“From among the battle-hardened youth there shall rise the Foretold,” he says. “The Greatest Emperor, scourge of our enemies, commander of a host most devastating. And the Empire shall be made whole.”
“So the Augurs foretold five hundred years ago as we drew the stones of this school from the shuddering earth. And so the foretelling shall come to pass. The line of Emperor Taius XXI will fail.”
A near-mutinous buzz rolls through the crowd. If anyone but an Augur had questioned the Emperor’s line, he’d have already been struck down. The legionnaires of the honor guard bristle, hands on their weapons, but at one look from Cain, they settle back, a pack of barely cowed dogs.
“Taius XXI shall have no direct male issue,” Cain says. “Upon his death, the Empire will fall unless a New Warrior Emperor is chosen.
“Taius the First, Father of our Empire and Pater of Gens Taia, was the finest fighter of his time. He was tested, tempered, and tried before he was deemed fit to rule. The people of the Empire expect no less of their new leader.”
Bleeding, burning skies. Behind me, Tristas elbows an open-mouthed Dex triumphantly. We all know what Cain will say next. But I still don’t believe what I’m hearing.
“Thus, the time for the Trials has come.”
The amphitheater explodes. Or at least it sounds like it’s exploded because I’ve never heard anything so loud. Tristas bellows, “I told you!” at Dex, who looks as if someone’s smashed him over the head with a hammer. Leander shouts, “Who? Who?” Marcus laughs, a smug cackle that makes me yearn to stab him. Helene has a hand clapped over her mouth, her eyes comically wide as she grasps for words.
Cain’s hand comes up again, and again, the crowd falls deathly silent.
“The Trials are upon us,” he says. “To ensure the future of the Empire, the new Emperor must be at the peak of his strength, as Taius was when he took the throne. Thus do we turn to our battle-hardened youth, our newest Masks. But not all shall vie for this great honor. Only the greatest of our graduates are worthy, the strongest. Only four. Of these four Aspirants, one will be named the Foretold. One will swear fealty and serve as the Blood Shrike. The others will be lost, as leaves on the wind. This, too, we have seen.”
My blood begins to pound in my ears.
“Elias Veturius, Marcus Farrar, Helene Aquilla, Zacharias Farrar.” He calls our names in the order we’re ranked. “Rise and come forward.”
The amphitheater is dead quiet. Numbly, I stand, shutting out the searching looks of my classmates, the glee on Marcus’s face, the indecision on Zak’s.
The field of battle is my temple. The swordpoint is my priest...
Helene’s back is ramrod straight, but she looks to me, to Cain, to the Commandant. At first, I think she’s frightened. Then I notice the shine in her eyes, the spring in her step.
When Hel and I were Fivers, a Barbarian raiding party took us prisoner. I was trussed like a festival-day goat, but they tied Helene’s hands in front of her with twine and propped her on the back of a pony, assuming she was harmless. That night, she used the twine to garrote three of our jailers and broke the necks of the other three with her bare hands.
“They always underestimate me,” she said afterward, sounding puzzled.
She was right, of course. It’s a mistake even I make. Hel’s not frightened, I realize. She’s euphoric. She wants this.
The walk to the stage takes too little time. In seconds, I’m standing in front of Cain with the others.
“To be chosen as an Aspirant for the Trials is to be granted the greatest honor the Empire has to offer.” Cain looks at each one of us, but it seems like his gaze lingers longest on me. “In exchange for this great gift, the Augurs require an oath: that as Aspirants, you will see the Trials through until the Emperor is named. The penalty for breaking this oath is death.”
“You must not undertake this oath lightly,” Cain says. “If you wish, you may turn and leave this podium. You will remain a Mask, with all the respect and honor accorded to those of that title. Another will be chosen in your place. It is, in the end, your choice.”
Your choice. Those two words shake me to my marrow. Tomorrow you will have to make a choice. Between deserting and doing your duty. Between running from your destiny and facing it.
Cain doesn’t mean doing my duty as a Mask. He wants me to choose between taking the Trials and deserting.
You devious, red-eyed devil. I want to be free of the Empire. But how can I find freedom if I take the Trials? If I win and become Emperor, I’ll be tied to the Empire for life. And if I swear fealty, I’ll be chained to the Emperor as the second-in-command—the Blood Shrike.
Or I’ll be a leaf lost in the wind, which is just a fancy Augur way of saying dead.
Reject him, Elias. Run. By this time tomorrow, you’ll be miles away.
Cain watches Marcus, and the Augur’s head is tilted as if he’s listening to something beyond our ken.
“Marcus Farrar. You are ready.” It’s not a question. Marcus kneels and draws his sword, offering it up to the Augur, his eyes glinting with a strangely exultant zeal, as if he’s already been named Emperor.
“Repeat after me,” Cain says. “I, Marcus Farrar, swear by blood and by bone, by my honor and the honor of Gens Farrar, that I will dedicate myself to the Trials, that I will see them through until the Emperor is named or my body lies cold.”
Marcus repeats the vow, his voice echoing in the breathless silence of the amphitheater. Cain closes Marcus’s hands over his blade, pressing until blood drips from his palms. A moment later, Helene kneels, offering her sword, repeating the vow, her voice singing out across the field as clearly as a bell at dawn.