Chapter 18

"You're holding yourself back," Syion crossed his arms as he watched Neoma once again attempt to bring forth a surge of magic. Her irritation was clear on her face as she stood in the middle of the old ballroom that had become their training ground away from any prying eyes.

"I'm not holding myself back, it won't cooperate," she hissed through gritted teeth, focusing on that pool of power that she had worked so hard to push down for these past few weeks. Perhaps she had gotten rid of it. Or perhaps it was a sentient being and was angry at her for avoiding it for so long. Either way, she was brimming with frustration by noon.

Despite the early hour that she was meeting Syion at, she hadn't gotten any sleep the night before. To be honest, she hadn't even attempted. Instead, she secluded herself to her room and tore through the books and journals she had borrowed from various libraries across the city. The desperation for answers had grown into an obsession. Far too many people were getting hurt while she took refuge here.

She needed to act and she needed to act soon.

"Well if you want me to throw you off a balcony to trigger it, that can be arranged," he said dryly as he began to approach her. She scowled at him, unamused at the comment.

"People don't do that anymore," she said firmly. His response of a long look only made her more irritated. "I'm serious, it isn't allowed. Parents who practice such things are charged with negligence of duty."

The tradition, which had sparked quiet judgement from other countries in Ithica, of placing children in dangerous situations such as tossing them from balconies or into ponds and lakes had been banned a few years after her father became king. Children who did not show natural magic ability from a young age could often have their abilities triggered by a stressful or traumatic event, although it often led to that child developing Aether Rot.

"Do you truly believe a starving family would miss an opportunity to send a child to your country's Academy and receive stipends?" Syion tilted his head, the curiosity in his eyes offsetting the harshness of the words. Her retort died in her throat. Instead, she remained silent while her glare deepened.

"You aren't throwing me off of a balcony."

"Could you stop me if I tried?"

He bolted forward at a speed that her eyes could barely track, but instinct kicked in before she realized what her body was doing. His hand brushed against her shoulder at the exact moment that her hand gripped his wrist, her body rolling and slamming him into the floor. Her knee drove into his sternum as they landed on the floor, her hands forcing each of his over his head. Muscles she hadn't used in weeks were thrumming with adrenaline, yet no power manifested with it.

"What was that?" She demanded, her face warm as she quickly let go and scrambled off of him.

"I wasn't going to throw you off of a balcony if that's what you're asking," he was almost smiling as he slowly sat up and rubbed the back of his head.

"I mean how quickly you moved," she elaborated with an exasperated look. ""That wasn't...natural."

His hand paused in his hair, dragging down his neck before he held out his arm to her while pushing up the loose sleeve. Her brow wrinkled in confusion at the action until she looked at one of the various markings on his forearm.

"I've explained these to you before," he said. "A few years ago."

She bit her tongue, trying not to remember the night of falling asleep while sleepily asking what the inky black tattoos meant while she traced them with a finger. There had been no chance of her remembering what they had meant that night.

"Remind me," she pushed herself to her feet and made herself busy with a stack of books in the corner that had been of no help.

"Our magic, unlike your peoples'," he remained on the floor, legs crossed over one another while he twisted his arm to show her his markings, "cannot be manifested from will alone. We can only focus our magic through _ that are engraved in materials such as clothing or weapons...or in the case of those with considerable power, through markings on our skin."

"Before you used ink, didn't your people carve them into their skin?" Neoma raised an eyebrow at him and ran a hand over the cover of a particularly worn book cover, fingers stroking the spine as though it were a familiar pet. "I don't think that you're in a position to judge the past habits of my people."

He tilted his head back, regarding her for a moment before he threw out a hand in her direction. Instead of a direct attack, she felt something wrap around her boots. Looking down, she nearly stumbled backwards at the sight of inky tendrils wrapping around her ankles. The book slipped from her grasp, slamming against the floor and masking the shallow gasp that filled her lungs. The only reason she didn't fall was due to the rapid pace at which they twisted up her leg and around her thighs. They appeared to be nothing more than smoke but held as firm as iron as she tried to step away from them.

"Let go of my legs,"she said as she made it clear on her face that she was not in the mood for jokes. "We've wasted enough time."

"No, you've wasted enough time by denying your power," he finally stood once more and approached her as though he was strolling through a garden rather than approaching a fury-filled queen. "I'm speeding up the process."

As quickly as the thought to reach out and intentionally hurt him this time crossed her mind, the same shadows that bound her ankles snatched her wrists and yanked them above her head. She opened her mouth to snarl at him or perhaps to call for Eldine so that she could beat him within an inch of his life, but felt the cold and unsettling feeling of smoke wrap around her lips and gag her.

Syion took his time, undoing his bound hair and tying it back in a neater style. "Now, you're going to listen because I'm trying to help you."

She glared mutely, trying to salvage whatever dignity remained as she stood in front of him. The panic in her chest was mild, threatening to send her heart into a gallop if she didn't calm herself. With the panic, she felt her power stir sleepily inside of her. For a moment, a different scene where people gathered around Az and hands restrained her swam before her eyes but disappeared with her next blink.

"You cannot wield your power if you're afraid of it," he began to circle her slowly, his steps echoing throughout the room. He didn't look at her when he began to speak, instead looking around the room as though the old ballroom was the most fascinating thing he'd ever seen. "The only reason that it appears when you're feeling a strong emotion is because it's naturally trying to protect you and it's the only time that you allow it to do so."

He finally turned his smoldering gaze to her, prompting a stutter in her breathing. Her control on her panic slipped slightly, but she regained her grasp on it as quickly as she had slipped.

"The only reason you allow it to protect you is because you don't realize that you're doing it."

Her hands curled into fists, flexing against the shadows as her panic slowly ebbed away. Instead, the molten heat of anger replaced it.

"You could be great at wielding magic, but you won't allow yourself to be," his monotone voice began to lace with frustration as he once again freed his hair from the band that tied it back, choosing instead to tug at it with his hands. "Why won't you allow yourself to realize your full potential? Why do you insist on holding yourself back?"

The feeling of metal once again filled her mouth as her magic, fully awakened, began to prickle at her skin. The bindings around her wrists loosened slightly, not enough to release her, but enough where she could move them again.

He tilted his head as he came to a stop in front of her, looking down from where he stood nearly a half-head taller. Her chest rose and fell with long breaths, wild blonde hair falling around her cheeks as she made her anger evident.

"What?" His voice was only a murmur as he reached out, tracing his thumb along her jaw. "You don't enjoy hearing the truth? Or is it the shadows?"

Her arms flexed against the chilly restraints that held her arms above her head.

"You didn't seem to mind them," he whispered, fingers dancing down her neck to her shoulder, "when my lips were-"

He suddenly found himself unable to finish his sentence as a burning light filled the room, ripping his shadows away and shoving him away from her. He slammed to the ground for the second time that morning, this time with intentional force behind the attack, and groaned as Neoma brought her arms down to her sides and stalked toward him.

Her fury was bright, a force of holy fire that raced up her arms and legs and seared away any shadow that dared to approach her. With every step that she took, the ground responded with a low rumble as though the very mountain understood the depths of her heart.

Syion had the sense to look remorseful as he sat up, holding up his hands with an apology on his lips that barely passed them before she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him to his knees.

"You won't toy with my emotions to awaken my power again," she said slowly, her voice nearly a whisper. "If you do, I will throw you off of that balcony faster than Y'dorea could hope to catch you."

His violet eyes glimmered with an emotion that she couldn't identify and didn't care to try before she shoved him away from her and stalked from the room. Instead of hiding the power deeper inside of her, she exhaled and let it spill from her skin as she walked through the halls. She wasn't sure what she looked like, but it was enough to light her way through the old and dark corridors and startle a handful of guards when she returned to the wing where her quarters were.

At some point, Eldine had joined her, likely after she had stormed out of the ballroom as her guard was never far from her these days, but she didn't question that glow of Neoma's body as they stood in the living area.

Neoma stared at the window, breathing easier than she had in weeks as power coursed through her body. It wasn't an unpleasant feeling, but it was foreign and strange. She was almost worried that the next thing that she touched would shatter in her hands. As the sun passed overhead and began to mark the beginning of the afternoon, the magic began to settle. Instead of being shoved down deeper inside of her, she allowed it to rest beneath her skin.

It was strange, she was now constantly aware of it. She figured that her body would become used to it, as it had become used to breathing and blinking without her realizing it, but until then her mind would be focused on the strange feeling.

"A bird is in your room," Eldine said quietly from the couch, elbows resting on her thighs as she watched the young queen move away from the window for the first time in hours. Neoma blinked, as though she hadn't quite heard Eldine before she scratched her head and nodded. "Are you alright? You stormed out of there quickly."

Neoma didn't answer, her eyes dropping to the floor instead. There was a part of her that regretted snapping at Syion the way she did. He was her friend and he was doing what he could to help her while she was denying her power. She certainly hadn't made it easy on him.

"Would you like me to take care of him?" Eldine's face remained unchanged but her tone was on the edge of sounding amused. "I'd gladly keep him from bothering you again, my queen. Permanently."

"You cannot kill everyone who bothers me, Eldine," Neoma felt a hesitant smile on her lips at the words.

"I can certainly try."

Neoma was idle for a moment, halfway between going to her room while she shifted from foot to foot. Eldine's eyebrows pulled together for a moment as though she was figuring out a puzzle before she seemed to have an epiphany and opened her arms. Quick as a bolt, Neoma darted forward and wrapped her arms around her guard.

"Sorry, I just need-"

"You don't need to explain," Eldine murmured, squeezing her tightly.

Neoma counted seven breaths before she pulled out of the hug and rubbed her arm. "I'll go see to the bird."

Jex was in a sour mood when she entered the room, pecking at her hand and shaking his leg at her until she took the note and offered him a pile of breadcrumbs she had begun to keep in her room.

It was another note that didn't tell her what she needed to know about Aurousa, and instead complimented the warmer weather that Frascht had this time of year.

Her frustrations returned, bubbling in her chest as she crumpled the note and tossed it to the side. Jex squawked in indignation as she hastily scribbled out a note that simply read - 'if you aren't going to give me useful information, don't bother writing' and attached it to his leg while he was finishing up with the pile of food.

"I'm sorry, Jex, your owner is being a moron," she accepted the peck directed at her hand and ushered him off into the sky without looking at him for longer than a few seconds. It seemed that as soon as she shut the window, there was a knock at her bedroom door. Neoma managed not to groan as she walked to the door and opened it. "Eldine, I really don't-oh."

The last thing that she had expected to see was Rhia at her door, dressed in tough leathers and sturdy boots.

"I want to speak with you," she said smoothly, gaze traveling to Neoma's bedroom for a moment before she focused on the queen once more. "Are you available?"

Neoma looked down at her state of dress, a wrinkled tunic that was too big and tied under her breast with a long cord and a tight pair of trousers. Dark circles ringed under her eyes and she was certain that her hair was a mangy mess around her face, not to mention that Neoma radiated the aura of someone who didn't want to speak with anyone...especially Rhia.

However, this was a part of her duties.

"Ah, if you give me an hour I can make myself presentable," Neoma glanced back at the dresses that were strewn around the room, silks and velvets slung over chairs and her bed frame.

"No need. Follow me," Rhia turned on her heel and left Neoma to stumble after her while tugging on a thick pair of boots. Eldine gave a questioning look, but didn't follow as they exited into the hallway. Neoma knew that this meant that Broldt was following closely from the shadows, giving his sister a reprieve.

"If this is about last night, please understand my concerns," Neoma matched her stride quickly, nearly having to take double the steps that Rhia did to keep up with her, "Frascht is being framed for burning villages in Aurousa. They believe that you and I sent soldiers to towns on the border in Aurousa. That's why those soldiers were so willing to do what they did, and I won't be made to kill my own people when they only have a portion of the truth."

To her credit, Rhia did not interrupt. However she didn't say anything as they continued down the corridor to the eastern section of the castle. Neoma wasn't sure where they were going until they stepped into a large dome-shaped room where a series of rings were carved into the floor lined with sand.

Neoma took a step forward, a plume of dust kicking up as she stepped down into one of the pits. "What are we doing here?"

Rhia picked up a discarded roll of cloth, beginning to wrap it around her hands as she joined Neoma in the ring.

"How are you feeling?" Rhia questioned quietly before she tore the cloth with her teeth and tied it off. "Your wounds have recovered, correct?"

Neoma nodded and jumped as the roll was tossed to her, fumbling with it before she gripped it tightly in her hands. Rhia stared and nodded to the cloth, beginning to stretch her arms above her head before she leaned down to touch her toes.

"I'm confused," Neoma finally said blankly as she began to wrap her knuckles with cloth.

"I don't want any tension between us while we work together," Rhia stood up straight and moved to the other end of the ring while tugging her blouse over her head. Neatly folding it, she set it aside and placed her hands on her hips. She was an intimidating sight as her muscular arms became uncovered, leaving her with only a tight wrap around her chest. Her hands busied themselves with tying back her thick white braids, the beads woven into them glinting in the muted light. "So we're going to resolve this dispute."

Neoma hesitated before she followed suit and undid the cord that cinched the tunic around her waist and left her top in a messy pile.

"I don't know about this," Neoma's feet shuffled uncomfortably as she looked across at Rhia. She didn't want to fight her, in all honesty. "I'm not upset with you."

"Well I'm upset with you," Rhia rolled back her shoulders and approached. "And you should be upset with me for ordering you to kill one of your own people."

Neoma hadn't had time to be truly angry about the request, but a flash of anger heated her veins at the words.

"I suppose, I am," Neoma murmured, shuffling one foot back and raising her fists to shoulder level. Her stance was one molded from years of practice, stiff and technical. Rhia, however, didn't even seem to be ready to fight. Still, only a fool would talk this as a sign of being unprepared. "Are you sure that you want to do this?"

"Don't forget that I have my own quarrel with you," Rhia began to walk around the inside edge of the circle. Her pace was unhurried, as though she were simply taking a stroll. Neoma matched her steps with her own, maintaining the distance between them cautiously. "You disobeyed my orders in front of my soldiers. I cannot have them believing me to be weak."

Rhia moved quickly across the ring and hooked a foot around her ankle, yanking back and sending Neoma tumbling to the ground. There was no moment to recover as Rhia drove her elbow into Neoma's stomach, planting herself firmly on top of her.

With a hiss of pain, she drove her fist into the Empresses' side. This winded her enough for Neoma to slip out from under her and roll to her feet. Rhia followed swiftly, swinging her fist in a neat blow towards Neoma's face. Neoma felt the wind kiss her cheek as she ducked out of the way, a prelude to the second blow that landed firmly on her temple and caused stars to explode across her gaze.

A foul word left her lips and she responded with a hit of her own. Their fight transitioned from carefully calculated moves, as though they were playing a game of chess, into sloppily thrown punches. They slammed into one another time after time, sometimes throwing one another into the ground and sometimes wordlessly driving their fists into whatever body part they could reach.

Neoma couldn't understand why this was working. She had spent her life studying how to diffuse a situation with words and identify what the other party is after, yet it felt like none of that would have been more helpful than beating the daylights out of one another. Something that she couldn't identify was being communicated through their brawl.

As Neoma once again untangled herself from the uncomfortable position Rhia had held her in and dragged herself to the half-wall that circled the arena, she tilted her head back to rest against it and tried to catch her breath before Rhia rained another series of blows down on her.

Bur nothing ever came.

She slowly looked back down, her neck aching from the action, and met the eyes of Rhia who had sat up and was rubbing her ribs. Her chest was heaving, her expression oddly open as she met Neoma's gaze.

"Do you feel better?" Neoma asked, although the words came out slightly slurred due to her fat lip. Her eyebrows raised in surprise as Rhia let out a laugh. It was the first time that she had heard her laugh in recent memory. Rhia's smile looked as though it was in relief more than any amusement. "I assume that means yes."

The empress, a bruise above her eyebrow and her jaw beginning to purple, laughed again and nodded, running a hand across her forehead as though she had a headache.

"I believe that we both needed to get that out of our systems," Rhia dropped her hand into her lap and brought up one knee as she transitioned into the most casual pose that Neoma had ever seen her in.

The young queen stared for a moment before she nodded, "I suppose that we did."

In silence, the two rulers sat and contemplated what led to them sporting a fine collection of bruises and sores. Neoma found a new appreciation for Rhia as they did so. While she would never consider using such a tactic with anyone else, it was oddly therapeutic to exchange blows instead of polite words.

"I should return to my room," Neoma finally said as she pushed herself to her feet. Her body screamed in protest, but it was a pleasant ache. "Perhaps we should add training together to our schedule."

Rhia leaned back on her elbows and nodded, her smile slowly fading. Her expression did not revert to an overtly formal and guarded, instead transitioning into a relaxed brow and tired eyes. It was as though she was gathering the energy to once again face the world with a steady hand and unmovable stature.

"I'd like that," her lips pressed together in something tight that nearly resembled another smile. "Have a good night, Neoma."

The name was enough to nearly make her stumble. No title, no formal goodbye...simply her name. She had never imagined that Rhia would call her by her name as though they were friends. She bit the bottom of her lip at the thought to keep from grinning like an idiot as she returned to her room.

A friend.

Rhia was her friend.