“She did it!” Laia shouts. “Afya did it!”
“Bowmen!” A line of soldiers appears atop Kauf’s wall. “Run!”
A hail of arrows rains down around us, and half the Scholars racing for the boathouse with us go down. Almost there. Almost.
“Elias! Laia!” I spot Afya’s red-black braids at the boathouse door. She waves us into the structure, her eyes on the bowmen. Her face is slashed, her hands covered in blood, but she quickly leads us to a small canoe.
“As much as I’d enjoy a boating adventure with the unwashed masses,” she says, “I think this will be faster. Hurry.”
I lay Darin down between two benches, grab an oar, and push off from the boathouse. Behind us, Araj pulls Tas and Bee onto the final Scholar barge and launches it. His people pole it forward with panicked speed. Swiftly, the current pulls us away from the ruin of Kauf—and toward the Forest of Dusk.
“You said you had a plan.” Laia nods to the soft green line of the Forest to the south. Darin lies between us, still unconscious, his head resting on his sister’s pack. “Might be a good time to share it.”
What do I say to her of the trade I made with Shaeva? Where do I even begin?
With the truth.
“I’ll share it,” I say quietly enough that only she can hear. “But first, there’s something else I need to tell you. About how I survived the poison. And about what I’ve become.”
ONE MONTH LATER
Deep winter roars into Antium on the back of a three-day blizzard. Snow blankets the city so thickly that the Scholar sweepers work around the clock to keep the thoroughfares clear. Midwinter candles glow all night in windows across the city, from the finest mansions to the poorest hovels.
Emperor Marcus will celebrate the holiday at the imperial palace with the Paters and Maters of a few dozen important Gens. My spies tell me that many deals will be struck—trade agreements and government postings that will further cement Marcus’s power.
I know it to be true, because I helped arrange most of those deals.
Within the Black Guard barracks, I sit at my desk, signing an order to send a contingent of my men to Tiborum. We have wrested the port back from the Wildmen who nearly took it, but they have not given up. Now that they’ve smelled blood in the water, they will return—with more men.
I gaze out the window at the white city. A thought flits through my mind, a memory of Hannah and me throwing snowballs at each other long ago, when Father brought us to Antium as girls. I smile. Remember. Then I lock the memory away in a dark place—where I will not see it again—and turn back to my work.
“Learn to lock your damned window, girl.”
The raspy voice is instantly recognizable. Still, I jump. The Cook’s eyes glint beneath a hood that hides her scars. She keeps her distance, ready to slip back out the window at the first sign of a threat.
“You could just use the front door.” I keep a hand on a dagger strapped to the underside of my desk. “I’ll make certain no one stops you.”
“Friends now, are we?” The Cook tilts her scarred face and shows her teeth in an approximation of a smile. “How sweet.”
“Your wound—has it healed fully?”
“I’m still here.” The Cook peers out the window and fidgets. “I heard about your family,” she says gruffly. “I’m sorry.”
I raise my eyebrows. “You went through the trouble of sneaking in here to pay your condolences?”
“That,” the Cook says, “and to tell you that when you’re ready to take on the Bitch of Blackcliff, I can help. You know how to find me.”
I consider the sealed letter from Marcus on my desk. “Come back tomorrow,” I say. “We’ll talk.”
She nods and, without so much as a whisper, slips back out the window. Curiosity pulls at me, and I walk over and peer out, scanning the sheer walls above and below for a hook, scratches, any indication as to how she scaled an unscaleable wall. Nothing. I’ll have to ask her about that trick.
I turn my attention to Marcus’s letter:
Tiborum is under control, and Gens Serca and Gens Aroman have fallen in line. No more excuses. It is time to deal with her.
There is only one her he could be talking about. I read on.
Be quiet and careful. I do not want a quick assassination, Shrike. I want utter destruction. I want her to feel it. I want the Empire to know my strength.
Your sister was a delight at the dinner with the Mariner ambassador last night. She quite put him at ease about the shift in power here. Such a useful girl. I pray she remains healthy and serves her Empire for a long time to come.
—Emperor Marcus Farrar
The Fiver on message duty jumps when I open my office door. After I give him his task, I reread Marcus’s letter and wait impatiently. Moments later, a knock sounds.
“Blood Shrike,” Captain Harper says when he enters. “You called?”
I hand him the letter. “We need a plan,” I say. “She disbanded her army when she realized I was going to tell Marcus of the coup, but that doesn’t mean she can’t muster it again. Keris won’t go down easily.”
“Or at all,” Harper mutters. “This will take months. Even if she doesn’t expect an attack from Marcus, she will expect an attack from you. She’ll be prepared.”
“I know that,” I say. “Which is why we need a plan that actually works. That starts with finding Quin Veturius.”