Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(13)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(13)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

I pay closest attention to the reports out of Tiborum. With the approach of spring, the Karkaun clans are expected to come pouring out of the mountains, raiding and reaving.

But my spies say the Karkauns are quiet. Perhaps their leader, this Grímarr, committed too many forces to the attack on Navium. Perhaps Tiborum is uncommonly lucky.

Or perhaps those blue-faced bastards are up to something.

I request reports from all the northern garrisons. By the time the midnight bells ring, I am exhausted and my desk is only half-clear. But I stop anyway, forgoing a meal despite the rumbling in my belly, and pulling on my boots and a cloak. Sleep will not come. Not when the crack of Livia’s bones still rings through my head. Not when I’m wondering what ambush the Commandant will have waiting for me in Navium.

The hallway outside my quarters is silent and dark. Most of the Black Guard should be asleep, but there’s always at least a half dozen men on watch. I don’t want to be followed—I suspect the Commandant has spies among my men. I head for the armory, where a hidden passage leads into the heart of the city.

“Shrike.” The whisper is soft, but I jump anyway, cursing at the sight of the green eyes shining like a cat’s from across the hall.

“Avitas,” I hiss. “Why are you lurking out here?”

“Don’t take the armory tunnel,” he says. “Pater Sissellius has a man watching the route. I’ll have him taken care of, but there wasn’t time tonight.”

“Are you spying on me?”

“You’re predictable, Shrike. Any time Marcus hurts her, you take a walk. Captain Dex reminded me that it’s against regulations for the Shrike to be unaccompanied, so here I am.”

I know Harper is simply carrying out his duties. I have been irresponsible, wandering the city at night without any guards. Still, I’m vexed. Harper serenely ignores my discontent and nods to the laundry closet. There must be another passageway there.

Once we’re inside the narrow space, my armor clanks against his, and I grimace, hoping no one hears us. Skies know what they would say at finding us pressed together in a dark closet.

My face heats thinking of it. Thank the skies for my mask. “Where’s the bleeding entrance?”

“It’s just—” He reaches around me and up, rummaging through uniforms. I lean back, catching a V-shaped glimpse of the smooth brown skin at his throat. His scent is light—barely there—but warm, like cinnamon and cedar. I take a deeper sniff, glancing up at him as I do.

To find him staring at me, eyebrows raised.

“You smell . . . not unpleasant,” I say stiffly. “I was simply noticing.”

“Of course, Shrike.” His mouth quirks a little. Is that a bleeding smile?

“Shall we?” As if sensing my annoyance, Harper pushes open a section of the closet behind me and moves through quickly. We do not speak again as we wend our way through the secret passageways of the Black Guard barracks and out into the chill spring night.

Harper drops back when we are aboveground, and I soon forget he is near. Hood pulled low, I ghost through Antium’s lower level, through the crowded Scholar sector, past inns and bustling taprooms, barracks and Plebeian-heavy neighborhoods. The guards at the upper gate do not see me as I pass into the city’s second tier—a trick I play to keep my edge.

I find myself toying with my father’s ring as I walk, the ring of Gens Aquilla. Sometimes, when I look at it, I still see the blood that coated it, the blood that spattered my face and armor when Marcus cut Father’s throat.

Don’t think about that. I spin it round, trying to take comfort from its presence. Give me the wisdom of all the Aquillas, I find myself thinking. Help me defeat my foe.

I soon reach my destination, a wooded park outside the Hall of Records. At this hour, I expected the hall to be dark, but a dozen lamps are lit, and the archivists are still hard at work. The long, pillared building is spectacular for its size and simplicity, but I take comfort from it because of what is within: records of lineages, births, deaths, dispatches, treaties, trade agreements, and laws.

If the Emperor is the heart of the Empire and the people are its lifeblood, then the Hall of Records is its memory. No matter how hopeless I feel, coming here reminds me of all the Martials have built in the five hundred years since the Empire was founded.

“All Empires fall, Blood Shrike.”

When Cain steps from the shadows, I reach for my blade. I have thought many times about what I would do if I saw the Augur again. Always, I saw myself remaining calm. Silent. I would hold myself aloof from him. I would give him nothing of my mind.

My intentions vanish at the sight of his accursed face. The passion with which I want to break his frail neck astounds me. I didn’t know I could have this much hate in me. Hannah’s pleading fills my ears—Helly, I’m sorry—and my mother’s calm words as she knelt for her death. Strength, my girl. My father’s ring cuts into my palm.

But as I draw the blade, my arm freezes—and drops, forced to my side by the Augur. The lack of control is enraging and unsettling.

“Such anger,” he murmurs.

“You destroyed my life. You could have saved them. You—you monster.”

“What of you, Blood Shrike? Are you not a monster?” Cain’s hood is low, but I can still make out the inquisitive gleam of his gaze.

“You’re different,” I spit. “You’re like them. The Commandant, or Marcus, or the Nightbringer—”

“Ah, but the Nightbringer is no monster, child, though he may do monstrous things. He is cloven by sorrow and thus locked in a righteous battle to amend a grievous wrong. Much like you. I think you are more similar than you know. You could learn much from the Nightbringer, if he deigned to teach you.”

“I don’t bleeding want anything to do with any of you,” I hiss. “You are a monster, even if you—”

“But you are a paragon of perfection?” Cain tilts his head, appearing genuinely curious. “You live and breathe and eat and sleep on the backs of those less fortunate. Your entire existence is due to the oppression of those you view to be lesser. But why you, Blood Shrike? Why did fate see fit to make you the oppressor instead of the oppressed? What is the meaning of your life?”

“The Empire.” I shouldn’t answer. I should ignore him. But a lifetime of reverence dies hard. “That is the meaning of my life.”

“Perhaps.” Cain shrugs, a strangely human gesture. “I did not, in truth, come here to argue philosophy with you. I came with a message.”

He pulls an envelope from his robes. At the sight of the seal—a bird winging over a shining city—I snatch it from him. Livia.

As I open it, I keep one eye on the Augur.

Come to me, sister. I need you.

Yours always,

Livia

“When did she send this?” I scan the message quickly. “And why did she send it with you? She could have—”

“She asked, and I acquiesced. Anyone else would have been followed. And that would not have aligned with my interests. Or hers.” Cain touches my masked brow gently. “Fare thee well, Blood Shrike. I will see you once more, before your end.”

He steps back and vanishes, and Harper appears out of the dark, jaw clenched. Apparently, he likes the Augurs as much as I do.

“You can keep them out of your head,” he says. “The Nightbringer too. I can show you how, if you like.”

“Fine,” I say, already making for the palace. “On the way to Navium.”

We soon reach the balcony of Livvy’s apartments, and I do not spot a single soldier. Avitas is stationed below, and I’m reminding myself to yell at Faris, who captains Livvy’s personal guard, when the air shifts. I’m not alone.

“Peace, Shrike.” Faris Candelan steps out of the arched doorway that leads into Livvy’s quarters, his hands up, short blond hair a mess. “She’s waiting for you.”

“You should have bleeding told her it was stupid to summon me.”

“I don’t tell the Empress what to do,” Faris says. “I just try to make sure no one hurts her while she’s doing it.” Something about how he says it makes the hair on my neck rise, and in two steps, I have a dagger at his throat.

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