I don't want to leave her, I want to scream. I don't want her to die alone. I don't want to lose her again.
When we are at the end of a long passage lined with blue-fire torches, an earth-shattering rumble booms out, followed by the unmistakable sound of thousands of pounds of rocks falling.
And then silence.
I slip down onto the ground beside the Shrike. She cannot see me, but she reaches out her hand and takes mine.
"You--you knew her?" she whispers. "The Cook?"
It takes me a long time to answer. By the time I do, the Shrike has lost consciousness.
"Her name was Mirra of Serra," I speak, though no one can hear me. "And yes. I knew her."
LVII: The Blood Shrike
Laia of Serra cannot hold a tune to save her life. But her hum is sweet and light and strangely comforting. As she moves around the edges of the room, I try to get a sense of my surroundings. Lamplight filters through an enormous window, and I feel a nip in the air--a sign that summer closes in the north. I recognize the low, arched buildings beyond the window and the large square it faces. We are in Delphinium. There is a weight to the air. A heaviness. Distantly, lightning flashes over the Nevennes. I can smell the storm.
My face feels strange, and I reach my hands up. The mask. The jinn. I thought it had been a nightmare. But as I feel my own skin for the first time in seven years, I realize that it was not a dream. My mask is gone.
And a piece of my soul with it.
Laia hears me move and turns. I see the blade at her waist, and on instinct I reach for my own.
"No need for that, Blood Shrike." She tilts her head, her face not exactly friendly but not unkind either. "We didn't drag you through a hundred miles of caves so your first act upon waking would be to stab me."
A cry sounds from nearby, and I force myself to sit up, eyes wide. Laia rolls her eyes. "The Emperor," she says, "is always hungry. And when he doesn't get food . . . skies, help us all."
"Livvy . . . they're . . ."
"Safe." A shadow flickers across the Scholar girl's face, but she hides it quickly. "Yes. Your family is safe."
A whisper of movement at the door, and Avitas is there. Immediately, Laia excuses herself. I understand her quick smile, and I flush.
For just a second, I see the look on Harper's face. Not the carefully controlled blankness that all Masks wear, but the heartfelt relief of a friend.
Though, if I am being honest, it is not the look of someone who thinks of me as just a friend. I would know.
I want to say something to him. You came for me. You and Laia dragged me from the claws of Death himself. You have more of your father's goodness in you than you will ever acknowledge.
Instead, I clear my throat and swing my legs, shaking with weakness, over the side of the bed.
"Report, Captain Harper."
His silver eyebrows flick up for a moment, and I think I see frustration in his eyes. He crushes it, the way I would. He knows me by now. He knows what I need.
"We have seven thousand five hundred twenty Martials who fled Antium," he says. "Another one thousand six hundred thirty-four Scholars. We believe that at least ten thousand more--Illustrians and Mercators--left before the invasion or were siphoned out by the Commandant."
"And the rest?"
"Half died in the siege. The other half remains the prisoners of the Karkauns. The Barbarians have enslaved them."
As we knew they would. "Then we must free them," I say. "What of Keris?"
"She retreated to Serra and established the capital there." Avitas pauses, attempting to get hold of his anger. "The Illustrian Paters have named her Empress--and the Empire has embraced it. Antium's fall is blamed on Marcus, and--"
"And on me." I led the defense of the city, after all. I failed.
"Quin Veturius has pledged his fealty to Emperor Zacharius and Gens Aquilla," Harper says, "as have the Illustrian Gens of Delphinium. The Commandant has declared your nephew an enemy of the Empire. All who support him or his claim are to be crushed forthwith."
None of what he says surprises me--not anymore. All my plotting and scheming was for nothing. If I'd have known civil war was inevitable, I'd have killed Keris outright, whatever the consequences. At least Antium wouldn't be in the hands of Grimarr.
The storm rolls closer, and rain begins to patter thinly on the cobblestones outside. Harper stares openly at me, and I turn my head away, wondering how my face must look. I wear black fatigues, but without my mask I feel strange. Naked.
I remember what the Commandant said before she fled Antium. I wonder if it will hurt. She knew. It's why she left me alive. The Nightbringer must have ordered it.
Harper lifts a hand to my cheek and traces one side, then the other. "You haven't seen yourself," he says.
"I haven't wanted to."
"You have scars," he says. "Two of them, like twin scims."
"Do I--" The words come out a whisper, and I brusquely clear my throat. "How bad is it?"
"They are beautiful." His green eyes are thoughtful. "Your face couldn't be anything but beautiful, Blood Shrike. With or without the mask."
My blush rises, and this time there is no mask to hide it. I don't know what to do with my hands. My hair must look a mess. I must look a mess. Doesn't matter. It's just Harper.
But it's not just Harper anymore, is it?
He was loyal to the Commandant. He tortured you on Marcus's orders.
But he was never truly loyal to Keris. As for the interrogation, how the hells can I judge him for that after what I ordered Dex to do to Mamie? To Tribe Saif?
He's Elias's brother.
My thoughts are a welter of confusion. I cannot make sense of them. Avitas reaches for my hands, pulling them into his own, examining them with such care.
He draws a line up my forearm with the tip of his finger, from one freckle to another. At that feather-light touch, every nerve ending in my body awakens. I inhale unsteadily, tormented by his scent, by the triangle of skin at his throat. He leans close. The curve of his lower lip is the only softness in a face that looks cut from stone. I wonder, do his lips taste the way I think they must, like honey and cinnamon tea on a cold night?
When I lift my gaze to his, he hides nothing, finally, finally unmasking his desire. The power of it is dizzying, and I do not protest when he pulls me close. Avitas stops when he's a hairsbreadth from my lips, careful, always so careful. In that moment of waiting, he lays himself bare. Only if you want it. I close the distance, my own need tearing through me with a force that leaves me shaken.
I expected my impatience. I did not anticipate his. For someone who is always so infuriatingly calm, he kisses like a man who will never be sated.
More. I crave his hands in my hair, his lips on my body. I should get up, lock the door--
It is the intoxicating force of that impulse that stops me cold, that compresses my thoughts into two equally clear sentiments.
I want him.
But I cannot have him.
As suddenly as I met Harper's lips, I pull myself away. His green eyes are dark with want, but when he sees my expression, he inhales sharply.
"Look at me." He is about to say my name--my heart's name--the way he did in his mind when I sang him well. And if I let him, I will be undone. "Look at me. Hel--"
"Blood Shrike, Captain Harper." I harness my training and give him my coldest glare. He is a distraction. Only the Empire matters. Only your people matter. The Martials are in far too much danger for either of us to allow distractions. I withdraw my hands from his sharply. "I am the Blood Shrike. You would do well to remember it."
For a moment, he is frozen, pain flashing nakedly across his face. Then he stands and salutes, the consummate Mask once more. "Of course, Blood Shrike, sir. Permission to return to duty."
After Harper leaves, I feel hollow. Lonely. Voices rise from nearby, and I force myself to my feet and down the hallway. Thunder
growls, close enough to mask my footsteps as I approach the open door to what must be Livia's room.
"--people saved you from the Karkauns, though doing so put them at great risk. I beg you, Empress, begin your son's reign with an act befitting a true emperor. Free the Scholar slaves."
"It's not so simple." I recognize Faris's rumble.
"Isn't it?" The clarity and strength in my sister's voice make me stand up taller. She always hated slavery, like our mother. But unlike Mother, it's clear she plans to do something about it. "Laia of Serra does not lie. A group of Scholars saved us from the Karkauns who infiltrated the tunnels. They carried me when I was too weak to walk, and it was a Scholar who nursed Emperor Zacharius when I lost consciousness."
"We found the mosses that fed your people in the tunnels." Laia's voice is arch, and I scowl. "If not for us, you'd have all starved to death."
"You've made a just case for your people." Livia's voice is so calm that tension dissipates instantly. "As Empress regent, I decree that every Scholar who escaped the tunnels is now a freeman. Lieutenant Faris, pass the news to the Paters of Delphinium. Captain Dex, ensure that the Martial response is not overly . . . emotional."
I step into the room then, and Livia takes a step toward me, stopping short at my warning glare. I shift my attention to the dark-haired bundle on the bed, freshly fed and fast asleep.
"He got bigger," I say, surprised.