Chapter no 44 – Rise

Red Rising

Tactus has assumed command in my absence. The man is a cruel beast, but he’s my cruel beast. And with him at my side, my forces are fit for bloodshed. Our armor glistens. Three hundred strong. Ninety new slaves. They will not have a chance to earn their freedom. There were not enough gravBoots for all. Or enough armor. But everyone has something. The DeadHorses and the Howlers group together near the edge of Mount Olympus. They stare down, a thin arc of gold, at the ground a mile below. Our adversaries are in the mountains. When Mustang and the Jackal come from the snow peaks, they will be at a disadvantage. We have the highest ground. The rest of my force—Pax’s former squad and Nyla’s—guard the golden fortress and the Proctors. The slaves are there as well. I wish Pax were at my side. I always felt safer in his shadow.

I’ve sent Nyla and Milia and a dozen others in ghostCloaks to scout the mountains for the Jackal’s movements. Who knows what intel Mustang has given her brother? He will know our weaknesses, our disposition, so I shift everything as much as possible. Whatever she knows will be useless. Alter the paradigm. I wonder if I could beat her as mercilessly as I beat Fitchner. The girl who hummed Eo’s song? Never. I’m still Red at heart.

“Hate this gory part,” Tactus sighs. He leans his wiry body past me to peer out over the edge of the floating mountain. “Waiting. Pfah. We need some optics.”


“Optics!” he says loudly.

My hearing goes in and out. Popped eardrums are nasty things.

He says something about Mustang and cutting her thumbs off for starters. I don’t catch most of it. Probably don’t want to; he’s the sort to make braids of someone’s entrails. “There!” Then we see a golden flier pierce a cloud. Three more follow. Nyla … Milia. Mustang … and something else.

“Hold!” I call to Sevro and his Howlers. They echo the command as Mustang approaches carrying something odd.

“Lo, Reaper,” Mustang calls to me. I wait for her to land. Her boots bring her quickly to the ground.

“Lo, Mustang.”

“So Milia says you figured it out.” She looks around with a curious smile. “This must all be for me then?”

“Of course.” I’m confused. “Thought there might be a scuffle between Augustus and Andromedus.”

“No scuffle this time. I brought you a gift. May I present my brother, Adrius au Augustus, the Jackal of the Mountains, and his standard. And he’s”—she looks at me with a hard smile as she realizes I thought she betrayed me—“disarmed.”

She drops the Jackal, bound, gagged, and naked. “Bugger my goryballs,” Tactus hisses.

I have won.

Mustang stands beside me as the dropships come to Olympus. She’s told me not to feel guilty about doubting her loyalty. She should have told me her family ties even though she doesn’t claim the Jackal as her brother. Not in spirit. Her true brother, her older brother, was killed by one of Cassius’s, a brute by the name of Karnus. Augustus and Bellona. The blood feud between the families runs deep, and I feel its riptide pulling at my legs.

Yet the question remains, is Mustang her father’s daughter? Or is she the girl who hums Eo’s song? I think I know the answer. She is what Golds can be, should be. Yet her father and brother are what Golds are. Eo never would have guessed it could be this complicated. There is goodness in Golds, because in many ways, they are the best humanity

can offer. But they’re also the worst. What does that do to her dream? Only time will tell.

My lieutenants flank me—Mustang, Nyla, Milia, Tactus, Sevro, even Roque and Quinn. We leave a space for Pax and Lea. My army flanks them. There is no need to embarrass the Pluto students. I want to. But I don’t. They stand dispersed throughout my six units. We wait in a broad courtyard across from the landing pads. It is a spring day and so the snow melts fast.

Sevro is near me. In his eye, I see a subtle difference when he looks at me. The conversation we had when he finished editing the tapes was short and frightening. It echoes in my ears.

“The audio in the storm was scrambled,” he said. “Couldn’t make out the last words you said to Apollo. So I deleted them.”

One of my last words was bloodydamn.

What does Sevro know? What does he think he knows? The fact that he deleted it means he thinks it is important enough to cover up.

ArchGovernor Augustus and Imperators Bellona and Adriatus and a host of other dignitaries to the sum of two hundred come from the shuttles, each with a cadre of attendants. The Director surveys us and laughs at the Proctors’ condition. I have left them bound and gagged. There is no pity here. Any worry I had at punishment is swept away. Only Fitchner stands unbound. If there are any rewards given to the Proctors, he should reap them. They have seen the holoexperiences by now. Sevro made sure they were good. He knew well the story I wanted told. I made only a few adjustments.

Director Clintus is a small woman with a severe mountain peak of a face. She manages to crack a joke about this being the first time they have had the ceremony at so lofty a location. But she does think it will be the last. It is not the way the game is supposed to be played, yet it does speak to my creativity and cunning. She seems to like me very much and affectionately refers to me as “the Reaper.” In fact, they all seem to like me very much. Though some, I can tell, are wary. Rulers tend to dislike those who break rules.

“The Drafters of all the Houses are clamoring to recruit you, my boy. You’ll have a choice, though Mars has first offer. It will be up to you. So many choices for the Reaper!” Clintus titters.

Bellona and Augustus, blood enemies, both watch me as you would a

snake. I killed one of their sons and embarrassed the other’s. I do believe this may become awkward.

There is little ceremony. The attendants bustle about. This is but formality. The true ceremony will take place in Agea, where there will be a grand festival, a party to set fire to the heavens, and the holopresence of the Sovereign herself. Libations, dancers, racers, fire breathers, pleasure slaves, enhancers, spikedust, politicians, or so Mustang tells me. It seems strange to think others care about what happened to us here, strange to think that so many of the Golds are vapid creatures. They know nothing of what it is to earn the mark of a Peerless Scarred. To beat a boy to death in a cold room of stone. But they will celebrate us. For a moment, I forgot whom we were fighting for. I forgot this is a race that fights like hell to earn its frivolous things because it loves those things so much. I don’t understand that drive. I understand the Institute. I understand war. But I don’t understand what is coming in Agea, or what will come after that. Perhaps that’s because I’m more like the Iron Golds. The best of the Peerless. Those like the Ancestors. Those who nuked a planet that rose against their rule. What a creature I’ve become.

When all is said and done, Director Clintus pins some badge on me. She winks and touches my shoulder. Then we disperse. Just like that. The game is through and we are told dropships are inbound for our departure to our own homes, where parents wait to give their approval or disown disappointing sons and daughters. Just like that. Until then, we mill about, feeling foolish in all our accumulated armor, all our weaponry that now means so little. I look at my slingBlade and wonder how useless it has just become. It’s as though we’re supposed to congratulate one another, cheer or something. But there is only silence. A hollow silence for victors and losers all.

I am empty.

What do I do now? There was always a fear, always a concern, always a reason to hoard weapons and food, always a quest or trial. Now, nothing. Just the wind sweeping in over our battlefield. An empty battlefield filled only with echoes of things lost and learned. Friends. Lessons. Soon it will be a memory. I feel like a lover has died. I yearn to cry. Feel hollow. Adrift. I look for Mustang. Will she still care for me? And then ArchGovernor Augustus suddenly takes me by the elbow and

leads me away from the other stunned youth.

“I am a busy man, Reaper,” he says, mocking the word. “So I will be direct. You have created complications in my life.”

His touch makes me want to scream. His thin mouth emotes nothing. His nose is straight. His eyes contemptuous and made from the embers of a dying sun. So peerless. Yet he is not beautiful. His is a face carved from granite. Deep cheeks. Manly, tough skin, not burnished like that of the fools on the HC or the Pixies who gallivant around the nightclubs. He reeks of power like Pinks reek of perfume. I want to make his face look like a broken puzzle.

“Yes,” is all I say.

He does not smirk or smile. “My wife is a beggar. She pleaded with me to help her son win.”

“Wait. He had help?” I ask.

His mouth slides into a soft smile. The sort reserved for simple amusements. “I’m assuming you are not sharing my involvement with others.”

I want to break him. After all that has happened, he expects my cooperation, as though it is something due to him. As though it is his right that I help him. I unclench my fists. What would Dancer have me say?

“You’re fine,” I manage. “I can’t help you on the domestic front, but I won’t tell a soul that the Jackal had help from Daddy.”

His chin rises. “Do not call him that name. The men of House Augustus are lions, not fleabitten carrion eaters.”

“All the same, you should have put your money on Mustang,” I say, intentionally not using her name.

“Don’t tell me about my family, Darrow.” He peers down his nose at me. “Now, the question is how much you want for your silence. I accept no gifts. Owe no man. So you will be taken care of on one condition.”

“I stay away from your daughter?”

“No.” He laughs sharply, surprising me. “The foolish families worry over blood. I care nothing for purity of family or ancestry. That is a vain thing. I care only for strength. What a man can do to other men, women. And that is something you have. Power. Strength.” He leans closer, and in his pupils I see Eo dying. “I have enemies. They are strong. They are many.”

“They are Bellona.”

“And others. But yes, Imperator Tiberius au Bellona has more than fifty nieces and nephews. He has nine children. That Goliath, Karnus, the eldest. Cassius his favorite. His seed is strong. Mine is … less so. I had a son worth all of Tiberius’s put together. But Karnus killed him,” He’s silent for a moment. “Now I have two nieces. A nephew. A son. A daughter. And that is it. So I collect apprentices.

“My condition is this. I will give you what you want for your silence. I will buy you Pinks, Obsidians, Grays, Greens. I will sponsor your application to the Academy, where you will learn to sail the ships that conquered the planets. I will provide you with funds and patronage requirements. I will introduce you to the Sovereign. I will do all these things for your silence if you become one of my lancers, an aide-de-camp, a member of my household.”

He asks me to betray my name. To set aside my family for his. Mine is a false family, Andromedus, a family made for deception, yet some part of me aches.

I saw it coming. But I don’t know what to say. “One of your son’s soldiers might say something about your involvement, my lord.”

He snorts. “I’m more concerned about your lieutenants.”

I laugh. “Few of my army know the truth. And those that do will not say a word.”

“So much trust.”

“I am their ArchPrimus.” I say it simply.

“Are you serious?” he asks in confusion as though I misunderstand something as basic as gravity. “Boy, allegiances crumble as soon as we board that shuttle. Some of your friends will be spirited away to the Moon Lords. Others will go to the Governors of the Gas Giants. Even a few to Luna. They will remember you as a legend of their youth, but that is it. And that legend will brook no loyalty. I’ve stood where you stand. I won my year, but loyalty isn’t found in these halls. It is the way things are.”

“It is the way things were,” I say harshly, suprising him. But I believe what I say. “I am something different. I freed the enslaved and let the broken mend themselves. I gave them something you older generations can’t understand.”

He chuckles, irritating me. “That is the problem with youth, Darrow.

You forget that every generation has thought the same.”

“But for my generation it is true.” No matter his confidence, I am right. He is wrong. I am the spark that will set the worlds afire. I am the hammer that cracks the chains.

“This school is not life,” he recites to me. “It is not life. Here you are king. In life, there are no kings. There are many would-be-kings. But we Peerless lay them low. Many before you have won this game. And those many now excel beyond this school. So do not act as though when you graduate, you will be king, you will have loyal subjects—you will not. You will need me. You will need a foundation, a supporter to help you rise. There can be none better for you than I.”

It’s not my family I would betray, it is my people. The school was one thing, but to go beneath the dragon’s wing … to let him hug me close, to sit in luxury while my own sweat and die and starve and burn … it’s enough to rip my heart out.

Both his golden children watch us. So do Cassius and his father after they embrace one another. There are tears for Julian. I wish I were with my family instead of here. I wish I could feel Kieran’s hand on my shoulder, feel Leanna’s hand in mine as we watch Mother set dinner before us. That is a family. Love. These people are all about glory, victory, and family pride, yet they know nothing of love. Nothing of family. These are false families. They are just teams. Teams that play their games of pride. The ArchGovernor has not even said hello to his children. This vile man cares more to speak with me.

“Funny,” I say.

“Funny?” he asks darkly.

I make something up. “Funny how a single word can change everything in your life.”

“It is not funny at all. Steel is power. Money is power. But of all the things in all the worlds, words are power.”

I look at him for a moment. Words are a weapon stronger than he knows. And songs are even greater. The words wake the mind. The melody wakes the heart. I come from a people of song and dance. I don’t need him to tell me the power of words. But I smile nonetheless.

“What is your answer? Yes or no? I will not ask again.”

I glance over at the dozens of Peerless Scarred who wait to have a word with me, no doubt to offer patronage or apprenticeships. Old Lorn

au Arcos is there. I recognize him even without his Drafter’s mask. The Rage Knight. The man who sent me my Pegasus and Dancer’s ring. A man of perfect honor and leader of the third most powerful house on Mars. A man I could learn from.

“Will you rise with me?”

I look at the ArchGovernor’s jugular. His heartbeat is strong. I imagine the Fading Dirge when Eo died. But when I hang him, he will not receive our song. His life will not echo. It will simply stop.

“I think, my lord, that it would present some interesting opportunities.” I look up into his eyes, hoping he mistakes the fury there for excitement.

“You know the words?” he asks me. I nod.

“Then you must say them. Here. Now. So all may witness that I have claimed the best of the school.”

His pride reeks. I grit my teeth and convince myself this is the right path. With him, I will rise. I will attend the Academy. I will learn to lead fleets. I will win. I will sharpen myself into a sword. I will give my soul. I will dive to hell in hopes of one day rising to freedom. I will sacrifice. And I will grow my legend and spread it amongst the peoples of all the worlds until I am fit to lead the armies that will break the chains of bondage, because I am not simply an agent of the Sons of Ares. I am not simply a tactic or a device in Ares’s schemes. I am the hope of my people. Of all people in bondage.

So I kneel before him, as is their way. And as is their way, he sets his hands upon my head. The words creep from my mouth and their echo is like broken glass into my ears.

“I will forsake my father. I will abandon my name. I will be your sword. Nero au Augustus, I will make my purpose your glory.”

Those watching gasp at the sudden proclamation. Others curse at the impropriety, at the gall of Augustus. Does he have no sense of decency? My master kisses the top of my head and whispers their words and I do my best to cage the fury that has made me a thing sharper than Red. Harder than Gold.

“Darrow, Lancer of House Augustus. Rise, there are duties for you to fill. Rise, there are honors for you to take. Rise for glory, for power, for conquest and dominion over lesser men. Rise, my son. Rise.”

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