"You came." The Blood Shrike weeps openly now. "You heard me, and you came. Elias, the Karkauns on the wall, they're killing us. They're about to break through."

"I did not come for you." It is my voice she hears--the merciless monotone of a Mask. And yet it is not me. It is Mauth. Stop! I scream at him in my mind. She is my friend.

But Mauth does not listen. "I came," I hear myself saying, "because it is my sworn duty to protect the world of the living from the realm of ghosts. Leave me to my work, Blood Shrike, and I will leave you to yours."

I windwalk away from her, moving swiftly to the next group of possessed soldiers. Why did I do that? Why was I so cruel?

Because it is necessary. I know the answer almost before I ask the question. Because I must pass the ghosts. Because my duty must come first.

Because love cannot live here.

I skim over the wall of the city looking for the next group of wayward ghosts, nothing but a flash of darkness to the human eye. Just outside Antium's eastern gate, the Karkauns gather and march forward with a battering ram the size of a Mariner trade vessel. They punch through the ancient gates of Antium like a fist through a paper screen.

No one mans the wall. No pitch comes pouring down. No archers fight back. The Martials have withdrawn. A familiar, pale-skinned figure makes her way from the battle, a group of men at her back. Keris Veturia. She appears calm as she allows the gate to fall.

A great groan echoes through the air, louder than the screams of the dying and the cries of those who still fight. Wood splinters, metal screeches, and a hair-raising howl of victory rises from the ranks of the Karkauns.

The eastern gate sags open, and the Karkauns pour in. The city of Antium, founded by Taius the First, seat of the Imperator Invictus and Pearl of the Empire, is breached. The lives of its people are forfeit.

I turn away. For it is no concern of mine.

LI: The Blood Shrike

I can hear Livvy screaming from the barracks doors and I fly up the stairs. She might be dying. The baby might be dying. Skies, what do we do--

When I shove the door open, I find my sister doubled over, Rallius's large hand clenched in hers. Every muscle in my friend's huge body tenses, his dark face turning grim.

"Empress," I say. "Livia, I'm here."

"He's coming, Helly." Livia pants. "Rallius tested my tea this morning, but it tasted funny. I don't know what to do. I don't--I don't feel right--"

Oh hells. I know exactly nothing about childbirth. "Maybe you should sit down."

A knock on the door.

All of us--Rallius, Faris, Livia, and I--go silent. No one but Marcus is supposed to know she's here. But I arrived in such a rush with Faris that though we took pains not to be followed, we might very well have been.

My sister stuffs her fist to her mouth and groans, clutching her belly. Her dress is wet from where her waters have broken, and her sweat-soaked face is sickly gray. Rallius extricates his fingers from Livvy's and approaches the door, scims drawn. I shove Livvy behind me while Faris swipes a crossbow from the wall and points it at the door.

"Who goes there?"

A female voice answers. "I . . . I need to speak to the Blood Shrike. I . . . can help."

I do not recognize the voice, though something about it is strangely familiar. I gesture for Rallius to open the door. In less than a second, he has his scims at the throat of the hooded figure in the doorway.

She doesn't need to lower her hood for me to recognize her. I spot her golden eyes peering out at me from the shadows.

"You!" I snarl, but she raises her hands, and the sheaths at her waist are empty.

"I can deliver the baby," she says quickly. "Cook sent me."

"Why the hells would that old bat send you?" I say.

Livia screams again, unable to stifle the sound, and Laia looks over my shoulder.

"She's close," she says. "She'll have another contraction in only a few moments. The child is coming."

I do not know how in the burning skies she got here. Perhaps it is an assassination attempt. But why would Laia of Serra risk such a thing when she knows that hurting my sister would result in her immediate death?

"I have no wish to harm her," she says. "Fate led me here, Blood Shrike. Let me help you."

"If my sister or the babe die," I say to her as I stand aside, "so do you."

A grim nod is the only response. She knows. Immediately, she turns to Faris, who squints as he looks at her.

"Hang on a minute," he says. "Aren't you--"

"Yes," she says. "Hot water, please, Lieutenant Faris--two pots of it. And clean sheets from the laundry--a dozen of them. Towels too." She goes to my sister, taking her by the arm.

"Let's get you out of these clothes," she says, and there's a gentleness to her voice, a sweetness that immediately calms Livia. My sister sighs, and moments later Laia unlaces her dress, ordering Rallius to turn away.

I shift from foot to foot. "I don't know if this is appro--"

"She's giving birth, Blood Shrike," Laia says. "It is hot, difficult work, and she shouldn't be trussed up for it. Bad for the baby."

"Right," I say, knowing I sound like an idiot. "Well, if it's bad for the baby . . ."

Laia glances at me, and I can't tell if she's irritated by me or laughing at me.

"Once Lieutenant Faris returns with the water," she says, "pour it into the basin, please. Wash your hands well, with soap. Remove your rings. You can leave them there

." She nods to the basin and helps a now scantily dressed Livia settle herself at the edge of my simple wooden desk chair.

Faris comes in, takes one look at Livvy, and turns bright red before I take the water from him and he asks, in a choked voice, where Laia wants the sheets.

"Stand watch, Lieutenant Faris," Laia says as she takes the sheets. "There were only two guards outside and they barely searched me. If I got in here with relative ease, so can your enemies."

The drums thunder, and I hear the panic in the order given out. All units to the second-level gate immediately. Breach imminent. Bleeding hells, has the first level been breached? "I should go," I say. "The city--"

"I cannot do this alone, Shrike," Laia says quickly. "Though I'm sure your man here"--she nods to a wild-eyed Lieutenant Rallius--"would help if ordered, the Empress is your sister, and your presence will bring her comfort."

"The city--the Karkauns--" But Livvy screams again, and Laia curses.

"Shrike, have you washed your hands yet?"

I do it quickly, and Laia grabs me and yanks me over to Livia.

"Push your fists into your sister's hips, like so." She points to just below the small of my sister's back. "Every time she screams, I want you to push there," she says. "It will give her relief. In between, rub her shoulders, pull her hair out of the way, and help keep her cool."

"Oh skies," Livia says. "I'm going to be sick."

My stomach sinks. "What's wrong?"

"Feeling sick is good." Laia's tone is soothing, but she gives me a look that very plainly asks that I keep my mouth shut. "It cleanses the body."

The Scholar girl gives my sister a bucket and continues to speak to her in low, calm tones as she scrubs her own hands and arms, over and over until her gold-brown skin is red. Then she comes back and feels between my sister's legs. I look away, uncomfortable. Livia shudders again--it's only been minutes since the last time she cried out. I dig my fists into her hips. Immediately, she relaxes.

"How--how many times have you done this?" Livvy asks Laia.

"Enough to know that you're going to be just fine," Laia says. "Now breathe with me."

For the next two hours, with the Scholar girl's calm voice guiding her, Livia labors. Sometimes she walks, sometimes she sits. When I suggest Livvy lie in the bed at one point, both women turn on me with a unified "No!" and I cease.