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“It’s not funny.” She sounds like a Centurion, and I try to arrange my face in an appropriately sober manner. “Our lives are on the line here,” she says.

“Promise me you’ll fight to win. Promise me you’ll give the Trials everything you’ve got.” She grabs a strap on my armor. “Promise!”

“All right, bleeding skies. It was just a joke. Of course I’ll fight to win. I’m not planning to die, that’s for sure. But what about you? Don’t you want to become Empress?”

She shakes her head vehemently. “I’m better suited to being Blood Shrike. And I don’t want to compete with you, Elias. The moment we start working against each other is the moment we let Marcus and Zak win.”

“Hel...” I think to ask her what’s wrong again, hoping that all this talk of sticking together will make her want to confide in me. She doesn’t give me the chance.

“Veturius!” Her eyes widen when she catches sight of the scabbards on my back. “Are those Teluman blades?”

I show her the scims, and she is appropriately envious. We are quiet for a while after, content to contemplate the stars above us, to find music in the distant sounds that drift up from the forges.

I take in her slim body, her lean profile. What would Helene have been if not a Mask? It’s impossible to imagine her as a typical Illustrian girl, angling for a good match, attending fetes and allowing herself to be seduced by fittingly highborn men.

I guess it doesn’t matter. Whatever we might have been—healers or politicians, jurists or builders—was trained out of us, spun up and away into the funnel of darkness that is Blackcliff.

“What’s going on with you, Hel?” I say. “Don’t insult me by pretending you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“I’m just nervous about the Trials.” She doesn’t pause or stutter. She looks right into my eyes, her blue irises clear and mild, her head tilted slightly.

Anyone else would believe her without question. But I know Helene, and I know instantly, down in my bones, that she’s lying. In another flash of insight, born of the awareness that only makes itself known deep in the night, when the mind opens strange doors, I realize something else. This is not a quiet lie.

It is violent and shattering.

She sighs at my expression. “Leave it alone, Elias.”

“So there is something—”

“Fine,” she cuts me off. “I’ll tell you what’s bothering me if you tell me what you were really doing in the tunnels yesterday morning.”

The comment is so unexpected that I have to look away from her. “I told you, I—”

“Yes. You said were looking for the deserter. And I’m saying there’s nothing wrong with me. Now it’s all clear and in the open.” There is a bite to her voice I’m not used to. “And there’s nothing else to talk about.”

She meets my gaze, an unfamiliar wariness in her eyes. What are you hiding, Elias? her expression asks.

Hel’s a master at ferreting out secrets. Something about the combination of her loyalty and patience creates an uncanny urge to confide. She knows, for instance, that I smuggle sheets to the Yearlings so they don’t get whipped for wetting their beds. She knows I write to Mamie Rila and my foster brother Shan every month. She knows I once dumped a bucket of cow dung on Marcus’s bed. She chuckled for days over that one.

But there’s so much now that she doesn’t know. My loathing of the Empire. How desperately I want to be free of it.

We aren’t kids anymore, laughing over shared confidences. We never will be again.

In the end, I don’t answer her question. She doesn’t answer mine. Instead, we sit without words, watching the city, the river, the desert beyond, our secrets heavy between us.

XIII: Laia

Despite the slaver’s warning to keep my head down, I gaze at the school with sick wonder. Night blends into the gray of the stone until I can’t tell where the shadows end and the buildings of Blackcliff begin. Blue-fire lamps make even the bare, sand training fields of the school seem ghostly. In the distance, moonlight glimmers off the columns and arches of a dizzyingly high amphitheater.

Blackcliff’s students are on leave, and the scrape of my sandals is the only sound to break the sinister quiet of the place. Every hedge is squared as if by a plane, every path is neatly paved without a crack in sight. There are no flowers or blooming vines crawling up the buildings, no benches where students can relax.

“Face forward,” the slaver barks. “Eyes down.”

We head for a structure crouching on the lip of the southern cliffs like a black toad. It’s built of the same brooding granite as the rest of the school.

The Commandant’s house. A sea of sand dunes stretches below the cliffs, lifeless and unforgiving. Far beyond the dunes, the blue jags of the Serran Range cut into the horizon.

A diminutive slave-girl opens the front door of the house. The first thing I notice is her eye patch. She’ll disfigure you in the first few weeks, the slaver had said. Will the Commandant take my eye too?

Doesn’t matter. I reach for my armlet. It’s for Darin. All for Darin.

The inside of the house is as gloomy as a dungeon, the smattering of candles providing little illumination against the dark stone walls. I look around, glimpsing the simple, almost monkish furnishings of a dining room and sitting room before the slaver grabs a fistful of my hair and pulls on it so hard I think my neck will break. A knife appears in his hand, its tip caressing my eyelashes. The slave-girl winces.

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