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Page 49

He has an open patch in his armor just above his wrist, and I grab it, stabbing him with the last of Afya's darts before he tackles me to the ground. Seconds later, his prone body is dragged off me, and the last Mask has me by the throat.

You are mortal. Shaeva reminded me of that fact before the Nightbringer murdered her. If I die here, the Waiting Place will have no guardian. The knowledge gives me the strength to knee the Mask in the groin and wrench away from him. I rip his knife from a scabbard and stab him in the chest once, twice, thrice, before drawing the blade across his throat.

The tent, which has been a whirlwind of activity, is suddenly still, other than the harsh draw of my breath. Outside, the voices of soldiers rise and fall in laughter and complaint, the din of the camp masking the ruckus of my attack.

Someone in the Martial camp will discover the Masks soon enough, so I slip out the way I came, making for the edge of the camp, where I steal a horse. By the time the first alarm sounds, I'm well away and heading west, toward the closest drum tower.

I make quick work of the legionnaires standing guard out front. One of them is mid-complaint when I shoot an arrow into his chest, and the other only realizes what is happening once he has a scim poking out of his throat. The killing comes easier now, and I'm halfway up the stairs of the tower, almost to the sleeping quarters, before a better part of me cries out: They didn't deserve death. They didn't do anything to you.

The final man in the tower is the head drummer, and he sits on the top floor, beside a drum as wide as he is tall, his ear trained toward another drum tower in the north. He transcribes whatever he hears on long scrolls, so engrossed in his work that he doesn't hear me. But by now, I'm far too tired to sneak. And I need him frightened. So I simply appear in the doorway, a nightmare spectacle covered in dried gore with unsheathed weapons stained with blood.

"Get up," I say calmly. "Walk to the drum."

"I--I--" He glances over the top of the tower to the door below, to the guardpost.

"They're dead." I gesture with a bloody hand, "in case you couldn't tell. Move."

He picks up his sticks, though fear makes him drop them twice.

"I'd like you to drum something out for me." I get closer and raise one of my Teluman scims. "And if you change it--even one bit--I will know."

"If I drum a false message, my commander will--he'll kill me."

"Is your commander a tall, pale-skinned Mask with a blond beard and a scar running down his chin to his neck?" At the drummer's nod, I reassure him. "He's dead. And, if you don't drum a false message, I'll gut you and throw you over the tower. Your choice."

The message orders the legion preparing to attack the Tribes back to a garrison forty miles from here and demands the order be carried out immediately. After the drummer is finished, I kill him. He had to have known it was coming. But still, I can't look him in the eyes as I do it.

My armor is disgusting, and I cannot bear the stench, so I shed it, steal clothes from the storeroom, and turn back to the Waiting Place. The closer I get, the more relieved I feel. The Tribes should have many hours before the Martials realize that the message they were given is false. My family will escape the Empire. And at last, I have the understanding I need to pass the ghosts through. To begin restoring the balance. It's about bleeding time.

My first clue that something is wrong--deeply wrong--comes when I approach the border wall. It should be high and gold, shimmering with power. Instead, it appears wan, almost patchy. I think to fix it, but the moment I am past the tree line, the ghosts' pain blasts into me, a barrage of memory and confusion. I make myself remember not why I killed all those Martials but how it felt. The way it deadened me. I push the Tribes and Mamie and Aubarit from my mind. Mauth rises now, tentative. I call to the closest ghost, who drifts forward.

"Welcome to the Waiting Place, the realm of ghosts," I say to him. "I am the Soul Catcher, and I am here to help you cross to the other side."

"I am dead?" the ghost whispers. "I thought this was a dream . . ."

The magic gives me an awareness of the ghosts that I did not have before, an insight into their lives, their needs. After a moment, I understand that this spirit needs forgiveness. But how do I offer it? How did Shaeva do so--and so quickly, with nothing but a thought?

The conundrum gives me pause, and at that exact moment, the ghosts' howling reaches a nadir. Quite suddenly I'm aware of something strange: a shift in the Forest. The land feels different. It is different.

After consulting the map in my head, I realize why. Someone's here--someone who shouldn't be here.

And whoever it is has found their way to the jinn grove.

XXXVIII: The Blood Shrike

I am hunched at my desk, deep in thought, when I feel a hand on my shoulder--a hand I nearly take off with the blade that jumps into my hand, until I recognize Harper's sea-green eyes.

"Don't do that again," I snarl at him, "unless you want to lose an appendage." The mess of pages on my desk tells of days spent obsessively poring over Alistar's reports. I stand, and my head spins. I might have missed a meal--or three. "What time is it?"

"Third bell before dawn, Shrike. Forgive me for disturbing you. Dex just sent a message."

"About time." It's been nearly four days since we heard anything, and I was starting to wonder if some misfortune had befallen my friend.

I hold the parchment to the lamp in Harper's hand. That is when I realize that he's shirtless and disheveled, every muscle in his body tense. His mouth is thin, and the calm that usually emanates from him is absent.

"What the hells is wrong?"

"Just read it."

Karkaun force of nearly fifty thousand gathering in Umbral Pass, led by Grimarr. Call up the legions. They are coming for Antium.

"There's something else, Shrike," Avitas says. "I tried to decode the letter we found on Alistar, but she used disappearing ink. The only thing left by the time I got to it was the sign-off."

She. "Keris Veturia." Avitas nods, and I want to scream. "That traitorous bitch," I snarl. "She must have been meeting with Karkauns when she was at the Roost. Where the bleeding hells is Corporal Favrus?"

"Found him dead in his quarters. No wounds on him. Poison."

Keris had one of her assassins take him out, just like she had someone murder Captain Alistar. Knowing how badly she wants to be Empress, her intentions now are obvious: She didn't want us to know of Grimarr's approach. She wanted Emperor Marcus and me to look like fools--dangerous, incompetent fools. So what if a blood-hungry warlock lays siege to Antium? She knows that with reinforcements, we can destroy the Karkauns--though holding off a force of fifty thousand men will take its toll. Worse, she'll use the chaos created by a siege to destroy Marcus, Livia, and me. She'll beat back the Karkauns, be hailed as a hero, and get what she always wanted, what the Nightbringer has no doubt promised her: the throne.

And I cannot prove any of it. Even if I know, in my very bones, that this is her intent.

It did not have to be this way, Blood Shrike. Remember that, before the end.

"We need to tell the Emperor," I say. And somehow I need to convince him to get Livia out of the city. If Grimarr's force is coming here, there is no more dangerous a place for her. Antium will be chaos. And Keris thrives in chaos.

We are armed and locked in Emperor Marcus's war room within the hour. Runners fan out across the city, bringing in the Empire's generals, many of whom are also Paters of their Gens. A dozen maps are brought in, each laying out different sections of the terrain to the north.

"Why didn't we know about this?" asks General Crispin Rufius, the head of Gens Rufia, as he circles the room, cunning as a vulture. Marcus threw Crispin's brother over Cardium Rock months ago

. I don't expect his support. "Reports come in every day from these garrisons. If something was out of the ordinary, there are a dozen people who should have caught it."

Marcus tilts his head, as if listening to something the rest of us cannot hear. The Paters exchange a glance, and I try not to curse. Now is not the time for our emperor to start chatting with his dead brother. He mutters something, then nods. But when he does finally speak, he sounds perfectly calm.

"The reports were manipulated," Marcus says, "by someone who values their own interests over the Empire, no doubt." The implication is obvious, and even though I've no indication that Rufius is in any way involved in changing the reports, the rest of the men in the room look at him suspiciously. His face turns red.

"I am merely saying that this is highly irregular."

"It's done." I speak, a hand on my scim so that he remembers I lured his brother and the Paters of other allied Gens into Villa Aquilla, trapped them, and had them taken at scimpoint to Cardium Rock to die. "Now we reap the consequences. Whoever planned this wants the Empire weak. There is no greater weakness than infighting. You can continue to discuss why we didn't know about the Karkaun attack, or you can help us stop the bastards."

The room is silent, and Marcus, taking advantage of the moment, taps Umbral Pass, north of Antium. "Grimarr gathers his men just north of the pass," he says. "From there, it's a four-day ride to Antium on a swift horse, two weeks for an army."

For hours, we argue. Antium has six legions--thirty thousand men--guarding it. One general wants to send a legion out to stop Grimarr before he reaches the city. The captain of the city guard, my cousin Baristus Aquillus, volunteers to lead a smaller force. I pace in irritation. Every minute we don't make a decision is another minute that the Commandant gets closer to Antium, another minute that my sister's and nephew's lives are in danger from both Keris and the Karkauns.

As the Paters press Marcus, I expect his volatility to show. I wait for him to acknowledge the voice he hears. But for once, he appears his old self, as if the threat of war has brought back the cunning foe who plagued Elias and me during our years at Blackcliff.

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