"The strength of the butcher bird is the strength of the Empire, for she is the torch against the night. Your line will rise or fall with her hammer; your fate will rise or fall with her will."
When Marcus looks at me, I know for an instant how Cain must have felt when I looked at him. Pure hate radiates from the Emperor. And yet he is strangely diminished. He is not telling me everything the Augur said.
"Did--did the Augur say anything el--"
"That hag hasn't been wrong yet," Marcus says. "Not about me. Not about you. So whether you like it or not, Shrike, Antium's defense is in your hands."
It is deep night by the time we approach the northern gates to the capital. Teams of Plebeians fortify the walls, a legionnaire bellowing at them to work faster. The acrid reek of tar fills the air as soldiers lug buckets of it up ladders to the top of our defenses. Fletchers transport wagonloads of arrows divided into tubs for the archers to grab easily. Though the moon is high, it seems as if there is not a single sleeping soul in the city. Vendors hawk food and ale, and Scholar slaves carry water to those working.
This will not last. When the Karkauns come, the civilians will be forced to retreat into their homes to wait and see whether their brothers and fathers, uncles and cousins, sons and grandsons can hold the city. But in this moment, as all the people come together, unafraid, my heart swells. Come what may, I am glad I am here to fight with my people. And I am glad I am the Blood Shrike charged with leading the Martials to victory.
And I will lead them to victory--over the Karkauns and the Commandant.
Marcus appears to notice none of this. He is lost in thought, striding forward without looking at all those who labor for his empire.
"My lord," I say. "Perhaps take a moment to acknowledge the workers."
"We have a bleeding war to plan, you fool."
"Wars succeed or fail based on the men who fight them," I remind him. "Take one moment. They will remember."
He regards me with irritation before breaking away from his men to speak with a group of aux soldiers. I watch from a distance, and from the corner of my eye I notice a group of children. One--a girl--wears a wooden, silver-painted mask over her face as she fights a slightly smaller girl, who is presumably posing as a Barbarian. The clack of their wooden swords is just one more instrument in the frantic symphony of a city preparing for war.
The masked girl spins under the other's scim before delivering a kick to her bottom and pinning her with a boot.
I smile and she looks up, pulling off her mask hastily. She offers a clumsy salute. The other girl--who I realize must be a younger sister--stares openmouthed.
"Elbow up." I fix the girl's arm. "Hand perfectly straight, and the tip of your middle finger should be at the center of your forehead. Keep your eyes on the space between you and me. Try not to blink too much." When she's got it, I nod. "Good," I say. "Now you look like a Mask."
"Chryssa says I'm not big enough." She looks to her still-staring sister. "But I'm going to fight the Karkauns when they come."
"Then we'll surely defeat them." I look between the girls. "Take care of each other," I say. "Always. Promise me."
As I walk away, I wonder if they will remember the vow they made me ten years from now, twenty. I wonder if they'll still be alive. I think of Livvy, far away, I hope. Safe. That fact is the only thing that gives me comfort. We will defeat Grimarr's army. We are the superior fighting force. But the warlock is a clever adversary and it will be a hard battle. Skies know what will happen in that chaos. Cain's words haunt me: No one is safe. Curse the Commandant for bringing this upon us out of her greed. Curse her for caring more about becoming Empress than about the Empire she seeks to rule.
Marcus shouts at me to get moving. When we return to the palace, it is a hive of activity. Horses, men, weaponry, and wagons clog the gates as the palace guards sandbag the outer walls and hammer in planks across the entrance gates. With so many people coming in and out, it will be difficult to keep the place secure against the Commandant's spies--and her assassins.
Come for Marcus, Keris, I think. Do my work for me. But you'll never get your hands on my sister or her child again. Not while I live and breathe.
As we approach the throne room, there's a buzz in the air. I think one of the courtiers whispers Keris's name, but Marcus walks too fast for me to linger and listen. The throne room doors fly open as Marcus strides toward them. A sea of Illustrian nobles mills within, waiting to hear what the Emperor will say about the approaching army. I feel no fear in the air, only a grim sense of determination and a strange tension, as if everyone knows a secret they aren't willing to share.
The source of it becomes apparent moments later, as the waves of Illustrians part to reveal a small blonde woman in bloodied armor standing beside a tall, equally blonde woman heavy with child.
The Commandant has returned to Antium.
And she has brought my sister with her.
The day Mother gave me her armlet, I was five. Nan's curtains were drawn. I could not see the moon. Pop must have been there. Darin, Lis, and Father too. But I remember Mother's crooked smile most clearly. Her lapis eyes and long fingers. I sat in her lap trying to tuck my cold feet into her warm shirt. You're not Laia, she'd said. You're an efrit of the north trying to turn me into an icicle.
Someone called out to her. Time to go. She whispered to me to keep the armlet safe. Then she wrapped her arms around me, and though she squeezed too tightly, I did not care. I wanted to pull her into me. I wanted to keep her.
We will see each other again. She kissed my hands, my forehead. I swear it.
The courtyard gate creaked as she slipped through it. She smiled back at me and Darin, huddled between our grandparents. Then she stepped into the night, and the darkness swallowed her up.
* * *
I reel from what the Nightbringer showed me, from the crawling feeling of him and his kin all over my mind. I hold the armlet Elias gave me and I do not let go. I'm free of the jinn now.
As I stumble away from the Forest, as the voices of the ghosts peak, I move more swiftly. The Dead will rise, and none can survive. Shaeva's prophecy rings in my mind. Something has gone terribly wrong within the Waiting Place, and I need to get as far away as possible.
I run, trying to remember again what I am meant to do, trying to get the Nightbringer's voice out of my head.
Musa marked a village on my map. I must get there, meet his contact, and get to Antium. But before then, I need to pull the shards of my mind off the ground and put them back together. I cannot change what is done. I can only move forward and hope to the skies that before I meet Cook again, I've made my peace with what she did to Father and Lis. With what she endured. With what she sacrificed for the Resistance.
I make my way northwest. A pair of hills rises a few miles ahead, with a dip in the middle that should shelter the village of Myrtium. Musa's contact is meant to await me there. Since it's Martial territory, I should use my magic to become invisible. But I cannot bear the thought of more visions, of seeing more pain and suffering.
I cannot bear the thought of seeing her. I think of Darin. Did he know about what Mother did? Is that why he tensed up every time I spoke of her? I wish to the skies that he was here now.
Rattled though I may be, I have the wits to wait until dark before I creep toward the village proper. The summer night is warm, the only noise a gentle breeze blowing in off a nearby creek. I feel louder than a horse with bells on as I slink along the walls.
The inn is the central building in the village, and I watch for a long time before getting closer. Musa told me little of his contact, for fear that the knowledge could be extracted by our enemies if I am caught. But I know that he is not a Martial and that he will be waiting within the inn, by the fire. I am to cloak myself, whisper to him that I've arrived, and then follow his instructions. He will take me to the Mariner Embassy in Antium, where I'll get ma
ps of the palace and the city, information about the Blood Shrike and where she will be--everything I'll need to get in, get the ring, and get the hells out.
Gold light spills out into the streets from the inn's wide, rounded windows, and the taproom is full, with agitated conversation drifting out in bits.
"If the Shrike can't stop them--"
"How the bleeding hells is she supposed to stop them with only--"
"--city will never be taken, those pigs don't know how to fight--"
I keep to the shadows, trying to see into the inn from across the street. It is impossible. I must get closer.
The inn has a series of smaller side windows, and the alleys around it are quiet, so I skitter across the square, hoping no one sees me, and climb onto a crate, peeking through one of the windows. It offers a decent view of the room, but so far, everyone here is a Martial.
I peer past the barkeep, through the thicket of serving maids pouring out drinks and lads delivering plates of food. The long bar is crowded with villagers, all of whom seem to be talking at once. How the hells am I supposed to find him in this mess? I'll have to cloak myself in invisibility. I have no choice.
I nearly jump out of my skin. When the hooded figure appears behind me, when her voice rasps a greeting, all I can think is that the Nightbringer has somehow followed me here, to this tiny village. That he is playing more tricks on my mind.
But the figure steps forward and lowers her hood to reveal moon-white hair that never belonged on her and midnight-blue eyes too shadowed to be familiar and violently scarred skin that I never noticed was unwrinkled until now. Her fingers are stained a deep, strange titian. Her diminutive height disorients me. All these years, I thought she was tall.