When Paige and I returned to the keep, our arrival was met with enthusiasm. Correspondence from the capital had preceded our arrival, but the commander and her regiment were eager to hear the news first hand.
“Of course a treatise hasn’t been signed,” I finished, fumbling under the commander’s intense scrutiny. I could never tell what she was thinking. “But the Pythians agreed to extend their visit, and even their ambassador believes it is only a matter of time.”
“Well, this is quite a…development.” The commander grasped a hot mug of cider tightly in hand. “I think I speak for most when I say none of us anticipated this news.” She paused and took a long sip from her cup. Her knuckles were white. “We hoped, of course, but hope never wins a war.”
“That’s not all.”
The woman’s eyes bulged as I took out Prince Blayne’s purse and emptied its contents onto the table between us.
“W-what’s this?” she breathed.
“I petitioned Dar -the Crown- to help the North… The king couldn’t grant as much as I’m sure the border towns need—but I was hoping this would help?”
“Help?” The commander stared at me, studying my face for a sign of what, I wasn’t sure. “It has been a great many years since the north received attention from the Crown.” She inhaled sharply. “This will go a long way towards rebuilding their villages. I continue to underestimate your value to our keep.” She paused in afterthought. “And the Crown.”
“I-it wasn’t just me.” I scratched at my arm. I never would have even thought to ask without Ian’s prompting, and it was Darren and Blayne who had actually seen to the favor. I tried to explain, but she wouldn’t let me finish.
“We live in a world of kings. Like it or not, not everyone’s request would make such an impression.” Her expression was detached. “My men have sent the same petition for years, and this is the first time King Lucius has ever granted an exception.”
Was that true? I cringed and realized her compliments weren’t quite as innocent as I had been led to believe.
“Never regret your influence.” The commander crooked her teeth in what I supposed was a cheery smile. “I will begin to make disbursements in the morning. I suspect many of the others will be a bit easier to contend with after they hear the news.”
“You knew about that?”
“Some of my soldiers are a bit harder to please.” She gave me a reassuring grasp on the shoulder as she showed me to the door. “I advise you not to pay them any attention.”
I coughed uncomfortably. “Thank you, Commander.”
“No, thank you, Mage Ryiah.”
The level of gratitude was overwhelming, and as Paige followed me to the barracks I realized how earnest Ian’s request had truly been. I had never grown up in the north. My stint of service didn’t begin to cover the shortcomings resulting from the Caltothian border raids.
It made me upset to realize how much must have been behind Ian’s petition to help. I was ashamed of my own ignorance, and a part of me was upset he had been right in assuming I could make the difference the Commander’s appeals could not. I wasn’t comfortable with that influence, and something about Nyx’s words reminded me of Darren’s speech several years before:
“People make mistakes all the time—some of us are just in more of a position to leave an impact when we do.” Impact. Influence. Somehow along the way I had joined the circle of people whose actions dictated change, and it scared me how easy it would be to make the wrong one.
“Paige, will you tell me if you think I am making the wrong decision?”
“Wrong decision for what, my lady?” The knight had already collapsed onto her bunk, grateful to lie down after a long, cold week of travel.
I sat down on my cot, pulling the covers up to my chest. The rest of the barracks occupants were already fast asleep. “For anything.”
“Gladly.” She pointed to my water skin. “You’re making the wrong one right now. You should always ask your guard if she requires the last drink.”
She rolled her eyes and settled in for the night. I heard soft snores coming from her just a moment later.
So much for help. I threw the water in her direction half-heartedly but she didn’t move. I tossed and turned and I had almost fallen asleep when she finally spoke:
“You haven’t made one yet, my lady.”
I fervently hoped she was right.
My next two weeks at the keep flew by. Since my unit was still away on patrols for the first seven days I used my brief break to train alongside the Combat mages on reprieve. Most of them were older men and women closer to my parents’ age than my own. Their focus was primarily on physical conditioning since the majority of their magic stores had started to diminish with age. They had to be extremely selective in casting, and I found it very interesting to study their process of choosing.
We trained hard day after day, and during our breaks they offered critiques on my casting. I exerted too much pressure in a lot of my magic—still, and while I was refined in my pain casting, I was lacking in traditional casting.
During my time at the Academy most of my masters had been so focused on revealing the depths of my potential they had never sought to polish the castings at hand. Master Byron had all but ignored me during the apprenticeship when he hadn’t been openly insulting my technique, and so the older mages’ feedback now was much more invaluable because of it.
Practicing a simple casting over and over to varying degrees of concentration was tedious, but after Darren’s remarks the day I left Devon, I was determined to try anything and everything in the hopes he had missed something important on his own. Because now more than ever I was determined to win.
I had always seen Darren as a rival, but for the longest time I hadn’t seriously contemplated my role. Our trial year I had just been lucky to snag an apprenticeship in the same faction. During the apprenticeship most of our competitive nature had been lost to an uncertain romance and Master Byron’s bias. But now that we were training apart and with the Candidacy quickly approaching? Now that I was only one rank away from the non-heir’s status? Now that he said I would never be as good as him?
Now our rivalry had reared its ugly head, and I for one embraced it. Some small part of me had always known it would come to this. Neither Darren nor I were blameless. No one ever made it into Combat without ambition, and those of us that did had been cultivating a lust for power for years.
Common sense dictated I accept my inevitable loss.
But I was tired of being second-best.
“So Ray got promoted while I was away?” I stared at the missing mage’s spot in our riding formation. I had noticed his absence when my unit had returned from patrols, but I had assumed he had taken a leave of absence. Advancement so soon into our service hadn’t crossed my mind, and even if it had I wouldn’t have thought Ray would be the first to obtain it. Ian, perhaps, with his extra year of expertise or me. But Ray…he hadn’t saved our unit during the bandit attack in the mountains, and…
You might as well admit the truth. I frowned as the bitter thought took over. You are a better rank.
Maybe I was mistaken. Maybe there was another reason.
“What…” I cleared my throat and tried again. “What wonderful news.”
Lief didn’t notice the strange lilt to my tone. “His performance was exceptional. He will do well in Sir Maxon’s squad.” The man gave me an easy grin. “Don’t worry, Ryiah, I suspect you will be next.”
But why wasn’t I first?
I waited until the lead mage was busy in conversation with my knight before I pulled closer to Ian, slowing my mare’s progress. Maybe now that our leader was gone he would be willing to share an opinion.
The next couple of minutes passed in silence.
“Great news for Ray,” I prompted.
Ian adjusted his reigns. “I should say so.”
“It doesn’t bother you at all?”
The curly-haired mage gave me a puzzled smile. “Why would it bother me?”
“Lief just insinuated you would be last up for a promotion.” He had also stated that Ray’s performance had been exceptional—when I had been the one to save our unit from the bandits. But if I mentioned that now it would sound like I was jealous.
Maybe I was. Ray was a great person, and a good Combat mage, but even he had admitted to being less powerful than I. Why shouldn’t Ian or I get the promotion first? I had the best rank and Ian was ahead of both of us in years of service.
It made no sense.
“Oh, that?” Ian shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry about it. I trust in Lief’s judgment. He sees things the rest of us miss.”
Even Byron? Well, the master was only paying close attention to Darren in our apprenticeship anyway. Suddenly, I was nervous. What if I wasn’t even second rank? What if it was supposed to be Ray, and Master Byron had just been too nervous around Marius to say so? The Black Mage had paid me special attention to annoy my training master—perhaps he had never noticed there was someone better.
Is that what Darren was insinuating the day I left?
No. I dug my nails into my palms to draw my thoughts away from the doubt. Don’t start to question it now. Lief just made a mistake. People make mistakes all the time.
But what if it was Byron who made the mistake? My head hurt. I buried my face in my hands and groaned. Stop thinking, Ryiah. Any more questions were only going to bring out every insecurity I had ever fought since that first day at the Academy.
I needed to change the subject, fast.
I opened my mouth but Ian beat me to it. “So I heard some interesting news.”
I started. “Y-you did?”
“Rumor is going around that Commander Nyx received a generous sum from the Crown.” The corners of his eyes were crinkled. “You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you, Ry?”
“It was your idea,” I mumbled. “If you hadn’t suggested it, I never would have thought to ask.” For all the trouble I had put Ian through in the course of our apprenticeship, here was something that I could do for him.
He cocked his head to the side. “Did you go to the king directly, or…?”
“Darren. He petitioned his brother.” I paused, guiltily. There were only three people I personally knew who held the crown prince with as little regard as I: one of them was Ian and the other two were my best friend and twin. Now was probably not the best time to mention that Blayne’s aid was a form of “amends.” “Blayne holds more sway with his father.”
Ian looked away and studied his hands. “How was your return to the palace? I imagine the visit was much more pleasant with your new role?”
I snorted. “Hardly. I spent a week taking lessons in decorum and the rest of the time watching the court pretend I didn’t exist—when they weren’t trying to win my favor.”
He raised an exaggerated brow. “I’m sure there were some advantages.”
Getting picked apart by the Pythian ambassador and threatened by the king? I shook my head, and drew my hair back into a knot. “If there are I have yet to discover them.” I paused, realizing how selfish I sounded even to myself. “Except for my own chamber. That was nice.”
“Well I’m sure Darren was happy to see you.”
“He was…” Right until the time he found out about you. I swallowed.
Ian caught my expression. “Let me guess, the young princeling found out I was here and assumed it was part of my nefarious plan to steal your heart.” The mage chuckled and looked skyward. “Well, I can’t say I missed him either. The next time you see your betrothed, please remind him not all of us sink to his level of treachery to get the girl.”
I cringed. This conversation had not taken a favorable course. I wasn’t pleased with Darren either but… But this wasn’t making the situation any better. These two would never be friends, too many wrongs, and there was nothing I could do to set them right.
“Alright everyone, you know the routine. Tend to your mounts and then see to the camp.” Sir Gavin’s voice rang out loud and clear. Ian and I started from our thoughts.
The mage kept his eyes on the pine ahead as the two of us dismounted and walked across the clearing to where the rest of the party had started to tie up their charges. “In any case, I am happy he was decent enough to help you with the request.”
I felt the tension leave my shoulders. I exhaled quietly. “Thank you, Ian.”
He looked up, but the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. “I know you’ve been having trouble being accepted around here because of your new status, but I think this will go a long way toward changing the stubborn ones’ opinions.”
I nodded, not quite believing and still hoping desperately he and Commander Nyx would prove me wrong. So far I hadn’t noticed a difference.
Everyone was still treating me with the same amount of hostility as before. Although, to be fair, I hadn’t made that much of an effort to mingle.
In truth, since my return I’d been more isolated than usual. I was still upset over the way Darren and I had left things, and between my anger and his residual taunt I had become obsessed with my training both as a diversion and a way to prove the non-heir wrong. So much so that I had stopped taking meals with the rest of my unit. Who realized how much longer it took to eat surrounded by conversation? And while I was sure it didn’t help my relations with the squad, it did amass an extra hour between the three meals of the day for drills.
An hour that before might have been part of some meaningless banter.
I wasn’t so sure I cared what the soldiers thought of me anymore. I had proven myself—in my regular performance, in the bandit raid, and now my petition for coin. Quite frankly, I had done a whole lot more for my regiment than most men combined. If they wanted to complain about some privileged girl, there was nothing I could do to stop them. And I was done trying.
I finished brushing down my horse and set down my supplies. “I’m off to wash up before dinner, see you at drills after?”
Ian studied my face and then sighed. “You know, Ryiah…”
I waited for him to finish.
The mage cleared his throat. “It wouldn’t hurt to spend some more time with the rest of the company. I know you want to train, but it’s only the Candidacy. Relations here are going to matter a lot more than some contest.”
I thought back to my first year of the apprenticeship when Ian had made a similar remark about Darren’s time spent training with Byron. This was different. I had tried, and… And quite honestly Darren’s methods had worked. Which one of us was first rank now? I should have been ignoring everyone and focusing on myself.
And now, for the first time, Darren was slipping. And I had the opportunity to rise. I understood Ian’s concern, but it was time to turn to me.
“My friends are the people that matter. People like you and Ray and Lief and Ruth and everyone who got to know me for me. The ones blinded by the Crown? Well, it doesn’t make a difference; I’ll be out of here soon anyway.”
Ian muttered something under his breath. I didn’t catch it.
“What was that?”
The mage looked me straight in the eyes. “You sound just like him.”
Ian’s tone had an edge and even though I was still upset with Darren I flushed angrily in reply.
“Maybe I do. Darren is the most powerful mage of all of us, why shouldn’t I want to be like him?”
He just shook his head. “I’m sorry I said anything.”
I didn’t continue the conversation; I just grabbed my things and left.
Derrick found me later that night. I was practicing my pain casting in a clearing with Paige’s supervision. The guards at the camp’s perimeter stood silently beyond. Most of the squad had gone to bed.
The evening’s drills had been especially awkward. I knew Ian had told Lief our earlier conversation over dinner because when I arrived everyone had seemed especially uneasy. It was the quietest practice any of us had had.
Derrick waited until I had lowered the stump to the ground; my magic was still growing.
“Doesn’t that hurt?” He pointed to my arm as I withdrew the small, serrated blade. Master Byron had made us pain cast with a variety of weapons, but the knife was still my favorite for practice.
I held a cloth in place as Paige wrapped it around the top of my forearm. Sir Gavin expected us in top health at all times in the event of an attack, but I usually waited until the last possible minute to seek out a healer. I was determined to become as accustomed to pain as possible.
I rolled my shoulders. “Every bit hurts.” But a high tolerance will give me an edge in battle. I studied his anxious expression. “Why did you really come here, Derrick?”
“I overheard Ian at dinner while you were away.” His face grew serious. “Ryiah, it’s a mistake to withdraw from the rest of our unit.”
Not him too. I scowled at my brother. Derrick had always taken my side in everything. Hearing him turn away now was something I couldn’t take. Not willingly.
“Derrick.” Tears were stinging my eyes. “I tried. You saw how hard I was trying before I left. I even brought all that coin from the Crown. But now they want me to waste my time making friends? The same people who want nothing to do with me?”
“I’m sorry, Ry.” Derrick scuffed at the ground with his boot. “I just don’t want them thinking the Crown has changed you. You are so much more than your title, and I just want you to give them a chance to see it.”
“Who are the ones who are doing all of this ‘talk?’”
“The names aren’t important—”
“It was Jacob, wasn’t it?” As soon as I said it I knew I was right just from the look on his face. “You know, your friend has done nothing but scowl since the two of you arrived. I would hardly consider him an expert on human relations.”
Derrick bristled. “Jacob lost his mother to a Caltothian raid, Ry. And if you must know it wasn’t just him. Everyone thinks you prioritize your training over the good of the regiment.”
It took everything I had to keep my voice to an outraged whisper. “How is my training a bad thing? I am the best mage here –my power helps them!”
“We are supposed to be a unit, but you are looking out for yourself!” he countered. “Ry, the majority of our time is spent away from battle. One of the first things a soldier learns in the Cavalry is to get to know his comrades. Relationships are instrumental to trust—and you haven’t bothered to build up any since you arrived. You perform your duties and that’s it.” He lowered his voice. “The only people you ever bother to talk to are your friends in Combat or Paige—and forgive me for saying it, but she is just as isolated as yourself.”
Paige shot my brother a glare as I snapped, “People have far too much time on their hands if they are complaining I am not friendly enough.”
“It’s the reason Ray was promoted before you.” Derrick met my eyes. “The orders came straight from Sir Gavin himself.”
After… after all I’ve done for this place. Last year’s attack and the bandit raids and the Crown’s coin, and I’m the best mage in my unit and it still isn’t enough. Commander Nyx tells me over and over how impressed she is, but she lets my squad commander promote someone else. All because I don’t try to make friends with the people who talk behind my back.
For once, I didn’t speak. My lungs burned and months of frustration were fighting to break their way to the surface. I kept trying to swallow, and all I got were sharp, angry gasps that seemed to build with each breath. That moment you are so angry you could barely breathe? I felt betrayed. I was sick to my stomach, and all I could think was that everyone hated me and once again I was that insecure first-year trying to prove herself to the world.
Would it be enough? Would anything I did ever be enough?
My brother drew forward but I raised my hand.
“Go, Derrick.” I exhaled slowly. “Just go.”
His shoulders slumped and my stomach hurt. I watched my brother retreat wondering if I should have let him stay. Derrick was only looking out for me. He always had my best interests at heart.
The problem was they weren’t mine; they were his. Derrick cared what this squad thought of me—I didn’t. My brother and Ian’s impassioned pleas only made me resent the others even more so than before. If Sir Gavin wanted to promote Ray before me then it would be the other squad’s loss when they needed more magic than the other Combat mage could handle.
“I will not apologize for my own birthright.” More than ever I understood what Darren meant all those years ago. If people couldn’t accept me for me, then I was done trying to win their acceptance.
I could say the next two months flew by and that in time everything changed, but that would be a lie. Nothing changed. Nothing got better, and nothing got worse.
Well, my training continued. And my magic’s potential continued to grow. But my relations within the squad were as barren as before. Ian and I were on shaky terms after our talk, and while Derrick had stopped trying to talk to me about the others, I knew he still wished I would try. Lief was clearly oblivious to the tension between the two Combat mages he commanded, and Sir Gavin had yet to notice any difference at all.
Reports continued to come in surrounding the Crown’s negotiations with Pythus. It came as a giant relief when the king’s summons arrived a couple weeks after that. A compromise had been reached and a date was set for the wedding. In three weeks Blayne and Princess Wrendolyn of Pythus would be wed in the capital. I was to pack my things and return to the palace much sooner than anticipated.
I would not be returning.
“Following the ceremony, you will partake in the king’s annual progress to the Academy for first-year trials. From there, the progress will immediately proceed to Montfort for the Candidacy. Commander Nyx has been made aware of your discharge.”
I couldn’t say the summons wasn’t welcome.
“So, this is it then?” Ian barely looked up as I bid farewell to Lief and our new factionmate, Killian, an older Combat mage who had transferred in from one of the Red Desert regiments shortly after I arrived.
I shifted my satchel from one shoulder to the other. “It is. I’ll miss you all.”
“A shame the two of you couldn’t stay longer.” Lief’s eyes lingered on my guard, and then he strode forward to give me a parting clap on the shoulder. He stepped out of the way just as Derrick approached, a couple soldier friends trailing closely behind.
“Thought you could leave without saying goodbye to your little brother, did you?” Derrick pulled me in for a big hug. His tone was teasing, but I caught the grief in his eyes. I was sad too. I would miss him—my two brothers and parents were scattered across the realm in service, and I would be stuck in the capital.
Maybe I could convince them all to take up service closer to Devon? Give my parents an apartment in the palace? I would talk to the King’s Regiment after the wedding. Perhaps something could be arranged.
“Don’t you dare forget about me,” I warned.
One of the soldiers gave into a series of coughs.
Jacob drawled loud enough for me to hear, “Going to a palace, seems like she would be the one to forget about us, don’t it?” I bit down on my tongue to keep from retorting. Derrick shot his friend a disapproving look before wrapping me up for one final embrace. He stepped back with a lopsided grin. “I’m saving every bit of my purse for the Candidacy, Ry. You are going to make me a rich man, you hear?”
I laughed, a little too uncomfortable with our audience. “I’ll try but… perhaps you should rethink your strategy, Derrick, I—”
“Sir Gavin already granted me the leave.” He waved his hand. “I’ll see you in two months.”
I smiled. “That you will.”
My life was about to change. If only I had known how much.