The men of Gens Veturia surround my parents and sisters. The courtiers look away, embarrassed and frightened by the sight of my family having their arms twisted around their backs, marched to the throne, and forced to their knees like common criminals.
Mother and Father submit to the manhandling silently, and Livvy only casts me an imploring look, as if I can somehow fix this.
Hannah fights—scratching, kicking at the soldiers, her intricate blonde coiffure collapsing about her shoulders. “Don’t punish me for her betrayal, Your Majesty!” she screams. “She’s no sister of mine, my lord. She’s no kin of mine.”
“Quiet,” he roars at her, “or I’ll kill you first.” She falls silent. The soldiers turn my family to face me. The silk-and-fur-clad courtiers on either side of me shift and whisper, some horror-struck, others barely restraining their glee. I spot the new Pater of Gens Rufia. At the sight of his cruel smile, I remember his father’s scream as Marcus cast him over Cardium Rock.
Marcus paces behind my family. “I did think we would have the executions at Cardium Rock,” he says. “But as so many of the Gens are represented here, I don’t see why we shouldn’t just get this over with.”
The Commandant steps forward, her eyes fixed on my father. He saved me from torture, against her wishes. He calmed angry Gens when she attempted to sow dissent, and he aided me when his negotiations failed. Now she will have her vengeance. A raw, animal hunger lurks in her eyes. She wants to tear my father’s throat out. She wants to dance in his blood.
“Your Majesty,” she croons. “I’d be happy to assist in the execution—”
“No need, Commandant,” Marcus says levelly. “You’ve done enough already.” The words carry a strange weight, and the Commandant eyes the Emperor, suddenly wary.
I thought you would be safe, I want to say to my family. The Augurs told me—
But the Augurs, I realize, promised me nothing.
I force myself to meet my father’s eyes. I have never seen him so defeated.
Beside him, Mother’s white-blonde hair shines as if lit from within, her fur-lined gown draped gracefully even as she kneels for death. Her pale face is fierce. “Strength, my girl,” she whispers to me. Beside her, Livvy breathes in short, panicked gusts. She whispers rapidly to a violently trembling Hannah.
I try to grasp the scim at my waist to steady myself, but I can hardly feel it beneath my palm.
“Your Majesty,” I say. “Please. The Commandant is planning a coup. You heard Lieutenant Faris. You must listen to me.”
Marcus lifts his eyes to me, their flat yellow chilling my blood. Slowly, he draws a dagger from his belt. It is thin and razor-sharp with a Blackcliff diamond as its hilt. His prize for winning the First Trial, so long ago.
“I can make it quick, Shrike,” he says quietly. “Or I can make it very, very slow. Speak out of turn again and see which one I choose. Lieutenant Sergius,” he calls out. The Black Guard I cowed through blackmail and coercion just weeks ago slinks forward.
“Secure the Shrike and her allies,” Marcus says. “We wouldn’t want their emotions to get the better of them.”
Sergius hesitates for just a second before signaling the other Black Guards.
Hannah sobs quietly, turning imploring eyes to Marcus. “Please,” she whispers. “Your Majesty. We are engaged—I am your betrothed.” But Marcus doesn’t spare her any more attention than he would a beggar.
Marcus turns to the Paters in the throne room, and power exudes from him. He is no embattled Emperor now but one who has survived a Scholar rebellion, assassination attempts, and the betrayal of the strongest families in the land.
He twirls his dagger in his hand, and the silver catches the light of the sun now rising overhead. Dawn illuminates the room with gentle beauty that sickens me when I think of what is about to happen. Marcus paces back and forth behind my family, a brutal predator deciding whom to kill first.
My mother whispers something to my father and sisters. I love you.
“Men and women of the Empire.” Marcus slows behind Mother. Her eyes burn into mine, and she straightens her spine and throws back her shoulders. Marcus stills the movement of the dagger. “Observe what happens when you fail your Emperor.”
The throne room falls silent. I hear the silver blade dip into my mother’s throat, the gurgling tear it makes as he draws it across her neck and into her artery. She sways. Her gaze slides to the floor, her body soon following.
“No!” Hannah shrieks, giving voice to the despair that has gripped my body. My mouth is salty with blood—I’ve bitten through my lip. While the courtiers watch, Hannah keens like a wounded animal, rocking over my mother’s body, not caring about anything but her wretched, all-consuming grief. Livia’s face is empty, her eyes confused as she peers down at the blood pooling, soaking the knees of her pale blue dress.
I cannot feel the pain in my lip. My feet, my legs seem so far away. That is not my mother’s blood. That is not her body. Those are not her hands, lifeless and white. No.
Hannah’s scream yanks me from my daze. Marcus has grabbed her by her ruined hair. “No, please.” Her frantic eyes seek me out. “Hel, help me!”
I strain against Sergius, a strange wounded snarl coming from my throat. I can barely hear her as she chokes out the words. My baby sister. She had the softest hair when we were girls. “Helly, I’m sorry—”