She won’t find out. Not until it’s too late. Guilt pricks at me, but I shove it away. Helene’s the strongest person I know. She’ll be fine without me.
For what feels like the hundredth time, I look over my shoulder. The tunnel is quiet. The deserter led the soldiers in the opposite direction. But safety’s an illusion I know never to trust. I work quickly, piling bones back in front of the crypt to cover my trail, my senses primed for anything out of the ordinary.
One more day of this. One more day of paranoia and hiding and lying.
One day until graduation. Then I’ll be free.
As I rearrange the crypt’s skulls, the hot air shifts like a bear waking from hibernation. The smells of grass and snow cut through the fetid breath of the tunnel. Two seconds is all I have to step away from the crypt and kneel, examining the ground as if there might be tracks here. Then she is at my back.
“Elias? What are you doing down here?”
“Didn’t you hear? There’s a deserter loose.” I keep my attention fixed on the dusty floor. Beneath the silver mask that covers me from forehead to jaw, my face should be unreadable. But Helene Aquilla and I have been together nearly every day of the fourteen years we’ve been training at Blackcliff Military Academy; she can probably hear me thinking.
She comes around me silently, and I look up into her eyes, as blue and pale as the warm waters of the southern islands. My mask sits atop my face, separate and foreign, hiding my features as well as my emotions. But Hel’s mask clings to her like a silvery second skin, and I can see the slight furrow in her brow as she looks down at me. Relax, Elias, I tell myself. You’re just looking for a deserter.
“He didn’t come this way,” Hel says. She runs a hand over her hair, braided, as always, into a tight, silver-blonde crown. “Dex took an auxiliary company off the north watchtower and into the East Branch tunnel. You think they’ll catch him?”
Aux soldiers, though not as highly trained as legionnaires and nothing compared to Masks, are still merciless hunters. “Of course they’ll catch him.”
I fail to keep the bitterness out of my voice, and Helene gives me a hard look.
“The cowardly scum,” I add. “Anyway, why are you awake? You weren’t on watch this morning.” I made sure of it.
“Those bleeding drums.” Helene looks around the tunnel. “Woke everyone up.”
The drums. Of course. Deserter, they’d thundered in the middle of the graveyard watch. All active units to the walls. Helene must have decided to join the hunt. Dex, my lieutenant, would have told her which direction I’d gone. He’d have thought nothing of it.
“I thought the deserter might have come this way.” I turn from my hidden pack to look down another tunnel. “Guess I was wrong. I should catch up to Dex.”
“Much as I hate to admit it, you’re not usually wrong.” Helene cocks her head and smiles at me. I feel that guilt again, wrenching as a fist to the gut.
She’ll be furious when she learns what I’ve done. She’ll never forgive me.
Doesn’t matter. You’ve decided. Can’t turn back now.
Hel traces the dust on the ground with a fair, practiced hand. “I’ve never even seen this tunnel before.”
A drop of sweat crawls down my neck. I ignore it.
“It’s hot, and it reeks,” I say. “Like everything else down here.” Come on, I want to add. But doing so would be like tattooing “I am up to no good” on my forehead. I keep quiet and lean against the catacomb wall, arms crossed.
The field of battle is my temple. I mentally chant a saying my grandfather taught me the day he met me, when I was six. He insists it sharpens the mind the way a whetstone sharpens a blade. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.
Helene peers at my blurred tracks, following them, somehow, to the crypt where I stowed my pack, to the skulls piled there. She’s suspicious, and the air between us is suddenly tense.
I need to distract her. As she looks between me and the crypt, I run my gaze lazily down her body. She stands two inches shy of six feet—a half-foot shorter than me. She’s the only female student at Blackcliff; in the black, close-fitting fatigues all students wear, her strong, slender form has always drawn admiring glances. Just not mine. We’ve been friends too long for that.
Come on, notice. Notice me leering and get mad about it.
When I meet her eyes, brazen as a sailor fresh into port, she opens her mouth, as if to rip into me. Then she looks back at the crypt.
If she sees the pack and guesses what I’m up to, I’m done for. She might hate doing it, but Empire law would demand she report me, and Helene’s never broken a law in her life.
I prepare my lie. Just wanted to get away for a couple of days, Hel. Needed some time to think. Didn’t want to worry you.
Without thought, I translate the disparate beats into the message they are meant to convey. Deserter caught. All students report to central courtyard immediately.
My stomach sinks. Some naïve part of me hoped the deserter would at least make it out of the city. “That didn’t take long,” I say. “We should go.”
I make for the main tunnel. Helene follows, as I knew she would. She would stab herself in the eye before she disobeyed a direct order. Helene is a true Martial, more loyal to the Empire than to her own mother. Like any good Mask-in-training, she takes Blackcliff’s motto to heart: Duty first, unto death.