Seven months of sleepless nights and peering over my shoulder and trying to act normal. If I escape, it will all have been worth it.
The drums beat, signaling the start of the graduation banquet. Seconds later, a knock comes at my door. Ten hells. I was supposed to meet Helene outside the barracks, and I’m not even dressed yet.
Helene knocks again. “Elias, stop curling your eyelashes and get out here. We’re late.”
“Hang on,” I say. As I pull off my fatigues, the door opens and Helene marches in. A blush blooms up her neck at my undressed state, and she looks away. I raise an eyebrow. Helene has seen me naked dozens of times—when wounded, or ill, or suffering through one of the Commandant’s cruel strength-training exercises. By now, seeing me stripped shouldn’t cause her to do anything more than roll her eyes and throw me a shirt.
“Hurry up, would you?” she fumbles to break the silence that’s descended. I grab my dress uniform off a hook and button it on quickly, edgy at her awkwardness. “The guys already went ahead. Said they’d save us seats.”
Helene rubs the Blackcliff tattoo on the back of her neck—a four-sided black diamond with curved sides that is inked into every student upon arrival at the school. Helene took it better than most of our class fellows, stoic and tearless while the rest of us whimpered.
The Augurs have never explained why they only choose one girl per generation for Blackcliff. Not even to Helene. Whatever the reason, it’s clear they don’t select at random. Helene might be the only girl here, but there’s a reason she’s ranked third in our class. It’s the same reason that bullies learned early on to leave her alone. She’s clever, swift, and ruthless.
Now, in her black uniform, with her shining braid encircling her head like a crown, she’s as beautiful as winter’s first snow. I watch her long fingers at her nape, watch her lick her lips. I wonder what it would be like to kiss that mouth, to push her to the window and press my body against hers, to pull out the pins in her hair, to feel its softness between my fingers.
“Hmm...” I realize I’ve been staring and snap out of it. Fantasizing about your best friend, Elias. Pathetic. “Sorry. Just...tired. Let’s go.”
Hel gives me a strange look and nods at my mask, still sitting on the bed.
“You might need that.”
“Right.” Appearing without one’s mask is a whipping offense. I haven’t seen any Skull maskless since we were fourteen. Other than Hel, none of them have seen my face, either.
I put the mask on, trying not to shudder at the eagerness with which it attaches to me. One day left. Then I’ll take it off forever.
The sunset drums thunder as we emerge from the barracks. The blue sky deepens to violet, and the searing desert air cools. Evening’s shadows blend with the dark stones of Blackcliff, making the blockish buildings appear unnaturally large. My eyes rove the shadows, seeking out threats, a habit from my years as a Fiver. I feel, for an instant, as if the shadows are looking back at me. But then the sensation fades.
“Do you think the Augurs will attend graduation?” Hel asks.
No, I want to say. Our holy men have better things to do, like locking themselves up in caves and reading sheep entrails.
“Doubt it,” is all I say.
“I guess it would get tedious after five hundred years.” Helene says this without a trace of irony, and I wince at the sheer idiocy of the idea. How can someone as intelligent as Helene actually think the Augurs are immortal?
But then, she’s not the only one. Martials believe that the Augurs’ “power” comes from being possessed by the spirits of the dead. Masks, in particular, revere the Augurs, for it is the Augurs who decide which Martial children will attend Blackcliff. It is the Augurs who give us our masks. And we’re taught that it was the Augurs who raised Blackcliff in a single day, five centuries ago.
There are only fourteen of the red-eyed bastards, but on the rare occasions that they appear, everyone defers to them. Many of the Empire’s leaders—generals, the Blood Shrike, even the Emperor—make a yearly pilgrimage to the Augurs’ mountain lair, seeking counsel on matters of state. And though it’s clear to anyone with an ounce of logic that they are a pack of charlatans, they’re lionized throughout the Empire not just as immortal, but as oracles and mind-readers.
Most Blackcliff students only see the Augurs twice in our lives: when we’re chosen for Blackcliff and when we’re given our masks. But Helene has always had a particular fascination with the holy men—it’s no surprise that she hoped they’d come to graduation.
I respect Helene, but on this, we don’t agree. Martial myths are as believable as Tribal fables of jinn and the Nightbringer.
Grandfather is one of the few Masks who doesn’t believe in Augur rubbish, and I repeat his mantra in my head. The field of battle is my temple.
The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release. The mantra is all I’ve ever needed.
It takes all my control to hold my tongue. Helene notices.
“Elias,” she says. “I’m proud of you.” Her tone is strangely formal. “I know you’ve struggled. Your mother...” She glances around and drops her voice. The Commandant has spies everywhere. “Your mother’s been harder on you than on any of the rest of us. But you showed her. You worked hard. You did everything right.”
Her voice is so sincere that for a moment, I waver. In two days, she won’t think such things. In two days, she will hate me.