* * *

OTHERS GREETED ARYN as he walked toward Kara’s table, and no greet went unanswered. The consummate politician, he rewarded each with a smile or nod, sometimes pausing to exchange pleasantries. People felt Aryn noticed them. People felt he cared.

Aryn had a strong chin, wide nose, and blue eyes that could bring a blush to any woman in Solyr. Raven hair brushed his shoulders. Most saw his constant half-smirk as mirth or good humor, but Kara knew it for what it was.

Contempt for those he judged beneath him.

Though Aryn wore the leather pants and line-cut shirt of Solyr, he still wore expensive leather boots. His doubled shoulder pads were white leather, not brown, an extravagance rarely seen outside Mynt’s capital. The gold medallion around his neck marked him as Mynt nobility. So far as Kara knew, he never took it off.

Aryn stopped beside their table and clasped his hands behind his back. Byn eyed him as a wolf would eye a rabbit. Sera stared at her plate. Kara, for her part, just smiled at him.

“Evening, Aryn. Something I can help you with?”

“I heard you were injured!” Aryn’s smirk grew. “I just wanted to see how you were feeling, make sure you were all right. How do you feel?”

“Absolutely wonderful,” Kara said, though her muscles still felt stiff and sore. “I’ve been looking for you. We need to talk.”

“Perhaps later. I just wanted to wish you the best. I understand why you had to forfeit our duel, and I don’t hold it against you.”

“That’s big of you, but I haven’t forfeited anything.”

Aryn furrowed his brow. “One acting as the royal apprentice has no luxury for vacations, exhausted or no. I’m sure that hike cost you a few days—”

Byn rose and glared. “She glyphed a dying man, kept him alive, and dragged him a half league to Solyr! Could you do that?”

“Please.” Aryn raised his hands. “Kara is a hero, and her actions speak well of her exemplary character. I was very much looking forward to our duel, and I only wanted to offer condolences.”

Kara saw Journeymage Talbot striding toward their table, green robes swishing. Talbot was a Tellvan of middle age with a pitted face and black hair. Magic academies in the Five Provinces exchanged faculty to facilitate communication between the schools, and Talbot was fair and well liked. He kept a firm order in his cafeteria.

“Shove off.” Byn stepped toward Aryn. “If you’re that desperate for a triptych, I’ll take you on right now.”

“Really? How? You’re not even recorded on our tier.”

“Byn.” Kara grabbed his arm. “Settle.”

“I see you’ve taken some offense,” Aryn said. “I’m truly sorry that’s the case. Have a pleasant night.” He walked away.

Kara pushed up and stumbled around the table, nearly tripping before she grabbed his arm. “You hold on. We’re not done here.”

Aryn glanced at her hand on his arm, and then frowned at her legs. Kara felt them trembling and fought the flush growing on her cheeks. Everyone could see her shaking.

“Don’t strain yourself.” Aryn tried to steady her. “You need rest.”

Kara stepped back as he reached for her, reached with those weak, soft hands. “What I need is for you to reschedule our triptych duel. Until you do, my record stands.”

“Initiates.” Journeymage Talbot placed himself between them, spread his arms, and moved them apart. His right hand was missing two fingers, a relic of his days in Sheik Meric’s desert armies. “Step apart. Is there a grievance here?”

“Not at all!” Aryn bowed his head. “I was just leaving.”

“No you’re not.” Kara fixed her gaze on Talbot. “My injuries forced me to reschedule our triptych duel. I’m ready to do that now. I want to move it to Selection Day.”

Aryn reached into his shirt pocket. “I’m so sorry, Kara, but that’s just not possible.” He handed a small, rolled scroll to Journeymage Talbot. “As you can see, sir, between my final trials, the Brotherhood of Flame, and my last mandatory family day, I have no time at all for a triptych duel. Not until after Selection Day.”

Kara huffed. Selection Day was the day the elders would announce the royal apprentice. If she waited, they would certainly announce Aryn. He had outmaneuvered her again, and it was all she could do not to punch the smile off his face.

Talbot frowned at the schedule. “Initiate Tanner, you missed your prior duel. Initiate Locke is well within his rights. His obligations preclude another duel this week.”

“As I said,” Aryn agreed, and Talbot scowled at that. “So again, Kara, you have my genuine apology. After Selection Day, if you still wish it, I’d be happy to—“

“What about tonight?” Kara cut him off. “Are you free tonight?”

Sera gripped her arm. “Don’t.”

Kara only then realized Sera was standing at her side, had been since Talbot approached the table. Then she realized how stupid she had been. Aryn grinned wide as he stared at her, his handsome face positively glowing.

Aryn wanted to duel her tonight. While she was weak. That was why he had come to her table, denied her a duel and goaded her into a fight. Once again, Aryn Locke had played her like a harp.

“Tonight?” Aryn tapped his chin. “I was supposed to lead a study group, but I could cancel it. As a favor to you. If you insist.”

“You’re such a gracious soul.” Kara clenched one fist. “I insist.” She nodded at Talbot. “We’ll duel tonight. Will you officiate?”

Talbot nodded back. “It would be my pleasure, Initiate Tanner.” He was fair to a fault. She liked him even more.

Aryn backed up, all warm eyes and half-smirk. “I’m looking forward to this! Best of luck.”

Byn frowned at her. “Kara, that was—”

She gave him a look.

“Necessary.” Byn raised his hands. “But you could barely make it across the Commons.”

“I’ll do well enough,” Kara said. “I’ve got wind in my sails now.”

She watched Aryn and dozens of students hurry for the doors, listened to the murmur of excited voices. Tonight’s duel would be a spectacle and she would be its star, yet she would not duel Aryn for fame, or bragging rights, or to settle some schoolyard grudge.

She would duel him to save her mother.

Students fresh from supper and eager for a spectacle surrounded the small area of the Commons set aside for their triptych duel. Journeymage Talbot had chosen a square of short grass bordered by meandering stone paths on two sides. Solyr’s central river flowed along the far side, and the cafeteria loomed over her from behind. Its shadow ended at the grass.

Byn walked ahead of Kara, his size and scowl easily clearing the way. Sera walked beside her, eyes down. The two of them made Kara feel like she could do this, even though her body screamed she couldn’t. She told her body to shut up.

“You know I can’t enhance you.” Sera was shaking, and it wasn’t even cold. “It wouldn’t be fair.” Her lower lip trembled.

Kara wanted to hug her friend. “I wouldn’t ask you to. Relax. He doesn’t stand a chance.”

“We’ll talk later. You have a duel to win.” Sera hurried to join the crowd before Kara could say anything else.

Kara met with Journeymage Talbot in the center of the grassy square as Byn stood as her second. Dozens of initiates had surrounded the square, some anxious and some cheering. All expected an epic duel.

Finally, Aryn strode from the crowd and took his place across from her. Jair Deymartin stood as his second. An interesting choice.

Of all Aryn’s friends, Kara found Jair the most likable. He never raised his voice to anyone and used much of his time helping others study. Though his tall frame, close-cut dark hair, and deep black eyes suggested a gloomy sort, Kara had always found Jair open and personable.

He was a Soulmage, manipulating glyphs of spirits long dead, and that discipline had led to the distance in his eyes. Communing with the shades of the departed required patience, empathy, and compassion. Those qualities were probably how Jair managed to stay friends with Aryn Locke.

Kara stretched her arms above her head, leaning left, then right. She winced at the pains shooting through her body. She had been a fool to duel Aryn tonight, but she had been a fool many times before. Nothing to do now but take him down as quick as she could.

Triptych duels were three-part contests designed to mimic the challenges a mage faced in battle: glyphing at a distant enemy, fighting at close range with a quarterstaff, and finally, fighting barehanded if all else failed. They were fought to nine points with three awarded in each phase. The Journeymage moderating the duel awarded a point for each successful strike.

Aryn tossed a salute to Journeymage Talbot. “I’m ready.”

Kara took a deep breath. “I’m ready, too.” She had no quarterstaff — the elders discouraged carrying them to dinner — and Byn planned to grab it while they resolved glyphs. She hoped he got back in time. She hoped she wouldn’t have to make everyone wait.

Talbot backed to the edge of the grass. “Aryn Locke, as challenged, will commence glyphs with his first strike.”

Talbot scribed a glyph. A square of light rose from the grass, forming a spectral arena around the competitors and their seconds. It would block stray glyphs from bouncing into the crowd and catch any attempts by those outside to influence the duel. It was tough to learn and tougher to scribe. Talbot did it easily.

“Duel when ready,” Talbot said.

Aryn sliced his index finger and flicked a simple Finger of Heat. A long bolt of flame crackled toward Kara, but his effort was as weak as it was quick. Time slowed as Kara took the stark, hard lines of the dream world. She sliced her ring finger.

Kara scribed the Hand of Life — a diamond frame around a circle core — so fast those watching might not even see the lines. She drowned his flame in water and spit it back as steam. Aryn kept scribing, darting Fingers of Heat, as she scribed two more Hands of Life and raised an icy wall between them.

In a triptych duel, even weak strikes like Aryn’s were worth points. It didn’t matter that in a real fight, his licks of flame would cause little more than isolated burns. Then another volley hit and Kara’s wall shattered, dropping her to one knee. She felt like she had been punched in the gut. Her blood was still thin and weak.

Kara was playing Aryn’s game and needed to stop. When facing a mage who knew only a single school, like Firebrand, one always knew what to expect: fire. Glyphbinders like Kara used glyphs from all disciplines, a task as difficult as writing eight unique languages at the same time.

Kara drowned another set of flames and then scribed a quick series of glyphs with two bloody fingers, each stroke merging with the last. She was good at this, and she was far faster than most initiates at Solyr. Aryn would soon find that out.

A rock-sized Hand of Land dropped toward Aryn’s head. Talbot disintegrated it. Aryn didn’t even notice.

“Point, Kara!” Talbot yelled.

Kara’s Finger of Breath goosed Aryn as he launched his next volley, sending flame spiraling ringside. That freed Kara’s Hand of Life to slam Aryn’s head, staggering him.

“Point, Kara!”

Even as he stumbled Aryn tossed a trio of flames, glyphing through the shock. As much as she despised him, his skill impressed her. Too bad she’d already frozen the soles of his boots.

Aryn slipped and went down hard, grunting as he hit, and then Kara threw herself into the grass. Aryn’s flames roared over her, slamming the arena wall, but not her. Nothing touched her.

“Glyphs complete!” Talbot shouted. “Kara takes glyphs, three to zero!”

“Wow.” Aryn pushed himself up, rolled his head around, and fixed her with his famous half-smirk. “Nicely done! You’re truly something special, Kara. Shall we fetch our staffs?”

Kara pushed up as well, breathing hard. She must look a sight, covered in wet grass and trembling like a leaf in the wind. Aryn didn’t look worried. Why didn’t he look worried?

Jair stepped into the ring and offered Aryn his flawless white quarterstaff. Aryn swung the staff and slid into a low guard with enviable ease. Its slick finish shone in the light of the rising moon.

Aryn scribed a single blood glyph and lit his staff with Heat, flames roaring to life all along its length. He twirled it faster, and faster, flipping it over his shoulder and under his arms as flame roared and cheers rose. Their audience was impressed. If he wanted to tire himself out, acting like an idiot, Kara wouldn’t stop him.

Byn pressed her own staff into her hands, marked with many nocks from prior triptych duels. He was huffing hard, and she had no doubt he had sprinted all the way to her room and back. Beastrulers could run faster than humans when the proper glyphs took them, and Byn’s panting and narrowed eyes were the aftereffects of Rannos the Wolf. It made her think of graybacks.

Kara readied her staff — a gift from her mother — and ignored the needles poking her legs. She settled into a low guard and sheathed her staff in ice. Time to knock that smirk off Aryn’s face.

“As the challenger, Kara will initiate staffs,” Journeymage Talbot said. “Duel when ready.”

Aryn twirled his flaming quarterstaff around his waist and legs. Kara stalked forward. They circled for a moment, sizing each other up. Aryn winked. Kara thrust at his waist.

He sidestepped her strike and slapped her head with his staff. Talbot’s glyphs softened the blow, but it still sent her reeling. How had Aryn done that? She hadn’t even seen him move!

“Point, Aryn,” Talbot said. “Aryn, begin point two when ready.”

Kara dropped into a hanging guard and fell back as Aryn thrust, moved, and grinned. His staff hit hers and hit it again. She backed and huffed as his staff landed everywhere at once, leaving tracers of flame. Ice shattered. Kara’s hands ached. Her staff bounced from her hands and Aryn’s thrust toward her chin.

Air exploded. Kara opened her eyes on her back, on the grass, tasting blood. Her teeth ached like someone had slammed a rock into them, but she still had teeth. Talbot had blunted the strike.

“Point, Aryn,” Talbot announced. “Kara, you may begin point three when ready.”

As Byn hauled her up Kara fell against him, struggling to stand. Her jaw ached and her hands did too.

“He’s getting lucky.” Byn steadied her and handed back her staff. “Don’t let it shake you. Pick your time and strike.”

Kara swallowed blood. “He’s a bit faster than I expected.”

Aryn twirled his flaming staff in a hypnotic spiral, spinning it forward then around his back. He snapped an end down at his boot. One of his blood glyphs had suspended three interlocking columns of flame on the air: the essence of Heat in glyph form.

Aryn turned his smile on a buxom initiate in the crowd. The woman grinned like a besotted fool, and Kara remembered her. Sashia Grace, a Lifewarden, and one of Kara’s most vocal critics.

Sashia had long lashes, curves that strained her uniform, and silky black hair. She made a wonderful distraction. Kara thrust her staff at Aryn’s turned head.

Aryn ducked without looking and knocked Kara’s staff away with a single backhanded thrust. Sashia oohed and aahed, and she wasn’t the only one. Kara stepped back, mouth open. No one had ever beaten her so fast.

Talbot raised his arms. “Point, Aryn. Aryn takes—”

Aryn’s staff smashed Kara’s temple. When she next opened her eyes, she was flat on her back and coughing at the smell of burned hair. An utter silence hung over the ring.

“Locke!” The anger in Talbot’s tone shocked her. “That point had been concluded!”

“I’m so sorry!” A shadow stood over her — Aryn — and Kara wanted to bite his boot. “I struck as you concluded the point.” Aryn offered his hand and a taunting smirk. “Allow me to help you up.”

“Shove off!” Byn backed Aryn off with two forceful steps. He helped Kara to her feet, and she stumbled into his thick arms.

The world rocked like a boat in a fierce storm. How could she wrestle Aryn when she could barely stand? She supposed she’d start by standing, first.

Aryn strutted before the crowd, pumping one arm and shouting for encouragement. Some of them were shouting back, but many more weren’t. That meant some might actually care that he struck while she was unarmed. She hoped someone had noticed.

“Wrestling now,” Byn whispered. “You ready?”

“On any other day, I’d flatten him.”

“You still will. You can do this. Now, can you stand?”

Kara wobbled. The crowd was a blurry mass, but she didn’t look at them, or Aryn, or Talbot. She looked at Byn, at his round face and stubborn frown. She handed him her staff.

“I’m standing, aren’t I?”

The crowd cheered when they saw that Kara was ready to continue, and that raised her spirits. There were people out there cheering for her, too. Aryn wasn’t the only favorite.

“Wrestling’s your strength, not his.” Byn thumped her back. “You’re tied. Take your win even if you have to knock out his teeth.”

Kara walked to the center of the ring. It spun around her, but she refused to fall. She would not give Aryn that satisfaction.

Aryn handed his quarterstaff to Jair and when Jair took it, his wide eyes fell on her. His brow was furrowed and Kara didn’t understand why. Why would Jair be worried about her?

Aryn stepped into her vision. “Forfeit now,” he whispered. “You’re exhausted. No one will think less of you.”

Kara shook her head. “You haven’t learned anything, have you? Well, pay attention. I’ll give you something to remember.”

“Wrestling begins upon the first strike from Initiate Locke,” Journeymage Talbot announced. “Aryn, attack when ready.”

“Last chance.” Aryn set his feet. “Forfeit now.”

“Not happening.” Kara beckoned. “Come at me, Locke.”

Aryn lunged. Kara caught him easily but barely held her grip. He threw a knee at her gut. She blocked it with her thigh and snapped her heel behind his leg. They pivoted on his locked joint and he went down like a falling tree. With her on top.

They hit hard. Sweat and grass wrinkled Kara’s nose, along with Aryn’s waxy cologne, and when she tried to roll off him she couldn’t. Her arms felt like she had spent a day rowing a boat upstream.

“What’s she doing?” Sashia yelled. “Is that legal?”

“Get off me,” Aryn hissed in her ear.

“Point one, Kara,” Talbot said. “Seconds?”

Byn helped her up. Kara stumbled and supported herself by clinging to him. Getting up was harder than falling down, but she only had to do it twice more.

Aryn batted at Jair’s hands. He stood and brushed grass and dirt from his shirt. He would have a stain now, a stain on that nice fine shirt. Kara knew it was petty, but it still made her grin.

“This was a horrible idea,” Jair said quietly. “Why win like this? What’s it really worth?”

Jair knew why Aryn had manipulated her into dueling tonight. He did not approve, and Kara’s respect for him jumped a good bit. Aryn might be an ass, but even an ass had decent friends.

“You’ve both dueled admirably,” Jair continued. “You’ve both had enough. Call it a tie and end it.”

“Jair,” Kara said, pushing off Byn. “I appreciate the concern. But we’re finishing this. Tonight.

Aryn glared at her. “My thoughts exactly.”

“Kara will begin point two.” Talbot’s calm tone offered no hint of what he thought of this exchange. “Attack when ready.”

Kara limped into place. The crowd spun around her, around Aryn, and Kara caught sight of Sera. She had pushed her way through the crowd and stood against the warded wall. Her eyes were wide and her hands clenched.

Kara was doing this for Sera. For herself. For her mother, and that last goal was most important. Time to stop stumbling about on the Commons grass and save her mother’s life.

She shouted and lunged. She hit Aryn with her full weight and he pushed back, hard. Each dug their heels into the Commons grass, but everything Kara had simply wasn’t enough.

Aryn twisted an arm behind her back and knocked her legs out from under her. He dropped her face first into the grass, pinned her, and Kara spit at the hard landing. The crowd cheered and hollered.

“Point two, Aryn,” someone said above her head.

“Kara,” Byn whispered. “Wake up!” He was kneeling at her side. “Don’t give up. You can’t! You’re one point away from winning!”

Kara wanted to save her mother. She wanted to sleep. She almost did, until she heard the chanting. There were people, dozens of them, and all of them were chanting her name.

“Ka-ra! Ka-ra! Ka-ra!”

Who was she to let them down? She could sleep when she’d planted Aryn’s face in the grass. When everyone cheered for her.

Kara stood and then dropped to one knee. Stupid, traitorous legs. Byn pulled her up, balanced her. Made her stand.

One more point. Just one more point. Kara stumbled forward, set herself, and mimicked Aryn’s smirk. “What’s wrong? You tired?”

“Aryn,” Journeymage Talbot said. “Begin.”

Aryn charged her and the world slowed. Kara let him hit her, let him flow past, and twisted her body so she tripped him as he did so. She latched onto Aryn’s back like an octopus wrapped about prey. She dragged him into deep water, dead weight on his back, and then they hit the Commons grass hard.

With her on top.

“Point three, Kara.” Journeymage Talbot dropped his glowing arena. “This triptych duel goes to Kara, five points to four.”

The crowd erupted in shouting, many cheering, some booing, but all excited by the spectacle they had witnessed. Kara felt Aryn wriggle free and rolled onto her back. Stars glittered above, and she smiled at them. She wanted to pump her fist, but it wouldn’t move.

Byn whooped loudly as he dragged her to her feet. Kara fell against him, filled with a flush of victory. She lifted her gaze and found Aryn staring, blue eyes wide. Wet. He trembled. He might cry.

“You fought well.” Kara smirked at him. “You almost had me.”

Aryn’s hands formed fists. His arms were trembling, his lower lip as well, but not from grief. It was rage. Aryn Locke hated her, a hate so fierce and ugly it made her stumble back a step.

Jair said something, but Aryn brushed past him without another word. Sashia stepped into Aryn’s path, arms open and eyes wide, and he stiff-armed her so hard she stumbled back. She fell into another student’s arms with her mouth frozen in a shocked O.

Kara stared after Aryn and felt a chill temper her flush. As much as she disliked Sashia, the woman certainly didn’t deserve that. What was wrong with Aryn? Was he that poor a sport?

Even at the height of their rivalry, Kara had never hated Aryn. Not really. She had just wanted to beat him. The thought of someone hating her like that, wanting her hurt or dead — that left her cold.

Students were pushing in, slapping her back or pumping their fists, but she couldn’t pick out faces and felt like she should. Then Journeymage Talbot scattered the crowd with a look, giving Kara the space she needed to breathe. He turned his calm eyes on her.

“Kara. The Council of Elders has requested your presence.”

She swallowed hard. “The Council wants me?”

“Only if you feel up to it.”

“I’d be lucky to walk home.”

“We’ll see about that.” Sera stepped forward, fingers bleeding, and gripped Kara’s wrists. Before Kara could stop her, she closed her eyes and glyphed. She sent a huge transfusion into Kara’s body.

Kara jerked at the flash before her eyes. Her exhaustion melted. Sera stepped back as Byn steadied her. Sera’s normally pale skin looked practically white.

“You didn’t.” Kara stared at her.

“You’ve got a council to meet. You’re fine now. Trust me.”

“You’re insane! You shouldn’t have done that!”

A flash heal — the glyph Sera had just used on her — transfused a tremendous amount of the caster’s blood very, very fast. It could restore the patient’s health almost instantly, but faded soon after. It also took a heavy toll on the person who scribed it.

“I’m fine.” Sera blinked through heavy lids. “I don’t get to practice those enough.”

“You took Aryn apart!” Byn beamed through clenched teeth as he hugged Sera close. “I’ll get her home safe. Promise. Now go!”

Kara felt like she was flying. She supposed she could make it home before this new blood expired. If not, she supposed the elders would call a stretcher. Or maybe she could just sleep in the street.

“I accept.” Kara waved away Talbot’s arm. “I can walk.”

More students shook Kara’s hand, patted her on the back, or shouted congratulations as she walked away. It overwhelmed her. How did Aryn handle all this adulation? She frowned as she considered.

She and Aryn were nothing alike. She didn’t take these people for granted, didn’t drink in their adoration like fine wine. She actually liked them. They had supported her, cheered her on, and that left her feeling grateful and guilty all at once.

Kara caught Jair’s eyes as he stepped close. He gripped her hand and bowed his head. Then he stepped away, and he simply wasn’t there anymore.

Kara gasped and cast about. Soulmages did that sometimes, moving so quietly that the night swallowed them up. Jair could do that as well, and he had picked a fine time to practice.

Kara gave up and looked at Talbot. “Shall we go?”

He smiled and led her from the gossiping square.

* * *

Interested in reading more? Glyphinder is available as an e-book on Amazon for 0.99 cents, or as a paperback.

The first book stands alone but a sequel, Demonkin, is due in December 2015.

You can learn more about the book’s characters, world, and history, at www.tebakutis.com.

JairAndAryn

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