Chapter no 56 – The Blood Shrike

A Reaper at the Gates

Laia of Serra cannot hold a tune to save her life. But her hum is sweet and light and strangely comforting. As she moves around the edges

of the room, I try to get a sense of my surroundings. Lamplight filters through an enormous window, and I feel a nip in the air—a sign that summer closes in the north. I recognize the low, arched buildings beyond the window and the large square it faces. We are in Delphinium. There is a weight to the air. A heaviness. Distantly, lightning flashes over the Nevennes. I can smell the storm.

My face feels strange, and I reach my hands up. The mask. The jinn. I thought it had been a nightmare. But as I feel my own skin for the first time in seven years, I realize that it was not a dream. My mask is gone.

And a piece of my soul with it.

Laia hears me move and turns. I see the blade at her waist, and on instinct I reach for my own.

“No need for that, Blood Shrike.” She tilts her head, her face not exactly friendly but not unkind either. “We didn’t drag you through a hundred miles of caves so your first act upon waking would be to stab me.”

A cry sounds from nearby, and I force myself to sit up, eyes wide. Laia rolls her eyes. “The Emperor,” she says, “is always hungry. And when he doesn’t get food . . . skies, help us all.”

“Livvy . . . they’re . . .”

“Safe.” A shadow flickers across the Scholar girl’s face, but she hides it quickly. “Yes. Your family is safe.”

A whisper of movement at the door, and Avitas is there. Immediately, Laia excuses herself. I understand her quick smile, and I flush.

For just a second, I see the look on Harper’s face. Not the carefully controlled blankness that all Masks wear, but the heartfelt relief of a friend.

Though, if I am being honest, it is not the look of someone who thinks of me as just a friend. I would know.

I want to say something to him. You came for me. You and Laia dragged me from the claws of Death himself. You have more of your

father’s goodness in you than you will ever acknowledge.

Instead, I clear my throat and swing my legs, shaking with weakness, over the side of the bed.

“Report, Captain Harper.”

His silver eyebrows flick up for a moment, and I think I see frustration in his eyes. He crushes it, the way I would. He knows me by now. He knows what I need.

“We have seven thousand five hundred twenty Martials who fled Antium,” he says. “Another one thousand six hundred thirty-four Scholars. We believe that at least ten thousand more—Illustrians and Mercators—left before the invasion or were siphoned out by the Commandant.”

“And the rest?”

“Half died in the siege. The other half remains the prisoners of the Karkauns. The Barbarians have enslaved them.”

As we knew they would. “Then we must free them,” I say. “What of Keris?”

“She retreated to Serra and established the capital there.” Avitas pauses, attempting to get hold of his anger. “The Illustrian Paters have named her Empress—and the Empire has embraced it. Antium’s fall is blamed on Marcus, and—”

“And on me.” I led the defense of the city, after all. I failed.

“Quin Veturius has pledged his fealty to Emperor Zacharius and Gens Aquilla,” Harper says, “as have the Illustrian Gens of Delphinium. The Commandant has declared your nephew an enemy of the Empire. All who support him or his claim are to be crushed forthwith.”

None of what he says surprises me—not anymore. All my plotting and scheming was for nothing. If I’d have known civil war was inevitable, I’d have killed Keris outright, whatever the consequences. At least Antium wouldn’t be in the hands of Grímarr.

The storm rolls closer, and rain begins to patter thinly on the cobblestones outside. Harper stares openly at me, and I turn my head away, wondering how my face must look. I wear black fatigues, but without my mask I feel strange. Naked.

I remember what the Commandant said before she fled Antium. I wonder if it will hurt. She knew. It’s why she left me alive. The Nightbringer must have ordered it.

Harper lifts a hand to my cheek and traces one side, then the other. “You haven’t seen yourself,” he says.

“I haven’t wanted to.”

“You have scars,” he says. “Two of them, like twin scims.”

“Do I—” The words come out a whisper, and I brusquely clear my throat. “How bad is it?”

“They are beautiful.” His green eyes are thoughtful. “Your face couldn’t be anything but beautiful, Blood Shrike. With or without the mask.”

My blush rises, and this time there is no mask to hide it. I don’t know what to do with my hands. My hair must look a mess. must look a mess. Doesn’t matter. It’s just Harper.

But it’s not just Harper anymore, is it?

He was loyal to the Commandant. He tortured you on Marcus’s orders.

But he was never truly loyal to Keris. As for the interrogation, how the hells can I judge him for that after what I ordered Dex to do to Mamie? To Tribe Saif?

He’s Elias’s brother.

My thoughts are a welter of confusion. I cannot make sense of them. Avitas reaches for my hands, pulling them into his own, examining them with such care.

He draws a line up my forearm with the tip of his finger, from one freckle to another. At that feather-light touch, every nerve ending in my body awakens. I inhale unsteadily, tormented by his scent, by the triangle of skin at his throat. He leans close. The curve of his lower lip is the only softness in a face that looks cut from stone. I wonder, do his lips taste the way I think they must, like honey and cinnamon tea on a cold night?

When I lift my gaze to his, he hides nothing, finally, finally unmasking his desire. The power of it is dizzying, and I do not protest when he pulls me close. Avitas stops when he’s a hairsbreadth from my lips, careful, always so careful. In that moment of waiting, he lays himself bare. Only if you want it. I close the distance, my own need tearing through me with a force that leaves me shaken.

I expected my impatience. I did not anticipate his. For someone who is always so infuriatingly calm, he kisses like a man who will never be sated.

More. I crave his hands in my hair, his lips on my body. I should get up, lock the door—

It is the intoxicating force of that impulse that stops me cold, that compresses my thoughts into two equally clear sentiments.

I want him.

But I cannot have him.

As suddenly as I met Harper’s lips, I pull myself away. His green eyes are dark with want, but when he sees my expression, he inhales sharply.

“Look at me.” He is about to say my name—my heart’s name—the way he did in his mind when I sang him well. And if I let him, I will be undone. “Look at me. Hel—”

“Blood Shrike, Captain Harper.” I harness my training and give him my coldest glare. He is a distraction. Only the Empire matters. Only your people matter. The Martials are in far too much danger for either of us to allow distractions. I withdraw my hands from his sharply. “I am the Blood Shrike. You would do well to remember it.”

For a moment, he is frozen, pain flashing nakedly across his face.

Then he stands and salutes, the consummate Mask once more. “Of course, Blood Shrike, sir. Permission to return to duty.”


After Harper leaves, I feel hollow. Lonely. Voices rise from nearby, and I force myself to my feet and down the hallway. Thunder growls, close enough to mask my footsteps as I approach the open door to what must be Livia’s room.

“—people saved you from the Karkauns, though doing so put them at great risk. I beg you, Empress, begin your son’s reign with an act befitting a true emperor. Free the Scholar slaves.”

“It’s not so simple.” I recognize Faris’s rumble.

“Isn’t it?” The clarity and strength in my sister’s voice make me stand up taller. She always hated slavery, like our mother. But unlike Mother, it’s clear she plans to do something about it. “Laia of Serra does not lie.

A group of Scholars saved us from the Karkauns who infiltrated the tunnels. They carried me when I was too weak to walk, and it was a Scholar who nursed Emperor Zacharius when I lost consciousness.”

“We found the mosses that fed your people in the tunnels.” Laia’s voice is arch, and I scowl. “If not for us, you’d have all starved to death.”

“You’ve made a just case for your people.” Livia’s voice is so calm that tension dissipates instantly. “As Empress regent, I decree that every Scholar who escaped the tunnels is now a freeman. Lieutenant Faris, pass the news to the Paters of Delphinium. Captain Dex, ensure that the Martial response is not overly . . . emotional.”

I step into the room then, and Livia takes a step toward me, stopping short at my warning glare. I shift my attention to the dark-haired bundle on the bed, freshly fed and fast asleep.

“He got bigger,” I say, surprised.

“They do that.” Laia smiles. “You should not yet be up and about, Blood Shrike.”

I wave off her fussing but sit when my sister insists. “Did you see Elias, Laia? Did you . . . speak with him?”

Something in her face changes, a fleeting pain I know all too well. She has spoken with him then. She has seen what he’s become. “He’s returned to the Forest. I have not tried to find him. I wanted to make sure you were well first. And . . .”

“And you’ve been busy,” I say. “Now that your people have chosen you as a leader.”

Her reluctance is written all over her face. But instead she shrugs. “For now, perhaps.”

“And the Nightbringer?”

“The Nightbringer has not been seen since the siege,” she says. “It has been more than a week. I expected him to have set his brethren free by now. But . . .” She takes in my expression. The rain pours down hard now, a steady lash against the windows. “But you feel it too, don’t you? Something is coming.”

“Something is coming,” I agree. “He wants to destroy the Scholars— and he plans on using the Martials to do it.”

Laia’s expression is unreadable. “And will you let your people be used?”

I do not expect the question. Livia, however, appears unsurprised, and I have the distinct feeling that she and Laia have already had this conversation.

“If you plan to take the throne back for your nephew,” Laia says, “you will need allies to battle the Commandant—strong allies. You don’t have the men to do it on your own.”

“And if you don’t want your people utterly destroyed by the jinn and the Martial army,” I retort, “you will need allies too. Particularly ones who know the Martials well.”

We stare at each other like two wary dogs.

“The Augur mentioned something to me about the Nightbringer a few weeks ago,” I offer finally. “Before the siege on Antium. The truth of all creatures, man or jinn, lies in their name.

A spark of interest in Laia’s face. “Cook told me something similar,” she says. “She said that to know the Commandant’s story would help destroy her. And I know someone with unique skills who can help us.”


“Help my people, Blood Shrike.” I can see how much it costs Laia to ask this of me. “And I—and my allies—will help you win back your nephew’s crown. But . . .”

She cocks her head, and as I’m trying to puzzle out her look, she whips a dagger from her waist and flings it at me.

“What the bleeding hells—” I pluck the blade out of the air on instinct and turn it on her in the time it takes to blink twice. “How dare


“If I’m going to carry Serric steel,” Laia says quite calmly, “then I’d like to learn to use it. And if I’m going to be an ally to a Martial, I would like to fight like one.”

I gape at her, distantly taking note of Livia’s quiet smile. Laia looks down at Zacharias and then out the window, and that shadow passes over her face again. “Though I wonder, would you teach me to use the bow, Blood Shrike?”

A memory rises from the haze of the past week: Cook’s strong hands as she shot arrow after arrow into the Karkauns. I love you, Laia, she’d said. Laia’s face as Cook howled at her to get me to the Augurs’ cave.

And older memories: Cook’s fierceness when she told me she’d murder me if I hurt Laia. The way, when I healed that old woman, some distant music within her reminded me of the Scholar girl.

And suddenly, I understand. Mother.

I remember the face of my own mother as she went to her death.

Strength, my girl, she’d said.

Curse this world for what it does to the mothers, for what it does to the daughters. Curse it for making us strong through loss and pain, our hearts torn from our chests again and again. Curse it for forcing us to endure.

When I meet the Scholar girl’s stare, I realize she’s been watching me. We do not speak. But for this moment, she knows my heart. And I know hers.

“Well?” Laia of Serra offers her hand. I take it.

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