Chapter 22 - Shrike

Crazy. I had gone crazy.

I still couldn't believe I'd actually done it. Stabbed Via na Ritha. Ran him right through the stomach with my sword. If I thought too hard, I could still hear his flesh ripping, smell the warm stench of his blood. Even the memory of the scent made my heart race and my skin prickle in that half-pleasant, half-disgusted way it always did.

No distractions. I couldn't think about such things. Right now, I had to get myself to safety. Somehow, I had managed to flee the palace even though entire companies of guards had been dispatched after me. I'd evaded them, keeping to the tunnels and side paths that only servants used, hiding behind buildings and trees while barely daring to breathe. I'd had to kill a guard and steal his keys to leave the palace's northwestern exit, a simple wooden gate that admitted daily shipments of food.

All in all, not my smoothest operation. Not by far.

And I hadn't even bothered ensuring that the target was dead. Well, of course he's dead, who could survive that, a tiny voice in my head screeched, but I told it to kindly shut the fuck up. Only shitty assassins dared entertain such thoughts.

I couldn't go back and check, though. So I plunged resolutely forward, heading deeper into Mar-Ritha's maze of narrow cobbled streets. I had the vague idea that I was going to head to the northern city gates, and from there I could...hell if I knew. Sneak onto a cart bound for Sendam?

For now, I ought to lay low and ensure that I had no pursuers. To help things along, I snatched a cloak from a homeless drunk collapsed in a ditch in the street and pulled it over my head. The cloak was threadbare and covered with suspicious stains, and reeked of puke and liquor, but at least it was a better disguise than the face wrappings I'd already discarded.

I now prowled through the news district, where all the major printing presses were located, as well as the newshouses that let people read hot-off-the-press papers and pamphlets for free. Above, the late afternoon sun loomed like a huge golden eye. I couldn't help feeling naked and exposed even though the streets bustled with men and women and street children, most wearing dark, inconspicuous clothing like me.

So I ducked inside a newshouse, joining the patrons standing elbow-to-elbow around the tall wooden tables and flipping through the week's gazette while drinking cheap tea. I picked up a paper as well and when a serving girl appeared by my side, I waved her off and said I'd decide on my order later. They'd kick you out if you went too long without ordering something, but for now, this was as good a place as any to hide and unwind.

As much as I could unwind while the people around me bellowed orders, exchanged jokes, and debated policy and philosophy. I began to sweat in my cloak.

I wondered if anyone here had heard about the attempt on the regent's life. Probably not. Of course, they'd begin cranking the presses tomorrow, but by then I planned to be long gone.

A few men beside me pulled out bongs of berda weed and soon the noxious stench infiltrated the entire newshouse. As my head lurched, I decided it was time to leave. I elbowed my way back to the front of the shop but before I could open the door, it slammed open on its own. I neatly sidestepped to avoid, and just in time-because a huge man stormed inside, his face red and sweating, his every step shaking the floorboards.

My hand flew to the hilt of my sword, hitting beneath my cloak. Was this man a plainclothes guard? I swallowed. If it came down to it, I could find him off, but...

"Everyone!" he roared, raising his fist. His deep voice made the rafters tremble. "Listen!"

Conversations died and heads turned. I continued to watch him intently, tense, waiting for any sign that he was a foe.

"I was just up at the northern watchtower," he continued, his voice frantic and excited, "and I overheard the most unbelievable news! They just received a smoke signal from Istrin Fort! Sendam has fallen! The Felkanir have invaded the mainland!"

The words lanced through my head, meaningless yet meaning everything at once.

With that, the man departed, slamming the door shut behind him. No doubt he was going to relate his message to all of the newshouses.

There was a heartbeat's worth of stunned silence, then the house erupted. Patrons stampeded to the door, mobbing around the tiny rectangle and crying questions after the departed messenger. Others fell to their knees in prayer; a few others immediately struck up vigorous debates about how the palace was going to react to this news.

I stood still, letting the noise and chaos rage around me. I couldn't be farther away.

No, I was standing atop the northern bastion of Sendam Castle, watching the Felkanir ships approach over the horizon, my blood pounding in anticipation. A day like another. I almost tasted the salty ocean breeze, felt the mist settle in my hair.

Sendam was where I belonged. And now...

Maybe we'd lost because I wasn't there. Because I—no, that was thinking crazy. No individual soldier mattered that much when it came down to it. Even generals were replaceable. My absence had nothing to do with what happened.

But it'd happened anyway. The one possibility we had always feared, but never dared believe would actually come to pass.

One thought cut through my numb thoughts like a heated knife: Rother.

Fuck, Rother! What had happened to him? Blindly, I staggered out of the door and into the street. People thronged across the dirty cobblestones, their shouts filling the air, but at least there was a little more open space here. Enough space for me to think.

That was right, I had to think. Use my brain. Had Rother already left Sendam? They would have communicated the Emperor's death through smoke messages, and surely the castle must have received the messages by now. So maybe Rother was riding to Mar-Ritha this instant, unknowing of Sendam's fall, but at least he was safe and alive and expecting to take his rightful position as Emperor of Rithaalki.

But at the same time, it would take some time to prepare a formal train of horses and men and servants, as was appropriate to escort an imperial prince back to the palace. Several days. If that was the case...

What if Rother had been captured? Rother, General Mitrash, General Bronsen, the lot. Or worse. Maybe they had been executed. My chest tightened and I walked faster, shouldering aside people in my impatience.

No, no, no. I wouldn't accept that possibility. I only had one task in life—to protect Rother. Unlike all my other duties as assassin, I hadn't rejected it. Because it was something I actually wanted to do. Rother needed me.

And I had abandoned him. What an idiot I'd been. Why had I ever thought leaving Sendam—leaving Rother—was a good idea? Now I had no damn idea what had happened to him.

Maybe he had escaped. Maybe he and the defenders were riding back to the palace right now, wild and frightened and desperate.

Well, whatever had happened, one thing was clear: I had to go north. I had to go to Sendam. If Rother had already left, I was bound to run into him at some point. If he hadn't...

I had to see what was going on with my own eyes.

My boots splashed through dirty puddles and the road sloped down, heading ever further north. I couldn't walk fast enough. I longed to run, but I knew that'd make too much of a scene in these crowded streets, so I settled for elbowing and shoving aside anyone in my way. Didn't care who they were—man, woman, child, freeman, slave. Nothing was going to keep me from Rother.

Nothing mattered anymore, not even the fallout from my assassination attempt on Via. Stupid, stupid, stupid me. Without even realizing it, I'd allowed myself to get pulled back into the court world of petty grudges and schemes. I had almost forgotten that a war raged at our borders.

And now I was paying the price for that.

The storm was not as bad as expected, so I didn't lose power. So yay, I can make this update!

We're rapidly approaching the hiatus point, just to warn you. Only two more chapters to go before I let this thing rest. Unless I change my mind by that time, which may very well happen.