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Chapter no 42 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

Faris and Rallius are both pale as ghosts when I meet them in Livia’s quarters, rattled by what they have just survived, each bleeding from

a dozen wounds. I have no time to coddle them. I need to know what the hells happened out there—and how Keris got the best of us again.

“It was a Karkaun attack.” Faris paces back and forth across Livia’s sitting room while her women settle her in her bedroom. “Two hundred of those woad-loving demons. They came out of bleeding nowhere.”

“They were waiting,” Rallius growls as he ties off a bandage on his leg. “Maybe not for the Empress specifically, but for an opportunity, certainly. If Keris hadn’t shown up with her men, we’d have been in a bad spot.”

“If Keris hadn’t shown up,” I say in irritation, “Grímarr and his hordes wouldn’t have either. She’s working with them. She did this so she could get to Livia. Thank the skies for you and the other Masks. She must have realized she couldn’t kill you all, so she decided to play the hero instead.”

Devious, true, but just like the Commandant. She is always adaptable. And now the Plebeians in the city are hailing her as a hero for saving the life of the half-Plebeian heir—as she probably knew they would.

“Go clean up,” I say. “Triple the watch around the Empress. I want her food tasted a day in advance. I want one or the other of you present when it is prepared. She doesn’t leave the palace. If she wants to get out, she can take a walk in the gardens.”

The men leave, and I go over and over what they have said as I await the arrival of Dex, whom I sent to get Livia’s midwife. When he finally returns—after hours—it is with a different woman from the one I’d personally chosen to tend to Livia.

“The first one is gone, Shrike,” Dex tells me as the new midwife bustles into Livia’s rooms. “Left the city, apparently. Along with every other midwife I tried to track down. This one only came because she’s a Mariner. Whomever the hells Keris Veturia sent to frighten all those women probably didn’t have a chance to get to her.”

I curse, keeping my voice low. Keris saved my sister from the Karkauns because it suited her needs—the Plebeians sing her praises. Now she’ll seek to kill Livia quietly. Plenty of women die in childbirth, especially if they are delivering without a midwife.

“What of the barracks physicians? Surely one of them can deliver a baby.”

“They know battlefield wounds, Shrike, not childbirth. That’s what midwives are for, apparently. Their words”—Dex winces at my wrath

—“not mine.”

The new midwife, a skinny Mariner with gentle hands and a booming voice that would put any Martial drill sergeant to shame, smiles at Livia, asking her a series of questions.

“Keep this one alive, Dex,” I murmur. “I don’t care if you have to put a dozen guards on her and live with her in the Black Guard barracks. You keep her alive. And find a backup. This cannot possibly be the only midwife left in the entire city.”

He nods, and though I’ve dismissed him, I notice his reluctance to leave.

“Out with it, Atrius.”

“The Plebeians,” he says. “You’ve heard that they’re rising in support of the Commandant. Well, it’s . . . gotten worse.”

“How the hells could it get worse?”

“The story about her murdering the highborn Illustrians who wronged her has been making the rounds,” Dex says. “The Paters are infuriated.

But the Plebeians are saying that Keris stood up to those more powerful than her. They’re saying that she defended a Plebeian man she loved— that she fought for one and took rightful vengeance. They’re saying the Illustrians who died got what they deserved.”

Hells. If the Commandant now has Plebeian support instead of Illustrian, I haven’t hurt her at all. I’ve just managed to shuffle her list of allies.

“Let the rumor play,” I say. At Dex’s nod, I sigh. “We’ll have to find another way to undermine her.”

At that moment, the midwife pokes her head out, gesturing me into Livia’s quarters.

“He’s strong as a bull.” She beams at me, patting Livia’s belly with affection. “He’ll bruise a rib or two before he joins us, I’d bet my life on it. But the Empress is doing fine, as is the child. A few weeks more, lass, and you’ll be holding your precious babe in your arms.”

“Should we do anything for her? Some sort of tea or . . .” I realize I sound like an idiot. Teas, Shrike? Truly?

“Goldrose petals in goat’s milk every morning until her own milk comes in,” the midwife says. “And wildwood tea twice a day.”

When the woman is finally gone, Livvy sits up, and I am surprised to see a knife clutched in her hands. “Have her killed,” she whispers.

I raise an eyebrow. “The midwife? What—”

“Goldrose petals,” Livvy says, “are used when a woman is past her due date. They’re meant to make a baby come more quickly. I’m still a few weeks away. It wouldn’t be safe for him to come now.”

I call Dex in immediately. When he leaves, weapons in hand, Livia shakes her head. “This is Keris, isn’t it? All of it. The Karkaun attack. The midwives leaving. This midwife.”

“I’ll stop her,” I vow to my sister. “I don’t expect you to believe it, because all I’ve done is fail, but—”

“No.” Livia takes my hand. “We don’t turn on each other, Hel— Shrike. No matter what happens. And yes, we must stop her. But we must also keep the support of the Plebeians. If they support Keris now, you cannot speak against her publicly. You must walk that line, sister. We cannot put this child on the throne if the Plebeians don’t see him as one of their own. And they won’t—not if you cross Keris.”

 

 

Evening sees me in Marcus’s war room, locked in an argument with the Paters, wanting nothing more than to beat all of them into silence

before doing what I wish.

General Sissellius, who is turning out to be as irritating as his twisted uncle, the Warden, paces before the large map laid out on the table, stabbing at it occasionally.

“If we send a small force to stop Grímarr,” he says, “we are wasting good men on a lost cause. It’s a suicide mission. How can five hundred

—even a thousand—men stand against a force a hundred times that?”

Avitas, who has joined me in the war room, gives me a look. Don’t lose your temper, the look says.

“If we send a large force,” I say for the thousandth time, “we leave Antium vulnerable. Without the legions from Estium and Silas, we have only six legions to hold the city. Reinforcements from the Tribal lands or

Navium or Tiborum would take more than a month to reach here. We

must send a smaller attack force to cause as much damage as possible.”

It’s such a basic tactic that at first I am stunned that Sissellius and a few of the other Paters resist so much. Until I realize, of course, that they are using this opportunity to undermine me—and, by extension, Marcus. They might not trust the Commandant anymore, but that doesn’t mean they want Marcus on the throne.

For his part, the Emperor’s attention is fixed on Keris Veturia. When he does finally look at me, I can read his expression as clearly as if he shouted the words.

Why is she here, Shrike? Why is she still alive? Those hyena eyes of his flare, promising pain for my sister, and I look away.

“Why is the Shrike leading the force?” Pater Rufius demands of me. “Would not Keris Veturia be a better choice? I do not know if you understand this, my Lord Emperor, but it is highly—” His sentence ends in a yelp as Marcus casually flings a throwing knife at him, missing him by a hair. The sound of Rufius’s squeal is deeply satisfying.

“Speak to me like that again,” Marcus says, “and you’ll find yourself without a head. Keris was barely able to hold Navium’s harbor against the Barbarian fleet.”

Avitas and I exchange a glance. This is the first time the Emperor has dared to say a word against the Commandant.

“The Shrike,” Marcus goes on, “took back the harbor and saved thousands of Plebeian lives. The decision is made. The Shrike will lead the force against the Karkauns.”

“But my lord—”

Marcus’s giant hand is around Rufius’s throat so fast that I almost didn’t see him move.

“Go on,” the Emperor says softly. “I’m listening.”

Rufius gasps his apology, and Marcus drops him. The Pater scurries away, a rooster who has escaped the stewpot. The Emperor turns to me.

“A small force, Shrike. Strike and run. Take no prisoners. And do not waste our forces if you don’t have to. We’ll need every last man for the assault on the city.”

From the corner of my eye, I notice Keris watching me. She nods a greeting—the first time she has acknowledged me since returning to Antium with my sister. My spine tingles in warning. That look on her face—cunning, calculated. I saw it as a student at Blackcliff. And I saw it months ago, here in Antium, before Marcus killed my family.

I know that look now. It is the look she gets when she’s about to spring a trap.

 

 

Avitas arrives in my office just after the sun has set. “All is prepared, Shrike,” he says. “The men will be ready to leave at dawn.”

“Good.” I pause and clear my throat. “Harper—”

“Perhaps, Blood Shrike,” Avitas says, “you are considering telling me that I should not go. That I should remain here to keep an eye on our enemies and to remain close to the Emperor, should he need it.”

I open and close my mouth, taken aback. That was exactly what I was going to suggest.

“Forgive me.” Avitas looks tired, I notice. I’ve been leaning on him too much. “But that is exactly what the Commandant would expect. She is, perhaps, counting on it. Whatever she has planned, you surviving isn’t a part of it. And you have a much better chance of surviving if you have someone who knows her watching your back.”

“What the hells is she up to?” I say. “Beyond just trying to take the throne, I mean. I’ve reports that a man of Gens Veturia was seen at the Hall of Records. She’s had the Paters of the three biggest Illustrian Gens over to her villa in the few hours she’s been back. She even had the master of the treasury over. She killed that man’s son and tattooed her triumph onto her own body, HarperIt was ten years ago, but she still did it. Those men should hate her. Instead they are breaking bread with her.”

“She’s wooing them back to her side,” Harper says. “She’s trying to rattle you. You took her by surprise in Navium. She won’t be taken by surprise again, which is why I should come with you.” At my hesitation, impatience sparks on his face.

“Use your head, Shrike! She had Captain Alistar poisoned. She had Favrus poisoned. She got to the bleeding Empress. You’re not immortal. She can get to you too. Be smart about this, for the love of skies. We need you. You cannot play into her hands.”

I don’t consider my next words. They just come out. “Why do you care so much what happens to me?”

“Why do you think?” His words are sharp, lacking his usual care. And when his green eyes meet mine, they are angry. But his voice is cool. “You are the Blood Shrike. I am your second. Your safety is my duty.”

“Sometimes, Avitas,” I sigh, “I wish you’d say what you’re actually thinking. Come along on the raid, then,” I say, and at his look of surprise, I roll my eyes. “I’m not a fool, Harper. Let’s keep her on her toes.

There’s something else.” A worry has grown in my mind—something no general would publicly speak of before a battle, but something I must consider, especially after talking to Livia of the Plebeians.

“Do we have exit routes mapped out of the city? Paths through which we could move large groups of people?”

“I’ll dig them up.”

“Do it before we leave,” I say. “Give orders—quietly—to make sure those paths are clear and that we protect them at all costs.”

“You think we cannot hold back the Karkauns?”

“I think that if they’re in league with Keris, it is foolish to underestimate them. We might not know what she’s playing at, but we can prepare for the worst.”

We move out the next morning, and I force Keris and her machinations from my mind. If I can rout Grímarr’s forces—or at least weaken them—before they get to Antium, she’ll lose her chance to take Marcus down, and I’ll be the hero instead of her. The Karkauns are twelve days from the city, but my force can move faster than theirs. My men and I have five days to make life as hellish as possible for them.

Our smaller force allows us to ride swiftly, and on the evening of the third day, our scouts confirm that the Karkaun force has, as Dex reported, gathered at Umbral Pass. They have Tundaran Wildmen with them—that’s likely how Grímarr figured out the way through. Those women-hating Tundaran bastards know these mountains almost as well as the Martials do.

“Why the hells are they just waiting there?” I ask Dex. “They should be clear of the pass by now and out into open country.”

“Waiting for more men, perhaps,” Dex says, “though their force doesn’t seem much bigger than when I saw it.”

I send my cousin Baristus out to recon the north end of the pass to see if, indeed, more Karkauns are joining the main body of the army. But when he returns, he brings only questions.

“Bleeding strange, sir,” Baristus says. As Dex, Avitas, and I gather in my tent, my cousin paces back and forth, agitated. “There are no more men coming in through the northern passes. Truly, it appears they are waiting, but for what I cannot tell. I thought it might be weaponry or artillery for their siege machines. But they have no siege machines. How

the bleeding hells do they plan to get past the walls of Antium without catapults?”

“Maybe Keris promised to let them in,” I say. “And they don’t yet realize how devious she is. It would be just like her to play both sides.”

“And then what?” Dex says. “She lets them lay siege for a few weeks?”

“Enough time for her to find a way to get Marcus killed in the fighting,” I say. “Enough time for her to sabotage the birth of my nephew.” Ultimately, it is the Empire that Keris wishes to rule over. She will not let the capital of the Empire fall. But the loss of a few thousand lives? That’s nothing to her. I’ve learned that lesson well.

“If we rout the Karkauns here,” I say, “then we kill her plan before it draws its first breath.” I examine the drawings the aux has given me of the layout of the Karkaun army camp. Their food stores, their weaponry, the locations of their various provisions. They’ve buried their most valuable goods in the very heart of the army, where they will be almost impossible to reach.

But I have Masks with me. And the word impossible has been whipped and beaten out of us.

My force strikes deep in the night, when much of the Karkaun camp is sleeping. The sentries go down swiftly, and Dex leads a force that is in and out before the first flames rise from the Karkaun food stores. We hit perhaps a sixth of their supply, but by the time our enemies sound the alarm, we have retreated back into the mountains.

“I’ll come with you for the next assault, Shrike,” Harper says to me as we prepare for another. “Something feels wrong to me. They took that attack lying down.”

“Perhaps it’s because we surprised them.” Harper paces nervously, and I put a hand on his shoulder to still him. A spark jumps between us, and he looks up in surprise. Immediately, I let him go.

“I—I need you with the rear guard,” I say to cover my awkwardness. “If something does go wrong, I’ll need you to get the men back to Antium.”

Our next assault comes just before dawn, when the Barbarians are still scrambling from our earlier attack. This time, I lead a group of a hundred men armed with arrows and flame.

But almost before the first volley flies, it is clear that the Karkauns are ready for us. A wave of more than a thousand of them on our western side breaks off from the main army and surges upward in orderly, organized lines that I’ve never seen in a Karkaun force.

But we have the higher ground, so we pick off as many as we can.

They have no horses, and these mountains are not their land. They don’t know these hills the way we do.

When we’ve exhausted our arrows, I signal the retreat—which is when the unmistakable thud of a drum thunders out from the rear guard. Avitas’s troops. One deep thud—two—three.

Ambush. We worked out the warnings ahead of time. I spin about, my war hammer in hand, waiting for the attack. The men close ranks. A horse screams—a chilling and unmistakable sound. Curses ring out when the drum sounds again.

But this time, the drum is unceasing, a frantic call for aid.

“The rear guard is under attack,” Dex calls out. “How the hells—”

His sentence ends in a grunt as he parries a knife that comes flying out at him from the woods. And then we can think of nothing but surviving, because we are suddenly surrounded by Karkauns. They rise up from well-hidden traps in the ground, drop down from trees, rain down arrows and blades and fire.

From the rear guard, we hear the unholy howling of more Karkauns as they pour down the mountain, from the east. Thousands of them.

More still approach from the north. Only the south is clear—but not for long, if we don’t clear this ambush.

We’re dead. We’re bleeding dead.

“That ravine.” I point to a narrow path between the closing pincer of the approaching forces, and we make a break for it, sending arrows back over our shoulders. The ravine follows the river, leading down to a waterfall. There are boats there—enough to take the remaining men downstream. “Faster! They’re closing!”

We run full force, grimacing at the screams of the rear guard dying swiftly as they are inundated by our enemy. Skies, so many men. So many Black Guards. And Avitas is up there. Something feels wrong to me. If he’d been with us, he might have seen the ambush. We might have retreated before the Karkauns attacked the rear guard.

And now . . .

I look up the mountain. He could not possibly survive that onslaught.

None of them could. There are too many.

He never told Elias that they are brothers. He never got to speak to Elias as a brother. And skies, the things I’ve said to him in moments of rage, in anger, when all he did was try to help keep me alive. That spark between us, extinguished before I could put a name to it. My eyes burn.

“Shrike!” Dex screams and knocks me to the ground as an arrow cuts through the air, nearly impaling me. We scramble up and stumble on.

The ravine finally appears, an eight-foot drop into the remnants of a creek. A hail of arrows comes down as we approach it.

Shields!” I shout. Steel thunks on wood, and then my men and I run again, years of training pushing us into neat rows. Every time a soldier is picked off, another moves to take his place so that when I look back, I can count almost exactly how many are left.

Only seventy-five—of the five hundred Marcus sent.

We hurtle down the path beside the falls, and the thunder of the water drives away any other sound. The path curves back and forth on itself until it drops into a dusty flat where a dozen long boats are beached.

The men need no orders. We hear the chants of the Karkauns behind us. One boat launches, then another and another.

“Shrike.” Dex pulls me toward a boat. “You have to go.”

“Not until the rest of the boats launch,” I say. Four hundred and twenty-five men . . . gone. And Avitas . . . gone. Skies, it was so quick.

The sounds of swords clashing echoes from the path above. My hammer is in my hand, and I am racing up the path. If some of my men are still up there, then by the skies, I will not let them fight alone.

“Shrike—no!” Dex groans, draws his scim, and follows. Just beyond the entrance to the path, we find a group of Martials, three Masks among them, battling the Tundarans but being inexorably shoved back by the sheer number of them. A group of auxes supports a fourth Mask, blood pouring from his neck, from a wound in his gut, from another in his thigh.

Harper.

Dex grabs him from the auxes, staggering under his weight as he carries him down toward the last boat. The auxes arm their bows and fire over and over until the air is buzzing with arrows, and it is a miracle I am not hit. One of the Masks turns—it is Baristus, my cousin.

“We’ll hold them off,” he shouts. “Go, Shrike. Warn the city. Warn the Emperor. Tell them there’s another—”

And then Dex is dragging me away, shoving me down the path and into the boat, sharking through the water as he pushes off. Tell them what? I want to scream. Dex rows with all his might, and the boat is through the falls and moving swiftly down the fast-flowing river. I kneel beside Harper.

His blood is everywhere. If it weren’t me in this boat beside him, he would be dead in a matter of minutes. I take his hand. If it weren’t for

Baristus’s sacrifice, we’d all be dead.

I expect to search for Harper’s song. He is the consummate Mask, his thoughts and emotions buried so deeply that I assumed his song would be equally opaque.

But his song is near the surface, strong and bright and clear as a star-filled winter sky. I delve into his essence. I see the smile of a dark-haired woman with wide-set green eyes—his mother—and the strong hands of a man who looks strikingly similar to Elias. Harper walks Blackcliff’s dark halls and endures day after day of the hardship and loneliness I know so well. He aches for his father, a mysterious figure who haunts him with an emptiness he can never quite fill.

He is an open book, and I learn that he did set Laia free months ago, when we ambushed her. He set her free because he knew I would kill her. And he knew Elias would never forgive me for it. I witness myself through his eyes: angry and cold and weak and strong and brave and warm. Not the Blood Shrike. Helene. And I would be blind not to see what he feels for me. I am woven into his consciousness the way Elias used to be woven into mine. Harper is always aware of where I am, of whether I am all right.

When his wounds have closed and his heart beats strong, I stop singing, weakened. Dex looks at me with a wild, questioning expression but says nothing.

I adjust Harper’s head so he is more comfortable, and his eyes open. I am about to scold him, but his harsh whisper silences me.

“Grímarr and the men who hit the rear guard came from the east, Shrike,” he rasps, determined to deliver the message. “He attacked me— would have killed me . . .”

All the more reason to hate that swine. “They must have snuck around us somehow,” I say. “Or perhaps they were waiting—”

“No.” Avitas grabs a strap on my armor. “They came from the east. I sent a scout because I had a hunch. There’s another force. They split their army, Shrike. They don’t have just fifty thousand men marching on Antium. They have twice that.”

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