"Safe, Shrike, with Rallius and Faris. I still say we need more guards--"
"The Commandant will find her if we move any of her guards from the palace," I say. "With just Rallius and Faris, she can remain hidden. How fare Keris's forces? The Emperor's?"
"The Emperor holds the western gate and refuses to be pulled from battle. They've taken the fewest losses. He's in his element. Keris holds the eastern gate," Dex says. "Pater Rallius and his men are sticking to her like burrs, as you've asked, but they've taken losses. The Karkauns are pushing hard. She's requested more men."
My lip curls. That traitorous hag. You don't know what I want. I still haven't worked out what it could be. But I know she won't sacrifice the entire capital. She'll have no one to bleeding rule over if she does. Everything that makes the Empire the Empire is here: the treasury, the Hall of Records, the Emperor's palace, and, most importantly, the people. If she allows the city to fall, she'll be Empress of nothing but ash.
I shake my head. We need the damned legions from the south. We need something to stop these monsters.
Work with what you have, not what you want. The Commandant's own words. "What else, Dex?"
"The Karkauns were spotted spreading a white substance around the edges of their army, Shrike. Almost like a border. We've no idea what it is."
"It is salt." The shudder-inducing voice of the Nightbringer behind me doesn't even make me jump. I am too exhausted.
"Salt?" I say. "Why the bleeding hells would they be spreading salt around their camp?"
"Ghosts do not like salt, Shrike," he says, as if this is the most natural thing in the world. "It will not stop the Karkauns who are possessed, for their human hosts make them immune to such tricks. But it will stop attacks from the wild ghosts who approach, ghosts who are not enslaved to the warlocks."
I gape at him. "More ghosts?"
"They have broken free of the Waiting Place and are drawn to the blood and violence of the battle here. Their arrival is imminent."
The Nightbringer reaches a hand to my shoulder and sings a few high notes. Immediately, my body, which burned from a dozen wounds, relaxes, the pain fading. I accept his aid gratefully. He has done this every day since the Karkauns launched their assault, sometimes twice a day, so I can keep fighting. He does not ask questions. He simply arrives, heals me, and disappears again.
As he turns to leave, I stop him. "The day I healed Livia, you said that one day my--my trust in you would be my only weapon." I shake my head at the disaster before me. The flagging men, the unending army of the Karkauns. Antium, the capital, the Pearl of the Empire, slowly crumbling.
"Today is not that day, Blood Shrike." His eyes linger on my face--no, I realize, on my ring, as my hand is propped against my face. Then he is gone.
"Dex," I say. "Find as much salt as you can. Salt the wall, the infirmaries, wherever our fighting men are. Tell the men not to touch it." What does it mean that the ghosts have broken free of the Waiting Place? Have they killed Elias?
When the moon rises, the Karkauns call a retreat. Nothing has changed. Our men are still barely keeping them at bay. Their unnaturally powerful soldiers still wreak havoc. They have the advantage. Why the bleeding hells are they withdrawing?
A ragged cheer goes up along the wall from my men. I do not join them. Whatever is making the Karkauns withdraw cannot be good for us.
Moments later, the wind carries a strange sound to me: wailing. The hair on the back of my neck rises as it draws closer. The cries are too high-pitched to be of this world. The wild ghosts.
The men grasp their weapons, stalwart in the face of this new terror. The wailing intensifies.
"Shrike." Dex appears beside me. "What in ten hells is that sound?"
"The salt, Dex," I say. "Did you spread it?"
"Only along the wall," he says. "We ran out before we could spread it in the city."
"It won't be enough." A pale, smoky cloud passes near the Karkauns, veering away from the salt border they have marked around their army, like a trail of ants avoiding a line of water.
The shrieks from the cloud block out every other sound, including the drums, the shouts of the men, the ragged rhythm of my own breath. There are faces in that cloud, thousands of them.
My men exclaim in fear, and I do not know what to do. I do not know how to kill this enemy. How to fight it. I do not know what it will do to us. Help, I scream in my mind. Father. Mother. Elias. Someone. Help us. I might as well be calling out to the moon.
The cloud is at the wall now, streaming over. Cold blasts through me as the ghosts shriek past, hissing at the salt along the wall before plummeting down to the unprotected men holding the gates, and into the streets beyond.
The soldiers do not know what hit them. One moment, they gaze at the cloud in wary fear. The next, they twitch and shake, possessed. Then, to my horror, they begin attacking each other like rabid animals.
The Karkauns roar and storm the city gates. We rain down arrows, pitch, rocks, but it is not enough.
I grab Dex by his collar. "We need more salt!"
"It's gone--we used everything we could find."
"If our own men are attacking each other, we cannot hold the gates," I tell him. "We will lose the city. Get to Harper. Tell him to collapse the entrances to the tunnels. We cannot risk the Karkauns getting to our people."
"But what about the people who are still left?"
"Shrike!" Another voice calls to me, and Faris bulls through the soldiers fighting to keep back the Karkauns. Down below, the men tear each other apart, attacking with anything they can find. One of the soldiers on the wall flings handfuls of salt down, perhaps hoping to scare the ghosts out of the bodies they have possessed. But it does nothing.
Any other army would have fled the wall at this sight--Karkauns crawling over the walls, our own men possessed. But the legions hold.
"Shrike." Faris is out of breath, but he still has the sense to speak quietly. "The midwife we found to replace the last one is dead. I just found her swinging from a beam in her own house."
"Well, bloody find another."
"There are no others."
"I don't have time for this!"
"You don't understand." Faris crouches down and hisses, and I can see panic that he'd never feel in battle in his shaking hands. "I sought out the midwife because it's time. Your sister is in labor, Shrike. The baby is coming."
Cook does not speak to me for a long time after I wake. Her face tells me what happened to the
children I was trying to help. Still, I ask.
"The blast killed them," she says. "It was quick." Her golden skin is pale, but her hunched shoulders and shaking hands tell me of her rage. "Nearly killed you too."
I sit up. "Where are we?"
"The old Scholar's District," she says. "In the slaves' quarters. It's farther from the chaos than the Mariner Embassy, though not by much." She dabs a wound on my face with a warm cloth, careful not to let her skin touch mine. "The skies must love you, girl. That blast threw you thirty feet into a pile of feed."
My head aches, and I struggle to remember. The skies must love you.
No. Not the skies. I knew that voice. I knew well the feel of that arm, strange and warped and too hot.
Why would the Nightbringer throw me out of the way of the blast? Why, when he knows what I am trying to do? I had no plan in my head in the moment of the blast--nothing but trying to get the children out. Am I playing into his hands somehow?
Or was it something else?
"Your heroics cost us." Cook stirs a pot of some sort of acrid tea over a cook fire. "Do you know what day it is?"
I open my mouth to respond, but Cook cuts me off.
"It's the day of the Grain Moon," she says. "We lost our chance to get to the Blood Shrike. By tomorrow, the city will be breached. The Martials are stretched too thin, and there's no relief in sight."
She takes a sniff of the tea and adds something else to it. "Girl," she says, "you trained with your"--she takes a deep breath--"grandfather," she spits out, "in healing?"
"For a year and a half or so."
She nods thoughtfully. "As did I," she said. "Before I ran away like a damned fool. When did he take you to meet Nelle, the apothecary?"
"Uh . . ." I am bewildered that she knows about Nelle, until I remember, yet again, that of course she would know Nelle. Pop trained my mother from when she turned twelve until she was sixteen, when she left home to join the Resistance.
"It was at the beginning of my training," I say. "Maybe three months in." Nelle showed me how to make dozens of poultices and teas from basic ingredients. Most of the remedies were things that only a woman needs--for moon cycles and to prevent the getting of child.
She nods. "That's what I thought." She pours the foul tea into a waiting gourd and corks it. I think she is going to give it to me, but instead she stands. "Change the dressing on your wounds," she says. "You'll find everything you need there. Stay inside. I'll be back."