I look suspiciously at the plate, and Harper sighs, pads to the table in bare feet, and tastes the food before handing me the plate. “Eat,” he says. “Your mother asked you to. How would it look if the Empire’s Blood Shrike fainted dead away from starvation in the middle of a fight?”
Reluctantly, I take the plate and force myself to chew a few morsels of it.
“The old Blood Shrike had tasters.” Harper sits on a bunk across from me and rolls his shoulders back. “Usually an aux soldier from some nameless Plebeian family.”
“People tried to assassinate the Shrike?”
Harper looks at me like I’m an especially dim Yearling. “Of course. He had the Emperor’s ear and was first cousin to Kauf’s Warden. There are probably only a handful of secrets in the Empire that he didn’t know.”
I press my lips together to quell my shudder. I remember the Warden from my time as a Fiver. I remember how he got his secrets: through twisted experiments and mind games.
Harper’s eyes cut to me and glitter like the pale jade of the Southern Lands. “Will you tell me something?”
I swallow the bite I’ve only half chewed. That placidness in his tone—I’ve learned what it means. He’s about to strike.
“Why did you let him go?”
Bleeding skies. “Let who go?”
“I know when you’re trying to mislead me, Shrike,” Harper says. “Five days in an interrogation room with you, remember?” He leans forward on his bunk, tilting his head mildly, like a curious bird. I am not fooled; his eyes burn with intensity. “You had Veturius in Nur. You let him go. Because you love him? Is he not a Mask, like any other?”
“How dare you!” I slam the plate down and stand. Harper grabs my arm, not releasing when I try to throw him off.
“Please,” he says. “I mean no harm. I swear it. I too have loved, Shrike.” Old pain flickers and fades in his eyes. I see no lie there. Only curiosity.
I shove away his arm and, still assessing him, sit back down. I look out the open window of the barracks to the wide stretch of scrubby hills beyond. The moon barely lights the room, and the darkness is a comfort.
“Veturius is a Mask like the rest of us, yes,” I say. “Bold, brave, strong, swift. But those were afterthoughts for him.” The Blood Shrike’s ring of office feels heavy on my finger, and I spin it around. I have never spoken of Elias to anyone. Whom would I speak to? My comrades at Blackcliff would have mocked me. My sisters would not have understood.
I want to speak of him, I realize. I crave it.
“Elias sees people as they should be,” I say. “Not as they are. He laughs at himself. He gives of himself—in everything he does.
“Like with the First Trial.” I shiver at the memory. “The Augurs played with our minds. But Elias didn’t falter. He looked death straight in the face and never considered leaving me behind. He didn’t give up on me. He’s the things that I can’t be. He’s good. He never would have let the Commandant kill those prisoners. Especially not the children.”
“The Commandant serves the Empire.”
I shake my head. “What she did doesn’t serve the Empire,” I say. “Not the Empire I fight for, anyway.”
Harper watches me with an unsettling, fixed gaze. I wonder briefly if I’ve said too much. But then I realize that I don’t care what he thinks. He is no friend of mine, and if he reports what I said to Marcus or the Commandant, it will change nothing.
“Blood Shrike!” The shout makes both Harper and me jump, and a moment later, the door bursts open to reveal an aux courier panting and coated in dirt from the road. “The Emperor orders you to ride for Antium. Now.”
Bleeding skies. I’ll never catch Elias if I detour to Antium. “I’m in the middle of a mission, soldier,” I say. “And I’m not inclined to leave it half-finished. What’s so damned important?”
“War, Blood Shrike. The Illustrian Gens have declared war on each other.”
For two weeks, the hours pass in a blur of nighttime riding, thieving, and skulking. Martial soldiers swarm over the countryside like locusts, tearing through every village and farmstead, every bridge and shack, in their search for me.
But I am alone, and I am a Mask. I ride hard, and Trera, desert born and bred, eats up the miles.
After a fortnight, we reach the eastern branch of the River Taius, glimmering like the groove of a silver scim beneath the full moon. The night is quiet and bright, without a breath of wind, and I lead Trera up the riverbank until I find a place to cross.
He slows as he splashes through the shallows, and when his hooves hit the northern bank, he tosses his head wildly, his eyes rolling back.
“Whoa—whoa, boy.” I drop into the water and pull his bridle forward to get him up the bank. He whinnies and jerks his head. “Did you get bitten? Let’s see.”
I pull a blanket from one of the saddlebags and rub his legs gently, waiting for him to flinch when the blanket hits the bite. But he just lets me rub him down before turning south.
“This way.” I try to urge him north, but he’s having none of it. Strange. Up until now, he and I have gotten along fine. He’s far more intelligent than any of Grandfather’s horses, and he has more stamina too. “Don’t worry, boy. Nothing to fear.”
“Are you certain of that, Elias Veturius?”