Chapter no 22 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

Grímarr and his men attack the next night at sundown, just after Avitas and I return to Navium. Having destroyed much of the

Southwest Quarter, they aim now for the Southeast. The bombardment is swift and merciless, and by the time the sun has faded, the Quarter is hotter than a pyre. Drums echo from all corners of the city, ordering evacuations. The ballistae on the watchtowers sing, and the Commandant has troops amassing near the beaches in case of a land invasion, but other than that, we do not counter the Karkauns.

I know the Commandant will have me blocked from entering the Island. She’ll have a phalanx of guards around it. The very thought of it enrages me. You could fight her. You could enlist the Black Guard and lay a trail of bloody havoc.

But skies know that if Grímarr takes the city, Navium will need every soldier it can get.

I make for the Southeast Quarter with Harper, Dex, Janus Atrius, and a handful of other Black Guards at my back. The shouts and screams of men and women bring my attention back to what is before me: utter devastation. High buildings have been reduced to rubble and ash, as terrified Plebeians try desperately to escape the Quarter. Many are injured, and though there are some soldiers giving the evacuees orders, no one appears to know where the hells the Plebeians are supposed to go.

Hope is stronger than fear. It is stronger than hate. The sentiment rings through my head. Then Livia’s words: I am thankful every day for the Plebeians. Their support of both the Emperor and myself is a comfort during this trying time.

And Quin’s: She cares about one thing: power. How can I take it away from her?

A tenuous plan forms in my head. “Dex, open the Black Guard barracks. Get out the word that the Plebeians should take shelter there. Gens Aquilla has a manor north of here. It’s a half hour walk, at most. Order the caretaker to clear out the lower levels of the house and provide food, drink, and a place to sleep. We’ll be using it as an infirmary.”

“Gens Atria has a house close to the Aquilla manor.” Dex looks to his uncle, who nods.

“I’ll give the order to have it opened,” Janus says.

“Take the men.” I gesture to the other Black Guards. “Get physicians to both manors. Find medical supplies from the outer districts. And make sure every single person, physician or patient, knows that they are there by order of the Blood Shrike.”

After Dex and Janus leave with the men, I turn to Harper.

“Get me information on the assets of every Pater who was at the Island the day we arrived,” I say. “Every ship. Every last scrap of lace or drop of rum or whatever the hells they trade in. I want to know how those Paters make their money. And get eyes in the homes of Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius. Argus’s wife was spotted at the dressmaker’s spending obscene amounts of money two nights ago. I want to know why she wasn’t in mourning with the rest of the family.”

While Dex immediately took to horse, Harper merely shifts on his saddle. What in the bleeding skies is wrong with him?

“Did you not hear me? Go.

“You must have a guard with you at all times, Blood Shrike,” Avitas says. “Not because you are incapable, but because the Blood Shrike must show her strength. There is strength in numbers.”

“There is strength in winning,” I say. “To win, I need men I trust to carry out my orders.” Avitas’s jaw tenses, and he wheels his horse away.

By midnight, the bombardment has stopped. The Black Guard barracks are full of those who have escaped the Southeast Quarter, and Manor Aquilla and Manor Atria are bursting with the injured.

As I walk among the ill at Manor Aquilla, my body is drawn toward those suffering the most. The need to heal is overpowering. Dozens of songs fill my head at the sight of so much pain.

“They’re Plebeians.” Dex, who has rejoined me, shakes his head. “Every last one.”

“Blood Shrike.” A white-smocked man appears, his sharp-featured face paling at the sight of me. “I am Lieutenant Silvius. Sit, please—”

“I’m fine.” The winter in my voice has him standing taller. “Tell me what you require, Lieutenant.”

“Medicines, teas, bandages, spirits,” Silvius says. “And more hands.” “Dex,” I say, “help the lieutenant. I’ll deal with them.” I nod to an

angry crowd gathering outside the infirmary.

When I emerge, the crowd goes silent, their respect for the Blood Shrike so deeply ingrained that even in the face of their suffering, they

hold their tongues—all but one woman, who shoves through until she’s inches from my face.

“My baby boy is in there,” she whispers. “I don’t know if he’s alive, if he’s hurting or—”

“Your families are being cared for,” I say. “But you must let the physicians work.”

“Why aren’t we fighting back?” An aux soldier limps forward, uniform ripped, forehead leaking blood. “My entire family, they—” He shakes his head. “Why aren’t we fighting?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “But we will stop the Barbarians. They won’t set foot on Navium’s shores. I vow it, by blood and by bone.” The tenor of the crowd shifts—a weight has been lifted.

As the throng dissipates, I feel the tug of my healing again. Hope is stronger than fear. What if I was able to give these people a greater measure of hope?

A quick glance tells me that Lieutenant Silvius is deep in conversation with Dex. I slip across the back courtyard to the children’s wing. The nurse nods a greeting but leaves me be.

While her attention is elsewhere, I cross the room and drop beside a dark-haired child. His eyelashes curl the way mine never will, his cheeks round and ashen. I take his small, cold hand in mine and search out his song.

Sails like birds on the sea, the laugh of his father, watching for dolphins on the water—

It is pure, a shaft of sunlight falling onto a glittering ocean. I do not hum his song aloud. Instead, I sing it in my head, as I did long ago, for Cook. One bar, two, three, until weakness fills me. When I open my eyes, his face has lost its unnatural gray hue, and I move on. With each child, I do just enough to ease their pain and bring them back from the edge.

My body grows fatigued, but there are dozens of injured left. One by one, I sing them well, until I can hardly walk. I need to leave. I need to rest.

But then a whimper breaks the quiet—a little boy in the back of the infirmary, dark-haired and gray-eyed. The wound on his chest weeps into his bandage. I stumble the few steps to his bed. He is awake.

“I’m afraid,” he whispers. “The pain will soon be gone.” “No,” he says. “Of them.”

It takes me a moment to understand. “The Karkauns.”

“They’ll come back. They’ll kill us.”

I look around. A wooden tray sits nearby, thick enough to prove my point.

“See, lad, if I open my hand and try to break this wood”—I smack the tray—“nothing happens. But if I make a fist . . .” I punch through the wood easily, startling the nurse.

“We are Martials, child. We are the fist. Our enemies are the wood.

And we shall break them.”

After I find his song and he falls into slumber, I head for the door.

When I emerge into the courtyard, I’m stunned to see that dawn is only an hour or two away. The infirmary is much quieter now. On the other side of the yard, Dex stands with Silvius, his head bent thoughtfully as the physician speaks. Remembering Harper’s comment about strength in numbers, and concerned at the depth of my fatigue, I almost call out to my friend.

But I stop myself. There is a charge in the air between Dex and Silvius that makes me smile, the first time I’ve felt anything other than rage or exhaustion all day.

I head for the courtyard gate without Dex. It’s a short enough walk to the barracks.

My senses are dulled as I walk, my legs growing weaker. A platoon of soldiers patrols nearby, saluting when I pass, and I am barely able to acknowledge them. I wish then that I’d asked Dex to accompany me. I hope to the skies there’s no Karkaun assault. Right now, I couldn’t fight off a fly.

Exhausted as I am, the part of me that raged and screamed at my own impotence in the face of Grímarr’s attacks has quieted. I will sleep tonight. Maybe I’ll even dream.

A step behind me.

Dex? No. The street is empty. I squint, trying to see into the darkness.

A furtive scrape ahead of me this time—someone trying to remain unobserved.

My senses prickle. I didn’t spend a decade and a half at Blackcliff only to get accosted by some idiot a few blocks from my own barracks.

I draw my scim and summon my Shrike’s voice. “You’d be a fool to try it,” I say. “But by all means, entertain me.”

When the first dart comes flying out of the dark, I whip it out of the air by force of habit. I spent hundreds of hours deflecting missiles as a Yearling. A knife follows the dart.

“Show yourself!” I snarl. A shadow moves to my right, and I fling a throwing knife at it. The figure thuds to the ground only a dozen yards from me, clutching at his neck.

I make for him, aiming to unhood him. Filthy, traitorous coward—

But my legs will not move. Pain explodes along my side, sudden and white-hot. I look down. There’s blood everywhere.

From the infirmary? No. It’s my blood.

Walk, Shrike. Move. Get out of here.

But I cannot. I have no strength at all. I drop to my knees, able to do nothing more than watch as my life drains out of me.

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