The sky pales, casting the jagged peaks of the mountains around me in shadow. The day is well under way when I emerge from the Gap. The Rei River stretches out below, slow and curving like a well-sated python. Barges and boats dot the water, and just beyond the eastern banks sits the city of Serra, its dun-colored walls imposing even from a distance of miles.
Smoke taints the air. A column of black rises into the sky, and though I can’t see the guardhouse from this spot on the trail, I know with sinking certainty that the Farrars got there before me. That they burned it along with the boathouse attached to it.
I sprint down the mountain, but by the time I reach the guardhouse, it’s nothing but a stinking, sooty hulk. The attached boathouse is a pile of smoldering logs, and the legionnaires manning it have cleared out—probably under orders from the Farrars.
I unlash Helene from my back. The jarring trip down the mountain has reopened her wound. My back is coated in her blood.
“Helene?” I sink to my knees and pat her face softly. “Helene!” Not even a flick of the eyelids. She is lost inside herself, and the skin around her wound is red and fevered. She’s getting an infection.
I stare flintily at the guard shack, willing a boat to appear. Any boat. A raft.
A dinghy. A bleeding, hollowed-out log, I don’t care. Anything. But of course, there’s nothing. Sunset is, at most, an hour away. If I don’t get us across this river, we’re dead.
Strangely, it’s my mother’s voice I hear in my head, cold and pitiless.
Nothing is impossible. It’s something she’s said to her students a hundred times—when we were exhausted from back-to-back training battles or we hadn’t slept in days. She always demanded more. More than we thought we had to give. Either find a way to complete the tasks I have set before you, she would tell us, or die in the attempt. Your choice.
Exhaustion is temporary. Pain is temporary. But Helene dying because I didn’t find a way to get her back on time—that’s permanent.
I spot a smoking wooden beam half in the water, half out. It will do. I kick, shove, and roll the blasted thing to the river, where it bobs beneath the water threateningly before floating to the surface. Carefully, I lay Helene on the beam and lash her into place. Then I sling an arm around it and make for the closest boat as if all the jinn of air and sea are on my tail.
The river’s waters run freely at this time, mostly empty of the barges and canoes that choke it in the morning. I angle toward a Mercator craft bobbing mid-river, its oars at rest. The sailors don’t notice me approaching, and when I’m right alongside the rope ladder leading to the boat’s deck, I cut Hel from the beam. She sinks into the water almost immediately. I grab the slick rope with one hand and Helene with the other, eventually working her body over my shoulder and clambering up the ladder to the deck.
A silver-haired Martial with a soldier’s build—the captain, I assume—is overseeing a group of Plebeians and Scholar slaves stacking boxes of cargo.
“I am Aspirant Elias Veturius of Blackcliff,” I level my voice until it is as flat as the deck I stand on. “And I am commandeering this vessel.”
The man blinks, taking in the sight before him: two Masks, one so covered in blood it appears that she’s been tortured, and the other practically naked with a week’s worth of beard, wild hair, and a mad look in his eyes.
But the merchant has clearly done his time in the Martial army because after only a moment, he nods.
“I am at your disposal, Lord Veturius.”
“Get this boat docked in Serra. Now.”
The captain shouts orders at his men, a whip much in evidence. In under a minute, the boat is chugging toward Serra’s docks. I look balefully at the sinking sun, willing it to at least slow down. I have no more than a half hour left, and I still have to get through the dock traffic and up to Blackcliff.
I’m cutting it close. Too close.
Helene moans, and I place her on the deck gently. She is sweating despite the cool river air, and her skin is deathly pale. She opens her eyes for a moment.
“Do I look that bad?” she whispers, seeing the expression on my face.
“Actually, it’s an improvement. The filthy woodswoman thing suits you.”
She smiles, a rare, sweet smile, but it fades quickly.
“Elias—you can’t let me die. If I die, then you—”
“Don’t talk, Hel. Rest.”
“Can’t die. Augur said—he said if I lived, then—”
Her eyes flutter closed, and impatiently, I eye Serra’s docks, still a half mile away and crowded with sailors, soldiers, horses, and wagons. I want to urge the boat faster, but the slaves are already rowing furiously, the captain’s whip at their backs.
Before the boat docks, the captain lowers the gangplank, hails a legionnaire patrolling nearby, and relieves him of his horse. For once, I’m thankful for the severity of Martial discipline.
“Luck to you, Lord Veturius,” the captain says. I thank him and load Hel onto the waiting horse. She sags forward, but I don’t have time to adjust her.
I vault onto the beast and put heel to flank, my eyes on the sun hovering just above the horizon.
The city passes in a blur of gaping Plebeians, muttering auxes, and a riot of merchants and their stalls. I race past all of them, down Serra’s main thoroughfare, through the dwindling crowds of Execution Square, and up the cobbled streets of the Illustrian Quarter. The horse surges on recklessly, and I’m too crazed to even feel guilty when I knock over a peddler and his cart.