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Page 55

I reach out a hand to touch her and she shies away. How can this be real? How can I be staring into Mother's face, after so long?

But of course, it is real. And the Nightbringer somehow knew she would be waiting--why else torment me with her true identity? He could have shown me who she was weeks ago, any time I used my invisibility. But he didn't. Because he knew this is when it would hit me the hardest.

Part of me wants to run to her, feel her hands on my skin, hold them in my own. I wish Darin were here. I wish Izzi were here.

But the part of me that thinks Mother is stifled to silence by the darker part of me that screams Liar! I want to shout and curse at her and ask her every question that has plagued me since the moment I learned who she is. Understanding dawns on her face.

"Who told you?" Her cold eyes are unfamiliar. "Can't have been Musa. He doesn't know. No one does--except Keris, of course."

"The Nightbringer," I whisper. "The Nightbringer told me who you are."

"Who I was." She draws up her hood and turns to the darkness. "Come. We'll talk on the way."

Marrow-deep panic grips me when she turns from me. Don't leave! I want to follow her. And at the same time, I never want to see her again.

"I'm not going anywhere with you," I say, "until you tell me what the hells happened to you. Why didn't you say anything at Blackcliff? You slaved for Keris for years. How could you--"

She clenches and unclenches her fists. Just like Darin when he is upset.

I dip my head but she will not meet my stare. Her face twitches, her mouth curving into a grimace. "Listen to me, girl," she says. "We have to go. You have a mission, do you not? Don't bleeding forget it."

"The mission. The mission. How can you--" I throw up my hands and walk past her. "I'll make my own way. I don't need you. I don't--"

But after only a few steps, I turn back. I cannot leave her. I missed her for so many years. I have longed for her from the age of five, when she was taken from me.

"We've a long road ahead." Nothing about how she speaks sounds like the mother I knew. This is not the woman who called me Cricket, or tickled me until I couldn't breathe, or promised me she'd teach me how to shoot a bow as well as she did. Whoever she is now, she is Mirra of Serra no longer.

"There will be plenty of time for you to scream at me on the way. I'd welcome it." Her scarred mouth lifts in a sneer. "But we cannot delay. The Blood Shrike is in Antium, and Antium is where we must go. But if we don't hurry, we'll never get inside."

"No," I whisper to her. "We settle this first. This is more important, and in any case, you must have a dozen ways of sneaking in--"

"I do," Cook says. "But there are tens of thousands of Karkauns marching on the capital, and all the sneaking in the world won't do us a whit of good if they surround the city before we get there."

XLIII: The Blood Shrike

Faris and Rallius are both pale as ghosts when I meet them in Livia's quarters, rattled by what they have just survived, each bleeding from a dozen wounds. I have no time to coddle them. I need to know what the hells happened out there--and how Keris got the best of us again.

"It was a Karkaun attack." Faris paces back and forth across Livia's sitting room while her women settle her in her bedroom. "Two hundred of those woad-loving demons. They came out of bleeding nowhere."

"They were waiting," Rallius growls as he ties off a bandage on his leg. "Maybe not for the Empress specifically, but for an opportunity, certainly. If Keris hadn't shown up with her men, we'd have been in a bad spot."

"If Keris hadn't shown up," I say in irritation, "Grimarr and his hordes wouldn't have either. She's working with them. She did this so she could get to Livia. Thank the skies for you and the other Masks. She must have realized she couldn't kill you all, so she decided to play the hero instead."

Devious, true, but just like the Commandant. She is always adaptable. And now the Plebeians in the city are hailing her as a hero for saving the life of the half-Plebeian heir--as she probably knew they would.

"Go clean up," I say. "Triple the watch around the Empress. I want her food tasted a day in advance. I want one or the other of you present when it is prepared. She doesn't leave the palace. If she wants to get out, she can take a walk in the gardens."

The men leave, and I go over and over what they have said as I await the arrival of Dex, whom I sent to get Livia's midwife. When he finally returns--after hours--it is with a different woman from the one I'd personally chosen to tend to Livia.

"The first one is gone, Shrike," Dex tells me as the new midwife bustles into Livia's rooms. "Left the city, apparently. Along with every other midwife I tried to track down. This one only came because she's a Mariner. Whomever the hells Keris Veturia sent to frighten all those women probably didn't have a chance to get to her."

I curse, keeping my voice low. Keris saved my sister from the Karkauns because it suited her needs--the Plebeians sing her praises. Now she'll seek to kill Livia quietly. Plenty of women die in childbirth, especially if they are delivering without a midwife.

"What of the barracks physicians? Surely one of them can deliver a baby."

"They know battlefield wounds, Shrike, not childbirth. That's what midwives are for, apparently. Their words"--Dex winces at my wrath--"not mine."

The new midwife, a skinny Mariner with gentle hands and a booming voice that would put any Martial drill sergeant to shame, smiles at Livia, asking her a series of questions.

"Keep this one alive, Dex," I murmur. "I don't care if you have to put a dozen guards on her and live with her in the Black Guard barracks. You keep her alive. And find a backup. This cannot possibly be the only midwife left in the entire city."

He nods, and though I've dismissed him, I notice his reluctance to leave.

"Out with it, Atrius."

"The Plebeians," he says. "You've heard that they're rising in support of the Commandant. Well, it's . . . gotten worse."

"How the hells could it get worse?"

"The story about her murdering the highborn Illustrians who wronged her has been making the rounds," Dex says. "The Paters are infuriated. But the Plebeians are saying that Keris stood up to those more powerful than her. They're saying that sh

e defended a Plebeian man she loved--that she fought for one and took rightful vengeance. They're saying the Illustrians who died got what they deserved."

Hells. If the Commandant now has Plebeian support instead of Illustrian, I haven't hurt her at all. I've just managed to shuffle her list of allies.

"Let the rumor play," I say. At Dex's nod, I sigh. "We'll have to find another way to undermine her."

At that moment, the midwife pokes her head out, gesturing me into Livia's quarters.

"He's strong as a bull." She beams at me, patting Livia's belly with affection. "He'll bruise a rib or two before he joins us, I'd bet my life on it. But the Empress is doing fine, as is the child. A few weeks more, lass, and you'll be holding your precious babe in your arms."

"Should we do anything for her? Some sort of tea or . . ." I realize I sound like an idiot. Teas, Shrike? Truly?

"Goldrose petals in goat's milk every morning until her own milk comes in," the midwife says. "And wildwood tea twice a day."

When the woman is finally gone, Livvy sits up, and I am surprised to see a knife clutched in her hands. "Have her killed," she whispers.

I raise an eyebrow. "The midwife? What--"

"Goldrose petals," Livvy says, "are used when a woman is past her due date. They're meant to make a baby come more quickly. I'm still a few weeks away. It wouldn't be safe for him to come now."

I call Dex in immediately. When he leaves, weapons in hand, Livia shakes her head. "This is Keris, isn't it? All of it. The Karkaun attack. The midwives leaving. This midwife."

"I'll stop her," I vow to my sister. "I don't expect you to believe it, because all I've done is fail, but--"

"No." Livia takes my hand. "We don't turn on each other, Hel--Shrike. No matter what happens. And yes, we must stop her. But we must also keep the support of the Plebeians. If they support Keris now, you cannot speak against her publicly. You must walk that line, sister. We cannot put this child on the throne if the Plebeians don't see him as one of their own. And they won't--not if you cross Keris."

* * *

Evening sees me in Marcus's war room, locked in an argument with the Paters, wanting nothing more than to beat all of them into silence before doing what I wish.

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