Chapter no 43 – The Last Test

Red Rising

I find her asleep in a suite beside Jupiter’s own. Her golden hair is wild. Her cloak dirtier than my own. It hangs brown and gray, not white. She smells like smoke and hunger. She’s destroyed the room, upturned a dish of food, buried her dagger into the door. The Brown and Pink servants are scared of her, and me. I watch them skitter away. My distant cousins. I see them move, alien things. Like ants. So void of emotion. I feel a pang. Perspective is a wicked creature. This is how Augustus saw Eo as he killed her. An ant. No. He called her a “Red bitch.” She was like a dog in his eyes.

“The food was laced with something?” I ask one of the Pinks. The beautiful boy murmurs something, looking at the ground. “Speak like a man,” I bark.

“Sedatives, lord.” He does not look at me. I don’t blame him. I’m a Gold. A foot taller. Worlds stronger. And I look positively insane. How wicked he must think me. I tell him to go away. “Hide. My army does not always listen when I tell them not to toy with lowColors.”

The bed is grand. Sheets of silk. Mattress of feathers. Posts of ivory, ebony, and gold. Mustang sleeps on the floor in the corner. For so long we have had to hide where we sleep. It must have felt so wrong lying in perfect comfort, even with sedatives in her. She tried breaking the windows too. I’m glad she didn’t. It’s a far drop.

I sit beside her. The breath from her nose stirs a single coil of hair. How many times I’ve watched her sleep with a fever. How many times

she’s done the same. But there’s no fever now. No cold. No pain in my stomach. Cassius’s wound has healed. Winter is ended. Outside, I saw the first of the flowers blossoming. I picked one on the mountainside. It’s in the hidden compartment of my cloak. I want to give it to Mustang. Want her to wake with the haemanthus by her lips. But when I take it out, a dagger slips into my heart. Worse than any metal blade. Eo. The pain will never go away. I don’t know if it is supposed to. And I don’t know if this guilt I feel is owed. I kiss the haemanthus and tuck it away. Not yet. Not yet.

I wake Mustang gently.

Her smile spreads before she even opens her eyes, as though she knows I am beside her. I say her name and brush the hair from her face. Her eyes flutter open. Golden flakes spiral there in the irises. So strange next to my callused, dirty fingers with their cracked nails. She nuzzles my hand and manages to sit up. A yawn. She looks around. I almost laugh as I see her digest what has happened.

“Well, I was going to tell you about a dream I had about dragons. They were purple and pretty and liked to sing songs.” She flicks my armor with a finger. It rings. “Way to upstage me. Jerk. What happened?”

“I got mad.”

She groans. “I’ve become the maiden in distress, haven’t I? Slag! I hate those girls.”

I tell her the news. The Jackal is split. His forces besiege Mars as he and Lilath hide in the deep mountains. We’ll be able to find him easily.

“If you want, you can take our army and root the bastard out.” “Done,” she smirks, and raises an eyebrow. “But can you trust me?

Maybe I’ll want to be big Primus of this weird army.” “I can trust you.”

“How do you know?” she says again.

This is when I kiss her. I cannot give her the haemanthus. That is my heart, and it is of Mars—one of the only things born from the red soil. And it is still Eo’s. But this girl, when they took her … I would have done anything to see her smirking again. Perhaps one day I’ll have two hearts to give.

She tastes how she smells. Smoke and hunger. We do not pull apart. My fingers wend through her hair. Hers trace along my jaw, my neck,

and scrape along the back of my scalp. There is a bed. There is time. And there’s a hunger different from when I first kissed Eo. But I remember when the Gamma Helldiver, Dago, took a deep pull from his burner, turning it bright but dead in a few quick moments. He said, This is you.

I know I am impetuous. Rash. I process that. And I am full of many things—passion, regret, guilt, sorrow, longing, rage. At times they rule me, but not now. Not here. I wound up hanging on a scaffold because of my passion and sorrow. I ended up in the mud because of my guilt. I would have killed Augustus at first sight because of my rage. But now I am here. I know nothing of the Institute’s history. But I know I have taken what no one else has taken. I took it with anger and cunning, with passion and rage. I won’t take Mustang the same way. Love and war are two different battlefields.

So despite the hunger, I pull away from Mustang. Without a word, she knows my mind, and that’s how I know it’s in the right. She darts one more kiss into me. It lingers longer than it should, and then we stand together and leave. We hold hands till the door, then I turn to her.

“Fetch me the Jackal’s standard, Mustang.”

“Yes, Lord Reaper.” She gives a mock bow and a little wink. Then she is gone.

The place is a madhouse of looting. In all the chaos, Sevro has found the holoTransmitter. It has our sensorial experiences stored in its hard drives and is queued to send them back to the Drafters wherever they may be. It is not a streaming feed, so the Drafters do not yet have today’s events. There is a half-day delay. That is all it will take. I give Sevro instructions and have him get to work splicing out the story I want told. I would trust no one else.

I have Fitchner brought up from Castle Apollo’s dungeons. He reclines in a chair in Olympus’s dining hall. His face is purple from when I hit him. The floor is made of condensed air, so we are suspended above a mile vertical drop. His feet are on the table and his mouth twists into a smile.

“There’s the manic boy,” he calls, fingering his chin. “I knew I liked your odds.”

I give him a greeting with my middle finger. “Liar.”

He returns the finger. “Turd.” He reaches for my hand. “Don’t tell me

you’re still bitter about the poisoning, the sicknesses, the setup with Cassius, the bears in the woods, the shitty tech, the terrible weather, the assassination attempts, the spy.”

“The spy?”

“Messing with you. Ha! Still a child. Speaking of which, where are your soldiers? Running around, eating themselves stupid, showering, sleeping, screwing, playing with the Pinks? This place is a honey trap, my boy. A honey trap that will make your army worthless.”

“You’re in a better mood.”

“My son is safe,” he says with a wink. “Now what are you up to?”

“I already sent Mustang to deal with the Jackal. And after this, I go to House Mars. Then it will all be over.”

“Ooo. Except it won’t be.” Fitchner pops a familiar gumbubble and winces. I did a number on his jaw. It makes me laugh. I’ve felt like laughing since Sevro took down Jupiter. My leg throbs with pain from that blasted man. Even with the painkillers, I can hardly walk.

“No riddles. Why isn’t it over?”

“Three things,” Fitchner says. His hatchet face examines me for a moment. “You’re a peculiar creature. You and the Jackal both. Everyone always wants to win. But you two stand apart, freaks. Golds won’t die to win. We value our lives too much. You two don’t. Where did it come from?”

I remind him he’s my prisoner and he should answer my questions. “Three things are not finished. Here’s what’s what. I’ll tell you what

they are if you answer my question: what drives you.” He sighs. “The first thing, good man, is Cassius. He will simply have to duel you until one of you little sods keels over and dies.”

I was afraid of that. I answer Fitchner’s question.

I tell him the Jackal wanted to know the same thing. What drives me. The right-off answer is rage. From point to point, it is rage. If something happens, and if I was not anticipating it, I react like an animal—with violence. But the deepspine answer is love. Love drives me. So I must lie a bit to him.

“My mother had a dream that I could be greater than anyone in my family. Greater than the name Andromedus. The name of my father.” Fake father. Fake family. Point still the same. “I am not a Bellona. Not an Augustus. Not an Octavia au Lune.” I smile wickedly, something he

can appreciate. “But I want to be able to stand above them and piss on all their gorydamn heads.”

Fitchner likes that. He’s always wanted the same, but he’s found that without the pedigree, merit takes you only so far. That frustration is his condition.

“The second thing that is not finished is this.” Fitchner waves his hands about. I got the crust of this deal—he’s making no revelations. I killed a Proctor. I have evidence that the ArchGovernor bribed others and threatened more so that his child could win. Nepotism. Manipulation of the sacred school. This is not idle news. It will shatter something. Perhaps even remove the ArchGovernor from office. Charges. Punishment? The Drafters will want blood. “And the ArchGovernor will want yours. This will embarrass him, and potentially make room for a Bellona ArchGovernor. Maybe Cassius’s father.”

Fitchner asks me why I trust the soldiers in my army who were slaves. “They trust me because they’ve seen how they would have done in all

this had I not come along. You think they want the Jackal as their master?”

“Good,” Fitchner says. “You trust them all. Splendid, then there is no third complication. My mistake.” I press him for what he means, so he sighs and relents. “Oh, only that you sent Mustang and half the army to deal with the Jackal.”


“It’s really nothing. You trust her.” “No. Tell me. What do you mean?”

“Well, fine. If you must know, if there’s simply no other way of going about it: she is the Jackal’s twin sister.”

Virginia au Augustus. Sister to the Jackal. Twin. An heir of the great family, the gens Augusta. The only daughter of ArchGovernor Nero au Augustus. The man who made all this happen. Kept cloistered and out of the public eye to ward off assassination attempts, just like her brother. That’s why Cassius didn’t know the daughter of his family’s archrival. But when I sat with the Jackal, Mustang knew who he was. Her brother. Had she known before of the Jackal’s identity? Nothing can explain her silence if she knew who he was and said nothing. Nothing except for

family—which is a loyalty above friendship, above love, above a kiss in the corner of a room. I have sent half my army to the Jackal. I have given him recoilArmor, gravBoots, ghostCloaks, razors, pulseWeapons, enough tech for him to take Olympus. Dammit.

The Proctors all know. And when I pass them at a run, they are laughing. They laugh at my stupidity. The rage grows inside of me. I want to kill something. I marshal my forces. They are spread throughout the castle, eating its food, taking its pleasures. Fools. Fools. My best are where I need them. Sevro, left to his work. That is the most important thing. I order Tactus to hunt down the remnants of Venus and Mercury in the southern lowlands and enslave them, and I set Milia out to marshal the rest of my army with Nyla. I need to go to House Mars now. I cannot wait for my soldiers to assemble. I need fresh bodies, because when the Augustus twins come, they will have weapons and technology to match mine, and they may have more soldiers. The game has changed. I did not prepare for this. I feel a fool. How could I have kissed her? My heart is swallowed by darkness. What if I had given her the haemanthus? I tear it to ribbons as I jump from the edge of Mount Olympus in my gravBoots and let the petals fall.

I take only the Howlers with me, passing the petals as we soar down. We wear gravBoots and armor and carry pulseFists and pulseBlades.

The snow in the land of House Mars is gone. Muddy soil churned by the feet of invaders replaces it. The highlands are swaddled in mist. The smell is of earth and siege. Our towers, Phobos and Deimos, are rubble. The catapults gifted to the besiegers have done their work there. So too have they made progress on the walls of my old castle. The front façade is in ruin and strewn with arrows, broken pottery from pitch jars, swords, armor, and some students.

Nearly a hundred strong besiege Mars. Their camp is near the tree line, but an enclosing fence has been built around Mars Castle to prevent any sallies from the fortress. It has been a long winter for both sides, though I note the solar cooking pots, the portable heaters, the nutrition packets of the Jackal’s besieging force—comprised of Jupiter, Apollo, and a quarter of House Pluto. Several crosses stand high at the bottom of the slope. They face the castle. On the crosses are three bodies. Crows tell me their state. The only sign of resistance I see from House Mars is our flag—the wolf of Mars, tattered and scorched. It hangs slack in the

poor wind.

The Howlers and I come from the sky like golden gods. Our ragged cloaks flap behind us. But if the besiegers expected us to be Proctors bringing more gifts, they could not have been more mistaken. We land hard on the earth. The Howlers first, and I land at their head, and as I hit, the enemy scatter before me in utter terror.

Reaper has come home.

I let the Howlers make ruin of the enemies on our soil. This is as close as I’ve been to home, to Lykos, in months. I bend down and take a handful of House Mars soil as my men do my work around me. Mars. Home. I have flown a different banner, but I have missed my House. Enemies run to attack me. They see my blade, know who I am. I walk impervious. My pulseArmor is my shield. Sevro and the Howlers act as my sword.

I walk to the three crosses and peer up to see Antonia, Cassandra, and Vixus.

The betrayers. What did they do now?

Antonia is still alive, as is Vixus, barely. I have Thistle cut them down and take them back to Olympus for the medBots. They will have to live with the knowledge that they slit Lea’s throat. I hope it hurts them. I stand for a moment at the bottom of the hill. I call up to tell them who I am. But they already know, because the flag of Mars comes down and in its place is raised a soiled bedsheet with a hastily drawn slingBlade arching across.

“The Reaper!” they cry, as I am their salvation. “Primus!”

The defenders are ragged, dirty, and thin. Some are so weak we have to carry them from the rubble of the castle. Those who can, come to salute me or tip their heads or kiss my cheeks. Those who cannot, touch my hand as I pass. There are broken legs and crushed arms. They will be mended. We ferry them back to Olympus. House Mars will not be useful in the coming battle, so I will use besiegers from Pluto, Jupiter, and Apollo. I have Clown and Pebble enslave them all with the standard of Mars. A thin boy I hardly recognize delivers it to me. But when he grabs me in a skeletal embrace, a hug so hard it hurts, I know who he is.

A silent sob echoes in my chest.

He is quiet as he hugs me. Then his body shudders like Pax’s did as he met death. Except these shudders come from joy, not pain.

Roque lives.

“My brother,” he sobs. “My brother.”

“I thought you were dead,” I tell him as I clutch his delicate frame. “Roque, I thought you were dead.” I clasp him to me. His hair is so thin. I feel his bones through his clothing. He’s like a wet rag around my armor.

“Brother,” he says. “I knew you would come back. I knew it in my heart. This place was hollow without you.” He grins at me with such pride. “How you now fill it.”

The Primus of House Diana was right. House Mars is a wildfire. And it does starve. Roque has scars on his face. He shakes his head, and I know he has stories to tell—where he was, how he came back. But later. He limps away. Quinn, one-eared and tired, goes with him. She mouths a thank-you and puts her hand along the small of the thin poet’s back in a manner that lets me know she’s left Cassius.

“He told us you would return,” she says. “Roque never lies.”

Pollux is still humorous when I see him. His voice is gravel and he clasps my arm. Quinn and Roque kept the House together, he says. Cassius gave up a long while ago. He waits for me in the warroom.

“Don’t kill him … please. It ate his mind up, man. Ate it all up what he did to you; we all found out. So just let him get some time away from this place, man. It does things to your head. Makes you forget we don’t have a choice.” Pollux kicks a piece of mud. “The bastards put me in with a little girl, you know.”

“In the Passage?”

“Matched me with a little girl. I tried to kill her softly … but she wouldn’t die.” Pollux grunts something and claps me on the shoulder. He tries a sour chuckle. “We’ve got it raw, but at least we’re not Reds, you register?”


He leaves and I’m alone in my old castle. Titus died on the spot where I stand. I look at the keep. It’s worse now than it was in his time. Everything is worse now, somehow.

Bloodyslag. Why did Mustang have to betray me? Everything is dark now that I know. A shadow cast over life. She could have told me so many times. But she never did. I know she wanted to speak with me when I was with the Jackal, but likely just to tell me something idle.

Some tidbit. Or would she betray her blood for me? No. If she would have done that, then she would have told me before I gave her half my army. She took her standard too, and Ceres’s. Why did she need so many except to make war with me? It feels like she killed Eo. It feels like she put the noose there and I jerked the feet. She is her father’s daughter.

I feel that little snap go through my hands. I’ve betrayed Eo.

I spit on the stones. My mouth is dry. Haven’t had anything to drink all morning. My head aches. Time to drop my balls, as Uncle Narol used to say. Time to see Cassius.

He sits with his ionBlade out on House Mars’s table. He’s in the seat I carved with my sigil. The old House flag lies across his knee. The Primus hand dangles around his neck. So much time has passed since he put that sword in my belly. The weapon looks silly now. A toy, a relic. I am so far past this room, past his blade, past his reach, yet his eyes stop my heart. The guilt is like black bile in my throat. Fills my chest and drains me.

“I’m sorry for Julian,” I tell him.

His hair is golden curls but matted with grit and grease. Fleas make their home there. He is still beautiful, still more handsome than I ever will be. But I am the greater man. The spark in his eye has cooled. Time and space away from this place are what his soul needs. Months of siege. Months of anger and defeat. Months of loss and guilt have drained him of all that makes him Cassius. What a poor soul. I feel sorry for him. I almost laugh. After he put a sword in my belly, pity him. He has never lost a battle. He alone of all the Primuses can say that. Yet he takes the badge and flips it to me.

“You’ve won. But was it worth it?” Cassius asks. “Yes.”

“No hesitation.…” He nods. “That’s the difference between you and me.”

He sets the standard and his sword down and walks close to me, so close I can smell the stink of his breath. I think he’s going to hug me. I want to hug him, to apologize and beg for his forgiveness. Then he pulls open a scab on his knuckles, sucks the blood from it and spits in my face, startling me.

“This is a blood feud,” he hisses in highLingo. “If ever again we meet, you are mine or I am yours. If ever again we draw breath in the same

room, one breath shall cease. Hear me now, you wretched worm. We are devils to one another till one rots in hell.”

It is a formal, cold declaration that requires one thing of me. I nod. And he leaves. I stand trembling for a moment after he’s gone. My heart thuds in my chest. So much pain. I had thought it would be over, but not all scars heal. Not all sins are forgiven.

I take the Mars flag and pin the Primus badge to myself. I watch the map on the wall. My slingBlade banner flutters over every castle there; my men secured the rest even as Tactus makes ready Olympus for Mustang’s assault. Now those castles belong to me, not to the wolf of House Mars. My slingBlade looks like the of Lambda. My clan. The place where my brother, my sister, my uncle, my mother, my friends, still toil. They feel a world apart, yet their symbol, a symbol of our rebellion—a working tool made into a weapon for war—flies over all the Houses of the Aureate except one. Pluto.

I leave the castle through the spire. I am a Red Helldiver of Lykos. I am Gold Primus of House Mars. And I am going to my last battle in this bloodydamn valley. After that the real war begins.

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