“I can’t tell you where—you’re supposed to follow my movements!”
“Well, then, slow down.”
Mather rolls his eyes. “You can’t tell an enemy soldier to slow down.”
I grin at his exasperation, but my smile is short lived as the dull edge of his practice sword swipes under my knees. I slam onto the dusty prairie with a back-popping thud, my blade flying from my hands and vanishing into the thigh-high grass nearby.
Hand-to-hand combat has always been my weakest area. I blame Sir and the fact that he didn’t start training me until I was almost eleven; a few additional sessions with a sword might have helped me catch more than three of Mather’s blows now. Or maybe no amount of training would change how awkward a sword feels in my hands and how much I love throwing my spinning circular blade of death—my chakram. Predicting an opponent’s close-range moves while a blade slashes through my vision has never been a strength of mine.
The unfiltered rays of the sun prickle my skin as I stare up into the blue sky, wincing at a particularly sharp stone under my back. This is the fourth time in the last twenty minutes that I’ve ended up on the ground, watching stalks of prairie grass billow around my head. My lungs heave and sweat beads down my face, so I stay on my back, basking in this moment of peace.
Mather bends into my line of sight, upside down over me, and I hope he attributes the sudden heat in my cheeks to exertion. No matter how many times he puts me on the ground, he never looks anything but handsome. He’s the kind of good-looking that physically aches, makes me stumble for chairs when I’m caught unaware. A few pieces of his white Winterian hair dangle by his cheek, the rest of the shoulder-length strands held together by twine. The leather breastplate stretched over his chest highlights the fact that he’s spent most of his life using those muscles in combat training, and his arms are lean and uncovered but for brassards. Freckles trail all along his pale face, his neck, his arms, a testament to the blinding sun of the Rania Plains.
“Best six out of eleven?” The hopeful note in his voice, as if he honestly believes that I have a chance at beating him, makes me cock an eyebrow.
I groan. “Only if the next six events can be ranged.”
Mather chuckles. “I’m under strict orders to get you to win at least one sword match by the time William and the rest return.”
I narrow my eyes and try to swallow the longing that rushes at me. Sir left with Greer, Henn, and Dendera on a mission to Spring while the rest of us stayed behind. Mather, the future king (who gets to go on the more dangerous missions because he’s been trained since birth in the art of fighting); Alysson, Sir’s wife (who has never shown the slightest skill in fighting); Finn, one other able-bodied soldier (Sir’s rule—Mather always has to have a capable fighter to back him up); and me, the perpetually in-training orphan girl (who, despite six years of sparring practice, still “isn’t good enough” to be trusted with the important assignments).
Yes, I’ve had to use some of my skills on food-scouting assignments, to fight off the occasional soldier or disgruntled citizens of one of the four Rhythm Kingdoms. But when Sir arranges missions to Spring, missions on which we’ll be directly helping Winter instead of simply bringing back supplies, he always has an excuse for why I can’t go: the Spring Kingdom is too dangerous; the mission is too important; can’t risk it on a teenage girl.
Mather must recognize the way I bite my lip, or the way my focus drifts, because he exhales in a forceful sigh. “You’re improving, Meira, really. William just wants to make sure you can fight at close range as well as long range, like everyone else. It’s understandable.”
I glare up at him. “I’m not horrible with hand-to-hand combat, I’m just not you-levels of good. Lie to Sir; tell him I finally beat you. You’re our future king—he trusts you!”
Mather shakes his head. “Sorry, I can only use my powers for good.”
His face twitches and it takes me a beat to realize the unexpected lie in what he said. He doesn’t have any powers, not really, not like magic, and that shortcoming has been a struggle our entire lives.
I sit up, plucking blades of grass to roll between my fingers, if only so I have something to do in the sudden tension. “What would you use magic for?” I ask, my words so weak they almost float away.
“You mean, besides lying to Sir for you?” Mather’s tone is light, but when I swing to my feet and turn to him, my chest aches at the strain on his face.
“No,” I start. “If Winter had a whole conduit again, a conduit that wasn’t female-blooded, that any monarch, king or queen, could harness, what would you use the power for?”