When I look up, I realize where it is I am headed. My body knew before my mind. Antium is built in the shadow of Mount Videnns, where the Augurs lurk in their rocky lair. The path to their caves is well trod; pilgrims set out before dawn every day, climbing high into the Nevennes to pay homage to the red-eyed seers. I used to think I understood why. I used to think Elias’s frustration with the Augurs smacked of cynicism. Blasphemy, even.
Conniving tricksters, he’d said. Cave-dwelling charlatans. Perhaps, all this time, he was right.
I pass the few pilgrims making their way up the mountain, and I am fueled by rage and something I don’t care to identify. Something I last felt when I swore fealty to Marcus.
Helene, you are such a fool. I realize now that some part of me hoped Elias would escape—no matter what happened to the Empire as a result. Such weakness. I loathe that part of myself.
Now I can have no such hope. My family are blood, kin, Gens. And yet I didn’t spend eleven months of every year with them. I didn’t make my first kill with them at my side or walk Blackcliff’s haunted, deadly halls with them.
The trail winds up two thousand feet before flattening out into a pebble-strewn bowl. Pilgrims mill in a crowd at the far end beside an unobtrusive cave.
Many approach the cave, but some unknown force stops them a few yards from its entrance.
Just try and stop me, I scream in my mind at the Augurs. See what happens.
My anger propels me past the knot of pilgrims and straight to the entrance of the cave. An Augur waits there in the darkness, her hands folded before her.
“Blood Shrike.” Her red eyes glimmer from beneath the hood, and I strain to hear her. “Come.”
I follow her into a corridor lit with blue-fire lamps. Their glow tinges the glittering stalactites above us a startling cobalt.
We emerge from the long corridor into a high, perfectly square cave. A large pool of still water sits at its very center, lit by an opening in the cave rock directly above. A solitary form stands beside the pool, gazing into its depths.
My escort slows. “He awaits you.” She nods to the figure. Cain. “Temper your anger, Blood Shrike. We feel your rage in our blood the way you feel the bite of steel on your skin.”
I stride toward Cain, my hand tight on my scim. I will crush you with my anger. I will flatten you. I stop short before him, a vile curse upon my lips. Then I meet his sober gaze, and shudder. Strength fails me.
“Tell me he’ll be all right.” I know I sound like a child. But I can’t stop myself. “Like before. Tell me that if I hold to my oath of fealty, he won’t die.”
“I cannot do that, Blood Shrike.”
“You told me that if I held true to my heart, the Empire would be well served. You told me to have faith. How do you expect me to have faith if he’s going to die? I have to kill him—or my family is lost. I have to choose. Do you—can you—comprehend—”
“Blood Shrike,” Cain says. “How is a Mask made?”
A question for a question. Father did this when we argued philosophy. It always irritated me.
“A Mask is made through training and discipline.”
“No. How is a Mask made?”
Cain circles me, his hands in his robes, watching from beneath his heavy black cowl.
“Through rigorous instruction at Blackcliff.”
Cain shakes his head and takes a step toward me. The rocks beneath me quaver. “No, Shrike. How is a Mask made?”
My anger sparks, and I yank it back like I would the reins of an impatient horse.
“I don’t understand what you want,” I say. “We’re made through pain. Suffering. Through torment, blood, and tears.”
“It’s a trick question, Aquilla. A Mask is not made. She is remade. First, she is destroyed. Stripped down to the trembling child that lives at her core. It doesn’t matter how strong she thinks she is. Blackcliff diminishes, humiliates, and humbles her.
“But if she survives, she is reborn. She rises from the shadow world of failure and despair so that she might become as fearful as that which destroyed her. So that she might know darkness and use it as her scim and shield in her mission to serve the Empire.”
Cain lifts a hand to my face like a father caressing a newborn, his papery fingers cold against my skin. “You are a Mask, yes,” he whispers. “But you are not finished. You are my masterpiece, Helene Aquilla, but I have just begun. If you survive, you shall be a force to be reckoned with in this world. But first you will be unmade. First, you will be broken.”
“I’ll have to kill him, then?” What else could this mean? The best way to break me is Elias. He has always been the best way to break me. “The Trials, the vow I made to you. It was all for nothing.”
“There is more to this life than love, Helene Aquilla. There is duty. Empire. Family. Gens. The men you lead. The promises you make. Your father knows this. So will you, before the end.”
His eyes are unfathomably sad as he lifts my chin. “Most people,” Cain says, “are nothing but glimmers in the great darkness of time. But you, Helene Aquilla, are no swift-burning spark. You are a torch against the night—if you dare to let yourself burn.”
“Just tell me—”
“You seek assurances,” the Augur says. “I can offer you none. Breaking your fealty will have its cost, as will keeping it. Only you can weigh those costs.”
“What will happen?” I don’t know why I ask. It’s futile. “You see the future, Cain. Tell me. Better that I know.”