My horse lost its shoe. Somewhere trudging along the muddy mountain trail the blasted iron got stuck in a patch of high grass and ever-so-fortunately it was two hours before I noticed the limp. It took Paige and me a good part of the day just to find a farrier in the next village we passed.
Then, as we were preparing to set out, a spring storm arrived.
Thanks to the thunder and lightning we were forced to take shelter for the night, and when we awoke the next day the storm was still raging. War charges were better trained than most, but neither Paige nor I trusted a horse not to spook at giant pellets of hail and great flashes of light.
Needless to say, when we finally finished up the last leg of our travel we were two days behind schedule. We sent word with a local envoy the moment the storms let up, and then that final day we rode all night—much to Paige’s distaste—just to reach the palace in time. The king’s summons had stated Prince Blayne’s wedding was to take place the following morning, and when we finally arrived at the palace gates we had barely an hour before the ceremony would start.
“Here to report the Lady Mage Ryiah—” Paige never got to finish.
A large, pompous woman I’d never met before shot out and grabbed my arm before the declaration was over. She hollered at my knight to attend to the horse as she dragged me down the palace walk, ducking through a side door for entry.
“You’re filthy!” she snapped. “Not to mention late. The king had me attending the gates all morning. Do you have any idea what today is? The palace is filled with every noble house in the country and here you are, the mud-streaked lowborn who is supposed to marry the crown prince’s brother? Do you have any idea what the Pythians would think if they spotted you? Why they might reconsider the wedding!”
“They’ve already met—”
“None of that sass! You have less than an hour to be presentable for the ceremony. In your state we will have to skip the herald’s announcement and rush you straight to the prince’s side.” The woman shoved me into my chambers and began shouting directions at my ladies-in-waiting.
From the way the girls scrambled to attend I took the woman to be Madame Pollina, the head of staff and, incidentally, Benny’s new wife. She’d been ill during my last trip to the palace, and I could see that had been a relief.
I barely squeaked out a greeting to Celine and Gemma before the woman had me stripped and tossed into an ice cold bath.
“It would have been hot,” she continued. “If you hadn’t decided to arrive two days late.”
I didn’t get a chance to reply. My head was dunked under the water, and then I was scrubbed and poked and prodded within an inch of my life. I barely got the chance to recognize the orange-scented oils before I was dried and shoved into a dress five times more elaborate than anything I had ever borne witness to. It was silken green layers, one after the other, with a gold corset and skintight sleeves edged in gold. Every inch seemed to shimmer in the light.
I barely had a chance to admire it. The bodice was so tight I could barely breathe, and I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t deliberately so.
Then came the matching stained slippers that were a size too small and the gold-and-green necklace, which hung heavily around my neck.
I was powdered and painted and my hair arranged in heavy curls at the back of my head, and then Madame Pollina dragged me out of the rooms and through the winding halls into the palace’s holy room. I gasped.
Every inch of the chamber was packed as full as the keep. Hundreds of bright colors pressed together as highborns fought for a closer place to the front. A steady clamor of voices streamed across the rows of seats. Sunlight seemed to catch across every stained glass window, and the effect was almost blinding.
At the very front stood King Lucius and Darren in splendid red and gold, and Duke Cassius in a striking blue, the two countries’ signature colors. Just beyond was the Council of Magic. The Crown’s advisors and the king’s most trusted families came next.
On the podium itself was a priest and Prince Blayne and a young girl with lovely blond locks—from the looks of it no more than fifteen. Princess Wrendolyn.
So young, I realized.
Madame Pollina pushed and shoved her way through the crowd with me in tow. Then she threw me at the foot of the stage. I scrambled to the side, dodging Mage Marius’s amused eye as I stood beside Darren.
No one acknowledged my presence—all eyes were fixated on the priest, a small man with skin drawn tight across his face. He croaked on in countless blessings, praising the Crown and this couple for honoring the gods with their marriage and bringing a time of peace upon the land. The priest dipped his hand in a bowl of red wine and issued a prayer, blessing a pink stain across each forehead. Then the two completed their exchange of rings and vows.
The room erupted in cheers. Handfuls of flowers were tossed up into the air as the crown prince and his new wife made their way back. A herald proclaimed the beginning of a weeklong celebration of feasts, and the crowd began to disperse.
As everyone began to head to the grand ballroom I found myself nervously awaiting Darren’s notice. Prince Blayne and his princess had already left the podium, as well as King Lucius whose only greeting had been a deep scowl in my direction before he followed his first son’s procession.
What was Darren thinking?
I didn’t know what to say after the way we had left things five months before. The two of us had let our tempers get the best of us and neither were blameless. As much as I still hated the things he had said, it was time to atone for the past.
“So...” The non-heir shifted stance so that he was facing me instead of the front. His tone made it clear he had known I was there the whole time. “You finally decided to grace Devon with your presence.”
I pursed my lips. “We had bad weather. Paige sent an envoy.”
“Did she?” Darren’s eyes met mine and he forced a smile. “How convenient.”
I folded my arms. “I’m not lying, Darren.”
He gave a bored wave of his hand. “It doesn’t matter either way. I have matters to attend to.”
“Now?” This wasn’t the way I had anticipated our meeting. I panicked. “Darren—”
“I assume you know your way around.” The prince’s tone was dismissive on the chance his words weren’t abundantly clear. “The boy with the world at his feet is in need of some privileged company.”
Before I could reply Darren stepped around and left me standing at the front of the room. Alone.
That… I was struck by the urge to throw something hard at his head. How could he be so cold? I had prepared an apology but now? Now I didn’t want to apologize. Darren was mingling with a flock of highborn ladies at the center, his mouth curved in that half-smirk I mistakenly found attractive. And the girls were smiling back, batting their big lashes and touching his sleeve as they giggled overly loud.
My betrothed seemed in no hurry to leave.
I sucked air in angrily, and then pushed my way through the crowd. I didn’t know why I had thought coming here would be any different than the keep. Either way I was alone with a horde of others who seemed to belong. And the one person I was supposed to have by my side? He was too busy nursing his wounded pride with a simpering flock of sheep.
I longed for Ella. She would understand. She had survived my twin, and she knew the games of court. If there was anyone who would know what to do it was her. But of course she was gone, serving in a wonderful, appreciative regiment in Montfort with my brother instead.
We had sent letters back and forth while I was at the keep. The two of them were as happy as could be. Alex had been promoted twice in the infirmary he served, and Ella’s squad had frequent mock-duels in the same arena as the coming Candidacy. I was jealous.
I hadn’t told either of them about my fight with Darren. Or my troubles in Ferren. I didn’t want anyone to pity me. After hearing their happy tale, I just couldn’t tell them mine. It was a far cry from pleasant.
Wallowing in pity is going to get you nowhere. I would not let Darren’s cold demeanor stop me from enjoying the rest of the day. The bride and groom had a parade through the city for the commoners, but a feast was already being held in one of the ballrooms while the rest of the highborn court awaited the couple’s return. I squared my shoulders and strode into the hall, determined to steal some of Benny’s delicacies before the rest of the crowd finished them off. I wasn’t the only fan of his cooking. Perhaps I would sneak away to visit Benny later. Although, now that his charming wife was back, perhaps it would be better to avoid the kitchens.
Maybe Wolf, I decided. I was still wary around the kennel—and dogs in general— but in my last visit I had made it a point to stop by once a day with a bit of the cook’s scraps. I had even gotten myself to pet Wolf during that last morning. I had been hoping to surprise Darren the next time I visited, but now…
I pushed my frustration aside and stood there, stuffing myself. Eventually I was forced to stop—blasted corset. I was still hungry, but I couldn’t manage anymore unless I ripped the silly thing right out from under my dress. Somehow I didn’t think that would go over too well with the Crown.
All around me the highborn court flitted from one circle of acquaintances to the next, passing conversation until the heir and his bride returned from their progress. I stood idly by for the next hour wondering how much trouble I would be in if I attempted to escape before the festivities had truly begun. Darren had yet to make an appearance, and his father was busy reproaching one of the servants across the room. Maybe no one would notice.
“How fares my favorite new mage?”
I started from my thoughts to find Marius studying a platter of meats. The Black Mage grinned at me, white teeth flashing. “Or have I rendered you speechless once again, Ryiah?”
I quickly fumbled for a response. I was in a constant state of awe every time the two of us crossed paths. The towering mage bore the robe—and title— of my dreams. The gold lining was striking against the dark tint of his skin, and the silk seemed as fluid as water.
“I-I only just arrived.” Great, I already sound like a short-sentenced oaf. “Have you and the Council really been away all this time?” I would have thought they’d have participated in at least some of the Pythian negotiations.
“Both a blessing and a curse.” The mage gave me a conspiratorial wink and tilted his head in the direction of his comrades. “Those two quibble like a couple of hens, but then again that’s all the others do while we are here.”
I glanced in the direction he indicated. A tall blond-haired woman a little older than Marius had her stark red lips pressed permanently in a frown while an older man with grizzled, brown locks and soft, yellowed eyes conversed. Each bore their faction’s signature robe with the prestigious gold trim that distinguished them from the rest. Though their hoods were pulled back, I could still make out a small fortune of sparkling gemstones lining each rim.
It was strange to think that in one short month these three great mages would give up their legacy. A twenty-year reign anew.
The grin left Marius’s face. “We spent months in Cyri trying to put a face to the rebels in the south. All that time and no leads… Perhaps my successor will have better luck.”
“I should have requested a post in Ishir,” I muttered.
“We had half the Crown’s Army combing the desert to no avail.” The man heaved a sigh. “As much as I would have enjoyed your company, dear Ryiah, it would have done us no good. The rebels prefer sabotage to open attacks. Your experience in the Mahj salt mines was one of a kind.”
“There is no action in the north.” I bit back a wistful sigh. “I thought there would be, with the attack on Ferren last year, but the closest encounter I had was with a small camp of bandits.”
Marius gave me a crooked grin. “Here we are at the brink of war, and you are still itching for an opportunity to show off that fancy potential of yours.” He gave a throaty laugh. “Don’t you worry one bit, my dear, the Candidacy will push you to that brink.”
I started to reply, but a curious nobleman beat me to it. “Do you think the new treaty will stop the Caltothians, Mage Marius?”
The Black Mage grumbled under his breath so only I could hear him, “And the endless assault begins.” Louder he said, “My Lord Flavius, how pleasant to see you.” He paused to have the man repeat his question. “No, I don’t believe that nonsense for a minute. Yes. Exactly… The Caltothians haven’t spent three decades assaulting our border to give up so easily… Not yet… I should say… No, I—”
A cluster of others arrived to pepper the mage with questions. I inched away. Marius caught my eye and lifted a knowing hand in farewell. The man would be busy for the rest of the evening.
Just as I was gathering the courage to sneak past the exit the herald blew his horn to clear the room. I stood a little straighter as Prince Blayne and Princess Wrendolyn were announced to the crowd. The non-heir emerged shortly thereafter, and it was only after he shot me an expectant look that I realized I was supposed to follow. Well, how am I supposed to read your mind when you won’t talk to me? If Darren hadn’t been so busy flirting with the ladies of court he could have warned me about their entrance.
I hurried to the front, ignoring the snickers as I took my seat at the head table and praying my face wasn’t as red as it felt.
“I like your dress.”
I glanced over to the speaker and found myself face to face with Blayne’s new bride. Her eyes were bright.
“Thank you, Princess,” I mumbled.
She smiled. “You can call me ‘Wren,’ Lady Ryiah. Is it okay if I call you just ‘Ryiah?’ Because if it’s not I—”
Lucius stood, goblet in hand, and the rest of her words fell away. The king’s voice as decisive as steel, and it was also the first time I had ever heard him address a crowd. The man’s hair might be white but his manner cut like ice. There was no question he held the room’s attention.
“Today marks the beginning of a new reign. For the first time in our great nations’ history, Jerar and Pythus sit united as one. I toast to my firstborn son and his new bride, a lovely addition to the Crown. May the both of you live long and prosperous with many heirs to come.”
My tongue grew heavy in my mouth. What did Blayne’s marriage mean for Darren and me? The king had promised our wedding following the Pythian negotiations, but until now I had all but forgotten in the chaos that followed.
Darren caught me studying him, a muscle ticking in his jaw, and then he returned to scowling at the tapestry across the way.
I ground my teeth. This is going to be a long night.
Lucius continued on with a stern order for quiet. “This new treaty should dissuade the Caltothians for now, but it will not promise us peace. I have given Emperor Liang and King Joren my word Jerar will not initiate a war, but make no mistake—the next time King Horrace strikes we will have the strength of the alliance behind us.”
A murmur of dissent started up in the back of the hall. It wasn’t long before the crowd was in an uproar, baying for Caltothian blood. The new princess was one of the only ones who did not, and considering she could have very well married their prince instead, I understood her discomfort. I kept quiet, too. Death didn’t excite me, and the prospect of war even after a new treaty was not something I wanted to ponder.
When the crowd finally settled, the king concluded his speech. “As tentative as our future might be, there is one thing for certain—and that is the Crown.” His gaze narrowed to Darren. I swallowed, my mouth suddenly dry. “Today’s union brings the onset of another. My youngest and his betrothed shall wed upon the progress’s return from Montfort. Their marriage will bind Jerar to the Borea Isles, and our alliance will be complete.”
“Here, here.” Duke Cassius pounded the table with his fist. His cheeks were ruddy—and from his high spirits I was sure he was on his second bottle for the night. “To the New Alliance. May great fortune favor us all.”
King Lucius’s discerning gaze swept the hall as he held his goblet high. “To the New Alliance.”
The sea of nobility raised its glasses in return, echoing the king’s words.
There was a moment of silence and then the herald emerged from the entry, clearing his throat. “Let the festivities begin!”
A procession of entertainers poured in from the hall.
Almost instantly the room was a cacophony of noise. Music started as a group of performers wove up and down the aisles, stringed rebecs and lutes in hand. A group of jesters. A pairing of performers with masks of popular gods. Another man spun sticks of fire in a fast-spinning web.
It wasn’t long before a dance broke out near the front of the room. The musicians filed into a corner and began their procession as courtiers flooded the ballroom’s center.
Prince Blayne was one of the first to escort his new bride to a dance.
I waited until the king and Duke Cassius were deep in conversation, then I took a deep breath and turned to face the prince at my right.
Darren’s garnet eyes met my own, but he made no attempt to smile.
“Are you going to ask me, too?”
His lip curled. “Really, Ryiah?”
“I am trying to make peace. This is your brother’s celebration, so won’t it be improper if we don’t?”
“I pay no heed to what anyone thinks.” He pushed back his chair, wood legs creaking against the marble floor as he stood. “Least of all you.”
I flushed. “That’s it? I return after four months apart and you are really so desperate to be rid of me? You don’t even want to try and have a conversation.”
“I’m sure you had a good cry and farmboy was there to comfort you in my place.”
My jaw dropped. “Do you think so little of me?”
Garnet flared in response. “I don’t know. Sometimes a person’s opinion can surprise you.”
“Darren, I’m trying to apologize.”
“You wouldn’t mean a single word.” His words were bitter as he started to walk away. “The truth is told in anger, not regret, love.”
I bit down on my tongue, and then followed Darren out into the hall, waiting until we were out of the public’s eye. “You hurt me too! I’m not the only one who needs to apologize!”
The prince turned around and his expression was callous. “You want an apology, Ryiah? I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t tell you the words you want to hear. You won’t win. I believe you are good, love.” His eyes were like twin pools of fire. “But you aren’t me. And I’m sorry you never had that privilege.”
Then he left me. Darren strode out into the night without a backwards glance and left me standing in that bright hall listening to the peals of laughter just behind.
My whole body felt like it had just been kicked to the ground. Every part of me squeezing in, tighter and tighter, until my vision was black and spots were dancing before my eyes. I couldn’t understand what had happened. My heart was hammering so hard it hurt.
Five long, shaky breaths. And then I was able to focus. Able to see.
On the night I had felt most beautiful Darren had made me feel my worst.
“Trouble in paradise?”
I didn’t want anyone to see me like this. Especially not him. I cursed my timing and turned to face Blayne with a false smile to my lips, praying to the gods my eyes weren’t as swollen as they felt.
“Leaving your new bride and festivities so soon?”
“I see.” He ignored my barbed comment. “Well, you left my brother in quite a state yourself.”
I didn’t want to talk about Darren with Blayne. I didn’t want to talk about myself. I wanted to be alone.
“You should know,” the crown prince drawled, “he will never change.”
“I don’t want him to change! I just want him to talk to me!” The words came uninvited, and I regretted them instantly. I didn’t want Blayne to know anything. But I had no one else.
I was alone. Ella was gone. My brothers were gone. My friends and family were across the countryside while I was trapped in the king’s court. Paige was somewhere in the palace as a sentry but it would take me half the night to find her. And even then, she didn’t like to talk about “feelings.” I was trapped in the palace, and I didn’t know what to do.
Blayne was the last person I trusted, but if what Benny said was true then he was possibly the one person who understood Darren. And that made me hesitate instead of sending him on his way, or sending myself on mine.
The crown prince glanced back at the dancers, looking for someone or something in the crowd—presumably his new wife, and then nodded toward a passage to our left. “Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
Blayne regarded me with a sneer. “You want my help or not, Ryiah?”
It was a challenge. A test of our supposed truce and my chance to find out more about his brother. I knew if I passed up this opportunity he would not offer it again.
Common sense bid I decline, but I was in no mood to listen to reason. I wanted to understand Darren, even if it meant spending time with the enemy.
I could only hope that Blayne didn’t choose this moment to suddenly return to his old nature.
“Lead the way.”
I didn’t know what I had expected, but the old queen’s chamber was certainly not part of the morbid possibilities in my mind. When Blayne took me to the royal wing I was sure he had made a mistake. But then he continued past the king’s chamber to the furthest door in the hall, one that had remained unoccupied since Queen Lillian’s death many years before.
I watched as the crown prince produced a large ring of keys from the pocket of his trousers, and then unlocked the door. Blayne paused as his hand stilled on the handle.
“You and I have our differences, but rest assured I love my brother, Ryiah. I believe that is the one thing we hold in common. What I am about to show, you are never to speak of to anyone. Do I have your word?”
He swung open the door, and I followed him inside. Then I took a step back, my back hitting the frame in horror.
Unlike the other royal chambers, this room had been stripped bare of material. No bed, no furnishings, no sprawling rug or tapestries. Nothing to suggest the queen had ever lived in the chamber at all. But that wasn’t why I had gasped.
Protruding from the back of the wall was a pair of chained manacles that were approximately three feet in height and a shoulder length apart. Another set rested along the ground, built into a metal bar lining the floor.
The swirled marble tile was discolored beneath the chains, as if someone—or two someones— had bled out repeatedly on its surface. The floor’s design was an elaborate design of red, gold, and violet swirl—the same as the rest of the palace— but the stain was much closer to rust.
“W-what is this place?” I choked. My heart was racing as I looked on and pictured a hundred horrible scenarios in my head. Reasons Blayne would need to show me this room. For the first time I prayed it was a ploy, that the crown prince’s motives were malevolent—anything but what I was imagining now.
“This was my mother’s room.” Blayne walked over to a dark pine chest I hadn’t noticed, reaching out to take one of the contents: a foot-long pole with a chain of small, sharp blades attached to its cord. He tested its weight in his hand.
“She was much younger than my father, much more lovely and had the most beautiful singing voice you could ever imagine. Darren was too young to remember her much, barely two years at the time of her passing. But I did.” He dropped the whip, and I could hear him sigh. “My father was never a kind man. But losing my mother as he did, well I’m sure you’ve heard the stories…”
I swallowed. My parents had told me the tale as a child. Before I was born, Queen Lillian had been poisoned during a ceremonial feast. It was widely believed that her wine had been intended for the king. The aftermath was the stuff of legends. Following his wife’s death Lucius had ordered the entire hall interrogated and then executed at once. Among the victims had been his current board of advisors, a handful of nobility, the serving staff on hand, and several of his guard. A culprit had never been identified and sixty-two men and women had died that night.
Scholars suspected it was the first of the Caltothian attacks. They also called it the “Lily Queen’s Slaughter.”
“This room…” My heart slammed against my ribs as he continued. “He had the servants redecorate after she passed. None of the staff was allowed to enter, and only the head infirmary mage knew.”
The prince’s voice was hard. “There was the palace dungeon, of course.” The boy laughed, low and cruel. “But it would have been too much work to carry two unconscious boys up and down the palace halls when this room was unused—and so close to where we slept.”
Blayne met my gaze head on. “So he took us here.”
My knees threatened to give out, and I clung to the door’s frame for support. I could hear every word Blayne was saying, and yet there was a thundering in my ears. I felt sick to my stomach, and the pastries from earlier were fighting to rise as I gulped in deep lungfuls of air.
“Any time we disobeyed orders, any time he had too much to drink, any time he decided we were too soft to carry on his line.” The prince’s lips twisted at the memory. “The man always had his mage heal us when he was done. No one ever knew, and if word ever got out…Well, he was the king and there was nothing anyone could do unless they wished to find themselves on the receiving end of his attention, like us.”
“No…” The air sputtered from my lungs.
“When I was nine, I got into trouble with one of my tutors. Darren heard my cries from down the hall.” The prince’s expression grew dark, and I realized Benny was right. Blayne didn’t hate Darren at all. “Instead of staying in his room, the little fool snuck in and tried to save me… He never was afraid of our father, even when he was beating him senseless.”
My stomach surged, and I slid to the floor, clutching my knees to my chest. My skin was clammy, and my hands were still shaking as I took Blayne’s proffered flask. I couldn’t stop picturing six-year-old Darren in a pool of his own blood, fists and feet and a bladed whip coming from the man he called “Father.” A little boy trying to save his brother.
Privilege. I accused Darren of a privilege the rest of us never had.
“Somehow he managed to pull a knife he had stolen from the kitchens while our father was choking him—”
A whimper escaped my lips, and I clutched shaky fingers to my mouth to let Blayne continue.
“Darren was overtaken in an instant, of course, and beaten within an inch of his life, but...” Blayne’s voice seized. “—He never stopped fighting. Later—when the healer had finished up with my brother and me—our father stopped by the infirmary. Told Darren he had finally done something right.” Blayne didn’t feign his disgust. “As second son Darren’s duty was to me. He had finally proven his role. Father sent him off to train with our head knight the next morning so he could start preparing for the School of Knighthood and become Commander of the Crown’s Army when I took the crown. Darren had impressed him.”
My pulse slammed against my lungs, and I forced myself to swallow. Two sips of some bitter liquid that tore at my throat like ice. I wiped my sweaty palms against my dress.
“After that day…” I couldn’t say it. “Did your father…?”
“Not with Darren.”
I opened my mouth and the crown prince just gave me a sardonic smile. “It takes much more to impress when you are his heir. Darren wasn’t always around. In any case I’m better for it now.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t say anything. What did you say to your enemy? To the villain with the pitiable past? Everything Blayne had done, I couldn’t help wondering if Darren would have turned out the same, were he the heir instead.
“Darren will never tell you any of this.” The prince shut the chest with a thud. “I brought you here so you could see the truth for yourself. My brother pushes people away with his pride, and it doesn’t take much to see he is doing the same to you now. Whatever happened between the two of you, I need you to forgive him, Ryiah.”
“Why…” My voice caught and I tried again. “Why are you helping me? I-I know you want to make amends but—”
“Because he is my little brother. And as many mistakes as he has made, I want the best for him.” The prince’s gaze was bitter. “Even if that is you.”
I found Darren leaving the training grounds just as I arrived. Before the training grounds, I had checked his chamber, the indoor practice court, the kitchens, and finally the kennels. I should’ve realized he would seek solace in training. Even in the middle of his brother’s festivities. He and I were one and the same.
The scent of summer was thick in the air, fresh blossoms and cedar mixed in with the lingering trace of sweat and dirt from the barracks.
I stood anxiously, the warm breeze ruffling my dress.
The non-heir looked up, dark bangs falling across his eyes. Something like regret registered for just a moment before he clenched his jaw and turned away.
“What do you want, Ryiah?”
I took a deep breath. “I’m reckless.”
His head jerked back as he regarded me in surprise. I could tell he hadn’t been expecting that.
I rambled on quickly, “I judge too fast. I don’t always think before I speak. I don’t like to hear that I might not win. I lash out when I’m angry. I’m far from perfect, and I know I never will be. I make mistakes just like the rest of them.”
With every confession I took a step closer, closing the distance between us. I waited until I was right in front of the prince, and then placed my hands on his chest, causing him to take another step back until his shoulders were lining the barrack’s wall.
“You aren’t one of my mistakes.”
A lump in the prince’s throat rose and fell.
“I love you.” And that’s never going to change. “I’ve been in love with you since that day in the desert, and today it’s time for me to make an apology of my own.” I leaned in close and watched his sharp intake of breath. “I’m sorry, Darren.” My eyes rose to his, and I willed him to see the sincerity in my own. “I’m sorry I said you were privileged. I’m sorry I ever thought… Blayne told me…” I swallowed. “If I had known...”
Understanding, and then shame flared in response—but before Darren could break away I wrapped my fingers along the back of his neck and brought his lips to my own. I pressed hard, tasting the regret and anger that was perforating his.
Blood and salt mixed in with the sweetness of wine and I clung still.
He tried to break our kiss. “Ryiah—”
I pushed back harder; he was air and I was drowning for breath. “No.” The word came sputtering from my chest. No. I wasn’t going to let Darren turn away now.
I wasn’t going to let his father win.
I kissed him again, a bit softer. Pleading. My lips brushed his, and I could feel his mouth trembling against my own. “I love you.” I whispered the words again. Over and over. “Please don’t shut me out.”
I felt it the exact moment Darren stopped fighting.
Tension left his shoulders, and the non-heir’s pulse sped up as his hands fisted in my skirt, pulling me in. Heated lips parted mine, and the kiss drove deep—neither one of us in control of our response. His eyes were shut, blocking out whatever memories he struggled to keep inside.
Darren’s hands slid to my waist and then he swung me around so that I was up against the wall instead. My back slammed against stone, and the rough material dug into my skin, his fingers bruising my ribs. His breath was hot and angry as his mouth assaulted my own. I welcomed it, a hot wave of fury bubbling in its wake.
Pain and passion were so much easier to embrace. I didn’t want to think about what the king had done to his two sons. I didn’t want to pity the brother who had attacked my best friend. I didn’t want to know how many times my betrothed had been pushed to the brink of death for the sake of his father’s cruel, twisted games.
I didn’t want to believe any of it.
All these years of coveting Darren’s life only to find out everything I thought was a lie. Did he even want to be the Black Mage at all? Or was it just another role he was expected to meet?
Expectation. That’s all this ever was.
I shut my eyes and tipped my chin, letting the prince’s anger take charge of the moment. Praying, hoping that I could take it all away if I just held on long enough.
But I never could. And I was foolish to try.
“I’m...” Darren broke the kiss a couple minutes later and pressed his forehead against my own. I watched the rise and fall of his chest. “I’m sorry I said—”
I cut him off. “You don’t have to explain.”
His eyes seared. “But I want to, Ryiah. All these years…” Another lump in his throat as he swallowed. “I never got to be anything but what he wanted me to be—”
“I don’t even know who I am anymore.” His whisper was hoarse. “And I hate it.”
“What if you lose?” I studied his face, searching for a sign. “If you make it look like you are trying…?”
“He would know.” The prince’s laugh was bitter. “And he would punish me by taking away the only thing I’ve ever let myself be weak enough to want.” His gaze met mine and for once he didn’t hide. “It’s not the first time he’s used you against me.”
The world rushed around me as I realized exactly what he meant.
The first time he tried to call things off with Priscilla.
When I had called him his father’s whipping boy.
“Besides.” Darren pulled away to rest against the wall beside me, shoulder to shoulder. He looked out at the night sky above. “With every second of my life devoted to this cursed role, a part of me wants it now… I’m so mad in the head I can’t imagine a future in which the robe isn’t.”
I didn’t know how to reply.
Darren took my hand, folding my fingers into his own. “If anyone beats me, I want it to be you, Ryiah.”
I shut my eyes and sighed. “Perhaps the gods will surprise us and it will be neither.”
“A true tragedy,” he agreed.
“Of epic proportions.”
His smile was just the faintest line in the shadows. “Two longstanding rivals.”
“And only one robe to bear.”
“Who will win?” Darren’s tone was wry. “The handsome prince?”
I grinned. “Or his valiant betrothed?”
“I can’t wait to marry you, Ryiah.”
When I opened my eyes, Darren was watching me with the oddest gleam in his eyes. The soft expression in his gaze… it hurt to breathe.
Then a devious thought worked its way to the surface. “Even if I win?”
The prince’s expression faltered, and then the boy from the Academy returned with a smirk. “Even if you lose.”