Eight Months Later
“Are you certain that’s him?”
Galerius Metellus cracked one eye open when he heard the man’s question, then immediately shut it. He had no idea what time of day it was, but the sun was still shining brightly enough to double the throbbing in his head.
“Yeah, that’s him,” another man answered. “Check his wrist.”
Eight months ago, Galerius would have tackled any man who touched him without permission, but today, he was too hungover to care. One of the two men lifted his right arm, turning it over to find the insignia of the Legion that was tattooed on the inside of his wrist.
His arm dropped to the ground as the first man cursed. “I never would have thought it was true.”
“The truth is ugly, isn’t it?” A pair of arms wrapped around Galerius’s waist, pulling him off the ground. “And it stinks, too.”
“You’ve had your fun,” Galerius croaked, his throat dry. The taste of stale, cheap wine lingered on his tongue. “Leave me alone.”
“Sorry, Captain,” the first man replied. “We’ve got orders to bring you in.”
Upon hearing his former title, a wave of anger rolled through his gut. Or was it nausea? Either way, he shoved the men away and stumbled until he collided with the wall of the alley. The cool stones eased the ache in his forehead as he leaned against them. “I said leave me alone.”
“Like he said, we have orders to bring you in, sir,” the second man replied.
There was something familiar about his voice. Galerius risked opening his eyes again and found himself staring right into the Legion insignia on the man’s chest. His graze traveled upward until he recognized the man’s face. Fabius, one of his former lieutenants. A curse flew from his lips. “What does Horatius want from me?”
“It’s not Horatius who wants you.” Fabius grabbed his shoulder and spun him around. “It’s the emperor himself.”
Galerius’s gut lurched, and the horizon wavered. If it had been the new Captain of the Legion, he might have been able to talk his way out of the meeting. But when the emperor commanded it, the Legion was obligated to obey. That didn’t mean he had to follow orders, though. “Can I have a moment to make myself presentable, then?”
Fabius shook his head. “I’m not taking a chance on you slipping away, or risking the emperor’s impatience. He said he wanted to see you as soon as possible.” He shoved Galerius forward. “Let’s go.”
“Not that you’re getting any pleasure ordering me around,” Galerius muttered.
“It’s not often a lieutenant gets to tell a captain what to do, even if it’s a former captain.”
The two members of the Legion flanked him, guiding him through the crowded streets of Emona toward the imperial palace. Galerius combed his fingers through his matted hair, not wanting to think about what was mixed in with the dried mud that crumbled onto his shoulders. The last thing he remembered was leaving the bar after what he had hoped was enough wine to dull the shame that had been eating away at him for months. Based on where they found him, he didn’t make it out of the alley.
His hand traveled to the three days’ worth of stubble on his cheeks. He lifted his arm and sniffed. By the gods, he reeked. And he had thought he couldn’t sink any lower. Not the way he wanted to be seen by the emperor after all these months.
Thankfully, Fabius and his companion didn’t say another word until they deposited him in the middle of the imperial throne room. They bowed and left as though they might be reprimanded for the filthiness of their prisoner. The doors closed with a resounding thud that mimicked the sound of the pulse in his ears.
Galerius kept his eyes down as he knelt in front of Emperor Titus Sergius Flavus, the man whose life he was once charged with protecting. Whose life he’d failed to protect twice—once when a scheming Deizian had managed to lock himself in the emperor’s quarters and tried to murder him, then less than a month later when Alpirion rebels poisoned him. Thankfully, he’d been spared the public shame of losing another emperor under his watch, but the personal shame at his failure to protect the previous emperor had prompted him to resign from the Legion months ago. Emperor Decius had been poisoned, even though no one realized it until the same poison had sickened the current emperor, and he carried the full responsibility for the murder as though he’d been the one who slipped the poison into the emperor’s oil.
You’ll never be anything more than a disappointment to me.
His father’s words cut into him like a knife, driving the guilt deeper into his soul. He clenched his jaw and bore the blow without showing any of the pain he inwardly felt. He’d spent his whole life proving his father wrong, but at times, he wondered if he’d reached the breaking point. Would he ever live down his lapse in judgment?
“Galerius Metellus, we thank you for coming before us,” Sergius said as though he were welcoming him to dinner.
As if I had any choice in the matter. His gaze fixed on the mud that caked his tunic from his night in the alley. “The emperor sends for me, and I come, although I have no idea what use I may be to you.”
“See? Even he agrees he’s not worthy of serving us.”
Empress Azurha’s words ripped away his self-pity, leaving a new raw emotion in its wake. He jerked his head up and saw her sitting on the throne next to emperor, her glittering blue-green eyes never wavering from him. The cold hostility in her face reminded him she was more than some nobleman’s daughter who’d captured the title of empress. She was the Rabbit, the deadliest assassin in the empire, and her recent marriage to the emperor had done little to dull her reputation. Her black hair and coppery skin declared her Alpirion heritage, but the gleaming gold bracelets around her wrists did more than proclaim her status a freed slave—they also concealed the tattoo of the Legion on her right wrist.
“Please, Azurha,” Sergius said, laying his hand on her arm as if to soothe her, “let me speak and hold your censure until I’m finished.”
“As you wish, but you already know my thoughts on the matter.”
Galerius curled his fingers into the flesh of his palms. Already, his enemies were lining up against him. It was bad enough to know she was the one who twice had saved the emperor’s life, not him, but to have her belittle him front of the emperor was too much. “What do you require of me, Emperor Sergius?”
A smile curled up the corners of the emperor’s mouth, the first sign of warmth Galerius had noticed since he’d entered the throne room. “As a member of the Legion, you loyally served my father for many years. As the Captain of the Legion, you served me without fail. And now, we have one more favor to ask of you.”
Please don’t let it be falling on my sword. Such punishment was expected for captains who let an emperor fall under their watch. “And what is that?”
“We’ve received a series of dispatches from Tivola about a plot to overthrow me. I’m asking you to go there and investigate them.”
“Because the dispatches are addressed to you.”
A bead of sweat formed along the nape of his neck and trickled down his spine. His gut had always warned him when something smelled like a trap, and this practically reeked of it. “Are you certain, Your Majesty? Why would someone be writing me with such important information?”
“Why indeed?” Azurha curled her hand around the arm of her throne and leaned forward. “Is there something you’re hiding from us?”
Galerius jumped to his feet. “On my honor, I know nothing of this.”
“I believe you.” The calm tone of the emperor’s voice soothed the stinging accusation from his wife. “What’s strange about these dispatches, is that they’re addressed to Captain Galerius Metellus. Whoever sent them doesn’t know about your resignation.”
“If he doesn’t know about that, then how accurate can the information be?”
“Very accurate so far.” Marcus Flavius Lepidus, the emperor’s closest friend, stepped out of the shadows. A sailor by trade, he had access to the underworld of the empire and usually acted as the emperor’s spy when there was a rumored threat to the empire. His blue eyes revealed his Deizian blood, but his dark brown hair and beard proclaimed his Elymanian ancestry, making it easier for him to blend in with the crowds. “Everything I’ve been asked to investigate has been proven true.”
“Then why don’t you continue to investigate since you have more knowledge of it than me?” Logically, none of this made sense, even to his still half-drunk mind. “Bringing me on will surely slow down your efforts.”
Marcus lifted the sleeve of his tunic, revealing a freshly stitched wound snaking up to his shoulder. “Because I got too close.”
Another trickle of doubt ran down his neck. “Marcus is one of the best men in the empire when it comes to ferreting out information. How can I possibly succeed where he failed?”
“How indeed?” Azurha turned to Sergius. “Titus, dear, listen to him. Even he expresses doubt in his ability. Why should we trust him with such an important mission? It’s obvious he’s fallen from the man you once knew.”
A wave of nausea rolled through him, and he couldn’t tell if it was from the cheap wine he’d drank last night, the stench clinging to his clothes, or the fact that the empress’s assessment hit too close to home. Have I fallen too far to ever recover?
“I disagree with you. I think he’s the best man for the job.”
“Be reasonable. Just look at him.” She stood, stepped down from the dais like a lygress approaching her prey, and circled him. “He’s barely a shadow of the man who once served you. He’s a filthy, disheveled drunk. He has more mud caked in his beard than the bricks of this palace. And the gods only know when the last time he had a bath was.”
The wrinkling of her nose set every nerve on end, yet he managed to keep his anger in check and his face devoid of emotion. He knew how to handle her taunts. They were no different than those his father had hurled at him throughout his childhood, and he’d proven him wrong by rising through the Legion to become the youngest man ever to hold the rank of Captain. He just had to wait until the emperor dismissed him so he could leave and forget this nonsense.
But he made a note to head straight for the public baths after this encounter. Even he couldn’t remember the last time he’d bathed.
Azurha turned her back to him, standing between him and emperor. “Titus, I beg of you, reconsider. There’s nothing redeemable left in him.”
Something in Galerius snapped when she said that. If it had been any other day, any other circumstance, he would have agreed with her. But this morning was different. The emperor had summoned him. Not the current Captain of the Legion. Not Marcus. Him. And if Emperor Sergius selected him for the mission, then perhaps he saw something in him the others didn’t. Perhaps he hadn’t fallen so far that he couldn’t regain some of his pride.
His words, hardly more than a low growl, surprised everyone in the throne room, especially the empress. She spun around, her lips parted as though no one had ever dared to disagree with her.
He stepped around her to stand in front of the emperor again, his shoulders squared like they were when they were covered with the armor of the Legion. “Your Majesty, I have made it my life to serve the empire, and if you have need of me, then let me know what I can do.”
“Are you certain you want to accept this mission? We haven’t told you what is required.”
He shook his head. “If you have faith in me, then that’s all I need to know.”
As soon as the said that, he knew it was true. Sergius was not like the other emperors before him. He was a man of books, a man of strategy, a man who thought about every conceivable option before choosing a course of action. If he had chosen him, then there was a good reason for it. Add in the fact that even the empress could not sway him, how could he not accept the mission?
“Excellent. We knew you would not refuse us.” Sergius stood and held out his hand for his wife.
Galerius just realized then that instead of using the “we” in the imperial sense, the emperor had used it to include his wife, elevating her to his equal, his co-ruler. Change was already happening in the empire, starting from the throne itself.
As Azurha passed him, he caught a glimpse of a sly smile on her lips, so very different from the look of disdain she’d worn from the moment he’d entered the room.
His mouth went dry. He’d just been had.
She took the emperor’s hand, her voice now calm and inviting. “Thank you, Galerius. Return tomorrow morning, and we will share all we know with you.”
His feet remained glued the mosaic floor while the imperial couple left the throne room followed by Marcus. Everything, from the members of the Legion dragging him to the palace to Azurha’s insults, had been part of an elaborate ruse to trick him into accepting the mission.
“Don’t look so upset, Galerius,” Varro said from the doorway. He stood at attention like the solider he’d been before the tip of a sword had cut his military career short and turned him the Head Steward of the imperial palace. A leather bracelet covered the tattoo that marked him as a former Captain of the Legion, but traces of his command still radiated in his bearing. “You’ve been given a second chance to prove yourself.”
“But why all this?”
A grin carved more lines into the older man’s face. “If they’d sent you a letter, would you have accepted?”
“Probably not,” he admitted. Since he’d resigned, he had tried to distance himself from the emperor as much as possible.
“Then cheer up. At least they’ve given you an opportunity to make yourself more presentable the next time they see you.”
Galerius ran his hands over his clothes. “You wouldn’t know where I can find a clean tunic?”
Varro nodded, the twinkle in his brown eyes hinting that he was as much a part of this ruse as anyone else in the room. “I do indeed, along with a good barber. Perhaps I can even find a way to sneak you into the Legion’s baths.”
Galerius followed him out of the throne room. Only the gods knew why he’d been given a second chance, but he was determined not to squander it.
The next morning, Galerius strode into the throne room behind Varro a changed man. A day at the baths had removed the months of filth that had covered him, and the hour-long massage had eased the tension and stiffness from his muscles. His cheeks were clean shaven, and his hair was cut short in the style required by most members of the Legion. If it wasn’t for the lack of armor and the missing sword on his side, he would have felt like his old self.
Unlike yesterday, the throne room was dim and empty, though. Varro continued to lead him to the side room where the emperor commonly met privately with his friends and confidants. He didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary considering the matter at hand, but he was shocked to see the empress waiting for him instead of the emperor.
“Thank you for bringing him, Varro.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” the steward said with a brief bow. “Do you require anything else from me?”
“No, thank you. We have everything we need.”
As Varro left the room, Galerius studied the new empress. The long black hair that hung to her waist was worn in a casual style favored by Deizian women these days, but her strangely colored eyes shone with a magical light all their own. Although he doubted she was of Deizian blood, he’d twice witnessed her strange powers—once when she’d managed to blow away the locked doors that he and three of his men had failed to ram open, and then again when she had extracted the poison from the emperor after the most talented healers in the empire had failed.
She, too, seemed to be studying him with equal interest. The hostility from yesterday had been replaced with a mixture of approval and curiosity. Her dress today was simpler than the elaborate gown she’d worn yesterday while she was seated on the throne, her jewels noticeably absent as though she wanted to appear lower than her status as empress to put him more at ease. She sat beside a small table with a chest and several scrolls on it and beckoned him forward.
He knelt before her. “Good morning, Empress Azurha.”
“Good morning to you, too, Galerius. I trust Varro was able to assist you adequately yesterday.”
He smoothed his hands over the clean tunic and nodded. “It was much appreciated.”
“Please come closer so I can share with you what we know.”
His gut told him this was not a trap. He stood and approached the table, feeling less cautious than he had before.
“What do you make of these?” she asked as she opened the chest.
He estimated that there were about twenty letters inside, each written on the same fine paper. He picked one up and studied the carefully written block letters that spelled out his name on the front. “Whoever wrote these has access to someone with money. A common man would’ve used coarser paper.”
She nodded, and he continued his assessment, sniffing the paper. The slight hint of incense clung to it, much lighter than the heavy scent that followed priests and priestesses. “It came from a household, not a temple.”
“Good. Now tell me what you think of the contents.”
He’d been dreading this moment from the second he’d heard the dispatches were addressed to him. He glanced at the broken wax seal, noting that it did not bear any insignia, before reading the few cryptic lines inside. “Have you been monitoring the shipments of ore from Gracchero?” he asked.
She nodded again. “Marcus was able to intercept two of the shipments that were trying to bypass the customs officials by coming in late at night. And these were sizable shipments—several tons, by our estimation.”
“But who would need so much ore? It only takes a mere coating to act as a conduit.”
“Read on,” she replied before taking a sip from her goblet.
Each dispatch contained a subtle hint, a clue that something was a potential threat to the empire. As the letters continued, the writer acknowledged the emperor’s intervention, showing he was aware of plots being foiled, and yet he did not know that the one person he was writing to was no longer the Captain of the Legion. He frowned. “Something doesn’t add up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Whoever wrote these letters is close enough to the plotters to gain access to this information, but is not high enough in rank to know of my resignation. And yet the paper suggests the writer has access to money, and the writing reveals the person is well educated—no spelling mistakes or sloppy penmanship.”
Azurha raised a brow, the corner of her mouth rising in a half-smile. “Based on this information, who do you think might have written it?”
“A scribe, possibly. Maybe a high-ranking servant in a Deizian household.”
She nodded again, keeping her face blank. If she wanted to play philosopher to a student, she was doing an admirable job. Thankfully, the mystery of the dispatches intrigued him enough to continue, despite her irritating game of making him investigate what she already knew. If she’d been one of his men, he would have demanded a brief summary of the information, not this long, drawn-out affair. But this was the empress, and he needed to play her game if he wanted to regain any of the respect he’d lost.
The last few letters pointed to Hostilius Pacilus, the provincial governor of Lucrilla, as someone of interest in this plot. Not that it was very surprising. Any man who would offer his own daughter to the imperial harem in order to gain the emperor’s favor was despicable at best. Rumors spoke of how he’d risen to power by eliminating rivals and burning down sections of Tivola, buying them cheaply from the ashes and rebuilding fancy villas on them to become the wealthiest man in the province. Combined with the recent insult of Emperor Sergius choosing to wed an Alpirion over a purebred Deizian, and he could see Hostilius as a prime suspect for wanting to overthrow the emperor.
“If the clues all point to Hostilius, why doesn’t the emperor arrest him?”
“You’re not thinking of the potential consequences, Galerius.” Azurha rose from her chair and took the most recent letter from his hand. “If Titus went around arresting every Deizian who could possibly be a threat to him, we’d have an uprising on our hands faster than you could draw your sword.”
He mulled over her words and agreed. One provincial governor had already tried to kill him, and he suspected the emperor’s choice in a wife had gained him more enemies among the ruling class than friends. And yet, for all the harsh criticisms he’d heard whispered during the wedding festivities, he’d come to begrudgingly respect the new empress. She was sharp, courageous, and had more than once shown her love and loyalty to the emperor.
“Where do I come in to this?” he asked, hoping to get to the essence of his mission so he knew what was expected of him. He was a man of action, not thought. A soldier, not a philosopher. And right now, his muscles twitched as though he were about to order a charge on the battlefield.
“Your mission is twofold. First, we need to know what Hostilius is plotting and why he’s having so much ore shipped to Tivola. Second, we would like to know who the informant is, if only to protect the person when we go in to stop Hostilius.”
“It’s not like he’s going to invite me into his home with open arms. I am the former Captain of the Legion, after all.”
Azurha answered him by narrowing her eyes. “That’s where you’re wrong. Outside of those in the throne room yesterday, no one knows the real reason you resigned from the Legion.”
His jaw fell slack. “I thought it would be common knowledge after I cost one emperor his life and almost failed his son.”
She laughed, a mixture of mirth and mocking that rankled him. “You are far more critical of yourself than anyone else will ever be.”
Not as critical as my father was.
“As far the public knows, you could have resigned over opposition to me,” she continued, speaking slowly so he wouldn’t miss the implication of her words.
“Surely you don’t think—”
“No, I have no reason to doubt your loyalty.” The lethalness of a seasoned assassin glittered in her eyes, and Galerius knew that if she did have doubts about him, he wouldn’t leave the room alive. She probably still carried multiple concealed weapons on her. “But my husband was clever enough to keep your reason a secret, both to protect your reputation and in case a situation like this arose.”
It was so perfectly planned, it could have been a scripted play. Anyone who had doubts about Emperor Sergius’s ability to rule the empire obviously didn’t know how well the analytical emperor’s mind worked. And just like how he’d kept quiet on the resignation, Emperor Sergius probably used his reputation as a lover of books to keep his enemies from suspecting too much from him.
“So, I propagate this lie to gain the trust of Hostilius?”
“I would recommend that.” She moved to the scrolls and started unrolling one of them. “Once you gain access to his home, you need to familiarize yourself with the layout. I’ve taken the liberty of drawing you a map of the different levels of the home, including the two secret passages inside the villa.”
He took a step back, studying her carefully. “How do you know so much about his villa?”
She met his gaze wearing the same predatory expression he’d seen more times than he’d cared to witness in his empress. “Do you really expect me to answer that question?”
Of course I don’t. The last governor of Lucrilla had supposedly died in his sleep, but that didn’t mean he hadn’t had a little help entering the afterlife. Any suspicion, though, had been cast on Claudia, the daughter of Hostilius and wife of the late governor. And there was no rabbit’s foot found near the body. “You didn’t leave your usual marker.”
Her eyes widened in feigned innocence. “Surely, you don’t think I had anything to do with his death.”
“Your string of victims is legendary.”
She chuckled and returned to her maps. “I’ve only broken the assassin’s code once in my life, and that was to save Titus’s life. I will never do it again.”
The unexpected softness in her voice caused something to tighten in his chest. She’d risked her life to save the man she loved, almost dying in the process. He’d never felt a fraction of the emotion for someone that she carried for her husband, and he doubted he ever would. The life of a soldier was not conducive to long-term attachments.
A wave of melancholy washed over him, and he changed the subject before he let it consume him. “Since you know so much about Hostilius’s villa, why doesn’t the Rabbit silence him before he has a chance to carry out his plan?”
Her lips pressed together in a thin line, hinting that she would gladly do it if allowed, but something held her back. Or rather someone. “Titus doesn’t want me to leave the palace.”
Before he could ask why, her hand brushed against the gentle swelling of her stomach.
“You’re with child?” How had he not noticed it before?
“Yes, and I trust you will keep quiet on the matter. Titus has gained enough enemies for marrying me. If they learn that I’m carrying his child…” Her voice broke with an uncharacteristic display of vulnerability. She swallowed and regained her composure. “Tell me, how many citizens do you think will accept a half-Alpirion as the heir to the throne?”
“I think you underestimate how well you are loved by the people.”
“The slaves, perhaps,” she replied with a healthy dose of bitterness. “Maybe the Elymanians, but the Deizians have made their displeasure well known.”
“And yet they dare not openly oppose the Rabbit.”
“I was the Rabbit, but now I’m the empress, and I’ve found it to be far more dangerous than any job I’ve ever taken.” She rolled up the map and placed it on top of the chest of letters. “These are yours to take. If we receive any more dispatches from the informant, we’ll send it to you.”
As she moved away from the table, the high-waisted gown easily concealed her pregnancy now, but how much longer could she keep it a secret? It made the urgency of his mission all the more apparent. Whatever Hostilius was planning, he needed to stop it before the news of the empress’s pregnancy leaked outside the palace.
He gathered the chest of letters and scrolls under his arm. “I appreciate you taking to time to provide me with so much information, Your Majesty.”
“I only gave you a map. You deduced most of the information yourself.” She paused by the door leading to her private chambers and added, “Titus and Marcus came to the same conclusion that you did about the informant—that it’s a member of household or a scribe.”
If this meeting had proven anything to him, it was that the empress knew more than she let on, and this was no exception. Her silence on the matter hinted that she did not agree with her husband’s suspect. “Who do you think it is?”
A smile lit her face like a soldier who’d been promoted. “Hostilius’s daughter, Claudia.”
Her suspect surprised him. Why would a daughter betray her own father? But before he could ask why, Azurha slipped through the door to her chambers, leaving him alone with his thoughts.
Galerius turned to find a grinning Varro standing in the doorway to the throne room, his hands clasped behind his back. “The empress is quite an extraordinary woman, isn’t she?”
“You’ve always known that, though, haven’t you, Varro?” From the moment Azurha had arrived in the palace posing as concubine, the old steward had told them she was more than she seemed.
“Perhaps I have,” he replied with a smug grin.
“Do you think there are any grounds for her suspicions?”
“From my limited interaction with Lady Claudia, I would say she is a woman who should not be underestimated.”
Yes, no woman becomes known as the Black Widow of the Empire without a good reason. Hostilius’s rise to power was closely linked to his daughter’s three brief marriages. “But why would Hostilius’s most valuable ally turn against him?”
The steward’s cryptic reply irritated him, but he tucked away that piece of information for future reference. If he ever found himself in the company of Claudia Pacilus, he would have to test the empress’s theory. Hopefully, he wouldn’t end up like her three husbands.
“One more thing, Galerius.” Varro pulled a scabbard out from behind his back and offered it to him. Inside was a captain’s sword.
As he drew closer, Galerius recognized it as his sword, the one he had surrendered when he resigned from the Legion. He grabbed it with his free hand, but the steward held on to it for a moment.
As Varro released the sword, he rotated his wrist so his tattoo was visible. Like Galerius’s, the two boughs of laurel leaves framed the insignia of the Legion, marking him as a former captain. “Remember, once a member of the Legion, always a member of the Legion.”
Claudia crossed the courtyard of the villa just in time to see a man exiting her father’s study. She paused, hoping to catch a glimpse of his face and add him to the list conspirators she was forming. Once she had all of them, she would send the list to Emona and stop her father once and for all.
But instead of the Deizian nobleman she expected to see, it was Captain Galerius Metellus. He stopped and locked eyes with her. Has he come to investigate my letters? Did he tell my father? Her mouth turned to sand, and her knees shook underneath her gown.
But following the initial shock and fear of finding him here came a flush of warmth that spread from the pit of her stomach to her cheeks. It was the first time she’d even see him out of uniform. The muscles of his broad chest rippled against the fabric of his tunic as he walked. His brown hair was short, as most men wore it, but his grey eyes never left her as he came closer. The heat under her skin intensified when she realized he looked upon her as though he were imagining what she looked like with her clothes off.
“Lady Claudia, how good it is to see you again,” he said as he took her hand. The brief contact of his lips against her fingers sent a shockwave up her arm more powerful than any magic she’d ever cast.
She jerked her hand away, unable to hurl the insult that sat poised on the tip of her tongue. Normally, she would have berated an Elymanian such as him for daring to touch her without permission, but her mouth refused to work properly. No man had even left her speechless like that.
What was even more annoying was that he grinned and gave her a wink as if he knew exactly what kind of effect he had on her.
By the time she gained control of her senses, he’d already left the courtyard. Rage quickly overcame any fear or desire that had consumed her. She balled her hands into fists and went straight to her father’s study. “What was the Captain of the Legion doing here?”
Her father didn’t glance up from his papers, completely unconcerned about his recent visitor. “You mean, the former Captain of the Legion. Apparently, he resigned shortly after the emperor married that slave girl.”
The blood rushed from her head, forcing her to sink into the chair across from his desk. If Galerius had resigned, who was receiving my letters? “Did he give a reason why?”
“It seems he doesn’t approve of the new empress and had some hesitation about giving up his life to protect her.” Hostilius finally raised his eyes from his papers. “Or so he claims, anyway.”
Her pulse jumped. What if he’s here to follow up on my letters? If Father suspects Galerius’s motives, how much longer do I have before he finds out about me? “You don’t believe him?” she asked, hoping her voice sounded innocent.
“Once a member of the Legion, always a member of the Legion.” He straightened a stack of papers and set them aside. “He’s staying at Pontus’s old villa in town. He came here today to pay his respects to me as governor and ask for permission to search some of the cliffs to the south for sapphires. I told him if there were any left, he could claim them, less his taxes to the province, of course.”
Tivola had once been famed for its sapphires, but greedy miners generations ago had all but stripped the region of any that could be found. The only legacy left behind was a delicate lacework of tunnels crisscrossing the ground under the city all the way to sea, creating large sinkholes when they finally collapsed.
“Do you think that’s his real reason for being here?” A new wave of heat rushed through her when she remembered the almost predatory way Galerius had looked at her moments ago.
“That remains to be seen.” Which meant her father would probably send a couple of men to tail him for the next few weeks to see if his story was true.
“Perhaps Claudia should find out for us,” Asinius said as he strolled into the study.
“What are you suggesting?” She hoped the higher tone her voice would be mistaken for indignation at the prospect of having to keep the company of an Elymanian rather than her panic of what her body would do if he ever touched her again.
“I saw the way he looked at you during your little interlude in the courtyard.” His sly smile made her stomach clench. “What’s even more interesting is that you made no move to stop him.”
“I was too stunned to react. He came up to me and kissed my hand as if he were my equal.”
“And that flush that filled your cheeks?”
“Anger, dear brother, nothing more.”
He laughed like he didn’t believe her.
Her father rested his chin on his hands, his elbows propped up on the top of the desk. “Very interesting. You didn’t tell me that, Claudia.”
“You didn’t ask, Father.”
Asinius stole behind her, dragging his finger across the top of her back and sending cold shivers of warning through her body. “I’ll bet we could get answers about Galerius’s motives much faster if Claudia gave him a taste of what he obviously wanted.”
Her spine stiffened. “How dare you suggest such a thing! I’m a Pacilus, a member of one the purest Deizian families in the empire, and you want me to seduce an Elymanian?”
“Come now, don’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy it,” her brother taunted. “Besides, you’ve never had any problems spreading your legs before when Father asked you to do so.”
His reminder of how many times she’d played her father’s whore left her wanting to rush to the baths and scrub away the guilt that clung to her from her part in his plots. “This is different, and you know it. It’s one thing to lay with a man who’s of my class. It’s another to lay with a man who’s beneath me.”
“Actually, you’d probably be beneath him if he fucked you.”
Anger shot through her system, and she bolted from the chair and into her brother’s face. “I can’t believe you’re insulting me, your own sister, like this. Father, I demand you make him apologize for his insults.”
Instead of coming to her defense, her father replied, “He has a point.”
Her muscles went lax as the outrage that had coiled them up vanished. “What was that?”
She wanted to smack the smug expression off Asinius’s face as he took his place beside their father. “Don’t pretend you didn’t hear him, Claudia. He agrees that my idea has merit.”
She gripped the edge of the desk to steady herself. By the gods, I can’t believe I’m hearing this. One minute, they think I’m washed up, and now they’re ready to bring me back into their schemes, but only if I play the same role I’m always delegated to perform.
“If you managed to capture Galerius’s attention like Asinius suggests, it should be simple for you to discover his real reason for being here.”
It was too much. Part of her wanted to march up to her room and write the most damning letter she could to the emperor, spilling all her family’s secrets. But that would include damning herself for her part in her father’s schemes. No, there has to be a way around this. Think.
She released the desk and leaned her hip against it, trying to appear calm and collected. If they were involving her in this, then maybe they’d be willing to include her in their plot to bring down the barrier, thus giving her the final information she needed to pass on to the emperor, or perhaps Galerius, and stop them. But in order to convince them of that, she had to play the part of the self-absorbed daughter. “And what would I get in return? Obviously, he’s not marriage material.”
Her father raised a brow at her question. “What would you suggest?”
“The villa in Padero.”
Asinius’s face turned a mottled shade of red. “But that’s supposed to be my estate.”
“On the contrary, dear brother, it belonged to my first husband.” Pleasure, soothing as a warm bath, washed over her at seeing her brother’s annoyance. “If I remember correctly, it came to our family when he died.”
Now she had control of the conversation. If she was forced to lower herself like that, she’d get what she wanted in return—freedom from her father. Once she had that, then she would continue her plan to bring him down without fear of repercussions, without the constant worry of wondering when she’d be tossed off the cliffs for his pleasure, without being present when the emperor finally brought him down.
Hostilius ignored her brother, keeping his attention focused completely on her. “And what would you do in Padero if I gave you the villa?”
“I haven’t decided. Maybe raise chickens. Live out the rest of my days in comfort. After all, didn’t you say I’d outlived my usefulness to you?” She chose her last words with care, flinging the insult he’d given her months ago back in his face.
He frowned and leaned back in his chair. “It seems I was a bit hasty in my judgment.”
It was the closest thing she’d ever get to an apology from him. She lifted her chin like the proud Deizian she was. “So, do we have a deal?”
Seconds ticked by as Hostilius weighed her demands. “If you manage to discover Galerius’s true purpose for being here in Tivola before I do, I agree to give you the villa in Padero.”
“Thank you,” she said as a cry of outrage broke free from her spoiled younger brother’s lips. This battle had been won, and she would revel in the glory of it later. “Just one concern, Father. How should I arrange a meeting with him? After all, it would not be fitting for me to call on him at his lodgings.” Not to mention unsafe, considering her body’s reaction to him.
“Leave that to me. When you see him, you know what to do.”
She smiled and curtsied before she left the study. Her brother’s protests echoed through the house, but she didn’t care. She’d struck a deal with her father, and she was one step closer to gaining her freedom and perhaps unraveling his plan to bring down the barrier. But first, she had to figure out what to do with the riddle of Galerius Metellus.