His shoulders sag, and when I whip my scim across to take off his head, he cannot stop me. Blood geysers over me as I kick his twitching body off the cliff, dig my fingers into his hair, and hold up his severed head.
“This is your leader?” I turn to his men. “This is the man you called king?”
For a seemingly unending moment, the Karkauns are silent. The city is filled with the sounds of battle, and in the distance, the lockstep thud of boots echoes. Quin!
Come on, Harper, I think. If ever there was a clearer signal than this . . .
A cry of victory goes up from the Martial prisoners still being marched through the Karkaun crowd, and all the hells break loose. It begins at the back of the Karkaun throng, but my men move quickly. Fights break out, and the Karkauns shout, grasping for their weapons, realizing that the enemy is among them.
I tear another knife from my belt and plunge into the fray. All of my hate, all of my frustration, every sleepless night during which I raged against my own inaction pours out of me.
When the Martial prisoners realize what is happening, they fight too, chains and all. Without Grímarr to lead them and without the ghosts to lend them strength, the Karkauns panic, stabbing and slashing indiscriminately. As they die at the edge of my blades, I hear the phrase Grímarr uttered. Ik tachk mort fid iniqant fi.
Within the crowd of Karkauns, a squad of my men fight their way toward me, Musa among them. I try to join them, but the Karkauns surround us. Musa disappears, his scims flying, and I remind myself to ask him who the hells trained him before I am inundated by the enemy again.
Soon enough, the sheer number of Karkauns grows overwhelming. Even with the prisoners fighting, we are heavily outnumbered.
I spot raven-black hair and brown skin. Harper appears beside me, blood-spattered and snarling, tearing into the Karkauns with a savagery that matches my own. Kill by kill, we press the barbarians back.
Until a knot of them comes between us. One of Harper’s scims goes flying. I hear the crunch of fist against bone. A Karkaun dagger flashes high and blood geysers in the air.
One second, Harper is there. The next he is not. As I fight, I wait to see him, wait for him to stand up. But he doesn’t.
My mind goes horribly blank. I scream and battle through the Karkauns closest to me, heart thundering in terror. It wasn’t his blood. He’d have blocked that attack easily. No. No. No. I should have ordered him to stay in Delphinium. I should have had him accompany Quin. I shouldn’t have tried to take back Antium, not if this was the cost.
Dead. This cannot be. Harper cannot be dead. For I did not say any of what I should have. I did not touch him or kiss him or tell him that without him, I never would have survived this long. Dead like Father and Mother and Hannah and Faris and all those who you love—
Suddenly, he is charging through the Karkauns and beside me once more, limping but alive. I grab his arm, ensuring that he’s real, and he glances up in surprise.
“You—” Bleeding hells, I think I am crying. No. It’s sweat. It must be. “You’re—”
His eyes shift to whatever is behind me. He shoves me aside and impales a Karkaun on the end of his scim. From the south, the drums thunder again.
Enemy retreat, southern quadrant. The news gives my fighters and the prisoners new heart. A group of Karkauns, those closest to the palace, breaks away, running for their lives.
Harper grins and turns to me as more and more flee from Cardium Rock. “They’re running!”
I nod, but I can hardly muster a smile back. My chest is still tight from seeing him go under, from the fear that grabbed hold of me like a mailed fist, when I thought he was gone.
The rhythmic march of Martial soldiers grows louder, and even as we follow the fleeing Karkauns, I spot white hair and the sigil of Gens Veturia. I move toward Quin quickly—anything to get away from the thoughts in my head.
“Ten hells, old man.” I clap him on the back. “It took you long enough.”
He surveys the Karkauns. “Seems like you have it well in hand. Shall we send them crawling back to their holes?”
The night is bloody, but the Karkauns are nothing without their alpha. Those who fight are quickly destroyed. The rest simply run, escaping the city like rats from a ship on fire.
“Get a message to the southern Paters,” I tell Harper. “Tell them those loyal to Emperor Zacharias liberated Antium this day.”
Dawn brightens the eastern horizon, and my men gather on a staircase in Cartus Square. Quin hoists Zacharias’s hawk-and-hammer flag atop the palace.
As he does, Antium’s survivors emerge into the streets. Emaciated Martial and Scholar men, chained but unbroken. Women clutching weapons in one hand and children in the other. Fighters all.
The square fills up, and then the streets. I spot Neera in the crowd, and a chant starts up, one that is spoken and whispered at first. Then shouted by all of those who fought for Antium, by all who survived.
“Imperator Invictus! Imperator Invictus!”
My blood surges when I hear it. First in pride. Then in dawning unease.
For they are not chanting for Zacharias.
They are chanting for me.
“They should be chanting the Emperor’s name,” I hiss at Quin, who has descended and stands beside me on the stairs. “Not—this.”
“The Emperor is a child, Shrike. A symbol. You are the general who fought for them. You understood the strength of their spirit. And you were fearless. Let them call you whatever they please.”
My mind snags on one word: Fearless. For I am not fearless. To be fearless means to have a heart of steel. But my heart betrayed itself. It is soft and hopeful.
And I know now that it belongs entirely to Avitas Harper. No matter how I wish to deny it, my reaction when I thought him dead tells me I am fully, foolishly in love with him. He is the weak spot in my armor, the flaw in my defense.
Damn my traitorous heart to the hells.
The Jinn Queen
XXXV: The Nightbringer
One evening on my way home from visiting the Ankanese, I stopped to rest and eat south of the Waiting Place, along the shores of the Duskan Sea. As I let the stars and waves lull me to sleep, a flicker caught my eye. A fire burning bright and solitary, the lamp of a wanderer on a great, dark plain.
It drew closer, and I flowed into my flame form, for this jinn carried weapons in either hand, and though I did not enjoy battle, I was more than prepared for it.
“Hail, kindred.” She brought with her the scent of citrus and juniper, her voice husky and accented strangely. “Will you share your meal? For I have traveled long, with nary a bite. For your kindness, I will offer you a tale. This, I vow.”