She sits on the vanity chair beside me as I hammer in a nail. When I speak, I keep my voice low.
“Are you all right?”
“If you’re asking the same thing you’ve asked every day since the wedding,” Livvy lifts an eyebrow, “then yes. He hasn’t touched me since the first time. Besides, I approached him that night.” My sister lifts her chin. “I will not have him thinking I fear him, no matter what he does.”
I suppress a shudder. Living with Marcus—being his wife—is Livvy’s life now. My disgust and loathing of him will only make that more difficult. She did not speak to me of her wedding night, and I haven’t asked.
“I walked in on him talking to himself the other day.” Livvy looks at me. “It wasn’t the first time.”
“Lovely.” I hammer in a nail. “An Emperor who is sadistic and hears voices.”
“He’s not crazy,” Livvy says thoughtfully. “He’s in control until he speaks about doing violence to you—just you. Then he gets twitchy. I think he sees his brother’s ghost, Hel. I think that’s why he hasn’t touched you.”
“Well, if he is haunted by Zak’s ghost,” I say, “I hope it sticks around. At least until—”
We lock eyes. Until we have our vengeance. Livia and I haven’t spoken of it. It was understood the first moment I saw her after that horrible day in the throne room.
My sister brushes out her hair. “You’ve heard nothing more of Elias?”
“And what of Harper?” Livvy tries again. “Stella Galerius has been angling to meet him.”
“You should introduce them.”
My sister furrows her brow as she watches me. “How is Dex? You two are so—”
“Dex is a loyal soldier and an excellent lieutenant. Marriage might be a bit more complicated for him. Most of your acquaintances aren’t his type. And”—I lift up the mirror—“you can stop now.”
“I don’t want you to be lonely,” Livvy says. “If we had Mother or Father or even Hannah, it would be different. But, Hel—”
“With respect, Empress,” I say quietly. “My name is Blood Shrike.”
She sighs, and I attach the mirror, straightening it with a touch. “All done.”
I catch my reflection. I appear as I did just a few months ago, on the eve of my graduation. Same body. Same face. Only the eyes are different. I look into the pale gaze of the woman in front of me. For a moment, I see Helene Aquilla. The girl who hoped. The girl who thought the world was fair.
But Helene Aquilla is broken. Unmade. Helene Aquilla is dead.
The woman in the mirror is not Helene Aquilla. She is the Blood Shrike. The Blood Shrike is not lonely, for the Empire is her mother and her father, her lover and her best friend. She needs nothing else. She needs no one else.
She stands apart.
Marinn rolls out beyond the Forest of Dusk, a vast white carpet dotted with iced-over lakes and patches of forest. I’ve never seen a sky so clear and blue or breathed air that feels as if it’s filling me with life every time I inhale.
The Free Lands. Finally.
Already, I love everything about this place. It is familiar in the way my parents would be familiar, I think, if I could see them again after all these years. For the first time in months, I do not feel the chokehold of the Empire around my throat.
I watch Araj give the final order to the Scholars to move out. Their relief is palpable. Despite Elias’s assurances that no spirits would trouble us, the Forest of Dusk weighed heavier and heavier upon us the longer we spent within it. Leave, it seemed to hiss at us. You don’t belong here.
Araj finds me beside the once-abandoned cabin I’ve reclaimed for Darin, myself, and Afya, a few hundred yards from the border of the Forest.
“Are you sure you don’t wish to join us? I hear Adisa has healers that even the Empire cannot match.”
“Another month in the cold would do him in.” I nod to the cabin, sparkling clean within and glowing with the heat of a roaring fire. “He needs rest and warmth. If he is still not well in a few weeks, I will find a healer to come to me.” I do not tell Araj my deepest secret fear: that I do not think Darin will wake up. That I think the blow was too much after all he had already suffered.
That I worry my brother is gone forever.
“I am in your debt, Laia of Serra.” Araj looks out at the Scholars trickling to a road about a quarter mile distant. Four hundred and twelve, in the end. So few. “I hope I will see you in Adisa one day soon, with your brother at your side. Your people have need of someone like you.”
He takes his leave and calls to Tas, who bids goodbye to Elias. A month of food, baths, and clean—if too large—clothes has done wonders for the child. But he’s been pensive since killing the Warden. I’ve heard him moaning and crying out in his sleep. The old man haunts Tas still.
I watch as Elias offers Tas one of the Serric steel blades he stole off a Kauf guard.
Tas throws his arms around Elias’s neck, whispering something that makes him grin, and scampers off to join the rest of the Scholars.
As the last of the group moves out, Afya emerges from the cabin. She too is dressed for travel.
“I’ve already spent too long away from my Tribe,” the Zaldara says. “Skies know what Gibran’s been up to in my absence. Probably has a half dozen girls with child by now. I’ll be paying bribes to silence their angry parents until I’m broke.”