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“You’re distracted when you can ill afford to be,” he says. “These men could be very helpful.”

“Can they take the Trials for me?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Grandfather snorts in disgust. “An Emperor is not an island. It takes thousands to run this Empire effectively. The city governors will report to you, but they’ll mislead and manipulate you at every step, so you’ll need a spy network to keep them in check. The Scholar Resistance, border raiders, and the more troublesome of the Tribes will see a change in dynasty as an opportunity to sow disorder. You’ll need the full support of the military to put down any hint of rebellion. In short, you need these men—as advisers, ministers, diplomats, generals, spymasters.”

I nod distractedly. There’s a Mercator girl in a tantalizingly flimsy dress eyeing me from the door leading to the crowded garden. She’s pretty. Really pretty. I smile at her. Maybe after I find Helene...

Grandfather grabs my shoulder and steers me away from the garden, which I’ve been inching toward. “Pay attention, boy,” he says. “The drums carried news of the Trials to the Emperor this morning. My spies tell me he left the capital as soon as he heard. He and most of his house will be here in a matter of weeks—the Blood Shrike too, if he wants to keep his head.” At my look of surprise, Grandfather snorts. “Did you think Gens Taia would go down without a fight?”

“But the Emperor practically worships the Augurs. He visits them every year.”

“Indeed. And now they’ve turned against him by threatening to usurp his dynasty. He’ll fight—you can count on it.” Grandfather narrows his eyes. “If you want to win this, you need to wake up. I’ve already wasted too much time cleaning up your messes. The Farrar brothers are telling anyone who will listen that you nearly let a deserter escape yesterday, that your mask not joining with you is a sign of disloyalty. You’re lucky the Blood Shrike is in the north.

He’d have had you in the stocks by now. As it is, the Black Guard chose not to investigate once I reminded them that the Farrars are lowborn Plebeian scum and you’re from the finest house in the Empire. Are you listening to me?”

“Of course I am.” I act affronted, but since I’m half eyeing the Mercator girl and half looking into the garden for Helene, Grandfather isn’t convinced.

“I wanted to find Hel—”

“Don’t you dare get distracted by Aquilla,” Grandfather says. “How she managed to be named Aspirant in the first place I don’t understand. Women have no place in the military.”

“Aquilla’s one of the best fighters at the school.” At my defense of her, Grandfather slams his hand on an antique entryway table so hard that a vase falls from it and shatters. The Mercator girl yelps and scurries away. Grandfather doesn’t blink.

“Rubbish,” Grandfather says. “Don’t tell me you have feelings for the wench.”

“Grandfather—”

“She belongs to the Empire. Though I suppose if you were named Emperor, you could set her aside as Blood Shrike and marry her instead. She’s an Illustrian of strong stock, so at least you’d have a passel of heirs—”

“Grandfather. Stop.” I am uncomfortably aware of the heat rising in my neck at the prospect of making heirs with Helene. “I don’t think of her like that. She’s a—she’s—”

Grandfather lifts a silver eyebrow as I stammer like a fool. I am full of it, of course. Students don’t get much in the way of women at Blackcliff, unless they rape a slave or pay a whore, neither of which I’ve ever had any interest in. I’ve had plenty of diversions during leave—but leave comes once a year.

Helene is a girl, a pretty girl, and I spend most of my time around her. Of course I’ve thought of her in that way. But it doesn’t mean anything.

“She’s a comrade-in-arms, Grandfather,” I say. “Could you love a fellow soldier the way you loved Grandmother?”

“None of my fellows were tall blonde girls.”

“Am I done here? I’d like to celebrate my graduation.”

“One more thing.” Grandfather disappears, returning a few moments later with a long package wrapped in black silk. “These are for you,” he says. “I was planning to leave them to you when you became Pater of Gens Veturia. But they’ll serve you better now.”

When I open the package, I nearly drop it.

“Ten burning hells.” I stare at the scims in my hands, a matched set with intricate black etchings that probably have no equal in the Empire. “These are Teluman scims.”

“Made by the current Teluman’s grandfather. Good man. Good friend.”

Gens Teluman has produced the most talented Empire smiths for centuries. The current Teluman smith spends months fashioning the Masks’ Serric steel armor every year. But a Teluman scim—a true Teluman scim, able to cut through five bodies at once—is forged every few years, at the most. “I can’t take these.”

I try to give the blades back, but Grandfather plucks my own scims from where I’ve slung them on my back and replaces them with the Teluman blades.

“They are a fitting gift for an Emperor,” he says. “See that you earn them. Always victorious.”

“Always victorious.” I echo the Veturia motto, and Grandfather leaves to attend to his guests. Still reeling from the gift, I head to the food tent, hoping to find Helene. Every few feet, people stop to chat with me. Someone shoves a plate of spiced kabobs into my hand. Someone else, a drink. A pair of older Masks bemoan the fact that the Trials didn’t take place in their time, while a group of Illustrian generals discuss Emperor Taius in hushed tones, as if his spies might be watching. No one speaks of the Augurs with anything less than reverence. No one would dare.

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