“Check Veturius,” the Blood Shrike says to Avitas Harper when he returns without Mamie. “Make sure those manacles are secure.”
The Shrike drags me to the door of the cabin, as far from Elias as she can get. The three of us in this room together feels strange and full of portent. But that feeling fades when the Shrike pushes her blade deeper into my skin.
We need to get the hells out of here. I would rather not wait around to see if the Shrike will make good on her threat to torture me. By now, Afya and Darin must be out of their minds with worry.
Dex appears at the back door. “The horses are gone, Shrike.”
Enraged, the Blood Shrike looks at Elias, who shrugs. “You didn’t think I’d just leave them be, did you?”
“Go find more,” the Shrike says to Dex. “And bring a ghost wagon round. Harper, how long could it possibly take to make sure those bleeding chains are intact?”
Experimentally, I test my bonds, but the Shrike feels it and twists my arms savagely.
Elias sits sprawled in his chair with practiced ease, observing his former best friend. I’m not fooled by the boredom on his face. His gold-brown skin grows paler with every moment that passes, until he looks ill. The Waiting Place pulls at him—and its pull grows more insistent. I’ve seen it before. If he stays away too long, he will suffer.
“You’re using me to get to my mother,” Elias says. “She’ll see it coming a mile away.”
“Don’t make me rethink that gag.” The Shrike flushes beneath her mask. “Harper, go with Dex. I want that wagon now.”
“What do you think Keris Veturia is doing right now?” Elias says as Harper disappears.
“You don’t even live in the bleeding Empire anymore.” The Blood Shrike tightens her hold on me. “So shut it.”
“I don’t have to live in the Empire to know how the Commandant thinks. You want her dead, right? She must know it. Which means she also knows that if you kill her, you risk civil war with her allies. So while
you’re out here wasting your time with me, she’s back in the capital, plotting skies know what.”
The Shrike frowns. She has listened to Elias’s advice—and offered her own to him—her whole life. What if he’s right? I can practically hear her thinking it. Elias catches my eye—he’s looking for an opening just like I am.
“Find my grandfather,” Elias says. “If you want to take her down, you need to understand how she thinks. Quin knows Keris better than anyone else alive.”
“Quin’s left the Empire,” the Shrike says.
“If my grandfather has left the Empire,” Elias says, “then cats can fly.
Wherever Keris is, he’ll be close by, waiting for her to make a mistake. He’s not stupid enough to use one of his own estates. And he won’t be alone. He has many men still loyal—”
“It doesn’t matter.” The Blood Shrike waves away Elias’s advice. “Keris and that creature she keeps around—”
My stomach plunges. The Nightbringer. She means the Nightbringer.
“—are up to something,” the Shrike says. “I need to destroy her before she destroys the Empire. I spent weeks hunting Quin Veturius. I don’t have the time to do it again.”
Elias shifts in his seat—he is preparing to make his move. The Shrike’s loosened her grip on me, and I squeeze my hands together, bending, pulling, doing anything I can to wriggle out of the binding without giving it away. My slick palms grease the rope. It is not enough.
“You want to destroy her.” Elias’s manacles clink. Something flashes near his hands. Lock picks? How the hells did he sneak them past Avitas? “Just remember that she’ll do things you’re not willing to. She will find your weakness and exploit it. It’s what she does best.”
When Elias shifts his arm, the Shrike whips her head toward him, eyes narrowing. At that moment, Harper enters.
“Wagon’s ready, Shrike,” he says.
“Take her.” She shoves me at Avitas. “Keep a knife at her throat.” Harper pulls me close, and I ease back from his blade. If I could just distract the Shrike and Avitas for a moment, enough for Elias to attack . . .
I use a trick Elias taught me when we traveled together. I kick Avitas in the soft place between his foot and leg and then drop like a hammer from a roof.
Avitas curses, the Shrike turns, and Elias shoots from his seat, free of his manacles. He dives for his blades in less time than it takes to blink. A
knife whooshes through the air above my head, and Harper ducks, dragging me with him. The Blood Shrike roars, but Elias is on her, using his bulk to bowl her over. He’s got her pinned, a knife at her throat, but something glimmers at her wrist. She has a blade. Skies, she’s going to stab him.
“Elias!” I shout a warning when suddenly, his body goes rigid.
A gasp bursts from his throat. The knife falls from his hand, and in a second, the Shrike has wriggled out from beneath him, lips curled in a sneer.
“Laia.” Elias’s eyes communicate his rage. His helplessness. And then darkness fills the room. I see the swing of long dark hair, a flash of brown skin. Depthless black eyes bore into me. Shaeva.
Then she—and Elias—disappear. The earth rumbles beneath us and the wind outside rises, sounding, for a second, like the wailing of ghosts.
The Blood Shrike leaps toward where Elias stood. She finds nothing, and a moment later, her hand is around my throat, her knifepoint at my heart. She shoves me back into a seat.
“Who the hells,” she whispers, “was that woman?”
The door bursts open and Dex enters, scim drawn. Before he can speak, the Shrike is bellowing at him.
“Scour the village! Veturius disappeared like a bleeding wraith!” “He’s not in the village,” I say. “She took him.”
“Who took him?” I cannot speak—the knife is too close—but she doesn’t let me move a muscle. “Tell me!”
“Ease up on the knife, Shrike,” Avitas says. The dark-haired Mask scans the room carefully, as if Elias might reappear at any moment. “And perhaps she will.”
The Blood Shrike pulls the knife back by no more than a hair. Her hand is steady, but her face beneath her mask is flushed. “Talk or die.”
My words stumble over each other as I try to explain—as vaguely as I can—who Shaeva is and what Elias has become. Even as I speak the words, I realize how far-fetched they sound. The Blood Shrike says nothing, but incredulity is written in every line of her body.
When I finish, she stands, her knife loose in her hand, looking out into the night. Only a few hours until dawn. “Can you get Elias back here?” she asks quietly.
I shake my head, and she kneels before me. Her face is suddenly serene, her body relaxed. When I meet her eyes, they are distant, as if her thoughts have moved on from me.
“If the Emperor knew you lived, he’d want to interrogate you himself,” she says. “Unless you’re a fool, you’ll agree that death would be preferable. I will make it swift.”
Oh skies. My feet are free, but my hands are bound. I could wriggle my right hand free if I pulled hard enough . . .
Avitas sheathes his scim and bends behind me. I feel the brush of warm skin against my wrists and wait for them to tighten as he rebinds me.
But they do not.
Instead, the rope binding my wrists falls away. Harper breathes one word, so softly that I question whether I truly heard it.
I cannot move. I meet the Blood Shrike’s stare head on. I will look death in the eyes. Grief ripples across her silver features. She seems older, suddenly, than her twenty years, with the implacability of a five-body blade. All the weakness has been hammered out of her. She has seen too much blood. Too much death.
I remember when Elias told me what Marcus did to the Shrike’s family. He learned it from the ghost of Hannah Aquilla, who plagued him for months before finally moving on.
As I’d listened to what happened, I’d felt sicker and sicker. I remembered another dark morning years ago. I woke up with a start that day, scared by the low, choking cries echoing through the house. I thought Pop must have brought home an animal. Some wounded creature, dying slowly and in agony.
But when I entered the main room of the house, there was Nan, rocking back and forth, Pop frantically shushing her wails, for no one could hear her mourn her daughter—my mother. No one could know. The Empire wished to crush all that the Lioness was, all that she stood for. That meant any and all connected to her.
We all went to market that day to sell Nan’s jams—Pop, Darin, Nan, and I. Nan shed no tears. I only ever heard her in the dead of night, her quiet keening breaking me more than any scream could.
The Blood Shrike was also denied the right to mourn publicly. How could she? She is second-in-command of the Empire, and her family was condemned because she failed to carry out the Emperor’s orders.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper as she raises her dagger. I whip my fingers out
—not to stop her blade, but to take her free hand. She stiffens in shock. The skin of her palm is cool, calloused. Less than a second has passed, but her surprise has kindled into anger.
The cruelest anger comes from the deepest pain. Nan used to say that.
“My parents were murdered too,” I say. “My sister. In Kauf. I was younger, and I did not witness it. I could never mourn them. I wasn’t allowed to. And no one ever spoke of them. But I think of them every day. I am sorry for you and what you lost. Truly.”
For a moment, I see the girl who healed me. The girl who let Elias and me escape from Blackcliff. The girl who told me how to get into Kauf Prison.
And before that girl fades—as I know she will—I draw on my own power and disappear, rolling out of the chair, racing past Avitas and toward the door. Two steps and the Shrike is shouting, three and her dagger slices through the air after me, and then her scim.
Too late. By the time the scim drops, I am through the open door, past an unsuspecting Dex, and running for all I am worth, nothing but another shadow in the night.