“Very well, Your Majesty.” My voice comes out strong, smooth. My training kicks in. The surprise on Marcus’s face makes it gratifying.

“You’ll begin immediately. I’ll be receiving daily reports—the Commandant has chosen a Black Guard to keep us appraised of your progress.”

Naturally. I turn to go, my stomach churning as I reach for the door handle.

“One more thing,” Marcus says, forcing me to turn, my teeth gritted, “don’t even think about telling me that you’re unable to catch Veturius. He’s sly enough to escape the bounty hunters quite easily. But you and I both know that he would never be able to escape you.” Marcus cocks his head, calm, collected, and full of hatred.

“Happy hunting, Blood Shrike.”


My feet carry me away from Marcus and his terrible command, out the door of Quin Veturius’s study. Beneath my ceremonial armor, blood from a wound soaks through a dressing. I skim a finger over the wound, pressing lightly, then harder. Pain lances through my torso, narrowing my sight to what is before me.

I must track Elias. Catch him. Torture him. Kill him.

My hands curl into fists. Why did Elias have to break his oath to the Augurs, to the Empire? He’s seen what life is like beyond these borders: In the Southern Lands, there are more monarchies than people, each kinglet scheming to conquer the rest. In the northwest, the Wildmen of the tundra trade babies and women for firepowder and liquor. And south of the Great Wastes, the Barbarians of Karkaus live to reave and rape.

The Empire is not perfect. But we have held strong against the backward traditions of the broken lands beyond our borders for five centuries now. Elias knows that. And still he turned his back on his people.

On me.

Doesn’t make a difference. He’s a threat to the Empire. A threat I must deal with.

But I love him. How do I kill the man I love?

The girl I was, the girl who hoped, the weak little bird—that girl beats her wings and tosses her head against the confusion of it. What of the Augurs and their promises? You’d kill him, your friend, your comrade in arms, your everything, the only one you’ve ever—

I silence that girl. Focus.

Veturius has been gone for six days now. If he were alone and anonymous, trapping him would be like trying to trap smoke. But the news of his escape—and the reward—will force him to be more careful. Will it be enough to give bounty hunters a shot at him? I scoff. I’ve seen Elias rob half a camp of such mercenaries without any of them the wiser. He’ll run circles around them, even injured, even hunted.

But then there’s the girl. Slower. Less experienced. A distraction.

Distractions. Him, distracted. By her. Distracted because he and she—because they—

None of that, Helene.

Raised voices pull my attention outward, away from the frailty within. I hear the Commandant speaking from the drawing room, and I tense. She just left with my father. Does she dare to raise her voice to the Pater of Gens Aquilla?

I stride forward to shove open the cracked door of the drawing room. One of the benefits of being Blood Shrike is that I outrank everyone but the Emperor. I can dress the Commandant down and she can do nothing about it if Marcus isn’t there.

Then I stop. Because the voice that responds does not belong to my father.

“I told you that your desire to dominate her would be problematic.”

The voice makes me shudder. It also reminds me of something: the efrits in the Second Trial, the way their voices sounded like the wind. But the efrits were a summer storm. This voice is a winter gale.

“If the Cook offends you, you can kill her yourself.”

“I have limitations, Keris. She is your creation. See to it. She has already cost us. The Resistance leader was essential. And now he’s dead.”

“He can be replaced.” The Commandant pauses, choosing her words carefully. “And forgive me, my lord, but how can you speak to me of obsession? You did not tell me who the slave-girl was. Why are you so interested in her? What is she to you?”

A long, tense pause. I take a step back, wary now of whatever is in that room with the Commandant.

“Ah, Keris. Busy in your spare time, I see? Learning about her? Who she is … who her parents were …”

“It was easy enough to find out once I knew what to look for.”

“The girl is not your concern. I tire of your questioning. Small victories have made you daring, Commandant. Do not let them make you stupid. You have your orders. Carry them out.”

I step out of sight just as the Commandant leaves the room. She stalks down the hallway, and I wait until her footsteps fade before coming out from around the corner—and finding myself face to face with the other speaker.

“You were listening.”

My skin feels clammy, and I find I’m clutching the hilt of my scim. The figure before me appears to be a normal man in simple garb, his hands gloved, his hood low to shadow his face. I look away from him immediately. Some lizard instinct screams at me to walk on. But I find, to my alarm, that I can’t move.

“I am Blood Shrike.” I take no strength from my rank but square my shoulders anyway. “I can listen where I wish.”

The figure tilts its head and sniffs, as if scenting the air around me.

“You’ve been gifted.” The man sounds mildly surprised. I shudder at the raw darkness of his voice. “A healing power. The efrits woke it. I smell it. The blue and white of winter, the green of first spring.”