Chapter no 28 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

Night is thick on Navium when I jerk out of sleep.

“The beach.” I don’t realize I’ve spoken the words aloud until I hear the creak of armor. Avitas, keeping watch in a chair near my door, shudders awake, scim in hand.

“Some guard you make.” I snort. “You were fast asleep.” “My apologies, Shrike,” he says stiffly. “I have no excuse—”

I roll my eyes. “That was a joke.” I swing my legs out of the bed and search around for my breeches. Avitas reddens and faces the wall, drumming his fingers on his dagger’s hilt.

“Don’t tell me you’ve not seen a naked soldier before, Captain.” A long pause, then a chuckle, low and husky. It makes me feel . . .

strange. Like he’s about to tell me a secret. Like I would lean in closer to hear it. “Not one like you, Blood Shrike.”

Now my skin feels hot, and I open my mouth, trying to think of a retort. Nothing. Skies, I’m relieved he can’t see me over here, red as a tomato and gaping like a fish. Don’t act the fool, Shrike. I lace my pants, throw on a tunic, and grab my armor, pushing away my embarrassment. At Blackcliff, I saw Dex, Faris, Elias—all of my friends—stripped down to absolutely nothing, and I didn’t bat an eyelid. I’m not about to humiliate myself with blushes over this.

“I have to get to the beach.” I yank on my bracers, wincing at the twinge in my stomach. “I have to see if . . .” I don’t want to say it or even think it, in case I’m utterly deluded.

“Would you care to explain that first?” Harper nods to my stomach.

Right. He saw me heal myself. He heard what the Nightbringer said. “I would not.”

“Silvius—the physician—came to check on you at Dex’s request. I didn’t let him in. Told him Dex exaggerated the seriousness of your wound. And he mentioned that a group of children in the Aquilla infirmary saw miraculous improvement in a very short span of time.” Harper pauses, and when I say nothing, he sighs in exasperation. “I’m your second, Shrike, but I don’t know your secrets. And so I cannot protect you when others try to ferret them out.”

“I don’t need protection.”

“You are second-in-command of the Empire,” he says. “If you didn’t need protection, it would be because no one saw you as a threat. Needing protection is not a weakness. Refusing to trust your allies is.” Harper’s voice rarely rises above the familiar monotone of a Mask. Now it cracks like a whip, and I gaze at him in surprise.

Shut it, and get out. I don’t have time for this. I only just stop myself from saying it. Because he’s not wrong.

“You’ll want to sit down for this,” I say. When I finish telling him of the magic—the efrit, healing Elias and then Laia, and all that came after

—he looks thoughtful. I expect him to ask questions, to delve deeper, to push for more.

“No one will know of it,” he says. “Until you’re ready. Now—you mentioned the beach.”

I am surprised that he moved on so quickly. But I am thankful too. “I heard a story when I was young,” I say. “About the Nightbringer—a jinn whose people were imprisoned by the Scholars. Who has lived for a thousand years fueled by the desire to wreak vengeance on them.”

“And this is relevant because . . .”

“What if there is a war coming? Not the war with the Karkauns, but a bigger war.” I can’t explain the feeling I got when Cook spoke of it. A shiver on my skin. Her words had the weight of truth to them. I think back to what Quin said of the Nightbringer. What does he want? Will she get it for him? What could she be doing for the Paters that they would agree to let that swine Grímarr wreak havoc in the poor parts of the city?

“You heard the Nightbringer. The Commandant isn’t an ally or a compatriot. She’s his servant. If he wants a war with the Scholars, then she’s the one who will help him carry it out. She’s destroyed the Scholars within the Empire. Now she looks to those who have escaped.”

“To Marinn.” Harper shakes his head. “She’d need a fleet to take on the Mariners. Their navy is unparalleled.”

“Exactly.” I curse in pain as I pull on my armor, and Avitas is at my side in a second, buckling it with careful fingers. “Though I wonder— Keris wouldn’t help the Nightbringer out of loyalty. You heard Quin.

She’s loyal only to herself. So what’s he offering her in return?” “The Empire,” Harper says. “The throne. Though if that were the

case, why did he save your life?”

I shake my head. I do not know. “I need to get to the beach,” I say. “I’ll explain later. Get me those reports on the Paters and their holdings.

Tell the Plebeians about the infirmaries and the shelters. Open more— seek the help of our allies. Requisition houses if you must. Make sure the flag of the Shrike and the flag of the Emperor fly wherever the Plebeians are offered shelter. If I’m right, we’re going to need Plebeian support soon.”

I find a dark cloak, tuck my hair under a scarf, and slip out the door, every sense heightened. I feel the pull of the Plebeians who lie injured in the courtyard of the Black Guard barracks, but I force myself to ignore them. Tonight, I must work a different sort of magic.

Though I take the tunnels into the city, eventually I ascend into Navium’s streets. The Commandant has patrols out everywhere, watching for Karkauns attempting to penetrate the city. Though the beach is only two miles from the Black Guard barracks, it takes me nearly three hours to get there—and even then, I double back twice to make sure I wasn’t followed.

When I close in on the beach, I spy the guards immediately. Most lurk along the low, rugged cliffs that run down to the wide swath of sand. But many patrol the beach itself.

Ostensibly, the soldiers are here to ensure that Grímarr doesn’t land his men on the beaches without anyone knowing. But if that were the only reason, there wouldn’t be so many of them. No, there’s another reason they’re here. The Commandant is taking no chances. She must know that I recovered.

I slip from the shadow of a bungalow and scurry toward a shed barely taller than I am. Once ensconced, I check my kerchief, slather my mask with mud from a tin I’ve brought with me, and bolt for the corner of a tackle shop that lies even closer to the beach.

I edge nearer until finally, I am close enough to realize that there is no way to get down to that beach without someone noticing. Not without backup, anyway. Bleeding, burning skies.

I wish suddenly for Elias. Impossible jobs with low likelihood of success are Elias’s forte. Somehow, he always pulled them off, no matter the cost—and usually with a cheeky comment. It was both inspiring and irritating.

But Elias isn’t here. And I can’t risk getting caught. Frustrated, I back away—which is when a shadow appears beside me. My scim is half-drawn when a hand clamps over my mouth. I bite it and elbow my attacker, who hisses in pain but, like me, remains silent, lest the Commandant’s men hear. Cedar. Cinnamon.

“Harper?” I hiss.

“Bleeding hells, Shrike,” he gasps. “You’ve sharp elbows.”

“You idiot.” Skies, I wish I didn’t have to whisper. I wish I could turn the full force of my rage against him. “What the hells are you doing here? I gave you orders—”

“I passed Dex your orders.” Harper at least looks somewhat apologetic, but that does little to soften my anger. “This is a two-Mask job, Shrike. Shall we get to it before we’re discovered?”

Curse him, he is aggravating. More so because he’s right. Again. I elbow him a second time, knowing it’s childish but delighting in his pained oof.

“Go distract those fools.” I nod to the nearest cluster of guards. “And make it good. If you’re here, you might as well not muck it up.”

He disappears, and not an hour later, I am flitting away from the beach, having seen what I needed to see. Harper meets me at our prearranged spot, only slightly worse for wear after tricking the soldiers into thinking that a Karkaun raiding party had turned up nearby.

“Well?” he asks.

I shake my head. I don’t know whether to be thrilled or horrified. “Get me a horse,” I say. “I’ve a cove I need to visit. And figure out a

way to get in touch with Quin.” I look back at the beach, still littered with the remnants of destroyed ships. “If this is as bad as I think it is, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”



More than a week after I nearly died in Navium’s streets and a month after I arrived in the city, Grímarr launches his final assault. It

comes at midnight. Karkaun sails bob perilously close to shore, and drums from the eastern watchtower convey the worst: Grímarr is preparing to launch small craft to ferry his ground forces to Navium. He is sick of waiting. Sick of having his supply lines cut off by Keris. Sick of being starved out. He wants the city.

Navium’s catapults are a blur of fire and stone, a paltry defense against the hundreds of ships shooting flaming projectiles into the city. From the Island, the Commandant issues orders to the 2,500 men waiting in the ruins of the Southeast Quarter, where the Karkauns are expected to land. They are, Dex tells me, mostly auxes. Plebeians. Good men, many of whom will die if my plan doesn’t work.

Dex finds me in the courtyard of the Black Guard barracks, where the Plebeians who have taken shelter grow increasingly agitated. Many have family members who will face off with Grímarr and his hordes today. All have been forced to flee their homes. With every minute that passes, the chances that they’ll have anything to return to grow less likely.

“We’re ready, Shrike,” Dex says.

At my order, two dozen men—men who have done nothing but follow orders—will die. Runners, drum-tower guards, the drummers themselves. If we want to beat Grímarr, we must beat the Commandant

—and that means cutting her lines of communication. We can take no chances. After the drums are silenced, we will have minutes—if that—to enact our plan. Everything must go right.

You want to destroy her? You have to become her first.

I give Dex the order and he disappears, a group of twenty men going with him. Moments later, Avitas arrives with a scroll. I hold it up—the mark of Keris Veturia, a K, is clearly visible to the Plebeians closest to me. The news spreads quickly. Keris Veturia, commander of the city, the woman who has allowed the Plebeian sectors of Navium to burn, has sent the Blood Shrike and the Black Guard a message.

I send a silent thank-you to Cook, wherever she is. She got me that seal, risking herself in the process, delivering it to me with a terse warning: Whatever you have planned, it better be good. Because when she hits back, it will be hard, in the place you least expect it, in the place where it will hurt the most.

I open the missive—which is empty—pretend to read it, and crush it, casting it into the closest fire, as if in a rage.

The Plebeians watch, resentment simmering. Almost there. Almost.

They are dry tinder ready to burst into flames. I have spent a week preparing them, slipping them stories of the Commandant feasting with Navium’s Paters while the Plebeians starve. From there, the rumors bloom: Keris Veturia wants the Karkaun ships to create a personal merchant fleet. The Paters will allow the merciless warlock Grímarr to ransack the Southeast Quarter if the Illustrian and Mercator districts are saved. Lies all, but each has enough truth to be plausible—and wrath-inducing.

“I will not accept this.” I speak loudly enough for the room to hear. My rage is an act, but I quickly stoke it into reality. All I have to do is recall Keris’s crimes: She gave up thousands of lives just to get her hands on those ships for the Nightbringer’s war. She persuaded a passel

of weak-minded Paters to put their greed ahead of their people. She is a traitor, and this is the first step to taking her down.

“Shrike.” Avitas takes a step back, playing his part with impressive skill. “Orders are orders.”

“Not this time,” I say. “She cannot just sit there in that tower—a tower she stole from the finest admiral this city ever knew—and expect that we won’t challenge her.”

“We don’t have the men—”

“If you go to challenge Keris Veturia”—a Black Guard ally planted amid the crowd and dressed in Plebeian clothing speaks up—“then I will go with you. I have grievances of my own.”

“And I.” Two more men stand, both allies of Gens Aquilla and Gens Atria. I look to the rest of the Plebeians. Come on. Come on.

“And I.” The woman who speaks is not one of mine, and when she stands, her hands on a cudgel, she is not alone. A younger woman beside her, who looks to be a sister, stands with her. Then a man behind her.

“And I!” More chime in, urged on by those around them, until all are on their feet. It is a replica of the riot Mamie Rila planned—except this time, the rioters are at my back.

As I turn to leave, I note that Avitas has disappeared. He will bring the aux soldiers whom he turned to our cause, as well as Plebeians from the other shelters we’ve opened.

We spill into the streets, heading for the Island, and when Harper finds me with his people, I have a mob at my back. Avitas marches by my side, a torch in one hand, his scim in the other. For once, his face is angry instead of calm. Harper is Plebeian, but like all Masks, he keeps his emotions close. I never once thought to ask him how he felt about what was happening in the Plebeian quarters.

“Eyes ahead, Shrike.” He glances at me, and I’m unnerved that he seems to know what I’m thinking. “Whatever you’re feeling guilty about, you can deal with it later.”

When we finally reach the bridge to the Island, the city guards, alerted to our approach, close ranks. As I march up to them, an aux bursts through the crowd, exactly on time.

“The Karkauns have attacked the drum towers,” he says breathlessly to the captain of the city guard, a Plebeian himself. “They’ve killed the drummers and the guards. There’s no way for the Commandant to communicate with the men.”

“The city will fall if you do not move,” I say to the guard captain. “Let me past and be remembered as a hero. Or continue to defend her

and die a coward.”

“No need for dramatics, Blood Shrike.”

Across the bridge, the large wooden doors that lead to the Island tower are open. The Commandant emerges, backed by a dozen Paters. Her cold voice shakes, the slightest tremor of rage. Behind her, the Paters take in the scims and torches and angry faces arrayed before them.

Silently, the guards stand aside, and we cross the bridge.

“Shrike,” the Commandant says. “You do not understand the delicate workings of—”

“We’re dying out here!” an angry voice calls out. “While you dine on roast fowl and fresh fruit in a tower that doesn’t belong to you.”

I hide a smirk. One of the Paters had a shipment of fruit delivered to the Island three days ago. I ensured that news of that delivery got back to the Plebeians.

“General Veturia!” A runner arrives from the Southeast Quarter, and this time it’s not one of mine. “The Karkauns have made landfall. The warlock Grímarr leads the charge, and his men are pouring into the Quarter. There—there are reports of pyres being built. A group of Martials who were caught refused to swear fealty to Grímarr and were thrown on the pyre. Our troops need orders, sir.”

Keris hesitates. It’s just one moment. One instant of weakness. You want to destroy her? You have to become her first.

“I am taking control of this military operation.” I shove past her, past the Paters, and motion Avitas and the aux soldiers who have moved to the front of the crowd to follow. “You have been relieved of duty, Keris Veturia. You are welcome to observe, as are the Paters.” Let this work.


I head up the winding stairs, Avitas and the auxes at my back. When we reach the Island’s command level, Avitas lights a blue-fire torch and we keep moving, up to the roof. All our hopes lie in that torch. It seems so small now, insignificant in the great dark night.

He waves it thrice. We wait. And wait.

Bleeding skies. We can’t have gotten the timing right on every part of this plan only for it to go wrong now.

“Shrike!” Harper points to the western sea, where, from behind a craggy hook of land, a forest of masts emerges.

The Martial fleet.

Gasps echo from the Plebeians who I ensured followed us up to the top of the tower. To a man, the Paters appear either ill or terrified.

As for the Commandant—in the years I have known her, I’ve never seen her shocked or even mildly surprised. Now, her face and knuckles go so white she could be a corpse.

“The fleet didn’t sink that night,” I hiss at her. “It sailed away. And you had your jinn master stir up old shipwrecks to wash to shore so that our people would believe the Martial fleet had gone under and that I was to blame. I went to the beach, Keris, got past all your guard dogs. The masts, the sails, all the detritus that washed up—they were from ships that must have been under the sea for decades.”

“Why would I hide the fleet? That’s preposterous.”

“Because you need those ships for the Nightbringer’s war with Marinn and the Scholars,” I snap at her. “So you thought you’d wait out the Karkauns. Let a few thousand Plebeians die. Let that bastard Grímarr attack on land. Decimate his forces. Steal his ships. Suddenly, you’d have a fleet twice the size of the Mariners’.”

“Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius will never follow your orders.”

“So you admit that they’re alive?” I almost laugh. “I’d wondered why their Gens mourned while their wives didn’t appear upset at all.”

Navium’s drum towers suddenly begin thundering orders, my own drummers sending messages in place of those Dex and his men killed. A squad of runners appears from the base of the watchtower; they had only been awaiting my signal. I relay orders to the men in the Southwest Quarter, who by now must be facing pitched battles with the Karkaun invaders.

The Commandant, I notice, edges toward the stairs. Almost immediately, she is flanked by my men, who halt her retreat. I want her to watch. I want her to witness her plan unravel.

Avitas holds out one last torch, and I take it first to the southern part of the tower, near the sea, and then north, toward the war harbor.

The heavy clank of channel chains dropping is audible even from here. From the war harbor, the last of the fleet—those two dozen ships we didn’t send out—emerges.

None of the hundreds of Plebeians watching from the bridge below could mistake the flags flying upon the masts: two crossed swords on a field of black. The original flag of Gens Veturia, before Keris added her foul to it.

Nor could anyone mistake the identity of the proud, white-haired figure standing at the helm of the lead vessel.

“Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius are dead,” I say to Keris. “The fleet now answers to Admiral Quin Veturius. Veturia men—true Veturia men—man the fleet, along with volunteers from Gens Atria.”

I know the moment that Keris Veturia understands what I’ve done.

The moment when she realizes that her father, whom she had thought to be in hiding, has arrived. The moment that she realizes I have bested her. Sweat beads on her brow, and she clenches and unclenches her fists. The neck of her uniform is open, unbuttoned in agitation. I spot her tattoo: ALW—

When she catches me looking, her lips go thin and she yanks up the collar.

“It did not have to be this way, Blood Shrike.” The Commandant’s voice is soft, as it always is when she is at her most dangerous. “Remember that, before the end. If you’d just gotten out of the way, you could have saved so many. But now . . .” She shrugs. “Now I will have to resort to harsher measures.”

A chill ripples across my shoulders, but I force myself to shake it off and turn to the Black Guards, all from allied Gens. “Get her to the interrogation cells.” I do not watch them take her away. Instead, I turn to the Paters.

“What did she offer you?” I say. “A market for your goods? For your weapons, Pater Tatius? And your grain, Pater Modius? For your horses, Pater Equitius, and your lumber, Pater Lignius? War creates such opportunity for greedy, cowardly swindlers, does it not?”

“Shrike.” Avitas translates a drum message. “Grímarr turns his forces back. He’s seen the attack on the ships. He goes to defend his fleet.”

“It won’t do any good.” I speak only to the Paters. “The southern seas will run red with the blood of the Karkauns tonight,” I say. “And when the people of Navium tell this story, they will speak your names the same way they speak of the Karkauns: with disgust and scorn. Unless you swear your fealty to Emperor Marcus Farrar and your loyalty to me in his place. Unless you get your men and yourselves onto those ships”—I nod to the vessels emerging from the war harbor—“and fight the enemy yourselves.”

It doesn’t take long. Dex remains at the Island to oversee the battle and get the Plebeians back to safety. Avitas and I take the last ship out at my insistence. My blood rises, hungry for a fight, raring to have my revenge on those Barbarian bastards, to pay them back for weeks of bombardment. I will find Grímarr. I will make him hurt.

“Shrike.” Avitas, who disappeared belowdecks, returns holding a gleaming war hammer.

“I found this at the Aquilla manor,” he says, “when I was checking through the supplies. Look.”

The black metal is emblazoned with four words I know well. Loyal to the end.

The hammer fits in my hand as if I was born for it, neither too heavy nor too light. One end has a sharp hook to use for quick kills, and the blunt end is perfect for bashing heads.

Before the end of the night, the hammer sees both. When the sky finally pales, only a dozen Barbarian ships remain, and they all make a swift retreat south, with Quin Veturius in hot pursuit. Though I hunted him, Grímarr the warlock priest eluded me. I caught a single glimpse of him, tall and pale and deadly. He still lives—but not for long, I think.

The shouts of the men of our fleet fill me with fierce joy. We won. We won. The Karkauns are gone. Quin will destroy those who remain. The Plebeians backed me. And the Commandant is imprisoned. The full extent of her treachery will soon be revealed.

I arrive back at the Black Guard barracks, armor bloodied, war hammer slung across my back. The Plebeians within give way, a cheer rising at the sight of me, Harper, and my men.

“Blood SHRIKE. Blood SHRIKE.”

The chants propel me up the stairs to my quarters, where a missive waits, sealed with Emperor Marcus’s sigil. I already know what it is: a pardon for Quin Veturius, reinstatement as Pater of his Gens, and a new posting for him—as Navium’s fleet admiral. I requested it days ago, via secret drum message. Marcus, after much convincing from Livia, granted it.

“Blood SHRIKE. Blood SHRIKE.”

Someone knocks on my door, and Avitas opens it to an ashen-faced Dex. My body turns to lead at his expression.

“Shrike.” His voice is choked. “A drum message just came in from Antium. You’re to leave all unfinished matters and return immediately to the capital. The Empress—your sister—has been poisoned.”

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