“Elias, Helene.” Leander, his nose crooked from the time Helene broke it, calls us over. Demetrius stands beside him, grim as always. I wonder if he feels any joy today. Maybe he’s just relieved to leave the place where he watched his brother die.
When he sees Helene, Leander self-consciously runs his hand over his curly hair—which sticks up all over the place no matter how short he cuts it.
I try not to smile. He’s liked her for ages, though he pretends not to. “Armorer already called your names.” Leander nods to two stacks of armor and weaponry behind him. “We grabbed your ceremonials for you.”
Helene goes for hers like a jewel thief for rubies, holding the bracers to the light, exclaiming at how Blackcliff’s diamond symbol is seamlessly hammered into the shield. The close-fitting armor is forged by the Teluman smithy—one of the oldest in the Empire—and is strong enough to turn away all but the finest blades. Blackcliff’s final gift to us.
Once the armor is on, I strap on my weaponry: scims and daggers of Serric steel, razor-sharp and graceful, especially compared to the dull, utilitarian weapons we’ve used until now. The last piece is a black cape held in place by a chain. When I’m done, I look up to see Helene staring at me.
“What?” I say. Her expression is so intent that I glance down, assuming I’ve put my chest plate on backward. But everything is where it should be.
When I look back up, she’s standing before me, adjusting my cape, her long fingers brushing my neck.
“It wasn’t straight.” She dons her helmet. “How do I look?”
If the Augurs made my armor to accentuate my body’s power, they made Hel’s to accentuate her beauty.
“You look...” Like a warrior goddess. Like a jinni of air come to bring us all to our knees. Skies, what the hell is wrong with me? “Like a Mask,” I say.
She laughs, girlish and preposterously alluring, drawing the attention of other students: Leander, who jerks his gaze away and rubs his crooked nose guiltily when I catch him looking, Faris, who grins and mutters something to an appraising Dex. Across the room, Zak stares too, the expression on his face something between longing and puzzlement. Then I see Marcus beside Zak, watching his brother as his brother watches Hel.
“Look boys,” Marcus says. “A bitch in armor.”
My scim is half-drawn when Hel puts a hand on my arm, her eyes flashing fire at me. My fight. Not yours.
“Go to hell, Marcus.” Helene finds her cape a few feet away and dons it.
The snake ambles over, his eyes creeping down her body, leaving no doubt as to what he’s thinking.
“Armor doesn’t suit you, Aquilla,” he says. “I’d prefer you in a dress. Or nothing at all.” He lifts a hand to her hair, wrapping a loose tendril gently around his finger before yanking it hard, pulling her face toward his.
It takes me a second to recognize the snarl that splits the air as my own.
I’m a foot from Marcus, my fists hungry for his flesh, when two of his toadies, Thaddius and Julius, grab me from behind, wrenching my arms back.
Demetrius is beside me in a second, his sharp elbow jutting into Thaddius’s face, but Julius aims a kick at Demetrius’s back, and he goes down.
Then, in a flash of silver, Helene’s holding one knife to Marcus’s neck and the other to his groin.
“Let go of my hair,” she says. “Or I’ll relieve you of your manhood.”
Marcus releases the ice-blonde curl and whispers something in Helene’s ear. And just like that, her confident air dissolves, the knife at Marcus’s throat falters, and he grabs her face in his hands and kisses her.
I’m so disgusted that for a moment all I can do is gape and try not to vomit.
Then a muffled scream erupts from Helene, and I tear my arms from Thaddius and Julius. In a second, I’m past them both, shoving Marcus away from Helene, landing blow after satisfying blow on his face.
Between my punches, Marcus is laughing, and Helene is wiping at her mouth frenziedly. Leander pulls at my shoulders, rabidly demanding a turn at the Snake.
Behind me, Demetrius is back on his feet trading punches with Julius, who overpowers him, shoving his pale head to the ground. Faris comes hurtling out of the crowd, his giant body thudding into Julius and knocking him down, a bull ramming through a fence. I spot Tristas’s tattoo and Dex’s dark skin, and all hell breaks loose.
Then someone hisses “Commandant!” Faris and Julius lurch to their feet, I shove away from Marcus, and Helene stops clawing at her face. The Snake staggers up slowly, his eyes darkening into twin pools of bruise.
My mother cuts through the Skulls, coming straight for Helene and me.
“Veturius. Aquilla.” She spits our names like fruit gone bad. “Explain.”
“No explanation, Commandant, sir,” Helene and I say at the same time.
I look past her, into the distance as I’ve been trained to, and her cold glare bores into me with the delicacy of a blunt knife. From his spot behind the Commandant, Marcus smirks, and I clench my jaw. If Helene is whipped because of his depravity, I’ll hold off on deserting just so I can kill him.
“Eighth bell is minutes away.” The Commandant turns her gaze to the rest of the armory. “You will compose yourselves and report to the amphitheater. Any more incidents like this and those involved will be shipped to Kauf, forthwith. Understood?”
The Skulls file out quietly. As Fivers, we all did six months’ guard duty at Kauf Prison, far to the north. None of us would risk being sent there for something as stupid as a graduation-day brawl.