“Are you all right?” I ask Hel when the Commandant’s out of earshot.
“I want to rip my face off and replace it with one that’s never been touched by that swine.”
“You need someone else to kiss you is all,” I say, before realizing how that sounds. “Not...uh...not that I’m volunteering. I mean—”
“Yeah, I got it.” Helene rolls her eyes. Her jaw goes tight, and I wish I’d kept my mouth shut about the kissing. “Thanks, by the way,” she says. “For punching him.”
“I’d have killed him if the Commandant hadn’t shown up.”
Her eyes are warm when she looks at me, and I’m about to ask her what Marcus whispered in her ear when Zak passes us. He fiddles with his pale hair and slows, as if he wants to say something. But I look at him with murder in my eyes, and after a few seconds, he turns away.
Minutes later, Helene and I join the Senior Skulls lining up outside the amphitheater’s entrance, and the armory brawl is forgotten. We march into the amphitheater to the applause of family, students, city officials, the Emperor’s emissaries, and an honor guard of nearly two hundred legionnaires.
I meet Helene’s eyes and see my own astonishment mirrored there. It is surreal to be here on the field instead of watching enviously from the stands.
The sky above burns brilliant and clean without a single cloud from horizon to horizon. Flags festoon the theater’s heights, the red-and-gold pennant of Gens Taia snapping in the wind beside the black, diamond-emblazoned standard of Blackcliff.
My grandfather, General Quin Veturius, head of Gens Veturia, sits in a shaded box in the front row. About fifty of his closest relatives—brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews—are arrayed around him. I don’t have to see his eyes to know he’s taking my measure, checking the angle of my scim, scrutinizing the fit of my armor.
After I was chosen for Blackcliff, Grandfather took one look at my eyes and recognized his daughter in them. He brought me into his home when Mother refused to bring me into hers. No doubt she was enraged that I had survived when she assumed she was rid of me.
I spent every leave training with Grandfather, enduring beatings and harsh discipline but gaining, in return, a distinct edge over my classmates. He knew I would need that edge. Few of Blackcliff’s students have uncertain parentage, and none had ever been raised among the Tribes. Both facts made me an object of curiosity—and ridicule. But if anyone dared treat me poorly because of my background, Grandfather put them in their place, usually with the point of his sword—and quickly taught me to do the same. He can be as heartless as his daughter, but he’s the only relative I have who treats me like family.
Though it’s not regulation, I lift my hand in salute as I pass him, gratified when he nods in return.
After a series of formation drills, the graduates march to the wooden benches at the center of the field and draw scims, holding them high. A low rumble starts up, growing until it sounds like a thunderstorm has been unleashed in the amphitheater. It’s the other Blackcliff students, pounding on their stone seats and roaring with a mix of pride and envy. Beside me, Helene and Leander both fail to suppress grins.
Amid the noise, silence descends in my head. It’s a strange silence, infinitely small, infinitely large, and I’m locked inside it, pacing, circling the question. Do I run? Do I desert? Far away, like a voice heard underwater, the Commandant orders us to return scims and sit. She delivers a terse speech from a raised dais, and when it comes time to take our oaths to the Empire, I only know to stand because everyone around me does.
Stay or run? I ask myself. Stay or run?
I think my mouth moves along with everyone else’s as they vow their blood and bodies to the Empire. The Commandant graduates us, and the cheer that erupts out of the new Masks, raw and relieved, is what wrenches me from my thoughts. Faris rips off his school tags and throws them into the sky, followed by the rest of us. They fly into the air, catching the sun like a flock of silver birds.
Families chant their graduates’ names. Helene’s parents and sisters call out Aquilla! Faris’s family calls out Candelan! I hear Vissan! Tullius! Galerius!
And then I hear a voice rising above all the rest. Veturius! Veturius! Grandfather stands in his box, backed by the rest of the family, reminding everyone here that one of the Empire’s most powerful gens has seen a son graduate today.
I find his eyes, and for once, there’s no criticism there, only a fierce pride.
He grins at me, wolfish and white against the silver of his mask, and I find myself smiling back before confusion floods me and I look away. He won’t be smiling if I desert.
“Elias!” Helene throws her arms around me, eyes shining. “We did it! We—”
We spot the Augurs in the same moment, and her arms fall away. I’ve never seen all fourteen at once, and my stomach dips. Why are they here?
Their hoods are thrown back, revealing their unsettlingly stark features, and, led by Cain, they ghost across the grass and form a half circle around the Commandant’s dais.
The cheers of the audience fade into a questioning hum. My mother watches, her hand idle on her scim hilt. When Cain mounts the dais, she steps aside as if she expected him.
Cain raises his hand for silence, and in seconds, the crowd goes mute.
From where I sit on the field, he’s a bizarre specter, so frail and ashen. But when he speaks, his voice rings out across the amphitheater with a force that makes everyone sit up.