She competes for honor and glory, but revenge might ruin everything.
(Scroll down to Crown of Ice to skip straight to the story.) VOTE for story elements for the next short story.
- Main Character: Girl who can control the elements
- Love Interest: Guy who is set on revenge
- Setting: Palace
- Random Thing: Crown
Crown of Ice
Ice through the fingers, fire in the veins.
Talise closed her eyes as she pushed the mantra through her mind, willing it to become reality within her. Controlling the element of water was easy, but ice was a whole different story. Ice required freezing temperatures and freezing caused hypothermia.
Creating a fire inside her combatted the cold but manipulating two elements at once required a level of concentration most Shapers never achieved.
Talise stared at the porcelain bowl of water sitting on the desk in front of her.
Ice and Fire.
She could do this.
With a sharp intake of breath, she used her skills as a Shaper to levitate the water from the bowl. Holding her palm upward, she moved her fingers through the air as if twisting an invisible ball.
The puddle floating water slowly started spinning. Round and around until air appeared in the center and it resembled a spinning donut. Her fingers twisted faster and soon the water shape went from donut to a thin circle of water just big enough to fit on the crown of a head.
She continued spinning the water, taking several deep breaths to prepare herself for what came next. Biting her lip, she let her fingers freeze both literally and figuratively. As the water stopped spinning, tiny ice crystals appeared around the bottom edge, freezing the water.
Talise stood her fingers straight up, willing the water to grow tines and slowly froze the tines as they grew. As the ice crown took shape, her heart thumped in her chest, reminding her of the cold.
Momentarily ignoring the crown, she breathed a fire through her veins until her heart stopped its complaining. When both the crown and the heat were just right, she used her fingers to levitate the crown through the air until it landed on her head.
After exactly five seconds, she levitated the crown off her head and dropped it back into the bowl. She melted the ice as it moved through the air, so it was nothing more than a puddle of water by the time it hit the porcelain.
A victorious smile spread on her lips as she stared back at the water. She had this competition in the bag.
“Elements in their containers please,” Mrs. Dew said. She clapped her hands together, pressing her lips into a thin line. “We leave for the palace in a few minutes. Remember, the Emperor of Kamdaria will only choose one of you as Master Shaper. Whoever is chosen will receive a permanent place at the palace with the other Master Shapers. But even more importantly, that person will receive great honor that will be passed down for three generations.”
In the seat to her left, she noticed Aaden mockingly opening and closing his hand while mouthing blah blah blah. He rolled his eyes and whispered to whoever would listen, “She says this like it’s the first time we’ve heard it. As if this wasn’t what we’ve been preparing for all our lives at the academy.”
Talise pinned him with one of her most wicked glares, hoping he would squirm in his seat. The entire point of this competition was to win honor. If Aaden mocked his elder so openly, he had no business winning anything at all. Unfortunately, her glare did nothing but make Aaden chuckle and run a hand through his hair coolly.
“You’re just afraid I’ll win. Maybe you can manipulate ice, but my fire sculptures are more detailed than anything the emperor has ever seen.”
She grumbled to herself the whole way to the train because like it or not, Aaden was right. In their class of twenty, she and Aaden were the only ones with any real chance of winning.
As the last person on the train, she didn’t have the chance to sit anywhere except the seat in the very back. Right next to her least favorite person. Aaden didn’t bother to acknowledge her existence as the train rolled away.
Instead, he held his palms out in front of him and narrowed his eyes until flames appeared above his hands. The flames quickly formed into trees, the branches growing out of the burning trunk just like real branches.
It took Talise far too much concentration to not be mesmerized as the flame trees grew in Aaden’s palms. Soon, little blossoms popped out from the branches, perfectly mirroring the cherry blossoms that covered each of the trees surrounding the palace.
Forgetting her anger, Talise leaned forward to get a closer look. Aaden’s detail had always been exquisite, but this surpassed anything she’d ever seen him do before.
Without warning, a few branches grew out of control until one licked her face. “Hey,” she said, putting a hand to her cheek. “You burned me.”
The flame trees vanished, and Aaden turned to her with a sneer. “Then use your ice shaping to heal it.” He turned away from her without a trace of guilt.
Her jaw flexed as she clenched her teeth together. She had pushed ice through her fingers and against her cheek already, but what if he’d been sitting by anybody else? He should have been more careful. And besides, they weren’t supposed to practice on the train anyway. Mrs. Dew had been telling them for weeks.
Just as Talise prepared to give him the lecture of the century, sharp footsteps brought her gaze to the train aisle.
“Aaden,” Mrs. Dew said with no small amount of contempt. “Were you shaping on the train?”
“No,” Aaden said, looking straight into Mrs. Dew’s eyes.
Talise let out a huff. “You compete for honor, yet you lie to your elder like it’s nothing? You don’t deserve to win, no matter how detailed your fire sculptures are.”
Aaden held his chin high wearing a face that declared she was lying, not him.
“Was he shaping, Talise?” Mrs. Dew asked her.
For a moment, her breath stilled. If he admitted to lying, he would be punished. But if he said nothing and she told the truth for him, his punishment would be much more severe. She stayed silent for a few breaths, giving him the chance to come clean. Still, he said nothing.
Clenching her jaw, she shot him with another glare. Today was too important to protect someone like Aaden. She needed to win the competition. Years spent living in the outer ring had taught her how much one good mark could change a life. She needed to be chosen as Master Shaper.
“He was,” Talise said with her eyes to the ground.
“Aaden,” Mrs. Dew said through an exasperated breath. “I told you no one was allowed to practice on the train, and you did it anyway?”
He said nothing as he stared back, never once breaking eye contact.
“Nothing?” Mrs. Dew said. “No explanation?” She did a tiny shake of the head as she turned around. Over her shoulder she said, “Then, you will be disqualified from the competition today.”
“What?” Aaden said in a whisper. When Mrs. Dew kept walking, he stood up and shouted the same question. “What?”
With no response still, Aaden shouted, “You can’t do that! I’ve been training all my life for this.”
“We’re here,” Mrs. Dew said, now at the front of the train. “Everyone file out in an orderly fashion.”
Talise’s jaw had dropped, which she only noticed when she realized she’d been holding her breath. Disqualified? Aaden deserved punishment, but this?
Every ounce of sympathy drained out of her when Aaden gripped her by the shoulder. “You,” he said. He didn’t speak another word, but he didn’t have to. Another pair of flames burned out of him, this time not from his hands, but around his irises. As his eyes burned, they said one thing as they glared at her.
Talise gulped and jumped from her seat, eager to put as much distance between them as possible.
Talise stood at the end of the line of students that hugged the throne room’s wall. Aaden was still arguing with Mrs. Dew when the demonstrations began. She maintained that he wouldn’t be able to participate.
Guilt crawled through Talise’s shoulders, settling into a knot at the base of her neck. It wasn’t her fault that Aaden broke the rules. She did accuse him of it, but she accused fairly. He deserved to be punished. It was his own fault for breaking the rules. But no matter how she justified it, she was partially responsible for the punishment he now bore.
Tearing her thoughts away from Aaden, Talise turned to face the emperor. Another student, Gale dropped a bundle of scarves and ribbons on the ground in front of the throne. With a timid smile, Gale used his wind shaping to lift the scarves in swirling dances around him. It wasn’t the most original demonstration for a wind Shaper, but the effect was nice.
After Gale, Terra plodded over to her spot in front of the emperor. One of the imperial guards handed her a small box of dirt. She arranged several clay bowls around the dirt before she began separating the different minerals from the soil. Muscovite in one bowl, olivine in another, feldspar in a third. While this skill was certainly practical, the demonstration wasn’t as flashy as the others had been.
Terra finished with a glum expression, apparently realizing too late that she had missed out on the flash. When her bowls were cleared away, she came to join Talise at the end of the line.
“That was great,” Talise whispered to her friend.
Terra’s lips folded into a frown. “Don’t patronize me. I know it looked stupid.”
Hooking her elbow around Terra’s, Talise said with a grin, “At least it’s over.”
“True, and I was never going to win anyway. I can’t wait to see your demonstration. It’s sure to win.”
Talise rubbed a hand up and down her arm as the first bite of anxiety stung her.
“Oh, don’t make that face. Even the emperor can’t shape ice. I know he can manipulate all the elements, and he’s amazing at shaping water, but ice is beyond even his abilities. He’s sure to be impressed.”
Talise bit her lip as she watched another student shaping a huge puddle of water into a fountain and then into a dragon. Shaping ice would be impressive. That was the entire reason she chose ice in the first place. But it came with risks. If she didn’t get the temperature in her body just right, she could get hypothermia or frost bite. And if she warmed her body too much, even for a split second, her crown would fall apart.
Two fire shapers went next, one after the other. The first one created a circular fire that cooked two fish to perfection. The second student did fire sculptures shaped like the palace, but hers lacked the detail and control that Aaden’s sculptures always showed.
Talise glanced back at him, feeling another surge of sympathy. He glared at the fire sculptures as if they were personally responsible for destroying his entire family and everything he had ever loved.
Finally, it was her turn. Talise stood tall, remembering her presentation of self was just has important as her presentation of shaping. She wore a light smile that spoke of confidence but not arrogance.
In front of the throne, she bowed deeply to the emperor until her nose brushed the ground. When she stood, he wore an expression that was difficult to decipher. His lips twitched at the corner of his mouth, almost as if they wanted to smile. But maybe only because he was laughing at her on the inside. His brows were knit close together, giving his eyes a hardened stare.
He looked… disappointed? But how could he be disappointed when she hadn’t even started yet?
A thrum of fear rippled through her muscles, but she did her best to ignore it. A guard brought her a bowl of water. Before he even placed the bowl on the ground, she had the water in the air.
Her heart was beating faster than usual, which was usually an indication that her body temperature was off. In this case, it was all thanks to her nerves. She breathed in deeply as she spun the water into a thin circle.
If she couldn’t rely on her heart to tell her if her internal temperature was right, then this would be even more difficult than normal. A quick smile and an even faster spin of the water made it seem like she had everything under control. Or, she hoped it looked that way, at least.
When she stiffened her fingers and brought ice through them, she breathed a fire through her arm, careful to keep it far from her wrist.
This time, as she stretched her fingers through the air, she made sure the tines growing up from the circle of water weren’t just any tines. With narrowed eyes, she shaped the crown to look exactly the same as the one the emperor wore in his most famous portrait.
Three quarters of the way through its creation, the emperor recognized the crown. The crease between his eyebrows disappeared as his eyes widened. Talise wore another smile, but this one was genuine.
She felt a slice of cold through her forearm but tempered it with fire almost as quickly. When the ice crown was finished, she levitated it higher. It wouldn’t land on her head this time. She had to place it on the emperor’s head so he could feel that it was truly ice.
As the crown flew toward the emperor, a smile curved onto his mouth.
Now she had impressed him. The crown was inches from his head now. Close enough that he could feel how cold it was. She’d just leave it on his head for three seconds before bringing it back to the bowl.
Just as she was lowering her creation onto his head, the crown melted. With her fingers working to levitate ice, the change to water caused her to lose control. Just for a split second, but it was enough. Too much.
The water splashed all over the king, soaking his hair and shoulders. The crease reappeared between his eyebrows, even deeper than before.
Everyone in the room gasped. Though they were whispers, she still heard the comments from onlookers. “How embarrassing.” “She’ll never be chosen now.” “What a shame. She was so much better than the others.”
Talise tightened her hand into a fist. What happened? She had control. Everything was going perfectly. She ran her thumb across the tips of her fingers. Just as she suspected, they were as cold as they should have been. Colder even. She hadn’t done anything that would make the crown melt.
But if it wasn’t her…
While the guards hurried to supply the emperor with towels, Talise scanned the students along the wall until she found who she was looking for. Aaden held his palms out in front of him, so they were directly facing the emperor. Even more incriminating, he wore a smirk and stared back at her with fire in his eyes.
He had done this. He sabotaged her demonstration by sending a wave of heat that must have melted her ice. She wanted to burn him and freeze him all at once, but a tiny part of her couldn’t help be impressed by his skill. He must have sent the world’s smallest and most direct heat wave in order to do what he did.
Still, no matter how skillful, what he did was wrong. She wasn’t about to let him get away with it.
Just as Talise opened her mouth to accuse him, Mrs. Dew appeared in front of her, giving a short bow to the emperor. “Your imperial highness,” she said. “I have one more student who is very skilled, but he was disqualified from participation because of an incident on the train.”
“Who?” Emperor Ruemon asked. Even with his wet hair slicked back, he looked regal and unperturbed.
Mrs. Dew pointed out Aaden who had somehow arranged his face to look submissive and innocent. It was a stupid act, but annoyingly convincing.
Talise wanted to scream.
The emperor snapped at one of his nearby guards and pointed at Aaden and then at her. “Take these two to the antechamber while I make my decision. Everyone else will wait in the library.”
Talise barely had time to register the hand around her elbow before it began yanking her away. “Wait,” Talise called out in desperation. It was bold to defy the emperor’s orders, but she was desperate. “I can’t leave yet. I have something to…”
Her voice trailed off as her eyes met with the emperor’s. He didn’t shape fire over his eyes like Aaden had, but rage burned through his facial features with even greater passion. With a steady voice, he said, “You will leave my presence without another word.”
She gulped as the arm at her elbow yanked her away again. This time, she let herself be pulled away. Through a side door, they entered a small corridor that was empty but for a few servants. The corridor seemed to go on forever and only had one door in the middle of it.
The door was red with a silver moon painted on it. The imperial crest. With four heavily armed guards standing in front of the door, Talise knew the door was important. It must have led to the emperor’s personal living quarters.
A few moments after passing the door, the guard pushed her into a small room that looked more like a waiting area. “Wait,” Talise said, before the guard could leave. “I didn’t melt the crown. It wasn’t my fault. You have to tell the emperor.”
The guard brushed her hand away while a look of disgust fell over his face. “You dare address your elder with such fire in your tone?”
She shrank away from him, biting her bottom lip.
“What makes you think you can disrespect me like that? Aren’t you from the outer ring? You’re nothing more than filth.”
The door slammed shut as he left the room. A moment later, they heard the lock click. “Please,” she said, slamming a fist against the wooden door. “Somebody has to listen.”
“Disrespecting your elders now, are you?” Aaden said. He leaned against the stone wall with one shoulder, still wearing his ridiculous smirk. “Welcome to the dark side.”
“How could you?” she said, grabbing his shoulders and slamming them against the wall before he could stop her. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
He used one finger to push her away. “What I did?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. “What about what you did?”
She growled at him in response.
Folding his arms over his chest, he leaned toward her until his face came dangerously close to hers. “I deserved a chance to win just as much as you did. I needed this.” Without warning, he turned away from her and punched the wall so hard, the stone seemed to crack on the inside. “I really needed this.”
“So did I,” she said. But it seemed weak compared to his argument. His whole body was alive with passion. It came out as rage, but there was something deeper to it she could just barely discern. His whole body rocked as if he had just lost the only thing that had ever really mattered.
They stared at each other for a few seconds as understanding seemed to ignite between them. Both of them had lives so much deeper than the other person knew. They’d gone to the academy together for years, but they’d never really known each other at all. In this one moment, their souls seemed to communicate to each other how important this competition really was.
“Why?” Talise asked. Maybe it was because he was so exhausted, but he opened his mouth on her command.
“My dad made a huge mistake when I was just a baby. My record is black because of him. Winning the competition meant I could erase the black. For three generations! But now?” He shook his head. “Now my future children will have a fate even worse than me all because of my dad’s mistake.”
His head hung. He stared at the ground while all the muscles in his face slackened. She’d never seen him look so… defeated.
“I need to live at the palace,” she said. “I can’t go back to where I used to live. I can’t.”
When he looked up, he wore an expression she had never seen on him before. “Are you really from the outer ring? I know the guard said that, but I thought people in the outer ring couldn’t shape.”
She rubbed her hand over her arm, faster and faster, as if that would make the words seem less horrifying. “They have the biological ability to shape all four elements, just like anyone. But you’re right. Most of them can’t do it.”
He leaned closer to her, his face softening with each of her words. “Is it really as bad as they say it is?” he whispered.
He gulped, and the last inkling of bravado slipped away from his face. His usual arrogance was replaced by an expression of such genuine concern, she didn’t know what to think.
Turning away from him, she said, “Most people in the outer ring are malnourished. It makes their bodies weak and incapable of shaping. Not to mention, they’d have no time to perfect the skills even if they had them. They’re too busy worrying about survival.”
“Then how did you get to the academy? How are you so good at shaping?”
“It’s a long story,” she said with a sigh.
He stared back at her, waiting for more of an answer. When she didn’t give one, he said, “Just tell me. We could be in here all day; it doesn’t matter if it takes a long time.”
Raising one eyebrow, she asked, “Are you going to tell me the huge mistake your dad made?”
“Then don’t expect to hear my story either.”
“Fair enough,” he said with a nod. He glanced at her, but then quickly looked away. And then he did it again a second time while the tips of his ears turned red. “I’m sorry,” he said. Then he reached out to her and brushed his thumb over her forearm.
Her body jolted as she instinctively pulled away. “Your skin is hot.”
“Yeah.” He ran his fingers through his hair with a lopsided smile. “Fire does that.” His spine straightened as he looked her in the eye. “It didn’t burn you, did it?”
She shook her head quickly from side to side, since she had apparently lost the ability to form words. Her skin bristled where he had touched her. On the inside, sparks went through her unlike any kind of fire she had felt before. This flame had nothing to do with elements and everything to do with touch. His touch. She tried to shake that thought away as he tucked his hands into his pockets.
His eyes lifted at the sound of her voice. A trance seemed to come over him as he stared back at her. He seemed less interested in her eyes and more interested in her lips where his name had escaped.
“Tell them what you did,” she said. “Tell them you melted my crown, and then I’ll be able to leave the outer ring and live at the palace.”
The trance lifted as Aaden took a step back. “No,” he said. He turned away from her and said it more forcefully. “No, I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. I have to defend myself to the emperor. If I defend you, you’ll become Master Shaper and I’ll be sent to the outer ring. I know it’s bad for you, but if I help you, I’ll be resigning myself and my future family to that same fate. I can’t do that. I won’t. I have to fight for myself.”
Her body steeled as another fire surged through her, but this one felt more like rage. She clenched both of her hands into fists and immediately started pacing the floor. Of course he wouldn’t help. Of course he wouldn’t. She’d been stupid to think he ever would.
Now they would have to wait here until the emperor decided to deal with them. She just hoped when he did get there, he would be willing to listen. The longer she thought about that, the more ridiculous it seemed. Aaden wouldn’t change and neither would the emperor.
In fact, maybe he didn’t intend to meet with them at all. Maybe he just planned to send one of his guards to deal with them.
She paced the floor until her feet ached. There had to be a way out of this. The emperor needed good shapers. That was the whole reason for the competition in the first place. And she and Aaden were better shapers than any of the other students in their class.
All they really needed was another chance to prove themselves. Just one little chance to show the emperor what they were capable of. But if the emperor never saw them again, they’d never have that chance.
A spark of an idea took hold inside her. She bit her lip as the idea grew. It would require skilled shaping with no mistakes. That she could handle. But it also required one other thing that she really wished she could eliminate. No matter how she played through the scenarios in her head, she still needed the one thing she didn’t want to use. Aaden.
Letting out a huff, she resigned herself to the inevitable. She crossed her arms over her chest and said, “I have an idea, but in order to do it, we have to work together.”
Aaden looked her over from head to toe. His nose seemed to be caught mid-wrinkle, as if he was trying to decide whether or not to trust her.
Rolling her eyes, she said, “We don’t have time for this. Are you in or not?”
“What’s your plan?” he asked, still reluctant to commit.
He agreed to everything once he heard her idea, but he made sure to scowl as they worked. “Are you sure this is a good idea?” he asked. “They locked us in here. Don’t you think we’ll get in trouble for breaking out?”
“Seriously?” she said as she pulled water from the air and added it to the puddle levitating above her palm. “You care about breaking the rules now? If you were so worried about rules, you shouldn’t have practiced shaping on the train.”
His jaw flexed as he gave her a sideways glance. “Yeah, yeah, no need to rub that in.” He narrowed his eyes at the air as he also pulled water from it. Since fire was his primary element, he had a much harder time with the process than Talise.
It took several more minutes, but eventually they had a big enough water puddle. When Talise nodded, Aaden got on his knees in front of the door and lit a fire above his palms. It took some time, but soon he had lit the bottom of the wooden door on fire.
She stood over him carefully, strategically dousing the wood with water so the smoke wouldn’t get out of control. When the smoke was eliminated, Aaden would re-light the door.
At first, the wood turned to blackened, but perfectly strong wood. After more fire and more water, it began to weaken. Eventually, some of it turned to ash. It turned out, the puddle of water wasn’t big enough and they both had to stop and pull more water from the air before they could proceed.
Aaden continued lighting the door on fire, and finally, finally, they had an opening big enough for them to crawl through. He went first and helped her to her feet after she had gone through.
Her skin prickled with heat where his hand had touched her. She wished very much that she could remove the feeling and all memory of it from her body. But another part of her wished it would never go away.
She clenched her jaw at that thought. Aaden was a competitor and nothing more.
As they drew closer to the guarded door of the emperor’s living quarters, Talise began pulling more water from the air. She needed a big enough puddle that would make a loud sound when she turned it to ice and smashed it against the stone wall. The distraction had to be big enough that all four guards would come running to investigate.
While she worked, Aaden stared at the fist sized piece of wood he had taken from the door. He blew embers into the wood but kept them low so it didn’t smoke too much.
Finally, Talise nodded to Aaden and he blew on the wood until it glowed from the embers inside. On cue, they both threw their objects down the corridor, far from where they stood. Talise levitated the ball of ice against the wall as hard as she could. Aaden threw a fireball at the piece of wood as it flew in order to increase the smoke level.
Just as they had intended, the ice smashed against the wall just as the smoke started billowing. The effect made it sound and smell like an explosive rather than a piece of ice and a piece of wood.
They both hugged the walls as the four guards came crashing down the corridor toward the sound. The guards didn’t notice them as they ran, which gave them the chance to sneak up to the red door without any interference.
“Wait,” Aaden whispered as they reached the door. “Are we just going to walk in?”
Talise’s patience had ended long before this moment. She glared at him and said, “It’s a little late to get cold feet.”
Aaden tapped his teeth together wearing fear in his eyes. “Yeah, but we’re just going to waltz into the emperor’s bedroom and expect him to listen to us?”
“It doesn’t lead to his bedroom; it leads to his living quarters.”
“How do you know that?”
Talise grabbed the door handle. Through her teeth, she said, “Are you coming or not?”
He nodded and didn’t say another word as she opened the door. They entered a sitting room with a desk and a few cushy chairs. To the right, a long hallway led to several different doors.
“Don’t you think it’s a little weird the door wasn’t locked?” he asked as he shut the door behind him.
Considering his question, she locked the door, then nodded. “If we lock it, they won’t know we got in.”
Aaden rolled his shoulders back and closed his eyes as moved his head side to side to stretch his neck. All his fear seemed to have been forgotten as he stretched and moved. After a moment, he opened his eyes and cracked his knuckles. “We should practice. How long do you think we have before the emperor comes in here?”
She shrugged. “I have no idea, but you’re right. We do need to practice. We have to make this bigger and better than anything the emperor has ever seen, or he’ll never listen to us.”
Without a word, they both raised their hands and started shaping. As they had previously decided, they both grew trees out of their palms with little cherry blossoms growing out of the branches. Aaden’s trees were fire and Talise’s were ice.
When they had both grown their trees, they moved their palms closer together and let the trees sit directly beside each other. The flames licked at the ice, forcing Talise to push even more cold through her fingers than usual. She had to compensate it with fire that went right up to her wrists.
With a deep breath, they began the next stage. This would be the most difficult shaping either of them had ever attempted. Aaden let a one flame branch move through the ice tree until it seemed that the flame was coming off the ice trunk, not the fire trunk.
Then, Talise moved one ice branch, careful to keep the ice tree in tact while also levitating the one ice branch until it looked like it was coming off the flame trunk. When she had moved it into position, both she and Aaden let out a breath of relief. But this was just the beginning.
Beads of sweat lined Talise’s brow as she added more heat to compensate for the added freezing temperature in her hands. She and Aaden took turns moving their branches from one tree to the next. Each one became more difficult as her need to compensate for the heat was constantly counteracted by the need to keep her body a reasonable temperature.
When they each only had one branch left to move, she was vaguely aware of a noise coming from nearby. The cause of it remained a mystery as her need to concentrate overtook all her other senses.
At last, they had moved all their branches so the ice trunk had only flame branches growing out of it and the flame trunk wore ice branches.
She and Aaden both heaved a sigh, but their relief was short lived. From the doorway, a familiar voice said, “How did you manage—”
Both Talise and Aaden dropped their hands in alarm. Water splashed around their ankles as they turned to face Emperor Ruemon. He did seem to be impressed by their shaping, but more than that he seemed angry. Much too angry.
Dropping his head into his palm, the emperor said, “What are you doing here?”
“We had to show you our abilities,” Aaden said, finding his voice much faster than Talise. She was still busy watching that crease between the emperor’s eyebrows grow deeper by the second.
“What did you think would happen?” the emperor asked with a frown. “Did you think you’d sneak into my private quarters, the most secure part of the palace, and then I’d suddenly be interested in your shaping?” He snapped and two guards appeared at his side.
“You deserve three black marks for what you’ve done. Maybe a life in the dungeon as well.” He squeezed the bridge of his nose and let out a sigh. “One of you has to be punished for this, and one of you has to become my next Master Shaper because the rest of your class was pathetic compared to you two.”
Talise gulped, feeling the color drain from her face. The emperor eyed them both for a moment and time seemed to stand still.
Finally, he pointed to Aaden and said, “Lock him up. And use the fire gloves so he can’t escape again.”
That meant she had gotten Master Shaper after all. Except.
Aaden would be punished and thrown in the dungeon. A lump hardened in her throat as the guards put him chains. They dropped red gloves over his hands while a sense of finality washed over her.
She stared, but swallow after swallow did nothing to help. He had to fight for himself and she had to fight for herself. That’s what they decided. They would only work together to show the emperor their abilities, but whatever happened, they didn’t owe the other person anything.
But she never imagined this.
As the guards forced Aaden to his feet, a strangled cry left her lips. “No. Please, your highness. Breaking out of the room was my idea. Aaden didn’t want to do it, but I convinced him.” With a sniff, she forced the final words out of her mouth. “If you’re going to punish somebody, punish me. Not him.”
She glanced up to see the emperor staring at her with a contemplative look. But it was nothing to the look Aaden wore. His jaw had dropped. He stared at her like he had never really seen her in his entire life.
“Fine,” Emperor Ruemon said, his voice steady. “Then you will be punished and sent to the dungeon instead. Aaden will be my newest Master Shaper.”
He snapped and the guards moved so fast, she barely had time to blink before shackles were clapped over her wrists. They fitted blue gloves over her hands and started pushing her through the door before three seconds had passed.
“Wait,” Aaden said, blinking furiously. The moment the guards removed his shackles, he ran both hands through his hair. The blinking never stopped as he looked side to side. His words failed him.
The emperor stood patiently for only a few seconds. Then he snapped at his guards and they started pulling her out the door.
“No, stop!” Aaden shouted. “I…” He gulped and pulled his hands into fists. “I melted her crown. In the throne room, it was my fault you got all wet. I wanted revenge because I got disqualified from the competition. But this was my fault. All of it.”
“I see,” the emperor said. He stared at them while all the hardness in his face drifted away. “It seems you both possess honor, which is the greatest trait of all. Since you are also two of the greatest shapers I’ve even seen, I think no one will complain if I choose two Master Shapers this year.”
Talise narrowed her eyes as the guards removed the shackles from her wrists. Her brain worked double speed, trying to make sense of everything that had just happened. “This was a test?” she asked. “You threatened to send one of us to the dungeon as a test?”
“Are you questioning my methods?” the emperor said with an eyebrow raised.
“Of course not, your highness.”
Emperor Ruemon waved to one of his guards. “Take them back to the antechamber, but this time leave the door unlocked.” He looked at Talise and Aaden now. “You will have to help fix that door, but that should be punishment enough. Someone will be by in a bit to show you to your new living quarters.”
He snapped, and the guards led them out of the room before they could say another word. Once they were back in the antechamber, Talise paced around the room with wild excitement. “I can’t believe this. I never expected us both to become Master Shapers. This is better than I could have ever dreamed. Now we both win. Now—”
She stopped mid-step when Aaden suddenly appeared in front of her. His eyes were soft now and his breath warm. “Talise,” he said, reaching out until his fingers wrapped over her hand.
Everything inside her seemed to freeze all at once, but in a delightfully heated way.
Aaden gulped before he spoke again. He kept his eyes away from her face, staring at their hands instead. “Thank you for…”
He squeezed her hand and the heat seeped through her skin so fast, she worried it would burn her insides. Except, she had never appreciated heat more than she did in this moment. “I’ll never forget what you did for me today,” he said. Finally, he looked into her eyes and a thousand sparks seemed to ignite within her. She had a feeling that neither of them would forget. Not ever.
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