Marcus fixes his attention on me, despite the obviously distressed Mariner ambassador standing before him. As I approach, the Emperor's shoulders twitch.
"You don't need to warn me, damn you," he mutters. The ambassador furrows his brow, and I realize that Marcus isn't responding to the man. He's talking to himself. At the Mariner's confusion, the Emperor beckons him near.
"Tell your doddering king that he needn't cower," Marcus says. "The Empire is not interested in a war with Marinn. If he needs a token of our goodwill, have him provide me a list of his enemies. I'll send him their heads as a gift." The ambassador pales and backs away, and Marcus gestures me forward.
I do not acknowledge Livia. Let the court think we are not close. She has enough to deal with without half of these vultures trying to take advantage of her relationship with me.
"Emperor." I kneel and bow my head. Though I've been doing so for months now, it hasn't gotten any easier. Beside me, Harper does the same.
"Clear the room," Marcus growls. When the Illustrians do not move quickly enough, he flings a dagger at the nearest one.
Guards usher the Illustrians away, and the lot of them are unable to get out fast enough. Marcus smiles at the sight, his harsh chuckle jarring against the fear that pervades the room.
Livia rises and gathers the folds of her dress gracefully. Faster, sister, I think to myself. Get out of here. But before she steps down from her throne, Marcus grabs her wrist. "You stay." He forces her into her seat. My sister's gaze meets mine for an infinitesimal moment. I sense no fear, only warning. Avitas steps back, a silent witness.
Marcus pulls a roll of parchment from his armor and flings it at me. The crest flashes in the air as it flies to my hand, and I recognize the K with crossed swords beneath it. The Commandant's seal.
"Go on," he says. "Read it." Beside him, Livia watches, wariness in her body, though she's learned to train it from her face.
My Lord Emperor,
The Karkaun warlock Grimarr has intensified the raids on Navium. We need more men. The Paters of Navium are in agreement; their seals are below. A half legion should be sufficient.
Duty first, unto death,
General Keris Veturia
"She has an entire legion down there," I say. "She should be able to put down a paltry Barbarian rebellion with five thousand men."
"And yet"--Marcus yanks another parchment from within his armor, and another, flinging them all at me--"from Paters Equitius, Tatius, Argus, Modius, Vissellius--the list goes on," he says. "All requesting aid. Their proxies here in Antium have been hounding me since Keris's message came in. Three hundred civilians are dead, and those Barbarian dogs have a fleet approaching the port. Whoever this Grimarr is, he's trying to take the damn city."
"But surely Keris can--"
"She's up to something, you dim bitch." Marcus's roar echoes through the room, and in two steps, his face is inches from mine. Harper tenses behind me, and Livia half rises from her throne. I give my head the slightest shake. I can handle him, little sister.
Marcus stabs his fingers into my skull. "Get it through your thick head. If you'd taken care of her like I ordered, this wouldn't be happening. Shut it, damn you."
He whirls, but Livia hasn't spoken. His gaze is fixed on the middle distance between himself and my sister, and I recall, uneasily, Livia's suspicion that Marcus sees the ghost of his twin, Zak, murdered months ago during the Trials.
Before I can think on it, Marcus steps so close my mask ripples. His eyes look as though they might pop from his head.
"You didn't ask for assassination, my lord." I ease away very slowly. "You asked for destruction, and destruction takes time."
"I asked"--he leashes his rage, his sudden calm more chilling than his anger--"for competence. You've had three months. She should have worms crawling out of her eye sockets by now. Instead, she's stronger than ever, while the Empire grows weaker. So tell me, Blood Shrike: What are you going to do about her?"
"I have information." I put every bit of conviction I possess into my voice, my body. I am certain. I will bring her down. "Enough to destroy her."
I can't tell him what Elias revealed about Quin. It's not useful enough, and even if it was, Marcus would question me further. If he learns I had Laia and Elias in my grasp and lost them, he'll break my sister in half. "The walls have ears, my lord," I say. "Not all are friendly."
Marcus considers me. Then he turns, drags my sister to her feet, and shoves her into the side of her own throne, wrenching her arm behind her back.
Her stillness is that of a woman who has quickly grown used to violence and who will do what she must to survive it. I clench my hands around my weapons, and Livvy catches my eyes. Her terror--not for herself, but for me--checks my temper. Remember that the more anger you show, the more he'll make her suffer.
Even as I force myself to be logical, I hate that I am. I hate myself for not lopping off those hands that have hurt her, not cutting out that tongue that has called her foul names. I hate that I cannot hand her a blade so she can do it herself.
Marcus tilts his head. "Your sister plays oud so well," he says. "She's entertained many of my guests, charmed them even, with the beauty of her musicianship. But I'm sure she can find other ways to entertain them." He leans close to Livia's ear, and her gaze drifts faraway, her mouth hard. "Do you sing, my love? I'm certain you have a beautiful voice." Slowly, deliberately, he draws back one of her fingers. Further, further, further . . . This cannot be borne. I step forward and feel a viselike grip on my arm.
"You'll make it worse," Avitas murmurs in my ear.
Livia's finger cracks. She gasps but makes no other sound.
"That," Marcus says, "is for your failure." He grabs another of Livia's fingers, bending it back so carefully that I know he is taking joy from each second of it. Sweat beads on her forehead, and her face is white as bone.
When her finger finally breaks, she whimpers and bites her lip.
"My brave bird." Marcus smiles at her, and I want to rip his throat out. "You know I like it better when you scream." When he turns back to me, his smile is gone. "And that is a reminder of what's to come if you fail me again."
Marcus flings my sister onto her throne. Her head knocks against the rough stone. She shudders and cradles one hand, but her hatred blazes out at Marcus before she tamps it down, her face composed once more.
"You will go to Navium, Shrike," Marcus says. "You will learn what the Bitch of Blackcliff is planning. You will destroy her, piece by piece. And you will do it quickly. I want her head on a spear by the Grain Moon, and I want the Empire begging for it to happen. Five months. That's enough time even for you, is it not? You will update me through the drums every three days. And"--he glances at Livia--"if I'm not satisfied with your progress, I'll keep breaking your little sister's bones until she's nothing but jagged edges."
For hours, I run, cloaking myself from a maddening number of Martial patrols, holding my invisibility until my head throbs and my legs tremble from cold and exhaustion. My mind spins with worry for Elias, for Darin, for Afya. Even if they are safe, what in the skies will we do now that the Empire has caught on to the raids? The Martials will flood the countryside with soldiers. We cannot continue. The risk is too great.
Never mind. Just get to the camp. And hope to the skies that Darin got there too.
At midnight a day after the raid, I finally spot the tall, naked oak that shelters our tent, its branches grousing in the wind. Horses nicker, and a familiar figure paces beneath the tree. Darin! I nearly sob in relief. My strength has left me, and I find I cannot call out. I simply drop into visibility.
When I do, darkness flashes across my vision. I see a shadowy room, a hunched figure. A moment later, the vision is gone, and I stumble toward the camp. Darin spies me and runs, pulling me into a hug. Afya bursts from the round fur tent my brother and I use as shelter, anger and relief mingling on her face.
"You're a bleeding idiot, girl!"
"Laia, what happened?"
"Did you find Mamie? Are the prisoners safe? Did Elias--"
Afya holds up a hand. "Mamie's with a healer from Tribe Nur," the Zaldara says. "My people will get the prisoners to the Tribal lands. I meant to join them, but . . ."
She glances at Darin, and I understand. She did not wish to leave him alone. She did not know if I'd return. I tell them swiftly of the Blood Shrike's ambush and Elias's disappearance.
"Did you see Elias?" Please let him be all right. "Did he come out of the Forest?"
Afya shudders as she looks over her shoulder to the towering wall of trees that marks the western border of the Waiting Place. Darin only shakes his head.
I glower at the trees, wishing I had the power to burn a path through to the jinn's cabin. Why did you snatch him away, Shaeva? Why do you torment him so?
"Come inside." Darin tugs me into the tent and tucks a woolen blanket from his sleeping roll around my shoulders. "You'll catch your death."
Afya pulls away the fur covering the hole at the top of the tent and stirs the ashes of our small cook fire until her brown face is lit bronze. Long minutes later, I'm shoveling down the potato-and-squash stew Darin has made. It's overcooked, with so much red pepper in it that I nearly choke--Darin was always hopeless in the kitchen.
"Our raiding days are over," Afya says. "But if you wish to keep fighting the Empire, then come with me. Join Tribe Nur." The Tribeswoman pauses, considering. "Permanently."