“Even though we’re full Masks?”
“I don’t make the rules,” Helene says. “Come on, we’re late for scim training.”
We push through the throng of students toward Blackcliff’s front gate. “Did you find anything on the Trials?” I ask Hel. Someone taps my shoulder, but I ignore them. Probably an earnest Cadet trying to make class on time.
“Nothing,” Hel says. “Stayed up all night in Father’s library too.”
“Same here.” Damn. Pater Aquillus is a jurist, and his library is filled with everything from obscure law books to ancient Scholar tomes on mathematics.
Between him and Grandfather, we have most relevant books in the Empire covered. There’s nowhere else to search. “We should check the—what, damn it?”
The tapping grows insistent, and I turn, intending to tell off the Cadet.
Instead, I’m faced with a slave-girl looking up at me through impossibly long eyelashes. A heated, visceral shock flares through me at the clarity of her dark gold eyes. For a second, I forget my name.
I’ve never seen her before, because if I had, I’d remember. Despite the heavy silver cuffs and high, painful-looking bun that mark all of Blackcliff’s drudges, nothing about her says slave. Her black dress fits her like a glove, sliding over every curve in a way that makes more than one head turn. Her full lips and fine, straight nose would be the envy of most girls, Scholar or not. I stare at her, realize I’m staring, tell myself to stop staring, and then keep staring. My breath falters, and my body, traitor that it is, tugs me forward until there are only inches between us.
It’s the way she says my name—like it’s something to fear—that brings me back to myself. Pull it together, Veturius. I step away, appalled at myself when I see the terror in her eyes.
“What is it?” I ask calmly.
“The—the Commandant has requested you and Aspirant Aquilla to report to her office at—at sixth bell.”
“Sixth bell?” Helene shoves past the gate guards toward the Commandant’s house, apologizing to a group of Yearlings when she knocks two of them over.
“We’re late. Why didn’t you summon us sooner?”
The girl trails us, too frightened to get closer. “There were so many people—I couldn’t find you.”
Helene waves off the girl’s explanation. “She’s going to kill us. It must be about the Trials, Elias. Maybe the Augurs told her something.” Helene hurries ahead, clearly still hoping to make it to my mother’s office on time.
“Are the Trials starting?” The girl claps her hands over her mouth. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “I—”
“It’s all right.” I don’t smile at her. It will only scare her. For a female slave, a smile from a Mask is not usually a good thing. “I’m actually wondering the same thing. What’s your name?”
Of course. My mother would already have scourged her name out of existence.
“Right. You work for the Commandant?”
I want her to say no. I want her to say that my mother roped her into this.
I want her to say she’s assigned to the kitchens or the infirmary, where slaves aren’t scarred or missing body parts.
But the girl nods in response to my question. Don’t let my mother break you, I think. The girl meets my eyes, and there is that feeling again, low and hot and consuming. Don’t be weak. Fight. Escape.
A gust of wind whips a strand free from her bun and across her cheekbone.
Defiance flashes across her face as she holds my gaze, and for a second, I see my own desire for freedom mirrored, intensified in her eyes. It’s something I’ve never detected in the eyes of a fellow student, let alone a Scholar slave. For one strange moment, I feel less alone.
But then she looks down, and I wonder at my own naïveté. She can’t fight.
She can’t escape. Not from Blackcliff. I smile joylessly; in this, at least, the slave and I are more similar than she’ll ever know.
“When did you start here?” I ask her.
“Three days ago. Sir. Aspirant. Um—” She wrings her hands.
“Veturius is fine.”
She walks carefully, gingerly—the Commandant must have whipped her recently. And yet she doesn’t hunch or shuffle like the other slaves. The straight-backed grace with which she moves tells her story better than words.
She’d been a freewoman before this—I’d bet my scims on it. And she has no idea how pretty she is—or what kind of problems her beauty will cause for her at a place like Blackcliff. The wind pulls at her hair again, and I catch her scent—like fruit and sugar.
“Can I give you some advice?”
Her head flies up like a scared animal’s. At least she’s wary. “Right now you
...” Will grab the attention of every male in a square mile. “Stand out,” I finish. “It’s hot, but you should wear a hood or a cloak—something to help you blend in.”
She nods, but her eyes are suspicious. She wraps her arms around herself and drops back a little. I don’t speak to her again.
When we arrive at my mother’s office, Marcus and Zak are already seated, clad in full battle armor. They fall silent as we enter, and it’s obvious they’ve been talking about us.
The Commandant ignores Helene and me and turns from her window, where she’s been staring out at the dunes. She motions the slave-girl close, then backhands her so hard that blood flies from her mouth.