Chapter no 50 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

I can hear Livvy screaming from the barracks doors and I fly up the stairs. She might be dying. The baby might be dying. Skies, what do we


When I shove the door open, I find my sister doubled over, Rallius’s large hand clenched in hers. Every muscle in my friend’s huge body tenses, his dark face turning grim.

“Empress,” I say. “Livia, I’m here.”

“He’s coming, Helly.” Livia pants. “Rallius tested my tea this morning, but it tasted funny. I don’t know what to do. I don’t—I don’t feel right—”

Oh hells. I know exactly nothing about childbirth. “Maybe you should sit down.”

A knock on the door.

All of us—Rallius, Faris, Livia, and I—go silent. No one but Marcus is supposed to know she’s here. But I arrived in such a rush with Faris that though we took pains not to be followed, we might very well have been.

My sister stuffs her fist to her mouth and groans, clutching her belly.

Her dress is wet from where her waters have broken, and her sweat-soaked face is sickly gray. Rallius extricates his fingers from Livvy’s and approaches the door, scims drawn. I shove Livvy behind me while Faris swipes a crossbow from the wall and points it at the door.

“Who goes there?”

A female voice answers. “I . . . I need to speak to the Blood Shrike.

I . . . can help.”

I do not recognize the voice, though something about it is strangely familiar. I gesture for Rallius to open the door. In less than a second, he has his scims at the throat of the hooded figure in the doorway.

She doesn’t need to lower her hood for me to recognize her. I spot her golden eyes peering out at me from the shadows.

“You!” I snarl, but she raises her hands, and the sheaths at her waist are empty.

“I can deliver the baby,” she says quickly. “Cook sent me.”

“Why the hells would that old bat send you?” I say.

Livia screams again, unable to stifle the sound, and Laia looks over my shoulder.

“She’s close,” she says. “She’ll have another contraction in only a few moments. The child is coming.”

I do not know how in the burning skies she got here. Perhaps it is an assassination attempt. But why would Laia of Serra risk such a thing when she knows that hurting my sister would result in her immediate death?

“I have no wish to harm her,” she says. “Fate led me here, Blood Shrike. Let me help you.”

“If my sister or the babe die,” I say to her as I stand aside, “so do you.”

A grim nod is the only response. She knows. Immediately, she turns to Faris, who squints as he looks at her.

“Hang on a minute,” he says. “Aren’t you—”

“Yes,” she says. “Hot water, please, Lieutenant Faris—two pots of it. And clean sheets from the laundry—a dozen of them. Towels too.” She goes to my sister, taking her by the arm.

“Let’s get you out of these clothes,” she says, and there’s a gentleness to her voice, a sweetness that immediately calms Livia. My sister sighs, and moments later Laia unlaces her dress, ordering Rallius to turn away.

I shift from foot to foot. “I don’t know if this is appro—”

“She’s giving birth, Blood Shrike,” Laia says. “It is hot, difficult work, and she shouldn’t be trussed up for it. Bad for the baby.”

“Right,” I say, knowing I sound like an idiot. “Well, if it’s bad for the baby . . .”

Laia glances at me, and I can’t tell if she’s irritated by me or laughing at me.

“Once Lieutenant Faris returns with the water,” she says, “pour it into the basin, please. Wash your hands well, with soap. Remove your rings. You can leave them there.” She nods to the basin and helps a now scantily dressed Livia settle herself at the edge of my simple wooden desk chair.

Faris comes in, takes one look at Livvy, and turns bright red before I take the water from him and he asks, in a choked voice, where Laia wants the sheets.

“Stand watch, Lieutenant Faris,” Laia says as she takes the sheets. “There were only two guards outside and they barely searched me. If I got in here with relative ease, so can your enemies.”

The drums thunder, and I hear the panic in the order given out. All units to the second-level gate immediately. Breach imminent. Bleeding hells, has the first level been breached? “I should go,” I say. “The city—”

“I cannot do this alone, Shrike,” Laia says quickly. “Though I’m sure your man here”—she nods to a wild-eyed Lieutenant Rallius—“would help if ordered, the Empress is your sister, and your presence will bring her comfort.”

“The city—the Karkauns—” But Livvy screams again, and Laia curses.

“Shrike, have you washed your hands yet?”

I do it quickly, and Laia grabs me and yanks me over to Livia. “Push your fists into your sister’s hips, like so.” She points to just

below the small of my sister’s back. “Every time she screams, I want you to push there,” she says. “It will give her relief. In between, rub her shoulders, pull her hair out of the way, and help keep her cool.”

“Oh skies,” Livia says. “I’m going to be sick.” My stomach sinks. “What’s wrong?”

“Feeling sick is good.” Laia’s tone is soothing, but she gives me a look that very plainly asks that I keep my mouth shut. “It cleanses the body.”

The Scholar girl gives my sister a bucket and continues to speak to her in low, calm tones as she scrubs her own hands and arms, over and over until her gold-brown skin is red. Then she comes back and feels between my sister’s legs. I look away, uncomfortable. Livia shudders again—it’s only been minutes since the last time she cried out. I dig my fists into her hips. Immediately, she relaxes.

“How—how many times have you done this?” Livvy asks Laia. “Enough to know that you’re going to be just fine,” Laia says. “Now

breathe with me.”

For the next two hours, with the Scholar girl’s calm voice guiding her, Livia labors. Sometimes she walks, sometimes she sits. When I suggest Livvy lie in the bed at one point, both women turn on me with a unified “No!” and I cease.

Outside, the drums grow more frantic. I need to get out there—I need to help defend this city. And yet I cannot leave Livia. I must see this child born, for he is our future. If the city falls, I must see him to safety. I am torn, and I pace back and forth, not knowing what the bleeding skies I’m supposed to do. Why is childbirth so damned messy? And why didn’t I learn anything about it?

“Laia,” I finally say to the Scholar when Livia is resting between one of her contractions. “The city—it’s about to be breached. I can hear it from the drums. I cannot be here. Rallius can—”

Laia yanks me aside, mouth thin. “It’s taking too long,” she says. “You said everything was fine.”

“I’m not about to tell a pregnant woman she’s not fine,” she hisses. “I’ve seen it happen before. Both times the child died, and the mother did too. They are in danger. I might need you.” She gives me a significant look. I might need your healing.


The drums thunder frantically now as message after message is passed through, so that troops might know where to go, where to fight.

Livia screams, and this time there is a different quality about it. I turn back to my sister, hoping to the skies that the drums have it wrong.

Laia drapes sheets over the chairs, on the floors. She orders me to bring more buckets of water, and when she asks me to lay a towel on the bed, my sister shakes her head.

“There’s a blanket,” she says. “It’s—it’s in the bureau. I—I brought it with me.”

I grab it, a simple pale-blue-and-white square that is soft as clouds. I realize suddenly that this child will be my kin. A new Aquilla. My nephew. The moment deserves more than the thunder of Karkaun missiles and my sister’s screams. Mother should be here. Hannah.

Instead it is only me. How the hells did it all go so wrong?

“All right, Livia,” Laia says. “It’s time now. You’ve been very brave, very strong. Be brave a bit longer and you’ll be holding your baby, and I promise that you won’t much care about the pain.”

“How—how do you know—”

“Trust me.” Laia’s smile is so convincing that even I believe it. “Shrike, hold her hands.” She lowers her voice. “And sing.”

My sister grabs on to me with the strength of a Mask in an arm-wrestling competition. With Rallius and Faris watching, I find Livia’s song in my mind and sing it, pouring my will into giving her strength, keeping her whole. At Laia’s urging, my sister pushes with all of her might.

Childbirth is not something I have wasted much thought on. I do not wish for children. I will never be a midwife. I have a sister, but no female friends. Babies hold no appeal for me, though I was always fascinated by the way my mother loved us: with a fierceness that was

almost frightening. She used to call us her miracles. Now, as my sister releases a roar, I finally understand.

Laia is holding a slippery, wet, dirty . . . thing in her hands. She snatches the towels from me, pulling the child into one while using her other hand to unwrap the cord from his neck. She moves quickly, almost frantically, and a strange, unfamiliar terror fills me.

“Why isn’t he making any sounds?” I demand. “Why is he—”

Laia puts her finger in the babe’s mouth, clearing it, and a moment later, he releases an ear-shattering wail.

“Oh,” I squeak as Laia shoves the baby at me. “I—”

“Whisper your hopes for him in his ear,” she says. When I stare at her, she sighs impatiently. “It’s considered good luck.”

She turns back to my sister, doing skies know what, and I stare down at the child. His wails have faded, and he watches me, appearing mildly bewildered. I cannot say I blame him.

His skin is golden brown, a few shades darker than Livia’s when she has spent a summer in the sun. His hair is fine and black. He has his father’s yellow eyes, and yet they are not Marcus’s. They are beautiful. Innocent.

He opens his mouth and vocalizes, and it sounds to me like “Hah,” as if he’s trying to say the beginning of my name. It is a ridiculous thought, but a burst of pride floods me. He knows me.

“Hail, nephew.” I pull him close to me so that he’s only inches from my face. “I wish for you joy and a family that loves you, adventures that shape you, and true friends to have them with.”

His fist flails, leaving a trail of blood across my mask. I recognize something in him then. Something of me, though it is not in his face. It is deeper. I think of the song I sang him. I wonder how I changed him.

Shouts outside pull my attention away from the child. The angry tenor of a familiar voice rises downstairs. Footsteps thunder up the steps, and the door bursts open. Marcus, along with a half dozen men of Gens Aquilla, enters, scim drawn. The Emperor is covered in blood—his own or that of the Karkauns, I do not know. He does not look at me or Livia or Laia. He reaches me in two steps. Without sheathing his sword, he holds out his left arm for his child. I hand the baby over, hating the feeling, my entire body tense.

Marcus looks into the child’s face. I cannot read his expression. Both Marcus and his son are silent, the Emperor’s head cocked, as if he is listening to something. He nods once.

“Zacharias Marcus Livius Aquillus Farrar,” he says, “I wish you a long reign as Emperor, glory in battle, and a brother at your back.” He gives the child back to me, unnaturally careful. “Take your sister and the child, Shrike, and leave the city. That is an order. She’s coming for him.”

“The Commandant?”

“Yes, the bleeding Commandant,” Marcus snaps. “The gates are breached. The Karkauns have broken through the first level. She’s left the battle in the hands of one of her lieutenants and is on her way here.”

“Shrike.” Laia’s voice is choked. I notice she’s pulled her hood up, and I recall then that she knows Marcus. That he nearly killed her once— after he tried to rape her. I shudder, thinking of it. She is hunched over, her voice raspy as she tries to disguise herself. “Your sister.”

Livia is deathly pale. “I’m fine,” she murmurs as she tries to stand. “Give him—give him to me.”

I am at her side in two steps, her song already on my lips. I do not think of Marcus’s soldiers, who will witness this, or of Rallius or Faris. I sing until I feel her body heal. The moment that color returns to her face, Marcus drags her through the door and down to the laundry room, flinging it open. Rallius goes through, then Faris, then my sister.

Marcus does not look at the child again. He gestures me impatiently



“My lord,” I say, “I cannot leave the city when it—” “Protect my heir,” he says. “The city is lost.” “It—it can’t be—”

But he shoves me into the tunnel and closes the door behind me. And

it is only there, in the darkness, that I realize I have no idea where Laia is.

We run. From the tunnels, we cannot hear the madness above, but my mind is torn, half of me wanting to go back to fight and the

other half knowing that I must get my sister and baby Zacharias out of Antium.

When we reach a way station in the tunnels where Harper has placed soldiers to guard the evacuation routes, I slow.

“I need to go back,” I say.

Livia shakes her head, frantic. Zacharias wails, as if sensing his mother’s distress. “You were given an order.”

“I cannot leave the city,” I say. “Not like this. Not skulking through the shadows. There are men back there who were counting on me, and I left them.”

“Helly, no.”

“Faris, Rallius, get her to Harper. You know how to find him. Help him however you can. There are still Plebeians in the city, in these tunnels, and we need to get them out.” I lean toward both of them, pinning them with my gaze. “If anything happens to her or the child, I swear to the skies, I will kill you both myself.”

They salute, and I turn to my sister, taking one last look at the baby. Upon seeing my face, he goes quiet. “I’ll see you soon, young one.” I kiss him and Livia, and turn back, ignoring my sister’s pleas, then demands, for me to return to her side at once.

When I get back to the Black Guard barracks, I immediately choke on the smoke that fills the laundry closet. Flames roar at the front of the barracks. From a few streets away, the howls of rampaging Karkauns fill the streets. They have not reached here yet, but they will soon.

I draw a scarf up over my face and crouch low to avoid the smoke, my war hammer drawn. When I emerge from the room, I nearly slip on the pools of blood everywhere.

The men of Gens Aquilla, sworn to protect Marcus, lie dead, though it is clear that they took many of the Commandant’s men with them. Her body is not among the carnage. But then, I knew it would not be. Keris Veturia would never die in so undignified a manner.

There are other bodies among the dead—Mariners. Before I can understand what the hells they were doing here, a voice calls out.


The voice is so quiet that I do not at first know where it comes from.

But I hunt through the smoke until I find Marcus Farrar, Imperator Invictus and Overlord of the Realm, pinned against a wall by his own scim, drowning in his own blood, unable to move. His hands are limp over the wound in his stomach. He has hours yet until he dies. The Commandant did this on purpose.

I go to him. Flames lick the wood of the stairwell, and a loud crack sounds from downstairs—a beam falling. I should escape through a window. I should let this monster burn.

How long have I waited for this? How long have I wanted him to die? And yet when I see him pinned here like an animal killed for sport, I feel only pity.

And something else. A compulsion. A need. A desire to heal him. No.

Oh no.

“Keris moved the Hall of Records, Shrike.” He speaks calmly, if softly, saving his breath to relay what he must. “She moved the treasury.”

I sigh in relief. “Then the Empire will still stand, even if we lose Antium.”

“She did it weeks ago. She wanted the city to fall, Shrike. She knew the Karkauns would bring ghosts. She knew they would win.”

A dozen disparate puzzle pieces click into place. “The Illustrian Paters—”

“Left days ago for Serra,” Marcus says. “She evacuated them.”

And the master of the treasury met with her despite her murdering his son. She must have told him what was coming. She must have promised to get his family out in exchange for him moving the Empire’s wealth.

And the Hall of Records. The record archivists were preparing for a move. Harper told me that when he was getting information on the Commandant. We simply didn’t realize what it meant.

Keris knew the city would fall. She was planning for it right in front of me.

Skies, I should have killed her. Whether the Plebeians hated me or not, whether Marcus was overthrown or not, I should have killed that demon.

“The legions,” I say, “from Silas and Estium—”

“They aren’t coming. She sabotaged the communiqués.”

It did not have to be this way, Blood Shrike. Keris’s words haunt me.

Remember that, before the end.

He does not say it is my fault; he doesn’t have to. “Antium will fall,” Marcus goes on quietly. “But the Empire will survive. Keris has ensured that, though she wishes to make certain that my son will not survive with it. Stop her, Blood Shrike. See him on the throne.” He reaches for my hand, his own still strong enough to dig into my flesh so hard that it draws blood. “Swear a blood oath that you will see it done.”

“I swear it,” I say. “By blood and by bone.” The compulsion to heal him comes over me again. I fight it, but then he speaks.

“Shrike,” he says. “I have a final order for you.”

Heal me. I know he’s going to say it. The magic rises in me, ready, even as I shrink away from the thought, disgusted, repulsed by it. How can I heal him, the demon who killed my father, who ordered my torture, who abused and beat my sister?

The fire edges closer. Leave, Shrike! Run!

Marcus releases my hand and scrabbles at his side for a dagger, which he thrusts into my hand. “Mercy, Blood Shrike. That is my order. I do not deserve it. I do not even wish it. But you’ll give it to me anyway.

Because you’re good.” He spits out the word, a curse. “It’s why my brother loved you.”

The Emperor meets my eyes. As ever, his are filled with rage, hatred.

But beneath that is something I have never seen before in the fifteen years I have known Marcus Farrar: resignation.

“Do it, Shrike,” he whispers. “He waits for me.”

I think of baby Zacharias and the innocence of his gaze. Marcus too must have looked that way once. Perhaps that’s what his twin, Zak, saw when he looked at him: not the monster he had become, but the brother he had been.

I remember my father as he died. My mother and my sister. My face is wet. When Marcus speaks, I can barely hear the words.

“Please, Shrike.”

“The Emperor is dead.” My voice shakes, but I find my strength in the mask I wear, and when I speak again, it is without emotion. “Long live the Emperor.”

Then I drive the dagger into his throat, and I do not look away until the light in his eyes is gone.

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