Chapter no 40 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

“I’m not going to the Augurs,” I say to Marcus. I remember well what Cain told me just weeks ago. I will see you once more,

before your end. “You don’t understand, they—”

“Grow a bleeding spine, Shrike.” Marcus grabs my arm and begins to drag me from the throne room. “Those eerie bastards scare everyone. We have an invasion to worry about, and they can see the future. You’re coming with me to their foul little cave. Unless you want to find out if you really can heal your sister’s shattered kneecaps.”

“Damn you—”

He backhands me and grimaces, grabbing his head. I wipe the blood from my mouth and look around as he mutters to himself. The throne room is empty, but there are still guards nearby.

“Pull yourself together,” I hiss. “We don’t need Keris hearing about this.”

Marcus takes a steadying breath and glowers at me.

“Shut it.” The softness of his growl does nothing to lessen its menace. “And move.”

The pilgrims usually clogging the trail to Mount Videnns have fled, ordered back down to the city to prepare for Grímarr’s approach. The path up to the Augurs’ cave is empty but for Marcus, me, and the dozen Masks who serve as Marcus’s personal guard. The entire way, I try to leash my rage. I must not act on it. As much as I hate them, they are the holy men of the Empire. Hurting one could lead to horrible consequences, and if something happens to me, then Livia and her son go unprotected.

I curse myself. Even now, even when I loathe them, some part of me is still trained to respect them. The push and pull of it makes me sick to my stomach. Just get Marcus up there and let him do the talking. Don’t engage. Don’t ask questions. Don’t let them say anything to you. Tell them you don’t want to hear whatever it is they have to say.

The storm that has raged all morning squats over the mountains, soaking us and turning the path to the Augurs’ home into a treacherous, slippery death trap. By the time we make our way across the wide rock

bowl that leads to the cave, we are covered in mud and cuts, which puts Marcus in an even fouler mood than usual.

The Augurs’ cave is dark, without a hint of life, and I briefly hold out hope that the seers will not allow us within. It is well-known that they can keep out whomever they wish to.

But as we approach the mouth of the cave, blue light flares, and a shadow detaches from the rock, red eyes visible even at a distance. When we draw closer, the shadow speaks. It is the same Augur who let me in last time.

“Emperor Marcus Farrar. Blood Shrike,” she says. “You are welcome here. Your men, however, must remain behind.”

Like the last time I came here, the Augur walks me down a long tunnel that glows sapphire from blue-fire lamps. I grip my scims as I think back to that day. First you will be unmade. First you will be broken.

I was still Helene Aquilla then. Now I am someone new. Though my mental shield didn’t work against the Nightbringer, I use it anyway. If the red-eyed fiends want to root around in my head, they should at least know they aren’t welcome.

When we get deeper into the mountain, another Augur awaits us, one I cannot name. But from Marcus’s sharp intake of breath, it’s clear the Emperor knows her.

“Artan.” Marcus says the name the same way I snarl Cain’s.

“Long have the emperors of the Martials come to the Augurs in times of need,” Artan says. “You seek counsel, Emperor Marcus. I am honor bound to offer it. Sit, please. I will speak with you.” She gestures to a low bench before clearing her throat and glancing at me. “Alone.”

The same woman who escorted us in takes my arm and guides me away. She does not speak as we walk. Distantly, I hear the drip of water and then what sounds like the ping of steel. It echoes again and again, a strange and incongruent tattoo.

We enter a circular cavern, black gems glimmering along its walls, and Cain steps from the shadows. Without thinking, I reach for my blade.

“Nay, Shrike.” Cain lifts a withered hand, and my own freezes. “There is no threat here.”

I force my hand away from my scim, casting about for something— anything—to distract me from my rage.

“What’s that sound?” I say of the strange ping-ping-ping. “It’s irritating.”

“Just the caves singing their stories,” Cain says. “A few are filled with crystal, others with water. Many are as tiny as houses, others are large enough to hold a city. But always, they sing. Some days we can hear the horns of the riverboats leaving Delphinium.”

“Delphinium is hundreds of miles away,” I say. Bleeding hells. I knew there were caves and tunnels under the city, but I didn’t know that the Augurs’ caves were so extensive. The land to the west of here is solid rock, the only caves inhabited by bears and wildcats. I assumed the mountains to the east are the same.

Cain watches me thoughtfully. “You are much changed, Blood Shrike.

Your thoughts are closed.”

Satisfaction courses through me—I’ll have to tell Harper.

“Did the Meherya teach you, as he did the Farrars?” At my mystified look, Cain clarifies. “You refer to him as the Nightbringer.”

“No,” I snap, and then, “Why do you call him Meherya? Is that his name?”

“His name, his history, his birthright, his curse. The truth of all creatures, man or jinn, lies in their name. The Nightbringer’s name was his making. And it will be his unmaking.” He tilts his head. “Did you come to ask about the Nightbringer, Blood Shrike?”

“I have no desire to be here,” I say. “Marcus ordered my presence.” “Ah. Let us make civil conversation then. Your sister—she is well?

Soon to be a mother, of course.”

“If the Commandant doesn’t kill her first,” I say. “If she survives childbirth.” And even though I do not wish to, I seek the answer to those questions in his eyes. I find nothing.

He paces around the cave, and unwillingly I fall into step with him. “The Tribespeople say that the heavens live under the feet of the

mother,” he says. “So great is their sacrifice. And indeed no one suffers in war more than the mother. This war will be no different.”

“Are you saying Livia is going to suffer?” I want to shake the answer from him. “She’s safe now.”

Cain fixes me with his stare. “No one is safe. Have you not yet learned that lesson, Blood Shrike?” Though he sounds merely curious, I sense an insult in his words, and my fingers inch toward my war hammer.

“You wish to cause me pain,” Cain says. “But already, my every breath is torture. Long ago, I took something that did not belong to me. And I—and my kin—have spent every moment since paying for it.”

At my utter lack of sympathy, he sighs. “Soon enough, Blood Shrike,” he says, “you will see my brethren and me brought low. And you shall need no hammer nor blade, for we shall undo ourselves. The time to atone for our sins approaches.” His attention shifts to the hallway behind me. “As it does for your emperor.”

A moment later Marcus appears, face grim. I nod a curt goodbye to Cain. I hope I never bleeding see him again.

As we walk out of the tunnel and down to our men, clustered between boulders to escape the lashing rain, Marcus looks over at me.

“You will be in charge of the defense of the city,” Marcus says. “I will tell the generals.”

“Most of them are far more seasoned than I am at dealing with marauding armies, my lord.”

“The strength of the butcher bird is the strength of the Empire, for she is the torch against the night. Your line will rise or fall with her hammer; your fate will rise or fall with her will.”

When Marcus looks at me, I know for an instant how Cain must have felt when I looked at him. Pure hate radiates from the Emperor. And yet he is strangely diminished. He is not telling me everything the Augur said.

“Did—did the Augur say anything el—”

“That hag hasn’t been wrong yet,” Marcus says. “Not about me. Not about you. So whether you like it or not, Shrike, Antium’s defense is in your hands.”

It is deep night by the time we approach the northern gates to the capital. Teams of Plebeians fortify the walls, a legionnaire bellowing at them to work faster. The acrid reek of tar fills the air as soldiers lug buckets of it up ladders to the top of our defenses. Fletchers transport wagonloads of arrows divided into tubs for the archers to grab easily.

Though the moon is high, it seems as if there is not a single sleeping soul in the city. Vendors hawk food and ale, and Scholar slaves carry water to those working.

This will not last. When the Karkauns come, the civilians will be forced to retreat into their homes to wait and see whether their brothers and fathers, uncles and cousins, sons and grandsons can hold the city.

But in this moment, as all the people come together, unafraid, my heart swells. Come what may, I am glad I am here to fight with my people.

And I am glad I am the Blood Shrike charged with leading the Martials to victory.

And I will lead them to victory—over the Karkauns and the Commandant.

Marcus appears to notice none of this. He is lost in thought, striding forward without looking at all those who labor for his empire.

“My lord,” I say. “Perhaps take a moment to acknowledge the workers.”

“We have a bleeding war to plan, you fool.”

“Wars succeed or fail based on the men who fight them,” I remind him. “Take one moment. They will remember.”

He regards me with irritation before breaking away from his men to speak with a group of aux soldiers. I watch from a distance, and from the corner of my eye I notice a group of children. One—a girl—wears a wooden, silver-painted mask over her face as she fights a slightly smaller girl, who is presumably posing as a Barbarian. The clack of their wooden swords is just one more instrument in the frantic symphony of a city preparing for war.

The masked girl spins under the other’s scim before delivering a kick to her bottom and pinning her with a boot.

I smile and she looks up, pulling off her mask hastily. She offers a clumsy salute. The other girl—who I realize must be a younger sister— stares openmouthed.

“Elbow up.” I fix the girl’s arm. “Hand perfectly straight, and the tip of your middle finger should be at the center of your forehead. Keep your eyes on the space between you and me. Try not to blink too much.” When she’s got it, I nod. “Good,” I say. “Now you look like a Mask.”

“Chryssa says I’m not big enough.” She looks to her still-staring sister. “But I’m going to fight the Karkauns when they come.”

“Then we’ll surely defeat them.” I look between the girls. “Take care of each other,” I say. “Always. Promise me.”

As I walk away, I wonder if they will remember the vow they made me ten years from now, twenty. I wonder if they’ll still be alive. I think of Livvy, far away, I hope. Safe. That fact is the only thing that gives me comfort. We will defeat Grímarr’s army. We are the superior fighting force. But the warlock is a clever adversary and it will be a hard battle.

Skies know what will happen in that chaos. Cain’s words haunt me: No one is safe. Curse the Commandant for bringing this upon us out of her greed. Curse her for caring more about becoming Empress than about the Empire she seeks to rule.

Marcus shouts at me to get moving. When we return to the palace, it is a hive of activity. Horses, men, weaponry, and wagons clog the gates

as the palace guards sandbag the outer walls and hammer in planks across the entrance gates. With so many people coming in and out, it will be difficult to keep the place secure against the Commandant’s spies— and her assassins.

Come for Marcus, Keris, I think. Do my work for me. But you’ll never get your hands on my sister or her child again. Not while I live and breathe.

As we approach the throne room, there’s a buzz in the air. I think one of the courtiers whispers Keris’s name, but Marcus walks too fast for me to linger and listen. The throne room doors fly open as Marcus strides toward them. A sea of Illustrian nobles mills within, waiting to hear what the Emperor will say about the approaching army. I feel no fear in the air, only a grim sense of determination and a strange tension, as if everyone knows a secret they aren’t willing to share.

The source of it becomes apparent moments later, as the waves of Illustrians part to reveal a small blonde woman in bloodied armor standing beside a tall, equally blonde woman heavy with child.

The Commandant has returned to Antium. And she has brought my sister with her.

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