Yes, I know, this time I dropped the story right in the middle of that costumed ball they made us attend. By now you've probably forgotten what was happening then, so I'll remind you: the testing authority was scheming, our opponents were scheming, and we were scheming. See, that wasn't so difficult.

And it wasn't much harder to live through, at least not the beginning of it. The palace of the Seated Five was big and beautiful, the music was nice, the snacks delicious. The other people there, however… They were all members of the nobility, and were staring at us as though they considered us trained but still dangerous animals. What we assumed were our first-scheduled opponents - they came over and insulted us, then ambled away. A member from another noble Blending-to-be had tried to get information from Rion by lying to him, but Rion had caught him at it. Vallant Ro managed to get in touch with Pagin Holter, who had previously been in our residence, and found out the location of his new residence.

All of which was only the beginning of the evening, and doesn't even say anything about personal feelings. The only one really trying to keep our group moving forward was Jovvi, ignoring the emotional storms of the rest of us in an effort to put us in the best possible position for the competitions. That meant gathering as much information as we could, every item available from the store of data the testing authority had been keeping secret. We hadn't made much progress with that, but Jovvi's determination refused to let us stop trying.

And so we continued with the evening, having very little idea of what still lay ahead of us…

The Blending: Challenges

Chapter One

Jovvi brushed at the skirt of her costume, a blue that was nicely set off by the silver sequins of the gown's top, her thoughts filled with faint satisfaction. Rion had resisted that noble's tempting offer all by himself, showing the strength of personality they'd all begun to expect from him. The changes in him had been nothing short of incredible, and even the noble who had tried to get information out of him had been surprised. The man was a member of one of the noble challenging Blendings, and hadn't been quite as strong as Jovvi had thought he would be.

She paused to smile encouragingly at a still-nervous Tamrissa, then went back to her musing. Possibly the noble hadn't been using his full strength in Spirit magic on Rion, and that's why she'd been able to block his attempts so easily. It would be dangerous to start believing that the nobles weren't any good, even though it would be nice to think so. That would give her and the others an even better chance to win the Fivefold Throne…

Sight of Vallant closed that line of thought rather abruptly. Vallant had actually managed to get in touch with Pagin Holter, and the small ex-groom who had originally been in their residence had given Vallant more than the address of his new residence. He'd also found out that the betting on the upcoming competitions was completely one-sided, all the gold having been placed on one or another of the noble groups. That no one was betting on one of the common groups meant those with the gold knew something everyone else didn't: that the common groups had no chance at all no matter how strong they were.

"Is something wrong?" a voice asked, and Jovvi looked up to see Lorand staring down at her. His worry was clear despite the mask hiding most of his features, so she smiled at him.

"Nothing more than the usual," she replied, working to sound more lighthearted than she felt. "Vallant managed to speak to Pagin Holter, and learned from Holter that no one is betting on any of the common challenging Blendings to win. That doesn't count the ordinary man or woman who bets a few coppers or even a piece of silver. Those with gold to bet are placing it only on the noble groups."

"That doesn't sound very good," Lorand said with a frown, his dark eyes filled with disturbance. "It means that they intend to do something to make us lose, and the … 'smart money' knows it. Do you think we'll be able to find a way around whatever it is?"

"First we'll have to find out what it is," Jovvi replied, sharing his disturbance. "I don't expect it to be something simple, like the drugged tea they tried to give us before the qualifying tests, but we'll still have to keep that in mind. If we eat or drink anything before the competitions, we'll deserve to lose."

"Is that why they tried so hard to get me to drink that tea?" Lorand asked, now looking surprised. "I hadn't realized it was drugged… So now I have something else to thank Eskin Drowd for. If I hadn't seen him there, smirking and expecting me to fail, I probably would have taken the tea."

"Holter also said that Drowd was added to his residence to replace the man who went insane during that supposed competition," Jovvi told him, her thoughts now busy with this new point. "From what you said about his very late appearance at the testing and qualifying area, it's possible they added him to that group without first making him qualify. If so, that suggests something else I don't like very much."

"That they don't care how good or bad one of us is, as long as they have the required number of warm bodies," Lorand agreed, putting her thoughts into words. "That seems to confirm the theory that we'll just be there to make the event look good, and the idea is beginning to get me angry. I don't like having people use me for their own purposes without caring what I want."

"But that's all we can expect from the testing authority," Jovvi pointed out. "They're there to make sure their fellow nobles look good when they win, so anything we accomplish will have to be done on our own. That's one of the reasons I want us to try our best: to get even with the testing authority for treating us so badly. If we actually manage to win, we can tell those cheats to go home and not come back."

"Right now that's a better incentive than winning the Throne," Lorand said with a grin. "Kicking them out after telling them what incompetents they are should also get even for all the people they ganged up on. And the others should enjoy it as much as we will."

The laughter they shared had felt wonderful to Jovvi, but after no more than a moment Lorand's grin faltered and died.

"I … think I've bothered you enough," he said, his gaze no longer meeting hers. "I know you want me to stay away from you, and except for matters involving the group, I mean to do exactly that. I care for you too much to want to see you upset…"

He began to turn away then, his thoughts and emotions a roiling mess, and Jovvi found it impossible to let that go on.

"Lorand, don't," she said, stopping him with a hand to his arm. "You've been incredibly wonderful about understanding how I feel, something most men wouldn't have found possible. It isn't you I'm trying to avoid, it's the uncertainty brought about by your fear of burnout. Uncertainty is something I can't handle, so you could say we both have problems that need to be worked on. And since we're both still here, maybe we can work on them together…"

Jovvi hadn't known she was going to say that, but the hunger she felt for Lorand had been growing stronger rather than fading. He'd come to mean more to her than any other man she'd ever known, and a stab of pain flared in her chest when he slowly shook his head.

"I don't deserve to be made an offer like that," he said in a choked voice, very deliberately not looking at her. "I thought I'd gotten past the fear of burnout and I felt twelve feet tall - until I discovered that the fear was still right where it had always been. I'm a helpless fool, Jovvi, and I love you too much to saddle you with someone like me. You deserve better, and as long as I stay out of the way I'm sure you'll get it."

This time he did move away, and Jovvi's frantic thoughts could find nothing to say that would stop him. She'd been the one who had told him how much she needed security in her life, something his fear kept him from giving her. Neither one of them had changed, so there were no words to keep him beside her. Jovvi could look at his tall, broad-shouldered, blond-haired form and ache to have his arms around her again, but finding a way to bring them together again seemed impossible.

Rather than staring at him where he stood only a few steps away, Jovvi turned to look elsewhere as she fought not to cry.