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Page 25

With every step, my hopes diminish further. I'm to send a report to Marcus tomorrow. What the bleeding hells am I going to say if Quin isn't out here?

Harper curses, the sound sharp and unexpected, and I hear a hissing snick. It's followed by a muffled grunt. A phalanx of axes swings down from the trees.

Harper only just dives out of the way, and I have never been happier to see an ally nearly have his head sliced off.

We spend the next two hours avoiding carefully laid booby traps, each one more intricate and well-hidden than the next.

"What a bleeding lunatic." Harper cuts a trip wire that drops a net laced with razor-sharp shards of glass. "He's not even trying to catch anyone. He just wants them dead."

"He's not a lunatic." I drop my voice. The moon is high. It's past midnight. "He's thorough." Glass gleams through the trees--a distant window.

Something in the air shifts, and the night creatures go quiet. I know, as sure as I know my own name, that Harper and I are no longer alone in this forest.

"Let's get this over with." I sheathe my blade, hoping to the skies that I'm not talking to a pack of highway bandits or some crazed hermit.

Silence. A moment during which I'm certain I'm wrong.

Then the whisper of footsteps behind us, all around us. Far ahead, a powerful silver-faced figure emerges from behind a tree, his thick white hair half-hidden by a hood. He doesn't look any different than he did months ago, when I first snuck him out of Serra.

Two dozen men surround us, their uniforms impeccable, Gens Veturia colors worn proudly. When I step forward, their backs snap straight and, as one, they salute.

"Blood Shrike." Quin Veturius salutes last. "About damned time."

* * *

Quin orders Harper to stay with his men, then leads me through the crumbling house built into the mountain and into a series of caverns. It's no wonder Keris hasn't found the old man. These tunnels are so extensive it would take months to explore all of them.

"I expected you weeks ago," Quin says as we walk. "Why haven't you assassinated Keris yet?"

"She's not an easy woman to kill, General," I say. "Especially when Marcus can't afford for it to look like an assassination." We trek upward until we emerge onto a small, flat plateau, walled in on four sides but open to the sky. It is home to a hidden garden, wild with the beauty of a place once lovingly cared for but left alone for too long.

"I have something for you." I pull Elias's mask from my pocket. "Elias gave it to me before he left Blackcliff. I thought you'd want it."

Quin's hand hovers over the mask before he takes it. "It was a nightmare to get that boy to keep it on," he says. "I thought he would lose the damned thing one day."

The old man turns the mask over in his hand, and the metal ripples like water. "They become part of us, you know. It is only when they join with us that we become our truest selves. My father used to say that after the joining, a mask held a soldier's identity--and that without it, a bit of his soul was stripped away, never to be recovered."

"And what do you say, General?"

"We are what we put into the mask. Elias put little into it, and so it offered little in return." I expect him to ask me about his grandson, but he simply pockets the mask. "Tell me of your foe, Blood Shrike."

As I relate the attack on Navium, the loss of the fleet, even the presence of the statue, Quin is silent. We walk to a pond in the garden, bordered by paint-chipped stones.

"She's up to something, General," I say. "I need your help to figure out what it could be. To figure her out."

"Keris learned to walk here, before I moved her and her mother to Serra." He nods to a barely visible path that leads to a pergola dripping with ivy. "She was nine months old. Tiny little thing. Skies, Karinna was so proud. She loved that girl to bits."

He raises his eyebrows at the look on my face. "You thought my dear late wife was the monster from whom Keris learned? Quite the opposite. Karinna wouldn't let anyone touch a hair on that girl's head. We had dozens of slaves, but Karinna insisted on doing everything herself: feeding her, changing her, playing with her. They adored each other."

The idea of a sunny-haired baby Keris is so far from what she is now that I can't conjure the image. I force myself to hold back the dozens of questions in my head. Quin's voice is slow--almost halting--and I wonder if he's spoken to anyone about this.

"I wasn't there for them early on," he says. "I was already a lieutenant general when Karinna and I married. The Karkauns were pushing hard in the west, and the Emperor couldn't spare me."

He sounds . . . not sad, but almost wistful. "And then Karinna died. The Emperor didn't give me leave, so it was a year before I returned home. By then Keris had stopped speaking. I spent a month with her, and then it was back to the battlefield. When she was chosen for Blackcliff, I was certain she'd die in the first week. She was so soft. So much like her mother."

"But she didn't die," I say. I try not to tap my foot in impatience. I wonder when he's going to get to the point.

"She's a Veturia," Quin says. "We're hard to kill. Skies know what she dealt with at Blackcliff. She didn't have your luck in friends, girl. Her fellow students made her life hell. I tried to train her, like I trained Elias, but she wanted nothing to do with me. Blackcliff warped her. Just after she graduated, she allied with the Nightbringer. He is the closest thing she has to a friend."

"He's not her friend. He's her master," I murmur, remembering the jinn's words. "What of Elias's father?"

"Whoever he was, she cared for him." We are past the pond now. Beyond the edge of the plateau, low, rolling hills ease into the flats of the Tribal desert, blue with the approach of dawn. "After Elias was chosen, she was unnerved, worried she would lose her commission. I'd never seen emotion like that in her before then, or since. She said she let the child live because his father would have wanted it."

So Keris loved Arius Harper? His file was scant, but the Commandant always hated Elias so much, I assumed his father had forced himself on her.

"Did you know Arius Harper, General?"

"He was a Plebeian." Quin gives me a curious look, mystified by the sudden change in topic. "A Combat Centurion at Blackcliff who was reprimanded repeatedly for showing mercy to the students--kindness, even."

"How did he die?"

"He was murdered by a group of Masks the day after they graduated--Keris's fellow Senior Skulls. A vicious killing--more than a dozen of them beat him to death. Illustrian, all of them. Their fathers covered it up well enough that even I didn't know of it when it first happened."

Why would a group of Masks murder a Centurion? Did Keris know? Did she ask them to do it? But Quin said she didn't have allies at Blackcliff--that the other students tormented her. And if she didn't have Arius killed--if she truly loved him--then why does she hate Elias so much?

"You think Arius Harper is the father?" Quin catches on. "So Captain Harper is--"

"Elias's half brother." I curse under my breath. "But none of that matters. Her past, her history--none of it explains what she's doing in Navium," I say. "She gave up the fleet just to wrest power from me. Why?"

"My grandson always told me you were smart, girl." Quin scowls at me. "Was he wrong? Don't just look at her actions. Look at her. What does she want? Why? Look at her past, her history. How has it altered her mind? The Nightbringer is her master, you say. What does he want? Will she get it for him? What could she be doing for the Paters that they would agree to let that swine Grimarr wreak havoc in the poor parts of the city? Use that head of yours. If you think my daughter cares about the fate of a port city far from the seat of power, you are sorely mi

staken."

"But she's been ordered to--"

"Keris doesn't care about orders. She cares about one thing: power. You love the Empire, Blood Shrike. So you believe that because Keris was also raised as a Mask, she must be loyal to it too. She is not. She is loyal only to herself. Understand that, and perhaps you'll best her. Fail, and she'll have your guts for supper before the week is out."

XX: Laia

The moment the sky pales, I throw on my dress and slip downstairs. If I move swiftly enough, I might still catch the Tribal caravan I saw last night--and the Kehanni too.

But Zella awaits me at the door, fidgeting in apology.

"Musa asked that you remain here," she says. "For your own safety, Laia. Princess Nikla has Jaduna patrolling the city for you. Apparently, one of them caught wind that you were here last night." She wrings her hands. "He says not to use your magic, as you'll just lead the Jaduna here, and get us all thrown in prison. His words," she adds quickly. "Not mine."

"What do you know about him, Zella?" I ask quickly, before she walks away. "What is he doing out there? Why hasn't he started the Resistance himself?"

"I'm just a smith, Laia. And an old family friend of his. If you have questions, you'll have to ask him."

I curse and slink out to the courtyard, where I assist Darin as he polishes a stack of scims against a set of smooth gray stones.

"I heard him, Darin," I say after relating my run-in with the Nightbringer. "Gloating right beside me. Then he was gone. Which means he could be anywhere. He might even have the last piece of the Star."

I want so much to conquer the self-doubt rising in me. To quash it and simply believe that I can stop the jinn. Fear does not rule me as it once did. But some days it stalks me with the ire of a jilted lover.

My brother slides a scim across one of the stones. "If the Nightbringer did have the last piece of the Star," he says, "we'd know. You give him too much credit, Laia, and you don't give yourself enough. He fears you. He fears what you'll learn. What you'll do with that knowledge."

"He shouldn't fear me."

"He damned well should." Darin runs a cloth across the scim he's polished and hands it to me before reaching for his first Serric steel blade, the one I carried across the Empire after Spiro Teluman gave it to me.

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