When we first entered the city with the rest of the Crown’s progress, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Heavy, towering pines of the Iron Range gave way to coarse, earthy fields and cracked riverbeds the further east we got. Montfort was a week’s ride north of the capital, a week and a half from Sjeka and the first-year trials we had just left, and it shared neither city’s natural splendor. While not as dry as the Red Desert by any means, it was certainly more arid and cool.
But what Montfort lacked in beauty it more than made up for in mass. The great city was famous for its architects, and the moment I spotted it from the road, I knew I was in for a shock.
Even two miles from the start of the city’s residence, I could see the giant slabs of the Candidacy’s arena towering above the rest. Like a giant stone mouth that longed to tear out the sky. The raised seats and spectator towers were easily fifteen houses tall from their lowest peaks.
The rest of the city was a bit simpler in nature—large square buildings and simple housing, flat roofs and rectangular windows, heavy curtains and chipped bricks in simple sun-dried mud, and the occasional stone-and-mortar mix. One raised building stood out among the rest: a steep dome roof supported by heavily decorated columns and smoothed walls, but even it paled next to the city’s central feature.
Our horses kicked up loose dust as they made their way through the streets. I was stunned by the crowds. Every which way we moved were great herds of people, lowborn and highborn alike, flooding the markets and knocking on doors. That wasn’t all; outside the city limits had been canvas tents as far as the eye could see.
As our tracks slowed, both Paige and Darren’s guard, Henry, pressed closer to our side. The herald—who had been busy entertaining two women in our progress—broke free to blow his horn and proclaim our arrival to the crowd. In truth it did little—there was nowhere for the people to go.
“Like a bay of pigs, and just as brainless,” Paige griped under her breath.
Wren giggled as I hid a smile. In the past three weeks the young princess and I had become close.
In some ways, she was the little sister I’d never had. Sweet—always saving me the last candied figs in our evening meals—and easy to laugh in a way that I was not, especially at my guard whom she had deemed “charming.”
Wren was such a change from my loud, raucous brothers and their constant slew of insults and insatiable bellies. She didn’t seem to mind my lowborn upbringing, and preferred my company to the rest of the court. She was a bit shy around Blayne, but that could have been their difference in age. Knowing what had happened to my best friend, I’d made it a point to ask about their wedding night when we were alone, and she had all but blushed furiously in reply.
Since the girl hadn’t paled or given any sign of terror I took that to be a sign that Blayne had truly grown since the incident with my best friend. That, and I’d requested her ladies-in-waiting report any bruises or marks marring her skin. I might trust the prince a bit more since the night in the old queen’s chambers, but I was determined to do everything I could to ensure what happened to Ella never happened to another girl again.
“Fresh from this morn’! You won’t get a better deal if you try!”
Our progress fought its way past the merchants to the ornate building I had admired before. As the hostlers appeared I realized it was where the Crown and its most important court would reside for the time being. Baron Cuthbert’s manor.
The king’s scholars confirmed it a moment later as they detailed our visit.
“During the last Candidacy it is estimated one-fifth of Jerar came out to watch, and with the Crown’s own son a contender at present we expect close to a third.” The man cleared his throat. “Not to discount the foreign embassies from Caltoth, the Borea Isles, and, of course, the Pythian court.”
“That many visitors?” I squeaked.
Darren edged closer to lean into my ear. “Nervous, love?”
I rolled my eyes in jest, but in truth I was terrified. Hundreds of thousands of visitors. Every one of the stadium’s seats. Filled.
And here you just thought they built it that big to look pretty.
Caltothian embassy? I grabbed Darren’s arm. “Caltothians?”
“You didn’t know?” Darren took me by the hand, slowly edging along the standing crowd to peer at the back of the crowd, and tilted his head to the right. A stranger stood, engaged in conversation with a man who could only be Princess Shinako’s father, Emperor Liang.
The man was tall and broad-shouldered, with curly, brown hair that fell to his shoulders. Foreboding, too—with cynical blue eyes that read the room in an instant. Self-assured, and not remotely perturbed to be surrounded by a room of potential enemies. I found myself wondering how he had found the courage to face the Crown in the light of what his kinsmen had done.
“Lord Tyrus of Gyr.” Darren lowered his voice. “It’s tradition to send invitations to each court, but for Caltoth it’s little more than formality. Given the state of things I don’t think anyone expected King Horrace to send a man. But perhaps with the New Alliance he is willing to make a bid for peace.”
“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “Father’s message was clear. One misstep and we will have ground to imprison Tyrus for treason. Blayne and Father have him and his guards flanked from dawn until dusk.”
I started to nod, my gaze flitting back to the front, when I heard a familiar laugh in the alley. I spun around so fast I almost lost hold of my breakfast, eyes anxiously searching the faces behind us.
Sure enough, I spotted her leaning into my twin’s shoulder in the middle of the street, laughing amber eyes as she looked up at Alex in jest. Her bronze skin glowed in the light of the early evening sun. She looked just as striking as always.
The crowd shifted, and I noticed Derrick and my parents standing a couple feet apart. Ella’s parents and her older brother Jeffrey were there too.
“Ella!” Halfway across the street I screeched my friend’s name and watched as she shrieked, charging in my direction like a blind madman.
I barely had time to speak before the two of us collided. Darren caught up a moment later just before my best friend and I took a tumble to the ground. Paige a minute after, spewing venom as she chastised me for leaving her behind.
“How can I protect someone who continuously neglects every precaution I have in place?”
By the time my guard had finished her lecture both sets of families had made their way alongside.
Ella’s parents wore polite frowns as they regarded the prince beside us—no doubt recalling his brother—but mine, especially my mother, were eyeing him in unabashed interest.
“Mom, Dad, this is Darren.” I couldn’t help but notice how stiff and quiet our audience had suddenly become.
My father was first to break the silence. Unfortunately for me it was in the most embarrassing way possible. “Well, well, ‘tall, dark, and handsome.’ I can see why my daughter picked you. She certainly has a type.”
Alex guffawed, and even Derrick had to hide a grin as the prince’s face shot up in flames. Not even Darren was prepared for my father.
“Dad!” I hid my face in my hands.
“George.” My mother elbowed my father for embarrassing his daughter in front of the prince. “Leave them alone.” She smiled at Darren, her keen gray eyes studying our intertwined hands. “A pleasure to meet you, Your Highness. I’m Ry’s mother, Liona.”
“You don’t have to call me by my title, ma’am.” Darren’s face was as red as mine.
An awkward moment ensued as Ella reintroduced the non-heir to her family, all of which he had met at court—albeit years before. Her brother Jeffrey looked just as dubious as Alex; her parents were better, they were at least attempting to take note of their daughter’s acceptance of the younger of the two princes.
“As pleasant as it is to stand out in this stifling heat,” Ella’s father interjected suddenly. “I was wondering if everyone wouldn’t mind joining us for dinner at our inn. Sable and I would love to get to know Alex’s family. We’ve been hearing so much over the years, we’d love to share a round of drinks in person.”
My family accepted as I promised a quick round for the prince and myself. I hadn’t forgotten the endless parade of emissaries waiting back at Baron Cuthbert’s manor, but we still had thirty minutes to spare and I intended to make the most of it. I also hadn’t missed the exchange of incredulous expressions between my brothers when Darren spoke.
One way or another, I was going to find a way for them to make peace. I knew if Alex and Derrick just took the time to know Darren—without the Ferren’s Keep regiment or my twin’s past bias in the way—they would find a way to get along.
“Alright you two.” Jeffrey set down his mug with a thud. “Spit it out.”
My friend giggled as she and Alex exchanged grins. “What are you talking about?”
“Nice try.” Her brother waggled a finger between the two. “Time to tell us what’s going on.”
“Alex has been sweating like a pig since we arrived.” Derrick grinned. “Could there be a reason other than his distaste for the sun?”
My twin, usually so quick to retort to our sibling’s wheedling, swallowed and stared at the wall behind us.
My jaw dropped—and I barely had time to think as Ella pulled my brother up off his stool. She nudged him forward and he swallowed again.
My parents and Ella’s—who previously had been in the midst of a long conversation at the other side of the table—stopped to watch.
“Ella and I h-have news.” My twin wiped his sweaty brow, beads of perspiration clinging to his forehead. “We wanted to wait until everyone was—”
“We got married!” Ella slapped a hand over her mouth as the whole table exploded in shock.
“Couldn’t even wait for your own family!” That was my mother.
Alex cringed and looked toward the ceiling while Ella responded to her own. “Two weeks back. We were going to wait for the Candidacy when the rest of you would arrive but—“
“But I couldn’t wait.” Alex’s face was stained crimson.
Ella blushed. “He told me if he couldn’t marry me that day he would die a thousand deaths.”
“Alex?” My father was grinning. “Alex said that?”
I counted one, two, three seconds before I met Derrick’s eyes across the room.
We were still cackling, tears streaming down our faces, five minutes later.
“Water!” Derrick finally wheezed. “I need water!”
“Yes!” I grinned like a fool. “I will die a thousand deaths if I don’t get some water.” It had to be the worst—and most hilarious—crack at prose my twin had ever attempted.
“They will never let me live that one down,” Alex complained to Ella.
She smirked. “They are just jealous.”
“Hey, Alex,” I said, “how many deaths was it again?”
“Hey, Ry,” my twin shot back, “I. Forgive. You.”
Darren, who had been silent thus far, choked on his drink, spewing ale everywhere. He was trying to keep a straight face, but his ribs shook with the effort not to laugh.
The adults remained clueless as I shot Alex a half-hearted glare, handing Darren a cloth.
The non-heir ignored it to grin at my twin. “That was a good one.”
My brother gave Darren his first genuine smile. Ever. “I try.”
As I stepped out onto the cobbled streets outside I was so focused on Alex and Ella’s announcement I almost missed the man who had stepped directly into my path at the last possible second. I had just the barest sense to jump back before his black silk robe slapped me in the face.
I scowled and looked up to see the face of a charming stranger, and the recognition made me groan. Worn but sharp angles that gave way to a haughty gaze and thin, pursed lips. Lips that had scowled in my direction for the entire course of the apprenticeship. Master Byron.
He all but ignored me as he addressed the prince at my left. “Your Highness! What a pleasure to see you again!”
Darren hid a smile as his eyes flitted to my own.
“Master Byron, where do we—”
“Silence!” The man growled at a crowd of exhausted young faces behind him. Some I recognized as apprentices during my final year. “Go back to the barracks! Do not interrupt me while I am greeting the prince. He has more potential than the lot of you and the decency not to interrupt his elders when speaking!”
It was like I had never left. I arched a brow in Darren’s direction and the non-heir coughed. “Master Byron, have you already forgotten Mage Ryiah?”
The man’s eyes narrowed to slits as he was forced to acknowledge my presence. “How could I ever forget? It’s only been a year.” His tone was spoken with the warmth of an icicle.
Four years. Four years I had struggled while Byron all but ignored my training. The few times he had given me notice were to take down my gender and act as if I were the worst kind of mistake. I would never forgive the man for putting me through such a terrible apprenticeship. Which was why I said what I said next.
“Well, I couldn’t, either!” I tried to sound as pert as I could, an extra emphasis on my vowels like an overeager convent girl. “And the two of us sharing the same rank. Imagine that, such an honor!”
“An honor.” Byron repeated with a glare that implied it was anything but. Darren was watching me with a grin.
“Such a shame you lost your own Candidacy.” I folded my arms and dropped the high-pitched tenor from before. Everyone knew the man had lost his final day’s duel to a third-rank named Kara. My next line was five years in the making. “Perhaps I can make up for what you lacked, as a woman.”
The expression the master wore as I walked away… it was priceless.
“No other tourney will be able to give you the same thrill for your purse. You will be able to place your bets at any of the booths along the stands before that morning’s event. Combat is our most popular faction, but given the prince’s high favor your coin might be better spent on Restoration or Alchemy where the odds are a bit more divided.”
I sat next to Darren and our guards, two seats down from the king and another from Blayne and Wren on the left. We were listening to one of the Crown scholars explain the Candidacy rules to the seated emissaries and high-ranking nobility behind. Wagers were an important contributor to the Crown treasury, and in this at least I could understand. Mages chose to participate; the first-year trials were little more than a poor imitation, and one we’d had no choice but to partake if we’d wanted to continue our training.
Our seats were in a special center box in the first row of the stadium, raised and separated by a heavy stone wall perhaps eight feet in height from the ground floor of the arena. Most of the stadium’s seating was little more than clay benches, raised row after row until they tipped up into the sky, followed by an outlying wall with more spectator towers for less privileged viewers to stand who could not pay for one of the Candidacy’s prime seats at the front.
It was one of the few times I was happy to be part of the king’s retinue. Our box was one of the few with a canopied roof to lessen the sweltering summer sun. I would be able to make out the contestants’ details far better than I would further back with the rest of my family and Ella’s. Refreshments were brought to the Crown’s box before continuing on to the rest of the rows, and if the scholars’ expectations were correct, each day of the weeklong event would last eight to ten hours trapped in our seats.
I recognized countless faces in the sea above. The scholars were right—it looked like every person I had ever met was in that crowd. Already the stands were brimming with color. I hadn’t realized there were that many people in the kingdom, even after my tour in the apprenticeship.
One third of Jerar? Ha. Try at least half.
A couple rows beyond, I noted a tall, red-bearded man dragging his daughter through the stands, picking his way toward the seats at the front. Really? A child? It was like a punch to the gut. The girl couldn’t have been more than six. And she looked scared, tugging at a yellow silk ribbon at the end of her curly black braid.
Why would somebody bring a child here?
Chancing a glance around, however, I saw she was far from alone. More children—some even younger than the girl—were scattered among the seats. What is wrong with these parents? I knew today wasn’t Combat, but Restoration would surely show more blood than a child should ever be forced to watch.
Turning away, my gaze caught on the Caltothian ambassador and I paused.
The man was brimming with rage. Eyes locked on the little girl, I could see cold fury written all over his face. I started. Was he upset by this brutality too?
But then I heard a familiar laugh. Someone was talking with the little girl’s father, and his voice was unmistakable.
My gaze flitted back to Lord Tyrus. He wasn’t looking at the little girl; he was looking at the crown prince.
And his hatred was unmistakable.
“Darren,” I whispered.
The non-heir glanced up and I pointed. His brow furrowed as he studied the man watching his brother. “I’ll have Father put extra men to the ambassador’s service tonight.”
I shivered. There was something unsettling about the Caltothian’s expression. When I snuck a glance again Lord Tyrus had composed himself, and if I hadn’t seen the look myself I wasn’t sure I’d have believed it was ever there to start.
The ambassador was not indifferent to the Crown, and he wasn’t here for peace. That much was clear.
First up was fifth-rank Restoration. And it took me all of five minutes to realize I was wrong.
I had told Alex the Candidacy would be similar to the first-year trials, only more intense. What I hadn’t mentioned—what I hadn’t known—was that there was one minor difference. And that difference would matter the most.
The mages weren’t casting on themselves, rather, the criminals of Jerar.
Men and women from the local jails were brought in to accommodate the total number of each rank’s participants. Which should have been fine, except I kept thinking back to how the first-years had willingly chosen to succumb to ailments during their own trials, and these prisoners had not.
And the Candidacy ailments were far more serious than the light injuries of our trials.
Fourteen mages spaced out in a horizontal line across the field, facing the crowd. Fourteen criminals were brought with their backs to the audience, facing their candidate with a soldier beside.
Then the herald announced the start.
There was a horrible sound as the soldiers’ blades cracked against the criminals’ knees. Then each prisoner dropped to the ground, writhing in pain.
Screams were crowding the air.
The mages rushed forward to begin their first casting, each racing to treat their victim’s five stages the fastest. The winner would move onto the next day’s event, representing the best of their rank with an opportunity to advance.
The stages got worse.
Wren sucked in a gasp, and I had to clap my hand to my mouth to muffle a cry as one of the soldiers stabbed a thrashing woman three times in the chest.
Darren turned in his seat. “Ryiah?”
“This is wrong!” Violent crime was punished on the spot with a hanging, the men and women I was watching were guilty of little more than theft. The gaunt lines of their faces spoke the truth. Lowborns who had chosen to steal rather than starve.
It was the bandits from the north all over again.
Darren spoke my name urgently. “Ryiah—”
“Petty crime isn’t enough to subject them to this!”
King Lucius’s voice boomed out across our box. “Shall I replace the prisoners with innocents instead, Lady Ryiah?”
Darren’s hand shot to my arm to keep me from replying.
“Your parents are merchants, no?” The question was a deadly promise. “Perhaps I can call on them first.”
My stomach caved in on itself as cold panic flooded my veins. My nails dug into Darren’s wrist, and it took every ounce of willpower I had to keep my magic at bay.
“That’s not necessary, Father.” Darren’s grip tightened on my own. “She didn’t mean anything.”
“You might be too valuable.” The king ignored his son to watch me like a hawk. “But your family is not. Do you understand, Lady Ryiah?”
“Y-yes.” The word was barely more than a gasp. But inside every part of me was on fire. Wren caught my other hand in hers and squeezed.
“I have been patient with your stay thus far, but rest assured I won’t hesitate to hold your family accountable for your actions.”
A servant scurried past with the first round of refreshments for our box.
“Might I be excused, your majesty?” The words felt so heavy, my pulse beating against my throat.
“You have five minutes,” the king growled. “Then I expect you back in your seat and cheering our nation’s legacy.”
I fled the box as fast as my legs could carry me.
“Ryiah, wait!” Darren caught up to me outside of the stands. I was gripping the stadium’s back wall for support and trying not to think about what was going on on the other side of it. Paige was pacing at my right.
“I can’t do it, Darren. I can’t watch.” There was no way I could go back and sit silently as men and women bled out for the mere notion of a contest. I couldn’t pretend.
“You can’t voice your disapproval over the Candidacy, he’ll—”
“I didn’t know it was going to be like this!”
What if the healers didn’t treat their victims in time? The judges wouldn’t interfere until each rank’s hour was up. It was the first thing the herald had declared at the start of the day’s event.
Darren waited until the stadium’s clamor fell to a hush. “He changed it, Ryiah.”
The prince took a step closer, taking a look around and pausing when his gaze landed on our guards. Paige rolled her eyes and retreated to the wall’s exit, with Darren’s knight in tow—the both of them still close enough to jump in at the first sight of danger.
Darren spoke softly. “The old Candidacies still used prisoners for Restoration and Alchemy, but the worst malady was a broken limb, not… this. My father was the one who changed the rules.”
I shrank back in disgust.
“It was one of the first things he did after my mother passed. Treating his own criminals to this as the emissaries watch… he wanted to send a message to any country foolish enough to break with Jerar. I thought you knew—you read all those books when we were first-years in the library.”
“But…” I must have missed them. “I read about Combat.”
“Combat stayed the same.” Darren’s contempt was quiet. “Our faction’s tourney is already violent enough. But Restoration? Alchemy? The old Candidacies were far too tame for his liking. My father wanted blood.”
When they raised the white flag ten minutes into my brother’s round, I prayed my eyes were playing tricks on my mind. But I had seen all of the signs.
The white face, the trembling hands, the heavy perspiration shining along his skin. The way Alex had swallowed as he watched the twelve soldiers lead their twelve criminals out across the field.
The look of naked horror when one had knocked the old man to the ground. The way the prisoner had bawled from the pain. The way my twin had dove to the man’s side and whispered something into his ear, hands anxiously feeling out the injury for the break.
Alex had treated the man’s leg, and I had seen the way his shoulders hunched and his hands kept drifting toward his ears to shut out the cries at his left.
He had treated the man and the soldier had summoned a Restoration mage to inspect his healing. After a minute the woman had nodded and the soldier had raised his blade to begin the next round.
My brother had jumped forward and grabbed the soldier’s blade hand with a shout of command. I hadn’t heard a word he’d said. The clamor of the crowd and the screams from the other prisoners had been too great.
But I saw the soldier raise his flag.
He hadn’t known. Alex had been expecting the same routine as the first-year trials. It had always been the same. Until King Lucius.
A hushed silence fell over the stands. My brother started across the arena to the stadium’s tunnel, oblivious to the change.
A silent scream tore at my throat.
Just two hours before I would have been proud. I would have sobbed tears of joy to see my brother stand up against the injustice. To know he wouldn’t hurt an old man whose only crime couldn’t have amounted to more than petty theft. But that was before the king of Jerar had threatened my family.
I prayed he wouldn’t notice.
“Braxton!” The king’s voice boomed out across our box.
“I want that mage boy substituted for one of the prisoners in the final two ranks.”
I jumped up just as Darren yanked me down, hard. “Don’t say a word!” he pled. “He doesn’t know!”
I fought the prince’s grip and Wren clung to my arm. She didn’t know what Darren and I were arguing over, but even she knew I was about to make a mistake.
“If the boy tries to heal himself, have him executed.”
I was clawing in Darren’s arms, every bit of magic threatening to burst—
“Ryiah,” Darren’s voice was a rasp, “please.”
“Yes, your majesty. Right away, your—”
“DON’T JUST STAND THERE TALKING. GET THAT BOY!”
Tears pricked at the corner of my eyes, and my heart was attacking my lungs, and I could barely hear over the blaring roar of my pulse.
ALEX.ALEX.ALEX.ALEX. I tried deep, shaking breaths, but as two knights sprinted across the field, dragging my confused brother by the pits of his arms, I broke free.
Darren caught me just before I reached the rail—he spun me around and his lips slammed against mine just in time to muffle the cry.
A part of me was shattering, and all that kept the audience from knowing the truth was Darren’s hot mouth on my own. Strangling the shriek inside.
Preventing his father from knowing.
And that’s when I heard Ella’s rampant screams. And then my parents’. And then Derrick.
Two knights hauled my brother out into the center of the arena.
For thirty-nine minutes I had sat still, fighting the verge of panic as Darren whispered into my ear and Wren clung to my arm, pretending everything was fine. The king had been too busy watching the rest of the third-rank trials to notice, and during the brief break between rounds Blayne had hastily engaged his father in a long, drawn out conversation.
But now my brother was back.
I saw the look of horror as some of the candidates as they recognized their own among the prisoners. The soldiers were addressing their group and it was clear from their stance they were explaining the king’s orders, pointing to the extra judge who would make sure my brother didn’t attempt to heal himself during the second-rank trial.
And then it began.
I watched as my brother crumbled to the floor.
I watched as the candidate knelt to the sand and began to treat the first of his injuries.
I watched as the soldiers continued with beatings, and then, later, three stabbings across his chest.
The crowd’s clamor was so loud during the final minutes of the round that my cry didn’t stand out amongst the rest. I was gripping the rail, eyes glued to the stadium floor, screaming at the top of my lungs until I went hoarse.
I watched as the soldiers hauled my brother away. Healed by his candidate, but still wet blood dripping from his robe, the whites of his eyes like saucers, the trembling of his limbs…
And then they brought him out all over again.
I didn’t have to worry about screaming. By the time it was over, I had nothing left to give.
When the first day of the Candidacy had concluded, the king had Alex brought to our box. I had to pretend that my heart wasn’t breaking, shattering into hundreds of tiny shards as the king’s men threw him before Lucius’s feet.
Alex’s gaze briefly met my own, and the betrayal was enough to make me bleed out and die. There was so much pain and confusion and anger, but I saw him swallow as the anger vanished and he looked up to the king.
“What is your name?” the king barked.
“Rex.” At least my twin knew better than to tell the truth. He croaked the last words like he’d swallowed a mouthful of rocks. “Your majesty.”
“Rex. If you dare to humiliate your country like that again I will have you beheaded. Today was a blessing, you should count yourself lucky I did not de-robe you on the spot.”
The knights released my brother, and he pulled himself up, limping as he stood. Darren’s grip tightened on my own as I took in the full light of his face, a purple bruise still marring his right eye and sandy brown bangs caked in blood.
He wouldn’t even meet my eyes.
Darren half-dragged me out of the stands. I’d wanted to go to Alex, my family, Ella—but he had warned me to wait. He promised Paige would help me sneak out that evening after the rest of the manor was asleep, but I had to at least pretend for the sake of my twin.
After all, if the king found out it was my brother, the consequences would have only been worse.
When I finally did go to my family, it was in the dead of the night. My best friend was sobbing, and my parents couldn’t even bear to look at me. Alex just stared at the wall, hands locked on the steaming mug in his hand.
“I’m so sorry,” I whispered. I fell to my knees, taking his hand in my own and pleading for him to look down at me.
“You could have stopped them.” Derrick’s raging whisper cut across the inn’s room like a knife. “You could have done something!”
Paige spoke up. “She would have made it worse. The king—”
“I’m not talking to you, bloody traitor! You might be a former lowborn, but you are just as bad as her. The both of you make me sick.”
“Derrick—” My voice cracked. “I—”
“I hate you!” he spat the words in my face.
“Derrick.” My father cleared his throat and looked to me with a pained expression. “If Ryiah said she couldn’t do anything, your mother and I believe her. She is not a member of the Crown, she may not have as much sway—”
“She doesn’t care about us!” His cry was hoarse. “Look at Alex. Look at what she let the king do to him”
“I didn’t want to!” I was sobbing. My twin continued to ignore me as my little brother tore out my heart. “I love him—”
“Not more than that prince. You’ve forgotten all of us! First you act too high and mighty in the keep—”
“—Then you let your own brother be beat within an inch of his life for the Crown’s entertainment! You aren’t my sister. I don’t even know who you are anymore!” He tore off his chain and threw my old ring at the floor. “You are nothing to me.”
Then he stomped across the room and slammed the door shut behind him.
“Ry.” My mother’s voice was barely more than a whisper. “You promise?”
“I promise I never wanted...” My knees were shaking, and I looked down at her and my twin in anguish. “When I first saw the prisoners—I said something. The king made it clear if I did it again he would punish my family.”
My mother choked and my father stumbled back against the wall.
“He didn’t even know Alex was my family.” I fell down beside my brother with a sob. “If he had, it would have been worse.” My hand reached out to touch his wrist. Alex didn’t tell me to move it, but he didn’t acknowledge me either.
After a while my parents returned to their room across the way, and Ella finally walked me to the door. She hadn’t spoken once. I prepared for another angry goodbye, but all she did was wrap her arms around me, shaking.
“I forgive you,” she whispered. Her voice broke, and I could feel the tears through her shirt. “He will, too.”