We began training right away. The next trial, Waning Moon, likely wouldn’t require allies, as the Halfmoon was the only one that typically demanded
teamwork. Still, Raihn and Mische seemed certain that we had an opportunity to help each other—and that five weeks of training was better than three to see if we could work well together.
I really did consider refusing. But I understood, too, that I was in no position to turn down help, even help riddled with dangerous caveats… nor the opportunity to study my enemy, even if I didn’t love that it meant they got to study me, too.
So, we trained together. It went… differently than I expected.
“What in the seven fucking hells is wrong with you?” Worse.
So much worse.
Raihn threw his sword to the ground in an utterly childish fit of frustration. The metal hit the carpet with a forceful, deafening THUD, even against the soft surface.
Me? What the hell was wrong with me? I wasn’t the one throwing my weapons around. I drew back to the edge of the living room, glowering at him. Mische pulled her legs
up onto the armchair, cringing as her eyes darted between us.
Raihn jabbed his finger at me. “We can’t cooperate if you won’t let me get close to you.”
“What do you want me to do? Crawl into your lap?”
“I won’t even dignify that with a response,” he spat. “How many times are we going to do this? We have less than a day until the trial. A day. And you’re wasting our fucking time.”
Mische heaved a sigh and rubbed her temples.
Thirteen nights of this. Night after night after night.
I was beginning to think that our cooperation in the first trial had been some sort of twisted stroke of luck. Vincent was a ruthless teacher, and I’d still take his harshest instruction—sessions that sometimes pushed me to the point of losing consciousness—over this.
I’d take it ten times over. Twenty times.
At least Vincent’s training was straightforward. I knew what he wanted from me. This? This was an exercise in choosing between two losing scenarios. We needed to learn how to cooperate, at least if this alliance thing was going to work. But I also needed to protect myself. I needed to watch Raihn as he worked and learn his strategies—in only a handful of weeks, I would need to exploit them. And at the same time, I needed to shield myself from his prying eyes.
You’ll be easy to kill later, he had told me.
Like hell I would.
But as the nights passed, I learned that these two objectives—being a strong ally and protecting myself—were in direct conflict. Each goal compromised the other, and I couldn’t afford that.
So we trained, and we bickered, and we ended each session more frustrated than the one before. But I knew the minute we began that tonight would be the night it finally exploded. Raihn woke up itching for a fight, barely
grunting a greeting before grabbing his sword and launching into an especially brutal drill. No hesitation, no pleasantries, no smiles at Mische’s cheerful quips, not even any biting jokes at my expense. He came after me hard during sparring, like a man with a grudge. And later, when we switched tasks and practiced our cooperative fighting against Mische’s opposition, his annoyance at last erupted in an outburst of rage.
“Do you think I don’t know what you’re doing?” he snapped. “You’re working against me, not with me.”
This was a mistake. All of it. I should’ve just bled out in the greenhouse. I’d prefer to do that than wait for Raihn to rip my throat out, which seemed increasingly inevitable.
“Working with you? What does working with you look like, by your standards? Following you?” At his hesitation, I scoffed bitterly. “You don’t even know.”
This was someone who was used to working alone, and when he wasn’t, he was the leader. Mische was talented, especially with magic, but she was content to support. The two of them were clearly close, though I still wasn’t sure in what capacity—though by now, I gathered it wasn’t romantic. Regardless, they knew how to complement each other, Mische falling to the back while Raihn took up the forefront.
Me? That wasn’t my style. I was used to fighting alone. Two decades of training from Vincent had taught me how to do that well: survive, alone.
“What do you not understand about this, Oraya? We are going to be thrown back into that ring in one day. One day.” His lips twisted into a cruel, humorless smile. “We’ve trained together for more than a week, and I’m still not totally convinced you’re not going to stab me again the minute we’re in there.”
I wasn’t either.
“Maybe I will. Maybe it’ll be more satisfying this time.” I cocked my head, frowned. “Do women say that to you
He barked a laugh. “I’m sure you’re proud of yourself for that one.”
I was, actually. “Oraya, look—”
He took two steps forward, and just as quickly, I matched the distance away.
He paused, eyes narrowing. “What?” he said. “You’re afraid of me?”
The cocky smile had left my face. I said nothing. “What, no smart-ass retort for that?”
He took another step forward, and again, I took one back.
“Get away from me,” I hissed. And he said quietly, “No.”
I hit the wall.
“Raihn,” Mische whispered, “maybe don’t…”
My palms began to sweat. Raihn was now two strides away from me. My back pressed against the wood paneling, wedged to the corner.
Even during training, I never let him get this close. He was only three strides away—two of his. That was how much larger than me he was. He wore a linen shirt that clung to his body, sweaty with the exertion of the last six hours of exercise, highlighting each swell and dip of his muscular form. His hair was bound, but over the hours, strands of it had escaped and now plastered themselves to his face and neck. I couldn’t decide if he looked more or less intimidating this way—more, because he looked a bit unhinged, and less, because I appreciated all of these unpolished things more than I appreciated any other aspect of him.
His eyes now seemed especially red, and he didn’t break
them from mine for even a moment as he took another step.
“We’re allies,” he said firmly. “You need to let me get close to you.”
My heart beat faster. Faster. Faster. My throat was thick, my skin slick.
“No,” I said, as calmly as I could manage. “I don’t.”
The realization shifted in his face. “You are afraid of me.”
No I wasn’t, I told myself. Fear did not exist. Fear is just a collection of physical responses.
But I wasn’t fooling anyone. Of course he could feel my heartbeat. Of course he could smell the rush of my blood.
“Raihn…” Mische said, from the other side of the room. “Back up,” I commanded.
“I am not going to hurt you. How close do I have to get without splitting you open to make you believe that?”
Don’t trust anyone, Vincent whispered in my ear. Raihn took another step. “This close?”
I didn’t blink. Couldn’t. Couldn’t take my gaze off a predator this near to me. Less than one stride. So close I could count the beads of sweat on his collarbone. So close I could see the flutter of his pulse beneath the angle of his jaw.
“Back. Up. Raihn.”
He looked me dead in the eye. “No,” he said.
And took one more step.
“BACK THE FUCK UP.” I slammed my palm against the hard muscle of his chest.
The burst of magic blinded me. Deafened me. White-blue consumed my vision. My back smashed against the wall.
Raihn went flying across the room.
And the flare of light faded just in time for me to see the window shatter, as he went careening through the glass.