When I finally escape the crowd, Helene’s nowhere in sight, though I spot her sisters, Hannah and Livia, eyeing a bored-looking Faris.
“Veturius,” Faris grunts at me, and I’m relieved that he doesn’t treat me with the same fawning awe as everyone else. “I need you to introduce me.”
He looks pointedly at a knot of silk-clad, bejeweled Illustrian girls lurking near the edges of the tent, some of whom are watching me in a disturbingly predatory way. I know a few of the girls well—too well, actually, for all that whispering they are doing to come to any good.
“Faris, you’re a Mask. You don’t need an introduction. Just go talk to them.
If you’re that nervous, ask Dex or Demetrius to go with you. Have you seen Helene?”
He ignores my question. “Demetrius didn’t come. Probably because fun is against his moral code. And Dex is drunk. Loosening up for once in his life, thank the skies.”
“What about Trist—”
“Too busy drooling at his fiancé.” Faris nods to one of the tables, where Tristas sits with Aelia, pretty and black-haired. He looks happier than I’ve seen him all year. “And Leander confessed his love to Helene—”
“Again. She told him to piss off before she broke his nose a second time, and he went looking for solace in the back garden with some redhead. You’re my last hope.” Faris looks lasciviously at the Illustrian girls. “If we remind them that you’ll be Emperor, I bet we could get two each.”
“Now there’s a thought.” I actually consider this for a moment before remembering Helene. “But I have to find Aquilla.”
At that moment, she walks into the tent and past the knot of girls, stopping when one speaks to her. She glances at me before whispering something.
The girl’s jaw drops open, and Helene turns back around and leaves the tent.
“I’ve got to catch Helene,” I say to Faris, who has noticed Hannah and Livia and is smiling invitingly at them while smoothing back his cowlick.
“Don’t get too drunk,” I advise. “And unless you want to wake up without your manhood, stay away from those two. They’re Hel’s little sisters.”
The smile drops off Faris’s face, and he moves determinedly out of the tent. I hurry after Helene, spotting a flash of blonde heading through Grandfather’s vast gardens and toward a rickety shed at the back of the house. The light of the party tents doesn’t reach this far, and I have only starlight by which to navigate. I keep my plate, toss my drink, and pull myself atop the shed one-handed before clambering onto the sloped roof of the house.
“You could have picked an easier spot to get to, Aquilla.”
“It’s quiet up here,” she says from the darkness. “Plus you can see all the way to the river. Did you bring any for me?”
“Piss off. You probably had two plates while I shook hands with all those stuffed shirts.”
“Mother says I’m too skinny.” She spears a pastry off my plate with a dagger. “What took you so long to get up here, anyway? Paying court to your bevy of maidens?”
My awkward conversation with Grandfather comes sharply to mind, and a thorny silence descends. Helene and I don’t discuss girls. She teases Faris and Dex and the others about their dalliances, but not me. Never me.
“Would you believe Lavinia Tanalia had the nerve to ask me if you’d ever spoken of her? I about shoved a kabob skewer through that bursting bodice of hers.” The barest frisson of tension tinges Helene’s voice, and I clear my throat.
“What’d you say to her?”
“I told her you called out her name every time you visited the dock girls. Shut her right up.”
I burst into laughter, understanding now the horrified look on Lavinia’s face. Helene smiles, but her eyes are sad. She seems lonely, suddenly. When I tilt my head to capture her gaze, she looks away. Whatever is wrong, she’s not ready to tell me.
“What will you do if you become Empress?” I ask. “What will you change?”
“You’re going to win, Elias. And I’ll be your Blood Shrike.” She speaks with such conviction that for a second, it’s like she’s speaking some old truth, like she is telling me the color of the sky. But then she shrugs and looks away.
“But if I won, I’d change everything. Expand trade south, bring women into the army, open up relations with the Mariners. And I’d—I’d do something about the Scholars.”
“You mean the Resistance?”
“No. What happens in the Quarter. The raids. The killing. It’s not...” I know she wants to say that it’s not right. But that would be sedition. “Things could be better,” she says. There’s a challenge in her face when she looks at me, and I lift my eyebrows. Helene never struck me as a Scholar sympathizer.
I like her more for it.
“What about you?” she asks. “What would you do?”
“Same as you, I guess.” I can’t tell her that I have no interest in ruling and never will. She won’t understand. “Maybe I’d just let you run things while I lounged in my harem.”
“I’m very serious.” I grin at her. “The Emperor does have a harem, right? Because that’s the only reason I took the oath—” She shoves me—practically off the roof—and I beg for mercy.