The Commandant shifts, and I tear my eyes away, paranoid that I’ve been too obvious. But she reads on, and I risk another glance. By then, she’s turned the parchment over.
—allies are deserting Gens Taia like rats fleeing a fire. I have learned that the Commandant is planning—
But I do not find out what the Commandant is planning, for at that moment, I look up. She is watching me in the mirror.
“The—the marks are beautiful,” I say in a choked whisper, dropping one of the hairpins. I bend to retrieve it, taking those precious seconds to hide my panic. I’ll be whipped for reading something that doesn’t even make any sense. Why did I let her see me? Why wasn’t I more careful? “I haven’t seen much of words,” I add.
“No.” The woman’s eyes flicker, and for a moment, I think she’s mocking me. “Your kind doesn’t need to read.” She examines her hair. “The right side’s too low. Fix it.”
Though I feel like crying from relief, I keep my face carefully bland and slide another pin into her silken hair.
“How long have you been here, slave?”
“Ten days, sir.”
“Have you made any friends?”
This question is so preposterous coming from the Commandant that I almost laugh. Friends? At Blackcliff? Kitchen-Girl is too shy to talk to me, and Cook only speaks to give me orders. The rest of Blackcliff’s slaves live and work on the main grounds. They are silent and distant—always alone, always wary.
“You’re here for life, girl,” the Commandant says, inspecting her now-finished hair. “Maybe you should get to know your fellows. Here,” she hands me two sealed letters. “Take the one with the red seal to the couriers’ office and the one with the black seal to Spiro Teluman. Don’t leave him without a reply.”
Who Spiro Teluman is and how to find him I don’t dare to ask. The Commandant punishes questions with pain. I take the letters and back out of the room to avoid any surprise attacks. A breath explodes out of me when I close the door. Thank the skies the woman is too arrogant to think her Scholar drudge can read. As I walk down the hall, I peek at the first letter and nearly drop it. It’s addressed to Emperor Taius.
What would she be corresponding with Taius about? The Trials? I run an experimental finger near the seal. Still soft, it lifts cleanly.
There’s a scrape behind me, and the letter falls from my hand as I whip around. My mind screams Commandant! But the hall is empty. I pick up the letter and shove it into my pocket. It seems alive, like a snake or spider I’ve decided to keep as a pet. I touch the seal again before jerking my hand away.
But I need something to give the Resistance. Every day when I leave Blackcliff to run the Commandant’s errands, I fear Keenan will pull me aside and demand a report. Every day he doesn’t is a reprieve. Eventually, I’ll run out of time.
I have to get my cloak, so I head to the servants’ quarters in the open-air hallway just outside the kitchen. My room, like Kitchen-Girl’s and Cook’s, is a dank hole with a low entrance and a ragged curtain that serves as a door.
Inside, it’s just wide enough to fit a rope pallet and a crate that serves as a side table.
From here, I can hear the low tones of Cook and Kitchen-Girl speaking.
Kitchen-Girl, at least, has been slightly friendlier than Cook. She’s helped me with my duties more than once, and at the end of my first day, when I thought I’d faint from the pain of the lashes I’d received, I saw her scuttle away from my quarters. When I went in, I found a healing salve and a mug of pain-numbing tea.
That’s as far as her friendship extends. I’ve asked her and Cook questions, discussed the weather, complained about the Commandant. No response.
I’m fairly certain that if I walked into the kitchen stark-naked and squawking like a chicken, I still wouldn’t get a word out of them. I don’t want to approach them again only to hit a wall of silence, but I need someone to tell me who Spiro Teluman is and how to find him.
I enter the kitchen to find them both sweating from the heat of the blazing hearth. Lunch is baking already. My mouth waters, and I long for Nan’s food. We never had much, but whatever we did have was made with love, which I now know transforms simple fare into a feast. Here, we eat the Commandant’s scraps, and no matter how hungry I am, they taste like sawdust.
Kitchen-Girl gives me a glance in greeting, and Cook ignores me. The older woman perches on a rickety stepstool to reach a string of garlic. She looks like she’s about to fall, but when I offer a hand to brace her, she glares daggers at me.
I drop my hand and stand there awkwardly for a moment.
“Can—can you tell me where to find Spiro Teluman?”
“Look,” I say. “I know I’m new, but the Commandant told me to make friends. I thought—”
Ever so slowly, Cook turns to me. Her face is gray, as if she might be ill.
“Friends.” It’s the first word she’s said to me that isn’t an order. The old woman shakes her head and takes her garlic to the counter. The anger in her strokes as she chops it is unmistakable. I don’t know what I’ve done that’s so terrible, but she won’t help me now. I sigh and leave the kitchen. I’ll have to ask someone else about Spiro Teluman.
“He’s a swordsmith,” I hear a soft voice say. Kitchen-Girl has followed me out. She looks over her shoulder, worried Cook will hear her. “You’ll find him along the river, in the Weapons Quarter.” She quickly turns, ready to walk away, and it’s this more than anything else that makes me speak to her. I haven’t had a conversation with a normal person in ten days; I’ve barely said anything other than “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”