Ruined (Ruined, #1)(10)
Written By: Amy Tintera
She quickly dropped the necklace, sliding her hands into her pockets instead. “No.”
“This doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just tradition.”
“If it didn’t mean anything, you wouldn’t do it.” She met his gaze. “Have you always used dull blades?”
“Why? Are you afraid the bride or groom will win, and one of your own will die?”
“I think we’re more concerned that they’d lose, and we’d have to find a replacement.”
His mouth twitched, and she almost laughed. “Me bleeding out on the floor would put a damper on the wedding tomorrow,” she said.
Amusement crossed his features, and he hesitated for a beat too long. Perhaps he was reconsidering the use of dull blades. “Yes, it would.”
Em’s heart jumped at the sound of the king’s booming voice. He strode down the hallway, his lips pulled into an almost comically wide grin. His smile was too big, like it was trying to conquer the rest of his features.
King Salomir and Cas were about the same height, but the king was larger and broader, with a neat dark beard. Some would find him handsome. Em did not.
“Are you ready for the battle?” he asked.
“Looking forward to it.”
He laughed and clapped a hand on her shoulder. She considered breaking a few of his fingers.
He dropped the hand and headed for the ballroom, beckoning for them to follow him. He threw open the door in a dramatic fashion, sweeping his arms out like his admirers were free to adore him now. “Welcome to the Union Battle!” he yelled.
Cheers erupted from the crowd. Em trailed behind Cas and his father as they crossed the room. The king gestured for her to stop in the middle of the floor. He and Cas continued to the front of the room, standing with the queen and Jovita.
The king waited for the cheers to die down before he spoke again. “Today we celebrate the union of my son, Prince Casimir, and Princess Mary of Vallos. If this is your first Union Battle, the rules are simple. Our future princess will pick someone to battle. They will use swords only. The first one to make three fatal strikes will be the winner. I will call out each strike as they are made.” He looked at Em. “Mary, you have your choice of any member of my or Cas’s guard as your opponent. Or”—his lips quivered with amusement—“you can pick any member of the royal family, with the exception of Cas. But be warned, those who pick a member of the royal family usually live to regret it. If you have any doubt about your skills, I don’t recommend it.”
That last statement was a challenge. Em knew it. Every person in the room knew it.
She surveyed the guard. She found the man with a red beard and freckles. He was a bit pale.
She turned back to the front. She could take the king up on his own challenge. Or the queen, who’d been trained as a warrior in Olso.
Or Jovita. Em knew less about her skills, though as a member of the Lera royal family she would have had intense training in every type of combat. She’d certainly made her doubts about Em’s skills clear.
Jovita raised both eyebrows as Em stared at her. The king laughed.
She glanced back down the line to see Cas subtly shaking his head at her.
The point is to prove your worth and skill in battle—
“Jovita,” she said quickly.
The king laughed again. “A bold choice. You’ll be nursing your bruises all night, I suspect.”
“Yes, she will,” Jovita said with a grin. She walked across the wood floor, stopping in front of Em. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “I’ll keep the bruises to the lower half of your body, so you’ll still look pretty for your wedding day.”
“Good luck trying.”
Jovita smirked as a man brought them dull swords. Em took hers, relieved to have a sword again, even if it wasn’t a real one.
“And I’d like to remind you that this is supposed to be entertaining, so please, make it a bit theatrical,” the king said as he sat down in his chair.
Em gripped the sword, getting a feel for the weapon. It was heavier than the one she’d had to leave with Damian, but not by much. Jovita took a few steps around in a circle, swinging the blade back and forth.
Em glanced at the three people sitting at the front of the room. The king sat back in his chair, a wide smile plastered across his face. The queen was vaguely interested, her hands folded in her lap.
Cas leaned forward, his eyes bright as he nodded at her. Was he giving her encouragement? She wished he’d stop.
“On the count of three,” the king said.
Em focused her attention on Jovita. If she didn’t win this battle, she was going to have to look at that cocky expression for the rest of her stay in Lera. She needed to win. She needed to see Jovita down on her knees, a sword pressed to her throat.
“Three . . . two . . . one.”
Em stepped to her left as Jovita approached. It was a slow, careful approach, like the kind Em often saw the most skilled hunters use. The new ones charged her; the veterans took their time.
They circled for only a moment before Em made the first strike. The room was quiet, the sound of metal meeting metal echoing through the room.
Someone cheered as they began, and others joined in. Jovita took two quick steps forward, and Em barely blocked the sword before it swiped across her neck. She jumped backward, ducking Jovita’s second attack and rolling across the floor to move to the other side of her. She darted forward, tapping the blade to the center of the girl’s back.