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Page 58

For the next few nights, every time I so much as move, she flinches, as if worried I will come closer. So I stay far away from her, always on the other side of the fire, always a few yards behind her on the road. My mind churns, but I do not speak. It is as if her silence chokes me.

But finally, the words will no longer stay down, and I find that I must say them, whatever the consequences.

"Why didn't you kill her?" The night is warm, and we don't light a fire, instead laying out our bedrolls and looking up at the stars. "The Commandant? You could have poisoned her. Stabbed her. For skies' sake, you're Mirra of Serra--"

"There is no Mirra of Serra!" Cook shrieks so loudly that a pack of sparrows takes flight from a nearby tree, as frightened as I am. "She's dead. She died in Kauf Prison when her child and husband died! I'm not Mirra. I'm Cook. And you will not speak to me of that murderous, traitorous bitch or what she would or wouldn't do. You know nothing of her."

She breathes heavily, her dark eyes sparkling with rage. "I tried, girl," she hisses at me. "The first time I attacked Keris, she broke my arm and lashed Izzi to within an inch of her life. The child was five. I was forced to watch. The next time I got it in my head to try something, the Bitch of Blackcliff took out Izzi's eye."

"Why not escape? You could have gotten out of there."

"I tried. But the chances Keris would catch us were too high. She'd have tortured Izzi. And I'd had enough of people suffering for me. Perhaps Mirra of Serra would have been willing to sacrifice a child to save her own neck, but that's because Mirra of Serra had no soul. Mirra of Serra was as evil as the Commandant. And I'm not her. Not anymore."

"You haven't asked about Nan and Pop," I whisper. "Or about Darin. You--"

"I don't deserve to know how your brother is," she says. "As for your grandparents . . ." Her mouth splits into a small smile I do not recognize. "I had vengeance on their killer."

"The Mask?" I say. "How?"

"I hunted him. He wanted to die, in the end. I was merciful." Her eyes are black as dead coals. "You're judging me."

"I wanted to kill him too. But . . ."

"But I enjoyed it. And that makes me evil? Come now, girl. You cannot walk in the shadows as long as I have and not become one."

I shift uncomfortably, remembering what the Jaduna said to me. You are young to stand so deeply in the shadow.

"I am glad you killed him." I pause, considering my next words. But in the end, there is no delicate way to ask the question. "Why--why won't you touch me? Don't you--" Long for it, I want so say. The way I do?

"The touch of a child brings a mother comfort." I can barely hear her. "But I'm no mother, girl. I'm a monster. Monsters don't merit comfort."

She turns away from me and falls silent. I watch her back for a long time. She's so close. Close enough to touch. Close enough to hear whispered words of forgiveness.

But I do not think that she would feel the embrace of a daughter if I touched her. And I do not think she would care about being forgiven.

* * *

The closer we get to Antium, the clearer it is that trouble is nigh. Cartloads of carpets and furniture trundle away from the city, their owners surrounded by dozens of guards. Once, we see a heavily armed caravan from afar. I cannot see what they carry, but I count at least a dozen Masks guarding whatever it is.

"They're running," Cook spits. "Too scared to stay and fight. Mostly Illustrians, it seems. Move faster, girl. If the wealthy flee the city, the Karkauns must be close."

We do not stop now, traveling day and night. But by the time we reach the outskirts of Antium, it is clear that disaster has already struck the Martials' fabled capital. We hike over a ridge near the Argent Hills, and the city comes into view below.

As does the enormous army that surrounds it on three sides. Only the north end of Antium, which abuts the mountains, is protected.

"Sweet bleeding skies," Cook murmurs. "If that's not skies-given justice, I don't know what is."

"So many." I can barely speak. "The people in the city . . ." I shake my head, and immediately my thoughts go to the Scholars who are still enslaved in the city. My people. "There must be Scholars down there. The Commandant didn't kill all the slaves. The Illustrians didn't let her. What happens to them if the city is overrun?"

"They die," Cook says. "Just like every other poor bastard unfortunate enough to get stuck there. Leave that to the Martials. It's their capital; they'll defend it. You've got something else to think about. How the bleeding hells are we going to get in there?"

"They've only just gotten here." Men stream in to join the Karkaun army from a northeastern pass. "They're staying out of range of the city's catapults, which means they must not be planning to attack. You said you could sneak us in."

"From the mountains north of the city," Cook says. "We'd have to go around the Argent Hills. It would take us days. Longer."

"There will be chaos as they set up camp," I say. "We could take advantage of that. Sneak through at night. They'll have some women down there--"

"Whores," Cook says. "Don't think I'd pass as one of those."

"Cooks too," I say. "Laundresses. The Karkauns are horrible. They'd not go anywhere without their women to scrape and serve for them. I could go invisible."

Cook shakes her head. "You said the invisibility altered your mind. Gave you visions, sometimes for hours. We need to think of something else. This is a bad idea."

"It's necessary."

"It's suicide."

"It's something you might have done," I say quietly. "Before."

"That makes me trust it even less," she says, but I can see her waver. She knows as well as I do that our options are limited.

An hour later, I walk by her side as she hunches over a basket of stinking laundry. We've taken out two sentries who blocked our way into the encampment. Simple enough. But now that we walk among the Karkauns, it is anything but.

There are so many of them. Much like in the Empire, their skin tones and features and hair vary. But they are all heavily tattooed, the top halves of their faces blue with woad so that the whites of their eyes stand out eerily.

There are hundreds of campfires lit but few tents behind which Cook and I can take cover. Most of the men wear leather breeches and fur vests, and I have no sense of which are higher-ranking and which are not. The only Karkauns who stand out are those who wear strange bone-and-steel armor and who carry staffs with human skulls on top. When they walk, they are given a wide berth. But most are gathered around enormous unlit pyres, pouring what looks to be deep scarlet sand in intricate shapes around them.

"Karkaun warlocks," Cook mutters to me. "Spend all their time terrifying the masses and attempting to raise spirits. They never manage it, but they're still treated like gods."

The camp stinks of sweat and rancid vegetables. Huge piles of firewood belie the warm weather, and the Karkauns don't bother cleaning up all the horse dung. Jugs of some pale alcohol are as ubiquitous as the men, and there's a stench of sour milk that lingers over everything.

"Bah!" An older Karkaun shoves Cook when she accidently bumps him with her basket. "Tek fidkayad urqin!"

Cook swings her head back and forth, playing the old, confused woman well. The man knocks the basket out of her hands, and his friends laugh as clothes cascade onto the filthy ground. He kicks her in the gut as she tries to gather up the clothes quickly, making lewd gestures.

I quickly help her gather the clothes, trusting that the Karkauns are too drunk to notice an invisible hand helping Cook. But when I crouch, she hisses at me.

"You're flickering, girl! Move!"

Sure enough, I look down to find my invisibility faltering. The Nightbringer! He must be in Antium--his presence is snuffing out my magic.

Cook bolts swiftly through the knot of men, making her way steadily north.

"You still there, girl?" Tension is thick on her skin, but she doesn't look back.

"They're not very organized," I whisper in return.

"But skies, there are so many of them."

"Long winters in the south," Cook says. "They've got nothing to do but breed."

"Why strike now?" I ask. "Why here?"

"There's a famine among their people and a firebrand warlock who has taken advantage of it. Nothing motivates a man like hunger in the bellies of his children. The Karkauns looked north and saw a wealthy, fat empire. Year after year, the Martials had plenty and the Karkauns had nothing. Empire wouldn't trade fairly with them either. Grimarr, their warlock priest, reminded them of that. And here we are."

We are nearly through the northern end of the camp now. A flat cliff face stretches ahead of us, but Cook makes her way confidently toward it, shedding the basket of laundry as darkness falls and we get farther from the camp. "They're depending entirely on sheer numbers to win here. That or they've got something nasty up their sleeves--something the Martials can't fight."

I glance up at the moon--almost full, but not quite. In three days, it will fatten into the Grain Moon. By the Grain Moon, the forgotten will find their master.

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