I stare at him long enough to make sure my voice doesn’t shake. Long enough for him to start thinking that he might have crossed a line.
“Begin your hunt,” I say quietly. “Don’t leave a single wagon unsearched. If you find him, bring him in.”
We are interrupted by a step behind us: Harper, holding two scrolls with broken seals.
“From your father and sister.” He doesn’t apologize for the fact that he’s clearly read the missives.
We are well in Antium, though autumn’s chill does not agree with your mother and sisters. I work to solidify the Emperor’s alliances but find myself thwarted. Gens Sisellia and Gens Rufia have put forth their own candidates for the throne. They attempt to rally other Gens to their banners. The infighting has killed fifty in the capital, and it’s just begun. Wildmen and Barbarians have intensified their border attacks, and the generals on the front are in desperate need of more men.
At least the Commandant has dampened the fire of the Scholar revolution. When she was done, I am told, the River Rei ran red with Scholar blood. She continues the cleansing in the lands north of Silas. Her victories reflect well on our Emperor, but better still upon her own Gens.
I hope to hear news of your success in tracking down the traitor Veturius soon.
Loyal to the end,
P.S. Your mother asks that I remind you to eat.
Livvy’s note is shorter.
My dear Hel,
Antium is lonely, with you so far away. Hannah feels it too—though she’d never admit it. His Majesty visits her nearly every day. He also inquires after my welfare, as I am still in isolation with a fever. Once, he even attempted to bypass the guards and visit me. We are lucky our sister is marrying a man so dedicated to our family.
The uncles and Father try desperately to keep the old alliances strong. But the Illustrians do not fear His Majesty the way they should. I wish Father would look to the Plebeians for aid. I believe His Majesty’s greatest supporters may lie there.
Father calls for me to hurry, or I’d write more. Be safe, sister.
My hands shake as I roll the parchment up. Would that I’d received these messages a few days ago. Perhaps I would have realized the cost of failure and taken Elias into custody.
Now, what Father feared has begun. The Gens turn against each other. Hannah is that much closer to marrying the Snake. And Marcus is trying to get to Livia—she never would have mentioned it if she didn’t think it was significant.
I crush the letters. Father’s message is loud and clear. Find Elias. Give Marcus a victory.
“Lieutenant Harper,” I say. “Tell the men we move out in five minutes. Dex—”
I can see from the stiff way that he turns to me that he’s still angry. He has a right to be.
“You’ll handle the interrogations,” I say. “Faris will search the desert to the east instead. Let him know. Get me answers, Dex. Keep Mamie and Shan alive in case we need them as bait. Otherwise, do what you must. Even … even in regard to the children.”
Dex nods, and I quash the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at speaking the words. I’m Blood Shrike. It is time to show my strength.
“Nothing?” The three squad leaders fidget under my scrutiny. One stamps his foot in the sands, antsy as a penned stallion. Behind him, other soldiers in our encampment, some miles north of Nur, watch surreptitiously. “We’ve searched this blasted desert for six days, and we still have nothing?”
Harper, the only one of the five of us not squinting from the punishing desert wind, clears his throat. “The desert is vast, Blood Shrike,” he says. “We need more men.”
He’s right. We must search thousands of wagons, and I have only three hundred men to do it. I sent messages to Atella’s Gap, as well as to the Taib and Sadh garrisons requesting backup—but none has soldiers to spare.
Strands of hair whip around my face as I pace before the soldiers. I want to send the men out once more before nightfall to search whatever wagons they find. But they are too exhausted.
“There’s a garrison a half day’s ride north in Gentrium,” I say. “If we push hard, we’ll make it by nightfall. We can get reinforcements there.”
Evening nears as we approach the garrison, poking up over the top of a hill a quarter mile to the north. The outpost is one of the largest in the area and straddles the forested lands of the Empire’s interior and the Tribal desert.
“Blood Shrike.” Avitas shifts a hand to his bow and slows his horse when the garrison comes into view. “Do you smell that?”
A western wind brings a whiff of something familiar and sour-sweet to my nose. Death. My hand goes to my scim. An attack on the garrison? Scholar rebels? Or a Barbarian sortie, slipping through the Empire unnoticed because of the chaos elsewhere?
I order the men forward, my body coiled, blood rising, yearning toward the battle. Perhaps I should have sent a scout ahead, but if the garrison needs our aid, there’s no time for reconnaissance.
We clear the hill, and I slow the men. The road leading to the garrison is littered with the dead and dying. Scholars, not Martials.
Far ahead, beside the garrison’s gate, I see a row of six Scholars kneeling. Before them paces a small figure, instantly recognizable, even at a distance.
I nudge my horse forward. What in the bleeding hells is the Commandant doing all the way out here? Has the revolution spread so far?