I smile openly at Pater Rufius, making my voice warm and winsome, the way I’ve seen Livvy do when she’s charming someone into giving her information. “Do stay, Pater,” I say. “I wish to honor the new title bestowed upon me, and it is only through watching experienced men such as yourself work that I will be able to do so.”
“Blackcliff isn’t for mice, girl.” He doesn’t take his brick of a hand off his sword. “What game are you playing?”
I look at Father as if bewildered. “No game, sir,” I say. “I am a daughter of Gens Aquilla, above all else. As for Blackcliff, there are … ways to survive there, if one is a woman.”
Even as surprise registers in his eyes, a look of mingled disgust and interest passes across his face. The look makes my skin crawl, but I steel myself. Go on, you half-wit. Underestimate me.
He grunts and sits. The other four Paters—Rufius’s allies—follow suit, and Mother sweeps in shortly after, followed by a taster and a row of slaves bearing trays groaning with food.
Mother seats me across from Rufius, as I requested. Throughout the meal, I let my laugh go high. I toy with my hair. I act bored during key parts of the conversation. I giggle with Livvy. When I glance at Hannah, she’s chattering with another of the Paters, distracting him utterly.
When the meal is over, Father stands. “Let us retire to my study, gentlemen,” he says. “Hel, my dear, bring the wine.”
Father doesn’t wait for my response as he leads the men out, their bodyguards following.
“Go to your rooms, both of you,” I whisper to Livvy and Hannah. “No matter what you hear, stay there until Father comes for you.”
When I approach the study a few minutes later with a tray of wine and tumblers, the Paters’ many bodyguards are arrayed outside. The space is too small for them to fit within. I smile at the two men flanking the door, and they grin back. Idiots.
After I enter the room, Father closes the door behind me and puts a hand on my shoulder. “Helene is a good girl, and loyal to her Gens.” He brings me into the conversation seamlessly. “She’ll do as we ask—and that will get us closer to the Emperor.”
As they discuss a potential alliance, I carry the tray around the table and past the window, where I pause for an indiscernible moment—a signal to the Black Guard waiting on the grounds. Slowly, I serve the wine. My father takes a leisurely sip of each glass before I hand them off to the Paters.
I pass the last glass to Pater Rufius. His piggish eyes fix on mine, his finger brushing against my palm deliberately. It is easy enough to hide my disgust, especially when I hear the faintest thud outside the study.
Don’t kill them, Helene, I remind myself. You need them alive for a public execution.
With a small, secret smile just for Pater Rufius, I slowly pull my hand away from his.
Then, from the slits cut into my dress, I draw out my scims.
By dawn, the Black Guard have rounded up Illustrian traitors and their families. City criers have announced the impending executions at Cardium Rock. Thousands of people surround the square that stretches around the bone pit at the base of the Rock. The Illustrians and Mercators in the crowd have been ordered to voice their disapproval of the traitors—lest they face a similar fate. The Plebeians need no encouragement.
The top of the Rock slopes down in three terraces. Illustrian courtiers, including my family, stand upon the closest terrace. Leaders from less powerful Gens stand on the top tier.
Near the edge of the cliff, Marcus surveys the crowd. He wears full battle regalia, an iron circlet upon his head. The Commandant stands beside him, murmuring something into his ear. He nods and, as the sun rises, addresses those gathered, his words carried through the crowd by the criers.
“Ten Illustrian Gens chose to defy your Augur-chosen Emperor,” he roars. “Ten Illustrian Paters believed that they knew better than the holy seers who have guided us for centuries. These Paters bring shame to their Gens through their treasonous actions. They are traitors to the Empire. There is only one punishment for traitors.”
He nods, and Harper and I, standing on either side of a writhing, gagged Pater Rufius, drag the man to his feet. Without ceremony, Marcus takes Rufius by his garish robes and casts him over the side of the cliff.
The sound of his body hitting the pit below is lost in the cheers of the crowd.
The next nine Paters follow swiftly, and when they are nothing but a mass of broken bones and shattered skulls at the base of the cliff, Marcus turns to their heirs—kneeling, chained, and lined up for all of Antium to see. The flags of their Gens fly behind them.
“You will swear your fealty,” he says, “upon the lives of your wives and sons and daughters. Or I swear by the skies that my Blood Shrike will wipe out each of your Gens one by one, Illustrian or not.”
They trip all over each other to swear. Of course they do, what with the screams of their now-dead Paters echoing in their heads. With each oath proclaimed, the crowd cheers again.
When it is done, Marcus turns again to the masses. “I am your Emperor,” his voice booms out across the square. “Foretold by the Augurs. I will have order. I will have loyalty. Those who defy me will pay with their lives.”
The crowd cheers again, and, almost lost within the cacophony, the new Pater of Gens Rufia speaks to one of the other Paters beside him.
“What of Elias Veturius?” he hisses. “The Emperor casts the finest men in the land to their deaths, while that bastard eludes him.”