Excerpt – Duels

“I can’t do it,” she murmured, looking at her hands in her lap, rather than meet Aedan’s eyes. “I can’t kill anyone, not even Rhuinn.”

Aedan remained silent for a little while. She risked a glance at him, and saw that he was watching her twirl the ring on her thumb round and round, a habit that she knew betrayed her nervousness.

“You don’t have to kill him during the second duel,” he finally said. “All you have to do is draw blood. A simple scratch will do.”

She let out a huff of annoyance. She knew that. She knew it perfectly well. She’d known it when she had challenged Rhuinn to a series of duels. The rules stipulated that, during the first one, anyone spilling their opponent’s blood would lose by default. The rule was reversed for the second duel, and whoever drew blood first would win. Should the opponents each win one duel, they would then go on to a third—and it was the thought of that last duel that had been swirling through Vivien’s mind like a tornado for the past hour, not as harmless as the swirls of petals she created but rather ravaging her thoughts.

“But if I win this duel,” she said pointedly, “we’ll have one win each and tie. We’ll have a third duel. And I’m telling you, I can’t take anyone’s life. If it goes that far, I won’t be able to kill him.”

She could feel the weight of Aedan’s eyes on her, but kept her gaze down. When he said her name, however, a quiet whisper brimming with strength, she had to look at him.

“Vivien. You can’t think that way. If you don’t kill him, he will kill you. And believe me, he will have no second thoughts about it, no regrets. You’ll only be one more name in a long list, and he won’t lose any more sleep over you than he did over anyone else.”

She shook her head at that. It wasn’t about what Rhuinn could and would do, it was about what she could live with.

Back on Earth, for years she’d taken fencing lessons and participated in competitions. She’d won a fair number of them, and she had a dexterous hand when wielding a fencing epee—such a good hand, in fact, that when the king had sent his guards to attack the castle after she first arrived on Foh’Ran, she hadn’t hesitated to pick up a sword and join her bodyguards in the fight. She’d managed to hold her own against a trained soldier, and yet…

“Remember that time I went past the shields and Rhuinn’s guards attacked us?” she asked. “You were so mad at me for trying to fight.”

“It was a different situation,” Aedan said with a small frown. “If I could fight in your place for these duels, I would. You know I would.”

It wasn’t a question, but Vivien nodded anyway.

“Of course I know. But the thing is, when I picked up a sword that night, I was sure I could fight. And I did. I’d never held that weapon, never taken part in a true fight, but I held my own, remember? But I couldn’t kill my opponent. He’d hurt Ana, he was a bad person and I knew it, but I couldn’t kill him. If you hadn’t intervened, he’d have killed me not because he was any better than me with a weapon, but because I couldn’t bear to strike a fatal blow. And when I face Rhuinn, I’m afraid it’ll be the same. As much as I hate what he’s done to Ana and to…”

She swallowed hard and changed what she’d been about to say.

“To my people, I don’t think I could kill him. So if I can’t win the third duel, what’s the point of trying to win the second?”

It had always been at the back of her mind, ever since she challenged Rhuinn to that duel, that she would need to win the first two duels to avoid going to the tie breaker. Reality, however, had turned out differently. Two days ago, she had allowed Rhuinn to best her in the first of their duels. That defeat had changed everything. She couldn’t win anymore without killing him.

Aedan startled her by putting a hand on top of hers where it rested on the bench at her side. He was usually very careful to avoid touching her. She could feel the coolness of the metallic tattoo in the center of his palm, the QuickSilver symbol that she had put there herself when he had renewed his vow to protect her.

“You’re thinking of letting him win the second duel. Vivien, please don’t. He might not kill you then, but he will hurt you as much as he can get away with, and humiliate you when it’s over. Then you’ll end up in one of his jails, and anything could happen to you there.” He paused, his hand squeezing hers gently. “And your people, anyone marked with your symbol, would endure the same fate.”

Tears rose to Vivien’s eyes, unbidden, and she looked away. It was all she could do to still her mind and hold on to the umbrellas.

“You’re not playing fair,” she said, her voice wavering.

Another light squeeze, and his hand retreated.

“Dame Vivien, this is no child’s game for me to play fair.”


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