My men and I pick our way carefully through the bodies left in haphazard piles. Some wear the black of Resistance fighters. But most do not.
So much death, all for a revolution that was doomed before it even began. Anger flares as I stare at the bodies. Didn’t the Scholar rebels understand what they would unleash when they revolted? Didn’t they realize the death and terror the Empire would rain down upon them?
I swing down from my horse at the garrison gate, a few yards from where the Commandant observes her prisoners. Keris Veturia, her armor splashed with blood, ignores me. So do her men, who flank the Scholar prisoners.
As I draw myself up to reprimand them, Keris plunges her scim into the first Scholar prisoner, a woman who crumples to the ground without so much as a whimper.
I force myself not to look away.
“Blood Shrike.” The Commandant turns and salutes. Immediately, her men follow suit. Her voice is soft, but as ever, she manages to mock my title while keeping her face and expression flat. She glances at Harper and he offers a bare nod in acknowledgement. Then she addresses me. “Shouldn’t you be scouring the lands to the south for Veturius?”
“Shouldn’t you be hunting Scholar rebels along the River Rei?”
“The revolution along the Rei has been crushed,” the Commandant says. “My men and I have been purging the countryside of the Scholar threat.”
I eye the prisoners shaking in terror before her. Three are twice my father’s age. Two are children.
“These civilians do not look like rebel fighters to me.”
“It is such thinking, Shrike, that encourages revolts in the first place. These civilians harbored Resistance rebels. When brought to the garrison for questioning, they—along with the rebels—attempted to stage an escape. No doubt they were encouraged in their insurgency by rumors of a Martial rout in Nur.”
I flush at her pointed remark, seeking a retort and finding none. Your failure has weakened the Empire. The words are unspoken. And they are not wrong. The Commandant curls her lip and shifts her gaze over my shoulder, to my men.
“A ragged bunch,” she observes. “Tired men make for failed missions, Blood Shrike. Did you not learn that lesson at Blackcliff?”
“I had to divide my forces to cover more ground.” Though I try to keep my voice as unfeeling as hers, I know I sound like a sullen Cadet defending an unsound battle strategy to a Centurion.
“So many men to hunt a traitor,” she says. “Yet you’ve had no luck. One would think you do not truly wish to find Veturius.”
“One would be wrong,” I grind out from a clenched jaw.
“One would hope,” she says with a soft derision that brings an enraged flush to my cheeks. She turns back to her prisoners. One of the children is next, a dark-haired boy with freckles across his nose. The sharp tang of urine permeates the air, and the Commandant looks down at the boy and cocks her head.
“Afraid, little one?” Her voice is almost gentle. I want to retch at the lie in it. The boy trembles, staring at the blood-soaked dirt before him.
“Stop.” I step forward. Bleeding skies, what are you doing, Helene? The Commandant looks at me with a mild sort of curiosity.
“As Blood Shrike,” I say, “I order—”
The Commandant’s first scim whistles through the air, divesting the child of his head. At the same time, she draws her second scim, plunging it through the heart of the second child. Knives appear in her hands, and she flings them—zing-zing-zing—one by one into the throats of the last three prisoners.
In the space of two breaths, she has executed them all.
“Yes, Blood Shrike?” She turns back to me. On the surface, she is patient, attentive. No hint of the madness that I know roils deep within. I survey her men—well over a hundred of them watching the altercation with cold-eyed interest. If I challenge her now, there is no telling what she will do. Attack, possibly. Or try to butcher my men. She certainly won’t submit to censure.
“Bury the bodies.” I suppress my emotions and flatten my voice. “I don’t want the garrison’s water supply contaminated by corpses.”
The Commandant nods, her face still. The consummate Mask. “Of course, Shrike.”
I order my men into the garrison and retire to the empty Black Guard barracks, dropping into one of the dozen hard bunks along the walls. I am filthy from a week on the road. I should bathe, eat, rest.
Instead, I find myself staring at the ceiling for a solid two hours. I keep thinking of the Commandant. Her insult to me was clear—and my inability to respond displayed my weakness. But though I’m upset by that, I’m more disturbed at what she did to the prisoners. At what she did to the children.
Is this what the Empire has become? Or is this what it always was? a quiet voice within asks.
“I brought you food.”
I jerk upright, hit my head on the bunk above me, and curse. Harper drops his pack on the floor and nods to a steaming plate of golden rice and spiced minced meat on a table by the door. It looks delicious, but I know that right now, anything I eat will taste of ashes.
“The Commandant left about an hour ago,” Harper says. “She’s headed north.”
Harper removes his armor, laying it neatly beside the door before digging around in the closet for fresh fatigues. He turns his back to me and changes. When he strips off his shirt, he steps into the shadows so I cannot see. I crack a smile at his modesty.
“The food won’t jump down your throat on its own, Shrike.”