Blayne’s negotiations with King Joren have gone better than expected. The Pythian ambassador is set to spend a week in Devon during the winter solstice. Father has demanded your presence—a letter was already sent to your commander issuing six weeks of leave from the Ferren’s Keep Regiment.
I’d write more, but I haven’t had a moment to myself. I’ve spent half my time on boring patrols and the rest in Crown meetings. I miss the Academy. Our time in the apprenticeship was a reprieve. I would trade most anything for it now.
When you get here I promise to ask you all about your time in Ferren. If you met anyone half as unbearable as me. If you are happy. If you are sad. If you miss me…
Gods, I wish it were sooner.
Prince Darren of Jerar, second son of King Lucius III
I stared at the letter, rereading its contents for the tenth time that evening, and then folded it into a neat little square that I tucked back into my pocket. Then I took it out again. I couldn’t get over that last line: Gods, I wish it were sooner. I couldn’t keep the smile from my face.
Darren missed me.
“It’s a summons, isn’t it?”
“Thank the gods!” Paige left the bench to grab a flagon of ale.
“You really have to go?” My brother sat down beside me, his face a puzzle of emotion. “I only just arrived.”
“Alex got to have all the fun,” he griped.
“It’s a Crown order, not a request, silly. If I don’t...” I lowered my voice in conspiracy. “Paige will knock me over the head and drag me to the castle unconscious.”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you, Paige?” Derrick turned to my guard and she wiped the ale from her mouth with an evil laugh. He shuddered and looked away.
I touched his wrist. “Don’t worry, little brother, we’ll have plenty of adventures in the six weeks before I depart.”
“You are leaving?”
I looked up to meet Ian’s gaze as he walked past, his arms full of kindling.
“Not for a while. But I haven’t forgotten what you asked me. I’ll talk to him.”
The mage smiled, but it didn’t quite meet his eyes.
“What are the two of you hinting at?”
I gave my brother a nudge. “Nothing you need to worry about, Derrick. Just something I promised a friend.”
“Are you going to tell Darren the promise was to him?” My brother grinned wickedly.
I glared at Derrick as Ian retreated to the other side of camp. “Please don’t make this any more awkward than it already is.”
“That’s Ian, isn’t it? The one Alex wanted you to pick. Over the prince.”
“Yes.” My teeth clenched. “Can we not talk about this anymore?”
“Only if you tell me what you promised him.”
I groaned. “You’ve grown into a pest. I think Alex is my favorite now.”
“That buffoon? Never.” My brother prodded me with his fork. “Now spill, Ry.”
It wasn’t really a secret, I supposed. “Ian wants me to ask Darren to talk to his father about sending more coin north. To help the border towns—the ones that aren’t prosperous enough to garner support when the raids hit.”
“What did you expect?”
“A secret affair—” My brother ducked my fist, laughing. “Well, he is pretty.” He ducked again and this time was not so lucky.
“Pursuing Ian was a mistake,” I said quietly. “I almost lost one of my best friends because I was a coward.”
“Well then if it’s not about him, why the secrecy? Why be ashamed to have the others hear you want to help the north?” My brother lowered his voice. “It might help, Ry. I’ve tried talking to some of the other soldiers, but a lot of them are set against you. They think you are a privileged highborn now that you are engaged to a prince—it makes no difference that you grew up in Demsh’aa and your brother is one of them.”
I shook my head. “The king is furious with Darren. I promised Ian I’d ask, but I don’t think it is going to help any.” I pulled at a splinter that had gotten lodged in my finger. “I really wish they didn’t hate me. I thought it would get better after I proved myself but…”
“But you are engaged to a prince.” Derrick grew serious. “You haven’t heard the rhyme have you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s the most common verse they have: ‘north the poor and south the snout.’”
“Highborn Swine. Anyone who lives at court.”
“Oh… how charming.” I bit my lip. A prejudice that was undoubtedly inspired by the tragedies the Caltothians created. The Crown was attempting to save for war, yet by doing so it had shirked its duties to the people up north. Border villages of friends—maybe even families—had been attacked, and they’d been left to fend for themselves. No wonder they had come up with such a hateful rhyme.
Commander Nyx and her regiment were attempting to help their people through patrols, but they could only do so much.
I needed to get that purse.
Derrick put a big arm around my neck, misunderstanding my silence. “Come, now, not everyone is going to like my big sister.”
“Don’t you even think about joining them.”
Derrick grinned and pulled a simple leather cord out of his shirt to show me the copper ring I had given him years ago dangling at its end.
It made me smile to see he was still wearing it even in his soldier’s garb.
“Never. Besides unlike our dear, sweet brother I actually like the fact that you are marrying a prince. I met Darren last year in the infirmary, remember? He’s a good sort, Ry. You will always have my support.”
I felt the tension leave my limbs. “Thank you.”
He ruined the moment by picking me up and throwing me over his shoulder.
“Derrick!” I swatted at the back of his head. “Put me down.”
“Hmm.” The boy pretended not to hear my squeals. “That was too easy. You’ve got to work on your guard, Ry.”
I lowered my hands and punched the side of his ribs. He set me down with a laugh.
“I don’t need a guard around you. You aren’t my enemy, Derrick.”
My brother grinned. “That’s the thing about enemies. You never know who they could end up being.”
A week before I was to depart half the regiment was seeing to chores around camp, and the rest of us sat trading jokes or serving watch around the perimeter. I knew I should be helping out, but I was unwilling to leave until Lief finished his latest tale from the past Candidacy. Most of the regiment mages stuck around as well; Lief was a great storyteller and most of us were not old enough to remember the last Candidacy—I hadn’t even been born.
All of us listened in rapture as Lief recounted the final duel between Marius and his final opponent, Mara. The Restoration and Alchemy sessions had been brutal, but nothing could compare to the head mage’s recount of Combat. I am certain most of us forgot to breathe during his telling. How in the name of the gods had Mara survived?
Lief raised a brow as if hearing our unspoken question. “It took ten healers to save her life.”
For a moment there was quiet and then Ian finally spoke: “And yet we are all mad enough to attempt the same ourselves.” His raspy joke was met with more silence.
Several of the Restoration mages’ faces were as white as a sheet; my nails were bitten to the quick. True, nothing Lief was saying was new. We had all heard similar stories during our youth, but hearing it now when our turn was less than a year away? It was an entirely different experience.
“A mage died in the last Candidacy.” Ruth addressed Combat’s head mage. “Didn’t he?”
Lief prodded the fire with a stick. “The boy was seventeen, young for his faction and too young to be participating in the first place. One of those highborn mages that joined the academy at the tender age of twelve.” His face filled with contempt. “The rules dictate very clearly that a mage must cease casting the moment his opponent surrenders. The boy never surrendered; he was overconfident and a fool. It was during the melee, he never should have made the mistake in the first place.”
“I must be mad to think I have a chance at winning,” I muttered to Ray and Ian as we started our evening drills. They chuckled.
The three of us took turns casting great bolts of lightning into the sky. We were a day’s ride from the keep so there was no need for conservative casting. Not with so many nearby patrols.
“That might be true.” Lief stopped observing to interrupt. “But what you mustn’t forget, Ryiah, is how little of us there are to begin with. Only five Combat mages ascend each year, and by the time a man reaches his late fifties he has no magic left.” He paused. “The youngest mage would be seventeen at the time of their ascension if they started at twelve. That leaves a little over forty years and five of us each year… Two hundred, but that number is infinitely smaller when you consider potential. Any mage past thirty is not going to consider entry—his stamina will have already begun to decline.”
He paused. “For me, it’s already too late.” His gaze was wistful, but resigned. “Too young for the last Candidacy and too old for the present… But you, Ian, even Ray here… I doubt there will be more than sixty entries for Combat. You three have much better odds than you think.”
I didn’t say a word for the rest of the night. I wanted to best Darren and win, yes, but I had never stopped to consider exactly how many mages I would be going up against. Sixty was certainly better than I had anticipated. I was second rank. That put me at the top half of our faction’s candidates… Of course there were those whose potential had grown post-ascension… but for most their limits will have undoubtedly been reached by the time they received their ranking.
And that’s when I realized it: I really could have a chance.
I spoke too soon. That was the first thought that crossed my mind as I curled my knees to my chest, shivering and shaking under the heavy blankets of my cot.
Paige set a bucket on the floor. I cringed at the heavy thud of metal against stone. “Not so loud,” I begged.
“You need to drink some of that tea the healers gave you, my lady.”
My stomach gurgled and heaved and I clutched it with a groan. “Stuff was vile,” was all I could manage.
“Well, you will never get better if you don’t, and tomorrow we set off for the palace even if I have to tie you to the saddle.”
She snorted. “I will, and you know it well.”
I didn’t say anything else. I just clutched the mug and shuddered. Then I downed the contents, refusing to let the bitter, chalky liquid rest on my tongue any longer than it had to. When I was done I fell back against the bed in a heap. My belongings were already packed. I just needed this sickness to end. I’d spent the past three days tossing and turning in a sleepless fit, hot and cold, unable to do anything but writhe in my misery.
The Restoration mages in the infirmary said I had a “mage’s cold.” As one could surmise it was the result of too much magic. I had never experienced it before because Master Byron had been so focused on us learning to exercise what we had with caution. The few times I had been reckless with my magic I had ended up unconscious in the infirmary, so the cold would have just been a small part of my recovery.
“Why,” I moaned, “why didn’t I listen…?”
Paige blotted a cloth against my wet, sticky skin. “Because you are stubborn, my lady. Now drink and rest.”
Gods, I prayed, do not put me through this for another fourteen days.
The gods never heard me.