Home > A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(14)

A Reaper at the Gates (An Ember in the Ashes #3)(14)
Author: Sabaa Tahir

“Watch it with her, Faris,” I say. “You flirt like your life depends on it, but if Marcus suspects she is disloyal he will kill her, and the Illustrian Paters will believe he had every right to do it.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Faris says. “I’ve got a lovely Mercator girl waiting for me in the Weaver’s district. Most spectacular hips I’ve ever seen. Would have been there by now”—he glares at me until I release him—“but someone needed to be on duty.”

“Two people,” I say. “Who’s your backup?”

A figure steps into the light from the shadows beside the door: a thrice-broken nose, deep brown skin, and blue eyes that always sparkle, even beneath the silver mask.

“Rallius? Ten hells, is that you?”

Silvio Rallius salutes before flashing a grin that made knees weak at Illustrian parties across Serra for nearly all of my teenage years—including my knees, before I learned better. Elias and I hero-worshipped him, though he is only two years older. He was one of the few upperclassman who wasn’t a monster to the younger students.

“Blood Shrike.” He salutes. “My scim is yours.”

“Words as pretty as that smile.” I don’t return his, and he realizes then that he’s dealing with the Blood Shrike and not a young cadet from Blackcliff. “Make them true. Protect her, or your life is forfeit.”

I slip past them both and into Livvy’s bedroom. As my eyes adjust, the floorboards near a tapestry creak. Cloth whispers as the contours of the room come into focus. Livia’s bed is empty; on her side table, a cup of tea—wildwood, from the scent of it—sits untouched.

Livia pokes her head out from behind the tapestry and motions me forward. I can barely make her out, which means any spies within the walls can’t see her either.

“You should have drunk the tea.” I am careful of her wounded hand. “It must hurt.”

Her clothes rustle, and a soft click sounds. Stale air and the smell of wet stone wash over me. A hallway stretches before us. We step in, and she closes the door, finally speaking.

“An empress who bears her pain with fortitude is an empress who gains respect,” she says. “My women have spread the rumor that I scorned the tea. That I bear the pain without fear. But bleeding hells, it hurts.”

The moment she says it, a familiar compulsion comes over me: the need to heal her, to sing her better.

“I can—I can help you,” I say. Bleeding skies, how will I explain it to her? “I—”

“We don’t have time, sister,” she whispers. “Come. This passage connects my rooms to his. I’ve used it before. But be silent. He cannot catch us.”

We pad down the hallway toward a tiny crack of light. The muttering begins when we’re halfway down. The light is a spy hole, big enough to admit sound but too small to see through very clearly. I glimpse Marcus, bare of armor, stalking back and forth across his cavernous quarters.

“You have to stop doing this when I’m in the throne room.” He digs his hands into his hair. “Do you want to have died just so I can get hurled off the throne for being insane?”

Silence. Then: “I won’t bleeding touch her! I can’t help that her sister’s gagging for it—”

I nearly choke, and Livvy grips me. “I had my reasons,” she whispers.

“I will do what I must to keep this empire,” Marcus growls, and for the first time I see . . . something. A pale shadow, like a face glimpsed in a mirror underwater. A second later, it’s gone, and I shake myself. A trick of the light, perhaps. “If that means breaking a few fingers to keep your precious Blood Shrike in line, so be it. I wanted to break her arm—”

“Ten hells,” I breathe to Livia. “He’s barking. He’s gone mad.”

“He thinks what he’s seeing is real.” Livia shakes her head. “Maybe it is. It doesn’t matter. He cannot remain on the throne. At best, he’s taking orders from a ghost. At worst, he’s hallucinating.”

“We have to support him,” I say. “The Augurs named him Emperor. If he’s deposed or killed, we risk civil war. Or the Commandant swooping in and naming herself Empress.”

“Do we?” Livvy takes my hand with her good one and places it on her stomach. She doesn’t speak. She doesn’t have to.

“Oh. You—that’s why you and he—oh—” Blackcliff prepared me for many things. It did not prepare me for my sister’s pregnancy by the man who slit the throats of our parents and sister.

“This is our answer, Shrike.”

“His heir,” I whisper.

“A regency.”

Bleeding skies. If Marcus disappears after the child is born, Livia and Gens Aquilla would run the Empire until the child came of age. We could train the boy up to be a true and just statesman. The Illustrian Gens would accept it because the heir would be from a highborn house. The Plebeians would accept it because he is Marcus’s son and thus represents them too. But . . .

“How do you know it’s a boy?”

She turns her eyes—my eyes—our mother’s eyes—to me, and I have never seen anyone look so sure of anything in my life. “It’s a boy, Blood Shrike,” she says. “You must trust me. He already quickens. By the Grain Moon, if all is well, he will be here.”

I shiver. The Grain Moon again.

“When the Commandant finds out, she’ll come after you. I have to—”

“Kill her.” Livia takes the words from my mouth. “Before she finds out.”

When I ask Livia if Marcus knows of the pregnancy, she shakes her head. “I confirmed it only today. And I wanted to tell you first.”

“Tell him, Livvy.” I forget her title. “He wants an heir. Perhaps he won’t—” I gesture to her hand. “But no one else. Hide it as best you can—”

She puts a finger to my lips. Marcus’s muttering has stopped.

“Go, Shrike,” Livvy breathes.

Mother! Father! Hannah! Suddenly I cannot breathe. He won’t take Livvy too. I’ll die before I let it happen. “I’ll fight him—”

My sister digs her fingers into my shoulder. The pain focuses me. “You’ll fight him.” She shoves me toward her room. “He’ll die because he’s no match for your anger. And in the frenzy to replace him, our enemies will have us both killed because we would have made it easy for them to do so. We must live. For him.” She touches her stomach. “For Father and Mother and Hannah. For the Empire. Go.”

She shoves me out the door, just as light floods the passageway. I race through her room, past Faris and Rallius, flipping over the balcony to the rope tied below, cursing myself as Marcus shouts, as he lands the first blow, as the crack of another of my sister’s bones echoes in my ears.

PART II

INFERNO

XI: Laia

FOUR WEEKS LATER

Darin and I jostle through the sea of Scholar refugees on the rutted dirt road into Adisa, two more tired bodies and dirty faces amid the hundreds seeking sanctuary in Marinn’s shining capital city.

Silence hangs like a fog over the refugees as they plod onward. Most of these Scholars were turned away from the other Mariner cities. All have seen homes lost, family and friends tortured or murdered, raped or imprisoned.

The Martials wield their weapons of war with merciless efficiency. They want to break the Scholars. And if I don’t stop the Nightbringer—if I don’t find this “Beekeeper” in Adisa—they will.

Shaeva’s prophecy haunts me. Darin and I discuss it obsessively, trying to make sense of each line. Bits of it—the sparrows, the Butcher—dredge up old memories, scraps of thoughts that I cannot quite grasp hold of.

“We’ll figure it out.” Darin glances over, reading the furrow in my brow. “We have bigger problems.”

Our shadow. The man appeared three days ago, trailing us as we left a small village. Or at least, that is when we first noticed him. Since then, he’s remained far enough away that we cannot get a good look at him, but close enough that my blade feels fused to my palm. Every time I don my invisibility in the hopes of getting closer to him, he disappears.

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