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Page 45

I do not waste a thought on how much I hate this man. I simply sing Livia's song quickly, unable to bear her pain any longer. Her bones knit together, clean and strong once more.

"Interesting," Marcus says in a dead voice. "Does it work on you?" he asks. "For example, if I demanded your war hammer and shattered your knees right now, would you be able to heal them?"

"No," I lie smoothly, though my insides cringe in disgust. "It doesn't work on me."

He tilts his head. "But if I shatter her knees, you could heal them? With your song?"

I stare at him, aghast.

"Answer the question, Shrike. Or I'll break her other arm."

"Yes," I say. "Yes, I could heal her. But she's the mother of your child--"

"She's an Illustrian whore you sold to me in exchange for your miserable life," Marcus says. "Her only use is her ability to carry my heir. As soon as he is born, I'll cast her . . . I'll--" The suddenness with which his face pales is staggering. He half roars, half screams, his fingers curled into claws. I look to the door, expecting Rallius and Faris to burst in at the sound of their Emperor in pain.

They do not. Probably because they are hoping that I'm the one causing it.

"Enough!" He speaks to neither me nor Livia. "You wanted this. You told me to do it. You--" Marcus grasps his head, and the moan that comes out of him is animal.

"Heal this." He grabs my hand, crushing my fingers, and puts it on his head roughly. "Heal this!"

"I--I don't--"

"Heal it, or I swear to the skies that when the time comes I'll cut my child out of her while she still lives." He grabs my left hand and slams it to the other side of his head, digging his fingers into my wrists until I hiss in pain. "Heal me."

"Sit down." I have never wanted to kill someone so much. I wonder, suddenly, if my healing can be used to destroy. Can I shatter his bones with a song? Stop his heart?

Skies, I've no idea how to heal a broken man. How does one heal hallucinations? Is that all that ails him? Does he suffer from something deeper? Is it in his heart? His mind?

All I can do is seek his song. I explore his heart first, but it is strong and steady and healthy, a heart that will beat for a long time to come. I circle his mind and finally step inside. It feels like stepping into a poisoned swamp. Darkness. Pain. Rage. And a deep, abiding emptiness. I am reminded of Cook, only this darkness is different, more wounded, whereas what lived in Cook felt like nothing at all.

I try to soothe the bits of his mind that rage, but it does nothing. I catch a glimpse of something strangely familiar: a wisp of a form--yellow eyes, dark skin, dark hair, a sad face. He could be so much more if only he did as I ask. Zacharius?

The words are whispered on the air, but I am not sure who spoke them. Skies, what have I gotten myself into? Help me, I shout in my mind, though to whom, I don't know. My father, perhaps. My mother. I don't know what to do.

"Stop."

The word is a command, not a request, and even Marcus turns at the sound. For this is a voice that cannot be ignored, not even by the overlord of the Martial Empire.

The Nightbringer stands in the middle of the room. The windows are not open. Neither is the door. From the terrified look on Livia's face, I can tell that she too is spooked by the jinn's sudden appearance.

"She cannot heal you, Emperor," the Nightbringer says in his deep, unsettling voice. "You suffer no ailment. Your brother's ghost is real. Until you submit to its will, it will give you no peace."

"You . . ." For the first time in what feels like years, Marcus's face holds something other than malice or hatred. He looks haunted. "You knew. Zak said he saw the future in your eyes. Look at me--look at me--and tell me my end."

"I do not show you your end," the Nightbringer says. "I show you the darkest moment your future holds. Your brother saw his. You will soon face yours, Emperor. Leave the Shrike. Leave your empress. Tend to your empire, lest your brother's death be for naught."

Marcus staggers away from the Nightbringer, toward the door. He cuts me a look--enough hate in that glance that I know he isn't yet done with me--and stumbles out.

I whirl on the Nightbringer, still shaking from what I saw in Marcus's mind. The same question I asked before is on my lips: What game are you playing? But I do not have to speak it.

"No game, Blood Shrike," the jinn says. "The very opposite. You will see."

XXXIV: Elias

We have twelve hours until the Martials arrive. Twelve hours to prepare a few thousand Tribesmen who are in the worst fighting shape they've ever been in. Twelve hours to get the children and injured to safety.

If there were any place to run, I would ask the Tribes to get the hells away from here. But the sea lies to the east and the Forest to the north. The Martials approach from the south and west.

Mauth pulls at me, the tug getting more painful by the minute. I know I must go back to the Forest. But if I don't do something, thousands of Tribespeople will be massacred. The Waiting Place will be filled with even more ghosts. And where will that leave me?

The Tribes, it's clear, plan to stand and fight. Already, the Zaldars who still have their wits are readying horses and weaponry and armor. But it won't be enough. Though we outnumber the Martials, they are a superior fighting force. Ambushes in the dead of night with poisoned darts are one thing. But facing an army on a field when your men haven't slept or eaten properly in days?

"Banu al-Mauth." Afya's voice is stronger than it was even an hour ago. "The salt works. We still have many dead to attend to, but the ruh have been released. The spirits no longer plague their families."

"But there are too many dead now." Mamie appears behind Afya, pallid and exhausted. "And they must be given burial rites."

"I spoke to the other Zaldars," Afya says. "We can muster a force of a thousand horse--"

"You don't need to do that," I say. "I'm going to take care of it."

The Zaldara look

s dubious. "Using . . . your magic?"

"Not exactly." I consider. I have most of what I need, but there is one thing that will make what I must do a bit easier. "Afya, do you have any of those darts you used during the raids?"

Mamie and Afya exchange a glance, and my mother steps close enough that only I can hear her. She takes my hands.

"What are you planning, my son?"

Perhaps I should tell her. She would try to talk me out of it, I know she would. She loves me, and that love blinds her.

I extricate myself, unable to meet her eyes. "You don't want to know."

As I leave the camp, Mauth summons me with enough force that I think he will pull me to the Forest the way he did after the jinn took me to Laia.

But this is the only way.

The first time I killed, I was eleven. I saw my enemy's face for days after he was gone. I heard his voice. And then I killed again. And again. And again. Too soon, I stopped seeing their faces. I stopped wondering what their names were, or who they left behind. I killed because I was ordered to, and then, once free of Blackcliff, I killed because I had to, to stay alive.

Once, I knew exactly how many lives I had taken. Now I no longer remember. Somewhere along the way, a part of me learned how to stop caring. And that's the part of me that I must draw upon now.

As soon as I reason through it in my head, the connection between Mauth and me slackens. He offers no magic, but I am able to continue my journey without pain.

The Martial army stops to camp along the crest of a low plateau. Their tents are a dark stain against the pale desert, their cook fires like stars in the warm night. It takes a half hour of patient observation to figure out where the camp commander is and another fifteen minutes to plan my entrance--and exit. My face is known, but most of these people believe I'm dead. They will not expect to see me, and there lies my advantage.

The shadows hang thick between the tents, and I let them cradle me as I make my way through the periphery of the camp. The commander's tent is in the center, but the soldiers have erected it hastily, for instead of a clear area around it, other dwellings are staked close by. Access won't be simple--but it won't be impossible, either.

As I approach the tent, darts ready, a great part of me screams against this.

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