“Maybe it was a Skull.” Helene scans the ranks of older students, trying to see if anyone is missing.
“Maybe it was Marcus,” Faris, a member of my battle platoon who towers over the rest of us, says, grinning, his blond hair popping up in an unruly cowlick. “Or Zak.”
No such luck. Marcus, dark-skinned and yellow-eyed, stands at the front of our ranks with his twin, Zak: second-born, shorter and lighter, but just as evil. The Snake and the Toad, Hel calls them.
Zak’s mask has yet to attach fully around his eyes, but Marcus’s clings tightly, having joined with him so completely that all of his features—even the thick slant of his eyebrows—are clearly visible beneath it. If Marcus tried to remove his mask now, he’d take off half his face with it. Which would be an improvement.
As if he senses her glance, Marcus turns and looks Helene over with a predatory gaze of ownership that makes my hands itch to strangle him.
Nothing out of the ordinary, I remind myself. Nothing to make you stand out.
I force myself to look away. Attacking Marcus in front of the entire school would definitely qualify as out of the ordinary.
Helene notices Marcus’s leer. Her hands ball into fists at her sides, but before she can teach the Snake a lesson, the sergeant-at-arms marches into the courtyard.
Three thousand bodies swing forward, three thousand pairs of boots snap together, three thousand backs jerk as if yanked straight by a puppeteer’s hand. In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.
But we don’t hear the Commandant of Blackcliff Military Academy approach; we feel her, the way you feel a storm coming. She moves silently, emerging from the arches like a fair-haired jungle cat from the underbrush.
She wears all black, from her tight-fitting uniform jacket to her steel-toed boots. Her blonde hair is pulled, as always, into a stiff knot at her neck.
She’s the only living female Mask—or will be until Helene graduates tomorrow. But unlike Helene, the Commandant exudes a deathly chill, as if her gray eyes and cut-glass features were carved from the underbelly of a glacier.
“Bring the accused,” she says.
A pair of legionnaires march out from behind the belltower, dragging a small, limp form. Beside me, Demetrius tenses. The rumors were right—the deserter’s a Fourth-Yearling, no older than ten. Blood drips down his face, blending into the collar of his black fatigues. When the soldiers dump him before the Commandant, he doesn’t move.
The Commandant’s silver face reveals nothing as she looks down at the Yearling. But her hand strays toward the spiked riding crop at her belt, fashioned out of bruise-black ironwood. She doesn’t remove it. Not yet.
“Fourth-Yearling Falconius Barrius.” Her voice carries, though it’s soft, almost gentle. “You abandoned your post at Blackcliff with no intention of returning. Explain yourself.”
“No explanation, Commandant, sir.” He mouths the words we’ve all said to the Commandant a hundred times, the only words you can say at Blackcliff when you’ve screwed up utterly.
It’s a trial to keep my face blank, to drive emotion from my eyes. Barrius is about to be punished for the crime I’ll be committing in less than thirty-six hours. It could be me up there in two days. Bloodied. Broken.
“Let us ask your peers their opinion.” The Commandant turns her gaze on us, and it’s like being blasted by a frigid mountain wind. “Is Yearling Barrius guilty of treason?”
“Yes, sir!” The shout shakes the flagstones, rabid in its ferocity.
“Legionnaires,” the Commandant says. “Take him to the post.”
The resulting roar from the students jerks Barrius out of his stupor, and as the legionnaires tie him to the whipping post, he writhes and bucks.
His fellow Fourth-Yearlings, the same boys he fought and sweated and suffered with for years, thump the flagstones with their boots and pump their fists in the air. In the row of Senior Skulls in front of me, Marcus shouts his approval, his eyes lit with unholy joy. He stares at the Commandant with a reverence reserved for deities.
I feel eyes on me. To my left, one of the Centurions is watching. Nothing out of the ordinary. I lift my fist and cheer with the rest of them, hating myself.
The Commandant draws her crop, caressing it like a lover. Then she brings it whistling down onto Barrius’s back. His gasp echoes through the courtyard, and every student falls silent, united in a shared, if brief, moment of pity. Blackcliff’s rules are so numerous that it’s impossible not to break them at least a few times. We’ve all been tied to that post before. We’ve all felt the bite of the Commandant’s crop.
The quiet doesn’t last. Barrius screams, and the students howl in response, flinging jeers at him. Marcus is loudest of all, leaning forward, practically spitting in excitement. Faris rumbles his approval. Even Demetrius manages a shout or two, his green eyes flat and distant as if he is somewhere else entirely. Beside me, Helene cheers, but there’s no joy in her expression, only a stern sadness. The rules of Blackcliff demand that she voice her anger at the deserter’s betrayal. So she does.
The Commandant seems indifferent to the clamor, fixated as she is on her work. Her arm rises and falls with a dancer’s grace. She circles Barrius as his skinny limbs begin to seize, pausing between each lash, no doubt pondering how she can make the next one more painful than the last.
After twenty-five lashes, she takes him by his limp stalk of a neck and turns him around. “Face them,” she says. “Face the men you’ve betrayed.”