Under a starry autumn sky, Illisandra marched at the head of her Wolf Legion centuria toward the Mage Tower. Soon, there'd be no more mages poisoning Meda with nonsense. Blaming the Tower and the rebel Circle for the attack on Meda's nephew Derrius would eliminate foes who viewed her intimacy with the Emperor as a threat.
All it took was a whisper in Meda's ear after he'd spent himself making love to her. "Order the Wolves to move without delay. No mercy for the bastards who tried to kill your favorite nephew."
If only the amphipteres, her little dragons, hadn't been lost in the attack. Such a waste. But their sacrifice would be redeemed by the deaths of the rebels and the mages.
Along the broad avenue stretching between the Winter Palace and the Tower, lamps of magelight glowed twice as bright as torches, illuminating the highborns' six-story brick townhouses. Red-caped legionnaires, their faces nearly invisible behind the face-guards of their conical helmets, dragged an eerily quiet rebel baron, still in his sleeping robe, toward a lamppost. Illisandra didn't recognize him; he'd obviously avoided the Winter Palace. The man knows how to die properly, Illisandra thought, stirred by his impassive courage.
Pink nightgown fluttering in the breeze, the highborn's keening wife staggered down the steps and flung herself toward her husband. A legionnaire blocked her, and she crumpled at his feet. Her hands clung to his pants. "No! Not like this. Not in front of our children."
More legionnaires emerged from the townhouse with belt-high children in tow. The two boys and a girl wore fur-lined coats, unlike their parents, and gripped the soldiers' hands. The legionnaires looked withdrawn, unhappy. Forcing children to watch their father's execution was not what they'd signed up for.
The highborn grimaced as his hands were tied behind his back. A bruise bordered his swollen right eye. Blood trickled from a cut lip. Broken fingers thrust outward at odd angles. Illisandra squirmed. She had no problem with people enduring pain; she just didn't want to see their suffering. Stop putting thoughts in my head, Charis. You're the weak one.
An officer fit a noose over the highborn's head. The baron looked forlornly at his wife. "I love you. Always."
His wife screamed and screamed. Terror scrawled across the children's faces, and they too shrieked. Illisandra gritted her teeth. The fool would go to the grave blaming her for the looks on the faces of his wife and children. To his dying breath, he'd not see that his own muddled intrigue had led to this night. She turned away from the woman and her brats, but the macabre scene unfolding proved too beguiling. Her eyes returned to the tableau.
Methodical and precise, the soldiers hung the baron from the lamppost. His wife fainted. The children screamed even louder as he writhed for long moments until finally becoming still.
Elsewhere along the avenue, more women and children wailed as men were carted toward lampposts. Roused from their beds by the commotion in the street, neighbors who'd rejected invitations to join the Circle watched from their porticos. Clad in chemise nightgowns and fur shawls, shivering wives clung to their husbands' arms. No doubt identical scenes were being enacted along adjoining streets. Beyond, in the Mansion District, plumes of smoke wafted into the sky and flames leapt over rooftops and spires, coloring the smoke scarlet. Some legionnaires were overzealous.
Illisandra hardly felt the cold. Her tightly drawn hood and the padding beneath her chain-mail shirt barred the wind from needling her skin, except for her cheeks and nose. Boots smacking the cobblestones drowned out the fading screams as the legionnaires marching with Illisandra closed in on the Tower. Mages stared out windows illuminated by harsh magelight, watching the cohort approach. She'd yet to feel the sting of a spell lashing out at her protective shield. She grinned. These naive mages regarded her as no more than a hedge witch brewing potions to befuddle Meda's mind. The fools awaited proof she spell-tainted Meda. This night they'd have their proof.
"My Lady, you should move out of harm's way," the peacock beside her advised. "My battle mage expects incoming spells any moment." He gestured toward a little, baldheaded man garbed in a blood-red robe and a sea-blue flat cap who moved his hands furiously. Single-mindedly focused on completing his spell, the battle mage hadn't detected her shield.
"No, General. I want the mages to see the Emperor's strumpet."
He gave her a quizzical look and, turning to his orderly, pointed to the Tower's iron-banded door. "Bring up the ram."
The orderly saluted and took off on a run toward the column's rear. Soon a squad carting a battering ram loped past the column at a double-time pace. The captain at the head looked familiar.
Illisandra shouted, "Captain Hextor!"
In the lamplight, Myron Hextor looked back, frowning as he searched for the source of the voice.
"A moment of your time," Illisandra shouted again, letting a trace of eagerness creep into her voice.
A scowl rippled across Myron's face. The general turned glacial eyes on her.
"General?" she said, smothering an urge to turn him into a pink-furred lapdog.
The Wolf Legion's commander pursed his lips. "Captain Hextor should be with his men, Milady. My personal guard will keep you safe."
The general wasn't very good at concealing his emotions. He wanted her to command nothing more than Meda's bedchamber. She aborted a spell struggling for birth. Not now. Someday, though. Someday I'll fashion you into a fine lapdog and wile away the candlemarks petting your soft fur.
Her fingers patted the Emperor's Golden Wolf pendant hanging from her neck, the symbol of her role as Meda's surrogate in temporary command of the Wolf Legion. "Nonsense. The good captain is Derrius's brother. Myron should have the honor of guarding me and punishing those who sought to kill Derrius."
The general tried to soften his annoyed look but couldn't. Breathing heavily, Myron approached and swung his gaze tentatively between his commander and Illisandra. She enjoyed witnessing his uncertainty.
The sorceress suddenly felt violated, as if a wraith had plunged a claw through her skull. She cringed as something unbidden awoke deep in her mind. Charis always manifested herself at the most inconvenient times. This time the bitch in her brain reproached Illisandra for toying with the men. Don't overact. We want Myron thinking this is nothing more than gloating.
That's my intention. Quit badgering me, Illisandra snarled.
Charis withdrew, allowing Illisandra to turn her attention to Quintus Hextor's middle son. "Captain, I want you to be my personal guard. As Derrius's instrument for justice, it is appropriate for you to be at my side."
Myron looked to his commander. "Sir?"
No temper tantrums, Charis warned. Let military protocol run its course.
Illisandra took a long breath and suppressed an undignified remark.
The general straightened his spine as he marched. "Have the lieutenant take temporary command of your squad, Captain."
Myron saluted and swung his suspicious gaze to Illisandra. "Coming?" He whirled and hurried away, forcing her to run to catch up.
"Captain, this is an honor I accord you," Illisandra said wryly as Charis's laughter echoed in her mind.
"Do you get pleasure from this game?" Spoken under Myron's breath, the words were sharp enough to cut her throat if Teverus had been around to give them life.
Illisandra ground her teeth. Teverus, that damned ancient mage, the thorn that could shred my plans. I'll need to be careful with that one.
Myron clenched his fists. "I know it was you who tried to kill Derrius."