An Ember in the Ashes Page 4

I wonder what she would say if she knew what I’d really been doing in the tunnels.

I wonder how she’d feel about my hatred for the Empire.

I wonder what she would do if she found out her best friend is planning to desert.

III: Laia

The Mask saunters through the gate, big hands loose at his sides. The strange metal of his namesake clings to him from forehead to jaw like silver paint, revealing every feature of his face, from the thin eyebrows to the hard angles of his cheekbones. His copper-plated armor molds to his muscles, emphasizing the power in his body.

A passing wind billows his black cape, and he looks around the backyard like he’s arrived at a garden party. His pale eyes find me, slide up my form, and settle on my face with a reptile’s flat regard.

“Aren’t you a pretty one,” he says.

I yank at the ragged hem of my shift, wishing desperately for the shapeless, ankle-length skirt I wear during the day. The Mask doesn’t even twitch. Nothing in his face tells me what he’s thinking. But I can guess.

Darin steps in front of me and glances at the fence, as if gauging the time it will take to reach it.

“I’m alone, boy.” The Mask addresses Darin with all the emotion of a corpse. “The rest of the men are in your house. You can run if you like.” He moves away from the gate. “But I insist you leave the girl.”

Darin raises the knife.

“Chivalrous of you,” the Mask says.

Then he strikes, a flash of copper and silver lightning out of an empty sky.

In the time it takes me to gasp, the Mask has shoved my brother’s face into the sandy ground and pinned his writhing body with a knee. Nan’s knife falls to the dirt.

A scream erupts from me, lonely in the still summer night. Seconds later, a scimpoint pricks my throat. I didn’t even see the Mask draw the weapon.

“Quiet,” he says. “Arms up. Now get inside.”

The Mask uses one hand to yank Darin up by the neck and the other to prod me on with his scim. My brother limps, face bloodied, eyes dazed.

When he struggles, a fish on a hook, the Mask tightens his grip.

The back door of the house opens, and a red-caped legionnaire comes out.

“The house is secure, Commander.”

The Mask shoves Darin at the soldier. “Bind him up. He’s strong.”

Then he grabs me by the hair, twisting until I cry out. “Mmm.” He bends his head to my ear, and I cringe, my terror caught in my throat. “I’ve always loved dark-haired girls.”

I wonder if he has a sister, a wife, a woman. But it wouldn’t matter if he did. To him, I’m not someone’s family. I’m just a thing to be subdued, used, and discarded. The Mask drags me down the hallway to the front room as casually as a hunter drags his kill. Fight, I tell myself. Fight. But as if he senses my pathetic attempts at bravery, his hand squeezes, and pain lances through my skull. I sag and let him pull me along.

Legionnaires stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the front room amid upturned furniture and broken bottles of jam. Trader won’t get anything now. So many days spent over steaming kettles, my hair and skin smelling of apricot and cinnamon. So many jars, steamed and dried, filled and sealed. Useless. All useless.

The lamps are lit, and Nan and Pop kneel in the middle of the floor, their hands bound behind their backs. The soldier holding Darin shoves him to the ground beside them.

“Shall I tie up the girl, sir?” Another soldier fingers the rope at his belt, but the Mask leaves me between two burly legionnaires.

“She’s not going to cause any trouble.” He stabs at me with those eyes.

“Are you?” I shake my head and shrink back, hating myself for being such a coward. I reach for my mother’s tarnished armlet, wrapped around my bicep, and touch the familiar pattern for strength. I find none. Mother would have fought. She’d have died rather than face this humiliation. But I can’t make myself move. My fear has ensnared me.

A legionnaire enters the room, his face more than a little nervous. “It’s not here, Commander.”

The Mask looks down at my brother. “Where’s the sketchbook?”

Darin stares straight ahead, silent. His breath is low and steady, and he doesn’t seem dazed anymore. In fact, he’s almost composed.

The Mask gestures, a small movement. One of the legionnaires lifts Nan by her neck and slams her frail body against a wall. Nan bites her lip, her eyes sparking blue. Darin tries to rise, but another soldier forces him down.

The Mask scoops up a shard of glass from one of the broken jars. His tongue flickers out like a snake’s as he tastes the jam.

“Shame it’s all gone to waste.” He caresses Nan’s face with the edge of the shard. “You must have been beautiful once. Such eyes.” He turns to Darin.

“Shall I carve them out of her?”

“It’s outside the small bedroom window. In the hedge.” I can’t manage more than a whisper, but the soldiers hear. The Mask nods, and one of the legionnaires disappears into the hallway. Darin doesn’t look at me, but I feel his dismay. Why did you tell me to hide it, I want to cry out. Why did you bring the cursed thing home?

The legionnaire returns with the book. For unending seconds, the only sound in the room is the rustling of pages as the Mask flips through the sketches. If the rest of the book is anything like the page I found, I know what the Mask will see: Martial knives, swords, scabbards, forges, formulas, instructions—things no Scholar should know of, let alone recreate on paper.

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