“Elias,” Helene whispers. Her eyes plead. Fall in. Just for one more day.
“He—” Say it, Elias. Doesn’t change anything if you do. “He deserved it.”
I meet Marcus’s eyes coolly, and he grins, like he knows how much the words cost.
“Was that so hard, bastard?”
I’m relieved when he insults me. It gives me the excuse I’ve wanted so badly. I spring toward him fists-first.
But my friends are expecting it. Faris, Demetrius, and Helene are on their feet, holding me back, an irritating wall of black and blond keeping me from beating that damn grin off Marcus’s face.
“No, Elias,” Helene says. “The Commandant will whip you for starting a fight. Marcus isn’t worth that.”
“He’s a bastard—”
“That’d be you, actually,” Marcus says. “At least I know who my father is. I wasn’t raised by a pack of camel-stroking Tribesmen.”
“You Plebeian trash—”
“Senior Skulls.” The Scim Centurion has made his way to the foot of the table. “Is there a problem?”
“No, sir,” Helene says. “Go, Elias,” she murmurs. “Go get some air. I’ll handle this.”
My blood still burning, I shove through the mess doors and find myself in the belltower courtyard before I even know where I’m going.
How the hell did Marcus figure out that I’m going to desert? How much does he know? Not too much, or I’d have been called to the Commandant’s office by now. Damn him, I’m close. So close.
I pace the courtyard, trying to calm myself. The desert heat has faded, and a crescent moon hangs low on the horizon, thin and red as a cannibal’s smile. Through the arches, Serra’s lights glow dully, tens of thousands of oil lamps dwarfed by the vast darkness of the surrounding desert. To the south, a pall of smoke mutes the shine of the river. The smell of steel and forge wafts past, ever-present in a city known solely for its soldiers and weaponry.
I wish I could have seen Serra before all this, when it was capital of the Scholar Empire. Under the Scholars, the great buildings were libraries and universities instead of barracks and training halls. The Street of Storytellers was filled with stages and theaters instead of an arms market where the only stories told now are of war and death.
It’s a stupid wish, like wanting to fly. For all their knowledge of astronomy and architecture and mathematics, the Scholars crumbled beneath the Empire’s invasion. Serra’s beauty is long gone. It’s a Martial city now.
Above, the heavens glow, the sky pale with starlight. Some long-buried part of me understands that this is beauty, but I am unable to wonder at it, the way I did when I was a boy. Back then, I clambered up spiky Jack trees to get closer to the stars, sure that a few feet of height would help me see them better. Back then, my world had been sand and sky and the love of Tribe Saif, who saved me from exposure. Back then, everything was different.
“All things change, Elias Veturius. You are no boy now, but a man, with a man’s burden upon your shoulders and a man’s choice ahead of you.”
My knife is in my hands, though I don’t remember drawing it, and I hold it to the throat of the hooded man beside me. Years of training keep my arm steady as a rock, but my mind races. Where had the man come from? I’d swear on the lives of everyone in my platoon that he hadn’t been standing there a moment ago.
“Who the hell are you?”
He pulls down his hood, and I have my answer.
We race through the catacombs, Keenan ahead of me, Sana at my heels. When Keenan is convinced we’ve left the aux patrol behind, he slows our pace and barks at Sana to blindfold me.
I flinch at the harshness in his tone. This is what’s become of the Resistance? This band of thugs and thieves? How did it happen? Only twelve years ago, the rebels were at the height of their power, allying themselves with the Tribes and the king of Marinn. They’d lived their code—Izzat—fighting for freedom, protecting the innocent, elevating loyalty to their own people above all else.
Does the Resistance remember that code anymore? On the off chance that they do, will they help me? Can they help me?
You’ll make them help you. Darin’s voice again, confident and strong, like when he taught me to climb a tree, like when he taught me to read.
“We’re here,” Sana whispers after what feels like hours. I hear a series of knocks and the scrape of a door opening.
Sana guides me forward, and a burst of cool air washes over me, fresh as spring after the stench of the catacombs. Light creeps through the edges of my blindfold. The rich green smell of tobacco curls up into my nose, and I think of my father, a pipe clenched between his teeth as he drew pictures of efrits and wights for me. What would he say if he saw me now, in a Resistance hideout?
Voices mutter and murmur. Warm fingers tangle in my hair, and a moment later, my blindfold falls away. Keenan is right behind me.
“Sana,” he says. “Give her some neem leaf and get her out of here.” He turns to another fighter, a girl a few years older than me who flushes when he speaks to her. “Where’s Mazen? Have Raj and Navid reported yet?”
“What’s neem leaf?” I ask Sana when I’m sure Keenan can’t hear. I’ve never heard of it, and I know most herbs from working with Pop.
“It’s an opiate. It’ll make you forget the last few hours.” At my widening eyes, she shakes her head. “I won’t give it to you. Not yet, anyway. Have a seat. You look a mess.”