Chapter no 36 – A Second Test

Red Rising

In order to have an army, I must be able to feed it. So I will take the ovens of Ceres that Jupiter and Mars both lust over.

The new members of our band from House Minerva find it perfectly reasonable to accept my authority. I don’t fool myself. Yes, they were impressed by me hiding my Howlers inside dead horses months ago, and they remember me defeating Pax. But it’s only because Mustang trusts me that they obey. We leave those of House Diana as slaves for now. I need to earn their trust. Tactus, oddly, is the only one who seems to trust me. Then again, the laconic youth was all smiles when I told him I’d be sewing him inside of a dead horse over a month ago. There are two more of Diana that I sewed away. The others call them the DeadHorses, and they each wear braids of white horsehair. I think they’re a bit mental.

If there is anything in the woods and highlands, it is an abundance of wolves. We hunt them to train our new recruits in my way of fighting. No glamorous cavalry charges. No damn lances. And certainly no stupid rules of engagement. Everyone gets cloaks, which are smelly things as they dry and we peel away the rot. Everyone except Pax. They haven’t yet made a wolf big enough for him.

“House Ceres is no stranger to siege,” Mustang says. She’s right. At night, they seem to have more soldiers awake than in the day. They watch for sneak assaults. Blazing bundles of tinder light the base of their walls at night. Somehow, they have dogs now. Those prowl along the battlements. The way from the water is guarded ever since I tried

sending Sevro in through the latrines long ago during a sneak attack I arranged when we were at war with Minerva. He barely forgave me for that one. The Ceres students come out no longer. They’ve learned the risks of battling stronger Houses on open ground. They’ll hole up for winter, and when the cold and hunger have weakened the other Houses, they’ll emerge from their fortress in the spring—strong, prepared, and organized.

But they’ll never make it to the spring.

“So we attack during the day?” Mustang guesses.

“Naturally,” I say. Sometimes I wonder why we even bother speaking.

She knows my thoughts. Even the mad ones.

This idea is an especially mad one. We practiced it in a clearing in the Northwoods for a whole day after flattening out the wood with axes. Pax makes the plan possible. We hold competitions to see who has the best balance on the wood. Mustang wins. Horsefaced Milia is second, and she’s spitting bitter that she doesn’t beat Mustang. I’m third.

As we did when springing the trap on House Mars, we sneak as close as we dare the night before and bury ourselves in the deep snow. Again, Mustang and I pair off, huddling tight with one another under the snow. Tactus tries pairing with Milia, but she tells him to go slag himself.

“If you look at it properly, I was trying to do you a favor,” he mutters over at Milia as he huddles down under Pax’s smelly armpit. “You’re about as pretty as a gargoyle’s wart. So when else would you get a chance to snuggle with the likes of me? Ungrateful sow.”

Mustang and the other girls snort their derision. Then the quiet of night and the chill of the open ice plain bite into us and we grow silent.

Come morning, Mustang and I shiver into one another, and a new snowfall threatens to ruin our plan, burying us even deeper in the plain. But the wind is manageable and the flakes do not bury us too deep as they spin through the air. I’m first up, though I do not move. And soon after I yawn away the last vestige of sleep, my army wakes organically, one student stirring and grumbling into another till there’s a snake of sniffing and coughing Golds buried together in a shallow tunnel beneath the snow’s surface. I can’t see them, but I hear their waking despite the sound of the snowstorm’s wind.

Ice formed around me in the night outside my thick cloaks. Mustang’s hands are inside my pelts, warm against my side. Her breath heats my

neck. As I stir, she yawns and straightens, pulling a little away as she stretches, catlike, under the snow. Snow crumbles in between us.

“Gory hell, this is miserable,” Dax, Milia’s companion, mutters. I can’t see him in our snow tunnel.

Mustang nudges me. We can just barely see Tactus curled into the hollow of Pax’s armpit. The two men snuggle together and wake like lovers, only to flinch away from one another when their ice-crusted eyelids flutter open.

“Wonder which is Romeo,” Mustang whispers, her throat raspy.

I chuckle and carve a hole in the roof of our tunnel to see that my band of twenty-four is alone in the plains except for early morning horse scouts in the distance. They will not be a problem. Wind rolls in from the north river, biting deep into my face.

“You ready for this?” Mustang asks me with a grin as I bring my head back into our shelter. “Or are you too cold?”

“It was colder in the loch when I first tricked you,” I say, smiling. “Ah, the old days.”

“All part of my master plan to win your trust, little man.” She smirks mischievously. She sees the worry in my eyes, so she grips my thigh and comes close so the others can’t hear. “Think I’d be squatting here with you in the snow if this plan could go belly up? Negative. But I’m freezing my balls off and the wind is dying, so let’s go, Reaper.”

I give the countdown and we’re up, snow crumbling around us, wind stinging our faces, and sprinting the hundred meters across the plains to the walls. All twenty-four of us. Silent again. The wind comes in fits. We carry the long tree between us, huddling tight to it as we did in the night when it shared our tunnel with us. It’s heavy, but we’re twenty-four and Pax’s parents gave him the genes to knock over bloodydamn horses. Panting. Legs burning. Gritting as the wood weighs down our shoulders in the deep snow. It’s a trudge. A shout comes from the wall. A lonely, hollow call that echoes over the still winter morning. More shouts. Still few. Barks. Confusion. An arrow whistles past. Then another. It’s amazing how quiet the world is as the arrows sail, carrying death. The wind has faded again. Sun peeks from behind a cloudlayer and we’re bathed with morning warmth.

We’re at the wall. Shouts spread beyond the stone fortification, from their towers. A signal horn. Barking of dogs. Snow falls from the

parapets as archers lean over the stone battlements. An arrow shivers in the wood by my hand. Someone goes down bloodylike, Dax. Then Pax roars the word and he, Tactus, and five more of our strongest take the long wood beam we cut from the tree trunk and shove the tip as hard as they can into the wall. They hold it there at an angle. They are roaring from the burden. It’s still five meters short of the top of the wall, but I’m already sprinting up the thin slope. Pax grunts like a boar as he heaves against the angled strain. He’s shouting, roaring. Mustang is right behind me, then Milia. I almost slip. My balance and Helldiver hands keep me scrabbling up the knotted wood. In our fur, we look like squirrels, not wolves. An arrow hisses through my cloak. I’m against the wall at the top of the wobbling beam. Pax and his boys roar gutturally from the exertion. Mustang is coming. I cup my hands. She stirrups her foot at the run and I hurl her up the last five meters to clear the battlements. Her sword slashes and she screams like a banshee. Then Milia launches the same way off my hands, and the rope she has tied to her waist dangles after her. She anchors up top as I use it to pull myself up the last five meters. The wooden beam crashes to the ground behind me. My sword is out. It’s mayhem. House Ceres was caught unaware. They’ve never had an enemy on the battlements. And there are three of us, screaming and slashing. Rage and excitement fill me and I begin my dance.

They only have bows. It’s been months since they’ve used swords. Ours aren’t sharp or fused with electricity, but cold durosteel is nasty to take in any form. The dogs are the hardest to manage. I kick one in the head. Throw another one off the battlements. Milia is down. She bites a dog in the neck and punches it in the balls till it whimpers off.

Mustang tackles someone off the battlements. I slidetackle one of the archers as he levels his bow at her. Outside, Pax shouts for me to open the gates. He’s actually crying for combat.

I follow Mustang down into their courtyard, jumping from the parapets down to where she fights a big Ceres student. I end the boy with my elbow and take my first glimpse of the bread fortress. The castle is an unfamiliar design, a courtyard leading to several buildings and a huge keep where the bread bakes, making my stomach rumble; but all that matters to me is the gate. We rush to it. Shouts from behind us. Too many for us to fight. We get to the gate just as three dozen House Ceres students run at us across the courtyard from their keep.

“Hurry!” Mustang shouts. “Uh, hurry!

Milia shoots arrows at the enemy from the parapets. Then I open the gate.


He shoves me aside. He’s shirtless, massive, muscled, screaming. His hair is painted white and spiked with sap to form two horns. A piece of wood as long as my body serves as his club. The House Ceres students flinch back. Some fall. Some stumble. A boy screams as Pax thunders close.


He wants no nickname as he charges forward like a minotaur possessed. When he hits the mass of House Ceres students, it is ruin. Boys and girls fly through the air like chaff on reaping day.

The rest of my army sprints in behind the mad bastard. They begin to howl, not because I told them to, not because they think they are Sevro’s Howlers, but because it was the sound they heard when my soldiers cut their way out of horses’ bellies, the sound that made their hearts sink as they were conquered. Now it’s their turn to howl as they turn the battle into a mad melee. Pax screams his name, and he screams mine as he conquers the citadel almost single-handedly. He picks a boy up by the leg and uses him as a club. Mustang drifts about the battlefield like some Valkyrie, enslaving those who lie stunned on the ground.

In five minutes, the ovens and citadel are ours. We shut their gates, howl, and eat some bloodydamn bread.

I free the House Diana slaves who helped me capture the fortress and take a moment with each to share a laugh. Tactus sits on some poor boy’s back, braiding the prisoner’s hair in girlish pigtails, till I nudge him to get off. He slaps at my hand.

“Don’t touch me,” he snaps. “What did you say?” I growl.

He stands fast, his nose coming only to my chin, and speaks very quietly so only we can hear. “Listen, big man. I am of the gens Valii. My pure blood goes back to the Conquering. I could buy and sell you with my weekly allowance. So you don’t demean me in this little game like all the others, you schoolyard king.” Then louder so others can hear: “I do as I like, because I took this castle for you and slept in a dead horse so we could take Minerva! I deserve to have some fun.”

I lean close. “Three pints.”

He rolls his eyes. “Whatever are you growling about?”

“That’s how much blood I’m about to make you swallow.”

“Well, might makes right,” he chuckles, and turns his back on me.

Then, mastering my anger, I tell the members of my army that they will never be slaves in this game again, so long as they wear my wolfskin. If they don’t like that notion, they can clear out. None do, but that’s expected. They want to win, but to follow my orders, to understand that I don’t think I’m some high and mighty emperor, their proud hearts need to feel valued. So I make sure they know they are. I pay each student a specific compliment. One they remember forever.

Even when I am ruining their Society at the vanguard of a billion screaming Reds, they will tell their children that Darrow of Mars once clapped them on the shoulder and paid them a compliment.

The defeated students from House Ceres watch me free my army’s slaves and they gape. They don’t understand. They recognize me, but they don’t comprehend why there isn’t a single other Mars student, or why I’m in power, or why I think it is allowed to free slaves. While they are still gaping, Mustang enslaves them with the symbol of House Minerva, and they become doubly confused.

“Win me a fortress, and you get your freedom too,” I tell them. Their bodies are different from ours. Softer from much bread and little meat. “But you must be starving for some venison and wild meat. Some protein is missing in your diets, I think.” We brought plenty to share.

We free several slaves taken by House Ceres months prior. There are few, but most are House Mars or Juno. They find this new alliance strange, but it is an easy pill to swallow after months of toiling in the ovens.

The night ends on a sour note as I am woken an hour into sleep. Mustang sits on the edge of my bed as my eyes flutter open. When I see her, I feel a spike of terror in me, assuming she’s come for a different reason, that her hand on my leg means something simple, something human. Instead, she brings me news I wished never to hear again.

Tactus flouted my authority and tried to rape a Ceres slave during the night. Milia caught him, and Mustang barely stopped her from cutting Tactus a thousand different ways. Everyone is up in arms.

“It’s bad,” Mustang says. “The Diana students are in their wargear and

are about to try and take him back from Milia and Pax.” “They’re mad enough to fight Pax?


“I’ll get dressed.” “Please.”

I meet her in the Ceres warroom two minutes later. The table is already carved with my slingBlade. I didn’t do it, and it’s much better work than I could have managed.

“Thoughts?” I fall into the seat opposite Mustang. We’re a council of two. It’s times like this when I miss Cassius, Roque, Quinn, all of them. Especialy Sevro.

“When Titus did this, you said we make our own law, if I remember right. You sentenced him to death. So are we still doing that? Or are we doing something more convenient?” she asks me as though she already thinks I’m letting Tactus off the hook.

I nod, surprising her. “He’ll pay,” I say.

“This … it just pisses me off.” She takes her feet off the table and leans forward to shake her head. “We’re meant to be better than this. That’s all Peerless are supposed to be—transcendent of the urges that”—she holds up ironic airquotes—“enslave the weaker Colors.”

“It isn’t about urges.” I tap the table in frustration. “It’s about power.” “Tactus is of House Valii!” Mustang exclaims. “His family is ancient.

How much power does that asshole want?”

“Power over me, I mean. I told him he couldn’t do something. Now he’s trying to prove he can do whatever he wants.”

“So he’s not another heathen like Titus.”

“You’ve met him. Of course he’s a heathen. But no. This was tactical.” “Well, the clever shit has put you in a tight spot.”

I slap the table. “I don’t like this—someone else picking the battles or the battlefield. That’s how we will lose.”

“It’s a no-win, really. We can’t come out ahead. Someone is going to hate you either way. So we just have to figure out which way is the least damaging. Prime?”

“What about justice?” I ask.

Her eyebrows float upward. “What about winning? Isn’t that what matters?”

“You trying to trap me?”

She grins. “Just testing you.”

I frown. “Tactus killed Tamara, his Primus. Cut her saddle and then rode over her. He’s wicked. He deserves any punishment we give him.”

Mustang raises her eyebrows as if this is all to be expected. “He sees what he wants, and he takes it.”

“How admirable,” I mutter.

She tilts her head at me, lively eyes going over my face. “Rare.” “What’s that?”

“I was wrong, about you. That’s rare.”

“Am I wrong about Tactus?” I ask. “Is he wicked, really? Or is he just ahead of the curve? Does he just grasp the game better?”

“No one grasps the game.”

Mustang puts her muddy boots on the table again and leans back. Her golden hair falls past her shoulders in a long braid. The fire crackles in the hearth, her eyes dance over my face. I don’t miss my old friends when she smiles like that. I ask her to explain.

“No one grasps the game, because no one knows the rules. No one follows the same set of rules. It is like life. Some think honor universal. Some think laws binding. Others know better. But in the end, don’t those who rise by poison die by poison?”

I shrug. “In the storybooks. In life there’s no one left to poison them, often.”

“They expect an eye for an eye, the House Ceres slaves. Punish Tactus, you piss off the Diana kids. They get you a fortress and you spit on them for it. Remember, as far as they are concerned, Tactus hid in a horse’s belly half a day for you when you took my castle. Resentment will swell like a Copper bureaucracy. But if you don’t punish him, you’ll lose all of Ceres.”

“Can’t do that.” I sigh. “I failed this test before. I put Titus to death and thought I was meting out justice. I was wrong.”

“Tactus is an Iron Gold. His blood is as old as the Society. They look at compassion, at reform, as a disease. He is his family. He will not change. He will not learn. He believes in power. Other Colors are not people to him. Lesser Golds are not people to him. He is bound to his fate.”

Yet I’m a Red acting like a Gold. No man is bound to his fate. I can change him. I know I can. But how?

“What do you think I should do?” I ask.

“Ha! The great Reaper.” She slaps her thigh. “When have you ever cared what anyone thinks?”

“You’re not just anyone.”

She nods and, after a moment, speaks. “I was once told a story by Pliny, my tutor—a ghastly fellow, really. And a Politico now, so take this all with a shipload of salt. Anyway: On Earth, there was a man and his camel.” I laugh. She keeps going. “They were traveling across this grand desert full of all sorts of nasties. One day, as the man prepared camp, the camel kicked him for no reason. So the man whipped the camel. The camel’s wounds grew infected. It died and left the man stranded.”

“Hands. Camels. You and metaphors …”

She shrugs. “Without your army, you’re a man stranded in a desert. So tread carefully, Reaper.”

I speak with Nyla, the Ceres girl, in private. She’s a quiet one. Smart as a whip, but not physical in any way. Like a shuddering songbird, like Lea. She has a bloody swollen lip. It makes me want to castrate Tactus. She didn’t come in wicked like the rest. Then again, she got through the Passage.

“He told me he wanted me to rub his shoulders. Told me to do what he said because he was my master because he spent blood taking the castle. Then he tried … well … you know.”

A hundred generations of men have used that inhuman logic. The sadness her words create in me makes me miss home. But that happened there too. I remember the screams that made the soup ladle tremble in my mother’s hand. Remember how my cousin earned antibiotics from that Gamma.

Nyla blinks and stares for a moment at the floor.

“I told him I was Mustang’s slave. House Minerva’s. It’s her standard. I didn’t have to obey him. He just kept pushing me down. I screamed. He punched me, then he just held my throat till things started to fade and I barely smelled his wolfcloak anymore. Then that tall girl, Milia, knocked him off, I guess.”

She didn’t mention that there were other Diana soldiers in the room. Others watched. My army. I gave them power and this is how they use it. It’s my fault. They are mine but they are wicked. That will not be

fixed by punishing one of them. They have to want to be good.

“What would you like for me to do to him?” I ask her. I don’t reach out to comfort her. She doesn’t need it, even though I think I do. She reminds me of Evey too.

Nyla touches her dirty curls and shrugs. “Nothing.”

“Nothing isn’t enough.”

“To fix what he tried to do to me? To make it right?” She shakes her head and her hands clutch her sides. “Nothing is enough.”

The next morning, I assemble my army in the Ceres square. A dozen limp; few Aureate bones can really be broken because of their strength, so most of the injuries suffered in the assault were superficial. I smell the resentment from Ceres students, from Diana students. It’s a cancer that’ll eat away at the body of this army, no matter who it is focused on. Pax brings Tactus out and shoves him to his knees.

I ask him if he tried to rape Nyla.

“Laws are silent in times of war,” Tactus drawls.

“Don’t quote Cicero to me,” I say. “You are held to a higher standard than a marauding centurion.”

“In that, you’re hitting the mark at least. I am a superior creature descended from proud stock and glorious heritage. Might makes right, Darrow. If I can take, I may take. If I do take, I deserve to have. This is what Peerless believe.”

“The measure of a man is what he does when he has power,” I say loudly.

“Just come off it, Reaper,” Tactus replies, confident in himself as all like him are. “She’s a spoil of war. My power took her. And before the strong, bend the weak.”

“I’m stronger than you, Tactus,” I say. “So I can do with you as I wish.


He’s silent, realizing he’s fallen into a trap.

“You are from a superior family to mine, Tactus. My parents are dead. I am the sole member of my family. But I am a superior creature to you.”

He smirks at that.

“Do you disagree?” I toss a knife at his feet and pull my own out. “I beg you to voice your concerns.” He does not pick his blade up. “So, by right of power, I can do with you as I like.”

I announce that rape will never be permitted, and then I ask Nyla the punishment she would give. As she told me before, she says she wants no punishment. I make sure they know this, so there are no recriminations against her. Tactus and his armed supporters stare at her in surprise. They don’t understand why she would not take vengeance, but that doesn’t stop them from smiling wolfishly at one another, thinking their chief has dodged punishment. Then I speak.

“But I say you get twenty lashes from a leather switch, Tactus. You tried to take something beyond the bounds of the game. You gave in to your pathetic animal instincts. Here that is less forgivable than murder; I hope you feel shame when you look back at this moment fifty years from now and realize your weakness. I hope you fear your sons and daughters knowing what you did to a fellow Gold. Until then, twenty lashes will serve.”

Some of the Diana soldiers step forward in anger, but Pax hefts his axe on his shoulder and they shrink back, glaring at me. They gave me a fortress and I’m going to whip their favorite warrior. I see my army dying as Mustang pulls off Tactus’s shirt. He stares at me like a snake. I know what evil thoughts he’s thinking. I thought them of my floggers too.

I whip him twenty brutal times, holding nothing back. Blood runs down his back. Pax nearly has to hack down one of the Diana soldiers to keep them from charging to stop the punishment.

Tactus barely manages to stagger to his feet, wrath burning in his eyes.

“A mistake,” he whispers to me. “Such a mistake.”

Then I surprise him. I shove the switch into his hand and bring him close by cupping my hand around the back of his head.

“You deserve to have your balls off, you selfish bastard,” I whisper to him. “This is my army,” I say more loudly. “This is my army. Its evils are mine as much as yours, as much as they are Tactus’s. Every time any of you commit a crime like this, something gratuitous and perverse, you will own it and I will own it with you, because when you do something wicked, it hurts all of us.”

Tactus stands there like a fool. He’s confused.

I shove him hard in the chest. He stumbles back. I follow him, shoving.

“What were you going to do?” I push his hand holding the leather switch back toward his chest.

“I don’t know what you mean …” he murmurs as I shove him.

“Come on, man! You were going to shove your prick inside someone in my army. Why not whip me while you’re at it? Why not hurt me too? It’ll be easier. Milia won’t even try to stab you. I promise.”

I shove him again. He looks around. No one speaks. I strip off my shirt and go to my knees. The air is cold. Knees on stone and snow. My eyes lock with Mustang’s. She winks at me and I feel like I can do anything. I tell Tactus to give me twenty-five lashes. I’ve taken worse. His arms are weak and so is his will to do it. It still stings, but I stand up after five lashes and give the lash to Pax.

They start the count at six.

“Start over!” I shout. “A little rapist cur can’t swing hard enough to hurt me.”

But Pax bloodywell can.

My army cries in protest. They don’t understand. Golds don’t do this. Golds don’t sacrifice for one another. Leaders take; they do not give. My army cries out again. I ask them, how is this worse than the rape they were all so comfortable with? Is not Nyla now one of us? Is she not part of the body?

Like Reds are. Like Obsidians are. Like all the Colors are.

Pax tries to go light. But it’s Pax, so when he’s done, my back looks like chewed goatmeat. I stand up. Do everything I can to prevent myself from wobbling. I’m seeing stars. I want to wail. Want to cry. Instead, I tell them that anyone who does anything vile—they know what I mean

—will have to whip me like this in front of the entire army. I see how they look at Tactus now, how they look at Pax, how they look at my back.

“You do not follow me because I am the strongest. Pax is. You do not follow me because I am the brightest. Mustang is. You follow me because you do not know where you are going. I do.”

I motion Tactus to come toward me. He wavers, pale, confused as a newborn lamb. Fear marks his face. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the pain I willingly bore. Fear when he realizes how different he is from me.

“Don’t be afraid,” I tell him. I pull him forward into a hug. “We are blood brothers, you little shit. Blood brothers.”

I’m learning.

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