Relief sweeps through me, for the solution to this is so simple that I am angry I didn't see the ghuls before.
"You need salt," I say to Aubarit and Mamie. "Those afflicted by this malady are surrounded by ghuls, who hold on to their spirits. Put salt around those who should be dead. The ghuls hate it. If you disperse those foul creatures, the afflicted will pass, and you should be able to commune with the spirits again."
Aubarit and Mamie disappear almost immediately to find salt and to tell the other Tribes of the antidote. As they sprinkle the salt around the afflicted, the hisses and snarls of thwarted ghuls fill the air, though I'm the only one who can hear them. I walk with the Fakira through the camp, the magic still with me, ensuring that the ghuls are not simply waiting for me to leave before slinking back.
I prepare to return to the Waiting Place when a distant shout stops me in my tracks. Afya pulls her horse up beside me.
"The Martials have mustered a legion," she says. "Nearly five thousand men. They're moving against us. And they're coming swiftly."
Bleeding hells. The moment I think it--the moment my worry for the Tribes rises--Mauth's magic leaves me. I feel empty without him. Weak.
"When will the Martials get here, Afya?" Tell me they're a few days away. Perhaps if I wish for it, it will be true. Tell me they're still outfitting their troops, preparing weapons, readying for the assault.
Afya's voice shakes when she answers.
XXXI: The Blood Shrike
Avitas Harper and I do not stop to eat. We do not stop to sleep. We drink from our canteens as we ride, halting only to change horses at a courier's station.
I can heal my sister. I can. If only I can get to her.
Three days into the journey, we reach Serra, and it is there that I finally stop, dragged bodily off my horse by Avitas, unable to fight back because of fatigue and hunger.
"Get off me!"
"You will eat." Harper is equally enraged, his pale green eyes bright as he pulls me toward the door of the Black Guard barracks. "You will rest. Or your sister has no hope, and neither does the Empire."
"A meal," I say. "And two hours of sleep."
"Two meals," he says. "And four hours of sleep. Take it or leave it."
"You don't have any siblings," I snarl. "Not any who know who you are, anyway. Even if you did, you didn't watch as your family--you weren't the reason they--"
My eyes burn. Don't comfort me, I scream in my head at Harper. Don't you dare.
Harper watches me for a moment before turning away, snapping at the guard on duty to get food and quarters ready. When he turns back, I am composed.
"Do you wish to sleep here in the barracks," Harper says, "or in your old home?"
"My sister is my home," I say. "Until I reach her, it doesn't matter where I bleeding sleep."
At some point, I fall asleep half-slumped in a chair. When I wake in the middle of the night, plagued by nightmares, I am in my quarters, a blanket tucked around me.
"Harper--" He rises out of the shadows, hesitating at the foot of my cot before kneeling beside my head. His hair is mussed, his silver face unguarded. He puts a warm hand on my shoulder and nudges me back to the pillow. For once, his eyes are transparent, filled with concern and exhaustion and something else I don't quite recognize. I expect him to lift his hand away, but he doesn't.
"Sleep now, Shrike. Just a little longer."
* * *
Ten days after leaving Serra, we arrive in Antium, coated in sweat and grime from the road, our horses panting and lathered.
"She's still alive." Faris meets Avitas and me at Antium's massive iron portcullis, warned, no doubt, of our approach by the city guardsmen.
"You were supposed to protect her." I grab him by the throat, my anger lending me strength. The guards at the gate back away, and a group of Scholar slaves mortaring a nearby wall scatter. "You were supposed to keep her safe."
"Punish me, if you wish," Faris chokes out. "I deserve it. But go to her first."
I shove him away from me. "How did it happen?"
"Poison," he said. "Slow-acting. Skies only know where that monster got it from." Keris. This was her handiwork. It had to have been. Thank the bleeding skies she is still imprisoned in Navium.
"We usually wait six hours between when Livia's tasters test her food and when she eats it," Faris goes on. "Either Rallius or I have overseen the testers ourselves. But this time, it took more than seven hours for her tasters to drop dead. She'd only had the food in her for an hour, and we were able to purge her enough so that she didn't die immediately, but . . ."
"Alive, according to the midwife."
The palace is calm. Faris has, at least, kept news of the Empress's poisoning close. I expect Marcus to be nearby, but he is at court, listening to petitioners, and isn't expected back in the royal quarters for hours. A small mercy, but a welcome one.
Faris pauses outside Livia's door. "She's not what you remember, Shrike."
When I enter my sister's room, I hardly notice her ladies-in-waiting, who wear expressions of genuine mourning. It makes me hate them a little less for being so very alive while my sister hovers near death.
"Out," I tell them. "Everyone. Now. And don't bleeding say a word about this to anyone."
They file out quickly but reluctantly, looking back at my sister with sad longing. Livia always could make friends quickly--she treats everyone with such respect.
When the women have finally left, I turn to Harper. "Guard the door with your life," I say. "No one comes in. I don't care if it's the Emperor himself. Find a way to keep him out."
Avitas salutes, and the door is securely locked behind me.
Livia's room is laden with shadows, and she lies as still as death in the bed, her face bloodless. I see no wound, but I can feel the poison twisting through her body, a merciless foe eating away at her insides. Her breathing is shallow, her color poor. That she's survived this long in such a weakened s
tate is a bleeding miracle.
"Not a miracle, Blood Shrike." A shadow steps from beside her bed, ink-cloaked and sun-eyed.
"What are you doing here?" The skies-forsaken jinn had to have known what the Commandant was doing. He might even have procured the poison for her.
"You wear your thoughts openly, like you wear your blades," the Nightbringer says. "The Commandant is not so transparent. I did not know of her plan. But I was able to hold your sister in stasis until you arrived. It is up to you now to heal her."
"Tell me why you're helping me," I demand, enraged that I have to speak to him, that I cannot immediately begin to help Livvy. "No lies. Tell me the truth. You're Keris's ally. You have been for years. This was her doing. What game are you playing?"
For a long moment, I think that he will deny being a double agent. Or that he will grow angry and lash me to bits.
When he does finally speak, it's with great care. "You have something I want, Shrike. Something whose value you do not yet realize. But in order for me to use it, it must be given in love. In trust."
"You're trying to win my love and trust? I will never grant it."
"Your love, no," he says. "I would not expect it, in any case. But your trust, yes. I want your trust. And you will give it to me. You must. One day soon, you will be tested, child. All that you cherish will burn. You will have no friends that day. No allies. No comrades in arms. On that day, your trust in me will be your only weapon. But I cannot make you trust me." He steps back to allow me access to Livia.
With one eye on the jinn, I examine her more closely. I listen to her heart. I feel her heart, her body, her blood with my mind. The Nightbringer did not lie about her. This poison is not one a human could survive without help.
"You waste precious time, Blood Shrike," the Nightbringer says. "Sing. I will hold her until she is ready to hold herself."
If he'd wanted to hurt me, truly hurt me, he'd have let her die. He'd have already killed me.
Livia's song flows from my lips easily. I have known her since she was a baby. I held her, cuddled her, loved her. I sing of her strength. I sing of the sweetness and humor that I know still live within her, despite the horrors she has endured. I feel her body strengthening, her blood regenerating.