“Elias,” the Warden says. “Drusius and the others will divest you of your weaponry. I suggest you not fight. I wouldn’t want to hurt the child. He’s one of my favorite specimens.”

Ten hells. The Masks surround me, and in seconds I am stripped of weapons, boots, lock pick, the Tellis, and most of my clothes. I do not resist. If I want to break out of this place, I need to conserve my strength.

And I will break out. The very fact that the Warden didn’t kill me indicates that he wants something from me. He’ll keep me alive until he gets it.

The Warden watches as the Masks manacle me and shove me against a wall, his pupils pitch-black pinpricks in the white-blue of his eyes.

“Your punctuality pleases me, Elias.” The old man keeps the knife loose in his hand, about an inch from the boy’s neck. “A noble trait, and one that I respect. Though I confess, I don’t understand why you’re here. A wise young man would be well away to the Southern Lands by now.” He looks at me expectantly.

“You don’t actually expect me to tell you, do you?”

The boy whimpers, and I find the Warden pushing the knife slowly into the side of his neck. But then the old man smiles, revealing small, yellowing teeth. He releases the child.

“Of course I don’t,” he says. “In fact, I hoped you wouldn’t. I have a feeling you’d just lie until you convinced even yourself, and lies bore me. I’d much rather pull the truth from you. I haven’t had a Mask as a subject for quite a while. I fear my research is quite outdated.”

My skin prickles. Where there’s life, I hear Laia in my head, there’s hope. He might experiment on me. Use me. But as long as I live, I still have a chance of getting out of here.

“You said you’ve been waiting for me.”

“Indeed. A little bird informed me of your arrival.”

“The Commandant,” I say. Damn her. She’s the only one who might have figured out where I was going. But why would she tell the Warden about it? She hates him.

The Warden smiles again. “Perhaps.”

“Where do you want him, Warden?” Drusius says. “Not with the rest, I assume.”

“Of course not,” the Warden says. “The bounty would tempt the lesser guards to turn him in, and I’d like a chance to study him first.”

“Clear out a cell,” Drusius barks at one of the other Masks, nodding to the row of solitary cells behind us. But the Warden shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “I have somewhere else in mind for our newest prisoner. I’ve never studied the long-term effects of that place on a subject. Particularly one who demonstrates such”—he looks down at the Scholar boy—“empathy.”

My blood chills. I know exactly the part of the prison he’s talking about. Those long, dark hallways with air curdled from the smell of death. The moans and whispers, the scratches on the walls, the way you can’t do anything even when you hear people screaming for someone, anyone to help them …

“You always hated it in there,” the Warden murmurs. “I remember. I remember your face that time you brought me a message from the Emperor. I was mid-experiment. You went pale as the underbelly of a fish, and when you ran back out into the hallway, I heard you retching in a slop bucket.”

Ten bleeding hells.

“Yes.” The Warden nods, his expression pleased. “Yes, I think the interrogation block will do very nicely for you.”



Avitas awaits me when I return to the Black Guard barracks. Midnight approaches, and my mind slumps in exhaustion. The Northman says nothing of my haggard appearance, though I’m certain he can read the devastation in my eyes.

“Urgent message for you, Shrike.” His sallow cheeks tell me he hasn’t slept. I don’t like that he stayed awake until I returned. He’s a spy. That’s what spies do. He hands me an envelope, the seal of which is untouched. Either he’s getting better at espionage or for once he didn’t open it.

“New orders from the Commandant?” I ask. “Gain my trust by not reading my mail?”

Avitas’s lips tighten as I tear open the letter. “It arrived at dusk with a runner. He said it left Nur six days ago.”

Blood Shrike,

Mamie refuses to crack despite the deaths of several Tribesmen. I’ve held her son in reserve—she thinks he’s dead. She did let one thing slip. I think Elias went north, not south or east, and I think the girl is still with him.

The Tribes know of the interrogations and have rioted twice in response. I need a half legion at least. I’ve put in requests at every garrison within a hundred miles, but everyone is short.

Duty Unto Death,

Lieutenant Dex Atrius

“North?” I hand the letter to Avitas, who reads it through. “Why in the bleeding skies would Veturius head north?”

“His grandfather?”

“Gens Veturia’s lands are west of Antium. If he cut straight north from Serra, he’d have gotten there faster. If he was headed for the Free Lands, he could have just taken a ship from Navium.”

Damn it, Elias, why couldn’t you have just left the bleeding Empire? If he’d used his training to get as far away from here as fast as possible, I’d never have caught his trail, and my choice would have been made for me.

And your family would die. Bleeding skies, what’s wrong with me? He chose this.