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Page 42

But as I knit her back together, something is not right. I move down from her heart to her belly. My consciousness flinches back.

The baby.

He--and my sister is right, it is a he--sleeps now. But there is something wrong with him. His heartbeat, which instinct tells me should sound like the gentle, swift thud of a bird's wings, is too slow. His still-developing mind too sluggish. He slips away from us.

Skies, what is the child's song? I do not know him. I know nothing about him except that he is part Marcus and part Livia and that he is our only chance for a unified Empire.

"What do you want him to be?" the Nightbringer asks. At his voice, I jump, so deep in healing that I forgot he was here. "A warrior? A leader? A diplomat? His ruh, his spirit, is within, but it is not yet formed. If you wish him to live, then you must shape him from what is there--his blood, his family. But know that in doing so, you will be bound to him and his purpose forever. You will never be able to extricate yourself."

"He is family," I whisper. "My nephew. I wouldn't want to extricate myself from him."

I hum, searching for his song. Do I want him to be like me? Like Elias? Certainly not like Marcus.

I want him to be an Aquilla. And I want him to be a Martial. So I sing my sister Livia into him--her kindness and laughter. I sing him my father's conviction and prudence. My mother's thoughtfulness and intelligence. I sing him Hannah's fire.

Of his father, I sing only one thing: his strength and skill in battle--one quick word, sharp and strong and clear--Marcus if the world had not ruined him. If he had not allowed himself to be ruined.

But there is something missing. I feel it. This child will one day be Emperor. He needs something deeply rooted, something that will sustain him when nothing else will: a love of his people.

The thought appears in my head as if it's been planted there. So I sing him my own love, the love I learned in the streets of Navium, in fighting for my people, in them fighting for me. The love I learned in the infirmary, healing children and telling them not to fear.

His heart begins to beat in time again; his body strengthens. I feel him give my sister an almighty kick, and, relieved, I withdraw.

"Well done, Shrike." The Nightbringer stands. "She will sleep now, and so must you, if you do not wish for the healing to ravage your strength. Stay away from any injured people, if you can. Your power will call to you. It will demand to be heard, used, reveled in. You must resist, lest you destroy yourself."

With that, he fades away, and I look back at Livvy, sleeping peacefully, the color returned to her face. Tentatively, I reach out a hand toward her belly, drawn to the life within. I keep my hand there for a long while, my eyes filling when I feel another kick.

I am about to speak to the child when the curtains beside the bed rustle. Immediately, I scramble for the war hammer strapped across my back. The sound comes from the hallway between Marcus's room and Livvy's. My stomach sinks. I didn't even think to check that entrance. Shrike, you fool!

A moment later, Emperor Marcus steps out from behind the drapes there, smiling.

Maybe he didn't see me healing Livia. Maybe he doesn't know. It's been a few minutes. He couldn't have been watching that whole time. The Nightbringer would have seen him, sensed him.

But then I remember that Marcus learned to keep the Augurs out of his head from the Nightbringer. Perhaps he learned to keep the jinn out too.

"You've been keeping secrets, Shrike," Marcus says, his words dashing any hopes I had of keeping my magic to myself. "You know I don't like secrets."

XXXII: Laia

It had to be the Blood Shrike. It couldn't be some soft-handed courtier or empty-headed stable boy--someone I could snitch the ring off of.

"How the skies am I supposed to get it from her?" I pace in the courtyard of the smithy. The night is deep, and Taure and Zella have returned to the refugee camp to help, as the Mariners have all but abandoned the Scholars to the elements.

"Even invisible," I say, "it will be on her finger. She is a Mask, for skies' sake. And if the Nightbringer is near her, I don't know if my invisibility will work. It will take me two months just to get to Navium. But the Grain Moon is less than seven weeks away."

"She's not in Navium," Musa says. "She's headed for Antium. We can send someone who is already in the city to take it. I have plenty of people."

"Or your wights," Darin says. "What if they--"

A screeching chitter disabuses us of that notion. "They won't touch any part of the Star," Musa says after listening for a moment. "Too afraid of the Nightbringer."

"In any case, read it again." I nod at the book before him. "Only the Ghost may stand against the onslaught. Should the Lioness's heir claim the Butcher's pride, it will evanesce. I'm my mother's heir, Musa. You chose me yourself. And I'm the Ghost. Who else do you know who can disappear?"

"If you're the Ghost," Musa says, "what's this business about you falling . . . your flesh withering? Or am I remembering this Shaeva's prophecy wrong?"

I hadn't forgotten. The Ghost will fall, her flesh will wither.

"It doesn't matter," I say. "Do you want to risk the fate of the world on trying to figure it out?"

"Perhaps I don't want to risk you, aapan," Musa says. "The refugee camp is a disaster. We have almost ten thousand homeless, another thousand injured. We need you as a voice for the Scholars. We need you as our scim and shield. And we'll need you more if the Nightbringer succeeds. If you get yourself killed, you don't do me much good."

"You knew this was the deal when you made it," I say. "You help me find the last piece of the Star and take down the Nightbringer, and when I get back, I offer myself as leader of the northern Resistance. Besides, if all goes to plan, the Nightbringer won't succeed."

"The Martials will still attack. Maybe not immediately, but it will happen. The Commandant has already tried to seize the Martial navy as well as the Karkaun fleet. She failed, but it's common knowledge she wanted those ships to take on the Mariners. The Free Lands need to be ready for war. And the Scholars need a strong voice to speak up for them when that day comes."

"It's not going to matter if we're all dead."

"Look at you." Musa shakes his head. "Half out the door, like you can just tear off for Antium this very instant."

"The Grain Moon is little more than six weeks away, Musa. I have no time."

"What do you propose?" Darin asks. "Laia's right--we have no time."

"Your face is known in the Empire. The Nightbringer can read your mind, and your invisibility ceases to work around him. You need people to back you in Antium," Musa says. "People who know the city and the Martials. I can, of course, provide this. We let them come up with a plan to get you close to the Shrike. That way, it can't be picked from your mind."

"And it can't be picked from theirs?"

"My people--well, person--is trained to keep out invaders. Mind like a steel trap and as quiet and clever as a wraith. However . . ."

"No however," I say, alarmed. "Whatever you want me to do, I'll do it when I get back."

"I've hardly asked anything of you yet, Laia."

"Something tells me you're about to make up for that," Darin murmurs.

"Indeed." Musa rises from his seat beside one of the forges, wincing as he does. "Come with me. I'll explain on the way. Though"--he looks me up and down distastefully--"you need to visit the bath first."

A sudden suspicion forms in my mind. "Where are we going?"

"To the palace. To speak with the king."

* * *

Four hours later, I perch upon an overstuffed chair in a palace antechamber beside Musa, awaiting an audience with a man I have no wish to meet.

"This is a terrible idea," I hiss at Musa. "We have no support from the refugees or the Adisan Scholars, no Resistance fighters at our backs--"

"You're leaving for Antium to hunt down a jinn," Musa says. "I need you to talk to the king before you die."

"Just because he knew my mothe

r doesn't mean he'll listen to me. You've lived here your whole life. You have a much better chance of persuading him to help the Scholars. Clearly he knows you; otherwise we never would have gotten this audience."

"We got this audience because he thinks he's meeting the famed daughter of his old friend. Now remember, you must convince him that the Scholars need aid and that there is at least a threat from the Martials," Musa says. "No need to mention the Nightbringer. Just--"

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