Shahzadi Rouya danced on her heels, letting herself glide over the patio as she spun the scythe above her head and brought it down in a swift motion. The blade silently cut through flesh and came out the other side. She held her stance and breath, readying herself to continue with a follow-up chain of motions. Her opponent gave in first and separated down the center where she’d cut a clean line. The melon fell to the sides and dropped from the stand, spilling its innards across the patio.
Rouya smiled to herself and hefted the scythe against her shoulder as she strolled over to the crate of melons. The mid-morning sun beat down on her from an angle the canvas couldn’t quite shield her from. She’d already opted for the sleeveless training outfit to keep cool and grant her more maneuverability. It also revealed the lashne, wings of the divine hawk, tattooed on her arms. A slow clap snapped her attention around to the rear where someone had snuck up on her. She instinctively readied the scythe to defend herself but relaxed as she recognized the crimson-haired woman leaning against a pillar.
Only a few people could have gotten past her guards and even fewer would manage to sneak up on her.
“I admire your skills,” Evelyn said, easing away and dropping to the patio beside Rouya. “I’m sure your father could get you a position as head chef in the kitchens.”
“Save your mockery for another day. Tell me why you’re here but don’t come with my father sent you. I don’t need his watchdog monitoring me,” Rouya said, rolling her shoulders as she prepared to practice a few stances she read about last night.
Evelyn’s smile widened. “Then I’ll have to lie to you, princess. I came to watch you fight against melons and must admit I’m rather impressed.”
“If it impresses you so much, then why not raise your glaive against me and see just how smooth I am?”
“What kind of guard would I be if I attacked the person they meant me to protect?”
Rouya readied her scythe, aiming it at Evelyn. “What better way to look after your protege than by testing their limits? Unless you’re beginning to doubt your own chances against me.”
“Don’t humble yourself, princess.” A dark mist formed around Evelyn, replacing her modest clothes with armor and chain-mail. She held her hand out and snatched a glaive out of seemingly thin air. “I’ve bested every enemy your father sent me against.”
Rouya smiled, sliding her right foot back as she prepared to launch her attack. “Is it true you wiped out an entire army of the pretender on your own?”
“I’ve fought many armies but none of them have been an even match.”
“Then I shouldn’t be much of a challenge for you.” Rouya dashed forward, spinning her scythe in front of her in an eight-motion that formed a protective shield against any direct attacks. Evelyn took a step back, launching herself to the side as she darted around Rouya. The princess reacted immediately, shifting her footing to cover the flank and block the tip of the blade. Evelyn grinned as she recognized the motion and tipped the pole around, hurling the shaft over the scythe and tapping the princess on the head.
Silence returned to the gardens otherwise used for relaxing walks and tea parties. Both women stood fixed, staring at each other. Evelyn actually struck out against her and while the Battle Maiden couldn’t be killed, Rouya could still have her punished for the deed.
“Again,” Rouya said with determination, leaving no room for debate. She took her stance once more and grinned. “I won’t let you win that easy again.”
Evelyn strode across the marble floor, flexing her arms. “Perhaps but you must answer me truthfully for every time I best you.”
“And if I land a strike?” Rouya asked, raising a brow.
“Then I’ll let you off the hook.”
Rouya lashed out, hoping to catch the woman off-guard but her heightened reflexes allowed her to merely walk out of range. The princess gritted her teeth and chased after her, leaping forward in a strike that would cut down anything in front of her.
Evelyn caught the blade with her pole and twirled around, slamming the shaft into Rouya’s back. The princess screamed as she toppled forward and tried to regain her footing.
“Stop playing with me!”
“Sorry but I’d hate to scratch such a pretty face.”
Rouya halted mid-step to find her heart racing, not all of which stemmed from her exertion. She straightened her shoulders and held her chin high. “Leave it to me. I’m more than capable of taking care of myself.”
The ground began to tremble, streaks of light rippled in the air surrounding Evelyn followed by a gust that shoved Rouya to the edge of the patio. She steeled herself, centering her weight as the pressure continued to pick up. If Rouya ever wanted to fulfill her true potential, she’d have to prove to her father that she could stand on her own and be able to face any opponent. Only then could she become a real summoner and venture into the Shadow Realm.
Evelyn moved to the princess with measured steps, each one increasing the pressure around her. Rouya struggled to lift her weapon against what felt like a hundred hands holding her down. The muscles in her arm quavered as Evelyn leaned forward, her lips coming to her ears as she whispered, “Give up yet?”
“This is hardly fair.”
All at once the pressure ebbed away, catching her off balance and falling into Evelyn’s arms. “Life’s not fair, but I take it I won this round.”
Rouya sparred against the Battle Maiden two more times before ceding her defeat. Several bruises on her arms served as reminders of just how deadly Evelyn could be if she took the fight seriously. She strapped the scythe to her back and wiped her forehead. The weather on Aequilla was mild, but that didn’t stop her from breaking a sweat when up against someone in a league for themselves. “Just wait, I’ll get you next time.”
The glaive burst into a cloud of dark smoke and vanished with the winds. Evelyn brushed her hair out of her eyes and perked her lips. “We’ll see about that but you still owe me a few answers.”
“I haven’t heard the questions yet,” Rouya said. She marched down the small flight of stairs leading through the garden behind the palace. She’d have to cross the garden and make her way into her chambers with none of the guards noticing her. Of course, Evelyn already knew what she was up to and could just as easily rat her out to the emperor.
Evelyn leaped forward, landing on a hedge in front of Rouya. She crouched down, with her hands on her knees. “Why are you avoiding the celebration?”
“I’m not av—“
“You’re just not going there?”
“You could say that. He doesn’t need to have me around for his celebration and he shouldn’t try to mask his orgies by calling them celebrations either.”
Evelyn frowned. “He did have a child.”
“With another woman,” Rouya pointed out, raising her chin. She pressed on through the maze, already familiar with every twist and turn for the swiftest route to the exit. “That’s two, by the way.”
“Then I better make the last one count.” Evelyn landed beside Rouya and flexed her hands behind her head as she kept pace. “Why don’t you come with me? The Emperor can see that you’re in safety and I can help … distract you.”
Rouya narrowed her eyes and gave the warrior a sidelong glance. It was the first time anyone had actually asked to do anything with her. Most people were too intimidated by her position to even speak to her, let alone ask her a question. “Well, I suppose since you gave me a better challenge than any of my tutors.”
Evelyn paused suddenly and stared at the palace entrance where a couple made their way inside.
“What’s the matter, you change your mind about going with me now all of a sudden?”
She shook her head. “That was Satrap Markus Relius.”
“So? He’s an old friend of my father’s.”
Evelyn chuckled. “He was my master during the Magi Wars. It’s strange seeing him married to one now.”
Rouya nudged her in the side with an elbow. “Don’t let him spoil the mood. Let’s get changed and start drinking!”
“I can’t get drunk.” “Let’s put that theory to the test.”
~ ~ ~
Cian marched down the magnificent halls built by the extreme wealth of his forefathers, a sword at his side and a breastplate he still had to grow into. The armor let him feel safer, especially around his brother, but he knew his life hung by his every whim.
The man accompanying him happened to be in the same situation, whether he realized it or not. Cian wasn’t about to inform him and make his job harder — he needed the people to go along with it and believe in a positive outcome.
He stepped inside his brother’s study and pounded his fist to his chest in salute. “Lord Kalim, the mage is here as you requested.”
Kalim glanced up from the papers on his desk and grinned, setting aside his feather and wiping his fingers free of leftover ink. Kalim was three years his senior but possessed the wisdom their father passed on to him before his capture and execution. Cian was a hostage in his own home, a reserve in case of emergencies. “Excellent. Let us hope he is what he says. Bring him in.”
Cian nudged the mage inside and took his position at the door.
“My brother tells me you’re a realmwaker but you don’t carry the badge of the Guild on you,” Kalim said as he stood up and inspected the mage.
“I’ll never be one of them. I fought for ten years in the Shah’s army and did my part,” he spat. He patted the pouch at his side. “Since the end of the war, it was about time I started thinking about myself.”
“A former ally of the Shah,” Kalim turned to Cian and rose his eyebrows. “It would be my duty as Satrap to have you arrested until I can verify that your past record has been cleared. Are my Guard forces ready, Cian?”
“Ready and waiting on your orders, my lord.” Cian spent the past week drumming up support and rallying troops from across the world to his brother’s banner. This was all done outside the city, out of sight of the Guild and their monopoly on magic.
“The war is long since over and I’m just a realmwalker. I’ve committed no crime.”
Kalim laid his hand on the mage’s shoulder and squeezed. “Good, then you shall open a portal to a destination of our choosing. Bring us there and back again, and I’ll let you go free. Try anything and I’ll let my friends in the desert have their way with you.”
A shiver ran down Cian’s spine at the mention. He knew full well the type of friendship his brother enjoyed and would avoid it at any cost.
“The price is a gold per person. How many are traveling?”
“A thousand, but I’m sure you’re open for negotiations on the price. It would be a shame to let such a once in a lifetime offer slip through your fingers.” Kalim gave him the signal. Cian took a step forward, grabbed the mage by the arm and pulled out a dagger.
“Don’t! Without my hands, I won’t be able to cast any longer.” The mage struggled against Cian’s grip but froze as he placed the tip on his skin. “I’ll do it. Whatever it is you want me to do, I’ll do it. Just don’t hurt me.”
Kalim nodded and Cian thankfully released him, sheathing his dagger. He hated having to do his brother’s dirty work. Either he did it or his brother would find someone else to do it for him and the latter wouldn’t guarantee his survival.
“Bring him to the garrison and have him prepare a portal. I’ll be there soon enough to join the army.”