As they enter the courtyard, Marcus bows and kisses Hannah’s hand, the epitome of a well-behaved, highborn suitor.
Get the bleeding hells away from her, you pig. I want to scream it. I bite my tongue. He’s the Emperor. And you’re his Shrike.
When he rises, he inclines his head to my mother. “Set a date, Mater Aquilla. Don’t wait too long.”
“Will your family wish to attend, Your Imperial Majesty?” my mother asks.
“Why?” Marcus curls his lip. “Too Plebeian to go to a wedding?”
“Of course not, Your Majesty,” my mother says. “Only I have heard tell that your mother is a woman of great piousness. I expect that she would observe the Augurs’ suggested mourning period of four months quite strictly.”
A shadow passes over Marcus’s face. “Of course,” he says. “It will take as long for you to prove that Gens Aquilla is worthy.”
He approaches me, and at the horror in my eyes, he grins, all the more savage for the pain he’s just felt in remembering Zak. “Careful now, Shrike,” he says. “Your sister is to be in my care. You wouldn’t want anything to happen to her, would you?”
“She—you—” While I gibber, Marcus strides out, his guards trailing. When our slaves have closed the courtyard gates behind him, I hear Hannah’s quiet laugh.
“Won’t you congratulate me, Blood Shrike?” she says. “I am to be Empress.”
She’s a fool, but she’s still my little sister, and I love her. I cannot let this stand.
“Father,” I say through gritted teeth. “I would speak with you.”
“You should not be here, Shrike,” my father says. “You have a mission to complete.”
“Can’t you see, Father?” Hannah whirls on me. “Ruining my marriage is more important to her than finding the traitor.”
My father looks a decade older than he did yesterday. “The betrothal papers have been signed by the Gens,” he says. “I had to save you, Helene. This was the only way.”
“Father, he is a murderer, a rapist—”
“Isn’t that every Mask, Shrike?” Hannah’s words are a slap in the face. “I heard you and your bastard friend speaking ill of Marcus. I know what I’m getting into.”
She swoops toward me, and I realize she’s as tall as I am, though I don’t remember when that happened. “I don’t care. I will be Empress. Our son will be heir to the throne. And the fate of Gens Aquilla will forever be secure. Because of me.” Her eyes glow with triumph. “Think on that as you hunt down the traitor you call friend.”
Don’t punch her, Helene. Don’t. My father takes my arm. “Come, Shrike.”
“Where’s Livvy?” I ask.
“Sequestered in her room with a fever,” Father says as we ensconce ourselves in his book-stuffed study. “Your mother and I didn’t want to risk Marcus picking her instead.”
“He did this to get at me.” I try to sit but just end up pacing. “The Commandant probably put him up to it.”
“Do not underestimate our Emperor, Helene,” Father says. “Keris wanted you dead. She tried to persuade Marcus to execute you. You know her. She refuses to negotiate. The Emperor came to me without her knowledge. The Illustrians have turned on him. They use the escape of Veturius and the slave-girl to question his legitimacy as Emperor. He knows he needs allies, so he offered your life for Hannah’s hand in marriage—and the full support of Gens Aquilla.”
“Why not throw our weight behind another Gens?” I say. “There must be some who covet the throne.”
“They all covet the throne. The infighting has already begun. Who would you choose? Gens Sissellia is brutal and manipulative. Gens Rufia would empty the Empire’s coffers in a fortnight. All would object to any other Gens ruling. They will tear each other apart vying for the throne. Better a bad Emperor than a civil war.”
“But, Father, he’s a—”
“Daughter.” Father raises his voice—a rare enough occurrence that I fall silent. “Your loyalty is to the Empire. Marcus is Augur-chosen. He is the Empire. And he needs a victory badly.” My father leans across his desk. “He needs Elias. He needs a public execution. He needs the Gens to see that he is strong and capable.
“You are Blood Shrike now, daughter. The Empire must come first—above your desires, your friendships, your wants. Above, even, your sister and your Gens. We are Aquilla, daughter. Loyal to the end. Say it.”
“Loyal,” I whisper. Even if it means my sister’s destruction. Even if it means a madman running the Empire. Even if it means I have to torture and kill my best friend. “To the end.”
When I arrive at the empty barracks the next morning, neither Dex nor Harper mentions Hannah’s betrothal. They are also wise enough not to remark on my black mood.
“Faris is at the drum tower,” Dex says. “He heard back about the horse. As for those reports you had me look through …” My friend fidgets, pale eyes on Harper.
Harper almost smiles. “There was something off about the reports,” he says. “The drums gave conflicting orders that night. Martial troops were in disarray because the rebels cracked our codes and scrambled all the communiqués.”
Dex’s mouth drops open. “How did you know?”