“Blood Shrike.” The words saunter off her tongue. “The road has taken its toll on you. I’d offer you a chance to rest, but the Emperor insisted I bring you in immediately.”
“I don’t need to rest, Keris,” I say. “I thought you’d still be chasing Scholars all over the countryside.”
“The Emperor requested my counsel,” the Commandant says. “I could not, of course, refuse. But be assured that I am not idle whilst here. The prisons of Antium are being cleansed of the Scholar disease as we speak, and my men carry out the purges farther south. Come, Shrike. The Emperor awaits.” She glances at my men. “Your escort is unnecessary.”
Her insult is obvious: Why do you need an escort, Blood Shrike? Are you scared? I open my mouth to retort, but then hold my tongue. She probably wants me to engage so that she can embarrass me further.
I expect Keris to lead me to the courtier-packed throne room. In fact, I’d hoped to see my father there. But instead, Emperor Marcus waits for us in a long drawing room filled with plush seats and low-hanging lamps. I see why he’s chosen the space the second I enter. No windows.
“About bleeding time.” His mouth twists in disgust when I enter. “Ten hells, couldn’t you have taken a bath before showing up?”
Not if it makes you want to get an inch closer to me. “Civil war matters more than my hygiene, your Imperial Majesty. How may I be of service?”
“You mean beyond catching the Empire’s top fugitive?” Marcus’s sarcasm is undercut by the hatred in his piss-yellow eyes.
“I was close to catching him,” I say. “But you called me back. I suggest you tell me what you need so that I can return to the hunt.”
I see his blow coming but still lose my breath when it lands on my jaw. A hot rush of blood fills my mouth. I make myself swallow it.
“Don’t cross me.” Marcus’s spit lands on my face. “You are my Blood Shrike. The sword that executes my will.” He takes a sheet of parchment and slams it down on a table beside us.
“Ten Gens,” he says. “All Illustrian. Four have banded together with Gens Rufia. They propose an Illustrian candidate to replace me as Emperor. The other five offer their own Paters for the throne. All have sent assassins after me. I want a public execution and their heads on pikes in front of the palace by tomorrow morning. Understood?”
“Do you have proof—”
“He doesn’t need proof.” The Commandant, lurking silently near the door beside Harper, cuts me off. “These Gens have attacked the imperial house, as well as Gens Veturia. They openly call for the Emperor to be ousted. They are traitors.”
“Are you an oath-breaker, too?” Marcus says to me. “Shall I toss you off Cardium Rock and shame your name for five generations, Shrike? I hear the Rock thirsts for the blood of traitors. For the more it drinks, the stronger the Empire grows.”
Cardium Rock is a cliff near the palace with a pit of bones at its base. It’s used to execute only one kind of criminal: traitors to the throne.
I make myself examine the list of names. Some of these Gens are as powerful as Gens Aquilla. A few even more so. “Your Majesty, perhaps we can try to negotiate—”
Marcus closes the space between us. And though my mouth still bleeds from his last attack, I hold my ground. I will not let him cow me. I force myself to look up into his eyes, only to suppress a shudder at what I see within: a controlled sort of madness, a rage that needs only the smallest spark to ignite into a conflagration.
“Your father tried to negotiate.” Marcus crowds me until my back is against a wall. The Commandant watches, bored. Harper looks away. “His unending blathering only gave the traitorous Gens time to find more allies, to attempt more assassinations. Do not speak to me of negotiation. I didn’t survive the hell of Blackcliff to negotiate. I didn’t go through those bleeding Trials so I could negotiate. I didn’t kill—”
He stops. A powerful and unexpected grief suffuses his body, as if another person deep within is attempting to get out. A tendril of fear unfurls in my belly. This is, perhaps, more terrifying than anything I’ve seen from Marcus yet. Because it makes him human.
“I will hold the throne, Blood Shrike,” he says quietly. “I’ve given up too much not to. Keep your vow to me, and I will bring order to this Empire. Betray me, and watch it burn.”
The Empire must come first—above your desires, your friendships, your wants. My father spoke so adamantly when I last saw him. I know what he’d say now. We are Aquilla, daughter. Loyal to the end.
I must do Marcus’s bidding. I must stop this civil war. Or the Empire will crumble under the weight of Illustrian greed.
I bow my head to Marcus. “Consider it done, your Majesty.”
The Soul Catcher tells me I do not have enough time to get Darin out of Kauf if I remain with Afya’s caravan. I’ll move twice as fast if I go ahead on my own, and by the time you reach Kauf, I’ll have found a way to break Darin out. We—or he, at least—will await you in the cave I told Afya about.
In case it doesn’t go as planned, use the map of Kauf that I drew and make a plan of your own in the time you have. If I fail, you must succeed—for your brother and for your people.
Whatever happens, remember what you told me: There is hope in life.
I hope I see you again.