In the Commonwealth, friendship was not allowed. Still, Kilían Bryndísarson had never been able to deny the pull he felt toward Kennett Gundarson.
It had begun when they were twelve years old—earlier than that, if Kilían was brutally honest with himself. That day, Kilían and his fellow Nurserymates had been running an obstacle course in the woods that surrounded the City, with the Mothers judging them. If any of them failed to complete it in the allotted time, all of them would have to run it again. Discipline was vital to life in the Commonwealth, and the Mothers instilled it at every turn.
Kilían was a fast runner; he almost always came in first in the challenges the Mothers set for them. The only one who came close to matching his speed was Kennett, and despite the fact that pride in one’s accomplishments and envy of another’s skills were forbidden, whenever they ran these courses, Kilían always tried as hard as he could to beat him. The Priests were always watching, after all; the Mothers said so. At the age of twelve, Kilían already knew he wanted to be a bellator, and excelling at physical challenges was an excellent way to get the Priests’ attention.
Mother Truelson blew the whistle, and Kilían broke from the crowd of his white-clad Nurserymates and bolted from the starting line, Kennett hot on his heels. He darted into the woods, heading for the canvas tunnel that signaled the course’s first obstacle. Dropping to his belly, he wriggled through the tunnel, then came out the other side and sprinted for the clearing where the climbing wall stood. This was where he lost Kennett; the other boy could give him a run for his money on flat ground, but Kilían was by far the better climber. He glanced down when he reached the top; sure enough, Kennett was only a quarter of the way up, the sun gleaming on his dark hair, picking out its blue-black highlights. Bizarrely, Kilían thought of the pictures of seals he’d seen in books from before the Fall—of the animals’ wet, shining obsidian skin, of their grace underwater. Then he turned away and vaulted over the wall, landing hard on the packed earth, and the image vanished.
Panting, he took off for the wooden balance beams, walking sure-footed along one and then another. As he leapt off the second one, executing a perfect shoulder roll, and came up onto his feet, he heard the sound of Kennett’s feet hitting the ground beneath the climbing wall. The familiar thrill surged through him—the adrenaline-soaked sense of being at once the hunter and the prey. He sucked in a deep breath, inhaling the pungent scent of pine trees and leaf mold, and took off around the next curve, following the orange flags that the Mothers had staked in the dirt.
There were certain elements of the obstacle course that never changed—the climbing wall, the beams—and others that altered each time. These were the challenges, the ones Kilían loved best. Rounding the corner into a thicker part of the woods, he jumped over a log that the Mothers had positioned across the path and grinned as the finish line came into view—an orange ribbon strung between two trees. He took off for it at a full-out sprint—and his foot caught on something, sending him flying through the air. He landed in a heap of fallen leaves with a grunt, a sharp pain shooting through his ankle as he fell. Above him, the blue sky spun.
From where he lay, he could see the orange ribbon of the finish line fluttering in the breeze that stirred the trees and swept his sweat-drenched hair back from his face. Still struggling to catch his breath, he planted his palms in the dry, crumbling leaves and tried to push himself to his feet—but as soon as he put weight on his injured ankle, it gave way, sending him back down again. His pants had torn when he fell, and blood trickled from his knee, soaking the white fabric and dripping into the leaves.
By the Sins, what had he tripped over? Shoving himself to his elbows, he craned his head and saw a vine strung across the path, tied between two low scrub-bushes. His face flushed with mortification. What kind of bellator would he be if he couldn’t even recognize a simple camouflage trap when he saw one? He wasn’t worthy of the title. Self-disgust settled in his stomach, acrid and shifting.
To make his humiliation complete, Kennett chose this moment to round the bend. Kilían prayed to the Architect that he’d be foiled by the vine, too—but no. Kennett glanced down at the ground at the last moment and then leapt over it, his lanky limbs coiling as he launched himself into the air and then unfolding as he landed on the other side. It occurred to Kilían that there was something oddly beautiful about the way Kennett moved. He was always competing against the other boy; he’d never had the chance to watch him before.
By all the Virtues, what was wrong with him, thinking about Kennett—about anyone—like this? In the Commonwealth, attraction of any kind was forbidden; children were the product of artificial insemination, and lust—one of the Seven Deadly Sins—was punishable by death. Kilían’s face burned scarlet, and he was grateful that the other boy was fixated on the course rather than his surroundings.
Naturally, this was the moment that Kennett’s eyes found him. Kilían thought grimly that if his bright-red face wasn’t obvious enough, his red hair might as well be a flag announcing his presence. If he ever managed to become a bellator, he’d have to disguise it during any training exercises that involved concealment.
Kennett’s eyes settled on Kilían’s flaming face, then flicked toward the finish line. Kilían knew what he must be thinking: he’d beaten Kennett at the past four races. With his opponent sprawled in a pile of leaves, clutching his ankle, Kennett’s victory was assured.
Resigned, he waited for Kennett to run the last ten yards, to seize the victory that was rightfully his. But instead, the other boy’s eyes fixed on Kilían, and he slowed, then stopped.
Kilían didn’t understand.
Retracing his steps, Kennett knelt in front of the spot where Kilían lay. Without a word, he bent and tugged Kilían upright. His eyes scanned Kilían from head to toe, and Kilían felt an unaccustomed sense of warmth course through his body.
“You’re bleeding,” Kennett said.
Confusion made Kilían’s tone snappish—but not wrathful. Never that. “I know.”
Matter-of-factly, Kennett reached out, wiping the blood from Kilían’s knee with his sleeve. Together, they regarded the abrasion that remained.
“It’s not bad. Just a scrape,” Kennett said at last. “You can still finish.”
Kilían shook his head. “My ankle,” he said, wrapping his fingers tighter around it.
Kennett looked back toward the trees, where they could both hear the sound of the slower students making their way through the course. Kilían couldn’t understand what he was doing—didn’t he want to win? Why wouldn’t he just leave and go on to the finish line? But instead, Kennett braced himself and, before Kilían could protest, the other boy hauled him to his feet.
“Come on,” Kennett said, putting an arm around Kilían’s waist. “I’ll help you. We’ll finish together.”
Hesitantly, Kilían put his arm around Kennett’s shoulders. This kind of touch—in the name of practicality—wasn’t forbidden . . . but then why did Kilían feel that sense of warmth again, the one that had suffused him when Kennett touched his knee? This time it washed over
him in wave after wave. His body tingled wherever it pressed against Kennett’s, and when he took a deep breath, trying to steady himself, Kennett’s scent flooded his nostrils—pine needles and dirt and sweat.
“Come on,” Kennett said impatiently, tugging him forward. “We can still win.”
It was true—the sound of the other students crashing through the brush was louder now, but still far enough away that he and Kennett would beat them to the finish line, even moving slowly. He took a tentative step forward, then another. His ankle wouldn’t bear his weight without complaint—but Kennett’s grip on his waist was firm, and he let himself lean on the other boy as they limped forward, around the final bend.
“Lean on me, Kilían. We can do this,” Kennett whispered as they went. “Remember, ‘the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong.’” These were the words that the Mothers read to them each night, along with the parables of the sins that had led to the Empire’s Fall.
Kilían bit his lip so hard it bled, trying hard not to let his reaction show. To contradict the Mothers when they spoke of such things was heresy—but he believed these words to be lies. Perhaps they held true for the Commonwealth’s citizens at large, but certainly not for the bellators whose ranks he aspired to join. “There are many kinds of strength,” he whispered back.
It was a simple statement—but when Kennett’s hand tightened on his waist, he imagined that perhaps the other boy was reveling in the sensation of this unexpected intimacy, just as he was. For the ninety seconds it took for them to reach the finish line, he let himself imagine things that were beyond verboten: lying in the meadow beyond the vineyards with Kennett, his head on the other boy’s chest, looking up at the clouds that drifted across the sky; pressing a kiss to Kennett’s lips under the watchful eye of the sickle moon.
Something was terribly wrong with him. Kissing was forbidden, let alone kissing another boy. Not that it mattered who you kissed, he supposed; getting caught doing it only ended one way: on your knees in Clockverk Square, with your neck bared for a bellator’s sverd.
Kilían had always expected to be the one wielding the blade. He had no plans to find himself on the receiving end.
It didn’t matter, he told himself, shaking his head to clear it as they limped across the finish line together and Mother Truelson came forward to exclaim over what had become of his ankle, which had now swelled to a puffy mess three times its normal size. It made no difference how he felt about Kennett; he could never, ever act on it. In fact, he would never think about it again. That would be best.
Kilían was determined—it was a quality for which the Mothers had praised him over the years. Once he made up his mind to do something—or not to do it, for that matter—he always accomplished it. There had never been a goal he’d set for himself that he’d failed to achieve.
But as Mother Truelson peeled Kennett away from him, he felt the loss of the other boy’s touch keenly—as if a gift he’d never expected to receive had been stolen from him. He glanced over his shoulder as the Mother led him to the sidelines and saw Kennett standing there—his dark hair gleaming in the light that filtered through the trees, his green eyes bright under the arches of his eyebrows—and felt a spear of something he could only label as desire stab through him, as sharp as he imagined the bellators’ blades to be. And he knew then that he was lying to himself if he believed he could never dwell on how it had felt to have Kennett’s hands on him again—that gentle, assessing touch; that firm, insistent grip.
It would be his secret, he decided as Mother Truelson eased him onto a rock and pushed up his pant leg, poking and prodding at the bruised flesh of his ankle. And the keeping of it—however painful—would hurt no one but himself.
Chapter 2: Six Years Later
It was the Eve of the Architect’s Arrival, and fat flakes of snow fell on the Commonwealth of Ashes, blanketing the citizens gathered in Clockverk Square, washing them clean. The snow dusted the crimson robes of the High Priests where they gathered on the raised dais. It spangled the dark hair of the Executor, the Commonwealth’s leader, like tiny stars.
Newly-minted, eighteen-year-old bellator Kilían Bryndísarson stood at the edge of the Square, one hand resting on the dagur in his weapons belt, scanning the crowd for signs of trouble—which, in the Commonwealth, meant evidence of sin. Here, citizens lived and died by the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. It was the Executor’s job to ensure no sin went unpunished; the Priests’ job to determine the nature of those punishments; and Kilían’s job, as a bellator, to carry them out. He was an enforcer, a warrior, and—when the time called for it—an executioner.
He had never wanted to be anything else.
Here in the Commonwealth, you were either a fat, compliant sheep or one of the watchful dogs guarding the flock. And Kilían was no one’s sheep.
His eyes flicked over the mass of citizens in the Square, indulging in the lone annual celebration that the Commonwealth permitted its citizens. They were grouped according to activity, as they ought to be—queued up to receive tiny cups of spiced hot chocolate, aligned in the space below the dais to chant the prayer that recognized the significance of the Architect’s arrival. No one was touching, beyond the unavoidable brush that such a crowd necessitated; there were no raised voices or overly joyful celebrants. No one attempted to wrangle an extra cup of hot chocolate—this would be unpardonable evidence of gluttony. Nor did they worm their way too close to the prized group selected to recite the Prayer of Arrival, in proximity to the Executor and the Priests; this might be seen as evidence of envy of the others’ positions. They did exactly what they should, following the rules like the compliant sheep he knew them to be. And though Kilían would never have admitted it to anyone else, he was beginning to get the tiniest bit bored.
His eyes swept the crowd once more—and stalled at its edge. There, stepping off the stones of the Square onto the darkness of the path that led to the Education Center, the Library, and the Rookery, was Kennett Gundarson—with a strange girl in tow.
It had been six years since that morning in the woods. At their Choosing a year before, Kilían had become a bellator, as he’d hoped, and Kennett had been named a medic, fulfilling the promise of the healing touch Kilían had felt when the other boy had tended to his bleeding knee. Still, no matter how much time had passed and how hard he tried, Kilían had never stopped feeling the way he always did when he saw Kennett—as if a spark that usually lay dormant in his chest had flared to life. He’d hoarded every moment he’d gotten to spend with Kennett as they grew up—collaborating on projects under the watchful eye of the Instruktors, training alongside him during their mandatory physical fitness sessions, eating next to him in the dining hall.
When the Mothers assigned Kennett the cot next to his during their seventh-form year, Kilían couldn’t decide whether he’d been cursed or blessed by the Architect. He’d lie awake at night, long after the Mothers had declared lights out, listening to the even sound of Kennett’s breathing—like a wave, crashing on the shore and then retreating again. Sometimes, when he felt particularly daring, he’d turn on his side, open his eyelids a crack, and watch Kennett sleep by the moonlight that streamed through the dormitory’s windows. He’d imagine what it would be like to slip onto the cot next to him, to run his hands through Kennett’s sleek dark hair, to feel the heat of Kennett’s body against his own.
Kennett would never be his; Kilían knew that. But in the Commonwealth, no one could be anyone’s. In the Nursery, they even had communal toys, since attachment was the first step on the path toward sin. He’d long since reconciled himself to the fact that his feelings for Kennett were his cross to bear—and at least he’d never have to witness the other boy belonging to someone else, the way Kilían wished Kennett belonged to him.
But now here was Kennett, slipping off the path that led away from Clockverk Square, a girl right behind him.
A forbidden wave of envy broke over him, soaking him in sweat despite the cold. Gripping the hilt of his dagur, he wove his way through the crowd, seeking to follow them. He told himself that he was only doing his duty, that whatever Kennett and this girl were up to was clearly against the rules. Citizens were meant to be in the Square right now, not slinking off somewhere—and a boy was never, ever meant to be alone with a girl, unsupervised and alone in the dark. Such activities could only lead to sins of the most grievous kind.
All of this was true enough. But what he could barely admit—even to himself—was that he had no intention of punishing Kennett, no matter what he found him doing. The girl, on the other hand . . .
Kilían faded into the shadows, his black clothes blending effortlessly into the darkness beyond the lamps of the Square. His footsteps were silent on the packed earth of the path as he tracked Kennett and his companion. Bellators were trained to hone all of their senses and make themselves unobtrusive when the situation called for it; Kennett and the girl wouldn’t know he was there unless Kilían wanted them to.
The two of them weren’t touching; they walked side by side, setting a fast pace, but other than the fact that they weren’t supposed to be doing—well, whatever it was they were doing—Kilían couldn’t figure out what they were up to. He glided along behind them, flattening himself against the rough stone of the Education Center when the girl paused, glancing behind her as if she sensed someone in pursuit.
The moonlight fell full on her face, illuminating her olive skin and high cheekbones. Other than the boys he’d grown up with, Kilían was most familiar with the citizens who’d been brought to him for interrogation—in his first year as an apprentice, he’d already shown an aptitude for prying citizens’ secrets out of them. This girl had never found her way to his chambers. Still, he knew her somehow.
As she spun back around, ducking under the archway that led to the Library with Kennett right behind her, he rifled through the mental files he maintained on the citizens of the Commonwealth—and then he had it. This girl had been part of their Choosing ceremony; Miriam was her name. She’d been Chosen to be a scholar—which explained why the Library was a place of interest to her. It did not explain why she was heading toward it during the celebration for the Eve of the Architect’s arrival, much less with Kennett in tow.
Kilían crept closer still, until he was standing on the other side of the archway. If he’d wanted to, he could’ve reached out and touched Kennett’s back. He imagined himself yanking Kennett into the shadows with him, demanding to know what he was doing with this girl, who had clearly led him astray. But if he confronted Kennett with the girl as a witness, he’d be compelled to follow through on dragging both of them before the Priests—and that was a risk he wasn’t willing to take.
Cursing the girl to the nine hells and back again, Kilían watched as she pulled a key from the pocket of her green scholar’s tunic. She hesitated before sliding it into the Library’s lock, and Kennett spoke, his voice hushed.
“What is it, Miri?” he said.
At the sound of his voice—soft and gentle, everything that Kilían was not—that virtueless spike of envy stabbed through Kilían again, followed by with a white-hot anger so intense, it scalded his throat. Kennett had a nickname for her? Such things weren’t done in the Commonwealth; they intimated a sense of closeness that was irrelevant at best and verboten at worst. What was the relationship between the two of them? Surely they were not—
“I thought I heard someone,” the girl said, her voice pitched as low as Kennett’s own.
Despite his training, Kilían’s heart picked up speed as he shrank back into the shadows. The girl was a scholar, made for sedentary pursuits. There was no way she should’ve been able to sense the presence of a bellator who didn’t want to make himself known, even an apprentice like Kilían. Were her instincts unusually strong—or had he betrayed himself in some way?
“You’re just nervous,” Kennett said, his tone reassuring. “There’s no one here but us.”
“I suppose you’re right,” the girl said, and she slid the key into the lock. The door to the Library swung open, and the two of them disappeared inside.
As soon as the door shut behind them, Kilían stepped into the archway. He couldn’t hear them; the door was solid wood and the building’s façade, like all those in the Commonwealth, was made of stone. Nor could he see them; though there were windows at the front of the Library, they weren’t foolish enough to turn on the lights.
By the nine hells, what could they be doing?
He could jimmy the lock of the Library and follow them inside, catching the two of them in the act. The High Priests sat on the dais in Clockverk Square, along with the Executor himself, and the Square was full of citizens. Dragging Kennett and the girl into the Square for punishment now would be damning for them—and a boon for Kilían. He was only an apprentice, but he had his eye on becoming one of the Thirty, the Bellatorum’s elite group of skilled warriors. A discovery like this, during the Commonwealth’s highest-profile ceremony, would be a tremendous coup. He would gain the attention of the lead bellator, not to mention the Executor and the Priests. Everyone who mattered would know what he was capable of.
But depending on what he caught them doing, it might spell Kennett’s doom.
He thought about Kennett’s low voice, saying, What is it, Miri? Was it possible that Kennett felt for the girl what Kilían felt for him—and had acted on it? If that were the case, and Kilían interrupted them mid-sin, it would mean Kennett’s death.
He should go in. It was his duty as a bellator. He should see this through to its natural conclusion—and in so doing, perhaps he could rid himself of the sinful feelings he felt for Kennett once and for all. Such feelings, even when kept secret, were a terrible weakness. They were preventing him from fulfilling his calling. He’d sworn an oath to protect the Commonwealth from threats such as this; the Executor had told them often enough the commission of a single sin might set off an avalanche that could send them all hurtling into the abyss.
Kilían drew a deep breath. Perhaps they had left the door open. If that was the case, he would go in. They would have brought his justice on themselves.
He lifted his hand and set it on the knob, rattling it. It was locked.
By the Sins. Was this a test of his fealty—a trap? He stilled, attuning himself to his surroundings, glancing back the way he’d come and upward, toward the roofs of the Library and Education Center . . . but he saw no one, and all he heard was the steady pounding of his heart. The wind blew, gusting down the passageway between the buildings, bringing with it the bite of winter and the scent of coming snow—but no hint of other human beings.
Kilían was alone.
He drew another deep breath, then a third, imagining the look of surprise on Kennett’s face when he barged through the door, blade in hand. How hurt Kennett might be, even as he accepted this fate as his due.
He had no business caring for Kennett’s feelings; they were extraneous, an impediment to his duty. It was drilled into every citizen, the catechism they recited each morning: With attachment comes tenderness. With tenderness comes love. With love comes loss. With loss comes hate. With hate comes chaos. Out of chaos comes order. But he couldn’t help it.
His fingers tightened on the doorknob. It would be easy to open it, either with the finesse of the tip of one of his blades in the lock, or the brute force of a shoulder against the jamb. It would be the work of a moment.
He couldn’t do it. To condemn Kennett would mean damning the best part of himself, the one flight of fancy he’d allowed himself in years of deprivation and asceticism.
Traitor, he thought, but the word didn’t frighten him the way it should. Whatever Kennett and the girl were doing in the Library, he was complicit in it now. And a small, wicked piece of himself savored this connection to the boy he loved—even if Kennett didn’t know it existed.
Breath hissing through his teeth, Kilían stepped back from the door and turned away, heading back the way he’d come.
Kilían had thought he’d known what torture was: being sprayed with ice-cold water and then shocked, the voltage cranked up again and again, so he could understand what his interrogation subjects felt, the better to extract information from them; having his Bellatorum mentor shove slivers of wood under his nails and then try to force him to confess a secret; being collared and then slammed face-first into a wall repeatedly, the lead bellator’s hand fisted around the leather ring that encircled his neck as he catalogued Kilían’s faults. He’d taken all of these stoically, as befitted a bellator, but inside he’d been furious and humiliated. It had taken every bit of his strength not to fight back, to make Mentor Falk and Lead Bellator Sondheim pay. And when all was said and done, he’d thought he understood what it meant to take a person to the breaking point, and then push them over the edge.
How wrong he’d been.
Over the months since he’d watched Kennett and the girl sneak into the Library, he’d made it his business to find out what they were up to. As a bellator, he had more freedom than most. After dark, he had free range of the Commonwealth—and he used it, seeking out all the places where he thought two people wishing to evade detection might hide. It didn’t take him long to come upon Kennett and the girl again.
They met in the vineyards, where the grapes were grown for the wine used in the Priests’ ceremonies. In the meadow where Kilían had imagined lying with Kennett so long ago, looking up at the clouds. In the woods where Kennett had helped Kilían to the finish line. Even at the edge of Black Falls, the place where the Bellatorum’s older, useless fighters leapt from the cliffs, giving themselves an honorable, warriors’ death. And in all these places, they lay together, committing the Commonwealth’s most grievous sins.
Kilían stood in the shadows, watching as Kennett brushed back the girl’s hair, his touch tender. His heart splintered into a thousand ice-cold shards as Kennett bent to kiss her, whispering how beautiful she was, how lucky he felt to be able to touch her this way, no matter the cost. The first time he saw Kennett’s usual gentleness sharpen into ferocity as their bodies melded together, becoming a single being, indistinguishable from the dark, he nearly fell to his knees.
To watch them like this, doing nothing to put an end to it, was traitorous—he knew that well enough. But he couldn’t seem to stop.
Standing in the shadows, he imagined it was him Kennett embraced, him to whom Kennett whispered such things. And the knowledge that it would never be—worse, that even if Kilían did nothing to report the two of them, someone would catch them in the act, and then Kennett would be executed for his sins—it was a thousand times worse than the electroshock or the slivers of wood or the collar. He would endure any of those again, and gladly, if it meant he didn’t have to watch Kennett and the girl together. If it meant Kennett wouldn’t be sentenced to death.
He knew the girl’s name—how could he not, with all the endearments Kennett whispered to her; Miri this, Miri that—but he couldn’t bring himself to think it. To do so made her real.
And more than anything else, he wanted all of this—wanted her—to go away.
He could have arranged for something unfortunate to befall her. Wanted to, with an intensity so great it was almost painful. But such a thing would’ve hurt Kennett, and that was the one thing he couldn’t bring himself to do . . . even if, should anyone find out Kilían had known about this all the time and done nothing, it would be him on his knees in the Square right next to Kennett and the girl.
Still, watching the two of them sin together, he couldn’t help but wonder if dying alongside Kennett would hurt less than this.
He had to do something. He couldn’t go on this way. But what could he do that wouldn’t destroy him and Kennett both?
As he deliberated, trying to find a solution, the decision was taken out of his hands.
He was sparring in the training room, trying his blade against Efraím Stinar—five years his senior, Stinar was the best of the younger bellators, and thus an excellent outlet for Kilían’s frustration—when High Priest Traasen walked in, Lead Bellator Sondheim at his side.
As was appropriate, Kilían and Stinar snapped to attention, blades sheathed, backs straight, and hands at their sides. The High Priest came to stand in front of them, his red robes sweeping the floor, and Kilían had to fight to keep his heartbeat steady. Was it possible that Bellator Sondheim and the Priest had discovered his perfidy, and were here to haul him away? It took all of his training to steel his face to blankness, determined to betray nothing.
“Bellator Stinar. Apprentice Bryndísarson,” Bellator Sondheim said, his face settling into its usual stern lines. “Your assistance is needed for a most unfortunate task.”
As the senior bellator—and because the Architect forbid he ever appear to be anything but perfectly compliant—Stinar spoke first. “I live only to serve, sir.”
Kilían had never liked Efraím Stinar—not that such things mattered. He admired the senior bellator’s skills, but something about the man himself rubbed him the wrong way. Maybe it was Stinar’s coldness, the way he never seemed to feel anything, even the emotions that were permitted in the Commonwealth. He was relentless and single-minded: excellent traits in a bellator, but exhausting qualities in a human being.
But in the Bellatorum, the chain of command was everything. Kilían knew what he was supposed to say, and so he said it, the words clipped and his chin raised: “As do I, sir.”
“Good,” Priest Traasen said. His voice was high-pitched and nasal, and the small, smug smile that lifted his lips sent an icy centipede skittering down Kilían’s spine.
Please, he thought, a desperate prayer sent to the Architect. Please don’t let this be about Kennett and the girl. I’ll do anything. Just don’t let me lose him.
It was a sinful prayer, and Kilían knew it. Perhaps that was the problem. Or perhaps the issue was that Kennett had never been his to begin with. Because when he and Stinar followed the Priest out of the training facility, they found a girl with a nose like a pug dog’s waiting for them on the paving stones, the expression on her face mirroring the Priest’s. She led them unerringly through the City and to the vineyards, Kilían’s heart sinking further with each step. And when finally they reached the arbors, thick with vines and hanging heavy with burgundy grapes, there stood Kennett and the girl in each other’s arms, her face streaked with tears and his lips on hers.
Kilían felt his heart thud. It was a painful feeling, as if the organ was threatening to stop beating altogether. He fought the urge to rub his chest. Instead he stood straight, his sverd at his back and his weapons belt strapped around his hips, his right hand resting on the hilt of his dagur. A staticky sound roared in his head, so that he barely heard the pug-nosed girl when she spoke.
“You see,” she said to Priest Traasen, pointing at Miriam’s midsection. “I told the truth.”
Every time Kilían had come upon Kennett and the girl together, it had been too dark to make them out clearly—though he’d certainly seen enough. But now, in the fading light of dusk, he saw what he hadn’t been able to perceive before: Miriam’s belly was swollen, round. And Kennett’s hand rested on it, as if to protect whatever lay within.
A small, shocked sound escaped Kilían’s throat, as if someone had punched him in the stomach. The girl was carrying Kennett’s child.
He didn’t think it would’ve hurt more if Stinar had stabbed him.
The Priest’s self-satisfied smile widened. Then he spoke, his nasal voice booming through the fruit-laden arbor. “Miriam Larsen. Kennett Gundarson. I find you guilty of the sins of lust and fornication. You will be sentenced to execution in Clockverk Square. As you have sinned, so will you die—together.”
Kilían had been wrong—again. He wished Stinar would stab him. Anything would be better than this.
He willed Kennett to show courage—and he did, squaring his shoulders. Beside him, Miriam—Kilían forced himself to think of her by name; denying her existence would do him no good now—stood straight. “What about the child?” she said.
The Priest eyed her, looking more contemptuous than ever. “You will be confined to the hospital until the child is born, and your fellow sinner held in the dungeons, to contemplate the fate that awaits you both,” he said, wiping a hand across his mouth. “Then your bastard spawn will join the ranks of the natural-born, and the two of you will face the bellators’ blades.”
Nausea roiled in Kilían’s stomach. What if the Priests decreed that he kill Kennett? There was no use pretending he could do it. He knew himself well enough to understand he’d rather cut off his own arm than wield his blade in service to such a thing.
He’d fail at his duty in front of the entire Commonwealth, his sinful feelings for Kennett laid bare. And then he’d be executed by his brethren.
The static in his head ratcheted up to a fever pitch. His vision swam.
Through the buzzing that filled his ears, he heard Priest Traasen speak again. “Bellators, remove the boy from my sight. I’ll escort the girl to the hospital myself. She’s no threat to me.”
Kilían wanted to laugh. Not a threat? She’d destroyed everything Kilían held dear. Rage bloomed in his belly, fierce and hungry, as he strode toward the two of them, obeying the Priest’s orders. Beneath his boots, he felt the grapes that had tumbled from the arbors give way, perfuming the air with a sweet-sour tang. He wished he could crush Miriam as easily—but then what would happen to Kennett’s child, doomed to live out its life as a cursed natural-born, carrying out the Commonwealth’s most menial tasks? It would be a miserable life, that was for certain. But at least the child would live.
The girl clung to Kennett, as if he could protect her from what was about to happen, even as Kilían took hold of his left bicep and Stinar grasped his right. He felt Kennett tense beneath his grip, his skin as warm as Kilían remembered, but he didn’t fight to pull away. Instead, he spoke to Miriam, his voice barely louder than a breath.
“I am a medic,” he told her. “But I have no idea how to heal a broken heart.”
This, Kilían thought as he and Stinar dragged Kennett away from the girl who carried his child, was a sins-forsaken shame. Because where Kilían’s heart should be was nothing but a morass of splinters that caused him pain with every breath.
He could feel Kennett’s eyes on him, and stubbornly refused to return the favor. If he looked at Kennett, surely everything he was feeling would be clear on his face. Instead, he stared straight ahead, his fingers tight on Kennett’s upper arm. If this was the last time he ever got to touch Kennett, he wanted to remember it.
In the gathering dusk, they marched Kennett through the City and down to the dungeons, ignoring the curious looks and whispers of passers-by. Stinar pulled a ring of keys from his belt, opened a cell door, and shoved Kennett through. Then he slammed it shut and strode off without a word, leaving Kilían standing there.
They regarded each other through the bars in silence. And then Kennett spoke. “Kilían—” he said, and it sounded like an entreaty.
“Don’t.” The word was rough, as if it had been torn from Kilían’s throat. It had been years since he’d heard Kennett say his name. Hearing it now, from the wrong side of prison bars, with a death sentence hanging over Kennett’s head—Kilían thought it might break him. “I can’t help you,” he said, willing Kennett to understand.
The sentence came from a wellspring of desperation—by the Architect, how he wished there was something he could do—but it came out all wrong, as if he thought Kennett deserved to die. Still, Kennett didn’t wince. Instead, he stepped closer to the bars.
Most people were frightened of Kilían; bellators were intimidating to begin with, and even as an apprentice, Kilían had already gained a reputation as a merciless interrogator. But Kennett didn’t tremble or cower as if the bellator was something to fear. His green eyes wide and guileless, he looked at Kilían with an open, pleading expression—as if he thought the bellator was his only hope.
“I know you can’t help me,” he said, wrapping one hand around the bars. “I would never expect you to. But Miri—Kilían, please—”
Kilían was the one studded with weapons and free; Kennett stood, bruised and powerless, in a cell. But hearing the misery in Kennett’s voice, he felt as if he were the helpless one.
He would’ve given Kennett anything he asked for. It was just Kilían’s luck that the one thing Kennett wanted was for him to save the life of the girl he despised.
Still, if it was within his power, he would’ve made it happen. But he couldn’t fight the entire Commonwealth singlehandedly. He was just one bellator, and an apprentice at that.
“Kennett,” he said, and heard his own voice break. “There’s nothing I can do.”
He expected Kennett’s shoulders to slump, for the other boy to turn away. But instead, his eyes lit with a brilliant fervor. “Come here,” he said.
Kilían knew he should refuse. But as if those words had compelled him, he stepped closer, until he was right in front of the bars, his face an inch from Kennett’s. He could smell the other boy—the faint scent of the crushed grapes from the vineyards, the acrid scent of fear.
“What?” He bit out the word, trying to seem indifferent—as if this proximity to Kennett didn’t threaten to bring him to his knees.
Kennett brought his other hand up, as if to grip the bars—but instead, he reached through them, fastening his fingers on Kilían’s sleeve. Kilían stiffened—touching a bellator was forbidden—but he didn’t pull away. They were the same height; he looked into Kennett’s green eyes, which had always reminded him of the pool of water at the base of Black Falls—depthless, yet filled with light. “What?” he said again, more gently this time.
Kennett bit his lip. And then he mouthed silently, Do you want to help us?
A moment ticked by, then two. Kilían thought about his career as a bellator, which had only just begun. Of the oath he’d sworn, and what it would cost him to break it.
And then he thought about what it would cost him to lose Kennett. How the best part of him would die alongside the other boy in the Square.
In the end, it was no contest at all.
It was one thing for Kilían to promise Kennett that he would try to save Miriam. It was another thing entirely for him to figure out how to bring such a plan to fruition.
He’d been thinking of little else since Kennett made the request of him, and still had no idea of how it might be accomplished. The Commonwealth was a series of concentric circles: the City, flanked by its vineyards and fields; then the woods where the bellators trained and citizens occasionally participated in activities like the obstacle course; then a sprawling tangle of grass and low-lying shrubs that separated the woods from the forest, where the Bastarour roamed, genetically modified beasts with a taste for human flesh; and then the electric fence, which surrounded the Commonwealth in its entirety. On the other side of the fence were the Borderlands, inhabited by vicious hordes who lived by no moral code at all—sinners who were jealous of the security the Commonwealth citizens endured, and took great pleasure from rending exiled citizens limb from limb. Rumor had it they were cannibals, starved and craving the flesh of citizens raised on a steady diet of nutritious meals.
From time to time, sinners were exiled to the Borderlands, but such individuals were simply set free at the edge of the forest, with nothing but their wits to sustain them. In his lifetime, Kilían had never heard of any of them surviving the Bastarour. If they managed that much, they’d have to figure out a way to open or scale the electric fence, which was live at all times and required a code to deactivate. And then, on the other side of the fence, they’d have to confront the wastes and the savages.
Even if Kilían could retrieve the girl from the hospital, where she was imprisoned in a separate wing under armed guard, what in the nine hells would he do with her? Was he meant to shepherd an untrained citizen through the forest, singlehandedly defeat the Bastarour, magically deactivate the fence, and then let her loose in the Borderlands, only to have her be devoured by the hordes? Or did Kennett mean for Kilían to go with her into the Outside—to defend her against whatever came?
The Architect help him, he considered it. Life in a world where Kennett didn’t exist would be empty for him, meaningless. Maybe it would be better to have his last, seditious act take place in service to what Kennett would have wanted of him.
What he wanted, more than anything else, was to figure out a way to save Kennett. To the nine hells with the girl. But the dungeons were closely guarded, and Kennett was inside a locked cell. It was possible Kilían would be able to find a way to work himself into the guard rotation, but even if that was the case, he wouldn’t be guarding Kennett alone. And even if he somehow got Kennett out, he’d face the same dilemma: the forest, the Bastarour, the fence, the hordes. Not to mention, he was sure Kennett wouldn’t leave without Miriam.
It was a sins-forsaken mess.
As he stood on the training ground at attention with the other bellators, his hands linked behind his back and his spine straight, he turned the dilemma over and over in his mind. But he could think of no solution.
Lead Bellator Sondheim stalked up and down the ranks of his black-clad warriors, scrutinizing them for weakness and insufficiency, and Kilían schooled his face to blankness, terrified that somehow he’d reveal the conflict that raged within him. He was Kennett’s and Miriam’s only hope, as feeble as that hope was. If he fell, they would have nothing.
Sondheim came to a stop and pulled his dagur from his belt, twirling the weapon between his fingers. The blade flashed silver in the light of the rising sun. “Bellators,” he said, and the ranks—Kilían among them—answered promptly, “Sir.”
“As you are aware,” Sondheim said, “we have a double execution on our roster: Kennett Gundarson and Miriam Larsen, a medic and a scholar who have committed the most egregious of sins. It is our honor and our privilege to carry out the edict of the Priests in putting them to death.”
Next to Kilían, Efraím Stinar’s eyebrow twitched infinitesimally, betraying his distaste. Kilían wanted to slide his blade between the senior bellator’s ribs. But instead, he faced front, his legs set slightly apart and his head held high, the picture of an attentive soldier, as Sondheim paused in front of David Lunde, a bellator known for his facility with a sverd. Lunde’s throwing arm could use practice, but for close-up bladework, there were few better.
“Bellator Lunde, you’ll execute the girl,” Sondheim said. “And as for the boy . . .” He resumed his pacing, his gaze roving over the assembled bellators as he went, and Kilían held his breath.
Please, he prayed. Please, anything but this.
But as usual, the Architect laughed in the face of his prayers, because Sondheim’s sharpened gaze settled on his face. “Apprentice Bryndísarson. You’ve not had the pleasure of executing a sinner yet. Let this be your first opportunity.”
Bile rose in Kilían’s throat, and for an alarming second, he thought he might actually vomit. “Me, sir?” he said, swallowing it back down again.
“You know him, no?” Bellator Sondheim’s lips rose in a mirthless smile.
“Yes,” Kilían admitted, “but I don’t understand—”
“Well, then perhaps it’ll be welcome for him to see a friendly face at the end. Consider it a kindness.” Sondheim clapped him on the back, hard enough to make him stagger. “That’s an order, Apprentice Bryndísarson. Is there a problem?”
Sondheim was watching him closely, those hawklike eyes of his narrowed. Feeling sicker than ever, Kilían straightened his spine and smoothed his face to blankness. “No, sir. It would be my honor.”
“Excellent.” Bellator Sondheim lifted his hand and stepped away. “They’ll be executed the dawn after the girl bears her brat. The midwife assigned to her tells me she likely has about three weeks to go. That should give you time to prepare yourself. Use it wisely.”
Kilían thought he might never sleep again. His head pounded, his heart ached, and his mind whirred, going over and over what had happened on the training grounds that morning.
Few decisions that Bellator Sondheim made were a coincidence. Had he chosen Kilían to execute Kennett because he suspected that Kilían harbored sinful feelings for him? Would Kilían be forced to decapitate Kennett, only to find another bellator’s blade at his throat?
It didn’t matter, anyhow. He couldn’t take Kennett’s life. He’d sacrifice his own first.
But what was he to do? Three weeks, Sondheim had said. And what if she dropped the brat early? He had to figure out a plan now—but he had no idea what such a thing could be.
Exhausted and heartsick, he prowled the grounds of the Commonwealth all night, ending up at last in the damp tunnels that ran beneath the City, providing bellators with underground access to the buildings in the event of emergency. One branch led to the prison cells, and Kilían felt the pull of Kennett’s presence, like a magnet drawing him onward—but he couldn’t take the chance. Every time he stood in front of Kennett, he risked giving himself away. Instead, he walked in the opposite direction, one he’d never taken before, as it ran smack into a dead-end. That seemed fitting, Kilían told himself as he made his way down the narrow passageway. It was the perfect metaphor for his situation.
He made his way without the aid of a flashlight, trailing the tips of his fingers along the dripping walls of the tunnels to orient himself. After all, it wasn’t as if he was actually looking for something. But he found it, nonetheless.
He heard them before he saw them: a male and a female voice, speaking low, as if they were afraid of being overheard. The sound was coming from where he estimated the end of the tunnel to be, about fifty feet in front of him.
“Speak of the wolf, and she will come,” one voice—the female’s—said.
And on its heels came an answer, one that made no sense to Kilían, but which was clearly the accepted response: “A wolf does not bite a wolf.”
Kilían didn’t recognize either of the voices, but that meant little; the Commonwealth held seven thousand citizens. He could hardly be expected to know all of them, except when his business required it.
Still, something about this exchange struck him as unusual. Who would be meeting at night, in secret, in the tunnels beneath the city—speaking in code, no less—unless they had something to hide? He stilled, flattening himself against the wall of the tunnel, and listened for all he was worth.
“You’ve taken a huge chance, coming here,” the male voice said. “What possessed you?”
The female laughed. “And you think we’re safe, out there in the woods?”
Kilían froze, pulse skipping. Had this female come from the Borderlands? He’d never heard of such a thing.
“There’s danger, and then there’s idiocy.” The man sounded aggravated. “Of all people, Cordelia, surely you know the difference.”
“And I have the tools to defend myself.” Amusement threaded the woman’s voice. “Better than most.”
“You think your claws and incisors are going to protect you from a battalion of armed bellators?” The man snorted. “Not even you are proof against a poisoned blade.”
The woman named Cordelia laughed. “Do you see any bellators here, Joseph? Really, perhaps spending so much time with your books has made you soft.”
Joseph. Books. Kilían flipped through the mental roster he kept of the Commonwealth’s citizens, searching for a match—and then he had it: Senior Scholar Joseph, a white-bearded man in his fifties who Kilían had seen the last time he’d done a routine patrol of the Library. He hadn’t taken much notice of Joseph, distracted by the sight of Kennett and Miriam sitting at one of the tables, their heads bent together as they examined the contents of a book. But now he did as he’d been trained, erasing everything else from the memory other than the person in question. Kennett and Miriam vanished. The shelves winked out of existence. All that remained was Scholar Joseph, sitting at a desk next to Aric, a suck-up who’d been in Kilían’s seventh-form dorm. Joseph had seemed dutiful enough, the picture of a dedicated academic. But now—
“It’s the perfect disguise.” Joseph’s aggravation was gone, buried under self-deprecation. “Who would suspect mild-mannered, obedient Scholar Joseph of sedition?”
Kilían’s mouth tasted of metal. Joseph was a traitor—a rebel of some kind. And this Cordelia had come from the Outside—he was sure of it. The talk of claws and incisors bewildered Kilían—it must be another kind of code, phrases that only meant something to the two of them.
He cared little for their talk of rebellion, astonishing though it was. Cordelia had gotten in somehow, and clearly she didn’t intend to stay, which meant one thing: She could get out again. And if she could, so could Kennett and Miriam.
He drew a deep breath of the moldering air and pushed off the tunnel wall, striding in the direction of the voices. In a minute, his fingertips grazed solid wood: a door. He slid them lower, and found a knob. Bracing himself, he yanked it open.
He was standing in a small room, lined with books and lit by a single wavering lantern, mounted on the wall. In front of him stood Scholar Joseph and a tall, lithe woman, her chestnut hair woven into a single braid and her amber eyes wide and shocked. She bared her teeth, and he could have sworn she growled at him. It was not a human sound.
Kilían shut the door behind him and stood with his back to it. “Greetings,” he said, his voice as neutral as he could make it.
“Bellator.” Her voice held the hint of that growl, and her odd eyes didn’t fall from his own.
Scholar Joseph, on the other hand, looked terrified. He’d flattened himself against one of the shelves as if he wished the books would open up and suck him inside. Seeing this, Kilían couldn’t help but smile; it was nice to feel like himself again, like the warrior he’d spent his life yearning to be rather than some lovesick, trapped boy.
“Bellator Bryndísarson,” the scholar said, his voice trembling, “I swear this isn’t—”
“Don’t waste your breath.” Kilían’s hand dropped to his dagur, his fingers playing idly with the handle. “I mean you no harm, as long as you cooperate.”
“What do you want here?” The woman’s eyes ran over him insolently, from toe to head, as if she was assessing his potential as a threat and finding him wanting. Under other circumstances, Kilían would have taken this as an invitation to show her exactly how much of a threat he could be. But this time, he just smiled.
“I want what you want. Safe passage.”
“You want to leave the Commonwealth?” Her eyes narrowed. He could have sworn they were a lighter color than they’d been a minute before.
“Not me. Two others. Tell me how, and I’ll let you live—and say nothing of what I’ve heard here tonight.”
“Let me live?” The woman’s upper lip curled. “What makes you think you have that kind of power?”
“Cordelia.” Scholar Joseph sounded steadier now. “I know this man. He may be young, but he’s one of the best among the bellators’ ranks. His interrogation skills are unparalleled, and as for the rest of it, look at him.” He gestured at Kilían, indicating his weapons belt, the sverd strapped to his back, and his general, hair-trigger self. “You made a mistake by not bringing your familiar with you tonight, illness or no. In close quarters like this, victory against a bellator is far from assured. He offers us a bargain. Why not listen to what he has to say?”
Kilían inclined his head toward Scholar Joseph, acknowledging both the compliment and the reasonable nature of his suggestion—but he didn’t take his eyes off Cordelia. He didn’t know what Joseph meant by a familiar—more code, perhaps?—but it was clear that between the two of them, she was the dangerous one. He didn’t quite comprehend how, but just because you didn’t understand the nature of a weapon, that was no reason to underestimate it.
“Start talking,” Kilían suggested, drawing his dagur from his belt. “My patience is wearing thin.”
Thirty minutes later, Kilían stood on the other side of the wooden door again, his mind reeling and his worldview upside down. He had learned several disturbing—and helpful—things. And most important of all, he knew how he could use them to save Kennett.
He now knew that a resistance against the restrictive world of the Commonwealth existed, called the Brotherhood of the Wolf. Select citizens, including Scholar Joseph—he’d refused to name the others, and Kilían hadn’t pressed him; right now, such information was irrelevant—belonged to it. Cordelia did indeed come from the Borderlands. She was one of the resistance’s ringleaders, and others were camped outside the Commonwealth even now. If she was to be believed, the Borderlands were inhabited not by cannibalistic hordes, but rather by human beings simply trying to survive—and to systematically take down the Commonwealth of Ashes, as well as the other, lesser Commonwealths scattered across the Empire.
Most important of all, built into the wall of the room where he’d found Joseph and Cordelia was a door that led to another set of tunnels, one that burrowed underneath the forest and the fence and emptied into the Borderlands. According to Cordelia and Joseph, the Bellatorum’s Thirty used it to patrol the land beyond the fence. This was how Cordelia had come in—and it was how Kilían could lead Kennett and Miriam out, as well.
He’d brokered a deal with the scholar and the stranger. He would say nothing about what he’d overheard, about his knowledge of the resistance, as long as they accepted Kennett and Miriam into their ranks. In return, Scholar Joseph would keep his mouth shut about Kilían’s intentions.
“If you don’t,” Kilían had said, the tip of his blade beneath the scholar’s chin, “I will find you before the bellators take me down. And your life will be the price.”
Joseph had blinked repeatedly, afraid to nod lest he skewer himself on Kilían’s blade, and Kilían had known the scholar believed him.
“We’ll shelter them,” Cordelia had said, sounding skeptical. “But how exactly do you plan to extract them from custody and get them to us?”
“That,” Kilían had said with more confidence than he felt, “is my business. I’ll hold up my end of the deal, if you do the same. Do we have a bargain?”
They’d shaken on it, the strength in the woman’s grip taking Kilían by surprise. There was something unusual about her, no doubt about it. But he had no time to figure out what that might be. Dawn was nearing, and she’d vanished into the tunnels that would take her back to the Outside. Scholar Joseph had found his way back to his bed. And here stood Kilían, alone in the tunnels.
There was a long, twisted path between Kilían’s current situation and his goal. Kennett was still in the dungeons; Miriam was still imprisoned. Both of them were still scheduled for execution—one of them at his hand. Complicating matters further, he had no idea exactly when Miriam would give birth, or how she would care for a child on the Outside if need be. But despite all the obstacles in his way, for the first time, he felt a spark of something that he thought had deserted him a long time ago.
Kilían managed to work himself into Kennett’s guard rotation two days later, mainly through a stroke of luck. The bellator assigned to guard Kennett came down with a sudden high fever, and while bellators were generally encouraged to push through physical infirmity, fevers implied a contagion that might spread through the enclosed cells of the dungeon like wildfire. So, Bellator Skye was consigned to the infirmary, and Kilían, who’d happened to walk into the training room when Sondheim pulled Skye off duty, took his place.
It was the night shift, but when Kilían made his way down the narrow corridor that held the cells, his heart picking up speed at the thought of seeing Kennett again, he found the other boy wide awake, sitting on the bare metal cot that was the cell’s sole piece of furniture. He shot to his feet when he saw Kilían, his thin face brightening.
Kilían rubbed his chest, trying to make the uncomfortable, searing sensation he always felt when he saw Kennett—as if someone had lit him on fire from within—go away. There were only a few prisoners in the dungeon, but the last thing he wanted was to betray the fact that a relationship existed between himself and Kennett beyond guard and convicted sinner. The other bellator assigned to this shift was on a bathroom break, but the Commonwealth’s prisoners didn’t hesitate to Inform on each other—or on anyone else, for that matter—if they thought it could buy them clemency.
Kennett stepped forward, his mouth opening as if to speak, and Kilían held up a palm to forestall him. “Sinner Gundarson,” he said, keeping his voice brusque, “is there something you require?”
Kennett didn’t move back, and Kilían feared he might give everything away—honestly, the boy hadn’t an ounce of guile—but then he held up his left arm. “I fear I’ve cut myself on the edge of the cot,” he said. “I might need antibiotics. Can you take a look?”
“You’re the medic,” Kilían said, loud enough for anyone who might be listening to hear. “But I’ll look, if you insist.”
Obligingly, Kennett approached the bars. Even in the dim light, Kilían could see that someone had blackened his eye. Fury surged through him at the sight, but he held it in check.
“How is Miriam?” Kennett mouthed, so no one could overhear. “The baby?”
It had been too much to hope that the light that had illuminated Kennett’s face had been for Kilían’s sake. No, it was only that Kennett hoped Kilían might be able to bring him news of the girl and his child. Disappointment swirled in Kilían’s stomach, mixed with a bitter swill of resignation. But he said, making a show of examining Kennett’s arm, “As far as I can tell, all is as it should be. I’m far from an expert in such things.”
The tense set of Kennett’s shoulders relaxed a fraction. “No news, then?” he said, aloud this time. “I’ve been asking, but no one will tell me anything, no matter how I plead.”
“The two of you have sinned,” Kilían said, infusing his voice with disgust, even though it hurt him to talk to Kennett this way. “There is no reason anyone should share any information with you about your fellow sinner—or your bastard spawn.”
Kennett winced, as if Kilían had struck him. Surely he understood that the bellator was playing a role—that this was what was necessary? “Of course,” he said, his eyes lowering to the floor of the cell, stained with the blood of its previous occupant. “I meant no disrespect.”
Drawing a deep breath, Kilían channeled the version of himself that terrified subjects in the interrogation chamber, making them piss themselves before confessing every sin they’d ever considered committing. “Eyes on me, prisoner,” he snapped. “Before I give you a second black eye to match the first.”
Kennett’s head came up, eyes wide with shock, and Kilían reached out, fisting the material of Kennett’s filthy shirt in his hand and pulling him forward, so that his body smacked into the bars. He leaned down, his lips an inch from Kennett’s. “I’ve found a way out,” he breathed, so quietly that he could barely hear it himself. “For both of you.”
If Kilían had thought Kennett’s eyes were wide before, that was nothing to them now. His eyebrows rose, too, their black arches disappearing beneath the fall of his hair. “How?” he mouthed.
Kilían shook his head; it was too complicated to explain, and any information that Kennett had was intelligence that someone could beat—or interrogate—out of him. Instead, with his free hand, he reached into the pocket of his gear and yanked out a piece of paper. He plastered it against the bars, so Kennett could read the words printed on it: I need an injectable drug that will incapacitate instantly and induce memory loss. And I need it now.
Kennett tilted his head, as if considering. And then he gestured for a writing implement.
Fishing in his pocket again, Kilían handed him a pen. His brow wrinkling, Kennett took the paper, ironed it out against the wall, and wrote. Then he handed both back to Kilían.
Mnemosyne, the paper read in Kennett’s uneven scrawl. In the lockbox behind the medics’ station on the hospital ward. One full syringe=3 hours’ unconsciousness, plus memory loss predating the time of injection.
Kilían stared at the note for a long moment, memorizing the information. Then he wrote, Tomorrow night. Be ready, and held the paper up, between his body and the bars, for Kennett to see.
“Clean yourself up, prisoner,” he said, crumpling it into a ball. “And stop wasting my time.”
Releasing his grip on Kennett so abruptly that the other boy staggered backward, he strode off down the corridor, his hand on his dagur and his heart thumping so hard, it threatened to batter its way through his chest.
Getting his hands on the Mnemosyne in the morning wasn’t as difficult as Kilían had anticipated it might be. A simple matter of misdirection and triggering an alarm that drew the medics’ attention, and he was behind their station, jimmying the lockbox, extracting the Mnemosyne, and replacing it with the saline-filled syringes he’d liberated earlier in the day, while doing a routine sweep of the Infirmary. By the time the alarm had been deactivated, he was out from behind the station and long gone.
What he hadn’t anticipated was that while he was in the dungeons with Kennett the night before, Miriam had gone into labor. By the time he swiped the Mnemosyne from the medics’ lockbox, her execution was already scheduled for the following dawn—along with Kennett’s. And when he paid a clandestine visit to the hospital ward to assess how many guards they had on Miriam’s door, he found none other than Bellator Stinar himself there, striding into her room.
Concealed in a supply closet that shared a wall with Miriam’s chamber, he could hear the rumble of Stinar’s voice—though he hadn’t anticipated what the senior bellator had to say.
“Your bastard son is dead,” Stinar told her.
Even through the wall, Kilían could hear the condescension in his voice—and Miriam’s gasp of horror. “How?” She sounded on the verge of tears.
Stinar said something indistinct, and then, “Perhaps the Architect sensed the evil in his soul and snuffed it out before your bastard could bring a blight upon the world.”
Kilían sucked in a breath before he could stop himself. Even for Stinar, that was cold.
The door to Miriam’s room snicked shut and Kilían heard the sound of Stinar’s footsteps, making their way back down the hall. He stood still, taking in what he’d heard. After everything, had the infant truly not survived—or was this just cruelty on Stinar’s part, a trick to make the girl suffer as much as possible before she met her end?
He knew he shouldn’t care about such things. In the Commonwealth, children were borne by artificially inseminated surrogates, then raised in a communal Nursery by the Mothers. The notion of parenthood, of belonging to a family unit, was nonexistent; the only vocabulary Kilían had for such things came from the vids of the time before the Fall. He had no context within which to value the idea of family. But this was Kennett’s child—a piece of him that might remain behind, even living the shameful existence of the natural-born. If this was the only part of Kennett that Kilían would have left, he wanted to know the truth about the infant’s fate.
Pressing his ear to the door, he listened hard; no one stirred in the hall outside his closet. He cracked the door ever so slightly, and saw nothing but an empty hallway; the two guards who flanked Miriam’s doorway were just around the corner. This closet was at the top of the back stairwell; he’d chosen it for its ease of access. Silently, he eased the door open the rest of the way, slipped into the stairwell, and began to make his way down the steps.
But before he’d reached the first landing, he heard voices below him. To his shock, he realized one of them was the Executor’s, who rarely traveled anywhere without a full complement of guards.
“You’ll do as you’re told, Midwife Annika,” the Executor said. “Give me the infant.”
“Of course, sir.” The midwife’s voice was subdued but obedient. “If I may ask, though—why are we to say that the child is dead? Is it defective in some way, beyond its nature as a natural-born?”
“You may not ask.” The Executor’s tone was steel. “As for what you are to say, you’ll say what you’re told, and won’t question it. The girl will be led to understand that her infant has died, which is perhaps a mercy before she faces the blade in the morning. Am I clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Kilían heard a rustling sound—perhaps the blankets in which the child was swaddled? “I’ll make sure the other midwives understand, sir.”
There was silence, cut briefly by an infant’s shrill wail—but it retreated as the Executor carried the child further down the steps. Kilían barely had enough time to escape to a higher landing before the midwife’s heels came clacking upward. She was muttering to herself: not right, poor little lamb, bad enough to be a natural-born without all this. Under normal circumstances, Kilían would’ve hauled her off for interrogation; contradicting the Executor’s word was heresy. But these circumstances were far from normal, and he could only stand there, listening to her stream of complaints as she yanked open the door that led from the stairwell back to the ward where Miriam lay.
So Kennett’s child lived. This was, he decided, a good thing—but he wouldn’t tell Kennett about it, or the girl, either. They’d likely want to retrieve the baby, and the child was in the grasp of the Executor now. Such a thing would mean signing their death warrants—and likely, Kilían’s along with it.
He had all the pieces he needed: Knowledge of Miriam’s location and the nature of her guard; five syringes of Mnemosyne, four for necessity and one for luck; the cooperation of Cordelia and her band of rebels. The only thing left was to wait for night to fall.
Kilían used the first two syringes of Mnemosyne on Bellators Traalf and Unger, who were assigned to guard the dungeons that night. A vague sense of guilt pervaded him as he strode up to Traalf, asked him how many prisoners the dungeons currently held, and—as the man opened his mouth to reply—stabbed him in the arm with the needle. Kennett had been right; almost immediately, he could feel the bellator’s body start to slump as the drug took effect. He eased Traalf to the floor and went in pursuit of the second guard.
He found Unger in the supply room that adjoined the cells, taking inventory of the new handcuffs that the Commonwealth’s metalsmiths had forged. It was easy enough to engage him in conversation about their craftsmanship, and then—when Unger held one up to demonstrate its superiority—use his grip on the cuff to tug the other bellator forward and slam the plunger down.
Attacking his fellow warriors felt terribly unnatural, especially because they’d never suspected his defection; the Bellatorum was a vicious pack, but a pack nonetheless, fiercely loyal and quick to root out the weakest link. As a gifted interrogator, Kilían had earned his rank as a top apprentice. No one would possibly suspect he’d betray them.
He dropped Unger to the ground and went back for Traalf, dragging him into the supply room next to his comrade. Then, liberating the key ring from Traalf’s belt and shutting the door behind him, he went to retrieve Kennett.
He moved down the shadowed corridor that held the cells without a sound, the keys clutched tight in his fist to keep them from jingling. The other prisoners were asleep, their faces turned toward the wall; but Kennett stood at the bars, waiting for him. A fresh bruise marred his cheek, but his face lit with a bright, expectant smile.
Kilían felt his heart lurch, the way it always did when he saw Kennett. What would it be like when the other boy was gone? Would he merely feel nothing at all?
Banishing the thought from his mind, he tried one key after another until he found the one that fit the lock to Kennett’s cell. Then he took Kennett by the arm—plausible deniability was everything; if anyone saw him, he could always say he was escorting a prisoner—and led him from his cell, fixing Kennett fiercely with his eyes to warn the other boy not to say a word. Pausing briefly to return the key ring to Traalf’s belt, he took Kennett’s arm once more and pulled him through the archway that separated the dungeons from the rest of the underground.
There was an exterior entrance to the tunnels that would be far more efficient for Kilían to use when he retrieved Miriam, but in this case, it was faster to stay underground. Relying on his ability to make his way in the dark, honed in countless nighttime training missions with the Bellatorum, Kilían guided Kennett down the tunnels until, at last, they reached the room with the wooden door.
It was locked, as Kilían had known it would be; but he had secured the key from Scholar Joseph earlier that day, so he wouldn’t have to waste time picking the lock in the dark. He unlocked it, stepped inside, and pulled Kennett in behind him, locking the door at once to prevent further incursions. Stepping to the side, he lit the lantern mounted to one of the walls; the space was windowless, and there was no gap beneath the door. No one would be able to see it burning.
The room smelled of mustiness and mold, just as it had before. In the wavering light of the lantern, he and Kennett stared at each other. The other boy’s face was white and set, but it softened as he looked at Kilían.
“Thank you,” he said, reaching out a hand to touch the bellator’s sleeve.
“Don’t thank me yet.” Kilían stepped backward, disengaging himself. To have Kennett right next to him, like this—yet totally inaccessible—it was too much.
For an instant, Kennett looked as if he wanted to apologize. Touching a bellator wasn’t done—they were above such casual gestures, inviolate—and for once, Kilían was grateful for such a tradition. With luck, Kennett would take his rejection as an extension of the natural order of things, rather than what it was: a desperate effort to exercise restraint.
The apologetic look faded from Kennett’s face, replaced with misery. He ran the offending hand through his hair, mussing it even further. “The guard—Traalf—he told me Miriam had the baby. And that it was a boy. But Traalf said the baby—that he—” Kennett’s voice broke, and Kilían understood: Traalf had been instructed to pass on the same message that Stinar had—that the infant was dead.
Watching Kennett suffer needlessly was like a slow, awful kind of death. But telling him the truth would be even worse.
Still, despite the fact that he lied for a living—concealing and twisting information lay at the heart of being a skilled interrogator—Kilían couldn’t bring himself to lie to Kennett. Instead, he simply gave a curt nod. “Miriam lives,” he said, avoiding the subject of the infant. “I heard her voice. She’s fine, and soon you’ll be with her again.”
Using Kennett’s feelings for the girl as a means of keeping the truth from him burned like acid in Kilían’s mouth—but it worked. Though Kennett’s eyes were glassy with unshed tears, he gave a sharp nod, seeming to master himself again. “This place—Kilían, where are we?”
Drawing a deep breath, Kilían gave a quick rundown of everything he’d learned that night with Scholar Joseph and the woman Cordelia. As he spoke, Kennett’s eyes got wider and wider, the same way they had that night in his cell. Kilían had to look away; their pull was too strong. He wanted more than anything to tell Kennett how he felt; when would he ever get another chance? But Kennett loved Miri, not him. He would never love Kilían; after tonight, Kilían would probably never even see him again. Confessing such a thing would be pointless and selfish. And besides, they had no time.
He cleared his throat. “The Brotherhood is waiting for you. You’ll go through the tunnels on the other side of that door, and they’ll be there, on the other side, in the woods. They’ll take you to safety. But first, you’ll need to prove who you are. You’ll say, ‘Speak of the wolf, and she will come.’ And in exchange, they’ll respond, ‘A wolf will not bite a wolf.’”
Kenneth paled, his gaze skittering away. “I’m not a wolf, Kilían.” His voice was low, ashamed. “Not even a little bit. What if I can’t do this?”
With his hair falling into his eyes and his shoulders hunched, Kennett looked as vulnerable as Kilían had ever seen him. And Kilían couldn’t help it—his control slipped. He felt it go, and some part of him welcomed the loss.
Reaching out, he took Kennett by the shoulders, his fingers digging in. This close, he could see the way the bruise on Kennett’s cheek faded from midnight blue to a brilliant purple. He wanted more than anything to run his fingers over it, to offer comfort. But such things were not permitted. Instead, he gave Kennett the only thing he could—his word.
“Don’t worry,” he said, his eyes fixed on Kennett’s. “You may not be a wolf, but I am. And I will protect you. As long as it’s in my power, I’ll give my life for yours. No harm will come to you as long as I live.”
It wasn’t a promise Kilían could make—not really. But he felt like it ought to be; like his feelings for Kennett were so strong, they could transcend distance and time.
Kennett bit his lip. He shivered, and Kilían felt a shudder pass through his own body, as if, in this instant, the two of them were one. “I don’t understand.” His voice was a hoarse whisper. “Why would you do this for me?”
Kilían’s chest heaved. The words were a logjam in his throat, fighting for release. But all he said was, “My reasons are my own. But believe me when I say I speak the truth. I swear it on my sverd and my honor.”
Kennett’s eyes scanned his face, as if searching for the answer there. And for a moment, Kilían let his masks fall. He let Kennett see him for who he really was, let everything he felt shine clear in his eyes. Let Kennett make of it what he would.
“You could come with us,” Kennett said, searching Kilían’s face. “Leave, too.”
It was tempting. But with Kilían gone, who would look after the infant that everyone except the Executor believed to be dead?
Slowly, he shook his head. “No,” he said, his voice as hoarse as Kennett’s. “I couldn’t.” He dropped his hands from the other boy’s shoulders and clenched his fists tight, trying to hold onto the feeling of Kennett’s warmth against his palms. “My place is here. But as long as I can, I will watch out for you.”
Kennett stepped backward, his spine hitting the shelf behind him. The moment shattered, the odd intimacy between them evaporating into the musty coldness of the room.
Kilían didn’t trust his voice, but it came evenly, devoid of emotion, the way he’d been trained. “I have to go,” he said. “I’ll be back, with her.”
There was an odd expression on Kennett’s face, something Kilían hadn’t seen there before and—even with all his training in micro-expressions as a bellator—didn’t understand.
He rubbed the back of his hand across his mouth, as if at a loss for words. Finally he said, his voice businesslike, “Miri . . . she won’t trust you. You’ll have to give her a code phrase—you know, like the Brotherhood does. Tell her—” His eyes darted toward the books, then back toward Kilían’s face again. “‘But to return, and view the cheerful skies, In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”
It wasn’t a line Kilían knew, but this was not the time to question such things. “Fine,” he said, reciprocating Kennett’s businesslike tone. “You’ll stay here. Don’t open that door for anyone but me; I’ll call out to let you know I’m back. If someone comes in and you can get away, then go through the tunnels. If you can’t—take this.” He slid a blade from his belt and handed it to Kennett, hilt first.
Kennett looked appalled all over again. “You expect me to stab someone with this?”
“You’re a medic,” Kilían said, his voice impatient. “You cut people all the time.”
“To heal, not to hurt,” Kennett insisted, holding the knife as if it were doused in poison.
Worry made Kilían’s voice harsher than he meant it to be. “By the Architect, Kennett, now is not the time to be squeamish! You know where people’s vital organs are, no? If someone comes in here and threatens you, strike without hesitation, and strike to kill. Because if I come back here and find your blood soaking the stones, I . . .” His voice trailed off. None of the endings he had in mind were appropriate to voice: Because I can take a lot of things, but not that. Because if you die, even if I save your precious Miri, then all of this will be for nothing. Because I wasn’t lying when I said I would give my own life to save yours, and I can’t protect you if I’m not by your side, so you damn well better protect yourself.
Shame washed over Kennett’s face, darkening his eyes. “Kilían, I know the risks you’re taking for me—for us. I won’t let you down,” he said, gripping the hilt of the knife. “I promise.”
Kennett’s gentle nature was one of the things Kilían loved about him; it was a piece of himself he’d lost long ago, if it had ever been there at all. The thought of abandoning Kennett to fend for himself against whatever might come through that door made Kilían ill. And then there was the other reason, the deeper one: Every moment he spent apart from Kennett now was a moment he’d never see him again.
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said, each word feeling as if it was being tugged from his throat.
Kennett gave him a heartbreaking half-smile. “I’ll be fine. Just . . . get Miri.”
Jerking his head in acknowledgment, the weight of all that he’d left unsaid heavy on his chest, Kilían stalked from the room, locking the door behind him.
The bellators on duty—Ashe and Halvar—nodded at Kilían when he emerged from the hospital’s stairwell. “Bryndísarson,” Halvar said. “Come to interrogate the subject, have you? I think you’ll find she’s asleep.” A smirk crept across his broad face.
Arrogant, ignorant fool, Kilían thought, returning the smirk with a simulacrum of a genuine smile. Crossing to Halvar, he clapped the other bellator on the shoulder. “That’s no impediment to me,” he said, using Halvar’s body as a shield to conceal the syringe he drew from his pocket. Still smiling, he slid the needle into Halvar’s bicep and pressed the plunger down.
He stepped back to find Ashe staring at him suspiciously. “What—” he began, but before he could get out another word, Kilían closed the space between them and pierced Ashe’s arm with the second needle.
It was quick work; thirty seconds later, both bellators sat unconscious, their heads lolling on their chests. Clearly, just like Traalf and Ungar, they hadn’t expected an attack to come from within their ranks. Kilían vowed never to make the same mistake.
He glanced at the window at the end of the hall; it was still dark outside. Still, he could feel the passage of time, as if his body was an hourglass, sand slipping through his veins where the blood should be.
Taking the ten steps to the room where Miriam lay, he pushed the door open to find that she was, indeed, asleep. His nostrils flared, taking in the copper scent of blood—but he could hear the steady ebb and flow of her breathing, and as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw her yellow hair feathered across the pillow. She looked very young, and very alone.
Despite himself, Kilían felt a pang of sympathy. Drawing his blade in case they were interrupted, he crouched by her bed and shook her by the shoulder, more delicately than had been his original intention. “Get up.”
Miriam blinked, focusing on his face. Her eyes were puffy, as if she’d been sobbing—and perhaps she had. After all, she’d just given birth, had her child taken from her, and was about to be put to death in a few short hours. Kilían supposed he couldn’t blame her for crying.
“Who’s there?” Her voice was a croak.
Edging a little closer to the bed, Kilían cleared his throat. “Bellator Bryndísarson.”
Miriam struggled up to her elbows, peering through the gloom at him. “All right,” she said. “I won’t fight you.”
Despite everything, Kilían found himself amused. What an odd thing to say—as if a weakened, half-asleep citizen would be a match for an armed bellator. Perhaps the girl had courage.
The thought made him like her a little more. Bravery was no small quality to a bellator.
“You’d better not,” he said. “I’ve come to help you escape.”
He expected Miriam to ask questions, or to leap from the bed—though perhaps the latter was unreasonable, given that she’d just given birth to a child. But instead, she fell straight back down onto the mattress as if insensible, and shut her eyes once more.
Even for an untrained citizen, this seemed like absurd behavior. Exasperated, he shook her again. “Get up. We don’t have much time.”
She opened her eyes and peered over the side of the bed at him. “Is this some kind of trick?”
His respect for her ratcheted up another notch. Most citizens were sheep, ready to accept whatever was told to them. But this girl, even in extremis, was skeptical. He admired her discernment—though at this late juncture in the proceedings, he couldn’t imagine what he thought it would gain her.
He yanked her upright, and she sucked in a sharp breath. Perhaps he’d hurt her? He felt a flash of remorse, but suppressed it quickly. There was work to be done.
“Kennett said you wouldn’t trust me—although what you think you’ve got to lose, I can’t imagine—so he made me memorize something for you.” He took her by the elbow and levered her upward, onto her feet. Letting his hand fall, he recited the lines Kennett had confided to him: “‘But to return, and view the cheerful skies, In this the task and mighty labor lies.’”
Bellators were trained to hear the beat of another’s heart; he could hear hers start to pound. She stared at him, her dark eyes huge. Whatever these words were, Kennett had been right; they meant something to her.
“Do you believe me now?” He shook her a third time, trying to jolt her into action. “I mean you no harm. Quite the contrary. But we’ve got to go.”
But still, she didn’t move. Instead, she set her feet like a balky animal and looked up at him, refusing to budge. “Why would you help us?” she said.
He heaved a sigh of exasperation. How was it that Kennett, who was so trusting, had allied himself with such a skeptic? Worse still, how was it that she’d asked the one question he could never, ever answer?
Kilían met her gaze and gave her the only version of the truth he could. “Because if we were allowed such things, Kennett would be my friend.” He swallowed hard. “Now, move.”
Miriam was clearly in pain, but she followed him nonetheless—through the door of her hospital room and into the hallway, where Bellators Ashe and Halvar were still out cold. She stared, incredulous. “What did you do to them?”
The girl was full of questions—maybe because she was a scholar. It occurred to Kilían that under other circumstances, she would’ve made an excellent interrogator. Right now, however, her queries were merely inconvenient.
He shrugged, sparing a glance for his comrades. “You can thank Kennett. There are unanticipated advantages to having a medic’s knowledge of drugs and herbs. They went to sleep like babes in the nursery. And Kennett swore that when they woke up, they’d have no memory of anything beyond the moment they took their places for their shift.” They had better not, or there would be hell to pay. Kilían was staking his life on the fact that Kennett was right.
Miriam eyed them, a fierce look on her face. “What a pity,” she said, sounding like she meant anything but.
A smile tugged at Kilían’s lips. She had fire—and she would need it, to endure what lay ahead. “You’ll have to move fast,” he said, flicking his eyes over her gown. “Can you do that?”
The girl straightened, and her eyes narrowed, like the question offended her. “I can do anything I need to do,” she said, as if daring Kilían to challenge her.
Kilían wasn’t going to argue. If worst came to worst, he’d carry her, but he really hoped he wouldn’t have to; it would slow them down. Keeping a close eye on her, he led the way down the back stairwell and out onto the street. She stayed right by his side as they made their way toward Marketour Square. He could see it hurt her to move, but she kept pace with him.
He heard her hiss when she saw the steep gradient of the staircase that led down into the tunnels, but she didn’t complain. Instead, setting her mouth in a determined line, she grabbed hold of the railings that flanked the slippery steps and made her way down. He could hear the clink of her shoes on the metal stairs as he stepped onto the top rung and then slammed the trapdoor shut above them—slow but steady enough.
There was a thud as her feet hit solid ground, and he doubled his speed, stepping off the last rung and pulling his flashlight from his weapons belt. Time wasn’t on their side; there were only two hours left until dawn, and he’d have to be back at his post before then, giving all indications of preparing for Kennett’s execution
“Come on.” He shone the beam into the gloom of the tunnel that led toward the Outside, then set off at a brisk pace.
Miriam limped along behind him. He could smell her blood again, stronger this time, and when he turned to look back at her, she was bracing herself upright, one palm on the wall—but she wasn’t whining or demanding that he help her. She was soldiering onward, despite the fact that she was wounded. It was an attitude worthy of a bellator.
“Are you all right?” he asked her, the words tasting strange in his mouth.
“I’m fine.” She lifted her chin. “Keep going.”
Worthy of a bellator, indeed. Despite himself, Kilían smiled. “Kennett said you were tough. All right; I’ll take you at your word. It’s not too much longer now.”
A short time later, they reached the room that led to the tunnels beneath the forest. Sending up a prayer that Kennett hadn’t been killed in the intervening forty-five minutes, Kilían gave a sharp knock. “It’s me.”
For an instant, there was no reply, and he felt his heart skip a beat. But then, “Thank the Architect,” he heard Kennett say. Breathing a sigh of relief, Kilían pulled the key from his pocket and unlocked the door.
As soon as Miriam saw Kennett, she threw herself at him. Kilían felt a spark of irritation—where had her ability to move so quickly been when they were fleeing for their lives through the tunnels?
He looked away, allowing them their moment, even as it tore at him. When he turned back, Kennett had disengaged himself from Miriam but was touching her face, staring into her eyes as if no one else in the world existed. “Miri, I heard about the baby,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Miriam sniffed. “There you go, apologizing again,” she said.
“I wish I could’ve been there.” Kennett looked as if he were about to cry. “Maybe I could have saved him.”
“It’s not your—” Miriam started to say, but Kilían had had enough. He couldn’t stand here and watch Kennett grieve for a child that was still alive.
“About the infant,” he said reluctantly, “I have reason to believe Bellator Stinar might be mistaken.”
Miriam whirled on him, her dark eyes so wide, he could see the whites all around them. “What are you saying?”
Curse her and the hold she had on Kennett, which had led the three of them to this damnable place. “Efraím told you what he knew to be true,” Kilían said, careful not to let his feelings show in his voice. “But I have reason to believe otherwise.”
Miriam had no such compunction. “Our baby is alive? By the nine hells, what are we doing down here, then?” She turned to Kennett, her expression pleading. “We have to go back. Kennett, we have to find him, take him with us—”
This, right here, was exactly why Kilían hadn’t wanted either of them to know the child lived. It was just like a citizen to put their emotions before their own survival. And Kilían hadn’t come this far so Kennett and his impetuous companion could get themselves killed.
“There’s no way,” he said flatly. “I don’t know where they’ve taken the child, and tracking him down would take more time than we have.” He rested a hand on his weapons belt, shifting his weight so the blades would clink against each other, reminding Miriam of who held the knowledge of surveillance and combat. “The sun will be rising in an hour, and you need to be well clear of here by then.”
But she didn’t back down. “To the Sins with the sun! You got Kennett out, and me too. Surely we can rescue Lucien. I’m not leaving him behind.” Her voice trembled, as if she, too, were about to cry. “I can’t. Kennett, tell him.”
She had named the infant? Kilían spared a glance for Kennett, hoping that of the two of them, he would be the more reasonable. But he wished he hadn’t, because now Kennett was truly crying—albeit silently. Tears leaked from his eyes, coursing down his bruised cheek. “Miri,” he said, “this is wonderful news. But Kilían’s right—how are we supposed to find him in time? If we go back, we’ll all die—together.”
The headstrong girl made a concerted effort to hurl herself through the door and go back the way they’d come. “You leave, then. I have to go back—I have to find him—”
Aggravated, Kilían prepared himself to restrain her, but Kennett got there first. He wrapped his arms around her, pulling her back. “I’m sorry, Miri. I really am,” he said. “But his best chance at life—and ours—is for us to go.”
The girl was a fighter. She struggled against Kennett’s grip, shooting Kilían a glare so filled with hatred, it was all he could do not to act on his training and put her in her place. “Let me go!” she howled.
But Kennett, to his credit, would not. “I can’t, Miri,” he said, his tears flowing harder now. “I wish I could. Seeing you this way—leaving him behind—it kills me. If I thought we had the slightest chance, I’d go back for him in a heartbeat.”
“So you’re not even going to try?” She kicked at him. It had to hurt, but Kennett didn’t let go.
“Please don’t hate me,” he begged her. “I can’t lose you, too.”
The girl wailed and sobbed, and Kilían fought the urge to wrench her bodily from Kennett’s arms and toss her into the tunnels that led to the Borderlands. What was wrong with her? Did she want to make so much noise, it would bring the entire Thirty running?
After the longest five minutes of Kilían’s life, she wore herself out and leaned against Kennett’s chest, sniffing. He stroked her hair, with a patience Kilían couldn’t have possessed if it was all that stood between him and the abyss.
“It’s the right choice,” Kennett told her. “The only one.”
And still she argued. “It might be the only choice. But that doesn’t mean it’s right.”
Oh, by the Architect. At this rate they would still be standing here when Sondheim and twenty-nine more like him ploughed straight through the door. “Miriam,” Kilían said, realizing he’d never actually said her name aloud before. “I’ll look after the infant.”
“What?” She lifted her head from Kennett’s shoulder and stared at him as if he’d just suggested trading in his hard-earned blades for a position in the Commonwealth’s dairy.
Kilían sighed. What difference did it make at this point? He’d already made the promise to himself; maybe it would give the girl and Kennett some comfort to hear him say it out loud. “You have my word. I’ll do all I can to make sure he comes to no harm.”
Miriam peered at him suspiciously. “Swear it,” she said, her voice a croak. “On your honor as a bellator.”
He almost laughed. Here he stood, a traitor and an accomplice to two sinners’ escape. Where was the honor in that? Still, if this was the promise she needed to disappear into the tunnels with Kennett, he would give it to her. “On my honor as a bellator and the strength of my sverd, I do so swear.”
She considered him for a long moment, her hand in Kennett’s. And then, at last, she said, “All right, I’ll go.”
Thank the Virtues. Conscious of time ticking away, he turned to Kennett and went over the details of their escape one final time—where they were to go, what they were to say. And this time, when Kennett said, “A wolf does not bite a wolf,” he held Kilían’s gaze and his voice came clear and sure.
It was enough. It would have to be.
“I have to get back,” Kilían said, taking Kennett in one final time. His eyes flicked over every line of the other boy’s face and body, memorizing him. “May the blessings of the Architect be with you both. Stand strong.”
He expected Kennett to turn away, to pull the door open and walk through, Miriam at his side. But instead, he lingered. “Thank you, Kilían,” he said, sincerity resonating in every word. “For our lives. And for your promise to our son.”
Kilían opened his mouth to say something—what it would be, he had no idea—but then Kennett dropped Miriam’s hand and stepped forward, wrapping his arms around Kilían, and every word he’d ever meant to say drained right out of his head. He could feel Kennett’s whole body against his, feel the roughness of Kennett’s cheek against his own. Carefully, afraid if he moved too quickly, the moment might pop like a soap bubble, he returned the favor, holding on to Kennett so tightly, he heard the other boy gasp. Close as they were, he felt the passage of Kennett’s breath, hot against his face.
“Don’t waste it,” he whispered, and felt Kennett nod in response, his fingers spreading against Kilían’s back, holding him close.
He closed his eyes, imagining that this embrace portended something else. That it meant the same thing to Kennett as it did to him. That it wasn’t the end of something, but rather a beginning.
It took every ounce of his training, every bit of willpower that he possessed, to let Kennett go. But he did it, forcing himself to step away, then turning on his heel to leave. He couldn’t watch Kennett slip into the tunnels, leaving him behind forever; that would take more strength than he had.
But he waited on the other side of the door, his eyes closed, listening. He breathed, counting to sixty, pacing his heartbeat as he had been trained to do. And then he blinked, and opened the door.
The room was empty. Kennett and the girl were gone, as if they had never been there at all.
Kilían stood there for the space of one breath. Two. And then he squared his shoulders, feeling the weight of the infant’s life settle onto them, and went to learn what had become of Kennett’s son.