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The Augur turns to Zak, who looks at his brother for a long moment before nodding and taking the oath. Suddenly, I’m the only one of the four Aspirants still standing, and Cain is before me, awaiting my decision.

Like Zak, I hesitate. Cain’s words come back to me: You are woven through our dreams. A thread of silver in a tapestry of night. Is becoming Emperor my destiny, then? How can such a destiny lead to freedom? I have no desire to rule—the very idea of doing so is repellent to me.

But then my future as a deserter is no more appealing. You will become everything you hate—evil, merciless, cruel.

Do I trust Cain when he says I will find freedom if I take the Trials?

At Blackcliff we learn to classify people: civilian, combatant, enemy, ally, informer, defector. Based on that, we decide our next steps. But I have no understanding of the Augur. I don’t know his motivations, his desires. The only thing I have is my instinct, which tells me that in this matter, at least, Cain wasn’t lying. Whether his prediction is true or not, he trusts that it is.

And since my gut tells me to trust him, albeit grudgingly, there’s only one decision that makes sense.

My eyes never leaving Cain’s, I drop to my knees, draw my sword, and run the blade across my palm. My blood falls to the dais in a rapid drip.

“I, Elias Veturius, swear, by blood and by bone...”

XI: Laia

The Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy.

My curiosity for the spy mission withers. The Empire trains the Masks at Blackcliff—Masks like the one who murdered my family and stole my brother. The school sprawls atop Serra’s eastern cliffs like a colossal vulture, a jumble of austere buildings enclosed by a black granite wall. No one knows what happens behind that wall, how the Masks train, how many there are, how they are chosen. Every year, a new class of Masks leaves Blackcliff, young, savage, and deadly. For a Scholar—especially a girl—Blackcliff is the most dangerous place in the city.

Mazen goes on. “She lost her personal slave—”

“The girl threw herself off the cliffs a week ago,” Keenan retorts, defying Mazen’s glare. “She’s the third slave to die in the Commandant’s service this year.”

“Quiet,” Mazen says. “I won’t lie to you, Laia. The woman’s unpleasant—”

“She’s insane,” Keenan says. “They call her the Bitch of Blackcliff. You won’t survive the Commandant. The mission will fail.”

Mazen’s fist comes down on the table. Keenan doesn’t flinch.

“If you can’t keep your mouth shut,” the Resistance leader growls, “then leave.”

Tariq’s jaw drops as he looks between the two men. Sana, meanwhile, watches Keenan with a thoughtful expression. Others in the cavern stare too, and I get the feeling that Keenan and Mazen don’t disagree very often.

Keenan scrapes his chair back and leaves the table, disappearing into the muttering crowd behind Mazen.

“You’re perfect for the job, Laia,” Mazen says. “You have all the skills the Commandant would expect from a house slave. She’ll assume you’re illiterate. And we have the means to get you in.”

“What happens if I’m caught?”

“You’re dead.” Mazen looks me straight in the eye, and I feel a bitter appreciation for his honesty. “Every spy we’ve sent to Blackcliff has been discovered and killed. This isn’t a mission for the fainthearted.”

I almost want to laugh. He couldn’t have picked a worse person for it.

“You’re not doing a very good job selling it.”

“I don’t have to sell it,” Mazen says. “We can find your brother and break him out. You can be our eyes and ears in Blackcliff. A simple exchange.”

“You trust me to do this?” I ask. “You hardly know me.”

“I knew your parents. That’s enough for me.”

“Mazen,” Tariq speaks up. “She’s just a girl. Surely we don’t need to—”

“She invoked Izzat,” Mazen says. “But Izzat means more than freedom. It means more than honor. It means courage. It means proving yourself.”

“He’s right,” I say. If the Resistance is going to help me, I can’t have the fighters thinking I’m weak. A glimmer of red catches my eye, and I look across the cavern to where Keenan leans against a bunk watching me, his hair like fire in the torchlight. He doesn’t want me to take this mission because he doesn’t want to risk the men to save Darin. I put a hand to my armlet. Be brave, Laia.

I turn to Mazen. “If I do this, you’ll find Darin? You’ll break him out of jail?”

“You have my word. It won’t be hard to locate him. He’s not a Resistance leader, so it’s not as if they’ll send him to Kauf.” Mazen snorts, but mention of the infamous northern prison sends a chill across my skin. Kauf’s interrogators have one goal: to make inmates suffer as much as possible before they die.

My parents died in Kauf. My sister, only twelve at the time, died there too.

“By the time you make your first report,” Mazen says, “I’ll be able to tell you where Darin is. When your mission is complete, we’ll break him out.”

“And after?”

“We pry your slaves’ cuffs off and pull you out of the school. We can make it look like a suicide, so you’re not hunted. You can join us, if you like. Or we can arrange passage to Marinn for you both.”

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