-drawn when I realize it’s a Fiver, trembling and half-frozen. He silently hands me a note.
The Commandant arrives this evening to oversee the cleansing of Kauf Prison’s Scholar population. She and I will meet at midnight, in her pavilion.
Avitas grimaces at the look on my face. “What is it?”
“The Warden,” I say. “Coming out to play.”
By midnight, I ghost along the base of Kauf’s high outer wall toward the Commandant’s camp, eyeing the friezes and gargoyles that make Kauf almost ornate when compared to Blackcliff. Avitas follows, covering our tracks.
Keris Veturia has erected her tents in the shadow of Kauf’s southeast wall. Her men walk the perimeter, and her pavilion sits at the center of the camp, with five yards of clear space on three sides. The tent backs to Kauf’s ice-slick wall. No woodpiles, no wagons, not even a bleeding horse to use as cover.
I stop along the far edge of the camp and nod to Avitas. He takes out a grappling hook and heaves it at a pinnacle atop a buttress about forty feet up. The hook catches. He hands me the rope and silently backtracks through the snow.
When I’m ten feet up, I hear the crunch of boots on snow. I turn, expecting to whisper-shout at Avitas for being so damned loud. Instead, a soldier lumbers out from between the tents, unbuttoning his pants to relieve himself.
I scramble for a knife, but my boots, slick with snow, slip on the rope, and I drop the blade. The soldier whirls at the sound. His eyes widen, and he gathers his breath to shout. Damn it! I prepare to drop, but an arm wraps around the soldier’s throat, choking off his air. Avitas glares up at me as he grapples with the man. Go! he mouths.
Swiftly, I snake the rope between my boots and pull myself up hand over hand. Once at the top, I take aim at a second pinnacle thirty feet away, directly over the Commandant’s tent. I let the grappling hook fly. When I’m certain it’s secure, I tie the rope around my waist and take a deep breath, preparing to drop.
Then I look down.
The stupidest bleeding thing you could have done, Aquilla. Freezing wind whips at me, but sweat rolls down my back anyway. Don’t retch. Commandant wouldn’t thank you for spewing sick all over the top of her tent. My mind flashes to the Second Trial. To Elias’s ever-smiling mouth and silver eyes as he roped himself to me. I won’t let you fall. I promise.
But he’s not here. I’m alone, perched like a spider over an abyss. I grab the rope, test it one last time, and jump.
Weightlessness. Terror. My body slams into the wall. I swing wildly—you’re dead, Aquilla. Then I center myself, hoping the Commandant didn’t hear my scrabbling from her tent. I rappel down, slipping easily into the narrow, dark space between the tent and Kauf’s wall.
“—and I both serve the same master, Warden. His time has come. Give me your influence.”
“If our master wanted my aid, he would have asked for it. This is your plot, Keris, not his.” The Warden’s voice is flat, but its toneless boredom hides a deep wariness. He was not nearly so careful when he and I spoke.
“Poor Warden,” the Commandant says. “So loyal and yet always the last to know of our master’s plans. How it must rankle you that he chose me as the instrument of his will.”
“It will rankle me more if your plan jeopardizes all we have worked for. Do not take this risk, Keris. He will not thank you for it.”
“I am speeding the pace at which we carry out his will.”
“You are furthering your own will.”
“The Nightbringer has been gone for months.” The Commandant’s chair scrapes back. “Perhaps he wishes for us to do something useful instead of awaiting his orders like Fivers facing their first battle. We’re running out of time, Sisellius. Marcus has garnered fear, if not respect, from the Gens after the Shrike’s display on Cardium Rock.”