"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 thighhigh 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 sword slashes through my vision has never been a strength of mine.
The 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 makes me physically ache, makes me stumble for chairs when I'm caught unawares. 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 citizen of one of the four Rhythm Kingdoms. But when Sir arranges missions to Spring, missions on which we'll be directly benefitting Winter instead of simply bringing back supplies for the refugees, 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?"
The question tumbles out of my mouth like a smooth stone in a stream, its edges worn clean by how often I roll it around in my head. We never talk about Winter's conduit, the locket that King Angra Manu of Spring broke when he destroyed our kingdom sixteen years ago, unless it relates to a mission. It's always "We got word that one of the locket halves will be in this place at this time"; never "Even if we manage to get our female-blooded conduit put back together, how will we know if the magic works when our only heir is male?"
Mather shifts, batting at the grass with his sword as if he's waging a personal war against the prairie. "It doesn't matter what I would do with it—it's not like I can use it."
"Of course it matters." I frown. "Having good intentions—"
But he shoots me an exasperated stare before I can even finish. "No, it doesn't," he counters. The more he says, the faster the words come, pouring out of him in a way that makes me think he needs to talk about it too. "No matter what I want to do, no matter how well I lead or how hard I train, I won't be able to force life into frozen fields, or cure plagues, or feed strength into soldiers like I would if I could use the conduit. The Winterians would probably rather have a cruel queen than a king with good intentions, because with a queen they at least have a chance that the magic can be used for them. It doesn't matter what I would do with magic, because leaders are valued for the wrong things."
Mather pants, his face tight as he hears everything he said, all his worries and weaknesses laid bare. I bite the inside of my cheek, trying not to stare at the way he winces to himself and smacks the grass again. I shouldn't have pushed it, but something deep in me always throbs with the need to say more, to learn as much as I can about a kingdom I've never even seen.
"Sorry," I breathe, and rub my neck. "Bringing up a sensitive subject while you're armed wasn't smart on my part."
He shrugs, but he doesn't look convinced. "No, we should talk about it."
"Tell that to everyone else," I grunt. "They just run off on missions and come back bleeding and say, 'We'll get it next time, and then we'll get the other half, then we'll raise allies and overthrow Spring and save everyone.' As if it's all so easy. If it's so easy, why don't we talk about it more?"
"It hurts too much," Mather says. Just that simple.
That makes me stop. I meet his eyes, a long, careful gaze. "Someday it won't hurt."
The promise we refugees always make one another— before going on missions, whenever people come back bleeding and hurt, whenever things go badly and we're huddling together in terror. We'll be better . . . someday.
Mather sheathes his blade and pauses, his hand on the hilt, before taking two steps toward me and cupping his palm around my shoulder. As I start, my eyes jerking up to his, he realizes what he's doing and pulls his hand back.
"Someday," he agrees, voice clipped. The way he clenches and unclenches the hand that touched me makes my stomach flip over in a spiral of thrill. "For now, all we need to worry about is getting our locket back so we gain standing as a kingdom again and can get allies to fight Spring with us. Oh, and we need to make sure you're able to do more than lie down during a sword fight."
I mock-laugh. "Hilarious, Your Highness."
Mather flinches, and I know it's from the title I used. The title I have to use. Those two words, Your Highness, are the wedge that keeps us the proper distance apart—me, an orphaned soldier-in-training, and him, our future king. No matter our dire circumstances, no matter our shared upbringing, no matter the chill his smile sends over my body, he's still him, and I'm still me, and yes, he needs to have a female heir someday, but with a proper lady, a duchess or a princess—not the girl who spars with him.
Mather draws his sword again as I hunt through the prairie grass for my discarded blade, refocusing on the task at hand rather than on the way his eyes follow me through the tall, yellow stalks. Camp stands a few paces ahead of us, the wide prairie lands camouflaging our pale brown-and-yellow tents. That and the fact that the Rania Plains aren't friendly to travelers has kept us safe for the last five years in this pathetic home—or as close to home as we have right now.
I pause in my search, staring at the camp with a growing weight on my shoulders. Far enough from Spring not to be discovered, close enough to be able to stage quick scouting missions, it's just a smattering of five tents, plus one pen for horses and another for our two cows. Otherwise the Rania Plains are barren, dry, and hot, even by the sweltering standards of the Summer Kingdom, and as such they sit empty, a territory none of the eight kingdoms of Primoria wants to claim. It took us three years to get a handful of scrawny vegetables to pop out of our garden, let alone enough crops to make occupying the plains worthwhile for a kingdom. So much conduit magic would have to be used to make the soil yield crops that it'd hardly be worth it, and no one can make a profit from watching the sun set.
But all of this is enough to keep the eight of us alive. Eight, out of the original twenty-five who escaped Winter's fall. Thinking about those numbers makes my stomach seize. Our kingdom used to be home to more than a hundred thousand Winterians, and most of them were massacred in Spring's invasion. The ones who weren't now sit in work camps throughout Spring. However few are left, waiting in slavery, they're worth enduring this nomadic lifestyle we live now. Those people are Winter, pieces of the life we should be leading, and they deserve—we all deserve—a real life, a real kingdom.
And no matter how long Sir restricts me to lesser missions, no matter how often I wonder if getting the locket pieces will be enough to win allies and free our kingdom, I'll be ready to help. I know Sir is aware of the dedication pulsing inside me; I know he understands that I share his desire to get Winter back. And someday, he won't be able to ignore me anymore.
On one trip to Yakim, one of the Rhythm Kingdoms, when I was twelve, a group of men cornered Sir and me in an alley, raving about the barbaric, warmongering Seasons.
How they'd rather we kill each other off so their queen could swoop in and pick through the rubble of our kingdom to find what they blame the Seasons for losing: Primoria's source of magic, the chasm atop which our four kingdoms sit.
"They really want us to kill each other?" I asked Sir after we managed to escape. I had fought one of them off myself, but as we scaled an alley wall to get away from them, my pride ebbed into confused shame.
Somewhere beneath the Season Kingdoms lies a giant, pulsing ball of magic; and somewhere in our Klaryn Mountains there was once an entrance to it. Only the four Season Kingdoms' lands are affected by the chasm—in the extremity and consistency of their environments—but every king and queen in Primoria, Rhythm and Season, possesses a portion of that magic in their conduits and can use it to help their kingdoms. The four Rhythm Kingdoms hate us for the fact that this is all they have, magic in objects like a dagger, a necklace, a ring. They hate us for letting the entrance get lost to age and avalanches and memory, for living directly atop the magic and not tearing our kingdoms apart to dig down and get more of it.
Sir stopped and crouched to my level, then scooped up a handful of melting snow from the side of the road. "The Rhythm Kingdoms envy us," he said to the slush. "Our kingdom stays in winter all year, in glorious snow and ice, while their kingdoms cycle through all four seasons. They have to tolerate melting snow and suffocating heat." He winked at me and pulled up his best smile, a rare treat that made my chest cold with happiness. "We should feel bad for them."
I crinkled my nose at the brown sludge, but I couldn't stop myself from sharing his smile, basking in the camaraderie between us. In that moment, I felt more like a Winterian, more a part of this crusade to save our kingdom, than I ever had before.
"I'd rather have winter all the time," I told him.
His smile faded. "Me too."
That was only the first time I felt—knew—that Sir saw the willingness in me. But no matter how often I prove myself, I can never push beyond his restrictions—though that won't stop me from trying. That's what all of us do: keep trying to live, to survive, to get our kingdom back no matter what.
I find my practice sword resting in a patch of trampled grass. Muscles spasming with the effort, I pick it up and frown at Mather, who stares past me into the plains. His face is blank, his expression hidden by the veil that makes him both a perfect monarch and an infuriating friend.
"What is it?" I follow his gaze. Four shapes wobble toward us, heat shaking their silhouettes in illusions of waves. But they're unmistakable even at this distance, and my breath catches in relief.
One, two, three, four.
They're back. All of them. They survived.