He looked so different, all muscle and sinew, like one of his Teluman scims brought to life. But the greatest change was his eyes—the shadows beneath and the sadness within, like he knew something he couldn’t bear to tell me. It gnaws at me, that look in his eyes. More than my failure to catch and kill him when I had the chance. It frightens me.

We both know I’m not long for this world. What did he mean by it? Since healing him in the Second Trial, I’ve felt a bond with Elias—a protectiveness I’ve tried not to think about. It’s born of the healing magic, I’m certain. When Elias touched me, that bond told me that my friend was not well.

“Don’t forget about us,” he said to me in Serra. I close my eyes and allow myself one moment to imagine a different world. In that world, Elias is a Tribal boy, and I am a jurist’s daughter. We meet in a market, and our love isn’t tainted by Blackcliff or by all the things he hates about himself. I hold myself in that world, just for a second.

Then I release it. Elias and I are finished. Now, there is only death.

“Harper,” I say. Dex dismisses the legionnaires, turning his attention to me, and Faris sheathes his scims. “How many members of Tribe Saif did we capture?”

“Twenty-six men, fifteen women, and twelve children, Blood Shrike.”

“Execute them,” Dex says. “Immediately. We need to show what happens when you harbor an Empire fugitive.”

“You can’t kill them.” Faris glares at Dex. “They’re the only family Elias ever—”

“Those people aided and abetted an enemy of the Empire,” Dex snaps. “We have orders—”

“We don’t have to execute them,” Harper says. “They have other uses.”

I catch Harper’s intent. “We should question them. We have Mamie Rila, yes?”

“Unconscious,” Harper says. “The aux who took her was too enthusiastic with the hilt of his sword. She should come around in a day or two.”

“She’ll know who got Veturius out of here,” I say. “And where he’s heading.”

I look at the three of them. Harper has orders to remain with me, so he cannot stay in Nur to question Mamie and her family. But Dex might kill off our prisoners. And more dead Tribesmen are the last thing the Empire needs while the Scholar revolution still rages.

“Faris,” I say. “You’ll handle the interrogations. I want to know how Elias got out and where he’s going.”

“What of the children?” Faris says. “Surely we can release them. They won’t know anything.”

I know what the Commandant would say to Faris. Mercy is weakness. Offer it to your enemies and you might as well fall upon your own sword.

The children will be a powerful incentive for the Tribespeople to tell us the truth. I know this. Yet the idea of using them—hurting them—makes me uneasy. I think of the ravaged house in Serra that Cain showed me. The Scholar rebels who burned down that house showed no mercy to the Martial children who lived there.

Are these Tribal children so different? In the end, they are still children. They didn’t ask to be a part of this.

I catch Faris’s eye. “The Tribesmen are already restless, and we don’t have the men to put down another riot. We’ll let the children go—”

“Are you insane?” Dex shoots a glare first at Faris then at me. “Don’t let them go. Threaten to throw them into ghost wagons and sell them into slavery unless you get some bleeding answers.”

“Lieutenant Atrius.” I flatten my voice as I address Dex. “Your presence is no longer needed here. Go and divide the remaining men into three groups. One goes with you to search east, in case Veturius makes for the Free Lands. One with me to search south. One stays here to hold the city.”

Dex’s jaw twitches, his anger at being dismissed warring with a lifetime of obeying the orders of a superior officer. Faris sighs, and Harper watches the exchange with interest. Finally, Dex stalks out, slamming the door behind him.

“Tribesmen value their children above all else,” I say to Faris. “Use them as leverage. But don’t hurt them. Keep Mamie and Shan alive. If we can’t run Elias down, we might be able to use them to lure him in. If you learn anything, send me a message through the drums.”

When I leave the barracks to saddle my horse, I find Dex leaning against the stable wall. Before he can tear into me, I turn on him.

“What in the bleeding skies were you doing in there?” I say. “It’s not enough that I have one of the Commandant’s spies questioning my every move? I need you plaguing me too?”

“He reports on everything you do,” Dex says. “But he doesn’t question you. Even when he should. You’re not focused. You should have seen that riot coming.”

“You didn’t see it coming.” Even to my own ears, I sound like a petulant child.

“I’m not the Blood Shrike. You are.” His voice rises, and he takes a level breath.

“You miss him.” The edge in his voice fades. “I miss him too. I miss all of them. Tristas. Demetrius. Leander. But they’re gone. And Elias is on the run. All we have now, Shrike, is the Empire. And we owe it to the Empire to catch this traitor and execute him.”

“I know that—”

“Do you? Then why did you disappear for a quarter hour in the middle of the riot? Where were you?”