"She did it weeks ago. She wanted the city to fall, Shrike. She knew the Karkauns would bring ghosts. She knew they would win."
A dozen disparate puzzle pieces click into place.
"The Illustrian Paters--"
"Left days ago for Serra," Marcus says. "She evacuated them."
And the master of the treasury met with her despite her murdering his son. She must have told him what was coming. She must have promised to get his family out in exchange for him moving the Empire's wealth.
And the Hall of Records. The record archivists were preparing for a move. Harper told me that when he was getting information on the Commandant. We simply didn't realize what it meant.
Keris knew the city would fall. She was planning for it right in front of me.
Skies, I should have killed her. Whether the Plebeians hated me or not, whether Marcus was overthrown or not, I should have killed that demon.
"The legions," I say, "from Silas and Estium--"
"They aren't coming. She sabotaged the communiques."
It did not have to be this way, Blood Shrike. Keris's words haunt me. Remember that, before the end.
He does not say it is my fault; he doesn't have to. "Antium will fall," Marcus goes on quietly. "But the Empire will survive. Keris has ensured that, though she wishes to make certain that my son will not survive with it. Stop her, Blood Shrike. See him on the throne." He reaches for my hand, his own still strong enough to dig into my flesh so hard that it draws blood. "Swear a blood oath that you will see it done."
"I swear it," I say. "By blood and by bone." The compulsion to heal him comes over me again. I fight it, but then he speaks.
"Shrike," he says. "I have a final order for you."
Heal me. I know he's going to say it. The magic rises in me, ready, even as I shrink away from the thought, disgusted, repulsed by it. How can I heal him, the demon who killed my father, who ordered my torture, who abused and beat my sister?
The fire edges closer. Leave, Shrike! Run!
Marcus releases my hand and scrabbles at his side for a dagger, which he thrusts into my hand. "Mercy, Blood Shrike. That is my order. I do not deserve it. I do not even wish it. But you'll give it to me anyway. Because you're good." He spits out the word, a curse. "It's why my brother loved you."
The Emperor meets my eyes. As ever, his are filled with rage, hatred. But beneath that is something I have never seen before in the fifteen years I have known Marcus Farrar: resignation.
"Do it, Shrike," he whispers. "He waits for me."
I think of baby Zacharias and the innocence of his gaze. Marcus too must have looked that way once. Perhaps that's what his twin, Zak, saw when he looked at him: not the monster he had become, but the brother he had been.
I remember my father as he died. My mother and my sister. My face is wet. When Marcus speaks, I can barely hear the words.
"The Emperor is dead." My voice shakes, but I find my strength in the mask I wear, and when I speak again, it is without emotion. "Long live the Emperor."
Then I drive the dagger into his throat, and I do not look away until the light in his eyes is gone.
The ring does not evanesce.
I do not allow myself to look at it until I am outside the Black Guard barracks, tucked in an alcove near the stables, safely away from Emperor Marcus. The baby is strong, and the Blood Shrike's sister is as well. I whispered to her to keep herself clean, to take care of herself to prevent infection. But she saw my face when Marcus entered. She knew.
"Go," she whispered. "Take the towels, as if you are changing them."
I did as she said. Swiping the rings at the same time was only a moment's work. No one even looked my way.
I took both, not knowing which was the Shrike's ring and which was the ring of her family. Now I stand with them in the madness of Antium's streets, staring. Hoping.
Only the Ghost may stand against the onslaught. Should the Lioness's heir claim the Butcher's pride, it will evanesce, and the blood of seven generations shall pass from the earth before the King may seek vengeance again.
The ring should be gone. Why did it not happen? I put it on my finger, pull it off. But there's something wrong with it. It does not feel like my armlet. It just feels like a normal hunk of metal.
I rack my brain trying to remember if I missed something in the prophecy. Perhaps I have to do something to it. Burn it, or break it with Serric steel. I cast about for a weapon--something a soldier might have dropped.
Which is when my neck prickles, and I know instantly that someone watches me. It is a feeling that has become unsettlingly familiar in the past few months.
But this time, he shows himself. "Forgive me, Laia of Serra." The Nightbringer speaks quietly, but the violence latent in his voice still cuts through the shrieks of missiles flying and men dying painfully. "I wished to see your face when you realized that all your work, all your hope, was for nothing."
"It is not for nothing," I say. It cannot be.
"It was." He saunters toward me. "Because what you hold is not the Star."
"Do I?" He closes the distance between us and snatches the rings from my hand. I cry out, but he closes his hand around them and, before my eyes, crushes them to powder. No. Impossible.
The curiosity that emanates from him is somehow worse than if he simply gloated.
"What is it like, Laia of Serra," he says, "to know that no matter what you do, nothing will stop the war that is coming? The war that will annihilate your people."
He's toying with me. "Why did you save me," I snarl at him, "when the blast hit?"
For a moment, he is still. And then his shoulders ripple, like a great cat shaking itself.
"Run to your brother, Laia of Serra," he says. "Find a ship to take you far away. You do not wish to witness what is to come."
"You know what it means to destroy an entire race. How could you want it when you have survived it?"
"The Scholars deserve destruction."
"You have already destroyed us," I shout. I fight to keep from hitting him--not because I am afraid, but because I know it will do no good. "Look at what the Scholars are. Look at what we have become. We are nothing. We are
dust. Look"--my voice is ragged now--"look at what you did to me. Look at how you betrayed me. Is it not enough?"
"It is never enough." He is angry now, my words poking at something tender that he does not wish to touch. "Do as I say, Laia of Serra. Run. You heard Shaeva's prophecy. The library burned. The dead escaped and marauded. The Child will be bathed in blood but alive. I believe you had a hand in that. The Pearl will crack, the cold will enter." He lifts his hands at the chaos around us.
Of course. Antium is referred to as the Pearl of the Empire.
"Jinn prophecies are truth," he says. "I will free my brethren. And we will have our vengeance."
I step back from him. "I will stop you," I say. "I will find some way--"
"You failed." He brushes a scorching, flame-veined hand across my face, and though all that is visible of him are those burning suns beneath his hood, I know he's smiling. "Now go, child." He shoves my face away. "Run."
In groups of ten and fifty and a hundred, Mauth and I hunt down the ghosts and pass them on. The screams of dying Martials grow more distant, the howl of fire ripping through the city more muted, the cries of civilians and children suffering and dying less important to me with every ghost I attend to.
Once the escaped ghosts are herded, I turn to those enslaved by the Karkauns. The magic used to summon and control them is ancient, but it has a familiar taint to it--the Nightbringer or his ilk taught the Karkauns this magic. The spirits are chained to a dozen or so warlocks--minions of the Karkauns' leader. If I murder those warlocks, the ghosts will be free.
I do not give the killing a second thought. I do not even use my weapons, though they are strapped across my back. Mauth's magic suffuses me, and I call on it as easily as I would my own skills with a scim. We circle the warlocks and choke the life from them one by one, until finally, as the day fades and the drums scream out which parts of the city have fallen, I find myself near an enormous building I know well: the Black Guard barracks.
I feel for more ghosts and find nothing. But as I prepare to leave, I catch a flash of brown skin and black hair.