A sigh escapes me, and I wipe the tears from my face. This is what it means to believe. I wish it weren’t so hard.

I watch as he drifts away from me, deeper into the ruins of the house, finally disappearing behind a scorched pillar. I don’t bother following. I already know he’s gone.


The Black Guard barracks stands in a Mercator section of the city. It is a long, stone building with no markings but a silver, open-winged shrike embossed on the door.

The second I enter, the half dozen Masks within stop what they are doing and salute.

“You.” I look to the closest Black Guard. “Go and find Lieutenant Faris Candelan and Lieutenant Dex Atrius. When they arrive, assign them quarters and arms.” Before the guard can even acknowledge, I move on to the next. “You,” I say. “Get me every report from the night that Veturius escaped. Every attack, every explosion, every dead soldier, every looted store, every eyewitness account—all of it. Where are Shrike’s quarters?”

“Through there, sir.” The soldier points at a black door at the end of the room. “Lieutenant Avitas Harper is within. He arrived just before you.”

Avitas Harper. Lieutenant Harper. A chill rolls across my skin. My torturer. Of course. He too is a member of the Black Guard.

“What in the bleeding skies does he want?”

The Black Guard looks surprised for a moment. “Orders, I believe. The Emperor assigned him to your task force.”

You mean the Commandant assigned him. Harper is her spy.

Harper waits at my desk in commander’s quarters. He salutes with unsettling blankness, as if he didn’t just spend five days in a dungeon tormenting me.

“Harper.” I sit down opposite him, the desk between us. “Report.”

Harper says nothing for a moment. I sigh in open irritation.

“You’ve been assigned to this detail, yes? Tell me what we know about the whereabouts of the traitor Veturius, Lieutenant.” I put as much disdain in the word as possible. “Or are you as ineffective a hunter as you are an interrogator?”

Harper doesn’t react to the jibe. “We have one lead: a dead Mask just beyond the city.” He pauses. “Blood Shrike, have you chosen your force for this mission?”

“You and two others,” I say. “Lieutenant Dex Atrius and Lieutenant Faris Candelan. They’ll be inducted into the Black Guard today. We’ll call in backup as needed.”

“I do not recognize the names. Generally, Shrike, inductees are chosen by—”

“Harper.” I lean forward. He will not have control over me. Never again. “I know you’re the Commandant’s spy. The Emperor told me. I can’t get rid of you. But that doesn’t mean I have to listen to you. As your commander, I order you to shut up about Faris and Dex. Now take me through what we know of Veturius’s escape.”

I expect a retort. Instead, I get a shrug, which is somehow more infuriating. Harper details Elias’s escape—the soldiers he killed, sightings of him in the city.

A knock comes at the door mid-report, and to my relief, Dex and Faris enter. Faris’s blond hair is a mess, and Dex’s dark skin is ashen. Their singed capes and bloodied armor are evidence of their activities the past few days. Their eyes widen when they see me: cut, bruised, a mess. But then Dex steps forward.

“Blood Shrike.” He salutes, and despite myself, I smile. Trust Dex to remember protocol, even when faced with the shattered remnants of an old friend.

“Ten hells, Aquilla.” Faris is aghast. “What did they do to you?”

“Welcome, Lieutenants,” I say. “I assume the messenger told you of the mission?”

“You’re to kill Elias,” Faris says. “Hel—”

“Are you prepared to serve?”

“Of course,” Faris goes on. “You need men you can trust, but Hel—”

“This”—I speak over him, lest he say something that Harper can report back to the Emperor and the Commandant—“is Lieutenant Avitas Harper. My torturer and the Commandant’s spy.” Immediately, Faris clamps his mouth shut. “Harper is also assigned to this mission, so beware of what you say around him, as it will all be reported back to the Commandant and Emperor.” Harper shifts uncomfortably, and a bolt of triumph shoots through me.

“Dex,” I say. “One of the men is bringing in the reports from the night Elias escaped. You were his lieutenant. Look for anything that might be relevant. Faris, you’re with me. Harper and I have a lead outside the city.”

I am thankful that my friends accept my orders stoically, that their training keeps their faces blank. Dex excuses himself, and Faris follows to procure horses. Harper stands, his head tilted as he looks at me. I cannot read his expression—curiosity, perhaps. He reaches into his pocket, and I tense, remembering the the brass beaters he used on me during my interrogation.

But he only pulls out a man’s ring. Heavy, silver, and embossed with a bird, wings spread, beak wide in a scream. The Blood Shrike’s ring of office.

“Yours now.” He takes out a chain. “In case it’s too big.”

It is too big, but a jeweler can fix that. Perhaps he expects me to thank him. Instead, I take the ring, ignore the chain, and sweep past him.


The dead Mask in the dry flats beyond Serra sounds like a promising start. No tracks, no ambush. But the moment I see the body—hanging from a tree and bearing clear signs of torture—I know Elias didn’t kill him.