Today's Reading

"Bring two more rounds only for me," I tell Leslie, in case I need an extra push over the ledge. "My friends do need to be done for the night." I, however, don't. Who cares if I make it to Commencement at all? I won't have family present eager to see me graduate from Mareen's most prestigious academy, and there's no grand next step for me afterward.

"You need to be done too," Selene says without the tact Zayne used. Our waitress watches the exchange awkwardly.

"Let's compromise." Zayne, of course, is ever the diplomat. "We all have another round together then we all leave together."

I glare at him.

He and Selene stare back at me, an unyielding and united front.

"Fine," I lie, already thinking of ways to skirt the promise. "One more round, since apparently it's gang-up-on-Ikenna night."

Leslie smiles in relief, then makes her escape.

"For real, Kenna. We're all leaving. I'll drag you out of this bar if I have to." Selene gives me a humorless look that tells me You know I'll do it.

"Okay," I say, exasperated. "We all leave together to get some rest for a Commencement ceremony that will mean nothing to me and everything to you." Bitterness drips from my words. It shouldn't. The psymedics' recommendation is a good thing. It allows me to keep numbing the pain by shirking all duty and indulging in reckless shit for the next year.

Embarking on my personal grand adventure early, I look around for Leslie, willing her to hightail her ass back to our table with the next round.

She reappears not a moment too soon.

I swipe up the full shot glass she sets down in front of me and toss it back. A new high instantly hits. The euphoric numbness lasts longer this time, perching me on the ledge of oblivion but not yet pitching me over. My stupid system is purging the alcohol and boosters too damn fast.

I nod toward Leslie, who's taking the drink orders of rowdy Praetorians at an adjacent table. "Weren't you planning on going home with Miss I'm-pretending-to-be-coy-but-I'm-game?" I ask Zayne, trying to maneuver out of the promise my pushy friends muscled me into making.

But I don't really care about his answer the moment I recognize the people at the table she's serving. I instantly wish I hadn't looked over at the Praetorians, because it blows my high and sends me sprawling back from the ledge on my ass. The tiny symbol emblazoned in gold above the left breast pocket of their maroon dress coats marks them as belonging to Gamma cohort.

Grandfather's cohort.

One of the guys sees me watching his crew. He salutes me with a raise of his glass before downing its clear contents. His chestnut-brown hair is buzzed half an inch longer than an induction cut. He has dark-cobalt eyes and a leanly muscled, powerful form shown off by the way his dress uniform is specially cut to his body. The tip of an inktat peeks from under the stiff white collar of his coat. He's attractive, but it isn't his good looks I'm staring at. It's the wretched Gamma symbol. An ache blooms in my chest, and treacherous, unbridled thoughts of everything I've lost pummel into me like steel-fisted blows. My grandfather. Our plans for my future. My friends come morning. I don't just need to be back on the ledge again, I need to be careening over it. But to do that, I'm going to have to stay in the bar and engage in a fresh bout of heavy drinking.

Which means ditching these two before Commencement. I need another shot.

"Isn't your father expecting you at home tonight?" I remind Selene. Her father is a Tribune, one of the fourteen powerful generals who sit on the Tribunal Council and help govern Mareen. His rank places her family among the great war houses of the Republic, and it's a long-standing tradition for their children to spend the night at home instead of the barracks on Commencement Eve. At dawn, breakfast feasts will be held by all the war houses in honor of their graduates, who will undoubtedly declare and be confirmed to the venerated Praetorian rank. I should be returning to Grandfather's residence tonight. He and I do not hail from a war house, but I should be waking to an intimate breakfast between the two of us in the morning.

Instead...
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