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Page 53

"It wasn't a dream." I pull her close. It kills me that she doesn't remember. I wish she could. I wish she could hold on to that day the way I do. "I was there, and you were there. And it was a perfect slice of time. It won't always be like this." I say it like I believe it. But within my own heart, something has shifted. I feel different. Colder. The change is great enough that I speak even more adamantly, hoping that by saying what I want to feel, I will bring it to life. "We will find a way, Laia. Somehow. But if . . . if I change . . . if I seem different, remember that I love you. No matter what happens to me. Say you'll remember, please--"

"Your eyes . . ." She looks up at me, and my breath catches at the intensity in her gaze. "They--they're darker. Like Shaeva's."

"I can't stay. I'm sorry. I have to go back. I have to attend to the ghosts. But I will see you again. I vow it. Hurry--get to Antium."

"Wait." She stands, still unsteady on her feet. "Don't go. Please. Don't leave me here."

"You're strong," I say. "You are Laia of Serra. You are not the Lioness. Her legacy--her sins--they don't belong to you any more than Keris's legacy belongs to me."

"What did you say to me?" Laia asks. "That night before you left months ago, when we were headed to Kauf. I was sleeping in the wagon with Izzi. What did you say?"

"I said, You are--"

But Mauth has lost patience. I am wrested back to the Waiting Place, back to Mauth's side, with a force that rattles my bones.

I will find you, Laia. I will find a way. This is not our end. I scream it in my mind. But as soon as I get into the Waiting Place, the thought is dashed from my consciousness. The borders are bending--breaking. I go to reinforce them, but I am a cork in the face of a dam breaking.

All things have a price, Elias Veturius. The jinn speak again, an inexorable truth in their voice. We warned you.

A roar cleaves the Waiting Place, a ripping that seems to come from the bowels of the earth. The ghosts scream, their high keen rising as they throw themselves against the border. I have to stop them. They're too close. They'll break free.

Too late, usurper. Too late.

A collective howl goes up, and the ghosts of the Waiting Place, the tortured souls who are my sworn duty, break free of the border and pour into the world of the living, their shrieks like living death carried on the wind.

XLI: The Blood Shrike

"I'm not going to the Augurs," I say to Marcus. I remember well what Cain told me just weeks ago. I will see you once more, before your end. "You don't understand, they--"

"Grow a bleeding spine, Shrike." Marcus grabs my arm and begins to drag me from the throne room. "Those eerie bastards scare everyone. We have an invasion to worry about, and they can see the future. You're coming with me to their foul little cave. Unless you want to find out if you really can heal your sister's shattered kneecaps."

"Damn you--"

He backhands me and grimaces, grabbing his head. I wipe the blood from my mouth and look around as he mutters to himself. The throne room is empty, but there are still guards nearby.

"Pull yourself together," I hiss. "We don't need Keris hearing about this."

Marcus takes a steadying breath and glowers at me.

"Shut it." The softness of his growl does nothing to lessen its menace. "And move."

The pilgrims usually clogging the trail to Mount Videnns have fled, ordered back down to the city to prepare for Grimarr's approach. The path up to the Augurs' cave is empty but for Marcus, me, and the dozen Masks who serve as Marcus's personal guard. The entire way, I try to leash my rage. I must not act on it. As much as I hate them, they are the holy men of the Empire. Hurting one could lead to horrible consequences, and if something happens to me, then Livia and her son go unprotected.

I curse myself. Even now, even when I loathe them, some part of me is still trained to respect them. The push and pull of it makes me sick to my stomach. Just get Marcus up there and let him do the talking. Don't engage. Don't ask questions. Don't let them say anything to you. Tell them you don't want to hear whatever it is they have to say.

The storm that has raged all morning squats over the mountains, soaking us and turning the path to the Augurs' home into a treacherous, slippery death trap. By the time we make our way across the wide rock bowl that leads to the cave, we are covered in mud and cuts, which puts Marcus in an even fouler mood than usual.

The Augurs' cave is dark, without a hint of life, and I briefly hold out hope that the seers will not allow us within. It is well-known that they can keep out whomever they wish to.

But as we approach the mouth of the cave, blue light flares, and a shadow detaches from the rock, red eyes visible even at a distance. When we draw closer, the shadow speaks. It is the same Augur who let me in last time.

"Emperor Marcus Farrar. Blood Shrike," she says. "You are welcome here. Your men, however, must remain behind."

Like the last time I came here, the Augur walks me down a long tunnel that glows sapphire from blue-fire lamps. I grip my scims as I think back to that day. First you will be unmade. First you will be broken.

I was still Helene Aquilla then. Now I am someone new. Though my mental shield didn't work against the Nightbringer, I use it anyway. If the red-eyed fiends want to root around in my head, they should at least know they aren't welcome.

When we get deeper into the mountain, another Augur awaits us, one I cannot name. But from Marcus's sharp intake of breath, it's clear the Emperor knows her.

"Artan." Marcus says the name the same way I snarl Cain's.

"Long have the emperors of the Martials come to the Augurs in times of need," Artan says. "You seek counsel, Emperor Marcus. I am honor bound to offer it. Sit, please. I will speak with you." She gestures to a low bench before clearing her throat and glancing at me. "Alone."

The same woman who escorted us in takes my arm and guides me away. She does not speak as we walk. Distantly, I hear the drip of water and then what sounds like the ping of steel. It echoes again and again, a strange and incongruent tattoo.

We enter a circular cavern, black gems glimmering along its walls, and Cain steps from the shadows. Without thinking, I reach for my blade.

"Nay, Shrike." Cain lifts a withered hand, and my own freezes. "There is no threat here."

I force my hand away from my scim, casting about for something--anything--to distract me from my rage.

"What's that sound?" I say of the strange ping-ping-ping. "It's irritating."

"Just the caves singing their stories," Cain says. "A few are filled with crystal, others with water. Many are as tiny as houses, others are large enough to hold a city. But always, they sing. Some days we can hear the horns of the riverboats leaving Delphinium."

"Delphinium is hundreds of miles away," I say. Bleeding hells. I knew there were caves and tunnels under the city, but I didn't know that the Augurs' caves were so extensive. The land to the west of here is solid rock, the only caves inhabited by bears and wildcats. I assumed the mountains to the east are the same.

Cain watches me thoughtfully. "You are much changed, Blood Shrike. Your thoughts are closed."

Satisfaction courses through me--I'll have to tell Harper.

"Did the Meherya teach you, as he did the F

arrars?" At my mystified look, Cain clarifies. "You refer to him as the Nightbringer."

"No," I snap, and then, "Why do you call him Meherya? Is that his name?"

"His name, his history, his birthright, his curse. The truth of all creatures, man or jinn, lies in their name. The Nightbringer's name was his making. And it will be his unmaking." He tilts his head. "Did you come to ask about the Nightbringer, Blood Shrike?"

"I have no desire to be here," I say. "Marcus ordered my presence."

"Ah. Let us make civil conversation then. Your sister--she is well? Soon to be a mother, of course."

"If the Commandant doesn't kill her first," I say. "If she survives childbirth." And even though I do not wish to, I seek the answer to those questions in his eyes. I find nothing.

He paces around the cave, and unwillingly I fall into step with him.

"The Tribespeople say that the heavens live under the feet of the mother," he says. "So great is their sacrifice. And indeed no one suffers in war more than the mother. This war will be no different."

"Are you saying Livia is going to suffer?" I want to shake the answer from him. "She's safe now."

Cain fixes me with his stare. "No one is safe. Have you not yet learned that lesson, Blood Shrike?" Though he sounds merely curious, I sense an insult in his words, and my fingers inch toward my war hammer.

"You wish to cause me pain," Cain says. "But already, my every breath is torture. Long ago, I took something that did not belong to me. And I--and my kin--have spent every moment since paying for it."

At my utter lack of sympathy, he sighs. "Soon enough, Blood Shrike," he says, "you will see my brethren and me brought low. And you shall need no hammer nor blade, for we shall undo ourselves. The time to atone for our sins approaches." His attention shifts to the hallway behind me. "As it does for your emperor."

A moment later Marcus appears, face grim. I nod a curt goodbye to Cain. I hope I never bleeding see him again.

As we walk out of the tunnel and down to our men, clustered between boulders to escape the lashing rain, Marcus looks over at me.

"You will be in charge of the defense of the city," Marcus says. "I will tell the generals."

"Most of them are far more seasoned than I am at dealing with marauding armies, my lord."

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