“The Paters of Navium,” the Nightbringer says as we leave the docks, “wish to greet you.”
I barely hear him. He knows Livia is pregnant. He will share that information with the Commandant. My sister will confront attackers and assassins likely within days, and I am not there to keep her safe.
Harper falls back, speaking urgently to the Black Guard who brought us our horses. Now that he knows of the pregnancy he’ll be sending orders to Faris and Rallius to triple the guard around Livia.
“The Paters are at the Island?” I ask the Nightbringer. “Indeed, Shrike.”
For now, I must put my faith in Livia’s bodyguards. My more immediate issue is the Commandant. She’s already taken the upper hand by sending the Nightbringer to throw me off my guard. She wants me weak.
But I will not give her that satisfaction. She wants to order me to the Island? Fine. I need to take control of this sinking ship anyway. If the Paters are nearby, all the better. They can bear witness as I wrench Keris’s power from her.
As we ride through the streets, the full devastation of the Karkaun attack is apparent in every collapsed building, every burn-scarred street.
The ground shudders, and the unmistakable whistle ofs a stone ripping out of a ballista splits the air. As we get closer to the Island, the Nightbringer is forced to change course, leading us near the embattled Southwest Quarter of Navium.
Screams and shouts fill the air, penetrating over the roar of fire. I pull up a bandanna to block out the choking smells of singed flesh and stone. A group of Plebeians hurries past, most carrying nothing but children and the clothes on their backs. I watch a woman with a hood pulled low.
Her face and body are hidden by a cloak, her hands stained a deep gold. The color is so unusual that I nudge my horse forward to get a closer look.
A fire brigade gallops by, buckets of seawater splashing everywhere. When they are past, the woman is gone. Soldiers lead families from the
swiftly spreading chaos. Cries for aid seem to come from all sides. A child with blood streaming down her face stands in the middle of an alley, bewildered and silent, no guardian in sight. She’s no more than four, and without thinking, I turn my horse toward her.
“Shrike, no!” Avitas reappears and kicks his mount in front of mine. “One of the men will take care of her. We have to get to the Island.”
I make myself turn away, ignoring the pull that has come over me to go to the child, to heal her. It is so strong that I have to grab the pommel of my saddle, lacing my fingers under it to keep myself from dismounting.
The Nightbringer watches me from the back of a cloud-white stallion.
I sense no malice, only curiosity.
“You are not like her,” he observes. “The Commandant is not a woman of the people.”
“I thought you’d appreciate that about her, being that you are not a man of the people yourself.”
“I am not a man of your people,” the Nightbringer says. “But I do wonder at Keris. You humans give your loyalty so willingly for just a little hope.”
“And you think we are fools because of it?” I shake my head. “Hope is stronger than fear. It is stronger than hate.”
“Precisely, Blood Shrike. Keris could use it as a weapon. But she does not. To her folly.”
He makes a poor ally, I think to myself, or a dissatisfied one, to criticize her so openly.
“I’m not her ally, Blood Shrike.” The Nightbringer cocks his head, and I sense his amusement. “I am her master.”
A half hour later, Navium’s key-shaped double harbor comes into view. The rectangular merchant harbor, which opens into the sea, has been decimated. The channel is littered with charred masts and soggy, torn sails. The huge, rusted sea chains that protect the harbor gleam with moss and barnacles, but at least they are up. Why the hells weren’t they up when Grímarr attacked? Where were the guards on the watchtowers? Why weren’t we able to halt the assault?
At its northern end, the merchant harbor widens into an inner harbor made of two rings. The Island is the center ring, connected to the mainland by a bridge. A crenellated tower dominates the Island. From its top, one can see up and down the coast for miles. The outer ring of the harbor is a covered, circular dock with hundreds of slipways for the Martial fleet. Its scale is mind-boggling.
Dex swears as we get closer. “The ships are docked, Shrike,” he says. “We’re just letting them pummel us.”
Though the earlier report from Harper said as much, I don’t believe it until I see the ships myself, bobbing quietly in their slips. My hands curl into fists as I think of the destruction I just witnessed.
When we finally reach the bridge that leads to the Island, I stop short.
For hanging from a rope over the wall is Admiral Lenidas, a fat crow perched atop his twisted body. I bite my lip to keep from retching. His broken limbs and lash-marred skin tell the tale of a slow, painful death.
I take the stairs up to the watchtower two at a time. Dex and Harper run to catch up, the latter clearing his throat just before we enter the command room.
“Shrike.” He leans close, his distress evident. “She’s penned a play,” he says. “I can feel it. Don’t act the part she’s written for you.”
I nod shortly—did he think I didn’t know that?—and enter the tower.
The Veturius men guarding it immediately salute. The Commandant barks out orders to the runners to take to the drum towers, ignoring me entirely. The top brass of Navium, along with a dozen of its Paters, are gathered around a map on a massive table. As one, they turn.
“Nephew.” I recognize Janus Atrius—Dex’s uncle and the Pater of Gens Atria. He nods a quick greeting at his nephew before saluting me. I cannot read his features, but he glances askance at Keris before speaking
—a look I am not meant to miss, I think. “Shrike, have you been briefed?”
“Half of the Southwest Quarter is on fire,” I say. “That’s all the briefing I need. Why are we not fighting back? Night won’t fall for hours. We need to use the light that remains.”
Janus and a few of the other Paters mutter their agreement. But the rest shake their heads, a few raising their voices in dispute. Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius exchange a look of disgust that I make note of. I won’t find an ally in either of them.
“Blood Shrike.” The Commandant has finished with the runners, and her cool voice silences the room. Despite the hatred that rises in me at her patronizing tone, I admire the way she wields her power. Though the men in this room are lords of their own Gens, not a single one will defy her. “We expected you days ago. I—we”—she glances at the Paters and navy officers—“are yours to command.”
This woman trained all expression from my face, but it is difficult not to show my surprise. As Blood Shrike, I am a superior officer, and the Emperor sent me to take command of Navium’s defense. But I did not
expect the Commandant to give it up so easily. I did not expect her to give it up at all.
Harper gives me a warning look. Don’t act the part she’s written for you.
“Keris.” I hide my wariness. “Why do we not have boats in the water?”
“The weather is treacherous, Shrike. For the past few weeks storms have moved in swiftly.” She walks to the tall windows that look south. From here, I can see the whole coast, along with the distant masts of a massive Karkaun fleet. “That cloud bank”—she nods to it—“has been there for three days. The last time we took the fleet out, the weather was similar.”
“Lenidas knew sea weather better than anyone.”
“Lenidas ignored the orders of a superior officer simply because she commands an army instead of a navy.” Admiral Argus leads one of the more powerful Mercator Gens, and his rage at his lost ships is clear. “General Veturia ordered him not to take out the fleet, and he didn’t listen. We all”—he gives the room a glower—“supported Lenidas’s execution.”
“Not all,” Janus Atrius says stiffly.
“Lenidas is not the point,” I say. The old man is dead, and while he didn’t deserve to die in disgrace, this is not a battle I can win. “Keris, have you been in the Southwest Quarter since the attack began?”
Argus pushes forward, planting himself in front of me like a squat, belligerent toad. “The Commandant has—”
Beside me, Dex half draws a scim. “Interrupt me one more time, Argus,” I say, “and I’ll have Captain Atrius make me a necklace of your entrails.”
The Paters fall silent, and I let them consider the threat before I speak. “Paters,” I say, “I won’t launch the fleet without your approval. But
consider our losses. More than a thousand killed already and dozens dying by the hour. I’ve seen children with their limbs blasted off, women trapped beneath rubble dying slowly. Grímarr the Karkaun is a vicious foe. Will we let him take our city?”
“Most of the city is safe,” Vissellius argues. “It is only the Southwest Quarter that has—”
“Just because they’re not Mercators or Illustrians doesn’t make their lives any less valuable. We have to do something.”
Keris holds up a hand to silence her allies. “The watchtower ballistae
“Are too far from the ships to do any real damage,” I cut her off. “What in the skies was your plan? To sit here and just let them destroy us?”
“Our plan was to allow them to believe they could storm the city,” the Commandant says. “When they made the mistake of landing their troops, we would wipe them out. We would launch an attack on their ships”— she points this out on the map—“from a nearby cove, where we would move the fleet at night. We would stop the Karkaun ground forces while still capturing their ships, which would replace those the Mercators lost in the attack on the harbor.”
The bleeding weather has nothing to do with this after all. She wants the Barbarian ships. She wants them so she can get Navium’s Paters in her pocket—all the better to secure their support when she tries to take down Marcus again.
“And you were planning to do this when, exactly?”
“We expected three more weeks of siege. We’ve been choking off their supplies. Grímarr and his men will run out of food eventually.”
“Once they finish with the Southwest Quarter,” I say, “they’ll move to the Southeast. You’re willing to allow dozens of neighborhoods— thousands of homes—to be besieged for nearly a month. There are more than a hundred thousand people living—”
“We are evacuating the southern parts of the city, Shrike.”
“Not fast enough.” I consider. We must protect Navium, of course.
But I smell a trap. Harper taps a thumb on his scim hilt. He senses it too.
And yet I cannot let Grímarr murder my people at will. “Admiral Argus, how long to prepare the fleet?”
“We could launch by second bell, but the weather—”
“We will engage the Karkauns at sea,” I say, and though I promised I’d get the Paters’ permission, I have no time for it. Not when every minute brings more Martial deaths. “And we will do it now.”
“I’m with you, Shrike.” Janus Atrius steps forward, as do a half dozen other Paters and officers. Most, however, are clearly opposed.
“Consider,” Keris says, “that the fleet is our only defense, Shrike. If a storm comes in—”
“You and I both know,” I say quietly, “that this has nothing to do with the weather.”
I glance at Dex, who nods, and Harper, who watches the Commandant fixedly. His expression is unreadable. Don’t act the part she’s written for you.
In the end, I might be playing into her hands. But I’ll just have to concoct a way out of whatever trap she’s laid for me. These are the lives of my people, and come what may, I cannot leave them to die.
“Admiral Argus.” My tone brooks no disapproval, and though his eyes are rebellious, one look from me quells it. “Launch the fleet.”
After an hour, the men are mustered, and the laborious process of dropping the sea chains begins. After two hours, the fleet sails from the circular war port and into the merchant harbor. After three, our men are locked in combat with the Karkauns.
But after four hours, the sky, thick with clouds and rain, deepens from a threatening gray to an eerie dark purple, and I know we are in trouble. Lightning cracks across the water, striking mast after mast. Flames leap high, distant bursts of light that tell me the battle is turning—and not in our favor.
The storm comes suddenly, roiling toward Navium from the south as if whipped forth by a wrathful wind. By the time it hits, it is far too late to turn the fleet back.
“Admiral Argus has sailed these seas for two decades,” Dex says quietly as the storm intensifies. “He might be Keris’s dog, but he’ll bring the fleet home. He’ll have no wish to die.”
I should have gone with them. But the Commandant and Harper and Dex all protested—the one thing the three of them agreed on.
I seek out Keris, who speaks quietly with one of the drum-tower runners.
“No reports yet, Shrike,” she says. “The drum towers cannot hear anything over the storm. We must wait.”
The runner steps away, and we are, for a moment, alone.
“Who is this Grímarr?” I ask her. “Why do we know nothing about him?”
“He’s a zealot, a warlock priest who worships the dead. He believes it is his spiritual duty to convert all those who are unenlightened. That includes the Martials.”
“By killing us.”
“Apparently,” Keris says softly. “He’s a relatively young man, a dozen or so years older than you. His father traded furs, so Grímarr traveled the Empire extensively as a boy—to learn our ways, no doubt.
He returned to his people a decade ago, just as a famine hit. The clans were starving, weak—and malleable.” The Commandant shrugs. “So he molded them.”
I’m surprised at the depth of her knowledge, and she must see it on my face. “What is the first rule of war, Blood Shrike?”
Know your enemy. I don’t even have to say it.
I look out at the storm and shudder. The gale feels fey. Wild. Thinking of what will happen if our fleet succumbs makes my stomach churn. We sent out nearly every vessel, holding back only a dozen ships. Night approaches, and still we have no word.
We cannot lose the fleet. We are the Empire. The Martials. Argus’s men are trained for this. They’ve seen storms far worse.
I cycle through every scrap of hope I can claw from the recesses of my mind. But as the minutes pass, the distant flashes of battle continue unabated. And those flashes that are closer to Navium—those that belong to our fleet—grow fewer and fewer.
“We should put up the sea chains, Shrike,” the Commandant finally says. The Paters agree with a dozen angry ayes.
“Our fleet is still out there.”
“If the fleet survives, we will know in the morning and we can lower the chains. But if they do not, then we keep the Karkauns from penetrating to the heart of Navium.”
I nod my assent, and the order is given. The night drags on. Does the storm carry the shrieking taunts of Karkaun warlocks? Or is that just the wind? Hope is stronger than fear. It is stronger than hate. I said those words to the Nightbringer, and as night deepens to an impenetrable blackness, I hold on to them. No matter what dawn brings, I will not give up hope.
Soon, the sky pales. The clouds thin and roll back. The city is swept clean and sparkling, the red and gray roofs gleaming in the wan sunlight. The sea is as smooth as glass.
And, except for the mass of Karkaun ships bobbing well off the coast, it is empty.
The Martial fleet is gone.
“You did not listen.” The Pater who speaks is the head of Gens Serica, a wealthy family of silk merchants who have long been established in the south. My father considered him a friend. The man is pale; his hands shake. There is no venom to his words, because he is in shock. “And the fleet—the city—”
“I did warn you, Blood Shrike.” As Keris speaks, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Her gaze is cold, but the spot of triumph she’s buried deep within shows itself. What the skies?
We just lost the entire bleeding fleet. Thousands of men. Even the Commandant couldn’t have anything to rejoice in the death of her own people.
Unless that was her plan this entire time.
Which, I now realize, it must have been. In one swoop, she has undermined my authority, destroyed my reputation, and guaranteed that the Paters will turn to her for guidance. And all it cost her was the entire bleeding fleet. The plan is repugnant—evil—and because of that, I did not even consider it. But I should have.
Know your enemy.
Bleeding skies. I should have realized she would never hand over power so easily.
And yet she couldn’t have known the storm was coming. None of us could have, not with the sky so clear and the threatening cloud bank so distant.
Suddenly—and far too late for it to be any use—I remember the Nightbringer. After delivering me to the Island, he disappeared. I thought nothing more of him. But what of his power? Can he create storms?
And if so, would the Commandant have requested it of him? She could have proved my incompetence in a thousand ways. Losing the entire fleet seems excessive. Even with me out of the way, how will she defend Navium with no navy?
No, something else is going on. Some other game. But what is it?
I look to Dex, who shakes his head, stricken. I cannot bring myself to look at Harper.
“I will go to the beach to see if anything can be salvaged from the wrecks,” the Commandant says. “If I have your leave, Shrike.”
The Paters file out of the room, no doubt to take the news to the rest of their Gens. Keris trails them. At the door, she stops. Turns. She is the Commandant again, and I the ignorant student. Her eyes are exultant— and predatory. The exact opposite of what they should be, considering our loss.
Keris smiles, a smirk from a murderess sharpening her blades for the kill. “Welcome to Navium, Blood Shrike.”