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Authors: J. Patrick Black

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BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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TWO

JAX

I
t's only then that I hear the quiet. The siren is silenced here, and the Forum, usually so crowded you can hardly breathe, is completely empty. The stone plaza seems to go on forever, the huge buildings bordering each side like distant mountains on the horizon.

I take a long breath, close my eyes, and for a moment the gray light of the Forum is gone, and I'm standing in a field of green grass under a clear blue sky. The sun is warm on my face, the air fresh. Distantly, I can hear people cheering—they might even be chanting my name. If I have to fight, this is where I'll do it.

Feeling a bit more confident, I open my eyes and make for the monstrous fountain in the center of the plaza. The first assignment any cadet gets at the School of Rhetoric is writing an essay about this fountain and how it represents the history and ideals of our city. The fountain has five levels, all swirling with people carrying swords and rifles and flags, some of them supposed to be real historical people, some whole groups of people, some abstract things like Honor and Duty and Courage, who stand out because they're usually not wearing clothes. The essay has become sort of a joke at the Academy because the rhetors basically just tell you what to write. The fountain's official name is the Font of the Principate, but most people just call it Old Fife.

Molded into one edge of the fountain is a gigantic chair, known as Macduff among Academy cadets, who spend a lot of time trying to fit as many people as possible onto it at once. The most I've ever seen was twenty-five, kids all stacked on each other's shoulders into this teetering tower. But the real name is the Seat of the Champion. “Champion” is an old title, from before the Legion started, but it still has symbolic meaning, which I guess
is what the fountain is all about. And, at least for now, the Champion of Ninth City is me.

I'm able to stay on the Seat of the Champion for about ten seconds before I start to completely freak out. At first, it's not so bad. The stone is cold and a little damp from one of the sprinkling showers that have been passing over the city, but I don't mind. I lean back, looking up at the sky, then I hear Bomar saying, “I can't believe that kid Jax ended up being the one. Out of everybody. He can barely finish a five-K, and we're supposed to trust him to defend the city? It's like a sick joke.”

It was our first day at Rhetoric. I'd been just outside the door to the classroom when I heard people talking inside. What Bomar said didn't surprise me—he hadn't really been keeping his opinion a secret. The surprise was what happened next.

“Shut up, Bomar. You're just jealous.” That was Elessa. She isn't an overly nice person, but she's fair, and I was glad we'd elected her section adjutant. But then she said, “And anyway, it won't really be Jax. Fontani have another personality or something that does the fighting.”

“It's gotta be some tough personality
or
something
to make up for Jax,” Bomar said. “Otherwise, we might as well just kill ourselves now, save Romeo the trouble.”

Elessa didn't disagree. Other voices joined in, and I realized most of the section was in there. No one wanted me fighting for them.

I think of Danyee hugging me and saying, “We're all rooting for you.” I bet she wishes she had someone else instead, though. I know I do.

The Academy Handbook talks a lot about courage. It says it's OK to be afraid, that fear is just part of bravery. It says you'll know what to do when the time comes, you just have to trust your training. But it doesn't tell you what to do while you're waiting, alone under an open sky, sure everyone you've ever met is going to die because you're not strong enough to save them.

When the people at Sequester told me I might be fontani, I was sure there'd been a mistake somewhere. Fontani are supposed to be the best of the best, and I'm about as close to average as you can get. But they were right. I thought I'd feel different after I shaded that first time, like maybe I'd just
know
what to do, but I didn't, and I still don't. At night sometimes when I can't sleep, I'll get up and look at myself in the mirror, to see if there's any proof I've really changed, but it's always the same me.

All of a sudden, it's like I can't breathe, like the air has turned to rock. My heart feels like it's rolling full speed down a hill, bumping all the way, and I get the serious feeling that I'm about to throw up.

I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and try to summon up that big green sunny field the way Charles, my special-sessions instructor, taught me. I see the grass spreading out all around, but this time there's no sun anywhere. The sky is deep gray, almost black, and it's raining balls of slush like icy spit. The grass begins to wilt and turn brown, and suddenly there are bare patches everywhere, and I'm sinking into the cold mud, first to my ankles, then my knees . . .

I snap my eyes open and scramble off the fountain, determined not to leave a pile of throwup beneath the Seat of the Champion. Once I'm up and sure I'm back in Ninth City, I feel a bit better but still not good. I hobble around the edge of the Forum, totally out of breath, passing the buildings that make up the four sides of the plaza one by one: the Academy, the Basilica of the Legion, the Praetorium, the Hall of the Principate.

I'm on my third lap and still feeling like I'm three Ks into the worst five-K of all time when I hear something strange echoing down one of the tall passageways that run through the Hall of the Principate—pretty much the most unlikely sound in the world: laughter. Not even thinking about why, I follow the sound through the passage to the opposite side of the building, out onto a wide terrace. Ninth City spreads out below, Old Town, with its spiraling streets, the serious-looking stone towers of the newer districts, the battle spires rising like claws, and the hulking City Guns—huge cannons the size of buildings, some over two hundred meters tall. Charles calls them “literal skyscrapers.”

At first I think the laughter must have been some trick of the wind, then I see them: legionaries, three of them, two men and a woman. For a couple of seconds, I just stare, trying to figure out what they're doing here. They should be at their posts, getting ready to fight. And then I see the insignia on their collars, the peaked symbol marking them as Officers Aspirant from the School of Philosophy. They're younger than I thought, maybe around Rhetor Danyee's age, which I guess makes sense because she's an OA, too. But that still doesn't explain why they're
here
.

“You're supposed to be at the shelters.” I just blurt it out. All three turn to look at me, clearly taken by surprise.

The first to recover himself is one of the boys, the tallest of the three,
lanky, with dark skin and a lean, handsome face. He has dark hair, longer than male cadets usually choose to wear it. “Well, look who it is,” he says, showing off an easy smile. “Fontanus Jaxten. Seat of the Champion a little soggy for you?”

“You were supposed to go to the shelters,” I repeat, sounding idiotic. It's only after I've opened my mouth that I think how close he was to the truth.

The other boy is tall, too, and kind of bronze-colored all over, with muscles that seem to bulge straight through his uniform. “Jaxten, really?” he asks, adjusting a pair of silver-rimmed glasses like he's trying to bring me into focus. “Fantastic. Get over here, champ. Have a drink with us.”

I notice the little silver cup each is holding, and the pair of glass bottles, both mostly full of a pale amber liquid, on the stone by their feet. “Is that Fizz?” Fizz is a drink cadets make using aquavee and flavor packets. The Handbook says it's sometimes called Gurgle or Foamy, and lists it as a Category Four Restricted Substance.

“Now, let's remember our manners,” says the first boy. “I think we ought to introduce ourselves to young Jaxten before we go offering him any Category Four Restricted Substances.”

“I know who you are,” I say, because I do. “You're Vinneas. And you”—I turn to the other boy—“you're Imway.” Imway looks surprised and impressed, but Vinneas only grins as if I've just given the correct answer to a math problem. “You're in the Handbook,” I explain, “in the section for Executive OAs.”

Vinneas is Procurator of the Academy, which is like the rhetor of all rhetors, basically in charge of every cadet here. Imway is the top-ranked OA in the Equites Aspirant, the most elite fighting unit at the Academy. Every cadet in Ninth City knows these two.

“Sounds like we're famous, Way,” Vinneas says, still grinning. “The Handbook! It doesn't get much better than that.”

The girl, meanwhile, is watching me with something between impatience and sarcasm. She's a lot smaller than the other two, with bright blue eyes, wavy black hair pinned up at odd angles, and a way-more-than-regulation number of earrings. “Um,” I say, squirming a bit under her gaze, “I don't know who you are.”

Imway and Vinneas start laughing, like this is the funniest thing they've ever heard.

“Now that you mention it,” Imway says between laughs, “I don't recognize her, either—Vinneas, who is this girl?”

“I don't know—I thought you invited her!”

The girl watches them with obvious annoyance. “Nice to meet you,” she says to me. “I'm Kizabel, but my friends call me Kiz.” She glances at the boys, now leaning on one another like they're about to fall over laughing. “None of them are here right now.”

“Aw, Kiz, we didn't mean it,” Vinneas says, wrapping an arm playfully around her. “I'll have you know, Jaxten, that our girl here has a vast number of remarkable talents.” Imway snorts at this; Kizabel tries to kick him, but Vinneas holds her back.

“For example,” he says pointedly, “she is undoubtedly the most sought-after artifex at the Academy, arguably in the entire city. I'll bet you've used some of her artifices without even knowing it. A lot of philosophers around here would kill to work with her.”

“If only she didn't keep failing her general exams,” Imway concludes, still smirking. Something metallic bounces off his arm, and I see Kizabel has thrown her cup at him. She's trying to pull herself loose from Vinneas, snarling like she's going to rip Imway's head off.

“Did you finish that already?” Imway says, picking up the cup and examining it. “I'm not giving this back, you know. You're too much of an angry drunk.”

“I'm not drunk, you stupid oaf,” Kiz growls. She jabs Vinneas in the ribs, making him loosen his grip, then ducks past him and charges straight at Imway. It doesn't seem like a very good plan. He's twice her size at least, and he holds her off with one arm, not flinching even when she starts punching and kicking him and calling him things that would have gotten her a whole lot of disciplinary work hours if any of her supervising officers were here.

“Pay attention, Jaxten,” Vinneas says, rubbing his side but grinning, too. “This is how grown-ups settle their differences.”

“Shut up, Vinn,” Kizabel yells. “You're next!”

Vinneas raises his hands in surrender. “Forget I said anything.” While Kizabel goes on punching Imway, Vinneas leans toward me and kind of half whispers, “Kizabel's sense of honor demands a token show of force. Nothing to worry about so long as nobody breaks into their repertoire of artifices.”

Just then there's a kind of buzzing-popping sound, and Imway's glasses go flying into the air. He stumbles back, blinking and looking between Kizabel and his glasses, which have landed at the other end of the balcony. “Oh, so it's going to be like that, is it?” he says.

Kizabel is taking off her earrings and putting them in her pocket. “Yup.”

“Now's about when we might want to take cover,” Vinneas says.

“You have to get to the shelters!” I shout. I'd actually almost forgotten where I was until Vinneas mentioned taking cover. We're in the middle of an attack. “If the city is hit—”

“We're not worried,” Imway says casually. I'd looked away from him and Kizabel for maybe half a second when I thought about the shelters, and now he's somehow gotten her in a headlock. Her face is bright red from trying to squeeze out, but Imway is acting like there's nothing strange going on. “We've got you to protect us, right, champ? Nothing's getting past Fontanus Jaxten. You're gonna—”

“Will you
shut up
?” Kizabel breaks in. Even though she's been yelling at Imway pretty much since I got here, this is the first time she's sounded really, actually mad. Imway lets go of her immediately, and she stands up, using her fingers to comb back her hair, which is pretty messed up from the headlock. “Come on. Look at the kid.”

That sick, airless feeling is back, and I feel hot, sort of quivery, like my legs are going to melt. It shouldn't be me out here. The Seat of the Champion is made for people like Imway and Vinneas, and Kizabel, too, people who are smart and brave and amazing. Not some random kid.

BOOK: Ninth City Burning
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