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    Chapter one

    HADEN

    I did the unforgivable the day my mother died, and for that I’ve been punished every moment of my life.

    He’s too weak-minded.

    Impulsive.

    He’s too much like her.

    He’s too human.

    It has been ten years, and regardless of everything I’ve done to try to change their minds, the Court still speaks of me as if I am unworthy of my birthright.

    I try to lock away my doubtful thoughts as I watch the Oracle make her way up and down the ranks of Underlords. She is here to help Choose the Champions, and despite the fact that Rowan and the other Elites make it a point to tell me that I will never be Chosen, I intend to be one of them. This moment is what I’ve been preparing for. It’s what I’ve lived for.

    The Oracle has passed two entire rows of Underlords without stopping to inspect a single one. Her presence is accompanied by a buzz of energy and excitement that flows through the crowd of spectators. Most of us have never seen an Oracle before, and to hear one speak is a rarity usually reserved for kings and priests. To be Chosen by the Oracle would be an honor unparalleled by any other in this realm. One collective question occupies everyone’s mind: Why would the Oracle deign to participate in the annual Choosing of the Champions?

    Perhaps the rumors are true.

    Something more important is going on—this year’s Champions will be required to do more than procure new Boons for the Court’s harem.

    The Oracle passes two more Elites without even glancing their way, and then stops abruptly beside Rowan, King Ren’s prized son, and the favored of the Court. Surely he would be their first choice for one of the Champions if the decision were left solely to them. The Oracle reaches out her pale blue fingers and touches Rowan’s forehead. He looks stunned for a moment, blinking his eyes. As the Oracle pulls her hand away, she pinches her fingertips together as if she were pulling a thread out of Rowan’s skull. She cups the invisible thread in her hand. Her face is shrouded in layers of gauzy veils to protect her holy visage from our unclean eyes, but I can tell that she’s studying what she holds with great interest. Master Crue told us that an Oracle can draw memories and thoughts from a man’s brain—take a sample of his soul, so to speak—with only her touch.

    Rowan’s surprised expression slips away and a smug smile plays on his lips. Whatever thought or memory of his the Oracle tasted is one that makes him feel even more confident in his position. No doubt one of his many victories—like the time he slaughtered the gladiator, an untrained sap, before the man had even had a chance to draw his sword.

    I ache to knock that smug look off Rowan’s face, but then the Oracle brushes her hands as if wiping his memory from her fingers. She leaves his side and proceeds on with her task. I catch his eye and smirk. What did he think, she was going to stop the Choosing Ceremony right then and declare him the sole Champion? Rowan glares back at me and starts to make a crude gesture in my direction. Master Crue must have caught our exchange, because I hear him clear his throat. He makes a stern, “eyes forward” gesture. I snap to attention, with my shoulders back and my arms straight at my sides, one of them resting against the ceremonial sword in my scabbard. As much as I want to keep watching the Oracle as she makes her rounds, I keep my focus trained on the back of the Underlord standing directly in front of me.

    I notice that one of the leather straps holding up his bronze breastplate is twisted, as if clumsy hands had put it on. He’s shaking, too. I wonder if it is nerves. Is he anxious about being Chosen? Or anxious about being passed over? I don’t recognize him from behind, but from his size, I guess he is only fourteen. He has two more chances to be selected after this year—unlike myself. I am almost seventeen. I’ve been passed over twice before, and this is the last year I am even eligible for Champion. Anger creeps up inside of me. How dare this boy be nervous?

    I almost want to bring the flaw in his armor to the attention of one of the Heirs. The boy would receive a beating for sure for his ineptitude. But then I realize that the way his muscles tremble isn’t from nerves, but from strain. It seems he is unaccustomed to wearing the heavy bronze armor of the Underlords. That’s when I know that boy must be a Lesser—a second- or third-born son of an Heir, bred purely to serve the Court. The only time they wear the armor of the Underlords is during the annual Choosing—when they get to pretend they’re like the rest of us for the night. I don’t know why the Heirs allow it; it’s not like a Lesser has ever been chosen as Champion.

    Then again, it is not as if anyone expects me to be Chosen, either.

    The Lesser boy must’ve noticed my gaze on his twisted strap, because he turns slightly and tries to adjust it. Something about the side of his face makes me feel as though I should know him, but I do not make it a habit to associate with many Lessers. His green-stained fingers fumble with the twisted strap. I know he won’t be able to fix it on his own. He looks at me for a second, seemingly asking for my help. I snap my gaze above his head, pretending I didn’t see him. Helping a Lesser. Like I need that on my record.

    A nagging pain twists in my gut and I am suddenly reminded that I would have had the same life as a Lesser if it hadn’t been for the oath my mother had made my father swear when I was born. That oath was the only reason I had not been cast out of the ranks of the Underlords completely when my father disowned me. The day I lost my honor …

    The Lesser boy gives up on fixing his strap just as the Oracle glides into view again. She starts up our row, and I see now that she doesn’t walk but floats slightly above the ground. I try to forget about my bad memories and focus my thoughts on something that would impress the Oracle if she chooses to look inside my head. I run through my accomplishments and land on the memory of my hunting down and killing the hydra for the Feast of Return last spring. It had eluded even Master Crue and my other teachers, but I had tracked it into the cliffs above the river Styx. I was the one who had carried it into the Great Hall on my shoulders … only to have it taken from me by Rowan and his cronies before the Court witnessed my victory.

    I was so angry. Almost as angry as the day my mother collapsed and I sent a Lesser to fetch my father. He was so slow in coming, I …

    I shake my head and try to find an untainted memory as I watch the Oracle pass Underlord after Underlord, drawing nearer. I cannot let her see my shame. I silently curse the boy in front of me for dredging up memories of my darkest moment, when the Oracle comes to a sudden halt beside him. Her face is still veiled but I can tell that she is staring at him. He twitches under her inspection. I watch the way he tries to make himself appear bigger in his oversized armor. She tilts her shrouded head as if listening for something, and stands there for so long, I feel the crowd straining with anticipation.

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