The crowd does not hear the words—but Marcus does. The Snake turns to the new Pater slowly, and the man shrinks away, his eyes straying fearfully to the edge of the cliff.
“A fair point, Pater Rufius,” Marcus says. “To which I say: Elias Veturius will be publicly executed by Rathana. My Blood Shrike has men closing on him. Don’t you, Shrike?”
Rathana? That’s only a few weeks away. “I—”
“I hope,” the Commandant says, “that you will not bore his Majesty with more excuses. We would not wish to learn that your loyalties are as suspect as those of the traitors we just executed.”
“You were given a mission,” Marcus says. “You have not succeeded. Cardium Rock is thirsty for the blood of traitors. If we do not slake that thirst with the blood of Elias Veturius, perhaps we will slake it with the blood of Gens Aquilla. Traitors are traitors, after all.”
“You can’t kill me,” I say. “Cain said doing so would bring your own doom upon you.”
“You are not the only member of Gens Aquilla.”
My family. As the import of his words washes over me, Marcus’s eyes light with that unholy joy he only seems to feel when he’s got someone by the gut.
“You’re engaged to Hannah.” Appeal to his lust for power, I think frantically. Make him see that this will hurt him more than you, Helene. “Gens Aquilla is the only ally you have.”
“He has Gens Veturia,” the Commandant says.
“And I can think of, oh”—Marcus glances at the new Illustrian Paters just yards away—“about ten other Gens that will adamantly back me. Thank you for that gift, by the way. As for your sister”—he shrugs—“I can find another highborn whore to marry. It’s not as if there’s a shortage.”
“Your throne is not secure enough—”
His voice drops to a hiss. “You dare to challenge me about my throne—my allies—here, in front of the court? Never presume to think you know more than me, Blood Shrike. Never. Nothing angers me more.”
My body turns to lead at the cunning calculation in his eyes. He steps toward me, his malice like a poison that saps my ability to move, much less think.
“Ah.” He tilts my chin up and searches my face. “Panic, fear, and desperation. I prefer you like this, Blood Shrike.” He bites my lip, sudden and painful, his eyes open the whole time. I taste my own blood.
“Now, Shrike,” he breathes into my mouth. “Go fetch.”
That woman—the Mask—the one they call the Commandant. She’s killing them all.
All the Scholars. All the Scholar prisoners.
“Skies, Keenan,” I say. The rebel understands immediately, just like me. “Darin.”
“The Martials are moving north,” Keenan whispers. The Scholars don’t hear him, their attention fixed on Afya, who has yet to decide their fates. “They likely haven’t even reached Kauf yet. The Commandant is methodical. If she’s going south to north, she won’t change the plan now. She still has to get through Antium before she gets to Kauf.”
“Afya,” Zehr calls from the edge of the camp, spyglass in hand. “Martials incoming. Can’t tell how many, but they’re close.”
Afya curses, and the Scholar man grabs her. “Please. Just take the children.” His jaw is clenched, but his eyes fill. “Ayan is two. Sena is six. The Martials won’t spare them. Keep them safe. My sisters and I will run—we’ll lead the soldiers off.”
“Afya.” Izzi looks at the Tribeswoman aghast. “You cannot refuse them—”
The man turns to us. “Please, miss,” he says to me. “My name is Miladh. I’m a rope maker. I’m nothing. I don’t care about myself. But my boy—he’s smart, so smart—”
Gibran appears behind us and grabs Izzi’s hand. “Quickly,” he says. “Get into the wagon. The Martials were tracking them, but they’re killing every Scholar they see. We need to get you hidden.”
“Afya, please.” Izzi looks at the children, but Gibran pulls her toward his wagon, terror filling his eyes.
“Laia,” Keenan says. “We should hide—”
“You have to take them in.” I turn to Afya. “All of them. I’ve been inside your smuggler’s compartments. You have the space for it.” I turn to Miladh. “Did the Martials see you and your family? Are they hunting you specifically?”
“No,” Miladh says. “We ran with a dozen others. We got separated only hours ago.”
“Afya, you must have slaver’s cuffs somewhere,” I say. “Why not do what we did in Nur—”
“Absolutely not.” Afya’s voice is a hiss, and her dark eyes are daggers. “I’m already putting my Tribe at risk with you lot,” she says. “Now shut up and get to your spot in the wagon.”
“Laia,” Keenan says, “come on—”
“Zaldara.” Zehr’s voice is sharp. “One dozen men. Two minutes out. There’s a Mask with them.”
“Bleeding, burning skies.” Afya grabs my arm and shoves me bodily toward her wagon. “Get. Into. That. Wagon,” she snarls. “Now.”
“Hide them.” I dart forward, and Miladh deposits his son into my arms. “Or I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stand here until the Martials come, they’ll figure out who I am, and you’ll die for harboring a fugitive.”