“A moment, Pater,” Marcus purrs. “I’m still playing.” He presses closer before a strange look crosses his face—surprise, or perhaps irritation. He flicks his head, like a horse shaking off a fly, before stepping back.

“Unchain her,” he says to the legionnaires.

“What is this?” I try to stand. My legs fail. Father catches me before I fall, draping my arm across his wide shoulders.

“You’re free to go.” Marcus keeps his gaze fixed on me. “Pater Aquillus, report to me tomorrow at tenth bell. You know where to find me. Blood Shrike, you will come with him.” He pauses before leaving, and slowly runs a finger across the blood coating my face. There’s a hunger in his eyes as he brings it to his mouth, licks it off. “I have a mission for you.”

Then he is gone, followed by the Northman and the legionnaires. It is only when their footsteps fade up the staircase leading out of the dungeon that I let my head drop. Exhaustion, pain, and disbelief rob me of my strength.

I didn’t betray Elias. I survived the interrogation.

“Come, daughter.” My father holds me as gently as if I were a newborn. “Let’s get you home.”

“What did you trade for this?” I ask. “What did you trade for me?”

“Nothing of consequence.” Father tries to take more of my weight. I do not let him. Instead, I bite my lip hard enough to draw blood. As we inch out of the cell, I hone in on that pain instead of the weakness in my legs and the burning in my bones. I am Blood Shrike of the Martial Empire. I will leave this dungeon on my own two feet.

“What did you give him, Father? Money? Land? Are we ruined?”

“Not money. Influence. He is Plebeian. He has no Gens, no family, to back him.”

“The Gens are all turning on him?”

My father nods. “They call for his resignation—or assassination. He has too many enemies, and he cannot jail or kill them all. They are too powerful. He needs influence. I gave it to him. In exchange for your life.”

“But how? Will you advise him? Lend him men? I don’t understand—”

“It doesn’t matter right now.” Father’s blue eyes are fierce, and I find I cannot look into them without a lump rising in my throat. “You are my daughter. I would have given him the skin off my back if he asked it of me. Lean on me now, my girl. Save your strength.”

Influence can’t be all Marcus squeezed out of Father. I want to demand that he explain everything, but as we go up the stairs, dizziness surges through me. I’m too broken to challenge him. I let him help me out of the dungeon, unable to rid myself of the unsettling feeling that whatever price he paid for me, it was too high.



We should have killed the Commandant.

The desert beyond Serra’s orchards is quiet. The only hint of the Scholar revolution is the orange glow of fire against the limpid night sky. A cool breeze carries the smell of rain from the east, where a storm flashes over the mountains.

Go back. Kill her. I am torn. If Keris Veturia let us go, she has some diabolical reason for it. Besides which, she murdered my parents and sister. She took Izzi’s eye. Tortured Cook. Tortured me. She led a generation of the most lethal, ignoble monsters while they pummeled my people into servile ghosts of themselves. She deserves to die.

But we are well beyond Serra’s walls now, and it is too late to turn back. Darin matters more than vengeance against that madwoman. And getting to Darin means getting far away from Serra, as swiftly as possible.

As soon as we clear the orchards, Elias vaults on to the horse’s back. His gaze never rests, and wariness suffuses his every move. He is, I sense, asking the same question I am. Why would the Commandant let us go?

I grasp his hand and pull myself up behind him, my face heating at the close fit. The saddle is enormous, but Elias is not a small man. Skies, where do I put my hands? His shoulders? His waist? I’m still deciding when he puts heels to flank and the horse leaps forward. I grab on to a strap of Elias’s armor, and he reaches out to pull me flush against him. I wrap my arms around his waist and press into his broad back, my head spinning as the empty desert streams past.

“Stay down,” he says over his shoulder. “The garrisons are close.” He wags his head, as if shaking something out of his eyes, and a shudder rolls through him. Years of watching my grandfather with his patients has me putting a hand to Elias’s neck. He’s warm, but that might be from the fight with the Commandant.

His shudder fades, and he urges the horse on. I look back at Serra, waiting for soldiers to come streaming from its gates, or for Elias to tense and say he’s heard the drums sending out our location. But we pass the garrisons without incident, nothing but open desert around us. Ever so slowly, the panic that has gripped me since seeing the Commandant eases.

Elias navigates by starlight. After a quarter hour, he slows the horse to a canter.

“The dunes are to the north. They’re hell on horseback.” I lift myself up to hear him over the hoofbeats of the horse. “We’ll head east.” He nods to the mountains. “We should hit that storm in a few hours. It’ll wash away our tracks. We’ll aim for the foothills—”

Neither of us sees the shadow that hurtles out of the dark until it is already upon us. One second, Elias is in front of me, his face a few inches from mine as I lean in to listen. The next, I hear the thud of his body hitting the desert floor. The horse rears, and I grasp at the saddle, trying to stay on. But a hand latches on to my arm and yanks me off as well. I want to scream at the inhuman coldness of that grip, but I can only manage a yelp. It feels as if winter itself has taken hold of me.