I watched the two figures dance, twisting and turning as they exchanged matching blows in the stifling morning heat of desert sun. The sand shifted and clouded beneath their feet, small swells of dirt temporarily blinding my vision as the two continued to reposition their lightning-quick blows.
I studied their forms. Lissome, dangerous. I couldn't help but notice how the sweat glistened off their tanned skin, highlighting the contours of well-taut arms and shoulders. It was an observation I had partaken in many a time but had yet to grow tired of watching.
The two fighters continued their match. The taller of the two, a young man with sandy brown curls and laughing green eyes, seemed the most at ease with the procession. He countered his partner's rapid attacks with an almost lazy defense that spoke of a lifetime of training. The second young man was the opposite, trying to hide his building frustration in every blocked attempt. Garnet eyes flared underneath black bangs and my heart skipped a beat. The shorter of the two might have been less skilled in hand-to-hand combat, but it was he my gaze clung to just a second too long.
The bout carried on for several more minutes. I fanned myself with my hand, wishing desperately our faction had been assigned a cooler terrain to train in. The desert certainly hadn't been my expectation and I had not grown used to its sweltering heat. Many of the other apprentices seemed to share my opinion; there was not a full water skin to be found anywhere in our audience.
The tall boy caught the second off-guard with a swift, sweeping kick that sent his partner sprawling into the sand. The second didn't look too happy at his outcome, shooting the older boy a look of pure venom that would have sent most people to their knees. The tall boy just chuckled, offering the second his hand – which the second blatantly ignored – as the rest of the class clapped.
A man in stiff black robes stepped forward, frowning. "That will do, Ian." He turned to the young man on the ground and said in a much more friendly tone: "Darren, that was very good for a second-year, you have no reason to be disappointed."
The expression on Darren's face didn't change as he pulled himself up off the ground. His eyes stated very clearly he did not share Master Byron's opinion, and I had not the slightest doubt that the non-heir would be training in private for weeks to come as a result of today's practice. Though we couldn't be more different, it was amazing how similar the two of us were when it came to performance. The master had been praising him for weeks, but it was clear that until he was the best, Darren would not be satisfied.
"Ryiah. Lynn. You two are up."
Nerves tingling, I made my way to the front. A young woman with dark bangs and amber eyes gripped my elbow as I passed. "Good luck, Ry," Ella whispered.
Standing where the two boys had fought just moments before was a girl of Borean descent that I had sparred with many times before. Lynn gave me a reassuring smile. I tried to return the sentiment as I took my position across from my mentor. Palms sweating, I waited for the Master of Combat to announce the drill.
Lynn was the first make a move, ducking into my circle with a low jab to the ribs. I held my guard and countered her strike with a low block of my own. She pulled back, long black ponytail flying, and I quickly placed a high kick, narrowly missing as she fell out of reach. My fingers itched to extend it with a casting and I quickly squelched the urge.
No magic, Ryiah.
Refocusing on the task at hand, I studied my opponent, seeking any shift in her stance that might foreshadow her next attack. Lynn's hazel eyes met mine, sparkling with a delicate innocence that matched her doll-like features. It was a lie. She might be petite but I had long ago learned the truth. The olive-skinned third-year was lethal in hand-to-hand combat and anything with a pole.
I exhaled slowly.
I had lost every single match to Lynn thus far, and while I could take some comfort in knowing she was a year ahead, I knew there were others who had already started to win some of their mentor duels. A snicker sounded in the audience, one that was reminiscent of wind chimes … sarcastic, cruel, vexing wind chimes. I didn't need to shift my focus to identify which second-year was behind the sound – Priscilla of Langli was impossible to miss.
Lynn gave the slightest alteration to her stance, weight shifting ever so lightly to her right heel. I jumped in with a hasty outer block while my right fist shot out at her abdomen. Lynn pulled back just in time, my hand barely grazing the thin material of her shirt.
Without hesitation I launched into a low, rounded kick and she parried it with an easy blow of her own. I fell back and instinctively angled my hips so that I was just out of reach, fists raised and ready to counter her next offense. When it did not come immediately I sprung forward, feigning a two-fisted punch while my real attack came in the form of a high kick aimed at her ribs.
My mentor was not fooled. She easily countered – stepping into the kick the second she saw my knee rise – and rammed my body with the full force of her weight. I stumbled. Lynn rushed forward kicking and punching seemingly at random. I struggled to block but I had been caught off-balance by the previous defense. A hard-packed fist collided with my stomach and another with my face.
Lynn sent a quick kick to my shin and I faltered, feeling the gravity shift from under my feet as I fell to the side. I did not have time to adjust my form before my right elbow slammed into hard-packed earth. Sand billowed up all around me as a sharp pop sounded and instantaneous pain flared up and down my arm.
I cried out as my magic's barrier broke. A swift casting came rushing from my hands before I could halt it, slamming into my opponent and sending her back-first into a nearby palm. Lynn hit the ground with a hard thud and the magic fell away, its damage done.
"Blast it, Ryiah!" Master Byron swore. His aristocratic face, normally so calm and collected, was beet red. Sweat glistened off his well-kept skin. "If you can't control your magic, you are never going to be allowed anywhere near a battlefield!"
I quickly scrambled to my feet, my face aflame. Lynn had already pulled herself up as well, and the expression in her eyes was one of pity. I thought it kind of her – I had to be the most frustrating second-year to mentor, yet she was always patient and understanding, even when my magic was knocking her into trees. Master Byron, on the other hand, was anything but.
"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't mean-"
"The Council made a mistake," the man huffed, ignoring my outburst. "You shouldn't be here. I don't know what the Black Mage was thinking, granting you an apprenticeship. You may have gotten away with that trickery in your trials but it will not fly here."