Chapter Sixteen

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When Rinnet threw a knife, she expected to hit. And if she missed, which was rare, she expected a good reaction, that tantalizing, wide-eyed stare of hunted prey.

Irya made the experience a disappointment, to say the least. Rinnet didn't miss — no, she aimed right on target, but effortless as if this were her daily routine, Irya slid her wood dressing screen in front of her body. The knife stuck in the high center of the silhouette.

Not one to take a loss, Rinnet was already on the move to get a better shot. But Irya was prepared. In a movement as quick as it was graceful, she plucked Rinnet's knife from where it pierced the screen and threw it back at her, grazing the side of the Coretian's neck. It stuck in the wall behind her. Then, before Rinnet could collect herself, Irya ducked back behind the screen, and Rinnet's next attempt stuck too high.

The obvious miss would have been enough to enrage Rinnet, but the sudden and surprising feeling of blood dripping onto her shoulder sent a snarl tearing through her throat. "Some excuse for a queen you are," she spat. "You're nothing but a pathetic coward. Hiding won't help you."

This time when Irya darted out, Rinnet was ready. She hurled her final knife with cold precision, seeing Irya's heart as if the rest of the Tevarian's body had melted away.

It hit dead center, but with a hollow thump. Irya did not slow, taking first the knife stuck in the screen and then snatching the second from its precarious landing point in her chest. Rinnet did not have time to think as Irya closed the short distance between them, barely dodging out of Irya's cross-armed attack. She slipped on the stone floor, and a fumbling attempt to regain her balance was interrupted as Irya swept her legs out from under her.

The stones cracked against her knees and elbows; Rinnet felt nothing beyond the fiery buzz jerking through her limbs. She tried to stand and was knocked down again and pinned.

Irya's even voice came level against her ear. "I told you before, I'm no queen."

"Clearly not," Rinnet growled, the side of her head grinding into the floor. "It seems you've done nothing worthwhile to earn that or any other title."

A scowl started to form on Irya's face, but she shook it away. "Your rulers do nothing to get power over Coreti."

"They're born of a deserving bloodline."

"Doesn't that feel backwards to you?"

"You're just some commoner who groveled her way up the ranks and got lucky when the previous leader died."

Irya knew better than to let anger seep into her mind and poison it with poor decisions; the Coretian was testing that restraint. "You know so little of the world. I can assure you my leadership has nothing to do with luck. I was thorough in earning it."

"Then duel me like a real warrior would," Rinnet said, trying and failing to so much as move a finger under Irya's weight. "We can see who the real leader is."

Rinnet first thought she had finally gotten under Irya's skin when she felt her shaking with rage. Then she realized the woman was laughing.

"You want to lead Tevar." It wasn't a question.

"I want you dead for using me as a disposable foot soldier," Rinnet said. "If ruling Tevar is the reward for that, I'd do it a thousand times better than you have."

She knew the idea was just as ridiculous as when she'd thought of it earlier. She'd seen further evidence of the devotion Tevarians had for Irya in Yurovin's laughable submission to her. There'd be an entire country waiting to kill Rinnet once she won the duel. Still, the thought of such power — as the ruler of a country or the killer of a ruler — pulled at Rinnet like a magnet.

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