A Reaper at the Gates - Page 46

You will know victory, or you will know death. I hear the Commandant whisper in my ear, an old memory. There is nothing else. It's always this way before I kill. Even when I was hunting Masks so Laia could free prisoners from ghost wagons--even then I struggled. Even then it took its toll. My foes will die, and they will take a bit of me with them.

The field of battle is my temple.

I draw close to the tent and find a fold that is hidden from anyone inside. Ever so slowly, I cut a slit. Five Masks, including the commander, sit around a table within, eating their meal and arguing about the coming battle.

They will not expect me, but they are still Masks. I will need to move swiftly, before they raise the alarm. Which means first taking them out with the darts Afya gave me.

The swordpoint is my priest.

I must do this. I must cut off the head of this army. Doing so will give the Tribes a chance to run. These Masks would have killed my people, my family. They would have enslaved them and beaten them and destroyed them.

The dance of death is my prayer.

But even knowing what the Masks would have done, I do not wish to kill. I do not wish to belong to this world of blood and violence and vengeance. I do not wish to be a Mask.

The killing blow is my release.

My wishes do not matter. These men must die. The Tribes must be protected. And my humanity must be left behind. I step into the tent.

And I unleash the Mask lurking within.

XXXV: The Blood Shrike

A week after Marcus's attack on Livvy, Harper finally emerges from the Hall of Records, where he has spent every waking moment since I gave him his mission.

"The record archivists were preparing for a move," he says. "Bloodline certificates and birth records and family trees all over the place. Scholar slaves were trying to clean it up, but they can't read, so it was all a jumble."

He places a stack of death certificates on my desk before collapsing into a chair across from me. "You were right. In the past twenty years, ten tattooists have died unnaturally in and around the cities where the Commandant was posted. One just recently, not far from Antium. The others lived everywhere from the Tribal lands to Delphinium. And I found something else."

He hands me a list of names. There are thirteen, all Illustrian, all from well-known Gens. I recognize two--they were found dead just recently, here in Antium. I remember reading about them weeks ago, the day Marcus ordered me to Navium. Another name also stands out.

"Daemon Cassius," I say. "Why do I know that name?"

"He was murdered last year in Serra by Scholar's Resistance fighters. It happened a few weeks before the murder of a Serran tattooist. Every one of these Illustrians was murdered shortly before the local tattooists were. Different cities. Different methods. All within the last twenty years. All Masks."

"I remember now," I say. "Cassius was at home when he was murdered. His wife found him in a locked room. Elias and I were in the middle of the Trials when it happened. I wondered how the hells a group of Scholar rebels could kill a Mask."

"Titus Rufius," Harper reads. "Killed in a hunting accident at the age of thirty-two, nine years ago. Iustin Sergius, poisoned at twenty-five, apparently by a Scholar slave who confessed to the crime sixteen years ago. Caius Sissellius was thirty-eight. He drowned on his family's own grounds, in a river he'd been swimming in since before he could walk. That was three years ago."

"Avitas, look at their ages." I examine the names carefully. "And they were Masks. Which means every one of these men graduated with her. She knew them."

"They all died before they should have, many in unnatural ways. So why? Why did she kill them?"

"They got in her way somehow," I say. "She was always ambitious. Maybe they were given postings she wanted, or they thwarted her somehow, or . . . oh . . . oh."

I remember what Quin told me of Arius Harper: He was murdered by a group of Masks the day after they graduated--Keris's fellow Senior Skulls. A vicious killing--more than a dozen of them beat him to death. Illustrian, all of them.

"It wasn't because they got in her way." I relate what Quin said. "It was vengeance. They beat Arius Harper to death." I look up from the scrolls. I wonder if his father had green eyes too. "Your father."

Avitas is quiet for a long moment. "I . . . didn't know how he died."

Bleeding hells. "I'm sorry," I say quickly. "I thought--oh skies, Avitas."

"It doesn't matter." He seems to find the window of my office suddenly very interesting. "He's been gone a long time now. Why would it matter if they killed my father? The Commandant isn't the sentimental type."

I am startled by how quickly he moves on, and I consider apologizing again or telling him that if he doesn't want the nature of his father's death made public, I understand. But then I realize that what he needs is for me to move on. To be the Blood Shrike. To let it go.

"It's not sentiment," I say briskly, though I have my doubts. The Commandant did, after all, take Avitas under her wing--inasmuch as someone like her could. "It's power. She loved him. They killed him. They took her power. By murdering them, she's taking it back."

"How do we use this against her?"

"We get this information out to the Paters," I say. "They learn about the tattoo, the dead tattooists, Arius Harper, the murdered Illustrians--all of it."

"We need proof."

"We have it." I nod to the death certificates. "For anyone who cares to look. If we can get these certificates into the hands of just a few trusted Paters, the rest won't need to see them. Think of how she's handled what happened in Navium. It didn't matter that she lied. All that mattered is that people believed it."

"We should start with Pater Sissellius and Pater Rufius," Harper says. "They're her closest allies. The other Paters trust them."

For three days, Harper and I seed the rumors. And then, when I am in court listening to Marcus arguing with a Tribal envoy--

"--Illustrians from her own year! Over a Plebeian! Can you imagine--"

"But there's no proof--"

"Not enough to jail her, but Sissellius saw the death certificates. The link is obvious. You know how that man loathes idle gossip. Besides, the proof is on her body--that vile tattoo--"

After a few more days, I sense the change in the air. I feel the Paters distancing themselves from Keris. Some are even outright opposed to her. When she does return to Antium, she will find it a far less welcoming city than she expects.

* * *

Captain Alistar sends me a message letting me know he has information on the same day Dex returns to Antium, and I call them both to me in the training yard.

"Keris will be here within the week." Dex is fresh from the road, splattered with mud, exhausted. But he spars with me anyway, keeping his helm low so that his lips cannot be read. It's nearly impossible to hear him over the clash of weapons and grunts of men training.

"She knows you've spread the truth about the tattoo and the murders. She sent two assassins; I dispatched them before they could get here, but skies know what she'll do when she arrives. You'd best start cooking your food yourself. Farming your own grain too."

"Did she ride straight for Antium?"

"She stopped at the Roost," Dex says. "I followed her in, but her men nearly caught me. By then I thought it best to get back here. I'll check in with my spies--" Dex's gaze shifts over my shoulder, and he frowns.

At the entrance to the barracks, across the training field, a group of Black Guards crowds together. I think at first that a fight has broken out. I hurry toward them, war hammer still in hand.

One of the men calls out: "Get the bleeding physician!"

"No point, that's karka snake venom--"

They are clustered around a fellow guard who bucks as he vomits black bile onto the ground. I recognize him instantly: Captain Alistar.

"Bleeding hells." I crouch down next to him. "Get the barracks physician. Get him now!"

But the man could already be here and it

would be too late. The black bile, the red mottling around Alistar's nose and ears. It is karka snake venom. He's done for.

Harper pushes through the crowd and kneels beside me. "Shrike, what--"

"Nothing--" Alistar grabs the front of my fatigues with one hand and pulls me close. His voice is little more than a death rattle. "Nothing--no attacks--nothing--Shrike--they're nowhere--"

His grip goes slack, and he slumps to the ground, dead.

Burning skies. "As you were," I say to the men. "Go on." The men scatter, except for Dex and Harper, who stare down in horror at the dead soldier.

I lean down and wrest a pile of papers from Alistar's stiff hand. I expect it to be information on Corporal Favrus. Instead I find reports from the garrisons across the north--straight from the garrison commanders.

"The Karkauns have disappeared." Harper, reading over my shoulder, sounds as mystified as I feel. "Not a single attack near Tiborum. Nothing in the deep north, not for months. Corporal Favrus lied. The Karkauns were quiet."

"The Karkauns are never quiet," I say. "This time last year, they were conquering the Wildmen clans. We stopped them in Tiborum. We stopped them in Navium. They lost their fleet. There's a bleeding famine in their southern territories, and a warlock priest whipping them into righteous fury. They should be harassing every village from here to the sea."

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