“Come quickly,” she says. “Scholars—a family—on the run from the Empire.”
Keenan and I follow Izzi back to camp to find Afya speaking rapidly in Sadhese with Riz and Vana. A small group of anxious Scholars looks on, their clothing torn, faces streaked with dirt and tears. Two dark-eyed women who appear to be sisters stand together. One of them has her arm around a girl of perhaps six. The man with them carries a little boy no more than two.
Afya turns away from Riz and Vana, both of whom have similar, glowering expressions. Zehr keeps his distance, but he doesn’t look happy either.
“We can’t help you,” Afya says to the Scholars. “I will not bring down the Martials’ wrath upon my Tribe.”
“They’re killing everyone,” one of the women says. “No survivors, miss. They’re even killing Scholar prisoners, massacring them in their cells—”
It is as if the earth at my feet has dropped away. “What?” I push past Keenan and Afya. “What did you say about Scholar prisoners?”
“The Martials are butchering them.” The woman turns to me. “Every single prisoner. From Serra to Silas to our city, Estium, fifty miles west of here. Antium is next, we hear, and after that, Kauf. That woman—the Mask, the one they call the Commandant—she’s killing them all.”
“What are you going to do about Captain Sergius?” Harper asks as we make for Antium’s Black Guard barracks. “Some of the Gens on Marcus’s list are allied with Gens Sergia. He has heavy support within the Black Guard.”
“It’s nothing a few whippings won’t fix.”
“You can’t whip them all. What will you do if there is open dissent?”
“They can bend to my will, Harper, or I can break them. It’s not complicated.”
“Don’t be stupid, Shrike.” The anger in his voice surprises me, and when I glance at him, his green eyes flash. “There are two hundred of them and two of us. If they turn on us en masse, we’re dead. Why else wouldn’t Marcus just order them to take out his enemies himself? He knows he might not be able to control the Black Guard. He can’t risk them directly defying him. But he can risk them defying you. The Commandant must have put him up to it. If you fail, then you’re dead. Which is exactly what she wants.”
“And what you want too.”
“Why would I tell you any of this if I wanted you dead?”
“Bleeding skies, I don’t know, Harper. Why do you do anything? You don’t make sense. You never have.” I frown in irritation. “I don’t have time for this. I need to figure out how I’m going to get to the Paters of ten of the best-guarded Gens in the Empire.”
Harper is about to retort, but we’ve reached the barracks, a great, square building built around a training field. Most of the men within play dice or cards, cups of ale beside them. I clench my teeth in disgust. The old Blood Shrike is gone for a few weeks and discipline has already gone to the hells.
As I pass through the field, some of the men eye me curiously. Others give me blatant once-overs that make me want to rip their eyes out. Most just seem angry.
“We take out Sergius,” I say quietly. “And his closest allies.”
“Force won’t work,” Harper murmurs. “You need to outwit them. You need secrets.”
“Secrets are a snake’s way of doing business.”
“And snakes survive,” Harper says. “The old Blood Shrike traded in secrets—it’s why he was so valuable to Gens Taia.”
“I don’t know any secrets, Harper.” But even as I say it, I realize it’s not true. Sergius, for instance. His son talked about many things that he probably shouldn’t have. Rumors at Blackcliff spread quickly. If anything that Sergius the younger said was true …
“I can deal with his allies,” Harper says. “I’ll get help from the other Plebeians in the Guard. But we need to move swiftly.”
“Get it done,” I say. “I’ll speak with Sergius.”
I find the captain with his feet up in the barracks mess hall, his cronies gathered around him.
“Sergius.” I don’t comment on the fact that he doesn’t stand. “I must solicit your opinion on something. Privately.” I turn my back and make for the Blood Shrike’s quarters, seething when he doesn’t follow immediately.
“Captain,” I begin when he finally walks into my quarters, but he interrupts.
“Miss Aquilla,” he says, and I practically choke on my own saliva. I haven’t been addressed as Miss Aquilla since I was about six.
“Before you ask for advice or favors,” he goes on, “let me explain something. You’ll never control the Black Guard. At best, you’ll be a pretty figurehead. So whatever orders that Plebeian dog of an Emperor gave you—”
“How’s your wife?” I hadn’t planned to be so direct, but if he’s going to be a dog, then I’ll have to crawl down to his level until I get him on a leash.
“My wife knows her place,” Sergius says warily.
“Unlike you,” I say, “sleeping with her sister. And her cousin. How many bastards do you have running around now? Six? Seven?”
“If you’re trying to blackmail me”—the sneer on Sergius’s face is practiced—“it won’t work. My wife knows of my women and my bastards. She smiles and does her duty. You should do the same: Put on a dress, marry for the good of your Gens, and produce heirs. In fact, I have a son—”