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“Thanks, Hel.”

“You’re welcome. Repay me by pulling yourself together.” She crosses her arms at my frown. “Dex is your platoon lieutenant, and you didn’t commend him after he caught a deserter. He noticed. Your entire platoon noticed. And at the whipping, you weren’t...with us.”

“If you’re saying that I wasn’t baying for the blood of a ten-year-old, you’d be right.”

Her eyes tighten, enough for me to know that some part of her sympathizes with me, even if she’ll never admit it.

“Marcus saw you stay behind after the whipping. He and Zak are telling everyone that you thought the punishment was too harsh.”

I shrug. As if I care what the Snake and Toad say about me.

“Don’t be an idiot. Marcus would love to sabotage the heir to Gens Veturia a day before graduation.” She refers to my familial house, one of the oldest and most respected in the Empire, by its formal title. “He’s all but accusing you of sedition.”

“He accuses me of sedition every other week.”

“But this time, you did something to earn it.”

My eyes jerk to hers, and for one tense moment, I think she knows everything. But there’s no anger or judgment in her expression. Only concern.

She counts off my sins on her fingers. “You’re squad leader of the platoon on watch, yet you don’t bring Barrius in yourself. Your lieutenant does it for you, and you don’t commend him. You barely contain your disapproval when the deserter’s punished. Not to mention the fact that it’s the day before graduation, and your mask has only just begun to meld with you.”

She waits for a response, and when I give none, she sighs.

“Unless you’re stupider than you look, even you can see how this appears, Elias. If Marcus reports you to the Black Guard, they might have enough evidence to pay you a visit.”

A prickle of unease creeps down my neck. The Black Guard is tasked with ensuring the loyalty of the military. They wear the emblem of a bird, and their leader, once picked, gives up his name and is known simply as the Blood Shrike. He’s the right hand of the Emperor and the second most powerful man in the Empire. The current Blood Shrike has a habit of torturing first and asking questions later. A midnight visit from those black-armored bastards will land me in the infirmary for weeks. My entire plan will be ruined.

I try not to glare at Helene. Must be nice to believe so fervently in what the Empire spoon-feeds us. Why can’t I just be like her—like everyone else? Because my mother abandoned me? Because I spent the first six years of my life with Tribesmen who taught me mercy and compassion instead of brutality and hatred? Because my playfellows were Tribeschildren, Mariners, and Scholars instead of other Illustrians?

Hel hands me a scim. “Fall in,” she says. “Please, Elias. Just for a day. Then we’re free.”

Right. Free to report for duty as full-fledged servants of the Empire, after which we’ll lead men to their deaths in the never-ending border wars with Wildmen and Barbarians. Those of us not ordered to the border will be given city commands, where we’ll hunt down Resistance fighters or Mariner spies. We’ll be free, all right. Free to laud the Emperor. Free to rape and kill.

Funny how that doesn’t seem like freedom.

I keep quiet. Helene’s right. I’m drawing too much attention to myself, and Blackcliff is the worst place to do so. Students here are like starving sharks when it comes to sedition. One whiff of it, and they swarm.

For the rest of the day, I do my best to act like a Mask on the verge of graduation—smug, brutish, violent. It’s like covering myself in filth.

When I return to my cell-like quarters in the evening for a precious few minutes of free time, I tear off my mask and toss it on my cot, sighing when the liquid metal releases its hold.

At the sight of my reflection in the mask’s polished surface, I grimace.

Even with the thick black lashes that Faris and Dex love to mock, my eyes are so much my mother’s that I hate seeing them. I don’t know who my father is, and I no longer care, but for the hundredth time, I wish that he’d at least given me his eyes.

Once I escape the Empire, it won’t matter. People will see my eyes and think Martial instead of Commandant. Plenty of Martials roam the south as merchants, mercenaries, and craftsmen. I’ll be one among hundreds.

Outside, the belltower tolls eight. Twelve hours until graduation. Thirteen until the ceremony is done. Another hour for pleasantries. Gens Veturia is a distinguished house, and Grandfather will want me to shake dozens of hands. But eventually, I’ll beg off and then...

Freedom. At last.

No student has ever deserted after graduating. Why would they? It’s the hell of Blackcliff that drives its students to run. But after we’re out, we get our own commands, our own missions. We get money, status, respect.

Even the lowest-born Plebeian can marry high, if he becomes a Mask. No one with any sense would turn his back on that, especially after nearly a decade and a half of training.

Which is what makes tomorrow the perfect time to run. The two days after graduation are madness—parties, dinners, balls, banquets. If I disappear, no one will think to look for me for at least a day. They’ll assume I’ve drunk myself into a stupor at a friend’s house.

The passageway that leads from below my hearth into Serra’s catacombs pulses at the edge of my vision. It took me three months to dig out that damn tunnel. Another two months to fortify and hide it from the prying eyes of aux patrols. And two more months to map out the route through the catacombs and out of the city.

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