"And this is relevant because . . ."
"What if there is a war coming? Not the war with the Karkauns, but a bigger war." I can't explain the feeling I got when Cook spoke of it. A shiver on my skin. Her words had the weight of truth to them. I think back to what Quin said of the Nightbringer. 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?
"You heard the Nightbringer. The Commandant isn't an ally or a compatriot. She's his servant. If he wants a war with the Scholars, then she's the one who will help him carry it out. She's destroyed the Scholars within the Empire. Now she looks to those who have escaped."
"To Marinn." Harper shakes his head. "She'd need a fleet to take on the Mariners. Their navy is unparalleled."
"Exactly." I curse in pain as I pull on my armor, and Avitas is at my side in a second, buckling it with careful fingers. "Though I wonder--Keris wouldn't help the Nightbringer out of loyalty. You heard Quin. She's loyal only to herself. So what's he offering her in return?"
"The Empire," Harper says. "The throne. Though if that were the case, why did he save your life?"
I shake my head. I do not know. "I need to get to the beach," I say. "I'll explain later. Get me those reports on the Paters and their holdings. Tell the Plebeians about the infirmaries and the shelters. Open more--seek the help of our allies. Requisition houses if you must. Make sure the flag of the Shrike and the flag of the Emperor fly wherever the Plebeians are offered shelter. If I'm right, we're going to need Plebeian support soon."
I find a dark cloak, tuck my hair under a scarf, and slip out the door, every sense heightened. I feel the pull of the Plebeians who lie injured in the courtyard of the Black Guard barracks, but I force myself to ignore them. Tonight, I must work a different sort of magic.
Though I take the tunnels into the city, eventually I ascend into Navium's streets. The Commandant has patrols out everywhere, watching for Karkauns attempting to penetrate the city. Though the beach is only two miles from the Black Guard barracks, it takes me nearly three hours to get there--and even then, I double back twice to make sure I wasn't followed.
When I close in on the beach, I spy the guards immediately. Most lurk along the low, rugged cliffs that run down to the wide swath of sand. But many patrol the beach itself.
Ostensibly, the soldiers are here to ensure that Grimarr doesn't land his men on the beaches without anyone knowing. But if that were the only reason, there wouldn't be so many of them. No, there's another reason they're here. The Commandant is taking no chances. She must know that I recovered.
I slip from the shadow of a bungalow and scurry toward a shed barely taller than I am. Once ensconced, I check my kerchief, slather my mask with mud from a tin I've brought with me, and bolt for the corner of a tackle shop that lies even closer to the beach.
I edge nearer until finally, I am close enough to realize that there is no way to get down to that beach without someone noticing. Not without backup, anyway. Bleeding, burning skies.
I wish suddenly for Elias. Impossible jobs with low likelihood of success are Elias's forte. Somehow, he always pulled them off, no matter the cost--and usually with a cheeky comment. It was both inspiring and irritating.
But Elias isn't here. And I can't risk getting caught. Frustrated, I back away--which is when a shadow appears beside me. My scim is half-drawn when a hand clamps over my mouth. I bite it and elbow my attacker, who hisses in pain but, like me, remains silent, lest the Commandant's men hear. Cedar. Cinnamon.
"Harper?" I hiss.
"Bleeding hells, Shrike," he gasps. "You've sharp elbows."
"You idiot." Skies, I wish I didn't have to whisper. I wish I could turn the full force of my rage against him. "What the hells are you doing here? I gave you orders--"
"I passed Dex your orders." Harper at least looks somewhat apologetic, but that does little to soften my anger. "This is a two-Mask job, Shrike. Shall we get to it before we're discovered?"
Curse him, he is aggravating. More so because he's right. Again. I elbow him a second time, knowing it's childish but delighting in his pained oof.
"Go distract those fools." I nod to the nearest cluster of guards. "And make it good. If you're here, you might as well not muck it up."
He disappears, and not an hour later, I am flitting away from the beach, having seen what I needed to see. Harper meets me at our prearranged spot, only slightly worse for wear after tricking the soldiers into thinking that a Karkaun raiding party had turned up nearby.
"Well?" he asks.
I shake my head. I don't know whether to be thrilled or horrified.
"Get me a horse," I say. "I've a cove I need to visit. And figure out a way to get in touch with Quin." I look back at the beach, still littered with the remnants of destroyed ships. "If this is as bad as I think it is, we're going to need all the help we can get."
* * *
More than a week after I nearly died in Navium's streets and a month after I arrived in the city, Grimarr launches his final assault. It comes at midnight. Karkaun sails bob perilously close to shore, and drums from the eastern watchtower convey the worst: Grimarr is preparing to launch small craft to ferry his ground forces to Navium. He is sick of waiting. Sick of having his supply lines cut off by Keris. Sick of being starved out. He wants the city.
Navium's catapults are a blur of fire and stone, a paltry defense against the hundreds of ships shooting flaming projectiles into the city. From the Island, the Commandant issues orders to the 2,500 men waiting in the ruins of the Southeast Quarter, where the Karkauns are expected to land. They are, Dex tells me, mostly auxes. Plebeians. Good men, many of whom will die if my plan doesn't work.
Dex finds me in the courtyard of the Black Guard barracks, where the Plebeians who have taken shelter grow increasingly agitated. Many have family members who will face off with Grimarr and his hordes today. All have been forced to flee their homes. With every minute that passes, the chances that they'll have anything to return to grow less likely.
"We're ready, Shrike," Dex says.
At my order, two dozen men--men who have done nothing but follow orders--will die. Runners, drum-tower guards, the drummers themselves. If we want to beat Grimarr, we must beat the Commandant--and that means cutting her lines of communication. We can take no chances. After the drums are silenced, we will have minutes--if that--to enact our plan. Everything must go right.
You want to destroy her? You have to become her first.
I give Dex the order and he disappears, a group of twenty men going with him. Moments later, Avitas arrives with a scroll. I hold it up--the mark of Keris Veturia, a K, is clearly visible to the Plebeians closest to me. The news spreads quickly. Keris Veturia, commander of the city, the woman who has allowed the Plebeian sectors of Navium to burn, has sent the Blood Shrike and the Black Guard a message.
I send a silent thank-you to Cook, wherever she is. She got me that seal, risking herself in the process, delivering it to me with a terse warning: Whatever you have planned, it better be good. Because when she hits back, it will be hard, in the place you least expect it, in the place where it will hurt the most.
I open the missive--which is empty--pretend to read it, and crush it, casting it into the closest fire, as if in a rage.
The Plebeians watch, resentment simmering. Almost there. Almost. They are dry tinder ready to burst into flames. I have spent a week preparing them, slipping them stories of the Commandant feasting with Navium's Paters while the Plebeians starve. From there, the rumors bloom: Keris Veturia wants the Karkaun ships to create a personal merchant fleet. The Paters will allow the merciless warlock Grimarr to ransack the Southeast Quarter if the Illustrian and Mercator districts are saved. Lies all, but each has enough truth to be plausible--and wrath-inducing.
"I will not accept this." I speak loudly enough for the room to hear. My rage is an act, but I quickly stoke it into reality. All I
have to do is recall Keris's crimes: She gave up thousands of lives just to get her hands on those ships for the Nightbringer's war. She persuaded a passel of weak-minded Paters to put their greed ahead of their people. She is a traitor, and this is the first step to taking her down.
"Shrike." Avitas takes a step back, playing his part with impressive skill. "Orders are orders."
"Not this time," I say. "She cannot just sit there in that tower--a tower she stole from the finest admiral this city ever knew--and expect that we won't challenge her."
"We don't have the men--"
"If you go to challenge Keris Veturia"--a Black Guard ally planted amid the crowd and dressed in Plebeian clothing speaks up--"then I will go with you. I have grievances of my own."
"And I." Two more men stand, both allies of Gens Aquilla and Gens Atria. I look to the rest of the Plebeians. Come on. Come on.
"And I." The woman who speaks is not one of mine, and when she stands, her hands on a cudgel, she is not alone. A younger woman beside her, who looks to be a sister, stands with her. Then a man behind her.
"And I!" More chime in, urged on by those around them, until all are on their feet. It is a replica of the riot Mamie Rila planned--except this time, the rioters are at my back.
As I turn to leave, I note that Avitas has disappeared. He will bring the aux soldiers whom he turned to our cause, as well as Plebeians from the other shelters we've opened.
We spill into the streets, heading for the Island, and when Harper finds me with his people, I have a mob at my back. Avitas marches by my side, a torch in one hand, his scim in the other. For once, his face is angry instead of calm. Harper is Plebeian, but like all Masks, he keeps his emotions close. I never once thought to ask him how he felt about what was happening in the Plebeian quarters.