A ​Sky Beyond the Storm Page 2

“Leave off, Musa,” Darin says. “Better to be jumpy than dead. The Blood Shrike would agree.”

“She’s a Mask,” Musa says. “They’re born paranoid.” The Scholar watches the door, his mirth fading. “She should be back by now.”

It is strange to worry about the Shrike. Until a few months ago, I thought I would go to my grave hating her. But then Grímarr and his horde of Karkaun barbarians besieged Antium, and Keris Veturia betrayed the city. Thousands of Martials and Scholars, including me, the Shrike, and her newly born nephew, the Emperor, fled to Delphinium. The Shrike’s sister, Empress Regent Livia, freed those Scholars still bound in slavery.

And somehow, between then and now, we became allies.

The innkeeper, a young Scholar woman around Musa’s age, emerges from the kitchen with a tray of food. She sweeps toward us, the tantalizing scents of pumpkin stew and garlic flatbread preceding her.

“Musa, love.” The innkeeper sets down the food and I am suddenly starving. “You won’t stay another night?”

“Sorry, Haina.” He flips a gold mark at her and she catches it deftly. “That should cover the rooms.”

“And then some.” Haina pockets the coin. “Nikla’s raised Scholar taxes again. Nyla’s bakery was shuttered last week when she couldn’t pay.”

“We’ve lost our greatest ally.” Musa speaks of old King Irmand, who’s been ill for weeks. “It’s only going to get worse.”

“You were married to the princess,” Haina says. “Couldn’t you talk to her?”

The Scholar offers her a wry smile. “Not unless you want your taxes even higher.”

Haina departs and Musa claims the stew. Darin swipes a platter of fried okra still popping with oil.

“You ate four ears of street corn an hour ago,” I hiss at him, grappling for a basket of bread.

As I wrest it free, the door blows open. Snow drifts into the room, along with a tall, slender woman. Her silvery-blonde crown braid is mostly hidden beneath a hood. The screaming bird on her breastplate flashes for an instant before she draws her cloak over it and strides to our table.

“That smells incredible.” The Blood Shrike of the Martial Empire drops into the seat across from Musa and takes his food.

At his petulant expression, she shrugs. “Ladies first. That goes for you too, smith.” She slides Darin’s groaning plate toward me and I dig in.

“Well?” Musa says to the Shrike. “Did that shiny bird on your armor get you in to see the king?”

The Blood Shrike’s pale eyes flash. “Your wife,” she says, “is a pain in the a—”

“Estranged wife.” Musa says. A reminder that once, they adored each other. No longer. A bitter ending to what they hoped was a lifelong love.

It is a feeling I know well.

Elias Veturius saunters into my mind, though I have tried to lock him out. He appears as I last saw him, sharp-eyed and aloof outside the Waiting Place. We are, all of us, just visitors in each other’s lives, he’d said. You will forget my visit soon enough.

“What did the princess say?” Darin asks the Shrike, and I push Elias from my head.

“She didn’t speak to me. Her steward said the princess would hear my appeal when King Irmand’s health improved.”

The Martial glares at Musa, as if he is the one who has refused an audience. “Keris bleeding Veturia is sitting in Serra, beheading every ambassador Nikla has sent. The Mariners have no other allies in the Empire. Why is she refusing to see me?”

“I’d love to know,” Musa says, and an iridescent flicker near his face tells me that his wights, tiny winged creatures who serve as his spies, are near. “But while I have eyes in many places, Blood Shrike, the inside of Nikla’s mind isn’t one of them.”

“I should be back in Delphinium.” The Shrike stares out at the howling snowstorm. “My family needs me.”

Worry furrows her brow, uncharacteristic on a face so studied. In the five months since we escaped Antium, the Blood Shrike has thwarted a dozen attempts to assassinate young Emperor Zacharias. The child has enemies among the Karkauns as well as Keris’s allies in the south. And they are relentless.

“We expected this,” Darin says. “Are we decided, then?”

The Blood Shrike and I nod, but Musa clears his throat.

“I know the Shrike needs to speak to the princess,” he says. “But I’d like to publicly state that I find this plan far too risky.”

Darin chuckles. “That’s how we know it’s a Laia plan—utterly insane and likely to end in death.”

“What of your shadow, Martial?” Musa glances around for Avitas Harper, as if the Mask might appear out of thin air. “What wretched task have you subjected that poor man to now?”

“Harper is occupied.” The Shrike’s body stiffens for a moment before she continues inhaling her food. “Don’t worry about him.”

“I have to take one last delivery at the forge.” Darin gets to his feet. “I’ll meet you at the gate in a bit, Laia. Luck to you all.”

Watching him walk out of the inn sends anxiety spiking through me. While I was in the Empire, my brother remained here in Marinn at my request. We reunited a week ago, when the Shrike, Avitas, and I arrived in Adisa. Now we’re splitting up again. Just for a few hours, Laia. He’ll be fine.

Musa nudges my plate toward me. “Eat, aapan,” he says, not unkindly. “Everything is better when you’re not hungry. I’ll have the wights keep an eye on Darin, and I’ll see you all at the northeast gate. Seventh bell.” He pauses, frowning. “Be careful.”

As he heads out, the Blood Shrike harrumphs. “Mariner guards have nothing on a Mask.”

I do not disagree. I watched the Shrike single-handedly hold off an army of Karkauns so that thousands of Martials and Scholars could escape Antium. Few Mariners could take on a Mask. None is a match for the Blood Shrike.

The Shrike disappears to her room to change, and for the first time in ages, I am alone. Out in the city, a bell tolls the fifth hour. Winter brings night early and the roof groans with the force of the gale. I ponder Musa’s words as I watch the inn’s boisterous guests and try to shake off that sense of being watched. I thought you were fearless.

I almost laughed when he said it. Fear is only your enemy if you allow it to be. The blacksmith Spiro Teluman told me that long ago. Some days, I live those words so easily. On others, they are a weight in my bones I cannot bear.

Certainly, I did the things Musa said. But I also abandoned Darin to a Mask. My friend Izzi died because of me. I escaped the Nightbringer, but unwittingly helped him free his kindred. I delivered the Emperor, but let my mother sacrifice herself so that the Blood Shrike and I could live.

Even now, months later, I see Mother in my dreams. White-haired and scarred, her eyes blazing as she wields her bow against a wave of Karkaun attackers. She was not afraid.

But I am not my mother. And I am not alone in my fear. Darin does not speak of the terror he faced in Kauf Prison. Nor does the Shrike speak of the day Emperor Marcus slaughtered her parents and sister. Or how it felt to flee Antium, knowing what the Karkauns would do to her people.

Fearless. No, none of us is fearless. “Ill-fated” is a better description.

I rise as the Blood Shrike descends the stairs. She wears the slate, cinch-waisted dress of a palace maid and a matching cloak. I almost don’t recognize her.

“Stop staring.” The Shrike tucks a lock of hair beneath the drab kerchief hiding her crown braid and nudges me toward the door. “Someone will notice the uniform. Come on. We’re late.”

“How many blades hidden in that skirt?”

“Five—no, wait—” She shifts from foot to foot. “Seven.”

We push out of the Ucaya and into streets thick with snow and people. The wind knifes into us, and I scramble for my gloves, fingertips numb.

“Seven blades.” I smile at her. “And you did not think to bring gloves?”

“It’s colder in Antium.” The Shrike’s gaze drops to the dagger at my waist. “And I don’t use poisoned blades.”

“Maybe if you did, you would not need so many.”

She grins at me. “Luck to you, Laia.”

“Do not kill anyone, Shrike.”

She melts into the evening crowds like a wraith, fourteen years of training making her almost as undetectable as I am about to be. I drop down, as if adjusting my bootlaces, and draw my invisibility over me between one moment and the next.

With its terraced levels and brightly painted homes, Adisa is charming during the day. But at night, it dazzles. Tribal lanterns hang from nearly every house, their multicolored glass sparkling even in the storm. Lamplight leaks through the ornamental lattices that cover the windows, casting gold fractals upon the snow.

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