Marcus draws the knife across her throat swiftly. His face is blank as he does so, as if the task requires all of his concentration. He releases her, and she thuds down beside my mother. The pale strands of their hair mingle.

Behind me, the door to the throne room opens. Marcus sneers at the interruption.

“Y-your Majesty.” I cannot see the soldier who enters, but the crack in his voice suggests that he wasn’t expecting to walk into a bloodbath. “A message from Kauf …”

“I’m in the middle of something. Keris,” Marcus barks at the Commandant without looking at her, “deal with it.”

The Commandant bows and turns to leave, slowing as she passes me. She leans forward, putting a cold hand on my shoulder. I am too numb to flinch away from her. Her gray eyes are remorseless.

“It is glorious to witness your unmaking, Blood Shrike,” she whispers. “To watch as you break.”

My whole body shakes as she throws Cain’s words back at my face. First you will be unmade. First, you will be broken. Bleeding skies, I thought he meant when I killed Elias. But he knew. All that time while I agonized over my friend, he and his brethren knew what it was that would truly break me.

But how could the Commandant possibly know what Cain said to me? She releases me and saunters out of the room, and I have no more time to wonder, for Marcus is before me.

“Take a moment to say goodbye to your father, Shrike. Sergius, release her.”

I take three steps to my father and fall to my knees. I cannot look away from my mother and sister.

“Blood Shrike,” my father whispers. “Look at me.”

I want to beg him to call me by my name. I’m not the Shrike. I’m Helene, your Helene. Your little girl.

“Look at me, daughter.” I lift my eyes, expecting to see defeat in his gaze. Instead, he is my calm, collected father, though his whisper is ragged with grief. “And listen. You cannot save me. You could not save your mother, or your sister, or Elias. But you can still save the Empire, for it is in far graver danger than Marcus realizes. Tiborum will soon be surrounded by hordes of Wildmen, and I hear tell of a fleet out of Karkaus, heading north to Navium. The Commandant is blind to it—she is too fixated on the destruction of the Scholars and on securing her own power.”

“Father.” I glance at Marcus, who is watching from a few yards away. “Damn the Empire—”

“Listen to me.” The sudden desperation in his voice terrifies me. My father fears nothing. “Gens Aquilla must remain powerful. Our alliances must remain powerful. You must remain powerful. When war comes to this land from without, which it inevitably will, we cannot falter. How many Martials in this Empire?”


“More than six million,” my father says. “Six million men, women, and children whose futures rest in your hands. Six million who will depend on your strength so that they may remain untouched by the torment of war. You are all that holds back the darkness. Take my necklace.”

With shaking hands, I pull off the chain I used to bat at as a child. One of my first memories is Father leaning over me, the Aquilla ring dangling from his collar, the embossed falcon in full flight catching the lamplight.

“You are Mater of Gens Aquilla now,” Father whispers. “You are Blood Shrike of the Empire. And you are my daughter. Do not fail me.”

The moment my father eases back, Marcus strikes. It takes my father longer to die—he has more blood, perhaps. When his eyes darken, I think I cannot hurt any more. Marcus has wrung me dry of all my pain. Then my eyes fall upon my littlest sister. You fool, Helene. When you love, there is always more pain.

“Men and women of the Empire.” Marcus’s voice echoes from the rafters of the throne room. What in the bleeding hells is he doing?

“I am but a Plebeian, given the burden of rulership by our esteemed holy men, the Augurs.” He sounds almost humble, and I gape at him as he looks around at the assembly of the Empire’s finest. “But even a Plebeian knows that sometimes an Emperor must show mercy.

“The bond between Shrike and Emperor is one ordained by the Augurs.” He goes to Livia and lifts her to her feet. She looks between Marcus and me, mouth parted, skin blanched to gray.

“It is a bond that must weather the darkest of tempests,” the Emperor says. “My Shrike’s first failure is one such tempest. But I am not unmerciful. Nor do I wish to begin my reign with broken promises. I signed a marriage agreement with Gens Aquilla.” He glances at me, stone-faced. “And so I shall honor it—by marrying Mater Aquilla’s youngest sister, Livia Aquilla, immediately. By joining my line to one of the oldest Gens in the land, I seek to establish my dynasty and bring glory to the Empire once more. We shall put this”—he looks distastefully at the bodies on the ground—“behind us. If, of course, Mater Aquilla accepts.”

“Livia.” I can only mouth my sister’s name. I clear my throat. “Livia would be spared?” At Marcus’s nod, I stand. I force myself to look at my sister, because if she would rather die, then I cannot deny her that, even if it unravels my last bit of sanity. But the reality of what is happening finally hits her. I see my own torment mirrored in her eyes—but I see something else too. My parents’ strength. She nods.

“I—I accept,” I whisper.

“Good,” Marcus says. “We will marry at sunset. The rest of you—get out,” he barks at the courtiers, who watch in horrified fascination. “Sergius.” The Black Guard steps forward. “Take my … bride to the east wing of the palace. Make sure she is comfortable. And safe.”