A Torch Against the Night

Page 80


What did he do that was so wrong? He wished to be free. He wished to stop killing.
“Don’t try to puzzle it out now.” Avitas follows me into my room and sets Dex’s message on my desk. “You need food. Sleep. We’ll start on it in the morning.”
I hang up my weapons and go to the window. The stars are obscured, the purple-black sky promising snow. “I should go to my parents.” They heard what Marcus said—everyone on top of that damned rock did, and there’s no bigger bunch of gossips than Illustrians. The entire city must know of Marcus’s threat to my family.
“Your father came by.” Avitas hovers by the door, his Masked face suddenly uncomfortable. I suppress a wince. “He suggested you keep your distance for now. Apparently your sister Hannah is … upset.”
“You mean she wants to drink my blood.” I close my eyes. Poor Hannah. Her future rests in the hands of the one person she trusts the least. Mother will try to soothe her, as will Livia. Father will coax, then coerce, then order her to stop her hysterics. But in the end, they’ll all be wondering the same thing: Will I choose my family and the Empire? Or will I choose Elias?
I turn my mind to the mission. North, Dex had said. And the girl is still with him. Why would he take her deeper into the Empire? Even if he had some pressing reason to remain in Martial territory, why put the girl at risk?
It’s like he’s not making the decisions. But who else would be? The girl? Why would he let her? What could she possibly know about escaping the Empire?
“Blood Shrike.” I jump. I’d forgotten that Avitas was in the room—he’s so quiet. “Shall I bring you some food? You need to eat. I asked the kitchen slaves to keep some warm for you.”
The Cook.
The girl—Laia, the old woman said. Don’t touch her.
They must have grown close while enslaved. Maybe the Cook knows something. After all, she figured out how Laia and Elias escaped Serra.
All I have to do is find her.
But if I start looking, someone will inevitably blab that the Blood Shrike is searching for a white-haired, scar-faced woman. The Commandant will hear, and that will be the end of Cook. Not that I care about the old hag’s fate. But if she knows anything about Laia, I need her alive.
“Avitas,” I say. “Does the Black Guard have contacts in Antium’s underground?”
“The Black Market? Of course—”
I shake my head. “The city’s unseen. Urchins, beggars, transients.”
Avitas frowns. “They’re mostly Scholars, and the Commandant’s been herding them for enslavement or execution. But I know a few people. What are you thinking?”
“I need to get a message out.” I speak carefully. Avitas doesn’t know Cook helped me—he’d go straight to the Commandant with such information.
“Singer seeks meal,” I finally say.
“Singer seeks meal,” Avitas repeats. “That’s … it?”
Cook seems a bit crazy, but hopefully she’ll understand.
“That’s it. Get it to as many people as you can, and swiftly,” I say. Avitas looks at me quizzically.
“Did I not say I wanted this done quickly?”
A ghost of a frown on his face. Then he’s gone.
After he leaves, I pick up Dex’s message. Harper didn’t read it. But why? I have never sensed malice in him, true. I’ve never sensed anything at all. And since leaving the Tribal lands, he’s been … not friendly, exactly, but slightly less opaque. What game is he playing now, I wonder?
I file Dex’s message away and drop into my cot, boots still on. Still, I cannot sleep. It will take Avitas hours to get the message out and hours more for Cook to hear it—if she hears it at all. I know this, yet I jump at every sound, expecting the old woman to materialize as suddenly as a wraith. Finally, I drag myself over to my desk, where I read through the old Blood Shrike’s files—information he’s gathered about some of the highest-ranking men in the Empire.
Many of the reports are straightforward. Others less so. I did not, for instance, know that Gens Cassia had hushed up the murder of a Plebeian servant on their premises. Or that the Mater of Gens Aurelia had four lovers, all Paters of noted Illustrian houses.
The old Shrike kept files about the men of the Black Guard too, and when I spot Avitas’s file, my fingers are moving before I can think twice. It’s as lean as he is, with just one piece of parchment within.
Avitas Harper: Plebeian
Father: Combat Centurion Arius Harper (Plebeian). Killed in service, age twenty-eight. Avitas age four at time of death. Remained with mother, Renatia Harper (Plebeian), in Jeilum until selection for Blackcliff.
Jeilum is a city west of here, deep in the Nevennes tundra. Isolated as the ten hells.
Mother: Renatia Harper. Died age thirty-two. Avitas age ten at time of death. Subsequently kept by paternal grandparents during school leaves.
Spent four years under Blackcliff Commandant Horatio Laurentius. Remaining Blackcliff training carried out by Commandant Keris Veturia.
Showed great potential as Yearling. Remained average during tenure of Commandant Keris Veturia. Multiple sources report Veturia’s interest in Harper from early age.
I turn the paper over, but there is nothing more.
Hours later, just before dawn, I wake with a jerk—I’ve fallen asleep at my desk. I scan the room for the scraping noise that disturbed me, dagger in hand.