“Veturius is a Mask, Blood Shrike. Trained by the Commandant,” Harper says as we head back to the city. “Is he not a butcher like the rest of us?”
“Veturius wouldn’t leave a body out in the open,” Faris says. “Whoever did this wanted the body found. Why do that if he doesn’t want us on his trail?”
“To throw us off,” Harper says. “To send us west instead of south.”
As they argue, I mull it over. I know the Mask. He was one of four ordered to guard Elias at his execution. Lieutenant Cassius Pritorius, a vicious predator with a taste for young girls. He’d done a stint at Blackcliff as a Combat Centurion. I was fourteen then, but I kept one hand on a dagger when he was around.
Marcus sent the other three Masks guarding Elias to Kauf for six months as punishment for losing him. Why not Cassius? How did he end up like this?
My mind leaps to the Commandant, but it doesn’t make sense. If Cassius angered her, she’d torment and kill him publicly—all the more to build her reputation.
I feel a prickling on my neck, as if I’m being watched.
“Little ssssinger …”
The voice is distant, carried on the wind. I whirl in my saddle. The desert is empty but for a tumbleweed rolling past. Faris and Harper slow their horses, staring back at me quizzically. Walk on, Aquilla. It was nothing.
The next day of the hunt is equally useless, as is the one after that. Dex finds nothing in the reports. Runners and drum messages bring false leads: Two men killed in Navium, and a witness swears Elias is the murderer. A Martial and a Scholar reportedly checking in to an inn—as if Elias would be fool enough check in to a bleeding inn.
By the end of the third day, I’m exhausted and frustrated. Marcus has sent two messages already, demanding to know if I’ve made any headway.
I should sleep in the Black Guard barracks, as I have the past two nights. But I am sick of the barracks and particularly sick of the feeling that Harper is reporting my every move back to Marcus and the Commandant.
It’s nearly midnight when I arrive at Villa Aquilla, but the lights of the house blaze, and dozens of carriages line the road outside. I take the slaves’ entrance in to avoid family, and run straight into Livvy, who is supervising a late dinner.
She sighs at my expression. “Go in through your window. The uncles have taken over the bottom floor. They’ll want to speak with you.”
The uncles—my father’s brothers and cousins—lead the main families of Gens Aquilla. Good men, but long-winded.
“With the aunts, trying to keep a rein on their hysteria.” Livvy raises an eyebrow. “They’re not happy about the Aquilla-Farrar alliance. Father asked me to serve dinner.”
So she can listen and learn, no doubt. Livia, unlike Hannah, has an interest in the running of the Gens. Father is no fool; he knows what an asset that can be.
As I leave through the back door, Livvy calls, “Watch out for Hannah. She’s acting strange. Smug. Like she knows something we don’t.”
I roll my eyes. As if Hannah could possibly know anything I would care about.
I leap into the trees that curl toward my window. Sneaking in and out—even injured—is nothing. I used to do it regularly during leave to meet Elias.
Though never for the reason I wanted.
As I swing into my room, I berate myself. He’s not Elias. He’s the traitor Veturius, and you have to hunt him. Maybe if I keep saying the words, they’ll stop hurting.
My entire body goes numb at the voice—the same one I heard in the desert. That moment of shock is my undoing. A hand clamps over my mouth, and a whisper sounds in my ear.
“I have a story to tell. Listen carefully. You might learn something worthwhile.”
Female. Strong hands. Badly calloused. No accent. I move to throw her off, but the steel held steady against my throat stops me. I think of the body of the Mask out in the desert. Whoever this is, she’s deadly, and she’s not afraid to kill me.
“Once upon a time,” the strange voice says, “a girl and a boy tried to escape a city of flame and terror. In this city, they found salvation half-touched by shadow. And there waited a silver-skinned she-demon with a heart as black as her home. They fought the demon beneath a sleepless spire of suffering. They brought the demon low and escaped victorious. A pretty tale, is it not?” My captor puts her face close to my ear. “The story is in the city, little singer,” she says. “Find the story, and you’ll find Elias Veturius.”
The hand over my mouth drops away, as does the blade. I turn to see the figure darting across my room.
“Wait!” I turn and put my hands in the air. The figure halts. “The dead Mask in the desert,” I say. “You did that?”
“A message for you, little singer,” the woman rasps. “So you wouldn’t be stupid enough to fight me. Don’t feel badly about it. He was a murderer and a rapist. He deserved to die. Which reminds me.” She tilts her head. “The girl—Laia. Don’t touch her. If any harm comes to her, no force in this land will stop me from gutting you. Slowly.”
With that, she is moving again. I leap up and unsheathe my blade. Too late. The woman is through the open window and scuttling away across the rooftops.
But not before I catch sight of her face—hardened by hatred, mangled beyond belief, and instantly recognizable.
The Commandant’s slave. The one who is supposed to be dead. The one everyone called Cook.