"Eyes ahead, Shrike." He glances at me, and I'm unnerved that he seems to know what I'm thinking. "Whatever you're feeling guilty about, you can deal with it later."
When we finally reach the bridge to the Island, the city guards, alerted to our approach, close ranks. As I march up to them, an aux bursts through the crowd, exactly on time.
"The Karkauns have attacked the drum towers," he says breathlessly to the captain of the city guard, a Plebeian himself. "They've killed the drummers and the guards. There's no way for the Commandant to communicate with the men."
"The city will fall if you do not move," I say to the guard captain. "Let me past and be remembered as a hero. Or continue to defend her and die a coward."
"No need for dramatics, Blood Shrike."
Across the bridge, the large wooden doors that lead to the Island tower are open. The Commandant emerges, backed by a dozen Paters. Her cold voice shakes, the slightest tremor of rage. Behind her, the Paters take in the scims and torches and angry faces arrayed before them. Silently, the guards stand aside, and we cross the bridge.
"Shrike," the Commandant says. "You do not understand the delicate workings of--"
"We're dying out here!" an angry voice calls out. "While you dine on roast fowl and fresh fruit in a tower that doesn't belong to you."
I hide a smirk. One of the Paters had a shipment of fruit delivered to the Island three days ago. I ensured that news of that delivery got back to the Plebeians.
"General Veturia!" A runner arrives from the Southeast Quarter, and this time it's not one of mine. "The Karkauns have made landfall. The warlock Grimarr leads the charge, and his men are pouring into the Quarter. There--there are reports of pyres being built. A group of Martials who were caught refused to swear fealty to Grimarr and were thrown on the pyre. Our troops need orders, sir."
Keris hesitates. It's just one moment. One instant of weakness. You want to destroy her? You have to become her first.
"I am taking control of this military operation." I shove past her, past the Paters, and motion Avitas and the aux soldiers who have moved to the front of the crowd to follow. "You have been relieved of duty, Keris Veturia. You are welcome to observe, as are the Paters." Let this work. Please.
I head up the winding stairs, Avitas and the auxes at my back. When we reach the Island's command level, Avitas lights a blue-fire torch and we keep moving, up to the roof. All our hopes lie in that torch. It seems so small now, insignificant in the great dark night.
He waves it thrice. We wait.
Bleeding skies. We can't have gotten the timing right on every part of this plan only for it to go wrong now.
"Shrike!" Harper points to the western sea, where, from behind a craggy hook of land, a forest of masts emerges.
The Martial fleet.
Gasps echo from the Plebeians who I ensured followed us up to the top of the tower. To a man, the Paters appear either ill or terrified.
As for the Commandant--in the years I have known her, I've never seen her shocked or even mildly surprised. Now, her face and knuckles go so white she could be a corpse.
"The fleet didn't sink that night," I hiss at her. "It sailed away. And you had your jinn master stir up old shipwrecks to wash to shore so that our people would believe the Martial fleet had gone under and that I was to blame. I went to the beach, Keris, got past all your guard dogs. The masts, the sails, all the detritus that washed up--they were from ships that must have been under the sea for decades."
"Why would I hide the fleet? That's preposterous."
"Because you need those ships for the Nightbringer's war with Marinn and the Scholars," I snap at her. "So you thought you'd wait out the Karkauns. Let a few thousand Plebeians die. Let that bastard Grimarr attack on land. Decimate his forces. Steal his ships. Suddenly, you'd have a fleet twice the size of the Mariners'."
"Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius will never follow your orders."
"So you admit that they're alive?" I almost laugh. "I'd wondered why their Gens mourned while their wives didn't appear upset at all."
Navium's drum towers suddenly begin thundering orders, my own drummers sending messages in place of those Dex and his men killed. A squad of runners appears from the base of the watchtower; they had only been awaiting my signal. I relay orders to the men in the Southwest Quarter, who by now must be facing pitched battles with the Karkaun invaders.
The Commandant, I notice, edges toward the stairs. Almost immediately, she is flanked by my men, who halt her retreat. I want her to watch. I want her to witness her plan unravel.
Avitas holds out one last torch, and I take it first to the southern part of the tower, near the sea, and then north, toward the war harbor.
The heavy clank of channel chains dropping is audible even from here. From the war harbor, the last of the fleet--those two dozen ships we didn't send out--emerges.
None of the hundreds of Plebeians watching from the bridge below could mistake the flags flying upon the masts: two crossed swords on a field of black. The original flag of Gens Veturia, before Keris added her foul K to it.
Nor could anyone mistake the identity of the proud, white-haired figure standing at the helm of the lead vessel.
"Admiral Argus and Vice Admiral Vissellius are dead," I say to Keris. "The fleet now answers to Admiral Quin Veturius. Veturia men--true Veturia men--man the fleet, along with volunteers from Gens Atria."
I know the moment that Keris Veturia understands what I've done. The moment when she realizes that her father, whom she had thought to be in hiding, has arrived. The moment that she realizes I have bested her. Sweat beads on her brow, and she clenches and unclenches her fists. The neck of her uniform is open, unbuttoned in agitation. I spot her tattoo: ALW--
When she catches me looking, her lips go thin and she yanks up the collar.
"It did not have to be this way, Blood Shrike." The Commandant's voice is soft, as it always is when she is at her most dangerous. "Remember that, before the end. If you'd just gotten out of the way, you could have saved so many. But now . . ." She shrugs. "Now I will have to resort to harsher measures."
A chill ripples across my shoulders, but I
force myself to shake it off and turn to the Black Guards, all from allied Gens. "Get her to the interrogation cells." I do not watch them take her away. Instead, I turn to the Paters.
"What did she offer you?" I say. "A market for your goods? For your weapons, Pater Tatius? And your grain, Pater Modius? For your horses, Pater Equitius, and your lumber, Pater Lignius? War creates such opportunity for greedy, cowardly swindlers, does it not?"
"Shrike." Avitas translates a drum message. "Grimarr turns his forces back. He's seen the attack on the ships. He goes to defend his fleet."
"It won't do any good." I speak only to the Paters. "The southern seas will run red with the blood of the Karkauns tonight," I say. "And when the people of Navium tell this story, they will speak your names the same way they speak of the Karkauns: with disgust and scorn. Unless you swear your fealty to Emperor Marcus Farrar and your loyalty to me in his place. Unless you get your men and yourselves onto those ships"--I nod to the vessels emerging from the war harbor--"and fight the enemy yourselves."
It doesn't take long. Dex remains at the Island to oversee the battle and get the Plebeians back to safety. Avitas and I take the last ship out at my insistence. My blood rises, hungry for a fight, raring to have my revenge on those Barbarian bastards, to pay them back for weeks of bombardment. I will find Grimarr. I will make him hurt.
"Shrike." Avitas, who disappeared belowdecks, returns holding a gleaming war hammer.
"I found this at the Aquilla manor," he says, "when I was checking through the supplies. Look."
The black metal is emblazoned with four words I know well. Loyal to the end.
The hammer fits in my hand as if I was born for it, neither too heavy nor too light. One end has a sharp hook to use for quick kills, and the blunt end is perfect for bashing heads.
Before the end of the night, the hammer sees both. When the sky finally pales, only a dozen Barbarian ships remain, and they all make a swift retreat south, with Quin Veturius in hot pursuit. Though I hunted him, Grimarr the warlock priest eluded me. I caught a single glimpse of him, tall and pale and deadly. He still lives--but not for long, I think.