Ciena spent the next few days watching and waiting from the dueling pit’s edge. She had intended to fight Amelie Reverius straight away, but Rhia talked her out of it, reciting some old Valaysian proverb about choosing your battlegrounds.
It killed Ciena to wait, but her friend had a point. After all, you could never know too much about your enemies.
Amelie Reverius moved like a dancer when she fought—never taking two steps when one would suffice. Each move transitioned into the next as smooth as flowing quicksilver.
Graceful, sure. But dangerous? Hardly. True, she won most of her fights, but she did it by dodging her opponents and exploiting cheap weaknesses. There was no power in her swings—no passion in her movements or fire in her eyes. If anything, Ciena would describe the girl as passive and apathetic. As if this were all a game to her.
The sun was warm against Ciena’s back as she approached the dueling rings late on Vashedal afternoon. Reverius’s class was smaller than Ciena’s, with only five or six students. As usual, the “top” students got all the privileges here, including one-on-one time with the Blademasters.
Sweat prickled her palms as she walked, and it had nothing to do with the tropical heat.
Breathe, she reminded herself. It’s just another duel.
Despite some close calls, Ciena remained undefeated since she’d arrived at Alexel’s enclave. She’d beaten duelists who were older, stronger, and faster than Amelie. The only difference was the rankings, and rankings were more a game of math and planning.
Sure, climbing the ladder took skill, but not the sort of skill that mattered. If Alexel was impressed by their games, he would have chosen an apprentice long ago. Instead, he’d flown halfway across the world to get Ciena.
Aegon. Then why did she feel so bloody nervous all of a sudden?
Steel rang against steel as another pair of duelists sparred in the pit below. Ciena approached the edge and spotted her foe on the opposite side. The other girl took no notice of her. She was too busy chattering to her friends and laughing like a schoolgirl. Thank Aegon for that small mercy. Ciena couldn’t deal with her taunting right now.
Taunting had always been a part of Whitecliff’s Battlegrounds, and Ciena’s tongue was as sharp as her sword when it needed to be. Still ... Amelie Reverius rubbed her like a pebble in her boot. When she spoke, Ciena felt like she was chained to that wall in the Starglade mines. Like she was watching her brother die in the caverns beneath Whitecliff. Like she was ten years old again, betrayed by her uncle and fleeing her home.
Helpless. As if all her strength and skill meant nothing.
The gong reverberated as the duel came to an end.
Ciena straightened, feigning patience as the Blademaster critiqued their moves. The man was a dark-skinned Ember Islander with a head so bald it reflected the sun. He had the voice of a general on a battlefield, and every word came out distinct among the clatter of blades.
“Alright,” he said after several long minutes of scrutiny. “Anyone else? If not, we—”
“I challenge Reverius,” Ciena snapped. She’d pulled a burst of power from her ring without even realizing it. Now, every muscle in her body sat like a coiled spring, demanding blood.
The Blademaster furrowed his brow. “I don’t know you. Name and rank?”
“Ciena Raider. Justicar trainee, ranked twenty-fifth.”
Her low rank earned her a few chuckles from the bystanders.
And which one of you reached the top of the ladder in your first week? Ciena almost said it, but this lot wasn’t worth her time. She could only win so many bloody duels in one day.
“Too low,” the Blademaster said. “You need to be at least in the top fifteen to challenge anyone here..”
“It’s alright, Kalanus.” Amelie swaggered forward as if just noticing the exchange. “I’m feeling charitable today.”
“Doesn’t work that way,” he snapped back. “The rules exist for her safety, trainee, not your comfort.”
“You know those are just guidelines. But here...” Amelie removed her ring and tossed it to the Blademaster, never taking her violet eyes off Ciena.”Hold onto that for me. I don’t need Ethermancy to put down this one.”
Ciena narrowed her eyes. Did the other girl expect her to give up her own ring out of some foolish sense of honor or pride?
No such luck, princess.
Ciena was impulsive sometimes, but she wasn’t stupid enough to roll those dice. Amelie Reverius could still oppose her power of course—that came down to willpower, not Etherite.
Still, a weaker opponent with no Ethermancy? Despite her nerves, this should be far easier than her other duels.
Ciena lowered her protective mask and drew her katana. “You want to spew at the mouth some more, or can I send you to the infirmary now?”
At a nod from the Blademaster, Amelie donned her own mask and jumped in the pit.
They circled each other for the span for several heartbeats. With each exhale, Ciena forced away another distraction—the insect bites on her hands, the sweat on her back, the way her nose itched in the humidity.
Instead, she focused on the details that mattered. She felt the sand beneath her boots, and the unevenness of the pit—every small slope and valley left by the previous combatants. She felt the hilt of her katana between her fingers, and how the blade grew lighter as she fueled her muscles with extra strength.
The other girl could have opposed her Ethermancy, but she didn’t bother. That left a bitter taste in Ciena’s mouth.
She shifted to Cobraform and darted forward, sweeping her blade in a wide strike.
Her opponent didn’t react until Ciena had already committed to the move. Then she bent over at the waist, letting the blade pass inches over her face.
Expecting a parry instead of a dodge, Ciena had put far too much power into the swing. Halfway through, her mistake was clear as glass.
Her opponent’s boot collided with her stomach during the follow-through. Ciena staggered to the side, nearly losing her balance. She quickly re-centered in Sunform—legs wide and blade raised.
Shouts of astonishment erupted from the crowd. Her opponent stood motionless on the other side of the pit, somehow conveying a smug grin through body language alone.
“I’d tell you to yield,” Reverius said, “but I know you don’t have the wits to listen.”
Ciena ignored her, pulling more energy from her ring. If Amelie were half as confident as she acted, then why resort to childish gibes?
Still, only a fool tried the same tactic twice. Whatever the girl had done, it worked. Even without Ethermancy, she was quick as a snapping flame.
Ciena approached more cautiously this time, not to hit her opponent, but just to let their blades meet.
Aegon. One kick, and she has you as timid as a first-year.
This time, Amelie parried her blows as expected, making no move to counter. Their blades met from several angles, but each strike came slow and controlled.
We can’t keep this up forever. By reducing her own speed and power, Ciena sacrificed every advantage she had.
She put more power behind each swing, but not so much that it could be turned against her. Even so, her opponent rolled her blade with every strike, nearly causing her to lose her balance. Whenever Ciena tried to push her back, the other girl merely side-stepped her.
What did she want? What was the point of fighting if not to win?
Whatever game it was, Ciena had enough. She fell into the space between heartbeats, focusing on her ultimate goal in her mind’s eye. The power to bring justice to her enemies
Energy flooded her muscles, and her reflexes increased tenfold. Ciena forced the fear back as she prepared to attack in earnest. Amelie got the better of her once. It wouldn’t happen again.
Just one clean hit, and it’s over.
Ciena attacked in a flurry of quick strikes—legs, stomach, shoulder. Her opponent dodged every one, and it felt like slicing through a cloud of smoke.
“You fight like a wild animal,” Reverius said. “No control.”
Ciena kept attacking. The way Amelie moved defied all logic and reason. Battlemaster Vash was the best duelist she’d ever fought. Even he couldn’t have beat Ciena without a sufficient offense.
Amelie broke off from the exchange, swinging her sword in lazy circles. “I’ve seen enough.” She stuck her katana in the sand, and the blade shone golden in the late-afternoon sun.
Ciena kept her own weapon, forcing away any thoughts or fears before they took root.
This time, it was Reverius who struck first. She closed the distance like a darting arrow, with no sword to protect her.
Ciena swung her katana toward the girl’s chest. Amelie raised both hands, catching the blade between the spikes on her gauntlets.
Sensing the unfavorable position, Ciena immediately dropped the blade and moved to retreat.
Too late. Amelie landed a kick on her shin, followed by several quick punches to her jaw.
Ciena collapsed in the sand, spitting blood.
Again, her opponent made no move to finish her. She didn’t even grab a weapon.
“Done yet?” the girl asked with tender sweetness. “I’d hate for you to get hurt again.”
“Go to hell,” Ciena spat between coughs. Her ears rang, and her vision blurred, but she was far from done.
“Suit yourself.” Amelie took a step back and crossed her slender arms.
If Ciena were in her position, she would have put her sword to the other girl’s throat and forced her into submission. The Blademasters’ even encouraged such tactics as it resulted in fewer injuries overall.
Amelie Reverius did no such thing. It was as if she knew the victory was hers.
Pride before a fall. Ciena had been on the receiving end that proverb often enough to know it by heart. Once again, she picked up her sword and lunged forward, draining her ring for every last ounce of strength .
Her opponent dodged three more strikes before grabbing the hilt of her own blade. In one fluid motion, she yanked it from the sand and swung.
Ciena felt a bar of iron against her temple. The world went dark and spun around her.
And just like that, it was over.