You are Blood Shrike of the Empire. And you are meant to survive.
Who spoke the words? I try to grasp at the memory. Someone was here, on this dark street with me. A friend . . .
But when I open my eyes and pull myself to my knees, I am alone, left with nothing but the echo of those words.
My knees shake as I try to pull myself to my feet. But no matter how deeply I breathe, I can’t get any bleeding air. Because you’re losing all your blood, Shrike.
I rip off my cloak and tie it around my stomach, groaning at the pain of it. Now is when I need a damned patrol to pass, but of course the Commandant, who no doubt planned this, would make sure there was none.
But there might be more assassins. I have to get up. Get to the Black Guard barracks.
Why? a voice whispers. The darkness waits with open arms. Your family waits.
Mother. Father. I need to remember something about them. I fist my hands and feel something cold, round. I look down—a ring. A bird in flight.
You are all that holds back the darkness. Someone said those words to me. But no—those words do not matter. Not against the pain that slams through me, waves and waves of it.
You are all that holds back the darkness. The memory burns in my mind. I put a hand to my eyes, and my mask ripples. The cool metal lends me strength as nothing else can, snapping me out of my torpor.
My father spoke those words to me. Livia! The baby! The regency!
My family lives. The Empire lives. And I must protect both.
I crawl forward, teeth gritted, enraged at the tears streaming unchecked down my face at the astounding pain of my wound. Break it down. How many steps to the barracks? It’s a quarter mile from here at least. Five hundred strides at most. Five hundred strides is nothing.
What about when you get there? What if someone sees you? Will you let your men see you weak? What if someone spots you on the way? The
assassin can’t possibly be alone.
Then I will fight his accomplices too. And I will live. Because if I do not, all is lost.
I look down at my father’s ring and force myself forward, taking strength from it. I am a Mask. I am an Aquilla. I am the Blood Shrike. Pain is nothing.
I reach the wall of a nearby house and drag myself to my feet. The houses are darkened at this time of night, and though I might find aid at one of them, I might also find enemies. The Commandant is nothing if not thorough. If she sent an assassin, then she’d pay off the street where he was meant to kill me, to make sure no one helped.
Move, Shrike. I make it down the street before my legs begin feeling strange. Cold. I slow down, hoping to catch my breath. And then suddenly, I’m not moving anymore. I’m on my knees. Bleeding hells. I know this feeling. Weakness. Uselessness. Helplessness. I’ve felt it before, after Marcus stabbed me during the First Trial.
Elias saved me then. Because he was—is—my friend. How could I ever see him as anything else after what we have been through? If I am sorry for anything now, before the end, it is that I hunted him. That I hurt his family. That I hurt him.
Will I see him now? In the Waiting Place? Will he welcome me?
What folly that he is chained to that place—what folly when this world needs his light.
“You deserved better,” I whisper.
“Shrike!” The scrape of boots has me baring my teeth and brandishing my dagger. But I recognize the black hair and gold skin, and though I’m confused, I’m not really surprised, because he is my best friend, after all, and he’d never let me just die.
“Shrike, listen to me, stay awake. Stay with me.” But no—it’s not Elias. The voice doesn’t offer the slow, deep warmth of summer. It’s cool and harsh—all wrong. It’s winter. Like me. Then there’s another voice, also familiar. Dex. “There’s a physician in the Aquilla house—”
“Get him,” the cool voice says. “Help me with her armor first—she’ll be easier to carry. Careful with her stomach.”
I know the first voice now. Avitas Harper. Strange, quiet Harper.
Thoughtful and watching and filled with an emptiness that calls to me.
He works quickly to unbuckle my armor, and I stifle a moan when it comes off. Dex’s handsome, dark face, strained in the half-light,
clarifies. A good soldier. A true friend. But he’s always in pain. Always alone. Hiding.
“It’s not fair,” I whisper to him. “You should love whom you wish.
How the Empire would treat you if they knew, it’s not—”
Dex’s face pales, and he glances quickly at Avitas. “Save your strength, Shrike,” he says. Then he’s gone, and a muscled arm comes around my waist. Harper pulls my hand across his shoulders, and we take a step—another—but I am staggering. I’ve lost too much blood.
“Pick me up, you idiot,” I gasp. A moment later I am weightless, and I sigh.
“You’re going to be fine, Hel—Shrike.” A crack in Harper’s voice.
“Don’t let anyone see me,” I whisper. “This—this is undig— dignified.”
A bark of laughter. “Only you would think that while your guts are leaking out onto the damned pavement. Hold on, Blood Shrike. The barracks aren’t far.”
He makes for the front entrance, and I shake my head emphatically. “Take me through the back. The Plebeians we’re sheltering can’t see me like this—”
“We don’t have a choice. The fastest way to the infirmary is through the front door—”
“No!” I thrash and shove Harper’s chest. He doesn’t so much as twitch. “They cannot see me like this! You know what she’ll do. She’ll use it against me. The Paters already think I’m weak.”
“Captain Avitas Harper.” Harper freezes at the voice, deep and ancient and brooking no argument. “Bring her this way.”
“You get the bleeding hells away from us.” Harper backs away two steps, but the Nightbringer holds out his hands.
“I could kill you both with a thought, child,” he says softly. “If you wish for her to live, bring her.”
Harper hesitates for a moment and then follows. I want to protest, but my mouth is unable to form words. His body is taut as a wire pulled tight, heart thudding swift like a river current. But his masked face is serene. Some part of me relaxes. My sight darkens. Ah, sleep . . .
“Stay with me, Shrike.” Harper speaks sharply, and I groan in protest. “Keep your eyes open. You don’t have to speak. All you have to do is stay awake.”
I force myself to focus on the swirling robes of the Nightbringer. He whispers, but I cannot make out the words. A brick wall that rose before
us disappears. Magic! Moments later, the barracks come into view. The guards stationed outside look up, hands on their scims. But the Nightbringer speaks again, and they turn away as if they haven’t seen us.
“Set her down, Captain.” We enter my quarters, and the Nightbringer gestures to my bed. “And then leave.”
Harper settles me onto the bed slowly. Still, I grimace, another wave of pain washing over me at the strain on my wound. When he backs away, I feel cold.
“I will not leave her.” He straightens and looks the Nightbringer in the face without flinching.
The Nightbringer considers. “Very well. Get out of the way.”
The jinn sits beside me on the bed. He throws back my shirt, and I catch a glimpse of his hand beneath the sleeve of his robe. It is shadowy and twisted, with an eerie glow beneath the darkness that makes me think of banked embers. I think of a day long ago in Serra, the first time I met him. I remember how he sang—just one note—and the bruises on my face healed.
“Why are you helping me?”
“I cannot help you,” the Nightbringer says. “You can, however, help yourself.”
“Can’t—can’t heal myself.”
“Your healing power allows you to recover more quickly than a normal human,” he says. Distantly, I realize that Avitas is hearing all of this. That maybe I should have had him leave the room. But I am too weak to care. “How else could you still live, child, after losing so much blood? Consider the wound, and then find your song. Do it. Now.”
The words are not a request but an order.
I hum tunelessly, fighting the pain, searching for my song. I close my eyes, and I am a girl again, comforting Hannah when she came into my bed at night, terrified of monsters. Mother would find us huddling together and sing us to sleep. Sometimes in the deep night at Blackcliff, thinking of her song brought me peace. But when I sing now, nothing happens.
Why would it? My song is not one of peace. It is one of failure and pain. My song is one of battle and blood, death and power. It is not the song of Helene Aquilla. It is the song of the Blood Shrike. And I cannot find it. I cannot wrap my mind around it.
This is it then. Cut down on the street like a drunk civvie who couldn’t tell a blade from a bottle.
The Nightbringer sings two notes. Rage, I think. Love. A raw, cold world lives in that short song—my world. Me.
I sing the two notes back to him. Two notes become four, four become fourteen. Rage for my enemies, I think. Love for my people. This is my song.
But it hurts, bleeding hells, it hurts. The Nightbringer takes my hand. “Pour the pain into me, child,” he says. “Turn it away from yourself.”
His words unleash a flood. Even as the burden of my wound transfers to him, he does not flinch. He does not move at all, his cloaked form a statue as he accepts it. My skin stitches itself back together, burning with an ache that makes me cry out.
A blade hisses as it leaves its sheath. “What the bleeding hells did you do to her?”
The Nightbringer turns to Avitas and gestures. Immediately, Harper drops the scim as if burned.
“Look.” The jinn moves, nodding down to my wound, which is now nothing but a star-shaped scar. It weeps blood, but it will not kill me.
Harper’s low oath tells me that I will soon have a great deal of explaining to do. But I can worry about that later. My body is exhausted, but when the Nightbringer releases me, I make myself sit up.
“Wait,” I whisper. “Will you tell her of this?” He knows of whom I speak.
“Why would I tell her? So that she can attempt to kill you again? I am not her servant, Blood Shrike. She is mine. She attacked you against my orders. I have no patience for defiance, thus I have thwarted her.”
“I don’t understand. Why would you help me? What do you want from me?”
“I am not helping you, Blood Shrike.” He stands and gathers his robes. “I am helping myself.”
When I wake, night has fallen, and the rafters shudder with reverberations of catapult projectiles. The Barbarians must have
recommenced their bombardment of Navium.
I am alone in my room, but my armor is hung neatly from the wall. A curse slips through my lips as I rise. My wound has gone from deadly to irritatingly painful. Stop whinging. Get your armor on. I limp to the wall,
every joint as stiff as an old woman’s in deep winter. I hope a few minutes on my feet will warm up my body enough that I can at least ride.
“Off to get yourself killed again so soon?” The familiar rasp is so unexpected that I don’t believe I’m hearing it at first. “Your mother would be appalled.”
Cook perches in the window as usual, and even with the hood, even though I’ve seen her scars before, the violence of her mangled face is jarring enough that I look away. Her cloak is ripped, her shock of white hair a bird’s nest. The yellow stains on her fingers tell me immediately who has been leaving clay statues in the Commandant’s quarters.
“I heard you got stabbed.” The Cooks drops into the room. “Thought I’d come yell at you for allowing it to happen.” She shakes her head. “You’re a fool. You should know better than to walk alone at night within a hundred miles of the Bitch of Blackcliff.”
“And leave you to kill her?” I snort. “Hasn’t worked out well for you, has it? All you’ve done is left a few disturbing statues in her quarters.”
Cook grins, an eerie thing. “I’m not trying to kill her.” She does not elaborate. Her gaze drops to my stomach. “You haven’t thanked me for murdering the other assassins who were coming for you. Or for telling Harper to stop squinting at reports so he could drag your carcass to safety.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“I trust you know that sun-eyed bastard wants something from you?” I don’t waste time asking how she knows the Nightbringer healed me.
“I don’t trust him,” I tell her. “I’m not a fool.”
“Then why did you let him help you? He’s planning a war, did you know? And he’s likely got a part in it for you. You just don’t know what it is yet.”
“A war.” I sit up. “The war with the Karkauns?”
Cook hisses, snatches a candle off a table near the door, and throws it at my head. “Not that war, stupid! The war. The one that’s been brewing since the day my idiot people decided it would be wise to attack and destroy the jinn. That’s what this is all about, girl. That’s what the Commandant is up to. It’s not just the Karkauns she wants to defeat.”
“Explain yourself,” I say. “What are you—”
“Get out of here,” she says. “Get far away from the Commandant.
She’s set on taking you down, and she’ll have her way. Go to your sister. Keep her safe. Keep that emperor of yours in check. And when the war does come, be ready for it.”
“I must take down the Commandant first,” I say. “This war you speak of—” A step sounds in the hallway beyond the door. Cook leaps into the window, one hand coiled around the frame. I notice something strange about that hand. The skin is smooth—not young like mine, but not the skin of a white-haired granny either.
Those dark blue eyes pin me. “You want to take down the Bitch of Blackcliff? You want to destroy her? You have to become her first. And you don’t have it in you, girl.”