I swipe the blade down the stone until the edge is sharp enough to prick my finger with the gentlest touch. With my back facing the others, I listen for any sounds of strategy or alliance, but everyone remains silent.
I do it only to calm my nerves. No weapons are allowed in this final test. The guards will come to collect soon, but they won’t find the one strapped to my thigh. A bit of magic is enough to hide it.
A hand grips my shoulder, but I shrug it off, knowing the drill. The guard releases me and holds his hand out. I slap the knife down and stand, meeting his cruel gaze with my own.
“Any others?” he asks.
I stare straight into his eyes and drive the lie home. The final test is never about fighting fair. It’s about winning at all costs. Only one fighter will survive today. Only one will take her place by the king’s side to serve as his top assassin.
That victor can only be me. I’ve trained my whole life for this.
Ten minutes pass, and the guard barks out an order. We stand in unison, crossing to the center to face the long walkway into the arena. A firm grip wraps around my bicep. It’s the guard again.
I narrow my eyes at him.
“I am not your dog.”
He doesn’t respond, instead nodding behind him before walking away toward the front of the line as a new figure emerges from the dark. I can tell by her walk and the way the robes cinch at her waist that it’s a woman, but it isn’t until she lowers her hood that I realize exactly who approaches. I am quick to kneel.
With a flick of her wrist, the queen beckons me to stand. I obey, confused by her abrupt appearance.
“I know,” she says, skipping all pleasantries. My breath catches, and she doesn’t miss it. A small smile plays on her lips before vanishing beneath her icy facade.
“How do you mean, Your Highness?”
“I know about your magic, Mae.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” My voice shakes, but I can’t stop now. “Magic is forbidden in Oraz. I am only here to fight, to claim what’s mine.”
The queen steps closer, and I bow my head in return.
“Do not mistake my tone, Mae. I’m not here to reveal your magic to the king. I’m here to help you win.”
My head jerks up, and my eyes find hers. Her hands reach up, clasping each side of my face.
“This will sting a bit.”
Her magic pours into me, the pain immediate and brutal. At that moment, the roar of the crowd announces the combatants entry into the arena, and I howl in pain as my own magic meets hers. I feel it build within me, growing in strength as my body burns with power. When she finally releases me, I fall to my knees.
“What was that?” I ask, pushing myself from the floor.
“You’d only tapped a small part of your power, Mae. I just helped bring out your full potential.”
The queen steps toward me, her gaze harsh under the low light of the tunnel.
“Because I need someone like you on my side, Mae. Because there is a war coming, and you’re going to help me win it.”
I have so many questions, but my time is already short. I can hear the shouts of a guard coming toward us, most likely wondering where the king’s star prospect has run off to.
“Now what?” I ask.
“Now you go out there and win. At all costs. They won’t be able to touch you, Mae. I’ll be in contact soon.”
She steps back, disappearing into the dark when the guard appears by my side, grabbing my arm and pulling me back toward the entrance. I let him, knowing I could now break him in half if I felt the urge. When we reach the gate, he thrusts me toward it without a word. I step through and into the sun, the crowd greeting me with a deafening roar. I take my time to gaze at each of my foes, all of them thinking this battle is theirs for the taking. I don’t know what war is coming, but I do know this.
This final test was mine from the beginning.