A slice of darkness in the recesses of the throne room catches my attention: a hood with suns glaring out from within. A swish of a cloak and he’s gone. The Nightbringer. The jinn. He brought her here.

“I told you, Emperor.” The Commandant’s voice is smooth as a snake’s coils. “The girl is deluded by her obsession with Elias Veturius. Her inability—or unwillingness—to catch him has led her to concoct this ridiculous story—and to deploy valuable members of the Black Guard in a haphazard and senseless way. An ostentatious move. No doubt she’s hoping that it will support her claim. She must think us fools.”

The Commandant circles me to stand beside Marcus. Her body is calm, her features unruffled, but when she meets my eyes, my throat goes dry at her fury. If I were at Blackcliff I’d be sagging from the whipping post right about now, breathing my last.

What in the bleeding skies is she doing here? She should be with her army right now. I eye the room again, expecting to see her men pour in through the doors at any moment. But though I see Gens Veturia soldiers throughout the throne room, they don’t look as if they’re readying themselves for battle.

“According to the Commandant, Blood Shrike,” Marcus says, “Elias Veturius managed to get stuck in Kauf Prison. But you knew that, didn’t you?”

He’ll know if I lie. I bow my head. “I did, Your Majesty. But—”

“Yet you didn’t bring him with you. Though he likely would have been dead by now anyway. Is that correct, Keris?”

“It is, Your Majesty. The boy was poisoned somewhere on his journey,” the Commandant says. “The Warden reports that he has been having seizures for weeks. The last I heard, Elias Veturius was a few hours from death.”

Seizures? When I saw Elias in Nur, he looked ill, but I assumed it was because of a hard march from Serra.

Then I remember what he said—words that made no sense at the time but that now send a knife through my gut: We both know I’m not long for this world.

And the Warden, after I told him I’d see Elias again: Callow is the hope of our youth. Behind me, Avitas takes a sharp breath.

“The Nightweed she gave me, Shrike,” he whispers. “She must have had enough to use it on him.”

“You”—I turn to the Commandant, and everything falls together—“you poisoned him. But you must have done it weeks ago, when I found your tracks in Serra. When you fought him.” Is my friend dead, then? Truly dead? No. He can’t be. My mind will not accept it.

“You used Nightweed because you knew it would take him a long time to die. You knew I’d hunt him. And as long as I was out of your way, I wouldn’t be able to stop your coup.” Bleeding skies. She killed her own son—and she’s been playing me for months.

“Nightweed is illegal in the Empire, as everyone here knows.” The Commandant looks at me like I’m covered in dung. “Listen to yourself, Shrike. To think that you trained at my school. I must have been blind to let a novice like you graduate.”

The throne room buzzes, going silent when I step toward her. “If I’m such a fool,” I say, “then explain why every garrison in the Empire is undermanned. Why didn’t you ever have enough soldiers? Why aren’t there enough on the borders?”

“I needed men to quell the revolution, of course,” she says. “The Emperor himself gave those transfer orders.”

“But you kept asking for more—”

“This is embarrassing to watch.” The Commandant turns to Marcus. “I am ashamed, my lord, that Blackcliff produced someone so weak-minded.”

“She’s lying,” I say to Marcus, but I can well imagine how I must sound—tense and shrill against the Commandant’s cool defense. “Your Majesty, you must believe me—”

“Enough.” Marcus speaks in a voice that silences the entire room. “I gave you an order to bring in Elias Veturius, alive, by Rathana, Blood Shrike. You failed to carry out that order. Everyone in this room heard what the punishment for your failure would be.” He nods to the Commandant, and she signals her troops.

In seconds, the men of Gens Veturia step forward and seize my parents, my sisters.

I find that my hands and feet have gone numb. It’s not supposed to be like this. I’m being true to the Empire. I’m holding my fealty.

“I promised the Paters of our great families an execution,” Marcus says. “And unlike you, Blood Shrike, I mean to keep my vow.”




When it is still dark outside, Afya and I leave the warmth of the cave and head out toward Kauf in the frigid morning. The Tribeswoman carries Darin’s sword for me, and I’ve strapped on Elias’s scims. Skies know he’ll need them when we’re fighting our way out of the prison.

“Eight guards,” I say to Afya. “And then you must sink the spare boats. Do you understand? If you—”

“Skies, shut it, would you?” Afya waves an impatient hand at me. “You’re like a Tibbi bird from the south that chirps the same few words over and over until you want to strangle its pretty neck. Eight guards, ten barges to secure, and twenty boats to sabotage. I’m not an idiot, girl. I can handle it. You just make sure you get that fire inside the prison nice and hot. The more Martials we barbecue, the fewer to hunt us down.”

We reach the River Dusk, where we must part ways. Afya digs her booted toes into the dirt.