Chapter no 33 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

I cannot celebrate the fact that I have saved Livia and thus thwarted the Commandant. Marcus knows now what I can do, and though he said

little after discovering me, it is only a matter of time before he uses the knowledge against me.

But worse than that is the fact that within days of arriving in Antium, I learn that Keris has managed to procure her freedom.

“The Illustrian Paters discovered a bleeding loophole.” Marcus paces in his private study, boots crunching against the shattered remnants of a table he destroyed in a fit of rage. “It doesn’t allow the head of an Illustrian Gens to be imprisoned for longer than a week without the approval of two-thirds of the other Illustrian Gens.”

“But she’s not Mater of Gens Veturia.”

“She was when you threw her in jail,” Marcus says. “Apparently, that’s what matters.”

“She let thousands die in Navium.”

“Skies, you are stupid,” Marcus groans. “Navium is a thousand leagues away. The Illustrians and Mercators there can do nothing to help us. They couldn’t even keep her locked up. Her allies in Antium are already spreading some ridiculous story about how she wasn’t to blame in Navium. Would that I could lop all their heads off.” He cocks his head, muttering, “Cut off one, and a dozen more appear in their place—I know, I know—”

Bleeding skies. He’s talking to his brother’s ghost again. I wait for him to stop, and when he doesn’t, I back away, willing him not to notice and closing the door quietly behind me. Harper waits outside, fidgeting at the mutters coming from the study.

“Keris will be here in a little more than two weeks,” I say as we emerge into the noon sunshine. “And all the more dangerous for the time she spent in a cage.” I glance back at the palace. “Marcus is spending more time talking to his brother’s ghost, Harper. The moment Keris gets here, she’ll try to take advantage of it. Get a message to Dex.” My friend remained in Navium to help oversee the rebuilding of the destroyed parts

of the city. “Tell him to get eyes on her. And tell him I need him back here as soon as possible.”

An hour later Harper finds me pacing in my study, and we set to work. “The Plebeians are suspicious of Keris after what happened in Navium,” I say. “Now we have to destroy the Illustrians’ confidence in her.”

“We go after her character,” Avitas says. “Most of the Illustrian Paters are classist. None of her allies know Elias’s father was a Plebeian.

Release the information.”

“It’s not enough,” I say. “It was years ago, and Elias is long gone.

But . . .” I consider. “What about her do we not know? What are her secrets? That tattoo of hers—did she ever tell you anything about it when you were working with her?”

Harper shakes his head. “All I know is that it was first spotted on her nearly two decades ago, a year or so after she abandoned Elias in the Tribal desert. She was stationed in Delphinium at the time.”

“I saw it back in Navium,” I say. “Just a bit of it. The letters ALW. The ink was different. She didn’t get all three letters at once. Initials, perhaps?”

“Not initials.” Avitas’s eyes light up. “Her Gens motto: Always victorious.”

Of course. “Look through the death records of Delphinium,” I say. “There aren’t many tattooists in the Empire. Find out if any of those who lived near Delphinium died around that time. She’d have to strip down to get that tattoo, and she’d never leave whoever did it alive.”

A knock at the door jars me from my plotting. A pale-haired Plebeian corporal enters and salutes smartly.

“Corporal Favrus, sir, here to deliver the garrison reports.” At the blank look on my face, he goes on. “You requested reports from all northern garrisons last month, sir.”

I remember now. The Karkauns around Tiborum were too quiet, and I wanted to know if they were up to something. “Wait outside.”

“I can take the report,” Avitas offers. “You’ve a line of men waiting to give you more important information about Marcus’s enemies and allies, and an appearance in the yard for some training wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Take your war hammer. Remind them who you are.”

I almost tell him I’m too tired, but then I recall something I heard Quin Veturius tell Elias once: When you are weak, look to the battlefield. In battle, you will find your vigor. In battle, you will find your strength.

“I can handle intel and a bit of training,” I say. “You’re the only one I trust to find this out, Harper—and quickly. After Keris gets here, everything will become far more difficult.”

Avitas leaves, and moments later, Favrus is gabbling to me about the Karkauns.

“They have retreated into the mountains for the most part, Shrike. There has been the occasional skirmish, but nothing unusual. Tiborum has reported nothing more than a few smaller raids on the outskirts of the city.”

“Details.” I’m only half listening to him as I scan a dozen other things that need my attention.

But he doesn’t respond. I look up just in time to catch his fleeting look of disquiet before he describes the skirmishes in bare-bones terms: how many died, how many attacked.

“Corporal Favrus.” I am used to more detailed descriptions. “Can you tell me which defense maneuvers were successful and which failed? Or which clans the Karkauns hailed from?”

“I didn’t think it mattered, Shrike. The garrison commanders said the skirmishes were unimportant.”

“Everything to do with our enemies is important.” I hate having to turn Centurion on him, but he is a Mask and a Black Guard. He should know better. “What we do not know about the Karkauns could be our downfall. We all thought they were crouched around their fires, practicing unholy rites with their warlocks, when in fact famine and wars with the south pushed them to build up an enormous fleet that they used to lay waste to our largest port.”

Favrus pales and nods sharply. “Of course, Shrike,” he says. “I’ll get details on those skirmishes right away.”

I can tell he wants to leave, but my instinct tingles. Something strange is afoot, and I’ve been a Mask for too long to ignore the gnawing feeling in my gut.

As I observe the corporal, he remains stock-still, other than the sweat rolling down the side of his face. Interesting, since my office isn’t particularly warm.

“Dismissed.” I wave him away, pretending I haven’t noticed his nervousness. I consider it as I make my way to the training yard. When I arrive, the men of the Black Guard, still wary of me, give way. I swing my war hammer and call a challenge. One of the men, an Illustrian Mask from Gens Rallia who was here long before I arrived, accepts, and I tuck

the issue of Favrus at the back of my mind. Perhaps a good fight or two will rattle some answers loose.

It has been so long since I trained. I forgot the way my mind clears when all that is before me is an opponent. I forgot how good it feels to fight those who know how to fight. Masks, trained and true, bonded by the shared experience of surviving Blackcliff. I best the Illustrian swiftly, gratified when the men respond to my victory with a huzzah. After an hour, more of the men gather to watch the fights, and after two, I have no challengers left.

But I also do not have an answer to the question of Corporal Favrus. I am still mulling it over when a soldier named Alistar crosses the yard.

He’s one of Harper’s friends, a Plebeian who has served here in Antium for a dozen years. A good man—and trustworthy, according to Dex.

“Alistar.” The captain jogs toward me, curious. I’ve never singled him out before. “Do you know Corporal Favrus?”

“Of course, Blood Shrike. New to the Black Guard. He was transferred from Serra. Quiet. Keeps to himself.”

“Follow him,” I say. “I want to know everything about him. No detail is too small. Pay extra attention to his communications with the northern garrisons. He mentioned Karkaun skirmishes, but . . .” I shake my head, uneasy. “There’s something he’s not telling me.”

After Alistar is dispatched, I find the old Blood Shrike’s file on Corporal Favrus. I am wondering at the fact that he appears to be the most boring soldier ever to have entered the Black Guard when my door bursts open to reveal Silvio Rallius, his dark skin ashen.

“Blood Shrike, sir,” he says. “Please—you need to come to the palace. The Emperor—he had some sort of fit in the throne room— started screaming at someone no one else could see. And then he left for the Empress’s quarters.”

Livia! I am in a frenzy by the time I reach my sister’s chambers, where Faris paces outside the door, his footsteps heavy with rage.

“He’s inside.” His voice is choked. “Shrike, he’s not fit—he—” “Treason, Lieutenant Candelan,” I snap. Skies, doesn’t he know the

cost of saying such things? There are other guards here who will take his words back to Marcus’s enemies. There are Scholar slaves who might be in the Commandant’s employ. And then where would Livia be? “All Emperors grow . . . emotional at times. You do not know the weight of the crown. You could never understand.” It’s rubbish, but the Emperor’s Shrike must stand by his side.

At least, until I kill him.

Livia’s pain hits me like a blow to the stomach the moment I enter the room. I am so aware of her—her suffering, her hurt. And beneath that, the steady, quick heartbeat of her child blissfully unaware of the monster who sits inches from his mother.

My sister’s face is blanched, and she has one arm laid across her belly. Marcus is sprawled on a chair beside hers, trailing his hand up and down the other arm gently, like a lover would.

But I notice immediately that Livvy’s arm doesn’t look right. The angle is wrong. Because Marcus has broken it.

The Emperor lifts his yellow eyes to me. “Heal her, Blood Shrike,” he says. “I’d like to watch you do it.”

I do not waste a thought on how much I hate this man. I simply sing Livia’s song quickly, unable to bear her pain any longer. Her bones knit together, clean and strong once more.

“Interesting,” Marcus says in a dead voice. “Does it work on you?” he asks. “For example, if I demanded your war hammer and shattered your knees right now, would you be able to heal them?”

“No,” I lie smoothly, though my insides cringe in disgust. “It doesn’t work on me.”

He tilts his head. “But if I shatter her knees, you could heal them?

With your song?”

I stare at him, aghast.

“Answer the question, Shrike. Or I’ll break her other arm.”

“Yes,” I say. “Yes, I could heal her. But she’s the mother of your child


“She’s an Illustrian whore you sold to me in exchange for your miserable life,” Marcus says. “Her only use is her ability to carry my heir. As soon as he is born, I’ll cast her . . . I’ll—” The suddenness with which his face pales is staggering. He half roars, half screams, his fingers curled into claws. I look to the door, expecting Rallius and Faris to burst in at the sound of their Emperor in pain.

They do not. Probably because they are hoping that I’m the one causing it.

“Enough!” He speaks to neither me nor Livia. “You wanted this. You told me to do it. You—” Marcus grasps his head, and the moan that comes out of him is animal.

“Heal this.” He grabs my hand, crushing my fingers, and puts it on his head roughly. “Heal this!”

“I—I don’t—”

“Heal it, or I swear to the skies that when the time comes I’ll cut my child out of her while she still lives.” He grabs my left hand and slams it to the other side of his head, digging his fingers into my wrists until I hiss in pain. “Heal me.”

“Sit down.” I have never wanted to kill someone so much. I wonder, suddenly, if my healing can be used to destroy. Can I shatter his bones with a song? Stop his heart?

Skies, I’ve no idea how to heal a broken man. How does one heal hallucinations? Is that all that ails him? Does he suffer from something deeper? Is it in his heart? His mind?

All I can do is seek his song. I explore his heart first, but it is strong and steady and healthy, a heart that will beat for a long time to come. I circle his mind and finally step inside. It feels like stepping into a poisoned swamp. Darkness. Pain. Rage. And a deep, abiding emptiness. I am reminded of Cook, only this darkness is different, more wounded, whereas what lived in Cook felt like nothing at all.

I try to soothe the bits of his mind that rage, but it does nothing. I catch a glimpse of something strangely familiar: a wisp of a form— yellow eyes, dark skin, dark hair, a sad face. He could be so much more if only he did as I ask. Zacharius?

The words are whispered on the air, but I am not sure who spoke them. Skies, what have I gotten myself into? Help me, I shout in my mind, though to whom, I don’t know. My father, perhaps. My mother. I don’t know what to do.


The word is a command, not a request, and even Marcus turns at the sound. For this is a voice that cannot be ignored, not even by the overlord of the Martial Empire.

The Nightbringer stands in the middle of the room. The windows are not open. Neither is the door. From the terrified look on Livia’s face, I can tell that she too is spooked by the jinn’s sudden appearance.

“She cannot heal you, Emperor,” the Nightbringer says in his deep, unsettling voice. “You suffer no ailment. Your brother’s ghost is real. Until you submit to its will, it will give you no peace.”

“You . . .” For the first time in what feels like years, Marcus’s face holds something other than malice or hatred. He looks haunted. “You knew. Zak said he saw the future in your eyes. Look at me—look at me

—and tell me my end.”

“I do not show you your end,” the Nightbringer says. “I show you the darkest moment your future holds. Your brother saw his. You will soon

face yours, Emperor. Leave the Shrike. Leave your empress. Tend to your empire, lest your brother’s death be for naught.”

Marcus staggers away from the Nightbringer, toward the door. He cuts me a look—enough hate in that glance that I know he isn’t yet done with me—and stumbles out.

I whirl on the Nightbringer, still shaking from what I saw in Marcus’s mind. The same question I asked before is on my lips: What game are you playing? But I do not have to speak it.

“No game, Blood Shrike,” the jinn says. “The very opposite. You will see.”

You'll Also Like