Outside, the drums grow more frantic. I need to get out there--I need to help defend this city. And yet I cannot leave Livia. I must see this child born, for he is our future. If the city falls, I must see him to safety. I am torn, and I pace back and forth, not knowing what the bleeding skies I'm supposed to do. Why is childbirth so damned messy? And why didn't I learn anything about it?
"Laia," I finally say to the Scholar when Livia is resting between one of her contractions. "The city--it's about to be breached. I can hear it from the drums. I cannot be here. Rallius can--"
Laia yanks me aside, mouth thin. "It's taking too long," she says.
"You said everything was fine."
"I'm not about to tell a pregnant woman she's not fine," she hisses. "I've seen it happen before. Both times the child died, and the mother did too. They are in danger. I might need you." She gives me a significant look. I might need your healing.
BREACH, MAIN GATE. ALL UNITS TO SECOND-LEVEL GATE. The drums thunder frantically now as message after message is passed through, so that troops might know where to go, where to fight.
Livia screams, and this time there is a different quality about it. I turn back to my sister, hoping to the skies that the drums have it wrong.
Laia drapes sheets over the chairs, on the floors. She orders me to bring more buckets of water, and when she asks me to lay a towel on the bed, my sister shakes her head.
"There's a blanket," she says. "It's--it's in the bureau. I--I brought it with me."
I grab it, a simple pale-blue-and-white square that is soft as clouds. I realize suddenly that this child will be my kin. A new Aquilla. My nephew. The moment deserves more than the thunder of Karkaun missiles and my sister's screams. Mother should be here. Hannah.
Instead it is only me. How the hells did it all go so wrong?
"All right, Livia," Laia says. "It's time now. You've been very brave, very strong. Be brave a bit longer and you'll be holding your baby, and I promise that you won't much care about the pain."
"How--how do you know--"
"Trust me." Laia's smile is so convincing that even I believe it. "Shrike, hold her hands." She lowers her voice. "And sing."
My sister grabs on to me with the strength of a Mask in an arm-wrestling competition. With Rallius and Faris watching, I find Livia's song in my mind and sing it, pouring my will into giving her strength, keeping her whole. At Laia's urging, my sister pushes with all of her might.
Childbirth is not something I have wasted much thought on. I do not wish for children. I will never be a midwife. I have a sister, but no female friends. Babies hold no appeal for me, though I was always fascinated by the way my mother loved us: with a fierceness that was almost frightening. She used to call us her miracles. Now, as my sister releases a roar, I finally understand.
Laia is holding a slippery, wet, dirty . . . thing in her hands. She snatches the towels from me, pulling the child into one while using her other hand to unwrap the cord from his neck. She moves quickly, almost frantically, and a strange, unfamiliar terror fills me.
"Why isn't he making any sounds?" I demand. "Why is he--"
Laia puts her finger in the babe's mouth, clearing it, and a moment later, he releases an ear-shattering wail.
"Oh," I squeak as Laia shoves the baby at me. "I--"
"Whisper your hopes for him in his ear," she says. When I stare at her, she sighs impatiently. "It's considered good luck."
She turns back to my sister, doing skies know what, and I stare down at the child. His wails have faded, and he watches me, appearing mildly bewildered. I cannot say I blame him.
His skin is golden brown, a few shades darker than Livia's when she has spent a summer in the sun. His hair is fine and black. He has his father's yellow eyes, and yet they are not Marcus's. They are beautiful. Innocent.
He opens his mouth and vocalizes, and it sounds to me like "Hah," as if he's trying to say the beginning of my name. It is a ridiculous thought, but a burst of pride floods me. He knows me.
"Hail, nephew." I pull him close to me so that he's only inches from my face. "I wish for you joy and a family that loves you, adventures that shape you, and true friends to have them with."
His fist flails, leaving a trail of blood across my mask. I recognize something in him then. Something of me, though it is not in his face. It is deeper. I think of the song I sang him. I wonder how I changed him.
Shouts outside pull my attention away from the child. The angry tenor of a familiar voice rises downstairs. Footsteps thunder up the steps, and the door bursts open. Marcus, along with a half dozen men of Gens Aquilla, enters, scim drawn. The Emperor is covered in blood--his own or that of the Karkauns, I do not know. He does not look at me or Livia or Laia. He reaches me in two steps. Without sheathing his sword, he holds out his left arm for his child. I hand the baby over, hating the feeling, my entire body tense.
Marcus looks into the child's face. I cannot read his expression. Both Marcus and his son are silent, the Emperor's head cocked, as if he is listening to something. He nods once.
"Zacharias Marcus Livius Aquillus Farrar," he says, "I wish you a long reign as Emperor, glory in battle, and a brother at your back." He gives the child back to me, unnaturally careful. "Take your sister and the child, Shrike, and leave the city. That is an order. She's coming for him."
"Yes, the bleeding Commandant," Marcus snaps. "The gates are breached. The Karkauns have broken through the first level. She's left the battle in the hands of one of her lieutenants and is on her way here."
"Shrike." Laia's voice is choked. I notice she's pulled her hood up, and I recall then that she knows Marcus. That he nearly killed her once--after he tried to rape her. I shudder, thinking of it. She is hunched over, her voice raspy as she tries to disguise herself. "Your sister."
Livia is deathly pale. "I'm fine," she murmurs as she tries to stand. "Give him--give him to me."
I am at her side in two steps, her song already on my lips. I do not think of Marcus's soldiers, who will witness this, or of Rallius or Faris. I sing until I feel her body heal. The moment that color returns to her face, Marcus drags her through the door and down to the laundry room, flinging it open. Rallius goes through, then Faris, then my sister.
Marcus does not look at the child again. He gestures me impatiently on.
"My lord," I say, "I cannot leave the city when it--"
"Protect my heir," he says. "The city is lost."
"It--it can't be--"
But he shoves me into the tunnel and closes the door behind me. And it is only there, in the darkness, that I realize I have no idea where Laia is.
* * *
We run. From the tunnels, we cannot hear the madness above, but my mind is torn, half of me wanting to go back to fight and the other half knowing that I must get my sister and baby Zacharias out of Antium.
When we reach a way station in the tunnels where Harper has placed soldiers to guard the evacuation routes, I slow.
"I need to go back," I say.
Livia shakes her head, frantic. Zacharias wails, as if sensing his mother's distress. "You were given an order."
"I cannot leave the city," I say. "Not like this. Not skulking through the shadows. There are men back there who were counting on me, and I left them."
"Faris, Rallius, get her to Harper. You know how to find him. Help him however you can. There are still Plebeians in the city, in these tunnels, and we need to get them out." I lean toward both of them, pinning them with my gaze. "If anything happens to her or the child, I swear to the skies, I will kill you both myself."
They salute, and I turn to my sister, taking one last look at the baby. Upon seeing my face, he goes quiet. "I'll see you soon, young one." I kiss him and Livia, and turn back, ignoring my sister's pleas, then demands, for me to return to her side at once.
When I get back to the Black Guard barracks, I immediately choke on the smoke that fills the lau
ndry closet. Flames roar at the front of the barracks. From a few streets away, the howls of rampaging Karkauns fill the streets. They have not reached here yet, but they will soon.
I draw a scarf up over my face and crouch low to avoid the smoke, my war hammer drawn. When I emerge from the room, I nearly slip on the pools of blood everywhere.
The men of Gens Aquilla, sworn to protect Marcus, lie dead, though it is clear that they took many of the Commandant's men with them. Her body is not among the carnage. But then, I knew it would not be. Keris Veturia would never die in so undignified a manner.
There are other bodies among the dead--Mariners. Before I can understand what the hells they were doing here, a voice calls out.
The voice is so quiet that I do not at first know where it comes from. But I hunt through the smoke until I find Marcus Farrar, Imperator Invictus and Overlord of the Realm, pinned against a wall by his own scim, drowning in his own blood, unable to move. His hands are limp over the wound in his stomach. He has hours yet until he dies. The Commandant did this on purpose.
I go to him. Flames lick the wood of the stairwell, and a loud crack sounds from downstairs--a beam falling. I should escape through a window. I should let this monster burn.
How long have I waited for this? How long have I wanted him to die? And yet when I see him pinned here like an animal killed for sport, I feel only pity.
And something else. A compulsion. A need. A desire to heal him. No. Oh no.
"Keris moved the Hall of Records, Shrike." He speaks calmly, if softly, saving his breath to relay what he must. "She moved the treasury."
I sigh in relief. "Then the Empire will still stand, even if we lose Antium."