Insects sing just beyond the arched entryways, as Reyna calls upon the three of them in turn. Piper is the last and stands at the end, her head held high and still. They are all Probatio at the end of their first year, tense and eager (although not foolish enough to show it) as Reyna addresses the campers scattered around the dining hall.
This is as much a test as anything else at Camp Jupiter and every one of them is expected to perform.
Reyna finishes speaking and goes to the first, a boy, and takes his Probatio plate, offering him congratulations. She takes ahold of his outstretched arm and passes her hand over it. A sound like water hitting hot iron—the sharp spitting hiss of it—echoes in the hall.
The boy flinches, jerking briefly to escape the pain. A display of weakness he’ll pay for later. In the meantime, Reyna welcomes him officially into the legion.
The next, a girl, pales considerably, but remains still, even as the smell of burnt flesh rises into the air. Reyna welcomes her as well.
Then only Piper is left, and she keeps her fear and apprehension locked deep inside her chest. She isn’t the girl from a year ago, but when Reyna comes to stand before her, tall and regal and effortlessly composed, Piper nearly falters. She’s back where she started, untrained and overwhelmed, stumbling and falling and all over the place, too weak, too slow, too soft—Reyna leveling her with a cold glare, voicing that, perhaps, Lupa had made a mistake.
Piper fights to meet Reyna’s gaze. She knows better—now—the fine line between controlled respect and purposeful defiance. Reyna never takes kindly to disrespect. Not from her colleagues, not from the legion, and certainly not from Piper.
Especially not from Piper.
Reyna’s dark eyes linger over her face before dragging down her body. It’s nothing but a brazen display of possessiveness—permissible only because Reyna’s back is to the crowds and Piper can’t react in the way they both know she wants too.
Breathe in. Piper holds out her arm. Breathe out.
“Piper McLean,” Reyna says. Her voice is cold but ignites a fire in Piper’s chest, her touch grazing Piper’s arm before taking it in a vice grip. “Daughter of Venus.”
Goosebumps rise over Piper’s skin at the contact and she wishes Reyna would just get on with it. Every second seems an eternity and Piper knows Reyna’s doing this all on purpose—had known the second Reyna stepped up to the dais instead of Octavian.
Agony erupts on the underside of her arm, white hot pain pressing insistently—without mercy. Her fist clenches, a small gasp escaping her lips. The pain spreads quickly, tearing up her arm and radiating throughout her body, pulsing in waves as Piper’s skin blisters and chars.
The smell of burning flesh hits her nose, a wave of nausea rolling through her. Piper’s jaw locks, teeth clacking together, arm beginning to quake. She’s going to scream. She’s going to scream--
And then it stops, and Piper’s sweating and fighting to stay on her feet. That happened once. To a son of Mercury. He collapsed. They took a vote and made him wait another year. Like fuck that’s going to happen to Piper. She’s done it and she’s done with it.
The brand lies heavy and black and shiny on her arm, surrounded by reddish puckering skin. It still hurts like nothing Piper’s ever felt before, and she knows it will hurt for weeks to come. It will call to her, remind her of her duty, and ensure the fires of Rome are always with her. She will never forget this moment. She never wants to forget this moment.
“Probatio no longer,” Reyna says, a small, satisfied smirk turning up the corners of her mouth. “Welcome, legionnaire.”