A Torch Against the Night

Page 10


Oh, Elias. He’ll torment himself about those deaths, not seeing them as a necessity but as a choice—the wrong choice. He’ll keep that blood on his hands long after it would have washed off mine.
But some part of me is relieved that the Northman knows how Elias escaped. At least I don’t have to lie anymore. When the Northman asks me about Laia and Elias’s relationship, I can honestly say that I know nothing.
I just have to survive long enough for the Northman to believe me.
“Tell me about them—it’s not so hard, is it? We know the girl was affiliated with the Resistance. Had she turned Elias to their cause? Were they lovers?”
I want to laugh. Your guess is as good as mine.
I try to answer him, but I’m in too much pain to do more than moan. The legionnaires dump me on the floor. I lay curled in a ball, a pathetic attempt to protect my broken ribs. My breath escapes in a wheeze. I wonder if death is close.
I think of the Augurs. Do they know where I am? Do they care?
They must know. And they’ve done nothing to help me.
But I’m not dead yet. And I haven’t given the Northman what he wants. If he’s still asking questions, then Elias is free, and the girl with him.
“Aquilla.” The Northman sounds … different. Tired. “You’re out of time. Tell me about the girl.”
“I don’t—”
“Otherwise, I have orders to beat you to death.”
“Emperor’s orders?” I wheeze. I’m surprised. I thought Marcus would visit all sorts of horrors upon me himself before killing me.
“Doesn’t matter whom the orders come from,” the Northman says. He crouches down. His green eyes meet mine. For once, they are less than calm.
“He’s not worth it, Aquilla,” he says. “Tell me what I need to know.”
“I—I don’t know anything.”
The Northman waits a moment. Watches. When I remain silent, he stands and pulls on the brass beaters.
I think of Elias, in this very dungeon not long ago. What went through his head as he faced death? He seemed so serene when he came to the execution podium. Like he’d made his peace as he faced his fate.
I wish I could borrow some of that peace now. Goodbye, Elias. I hope you find your freedom. I hope you find joy. Skies know none of the rest of us will.
Behind the Northman, the dungeon door clanks open. I hear a familiar, hated gait.
Emperor Marcus Farrar. Come to kill me himself.
“My lord Emperor.” The Northman salutes. The legionnaires drag me to my knees and slant my head downward in a semblance of respect.
In the dim light of the dungeon—and with limited ability to see—I can’t make out Marcus’s expression. But I can make out the identity of the tall, pale-haired figure behind him.
“Father?” What in the bleeding hells is he doing here? Is Marcus using him as leverage? Planning to torture him until I give up information?
“Your Majesty.” My father’s voice as he addresses Marcus is smooth as glass, so uninflected as to be uncaring. But his eyes flick to me, horror-filled. With the little strength I have left in me, I glare at him. Don’t let him see, Father. Don’t let him know what you feel.
“A moment, Pater Aquillus.” Marcus waves my father off and looks, instead, to the Northman. “Lieutenant Harper,” he says. “Anything?”
“She knows nothing about the girl, your Majesty. Nor did she assist in the destruction of Blackcliff.”
So he did believe me.
The Snake waves away the legionnaires holding me. I order myself not to collapse. Marcus takes me by my hair and jerks me to my feet. The Northman watches, stone-faced. I grit my teeth and square my shoulders. I push myself into the hurt, expecting—no, hoping—that Marcus’s eyes will hold nothing but hate.
But he regards me with that eerie tranquility he sometimes has. Like he knows my fears as well as his own.
“Really, Aquilla?” Marcus says, and I look away from him. “Elias Veturius, your one true love”—the words are filthy when he speaks them—“escapes from under your nose with a Scholar wench, and you know nothing about her? Nothing about how she survived the Fourth Trial, for instance? Or her role in the Resistance? Are Lieutenant Harper’s threats ineffective? Maybe I can think of something better.”
Behind Marcus, Father’s face pales further. “Your Majesty, please—”
Marcus ignores him, shoves my back against the dank dungeon wall, and presses his body against mine. He dips his lips close to my ear, and I close my eyes, wishing more than anything that Father wasn’t witnessing this.
“Shall I find someone for us to torment?” Marcus murmurs. “Someone in whose blood we can bathe? Or shall I have you do other things? I do hope you paid attention to Harper’s methods. You’ll be using them frequently as Blood Shrike.”
My nightmares—the ones he somehow knows of—rear before me with terrifying clarity: broken children, hollowed-out mothers, houses crumbling to ash. Me at his side, his loyal commander, his supporter, his lover. Reveling in it. Wanting it. Wanting him.
Just nightmares.
“I know nothing,” I croak. “I’m loyal to the Empire. I have always been loyal to the Empire.” Don’t torture my father, I want to add, but I force myself not to beg.
“Your Majesty.” My father is more forceful this time. “Our arrangement?”