Laia turns her face to mine. “How sure are you?”

“If I wasn’t sure, but you knew there was a chance—the slightest chance—that he still lived, would you try to save him?” I see the answer in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter if I’m sure, Laia,” I say. “As long as you want to save him, then I will help you. I made a vow. I’m not going to break it.”

I take Laia’s hands in mine. Cool. Strong. I would keep them here, kiss every callus on her palms, nibble the inside of her wrist so she gasped. I would pull her closer and see if she too wished to give in to the fire that burns between us.

But for what? So that she can grieve when I’m dead? It’s wrong. It’s selfish.

I pull away from her slowly, holding her eyes as I do it, so she knows it’s the last thing I want. Hurt washes across her eyes. Confusion.


I am glad she understands. I can’t get close to her—not in that way. I can’t let her get close to me. Doing so will only bring grief and pain.

And she’s had enough of that.



“Leave her be, Nightbringer.” I feel a strong hand beneath my arm, forcing me away from the wall and upright. Cain?

Pale wisps of hair snake out of the Augur’s hood. His wasted features are shadowed by his black robes, and his blood-red eyes are grave as he regards the creature. Nightbringer, he called it, like the old stories Mamie Rila used to tell.

The Nightbringer hisses softly, and Cain’s eyes narrow.

“Leave her, I say.” The Augur steps in front of me. “She does not walk in the darkness.”

“Doesn’t she?” The Nightbringer chuckles before disappearing in a whirl of his cloak, leaving the scent of fire trailing. Cain turns to me.

“Well met, Blood Shrike.”

“Well met? Well met?”

“Come. We do not wish for the Commandant or her lackeys to overhear us.”

My body still shakes from what I saw in the Nightbringer’s eyes. As Cain and I leave Villa Veturia, I get hold of myself. The second we clear the gates, I wheel on the Augur. Only a lifetime of veneration keeps me from grabbing desperately at his robes.

“You promised.” The Augur knows my every thought, so I don’t hide the crack in my voice or fight the tears in my eyes. It is a relief not to, in a way. “You swore he would be all right if I kept my vow.”

“No, Blood Shrike.” Cain leads me away from the villa and down a wide avenue of Illustrian homes. We approach one that must have once been beautiful but is now a burned-out shell—destroyed days ago during the worst of the Scholar revolution. Cain wanders into the smoking debris. “We promised that if you held the oath, Elias would survive the Trials. And he did.”

“What was the point of him surviving the Trials if he’s just going to die a few weeks from now by my hand anyway? I can’t refuse Marcus’s order, Cain. I swore fealty. You made me swear fealty.”

“Do you know who lived in this house, Helene Aquilla?”

Changing the subject, of course. No wonder Elias was always so irritated by the Augurs. I force myself to look around. The house is unfamiliar.

“Mask Laurent Marianus. His wife, Inah.” Cain nudges aside a charred beam with his foot and picks up a roughly carved wooden horse. “Their children: Lucia, Amara, and Darien. Six Scholar slaves. One of those was Siyyad. He loved Darien like a son.”

Cain turns the horse over and gently sets it back down. “Siyyad carved this for the boy two months ago, when Darien turned four.” My chest tightens. What happened to him?

“Five of the slaves tried to flee when the Scholars attacked with torches and pitch. Siyyad ran for Darien. He found him, holding his horse, hiding beneath his bed in terror. He pulled him out. But the fire was too swift. They died quickly. All of them. Even the slaves who tried to run.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because the Empire is filled with homes like this. With lives like these. Do you think that Darien’s or Siyyad’s lives matter less, somehow, than Elias’s? They do not.”

“I know that, Cain.” I feel chagrined that he would need to remind me of the value of my own people. “But what was the point of everything I did in the First Trial if Elias is just going to die anyway?”

Cain turns the full force of his presence upon me. I shrink back.

“You will hunt Elias. You will find him. For what you learn on that journey—about yourself, your land, your enemies—that knowledge is essential to the Empire’s survival. And to your destiny.”

I feel like retching at his feet. I trusted you. I believed you. I did what you wanted. And now my fears will come to life for my trouble. Hunting Elias—killing him—that’s not even the worst part of the nightmares. It’s the feeling inside as I do it. That’s what makes the dreams so potent—the emotions that roll through me: satisfaction as I torment my friend, pleasure at the laughter of Marcus, who stands beside me, looking on in approval.

“Do not let despair take you.” Cain’s voice softens. “Hold true to your heart, and the Empire will be well served.”

“The Empire.” Always the Empire. “What about Elias? What about me?”

“Elias’s fate is in his own hands. Come now, Blood Shrike.” Cain lifts a hand to my head, as if offering a blessing. “This is what it means to have faith, to believe in something greater than yourself.”