Book: B01786HSBM (F)

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Next: Chapter Two

Chapter One

 

Darren laughed softly. It was like water. The sound of a stream cascading down rock, low and unhurried. Silky. Confident. “You don’t really think you can beat me, Ryiah.”

I put my hands on my hips. “How would you know? We’ve never dueled before.”

“I beat you in that contest when we were apprentices in Port Langli.”

“Yes, but we didn’t fight with magic.” I shifted from one foot to the next as the non-heir raised a brow and gave me a knowing look. He was tapping his fingers against his wrist, and I could tell he was torn between dismissing my challenge and outright intrigue. Prince Darren of Jerar, second-in-line to the throne, was nothing if not proud.

But he was also stubborn. Like me. And I knew he wasn’t thrilled by the prospect of dueling his future wife.

I bit my lip. How to convince him otherwise. I watched as Darren’s eyes fell to my mouth. Suddenly I was quite sure I knew the answer. Senseless attraction had made the past five years a misery for the both of us, but now it was going to help.

“How about a wager?”

“A wager?” Darren’s tone was instantly suspicious. “What kind of wager?”

I took a step forward and lightly laid my palm against his form-fitting tunic. I had to swallow as I felt the flat layer of hard muscle beneath. Control yourself, Ryiah. Now was not the time to be noticing things like that. I was the one who was supposed to be seducing him.

“Careful, Ryiah.” The prince was smiling.

“I win and you join me in Ferren’s Keep.” Ha. We’d spent the past week arguing over where the two of us were going to be stationed.

“You know I need to remain at the palace.”

“Then win and you won’t have to leave.”

“What’s my counter?”

I spoke without thinking. “Anything you want.”

Anything?” Darren’s eyes met mine, and my stomach dropped. A flush crept up the side of my neck and stained my whole face crimson.

“I – I didn’t mean a-anything,” I stuttered.

“Then don’t lose.” His eyes were dancing. “Isn’t that what you just told me?”

I folded my arms and stared him down stubbornly. “Fine,” I said, “but if you get ‘anything’ then I get to add another condition if I win: you have to make peace with Alex the next time the two of you cross paths.”

The non-heir cringed. He and my twin had a strained relationship at best, and even after the night of the ascension Alex was still wary of the prince. He had told me the morning after, four days back.

Which was ironic because Darren’s brother, the crown prince of Jerar, hated me. Although to be fair, I shared the sentiment. There was no one I despised more than Blayne.

“Well, it’s a good thing I plan on winning.” I looked up and found Darren smirking. Gods, even when he was arrogant, he was attractive. Or maybe it was because of his smug self-assurance. It made me want to slap that silly smile off his face, and then grab him by the collar and kiss him until I couldn’t breathe. Not necessarily in that order.

I concentrated on tugging my hair back into a knot — anything to appear unaffected. “Vanity doesn’t suit you.”

The prince just gave me a knowing smile and pulled himself off the wall, lazily walking to the center of the training court. I followed him until the two of us were standing ten feet apart in the center of a large stone dais. The palace’s practice court was much smaller than the outdoor ones we had trained in during our apprenticeship, and it was also twice as elaborate. I suspected it was because we were in the nation’s capital, where more coin was devoted to pleasure than practicality.

Normal arenas were in the dirt, outside under a radiating sun with a bare picket fence to serve as the border. Here, inside the palace of Devon, we stood on a raised stone platform surrounded by large, white pillars and a curved base of cushioned benches. On the same side as the empty seats was a thick glass wall, reinforced by a regular supply of the Alchemy mages’ resistance potions.

This way the king’s court could relax in leisure without the threat of a knight or mage’s attack gone awry.

On the opposite side we had just come from was a small alcove featuring a display of training weapons and spare armor. Darren didn’t bother to take any—he already had the most powerful weapon at hand. His magic. As Combat mages we were able to cast any weapon we needed, and while we would outfit ourselves in real battle, this was only a duel and we had both agreed the outcome would be decided by sheer prowess alone.

“Are you ready, Ryiah?” Darren was grinning.

I studied his stance, hoping for a small hint as to what his first attack might be. I had spent five years studying his form in casting, and while the prince was good, no one was perfect. He still had tells just like the rest of us. They might not be as obvious, but they were there. If Darren were to cast a weapon to hold he’d likely adjust his right hand—just the slightest widening of his fist to grip a handle. Likewise, he’d be more likely to dig in with his right heel were he to prepare for a substantial casting from his center of gravity, something akin to a heavy torrent of wind power or flame.

Right now, on the day I needed to read him the most, the prince was a blank slate. I scowled. “I’m ready.”

“On the count of three.” Darren’s eyes met mine. “One … Two … Three!”

The two of us threw out our castings at once, our magic rising up and exploding in a collision of brute power and force.

And then we were flying back.

The two of us slammed against a pillar on each end of the arena. I barely had time to cushion my fall with a casting of air before I was staggering forward, running back toward Darren with a hand raised and magic flowing from my palm.

But he was even faster.

I narrowly ducked as a series of whistling daggers soared past my ear. Swiping a loose strand from my eyes, I met the prince’s gaze.

“Having fun, love?” The words were full of unspoken laughter.

“Aren’t you?” A blade appeared in one hand as my other sent off a blinding flash of light. The air lit up, and for a moment there was only gold as I barreled forward, bringing my sword up and down in a vertical slash. I threw all my weight into the heat of the attack.

But Darren was waiting. And the sound of two metals colliding sent out a noisy ring across the dais.

I withdrew and threw up a pine shield just in time to counter his cut.

“Nice touch.”

“I learned from the best.” I paused. “Well, second best.”

He snorted.

We continued to trade blows for parries but within minutes Darren was walking me backward across the dais with a maddening smirk. His weighted blows were stronger than mine, and my arm was starting to strain against the heavy hits I was blocking, but only occasionally issuing.

I made a split-second decision to lunge forward with my shield. Darren blocked the move easily, but that was my intention. While he was distracted with the blow, I changed my sword to a knife.

Darren registered my decision a second too late as I threw a crescent cut low and out. I caught the side of his leg just before he fell back, and I was rewarded with a loud rip of cloth and the trickle of red.

I jumped out of the way of the prince’s counter.

“Should have known you’d choose the knife.”

“It always was my favorite.”

We regarded one another for a moment in silence, our chests rising and falling after the first ten minutes of battle. I had drawn first blood, so I won by standard duel etiquette. But the both of us knew we were playing for more. We trained for Combat, and Combat trained to win. We were war mages. Our definition of winning was surrender—or death.

I adjusted my grip. One victory down, and one more to go. I lifted my hand at the same time Darren lowered his. Our eyes met and power burst from our fingertips. The dais rumbled and groaned, and I leaped to avoid a large fissure as Darren cast out a magicked globe, shielding himself from the storm of arrows I had sent flooding down from the ceiling.

This time there was no rest.

Fire tore a line across the fissure, sprouting even more flames as it chased me to the edge. I spun and doused it with a flurry of ice, listening to the snap, crackle, hiss as the flames met with cold.

For a second, heavy steam fogged up the arena. I shut my eyes and called up a memory for the next casting.

Darren and me. The night he told me he didn’t love me. Blayne laughing in my face while the fathomless prince watched, unfeeling, as my heart crumbled to a million pieces.

My fingers tingled, and I felt the warm static building in my arm. These were the memories I needed. Weather magic wasn’t like a normal casting: it was fueled by emotion. Extremities were best. And my years with Darren had certainly given me a large assortment to choose from:

“I told you not to trust a wolf. Because it would only ever want to break you… Haven’t you figured it out yet? I’m the wolf, Ryiah.”

A hot surge of anger leaped out of my core. I mentally harnessed the emotion and channeled its magic, letting the searing heat surge along my veins. Then, I released my casting.

A jolt of lightning struck Darren’s barrier and shattered it. There was a shrill, earsplitting noise as his casting splintered like glass.

Darren released his magic and sprinted across the platform, a magicked sword in each hand.

I sent out a large funnel of fire, but the prince crossed his arms mid-stride and the flames came barreling back. I had just enough time to duck to my left, and then a terrible smell met my nose. Bitter and burned.

I lifted a hand to my head. The fire had singed off part of my hair, just above my right ear.

When Darren came again I was ready. Ice shot out across the short distance between us and met with the prince’s swords. His metal froze over, webs of glistening frost spreading from the tip to the handle with a shrill crack.

Darren dropped his castings with a growl—nothing like the biting sting of frozen metal—and looked to his palms. They were now reddish-black.

I was torn between guilt and glee. I knew how they felt. I’d had that same casting done to me when I was an apprentice.

But I was here to win.

I barreled forward and prepared to end our duel with a knife to his neck. Or that was what I had planned. But, like usual, Darren was one step ahead of me.

The second the steel started to materialize in my hand Darren tackled me mid-stride.

Before I could get a good focus my casting disappeared—concentration broken by his attack—and we both hit the hard stone floor with a loud thud.

I felt the jarring impact in my side rather than the full at my back. I had somehow grappled my way so that Darren wasn’t quite pinning me flat—one leg in and one out.

Darren was trying to wrestle me to the floor, but I knew the second he had my shoulders the match was as good as over. I would never be able to break the full weight of his hold if I couldn’t push forward. I knew I would never win a contest with my arms—I simply didn’t have the mass—but that didn’t mean I couldn’t fool Darren into thinking I’d try. He and I had never fought in hand-to-hand combat, so I could only hope that meant he hadn’t been paying attention during my training in the apprenticeship.

Pretending to gasp, I made a huge deal out of struggling back and forth to break free. Darren took the bait. He leaned forward to pin me back and my second leg snaked free. It took me all of two seconds to dig my first heel into his hip and pivot to the side.

It was enough to give me some leverage against his weight.

I threw myself forward using the second leg to kick up and off the ground, rolling the prince underneath me. I was up.

But I was sitting too far back. Darren’s reflexes were too fast. Or maybe he had expected the move. His hips threw me, and I toppled forward, palms slapping the ground while he used the strength in his torso to flip-roll me back. Hard.

I landed on my back with a curse. My lungs were on fire, and I wasn’t sure I hadn’t broken something in that twist. White-hot pain was eating away at my ribs, and Darren had my arms pinned out onto the stone ground beneath me.

“Time to surrender, love. Don’t fault yourself, it’s not every day someone goes up against a first-rank mage.”

I grumbled a very unladylike word and Darren laughed, his whole body shaking.

“You are insufferable.”

Darren stopped and his eyes met mine. The look he gave me was enough to forget the terrible pain in my chest and bring on a whole different kind of heat. “Well, I don’t believe that for a second.”

Blood rushed my face as the prince leaned in.

“Admit it.” Darren’s mouth was close to my ear. “You aren’t suffering in the least...” His hand traced circles along the inside of my wrist. A rain of shivers followed wherever his fingers went. “Are you, Ryiah?”

I swallowed. For the first time I was conscious of the fact we were the only two in the room. And we were on the floor, which suddenly didn’t feel quite so uncomfortable and cold.

Not when he was looking at me like that. Like…

I had a sudden flashback to that day in his chambers two years before. To what had almost transpired the last time we had been truly alone.

Gods, I hadn’t been able to keep my hands to myself. And neither had he.

The memory was making me blush. Even now.

Darren noticed and his lips curved in a half-smile, his eyes hooded. “That’s what I thought.” The words closed the distance between us. I could detect the faint spiciness of his breath, like cinnamon and heat and ice. Something that was dangerous and dark and, to be honest, exactly what I wanted.

I knew we needed to treat our injuries, especially mine, but…

“If you are going to kiss me,” I said brazenly, “you should do it now.”

The corner of his lip turned up. “Oh, I intend to.”

“Really, because I’m still—”

Darren placed a tanned finger to my lips, eyes dancing. “I haven’t named the prize for our wager yet.”

That silenced me real quick.

“Ah, and I see I’ve finally rendered you speechless.” His smirk deepened. “And here I thought you would never—”

Before Darren could finish whatever taunt he had started, I dragged the prince down by the hem of his vest. His lips met mine, surprised, and for a moment everything was slow and languorous and sweet.

I could hear the unsteady beating of his pulse. The careful way he kissed me back had my vision swarming before my eyes. It might have been slow but my pulse was thundering inside my ears like a roar.

For once neither of us was rushed. There was nothing forbidden, nothing wrong, we had all the time in the world.

Darren’s fingers slipped into the back of my hair. I looked up at him and his eyes were smoldering. This was us. He stared back and for once there was no challenge, no sarcasm or smirk, just Darren. And me.

After so many years we were finally together.

His fingers trailed the side of my face and my skin burned underneath his touch. Could a person catch fire and still live? I wasn’t sure, but I thought the answer was yes.

His lips parted mine. I shut my eyes.

Dear. Gods.

“Ryiah…” His hand skimmed down the side of my waist…

And a startled cry fell from my lips.

Darren fell back with a start. “Are you—are you hurt?”

I pressed down on my stomach and bit back a long string of curses. Hot needle pricks flared in response. “My ribs.” I avoided his gaze and silently chastised the god of chance. Now? The pain could not have resurged at a more inconvenient time.

Or maybe it is exactly the right time, my inner voice replied. You know perfectly well what happened the last time the two of you got carried away…

I groaned loudly to cover up the rest of my thoughts. Tomorrow morning I was supposed to set out to Ferren’s Keep. I couldn’t very well do a two week trek on horseback where I would be in constant motion with broken ribs.

I tried to stand and doubled over in agony.

Darren was there in an instant. I swatted him away with a weak wave of the hand.

“I’m a Combat mage.” I stood and took a sharp lungful of air. “Not one of those damsels in distress you keep here at the palace.”

He raised an amused brow. “I never said you were.”

A scowl met his reply. “Tell that to the tutors your father ordered me for etiquette this week.”

“I can never win with you, can I?”

I rolled my eyes, but inside I was smiling. Outside, my mouth was plastered in a grimace. “Just take me to the infirmary.”

“So full of authority.” Darren joined me as I started toward the nearest passage. He pointed the direction we were to take. “And I believe I told you I would never carry you.”

I let him lead the way. “That was four years ago. And I’m not asking you to carry me—I just want your company.”

Darren flashed me a predator’s grin. “Well, don’t expect me not to gloat on the way over. Because despite your injuries, love, I do believe I have maintained my standing as a first-rank mage.”

I rolled my eyes. “For now.”

I heard his chuckle echo along the barren palace hall. It was disconcerting. Usually the king’s palace was filled to the brim with wandering courtiers, mages, off-duty knights, servants, and, of course, my favorite, his older brother by three years, Prince Blayne.

Luckily, today was not most days. The entire court—with the exception of a small sampling of its staff—had departed that morning for the yearly first-year trials at the Academy of Magic in Sjeka.

Traditionally the Crown—the king and his two sons—was supposed to attend, but Darren had been granted a leave of absence since his new service as a mage in the King’s Regiment was to begin at the week’s end.

The two of us continued on in a comfortable silence—well, as comfortable as it could be given my new injuries. It was nice. We had barely shared any time together since the ascension. After Darren had publicly declared our engagement most of his time had been stolen in long meetings with the king and his advisors, and I had been thrown into a parade of anxious courtiers eager to earn the favor of a future princess of Jerar.

King Lucius had not been thrilled with his son, and he definitely did not look favorably upon the former lowborn who had caused his son to make such a “reckless” decision in the first place. Darren and Princess Shinako of the Borea Isles had found a way to avoid their own impending marriages by promising her dowry to me in exchange for a renewed treaty between her island country and Jerar. It had been a brilliant move, and one no one had seen coming, but after the initial night of revelry there had been new problems to contend with.

There were many concerns about someone with my background taking on such a vital role within the Crown.

It didn’t matter that said role was purely ornamental since Darren would never be king. It didn’t matter that as an apprentice I had acquired a highborn status on my own. And it certainly didn’t matter that I was hopelessly in love with the boy.

What mattered was that I had ruined a very strategic match between Blayne and an important ally. Now King Lucius was stuck in negotiations with Pythus. As heir to the kingdom of Jerar, Blayne needed to marry above Darren. And since the Borea Isles’ princess’s dowry had already been promised to me, Blayne was forced to pursue a new match with one of King Joren’s daughters instead.

In truth, it was a great opportunity. The Borea Isles were a much smaller territory and couldn’t provide the resources a large continent like Pythus could offer. But try telling that to Blayne. Darren and he had been intended for quick marriages to secure their dowries’ funds as fast as possible, and now Blayne had to find a new wife. King Joren was a much shrewder man than Emperor Liang. It didn’t matter that the Crown needed as much support as it could get in order to go to war against its northern neighbor, Caltoth; to Blayne, I would always be the unruly lowborn who had managed to ruin all his plans.

And now he was determined to ruin mine. The very next morning after Darren’s and my engagement, Blayne had petitioned his father to hold off on our wedding until he secured his own. When Darren had tried to counter his brother’s absurd proclamation citing the impending war with Caltoth, the king had stiffly sided with his eldest, stating that the suggestion might motivate Darren to become more involved in Crown affairs. “Besides,” he had added dryly, “we need two dowries to finance an army, not one.”

I wasn’t sure I believed that. More likely, the king just wanted to punish Darren for the public humiliation he had faced the night of our ascension. Lucius had been all too willing to go along with his youngest son’s strategy until he found out the second half of the arrangement: marriage to a lowborn. Since the king had already agreed to Darren’s proposal and Emperor Liang’s treaty had specifically mentioned me by name there had been nothing the king could do. Not if he wanted to keep the princess’s dowry.

Needless to say, the last couple of days had not been pleasant. On the bright side, however, the king’s general distaste had an advantage. Since he could hardly stomach the idea of me in his court, Lucius had been more than willing to grant my petition for service in Ferren’s Keep. Darren hadn’t been pleased, but he knew just as well as I that once Blayne’s wedding passed I would be forced to take up permanent residency in the palace.

If anything, I think Darren envied my freedom. Now that he was done with his apprenticeship he was limited to the palace regiment. The same for me once that year was over.

It wasn’t a bad thing. The King’s Regiment was the most prestigious company in the land, and who could forget the palace housed the current Black Mage, Marius? But an eternity was daunting. Ferren’s Keep was my one chance at glory, and I hadn’t forgotten what the Combat mages said about its action: the northern border was the place to be.

We finished the ten-minute walk to the palace infirmary, and I was surprised to see two familiar persons already present as we turned the corner. The taller of the two, a young man with sandy-brown locks and easy blue eyes was chuckling at something the dark-skinned girl beside him had said.

Like most mages in the kingdom, neither wore their colored robes except for special occasions, but their status was still unmistakable. The two bore the air all newly ascended mages carried: one of barely contained excitement and pride. It was a sharp contrast to the calm of the palace healer in her red Restoration robe that greeted us upon entry.

“Alex! Ella!” I called out to my brother and best friend across the way.

The couple immediately turned toward the doorway. Ella broke into a grin, but my twin’s smile faded as soon as he noticed my injuries and the person standing beside me.

“What happened?” His question sounded innocent, but I knew Alex well enough to catch the unusual lilt to his tone. My brother had already chastised me for too many injuries during the course of our four-year apprenticeship, and I knew he was anything but pleased that his sister had gotten herself hurt. Again.

I hastily made myself speak: “It’s nothing, Darren was duel—“ I corrected myself hastily. “I was practicing, and I think I broke a rib.”

“Ryiah just needs a healer to look at her,” Darren said. “Nothing too serious.”

Alex’s eyes narrowed on the prince. “I know what a broken rib is.”

Darren stared at him. “I didn’t say you didn’t.”

“Did you do this to her?”

The prince folded his arms defensively. “Your sister was the one who wanted to duel.”

“That doesn’t mean—” Alex never finished because at just that moment Ella placed a perfectly timed kick to his shins. Alex swallowed, scowling, and Ella finished for him with a small smile in Darren’s direction.

“I take it Ry thought she’d give you a run for first rank?”

At her question the non-heir gave a small smile. “She tried.”

“Did she at least get in some good castings of her own?”

“Depends on what you consider ‘good.’”

I cringed. Now was not the best time to joke. Not with my brother seething in anger a couple feet away. “So about that healing…”

Darren and Ella stayed where they were, engaging in a strained but polite conversation while I followed Alex to one of the covered cots in the back of the room. He wasn’t employed by the palace staff, but the healer was busy enough with two of the knights of the King’s Regiment in the back so she didn’t give us a second glance. The rest of her staff had undoubtedly left for the Academy trials with the rest of the court.

As soon as Alex started to make his examination I lowered my voice to a whisper. “There’s no need to blame Darren for this.”

My twin grumbled under his breath but said nothing.

“You can’t continue to hate him, Alex. I already told you, everything he did during the apprenticeship, he had a reason—”

My brother cut me off. “I really do not want to talk about him right now.”

I sighed and let him continue his work in silence. I felt the cooling touch as his magic seeped out of his hands and into my stomach, the terrible sensation of movement inside, and then the blissful sensation as my rib pain trickled away, bit by bit. It was a simple injury to treat—a broken or fractured rib could heal naturally with no magic within a month or two on its own—but I did not have the luxury of time.

Sitting up, I gave my twin a grateful smile. “So have you and Ella finally decided which city to take up service in?”

My brother’s expression softened at the mention of her name. “Montfort.”

I started. I had been expecting Ferren’s Keep, or maybe Ishir Outpost. “Where is Montfort?”

“It’s five days north. Ella wanted to come with you—you already know that—but after what happened last year I didn’t feel comfortable stationed so close to the border, not that I like you going there either.” He gave me a pointed look and I ignored it.

Neither Darren nor Alex could talk me out of a position in Commander Nyx’s regiment. Besides, unlike the two of them, my station was only temporary: the Crown’s advisors had made it clear that as soon as Darren and I were married I would be stuck serving close to home—and that would be the end of my grand adventures. I bit my lip. It was the one thing I wasn’t looking forward to about my impending marriage.

“…Still close enough to the action to give her the excitement she wants, but they also have some of the best healers in the kingdom. Ronan is going there.” Ronan was a first-rank mage like Darren—only his faction was Restoration like my brother’s. The two of them had bonded during their apprenticeship, and while my brother was jealous of his friend’s ranking, I knew he also looked up to him. In Alex’s eyes, anywhere Ronan was stationed was worth going.

“And we both met with Commander Braxton during the ascension feast. He seemed friendly enough, and of course it helps that his city is hosting the Candidacy next year. As soon as he reminded Ella, she forgot whatever scheme she’d been cooking up to convince me to join Ferren’s Keep with you.”

I grinned. Ella was a true Combat mage. It didn’t surprise me in the least that she had agreed to Montfort so easily after the Commander’s mention of the Candidacy. It was a tempting opportunity, and if I hadn’t been so set on Ferren’s Keep, I would have probably begged to come along. The Candidacy was how our nation determined its reigning Council of Magic, known commonly as The Three. It was also how the Black Mage, Marius, had earned his title just nineteen years before. And in one year it would be my turn.

Even if I didn’t win the robe—and the odds were I wouldn’t—the prestige that came with any victory at all in our nation’s infamous tourney was enough to elevate my status. I was a second rank now, but there were at least fifty other Combat mages with the same ranking, as I was only compared to four others of my same ascension year.

Still, if I won against even some others of my same rank, it would improve my standing. That I was better than the ones I beat, and any of the lower ranks of that person’s own year.

“All done. Stop daydreaming.” My brother clamped my shoulder lightly, startling me out of my thoughts with a jolt.

I slapped his hand away in mock protest. “What if you had missed something? That could have hurt.” It didn’t, but I wasn’t about to let him off that easily.

My twin grinned at me. “You are just jealous you don’t have my skill.”

I rolled my eyes in good humor. “Jealous? Hardly. I believe the people up north call me a hero.”

“Funny how she forgets they were talking about both of us.” Darren and Ella had appeared beside us. I watched Alex stiffen at the non-heir’s proximity. “Ella tells me you two are headed for Montfort,” the prince added.

My brother opened his mouth, and then thought better of whatever insult he was about to say when he caught wind of my expression. When he finally spoke, it was the quietest reply I had ever heard him utter. It was also the shortest. “Yes.”

“It’s a great city. Small, but accomplished.” Darren nodded to the red-robed woman on the other side of the room. “Jeanette hires most of the palace healers from there.”

“How… nice.” I elbowed my twin and he grated his teeth. “Thanks for the recommendation. It means—” Alex took a long breath and the words barely left his lips, “a lot. Thank you, your highness.”

Darren’s face was frozen in a polite smile. He was as uncomfortable as my brother, but years at court had given him the upper hand. “Anytime.”

Ella winked at me. She could read the tension just as easily as I. “Well as pleasant as this little reunion has been, I do believe it’s getting late and Alex and I have a long ride ahead of us. It was nice to see you both before we head out. Darren, I’m sure we’ll see you in Montfort with Ry for the Candidacy next year?”

The lines seemed to leave Darren’s shoulders—not much, but just enough to betray the real anxiety he had felt just moments before. “Of course.”

I exchanged a quick embrace with my best friend and brother, and then watched them go.

As soon as they were out of sight Darren turned to face me. “He still hates me.”

“Give him time.” I squeezed his hand. “Alex has had the wrong opinion of you for so long. And he’s never liked anyone I courted.”

“He liked Ian.”

“Ian was…” I paused, unsure how to begin. “Well, he’s…”

The non-heir studied me in my hesitation. “He is everything I’m not.”

“Ian is what Alex wants,” I amended. “Not me.”

Darren was silent.

“I chose you.” I jabbed at the non-heir’s chest with my finger. “I want you.” I jabbed again. “I love you, you—” Jab. “Silly—” Jab. “Stubborn—”

Darren caught my finger with a straight face. “That’s enough injuries for one night, don’t you think?”

“Do you believe me?”

The corner of his lip twitched. “Gods know I am in for a lot of misery if I’m wrong.” He tilted my chin up to his face and for once his eyes were serious. “I am going to miss you, Ryiah.”

I looked down, heart sinking. “You could still come with me.”

“You could still stay.”

We were back to the same conversation we’d had all week.

Darren looked toward the ceiling. “Out of all the women I’ve met I would pick the only one who is too stubborn to enjoy my father’s court.” He returned his gaze to me, defeated. “I suppose there’s no talking you around?”

I shook my head.

“I didn’t think so.” The non-heir groaned. “You frustrate me, you know that?”

I smiled. “And you are the most difficult person I’ve ever met.”

He raised a brow. “Second only to yourself, of course.”

“Darren.”

“Yes?”

I sighed. “I’m going to miss you, too.”

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Next: Chapter Two