A Torch Against the Night

Page 106


“Then I must stop her.” And now we’ve come to it: the crux of our discussion. I decide to forgo subtlety. If the Commandant intends to launch a coup, I have no time. “Give me Elias Veturius, Warden. I cannot return to Antium without him.”
“Ah yes.” The Warden taps his fingers together. “That might be a problem, Shrike.”
“What do you want, Warden?”
The Warden gestures for me to walk with him down one of the docks, away from his men and Harper. The Northman shakes his head sharply when I follow, but I have no choice. When we are out of earshot, the old man turns to me.
“I hear, Blood Shrike, that you have a specific … skill.” He fixes his eyes on me hungrily, and a chill rolls up my spine.
“Warden, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but—”
“Do not insult my intelligence. Blackcliff’s physician, Titinius, is an old friend. He shared with me recently the most remarkable story of recovery he’s witnessed in his time at the school. Elias Veturius was hovering on the edge of death when a southern poultice saved him. But when Titinius tried the poultice on another patient, it didn’t work. He suspects that Elias’s recovery was due to something—someone—else.”
“What,” I say again, my hand straying to my weapon, “do you want?”
“I want to study your power,” the Warden says. “I want to understand it.”
“I don’t have time for your experiments,” I snap. “Give me Elias and we’ll talk.”
“If I give you Veturius, you will simply abscond with him,” the Warden says. “No, you must remain. A few days, no more, and then I’ll release you both.”
“Warden,” I say. “There’s a bleeding coup that’s going to take down the Empire. I must return to Antium to warn the Emperor. And I cannot return without Elias. Give him to me and I vow by blood and by bone that I will come back here for your … observation as soon as the situation is under control.”
“A pretty vow,” the Warden says. “But unreliable.” He strokes his chin thoughtfully, an eerie light in his eyes. “Such a fascinating philosophical quandary you face, Blood Shrike. Stay here, submit to experimentation, and risk that, in your absence, the Empire will fall to Keris Veturia? Or go back, stop the coup, and save the Empire, but risk forfeiting your family?”
“This isn’t a game,” I say. “My family’s lives are at stake. Bleeding hells, the Empire is at stake. And if neither of those things matter to you, then think of yourself, Warden. Do you think Keris will just let you lurk up here after she becomes Empress? She’ll kill you the first chance she gets.”
“Oh, I think our new Empress will find my knowledge of the Empire’s secrets … compelling.”
My blood seethes in hatred as I glare at the old man. Could I perhaps break into Kauf? Avitas knows the prison well. He spent years here. But there are only two of us and a fortress of the Warden’s men.
I remember, then, what Cain said to me when all this began, just after Marcus ordered me to bring him Elias.
You will hunt Elias. You will find him. For what you learn on that journey—about yourself, your land, your enemies—that knowledge is essential to the Empire’s survival. And to your destiny.
This. This is what he meant. I do not yet know what I have learned about myself, but I understand now what is happening within my land, within the Empire. I understand what my enemy is planning.
I was going to bring Elias to Marcus for execution to show the Emperor’s strength. To give him a victory. But killing Elias isn’t the only way to do that. Crushing a coup led by one of the Empire’s most feared soldiers would work just as well. If Marcus and I take down the Commandant, the Illustrian Gens will be loath to cross him. Civil war will be averted. The Empire will be safe.
As for Elias, my gut twists when I think of him in the hands of the Warden. But I cannot concern myself with his welfare any longer. Besides which, I know my friend. The Warden won’t be able to keep him locked up for long.
“Empire first, old man,” I say. “You can keep Veturius—and your experiments.”
The Warden regards me without expression.
“Callow is the hope of our youth,” he murmurs. “They are fools. They know no better. From Recollections, by Rajin of Serra—one of the only Scholars worth quoting. I believe he wrote that a few moments before Taius the First lopped his head off. If you do not want your Emperor’s fate to be similar, then you’d best be on your way.”
He signals to his men, and moments later the door of the boathouse thuds shut behind them. Avitas pads silently to my side.
“No Veturius, and a coup to stop,” Avitas says. “Do you want to explain your thinking now,” he asks, “or on the way?”
“On the way.” I step into the canoe and grab an oar. “We’re already out of time.”
Keenan is the Nightbringer. A jinn. A demon.
Though I repeat the words in my head, they do not penetrate. Cold seeps into my bones, and I look down, surprised to find I’ve fallen to my knees in the snow. Get up, Laia. I cannot move.
I hate him. Skies, I hate him. But I loved him. Didn’t I? I reach for my armlet, as if pawing at myself will make it reappear. Keenan’s transformation flashes through my mind—then the mockery in his warped voice.