Chapter no 13 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

The southern sky is stained black with smoke when the riverboat finally begins the approach to Navium. The rain that has drenched us

for the past two weeks lingers on the horizon, taunting us, refusing to provide any relief. The Empire’s greatest port city burns, and my people burn with it.

Avitas joins me on the wide prow while Dex barks orders at the captain to move faster. Thunder echoes—Navium’s drums issuing coded orders with a frenzy one only ever hears during an attack.

Harper’s silver face is tight, his mouth drawn down in what is almost a frown. He’s spent hours on the road teaching me to close my mind against intrusion, which meant a great deal of time staring into each other’s faces. I’ve gotten to know his well. Whatever news he’s about to deliver, it’s bad.

“Grímarr and his forces attacked at dawn three weeks ago,” he says. “Our spies say the Karkauns have been hit by a famine in the south. Tens of thousands dead. They’ve been raiding the southern coast for months now, but we had outdated information on the fleet they’d amassed. They showed up with more than three hundred ships and struck the merchant harbor first. Of the two hundred fifty merchant vessels at port, two hundred forty-three were destroyed.”

That’s a blow the Mercator Gens won’t soon forget. “Countermeasures?”

“Admiral Lenidas took the fleet out twice. The first time, we took down three Barbarian craft before a squall forced us back to port. The second time, Grímarr pressed the attack and drove us back.”

“Grímarr drove back Admiral Lenidas?” Whoever this skies-forsaken Karkaun is, he’s no fool. Lenidas has commanded the Empire’s navy for the past thirty years. He designed Navium’s military port, the Island: a watchtower with an enormous body of water surrounding it, and a circular, protected port beyond, which houses men, ships, and supplies. He has fought the Barbarians for decades from the Island.

“According to the report, Grímarr countered every trick Lenidas threw at him. After that, the Karkauns choked off the port. The city is

effectively under siege. And the death toll is up to a thousand in the Southwest Quarter. That’s where Grímarr is hitting the hardest.”

The Southwest Quarter is almost entirely Plebeian—dockworkers, sailors, fishermen, coopers, blacksmiths, and their families.

“Keris Veturia is orchestrating an operation to rout the next Barbarian attack.”

“Keris shouldn’t be orchestrating anything without Lenidas to temper her,” I say. “Where is he?”

“After his second failure, she executed him,” Avitas says, and from his long pause, I know he’s as disturbed at the news as I am. “For gross dereliction of duty. Two days ago.”

“That old man lived and breathed duty.” I am numb. Lenidas trained me personally for six months when I was a Fiver, just before I got my mask. He was one of the few southern Paters my father trusted. “He fought the Karkauns for fifty years. Knew more about them than anyone alive.”

“Officially, the Commandant felt that he had lost too many men in the attacks and ignored too many of her warnings.”

“And unofficially she wanted to take control.” Damn her to the hells. “Why did the Illustrian Paters allow it? She’s not a deity. They could have stopped her.”

“You know how Lenidas was, Shrike,” Avitas says. “He didn’t take bribes, and he didn’t let the Paters tell him what to do. He treated Illustrians and Mercators and Plebeians alike. The way they saw it, he let the merchant harbor burn.”

“And now Keris is in command of Navium.”

“She’s summoned us,” Avitas says. “We’ve been informed that an escort will bring us to her. She is at the Island.”

Hag. She is already attempting to wrest control from me before I’ve even entered the city. I meant to go to the Island first. But now if I do, I will appear the supplicant, seeking approval from my betters.

“Curse her summons.”

A commotion at the docks catches my attention. The chuffing screams of horses split the air, and I spot the black-and-red armor of a Black Guard. The soldier curses as he attempts to keep hold of the beasts, but they buck and jerk away from him.

Then, as suddenly as they began to panic, the beasts calm, dropping their heads, as if drugged. Every man on the dock steps back.

A figure in black comes into view.

“Bleeding hells,” Avitas murmurs from beside me.

The Nightbringer’s eerie, bright eyes fix on me. But I am not surprised. I expected Keris to keep that jinn monster close. She knows I’m trying to kill her. She knows that if she can use her supernatural pet to get into my head, I’ll never succeed.

I think back to the hours spent with Avitas, learning to shield my mind. Hours listening to his calm voice explain how to imagine my innermost thoughts as gems locked in a chest, hidden in a shipwreck at the bottom of a forgotten sea. Harper doesn’t know about Livia’s pregnancy. I spoke of it to no one. But he knows the Empire’s future depends on destroying the Commandant. He was an exacting instructor.

But he could not test my skill. I hope to the skies that my preparation was enough. If Keris learns Livvy is pregnant, she’ll have assassins descending within days.

But as we dock, my thoughts are scattered. Pull yourself together, Shrike. Livvy’s life depends on it. The Empire depends on it.

When I step onto the gangplank, I do not look into the Nightbringer’s eyes. I made that mistake once before, months ago, when I met him back in Serra. Now I know that his eyes showed my future. I saw the deaths of my family that day. I didn’t understand it at the time—I assumed my own fear had gotten the best of me.

“Welcome, Blood Shrike.” I cannot hide my shudder at the way the Nightbringer’s voice scrapes against my ear. He beckons me closer. I am Mater of Gens Aquilla. I am a Mask. I am a Black Guard. I am the Blood Shrike, right hand to the Emperor of the Martials. I order my body to remain still while I stare him down with all the power of my rank.

My body betrays me.

The sounds of the river docks fade. No water slapping against the hulls of ships. No stevedores calling out to each other. No masts creaking, and no distant boom of sails or roar of the sea. The silence that cloaks the jinn is complete, an aura that nothing can penetrate.

Everything falls away as I close the distance between us.

Maintain control, Shrike. Give him nothing.

“Ah,” the Nightbringer says quietly, when I stand before him. “Felicitations, Blood Shrike. I see you are to be an aunt.”

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