An Ember in the Ashes Page 5

“How did you get into the Weapons Quarter, boy?” The Mask looks up from the book. “Has the Resistance been bribing some Plebeian drudge to sneak you in?”

I stifle a sob. Half of me is relieved Darin’s no traitor. The other half wants to rage at him for being such a fool. Association with the Scholar’s Resistance carries a death sentence.

“I got myself in,” my brother says. “The Resistance had nothing to do with it.”

“You were seen entering the catacombs last night after curfew”—the Mask almost sounds bored—“in the company of known Scholar rebels.”

“Last night, he was home well before curfew,” Pop speaks up, and it is strange to hear my grandfather lie. But it makes no difference. The Mask’s eyes are for my brother alone. The man doesn’t blink as he reads Darin’s face the way I’d read a book.

“Those rebels were taken into custody today,” the Mask says. “One of them gave up your name before he died. What were you doing with them?”

“They followed me.” Darin sounds so calm. Like he’s done this before.

Like he’s not afraid at all. “I’d never met them before.”

“And yet they knew of your book here. Told me all about it. How did they learn of it? What did they want from you?”

“I don’t know.”

The Mask presses the shard of glass deep into the soft skin below Nan’s eye, and her nostrils flare. A trickle of blood traces a wrinkle down her face.

Darin draws a sharp breath, the only sign of strain. “They asked for my sketchbook,” he says. “I said no. I swear it.”

“And their hideout?”

“I didn’t see. They blindfolded me. We were in the catacombs.”

“Where in the catacombs?”

“I didn’t see. They blindfolded me.”

The Mask eyes my brother for a long moment. I don’t know how Darin can remain unruffled beneath that gaze.

“You’re prepared for this.” The smallest bit of surprise creeps into the Mask’s voice. “Straight back. Deep breathing. Same answers to different questions. Who trained you, boy?”

When Darin doesn’t answer, the Mask shrugs. “A few weeks in prison will loosen your tongue.” Nan and I exchange a frightened glance. If Darin ends up in a Martial prison, we’ll never see him again. He’ll spend weeks in interrogation, and after that they’ll either sell him as a slave or kill him.

“He’s just a boy,” Pop speaks slowly, as if to an angry patient. “Please—”

Steel flashes, and Pop drops like a stone. The Mask moves so swiftly that I don’t understand what he has done. Not until Nan rushes forward. Not until she lets out a shrill keen, a shaft of pure pain that brings me to my knees.

Pop. Skies, not Pop. A dozen vows sear themselves into my mind. I’ll never disobey again, I’ll never do anything wrong, I’ll never complain about my work, if only Pop lives.

But Nan tears her hair and screams, and if Pop was alive, he’d never let her go on like that. He wouldn’t have been able to bear it. Darin’s calm is sheared away as if by a scythe, his face blanched with a horror I feel down to my bones.

Nan stumbles to her feet and takes one tottering step toward the Mask. He reaches out to her, as if to put his hand on her shoulder. The last thing I see in my grandmother’s eyes is terror. Then the Mask’s gauntleted wrist flashes once, leaving a thin red line across Nan’s throat, a line that grows wider and redder as she falls.

Her body hits the floor with a thud, her eyes still open and shining with tears as blood pours from her neck and into the rug we knotted together last winter.

“Sir,” one of the legionnaires says. “An hour until dawn.”

“Get the boy out of here.” The Mask doesn’t give Nan a second glance.

“And burn this place down.”

He turns to me then, and I wish I could fade like a shadow into the wall behind me. I wish for it harder than I’ve ever wished for anything, knowing all the while how foolish it is. The soldiers flanking me grin at each other as the Mask takes a slow step in my direction. He holds my gaze as if he can smell my fear, a cobra enthralling its prey.

No, please, no. Disappear, I want to disappear.

The Mask blinks, some foreign emotion flickering across his eyes—surprise or shock, I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. Because in that moment, Darin leaps up from the floor. While I cowered, he loosened his bindings. His hands stretch out like claws as he lunges for the Mask’s throat. His rage lends him a lion’s strength, and for a second he is every inch our mother, honey hair glowing, eyes blazing, mouth twisted in a feral snarl.

The Mask backs into the blood pooled near Nan’s head, and Darin is on him, knocking him to the ground, raining down blows. The legionnaires stand frozen in disbelief and then come to their senses, surging forward, shouting and swearing. Darin pulls a dagger free from the Mask’s belt before the legionnaires tackle him.

“Laia!” my brother shouts. “Run—”

Don’t run, Laia. Help him. Fight.

But I think of the Mask’s cold regard, of the violence in his eyes. I’ve always loved dark-haired girls. He will rape me. Then he will kill me.

I shudder and back into the hallway. No one stops me. No one notices.

“Laia!” Darin cries out, sounding like I’ve never heard him. Frantic.

Trapped. He told me to run, but if I screamed like that, he would come. He would never leave me. I stop.

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