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Authors: Daniel Ottalini

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Kretarus climbed out of the compartment, looking a tad bit green. Alexandros leaned over to place his hands onto the cool surface of the panel. Suddenly, his hands slipped and jostled the joystick, sending the skimmer crashing into Kretarus, who was knocked off the stage face first onto the ground in front of the entire class. Sheepishly moving the joystick back to neutral, Alexandros backed hurriedly away from the controls. Kretarus was standing now, angrily brushing dirt and debris from his clothing and skin.

“You puny plebian! You imbecile!” he shouted. “You purposefully did that!”

He stepped back up onto the platform and approached Alexandros menacingly, pushing back the sleeves of his tunic.

“I did not!” Alexandros shouted back. “I slipped on the gloves,” he protested, trying to fend off the larger boy.

Kretarus charged him, and Alexandros ducked low under his first swing, tackling him. Both boys fell to the floor in a tangled heap of arms and legs. Alexandros was fairly certain he got in at least one or two good hits. Unfortunately, Kretarus was a master wrestler and gave just as good as he got. Alexandros soon saw stars after the other cadet’s fist connected with his eye. After much yelling, the two combatants were finally pulled apart by the professor’s aides.

“You watch yourself, Rufius. You’re going nowhere in this airfleet, you hear me? You’ll never make officer!” Kretarus sneered, struggling against the grip of the upperclassmen.

Their professor stepped between the two boys. “That is quite enough.” His voice was iron, and their struggles ceased almost immediately. “Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves. Regardless of whether or not it was an accident, fighting is strictly against the Cadet Code. Cadet Kretarus, you will leave my class and return to your quarters. Now.”

Still screeching and shouting obscenities at Alexandros, Kretarus was manhandled out of the theater.

Ikalrus turned to stare at Alexandros. “Cadet Alexandros, I would have figured you had better sense than to let a stupid comment like Kretarus’s get to you.”

“But, sir, I didn’t… it wasn’t…” Alexandros protested.

“You’ve just made a powerful enemy, cadet. I hope you’re prepared for the consequences. You will spend the rest of your day in the contemplation chambers. Then you will report to the master of cadets tomorrow and ask for additional gymnasium training.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Pilocretis, please see him to the contemplation chambers.”

The upperclassman released Alexandros’s arms and led him off stage. As he followed in Pilocretis’s wake, Alexandros wondered what exactly would come of Kretarus’s threat.

 

Chapter 3:
The Winnowing

H
EART POUNDING, ALEXANDROS JOSTLED WITH
his classmates as he rounded the finishing bend of the marathon. The young men, sweaty from their exertion, put everything they had into this last chance to impress the judges.

It was the final day of the trials, and for the last seven days, the oldest students of the
Athenae Roma Aeronautica
had been tested: mentally, academically, physically, and emotionally. They had been kept up for twenty-four hours straight, working in a mock-up of an airship, running the engine, using the scorpion and ballista launchers, repairing “damage” created by their instructors. They had demonstrated how to right a stalling skimmer, and how to navigate by map, landmark, and astronomy. They had even performed their swordplay and crossbow skills.

And now it was at an end.

A race from the
Athenae
to the top of the Forum in central Rome marked the traditional end of the Winnowing. The race was an opportunity for the students to see their exam results, which were posted on the notice boards just north of the arch of Septimius Severus. Ancient lore had it that the first head of the academy, too tired after waking up early for a seventh day in a row to post the exam grades at the academia proper, had simply posted them on the nearest notice board and sent a messenger to tell the cadets where to look. It had become a full-blown component of the trials in the years since its inception.

Participants ran north along the Via Aventino, past the ancient Circus Maximus, and circled the even grander Coliseum. A short sprint took them through the heart of the Forum, past the original home of the Roman Senate. The noise of their striding feet echoed off the majestic columns of the Basilica of Maxientius and the House of the Vestals.

But none of this concerned Rufius Alexandros. His only focus was winning the race. Lungs laboring, he focused on his breathing. A small group of boys, less than half a dozen in all, ran with him. The gap to their nearest competitors was large, at least thirty seconds or so, he guessed. The laurel winner would be from his group.

Just ahead, two long-legged Iberians, Ablón and Terkinos ran neck and neck, pacing each other the entire race. A half pace behind them, Alexandros and Nikanor jostled for third. Trailing them, Kretarus and Phaortes, a short, dark boy with Egyptian features, fought to keep up. The group passed under the arch of Titus with its magnificent carved friezes. The end was approaching.

Crowds of people lined the roads, cheering on the competitors. The crowd was a real cross section of society, as senators mixed with merchants, servants, and younger cadets. But all cheered and screamed madly at the runners.

Marshalling his reserves of energy, Alexandros moved ahead, legs pumping furiously. He eked out a gap past Nikanor, the boy’s breath coming in gasps. Alexandros felt his focus narrow. He shut out the crowds and the sights, concentrating just on the race. Soon he was even with Ablón and Terkinos. Eyes wide with alarm, Terkinos frantically tried to move ahead but tripped on a cobblestone. The boy fell to the ground and was quickly left behind as the other racers swerved to avoid him.

The arch of Septimius Severus was in sight. Alexandros could feel another competitor right at his back but dared not take his eyes off the arch. Closer, closer, closer it came, filling his vision and dominating the nearby buildings. A purpose-built set of bleachers stood on either side, with academia teachers and judges filling its benches. Decorum prevented them from cheering, and so they sat and watched the runners with barely restricted excitement.

Alexandros could make out the finish line before him, a long red ribbon suspended between the arches at chest height. Body aching, the cadet propelled himself forward. With just paces left to go, he threw his head and torso forward…

… and felt a foot land on his back left heel. Alexandros fell across the finish line, tangled in the victory ribbon that was also wrapped around the other two nearest competitors. Seething with anger, he got to his feet, his legs shaking with fatigue. Ablón was bent over, sucking air into his lungs with the sound of a bellows pumping a forge. On his left side, Kretarus was unable to hide his smirk as he too struggled for breath.

“Too… bad… you… couldn’t… take… first,” he wheezed out. Alexandros, incensed at his opponent’s obvious cheating, tried to muster the energy to strike at his exhausted adversary. Behind him, he could hear the crowds cheering a name. He listened closely.

It wasn’t his.

Ablón wore the red ribbon like a senatorial sash, and several members of the judging panel rushed forward to shepherd him toward the victor’s circle. Inwardly, Alexandros was in pain, but he did not fault Ablón. He turned back to Kretarus.

“Looks like you didn’t get first either,” he said in a scratchy rasp, his dry throat impeding his voice. Other cadets were now beginning to arrive, and Alexandros left his cheating adversary to go join them at the posting board.

The board was a massive piece of wood assembled for that very day once each year. On it, the student names were listed alphabetically, along with their assignment. Based on their skills, test results, and performance in the trails, the judges would decide where a student should be assigned for his next tour of duty. His position in the race determined his ability to change his assignment. Only the first place winner could change his assignment choice if he so wished. The second and third place runners would be allowed to request a change of assignments, but their requests would be reviewed by a panel of judges.

Everyone else was stuck with their original posting.

Alexandros searched each list for his name. He was fortunate that his last name was early in the alphabet, for he only had to check the top-most portion of each column. He traced his finger down the assignment postings. The first two columns—support and flight crew—had long lists of names, many of whom he considered his friends. His heart was pounding now, his stomach seeming to crawl up his throat as he hesitantly looked at the pilot and officer columns. To not have your name on any list meant that you would not be continuing with a career in the Imperial Air Fleet
.

His finger shook almost imperceptibly as Alexandros finally located his name. A feeling of relief washed over him, and he gave a small laugh. Why worry? He was one of the top three finishers, and he could request any other column assignment he wished.

For a moment he considered requesting to move to the support or flight crew training list. The chance to be with the friends he had made over the last few years was not to be dismissed easily. He paused to consider for a moment, and the push of newly arrived cadets behind him moved him away from the posting board.

But you don’t really want to spend your entire career counting rolls of canvas or aiming artillery pieces on an airship, do you?
a small voice in the back of his head whispered.

He was torn, and his face surely showed it, because Gordanus ran up to him.

“What’s the matter? Find yourself on flight crew?”

Alexandros didn’t answer for a moment as Gordanus chattered onwards.

“Or support? By the gods I would never want to be stuck there. Think my dad would be so upset he’d yank me out of the academia.” He paused, finally registering Alexandros’s non-answer. “Rufius?”

“What? Oh, sorry, yeah. I’m… well… they want me to be an officer.”

Gordanus beamed at him.

“See! Didn’t I tell you? You had nothing to worry about. You didn’t even have to push yourself like you just did!” He slapped Alexandros on the back.

“What about you?” Alexandros asked. “Have you gone to look?”

“Yes, but I’m most likely going to be in officer training with you. Guess that’s what happens when your dad happens to be one of the eight major fleet admirals.” He waded into the mob of people surrounding the boards
. At that moment, Alexandros was disgusted with Gordanus.
I swear, that boy can be the most arrogant person I know.

“So, traitor, I hope you’re excited to join the support crews.”

Okay, there
may
be someone more arrogant that Gordanus
.

“Why, Scipio, I didn’t know that cheaters were allowed to stay in the academia. Surely you’re here to tell me that you’ve realized what an absolute idiot you are and that you’ve decided to join the Vestal Virgins, eh?” he asked bitingly. For a brief moment, Kretarus looked slightly shocked. His face colored as other people around them turned to watch the two rivals verbally spar.

“I couldn’t join the Vestal Virgins, actually. They said you’d already filled their only opening. Besides, they don’t let women into the Officer’s Academia. Or traitors,” he said haughtily.

Alexandros chuckled, taking the anger he felt and funneling it into his next barb.

“Then I suppose you won’t be joining me in Officer’s Academia. Perhaps they realized that brains beat bloodline any day.” Several people around him laughed, and Kretarus’s eyebrows furrowed. He opened his mouth to speak.

“Rufius! Rufius Alexandros!” came a familiar cry. Turning his back on the other boy, Alexandros found himself face to face with his parents.

“Mother! Father! It’s good to see you!”

They embraced and Alexandros took in the smell of his mom’s lavender perfume, something he had not inhaled since their last visit at the end of his second year
. The academia purposefully kept the boys and their families separated so as to teach their students the values of self-reliance and teamwork with their fellow cadets.

“How are you? We have so many questions! And look, you’ve grown so much! Oh, you’ve got to tell me everything!” His mother was overjoyed to see him, and tears of happiness ran down her face.

“Son, I saw your name on the officer’s list…” His father’s voice trailed off. “You’ve made me so proud. You have made your family proud.”

Full of emotion, Alexandros was hard pressed to hold back tears himself.

“I’ve missed you all so much.”

“Rufius! Rufius! I made it! I’m in the Officer’s Academia!” Gordanus shouldered his way through the crowd of reuniting parents and cadets to Alexandros.

“I did it!”

“I knew you would, Gordanus.” He felt his earlier annoyance at the dark-haired admiral’s son vanish. He knew that Gordanus had his own issues to deal with, and that sometimes money and power simply gave one more problems than solutions.

Sometimes can
be a very challenging word
.

Alexandros spent some time introducing his family to Gordanus. They were very openhearted and welcoming to his friend, and upon learning that his father had been unable to attend the ceremony, insisted that Gordanus come to their house for a celebratory graduation party that night. The two boys readily agreed.

Later that evening, after having put down the delicious fare provided by the well-trained kitchen staff of the Alexandros villa just outside the walls of Rome, the family and guests reclined on their traditional divans in the dining room. Beautiful frescos decorated the walls, showing scenes of hunting and exploration, a skill that the more recent generations of the Alexandros family were renowned for in certain circles.

Gordanus was particularly interested in hearing the tale of the family’s traitorous ancestor, Gaius Cassius Longinus. Although normally considered a sore subject, Krytos Liani Cassi Alexandro decided that his young guest was simply curious and meant no harm in asking. Alexandros’s father started the story at the very beginning, enthralling the twelve year olds by weaving a tale of plots, betrayal, and execution.

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