Chapter no 18 – Classmates

Red Rising

I feel a sinking in my stomach as I walk with the chattering mass into the dining hall. It is overgrand—white marble floors, columns, a holosky displaying birds in flight at sunset. The Institute is not what I expected. According to Augustus, the classes are to be hard on these little godlings. I snort down a laugh. Let the lot of them spend a year in a mine.

There are twelve tables, each with one hundred place settings. Our names float above the chairs in golden letters. Mine floats to the right of a table’s head. It is a place of distinction. The firstDraft. A single bar floats to the right of my name. A -1 is to the left. The first to get five bars becomes Primus of his House. Each bar is bounty for an act of merit. Apparently my high score on the test was the first bit of merit.

“Wonderful, a cutter in the lead for Primus,” a familiar voice says. The girl from the exam. I read her name. Antonia au Severus. She has cruel good looks—high cheekbones, a smirking smile, scorn in her eyes. Her hair is long, full, and golden as Midas’s touch. She was born to be hated and to hate. A -5 floats beside her name. It is the second-closest score to mine at the table. Cassius, the boy I met at testing, sits diagonally across from me. A -6 shimmers by his broad smile. He runs a hand back through his curls.

Another boy sits directly across from me; -1 and a golden bar float by his name. While Cassius lounges, this other boy, Priam, sits as straight as a blade. His face is celestial. His eyes alert. His hair coiffed. He’s tall as me, but broad in the shoulders. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more

perfect human being. A bloodydamn statue. He wasn’t in the Draft, I discover. He is what they call a Premier; they cannot be drafted. His parents choose his House. Then I discover why. His scandalous mother, a bannerwoman of the House Bellona, owns our planet’s two moons.

“Fate brings us together again,” Cassius chuckles to me. “And Antonia.

My love! It seems our fathers conspired to place us side by side.” Antonia replies with a sneer, “Remind me to beam him a thank-you.”

“Toni! No need for nastiness.” He wags a finger. “Now toss me a smile like a good doll.”

She flips him the crux with her fingers. “Rather toss you out a window, Cassi.”

“Rawr.” Cassius blows her a kiss. She ignores it. “So, Priam, I suppose you and I will have to play gently with these fools, eh?”

“Oh, they look like swell sorts to me,” Priam replies primly. “I fancy we’ll do very well as a group.”

They talk in highLingo.

“If the dregs of the Draft don’t weigh us down, my good man!” He gestures to the end of the table and starts naming them: “Screwface, for obvious reasons. Clown because of that ridiculous puffy hair. Weed because, well, he’s thin. Oy! You, you’re Thistle because your nose looks hooked as one. And … that itty-bitty one right there next to the Bronzie-looking fellow, that’s little Pebble.”

“I think they will rather surprise you,” Priam says in defense of the far end of the table. “They may not be as tall or as athletic or even as intelligent as you or me, if intelligence really can be measured by that test, but I do not think it charity to say that they will be the spine of our group. Salt of the earth, if you will. Good sorts.”

I see the small kid from the shuttle, Sevro, at the very foot of the table. The salt of the earth is not making friends. And neither am I. Cassius glances at my -1. I see him concede that Priam might have scored better than he, but Cassius makes a point in saying he’s never heard of my parents.

“So, dear Darrow, how did you cheat?” he asks. Antonia glances over from her conversation with Arria, a small girl made of curling hair and dimples.

“Oh, come now, man.” I laugh. “They sent Quality Control after me. How could I have cheated? Impossible. Did you cheat? Your score is


I speak the midLingo. It’s more comfortable than that highLingo fartdust Priam jabbers on in.

“Me? Cheat! No. Just didn’t try enough, apparently,” Cassius replies. “If I had my wits, I’d have spent less time with the girls and more on studying, like you.”

He’s trying to tell me if he tried he could have done just as well. But he’s too busy to put in as much effort. If I wanted him as a friend, I’d let him get away with it.

“You studied?” I ask. I feel a sudden urge to embarrass him. “I didn’t study at all.”

A chill goes through the air.

I shouldn’t have said it. My stomach plummets. Manners.

Cassius’s face sours and Antonia smirks. I’ve insulted him. Priam frowns. If I want a career in the fleet, then I will likely need Cassius au Bellona’s father’s patronage. Son of an Imperator. Matteo drilled this into me. How easy it is to forget. The fleet is where the power is. Fleet or government or army. And I don’t like government, not to mention that this sort of insult is how duels begin. Fear trickles down my spine as I realize how thin a line there is to tread. Cassius knows how to duel. I, for all my new skills, do not. He would rip me to pieces, and he looks like he wants to do just that.

“I joke.” I tilt my head to Cassius. “Come on, man. How could I score so high and not have studied till my eyes were bleeding? Wish I’d spent more time fooling off like you—we’re in the same spot now, after all. Fat lot that studying did for me.”

Priam nods his approval at the peace offering.

“I bet it was a slog!” Cassius crows, tipping his head to acknowledge my peculiar breed of apology. I expected the play to go over his head. Thought his pride would blind him to my sudden apology; the Gold may be proud, but he isn’t stupid. None of them are. Have to remember that.

After that, I do Matteo proud. I flirt with a girl named Quinn, befriend and joke with Cassius and Priam—who has probably never sworn in his life—throw my hand out to a tall brute named Titus whose neck is as thick as my thigh. He squeezes too hard on purpose. He’s surprised when I nearly break his hand, but damn is his grip strong. The boy is even taller than Cassius and I, and he’s got a voice like a titan, but he grins

when he realizes that my grip, if nothing else, is stronger than his. Something strange about his voice, though. Something decidedly disdainful. There’s also a feather of a boy named Roque who looks and speaks like a poet. His smiles are slow, few, but genuine. Rare.

“Cassius!” Julian calls. Cassius stands and throws an arm around his thinner, prettier twin. I didn’t piece it together before, but they are brothers. Twins. Not identical. Julian did say his brother was already in Agea.

“Darrow here is not what he seems,” Julian tells the table with a very grave face. He has a knack for theatrics.

“You don’t mean …” Cassius puts a hand to his mouth. My finger grazes my steak knife.

“Yes.” Julian nods solemnly.

“No.” Cassius shakes his head. “He’s not a Yorkton supporter? Julian, tell me it isn’t so! Darrow! Darrow, how could you be? They never win a game! Priam, are you hearing this?”

I throw my hands up in apology. “A curse of birth, I suppose. I am a product of my upbringing. I cheer for the underdog.” I manage not to sneer the words.

“He confessed it to me on the shuttle.”

Julian is proud to know me. Proud his brother knows he knows me. He looks for Cassius’s approval. Cassius isn’t oblivious to this either; he gently doles out a compliment and Julian leaves the highDrafts and returns to his midDraft seat halfway down the table with a content smile and squared shoulders. I didn’t think Cassius would be the kind sort.

Of those I meet, only Antonia openly dislikes me. She doesn’t watch me like the others at the table. From her, I feel only a distant breed of contempt. One moment she is laughing, flirting with Roque, and then she feels my gaze and becomes ice. The feeling is mutual.

My dormitory is from a dream. Gold trim lines a window that looks out into the valley. A bed is laden with silks and quilts and satins. I lie in it when a Pink masseur comes in and stays for an hour kneading my muscles. Later, three lithe Pinks file through to tend to my needs. I send them to Cassius’s room instead. To calm the temptation, I take a cold shower and immerse myself in a holoexperience of a digger in the mining colony Corinth. The Helldiver in the holoexperience is less talented than I was, but the rattling, the simulated heat, the darkness

and the vipers, they comfort me so much that I wrap my old scarlet rag around my head.

More food comes. Augustus was all talk. Gob full of exaggerations. This is their version of hardship. I feel guilty as I fall asleep with a full stomach, clutching the locket with Eo’s flower inside. My family will go to bed hungry tonight. I whisper her name. I take the wedding band from my pocket and kiss it. Feel the ache. They stole her. But she let them. She left me. She left me tears and pain and longing. She left me to give me anger, and I cannot help but hate her for a moment even though beyond that moment there is only love.

“Eo,” I whisper, and the locket closes.

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