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“Yes, sir,” I joke. He turns around, storming off with big strides that I struggle to keep up with. I almost forgot about our deal. After the water test, it doesn’t seem as important to me to learn how to beat Hope in combat. I’m most likely going to die in one of the tests before I ever get a chance.

I chase after him, looking down at my wrist, at the new dragon marking. This one is on my other wrist, and the dragon is a dark sea blue in colour. The exact same shape and size as the one on my other wrist. I rub it, knowing that these markings will always be reminders of the many, many women who died, not the fact I won. These marks are their deaths, and I’ll be forever reminded of the dragon kings.

I follow Grayson through a door, into a slim stone corridor, and out into another room. This room is large, some sort of training room, I’d guess. The walls are littered with several antique-looking weapons, and the floor itself is spongy as I walk across it. Warm sunlight blasts in from several windows all around, which overlook the mountains and hills for miles ahead. I think this is the back of the castle. I’m starting to get to know this place.

Grayson pauses in the middle of the room, and he turns around to face me. His dark brown hair is brushed to the side, matching his long-sleeved brown shirt tucked into loose joggers. He lifts his hands into the air at his side, slowly raising them. Vines snap and creak out of the ground, cracking through the spongy stone before rising up and making a structure of a man made of vines. Grayson steps to the left, and the vine man does the same.

My mouth parts. “That’s so cool. Could you make an army of these?”

“I could,” he responds coldly, suctioning the rest of the warmth from this room.

I clear my throat. This is awkward. More awkward than I thought it would be. “Right. So, you haven’t warmed up to me at all over the idea of us helping each other?”

His lips thin. “No. You will do exactly as I tell you, and you’ll have a chance of surviving the race.”

I nod. “Yes, good. I need to get through to the end of this test, and then I’m going home.”

His lips seem to twitch with amusement. Just for a second, but I see it. He doesn’t think I’m going home, and he has no problem being an absolute dick about it, like his friends. He may not say much, but he doesn’t have to. Grayson is easier to read up close.

I want to call him out on why he thinks it is funny, the idea of me going home, but he begins his training, and his face tells me not to do anything but listen. I see Hope’s smug look every time she beats me, and I use it as inspiration. His commands are clear, and I think he must have taught someone before. I do everything he asks as he tells me where to stand, how to stand, what stance to be in. I’m tired even before he uses the vine man to attack me. It slams into my chest hard, and I rocket across the floor, landing in a thump on the jelly-like floor below me.

“Ouch,” I groan.

Grayson doesn’t give a shit. What a surprise. I look over at the asshole, his arms crossed against his tight chest. He could at least attempt to look less like a friggin’ god as he beats me up. “Get up and shake it off.”

It doesn’t really hurt that much. I’m just winded, but I still wince as I stand up, rubbing my chest. Grayson doesn’t look remotely sympathetic or actually seem to even give a tiny bit of a shit. “Again.”

For an hour, or what I suspect is about that, Grayson uses his vine man to throw me across the room while barking out commands on how I’m meant to block the attacks. After I’ve been attacked. I just fall on my ass. Again. Again, and again. I’m pretty sure I’m covered in bruises head to toe by the end of Grayson’s lesson, and he comes over, throwing a vial at me.

I down it quickly, feeling healing magic wash throughout my body. “So, if the Water Court are healers and the Fire Court is good with technology and has the smart ones, what does your court do?”

He looks down at me, his silver eyes so clear. “We keep our secrets within our mountains and lands.”

I stand up, brushing off my legs. “Okay, it’s my part of the deal now. The touching.”

Wow, that sounded dirty.

Grayson doesn’t seem to notice, and he steps away from me like I’m on fire. I continue anyway. “I need you to talk to me. About anything mundane. I think talking sometimes distracts you from overthinking things, or it does for me. I’ve always been a chronic overthinker. Maybe it’ll stop you from overthinking the whole me-touching-you thing. I wanted to start with your hands.”

He looks worried.

I think that’s the easiest way to describe the look in his eyes as he stares at me. This big, fierce dragon king looks worried about me touching his hands. A part of me, some deep part of my heart, shudders at the thought of whatever happened to him to make him hate people touching him so much. What must have happened to make him this way? I can see it. Fear. Pure fear in his eyes. I didn’t know fear like that until I came here. Something about it absolutely terrifies me, right down to my bones, about what must have happened to him. His hands are shaking slightly as I gently touch the back of his hand with my finger. “Come on, the Earth Court must be known for something else. It can’t just be keeping secrets.”

He grits his teeth, his whole body tense. “I’m not going to hurt you, Grayson. I’m just a small human, remember? I’m also trying to be your friend. You want me to be part of this world?”

“I never said that,” he snaps. “What part of you thinks I want a bride? I’m here because, without magic, my people would suffer, and they have been through enough. I’m here for my people.”

My lips part. I never thought about it from his side. He doesn’t want this either. I’m not sure any of them do. “Tell me about your court.”

I have no intention of being part of his world—I’m sure he knows that—but I do want to know more, even if the main reason is to distract him. I’m sure he also knows that I’m trying to distract him. He’s too smart, far too intelligent to fall for it.

I’m surprised when he actually does talk. “Mines. We mine iron, stone, rare jewels, and everything this world needs. Every house, structure, town, and city built in this world comes from the Earth Court mines. That’s what we’re known for. We are a tough court, much like our nature.”

“What about the Air Court?” I ask next.

His lips twitch…and my god, he is handsome. My heart flutters, the betraying thing. “Fun. They are laid back, as relaxed as the element they worship.”

Grayson hasn’t noticed that I’ve wrapped my hands around his. His palms are rough, way too rough, and my hands are so small compared to his. In fact, every inch of his hand is rough, like the skin has grown back over and over. I don’t comment on it as I run my finger across the top of his wrist and feel a scar. I quickly look down and notice many light pink scars slipping out of the edge of his sleeve. “How?”

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