Book: B01786HSBM (F)

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Next: Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Sixteen

 

“Derrick?” I stopped dead in my tracks. Paige’s blunt practice sword hit me across the stomach, hard. I barely noticed.

My little brother was standing behind the spectator glass of the palace’s indoor training courts.

“Surprise, big sister.” He gave me a small smile and my heart did a flip. “Did you miss me?”

My casted polearm vanished, and I all but slipped across the marble floor as I ran to meet my brother in the stands. No one else was present except my knight who had returned to her own warm-ups now that I had stopped our practice. The rest of the court was still asleep. I would have been too, if I had been able. Unfortunately my many late hours of restless duty had left me unable to sleep for more than a few hours at a time.

“What are you doing here?” I threw my arms around him, for a moment forgetting that I was covered in sweat. “Why aren’t you in Ferren?”

“I felt terrible after I left Montfort.” His voice was muffled. “After what happened I realized the person I was really mad at was myself. I—I was punishing you for something that wasn’t your fault—”

“Derrick.” I pulled back. “I’m so sorry about Alex, I never—”

“I know.” He cut me off. “I knew then, too, but I was so angry I just didn’t care… After I returned to the keep I started to think about that night. Nine people were murdered, and my own sister could have been one of them. I wouldn’t have been there to save you because I was too busy sulking like a child.” Derrick drew a deep breath. “I would have never forgiven myself. So I wrote Darren and begged a position on the palace regiment.”

“You did?” He had never mentioned it.

Derrick nodded, his arms tightening around my waist. “I couldn’t let anything happen to my sister. He understood and I-I think he wanted you to have some family here… so you wouldn’t feel so alone. He mentioned you’d had a hard time adjusting to the palace.” My lungs constricted, just a little. Darren had noticed. All this time I had been envying his role, and he had been worrying over me. “I now serve with you on the King’s Regiment. I’ve a cot in the barracks outside. I reported to their lead soldier last night—I was so tired it took me until this morning to come find you. I checked your chamber first but the guards told me you were in the practice court with her.” His grin turned teasing. “Neither of you has changed one bit.”

“Neither have you.” I stepped back with an embarrassed laugh. His freshly pressed clothes were now damp with my perspiration. I pointed to his tunic. “Sorry, that wasn’t my smartest moment.”

“You couldn’t contain your excitement to see me again.” His eyes danced. “I’ll take that as a compliment. Even if it does smell like an army of men rotting at sea.”

I shoved him away and made a face. “I don’t smell nearly as bad as the men we trained with in Ferren. And I wash regularly. Unlike the others.”

“Well, why don’t you wash up again? And then give me a tour of this palace? It’s your day off, the guards said, no?”

“It is.” I waved at Paige to let her know I was done for the morning. I could make up our practice later on my own. Or maybe Derrick could join me. “When do you start service?”

“Tomorrow.”

****

Everything was better now that Derrick and I had made up from our fight in Montfort. Better even, because Darren was right. I had been suffering from loneliness since our return. I hadn’t grown up highborn. I hadn’t spent endless summers in the palace. I didn’t have friends among the court. I had tried, with some of the regiment’s soldiers, but most of them preferred silence in duty and the nobility were too eager to strike up a friendship with the Crown’s future princess. I’d been wary of all but Paige, and now that Derrick was here I had another to turn to. Someone to confide my own thoughts so I wouldn’t have to burden Darren with my jealousy and resentment.

Someone who—unlike Paige—could share in my opinion. The knight would never dare open her feelings up to the world. Even if she was formerly lowborn and now placed in a position of power. She preferred to stick to the task at hand and that was the end. Derrick was like me. He had chased power, pursued Combat even, and then turned to the Cavalry when his first dream got pushed aside.

“I was jealous of you and Alex,” he admitted, one afternoon while we were drilling in the soldier’s training court outside. “But especially you, because you had it all. The faction, the apprenticeship, you even made a name for yourself with Sir Piers and the Black Mage. You convinced a prince to call off his engagement. Our parents were so proud. They would talk about Alex, but it always came back to you. Every letter.”

I swallowed as I blocked his blade with my own. “I had no idea.”

He shook his head, tufts of blond, curling locks clearing his bright blue eyes. “And I didn’t want you to. I was proud of you… Just, even if I was happy, it hurt. For years. It wasn’t until Commander Nyx promoted me to her keep’s regiment it finally started to fade. Until I started to make a name for myself.”

I fell back and let Derrick take another swipe and kick at my feet. I twisted and parried his cut with ease. Hearing my own brother confess to his own insecurity, his own jealousy… it made it easier to breathe. What I was feeling was normal.

“Did you… did you ever start to believe you were a terrible person?”

“Every day. I would try to stay positive in our letters. It was easy because of the distance, and I really did miss you. But every time we were together and I watched you smile talking about your new life, I hated you. And I hated myself even more for thinking it.”

Our match ended and Derrick sheathed his blade. My own casting vanished. The two of us went to sit against a bench. “I’m so sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for. It wasn’t you, Ryiah. It was me. Something I had to overcome for myself.” His gaze fell to my own and a smile tugged at the corner of his lips. “You wouldn’t happen to have the ring your foolish brother cast away like a dolt?”

I tugged the leather cord from underneath my shirt. The tarnished copper band hung from its center, the letter “R” glinting along its surface. “Does this mean I am your favorite again?” My grin was wide. “Because I will only give it back if I am.”

Derrick snickered. “Poor Alex never had a chance. The two of us are far too evil for the likes of a nice brother like him.”

****

The next month passed by in a blur. My duties became more bearable after my talk with Derrick, and as much as I resented Mage Mira’s obvious distaste where I was concerned, I embraced my role to the fullest. One thing was for certain: the Council chambers would be the most well guarded room in the palace.

And it was. Until the night I was doing a routine patrol down the hall and Darren appeared leaning against the entry with a wicked smile in play.

“Hello, lady mage,” he said, “perhaps you can tell me why this chamber was left unattended for an hour putting our entire kingdom at risk?”

One eyebrow shot up as I fixed the prince with an incredulous expression. “It’s been attended all night. I was the one guarding it.”

He peeled himself off the paneling with an even deeper grin. “I think you are mistaken.”

“And I think you have lost your mind.”

“Then tell me why the inside is a mess.”

“A-a mess?” I faltered. Had I missed something? Someone snuck past me the moment my back was turned? Why was he still smiling like one of the palace cats who had gotten into the cook’s cream? “Show me!”

He produced a key and swung open the handle. I hurried past to check.

Not a thing was out of place. All the books still on their shelves, the giant maps of Jerar and its neighbors aligning the walls, the great Council table and chairs, the great chests still with their locks, even the flourishing tapestries exactly as before. Not since my inspection an hour ago had one object moved in the slightest.

I turned an accusatory finger back at the prince. “You see, nothing has changed!”

“But it will.” Darren shut the door and locked it behind him, looking up at me from underneath long, sooty lashes. The side of his mouth was twitching to hold back a smirk.

Oh. I wanted to kick myself. This.

“I am sorry,” he said, “that I have been so busy.”

I sucked in a sharp breath.

“I’ve been going mad,” he confessed. “Our wedding postponed. All the Council meetings. Only sharing meals. I…” He stopped as he drew up next to me at the center of the room. My back was pressed against the cold stone table, and there was nowhere else I could go.

Even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t.

“I miss you even when you are standing in front of me now.” The words came out in a rush as he met my eyes. “All I’ve been able to think about is you. We are going to go to war, and I’m the Black Mage and the whole time I am supposed to be leading those meetings I am thinking about you.” His head dipped so that his lips were bare inches from my own. “I haven’t stopped, love.”

“I…” I could barely speak, my pulse was deafening. “I think about...”

“What do you think about?” His hands fell to either side of the table, pinning me in place. His eyes were like coals.

“You.” His whole body was pressed against me, and it did odd things to my head. I was dizzy and too hot and too cold. All at once. All I could think about were his legs brushing mine, his chest rising and falling with my own, his hands on my skin.

“And?”

I licked my lips and his eyes followed the movement. A smile tugged at the corner of his own.

“Kiss me, Ryiah.”

I rose to my toes, and he cut the distance in half. Sparks flared in the shadows as his mouth found mine in the dark. I heard him choke back a groan, and it was all I could do not to gasp.

“What else do you think about?” His breath was hot in my ear. His fingers were trailing down my ribs as he pressed down, my back arching against his.

“Do you think about this?” He bit down on my lower lip, and I couldn’t stifle the whimper I emitted in response.

His tongue tangled with mine, and my whole body was ablaze. Hot, searing chills assaulted my limbs until I was panting for air. The prince of Jerar kissed me, and I swear to the gods I was catching fire because of it.

Heat flared in the pit of my stomach as he whispered the words. “What do you want, Ryiah?”

His hands lifted me against the cold marble top, and my legs wrapped around his waist before I even realized what I was doing. Shock and desire coursed my cheeks.

“Darren,” I stammered.

“Ryiah.” He was staring down at me, and I fought to break the spell that had found its way inside my head. His hands were pressed flat against the table on either side of me and heat was chasing through my veins, filling the pit of my stomach and up, up, down. The entire room was a haze. I wanted to pull Darren down to me and close any semblance of space between us.

I didn’t want him wearing those clothes.

I swallowed. The thought should have stunned me but now… Now when every part of me was dying just for this.

I knew what he wanted.

I wanted it too.

“Ryiah.” Darren raised one hand to lift my chin and meet my eyes with his own. His gaze was a bottomless abyss. Dark garnet swallowed me whole. The color reminded me of a setting sun: the moment red faded into black and became something else, something that pulled and drove you to madness, so beautiful you kept staring because you could no longer see anything else.

“I love you,” he whispered.

I pulled Darren to me and kissed him. One long, slow kiss that told him everything I was too afraid to put into words. His eyes flared and Darren pressed into me in response, kissing me back in a breathless rush. His fingers slipped down, down to the hem of my shirt and my breath hitched.

My pulse thundering as I tore off his vest, my grip sliding on tile as his mouth found my neck.

There was a scratching, an odd creak, and for a moment I thought it was my fingernails against the marble top. But they were still in his hair, pulling as hot lips pressed into my skin, searing me alive.

Then the creak again and the soft squeak of a hinge.

I jerked back, my head banging against the table while Darren threw himself around, blocking me from the intruder, one hand casting a bright sheen of light against the chamber door.

“Derrick?” Darren’s wheeze was echoed in my own. I struggled to right myself and adjust my top that had fallen low to one shoulder, snarled in my hair.

“Your highness… Ry? I–I’m so sorry, I didn’t…” My brother’s neck flushed pink as he stammered on. “I–I came to find my sister, a-and I saw the hallway was empty. I was worried and thought to check…” Derrick’s voice trailed off as his eyes darted from one side of the dark chamber to the other, clearly getting an idea for why that was.

“Thanks for checking.” The prince’s gaze assessed my brother with a slight frown. “Wasn’t that door locked?”

Something pricked at the back of my spine.

“It couldn’t have been.” My brother wore an incredulous expression. “How else would I have gotten in?”

My eyes darted to my brother, and he looked away as he added. “There must have been a catch. It swung open a-and then I realized…”

Darren looked away, embarrassed as my brother. The moment couldn’t have been more awkward if he tried.

Derrick ducked his head. “I –I’ll let the two of you alone.”

“Derrick,” I suddenly called, “why were you looking for me?”

His head shot up but he didn’t meet my eyes. “I–I guess I don’t remember.”

The door shut and then it was just Darren and me in the dark. Only this time there were shadows creeping around my thoughts. Unease and fear were pounding at my chest. I pulled myself up off the table.

Darren caught my arm. “You are leaving?” He sounded so confused.

A part of me wanted to stay. To forget everything and recapture that moment, but… “I –Can you find me a replacement, tonight?”

“Of course…” He swallowed. “I’m sorry—I never meant to make you—”

“It wasn’t that!” I cut him off quickly, blushing furiously and grateful for the dark. “I–I just…” Gods help me. “I haven’t taken any of the potions to… help keep away a child… I… I wouldn’t want to until a-after the war.”

“Oh.” The back of his neck was as red as my face, I was sure of it. “I… I, uh, can ask one of the healers to… if you want?”

I was ready to melt into a puddle of humiliation. But there was another part of me that begged not to brush his offer aside. She wouldn’t let me run off in a childish fit; she wanted this. “I –I do.” I squeaked the reply, and then ran from the room—confident my fit of “embarrassment” would be enough to explain my rough exit.

Darren didn’t need to know the real reason was Derrick. To find my brother before he had time to recover. So I could corner him and force him to explain.

Only two guards—me, and a mage named Ike—had a key to the room. Ike took his role as seriously as Paige took hers. I had never seen him so much as yawn on duty once. The only others were the current Council of Magic and the Crown. Derrick was neither.

****

“You stole it from me, didn’t you? That day in practice.” I didn’t wait for a reply as I shoved my brother against the wooded walls, hissing. “That time I thought I lost it. But I didn’t, did I? The next day when you told me you had found it? You had taken it and made a copy!”

“I—” His chest rose and fell as he panted for breath. His arms were twice as wide, his frame easily two heads above my own—but just now he looked small, so much smaller than I.

“Why did you need it?” I rammed his shoulders, my fingers bruising upon impact. “Why? WHY DID YOU NEED IT, DERRICK?” No one else was around. The building was eerily quiet except for the soft crunch of hay and the shifting of hooves.

Everyone else was at dinner. Or abed. Or on duty. The closest guards were a quarter mile away: a couple at the palace gates, the others the barrack walls. It was Derrick’s shift at the stables.

Or it was supposed to be. Except he had been attempting to break into the Council chambers. Under the guise of visiting me.

My brother stopped panting and looked me straight in the eyes. “You know why,” he said softly.

“No! No, I don’t!” My fist hit the wall by his neck. A trickle of blood dribbled down from my knuckles to the floor.

“You do.” Derrick didn’t falter under my gaze.

“No, I…” I did. My legs gave out from under me, and I caught the wall just before I fell. “Oh gods, oh gods, oh…” I slid down until I was sitting in the hay, my knees pulled up to my chest. The name spilled over on my tongue like a disease. “You are a rebel.”

Derrick sat down next to me and said nothing.

“You… you d-didn’t come back for me.” My breath was coming out hard and fast, and I was seconds away from heaving. “You c-came here for them.”

My whole world rose up to meet me. Hot flashes of sweat and my skin became clammy and pale as I dropped on my hands, vomiting into the musty straw, giant swells of dust and dirt clogging my throat.

Derrick held my hair back and waited for me to stop coughing, handing me his water skin until I had washed my mouth out and spat. Then he spoke.

“They aren’t what you think.”

“Cold-blooded murderers?” I choked the words out like fire. “They tried to kill me, Derrick. My first year of the apprenticeship. In Mahj. They tried to kill Darren. They killed Caine, they killed others, they attack our cities, they…” My voice cracked. “They killed Wren.”

“They were after the salt mines, not you or Darren.” His tone was sharp. “If the apprentices hadn’t tried to play the people’s hero their leader would never have attacked. The rebels care about weakening the Jerar coin through its exports, not killing off its youth. Finding out a prince of Jerar was present though…” He paused. “Well, they thought they might kill two birds with one stone. The Crown is our enemy, Ryiah.” He exhaled. “You are just too blind to see it.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about.” I felt sick. Twisted, gutted, like it was all a cruel test of will. Turn my little brother against me. Make him the enemy.

It was the worst kind of test. And one I would fail. I couldn’t make a move to arrest him.

“They tried to recruit both of us, you know.” He sounded pained. “In Ferren’s Keep.” No rebel attacks in the north… I had always wondered why. “When Nyx offered you the position after your apprenticeship, it was because she knew you would be powerful. She sent for Ian the moment you accepted. His parents are rebels—” No. “So was he. He’d been gathering information at Langli, helping her keep track of shipments—but then she asked for him to help watch you. To test you. After your engagement to the prince…” He had been there for me. Darren had been right all along, just not for the reason he thought. “She knew they would have to be careful. So she called on Ian… And then when you continued to mope she decided to recruit me. She brought on Jacob since his father was already one of them.”

They were rebels. All of them. All quietly recruiting the lowborns to fight for their cause. ‘South the Snout?’ It was just another rhyme to turn the northerners against us. Why they had refrained from recruiting highborns. Even Ella hadn’t been offered a position—but Ray, a rank lower, had.

Derrick’s eyes met mine, and they were full of grief. “I didn’t know, Ry. They didn’t tell me anything until that first time you were called away to the palace. Sir Gavin’s unit is where they put all the new recruits. Take them on missions, bond with them. Learn their secrets and if they pass the test—if they choose one another over the Crown in offhanded discussions, she promotes them. And then they tell.” Ray. He was promoted while I was in Devon.

“They didn’t promote me or Ian, of course,” Derrick said. “Nyx needed us to get to you. You weren’t engaged with your unit. You kept training for that blasted Candidacy and defending Darren. You brought the coin, and I thought it would be better—you had passed a test— but then you withdrew again. No one could trust you.” His eyes flared in anger. “I begged and pleaded for Sir Gavin to give you a chance. But Ian wasn’t convinced. He said you were too close to the Crown. That it didn’t matter how much you could bring to our cause, you were too much a risk. That you would betray us to him.”

I couldn’t breathe.

“The bandits you found near Pamir. They were never taken to the prison in Gilys. They were recruited. Stationed in cities up north, given coin to survive.” My brother’s fingers dug into the straw. “The rebels don’t abandon their people, Ryiah. They don’t leave them to starve. They don’t punish them for turning to crime when the Crown turns its back.”

I forced down a deep lungful of air. “Derrick, the Crown doesn’t have enough coin, it can’t possibly support everyone when Caltoth is sending attacks…” My eyes grew wide. “The rebels, Derrick. Are they working with Caltoth?” And why, if he was a rebel, why was he telling me all of this?

Unless he knew I would never report him.

“Ry, Caltoth isn’t the enemy.”

“Then who is?” I spat the words back in his face. “The Crown? King Blayne? Darren? Me?” My eyes were swelling with tears, and I didn’t bother to hide them away. I wanted Derrick to see me. His sister. His own flesh and blood. “TELL ME, DERRICK. WHO IS THE ENEMY?”

I wanted him to face me and say it. Because I was struggling to name my own.

My brother had the decency to look shamed, his cheeks flushing that of a stained rose. “It’s not that easy, I—”

“TELL ME, DERRICK!”

“King Lucius.”

I bit back a laugh. It choked at my lungs with the dust, and I was coughing for close to a minute before it finally stopped. “Is that the best that you can do?” I sneered. “A dead king. My own brother can’t even think of a decent lie. YOUR PEOPLE KILLED HIM NOT TWO MONTHS AGO AND YOU ALREADY FORGOT?” I was hysterical. He was hysterical. My own brother, the world’s worst liar. How had I missed it over the course of a year?

“No.” Derrick squared his shoulders and shook me. “I’m not lying, Ry. King Lucius has been staging this war since the beginning. He had a sister, did you know that?”

I stopped laughing.

“Princess Kyra. She died on Caltothian soil—she was sick, it would have happened regardless. But his parents blamed their neighbor, and why not? Caltoth is the richest nation, you know.” I did. “Lucius told his advisors he wanted to expand two months before his wife’s death.”

“How would you possibly know? It’s just a lie they are saying to get you to join their cause!”

My brother ignored my question. “One of them, Raphael, disagreed. He didn’t speak the truth to his king, but he warned his younger sister in the north. She was a head knight at the time in one of the regiments in Ferren’s Keep. She went by Nyx.”

Commander Nyx?

“They—with the help of their most trusted friends—plotted to kill the king. It was the only way to stop him. They knew Queen Lillian would be a manageable queen and better, she wasn’t aware of her husband’s plans. They never wanted to eliminate the Crown, Ryiah; they just wanted a ruler that wasn’t corrupt and trying to cause a war between nations that would cost thousands of lives. They knew the princes would be better under the mother’s guidance than the father.”

Derrick stirred at the straw. “But Raphael mixed up the wines. Queen Lillian drank from the wrong cup. So King Lucius slaughtered the entire room that night. He probably guessed it was intended for him, after all, and he used the event as the first claim to Caltothian attacks.”

I wanted to argue, to protest… but another part of me wanted to listen. I stayed silent. That part of me that wanted to believe my brother, to know he was not a traitor—it wouldn’t be quieted.

And worst, what he was saying, it made sense.

“Lucius staged the border attacks, Ry. For years. Nyx started to suspect and sent some of her most trusted men to investigate. It was just small ones, innocent ones at first. But they started to grow. And knowing Raphael’s secrets, she knew there was more to it.” He sucked in a breath. “Nyx sent a band of emissaries to Caltoth. She had them petition his court. King Horrace claimed it was a farce. If he had been allowing the attacks he could have just as easily executed her spies, but instead he listened.” My brother paused. “Horrace might have had the coin, but he didn’t have the strength to combat a war. So he’s spent years beseeching King Joren’s favor, preparing him for King Lucius’s claims. Because Lucius was hiring Caltothian fugitives, Ry, fugitives and bandits and assassins. He was paying them to attack his own people.

“NO.” I tried to stand and caught myself against the wall. My limbs were like jelly. “Why would a king stage a war on his own people?”

“What better way to win over his people’s support? What better way to show the other countries Caltoth had broken the Great Compromise?” Derrick paused. “That didn’t mean there weren’t raids from their own. Greedy lords that wanted more. Assassins that thought to pocket Lucius’s coin and use it to their own gain… Like Ferren. Nyx told me you recalled something during the attack.”

I sucked in a breath. “You know the orders as well as I do, Wade, no survivors.” “Not if we don’t tell them.” “Do you really want to take that chance? Two times a traitor would only bring a slow and painful death.”

“Lucius paid Caltothian assassins to attack one of the patrolling regiments during the mock battle. He had never expected his son to be far enough to stop it. You and Darren and the rest of your year were supposed to be in the keep.” Eve. Something tugged at my lungs. She had died not to save us from Caltothian killers—but our own king.

She had died in vain.

“The lives we lost that day, Ryiah. They weren’t because of King Horrace. They were the final proof Lucius needed to convince the others the Great Compromise was broken. From there he just needed to secure the Pythian’s hand.”

I was breaking, and it was all I could do to breathe. And then: Wren. And the others.

“You think the rebels are so noble?” I spat. “But they were willing to kill us in the desert, Derrick! You say that was for control of trade? Well, what about Montfort? What about then?” My voice trembled and caught. “Were you one of them? Did you somehow manage to escape—”

Derrick shook his head vehemently. “That wasn’t us, Ry.”

“You said the Crown is their enemy,” I choked. “And they killed him, Derrick. Lucius is dead. They killed Wren. They tried to kill Blayne. They killed—”

“IT WASN’T US!” Derrick stood and grabbed both my arms, shaking me. “I swear to you, Ry, it wasn’t the rebels. We wanted Lucius dead but it wasn’t us. I was never there, and the rebels they caught, they weren’t us—”

HOW WOULD YOU EVEN KNOW?” I roared. “You just nod your head at every little thing Commander Nyx tells you! She’s the rebel leader, isn’t she?”

“She is but—”

“But you claim it isn’t you!” I shoved him away. “Lucius was the rebel’s enemy and now he is dead. How convenient. Who were those ‘fake’ rebels, then? Another group of fugitives set against the first? Pythians who were willing to kill their king’s heir to the throne? If the Pythians wanted Jerar they could have just struck an alliance with Caltoth; they needn’t have bothered with the farce of their negotiations! The death of their crown princess!” The words were tearing at my throat. “And the Boreans? They are the weakest country of all! Emperor Liang stands to gain nothing from the attack! The only answer is the rebels or Caltoth!”

I advanced on my brother, anger giving me the strength to stand tall. “Don’t you see, Derrick? You’ve been played. King Horrace played all of you. He got the rebels to do his dirty work while he sat there laughing on his throne, sending his armies to weaken our border. Even if what you said about Lucius was true—which I might believe for some, King Horrace could have taken advantage. Maybe those men weren’t your own rebels in Montfort. Perhaps they were soldiers of Jerar bought by the Caltothians! Did you ever think of that?”

Derrick glowered. “The ambassador shouted, ‘For Caltoth.’ Someone was clearly trying to frame Horrace and the rebels in one.”

“Or perhaps,” I said through clenched teeth, “Horrace really was condoning the attack and didn’t care who knew. Or maybe the Caltothians aren’t working with you at all, and Nyx bought off the ambassador!”

“The north can barely afford to outfit its own infantry!” Derrick raged. “You are a mage! You know nothing of what it is like to be a lowborn soldier with nothing to gain. The Crown sends us nothing. Nyx have no idea what it’s like! Nyx would never betray us because she is one of us—unlike you!”

I tried a calming breath to prevent the rage from making me say something I would regret. I didn’t know who the enemy was anymore, but whoever it was they were still out there. And I needed to convince my brother not to play right into the palm of their hand. “The enemy could be anyone, Derrick. Even your own.”

“There is someone you forgot.” My brother turned on me, twin storm clouds thrashing in his eyes. “Someone who was conveniently not injured in the Montfort attack.”

“There were a lot of people not—”

“Someone important.” Derrick took a step forward, backing me against the wall. His whole body was trembling. “Someone who stood to gain everything. Did you ever stop to wonder why?”

“Blayne?” I snorted. “Did you forget? He was poisoned.

“No.” My brother’s eyes flashed. “Not Blayne. No one knows if King Lucius shared his schemes with his sons. But there is one who stood to gain the most out of the king and his heir’s deaths. Someone who could have decided it was time to take the throne—”

My brother stumbled back as my hand slapped across his face. Tears were stinging my eyes as I advanced on him, screaming, “DARREN WOULD NEVER!”

“Wouldn’t he?” My brother caught my hand before I could hit him again. “You are blinded by love, Ry. Did you forget Alex? Did you forget what you let happen to our own brother because you were too afraid to stand up to the Crown?”

“Darren never wanted that!” I yanked free of his grip. “His father was evil! Darren hated him! You have no idea—”

“Perhaps he killed him over hate.” My brother started to walk away.

“Derrick!” I chased after my brother. “We need to tell them what you told me. Darren and Blayne need to know the truth about their father!”

My brother turned around. “We aren’t telling them anything. You won’t tell them anything.”

“You were searching the palace for proof of Lucius’s orders, weren’t you?” I was pleading. “That’s what they told you to do, wasn’t it?”

My brother said nothing.

“Darren could help you. Even Blayne. If what you said was true—”

“The Crown can’t be trusted.” Derrick’s voice echoed across the stalls. “Even if the two princes weren’t involved in Lucius’s schemes, do you really think King Blayne would call off a war? With the Pythians’ support Jerar will win, and the Crown stands everything to gain.”

“Darren could help him see reason, Blayne trusts him—”

Derrick raised his hand. “Lucius raised Darren to be his brother’s right hand. He will serve Blayne above all else.”

“You don’t know him!”

“I don’t need to. They are the Crown. They will betray us.”

“Derrick!” I was on my knees, begging him not to go. “You have to stop. If they find out you are with the rebels after the attack at Montfort—” They will kill him.

“You are going to have to tell them to stop me.” My brother’s jaw clenched, and I saw he was no longer just the boy I had helped raise, but a man. “I will keep searching. Because one of us has to. And if you turn me in—and I don’t think you will—you will have to deal with my blood on your hands. And you can live your life knowing you betrayed your own brother. And when Alex and our parents cripple in despair, you will know it was you who did it. It will be you who destroyed your life.”

****

I stumbled to my chambers—but before I did I made sure to dry my eyes. To clean my face. To brush the straw from my breeches. To hold my head up high and smile as I passed the regular patrol of guards.

As soon as I had reached my chamber I threw the door shut and fell to my bed, a muffled scream into the mattress beneath. I hated Derrick. I hated him for using my love against me. He knew I would never betray him to the Crown, and even if his tasks now were innocent enough, I would not be able to protect him if he got caught.

Why? Why does it have to be my brother who gets involved in this scheme? I hated Commander Nyx. Ian. HOW DARE HE TRY TO CONVERT ME! Ray. All of those angry soldiers at the keep. Jacob. Myself. Why couldn’t Derrick have been more like Alex? Why did he have to be like me?

I hated every last one of them. I hated Derrick for asking me to choose. Because by asking me, he had known I would choose him. He knew I wouldn’t betray him to Darren. Because I couldn’t betray my brother, my own flesh and blood—the little boy who I had spent all those days chasing around a field, wrestling in the mud… Which meant Darren could never betray Blayne—the brother he had seen beaten and bruised, the one he had sworn to protect. And I couldn’t count on Blayne not to condemn Derrick.

My brother had made me a traitor. And I would never, ever forgive him.

A sob escaped my lips.

“Ryiah?” There was a concerned knock at the door.

My chest squeezed until it hurt, and I had to dig my nails down into the blankets to fight back a cry. I couldn’t talk to Darren. Not now. Not while everything I knew was falling apart. My brother had forced me to pick a side. And it wasn’t Darren’s.

I held my breath and waited until he left.

Derrick had implied the one I loved could be the traitor in our midst. But he was wrong. Because deep down, I knew. If Darren had asked me to kill an evil tyrant and his brother? If he had begged? If he had told me it was all for Jerar? I would have stood by his side.

The true traitors were the rebels. Or King Horrace of Caltoth. Or perhaps the Pythian king himself.

Had I known that this was how it would be? The life of a mage of Combat, betrothed to a prince? A kingdom in ruin. And with so many loose threads, something would tear.

And when it did, it would all fall apart.

Previous: Chapter Fifteen
Next: Chapter Seventeen