Chapter One

As soon as Claudia Pacilus heard the engine of her father’s airship die down, her pulse quickened. He’d sent her back to Tivola weeks ago, his displeasure at her inability to capture the attention of Emperor Sergius evident without him saying a word. Now, the emperor had married that Alpirion, Azurha, and she was left to deal with the punishment for her failure.

She pulled her palla tighter around her chest as though it would drive away the chill forming in her soul. Her gaze traveled to the cliffs on the far end of the moonlit garden. Will I be the next person tossed over the edge for my father’s pleasure?

The waves crashed against the rocks in reply, and a shiver coursed down her spine. Her mind screamed for her to run and hide, but pride kept her feet planted firmly in the center of main atrium. She was a Deizian, and such cowardly behavior was beneath her. She would greet her father like a dutiful daughter and pray to the gods that his ire had lessened during the weeks of imperial wedding festivities.

Her father, Gaius Hostilius Pacilus, provincial governor of Lucrilla, strolled into the villa with a regal bearing that rivaled that of the emperor himself, surrounded by slaves carrying torches to illuminate his way. Fine threads of silver shimmered in his golden hair, hinting at his age, but his body remained as well muscled as any member of the Imperial Army. He fixed his cold blue eyes on her, his mouth pressing into a tight line.

Claudia lowered her head and dipped into a curtsy. “Greetings, noble Father, and welcome home.”

He stopped in front of her, but said nothing. She could feel his eyes upon her, dissecting each of her flaws, from the loose strand of hair that had slipped free in the ocean breeze to the wrinkle that creased where she’d gripped her palla moments ago.

A tremor worked its way into her bottom lip, but she dared not move from her position of subjugation. She stared at his sandals and waited for him to give her permission to stand. She was little better than the slaves who served them. Her father owned everything, from the jewels she wore to her freedom. If she left, she’d have to leave everything behind. It was far better to try to appease him than to be cast out with nothing but her name.

Another step of footsteps approached her with quick strides on the tiled floor. Her body tensed a second before the back of a hand connected with her cheek, knocking her to the ground. Blood filled her mouth. She wiped it away and glared at her younger brother, Asinius.

“Washed up whore,” he growled before he kicked her in the stomach, knocking the air from her lungs and leaving a burning ache that made her wonder if death wasn’t close behind. “If you had done what you were supposed to have done, you would be empress now instead of that slave.”

He drew his foot back to deliver another blow but froze when their father said, “Patience, Asinius. The emperor will fall in due time.”

Then Hostilius peered down at her as if she were a puzzle for him to unravel rather than his flesh and blood. Seconds passed in silence. Claudia gulped in a breath, but other than that, remained as still as a statue.

“Pity,” he said at last, as though he’d just discovered a smudge on his pristine white toga. “It seems like she has outlived her usefulness to us.”

Anger tempered the fear chilling her blood. How dare he not show any concern for her welfare! She, the daughter whose three marriages had helped him gain control of the province with the death of each of her husbands and had elevated him to governor. Her jaw tightened, and she reached up to pull her palla back over her shoulders.

“What should we do with her?” Asinius asked as though she were a disobedient slave. The perverse note in his voice hinted that he would love to be the one who flung her over the cliffs. Even though he was the favored son, he’d always borne a grudge against her, especially when she reminded him that their father’s rise to power was due to her, not him.

“Time will tell.” Hostilius continued past her on the way to his study. “Come along, son. We have much to discuss before we act again.”

Her brother followed him like an eager puppy who had been offered a juicy bone to chew on. Whatever they were planning, blood would be spilled when they carried it out. The slaves followed them with the torches, leaving her alone in the darkness.

Claudia spat out the last of the blood and pushed herself off the floor. So it had come to this. She had lost her father’s favor, and her life hung on the thin string of his mercy.

For years, she’d been a pawn in his political games. She’d warmed the beds of three men she loathed in order to strengthen her family’s position, hoping for the day she’d satisfy her father’s thirst for power long enough to be allowed to live out the rest of her days at a country estate. She’d watched her father claim her widow’s dowry each time and add it to his coffers, leaving her with nothing more than his approval and the ever-tightening noose of guilt from association, should the truth about her plots ever come to light. She’d even agreed to lower herself to the level of a concubine as part of her father’s plan to gain imperial favor. And now she was left wondering when her body would slam against the rocks below and be carried off to sea.

The muffled voices of her father and brother floated out from under the closed doors of the study, fueling her anger. If they wanted to cut her out of their plans now, so be it. But that wouldn’t keep her from discovering their plot. Perhaps she could use it to her advantage.

She moved to the gardens, keeping her steps silent as she crept closer to the open window of her father’s study. She clung to the shadows and listened.

“Pontus was arrogant to think he could kill Sergius,” Asinius said.

“Pontus had hired the Rabbit. He thought she would succeed as she has numerous times before. None of us imagined Sergius would succeed in seducing her.”

“And now that she has her lips wrapped around his dick, it’s only a matter of time before she convinces him to free all the slaves, even after that slave uprising in Alpiria last month.”

“Emperor Sergius is too cautious to make such a sweeping change. He’ll start slowly because he knows that such a drastic measure will crush the economy of the empire.” Hostilius’s chair creaked like it did every time he leaned back in it. Claudia pictured him steepling his fingers together and pressing them against his lips as he thought. “His marriage to the Alpirion has endeared him to the lower classes.”

“All the more reason to destroy him as quickly as possible.” Her brother’s sandals slapped against the tile floor as he paced. “Who’s the next best assassin in the empire?”

“You’re not thinking clearly. The Legion will be guarding Sergius more closely than ever, and even if an assassin gets past them, the Rabbit will already have placed measures to protect him. You forget that she knows many ways to kill a man, and she will have made sure that another assassin could not gain access to him.”

“Then how are we going to get the throne?”

Her father’s chuckle caused her gut to clench. It was too cool, too collected, too calm. “An emperor is only as safe as his popularity. If the people fear he is placing them in danger, they will demand his head.”

A pause filled the room, followed by Asinius’s laughter. “The barrier.”

“It will take careful planning. Sergius outwitted us once. And the barrier appeared stronger than ever when I was there. This time, I will not act until I am certain I will succeed.”

Claudia bit her bottom lip to keep from gasping. She’d heard rumors that the barrier had been weakened after the death of the prior emperor, but she had no idea her father was behind it. Why would he risk having the empire overrun by the Barbarians? Those creatures knew only death and destruction. They could not be reasoned with, and if the barrier fell, thousands of lives would be lost.

“How shall we start?”

“Slowly. I need to make sure the device is at its maximum potential.”

“That will mean more ore.”

“What do you think I was discussing with Minius last week? The first shipments should start arriving in less than a month. But we must be discreet. If the emperor catches wind of our plan, we’ll suffer the same fate as Pontus.”

“I doubt that, Father. You are far more cunning than him.”

“As you can see, there’s no need to bloody our hands. The masses will do it for us.”

“And when we save them from the Barbarians, they will demand we assume the throne.” Asinius’s laughter drifted outside again, this time with a musical note of insanity in it. “It’s perfect.”

“Would you expect otherwise from me?” The chair creaked again, followed by footsteps. “Remember, patience is the key here. We wait until everything is ready.” Their voices faded as they left the study.

Claudia slid along the wall and rubbed the chill from her arms. How long would her father allow the barrier to fall before he restored it? Hours? Days? Weeks? How many lives would be lost in the process? Whatever his plans included, they didn’t include her. What was to keep him from selling her to Minius in exchange for more ore? Or worse, for him to shift the blame on her should they fail?

I refuse to be his pawn any longer.

She took a deep breath, cleansing her fears from her mind. Her father had made a mistake when he called her useless, and he would pay for it. If he feared the emperor would discover his plan, then perhaps she should capitalize on that.

She stood, straightened her clothes, and went to her room. In careful block letters to disguise her handwriting, she wrote:

If you wish for the barrier to remain intact, you should monitor the ore shipments from Gracchero.

There. Nothing too precise. A hint, and no more. Just enough to clue the emperor in to her father’s plan and hinder his efforts without giving everything away. No one would ever suspect the note came from her. And when her father’s face turned red from frustration, she would have the start of her revenge.

“Zavi,” she called to her slave, “could you please fetch Kafi? I have a task for him that requires his unique talent for discretion.”