But the instant I enter the village, I know something is off. The caravan is empty, the wagon doors creaking in the storm. A thin layer of snow has already settled on the bodies of the soldiers guarding the caravans. Among them, I find no Mask. No Tribal casualties. The village is silent when it should be in an uproar.
I know it instantly, as sure as I'd know my own mother's face. Is this Keris's work? Did she learn about Laia's raids?
I pull my hood up, draw on a scarf, and drop into a crouch, observing the tracks in the snow. They are faint--brushed away. But I catch sight of a familiar boot print: Laia's.
These tracks aren't here out of carelessness. I was meant to know that Laia went into the village. And that she didn't come out. Which means the trap wasn't set for her.
It was set for me.
IV: The Blood Shrike
"Curse you!" I keep an iron grip around Laia of Serra, but she resists me with all her strength. She refuses to drop her invisibility, and I feel as if I'm grappling with an angry, camouflaged fish. I curse myself for not knocking her out the moment I grabbed her.
She lands a nasty kick to my ankle before elbowing me in the gut. My hold on her weakens, and she's out of my hands. I lunge toward the sound of her boot scraping the floor, savagely satisfied at the huff of her breath leaving her lungs as I tackle her. Finally, she flickers into being, and before she can play her little disappearing trick again, I twist her hands back and truss her tighter than a festival-day goat. Still panting, I shove her into a chair.
She looks at the other occupant of the cabin--Mamie Rila, bound and barely conscious--and snarls through her gag. She kicks out like a mule, her boot connecting beneath my knee. I grimace at the pain. Don't backhand her, Shrike.
Even as she fights, a fey part of my mind trills at the life within her. She has healed. She is strong. The fact should irk me.
But the magic I used on Laia binds us together, a tie that runs deeper than I'd like. I feel relief at her vigor, as if I'd learned that my little sister Livia is healthy.
Which she won't be for much longer, if this plan doesn't work. Fear lances through me, followed by a harsh stab of memory. The throne room. Emperor Marcus. My mother's throat: cut. My sister Hannah's throat: cut. My father's throat: cut. All because of me.
I will not see Livia die too. I need to carry out Marcus's orders and bring down Commandant Keris Veturia. If I don't return to Antium from this mission with something I can use against her, Marcus will take his rage out on his empress--Livia. He has done so before.
But the Commandant appears unassailable. The low-class Plebeians and Mercator traders support her because she quelled the Scholar revolution. The most powerful families in the Empire, the Illustrians, fear her and Gens Veturia. She's too wily to allow an assassin close, and even if I did take her out, her allies would rise up in revolt.
Which means I must first weaken her status among the Gens. I must show them that she is still human.
And to do that, I need Elias Veturius. The son who is supposed to be dead, who Keris claimed was dead, but who is, I recently learned, very much alive. Presenting him as evidence of Keris's failure is the first step toward convincing her allies that she's not as strong as she appears.
"The more you fight me," I say to Laia, "the tighter your bonds will get." I yank on the ropes. When she winces, I feel an unpleasant twinge deep within. A side effect of healing her?
It will destroy you if you're not careful. The Nightbringer's words about my healing magic echo in my mind. Is this what he meant? That the ties to those I healed are unbreakable?
I cannot dwell on it now. Captain Avitas Harper and Captain Dex Atrius enter the cottage we've requisitioned. Harper gives me a nod, but Dex's attention flits to Mamie, his jaw tight.
"Dex," I say. "It's time."
He doesn't look away from Mamie. Unsurprising. Months ago, when we were hunting down Elias, Dex interrogated Mamie and other members of Tribe Saif on my orders. His guilt has plagued him since.
"Atrius!" I snap. Dex's head jerks up. "Get into position."
He shakes himself and disappears. Harper waits patiently for orders, unruffled by Laia's muffled curses and Mamie's moans of pain.
"Check the perimeter," I tell him. "Make sure none of the villagers wandered back." I didn't spend weeks setting up this ambush so a curious Plebe could ruin it.
As Laia of Serra follows Harper's progress out the door, I pull out a dirk and pare my nails. The girl's dark clothes fit her closely, hugging those irritating curves in a way that makes me conscious of every awkwardly jutting bone in my body. I've taken her pack, along with a well-worn dagger I recognize with a jolt. It's Elias's. His grandfather Quin gave it to him as a sixteenth year-fall gift.
And Elias, apparently, gave it to Laia.
She hisses against the gag as her gaze darts between me and Mamie. Her defiance reminds me of Hannah. I wonder briefly if, in another life, the Scholar and I could have been friends.
"If you promise not to scream," I tell her, "I'll take off your gag."
She considers before nodding once. The moment I pull off the gag, she lashes out.
"What have you done to her?" Her seat thumps as she strains toward a now unconscious Mamie Rila. "She needs medicine. What kind of monster--"
The crack that echoes through the cottage when I slap her into silence surprises even me. As does the nausea that almost doubles me over. What the skies? I grab the table for support but straighten before Laia can see.
She juts out her chin as she lifts her head. Blood drips from her nose. Surprise fills those golden, catlike eyes, followed by a healthy dose of fear. About time.
"Watch your tone." I keep my voice low and flat. "Or the gag goes back in."
"What do you want from me?"
"Just your company."
Her eyes narrow, and she finally notices the manacles attached to a chair in the corner.
"I'm working alone," she says. "Do with me what you wish."
"You're a gnat." I go back to paring my nails, stifling a smile when I see how the words irritate her. "At best, a mosquito. Don't presume to tell me what to do. The only reason you haven't been crushed by the Empire is that I haven't allowed it."
Lies, of course. She's raided six caravans in two months, freeing hundreds of prisoners in the process. Skies know how long she'd have continued if I hadn't received the note.
It arrived two weeks ago. I didn't recognize the handwriting, and whoever--or whatever--delivered it avoided detection by an entire bleeding garrison of Masks.
THE RAIDS. IT IS THE GIRL.
I've kept the raids quiet. We already have trouble with the Tribes, who are enraged at the Martial legions deployed in their desert. In the west, the Karkaun Barbarians have conquered the Wildmen clans and now heckle our outposts near Tiborum. Meanwhile, a Karkaun warlock by the name of Grimarr has rallied his clans, and they lurk in the south, raiding our port cities.
Marcus has only recently secured the loyalty of the Illustrian Gens. If they learn that a Scholar rebel roams the countryside wreaking havoc, they'll grow restive. If they learn it's the same girl Marcus was supposed to have killed in the Fourth Trial, they'll smell blood in the water.
Another Illustrian coup is the last thing I need. Especially now that Livia's fate is tied to Marcus's.
Once I got the note, connecting Laia to the raids was easy enough. The reports out of Kauf Prison matched the reports about the raids. A girl who appears one moment, disappears the next. A Scholar risen from the dead, wreaking vengeance on the Empire.
It was not a ghost, but a girl. A girl and one uniquely talented accomplice.
We stare at each other, she and I. Laia of Serra is all passion. Feeling. Everything she thinks is written on her face. I wonder if she understands what duty even is.
"If I'm a gnat," she says, "then why--" Understanding flashes across her face. "You're not here for me. But if you're using me as bait--"
will work effectively. I know my quarry well, Laia of Serra. He'll be here in less than a quarter hour. If I'm wrong . . ." I twirl my dirk on my fingertip. Laia pales.
"He died." She seems to believe her own lie. "In Kauf Prison. He's not coming."
"Oh, he'll come." Skies, I hate her as I say it. He will come for her. He always will. As he never will for me.
I banish the thought--weakness, Shrike--and kneel in front of her, knife in hand, running it along the K the Commandant carved into her. The scar is old now. She might see it as a flaw against that glowing skin. But it makes her look stronger. Resilient. And I hate her for that too.
But not for much longer. For I cannot let Laia of Serra walk free. Not when bringing Marcus her head could buy his favor--and thus more life for my little sister.
I think briefly of the Cook and her interest in Laia. The Commandant's former slave will be angry when she learns the girl is dead. But the old woman disappeared months ago. She might be dead herself.
Laia must see murder in my eyes, because her face goes ashen and she shies back. Nausea lashes through me again. My vision flashes white, and I lean into the wooden armrest of her chair, the knife tipping forward, into the skin over her heart--
His voice is as harsh as one of the Commandant's lashes. He's come in through the back door, as I suspected he would. Helene. Of course he'd use my name.