When I woke up his red-rimmed eyes were the first ones I saw. There were heavy shadows under their lids, and his skin was so pale he could have been a ghost. His hands were gripping the rail of my cot, heavy tension radiating off the white of his fists.
Dried blood coated his chest and arms, and there were several bruises mottling his ribs. He looked like death.
I sucked in a sharp breath. We were in the infirmary.
A great ball of fire was climbing up my lungs.
A lump in Darren’s throat rapidly rose and fell when he noticed I was awake. “Ryiah!” he choked out my name, and I swear I heard him break.
I opened my mouth and closed it as hundreds of raging needles stabbed at my ribs. A healer’s palm shot out to cover it anyway.
“You shouldn’t talk,” the woman apologized. “It’s only been a couple of hours since your match. Now that the prince knows you are awake—the both of you need to rest. Especially you, my lady. Your injuries were… grave.” She glanced away quickly. “The Victors’ Ceremony takes place tomorrow and—”
He won. The words snapped out like a whip.
“I-I’m so sorry.” His voice was hoarse. “I never—I lost control, I—”
The dagger. My chest. The flames eating me alive. They were his.
Darren won the Candidacy.
“—Expected to partake, regardless of your condition—”
“Please forgive me.”
“—The Crown has ordered no visitors to expedite the healings, but it will take all of our staff and a heavy night’s rest just to have you walking around for the event.” The mage leaned down to apply a salve to my skin, motioning for one of the others to come forward.
I lay mutely as the healers set forth to mend my maladies, crying out as bones shifted and scraped deep inside.
Darren’s fingers reached out to brush my cheek, and I shut my eyes. His hand was trembling so violently the bed rattled.
The pain was terrible … but I wasn’t angry at him.
I was angry at myself.
A hot wash of envy threw up waves in the pit of my stomach, and I took a deep, rattling breath.
I was good. But I wasn’t great.
Twelve hours of sleep; it made not the slightest difference. Sure, I felt less pain than before, but physical agony had little to do with the turbulence of emotions inside.
I had beat out every single mage in my rank. By all accounts I should have been happy. I had achieved what most people only dreamed. And if I hadn’t achieved the dream, at least it went to the boy I loved. An adversary I could respect.
But I was a terrible person, and jealousy was a bitter seed. None of it mattered. All of those years telling myself one day I would be better… they were for nothing. Darren was the best, and he always would be. His pain casting had over-powered my own. His potential was the greatest.
Stop moping like a pitiful child.
I raised a hand and swiped at the corner of my eye.
“Ryiah?” Darren was still broken. All night long he had refused to leave that chair; I’d woken several times to see a mess of black locks against the side of my mattress. Now he was afraid to touch me—I could see it in the way he would reach out and then pull away, like I was made of glass.
He couldn’t forgive himself.
The both of us were our own worst enemies.
“I’m fine.” I swallowed. “Darren, what happened… it wasn’t your fault.”
“I lost control.” His voice was hoarse and bitter. “I’ve never lost control, Ryiah. I could have killed you.”
“And I could have killed Hadrian during the melee.” It was killing me now just to utter the reassurance. I wanted to hole up in a wall and scream until my lungs were hoarse. “We chose Combat. We knew the risks. You offered me a chance to surrender, and I refused.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
His eyes shot to mine, and the garnet cut at my lungs.
“I’m sorry I hurt you.”
I made myself breathe. “Please don’t apologize.” It only made me feel worse about myself.
“Would you like me to leave?”
I stayed quiet.
The prince slowly gathered his belongings and motioned for his guard Henry to follow. As he was exiting the infirmary he turned back to look at me. The self-hatred was written across his face.
“I’m sorry, Ryiah.”
He had nothing to be sorry for. Every Combat mage had known what they were getting into the moment they entered that arena. But Darren’s love for me had robbed him of reason.
I waited until he was gone, and then let out the breath I had been holding in. It burned the whole way up.
Jealousy had robbed me of mine.
A couple hours later, a retinue of servants arrived with my two ladies-in-waiting and Madame Pollina. Contrary to our previous interactions, the woman was nothing but genteel as she helped me dress for the Candidacy’s formal ceremony. I suspected it had something to do with the way I looked. I hadn’t had the courage to stand in front of a mirror since we arrived, but even a fool could see the bandage strapped to my chest and the tender purple patches dotting my ribs and arms.
I caught her looking at my back with a pang of sympathy when the others were plaiting my hair.
I wished the Candidacy had delayed the Victors’ Ceremony by a week, so I could appear strong. I hated looking weak.
My best friend’s voice broke me free of my thoughts. “Ella?”
The girl burst through the room—looking every bit the daughter of nobility in her perfectly pressed appearance, her black mage’s robe glinting in the light. She had an air I never would.
“How did you get past the guards?”
“Paige.” She stopped grinning and her face turned serious. “I think she felt bad you couldn’t have visitors. She turned us away last night, but she probably figured now that Darren was already at the ceremony the Crown’s orders could be bent. Most of the king’s orders were in regards to the prince anyway.”
My parents stepped out from the corridor. “Oh, Ryiah,” my father said softly. He was staring at the bandage that was still visible through the neckline of my mage’s robe.
“I’m fine, Dad.” The pity pressed at my lungs. I was suffocating in his expression.
“We have some herbs that might help. We will send someone to drop a sachet to your healers tonight.” At least my mother was trying to maintain an air of normalcy. I prayed she would keep my father’s sympathy at bay.
“Where’s Derrick? Alex?”
“We thought it best if we came alone.” My mother’s eyes flashed a warning. It took me a moment to understand.
The king. They were too afraid the guards would recognize Alex—and Derrick, well, he’d been so upset. And he was so stubborn. He had probably refused to come.
A part of me deflated. My new life with Darren was supposed to be a dream, but so far it had only brought a whole string of complications. My own brothers couldn’t—or wouldn’t—see me. And right now I needed them more than anyone else.
We had all grown up to the same expectation. We had made the same choices. Alex, my other half; Derrick, the younger, headstrong version of me.
And now… now I didn’t know what to do.
“Will they be coming tonight?”
My father shook his head, his eyes flitting to my mother.
“Darling,” my mother said, “the ceremony is only for nobility. We could state our relation but we’d rather not…” Draw the king’s attention to our family is what she didn’t say.
A wave of fatigue washed over and I sat down quickly to avoid drawing their notice. My father’s brows furrowed, and my mother sucked in a sharp breath. I wasn’t fooling anyone.
“I’m going.” Ella’s fingers interlocked with mine as she sat down beside me. “Someone should be there to support my best friend.”
Paige appeared in the room. Her expression was half-concerned, half-aloof. “The king expects your presence soon. The ceremony is about to start.”
“Thank you, Paige.” My father’s eyes softened. “We won’t keep our daughter much longer.”
My parents came forward to each give me one long embrace, careful not to hug too tight. I found myself wishing I could prolong the moment. I saw them so little, and without tonight I doubted I would get a chance to stop by before we left.
As soon as they were gone, along with my ladies-in-waiting, Paige returned.
I nodded as Ella helped me stand. I was still wobbly on my feet, and it had cost too much of my energy just in dressing.
The three of us left the infirmary and started the short walk to Baron Tybalt’s mansion where the evening’s festivities were to be held.
Paige walked at the front, one hand on the hilt at her hip. Ella pressed closer to me, drawing my elbow in as she spoke.
“I didn’t want to say this around the others, but I want you to know that tonight means nothing.”
I faltered, and she met my eyes—a persistent light reflecting across twin pools of amber.
“Darren might be the Black Mage, but I watched you from the stands, and I have never been so proud to call you my best friend.”
My eyes started to blur, and I dug my nails into my palms to keep the tears from showing.
“Our titles don’t mean a thing.” Her grip tightened on my arm. “I know what you are feeling because I feel it too. Of course we want to be the best. It’s what we trained for. But we don’t need a title to validate our hard work, Ry.” She raised her voice. “When we walk into that room tonight, it’s going to be with our heads held high.”
I froze and Ella jerked to a stop.
“Ry?” she asked hesitantly. “Is something—”
I cut her off, wrapping my arms around her and squeezing. Paige paused ahead of us. She didn’t say a word—even though we were going to be late—she just stood to the side and surveyed the street.
I kept my arms locked around my best friend. My whole body was shaking and silent sobs were rocking my chest.
I kept my eyes clenched shut and clung to Ella until the tremors were gone. I hadn’t let myself cry over the duel in the hours since it happened—I’d been too afraid Darren would blame himself, too guilty my parents would sympathize. Too angry at myself.
But here. Now. With my best friend. I let myself be.
“I love you, Ella.”
She brushed the back of my head. “I love you too, Ry. Don’t ever think you are not good enough.”
The sprawling residence was almost as tall as the tops of the Candidacy stadium itself. Whoever had decided to call it a mansion had grossly underestimated its size. It might not be as big as the king’s palace in Devon, but it was at least equal to that of the Academy’s castle in Sjeka.
A giant circular dome made up the highest point of the building, several sections of the roof supported by heavy columns and a steep indoor balcony overlooking the grand ballroom at the center. The whole place was a wash of white stone and golden tile. All over were raised statues depicting the four previous victors of each faction. I recognized the current one closest to the door –Marius’s crooked smile captured perfectly by the sculptor’s hand.
I supposed Darren’s would be next.
Heavy brocade curtains of blue and red adorned most of the many-paned windows, and a thick light streamed down from a hole at the center of the globe’s roof. At the angle it was placed it would highlight the victors’ balcony at precisely the right moment. I suspected that had been its intention.
The moment Paige, Ella, and I entered we were offered a very fine selection of wines. Their heady aroma alone made my stomach roll, and sensing my discomfort Ella passed. Paige, off-duty for the night but rarely ever sociable, passed as well.
As we took our places in the grand atrium we waited for the spectacle to begin. The room was packed full of nobility—ambassadors and highborns clamoring for the best place to stand. Darren and the other two victors, as well as the previous Council, were nowhere to be seen. I did spot the king and Blayne with Princess Wrendolyn a bit closer to the front, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of standing so close to the man who had put my brother through such a horrible ordeal just days before. The room was so crowded, and there were so many important dignitaries around I doubted he would even notice my absence.
I felt Ella tense up as she noticed my stare. She had never trusted the Crown and I knew it was taking everything in her not to react. She put on a brave face, but she loved fiercely and was just as outspoken—if not more so— than I. It was killing her just to be in the same room as the man who had come so close to murdering her husband just to make a point.
I was sick to my stomach just thinking of the long years ahead, trapped in the palace with Lucius as my father-in-law.
Forcing my gaze elsewhere, I spotted Merrick glaring pointedly in my direction. As soon as he registered my attention he spoke loudly to his companion, proclaiming how big his winnings were from betting on the prince.
Oh, and that the only reason I had beat him was because he’d thought it only fair to give “the girl” a chance. “Thought I would do her a favor, let the girls pretend they could win… for once.”
“My cousin is a fool.”
My head swerved to the side and I heard Ella’s shocked intake of breath as Priscilla emerged from the audience. She wore her mage’s robe like a queen, and she didn’t appear to look the least perturbed over her loss.
“S-sorry?” I stammered.
“You heard me perfectly well the first time, Ryiah. I’m not going to repeat myself.”
“Priscilla.” Ella wore a predator’s smile. “What a delight.”
“Ah, and I see you haven’t lost your charm, Eleanor.” The girl gave my friend a curling smile before turning back to me. “I bet on you. For the final match.”
So she was here to chastise me for losing her coin? I bit back a groan. Priscilla had always known Darren was better. Everyone else had. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I said it through clenched teeth.
The girl rolled her eyes. “I’m not sorry. Well, I am that I have to listen to that idiot rattle on. But I’m not sorry I bet on you.”
Ella’s jaw dropped to the floor, and I was sure mine followed.
“Stop gawking, you two. I just came to tell Ryiah here that I wouldn’t have been surprised if she’d won. Darren was good, but he was always good.” Priscilla crooked a nail at my face. “You, you are a cockroach. No matter how many times we tried to get rid of you, you kept finding a way to scuttle your way back. And as much as I don’t like you, well, you are persistent. And even I can admire you for that.”
I opened my mouth and she cut me off with a hand to the face.
“Don’t even bother, Ryiah. We aren’t friends, and I have no doubt you’ll make a horrible princess. I just thought I’d show you a bit of kindness before you run this kingdom to the ground.” Then she sauntered off like the lady of court she was.
Leaving Ella and me to stare at her back in shock.
“Did that really just happen?”
It was quite possibly the best and worst compliment I’d ever received.
When the herald called his name, Darren emerged at the open balcony, Marius at his left.
A collective murmur went through the audience as the Black Mage unclasped the robe from himself, placing the shimmering silk upon the non-heir’s shoulders. Darren stood so still as the gold-lined sleeves slipped down his arms.
Marius stood beside him and raised its hood for the ceremonial pose. Sparkling gemstones danced across the stream of sunlight, the prince lit up like magic itself. His whole profile a heavy, ethereal glow.
Sheathed in heavy shades of darkness and light.
“Prince Darren, the new Black Mage of Jerar. A Colored Robe of the Council of Three. Lead Mage of Combat to the Crown. Representative for Combat upon the Council of Magic. We welcome you to your new role.”
The roar was deafening. I pushed the twinge of envy aside as I screamed loudest of all. I could see Darren searching the crowd with his eyes, and when he finally spotted me beside Ella he gave a small smile. Fear was still written plain across his face, but he gained a bit of color after that.
That’s the boy I love. For a moment I forgot myself and thought only of Darren. He worked so hard, I’m happy it’s him. And I meant it.
After the first hour and a half Darren finally managed to break from the parade of endless courtiers and found me at the back of the room picking at the fresh array of cheese fritters, gingered custard, roasted leeks, and lamb and chickpea stew. His cheeks were flushed and from the way his eyes flitted to my bandage and then fell, I knew he still felt guilty from before.
I made a point to cut the tension before it became worse. “The robe suits you. You look…” I made a hand gesture. “Possibly too good. I don’t like the way the other ladies have been admiring you.”
I meant it. He looked like a god among men. And every woman in court was watching him—though, to be fair, they had never stopped. Not that I would ever tell him that.
The tension left the prince’s shoulders as he advanced. “Have they now?”
“I’ve been struggling to keep from locking them in a tower.”
Darren’s grin turned wicked. “Perhaps I can wear it one night when we are alone.” He lowered his voice. “If it truly looks that amazing I’d like to see what that means for you.” The implication was enough for me to blush.
“Ryiah! Darren! Just the two I wanted to see!” Andy’s voice rang out from behind.
We turned to find our old comrade from Port Langli’s regiment, striding giant steps across the room with her stodgy cohort, the much quieter Cethan. We had spent a month serving alongside them when we were only apprentices, and in that time both Darren and I had gained a fondness for the two Combat mages of our past.
Darren smiled. “Andy, Ceth, it’s great to—”
I shrieked and threw myself at the tall woman, forgetting my injuries until it was too late.
“Not smart, Ryiah.” I stepped back with a self-admonished critique as the others hid a grin.
“Glad to see you both remember us.” Ceth’s smile was a bit strained given the room. He was uncomfortable at events like this—the man preferred sea with the silence of wind and a bit of bitter ale as company. Certainly not a crowd overflowing with nobility and wine.
“Gods, this place is a bit much, don’t you think?” Andy hadn’t outgrown her habit of speaking her mind.
Another familiar voice cut through the crowd like a knife. “Cassandra, that is no way to speak to the Crown!”
Andy made a face and I cringed.
Mage Mira appeared with a courtier’s smile aimed at the prince. “Your highness, how pleasant it is that we meet again. I’ve just been conversing with your dear brother. Ryiah… I see you are still here.” Her expression made it clear she didn’t care for it. “Well, carry on. I won’t keep you from your night of celebration, your highness.”
“Thank you, Mage Mira.” The words flowed so easily from the prince’s tongue. “It has been pleasant to see you as well.”
When Mage Mira had returned to the wretched hole she crawled out of Andy smirked at me. “Dragon Lady misses you.”
“I don’t miss her.”
“She was cursing your name the whole way to the capital.”
“Is she still in Langli?”
“Blessed gods, no. She’s been running around the countryside in one of those fancy Crown’s Army regiments with a promotion under her belt.” Andy grinned with a nod at Darren. “Or did you forget your little stunt in Dastan’s Cove? Our unit hasn’t seen quite so much action since.”
I started to laugh and then stopped—a moment of shame soiling the brevity. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten our time on Caltothian soil so easily. The little girl and her mother. Our mission. What had ever happened to them? My eyes shot to Andy, but she shook her head, already guessing my question from the expression on my face.
“Nobody knows.” Cethan’s gruff voice was a low rumble that blended in with the rest of the crowd. We were still under Crown orders not to discuss the assignment. Ever. I had to press closer to hear the rest. “We dropped them off at the city limits. Two men from the King’s Regiment came and took them away.”
I turned to Darren who frowned. He looked bothered that he had forgotten them too. Kidnapping a woman and child was something a person shouldn’t be able to forget. But back then we had both been so busy with the apprenticeship and a tumultuous romance, it had happened anyway.
“I asked my father that year we returned to the palace.” His eyes were on the king and the circle of ambassadors across the way. “He told me he couldn’t recall.”
Andy and Cethan stuck around for a couple more minutes, trading easy jokes about their time in Langli, but it quickly drew to an uncomfortable note after she mentioned one of the new recruits, a handsome young man with a great sense of humor and “golden-green eyes.” “A shame he transferred to Ferren’s Keep last summer. Took off rather suddenly after he got the summons.”
Cethan adjusted his vest. “It was about a girl, I believe. She had just accepted a post there.”
Darren’s eyes shot to mine, accusingly, and I wanted to kick myself for letting this subject even come up. Why did they have to even know Ian? And what were they talking about? Cethan was mistaken.
“I swear to you he never said a word.” My voice was barely a whisper. “Whatever Ian’s reason for coming, Darren, it wasn’t me.” I’m not lying. Please believe me.
The prince’s pulse was hammering against his skin but he forced himself to exhale slowly. “I believe you.”
Andy cleared her throat uncomfortably after exchanging a glance with her comrade. They hadn’t missed the conversation between us. “Well congratulations on your win, Darren. Ryiah, you gave a great effort. Who would have known we were in the presence of two prodigies that whole time onboard? Don’t forget us little people while you are saving the world.”
Darren’s smile was forced, and mine wasn’t much better. I wanted to find Ian and confront him over Cethan’s accusation, but I was not about to do it around Darren. So I strung along and joined him for small talk instead. A long succession of well-wishers followed in Andy and Cethan’s wake.
Last but not least were Blayne and his new wife. The crown prince and I still weren’t close by any means, but since his revelation I found him a bit harder to hate. I understood him, and that almost made it worse. We still avoided direct conversation if we could, and I spent the majority of our reunion conversing with Wren instead.
Wren had a sweet tooth and was quick to describe each one of her favorite desserts since arriving in Montfort. Such a lovely girl. Even though she was boring me to death with talk of pastries, I still found myself eager to please. She was the complete opposite of her conniving uncle, Duke Cassius. Fortunately the Pythian ambassador was too busy filling his cup with drink to be much of a hindrance.
“Which one was your favorite, darling?” Wren tugged on Blayne’s hand to draw him away from his talk with his brother.
The crown prince took a deep sip from his glass. “The raspberry tart, same as you, my dear.”
“Would you like me to—”
“Blayne, you don’t look well.” Darren interrupted the princess with a start.
“You don’t look that well, either, Darren.” Blayne’s tone was sardonic.
“True, but I’m still healing.” The non-heir’s brow furrowed. “You have nothing to be healing from.”
I studied Blayne and was alarmed to see Darren was right. A heavy sheen of sweat had broken out along his brother’s forehead. Blayne looked pale—so much lighter than when he and Wren had arrived a mere five minutes before.
“Truly, brother, I’m—”
The crown prince never finished. His goblet fell to the marble tile with a loud clash. Darren caught his brother by the arms just as Wren started to scream for a healer.
“Healer!” Darren’s voice roared out above the crowd. He had cast a defensive sphere in place. “Guards, get my brother a healer NOW!”
The floor broke out into a frenzied herd as servants and nobility alike came rushing to tend to the heir. Mage Marius and several guards formed a circle as a cluster of healers rushed in to help. I stumbled out of the way and almost slipped to give them space. Something was familiar. Something I couldn’t place my finger on, but it had to do with Blayne…
Red seeped out on the marble floor beneath my boots. But it wasn’t blood.
His mother. Queen Lillian. And her poisoned wine.
The Caltothians had done it to her…
I started running to the front where I had seen Lord Tyrus last.
And I spotted him. Removing a dagger from the inside of his cloak. Right behind the king who was trying to push through to his son—
“To the ki-”
My hand shot out to cast as I cried—but it was too late. My magic was nothing but a whisper of flame. The potions the healers had given me had slowed its recovery to help speed my physical health.
I was helpless as the Caltothian plunged the weapon into King Lucius’s back.
“FOR CALTOTH!” The man’s blade struck out three times more as Darren’s father stumbled and fell, blood spraying from his lips as he hit the ground with a thud.
I was still running as the room became chaos. Mage Mira was the closest to respond—she was able to cast what my magic could not. A bolt of lightning and Lord Tyrus went down without a fight. Before I had even reached the king, she had already sent two swords piercing his front to back.
Blood was dribbling from the man’s wounds like a fountain, coating the tiles in red. Funny, how a Caltothian’s blood was no different than a king of Jerar.
“Protect the Crown! It’s an attack!” Commander Audric was running forward to see to the king as half the regiment on duty formed a circle around the two princes, the other half to their fallen king.
“Uncle!” Wrendolyn was running toward Duke Cassius in the crowd. She was sobbing and her eyes were crazed.
I fought the crowd, trying to push and shove my way toward the girl. Someone needed to protect her. I wasn’t sure where the three Caltothian guards were.
“Wren!” I screamed her name. “WREN! NO!”
A servant snagged the girl’s arm and another appeared, a quick draw of the blade, and then she was on the floor. A river of scarlet trickling from her neck, blond curls tinged in red.
I was chasing the servant as Duke Cassius and two of his men dropped to the princess’s side. The Pythian ambassador’s bellow shattered my heart. I pulled up short when I cornered the first. It wasn’t a Caltothian in disguise.
It was one of the lower city guards I’d seen during my apprenticeship. A rebel, I realized belatedly as he pulled out his knife. The rebels are working with the Caltothians.
I had to warn the others. “Rebels!” I screamed. “They are here!”
My hand shot underneath the folds of my robe and I blanched. My dagger wasn’t there. I reached for the sheath by my thigh. Empty. My outfit tonight had been for show. I’d spent all day in the infirmary; I didn’t have a single weapon on me.
And my body was still healing. I was weak, sluggish. I had bruises speckling my arms and a bandage to the chest.
And no magic.
I wasn’t the hunter; I was the prey.
The man’s panicked expression turned sly, as he seemed to recognize the same. And then I was thrust aside as Paige’s sword gut him from chest to belly, bowels and blood spilling out. A putrid stink filling the air.
I had to fight every instinct not to vomit.
“We’ve got to get you out of here!” My knight started to pull me away—one hand on my wrist, the other gripping her sword.
Her voice grew thick. “She’s gone, Ryiah.”
“But the healers—”
“With the princes.” Paige was dragging me across the floor, both eyes flitting back and forth, checking our surroundings for safety.
“Where’s Darren?” Panic clawed at my throat when I didn’t see him or his brother at the front.
“He got his brother out. Marius and some of the King’s Regiment are guarding them in the eastern tower.”
“Ryiah!” Ella rushed forward and stopped just an inch before Paige’s blade impaled her throat. My friend shot her a reproachful look. “Paige, it’s me. I’m here to help you, fool.”
“Sorry.” My guard looked apologetic, but didn’t avert her gaze from the crowd. “I don’t trust anyone right now.”
“Ella.” I grabbed my friend’s arm. “There are rebels, you’ve got to warn Commander Audric—”
“They already know.” My friend pointed to the exits, and there was another scream behind us. Her pupils dilated. “He blocked off the room until they can identify everyone in the attacks. The only ones leaving are foreign dignitaries and the Crown. You aren’t safe here, Ry. Princess Wrendolyn—”
Paige cut Ella off. “She already knows. Help me get her out of here. If they went after the Pythian princess, Ryiah would be the next logical target.”
“But the others!” I protested. “What about—”
“You are more important.” Paige’s reply had an edge. “Ella and I will return when you are safe.”
I had never felt so useless in my life. I let them lead me through the maze of people, all the others begging to be free of the room. Safe. Not only was I without magic, and weak from injury, but I was also a part of the group others risked their lives to save.
I had trained my whole life as a warrior. But in that moment I was the damsel-in-distress.