Instead, I nod emphatically. “Right. Thank you.” I take the cup from him and make a face, remembering how awful it tastes.
Harper’s eyes drift over my shoulder. “If you’ll excuse me, Shrike.” He disappears quickly, and a moment later I understand why.
“Good morning, sister.” Livia comes down the hallway, her guards behind her. And there’s nowhere to throw the damned tea. The only thing to do is drink it as fast as possible, but of course, it’s bleeding hot, and I nearly scald my face trying to get it down.
“Careful there,” she says. “You’ll burn—”
She takes a deep sniff. Her eyes follow Harper leaving.
“You—” she says, a slow smile spreading on her face.
“It doesn’t mean anything.” Two servers emerge from the kitchen holding trays, a Scholar and a Martial. They giggle together, going silent when they see us, curtsying to Livia before hurrying away. I drag Livia away from her guards. “Shut it—”
“Your eyes are glowing,” She hooks my arm in hers and starts marching breakneck toward her apartments. “Your skin is glowing. Tell me everything.”
“There’s nothing to tell!”
“Lies!” my sister hisses. “You dare deceive the Empress Regent? Tell me, tell me, I need some joy in my life, sister—”
“We just won back the capital. For your son!”
“Not joy then, romance.” She digs her fingers into my arm, and I yelp as we step out into the storm. I scald my throat as I drink down the rest of the tea, lest someone else smell it. Not that it’s anyone’s bleeding business. But Paters are more judgmental than a luncheon full of Illustrian grandmothers.
“Fine,” I say. “I’ll tell you a little, but get your claws out of my arm, this is untoward behavior for a—”
“Blood Shrike,” Pater Mettias calls out from across the snowy courtyard. “Empress Regent.” His gaze lingers on my sister. “Captain Dex bid me find you. Another food shipment just arrived from Pater Lenidas’s northern estate, along with a messenger. And there are emissaries from Gens Candela and Gens Visselia. They await you in the throne room.”
“Thank you, Pater Mettias.” Livia glances at me, one eyebrow arched. We’ll talk later.
As she departs, I notice how Mettias’s eyes follow her. His normally grim face is softer. He shakes himself and looks back at me quickly.
Gens Mettia is powerful. Having its Pater on our side has been invaluable. But having him bonded to us more tightly would give Gens Aquilla unquestionable legitimacy with all of the northern Gens.
“—another messenger.” I realize too late that Pater Mettias has been speaking for a few seconds. “She’s in your quarters, under guard.”
“The Mariner, Shrike.” Pater Mettias gives me an odd look, likely because he’s already said this. “She said her message is urgent.”
As I leave him and return to my quarters inside the palace, I am unsurprised to see Musa approaching. Dex follows him, looking irritated.
“You didn’t need to lock her up,” the tall Scholar says to me without preamble. “I know her. She’s not dangerous.”
“It’s just protocol,” I tell him. “We caught another assassin at the gates three days ago. I have to question her. Alone. Don’t go far. If I need you, I’ll call you in.”
Dex and I enter my quarters, where two legionnaires wait with a third person. She is taller than me and wears the blue-and-silver cloak of the Mariner army. Her dark skin is dirt-smudged, and she has a dozen wounds that are fresh-dressed and seeping blood. Her hair is straight and clipped short against her head. After a moment of staring, I recognize her.
“Eleiba,” I say. “Guard to Nikla. Did your queen send you?”
“Blood Shrike.” She bows her head in brief acknowledgment. “Thank you for meeting with me. I am formerly of Princess Nikla’s guard, but have since been disgraced in her eyes. I was released from service for arguing against an alliance with Empress Keris Veturia.”
To my surprise, the woman drops to one knee. “I come to you now not as a formal ambassador or emissary, but as a Mariner who fears for the survival of our kingdom. We are in desperate need of your aid, Blood Shrike.”
My stomach sinks, and I think of our spies, gone silent in Marinn, and the storms that have kept the kingdom isolated.
“Sit down.” I pull out a seat for her. “And tell me everything.”
* * *
Though Livia’s quarters are close to my own, I take my time getting there. For I know what she will say when she hears Eleiba’s request. And I do not yet know how I will answer her.
Her eyes are shadowed when she opens the door, and she pulls me into the room with a finger over her lips.
“The baby just fell asleep,” she whispers. “My ears are still ringing. Poor Tas rocked him for an hour.”
The door between Livia’s chamber and Zak’s is slightly ajar, and Tas emerges.
“I’ll be back soon,” he whispers. “Just going to get dinner.”
“Go get some rest after, Tas,” Livia says. “I’ll call Coralia—”
Tas shakes his head. “She doesn’t know the songs he likes,” he says. “Don’t fret about me, Empress Regent. I’ll be back soon, in case he wakes up.”
After he leaves, I sit down with my sister, searching for the words to explain what Eleiba told me. But when Livia launches into a long description of her day—a nightmare, from the sound of it—I decide that I will say nothing tonight. Tomorrow will be full of difficult decisions and more difficult conversations. Let tonight be easy.
“It is all so exhausting,” Livia says. “Is it wrong that I just want it to be over? This is no way to live—”
“Don’t speak it.” I know what she is going to say. But the more she talks of leaving, the more real the idea will become. “Your son is ruler, sister. And you are his regent.”
“Ruler of what?” Livia says. “A broken Empire. Some won’t accept him because of his father. Others because they fear Keris. We wish for him to live in the world, but it is such an ugly world.”
“We are making progress,” I say. “We have a dozen more Gens backing us than we did a week ago—”
Livia rises and walks to the mirror our father brought me years ago from the south. It is one of the few things we salvaged from the Karkauns’ destruction. As she runs her finger along the gilt edge, I rise and stand beside her. She drops her head against my shoulder.