Yes, you cretin. I know your son. Cadet Sergius hates his father. I wish someone would just tell her, the boy once said of his mother. She could tell Grandfather. He’d kick my ass of a father out into the cold.

“Maybe your wife does know.” I smile at Sergius. “Or maybe you’ve kept your dalliances a secret and learning of them would devastate her. Maybe she would tell her father, who, in rage at the insult, would offer her shelter and withdraw the money that funds your crumbling Illustrian estate. You can’t very well be Pater of Gens Sergia with no money, can you, Lieutenant Sergius?”

“That’s Captain Sergius!”

“You’ve just been demoted.”

Sergius first turns white, then an unusual shade of purple. When the shock drains from his face, it’s replaced by a helpless rage that I find quite satisfying.

He straightens his back, salutes, and, in a tone suitable to addressing a superior officer, speaks. “Blood Shrike,” he says. “How may I serve you?”

Once Sergius is barking my orders to his toadies, the rest of the Black Guard fall into line, albeit reluctantly. An hour after walking into the commander’s quarters, I am in the Black Guard war room, planning the attack.

“Five teams with thirty men each.” I point to five Gens on the list. “I want Paters, Maters, and children older than thirteen in chains and waiting at Cardium Rock by dawn. Younger children are to remain under armed guard. Get in and out quietly, and keep it clean.”

“What about the other five Gens?” Lieutenant Sergius says. “Gens Rufia and its allies?”

I know Pater Rufius. He’s a typical Illustrian with typical prejudices. And he was once a friend to my father. According to Father’s missives, Pater Rufius has attempted to pull Gens Aquilla into his traitorous coalition a dozen times already.

“Leave them to me.”


The dress I wear is white, gold, and supremely uncomfortable—probably because I haven’t worn one since I was a four-year-old forced to participate in a wedding. I should have put one on sooner—the expression on Hannah’s face alone, like she’s swallowed a live snake—would have been worth it.

“You look beautiful,” Livvy whispers as we file into the dining room. “Those idiots will never see it coming. But only”—she gives me a warning look, her blue eyes wide—“if you rein yourself in. Pater Rufius is smart, even if he is foul. He’ll be suspicious.”

“Pinch me if you see me doing anything stupid.” I finally notice the room, and my jaw drops. My mother has outdone herself, laying the table with snow-white china and long, clear vases of winter roses. Creamy tapers bathe the room in a welcoming glow, and a white whistling thrush sings sweetly from a cage in the corner.

Hannah follows Livvy and me into the room. Her dress is similar to mine, and her hair is done up in a mass of icy curls. She wears a small gold circlet atop—a not-so-subtle nod to her approaching nuptials.

“This won’t work,” she says. “I don’t understand why you don’t just take your guards, sneak into the traitors’ houses, and kill them all. Isn’t that what you’re good at?”

“I didn’t want to get blood on my dress,” I say dryly.

To my surprise, Hannah cracks a smile and then quickly raises a hand to her face to hide it.

My heart lifts, and I find that I am grinning back at her, just like when we shared a joke as girls. But a second later, she scowls. “Skies only know what everyone will say when they learn we invited them here only to trap them.”

She steps away from me, and my temper snaps. Does she think I want to do this?

“You can’t marry Marcus and expect to avoid getting blood on your hands, sister,” I hiss at her. “Might as well get into the habit of it.”

“Stop it, both of you.” Livvy looks between us as, outside the dining room, the front door opens and Father greets our guests. “Remember who the actual enemy is.”

Seconds later, Father enters, trailing a group of Illustrian men, each flanked by a dozen bodyguards. They secure every inch, from the windows to the table to the drapes—before allowing their Paters to file in.

The head of Gens Rufia leads, his yellow-and-purple silk robes straining against his paunch. A portly man, gone to seed after leaving the military, but still sly as a hyena. When he spots me, his hand goes to the sword at his waist—a sword I doubt he remembers how to use, judging from those flaccid arms.

“Pater Aquillus,” he brays. “What is the meaning of this?”

My father glances at me with an expression of surprise. He is so sincere that for a second, even I’m fooled.

“This is my eldest,” Father says. “Helene Aquilla.” He uses my name purposefully. “Though I suppose we must call her Blood Shrike now, right, darling?” He pats my cheek patronizingly. “I thought it would be good for her to learn a bit from our discussions.”

“She is the Emperor’s Blood Shrike.” Pater Rufius doesn’t remove his hands from his sword. “Is this an ambush, Aquillus? Is that what we’ve come to?”

“She is the Emperor’s Blood Shrike,” Father says. “And as such, she is useful to us, even if she doesn’t have a whit of sense about how to use her position. We’ll teach her, of course. Come, Rufius, you’ve known me for years. Have your men search the premises if you must. If you see anything alarming, you and the others can depart.”