“You think I’m so easy to kill.”
“No, actually.” The torchlight throws Avitas’s masked face into shadow, and for a second, he reminds me of someone I cannot place. “I’ve spent weeks figuring out how I’d do it without anyone the wiser.”
“I decided I wouldn’t do it. As soon as that happened, I began misinforming her about what we were doing and where we were going.”
“Why change your mind? You must have known what the mission would entail.”
“I asked for the mission.” He puts the Nightweed away. “I told her she needed someone in close proximity to you if she wanted to take you down quietly.”
Faris doesn’t sheathe his scim. He’s edged forward, his huge body seeming to take up half the cave. “Why in the bleeding hells would you ask for this mission? You’ve got something against Elias?”
Avitas shakes his head. “I had … a question that needed an answer. Coming with you was the best way to get it.”
I open my mouth to ask him what question, but he shakes his head.
“The question doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it bleeding matters,” I snap. “What could possibly have made you change your alliance? And how am I to know that you won’t change it back?”
“I may have been her spy, Blood Shrike.” He meets my eyes, and the crack in his façade grows wider. “But I have never been her ally. I needed her. I needed answers. That is all I will tell you. If you cannot abide that, then send me away—or punish me. Whichever suits you. Just—” He pauses. Is that anxiety in his face? “Don’t go into Kauf to speak to the Warden. Send him a message. Get him out of his domain, where he’s strongest. Then do what you wish.”
I knew I couldn’t trust Harper. I never have trusted him. Yet he’s come clean now—here, where he has no allies and I have one at my back.
Still, I pinion him with my gaze. He doesn’t breathe.
“Double cross me,” I say, “and I’ll rip your heart out with my bare hands.”
Avitas nods. “I’d expect no less, Blood Shrike.”
“Right,” I say. “Regarding the Warden, I’m not a Yearling still wetting the bed, Harper. I know what that monster trades in: secrets and pain disguised as science and reason.”
But he loves his foul little kingdom. He won’t want it taken away. I can use that against him.
“Get the old man a message,” I say. “Tell him I wish to meet in the boathouse tonight. He’s to come alone.”
Harper leaves immediately, and when we’re sure he’s gone, Faris turns to me.
“Please don’t tell me you believe he’s suddenly on our side.”
“I don’t have time to puzzle it out.” I grab Elias’s things and shove them back in the crack in the wall. “If the Warden knows anything about Veturius, he won’t share that knowledge for free. He’ll want information in return. I have to figure out what I’m going to give him.”
At midnight, Avitas and I slip into Kauf’s boathouse. The broad cross-beams of the roof gleam dully in the blue torchlight. The only sound is the occasional slap of the river against the sides of the boats.
Though Avitas asked the Warden to come alone, I still expect him to bring guards. As I peer into the shadows, I loosen my scim and roll my shoulders. The wooden hulls of canoes clank against each other, and outside, the prisoner transports anchored to the boathouse cast long shadows across the windows. A stiff wind rattles the glass.
“You’re sure he’s coming?”
The Northman nods. “He’s very interested in meeting you, Shrike. But—”
“Now, now, Lieutenant Harper, no need to coach our Shrike. She’s not a child.”
The Warden, as spindly and pale as an overgrown catacomb spider, slinks out of the darkness on the far side of the boathouse. How long was he skulking there? I force myself not to reach for my scim.
“I have questions, Warden.” You’re a worm. A twisted, pathetic parasite. I want him to hear the indifference in my voice. I want him to know that he is beneath me.
He stops a few feet away from me, his hands clasped behind his back. “How may I serve?”
“Have any of your prisoners escaped in the past few weeks? Have you had any break-ins or thefts?”
“No on all counts, Shrike.” Though I watch him carefully, I see no indication that he is lying.
“What about strange activity? Any guards seen where they shouldn’t be? Unexpected prisoners coming in?”
“The frigates bring new prisoners all the time.” The Warden taps his long fingers together thoughtfully. “I processed one myself quite recently. None, however, have been unexpected.”
My skin tingles. The Warden is telling the truth. But he’s hiding something at the same time. I feel it. Beside me, Avitas shifts his weight, as if he too senses something off.
“Blood Shrike,” the Warden says. “Forgive me, but why are you here, in Kauf, looking for such information? I thought you had rather an urgent mission to find Elias Veturius?”
I draw myself up. “Do you always ask questions of your superior officers?”
“Do not take offense. I am merely wondering if something might have brought Veturius here.”
I notice how he watches my face for a reaction, and I steel myself for whatever he’s going to say next.