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As you wish, princess

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Jacin ran along the rocky slope, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t as exhausted as he was.

He’d had to fight two wolf mutants already. Two. They’d been more skilled than he’d expected, but he was prepared for that— although he never wanted to have a use for his training, he sure was grateful to it now.

Now came the hardest part: the thaumaturge. He knew his mind wouldn’t hold up against him, but at the same time, he knew Aimery Park. With luck, the guy would spend his time being dramatic rather than being quick.

His first glimpse was of her— blindfolded and bound but still as beautiful as ever. The next thing he noticed was that she held a knife to her own throat.

He began to run faster. He could almost see the pale scars that outlined her face, when suddenly his legs unwillingly froze, sending the upper half of his body flying forward.

Yes, Aimery was there too, easily keeping the knife and Jacin’s legs motionless.

“Welcome,” he said, leering. “You’ve beaten my soldiers.”

Jacin kept his cool. “It would seem so.”

“And now it is down to you. And it is down to me.”

“So that would seem too.” Jacin attempted a step forward, but Aimery still had control over his legs.

“I understand completely what you are trying to do,” Aimery began, “and I want it quite clear that I resent your behavior. You are trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen, and I think it quite ungentlemanly.”

“Let me explain—“

“There is nothing you can tell me that I do not already know. People say I can read minds, and they are not entirely wrong.”

Jacin flinched. He made his mind a complete blank, removing all semblances of plans or emotion.

“I have been instructed to do certain things to her,” Aimery continued. “It is very important that I follow my instructions. If I do this properly, I will be in demand for life.”

“Has it occurred to you that I have gone to great effort and expense, as well as personal sacrifice, to reach this point, and that if I fail now, I might get very angry. And if she stops breathing in the very near future, it is entirely possible that you will catch the same fatal illness?” Jacin thought that he himself might stop breathing from anxiety.

“I doubt that you could kill me. You would best me in strength, perhaps, but unless you possess the same gifts as me, that strength would only be used against yourself.”

Jacin knew this, and was prepared. “In that case,” he said, “I challenge you to a battle of wits.”

He wasn’t sure if Aimery would take the bait; after all, there would be an enraged queen if he didn’t kill the princess. But his luck held.

Aimery’s eyes glinted. “For the princess?”

“You read my mind.”

“To the death?”

“Correct again.”

Aimery paused, considering. For a moment Jacin worried that he’d been wrong, that he wasn’t the type to accept a high-stakes challenge such as this.

“I accept,” Aimery cried. “Begin the battle!”

Jacin’s legs became loose again and he sat across from Aimery and the princess. “Pour the wine.”

Aimery didn’t move. Instead, Jacin found himself reaching for the goblets and pouring blood-red wine.

“Or do that.” He set them down on the table and pulled a tiny packet from a concealed area in his tunic.

He handed it to Aimery. “Open it and inhale, but be careful not to touch.”

Once again, Jacin found himself following his own instructions, opening the packets and bringing them close to Aimery’s nose.

“I smell nothing,” he declared.

“What you do not smell is called iocane powder. It is odorless, tasteless and dissolves immediately in any kind of liquid. It also happens to be the deadliest poison known to man.”

Aimery’s expression didn’t change, except for a slight tilt of the head. No doubt he was wondering why he couldn’t get that information from Jacin’s head.

Ignoring him, Jacin took the goblets, turned his back to Aimery, and sprinkled the powder in. Then he turned back around and set them down on the table.

“Your guess,” he said. “Where is the poison?”

“Guess?” Aimery cackled. “I don’t guess. I infiltrate. I interpret. Then I decide. But I never guess.”

“The battle of wits has begun,” Jacin declared. “It ends when you decide and we drink the wine and find out who is right and who is dead. We both drink, need I add, and swallow, naturally, at precisely the same time.”

“It’s all so simple,” Aimery said, but it was clear from his face that it wasn’t as simple as he’d like it to be. “You give away so much via your thoughts. I’ll have my guess in a minute.”

Jacin stayed stoic and unflinching, but he detected a smile from the princess, even with the blade so close.

Of course, she was hearing everything.

Aimery’s brow was furrowed in concern, but in a moment he had lightened considerably. “I have already learned everything from you,” he claimed. “I know where the poison is.”

“Only a genius could have deduced as much.”

“As far as you know.”

“You cannot frighten me.” Jacin tried to sound vaguely fearful; how satisfactory it would be if Aimery died humiliated! “Pick, choose, quit dragging it out, you don’t know, you couldn’t know.”

Aimery faltered for half a second maybe more, then suddenly his eyes widened in the fakest horror Jacin had ever seen. “What in the world can that be?!?” he exclaimed.

Jacin played along and turned in the direction Aimery was pointing. “I don’t see anything.”

“Oh, well, I could have sworn I saw something, no matter.” Aimery was smirking.

“I don’t understand what’s so funny,” Jacin said.

Aimery’s smirk turned into a scowl. “Of course you don’t. I’ll tell you in a minute.” He picked up the goblet in front of him. “But first, let’s drink.”

Accordingly, Jacin picked up the goblet in front of him and stared Aimery in the eyes. Then, in one fluid motion, they both threw the liquid into their mouths.

“You guessed wrong,” Jacin said calmly when he had finished.

“You only think I guessed wrong. That’s what so funny. I switched glasses when your back was turned.” Aimery was laughing, but it was a pained sort of laughter, the kind that implied he was only trying to get the last word. “Fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders. The most famous is ‘Never get involved in a land war in Asia,’ but only slightly less well known is this: ‘Never go against a Lunar thaumaturge when death is on the line!’”

And a moment later he had frozen and fallen to the side, dead as a doornail.

Jacin waited. He’d dreamed of that sight for years, and the worst thing would be for him to get caught in a trap. But no; Aimery did not stir in any way.

He stood and, pulling out his pocket knife, cut the princess free and removed the blindfold.

Winter smiled at him. “Hello, Jacin.”

He was taken aback. “How did you know it was me? I thought the mask was doing a pretty good job.”

“Oh, I’d recognize you anywhere. Your voice and your mannerisms aren’t so basic. I’d know you anywhere.”

Jacin tried to keep a straight face as he removed the mask. “I suppose I did say I’d always come for my princess.”

With a twinkle in her eye, Winter stood and hugged him tight.

“And I can always count on my guard.”