The game was rigged, Cassia knew. Designed to test the strengths of the hopeless, and break the weak. No chance of success. Only thoughtful, strategic failure was an option. The game was exclusively reserved for men.
Cassia threw a glance at the present king who was stuffed into his throne at the edge of the arena. His grey skin was flabby and wrinkled. There was something unsettling about how it folded in on itself around his neck. A snow-white, wispy cloud of a beard fluttered around his chin as he took one labored breath after another. The Game Master stepped forward.
“Defeat is a skill. All future kings of Iruzar must possess it. Only he who can fail five-fold is worthy of the crown. Today we shall find King Ormont’s successor.”
Cassia flinched. There was no turning back now. She pulled the hood of her black cloak deeper into her face. The rough fabric scratched her forehead as she did her best to conceal the mark on her neck. It was the only thing that distinguished her from the male players.
The gates were closed and the Game Master spun the gyroscope of fates. For the first time, a woman had entered the arena; albeit in secret. Cassia swallowed hard as the gyroscope finally came to a standstill.
“The fates have chosen the runes! A game of runes to test those who fancy themselves the next king!”
The Game Master plucked a piece of polished peridot from a chain on his neck. He kissed it gently, then threw it up into the air. It flew high at first, then stuck; hovering above the center of the game arena. A shrill voice erupted from the glowing gem; announcing the rules of the game.
“The runes can never be moved. The runes can never be touched. The runes can never be read. Only the runes hold the answer. The players must try to win. The last to fail will die. Six players, five rounds, one survivor. One king.”
“One king!” cheered the crowd.
Cassia could feel the ground vibrate under her feet. Guilian was the first to die. He touched the runes. An accident. The searing ray of peridot light hit him right between the eyes and burned a hole into his skull.
Player two died as quickly as the first; Aurelion. Nobody would remember his name.
Round three passed in a haze. Cassia came close to deciphering the runes. A close call. The peridot ray singed her cloak as it shot out at Marcellus.
Round four passed in silence. Cassia was the first to lose. A stroke of luck!
One last round, Cassia reminded herself. She was facing only Gilbert now; a dark soul and King Ormont’s ward. The dance began a final time. Gilbert and Cassia circled the runes. One more reach, Cassia thought. As her hand went out towards the runes, Gilbert’s arm shot forward. He had been watching her. He suspected.
Cassia held her breath as her black hood was torn backwards. A collective gasp went through the crowd as the mark of womanhood sparkled in the sunlight. Cassia looked around. Even the old king had heaved himself out of his seat. Tears stung her eyes as the peridot ray rushed towards her. It hit in the centre of her chest and passed through her like glass. Cassia felt no pain.
The crowd watched in shock as the peridot ray, subverted by Cassia’s body, hit Gilbert. The mark on Cassia’s neck glowed green. She was unharmed. It was a game designed for men, after all.
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