“That’s a terrible idea,” a mild voice calls from the darkness behind me.
“Lieutenant Harper.” I greet the spy, glaring at Dex as I do so. He grimaces, handsome face uneasy. He was supposed to make sure Harper didn’t follow us. “Skulking in the shadows as usual. I suppose you’ll tell her all about this?”
“I don’t need to. You’re going to give it away when you ask about it. If the Commandant tried to hide what happened here, there’s a reason. We should learn what it is before revealing we’re on to her.”
Faris snorts, and Dex rolls his eyes.
Obviously, idiot. That’s what I’m going to do. But Harper doesn’t need to know that. In fact, the stupider he thinks I am, the better. He can tell the Commandant that I’m no threat to her.
“There is no we, Harper.” I turn away from him. “Dex, check the reports from that night—see if there’s anyone around here who saw anything. Faris, you and Harper track the horse. It’s probably black or chestnut and at least seventeen hands. Quin didn’t like variety in his stables.”
“We’ll track the horse,” Harper says. “Leave the Commandant, Shrike.”
I ignore him, swing into my saddle, and make my way to Villa Veturia.
It’s not yet midnight when I arrive at the Veturia mansion. There are far fewer soldiers here than when I visited a few days ago. Either the Emperor has found another residence or he’s away. Probably in a brothel. Or off murdering children for fun.
As I’m escorted through the familiar halls, I wonder briefly about Marcus’s parents. Neither he nor Zak ever spoke of them. His father is a farrier in a village north of Silas, and his mother is a baker. What must they feel, with one son murdered by the other and the living one now crowned emperor?
The Commandant meets me in Quin’s study and offers me a seat. I don’t take it.
I try not to stare as she sits at Quin’s desk. She wears a black robe, and the blue swirls of her tattoo—oft theorized about at Blackcliff—are just visible at her neck. I’ve only ever seen her in uniform. Without it, she seems diminished.
As if sensing my thoughts, her eyes sharpen. “I owe you thanks, Shrike,” she says. “You saved my father’s life. I didn’t want to kill him, but he wouldn’t have given up the rulership of Gens Veturia easily. Getting him out of the city allowed him his dignity—and a smoother transition of power.”
She isn’t thanking me. She was enraged when she learned her father had escaped Serra. She’s letting me know that she knows I was the one who helped him. How did she find out? Persuading Quin not to storm Blackcliff’s dungeons to save Elias was practically impossible, and sneaking him out under the nose of his guards was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. We were careful—beyond careful.
“Have you seen Elias Veturius since the morning he escaped from Blackcliff?” I ask. She doesn’t betray a flicker of emotion.
“Have you seen the Scholar Laia, formerly your slave, since she escaped from Blackcliff the same day?”
“You are the Commandant of Blackcliff and adviser to the Emperor, Keris,” I say. “But as Blood Shrike, I outrank you. You do realize I could haul you into interrogation and have you purged.”
“Don’t pull rank with me, little girl,” the Commandant says softly. “The only reason you’re not already dead is that I—not Marcus, I—still have use for you. But”—she shrugs—“if you insist on a purging, I will, of course, submit.”
I still have use for you.
“Did you, on the night of Veturius’s escape, see him at a storage building on the eastern wall of the city, fight him there, lose, and get knocked unconscious while he and the slave escaped on a horse?”
“I just answered that question,” she says. “Was there anything else, Blood Shrike? The Scholar revolution has spread to Silas. At dawn, I’m to lead the force that will crush it.”
Her voice is as mild as ever. But for a moment, something flares in her eyes. A well-deep flicker of rage. It’s gone as quickly as it appeared. I’ll get nothing from her now.
“Good luck in Silas, Commandant.” As I turn to leave, she speaks.
“Before you go, Blood Shrike, congratulations are in order.” She allows herself a slight sneer. “Marcus is finalizing the paperwork now. Your sister’s betrothal to the Emperor does him great honor. Their heir will be legitimately Illustrian—”
I am out the door and across the courtyard, my head filled with a rushing that makes me sick. I hear my father when I asked him what he’d traded for my freedom. Nothing important, daughter. And Livia, a few nights ago, telling me Hannah was acting strange. Like she knows something we don’t.
I tear past the guards and vault onto my horse. All I can think is: Not Livvy. Not Livvy. Not Livvy.
Hannah is strong. She’s bitter. She’s angry. But Livvy—Livvy is sweet and funny and curious. Marcus will see it, and he will crush her. He’ll enjoy doing it.
I reach home, and before my horse has had a chance to stop, I’m sliding off and shoving through the front gates—straight into a courtyard packed full of Masks.
“Blood Shrike.” One of them steps forward. “You are to wait here—”
“Let her through.”
Marcus saunters out the front door of my house, my mother and father flanking him. Bleeding skies, no. The sight is so wrong that I want to scrub it from my eyes with lye. Hannah follows, head held high. The shine in her eyes bewilders me. Is it her, then? If so, why does she look happy? I’ve never hid my contempt of Marcus from her.