Now I brushed those thoughts aside. The last thing I needed was to get sentimental about another city, especially considering what else we’d seen on the way here.
Just around the corner from where we’d stopped the car, I’d seen a group of girls about my age, wearing military uniforms and eating Popsicles in front of a coffee shop. They all held machine guns strapped across their chests as casually as I’d hold a backpack. Nearby, another group of girls in headscarves and jeans leaned against a 50% OFF SALE sign, looking at their phones. Down the street, a group of little boys played soccer.
The worrisome part was that at least half of each group was wearing white surgical masks.
When Cole had slipped the virus into champagne glasses in Paris, a dozen people had died. The world outside the Circle had quickly embraced various theories: it was a deadly new flu, or something in the air. Some even got it right and called it a biological weapon. What they didn’t know was that from this, at least, they were safe: the virus only affected Circle members.
The fact that this meant my mother was somehow related to the Circle and hadn’t told me was something I hadn’t been able to think about yet. What we did have to think about was that, despite the fact that there had just been the one incident, the alarm was spreading all over the globe. We could only hope that if we prevented the Saxons from releasing it further, it would die down eventually.
I realized I was clutching my phone hard enough that my fingers had gone white. I shook them out, then turned on the phone, looking at news sites. Mystery Virus Airborne? one said. Deaths in Paris Under Investigation.
I flipped to another tab: the online version of Napoleon’s Oraculum. The Book of Fate.
Napoleon had found the Oraculum in a different royal tomb in Egypt, and had consulted it to make important decisions. At first we’d thought he might have used it to hide a clue, but as far as we could tell, the book had nothing to do with Alexander or Olympias’s virus. I sometimes still looked at it anyway. In this online version, you chose one of the questions, selected one of the groups of stars below, read the answer. One of the questions caught my eye: Shall I be successful in my present undertaking?
I brushed a fingertip over one of the star groups at random, and it took me to an answer:
Choose not the path of fear, but that of love.
“Cryptic,” Stellan said. I turned to find him looking over my shoulder. “If our political strategy consists of consulting an ancient Greek Magic 8 Ball, I think we need a new plan.”
I clicked off the page and flipped him off.
“That’s not very ladylike behavior for someone who’s about to become a Circle queen.”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were looking forward to this,” I said. “I suppose you have gotten exactly what you wanted the whole time. Us together. The girl and the One. The only thing you’re not getting is the public marriage consummation. Sorry.”
“Yes, that’s too bad,” he said wistfully. “I do prefer all my romantic encounters to be forced by awkward, tragic circumstance and witnessed by hostile strangers.” He plucked at the fabric over his chest. “Maybe I’m just here for the outfit.”
Stellan and I looked ready for a cult initiation. Our thin white shifts hung loosely from our shoulders to our bare feet. No matter how much attitude Stellan gave it, his bare ankles made him look uncomfortable as he shifted from foot to foot. I could see the two tattoos on his back through the thin fabric, and also the outlines of his scars. They snaked over his bare shoulders and partway down his arms.
Stellan’s “magic skin” was what had allowed him to survive the fire that left those scars. (“Stop calling it magic,” Elodie would admonish every time we said the word. “It’s highly advanced science we don’t understand. Olympias was a genius.”) The scars were how we had discovered what Stellan really was. The Circle’s thirteenth bloodline—Alexander the Great’s own line. The part of the mandate that said The One walks through fire and isn’t burned was not metaphorical after all.
If the Circle knew the virus came from our blood, they might capture or kill us—either because they were afraid we could be a weapon, or because they wanted to use us as one. So since we couldn’t tell them what the union really produced, Stellan’s scars were how we’d proven our identity.
“The Great modification,” the Circle had named it. It had long been rumored that Alexander was not a normal human, that something allowed him to never lose a battle, and to come back from injuries and illnesses that killed thousands of others.
I shuffled my feet on the rough pavement under my own shift. “The virgin sacrifice robes are a little cliché.”
“It’s cliché because every secret society in the world has taken their cues from the Circle for thousands of years, whether they realize it or not,” he said, peering over my head. “To answer your question, no. As you already know, I don’t want to become more of a Circle puppet than we already are. Maybe we get inside, see this box, and pull a fire alarm before we have to pledge ourselves to the world’s worst people forever. But if not,” he said, nudging me exaggeratedly with an elbow, “at least it’ll be some comfort that if you can’t put a bullet in the Saxons’ heads, you can take the Circle from them and ruin their lives, right?”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. But he was doing it again: trying to draw me out, trying to be friends. “No one’s watching now,” I said coolly. “We don’t have to pretend to be a happy little couple. Save it for inside.”
I wondered what was taking so long. We’d arrived half an hour ago and had been walked through the basics of the ceremony. They’d welcome us; we’d accept. We’d pledge our loyalty. We’d get the tattoos that signified our commitment to the Circle.
Jack and Elodie were pacing at the gate, making sure no unsuspecting tourists wandered in. Occasionally, I saw Jack glance back at us with something besides a Keeper’s responsibility on his face.