Arow of severed heads greets Dex, Avitas, and me as we pass beneath Antium’s iron-studded main gate. Scholars, mostly, but I spot
Martials too. The streets are lined with dirty piles of slush, and a blanket of clouds lies thick over the city, depositing more snow.
I ride past the grisly display, and Harper follows, but Dex stares at the heads, hands tight on his reins. His silence is unnerving. The interrogation of Tribe Saif still haunts him.
“Get to the barracks, Dex,” I say. “I want reports on all active missions on my desk by midnight.” My attention falls on two women loitering outside a nearby guard post. Courtesans. “And go distract yourself after. Get your mind off the raid.”
“I do not frequent brothels,” Dex says quietly as he follows my gaze to the women. “Even if I did, it’s not that easy for me, Shrike. And you know it.”
I shoot Avitas Harper a glare. Go away. When he’s out of earshot I turn to Dex. “Madam Heera’s in Mandias Square. The House of Forgetting. Heera is discreet. She treats her women—and men—well.” At Dex’s hesitation, I lose my patience. “You’re letting your guilt eat at you, and it cost us in the village,” I say. That raid was meant to get us something to use against Keris. We failed. Marcus won’t be pleased. And it’s my sister who will suffer that displeasure.
“When I am dispirited,” I go on, “I visit Heera’s. It helps. Go or don’t. Doesn’t matter to me. But stop being woeful and useless. I don’t have the patience for it.”
Dex leaves, and Harper nudges his horse over. “You frequent Heera’s?” There’s something more than mere curiosity in his voice.
“Reading lips again?”
“Only yours, Shrike.” Harper’s green eyes drop to my mouth so quickly I almost miss it. “Forgive my question. I assumed you had volunteers to meet your . . . needs. The previous Shrike’s second-in-command did sometimes procure courtesans for him, if you need me to
My cheeks grow warm at the image that conveys. “Stop talking, Harper,” I say. “While you’re behind.”
We gallop ahead toward the palace, its pearlescent sheen a bare-faced lie that hides the oppressiveness within. The outer gates are bustling at this hour, Illustrian courtiers and Mercator hangers-on all jockeying to get into the throne room to obtain the Emperor’s favor.
“An attack on Marinn would go a long way in—” “—fleet is already engaged—”
“—Veturia will crush them—”
I suppress a sigh at the never-ending machinations of the Paters. It drove my father to distraction, the way they schemed. When they see me, they fall silent. I take grim pleasure in their discomfort.
Harper and I cut through the courtiers quickly. The men in their long, fur-edged cloaks back away from the slush kicked up by my mount. The women, sparkling in court finery, watch surreptitiously. No one meets my gaze.
Swine. Not one of them offered a word of remembrance in honor of my family after Marcus executed them. Not even privately.
My mother, father, and sister died as traitors, and nothing can change that. Marcus wanted me to feel shame, but I do not. My father gave his life trying to save the Empire, and one day that fact will be known. But now it is as if my family never existed. As if their lives were mere hallucinations.
The only people who have dared to mention my parents to me are Livia, a Scholar hag I haven’t seen in weeks, and a Scholar girl whose head should be in a sack at my waist right now.
I hear the buzz of voices in the throne room long before I see its double doors. As I enter, every soldier salutes. They’ve learned, by now, what happens to those who don’t.
Marcus sits rigid on his throne, big hands fisted on the armrests, masked face emotionless. His blood-red cape pools onto the floor, reflecting luridly off his silver-and-copper armor. The weapons at his side are razor-sharp, to the chagrin of the older Illustrian Paters, who appear soft beside their emperor.
The Commandant is not here. But Livia is, her face as impassive as a Mask’s as she perches on her own throne beside Marcus. I hate that she is forced to sit here, but still, relief rushes through me; at least she’s alive. She is resplendent in a lavender gown heavy with gold embroidery.
My sister’s back is straight, her face powdered to hide the bruise on her cheek. Her ladies-in-waiting—yellow-eyed cousins of Marcus—
cluster a few feet away. They are Plebeians, plucked from their village by my sister as a gesture of goodwill toward Marcus and his family. And I suspect that, like me, they find court insufferable.
Marcus fixes his attention on me, despite the obviously distressed Mariner ambassador standing before him. As I approach, the Emperor’s shoulders twitch.
“You don’t need to warn me, damn you,” he mutters. The ambassador furrows his brow, and I realize that Marcus isn’t responding to the man. He’s talking to himself. At the Mariner’s confusion, the Emperor beckons him near.
“Tell your doddering king that he needn’t cower,” Marcus says. “The Empire is not interested in a war with Marinn. If he needs a token of our goodwill, have him provide me a list of his enemies. I’ll send him their heads as a gift.” The ambassador pales and backs away, and Marcus gestures me forward.
I do not acknowledge Livia. Let the court think we are not close. She has enough to deal with without half of these vultures trying to take advantage of her relationship with me.
“Emperor.” I kneel and bow my head. Though I’ve been doing so for months now, it hasn’t gotten any easier. Beside me, Harper does the same.
“Clear the room,” Marcus growls. When the Illustrians do not move quickly enough, he flings a dagger at the nearest one.
Guards usher the Illustrians away, and the lot of them are unable to get out fast enough. Marcus smiles at the sight, his harsh chuckle jarring against the fear that pervades the room.
Livia rises and gathers the folds of her dress gracefully. Faster, sister, I think to myself. Get out of here. But before she steps down from her throne, Marcus grabs her wrist. “You stay.” He forces her into her seat.
My sister’s gaze meets mine for an infinitesimal moment. I sense no fear, only warning. Avitas steps back, a silent witness.
Marcus pulls a roll of parchment from his armor and flings it at me. The crest flashes in the air as it flies to my hand, and I recognize the K with crossed swords beneath it. The Commandant’s seal.
“Go on,” he says. “Read it.” Beside him, Livia watches, wariness in her body, though she’s learned to train it from her face.
My Lord Emperor,
The Karkaun warlock Grímarr has intensified the raids on Navium. We need more men. The Paters of
Navium are in agreement; their seals are below. A half legion should be sufficient.
Duty first, unto death,
General Keris Veturia
“She has an entire legion down there,” I say. “She should be able to put down a paltry Barbarian rebellion with five thousand men.”
“And yet”—Marcus yanks another parchment from within his armor, and another, flinging them all at me—“from Paters Equitius, Tatius, Argus, Modius, Vissellius—the list goes on,” he says. “All requesting aid. Their proxies here in Antium have been hounding me since Keris’s message came in. Three hundred civilians are dead, and those Barbarian dogs have a fleet approaching the port. Whoever this Grímarr is, he’s trying to take the damn city.”
“But surely Keris can—”
“She’s up to something, you dim bitch.” Marcus’s roar echoes through the room, and in two steps, his face is inches from mine. Harper tenses behind me, and Livia half rises from her throne. I give my head the slightest shake. I can handle him, little sister.
Marcus stabs his fingers into my skull. “Get it through your thick head. If you’d taken care of her like I ordered, this wouldn’t be happening. Shut it, damn you.”
He whirls, but Livia hasn’t spoken. His gaze is fixed on the middle distance between himself and my sister, and I recall, uneasily, Livia’s suspicion that Marcus sees the ghost of his twin, Zak, murdered months ago during the Trials.
Before I can think on it, Marcus steps so close my mask ripples. His eyes look as though they might pop from his head.
“You didn’t ask for assassination, my lord.” I ease away very slowly. “You asked for destruction, and destruction takes time.”
“I asked”—he leashes his rage, his sudden calm more chilling than his anger—“for competence. You’ve had three months. She should have worms crawling out of her eye sockets by now. Instead, she’s stronger than ever, while the Empire grows weaker. So tell me, Blood Shrike: What are you going to do about her?”
“I have information.” I put every bit of conviction I possess into my voice, my body. I am certain. I will bring her down. “Enough to destroy her.”
I can’t tell him what Elias revealed about Quin. It’s not useful enough, and even if it was, Marcus would question me further. If he learns I had Laia and Elias in my grasp and lost them, he’ll break my sister in half. “The walls have ears, my lord,” I say. “Not all are friendly.”
Marcus considers me. Then he turns, drags my sister to her feet, and shoves her into the side of her own throne, wrenching her arm behind her back.
Her stillness is that of a woman who has quickly grown used to violence and who will do what she must to survive it. I clench my hands around my weapons, and Livvy catches my eyes. Her terror—not for herself, but for me—checks my temper. Remember that the more anger you show, the more he’ll make her suffer.
Even as I force myself to be logical, I hate that I am. I hate myself for not lopping off those hands that have hurt her, not cutting out that tongue that has called her foul names. I hate that I cannot hand her a blade so she can do it herself.
Marcus tilts his head. “Your sister plays oud so well,” he says. “She’s entertained many of my guests, charmed them even, with the beauty of her musicianship. But I’m sure she can find other ways to entertain them.” He leans close to Livia’s ear, and her gaze drifts faraway, her mouth hard. “Do you sing, my love? I’m certain you have a beautiful voice.” Slowly, deliberately, he draws back one of her fingers. Further, further, further . . . This cannot be borne. I step forward and feel a viselike grip on my arm.
“You’ll make it worse,” Avitas murmurs in my ear.
Livia’s finger cracks. She gasps but makes no other sound.
“That,” Marcus says, “is for your failure.” He grabs another of Livia’s fingers, bending it back so carefully that I know he is taking joy from each second of it. Sweat beads on her forehead, and her face is white as bone.
When her finger finally breaks, she whimpers and bites her lip. “My brave bird.” Marcus smiles at her, and I want to rip his throat
out. “You know I like it better when you scream.” When he turns back to me, his smile is gone. “And that is a reminder of what’s to come if you fail me again.”
Marcus flings my sister onto her throne. Her head knocks against the rough stone. She shudders and cradles one hand, but her hatred blazes out at Marcus before she tamps it down, her face composed once more.
“You will go to Navium, Shrike,” Marcus says. “You will learn what the Bitch of Blackcliff is planning. You will destroy her, piece by piece. And you will do it quickly. I want her head on a spear by the Grain Moon, and I want the Empire begging for it to happen. Five months.
That’s enough time even for you, is it not? You will update me through the drums every three days. And”—he glances at Livia—“if I’m not satisfied with your progress, I’ll keep breaking your little sister’s bones until she’s nothing but jagged edges.”