Our squad’s mission was a success. Shortly after my stunt with the boulder our knights and soldiers were able to overpower the bandits that had ambushed us in the narrow mountain pass. Ian’s party faced similar victory: the outlaws at the fort were taken with relative ease. In total there couldn’t have been more than fifty men and women—three of which carried enough magic to warrant extra bindings in their ropes.
Our scouts sent a message to the rest of our regiment, and we met up at the stream that had first caused us to part. The soldiers led the prized stallions while our knights escorted the prisoners by foot. It was a slow, steady march to Pamir. Ian and I took turns exchanging stories with Lief and Ray along the way.
We were almost to our destination when Lord Waldyn’s men arrived, praising our squad’s quick capture and taking the horses off our hands. At the same time another Ferren’s Keep regiment came to collect the prisoners.
I turned to Ian, curious. “Where will they take them?”
The mage watched the squad’s progress fade off into the distance, disappearing into the thick cluster of trees. “The prison in Gilys. It’s two days southwest of Ferren, Sir Quinn’s unit covers that part of the territory.”
“Will they be put to death?”
He frowned. “Do you think they should be?”
I gave him an incredulous look. “They killed three of our own.”
Paige guffawed next to me. “They were also planning to sell our horses to Caltoth. They had every intention of supplying our enemy for war. That justifies a hanging in any trial.”
Ian heaved a sigh. “I suppose you two are right… Still.” He paused and his eyes fell to me. “You heard Sir Gavin—these ones came from one of the towns that lost everything in the fire. I’m not saying it justifies their actions, but… Perhaps that makes them a little harder to condemn?”
My stomach curled in on itself and I swallowed guiltily. The fire was because of me. “Didn’t the king send coin?” Then I straightened abruptly, realizing I already knew the answer. “He did. Darren told me—”
Lief, who had been listening to our conversation thus far, interjected. “King Lucius is preparing for war. Any aid he sends, well, you can’t imagine it’s enough. Not with the heavy costs of maintaining the realm’s largest army.”
Ian met my eyes then. “Ferren and the logging towns received enough to rebuild, they are too important to ignore, but some of the smaller border ones… They aren’t always as lucky when things like that happen, Ry. It’s the reason my parents took up metal, so they could raise me close to the keep.”
I didn’t know what to say. The elation I had felt during the bandits’ capture was fading fast, and confusion was taking its place. Had I made this happen? Were the bandits my fault?
“You didn’t cause anything.” Paige’s biting words made me realize I had said my last thoughts aloud. My knight bristled at the insinuation. “Caltoth did this.”
“Paige is right, of course.” Lief nodded to my guard and then gave me a reassuring pat on the back. “You and the prince saved a great deal more people than you harmed. The fire was a necessary evil; no one would blame you for your actions, Ryiah.”
I tried to smile and failed. The head mage had already returned to a conversation with Ian, too busy to notice. When he was finished, Lief turned to my knight with a grin. “Why don’t you join Ray and me up front, Paige? I’m sure these two can handle any danger that comes their way.” He winked at the two of us. “After Ryiah’s little display in the mountains I don’t think anyone is going to worry after her safety for a very long time.”
Paige hesitated, and I saw her glance shift back to me, undecided. Torn between what she wanted and duty.
“Go on.” I gave her a good-natured shove. “I’ll be fine.”
Her brows furrowed and her chin lifted. “I’ll be keeping an eye on you the whole time, my lady.”
“I wouldn’t expect any less.”
The knight huffed and then nudged her mare forward, following the lead mage with one last lingering glance to me.
Ian drew closer as soon as the guard had vanished into the crowd. “The King’s Regiment picked well, didn’t they?”
“They did.” I thought about the way she had helped me when I was casting. “She’s blunt, but I almost think it’s a blessing. I never have to wonder what she’s thinking, she’s already told me.”
Ian cleared his throat quietly. “What Paige said about Caltoth being at fault, she’s not wrong. But Ry…”
I looked up to see his uncomfortable expression. Sweat was beading the boy’s forehead and his eyes were conflicted.
I swallowed, mentally preparing myself for what came next. It’s your fault too, Ryiah, I didn’t want to say this in front of the others…
“The Crown isn’t blameless.”
I blinked slowly. Whatever I had been expecting him to say, that hadn’t been it.
Ian pressed closer and lowered his voice. “What I said wasn’t a lie. The north doesn’t get the help it needs.”
“You want me to talk to Darren.” It wasn’t a question.
“Ian.” I sighed. “It won’t change anything.” The king was still furious with Darren for the night of the ascension. And preoccupied with negotiations with Pythus. And thanks to me he now hated lowborns a great deal more than usual.
The boy studied the ground. “So you aren’t going to even try?”
“I will, but...” I waited until he looked up to continue. “But I don’t want you to have any expectations.”
“I know what I’m asking.” His eyes were somber. “Thank you, Ryiah.”
Hearing Ian say my full name was a bit unsettling. It was as if he were reminding himself to put a bit of formality to the end of his request. As if he were a subject, and I the sovereign. It pained me to hear that bit of distance, especially after our conversation in the forest, but I understood.
The north was his home, and whether or not I considered myself one of them, I was the Crown.
“A week,” I breathed.
Ray echoed my words: “A whole week.”
“Freedom,” he repeated.
“A whole week of it.”
“If you two grow any more slack-jawed,” Lief said, chuckling, “you’ll become a pair of fish.”
“It’s standard for any service in all of the cities,” Ian added.
Paige scoffed. “Not the King’s Regiment.”
I just shook my head in astonishment, still not quite believing we had a full week to ourselves. Three weeks of duty had flown by in the blink of an eye—well, not truly, at the time it had seemed like an eternity, but now…
“What does one do during this…” Ray paused. “Freedom?”
“What did you enjoy doing before the Academy?”
Ray’s eyes were wide. “I don’t remember.”
The head mage’s gaze flitted to me. “What about you, Ry?”
What did I enjoy before the Academy? So many years before… I found myself emitting the same response. “I don’t remember.”
“The novelty will wear off.” Lief set his packs on his bunk with a groan. “By the second month we’ll find the two of you in the taverns with the rest of our lot. Ferren might be known for its blacksmiths, but the true secret is Tijan’s ale. Strongest brew around. Well, that and our women.” His gaze fell to Paige.
My knight scowled in distaste. “Hhmphf. You must not have a very good selection.”
I bit my lip. Tijan was tempting—not for the ale, but my brother. Now that I had seven days to myself, the world was full of possibility. And the best one: Derrick. I hadn’t seen him in months, and now we were only a couple hours apart.
But there was also the Candidacy.
Ray was already throwing a pair of fresh clothes into his satchel. “When can we leave?”
“As soon as you are ready.” Ian grinned and looked to me. “You coming?”
“I don’t think so.” My enthusiasm had already started to ebb. I couldn’t visit Derrick, not with my dream looming so close on the horizon. “I think I’m going to stay behind.”
“You serve the north,” Lief said, “don’t forget to live, Ryiah. We don’t get paid near enough to risk our lives without a bit of fun from time to time.”
“I know.” I frowned. “It’s not that… I just… I need to train.”
“Train? For what? The apprenticeship is over. You already train every day in service.” His tone was incredulous.
“For the Candidacy,” I mumbled.
Ian and Lief exchanged knowing looks and Ray spoke: “Ry, it’s months away. You can take a day off.”
I looked down at my hands. “Not if I want to win.”
“You really think you can beat him, don’t you?”
I didn’t ask who he was; it was obvious.
“Darren’s not a god.” I crossed my arms defiantly. “His potential isn’t infinite.”
“Master Byron ranked him first.”
Ray held up his hands in surrender. “Remind me to never challenge you to a duel. You are a bloodthirsty savage.”
I just grinned in reply.
Lief grabbed Ray and Ian by the shoulders. “Are you two ready to head out?”
They nodded in unison and gave me a parting wave.
Lief tossed me his extra water skin in passing. “You better get training, Ryiah. We can’t have our savage go soft.”
Harsh crunching and then the ground gave a quivering sigh. The mountain of rubble rose into the air, twice the size of the boulder in the mountains. Thick granite hovered in the sky as I lifted my hand, higher and higher, watching my magic mirror its movement with the rock.
The rubble rose. Shakily, with small bits of dirt trailing down like a shower of rain.
My whole body trembled with the effort. I held steady, digging my boots into the soil as perspiration dripped down my eyes, blinding me with the beating rays of the sun.
Still, I held steady. And the rubble kept rising.
Then, it stopped.
My fingers started to tremble and shake and the sun’s blinding light seemed to bleed itself right out of my chest. I could feel the casting sputtering inside me: a dying flame. My magic had reached its limit.
I bit my lip. A pain casting in the height of such power was too risky to partake. Not on my own.
Exhaling slowly, I let the rocks return to the ground and then took a deep swallow of mountain air to clear my head.
“That was amazing, love.” Two hands slipped around my waist from behind, and I leaned into Darren’s arms, letting the rush of victory wash over like the sweet scent of pine.
“I’ve been practicing.” I knew I was preening. I had just surpassed his skill during our apprenticeship.
The prince smiled against the back of my ear, lips pressing into the skin just below. A shiver ran down my spine. “Yes, you have.”
“Am I better than you?” The words spilled from my lips before I had a chance to catch myself.
Darren smiled and released me, pointing to a large shadow in front of us. I lost my breath: the mountain. He couldn’t, could he? The prince took a step forward and raised his arm.
I watched as the giant base splintered and groaned, a terrible ear-shattering grate. Stones spewed out in every which direction as the jagged peak rose up into the sky, blacking out the sun so that the entire land was cast into shade.
The world became night.
The non-heir turned to me with a smirk. “Keep trying, Ryiah.”
I woke up with a start.
My whole body was sore and aching, and every muscle felt as though it had been torn from my limbs and twisted back into place—the wrong place.
The summer heat hadn’t helped; my sheets were pooling with sweat. I threw them off in disgust. Usually the keep was cool enough, but I suspected my dream had played a part in the mess I saw now.
I had spent the past couple days brushing up my routine while the three patrols on leave had all but disappeared from the keep. Sure, there were still stragglers and the squad in charge of the keep itself, but half of the men were visiting in Tijan or one of the nearby towns.
“Can’t sleep?” Paige sat up on her bunk, rubbing her eyes.
“I had that dream again.” I groaned. “I think the gods are trying to tell me to stop sleeping altogether. It’s the only way I’ll catch up to him.”
The knight yawned. “The gods do not waste their time dallying in mortal affairs. That dream means you are worrying too much. It’s playing on your fear—”
I shot her a half-hearted glare. “I’m not worrying. I’m tired. I’m sore. I’m even hungry, but I’m not worried.”
“Whatever you say, my lady.” She started to roll back on her side, and I tossed my pillow at her.
“It’s time to go to the practice courts.”
“Now?” She didn’t even open her eyes. “It’s too early. The sun won’t rise for two more hours—and you, my lady, are always the last one to rise.”
I ignored her and began changing into my clothes, one painful tug at a time. “The dream was a sign.” I gritted my teeth. “I need to train harder.” Another painful tug and the tunic was over my head. “If I don’t…” Ow. “I’m never going to stand a chance against him.” I bit back a sigh. “Or any of those other first-rank mages.” And I wanted to. All those years of trials and tribulations. I was tired of being second-best.
I wanted the Black Robe.
Paige rose, with an exasperated sigh.
“That’s the spirit.” I shot her a grin. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to include you in my acceptance speech.”
She followed me out the door, muttering under her breath. At first I was too busy feigning enthusiasm to catch what she was saying, but as we were sparring later outside the keep it returned to me: “And they told me to keep watch over a ‘lady.’”
I couldn’t help but smirk. A lady.
I lunged and defeated her guard.
I was a war mage.
I spent the rest of the week in the practice courts. Endlessly drilling. Over and over until I was limping back to the keep each night. If my guard had an opinion for why I was pushing myself so hard she was wise enough not to comment.
Every single drop of sweat was a testament to how deeply I wanted that robe. I cast until I was hunched over the ground, vomiting the contents of whatever meal I had managed to force down just hours before. Then I pain cast.
Paige had one of the keep’s healers nearby, just in case. Luckily, four years of Master Byron’s scrupulous gaze had paid off, and I knew just how far I could push myself before breaching those limits.
By the time the week had ended I was ready to return to service. Someone must have told the others how hard I was drilling because I got nine reassuring pats on the back the morning we set out. They didn’t comment directly, but the Candidacy was all anyone could talk about.
Like the previous patrol our three weeks of service went by without much ado. Caltothians remained at bay, at least for now. We didn’t come across any outlaws this time around; our patrol was conflict-free. All of the extra time led me to drills and routine, anything to keep the non-heir from taking over my thoughts. I wasn’t going to let my anxiety get the best of me, not after everything I had become. I threw myself into practice instead.
“Ry,” Ray said plaintively. “You have done nothing, and I repeat, nothing, but drill for the last three months on end. You can afford one night off from your routine to take a drink with the rest of us. I know you want to concentrate on the Candidacy but the others talk. They think it’s because you think you are better than them.”
I glared in response. “You know that’s not true.”
“See here.” Ian stepped between us. “We’ll even take you to a tavern in town. Not Tijan, just a round with the squad, and then you can go back to torturing yourself for hours on end.”
“Just one,” Ray promised.
I shifted from one foot to the next. In truth, they were right. I had heard what the soldiers were saying—I just hadn’t wanted to think about it. I was also exhausted: mentally, physically… even my castings had started to falter. A night off was truly what I needed. During the apprenticeship we’d been given a reprieve, I could afford a couple of hours with friends now.
“Okay. You two win.”
The boys exchanged victorious grins, and I promised to catch up the moment I finished putting away my things. In truth I wanted to pay a visit to the bathhouse—the stench following me was anything but pleasant. I doubted they would enjoy my company without it.
By the time I had finished washing up, Paige and I were ready for a reprieve. I was in such a good mood I almost missed the person standing next to the exit of the dining commons.
I caught sight of those blond tufts of curl and sprinted across the corridor as fast as my legs could run. Paige scrambled after me, grumbling about impatient charges. I knocked into two soldiers and spilled a whole tray of pickled greens along the way. I shouted an apology in passing. The dancing blue eyes of my brother were all I could see.
The young man broke into a grin, dimples on each side of his cheeks. “Ry! There you are. I’ve been looking all over for you!”
I squeaked and threw myself at him. Derrick was three years younger than me, but already twice as thick—sprouting a legion of muscle on every inch of his frame. “Gods, do you ever stop growing?”
Derrick ruffled my hair, setting me down with an unapologetic grin. “I have no intention of stopping until you can fit in the palm of my hand.”
I snorted and even Paige—who had finally caught up after my mad dash across the room—almost smiled.
“And who is this? Your beautiful lady-in-waiting?”
And my knight was back to scowling. “You see the sword I’m carrying, no?”
His smile faltered under her stern expression. “Yes?”
“Say something that foolish again and I’ll gut you from head to toe.”
My brother backed away slowly. It didn’t matter that Paige was half his size; the look in her eye was formidable enough.
“He’s only teasing, Paige,” I said. “Derrick doesn’t have a death wish.”
“It wasn’t funny,” the knight muttered.
“She’s harmless,” I promised.
Derrick raised his hands in peace.
A young man with coal-black hair coughed loudly beside Derrick. I wondered who he was until Derrick put his arm around the boy’s shoulders and nodded. “Ry, and... Paige. This is my comrade-at-arms Jacob. He grew up here in Ferren—he was the one I wrote you about during the apprenticeship.”
I studied the soldier and noted him doing the same for me. I started to smile and then stopped when I realized my brother’s best friend was wearing a sour expression. Not another one. I tore my eyes away from the boy to regard my brother instead. “What are you doing here, Derrick? Not that I’m not happy to see you but I wasn’t expecting—”
“I offered him a post. Here. At the keep.”
I turned and found myself face-to-face with the elusive presence of Commander Nyx herself. She gave a small smile to the boys and then returned her gaze to me. “I had no idea Derrick was your youngest brother, Ryiah. Sir Borgan in Tijan does nothing but sing the young soldier praises, and Jacob, well, how can I say no to the son of Aldus? He is one of the best soldiers we have.”
Aldus might have been one of the best, but he was also one of the older soldiers that continued to regard me with a perpetual dislike. Much like his son was doing now. Even after my performance in the mountains. I stifled a sigh.
Derrick elbowed me in the side. “Guess whose squad we are on?”
My eyes grew huge. “Mine? Really?” It was too good to be true.
“That’s right.” Commander Nyx nodded to a knight in passing and then continued. “Sir Gavin just promoted two of his soldiers to Sir Maxon’s unit. When he informed me we had an opening I immediately contacted Borgan for recommendations.” She folded her arms. “These two are already settled in and ready to start first thing in the morning.”
The commander paused. “I must confess, Ryiah… I’ve been meaning to talk to you about what happened in the mountains. I know my men aren’t the friendliest sort, but you’ve done some great work. I’m very impressed.”
“Thank you, Commander.”
“It’ll be a shame when your time here is up.” She dismissed herself and returned to the hall.
“She doesn’t want you to return to the capital,” Paige observed. “Most of them want you to leave, but not her.”
“At least someone wants me here.” I sighed.
Derrick made an offended noise. “Aren’t you forgetting someone?”
“Fine. Two someones.”
“What about Paige?”
My knight snorted. “Who would choose to stay in a wretched keep when they could reside in a palace?”