“You mean after she foiled your plot to foment dissent.”
“The plot would have succeeded,” Keris says, “if you had helped me. Don’t make the same mistake this time. With the Shrike out of the way”—not yet, you hag—“Marcus is still vulnerable. If you would simply—”
“Secrets are not slaves, Keris. They are not meant to be used and cast aside. I will deploy them with patience and precision, or I will not deploy them at all. I must consider your request.”
“Consider quickly.” The Commandant’s voice takes on the soft edge known to send men scurrying away in fear. “My men will march on Antium in three days and arrive on Rathana. I must leave by morning. I cannot claim my throne if I’m not leading my own army.”
I put my fist in my mouth to keep from gasping. My men … my throne … my army.
Finally, the pieces fall into place. The soldiers ordered to report elsewhere, leaving garrisons empty. The lack of men in the countryside. The troop shortage on the embattled borders of the Empire. It all leads back to her.
That army in the Argent Hills doesn’t belong to Marcus. It belongs to the Commandant. And in less than a week she’s going to use it to murder him and declare herself Empress.
The moment the Blood Shrike is out of earshot, I turn to Keenan. “I’m not leaving Elias,” I say. “If Helene gets her hands on him, he’ll go straight to Antium for execution.”
Keenan grimaces. “Laia,” he says. “It might be too late for that. There is nothing stopping her from walking in and taking custody of him.” He lowers his voice. “Perhaps we should focus on Darin.”
“I will not leave Elias to die at her hands,” I say. “Not when I’m the only reason he’s in Kauf in the first place.”
“Forgive me,” Keenan says, “but the poison will take Elias soon, in any case.”
“So you’d leave him to torture and public execution?” I know Keenan has never liked Elias, but I did not think the animosity ran this deep.
The lamplight flickers, and Keenan runs a hand through his hair, brow furrowed. He kicks a few damp leaves out of the way and gestures for me to sit.
“We can get him out too,” I argue. “We just have to move fast and find a way in. I don’t think Aquilla can just walk in and take him out. She would have already done it if that were the case. She wouldn’t have bothered to talk to us.”
I roll out Elias’s map—dirt-stained and faded now. “This cave.” I point to a spot Elias marked on the map. “It’s north of the prison, but perhaps we could get inside—”
“We’d need firepowder for that,” Keenan says. “We have none.”
Fair enough. I point to another path marked on the north side of the prison, but Keenan shakes his head. “That route is blocked, according to the information I have, which is from six months ago. Elias was last here six years ago.”
We stare at the parchment, and I point to the west side of the prison, where Elias marked a path. “What about this? There are sewers here. And it’s exposed, yes, but if I could make myself invisible, like I did during the raid—”
Keenan looks at me sharply. “Have you been working at that again? When you should have been resting?” When I don’t answer, he groans. “Skies, Laia, we need all of our wits to pull this off. You’re exhausting yourself trying to harness something you don’t understand—something unreliable—”
“Sorry,” I mumble. If all my practice actually amounted to something, then perhaps I could argue that the risk of exhaustion was worth it. And yes, a few times, while Keenan was on watch or off scouting, I felt like I almost grasped that strange, tingling feeling that meant no one could see me. But as soon as I’d open my eyes and look down, I’d see that I’d failed again.
We eat in silence, and when we’re done, Keenan stands. I scramble to my feet.
“I’m going to go scout the prison,” he says. “I’ll be gone for a few hours. Let me see what I can come up with.”
“I’ll go with—”
“Easier for me to scout alone, Laia,” he says. At the irritated look on my face, he takes my hand and draws me close.
“Trust me,” he says against my hair. His warmth eases away the cold that seems to have taken up residence in my bones. “It’ll be better this way. And don’t worry.” He pulls away, his dark eyes searing. “I’ll find us a way in. I promise. Try to rest while I’m gone. We’ll need all our strength in the next few days.”
After he leaves, I organize our limited belongings, sharpen all of my weapons, and practice the little that Keenan had a chance to teach me. The desire to try again to discover my power pulls at me. But Keenan’s warning echoes in my head. Unreliable.
As I unfurl my bedroll, the hilt of one of Elias’s scims catches my eye. I gingerly pull the weapons from their hiding spot. As I examine the scims, a chill runs through me. So many souls sundered from the earth at the edges of these blades—some on my behalf.
It’s eerie to think of it, and yet I find the scims offer a strange sort of comfort. They feel like Elias. Perhaps because I am so used to seeing them poking up behind his head in that familiar V. How long since I saw him reaching back for those scims at the first hint of a threat? How long since I heard his baritone urging me on or drawing a laugh from me? Only six weeks. But it feels like much longer.