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.