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Connor wondered who Elisa would get for her Pairing and balled his fists at his sides as a fresh wave of frustration crashed over him.

“I can’t wait to hear this,” Landyn said. He crossed his arms and leaned against a long wooden desk, regarding Connor with a judging expression. Even stretched out with his hips tilted at an insolent angle, Landyn was almost tall enough to look Connor in the eye.

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“The Archmages want to see a display of magic that shows power and control, so…,” Connor said, shifting back and forth uneasily under Landyn’s piercing stare. Landyn’s startling blue eyes caught his attention.

Connor was suddenly conscious of his own body: how his hands hung stiffly at his sides in contrast to Landyn’s calm posture; how his wild curls of dark hair fell into his eyes, unlike Landyn’s neatly trimmed straight brown hair. His shoulders were wider than Landyn’s, and he had more muscle. That had always made him feel powerful, but now he felt big and broad-knuckled, like his clothes didn’t fit well enough, even though his scarlet robes had been expertly tailored in the Capitol.

Landyn’s robes were dark blue with a narrow cut that hugged his tall, slender frame. Connor’s eyes trailed down, noting the expensive fabric and the embroidered waves in a shade slightly darker than the robe.

“So?” Landyn prompted.

Connor flushed and averted his eyes. He’d lost his train of thought. “So, all we have to do at the Trial is impress them,” he finished awkwardly.

“How revolutionary,” Landyn said, oblivious to Connor’s inner turmoil. “Are all your plans this detailed?”

“I don’t see you coming up with anything,” Connor snapped. “People like you are always looking to leaders like me to solve your problems.”

Landyn uncrossed his arms and made a big show of looking around the room. “I don’t see any leaders. Just a spoiled hothead who’s mad he didn’t get his way.”

“Listen, you soggy piece of garbage—”

A sudden jet of water nearly choked him. “Hey!” Connor sputtered, coughing and swiping his hair from his eyes. His robes were soaked.

Landyn glared at him, his eyes brighter blue than before. Thin tendrils of blue light danced around his hands. “I’m not the soggy one,” he said.

Connor felt his anger flare into magic. It started as pins and needles in his shoulders and shot down his arms until his hands were engulfed in fire, the flames twisting hungrily up his forearms.

Landyn straightened. “Is that how this is going to play out?”

“You doused me first!”

“You deserved it!”

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“Enough!” Connor said. The flames wreathing his hands abruptly extinguished as he forced himself to breathe and wrestled back his control. “I’ve tried, but I can’t work with you. You’ll sabotage the Trial just to spite me.”

“You think a little too highly of yourself, Roth. I couldn’t give a dolphin’s wet ass about you, but we have to complete the Trial together. Or did you miss that part of the, oh,
six-hundred-year-old tradition
?”

“To the fires with tradition! Nothing about this situation is traditional. I’ll come up with something on my own. I don’t need you.”

“You’re an arrogant ass,” Landyn said.

“Maybe,” Connor said, brushing past Landyn. “But you’re a waste of my time.”

He didn’t need Landyn Glendower. No mediocre water mage was going to dampen his fire.

Just before he reached the door, he turned back. Landyn was watching him, an odd expression on his face. “Connor—” Landyn started to say.

Connor concentrated and snapped his fingers. Landyn’s sleeves caught on fire.

“Now we’re even,” he said, pushing his wet hair off his forehead and slipping quickly out the door. He dashed down the hall, ignoring Landyn’s outraged cries, and narrowly avoided slipping in the water that gushed across the floor.



C
ONNOR
SPENT
the rest of the night in his rooms, chewing on his frustrations. He was glad more than ever that his father’s position afforded him a private suite.

He sighed and glanced at the clock on his bedside table. It was nearly eleven o’clock, and the halls had gone quiet. Normally, Elisa visited him before lights out and left him sweaty and tangled in the sheets with a perfect lipstick impression on his cheek; it made him uneasy that he hadn’t heard from her all day. He wouldn’t have minded Elisa’s particular brand of comfort right now. A man had needs.

He wondered if Landyn had a girlfriend. Not that he paid much attention to that overgrown guppy, but he’d never seen Landyn with a girl on his arm. Or a boy.

“Who cares?” Connor said aloud, scowling up at his ceiling from his bed. He and Landyn had never run in the same circles, and they’d only exchanged a handful of words before today. Connor couldn’t remember seeing Landyn practicing in the arena. He would have noticed.

Connor idly tossed a fireball up toward the rafters and caught it on its way back down. He wasn’t going to be stuck with that wet blanket for the Trial. He’d talk to Elisa tomorrow and get things sorted out with the Oracle.

When Connor slept that night, he dreamed of drowning.



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C
ONNOR
IGNORED
the whispers from the other students as he stalked down the hall the next morning. He caught sight of Elisa and several of their friends at the end of the corridor and called out to them, grinning widely and waving his arm.

Elisa turned and gave him a look. Then she looped her arm through Dugan’s arm and ushered their group into the classroom. Dugan shot him a smirk over his shoulder.

Connor stopped in the middle of the hall, his stomach sinking. A few of his friends sent him guilty looks, but they followed Elisa’s example. Connor stared after them, his fists clenched at his sides, and let the students flow around him until the halls emptied and he was alone.

He took a deep breath through his nose and forced his fingers to uncurl. So that’s how it was going to be. His father had warned him about fair-weather friends. At least he wasn’t around to scold Connor for his naiveté.

The bell chimed for first period, but Connor decided to skip class and take his free period now. He holed up in the conservatory for the rest of the morning.

Once he’d settled, he pulled out his history book and flipped to a well-worn passage in the modern history section:

Though severely wounded in his battle with the Horned Firerex, the largest and most fearsome of Great Beasts, Mage Roth knew he was the last line of defense for the town of Hildebron. He could not wait for the King’s Mages to arrive, for the Great Beast drew ever closer. And so, at only twenty years of age, Mage Roth summoned a great vortex of flame that bystanders claimed shot up to touch the clouds. The battle was short but fierce, and the ground was blackened by rivers of poison and gouts of flame. Mage Roth emerged victorious just as the King’s Mages arrived.

Not since the times of the First Mages had a single mage managed to subdue a Horned Firerex. Mage Roth was immediately welcomed into the King’s Mages, a reflection of his heroism and the sheer elemental power he possessed.

Connor slumped against the desk, propping his chin on one hand while the other traced the words on the page. His father had saved the whole town that day, including Connor’s mother and himself, barely a year old—as he’d been reminded his entire life. Would he ever get the chance to prove himself the same way? Not that he
wanted
to battle a Horned Firerex, but he was sure he could take on one of the Great Beasts by himself.

Connor paid attention to his father’s reports, and he knew Great Beasts were appearing more frequently in the last few years. The Council said people shouldn’t be overly alarmed and that this happened from time to time, the Great Beasts becoming restless and venturing into the cities and towns, but Connor’s father and the other King’s Mages had been called to defend outlying towns from two Horned Firerexi in the last month alone. He remembered Landyn’s mother talking about the wyvern, and he thought maybe people should start to get alarmed.

He considered bringing up his concerns about the increasing number of encounters with Great Beasts in his next letter to his father. It seemed to Connor that the Council needed every powerful mage they could get their hands on. Maybe even if that mage failed their Trial.

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No, he couldn’t think like that. He was a Roth. He just needed time to regroup, and he’d find a way to succeed.

He spent the next few hours idly skimming over his assignments and doodling in the margins of his notebook. None of the material was particularly new or fascinating. His growling stomach informed him it was time to take a break, and when he looked up at the clock on the wall, he was surprised to find the morning already over.

He gathered his belongings and headed to the dining hall. He wasn’t eager to be the center of this sort of gossip, but he could handle it. Thanks to his father, he’d spent his whole life under scrutiny. He’d learned to bear it.

When he stepped into the dining hall, all conversation ceased, only to resume moments later in furious whispers.

He walked slowly between the rows of tables and benches, making his way to their regular table in the back corner. Elisa was already there holding court with several laughing boys and girls.

“Hey,” Connor said with more confidence than he felt, moving to sit down.

“Sorry, Connor,” Elisa said, putting a hand out to block him. “There’s no room for you at the table today.”

Connor looked pointedly at the two empty seats then back to Elisa. She met his gaze steadily and arched one well-manicured eyebrow. He glanced around the table, but no one would meet his eyes except for Dugan. The way Dugan smirked at him, Connor knew he’d find no help from that quarter.

“Elisa,” Connor said, cursing the flush rising up his neck. “I know you’re upset, but—”

“I’m not upset. I’m disappointed. I’m
humiliated
. Paired with a water mage? The Oracle must have
known
you’d fail. You’re a disgrace, Connor, and I don’t know what I ever saw in you. I won’t be tied to a failure.”

Connor clenched his hands around his tray to stop them from shaking. “Elisa—”

“Maybe we’ll see you at the tournament tonight,” Dugan said. “If you think you’re up to it. Kind of a blow to have the Oracle dismiss you by giving you such a terrible Pairing.”

Connor knew a challenge when he heard one, and Dugan’s was about more than just magic.

“Look, Elisa,” Connor said, trying to ignore Dugan’s infuriating smirk. “I know this changes some of our plans, but—”

“Like Elisa said, not enough room at the table,” Dugan interrupted, putting an arm around the back of Elisa’s chair; Elisa leaned into the embrace and gave Connor a pointed look.

So that was that.

Connor looked helplessly at the people he’d yesterday called his friends. No one said a word.

“Right,” Connor said. He squared his shoulders. “See you at the tournament tonight.”

He took his tray outside, his head held high and his eyes straight ahead. It didn’t block out the whispers, but he was a Roth. He couldn’t show weakness.



C
ONNOR
SAT
alone on a low brick wall under the shade of a large oak tree. It was a hot day, but he’d never particularly minded the heat. It came with his magic. He’d once watched his father walk into a volcano and emerge with only a slight flush on his cheeks. Connor was going to do that someday.

A long shadow grew next to him. Connor kept his eyes on the tray in his lap.

“Those were my nicest set of robes you scorched yesterday,” Landyn said after a moment, taking a seat next to Connor. He set his tray on the wall rather than try to balance it in his lap. Connor considered doing the same, but he didn’t want Landyn to think he’d had a good idea.

“I’m sorry,” Connor said, and from the corner of his eye, he saw Landyn’s eyebrows lift in surprise. “That you considered those robes to be nice,” he elaborated before Landyn could say anything, and laughed when Landyn sputtered.

He stopped laughing when a giant water bubble burst over his head, soaking his robes and pooling in his tray. His carrots floated in a puddle of water.

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“Whoops,” Landyn said, calmly biting into an apple. “Sorry. I have such terrible control over my powers.”

Connor was too busy blinking water from his eyes to reply.

“Why aren’t you with your troupe of admirers?” Landyn asked around a mouthful of apple, licking his lips to get at the juice.

Connor grumbled to himself and looked away. Landyn must have learned his manners from sea walruses.

“What admirers?” Connor replied bitterly. He muttered a drying spell and snapped his fingers. It sped up the drying, so now his robes were only damp. His carrots steamed gently. Unfortunately, his hair dried a lot faster. He could feel it puff into a black halo around his head. He probably looked like a depressed dandelion.

“The ones that usually nip at the great Connor Roth’s ankles, desperate for a pat on the head,” Landyn said. He took another bite, crunching loudly.

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“You must have missed the show in the dining hall.”

Landyn paused, finished chewing, and swallowed. “I must have. So you’re not eating out here alone because you’re too good for the rest of us?”

“No,” Connor said thickly.

You’re a disgrace, Connor. I don’t know what I ever saw in you. I won’t be tied to a failure.

“Where’s Elisa?” Landyn asked almost hesitantly.

“Polishing her hook for the next poor bastard she intends to catch, I imagine.”

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“Oh,” Landyn said. He threw his apple core over his shoulder.

They sat in loud silence for several minutes. Connor poked at his carrots.

Landyn cleared his throat. “I don’t want to fail the Trial,” he said eventually.

“Me either,” Connor replied. “But it doesn’t look like the Fates care overmuch.”

“We can find a way to make our magic work together. I think I have an idea.”

Connor glanced at him, then looked off into the distance.