In the daylight, it’s easier to push away my doubts and convince myself that I’ll find the Resistance. But I wander for hours, and eventually, the light fades and night falls, dropping like a curtain over my eyes. With it, fear comes rushing into my mind, a river that’s broken a dam. Every thump is a murderous aux soldier, every scritch a horde of rats. The catacombs have swallowed me as a python swallows a mouse. I shudder, knowing that I have a mouse’s chance of survival down here.
Save Darin. Find the Resistance.
Hunger gathers into a knot in my stomach, and thirst burns my throat. I spot a torch flickering in the distance, and feel a mothlike urge to head toward it. But the torches mark Empire territory, and the aux soldiers who get tunnel duty are probably Plebeians, the most lowborn of the Martials. If a group of Plebes catches me down here, I don’t want to think of what they’ll do.
I feel like a hunted, craven animal, which is exactly how the Empire sees me—how it sees all Scholars. The Emperor says that we are a free people who live under his benevolence. But that’s a joke. We can’t own property or attend schools, and even the mildest transgression results in enslavement.
No one else suffers such harshness. Tribesmen are protected under a treaty; during the invasion, they accepted Martial rule in exchange for free movement for their people. Mariners are protected by geography and the vast amounts of spices, meat, and iron they trade.
In the Empire, only Scholars are treated like trash.
Then defy the Empire, Laia, I hear Darin’s voice. Save me. Find the Resistance.
The darkness slows my footsteps until I’m practically crawling. The tunnel I’m in narrows, the walls crowding closer. Sweat pours down my back, and my whole body quakes—I hate small spaces. My breath echoes raggedly.
Somewhere ahead, water falls in a lonely drip. How many ghosts haunt this place? How many vengeful spirits roam these tunnels?
Stop, Laia. No such things as ghosts. As a child, I spent hours listening to Tribal talespinners weave their legends of the mythical fey: the Nightbringer and his fellow jinn; ghosts, efrits, wraiths, and wights.
Sometimes the tales spilled into my nightmares. When they did, it was Darin who calmed my fears. Unlike Tribesmen, Scholars are not superstitious, and Darin has always had a Scholar’s healthy skepticism. No ghosts here, Laia. I hear his voice in my mind and close my eyes, pretending he’s beside me, allowing myself to be reassured by his steady presence. No wraiths either. There’s no such thing.
My hand goes to my armlet, as it always does when I need strength. It’s nearly black with tarnish, but I prefer it that way; it draws less attention. I trace the pattern in the silver, a series of connecting lines that I know so well I see it in my dreams.
Mother gave me the armlet the last time I saw her, when I was five. It’s one of the few clear memories I have of her—the cinnamon scent of her hair, the sparkle in her storm-sea eyes.
“Keep it safe for me, little cricket. Just for a week. Just until I come back.”
What would she say now, if she knew I’d kept the armlet safe but lost her only son? That I’d saved my own neck and sacrificed my brother’s?
Set it right. Save Darin. Find the Resistance. I release the armlet and stumble on.
Soon after, I hear the first sounds behind me.
A whisper. The scrape of a boot on stone. If the crypts weren’t silent, I doubt I’d have noticed, the sounds are so quiet. Too quiet for an aux soldier.
Too furtive for the Resistance. A Mask?
My heart thumps, and I whirl, searching the tarry blackness. Masks can prowl through darkness like this as easily as if they are part wraith. I wait, frozen, but the catacombs fall silent again. I don’t move. I don’t breathe. I hear nothing.
Rat. It’s just a rat. A really big one, maybe...
When I dare to take another step, I catch a whiff of leather and woodsmoke—human smells. I drop and search the floor with my hands for a weapon—a rock, a stick, a bone—anything to fight off whoever is stalking me. Then tinder hits flint, a hiss splits the air, and a moment later, a torch catches fire with a whoosh.
I stand, shielding my face with my hands, the impression of the flame pulsing behind my lids. When I force my eyes open, I make out a half-dozen hooded figures in a circle around me, all with loaded bows pointed at my heart.
“Who are you?” one of the figures says, stepping forward. Though his voice is cool and flat as a legionnaire’s, he doesn’t have the breadth and height of a Martial. His bare arms are hard with muscle, and he moves with fluid grace. A knife rests in one hand like it’s an extension of his body, and he holds the torch in his other. I try to find his eyes, but they’re hidden beneath the hood. “Speak.”
“I—” After hours of silence, I can barely manage a croak. “I’m looking for...”
Why didn’t I think this through? I can’t tell them I’m looking for the Resistance. No one with half a brain would admit to seeking out the rebels.
“Check her,” the man says when I don’t go on.
Another of the figures, slight and womanly, slings her bow on her back.
The torch sputters behind her, casting her face into deep shadow. She looks too small to be a Martial, and the skin of her hands doesn’t have the dark hue of a Mariner’s. She’s probably either a Scholar or a Tribeswoman. Maybe I can reason with her.
“Please,” I say. “Let me—”
“Shut it,” the man who’d spoken before says. “Sana, anything?”