I wonder if this is real. If it’s a nightmare. It’s real, Laia. Move.
I drop the sketchbook out the window into a hedge. It’s a poor hiding place, but I have no time. Nan hobbles into my room. Her hands, so steady when she stirs vats of jam or braids my hair, flutter like frantic birds, desperate for me to move faster.
She pulls me into the hallway. Darin stands with Pop at the back door. My grandfather’s white hair is scattered as a haystack and his clothes are wrinkled, but there’s no sleep in the deep grooves of his face. He murmurs something to my brother, then hands him Nan’s largest kitchen knife. I don’t know why he bothers. Against the Serric steel of a Martial blade, the knife will only shatter.
“You and Darin leave through the backyard,” Nan says, her eyes darting from window to window. “They haven’t surrounded the house yet.”
No. No. No. “Nan,” I breathe her name, stumbling when she pushes me toward Pop.
“Hide in the east end of the Quarter—” Her sentence ends in a choke, her eyes on the front window. Through the ragged curtains, I catch a flash of a liquid silver face. My stomach clenches.
“A Mask,” Nan says. “They’ve brought a Mask. Go, Laia. Before he gets inside.”
“What about you? What about Pop?”
“We’ll hold them off.” Pop shoves me gently out the door. “Keep your secrets close, love. Listen to Darin. He’ll take care of you. Go.”
Darin’s lean shadow falls over me, and he grabs my hand as the door closes behind us. He slouches to blend into the warm night, moving silently across the loose sand of the backyard with a confidence I wish I felt. Although I am seventeen and old enough to control my fear, I grip his hand like it’s the only solid thing in this world.
I’m not working for them, Darin said. Then whom is he working for?
Somehow, he got close enough to the forges of Serra to draw, in detail, the creation process of the Empire’s most precious asset: the unbreakable, curved scims that can cut through three men at once.
A half a millennium ago, the Scholars crumbled beneath the Martial invasion because our blades broke against their superior steel. Since then, we have learned nothing of steelcraft. The Martials hoard their secrets the way a miser hoards gold. Anyone caught near our city’s forges without good reason—Scholar or Martial—risks execution.
If Darin isn’t with the Empire, how did he get near Serra’s forges? How did the Martials find out about his sketchbook?
On the other side of the house, a fist pounds on the front door. Boots shuffle, steel clinks. I look around wildly, expecting to see the silver armor and red capes of Empire legionnaires, but the backyard is still. The fresh night air does nothing to stop the sweat rolling down my neck. Distantly, I hear the thud of drums from Blackcliff, the Mask training school. The sound sharpens my fear into a hard point stabbing at my center. The Empire doesn’t send those silver-faced monsters on just any raid.
The pounding on the door sounds again.
“In the name of the Empire,” an irritated voice says, “I demand you open this door.”
As one, Darin and I freeze.
“Doesn’t sound like a Mask,” Darin whispers. Masks speak softly with words that cut through you like a scim. In the time it would take a legionnaire to knock and issue an order, a Mask would already be in the house, weapons slicing through anyone in his way.
Darin meets my eyes, and I know we’re both thinking the same thing. If the Mask isn’t with the rest of the soldiers at the front door, then where is he?
“Don’t be afraid, Laia,” Darin says. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
I want to believe him, but my fear is a tide tugging at my ankles, pulling me under. I think of the couple that lived next door: raided, imprisoned, and sold into slavery three weeks ago. Book smugglers, the Martials said. Five days after that, one of Pop’s oldest patients, a ninety-three-year-old man who could barely walk, was executed in his own home, his throat slit from ear to ear.
What will the soldiers do to Nan and Pop? Jail them? Enslave them?
We reach the back gate. Darin stands on his toes to unhook the latch when a scrape in the alley beyond stops him short. A breeze sighs past, sending a cloud of dust into the air.
Darin pushes me behind him. His knuckles are white around the knife handle as the gate swings open with a moan. A finger of terror draws a trail up my spine. I peer over my brother’s shoulder into the alley.
There is nothing out there but the quiet shifting of sand. Nothing but the occasional gust of wind and the shuttered windows of our sleeping neighbors.
I sigh in relief and step around Darin.
That’s when the Mask emerges from the darkness and walks through the gate.
The deserter will be dead before dawn.
His tracks zigzag like a struck deer’s in the dust of Serra’s catacombs.
The tunnels have done him in. The hot air is too heavy down here, the smells of death and rot too close.
The tracks are more than an hour old by the time I see them. The guards have his scent now, poor bastard. If he’s lucky, he’ll die in the chase. If not...
Don’t think about it. Hide the backpack. Get out of here.
Skulls crunch as I shove a pack loaded with food and water into a wall crypt. Helene would give me hell if she could see how I’m treating the dead.
But then, if Helene finds out why I’m down here in the first-place, desecration will be the least of her complaints.