"Keris shouldn't be orchestrating anything without Lenidas to temper her," I say. "Where is he?"
"After his second failure, she executed him," Avitas says, and from his long pause, I know he's as disturbed at the news as I am. "For gross dereliction of duty. Two days ago."
"That old man lived and breathed duty." I am numb. Lenidas trained me personally for six months when I was a Fiver, just before I got my mask. He was one of the few southern Paters my father trusted. "He fought the Karkauns for fifty years. Knew more about them than anyone alive."
"Officially, the Commandant felt that he had lost too many men in the attacks and ignored too many of her warnings."
"And unofficially she wanted to take control." Damn her to the hells. "Why did the Illustrian Paters allow it? She's not a deity. They could have stopped her."
"You know how Lenidas was, Shrike," Avitas says. "He didn't take bribes, and he didn't let the Paters tell him what to do. He treated Illustrians and Mercators and Plebeians alike. The way they saw it, he let the merchant harbor burn."
"And now Keris is in command of Navium."
"She's summoned us," Avitas says. "We've been informed that an escort will bring us to her. She is at the Island."
Hag. She is already attempting to wrest control from me before I've even entered the city. I meant to go to the Island first. But now if I do, I will appear the supplicant, seeking approval from my betters.
"Curse her summons."
A commotion at the docks catches my attention. The chuffing screams of horses split the air, and I spot the black-and-red armor of a Black Guard. The soldier curses as he attempts to keep hold of the beasts, but they buck and jerk away from him.
Then, as suddenly as they began to panic, the beasts calm, dropping their heads, as if drugged. Every man on the dock steps back.
A figure in black comes into view.
"Bleeding hells," Avitas murmurs from beside me.
The Nightbringer's eerie, bright eyes fix on me. But I am not surprised. I expected Keris to keep that jinn monster close. She knows I'm trying to kill her. She knows that if she can use her supernatural pet to get into my head, I'll never succeed.
I think back to the hours spent with Avitas, learning to shield my mind. Hours listening to his calm voice explain how to imagine my innermost thoughts as gems locked in a chest, hidden in a shipwreck at the bottom of a forgotten sea. Harper doesn't know about Livia's pregnancy. I spoke of it to no one. But he knows the Empire's future depends on destroying the Commandant. He was an exacting instructor.
But he could not test my skill. I hope to the skies that my preparation was enough. If Keris learns Livvy is pregnant, she'll have assassins descending within days.
But as we dock, my thoughts are scattered. Pull yourself together, Shrike. Livvy's life depends on it. The Empire depends on it.
When I step onto the gangplank, I do not look into the Nightbringer's eyes. I made that mistake once before, months ago, when I met him back in Serra. Now I know that his eyes showed my future. I saw the deaths of my family that day. I didn't understand it at the time--I assumed my own fear had gotten the best of me.
"Welcome, Blood Shrike." I cannot hide my shudder at the way the Nightbringer's voice scrapes against my ear. He beckons me closer. I am Mater of Gens Aquilla. I am a Mask. I am a Black Guard. I am the Blood Shrike, right hand to the Emperor of the Martials. I order my body to remain still while I stare him down with all the power of my rank.
My body betrays me.
The sounds of the river docks fade. No water slapping against the hulls of ships. No stevedores calling out to each other. No masts creaking, and no distant boom of sails or roar of the sea. The silence that cloaks the jinn is complete, an aura that nothing can penetrate. Everything falls away as I close the distance between us.
Maintain control, Shrike. Give him nothing.
"Ah," the Nightbringer says quietly, when I stand before him. "Felicitations, Blood Shrike. I see you are to be an aunt."
The Mariner prison is spare, cold, and eerily silent. As I pace my poorly lit cell, I place a hand against the stone wall. It is so thick that I could scream and scream and Darin, across the hall from me, might never know.
He must be going mad. I imagine him clenching and unclenching his fists, boots scraping against the floor, wondering when we will escape. If we will escape. This place might not be Kauf, but it is still a prison. And my brother's demons will not let him forget it.
Which means I must stay levelheaded for the both of us and find a way out of here.
The night creeps by, dawn breaks, and it's not until the late afternoon that the lock on my door clanks and three figures backlit by lamplight step into my cell. I recognize one as the captain who arrested us and a second as one of her soldiers. But it is the third woman, tall and heavily cloaked, who catches my attention.
Because she is surrounded by ghuls.
They gather like hungry crows at her feet, hissing and pawing at her. I know, instantly, that she cannot see them.
"Bring in the brother, Captain Eleiba." The woman's Serran is husky and musical. She could be a Kehanni with a voice like that. She looks to be around Afya's age or perhaps a bit older, with light brown skin and thick, straight black hair pulled up in a knot. Her back is poker straight, and she walks gracefully, as if balancing a book on her head. "Sit, child," she says, and though her voice is pleasant enough, an underlying malice raises my hackles. Are the ghuls influencing her? I did not know they had such power. They feed off sorrow and sadness and the stink of blood. Spiro Teluman spoke those words to me long ago. What sorrow plagues this woman?
Darin soon joins me, slowing when he enters, eyes wide. He sees the ghuls too. When he takes a seat on my cot beside me, I reach for his hand and squeeze. They cannot hold us. I will not let them.
The woman observes me for a long moment before smiling. "You," she says to me, "look nothing like the Lioness. And you"--she glances at Darin--"are her spitting image. Clever of her to keep you hidden. I expect it's why you're still alive."
The ghuls slither up the woman's cloak, hissing into her ear. Her lips curve into a sneer. "But then, my father tells me that Mirra always enjoyed her little secrets. I wonder, are you like her in other ways? Looking always to fight instead of fix, to break instead of build, to--"
"You shut it about my mother." My face grows hot. "How dare you--"
"You will please address Crown Princess Nikla of Marinn as Princess or Your Highness," Eleiba says. "And you will speak with respect for one of her station."
This woman, infested with ghuls who are influencing her mind, will one day rule Marinn? I want to frighten the fey creatures away from her, but I cannot manage it without looking as if I'm attacking her. Mariners are less skeptical than Scholars when it comes to the fey, but something tells me she still won't believe me if I tell her what I see.
"Don't bother, Eleiba." Nikla snorts. "I should have known she'd have the same lack of subtlety the Lioness did. Now, girl, let us discuss why you are here."
"Please." I speak through gritted teeth, knowing that my life is in Nikla's hands. "My brother and I are here to--"
"Make Serric steel weaponry," Nikla says. "Supply the Scholar refugees flooding the city. Instigate an uprising. Challenge the Mariners, despite all we have done for your people since the Empire uprooted them hundreds of years ago."
I am so flabbergasted that I almost cannot speak. "No," I sputter. "No, Princess, you have it wrong. We're not here to make weaponry, we--"
Do I tell her of the Nightbringer? Of Shaeva? I think of the stories of fey violence whispered along the road, stories I've been hearing for months. The ghuls may tell her that I lie. But I must warn her. "A threat approaches, Princess. A great threat. You have no doubt heard the tales of Mariner ships sinking in calm seas, of children disappearing in the dead of night."
Beside Nikla, Eleiba stiffens, her eyes jerking toward mine, filled with recognition. She
knows! But Nikla holds up a hand. The ghuls chuckle nastily, slitted red eyes fixed on me.
"You sent your allies ahead of you to spread such lies among the Scholar population," she says. "Tales of monsters out of legend. Yes, your little friends did your work well."
Araj. The Skiritae. I sigh. Elias warned me that the Skiritae leader would spread word of my exploits far and wide. I hadn't given it much thought.
"They seeded your reputation among the newly arrived Scholars, a downtrodden and easily manipulated population. And then you arrived with your brother, your mother's legacy, and promises of Serric steel, safety, and security. All insurgents tell the same tale, girl. It just changes a bit with the telling."
"We don't want trouble." My trepidation rises, but I channel my grandfather, Pop, thinking of the time he delivered twins and I panicked. It was my first delivery, and with a few words, his serenity soothed me until my hands no longer shook. "We just want to--"
"Don't patronize me. My people have done everything for yours." Nikla paces the small cell, the ghuls following her like a pack of loyal dogs. "We have taken them into our city and integrated them into the fabric of Mariner culture. But our generosity is not without limits. Here in Marinn, we are not sadists, like the Martials. But we do not take kindly to rabble-rousers. Know that if you do not cooperate with me, I will have Captain Eleiba put you both on the next ship down to the Tribal lands--as we did your friends."
Oh hells. So that's what happened to Araj and Tas and the rest of the Skiritae. Skies, I hope they are all right.
"The Tribal lands are crawling with Martials." I try to temper my anger, but the more this woman talks, the more I want to scream. "If you send us there, we'll be killed or enslaved."