“It’s your own damned fault.” Hannah’s voice is low, poisonous, and wholly expected. I’m surprised it took her this long. “It’s disgusting. They shouldn’t have had to torture you for information about that—that monster.” Elias. I’m thankful she doesn’t say his name. “You should have given it to them—”
“Hannah!” Mother snaps. Livia, her back rigid, glares at our sister.
“My friend Aelia was to be married in a week,” Hannah snarls. “Her fiancé is dead because of your friend. And you refuse to help find him.”
“I don’t know where he—”
“Liar!” Hannah’s voice trembles with more than a decade of rage. For fourteen years my schooling took precedence over anything she or Livvy did. Fourteen years where my father was more concerned with me than his other daughters. Her hate is as familiar as my own skin. That doesn’t make it sting less. She looks at me and sees a rival. I look at her and see the wide-eyed, tow-headed sister who used to be my best friend.
Until Blackcliff, anyway.
Ignore her, I tell myself. I can’t have her accusations ringing in my ears when I meet with the Snake.
“You should have stayed in prison,” Hannah says. “You’re not worth Father going to the Emperor and begging—begging on hands and knees.”
Bleeding skies, Father. No. He shouldn’t have lowered himself—not on my behalf. I look down at my hands, enraged when I feel my eyes burn with tears. Bleeding hells, I’m about to face off with Marcus. I don’t have time for guilt or tears.
“Hannah.” My mother’s voice is steel, so unlike her usual gentle self. “Leave.”
My sister lifts her chin in challenge before turning and ambling out, as if it’s her idea to go. You’d have made an excellent Mask, sister.
“Livvy,” Mother says after a minute. “Make sure she doesn’t take her anger out on the slaves.”
“Probably too late for that,” Livvy mutters as she walks out. As I try to rise, Mother puts a hand on my shoulder and pushes me down into the seat with surprising force.
She dabs at a wicked, deep cut in my scalp with a stinging ointment. Her cool fingers turn my face one way and then another, her eyes sad mirrors of my own.
“Oh, my girl,” she whispers. I feel shaky, suddenly, like I want to collapse into her arms and never leave their safety.
Instead I push her hands away.
“Enough.” Better she think me impatient than too soft. I cannot show her the wounded parts of me. I cannot show anyone those parts. Not when my strength is the only thing that will serve me now. And not when I’m minutes away from meeting with the Snake.
I have a mission for you, he’d said. What will he have me do? Quell the revolution? Punish the Scholars for their insurrection? Too easy. Worse possibilities come to mind. I try not to think about them.
Beside me, Mother sighs. Her eyes fill, and I stiffen. I’m about as good with tears as I am with declarations of love. But her tears don’t spill over. She hardens herself—something she has been forced to learn as the mother of a Mask—and reaches for my armor. Silently, she helps me pull it on.
“Blood Shrike.” Father appears in the doorway a few minutes later. “It’s time.”
Emperor Marcus has taken up residence in Villa Veturia.
In Elias’s home.
“At the Commandant’s urging, no doubt,” my father says, as guards wearing Veturia colors open the villa’s gate to us. “She’ll want to keep him close.”
I wish he’d picked anywhere else. Memory assails me as we pass through the courtyard. Elias is everywhere, his presence so strong that I know if I just turn my head, he’ll be inches away, shoulders thrown back in careless grace, a quip on his lips.
But of course he’s not here, and neither is his grandfather, Quin. In their places are dozens of Gens Veturia soldiers watching the walls and roofs. The pride and disdain that were the Veturia hallmark under Quin are gone. Instead, an undercurrent of sullen fear ripples through the courtyard. A whipping post is haphazardly erected in one corner. Fresh blood spatters the cobblestones around it.
I wonder where Quin is now. Somewhere safe, I hope. Before I helped him escape into the desert north of Serra, he gave me a warning. You watch your back, girl. You’re strong, and she’ll kill you for it. Not outright. Your family is too important for that. But she’ll find a way. I didn’t have to ask him whom he was talking about.
My father and I enter the villa. Here’s the foyer where Elias greeted me after our graduation. The marble staircase we raced down as children, the drawing room where Quin entertained, the butler’s pantry at its back, where Elias and I spied on him.
By the time Father and I are escorted to Quin’s library, I am scrambling for control over my thoughts. It’s bad enough that Marcus, as Emperor, can order me to do his bidding. I cannot also allow him to see me mourning Elias. He’ll use such weakness to his advantage—I know it.
You’re a Mask, Aquilla. Act like one.
“Blood Shrike.” Marcus looks up at my entry, my title somehow insulting on his lips. “Pater Aquillus. Welcome.”
I’m not sure what to expect when we enter. Marcus lounging among a harem of bruised and beaten women, perhaps.
Instead, he’s in full battle armor, his cape and weapons bloodied, as if he’s been in the midst of the fighting. Of course. He’s always loved the gore and adrenaline of battle.