A Torch Against the Night

Page 70


“Lies,” Afya hisses. “You wouldn’t risk your precious brother’s neck.”
I step forward, my nose an inch from hers, and refuse to back down. I think of Mother. I think of Nan. I think of Darin. I think of all the Scholars who have perished beneath the blades of the Martials.
“Try me.”
Afya holds my gaze for a moment before uttering something between a snarl and a shout. “If we die for this,” she says, “see if I don’t hunt you through the hells until you pay.”
“Vana,” she calls to her cousin. “Take the sisters and the girl. Use Riz’s wagon and the rug wagon.” She turns to Miladh. “You’re with Laia.”
Keenan grabs my shoulder. “Are you sure?”
“We can’t let them die,” I say. “Go—before the Martials get here.” He darts away toward his hiding spot in Zehr’s wagon, and seconds later, Miladh, Ayan, and I are inside Afya’s wagon. I shove back the rug that hides a trapdoor in the floor. It is steel-reinforced and heavy as an elephant. Miladh grunts as he helps me lift it.
It opens to reveal a shallow, wide space full of ghas and firepowder. Afya’s trick compartment. In the past few weeks, many of the Martials who have searched the caravan have found it and, satisfied that they’ve discovered her illegal stash, get lazy about hunting further.
I pull on a hidden lever and hear a click. The compartment rolls back horizontally to reveal a space below the first. It’s just big enough for three people. I drop in on one side, Miladh on the other, and Ayan, wide-eyed, lies between us.
Afya appears in the door of the wagon. Her face is still furious, and she is pointedly silent as she rolls the decoy compartment over us. The trapdoor thuds above that. The rug rustles as she straightens it. Then her footsteps recede.
Through the slats in the compartment, horses snort and metal clinks. I smell pitch. The clipped tones of a Martial are clearly audible, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. A shadow passes over the compartment, and I force myself not to move, not to make a sound. I’ve done this exact thing a dozen times already. Sometimes I’ve waited in here for a half an hour, once for nearly half a day.
Steady, Laia. Calm. Beside me, Ayan fidgets but keeps quiet, perhaps sensing the danger outside the compartment.
“—a group of Scholar rebels, running this way,” a flat voice speaks. The Mask. “Have you seen them?”
“I’ve seen a slave or two,” Afya says. “No rebels.”
“We’ll be searching your wagon anyway, Tribeswoman. Where is your Zaldar?
“I am Zaldara.”
The Mask pauses. “Intriguing,” he says in a way that makes me shudder. I can practically imagine Riz’s hackles going up. “Perhaps you and I can discuss it later, Tribeswoman.”
“Perhaps.” Afya’s voice is a purr, so smooth that I would not have caught the thin thread of rage deep beneath the surface if I hadn’t spent the last few weeks in close quarters with her.
“Start with the green one.” The Mask’s voice recedes. I turn my head, close one eye, and press the other to a space between the planks. I can just make out Gibran’s mirror-encrusted wagon and the supply wagon beside it where Keenan hides.
I thought the rebel would want to hide with me, but the first time the Martials came, he took one look at Afya’s compartment and shook his head.
If we remain separate, he’d said, then even if the Martials discover one of us, the others can still remain hidden.
Too soon, a horse snorts from nearby, and a soldier drops down from it. I catch a glimmer of a silver face and try to keep breathing. Beside me, Miladh holds a hand to his son’s chest.
The stairs at the foot of Afya’s wagon come down, and the heavy gait of the soldier’s boots thunk above us. The footsteps stop.
Doesn’t mean anything. He might not see the seams in the floor. The trapdoor is designed so cleverly that even the decoy compartment is almost impossible to detect.
The soldier paces back and forth. He leaves the wagon, but I cannot relax, for seconds later, he circles it.
“Zaldara,” he calls to Afya. “Your wagon is built rather strangely.” He sounds almost amused. “From the outside, the bottom of this wagon drops to a foot or so off the ground. But the inside is considerably higher.”
“Tribespeople like our wagons solid, my lord,” Afya says. “Otherwise they break apart at the first pothole in the road.”
“Aux,” the Mask calls out to another soldier. “Come here. Zaldara, you too.” Boots thud up Afya’s stairs, followed by her lighter footsteps.
Breathe, Laia. Breathe. We’re going to be fine. This has happened before.
“Pull back the rug, Zaldara.”
The rug shifts. A second later, I hear the telltale click of the trapdoor. Skies, no.
“You like your wagons solid, eh?” the Mask says. “Not that solid, apparently.”
“Perhaps we can discuss this,” Afya says smoothly. “I’m happy to offer a small tribute if you’ll simply overlook—”
“I’m not an Empire toll collector you can bribe with a brick of ghas, Tribeswoman.” The Mask’s voice is no longer amused. “This substance is outlawed, and it will be confiscated and destroyed, as will the firepowder. Soldier, remove the contraband.”
All right, you’ve found it. Now keep going.
The soldier lifts the ghas out brick by brick. This too has happened before, though until now, Afya has managed to dissuade the Martials from looking further with only a few bricks of ghas. This Mask doesn’t move until everything in the compartment is gone.