If the Emperor is the heart of the Empire and the people are its lifeblood, then the Hall of Records is its memory. No matter how hopeless I feel, coming here reminds me of all the Martials have built in the five hundred years since the Empire was founded.
"All Empires fall, Blood Shrike."
When Cain steps from the shadows, I reach for my blade. I have thought many times about what I would do if I saw the Augur again. Always, I saw myself remaining calm. Silent. I would hold myself aloof from him. I would give him nothing of my mind.
My intentions vanish at the sight of his accursed face. The passion with which I want to break his frail neck astounds me. I didn't know I could have this much hate in me. Hannah's pleading fills my ears--Helly, I'm sorry--and my mother's calm words as she knelt for her death. Strength, my girl. My father's ring cuts into my palm.
But as I draw the blade, my arm freezes--and drops, forced to my side by the Augur. The lack of control is enraging and unsettling.
"Such anger," he murmurs.
"You destroyed my life. You could have saved them. You--you monster."
"What of you, Blood Shrike? Are you not a monster?" Cain's hood is low, but I can still make out the inquisitive gleam of his gaze.
"You're different," I spit. "You're like them. The Commandant, or Marcus, or the Nightbringer--"
"Ah, but the Nightbringer is no monster, child, though he may do monstrous things. He is cloven by sorrow and thus locked in a righteous battle to amend a grievous wrong. Much like you. I think you are more similar than you know. You could learn much from the Nightbringer, if he deigned to teach you."
"I don't bleeding want anything to do with any of you," I hiss. "You are a monster, even if you--"
"But you are a paragon of perfection?" Cain tilts his head, appearing genuinely curious. "You live and breathe and eat and sleep on the backs of those less fortunate. Your entire existence is due to the oppression of those you view to be lesser. But why you, Blood Shrike? Why did fate see fit to make you the oppressor instead of the oppressed? What is the meaning of your life?"
"The Empire." I shouldn't answer. I should ignore him. But a lifetime of reverence dies hard. "That is the meaning of my life."
"Perhaps." Cain shrugs, a strangely human gesture. "I did not, in truth, come here to argue philosophy with you. I came with a message."
He pulls an envelope from his robes. At the sight of the seal--a bird winging over a shining city--I snatch it from him. Livia.
As I open it, I keep one eye on the Augur.
Come to me, sister. I need you.
"When did she send this?" I scan the message quickly. "And why did she send it with you? She could have--"
"She asked, and I acquiesced. Anyone else would have been followed. And that would not have aligned with my interests. Or hers." Cain touches my masked brow gently. "Fare thee well, Blood Shrike. I will see you once more, before your end."
He steps back and vanishes, and Harper appears out of the dark, jaw clenched. Apparently, he likes the Augurs as much as I do.
"You can keep them out of your head," he says. "The Nightbringer too. I can show you how, if you like."
"Fine," I say, already making for the palace. "On the way to Navium."
We soon reach the balcony of Livvy's apartments, and I do not spot a single soldier. Avitas is stationed below, and I'm reminding myself to yell at Faris, who captains Livvy's personal guard, when the air shifts. I'm not alone.
"Peace, Shrike." Faris Candelan steps out of the arched doorway that leads into Livvy's quarters, his hands up, short blond hair a mess. "She's waiting for you."
"You should have bleeding told her it was stupid to summon me."
"I don't tell the Empress what to do," Faris says. "I just try to make sure no one hurts her while she's doing it." Something about how he says it makes the hair on my neck rise, and in two steps, I have a dagger at his throat.
"Watch it with her, Faris," I say. "You flirt like your life depends on it, but if Marcus suspects she is disloyal he will kill her, and the Illustrian Paters will believe he had every right to do it."
"Don't worry about me," Faris says. "I've got a lovely Mercator girl waiting for me in the Weaver's district. Most spectacular hips I've ever seen. Would have been there by now"--he glares at me until I release him--"but someone needed to be on duty."
"Two people," I say. "Who's your backup?"
A figure steps into the light from the shadows beside the door: a thrice-broken nose, deep brown skin, and blue eyes that always sparkle, even beneath the silver mask.
"Rallius? Ten hells, is that you?"
Silvio Rallius salutes before flashing a grin that made knees weak at Illustrian parties across Serra for nearly all of my teenage years--including my knees, before I learned better. Elias and I hero-worshipped him, though he is only two years older. He was one of the few upperclassman who wasn't a monster to the younger students.
"Blood Shrike." He salutes. "My scim is yours."
"Words as pretty as that smile." I don't return his, and he realizes then that he's dealing with the Blood Shrike and not a young cadet from Blackcliff. "Make them true. Protect her, or your life is forfeit."
I slip past them both and into Livvy's bedroom. As my eyes adjust, the floorboards near a tapestry creak. Cloth whispers as the contours of the room come into focus. Livia's bed is empty; on her side table, a cup of tea--wildwood, from the scent of it--sits untouched.
Livia pokes her head out from behind the tapestry and motions me forward. I can barely make her out, which means any spies within the walls can't see her either.
"You should have drunk the tea." I am careful of her wounded hand. "It must hurt."
Her clothes rustle, and a soft click sounds. Stale air and the smell of wet stone wash over me. A hallway stretches before us. We step in, and she closes the door, finally speaking.
"An empress who bears her pain with fortitude is an empress who gains respect," she says. "My women have spread the rumor that I scorned the tea. That I bear the pain without fear. But bleeding hells, it hurts."
The moment she says it, a familiar compulsion comes over me: the need to heal her, to sing her better.
"I can--I can help you," I say. Bleeding skies, how will I explain it to her? "I--"
"We don't have time, sister," she whispers. "Come. This passage connects my rooms to his. I've used it before. But be silent. He cannot catch us."
We pad down the hallway toward a tiny crack of light. The muttering begins when we're halfway down. The light is a spy hole, big enough to admit sound but too small to see through very clearly. I glimpse Marcus, bare of armor, stalking back and forth across his cavernous quarters.
"You have to stop doing this when I'm in the throne room." He digs his hands into his hair. "Do you want to have died just so I can get hurled off the throne for being insane?"
Silence. Then: "I won't bleeding touch her! I can't help that her sister's gagging for it--"
I nearly choke, and Livvy grips me. "I had my reasons," she whispers.
"I will do what I must to keep this empire," Marcus growls, and for the first time I see . . . something. A pale shadow, like a face glimpsed in a mirror underwater. A second later, it's gone, and I shake myself. A trick of the light, perhaps. "If that means breaking a few fingers to keep your precious Blood Shrike in line, so be it. I wanted to break her arm--"
"Ten hells," I breathe to Livia. "He's barking. He's gone mad."
"He thinks what he's seeing is real." Livia shakes her head. "Maybe it is. It doesn't matter. He cannot remain on the throne. At best, he's taking orders from a ghost. At worst, he's hallucinating."
"We have to support him," I say. "The Augurs named him Emperor. If he's deposed or killed, we risk civil war. Or the Commandant swooping in and naming herself Empress."
"Do we?" Livvy takes my hand with her good one and places it on her stomach. She doesn't speak. She doesn't have
"Oh. You--that's why you and he--oh--" Blackcliff prepared me for many things. It did not prepare me for my sister's pregnancy by the man who slit the throats of our parents and sister.
"This is our answer, Shrike."
"His heir," I whisper.
Bleeding skies. If Marcus disappears after the child is born, Livia and Gens Aquilla would run the Empire until the child came of age. We could train the boy up to be a true and just statesman. The Illustrian Gens would accept it because the heir would be from a highborn house. The Plebeians would accept it because he is Marcus's son and thus represents them too. But . . .
"How do you know it's a boy?"
She turns her eyes--my eyes--our mother's eyes--to me, and I have never seen anyone look so sure of anything in my life. "It's a boy, Blood Shrike," she says. "You must trust me. He already quickens. By the Grain Moon, if all is well, he will be here."
I shiver. The Grain Moon again.