Keep your head down. Don’t draw attention. Above all, don’t make yourself a target. Those are the rules seventeen-year-old Ailsa lives by. It’s just part of being the daughter of the disgraced ex-king and living too close to his more-than-slightly paranoid successor.
Ailsa isn’t the only one affected by the new king’s insecurities. The mages backed her father. Now the new king’s repressive policies drive the mages out of the kingdom–and with them the magic that her desert country desperately needs to survive. Ailsa sets out to study magic so she can help keep Far Terra green.
Her plans are nearly upset when her oldest friend, Crown Prince Savyon, proposes. Marrying him would mean giving up her magic. Her family history proves that the barons will never accept a mage as queen. A year of training won’t make her a mage—unless she has insanely powerful magic. And there’s been no sign of that. But at least she’ll know what she’d be giving up before she makes a decision.
A magic-tinted kiss from Jathan, her cheerfully annoying study partner, makes her question what she really feels for Savyon. She and Jathan could do great things together–except that he never wants to go near the desert.
Are magic and love forever mutually exclusive for Ailsa?
Jathan dropped Ailsa’s hand and turned as the crowd swirled around them, parting to allow half a dozen men in uniform through. He cursed under his breath. “Why do they always have to interfere?” He narrowed his eyes at the much more ornate uniform of the leader. Arrigo. Seven hells! What was he doing here?
Arrigo stepped up just a little too close and looked down his overly large nose at Jathan. “Well, well, well. Hello Jathan. Imagine finding you in the middle of . . . this.”
Jathan’s nod of greeting was just barely short of insulting. “Arrigo. What happened? Did Father demote you? Surely you have better things to do than follow me around.”
A muttering grew in the surrounding crowd as Imperial Prince Arrigo was recognized. Jathan set his teeth against a rising aggravation. Even here, Arrigo just couldn’t help but try to put himself above Jathan.
Arrigo pulled himself up to his full height—two inches taller than Jathan. “Your body guard is technically under my command, you know.”
Jathan relaxed into an insolent slouch, direct opposite of Arrigo’s aggressive military posture. “I don’t need a body guard. Not here. I’m in the middle of the Institute and barely a mile from the imperial palace. What’s going to happen here?”
Arrigo shrugged and looked at the crowd gathered around them. “I don’t know. Seems you have a talent for collecting a mob.”
Jathan snorted and shook his head pityingly. “It’s not a mob, Arrigo. It’s a game. I’d explain it to you, but it involves brains rather than muscles, so I doubt you’d understand.”
Arrigo stepped still closer and lowered his voice. “Careful, Jathan. You wouldn’t want me to repeat that last statement to Father, would you?”
“Oh? And how are you going to explain what you’re doing here, when you’ve been expressly ordered not to interfere with my training?” Jathan hissed back.
They glared at each other for a moment.
Arrigo broke first. “We should continue this in private. If your classes are done for the day, you might as well come on home with us.”
Jathan shrugged. “Sorry, Arrigo, but I can’t. I’ve promised to see Ailsa home safely. I’ll see you there later.”
Arrigo’s eyebrows rose in curiosity. “Ailsa?”
Jathan turned to take Ailsa’s hand again and bowed with perfect courtly precision. “Imperial Prince Arrigo, I have the honor to present Princess Ailsa of Far Terra.” Jathan ignored the renewed murmurs of the crowd. Now why did that make Ailsa look like a frightened doe about to bolt back into the forest? It couldn’t possibly be the first time she’d been introduced as a princess. After all, she could claim that title by birth. Not just by adoption like him.
In fact, Ailsa had appeared terrified ever since Karensa had started the game. He’d just been too excited to finally have a team mate to recognize it. She’d wanted to stay in the back in Barth’s class, too. He didn’t understand what frightened her about that, but he could at least try to help her out. Probably best to take her home with a minimum of fuss, for a start.
Arrigo bowed over Ailsa’s hand, completely oblivious to the way she stiffened. “Princess Ailsa. My very great pleasure.” He glanced at Jathan as he stood back up and smiled. “Why don’t we all see you safe home, Princess?”
Ailsa swallowed and looked up at Jathan, her eyes pleading for help.
Jathan took Ailsa’s hand again, noticing that her palm was slightly damp. She really was scared for some reason. “No, Arrigo. I think you’ve made quite enough of a commotion for one day. I’ll take Ailsa home.”
Ailsa relaxed a little and gave him a half-smile. That must have been the right answer. Well, he could certainly understand why anybody would want to avoid more of Arrigo’s company. The rest . . . Jathan guessed he’d just have to figure out the rest later. Right now, the best thing was clearly to get Ailsa back to her grandmother.
Arrigo still missed the signs. “I insist.”
Jathan sighed and tried to give Ailsa’s hand a reassuring squeeze. There really wasn’t any way he could stop Arrigo at this point. Not short of a public brawl, anyway.