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“No. You’re in my head.”

The creature’s laugh is like breaking glass. “I’m real as death, little Laia. Real as shattered bones and traitorous sisters and hateful Masks.”

“You’re an illusion. You’re guilt.” I grab Mother’s armlet.

The shadow flashes its predator’s grin, and now it’s only a foot away. But then the wagon comes to a stop, and the creature gives me a last malevolent look before disappearing with a dissatisfied hiss. Seconds later, the wagon door swings open, and the forbidding walls of Blackcliff are before me, their oppressive weight driving the hallucination from my mind.

“Eyes down.” The slaver unchains me from the rail, and I force my gaze to the cobbled street. “Only speak to the Commandant if she speaks to you. Don’t look her in the eyes—she’s flogged slaves for less. When she gives you a task, carry it out quickly and well. She’ll disfigure you in the first few weeks, but you’ll thank her for it eventually—if the scarring’s bad enough, it’ll keep the older students from raping you too often.”

“The last slave lasted two weeks,” the slaver continues, oblivious to my growing terror. “Commandant wasn’t happy about it. My fault, of course—I should have given the girl some fair warning. Went batty when the Commandant branded her, apparently. Threw herself off the cliffs. Don’t you do the same.” He gives me a hard look, like a father warning an errant child not to wander off. “Or the Commandant will think I’m supplying her with inferior goods.”

The slaver nods a greeting to the guards stationed at the gates and pulls my chain as if I’m a dog. I shuffle after him. Rape...disfigurement...branding.

I can’t do it, Darin. I can’t.

A visceral urge to flee sweeps through me, so powerful that I slow, stop, pull away from the slaver. My stomach roils, and I think I’ll be sick. But the slaver yanks the chain hard, and I stumble forward.

There’s nowhere to run, I realize as we pass beneath Blackcliff’s iron-spiked portcullis and into the fabled grounds. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no other way to save Darin.

I’m in now. And there is no going back.

XII: Elias

Hours after I’m named an Aspirant, I dutifully stand beside Grandfather in his cavernous foyer to greet guests arriving for my graduation party.

Though Quin Veturius is seventy-seven years old, women blush when he looks them in the eye, and men wince when he deigns to shake their hands.

The lamplight paints his thick mane of white hair gold, and the way he towers over everyone else, the way he nods at those entering his home, makes me imagine a falcon watching the world from an updraft.

By eighth bell, the mansion is packed with the finest Illustrian families, along with a few of the wealthiest Mercators. The only Plebeians are the stable hands.

My mother wasn’t invited.

“Congratulations, Aspirant Veturius,” a mustached man who might be a cousin says as he shakes my hand in both of his, using the title the Augurs bestowed on me during graduation. “Or should I say, your Imperial Majesty.”

The man dares to meet Grandfather’s gaze with an obsequious grin. Grandfather ignores him.

It’s been like this all night. People whose names I don’t know are treating me as if I’m their long-lost son or brother or cousin. Half of them probably are related to me, but they’ve never bothered acknowledging my existence before this.

The bootlickers are interspersed with friends—Faris, Dex, Tristas, Leander—but the person I wait most impatiently for is Helene. After I took the oath, the families of the graduates flooded the field, and she was swept away in a tide of Gens Aquilla before I had a chance to speak to her.

What is she thinking about the Trials? Are we competing against each other for emperorship? Or will we work together, as we have since entering Blackcliff? My questions lead to more questions, most urgently how becoming the leader of an Empire I loathe can possibly result in my attaining “true freedom—of body and of soul.”

One thing is certain: As much as I want to escape Blackcliff, the school isn’t done with me yet. Instead of a month of leave, we only get two days.

Then the Augurs have demanded that all students—even graduates—return to Blackcliff to serve as witnesses to the Trials.

When Helene finally arrives at Grandfather’s house, parents and sisters in tow, I forget to greet her. I’m too busy staring. She salutes Grandfather, slender and shining in her ceremonials, her black cloak fluttering lightly. Her hair, silver in the candlelight, pours down her back like a river.

“Careful, Aquilla,” I say as she approaches. “You almost look like a girl.”

“And you almost look like an Aspirant.” Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes, and instantly, I know something’s off. Her earlier elation has evaporated, and she’s jittery, the way she is before a battle she thinks she won’t win.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. She tries to get past me, but I take her hand and pull her back. There’s a storm in her eyes, but she forces a smile and gently untangles her fingers from mine. “Nothing’s wrong. Where’s the food? I’m starving.”

“I’ll come with you—”

“Aspirant Veturius,” Grandfather booms. “Governor Leif Tanalius wishes a word.”

“Best not keep Quin waiting,” Helene says. “He looks determined.” She slips away, and I grit my teeth as Grandfather coerces me into a stilted discussion with the governor. I repeat the same boring conversation with a dozen other Illustrian leaders over the next hour, until at long last, Grandfather steps away from the unending stream of guests and pulls me aside.

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