A short story from the Seven Sins series, by Emily Colin

A Heart of Shadow and Flame

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The sky is the color of a fading bruise as I make my way out of the forest, which is fitting. Everything hurts: My right arm, from where the Bastarour dug in its claws; my chest, from where it pawed at me as I struggled to reach my backup stash of tranquilizer darts; my heart, which aches like a black-and-blue mark that I’ve pressed my fingers into again and again.

I know what I did was the right thing, even if it might cost me my life. I’m tired of living in the shadows as stuttering, invisible Gentian, who loves a boy even though love is forbidden, has been bullied since he could walk, and is doomed to pass his days caring for utilitarian animals, not allowed to so much as rescue baby birds that tumble from their nests, lest that be seen as an unholy sign of attachment.

In the Commonwealth of Ashes, we live and die by the rules of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—and attachment is the first step on the thorny road to sin. But if you can’t stop yourself from becoming attached, if connection is what you crave—to the natural world, to the animals you care for, to the boy who’s always stood between you and the worst of your tormentors—then have you already sinned?

It’s not a hypothetical question. From the moment I splinted the leg of a hurt mouse I found in the Nursery when I was a child and Ari Westergaard discovered me tending it, my heart hasn’t been my own. I’d expected him to report me, to go running to the Mothers with irrefutable evidence of my sins—but instead he’d leaned in closer, examining the twig I’d tied to the mouse’s leg using a scrap of yarn. His eyes, the color of a ripe green apple, had widened, and as he’d extended a finger to stroke the mouse’s tiny head, it had stilled under his touch. “Poor little thing,” he’d said, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he meant me, as well as the mouse.

All the rest of that day and into the next, I’d braced myself for the repercussions—but none came. And I realized that, for no reason other than the fact that—inexplicably—he’d wanted to, Ari had protected me.

Looking back, that was the moment I fell for him.

In the Commonwealth, love of any kind is forbidden, so it took me a while to realize that was what I felt for Ari. At first, it just seemed like a dangerous obsession, one I needed to guard against at all costs. It wasn’t until I placed his happiness and safety above my own—not just once, but again and again—that I realized the true nature of my feelings. Now here I am, sneaking out of the forest that’s all that lies between the Commonwealth and the horde-infested Borderlands, the remains of my tranquilizer darts in my pockets and my clothes in tatters from the Bastarour’s claws.

No one other than the Bellatorum’s Thirty goes into that forest and lives—except  apparently, me . . . and, hopefully, Ari. Stealing a tranq gun from the vet clinic where I work, running toward the mutant beasts rather than away from them, risking the wrath of the Bellatorum’s warriors and the Priests—it all adds up to a recklessness that’s the opposite of how I usually behave. But Ari was in that forest, fleeing for his life, and I wanted to give him the best chance of survival.

Part of me is furious with him. He’d been exiled for mysterious “transgressions against the Commonwealth” that no one would name—though I can guess well enough. He could have been free; if anyone could find a way to escape the Bastarour and survive in the Borderlands, it’s him. He’s a bellator, after all—a trained fighter and a skilled killer. But what did he do? Somehow, someway, he survived the Bastarour the first time around…and the lunatic came back. For her.

As far as Ari’s concerned—and by extension, myself—there’s only one her. It’s Eva Marteinn, his apprentice in the Bellatorum and the girl I caught him sinning with months ago . . . not that he knows that. They were in the woods, kissing—an act that’s punishable by death. I’d been shocked when I’d found them, but heartbroken, too. It’s not that I expected Ari to feel for me as I did for him. But seeing him risk his life to touch Eva that way, hearing the tone of his voice when he’d spoken to her—tender, pleading, the way I’d never heard him speak to anyone else—it had shattered something inside me.

But just as quickly, my resolve had hardened. Ari had taken a whipping meant for me. He had protected me, again and again. If the only way I could return this favor was to guard his secret with my life, then that’s what I would do.

I don’t know if their sinful relationship was finally discovered, or if something else altogether occurred—the inner workings of the Bellatorum aren’t something to which the rest of us citizens are privy. But three nights ago, Ari was exiled, and Eva was imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the Commonwealth. I’d felt sick; exiles were released into the forest, where the Bastarour prowled. They were never seen again, unless the beasts dragged what remained of their bodies to the edge of the woods to show off their prizes.

I’d clung to the hope that he still lived. And sure enough, he had—because the next thing I knew, the sirens were blaring, and Lead Bellator Stinar’s voice was booming over the speakers, demanding that Ari and Eva give themselves up.

Desperate to do something, anything to save him, I’d crept out of the dormitory and into the rain, hiding in the shadows, racking my brain for what I could do to help. And then I’d heard Kilían Bryandísarson, the Bellatorum’s terrifying lead interrogator, say that Ari and Eva would surely head through the forest, to disarm the electric fence that led to the Borderlands and escape.

I myself am the furthest thing from a warrior you can imagine. I’m clumsy, I’m shy, and I stutter when I try to speak. But one thing I do know well is animals—how to help them, how to heal them, and how to render them less of a threat. Which is what brought me to where I am right now—having tranquilized half of the Bastarour’s pack to give Ari the best chance of escape; stumbling out of the woods, bruised and bloodied from my encounter with the beasts.

I lost the dart gun somewhere along the way, and there was no hope of finding it. It flew out of my hand and into the foliage when one of the beasts attacked me. With luck, it’ll stay hidden in the underbrush; there was no time to search for it in the dark and the rain. My only hope is to return the remaining darts to the clinic—if I’m found with them on my person, I’ll likely wind up at the hands of Kilían myself, and his touch is far from gentle.

Stepping clear of the forest, I shove the sopping mass of my hair back from my face and peer into the fading darkness. I’m facing the meadow that separates the forest from the woods that ring the Commonwealth’s City. Though the woods don’t house any creatures more dangerous than raccoons or, at worst, coyotes, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re the Bellatorum’s training ground, and while I’m sure most of the warriors’ elite Thirty are in the forest I just left, hunting down Eva and Ari, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few still stationed in the woods I’m about to enter.

Well, it doesn’t matter. This is the only way home, so I have to take it. I knew the moment I shut the door of my dorm behind me and stepped out into the rain that my life might be the price.

Grimly, I take the first step into the meadow. The mud squelches underfoot with a sucking sound, threatening to swallow my shoes whole. I can’t see well enough to even make the attempt to step in anyone else’s footprints; the sun is still well below the horizon, and thank the Architect for that. So I relinquish stealth in favor of speed and race across the meadow, my body trembling with adrenaline. Rain pelts me, stinging my eyes and plastering my ripped clothes to my body, but I keep going, crashing at last into the woods on the other side of the meadow.

There are trails here, as opposed to the forest. Still, it’s too dark to make them out. I fumble my way through the woods, branches catching on my clothing and scratching my face, vines twining around my ankles and threatening to ensnare me. It’s as if the woods are alive, as if they want to trap me and keep me here until the bellators find me and drag me before the Priests for justice.

The thought sends a chill through me, and the roar of thunder that sounds overhead and shakes the trees doesn’t help matters. Terror makes my teeth chatter. They clip my tongue, sending blood flooding into my mouth. I spit again and again, trying to rid myself of the coppery taste.

At long last I fight my way free of the woods and find myself standing at the edge of the grounds that lead to the City. I know my way from here; there’s no need of light. In fact, the less of it, the better. I make my way past the path that leads to the vineyards, where the workers grow the grapes for the Priests’ ceremonial wine, then skirt the edges of Clockverk Square and slip into the alleyway that runs between the stone buildings of the Library and the Education Center.

The streets are empty—suspiciously so. My neck crawls with the sensation of the bellators’ eyes on me…because surely they are watching.

But perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps all of their attention is trained on Eva and Ari, because I manage to make my way back to the clinic without incident. My heart begins to slow as I slip my key into the lock and creep inside.

It’s a relief to be out of the pounding rain—but in the stale, bleach-scented air of the clinic, I begin to shiver. I can’t tell if it’s cold or the after-effects of shock, but either way, I shake as I creep down the darkened hallway toward the pharmacy, where I’ll need to expel the tranquilizer from the darts and then restore the empty syringes to the cabinet. Water splatters from my clothes and my hair, leaving a trail along the tile floor, and I force my brain to function, to remind myself that I’ll need to get a towel and wipe it up. What a pity it would be if I managed to subdue six Bastarour and survive the forest, only to find myself on my knees for the executioner’s blade because I’d forgotten to sop up a few puddles.

Keep it together, Gentian, I tell myself sternly. Now is not the time to surrender to your fear.

The strange thing is, the voice in my head doesn’t sound like myself—stuttering, cautious, fearful Gentian Halvorson. It sounds confident, calm.

It sounds like Ari.

Heartened by the idea that I’ll be able to keep some part of him with me, even if it’s just a voice inside my own head, I make my way to the pharmacy and fumble in my pocket for the keys. Inside, I know the place well enough that I can navigate without turning on the lights. I head for the sink, pulling the darts from my pocket and setting them on the counter. Almost done, I tell myself. Almost safe.

Thunder booms again, rattling the windows and making me jump. The rain is a steady patter, pelting the glass. I try as hard as I can not to think of Ari out in it, facing the remaining three Bastarour and the Bellatorum’s fearsome Thirty with only Eva at his side. I did my best to help, but I know it wasn’t nearly enough. How could it be? There are only two of them, and a battalion of warriors.

I console myself with the thought that not all of the Thirty made it into the woods. When I’d overheard Kilían earlier, he’d said that two of them had already fallen. But that still leaves twenty-eight. What if they’ve killed him? What if right now, as I stand here emptying syringes into the sink and congratulating myself on a job well done, he’s bleeding out onto the forest floor?

Stop it, Ari’s voice says in my head, sounding exasperated. This isn’t helpful. You have a job to do—so do it, and stop whining.

He’s right, of course. I’ve done everything I can. He’ll either survive, or he won’t—but I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing. At the thought of his body lying in the mud, studded with blades and fodder for the Bastarour, nausea sweeps me. My hands shake as I pick up another syringe and press the plunger down.

“In a hurry?”

The familiar voice comes from behind me, sardonic and low, cutting through the drumming rain as cleanly as one of his blades. I almost stab myself with the syringe, but somehow manage not to—thank the Virtues. Instead I clutch it tight and spin around to find Kilían standing behind me in the gloom of the pharmacy, his short red hair soaking wet, his black bellators’ uniform plastered to his body, and his hand on the hilt of his dagur.

By the nine hells.

My heart skips a beat and then starts speeding, beating so quickly, it makes me dizzy. I’ve only seen images of deserts in the vids from before the Fall, but that’s my mind right now: barren, empty, and desolate. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Kilían looks me over—my torn clothes, the cut on my cheek where a branch slashed me, the rainwater dripping from my body onto the tile floor—and his lips rise in a sneer. “Nothing to say for yourself, boy?”

The short answer to this question is yes. My ability to speak, which is faulty at best, seems to have failed me utterly. But then I hear Ari’s voice in my head. He’s just a man, Gentian. So he’s found you. So what? The worst thing he can do is kill you, and you knew that was a possibility when you started down this road. Are you going to let him bully you? I’m not here to stand up for you anymore. You’ll have to do it for yourself, or die trying.

It’s ridiculous, given that Ari’s voice is no more than my imagination, but somehow this gives me the courage to straighten my spine and clear my throat. “D-don’t c-call me boy.” My voice sounds just as terrified as I feel, but at least it comes. “My n-name is Gentian.”

The sneer morphs into an assessing expression—like he’s weighing what a stuttering boy who would talk back to a bellator is made of. Either that, or perhaps he’s determining the most efficient way to rend me limb from limb. “Gentian, then,” he says, his lips twisting as if my name tastes foul. “What brings you to the veterinary clinic in the middle of a Commonwealth-wide lockdown, with two armed and dangerous traitors on the loose? Why aren’t you tucked up in your dormitory with the rest of the sheep?”

The contempt in that last word is clear; he isn’t trying to hide the way he feels about the Commonwealth’s regular citizens. Why would he bother? I am at his mercy.

“D-duty calls,” I get out. After all, it’s no more or less than the truth.

He snorts. “Indeed. I’ve tracked you for the last ten minutes, Gentian. You’ve met no one. Cared for no creature. So what duty brings a vet tech out on a night such as this?”

I knew someone was watching me—that it hadn’t just been my imagination. Fear shudders through me, but I hold on to the idea that Kilían could have killed me whenever he wanted to, if that’s what he was after. Bellators are silent and surefooted, plus there’s the storm; he could’ve come up behind me at any point in my trek out of the forest and put his blade to my throat. But he didn’t. He let me live—because he wanted to see where I would lead him: a predator, tracking his prey. He’s doing the same now; I draw breath at his pleasure, and we both know it.

Steady, says Ari’s voice in my head. Clinging to what remains of my composure, I lift my chin and say, “M-my own.”

Kilían gives a disbelieving huff. “Does your duty include aiding in the escape of an exile and a condemned prisoner? Because that’s the only reason I can think of for your presence here.” Those arctic eyes of his bore into me, the intensity of his gaze visible even in the dimness. “Don’t bother lying. I just came from the forest, where three of the Bastarour hunted down the exile Westergaard and his apprentice. The pack numbers six, yet the rest were nowhere to be found. Now here you are, emptying syringes into the sink. One hardly needs to be the Bellatorum’s Lead Interrogator to draw the connection.”

He takes a step closer, menace clear in every line of his body. “So, little Gentian. Tell me. What. Did. You. Do?” The words are a hiss, their syllables lingering in the air long after his voice falls away.

Hunted down. By the Architect, what does that mean? Is Ari dead? I want more than anything to ask, but to do so would give away the fact that I care about his fate. And here in the Commonwealth, caring about anything but your responsibility and your virtue is not allowed. “What I h-h-had to,” I tell him.

“Hmmmm.” He looks me up and down, his eyes lingering on the syringe still gripped in my hand. “A timid thing like you, venturing into the forest. Confronting the Bastarour. I’d lay odds if I went back right now, I’d find three of them lying unconscious in the muck.” He steps closer still, so that I have to look up at him. It’s an intimidation tactic, and it works just fine. He’s taller than me, broader. Not to mention, he’s got a huge blade strapped to his back and a belt around his hips hung with more weapons than I can name.

“Do you want to know what that tells me, little Gentian?” he says, his voice barely above a whisper. “Either you value your life not at all, or you value one of the traitors’ more. If it’s the first, you’re of no use to me. But if it’s the second . . .”

He lets his voice trail off, and as I’m sure he intended, I finish the sentence on my own. If it’s the second, I will bleed the answer out of you. If it’s the second, I will take pleasure in carving you up, piece by piece, until you tell me everything I want to know.

He’s watching me closely, a cat toying with a mouse. “You tranquilized half the pack. Do you deny it?”

Say nothing, whispers Ari’s voice in my head. If you speak, you incriminate yourself.

My teeth sink so deep into my lip, they draw blood—again. But somehow I manage not to say a word.

“Come now,” Kilían says, his voice measured. “You expect me to believe that if I made my way back into the forest, I wouldn’t find a dart gun somewhere in the underbrush? Your trail would be easy enough for me to follow, as soon as the sun rose. And unconscious animals or no, that would be all the proof I’d need. Because I’m sure you didn’t go out there armed with a couple of syringes, expecting to get close enough to stab the beasts.”

He knows, Ari says, his tone a warning. He’s playing with you. Keep your silence. And don’t retreat, or he’ll pounce.

I try to hold Kilían’s eyes, but it’s hard. His gaze is blue and slippery—cold as ice, and just as impenetrable. The way he’s looking at me reveals nothing, except perhaps that I’m an idiot to have placed myself in this regrettable position.

He waits, one hand resting easy on the hilt of his dagur, like we can stand here for the rest of what remains of the night—at least, until he loses his temper and carves out my tongue for refusing to speak. It reminds me of a stare-down between two creatures as they try to determine which one holds the alpha position; I’ve dealt with this enough with the beasts in the veterinary practice to recognize it.

In the end, I let my gaze slide from his. I may be an idiot, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that of the two of us, I am the dominant animal. Sure, I might be able to muster the courage to hold his eyes with mine . . . but that would be a Pyrrhic victory. He’d see it as a challenge, and either way, I’d be just as dead.

I drop my eyes to the floor, hoping he’ll see this as the sign of submission it is and let me go. But instead, he exhales slowly, as if it’s all he can do not to reach out and strangle me. “Speak, boy,” he says, making no effort to disguise the irritation in his voice. “My patience is growing thin.”

Oh, by the Virtues. “Wh-who am I to s-say what you’d f-find in the f-forest?” I say, my eyes fixed on the tile between my feet. “It w-would be the g-greatest arrogance to imagine a l-lowly citizen like myself is c-capable of predicting a legendary b-bellator’s capacity.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to rewind time and stuff them back inside. What is wrong with me? Do I want to die right here, my blood hosed off the tiles like that of the wounded pig I stitched up just last week?

I brace for the kiss of Kilían’s blade against my throat. But instead, I hear the low rumble of his laughter.

Disbelieving, I flick my eyes up to his face. He’s still standing with one hand on the hilt of his weapon—but those frosty blue eyes have warmed, and the corners of his mouth have curved upward.

There’s no mistaking it: Kilían Bryndísarson, Lead Interrogator and merciless killer, is smiling at me. And despite myself, I can’t help but notice that when he does, the granite planes of his face smooth out into something almost . . . beautiful. For one peculiar moment, I imagine I can see what he looked like when he was young like me, before life in the Bellatorum hardened him, robbing him of everything but the icy, emotionless control he needed in order to survive. Then that image is gone. His face smooths into its usual stern expression—but I swear I can still see the ghost of his younger self peering out from behind those ice-chip eyes.

“I know you’re acquainted with Bellator Westergaard,” he says. “I watched you watch him, the day he took that public whipping years ago. You watched him, and he was watching her.” The words curl into the air, deadly by their very nature—but his tone isn’t threatening. I can’t fathom it. Together with finding me here tonight, Kilían has everything he needs to destroy me. But he makes no move to slit my throat.

Three years ago, when Ari and I were sixteen, he was whipped because of me—because he took the blame for something I did. It’s true my eyes lingered on him that day in the Square, wanting to give him strength. And equally true that his gaze skimmed over me, fixing instead on Eva Marteinn. It had taken finding the two of them in the rain-soaked woods, kissing against a spruce, for me to understand why.

“You went into the forest for him,” Kilían says, and it isn’t a question. “You risked your life for Westergaard. And even now, you keep his secrets. Why would you do such a thing?”

They say that Kilían is such a gifted interrogator because he can see inside you before you speak a single word—that he knows the inner workings of your mind and heart better than you do yourself. That before he’s done with you, you’ll confess things buried in the deepest recesses of your subconscious. There is no hiding from him, and so I don’t try. Instead, I lift my chin and meet his gaze again.

“If you know,” I say without a hint of a stutter, “then I would be even more of a fool than you believe me to be if I bothered to deny it.”

Kilían’s eyes fix on my face, but this time the way he’s looking at me is different. I can feel his gaze assessing me—an unwrapping of sorts, as if he has peeled back my skin to reveal not muscle and sinew, but something deeper: my thoughts and intentions, the motivation that has brought me to stand before him today. It is exquisitely uncomfortable, but I don’t look away.

A minute passes. An eternity. And then, to my shock, he begins to laugh again. It isn’t cruel, though. It’s . . . amused, and bitter, and somehow, surprised.

I know I should keep quiet. I should be grateful that he seems to find this situation funny, rather than cause for decapitation. But instead, a fierce red thread of fury winds its way through my veins. It yanks taut, taking my mouth with it.

“He could have d-died!” I say, feeling traitorous tears burn my eyes. He’ll probably laugh at them too, but at this point, I could care less. I am so tired of apologizing for and hiding who I am. “Y-you and your f-fellow B-bellatorum attack d-dogs p-planned to s-s-slaughter him. F-for all I k-know, you d-d-did. All I did was g-give him a f-f-fighting c-chance.”

I expect Kilían to mock me, but when he speaks again, his voice is soft. “He lives, Gentian. Perhaps thanks to you.”

Relief bolts through me, weakening my knees. I reach out, steadying myself on the counter. “And the girl?”

“Does it matter?” he counters.

I set my jaw. “She m-matters to him,” I say, my voice soft but determined. “He c-came back for her. And so she m-matters to me, as w-well.”

Kilían says nothing—but the strangest expression flits across his face before he schools it again to blankness. It looks oddly like . . . recognition.

I don’t understand this, either. But he doesn’t seem to be intent on killing me at the moment, so emboldened, I press on. “H-how?”

His mouth presses into a thin line. “The girl,” is all he says.

Outside, the rain is beginning to slow. It streaks the windows, dripping down the glass. A faint hint of light seeps through the fading night, setting Kilian’s red hair aflame. I peer up at him, and see what I couldn’t before—his black gear is soaked with drying blood, and the water that drips to puddle at his boots is red-tinged. “Are you h-hurt?” I say, so appalled at the quantity of it, I forget I’m speaking to the Commonwealth’s Lead Interrogator, a man who has the power to break me with a word. “I’m not a m-medic, but I c-can treat you—”

He glances down at himself in puzzlement, as if just noticing the state of his gear. “It’s not my blood,” he says absently. “Or Ari’s, in case you’re wondering.”

I suck in a sharp breath. “Then whose?”

“Well,” he says, plucking the fabric of his sodden shirt away from his body with disgust, “some of it belongs to one of the beasts. The girl stabbed it, when it threatened Westergaard. Almost severed its spine. As for the rest, that belongs to Efraím Stinar. Apprentice Marteinn managed to open the electrified gate and tempt one of the beasts into charging through. Bellator Stinar followed—and then the girl programmed the gate to close again, just as lightning struck. Efraím was trapped with the beast. He couldn’t—well.” Kilían closes his jaw with a snap, leaving me to follow his story through to its logical conclusion.

This doesn’t take much imagination. Having just survived an up-close-and-personal tussle with one of the beasts before I managed to sedate it, I know full well just how vicious they are on their own—let alone while compounded by an electrified fence in the middle of a lightning storm. Still, my eyes widen. “Are you t-telling me Lead Bellator Stinar is d-dead?”

His jaw tight, Kilían gives me a barely perceptible nod.

By the nine hells. Ari and Eva conspired to kill the leader of the Bellatorum—a vicious, stone-cold killer who I’d always thought seemed more machine than man. And as head interrogator, Kilían was his second-in-command. Which means—

“The Bellatorum is y-yours now,” I say, my awe clear in my voice. “You l-lead the T-thirty. So w-why are you standing here, wasting your time with m-me? Why n-not just k-kill me or h-haul me away to the d-dungeons?”

He draws himself up to his full height, looming over me again. “I do not have to answer to you,” he says, looking down his long, straight nose at me.

Of course, he doesn’t. As the de facto leader of the Bellatorum, he answers to no one but the Priests and the Executor himself. But though he may refuse to tell me anything, he can’t stop me from thinking—and my mind is racing, putting the puzzle pieces together. I think about the unexpected gentleness in Kilían’s voice when he told me Ari lived. Of the recognition on his face when I said Eva mattered to me because she was important to Ari. Of the way he laughed when I told him there was no point in me denying why I’d risked my life in the woods. And a spark of knowledge flares inside me, fanning into a flame.

“Y-you w-wanted him to escape,” I say. “Y-you watched me w-watching him, that day of the whipping. Why would you do either of those things?”

I don’t expect him to answer me. But he does. “Those are two very different questions,” he says, his tone wary.

Ari’s voice speaks in my head, insistent this time. Press him, he says, and so I do. “Are they?”

He takes a step back, his hand tracing the hilt of his dagur, like the weapon is one of the communal teddy bears Ari and I used to share as children in the Nursery. And then he sets his shoulders, as if girding himself to speak. “I noticed you watching him,” he says at last, “and him watching her in turn, because—once, I stood in your shoes. And like you, I made a choice.”

My heart starts to pound again, this time with excitement and shock. “You . . . c-c-cared for someone? And you h-helped them escape?”

His eyes narrow to blue slits. “Such a thing would be high treason. Punishable by death.”

I ignore this. There is no one to overhear but the two of us; I might not be aware of another’s presence here, but Kilían surely would be. He is a warrior and a hunter, trained to detect the slightest of threats. “S-so it has been d-done before,” I say. “I’m n-not the only one who t-thinks things could be d-different. B-better.”

His silence is the only answer I need.

“You p-protected Ari,” I say, the certainty settling over me with the same instinct that guides me to approach wounded creatures without fear of getting bitten or scratched. The instinct that allows me to heal. “You w-wanted h-him to get away. And you followed m-me because you know I w-wanted the s-same thing.”

Kilían swallows hard, his throat working. I watch his Adam’s apple move above the collar of his blood-soaked gear, watch the way a muscle twitches in his jaw. And for a moment, we aren’t a pitiless assassin and a helpless vet tech. We are just people who share a secret, standing on the tiled floor of the vet clinic as the rain comes down.

“I promised to protect him when he was born,” he says finally, his voice so low I can hardly hear it. “I swore on my honor as a bellator and the strength of my blade. And though that arrogant attitude of his hasn’t made it easy”—he heaves an exasperated breath; the sin of pride is Ari’s worst flaw—“I’ve done my best to keep my vow.”

My mouth falls open. Of all the things I expected him to say, this wasn’t it. “Who did you promise?” I ask before I can stop myself.

Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t answer me; but it doesn’t matter. Here in the Commonwealth, where attachment is verboten, I can think of only one thing that would make a bellator make such a commitment: Love, the same thing that led me to risk myself for Ari tonight. Whoever Kilían cared for, they are connected to Ari, and have been since his birth. I have no idea how or why; in the Commonwealth, our children are carried by artificially inseminated surrogates and then raised by Caretakers in the Nursery. But I would stake my life on the fact that whoever Kilían loved—the person that made him risk everything—is the reason behind the vow he swore.

A powerful surge of hope crests in me, sweeping away the fear in its path. I imagine a world where people don’t have to hide their feelings, where a boy doesn’t get whipped in a public square for rescuing a fallen baby bird. “Are w-we the only ones w-who have d-dared to defy the P-priests and the Executor?” I ask. “Or are we p-part of s-something l-larger?”

The Lead Interrogator mask settles over Kilían’s face again, any hint of vulnerability sealed away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gentian. And I would advise you refrain from sharing any of your misguided suppositions with others, lest you find yourself in the regrettable position of parting with your head.”

Normally, this would cow me. But this time, I don’t retreat. I don’t need the echo of Ari’s voice in my head to tell me he’s lying; I feel it in my bones. And if this is my only chance at a life other than what the Commonwealth has to offer me, I will lunge for it with both hands, or die trying.

“I’m not going to tell anyone. And I know you understand exactly what I mean.” My voice is fierce. For once, I don’t stutter. “I might not look like much, but over the years, I’ve found that to be an advantage,” I say, refusing to fold. “I won’t betray your cause. Take me. Use me. I want to fight.”

For a long moment, Kilían regards me, his gaze impassive. The rain comes down and my heart pounds and I watch him watching me, the way he must have done so long ago, in the Square. I wait—for his knife to slide between my ribs, for his blade to carve out my tongue, so I can never speak of our exchange. A strange calm has settled over me; time drips, slow as honey from the hives the little ones tend.

I have made my choice. I made it years ago, when I gave my heart to Ari, without regard for whether he could keep it safe. In the end, it wasn’t what he could give to me, or whether he returned my feelings—not that it would have mattered if he had. It was about the strength I found in myself, the resilience and power that loving him gave me.

It was about the person I wanted to be.

I see the decision cross Kilían’s face an instant before he speaks. His arm moves, and I brace myself for the bite of his blade. But instead of pulling his dagur from his belt, he extends his hand to me. It hangs in the air between us—a question asked and answered, a risk taken and another promise made.

“Welcome to the resistance, Wolf’s Brother,” he says.

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The sky is the color of a fading bruise as I make my way out of the forest, which is fitting. Everything hurts: My right arm, from where the Bastarour dug in its claws; my chest, from where it pawed at me as I struggled to reach my backup stash of tranquilizer darts; my heart, which aches like a black-and-blue mark that I’ve pressed my fingers into again and again.

I know what I did was the right thing, even if it might cost me my life. I’m tired of living in the shadows as stuttering, invisible Gentian, who loves a boy even though love is forbidden, has been bullied since he could walk, and is doomed to pass his days caring for utilitarian animals, not allowed to so much as rescue baby birds that tumble from their nests, lest that be seen as an unholy sign of attachment.

In the Commonwealth of Ashes, we live and die by the rules of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—and attachment is the first step on the thorny road to sin. But if you can’t stop yourself from becoming attached, if connection is what you crave—to the natural world, to the animals you care for, to the boy who’s always stood between you and the worst of your tormentors—then have you already sinned?

It’s not a hypothetical question. From the moment I splinted the leg of a hurt mouse I found in the Nursery when I was a child and Ari Westergaard discovered me tending it, my heart hasn’t been my own. I’d expected him to report me, to go running to the Mothers with irrefutable evidence of my sins—but instead he’d leaned in closer, examining the twig I’d tied to the mouse’s leg using a scrap of yarn. His eyes, the color of a ripe green apple, had widened, and as he’d extended a finger to stroke the mouse’s tiny head, it had stilled under his touch. “Poor little thing,” he’d said, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he meant me, as well as the mouse.

All the rest of that day and into the next, I’d braced myself for the repercussions—but none came. And I realized that, for no reason other than the fact that—inexplicably—he’d wanted to, Ari had protected me.

Looking back, that was the moment I fell for him.

In the Commonwealth, love of any kind is forbidden, so it took me a while to realize that was what I felt for Ari. At first, it just seemed like a dangerous obsession, one I needed to guard against at all costs. It wasn’t until I placed his happiness and safety above my own—not just once, but again and again—that I realized the true nature of my feelings. Now here I am, sneaking out of the forest that’s all that lies between the Commonwealth and the horde-infested Borderlands, the remains of my tranquilizer darts in my pockets and my clothes in tatters from the Bastarour’s claws.

No one other than the Bellatorum’s Thirty goes into that forest and lives—except  apparently, me . . . and, hopefully, Ari. Stealing a tranq gun from the vet clinic where I work, running toward the mutant beasts rather than away from them, risking the wrath of the Bellatorum’s warriors and the Priests—it all adds up to a recklessness that’s the opposite of how I usually behave. But Ari was in that forest, fleeing for his life, and I wanted to give him the best chance of survival.

Part of me is furious with him. He’d been exiled for mysterious “transgressions against the Commonwealth” that no one would name—though I can guess well enough. He could have been free; if anyone could find a way to escape the Bastarour and survive in the Borderlands, it’s him. He’s a bellator, after all—a trained fighter and a skilled killer. But what did he do? Somehow, someway, he survived the Bastarour the first time around…and the lunatic came back. For her.

As far as Ari’s concerned—and by extension, myself—there’s only one her. It’s Eva Marteinn, his apprentice in the Bellatorum and the girl I caught him sinning with months ago . . . not that he knows that. They were in the woods, kissing—an act that’s punishable by death. I’d been shocked when I’d found them, but heartbroken, too. It’s not that I expected Ari to feel for me as I did for him. But seeing him risk his life to touch Eva that way, hearing the tone of his voice when he’d spoken to her—tender, pleading, the way I’d never heard him speak to anyone else—it had shattered something inside me.

But just as quickly, my resolve had hardened. Ari had taken a whipping meant for me. He had protected me, again and again. If the only way I could return this favor was to guard his secret with my life, then that’s what I would do.

I don’t know if their sinful relationship was finally discovered, or if something else altogether occurred—the inner workings of the Bellatorum aren’t something to which the rest of us citizens are privy. But three nights ago, Ari was exiled, and Eva was imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the Commonwealth. I’d felt sick; exiles were released into the forest, where the Bastarour prowled. They were never seen again, unless the beasts dragged what remained of their bodies to the edge of the woods to show off their prizes.

I’d clung to the hope that he still lived. And sure enough, he had—because the next thing I knew, the sirens were blaring, and Lead Bellator Stinar’s voice was booming over the speakers, demanding that Ari and Eva give themselves up.

Desperate to do something, anything to save him, I’d crept out of the dormitory and into the rain, hiding in the shadows, racking my brain for what I could do to help. And then I’d heard Kilían Bryandísarson, the Bellatorum’s terrifying lead interrogator, say that Ari and Eva would surely head through the forest, to disarm the electric fence that led to the Borderlands and escape.

I myself am the furthest thing from a warrior you can imagine. I’m clumsy, I’m shy, and I stutter when I try to speak. But one thing I do know well is animals—how to help them, how to heal them, and how to render them less of a threat. Which is what brought me to where I am right now—having tranquilized half of the Bastarour’s pack to give Ari the best chance of escape; stumbling out of the woods, bruised and bloodied from my encounter with the beasts.

I lost the dart gun somewhere along the way, and there was no hope of finding it. It flew out of my hand and into the foliage when one of the beasts attacked me. With luck, it’ll stay hidden in the underbrush; there was no time to search for it in the dark and the rain. My only hope is to return the remaining darts to the clinic—if I’m found with them on my person, I’ll likely wind up at the hands of Kilían myself, and his touch is far from gentle.

Stepping clear of the forest, I shove the sopping mass of my hair back from my face and peer into the fading darkness. I’m facing the meadow that separates the forest from the woods that ring the Commonwealth’s City. Though the woods don’t house any creatures more dangerous than raccoons or, at worst, coyotes, that doesn’t mean they’re safe. They’re the Bellatorum’s training ground, and while I’m sure most of the warriors’ elite Thirty are in the forest I just left, hunting down Eva and Ari, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few still stationed in the woods I’m about to enter.

Well, it doesn’t matter. This is the only way home, so I have to take it. I knew the moment I shut the door of my dorm behind me and stepped out into the rain that my life might be the price.

Grimly, I take the first step into the meadow. The mud squelches underfoot with a sucking sound, threatening to swallow my shoes whole. I can’t see well enough to even make the attempt to step in anyone else’s footprints; the sun is still well below the horizon, and thank the Architect for that. So I relinquish stealth in favor of speed and race across the meadow, my body trembling with adrenaline. Rain pelts me, stinging my eyes and plastering my ripped clothes to my body, but I keep going, crashing at last into the woods on the other side of the meadow.

There are trails here, as opposed to the forest. Still, it’s too dark to make them out. I fumble my way through the woods, branches catching on my clothing and scratching my face, vines twining around my ankles and threatening to ensnare me. It’s as if the woods are alive, as if they want to trap me and keep me here until the bellators find me and drag me before the Priests for justice.

The thought sends a chill through me, and the roar of thunder that sounds overhead and shakes the trees doesn’t help matters. Terror makes my teeth chatter. They clip my tongue, sending blood flooding into my mouth. I spit again and again, trying to rid myself of the coppery taste.

At long last I fight my way free of the woods and find myself standing at the edge of the grounds that lead to the City. I know my way from here; there’s no need of light. In fact, the less of it, the better. I make my way past the path that leads to the vineyards, where the workers grow the grapes for the Priests’ ceremonial wine, then skirt the edges of Clockverk Square and slip into the alleyway that runs between the stone buildings of the Library and the Education Center.

The streets are empty—suspiciously so. My neck crawls with the sensation of the bellators’ eyes on me…because surely they are watching.

But perhaps they aren’t. Perhaps all of their attention is trained on Eva and Ari, because I manage to make my way back to the clinic without incident. My heart begins to slow as I slip my key into the lock and creep inside.

It’s a relief to be out of the pounding rain—but in the stale, bleach-scented air of the clinic, I begin to shiver. I can’t tell if it’s cold or the after-effects of shock, but either way, I shake as I creep down the darkened hallway toward the pharmacy, where I’ll need to expel the tranquilizer from the darts and then restore the empty syringes to the cabinet. Water splatters from my clothes and my hair, leaving a trail along the tile floor, and I force my brain to function, to remind myself that I’ll need to get a towel and wipe it up. What a pity it would be if I managed to subdue six Bastarour and survive the forest, only to find myself on my knees for the executioner’s blade because I’d forgotten to sop up a few puddles.

Keep it together, Gentian, I tell myself sternly. Now is not the time to surrender to your fear.

The strange thing is, the voice in my head doesn’t sound like myself—stuttering, cautious, fearful Gentian Halvorson. It sounds confident, calm.

It sounds like Ari.

Heartened by the idea that I’ll be able to keep some part of him with me, even if it’s just a voice inside my own head, I make my way to the pharmacy and fumble in my pocket for the keys. Inside, I know the place well enough that I can navigate without turning on the lights. I head for the sink, pulling the darts from my pocket and setting them on the counter. Almost done, I tell myself. Almost safe.

Thunder booms again, rattling the windows and making me jump. The rain is a steady patter, pelting the glass. I try as hard as I can not to think of Ari out in it, facing the remaining three Bastarour and the Bellatorum’s fearsome Thirty with only Eva at his side. I did my best to help, but I know it wasn’t nearly enough. How could it be? There are only two of them, and a battalion of warriors.

I console myself with the thought that not all of the Thirty made it into the woods. When I’d overheard Kilían earlier, he’d said that two of them had already fallen. But that still leaves twenty-eight. What if they’ve killed him? What if right now, as I stand here emptying syringes into the sink and congratulating myself on a job well done, he’s bleeding out onto the forest floor?

Stop it, Ari’s voice says in my head, sounding exasperated. This isn’t helpful. You have a job to do—so do it, and stop whining.

He’s right, of course. I’ve done everything I can. He’ll either survive, or he won’t—but I’ve never been good at compartmentalizing. At the thought of his body lying in the mud, studded with blades and fodder for the Bastarour, nausea sweeps me. My hands shake as I pick up another syringe and press the plunger down.

“In a hurry?”

The familiar voice comes from behind me, sardonic and low, cutting through the drumming rain as cleanly as one of his blades. I almost stab myself with the syringe, but somehow manage not to—thank the Virtues. Instead I clutch it tight and spin around to find Kilían standing behind me in the gloom of the pharmacy, his short red hair soaking wet, his black bellators’ uniform plastered to his body, and his hand on the hilt of his dagur.

By the nine hells.

My heart skips a beat and then starts speeding, beating so quickly, it makes me dizzy. I’ve only seen images of deserts in the vids from before the Fall, but that’s my mind right now: barren, empty, and desolate. I open my mouth, but nothing comes out.

Kilían looks me over—my torn clothes, the cut on my cheek where a branch slashed me, the rainwater dripping from my body onto the tile floor—and his lips rise in a sneer. “Nothing to say for yourself, boy?”

The short answer to this question is yes. My ability to speak, which is faulty at best, seems to have failed me utterly. But then I hear Ari’s voice in my head. He’s just a man, Gentian. So he’s found you. So what? The worst thing he can do is kill you, and you knew that was a possibility when you started down this road. Are you going to let him bully you? I’m not here to stand up for you anymore. You’ll have to do it for yourself, or die trying.

It’s ridiculous, given that Ari’s voice is no more than my imagination, but somehow this gives me the courage to straighten my spine and clear my throat. “D-don’t c-call me boy.” My voice sounds just as terrified as I feel, but at least it comes. “My n-name is Gentian.”

The sneer morphs into an assessing expression—like he’s weighing what a stuttering boy who would talk back to a bellator is made of. Either that, or perhaps he’s determining the most efficient way to rend me limb from limb. “Gentian, then,” he says, his lips twisting as if my name tastes foul. “What brings you to the veterinary clinic in the middle of a Commonwealth-wide lockdown, with two armed and dangerous traitors on the loose? Why aren’t you tucked up in your dormitory with the rest of the sheep?”

The contempt in that last word is clear; he isn’t trying to hide the way he feels about the Commonwealth’s regular citizens. Why would he bother? I am at his mercy.

“D-duty calls,” I get out. After all, it’s no more or less than the truth.

He snorts. “Indeed. I’ve tracked you for the last ten minutes, Gentian. You’ve met no one. Cared for no creature. So what duty brings a vet tech out on a night such as this?”

I knew someone was watching me—that it hadn’t just been my imagination. Fear shudders through me, but I hold on to the idea that Kilían could have killed me whenever he wanted to, if that’s what he was after. Bellators are silent and surefooted, plus there’s the storm; he could’ve come up behind me at any point in my trek out of the forest and put his blade to my throat. But he didn’t. He let me live—because he wanted to see where I would lead him: a predator, tracking his prey. He’s doing the same now; I draw breath at his pleasure, and we both know it.

Steady, says Ari’s voice in my head. Clinging to what remains of my composure, I lift my chin and say, “M-my own.”

Kilían gives a disbelieving huff. “Does your duty include aiding in the escape of an exile and a condemned prisoner? Because that’s the only reason I can think of for your presence here.” Those arctic eyes of his bore into me, the intensity of his gaze visible even in the dimness. “Don’t bother lying. I just came from the forest, where three of the Bastarour hunted down the exile Westergaard and his apprentice. The pack numbers six, yet the rest were nowhere to be found. Now here you are, emptying syringes into the sink. One hardly needs to be the Bellatorum’s Lead Interrogator to draw the connection.”

He takes a step closer, menace clear in every line of his body. “So, little Gentian. Tell me. What. Did. You. Do?” The words are a hiss, their syllables lingering in the air long after his voice falls away.

Hunted down. By the Architect, what does that mean? Is Ari dead? I want more than anything to ask, but to do so would give away the fact that I care about his fate. And here in the Commonwealth, caring about anything but your responsibility and your virtue is not allowed. “What I h-h-had to,” I tell him.

“Hmmmm.” He looks me up and down, his eyes lingering on the syringe still gripped in my hand. “A timid thing like you, venturing into the forest. Confronting the Bastarour. I’d lay odds if I went back right now, I’d find three of them lying unconscious in the muck.” He steps closer still, so that I have to look up at him. It’s an intimidation tactic, and it works just fine. He’s taller than me, broader. Not to mention, he’s got a huge blade strapped to his back and a belt around his hips hung with more weapons than I can name.

“Do you want to know what that tells me, little Gentian?” he says, his voice barely above a whisper. “Either you value your life not at all, or you value one of the traitors’ more. If it’s the first, you’re of no use to me. But if it’s the second . . .”

He lets his voice trail off, and as I’m sure he intended, I finish the sentence on my own. If it’s the second, I will bleed the answer out of you. If it’s the second, I will take pleasure in carving you up, piece by piece, until you tell me everything I want to know.

He’s watching me closely, a cat toying with a mouse. “You tranquilized half the pack. Do you deny it?”

Say nothing, whispers Ari’s voice in my head. If you speak, you incriminate yourself.

My teeth sink so deep into my lip, they draw blood—again. But somehow I manage not to say a word.

“Come now,” Kilían says, his voice measured. “You expect me to believe that if I made my way back into the forest, I wouldn’t find a dart gun somewhere in the underbrush? Your trail would be easy enough for me to follow, as soon as the sun rose. And unconscious animals or no, that would be all the proof I’d need. Because I’m sure you didn’t go out there armed with a couple of syringes, expecting to get close enough to stab the beasts.”

He knows, Ari says, his tone a warning. He’s playing with you. Keep your silence. And don’t retreat, or he’ll pounce.

I try to hold Kilían’s eyes, but it’s hard. His gaze is blue and slippery—cold as ice, and just as impenetrable. The way he’s looking at me reveals nothing, except perhaps that I’m an idiot to have placed myself in this regrettable position.

He waits, one hand resting easy on the hilt of his dagur, like we can stand here for the rest of what remains of the night—at least, until he loses his temper and carves out my tongue for refusing to speak. It reminds me of a stare-down between two creatures as they try to determine which one holds the alpha position; I’ve dealt with this enough with the beasts in the veterinary practice to recognize it.

In the end, I let my gaze slide from his. I may be an idiot, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that of the two of us, I am the dominant animal. Sure, I might be able to muster the courage to hold his eyes with mine . . . but that would be a Pyrrhic victory. He’d see it as a challenge, and either way, I’d be just as dead.

I drop my eyes to the floor, hoping he’ll see this as the sign of submission it is and let me go. But instead, he exhales slowly, as if it’s all he can do not to reach out and strangle me. “Speak, boy,” he says, making no effort to disguise the irritation in his voice. “My patience is growing thin.”

Oh, by the Virtues. “Wh-who am I to s-say what you’d f-find in the f-forest?” I say, my eyes fixed on the tile between my feet. “It w-would be the g-greatest arrogance to imagine a l-lowly citizen like myself is c-capable of predicting a legendary b-bellator’s capacity.”

As soon as the words leave my mouth, I want to rewind time and stuff them back inside. What is wrong with me? Do I want to die right here, my blood hosed off the tiles like that of the wounded pig I stitched up just last week?

I brace for the kiss of Kilían’s blade against my throat. But instead, I hear the low rumble of his laughter.

Disbelieving, I flick my eyes up to his face. He’s still standing with one hand on the hilt of his weapon—but those frosty blue eyes have warmed, and the corners of his mouth have curved upward.

There’s no mistaking it: Kilían Bryndísarson, Lead Interrogator and merciless killer, is smiling at me. And despite myself, I can’t help but notice that when he does, the granite planes of his face smooth out into something almost . . . beautiful. For one peculiar moment, I imagine I can see what he looked like when he was young like me, before life in the Bellatorum hardened him, robbing him of everything but the icy, emotionless control he needed in order to survive. Then that image is gone. His face smooths into its usual stern expression—but I swear I can still see the ghost of his younger self peering out from behind those ice-chip eyes.

“I know you’re acquainted with Bellator Westergaard,” he says. “I watched you watch him, the day he took that public whipping years ago. You watched him, and he was watching her.” The words curl into the air, deadly by their very nature—but his tone isn’t threatening. I can’t fathom it. Together with finding me here tonight, Kilían has everything he needs to destroy me. But he makes no move to slit my throat.

Three years ago, when Ari and I were sixteen, he was whipped because of me—because he took the blame for something I did. It’s true my eyes lingered on him that day in the Square, wanting to give him strength. And equally true that his gaze skimmed over me, fixing instead on Eva Marteinn. It had taken finding the two of them in the rain-soaked woods, kissing against a spruce, for me to understand why.

“You went into the forest for him,” Kilían says, and it isn’t a question. “You risked your life for Westergaard. And even now, you keep his secrets. Why would you do such a thing?”

They say that Kilían is such a gifted interrogator because he can see inside you before you speak a single word—that he knows the inner workings of your mind and heart better than you do yourself. That before he’s done with you, you’ll confess things buried in the deepest recesses of your subconscious. There is no hiding from him, and so I don’t try. Instead, I lift my chin and meet his gaze again.

“If you know,” I say without a hint of a stutter, “then I would be even more of a fool than you believe me to be if I bothered to deny it.”

Kilían’s eyes fix on my face, but this time the way he’s looking at me is different. I can feel his gaze assessing me—an unwrapping of sorts, as if he has peeled back my skin to reveal not muscle and sinew, but something deeper: my thoughts and intentions, the motivation that has brought me to stand before him today. It is exquisitely uncomfortable, but I don’t look away.

A minute passes. An eternity. And then, to my shock, he begins to laugh again. It isn’t cruel, though. It’s . . . amused, and bitter, and somehow, surprised.

I know I should keep quiet. I should be grateful that he seems to find this situation funny, rather than cause for decapitation. But instead, a fierce red thread of fury winds its way through my veins. It yanks taut, taking my mouth with it.

“He could have d-died!” I say, feeling traitorous tears burn my eyes. He’ll probably laugh at them too, but at this point, I could care less. I am so tired of apologizing for and hiding who I am. “Y-you and your f-fellow B-bellatorum attack d-dogs p-planned to s-s-slaughter him. F-for all I k-know, you d-d-did. All I did was g-give him a f-f-fighting c-chance.”

I expect Kilían to mock me, but when he speaks again, his voice is soft. “He lives, Gentian. Perhaps thanks to you.”

Relief bolts through me, weakening my knees. I reach out, steadying myself on the counter. “And the girl?”

“Does it matter?” he counters.

I set my jaw. “She m-matters to him,” I say, my voice soft but determined. “He c-came back for her. And so she m-matters to me, as w-well.”

Kilían says nothing—but the strangest expression flits across his face before he schools it again to blankness. It looks oddly like . . . recognition.

I don’t understand this, either. But he doesn’t seem to be intent on killing me at the moment, so emboldened, I press on. “H-how?”

His mouth presses into a thin line. “The girl,” is all he says.

Outside, the rain is beginning to slow. It streaks the windows, dripping down the glass. A faint hint of light seeps through the fading night, setting Kilian’s red hair aflame. I peer up at him, and see what I couldn’t before—his black gear is soaked with drying blood, and the water that drips to puddle at his boots is red-tinged. “Are you h-hurt?” I say, so appalled at the quantity of it, I forget I’m speaking to the Commonwealth’s Lead Interrogator, a man who has the power to break me with a word. “I’m not a m-medic, but I c-can treat you—”

He glances down at himself in puzzlement, as if just noticing the state of his gear. “It’s not my blood,” he says absently. “Or Ari’s, in case you’re wondering.”

I suck in a sharp breath. “Then whose?”

“Well,” he says, plucking the fabric of his sodden shirt away from his body with disgust, “some of it belongs to one of the beasts. The girl stabbed it, when it threatened Westergaard. Almost severed its spine. As for the rest, that belongs to Efraím Stinar. Apprentice Marteinn managed to open the electrified gate and tempt one of the beasts into charging through. Bellator Stinar followed—and then the girl programmed the gate to close again, just as lightning struck. Efraím was trapped with the beast. He couldn’t—well.” Kilían closes his jaw with a snap, leaving me to follow his story through to its logical conclusion.

This doesn’t take much imagination. Having just survived an up-close-and-personal tussle with one of the beasts before I managed to sedate it, I know full well just how vicious they are on their own—let alone while compounded by an electrified fence in the middle of a lightning storm. Still, my eyes widen. “Are you t-telling me Lead Bellator Stinar is d-dead?”

His jaw tight, Kilían gives me a barely perceptible nod.

By the nine hells. Ari and Eva conspired to kill the leader of the Bellatorum—a vicious, stone-cold killer who I’d always thought seemed more machine than man. And as head interrogator, Kilían was his second-in-command. Which means—

“The Bellatorum is y-yours now,” I say, my awe clear in my voice. “You l-lead the T-thirty. So w-why are you standing here, wasting your time with m-me? Why n-not just k-kill me or h-haul me away to the d-dungeons?”

He draws himself up to his full height, looming over me again. “I do not have to answer to you,” he says, looking down his long, straight nose at me.

Of course, he doesn’t. As the de facto leader of the Bellatorum, he answers to no one but the Priests and the Executor himself. But though he may refuse to tell me anything, he can’t stop me from thinking—and my mind is racing, putting the puzzle pieces together. I think about the unexpected gentleness in Kilían’s voice when he told me Ari lived. Of the recognition on his face when I said Eva mattered to me because she was important to Ari. Of the way he laughed when I told him there was no point in me denying why I’d risked my life in the woods. And a spark of knowledge flares inside me, fanning into a flame.

“Y-you w-wanted him to escape,” I say. “Y-you watched me w-watching him, that day of the whipping. Why would you do either of those things?”

I don’t expect him to answer me. But he does. “Those are two very different questions,” he says, his tone wary.

Ari’s voice speaks in my head, insistent this time. Press him, he says, and so I do. “Are they?”

He takes a step back, his hand tracing the hilt of his dagur, like the weapon is one of the communal teddy bears Ari and I used to share as children in the Nursery. And then he sets his shoulders, as if girding himself to speak. “I noticed you watching him,” he says at last, “and him watching her in turn, because—once, I stood in your shoes. And like you, I made a choice.”

My heart starts to pound again, this time with excitement and shock. “You . . . c-c-cared for someone? And you h-helped them escape?”

His eyes narrow to blue slits. “Such a thing would be high treason. Punishable by death.”

I ignore this. There is no one to overhear but the two of us; I might not be aware of another’s presence here, but Kilían surely would be. He is a warrior and a hunter, trained to detect the slightest of threats. “S-so it has been d-done before,” I say. “I’m n-not the only one who t-thinks things could be d-different. B-better.”

His silence is the only answer I need.

“You p-protected Ari,” I say, the certainty settling over me with the same instinct that guides me to approach wounded creatures without fear of getting bitten or scratched. The instinct that allows me to heal. “You w-wanted h-him to get away. And you followed m-me because you know I w-wanted the s-same thing.”

Kilían swallows hard, his throat working. I watch his Adam’s apple move above the collar of his blood-soaked gear, watch the way a muscle twitches in his jaw. And for a moment, we aren’t a pitiless assassin and a helpless vet tech. We are just people who share a secret, standing on the tiled floor of the vet clinic as the rain comes down.

“I promised to protect him when he was born,” he says finally, his voice so low I can hardly hear it. “I swore on my honor as a bellator and the strength of my blade. And though that arrogant attitude of his hasn’t made it easy”—he heaves an exasperated breath; the sin of pride is Ari’s worst flaw—“I’ve done my best to keep my vow.”

My mouth falls open. Of all the things I expected him to say, this wasn’t it. “Who did you promise?” I ask before I can stop myself.

Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t answer me; but it doesn’t matter. Here in the Commonwealth, where attachment is verboten, I can think of only one thing that would make a bellator make such a commitment: Love, the same thing that led me to risk myself for Ari tonight. Whoever Kilían cared for, they are connected to Ari, and have been since his birth. I have no idea how or why; in the Commonwealth, our children are carried by artificially inseminated surrogates and then raised by Caretakers in the Nursery. But I would stake my life on the fact that whoever Kilían loved—the person that made him risk everything—is the reason behind the vow he swore.

A powerful surge of hope crests in me, sweeping away the fear in its path. I imagine a world where people don’t have to hide their feelings, where a boy doesn’t get whipped in a public square for rescuing a fallen baby bird. “Are w-we the only ones w-who have d-dared to defy the P-priests and the Executor?” I ask. “Or are we p-part of s-something l-larger?”

The Lead Interrogator mask settles over Kilían’s face again, any hint of vulnerability sealed away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Gentian. And I would advise you refrain from sharing any of your misguided suppositions with others, lest you find yourself in the regrettable position of parting with your head.”

Normally, this would cow me. But this time, I don’t retreat. I don’t need the echo of Ari’s voice in my head to tell me he’s lying; I feel it in my bones. And if this is my only chance at a life other than what the Commonwealth has to offer me, I will lunge for it with both hands, or die trying.

“I’m not going to tell anyone. And I know you understand exactly what I mean.” My voice is fierce. For once, I don’t stutter. “I might not look like much, but over the years, I’ve found that to be an advantage,” I say, refusing to fold. “I won’t betray your cause. Take me. Use me. I want to fight.”

For a long moment, Kilían regards me, his gaze impassive. The rain comes down and my heart pounds and I watch him watching me, the way he must have done so long ago, in the Square. I wait—for his knife to slide between my ribs, for his blade to carve out my tongue, so I can never speak of our exchange. A strange calm has settled over me; time drips, slow as honey from the hives the little ones tend.

I have made my choice. I made it years ago, when I gave my heart to Ari, without regard for whether he could keep it safe. In the end, it wasn’t what he could give to me, or whether he returned my feelings—not that it would have mattered if he had. It was about the strength I found in myself, the resilience and power that loving him gave me.

It was about the person I wanted to be.

I see the decision cross Kilían’s face an instant before he speaks. His arm moves, and I brace myself for the bite of his blade. But instead of pulling his dagur from his belt, he extends his hand to me. It hangs in the air between us—a question asked and answered, a risk taken and another promise made.

“Welcome to the resistance, Wolf’s Brother,” he says.

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