“Thank you, Dex.” I am relieved he doesn’t question me about Elias. “Faris,” I say. “Report.”
“The girl was right,” my big friend says. We weave through the wagons, men, and animals entering Antium at this early hour. “There is an army. At least four thousand men—”
“It’s the Commandant’s,” I say. “Harper can explain.” When we clear the traffic, I kick my horse into a gallop. “Think carefully about what you saw,” I call to Faris. “I need you to bear witness before the Emperor.”
The streets are starting to fill with Mercators out early to stake out the best spots for the festivities of Rathana. A Plebeian ale merchant trundles through the city with extra barrels of his goods to supply to the taverns. Children hang up blue and green lanterns that symbolize the day. Everyone seems so normal. Happy. Still, they clear the way when they see four Black Guards galloping through the streets. When we reach the palace, I leap off my horse, nearly mowing down the groom who comes to take the reins.
“Where is the Emperor?” I snap at a legionnaire on gate duty.
“In the throne room, Shrike, with the rest of the court.”
As I hoped. The leaders of the Empire’s Illustrian Gens are early risers, particularly when they want something. They’ll have begun lining up to petition the Emperor hours ago. The throne room will be packed with powerful men, men who can bear witness to the fact that I saved the throne from the Commandant’s predations.
I have spent days planning my speech, and as we approach the throne room, I go over it again in my head. The two legionnaires guarding the throne room doors attempt to announce me, but Dex and Faris step ahead of me, shove them out of the way, and open the doors for me. It’s like having two walking battering rams at my side.
Black Guard soldiers line the room at intervals, most standing between the colossal tapestries that depict the deeds of past Emperors. As I make for the throne, I spot Lieutenant Sergius, the Black Guard who was stupid enough to address me as Miss Aquilla the last time I was here. He salutes respectfully as I pass.
Faces turn toward me. I recognize the Paters of a few dozen Mercator and Illustrian Gens. Through the enormous glass ceiling, the last stars give way to daylight.
Marcus sits on the ornately carved ebony throne, his usual sneer replaced by a look of cold wrath as he listens to a report from a courier who looks fresh from the road. A circlet of sharp points, patterned with Blackcliff’s four-sided diamond, adorns his head.
“—pushed past the border and are harassing the villages outside Tiborum. The city will be overrun if we do not get men out there immediately, my lord.”
“Blood Shrike.” Marcus notices me and waves off the legionnaire giving his report. “It is good to lay eyes upon you again.” He flicks his glance up and down my form but then grimaces and puts a finger to his temple. I am relieved when he looks away.
“Pater Aquillus,” he says through gritted teeth. “Come and greet your daughter.”
My father emerges from the rows of courtiers, my mother and sisters trailing. Hannah wrinkles her nose when she sees me, as if she’s smelled something foul. My mother nods a greeting, her knuckles white as she clasps her hands in front of her. She looks too afraid to speak. Livvy manages a smile when she sees me, but I’d have to be a fool not to notice that she’s been crying.
“Greetings, Blood Shrike.” Father’s pained glance takes in Avitas, Faris, and Dex before returning to me. No Elias, he seems to say. I give him a reassuring nod, trying to communicate with my eyes. Do not fear, Father.
“Your family has been kind enough to grace me with their presence daily since you left.” Marcus’s mouth curves into a smile before he pointedly looks behind me. “You’ve returned empty-handed, Shrike.”
“Not empty-handed, Emperor,” I say. “I come bearing something far more important than Elias Veturius. As we speak, an army marches on Antium, lead by Keris Veturia. For months, she has siphoned off soldiers from the Tribal lands and the border regions to create this treasonous army. That is why you’re getting reports of Wildmen and Barbarians attacking our outlying cities.” I nod to the courier. He backs away, not wanting to get involved in any discussion between the Blood Shrike and the Emperor. “The Commandant means to launch a coup.”
Marcus cocks his head. “And you have proof of this supposed army?”
“I saw it, my lord,” Faris rumbles from beside me. “Not two days ago, in the Argent Hills. Couldn’t get close enough to recognize the Gens represented, but there were at least twenty standards flying.” The Empire supports 250 Illustrian Gens. That the Commandant could muster the support of so many gets Marcus’s attention. He tightens a big fist on his throne.
“Your Majesty,” I say. “I dispatched the Black Guard to take control of Antium’s walls and to scout beyond the city. The Commandant will likely attack tonight, so we still have a full day to prepare the city. But we must get you to a safe loca—”
“So you did not bring me Elias Veturius?”
Here goes. “My lord, it was either bring Veturius back or report this coup. Time did not allow both. I thought the security of the Empire mattered more than one man.”
Marcus regards me for a long moment before his gaze shifts to something behind me. I hear a familiar, hated gait, the thunk-thunk of steel-bottomed boots.
Impossible. I left before she did. I rode without stopping. She might have reached her army before us, but we would have seen her if she was headed to Antium. There are only so many roads that lead here from Kauf.