I lift my eyes to the monstrosity of cold iron and carved stygian rock that erupts from the mountain at the north end of the valley. Kauf Prison.
“Do not go, Elias,” Shaeva whispers. “Should you find yourself trapped behind those walls, your fate will be dark indeed.”
“My fate is dark anyway.” I reach back and loosen my scims in their sheathes, taking comfort from their weight. “At least this way, it won’t be for nothing.”
In the three weeks it takes Harper and me to reach Antium, deep fall arrives in the capital, a red-gold blanket edged with white frost. The smell of pumpkin and cinnamon fills the air, and thick wood smoke curls up into the sky.
But beneath the glowing foliage and behind heavy oaken doors, an Illustrian rebellion brews.
“Blood Shrike.” Harper emerges from the Martial garrison perched just outside the city. “The Black Guard escort is on its way from the barracks,” he says. “The garrison sergeant says the streets are dangerous—particularly for you.”
“All the more reason to get in quickly.” I squeeze my hand over dozens of messages in my pocket—all from Father, each more urgent than the next. “We can’t afford to wait.”
“We also can’t afford to lose the Empire’s highest internal enforcer on the eve of a possible civil war,” Harper says with typical frankness. “Empire first, Blood Shrike.”
“You mean Commandant first.”
A hairline crack fractures Avitas’s unruffled façade. But he leashes whatever emotion lurks within.
“Empire first, Blood Shrike. Always. We wait.”
I don’t argue. Weeks on the road with him, riding for Antium as if wraiths were on our backs, have given me a new respect for Harper’s skills as a Mask. At Blackcliff, he and I never crossed paths. He was four years ahead of me—a Fiver when I was a Yearling, a Cadet when I was a Fiver, a Skull when I was a Cadet. In all that time, he must never have distinguished himself, for I never heard anything about him.
But I see now why the Commandant made him an ally. Like her, he has iron-fisted control over his emotions.
A rumble of hooves beyond the garrison has me leaping upon my saddle in an instant. Moments after I do, a company of soldiers appears, the screaming shrikes on their breastplates marking them as my men.
Upon seeing me, most salute smartly. Others appear more reluctant.
I straighten my back and glower. These are my men, and their obedience should be immediate.
“Lieutenant Harper.” One man—a captain and the commanding officer of this company—kicks his horse forward. “Blood Shrike.”
The fact that he addressed Harper before me is offensive enough. The disgusted look on his face as he gives me the once-over has my fist aching to connect with his jaw.
“Your name, soldier,” I say.
“Captain Gallus Sergius.”
Captain Gallus Sergius, sir, I want to say.
I know him. He has a son at Blackcliff two years younger than me. The boy was a good fighter. Big mouth, though. “Captain,” I say, “why are you looking at me like I just seduced your wife?”
The captain draws back his chin and stares down his nose. “How dare—”
I backhand him. Blood flies from his mouth, and his eyes spark, but he holds his tongue. The men of his company shift, a mutinous whisper rippling through them.
“The next time you speak out of turn,” I say, “I’ll have you whipped. Fall in. We’re late.”
As the rest of the Black Guard falls into formation, creating a shield against attack, Harper pulls his horse up beside mine. I examine the faces around me surreptitiously. They are Masks—and Black Guards to boot. The best of the best. Their expressions are flat and unfeeling. But I can sense the anger simmering beneath the surface. I have not won their respect.
I keep one hand on the scim at my waist as we approach the Emperor’s palace, a monstrosity built of white limestone that abuts the northern border of the city, the foothills of the Nevennes Range at its back. Arrow slats and guard towers line the crenellated battlements. The red-and-gold flags of Gens Taia have been replaced with Marcus’s banner: a sledgehammer on a black field.
Many Martials traversing the streets have stopped to watch us pass. They peer out from thick, furry hats and knitted mufflers, fear and curiosity mingling on their faces as they eye me, the new Blood Shrike.
“Little sssinger …”
I start, and my horse tosses his head in irritation. Avitas, riding beside me, cuts me a look, but I ignore him and search the crowd. A flash of white catches my eyes. Amid a gaggle of urchins and vagrants gathered around a bin fire, I spot the curve of a hideously scarred jaw with a wing of snowy hair swinging down to hide it. Dark eyes meet mine. Then she’s gone, lost in the streets.
Why in the bleeding skies is Cook in Antium?
I’ve never seen the Scholars as enemies, exactly. An enemy is someone you fear. Someone who might destroy you. But the Scholars will never destroy the Martials. They can’t read. They can’t fight. They have no steelcraft. They are a slave class—a lesser class.
But Cook is different. She is something more.
I am forced to push the old bat from my mind when we arrive at the palace gate and I see who awaits us. The Commandant. Somehow she beat me here. By her calm demeanor and neat appearance, I’d guess it was by at least a day.
All the men of the Black Guard salute upon seeing her, instantly giving her more respect than they afforded me.