Taryn hesitated on the balls of his feet, wondering how there could be so much hazard in the cut of a smile. Blinking across at Lord Brance, he tried to decide if the twenty feet between them had played with the lines of his face. There was smoke enough in the Practice Court to twist things, but the look in the older boy’s eye was sharp as anything.
He had heard some stories about Lord Brance, of course. He’d had his ears covered or been sent out of the room for others. Not even the things he’d eavesdropped for had prepared him for the challenge that felt like a command rolling off him as easy as a whisper. The smile felt like a promise. It sank into Taryn’s stomach like a threat.
Not that he would back down. The Practice Court clattered on around him, hissed and cracked with fire and speech. No one else in the wide hall had bothered to be alarmed, so he rolled into his next step, taking his place on the sparring line. As soon as he moved, it became absurd that he had stopped.
He had been a conqueror between these pillars for the last two years, an untouchable and, sometimes, bored devil.
“Ready?” Lord Brance asked, just loud enough to be heard over the clamor.
Taryn was still loose from the hour’s work he had done with his teacher, relaxed more than stretched. Dropping his hands to his sides, he nodded.
Brance rolled his shoulders back, stretched his arms behind him. Fingers still interlocked uselessly, he said, “Go for it, then.”
Taryn narrowed his eyes. In a matter of moments, he spread his fingers as far as they would go, and built a bolt into the air. Blue-white and jagged, it cracked, shuddered wider, cracked, and burst. The heat kissed his cheeks. On his next breath he drove it toward Brance. All its edges turned liquid along the way, dripping flame onto the stones.
It was still too narrow a thing to be any threat.
Brance would simply step to the side and let it skid along the face of his own energy. Taryn would keep his hold on it, turn it with a thought once it was past him, bring it forward into his back. Taryn’s teacher would turn to face it, burst it open on a flat shield of power. Taryn’s little brother liked to shove his hands behind him, and break Taryn’s bolt without even looking. Either way, the explosion looked cool.
Brance didn’t move as the bolt came toward him. Taryn yanked back on it at the last second, but the older boy’s hands came up, as if he intended to catch the crackling thing on his fingers. Fire dark as a bruise flashed from his palms. It hooded the bolt, cupped it from underneath. Brance pushed his hands together and the whole bundle flashed like he’d struck flint. It crumpled, collapsed, and when he let it go, actual ash fell onto his boots, as if the air itself had crisped and flaked.
Brance’s smile turned up at one corner, or maybe only looked like it did as he tilted his head to look at Taryn, unimpressed. “Oh, come on,” he said. “You can do better than that.”
Taryn stared at him. Then he blinked as quick as he could to cover it. It was a taunt, or the shape of it was, but he had heard something more like permission.
No one was supposed to know he needed permission.
No one was supposed to know there was anything more to be permitted.
Taryn glanced to either side, assuring himself that the sparring pairs beside them were focused elsewhere. Focusing on Brance again, he realized that had been wrong. He had just half-uncovered his secret, pointing it out as he tried to nudge it farther out of sight. Brance’s smile was stretching. Angry, Taryn tried to find the lie that would let him escape the practice floor. Brance just laid a single finger across his lips.
Taryn hesitated again. Threat. And promise.
“Come on,” Brance said. He spread his hands, palms barely tilted toward him. “I can take anything you have to throw, kid.”
Taryn blinked. Blue-black fire filmed on Brance’s hands again, careless power and brilliant heat that cast smooth shadows that seemed lighter than the flames themselves. The ashes skidded around Brance’s feet in the breeze that filtered between the columns. He met Brance’s eye carefully. Every motion was permission for Taryn to stretch, to see if he could come up with anything that Brance couldn’t break into drifting bits on the stone floor.
And Taryn itched for it.
He shook out his hands.
My friends are a bunch of thieves! They’ve all run off with the first line of this piece to write fictions of their own. Be sure to check out all the different dangers lurking behind smiles.