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Sana. A Scholar name, short and simple. If she were Martial, her name would have been Agrippina Cassius or Chrysilla Aroman or something equally long and pompous.

But just because she’s a Scholar doesn’t mean I’m safe. I’ve heard rumors of Scholar thieves lurking in the catacombs, popping through grates to grab, raid, and usually kill whoever is nearby before dropping back into their lair.

Sana runs her hands over my legs and arms. “An armlet,” she says. “Might be silver. I can’t tell.”

“You’re not taking that!” I jerk away from her, and the thieves’ bows, which had dropped a notch, come back up. “Please, let me go. I’m a Scholar. I’m one of you.”

“Get it done,” the man says. Then he signals to the rest of his band, and they begin to slip back into the tunnels.

“Sorry about this.” Sana sighs, but she has a dagger in her hand now. I retreat a step.

“Don’t. Please.” I knot my fingers together to hide their tremor. “It was my mother’s. It’s the only thing I have left of my family.”

Sana lowers the knife, but then the leader of the thieves calls to her and, seeing her hesitation, stalks toward us. As he does, one of his men signals to him. “Keenan, heads up. Aux patrol.”

“Pair and scatter.” Keenan lowers his torch. “If they follow, lead them away from base, or you’ll answer for it. Sana, get the girl’s silver and let’s go.”

“We can’t leave her,” Sana says. “They’ll find her. You know what they’ll do.”

“Not our problem.”

Sana doesn’t move, and Keenan shoves the torch into her hands. When he takes me by the arm, Sana gets between us. “We need silver, yes,” she says.

“But not from our own people. Leave her.”

The unmistakable, clipped cadence of Martial voices carries down the tunnel. They haven’t seen the torchlight yet, but they will in just a few seconds.

“Damn it, Sana.” Keenan tries to go around the woman, but she shoves him away with surprising force, and her hood falls back. As the torchlight illuminates her face, I gasp. Not because she’s older than I thought or because of her fierce animosity, but because on her neck, I see a tattoo of a closed fist raised high with a flame behind it. Beneath it, the word Izzat.

“You—you’re—” I can’t get the words out. Keenan’s eyes fall on the tattoo, and he swears.

“Now you’ve done it,” he says to Sana. “We can’t leave her. If she tells them she saw us, they’ll flood these tunnels until they find us.”

He puts out the torch with brute swiftness and grabs my arm, pulling me after him. When I stumble into his hard back, he jerks his head around, and for a second, I catch the angry shine of his eyes. His scent, sharp and smoky, wafts over me.

“I’m sorr—”

“Keep quiet and watch your step.” He’s closer than I realized, his breath warm against my ear. “Or I’ll knock you senseless and leave you in one of the crypts. Now move.” I bite my lip and follow, trying to ignore his threat and instead focus on Sana’s tattoo.

Izzat. It’s Old Rei, the language spoken by Scholars before the Martials invaded and forced everyone to speak Serran. Izzat means many things.

Strength, honor, pride. But in the past century, it’s come to mean something specific: freedom.

This is no band of thieves. It’s the Resistance.

VI: Elias

Barrius’s screams blister my brain for hours. I see his body fall, hear the rasp of his last breath, smell the taint of his blood on the flagstones.

Student deaths don’t usually hit me this way. They shouldn’t—the Reaper’s an old friend. He’s walked with all of us at Blackcliff at some point. But watching Barrius die was different. For the rest of the day, I’m short-tempered and distracted.

My odd mood doesn’t go unnoticed. As I trudge to combat training with a group of other Senior Skulls, I realize Faris has just asked me a question for a third time.

“You look like your favorite whore’s caught the pox,” he says when I mutter an apology. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Nothing.” I realize too late how angry I sound, how unlike a Skull on the verge of Maskhood. I should be excited—bursting with anticipation.

Faris and Dex trade a skeptical glance, and I stifle a curse.

“You sure?” Dex asks. He’s a rule-follower, Dex. Always has been. Every time he looks at me, I know he’s wondering why my mask hasn’t joined with me yet. Piss off, I want to say to him. Then I remind myself that he’s not prying. He’s my friend, and he’s genuinely worried. “This morning,” he says, “at the whipping, you were—”

“Hey, leave the poor man be.” Helene strolls up behind us, flashing a smile at Dex and Faris and throwing a careless arm around my shoulders as we enter the armory. She nods at a rack of scims. “Go on, Elias, pick your weapon. I challenge you, best of three.”

She turns to the others and murmurs something as I walk away. I lift a blunted practice scim, checking its balance. A moment later, I feel her cool presence beside me.

“What did you tell them?” I ask her.

“That your grandfather’s been hounding you.”

I nod. The best lies come from the truth. Grandfather is a Mask, and like most Masks, he’s never satisfied with anything less than perfection.

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