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“I understand,” I say. “I will humbly accept any punishment you deem—”

“I am not here to punish you. In any case, your future is punishment enough. Tell me, Elias. Why are you here? Why are you at Blackcliff?”

“To carry out the will of the Emperor.” I know these words better than my own name, I’ve said them so many times. “To keep away threats, internal and external. To protect the Empire.”

The Augur turns to the diamond-patterned belltower. The words emblazoned in the tower’s bricks are so familiar I hardly notice them anymore.

From among the battle-hardened youth there shall rise the Foretold, the Greatest Emperor, scourge of our enemies, commander of a host most devastating. And the Empire shall be made whole.

“The foretelling, Elias,” the Augur says. “The future given to the Augurs in visions. That is the reason we built this school. That is the reason you are here. Do you know the story?”

The story of Blackcliff’s origin was the first thing I learned as a Yearling: Five hundred years ago, a warrior brute named Taius united the fractured Martial clans and swept down from the north, crushing the Scholar Empire and taking over most of the continent. He named himself Emperor and established his dynasty. He was called the Masked One, for the unearthly silver mask he wore to scare the hell out of his enemies.

But the Augurs, considered holy even then, saw in their visions that Taius’s line would one day fail. When that day came, the Augurs would choose a new Emperor through a series of physical and mental tests: the Trials. For obvious reasons, Taius didn’t appreciate this prediction, but the Augurs must have threatened to strangle him with sheep gut, because he didn’t make a peep when they raised Blackcliff and began training students here.

And here we all are, five centuries later, masked just like Taius the First, waiting for the old devil’s line to fail so one of us can become the shiny new Emperor.

I’m not holding my breath. Generations of Masks have trained and served and died without a whisper of the Trials. Blackcliff may have started out as a place to prepare the future Emperor, but now it’s just a training ground for the Empire’s deadliest asset.

“I know the story,” I say in response to the Augur’s question. But I don’t believe a word of it, since it’s mythical horse dung.

“Neither mythical nor horse dung, I’m afraid,” the Augur says soberly.

It becomes harder to breathe suddenly. I haven’t felt fear in so long that it takes me a second to recognize it. “You can read minds.”

“A simplistic statement for a complex endeavor. But, yes. We can.”

Then you know everything. My plan to escape, my hopes, my hates. Everything. No one turned me in to the Augur. I turned myself in.

“It’s a good plan, Elias,” the Augur confirms. “Nearly foolproof. If you wish to carry it out, I will not stop you.”

TRICK! my mind screams. But I look into the Augur’s eyes and see no lie there. What game is he playing? How long have the Augurs known that I want to desert?

“We’ve known for months. But it wasn’t until you hid your supplies in the tunnel this morning that we understood you had committed yourself. We knew then we had to speak with you.” The Augur nods to the path that leads to the eastern watchtower. “Walk with me.”

I’m too numb to do anything but follow. If the Augur isn’t trying to keep me from deserting, then what does he want? What did he mean when he said my future would be punishment enough? Is he telling me I’ll be caught?

We reach the watchtower, and the sentries stationed there turn and walk away, as if following a silent order. The Augur and I are alone, looking out over darkened sand dunes that stretch all the way to the Serran Mountain Range.

“When I hear your thoughts, I’m reminded of Taius the First,” the Augur says. “Like you, soldiering was in his blood. And like you, he struggled with his destiny.” The Augur smiles at my stare of disbelief. “Oh, yes. I knew Taius. I knew his forefathers. My kindred and I have walked this land for a thousand years, Elias. We chose Taius to create the Empire, just as we chose you, five hundred years later, to serve it.”

Impossible, my logical mind insists.

Shut it, logical mind. If this man can read minds, then immortality seems like the next reasonable step. Does this mean all that drivel about the Augurs being possessed by spirits of the dead is true? If only Helene could see me.

How she’d gloat.

I watch the Augur out of the corner of my eye. As I take in his profile, I find that it’s suddenly, oddly familiar.

“My name is Cain, Elias. I brought you to Blackcliff. I chose you.”

Condemned me, more like. I try not to think of the dark morning the Empire claimed me, but it haunts my dreams still. The soldiers surrounding the Saif caravan, dragging me from my bed. Mamie Rila, my foster mother, shrieking at them until her brothers pulled her back. My foster brother Shan rubbing the sleep from his eyes, bewildered, asking when I would return. And this man, this thing, pulling me to a waiting horse with the barest explanation. You’ve been chosen. You will come with me.

In my terrified child’s mind, the Augur seemed larger, more menacing.

Now, he comes to my shoulder and looks as if a stiff wind could knock him into the grave.

“I imagine you’ve chosen thousands of children over the years.” I take care to keep my tone respectful. “That’s your job, isn’t it?”

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