Laia and her family lived in the Scholars’ Quarter. Her brother, Daren, who used to be her best friend, has disappears in the day and comes back late at night. Wanting to give him privacy, she never asked for any explanations, but when he leaves his sketchbook at home one day, his prized possession, she can’t help but taking a quick peek. She finds many sketches of intricately drawn weapons and formulas. That night, he comes home very late.When he hears the sound of Martial soldiers approaching, he urges Laia to hide the sketchbook, as that’s what they are after. The soldiers from Blackcliff Military Academy approach their house, and begin with the raid. They knock furniture over, tear down paintings, and search the house from the top to bottom-- all in search for the sketchbook. Her grandparents die protecting her and her brother. Daren is about to be killed as well, so Laia gives up the sketchbook. Laia flees the scene, silently promising her brother that she will save him. Laia finds the Resistance, hoping that they will follow izzat, a code of honor that helps anyone in times of distress. Laia will do anything to rescue her brother from prison, so she agrees to spy on the Commandment of Blackcliff, by acting as her slave. Prior to leaving for Blackcliff, she learns that her parents were Leaders of the Resistance.
Meanwhile, Elias Veturius, Black Cliff's best soldier, is planning to desert from his duties on graduation day. He hates the Martials and how they treat Scholars. After digging an underground tunnel through the catacombs for months, Elias is ready to leave Blackcliff behind, despite the risk of death if he were caught. Elias remains at Blackcliff after he is visited by Augur Cain, the one who brought him to Blackcliff when he was six, who tells him that he will obtain freedom of the body and soul if he does not desert. On graduation day, he is named an Aspirant, an individual who will undergo four trials and possibly win to become emperor of the Martial Empire: the trial of courage, cunning, strength and loyalty. He and his best friend Helene, and friends Zack and Marcus are named Aspirants as well. He meets Laia, and immediately cares for her, as he feels as if she despies the Empire, too. But, she is a slave, and in their world, slaves were subject to their master’s rule. He tries to protect her from any harm that comes her way.
Laia has been told to spy on the Commandment. She still has to complete her duties as a slave though. On her tenth day as a slave, she visits Spiro Teluman, an honorable swordsmen. Spiro informs Laia that her brother worked as an apprentice for him, and that he made his most effective Teluman blades ever with the help of Daren. Laia has also been told that Daren’s in Kauf Prison, one that eventually executes all of its prisoners. She continues attempting to find information for the Resistance.
Elias has not won any trial yet. But he hasn’t been executed, either. He has come to the realization that he will not be free if he wins the trials and becomes emperor; he will be bound to the Empire until death. So he hopes Helene will win, so he can become her Blood Shrike and be set free from his duties, and the Empire. In the third trial, his platoon is forced to go against Helene’s, in a battle to the death. All of their friends are on either side. Helene gives the first order to kill; her loyalty to the empire is firm. The trial is cut short when the Augurs barge into the amphitheater, demanding that Helene was disqualified, even though she unknowingly cheated. Haunted by the deaths of his friends, Elias spends the night with Laia in his room, since she was given to him as a prize for winning the third trial. They talk about their hopes and dreams, and they realize they have the same goal: to escape the violence of the Empire. Laia is Elias’ only true friend.
The following morning, Laia returns to the Commandments bedroom to report for morning duties. The Commandment has found out that Laia works for the Resistance, from an unknown source. Just as she’s about to kill her herself, an Augur appeared and brought her to the amphitheater for the fourth trial. Blindfolded and unaware of what was happening, Laia was the servant girl that one of the Aspirants would kill. Elias blocks Laia from Helene, but Marcus stabs Laia first. Elias loses the trial, and is to be executed the following morning. Everyone is under the impression that Laia is dead, but the Augurs rescue her and bring her to the Resistance. Laia comes up with a plan to save Elias from his execution the following morning. Laia manages to save Elias from death, and the two fugitives escape the empire through the tunnels. Their goals are 1) to stay alive and 2) to rescue Darin from Kauf Prison.