Valens fist snapped out in a sharp jab at Seths nose. Instead of stumbling away as he once would have, the thin boy moved into the blow, sapping it of any strength. His knee came up into Valens ribs, but Valen blocked with a palm before leaning forward and throwing his shoulder into Seths chest, sending him reeling backwards.

A spinning sweep at Seths legs—already poorly positioned for balance—sent Seth crashing hard to the mat.

”Well done you two, ” Aphene was saying, and I turned my attention back to the papers in front of me with a sigh.

Each attending professor had been provided with documents explaining the Victoriad. Due to the nature of the event, adherence to tradition and protocol was of extreme importance, and so the information provided was thorough to the point of tedium. I knew it was necessary to commit this to memory, but my mind kept wandering back to my own plans for the event.

I was stronger now than I had been as a white core Lance, even if Id lost some of the weapons in my arsenal. Still, I wanted to use this event to gauge my strength against that of my enemies—without giving away my identity if at all possible.

With the reputation that Id built here as both a professor and ascender, I wanted to test my strength—if not against a Scythe, then at least against a retainer. Both Caera and Kayden mentioned that it was uncommon for even retainers to receive a challenge, but after reading this document, it became increasingly clear just how rare it was.

Nevermind challenging a Scythe, even requesting a duel from a retainer required the consent of their Scythe beforehand. Caera had mentioned that since there were two open retainer positions this time, people speculated there would be many more prospects than normal.

And since both Scythes and retainers could refuse a challenger if they found such a contest to be beneath them, it would be difficult for me to even fight against a retainer.

Worst case, if none of the retainers accepted my challenge, Id have to watch the duels from afar.

Normally, this is where Regis would have interjected with some blunt but annoyingly accurate assessment of this situation, but no such response came.

It was quiet in my head without the sardonic flaming wolf. Although I could still feel him, connected to me by a thin thread that stretched high up the slope of the closest mountain range, his thoughts were shielded from me, his focus entirely on himself. But brief pulses of excitement or frustration that weren my own flared up occasionally, and I knew he was growing. I could sense his strength.

I had gotten used to having my mind to myself, but that didn mean it was peaceful. I had forgotten how much my brain spun without Regis to cut me short.

Realizing I had completely lost the thread of what I had been reading, I set down the parchment to watch the next training bout.

Aphene had brought two more students up to spar while Briar led the rest of the class in a series of exercises. Marcus and Sloane were exchanging a brutal series of punches and kicks as the classroom doors opened and several armored men stepped inside.

Sloane saw them first and missed a block, taking an elbow into his chin that laid him out flat. This drew the rest of the classs attention, and the students burst into a round of surprised chatter. Briar and Aphene were quick to stamp it out, their eyes turning questioningly in my direction.

”Can I help you? ” I said, standing from my seat at the training platform control panel and ascending halfway up the stairs toward the intruders. ”We
e in the middle of class. ”

A familiar figure strode forward, scratching his trimmed beard and giving me an awkward smile. ”Sorry, Grey, but Im afraid you
e going to have to come with us. ”

I scowled at Sulla, head of the Ascenders Association in Cargidan. ”Can this wait until— ”

”Im afraid not, ” he said firmly.

My mind began to race as I considered what they could be there for.

Sullas grim expression made it clear his visit wasn social in nature. But since this was the Ascenders Association and not academy guards or local law enforcement, I wasn sure what the issue could be. If my identity had been compromised—a possibility I was always conscious of—then it would have been Nico or Cadell knocking down my door.

So what, then?

I turned and met Briars eye. ”You and Aphene finish class. I won be gone long. ”

Ascending the stairs, I watched the groups hands and eyes for any sign they were prepared to attack. The men were tense and watchful, maybe even a little nervous, but I also sensed a mutinous kind of frustration in their matching frowns. ”Sorry about this, ” one of them muttered, quieting immediately when Sulla shot him a warning glare.

The head ascender himself had the stiff, awkward look of a man doing something against his will. Whatever was going on, these ascenders weren thrilled about it.

And so I didn resist, but let them march me out of the building and across campus. They took up positions around me, but no one drew a weapon or prepared any spells—at least that I could detect. Most of the students were in class, but we still passed many dozens of people on our way out of campus, and I could already sense my name at the heart of a hundred whispered conversations behind me.

Thankfully, the Ascenders Association Hall was close by.

I followed Sulla up into his office, which overlooked the buildings main floor. The other ascenders posted up outside the doors, which Sulla closed behind us.

I took a seat without being invited to do so, then waited. Sulla picked up a leather satchel from behind his desk, watching me carefully. Then, with a sudden surge of frustrated anger, he slammed the satchel on his desk and slumped into his chair.

”Damn it, Grey, do you even understand how close to death youve come? ”

I turned my head slightly to the side and made a show of looking around the office. ”I don seem to have a knife to my neck, so no, I really don . ”

Sulla gave a humorless scoff. ”It seems unlikely you worry about little things like knives. ” Grabbing the bottom of the satchel, he upended it, spilling a stack of parchment out across his desk. ”Do you know what these are? ”

Still watching Sulla, I picked up a loose page that had fluttered across the desk toward me. It contained a bracket with each of my own students paired up against an unfamiliar name. The Victoriad tournament, I realized.

”I don understand the problem, ” I said, feigning nonchalance and tossing the page back into the pile on Sullas desk.

His left eye twitched. Through gritted teeth, he said, ”Then please allow me to educate you, Professor. ” He had to take a moment before continuing, during which he riffled through the pages. When he found what he was looking for, he held it up for me to see. ”This is a report on the Victoriad combatants from Bloodrock Academy in Vechor—or at least, those who will be competing specifically in the non-magical, unarmed duels. ” He set it down hard and picked up another page. ”This provides some very specific details on one of Bloodrocks top fighters. Lists of runes, type of mage, prefered combat styles…Vritras horns, Grey, it even names which members of her blood could be threatened or bribed to influence her performance. ”

He proceeded to go through a handful more pages, which all contained similar details regarding other top performing fighters from a variety of academies.

”Great, this seems like some very thorough research, ” I said finally, interrupting him as he started explaining yet another page. ”But what does it have to do with me? This stuff isn mine. ”

Sulla sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. ”Then why has a reliable witness come forward and asserted that you are attempting to cheat in the Victoriad, using these documents as proof. ”

I stared at the pile of papers for a moment, then let out a surprised laugh. ”You
e kidding, right? ”

Sulla sat back in his chair and stared at me like a horn had sprouted from the middle of my forehead. ”Do you deny that you are leading an effort to give your students unfair advantage in the Victoriad? ”

”If my students have an advantage, itll be because theyve worked for it, not because I bullied some teenage girls mom, ” I snapped, irritated to have been bothered with this nonsense. ”No, I really do have more important things to do— ”

Sulla placed both hands on his desk, knocking a few pieces of parment to the floor, and leaned toward me. ”Then someone is trying to get you killed, Grey. ”

I eyed the veteran ascender curiously, waiting for him to continue.

”Cheating at, tampering with, or otherwise disrupting the events of the Victoriad will result in your execution as part of the Victoriad entertainment, ” he proclaimed ominously. ”So if you didn order all this information collected—information which makes it clear you intend to threaten harm to several members of important highbloods—then someone else did, and purely to get you accused of a crime that could end your life. ”

I was listening more seriously now, but something about what Sulla was saying didn make sense. ”You said you had a witness? Someone who claimed they were working with me or for me or something? ”

He squinted thoughtfully before replying. ”Yes. They came to us of their own accord, claiming they were forced to make several contacts between you and academy staff all over Alacrya. When they intercepted this satchel of documents—supposedly intended for you—they realized what you were up to and felt compelled to turn in the evidence. ”

Sulla paused. ”You should know, a handful of people are corroborating this statement, confirming that they received threatening letters from you to provide all this. ” He gestured at the papers. ”The best case scenario is that you are banned from attending the Victoriad. The worse, well, Ive already told you. ”

Even from the moment Sulla and his enforcers had arrived in my classroom, he had seemed uncomfortable. Now the reason was clear. ”Why are you so certain I didn do it? ”

He scoffed again. ”Anyone whod actually met you would know you wouldn need to cheat. Ive heard about your students bestowals, too. No, this smelled like a setup from the beginning. ”

Nodding, I rested my elbows on my knees and leaned forward. ”Then tell me who the witness is. ”

Sulla hesitated, looking uncomfortable. ”I could—but if you kill him, this will be out of my hands. Right now, its only been reported to the Ascenders Association. If Central Academy or any of these highbloods get involved… ”

”I won kill him, but I will figure out— ”

I was interrupted by a device on Sullas desk lighting up and beginning to hum softly.

He stared at it like it was a demon leech for several seconds, then reached out and touched it.

A familiar voice boomed out of the device: ”This is Corbett of Highblood Denoir, contacting Sulla of Blood Drusus. Sulla? ”

The dark-haired ascenders eyes went wide at the mention of Corbetts name, and he looked at me with something akin to panic. ”Y-yes, Highlord Denoir, this is— ”

”Youve just apprehended a Central Academy professor named Grey. The foolish charges against him are false, and I have information that will help to prove it. ” Corbetts voice echoed with a slight distortion from the communication artifact, but it still effectively conveyed the weight of his authority. ”I demand he be released immediately. ”

I couldn help the surprised smirk that crept onto my face listening to the highlord speak. Though he maintained a noble air, there was a subtle threat to his words as well.

Did Caera put him up to this? I asked myself. Or did our conversation make more of an impression than I thought…

Sulla quickly regained his composure. Although the Denoirs must have outranked Blood Drusus by several times over, he didn seem like a man to be cowed by the nobility. ”You say you have information pertinent to this investigation? ” he asked, his tone all business.

”The Granbehls are behind it, ” Corbett said firmly. ”Theyve made false claims against Grey before, and they are at it again. I believe a thorough interrogation of Janusz of Blood Graeme, currently a professor at Center Academy, will reveal that he was paid—and very well—to deliver false evidence against Grey. Now, confirm that Grey will be released immediately, or I will be forced to personally visit the Ascenders Association. ”

Sulla glowered at the communication artifact, his face reddening slightly. ”There will be no need for that, Highlord Denoir. I am equally assured of Greys innocence, and will not be charging him. He is here with me now, as a matter of fact, to discuss how best to deal with this situation. ”

”Oh, ” Corbett said, his noble mannerisms slipping for just an instant. ”Very well then. Ive heard good things about your fairness and wisdom, and it seems these rumors are not unfounded. Grey, meet me at Goldeberrys Throne on High Street in two hours. Good day then. ”

”Good day, Highlord… ” Sulla said, his expression caught somewhere between frustration and relief.

When the artifact dimmed, his attention turned back to me. ”So, you really do have friends in high places… ”

”A recent acquaintance, ” I said with a shrug. ”So, Professor Graeme… ”

Sulla winced. ”Like I said— ”

”Oh, don worry. I won kill him. ” Standing, I gave him a questioning look. ”Am I free to leave? ”

”For the moment, yes, ” he said with a humorless smile. ”But this situation will need to be dealt with, Grey. ”

I nodded, a certain drunk uncle coming to mind. ”Then could you get in contact with someone for me? ”

***

Two hours later, I was walking briskly along High Street, home to many ostentatious businesses that catered to the highbloods.

Various scenarios whirled in my mind like clips from different movies as I thought about what I had learned. If what Professor Graeme had so kindly informed me was true, then it changed everything.

My thoughts were interrupted as I was forced to step out of the way for a pair of young highbloods walking side by side down the middle of the path, but before I could spare them a second thought, I was brought up short by the sight of the place I was supposed to be meeting Corbett, a highblood cafe named Goldberrys Throne.

The building looked more like a temple than a cafe. Gold-capped marble pillars wrapped around an open air gallery at the front of the building and around one side, and the carved entablatures that rested atop the pillars gleamed with inlaid gold and a dozen colors of gemstones, making the roof glitter like a crown. Multi-colored flames rose from ever-burning braziers affixed to the pillars, giving the place a distinct mystical quality and giving off a mixture of sweet scents that made my mouth water and stomach rumble.

Several sets of eyes followed me as I entered the cafe, likely because my attire was not up to the standards at Goldberrys. Inside, the warm aroma of coffee and freshly baked bread mixed with a dozen different colognes and perfumes to make the air uncomfortably heavy.

A matronly woman dressed in black with a maroon vest was working behind a short bar carved of some kind of opaque crystal. She dipped at her waist into a respectful bow as I approached, her expression flawlessly masked aside from the quick twitch of her eyes as she scanned me from head to toe.

”Im here to meet Highlord Denoir, ” I said, feeling the attention of a handful of the cafes patrons turn in my direction. ”Has he arrived yet? ”

The woman motioned to her right, her gaze still lowered. ”Highlord Denoirs private room is located around the corner there, third door. ”

I nodded and turned my back on her, just catching it as the patrons—many of whom had been staring at my back only a second before—looked away and pretended to mind their own business.

The indicated door was cracked, and swung slowly open when I knocked lightly on it. Corbett looked up from a leatherbound journal full of cramped writing. ”Close the door behind you, ” he said as he stashed the journal.

I did, and a series of wards that ran along the edge of the door lit up briefly. ”Sound proofing? ” I mused aloud.

”Among other things. Goldberrys is not successful with the highbloods simply for the pretentious decor, ” he said, gesturing to a seat across from him.

The room wasn large, but its high ceiling gave it a sense of grandeur. A low table made of some dark wood and engraved with a realistic depiction of the Basilisk Fang Mountains took up the center, with a wraparound couch on one side and two lounge chairs on the other. I sat in one of these, sinking into the soft cushioning.

A low fire burned in a small fireplace in the corner behind me, and a window let in diffused light behind Corbett. I frowned at the window, unsure why it seemed so out of place, then realized there couldn be a window in this room, which was in the center of the cafe with no outside-facing walls. Looking more closely, I realized it was a pane-shaped light artifact that acted as a faux window.

”Nice place, ” I commented.

”Good for thinking, or having a conversation that should not be overheard, ” he said meaningfully. ”Were you able to locate Professor Graeme? ”

”Graeme is still alive, though I can say the same for his dignity, ” I answered nonchalantly. ”But thats beside the point. ”

The highlord nodded. ”I figured as much, which is why I wished for us to meet here. ”

”I need to know what kind of retaliation I can get away with, ” I said without preamble. ”What kind of trouble could I be in if I go after the Granbehls? ”

He eyed me critically, clearly weighing his words. ”Well, if you were a highblood—or even a named blood equal to the Granbehls in stature—you would be entirely within your right to strike back. ” He put on a knowing smile. ”But as an unblooded, you are without recourse outside of the court, and you already know well how just the halls of justice truly are. ”

A feature implemented by highbloods like yourself, I wanted to say.

”The Granbehls understand and manipulate the system like a true highblood, ” he continued. ”They have launched an all out assault on several rival named bloods, but so far have not crossed any lines that would see them stripped of their titles or executed—at least not in broad daylight. Their enemies seem to die under suspicious and convenient circumstances, including a recent fire that killed both the lord and lady of Named Blood Rothkeller. ”

”Why do you think these rivals haven struck back? ”

Corbett tapped the side of his nose. ”That is the question, isn it? But not every question comes with an answer. In this case, I have only speculation based on rumor. However, it appears that they have somehow acquired the patronage of a powerful benefactor, someone whose protection has allowed them to maneuver more or less uninhibited. ”

When a person like Corbett Denoir called someone powerful, it really shortened the list of suspects. Only another ranking highblood could offer that kind of protection—or even someone above the normal constructs of Alacryan society, like a Scythe.

”That doesn change what I need to do, ” I replied, my expression hidden from Corbett.

”Do you have some plan in mind, then? ” he asked. His hand moved to the couch cushion beside him, and I noticed a velvet bag that was half hidden in his shadow.

My lips twitched. ”Yes, but its not very subtle. ”

”I thought as much, ” he said, lifting the bag and reaching inside it. He pulled out a metal emblem and set it on the table between us.

The black metal was stained, and when I bent down over it I realized it had been scorched by fire. The emblem itself appeared to be a grapevine set before a rising sun, once brightly colored but now blackened and robbed of the small details.

”Named Blood Rothkeller? ” I asked.

Corbett nodded. ”If one of the few remaining members of that blood sought retribution for the burning of their estate— ”

”No one would bat an eye, ” I finished, lifting the emblem and turning it over in my hand. With my thumb, I rubbed the soot off the sun, revealing a cracked and faded red coloring. ”Would the Rothkeller blood be likely to deny it? ”

Corbetts eyes gleamed with cold calculation. ”If their emblem was planted like a flag of victory in the wreckage of their enemys estate? What would you do in their place? ”

”Fair point, ” I conceded before putting the emblem back down on the table. ”My only question is why are you willing to do all of this for me? ”

They gained nothing from helping me aside from my own compliance in the future, but if things went poorly with the Denoirs, I couldn exactly kill them all, considering their relation to Caera. Allowing Corbett to have such a dangerous secret was certainly a problem, but with no proof, it would only be his word against mine.

”Curiosity? Intrigue? ” Corbett mused. ”You
e a man with many layers, Grey. And these circumstances allow me to uncover some of them. ”

”Well, whatever I choose to do, I wouldn have been able to do it without your help, ” I said, holding the emblem like I was making a toast. ”So heres to a lasting bond built from mutually assured destruction, Corbett. ”

The highlord sat up a little straighter, but a smile slipped through his guarded demeanor. ”Of course. After all, there is still this mysterious benefactor to be concerned about. ”

My thoughts cycled through everything Professor Graeme had told me yet again, but I didn confirm anything else with Corbett. Instead, I asked, ”Is it possible whoever is backing the Granbehls would go after the remaining Rothkellers? ”

He nodded, his expression unchanged. ”Entirely, but even if they die, they would do so with pride knowing that their blood has been avenged. You offer their blood redemption, while avoiding any personal entanglement, legal or otherwise. ”

I didn agree with the highblood view on pride over life, but empathizing wasn hard. In the face of gods as rulers, sometimes, pride was the only thing left in their control.

With a plan in place and all of the pieces in my head now coming together, I bid him farewell and made my way out onto High Street.

A frigid smile tugged at the corners of my lips as I stretched my neck. Regis, get back here. Its time for a little reunion with the Granbehls.

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