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Page 20

"We are evacuating the southern parts of the city, Shrike."

"Not fast enough." I consider. We must protect Navium, of course. But I smell a trap. Harper taps a thumb on his scim hilt. He senses it too.

And yet I cannot let Grimarr murder my people at will. "Admiral Argus, how long to prepare the fleet?"

"We could launch by second bell, but the weather--"

"We will engage the Karkauns at sea," I say, and though I promised I'd get the Paters' permission, I have no time for it. Not when every minute brings more Martial deaths. "And we will do it now."

"I'm with you, Shrike." Janus Atrius steps forward, as do a half dozen other Paters and officers. Most, however, are clearly opposed.

"Consider," Keris says, "that the fleet is our only defense, Shrike. If a storm comes in--"

"You and I both know," I say quietly, "that this has nothing to do with the weather."

I glance at Dex, who nods, and Harper, who watches the Commandant fixedly. His expression is unreadable. Don't act the part she's written for you.

In the end, I might be playing into her hands. But I'll just have to concoct a way out of whatever trap she's laid for me. These are the lives of my people, and come what may, I cannot leave them to die.

"Admiral Argus." My tone brooks no disapproval, and though his eyes are rebellious, one look from me quells it. "Launch the fleet."

* * *

After an hour, the men are mustered, and the laborious process of dropping the sea chains begins. After two hours, the fleet sails from the circular war port and into the merchant harbor. After three, our men are locked in combat with the Karkauns.

But after four hours, the sky, thick with clouds and rain, deepens from a threatening gray to an eerie dark purple, and I know we are in trouble. Lightning cracks across the water, striking mast after mast. Flames leap high, distant bursts of light that tell me the battle is turning--and not in our favor.

The storm comes suddenly, roiling toward Navium from the south as if whipped forth by a wrathful wind. By the time it hits, it is far too late to turn the fleet back.

"Admiral Argus has sailed these seas for two decades," Dex says quietly as the storm intensifies. "He might be Keris's dog, but he'll bring the fleet home. He'll have no wish to die."

I should have gone with them. But the Commandant and Harper and Dex all protested--the one thing the three of them agreed on.

I seek out Keris, who speaks quietly with one of the drum-tower runners.

"No reports yet, Shrike," she says. "The drum towers cannot hear anything over the storm. We must wait."

The runner steps away, and we are, for a moment, alone.

"Who is this Grimarr?" I ask her. "Why do we know nothing about him?"

"He's a zealot, a warlock priest who worships the dead. He believes it is his spiritual duty to convert all those who are unenlightened. That includes the Martials."

"By killing us."

"Apparently," Keris says softly. "He's a relatively young man, a dozen or so years older than you. His father traded furs, so Grimarr traveled the Empire extensively as a boy--to learn our ways, no doubt. He returned to his people a decade ago, just as a famine hit. The clans were starving, weak--and malleable." The Commandant shrugs. "So he molded them."

I'm surprised at the depth of her knowledge, and she must see it on my face. "What is the first rule of war, Blood Shrike?"

Know your enemy. I don't even have to say it.

I look out at the storm and shudder. The gale feels fey. Wild. Thinking of what will happen if our fleet succumbs makes my stomach churn. We sent out nearly every vessel, holding back only a dozen ships. Night approaches, and still we have no word.

We cannot lose the fleet. We are the Empire. The Martials. Argus's men are trained for this. They've seen storms far worse.

I cycle through every scrap of hope I can claw from the recesses of my mind. But as the minutes pass, the distant flashes of battle continue unabated. And those flashes that are closer to Navium--those that belong to our fleet--grow fewer and fewer.

"We should put up the sea chains, Shrike," the Commandant finally says. The Paters agree with a dozen angry ayes.

"Our fleet is still out there."

"If the fleet survives, we will know in the morning and we can lower the chains. But if they do not, then we keep the Karkauns from penetrating to the heart of Navium."

I nod my assent, and the order is given. The night drags on. Does the storm carry the shrieking taunts of Karkaun warlocks? Or is that just the wind? Hope is stronger than fear. It is stronger than hate. I said those words to the Nightbringer, and as night deepens to an impenetrable blackness, I hold on to them. No matter what dawn brings, I will not give up hope.

Soon, the sky pales. The clouds thin and roll back. The city is swept clean and sparkling, the red and gray roofs gleaming in the wan sunlight. The sea is as smooth as glass.

And, except for the mass of Karkaun ships bobbing well off the coast, it is empty.

The Martial fleet is gone.

Impossible.

"You did not listen." The Pater who speaks is the head of Gens Serica, a wealthy family of silk merchants who have long been established in the south. My father considered him a friend. The man is pale; his hands shake. There is no venom to his words, because he is in shock. "And the fleet--the city--"

"I did warn you, Blood Shrike." As Keris speaks, the hairs on the back of my neck rise. Her gaze is cold, but the spot of triumph she's buried deep within shows itself. What the skies?

We just lost the entire bleeding fleet. Thousands of men. Even the Commandant couldn't have anything to rejoice in the death of her own people.

Unless that was her plan this entire time.

Which, I now realize, it must have been. In one swoop, she has undermined my authority, destroyed my reputation, and guaranteed that the Paters will turn to her for guidance. And all it cost her was the entire bleeding fleet. The plan is repugnant--evil--and because of that, I did not even consider it. But I should have.

Know your enemy.

Bleeding skies. I should have realized she would never hand over power so easily.

And yet she couldn't have known the storm was coming. None of us could have, not with the sky so clear and the threatening cloud bank so distant.

Suddenly--and far too late for it to be any use--I remember the Nightbringer. After delivering me to the Island, he disappeared. I thought nothing more of him. But what of his power? Can he create storms? Would he?

And if so, would the Commandant have requested it of him? She could have proved my incompetence in a thousand ways. Losing the entire fleet seems excessive. Even with me out of the way, how will she defend Navium with no navy?

No, something else is going on. Some other game. But what is it?

I look to Dex, who shakes his head, stricken. I cannot bring myself to look at Harper.

"I will go to the beach to see if anything can be salvaged from the wrecks," the Commandant says. "If I have your leave, Shrike."

"Go."

The Paters file out of the room, no doubt to take the news to the rest of their Gens. Keris trails them. At the door, she stops. Turns. She is the Commandant again, and I the ignorant student. Her eyes are exultant--and predatory. The exact opposite of what they should be, considering our loss.

Keris smiles, a smirk from a murderess sharpening her blades for the kill. "Welcome to Navium, Blood Shrike."

XVII: Laia

The night is deep when we arrive at Musa's safe house, a forge that squats in Adisa's central shipyard, just beyond the Scholar refugee camp. At this hour, the shipyard is empty, its silent streets eerily shadowed by the skeletons of half-built vessels.

Musa does not even glance over his shoulder as he unlocks the forge's back door, but I am uneasy, unable to shake the sense that someone--something--watches us.

Within a few hours, that feeling is gone, and the yard thunders with the shouts of builders, the pounding

of hammers, and the protesting creak of wood as it is bowed and nailed into place. From my room, on the forge's upper level, I peer down into a courtyard where a gray-haired Scholar woman stokes an already roaring fire. The cacophony surrounding this place is perfect for clandestine weapon-making. And Musa said he'd get Darin whatever supplies he needs. Which means my brother must make weapons. He is out of excuses.

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