Chapter 1: The Gala
“This is not a love story, but love is in it. That is, love is just outside it, looking for a way to break in.”
—Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping
“I hope that there will always be an us. In every world, in every story.”
—Tina Tran, Let us always find each other
Prince Callum was not a particularly adept young man. He was handsome at nearly eighteen years old old, reasonably tall, and not altogether stupid, even if he was prone to putting his proverbial foot in his mouth. He had a good mind for strategy when he focused, although his explanations were often poor. He would make a good advisor to his younger brother, Crown Prince Ezran, someday, Rayla was sure of it. But with a sword or any sort of defense, he was rather hapless. She could see why the human crownguard, even its captain, Soren, had given up on him.
She could see why, even if she disagreed with it.
“Come on, Your Highness. You can do this.”
The prince struggled to catch his breath, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. She kept her sword, a wooden one, at the ready, while he held his own in a limp grip. They’d been practicing this parry all day and he still wasn’t fast enough to probably pull the, overall, simple maneuver off. Rayla didn’t know why it wasn’t clicking for him, but it couldn’t hurt to push; that was how she had learned.
“I can’t,” he said and she frowned.
“You’ll get it. Just—”
“No. I won’t.” He dropped his sword to the ground and she blinked in surprise. “This is pointless. I’m just wasting your time.”
“It’s my time to waste,” she quipped and he threw her a dry stare. Rayla let out a long sigh. “Come on. We can take your break early.”
They settled on the bench beneath the tall, ancient tree that had been there since the Schism. She passed him a half-full waterskin and he took it gratefully, gulping it down.
“So,” she said as he finished it off, wiping at his mouth, “what’s giving you trouble?”
“I’m just not good at this,” he said. “I never have been.”
“Everyone can learn sword-fighting.”
“Consider me not ‘everyone’ then.”
“I’ve seen you in the war room,” she said. “You have a mind for strategy. What is it about sword fighting that makes thinking more difficult?”
“I dunno. It’s up close? There are so many things and I can’t think far enough ahead and on top of all that, I just can’t do it right . My hand-eye coordination can be really terrible. Everyone tells me to think of the sword as an extension of my body, but that’s just the problem.”
Rayla pursed her lips. “What if you thought of it as… a pencil?”
He looked at her. “What?”
“I’ve… seen you sketch, Your Highness.” Everyone did, since he did it everywhere. On the bench they were resting, in the more casual dining hall during family dinners, in the libraries, reading nooks, even more prolifically when he’d been in his early teens and she’d just come to the palace. And more than just sketching, she knew he was good at it, too. “If you thought of the sword as charcoal, or as a paint brush, do you think that would help?”
He was quiet for a moment. “What picture would I be making?”
“Depends. But you probably have to think on your feet while you’re doing a faster sketch sometimes, yeah?”
“Then you’re just figuring out the picture as you go. Sword fighting is all about anticipation, yes, but defense, parrying, the whole art of it, so to speak, is about making your opponent do what you want them to do. Forcing them to bend a certain way or make a certain move that will give you the upper hand, or delay them from attaining it. You decide how the picture looks, so to speak.”
“So, like… if I was trying to draw something but someone kept trying to scribble on my page?”
Rayla smiled a little. “Sort of. Maybe if they were trying to erase it, instead?”
“Yeah,” he said, nodding slowly. “That… makes sense.” He looked at her with his own smile. “I think I’m ready to try again.”
“Yeah? Because you still have a few minutes of your break left.”
Prince Callum let out a small laugh. “Once I finish my water,” he amended. “Thank you, Rayla. You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.”
She glanced away as her cheeks flushed. It was high praise, after all, from a member of the Katolian royal family. “Just don’t tell Soren,” she said lightly, taking a swig from her own flask.
“He might already know, but I won’t. Unless he really needs to be taken down a peg.”
“He usually does,” she grinned. She stood up when he was done. “Ready?”
“I think so.” He sat up, picking the sword off the ground as they went back to the center of the courtyard and got into position. “How’s my stance? I’m trying the uh—what was it? Staying light on my feet?”
Rayla tried not to smile. “On your toes, Your Highness.”
She allowed herself an eyeroll as he adjusted and then looked back at him. “Are you ready?”
The prince took a breath, then nodded, before striking first. She deflected, smiling a little when he got his bearings back a tad more quickly. Dodged one of her blows without her having to purposefully slow it down, although she did measure the strength of her swing in case it did land; she didn’t want to hurt him, even accidentally. This time, when he tried the parry, he pulled it off—and then grew so proud and so giddy because of it, it was easy after that to sweep the leg.
It was enough for her as she helped Prince Callum back onto his feet. “You did really well,” she said as he released her hand, frowning a little.
“I still lost this round.”
“Yeah, but you seemed much more comfortable, and your technique is getting there. You pulled off the parry. You’re improving. Don’t erase the small victories.”
Slowly, his frown faded, and he even smiled slightly as he looked back up at her. “Thanks.”
“Besides,” she said, “not even Soren can beat me in a sparring match, most days.”
Prince Callum’s eyes were thoughtful as he picked up his sketchbook from where it lay near the bench and slung it over his shoulder as she put their wooden swords along the rack outside of the ring. “Guess Moonshadow elves are pretty intense, huh? Uh, maybe not intense,” he amended quickly, “although that isn’t a bad thing, I just meant—” A nervous laugh. “Different, you know?”
“Nah,” she said, turning around to face him again with a sly smile. “We’re pretty intense. I’ve been training with swords since I was five. Most children here start around age ten, don’t they?”
His shoulders eased once it was clear that she wasn’t offended. “Twelve, usually. But we get to start learning about Primal Magic at age ten.”
“Weird then,” she considered, “that you wait so long for the Choosing Ceremony.”
“It’s not that strange,” he countered goodnaturedly as they walked to the courtyard. “We have to wait until people are old enough to travel more or less on their own, remember? And forging a connection can be dangerous sometimes.” He grinned. “I am excited for my Ceremony, though.”
It was his eighteenth birthday in two weeks. There was a big gala and celebration the night before, per usual, but in the morning he would roll the Cube of Aaravos and see which primal rune glowed up, and that would be his arcanum. She knew his father was hoping for Moon magic; something to keep him close to Katolis and away from the other Nexuses still under the control of their enemies. Earth, Star, and Sky, the latter less so, were still fiercely guarded, Earth in particular. The sellouts.
“Are you hoping for any arcanum in particular?” she asked before she could stop herself. It was an almost personal question and those weren’t allowed with the prince. Not that she thought he’d mind, but still. There was propriety and etiquette to keep in mind.
“I think Sun might be really cool,” he confessed. “I could go see my aunt, too. I’ve always wanted to use a Sunforge blade someday.” Then he caught Rayla squinting at him, surely a strange smile on her face. “What?”
“I’m not sure you should be using anything other than wooden swords, let alone a Sunforge blade, until we can be sure you’re not going to cut yourself open with it, Your Highness.”
“Then you could just keep teaching me till I get there. If you want,” he added quickly, and she smiled a little.
“That’s what I’m paid for, Your Highness,” she said dryly, and he laughed.
“Not enough, most likely.”
“Callum?” They both looked up to find the High Mage’s daughter standing in the doorway, arched windows on either side of her. The hallway of grey stone led off from the courtyard and into the castle, plants lining either side.
Claudia was tall and pretty, a couple years older, and wore a long black dress that matched her long dark hair. It hadn’t exactly been a secret that the prince had developed a crush on her a few years back, and though he seemed more relaxed around her now, something in Rayla suspected that it had never really gone away, for him. She could see why.
Claudia, after all, was on a first name basis. She could see them having a happily arranged marriage in a year or two, especially now that Prince Callum would be of marrying age.
Said prince perked up. “What is it?”
“My father and Queen Sarai want to see you in the library. If you’re done with your lesson for the day?”
“Oh. Of course,” he said, glancing back at Rayla for a moment. “I’ll see you later?”
“Yeah,” she said, smiling in spite of an all too familiar deflated feeling in her chest. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Your Highness. Don’t be late.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he grinned, before following Claudia down the hallway. Rayla heard them laughing about something, and she took a deep breath, forcing herself to turn away.
It was just strange, she supposed, to think of all of them—of him—as grown up now.
His mother and his father’s High Mage were waiting for him in the library once they slipped inside, both adults bent over unfurled scrolls and discussing something quietly. They looked up at the sound of footsteps, Sarai smiling when she saw them.
“How was practice today?” she asked with interest. His mother was more gifted with a spear but she was rather talented at all forms of combat. Callum often thought that if she thought it wouldn’t make Rayla uncomfortable, his mother might’ve asked her for a sparring match just for a challenge.
“It was good,” he said cheerfully. “Rayla’s a really good teacher.”
Sarai’s smile shifted into something Callum couldn’t quite define, like she knew a secret that he didn’t. “Hmm. How nice,” she said, and she meant it, even if he couldn’t read the look on his mother’s face. He glanced at Claudia, but she had a similar expression, and his brow furrowed.
“Why did you both want to see us?” Callum asked, suddenly eager to change the subject.
“Just you, son,” Viren corrected and Claudia slipped away with one last smile. It was rare but not unheard of for the man to be warm, his dark coat tailored and staff leaning against the table.
“...Okay,” Callum said slowly. “What’s this about?”
“We just want to make sure you’re well prepared for your Choosing Ceremony,” Sarai said.
“Oh. Well I feel pretty good about it, and it’s not like I’m not educated on the Primal, but—”
“Even holding the Cube can be an intense experience,” said Viren, a slightly wistful look in his eye, seemingly remembering his own Choosing decades earlier. The Ocean arcanum had called to him and he had answered, the shape of waves etched into his staff. Claudia had been given the Sun.
Not every noble or person rolled the cube, and indeed not everyone who did had a rune glow for them, but Callum felt confident… alright, he hoped one would glow for him. It hadn’t for his mother but she had never had an interest in it, and Harrow’s connection to the Earth was weak, but there. Not that he expected to be better at magic than he was at anything else other than art, but magic was cool, and he wanted it. Maybe it would finally make people see him as something closer to a proper prince.
“I know,” he said, “but I’m ready. I’ve done all my readings on the Primals, and have read all the history, and Ancient Draconic. I’m as prepared as I can be.”
“And remember,” Viren said, “there will be many eligible young nobles at your birthday gala this year.”
Ah. So that’s what this was really about. Callum frowned. “I’m aware, Lord Viren.”
“No pressure,” Sarai said gently. “But if you happen to meet someone—”
“I know,” Callum said, trying not to grimace. “Mom, I have a few years.”
“I know. But it never hurts to… open yourself up to the possibility, more. Unless you… already have someone in mind?”
Callum blinked. Who would she be referring to? Claudia, maybe? But his early-teens crush on her had faded basically into oblivion by the time he’d turned sixteen. Why, he wasn’t sure, but it was gone nonetheless. Kind of relieving, actually. They were much better friends now that he wasn’t consistently tongue-tied around her.
“I don’t,” he said blankly, and Sarai shrugged. “Uh, at all, so…?”
“Whatever you say, dear.”
“Is that all you called me in for?”
“Lord Viren just wants to go over what you can expect from your Choosing Ceremony,” Sarai said. “Now that it’s closer than ever and so you can tackle any nerves head on well before it comes.”
“I don’t have any nerves,” he mumbled, but he sat down anyway as Lord Viren passed him an open book on the table and his mother left the room. Callum glanced at the page, which bore a sketch of the Cube of Aaravos shown from all sides and all six runes. All of it familiar and something he had learned years ago.
The Cube was a gift from the elves to the humans who had sworn off Dark Magic, allied under the Draconic Royal Family centuries ago. Aaravos himself had grown to favour Dark Magic but he hadn’t originally, and instead helped carve in humans the ability to connect to the Primal sources at all, passed down along the generations, blah blah blah. A good thing too, since the elves who had sided with the Dark Mages, and become ones themselves, were starting to lose their primal through degradation and misuse. At least that’s what his Aunt Amaya’s military reports said, from the few he’d been allowed to read.
“I just want to prepare you,” said Viren smoothly, “for the reality in which no rune glows for you. Not everyone is made to be a mage. The king’s was faint, as you know, and so is his connection to the Primal. You may very well be the same.”
It wasn’t personal, but the warning stung nonetheless. “I’m aware, Lord Viren,” said Callum, trying not to sound short.
“There is no shame in it, if it happens.”
“I know ,” he said, before taking a breath. “But it’s also just as likely it’ll glow, isn’t it?”
“That’s certainly the expectation for royalty,” said Viren, and then he paused. “I know I don’t have to explain your… situational exception.”
Because there was always someone who had to bring it up, as if he didn’t already get the message. That he was a step-prince. An unchosen spare heir. Someone to be married off, likely for political advantage. His brother’s advisor, the best of all monikers.
“And we also know that bloodline doesn’t matter when it comes to magic,” he shot back, temper rising. “You and Claudia are connected to opposite primals. Our royality isn’t chosen on the basis of magehood, anyway. King Harrow is proof of that.”
Viren narrowed his eyes, although Callum couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Yes. It’s not.”
“If the rune doesn’t glow, then I won’t go on a pilgrimage. Nothing else really changes,” Callum reiterated. “And I’m not nervous.”
“Good,” Viren said carefully. “And either way, you will still have your birthday gala to think about. I know you say that you have no one in mind, but choose carefully, Prince Callum, while your parents still present you with a choice. You don’t want to waste it.”
“I know.” He couldn’t keep the shortness out of his tone this time—really, were all the older adults in his life going to be this focused on marrying him off for the next three years?—as he asked, “Is there anything else?”
“You don’t have any questions?”
“I think we’ve said enough.”
Viren’s lip curled. Callum was just glad the man was Ezran’s godfather and not his. “Very well, then. I suppose I shall see you at dinner.”
Callum stood up. “See you then, Lord Viren.”
If he did go on a pilgrimage, one of the things he wouldn’t miss was this.
Still, it was hard not to smile when he stumbled upon his brother’s afternoon lessons with his tutor in the castle classroom. It was a homelier room than the much larger library, and better for Ezran’s more excitable nature, his tutor for today one of Opeli’s members. He must be learning history or linguistics. It would explain the bored look on Ez’s face, although it quickly dissipated once he saw Callum poking his head in the door. He perked up so strongly it dislodged Bait from his place napping in the young teen’s arms.
“Ah—finally excited about the northern battles for the border, I see,” his tutor, a Sunfire elf named Kazi, said. Then they followed Ezran’s gaze and turned around to see Callum. “Oh.” Then they bowed, glasses dangling on their nose. “Hello, Prince Callum.”
“Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just stopping in to say hi.”
“I’m afraid we are a bit behind on the lesson,” Kazi said. “The young prince insisted on a jelly tart break.”
“I can’t concentrate when I’m hungry,” Ezran pouted. “And Bait was too grumpy about being hungry too.”
Callum sighed fondly. “You wanna be done for the day, Kazi? Maybe I can get through to him.” He remembered his own history lessons, after all, and although he’d been a little more attentive and interested in it, it could still be very dry and repetitive sometimes. He wasn’t surprised Ez was having some trouble focusing.
Kazi considered this for a moment. “Very well,” they said, rising from their seat and leaving the chalkboard behind. “Thank you, Prince Callum.” They turned their brown eyes on Ez. “I shall see you tomorrow afternoon, Prince Ezran. No jelly tart breaks.”
Callum grabbed the edge of the chalkboard and wheeled it closer, picking up a piece of white chalk and Ezran groaned. “You’re really gonna teach me?”
His green eyes scanned the board, seeing the tip of Lux Aurea bordered in by Duren to the west and the lands of the dragons mostly in the northeast, but Skywing elves didn’t care much for borders, even if they still cared for their Nexus.
“Just tell me what you went over today,” he requested, looking back at his brother.
“Mostly alliances,” Ezran sighed.
“Well those are important,” Callum said, trying not to smile too much.
“It was kind of scary, actually,” Ez admitted. “I don’t like the idea that we’re boxed in by enemies.”
Three of the five human kingdoms had sided with Dark Magic, after all, blocking off Katolis and Duren from the western sea. Evenere was neutral, or so it claimed, but what they really meant was that it did trade with Neolandia and Del Bar and faced no possible consequences, Callum knew. Then there were the Earthblood elves, separating the Sunfire and Moonshadow alliance from full force, and taking up most of the Xadian continent. If war was ever fully waged, more than the terse… perhaps not peace, but stalemate they had now, the Drekkini Alliance would be fighting a war on both fronts.
His father didn’t let him in the war room, but Callum picked up enough here and there. War wasn’t close, but… it wasn’t a dismissed prospect, either.
“Yes,” he said, “but we also have friends. Like Kazi and Rayla, and the other elves who work here, and the ones in Xadia, remember?”
Ezran managed a tiny smile. “Yeah. Rayla’s cool.” It faded a little. “What would they do if there was a war?”
“They’d fight with us, against the Dark Order.” It was the Dark Mage guild that formed most of the opposing military.
“Would they have to fight some of their own people?”
“Well, just like how some humans sided with Dark Magic and some, like us, didn’t, elves were in the same sort of situation. But most Moonshadow and Sunfire elves sided with us, remember? I know the Earthblood elves tend to be a bit more split, but that’s just because there’s so many of them, I think.”
Ezran was quiet, for a moment. “So it’s pretty fifty-fifty?” he asked finally.
Callum kneeled down and placed a hand on his shoulder and tried not to think about how he’d said a similar thing to Viren about the Cube. “It’s pretty fifty-fifty,” he confirmed. “But that just means we’re not outnumbered, right?”
Ezran brightened. “Right. Thanks Callum.”
“You’re welcome. Now, the battles you were going over today?”
The young prince groaned again. “But they all happened like, a thousand years ago.”
“Still important to know how the Schism happened, Ez. So?”
His little brother picked himself up and then a piece of chalk and started drawing on the board. “Okay, mostly we talked about the Battle of Lux Aurea against the forces of Neolandia, back when Duren was neutral and let them walk right through—”
Slowly, over the next week and a half, security tightened over the castle. This was always the case, Rayla found, when a party was planned, whether for a birthday or some diplomatic function. The royal family liked to entertain and keep good relations with nobles, human and elven alike, and to check in with the common people and those who had neutral positions, like some Earthblood lords, to sway them where they could. And given that it was also the prince’s coming of age ball, this gala would be particularly extravagant. Even the guards (including her) would be required to dress up, although how practical that was made her rather bitter.
How was she supposed to be prepared for a fight if she was in a dress?
It didn’t help matters that Soren thought the whole thing was hilarious. He wasn’t bothered at all, and instead spent many minutes musing out loud about how to style his hair, whether he could get away with wearing fancy ceremonial army and whether he and Rayla could get special treatment and drink some of the wine, since they were co-captains of the crownguard. She’d only rolled her eyes; any actual scolding would’ve just been another source of amusement for him.
“And they’ll be plenty of pretty ladies there,” said Soren to another one of the guards, a dark haired young man named Marcos, who looked extremely disinterested. Rayla rolled her eyes. Had Soren forgotten that Marcos was gay?
“Think he’ll choose one?” said a stringy Moonshadow elf, his crownguard helmet a little lopsided.
Couldn’t anyone ever let a patrol shift up on the battlements pass silently ?
“Dunno,” Soren said. “But Callum’s not exactly a charmer.” The other guards had the nerve to laugh.
“The prince will be fine,” Rayla grouched.
“Well, you would think so,” Soren said, and she frowned as she looked at him.
“What does that mean?” she demanded.
“Oh please,” Soren said smugly. “Everyone knows you have a soft spot for him.”
Rayla gaped and then bristled. “I do not. I can simply see his potential, unlike the rest of you. And I get the payments to prove it.”
Soren shared a smirk with the other Moonshadow elf. “Oh, so you don’t have a little soft spot for him, then?”
“I will deck you hard in the face if you keep talking,” she threatened, and Soren paled.
“Alright, sheesh. I won’t put in a good word for you now, then.”
“Like I’d want it,” she said, in spite of the warmth in her face. She turned away sharply towards the horizon, glad when the conversation moved on without her to what may be for dinner tonight, and whether Barius would let them make any requests.
What a bunch of fucking idiots.
“There’s no need to be nervous.”
Callum stopped struggling with the miniscule buttons on his sleek black vest, before he resumed. “I know , Dad.” Could they make these things any smaller? He hadn’t had trouble pulling on any of his gala garb—not the nice white shirt with a folded down collar, not the black slacks and dress shoes, not the cufflinks—just this dumb vest. That did, admittedly, complete the look, but it still felt strange to be without his scarf. And he couldn’t get his hair to lie entirely flat.
“Would you like some help?” the king asked gently. Callum let out a little huff, before turning to face his stepfather.
Harrow smiled before he did up the last few buttons of his son’s vest. “It takes practice,” he said. “Or at the very least, it’s easier when someone can do it for you.” He finished and stepped back. “There. How do you feel?”
Callum turned back towards the mirror in the king’s dressing room. There were a lot of words for how he was feeling. Irritated with the stupid buttons, tired of all the marriage talk, apprehensive about the results of the Choosing tomorrow—
“Weird,” he finally settled.
“I dunno. I feel weird. I look weird.”
“You do not look weird. You look like my son, growing into a handsome young man.”
Callum smiled dryly. “You have to say that.”
“Maybe. But that doesn’t make it untrue.” Harrow gave Callum’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You’ll do fine, son,” he said warmly. “And you’ve already made me and your mother very proud.”
That made Callum smile for real. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Of course.” He glanced toward the door. “Ready to go?”
Callum took a deep breath. “As I‘ll ever be.”
Rayla had to admit the ballroom was beautiful, though. The floors shone, almost like mirrors, reflecting the twinkling lights hanging above. The entryway was tall and arching, the oaken doors kept open by two lower-ranking guards as guests trickled in. Blooming vines twisted around the pillars, and tables of food and drink lined the walls. Rayla fussed with her silvery skirts as she glanced out one of the gaping windows, dusky blue colouring the sky.
She’d relented in styling her hair up if only so it wouldn’t get in her eyes at all, if she had to lift up and gird her skirts in case of a speedy attack. Not that she really thought they would be attacked at a party. The castle had held plenty of others and in the five years she’d been at the palace, things had been relatively peaceful. But still, she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in her gut. Things were going to start changing, she knew. Likely for the better, if everything went well at the Ceremony tomorrow and Prince Callum married well, too, but it was still a change. Still left open a possibility for things to go wrong.
“Lighten up, would you?” said Soren, dressed in golden ceremonial armour. He held two goblets of wine and pushed one into her hand.
She only took a sip to save herself from having to speak to him. How was it that the royal family hadn’t even made their proper entrance yet, and the night already felt long ?
Soren didn’t take her silence as a hint. “So, do you think he’ll trip on his way in, or just during the first dance?”
Rayla raised her chin and glared. “Why are you so hard on him?” she snapped. “Always putting him down, to his face or to others, and being mean. Aren’t you two friends ?”
Soren’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I—uh—”
He didn’t get a chance to finish his thought (if he could even form any) when a trumpet sounded, announcing the arrival of the royal family. Prince Ezran, per usual, walked in first, nearly a skip in his step and in nice Katolian red, followed by his mother, her black hair shiny and styled. Then the king, smiling and in even finer robes than he usually wore, his crown polished and gleaming.
“I-I just—” Soren spluttered, now finding his voice, although Rayla barely listened. “He’s the, y’know, step-prince, and—”
“He’s a member of the royal family,” she said coolly, “and you would do well to remember it.”
Soren sighed. “It’s just supposed to be a joke, anyway.”
“Did you ever check if he was alright with being the punchline? Or do friends only speak that way about friends behind their back?” She frowned. “It’s not funny , Soren, and—”
Another trumpet drowned her out. She turned toward the sound, and she watched the prince enter, his family now facing him at the head of the room, patiently waiting. He was smiling, a bit nervous, but maybe most people wouldn’t be able to tell. He’d always been lanky, especially since his growth spurt at around sixteen, but the well-fitted vest revealed how well filled out he was for his age, his chest rising as he took a deep breath before walking towards his parents. He stood straight and tall, most likely reminded over and over beforehand to do so. Without his scarf, the sharp line of his jaw was easier to see. He looked—and was—every inch a prince.
It was easy for her to applaud alongside everyone else, even if she was just one face, lost among the crowd. Prince Callum’s smile tensed, his eyes scanning the room, when it settled on her, and it seemed to freeze her in place. His expression changed, relaxing, his eyes following the lines of her dress. His eyes lifted back to her face, and his smile returned, smaller and softer, this time. She gave him a tight-lipped smile back before finally forcing her eyes away. Well, she supposed she was a friendlier face than Soren.
She turned back towards the rest of the crowd as the fanfare settled and the celebration truly began, wondering when the room had gotten so warm. Her face was burning, and she took another sip from her goblet, hoping the drink would cool her burning skin down, somehow.
It was easier to move to the corner of the room, not only to ease her mind with being able to survey, but also to get shuttered out of the way when the dancing started. The royal family didn’t partake, yet—the king and queen were fond of waltzing—but Prince Ezran had vacated his chair, leaving only his pet toad (frog? Rayla had never been sure) in it, and was leaning over his mother’s armrest, asking for something and earnest as ever. She didn’t look for Prince Callum, although he had somehow left his chair too; his family was there, and relaxed, and the other guards probably had an eye on him.
Part of her almost wanted to ditch the ball and go on patrol with the guards who were still, officially, on duty, but the king had jovially invited her and Soren and well, it would be rude. Not that King Harrow was easily offended. Did she care about being rude? Soren was so casual, and while she would never let herself be that comfortable, maybe—
There was a peal of laughter and she looked up to see Prince Ezran guiding his mother onto the dance floor by the hand before they began to dance together, both beaming, and Rayla smiled. Alright, maybe she could stay. She didn’t want to miss anything. And although parties weren’t really her thing, when was the last time she’d been at one? At the younger prince’s birthday in March, maybe, almost five months prior?
It was moments like these that reminded her why she liked serving the royal family so much. They were good people, earnest and easy to like. They cared for their people, and for the Alliance. They truly acted as servants of their kingdom. Hopefully there would be more people like them in power, someday.
The music was fairly good, with woodwinds and lutes, slightly fast paced but not so fast that dancing was awkward or hurried. Humans, she had found, had different music than Moonshadow elves—different dances, too—but no less pleasant. And there were enough Moonshadow elves at the palace and living in the surrounding kingdom that she never missed her people too much. Even if Runaan had frowned at the thought of her being in the capital…
“Psst.” Rayla rolled her eyes as Soren joined her by the back table, even his discrete signals far too loud. “Psst—”
“I heard you the first time,” she said shortly. “What is it?”
“You know he hasn’t stopped looking at you,” he said in a singsong voice. She rolled her eyes.
“What are you on about now?”
“Callum. He keeps staring at you.” Soren lowered his voice. “I guess it’s kinda sweet.”
Rayla snorted and frowned. “Oh stop it, Soren. Can’t you be serious for once?”
Soren blinked. “But I am. Look—he’s coming this way right now.”
Her eyes widened. “What?!” She turned around, and sure enough, the prince was walking straight toward them.
“Have fun,” Soren grinned, and he was gone when she tried to look back over at him. Oh, she was going to kill him one of these days. Still, maybe she could have him take pity on her.
“ Soren ,” she hissed, shoulders bent, but she whirled around, straightened up and smiled when Prince Callum came into view of her. “Hi,” she said and immediately wanted to smack herself in the face. “Your Highness.”
“Hi,” he repeated, smiling back. With a similar tension as he’d had before, but not quite. Was he nervous again? The entrance was over, easily the worst part, so why…? “You look really nice this evening. I mean, you always look nice, I—” He cleared his throat, suddenly pink in the face, and she stared at him.
“Thanks,” she said, unsure of what else to say.
He gestured towards the door. “I didn’t realize you’d be here. I thought you’d be on patrol with some of the other guards.
“The king wanted the crownguard to be up here, so he invited us. I’m… not really used to these kinds of parties, but I didn’t want to be rude.” She nearly bit her tongue. “Not that it isn’t nice and I’m not enjoying myself, I just…”
“It’s not really your thing?” he finished and she nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Yeah. I get it. I’m not much of a party person either. It’s fun, but there’s a lot of people—” For him with expectations, she supposed. “And I’m not good at dancing.”
So he wasn’t going to dance with any of the young women. The thought was strangely relieving. Why was it relieving? “I’m sure you’re not as bad as you think,” she tried. “You’ve been really improving in our training sessions.”
“Oh. Thank you,” he smiled. “Dancing is really important in Moonshadow culture, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said, a small drop of warmth spreading through her chest. It wasn’t as though Prince Callum’s interest in magic and other cultures was news to her, although it was still nice. “Did you learn about it from one of your tutors, or…?”
“I… kind of did some outside reading,” he said.
“Oh.” She flushed a little, not sure why. It wasn’t as though his interest in her culture was because of her, after all. “Well, it’s different from this, but both are nice.”
“You must be a really good dancer.”
“I’m not bad,” she admitted and then tried for a joke. “You know, naturally graceful and all that.”
“Yes,” he said, rather quickly. “Yes, I’ve noticed.”
Rayla blinked. “You have?”
“Yeah, when you’re training out in the courtyard in the mornings.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s hard to miss.”
Their lessons were closer to noon. She glanced away, suddenly self-conscious and warm. But her solo, morning jogs in the courtyard, and whacking away at dummies… It wasn’t as though he was spying. The courtyard was a public space; anyone could see her. She just hadn’t thought he would want to. Did he want to?
“So, uh—” He swung his arm out towards the dance floor, and for one mad moment, she thought she caught his implication. That he was going to ask her to dance , with him . “Would you… Would you like to—”
“Prince Callum.” They both turned to see Lord Viren, looking as much at ease as Rayla thought he ever could, and still a tad severe, his robes sleek and black and proper, and without his usual staff. “There are diplomats and nobles who need to speak with you,” he said.
Callum’s smile faltered. “Of course,” he said, resigned. “I’ll be right there.” He looked back at Rayla with an apologetic smile, although he had nothing to apologize for. “I’ll see you later?”
She was definitely going to do everything in her power to avoid him for the rest of the night. “Yeah. Enjoy your evening, Your Highness.”
“You too,” he said, his voice unmistakably soft. She left first, not looking back to see if he’d turned away yet.
She walked a brisk pace around the edge of the ballroom, almost doing a lap. Counting her heartbeats (now racing). Trying to clear her head. She wiped her sweaty—sweaty?—palms on her dress. The deep blue bodice of her dress now felt far too tight around her chest. Stupid dress. Stupid dance. Stupid thought, thinking he was asking her to—as if he would ever —
She took a fresh goblet of wine, draining it in the corner. Just one. That was fine. Anything to get her head (and heart) to stop racing.
She was a servant of Katolis. She was a servant.
Chapter 2: Chosen
Callum woke up early that morning, his stomach doing flips as he forced himself out of bed. Even with all the activity of the evening prior, he still hadn’t managed to get much sleep.
This wasn’t a big deal. Just the thing that might indicate that he might finally be good at something useful. Something worth the actual prince title. One that he hadn’t even been born into. A connection he could earn all on his own. No pressure.
He pulled a stray book off his bedside table— Secrets of Xadia —a history book he’d read maybe four years ago or so, for a basic rundown of various places in Xadia. He flipped over to the section about Moonshadow elf villages. He smiled a little, running his fingers over an illustration of a shimmering domed cottage. Maybe Rayla had grown up in one of these?
He still wished he’d been able to ask her for a dance last night. Maybe she would have said no, but…
He’d been happy to see her, last night. Just to see her face, at first, and then to get to see her in a different setting, so blatantly stunning that it nearly took him off guard… She’d always been beautiful. When she was training in the mornings, her focus razor-sharp, or when she was training him with a firm but encouraging hand. And yet, there had been things he hadn’t noticed before last night, either. The gentle broadness in her shoulders, the smooth curve of her neck, especially since her hair was up for the first time he could remember. Maybe it was for the best that he hadn’t been able to ask for a dance; if she’d accepted, he absolutely would have tripped over his own two feet, as he was apt to do even when he wasn’t standing so close to a pretty girl, but a part of him couldn’t help but regret the missed opportunity anyway.
There was a knock at his door, and he wondered how long he’d been staring at the page in his own thoughts. “Prince Callum,” came a guard’s voice. “It’s time.”
Right. It was the morning of his Choosing Ceremony and all he’d been able to think about was a girl.
“Coming,” he called, closing the book and setting it aside.
He pulled on his scarf and his coat and ran his fingers faintly through his hair. Took a deep breath and then opened the door.
Time to find out if he was a mage.
The walk down the hallway seemed so much longer, his steps slower and heavier as the guards escorted him to the backdoor palace gardens and the tower, gazebo like structure that rose up in the centre of the grounds. Opeli and King Harrow were waiting for him at the foot of it. They were both smiling warmly at him, and it made his stomach even more queasy.
“The key is waiting for you inside,” Opeli said, gesturing to the curtained-off area behind her. “Let us know when you’re ready for us to join you.”
Callum nodded, then took a breath. “Okay. Here goes nothing.”
He stepped behind the curtain. It took only moments till the others outside saw light shining from behind the curtain.
“Rayla? May I have a word with you?”
Rayla stopped short when the queen approached her on her daily rounds, immediately turning and bowing. “Of course, my queen.”
“Oh, there’s no need—please,” Queen Sarai said, and Rayla slowly rose. “You’ve been a loyal member of the elven crownguard for years. There’s no need for you to bow.”
Rayla only nodded, unsure of how to respond any further, but luckily Queen Sarai didn’t let the silence stretch on for long.
“My son will be back with his results soon,” she said, glancing out the window towards where Rayla knew the gazebo lay. “He may indeed go on a pilgrimage… and if he does, I want you to accompany him.”
“Of course,” Rayla said, unable to keep from doing a short bow. “As the crownguard, it’s our honour and duty—”
“Just you,” Queen Sarai clarified quickly, and Rayla’s eyes widened. “If… you’re comfortable with that?”
“...Yes! Yes, just… surprised, is all.”
“I’ve seen how you are with him, and he seems comfortable with you. It might feel too… stifled, with both you and Soren, and I think Callum would feel safer with you accompanying him, while still being able to be relaxed. And this way, we can keep one of our co-captains here, too.”
“I see.” Rayla straightened. “I’ll keep your son safe on his pilgrimage, and bring him home, Your Majesty. I swear it.”
Queen Sarai smiled. “I know. Thank you. And I’m sure he’ll be happy to be travelling with you as well.”
Whether or not he’d be happy to have to spend who knew how much time alone with her was probably the least of their concerns, but Rayla smiled and nodded anyway, before being dismissed to continue her rounds. How did she feel about having to spend that much time with him, anyway?
It didn’t matter. Whatever fluke had happened at the gala was irrelevant and she was supposed to be his protector and teacher, not even his friend. Hell, they weren’t friends. Not really. They hardly saw each other outside of his training and so what if he watched her train sometimes? He probably watched all the servants a little, here and there. An artist’s eye. And it’s not like anything Soren said could be trusted. Guy was an idiot.
This was an order.
At the very least, a request, and one she couldn’t refuse—even if she wanted to.
Word had spread by lunchtime that Prince Callum had been chosen by the Sky Primal. The rumour was that it had glowed strong and steady for him, far brighter than Earth had glowed for his stepfather. The news was generally well received, even if it also left everyone feeling slightly troubled.
Skywing elves had, in many ways, gone a similar route to the Tidebound elves, largely staying out of the war and its political and ideological squabbles. But plenty more Skywing elves stayed and ran ammunition and worked for both sides, or for the Dark Order directly. Travelling to the Sky Nexus, abandoned by the dragons millennia ago, would not be strictly speaking a safe journey. Either way, it was bound to be a long journey, a far longer one than the trip to the Moon Nexus. A month there, and a month back, and that was assuming they didn’t face some kind of delay. (Rayla had learned to always expect some kind of delay.)
At least two months alone with the prince on a potentially dangerous journey. Rayla barely had time to process it, the news received just an hour before her usual training time with Callum.
“Hey,” he said, giving her a small, nervous smile, the way he had at the gala. “Um, Mom says you’re coming with me on the pilgrimage?”
“I am. Congratulations, by the way.”
“Thanks. I’m… just relieved one of them glowed for me at all.” They were both silent for a moment, and Callum rubbed the back of his neck, his eyes searching for something to look at that, apparently, wasn’t her. “Um. Did you have a good time at the party?”
She shrugged. “It’s a party, and I was technically still working.”
“Right. Um. But it was okay?”
“Yeah.” She passed him his wooden sword. “You remember what I told you from our last lesson?”
Callum nodded, somewhat deflated before he adjusted his stance. “Light on my toes, steady core.”
“Good.” She smiled slightly when he struck first, even as she deflected it. It was stronger, this time. More precise. Still a little slow, but…
She watched him hesitate when he managed to get an opening, closing it before he could get his strike in. There was something so familiar about it, even as she watched him try to shake himself off.
She won in the end, getting the sword to drop out of his hand as she pointed the wooden end of hers at his neck. She dropped it, picking his practice sword up and handing it back to him. “You’re overthinking it,” she said.
She nodded. “It’s normal to get caught up in technique,” she said. “You’re picking it up well, but it’s starting to slow you down.” She studied his face. “And… you hesitated.”
“You got an opening. You didn’t take it.”
“Oh. I mean, I guess—I just don’t wanna do the wrong thing.”
She gestured for him to follow, and they both sat down on the nearby bench. She handed him a flask of water, waiting patiently as he drank. “Is there… anything else on your mind?” she asked. “I know it’s been a big day.”
He set the flask down on his other side, closing it. “Just didn’t expect anything to actually glow for me,” he began, his voice soft and thoughtful. “I don’t think anyone did. I had hoped, but… And then it did, but…”
“Sky’s tricky,” she said carefully, “but I know you’ll do what’s right. I have no doubt you’ll learn magic quickly, after the pilgrimage, and then… I don’t know, it might help, having the Skywing elves see someone sort of like them.” She took a chance, resting a hand on his shoulder. “You’re doing just fine, Prince Callum.”
He tried for a smile, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Thanks, Rayla.” He finally looked up at her, and his expression brightened. “You know, I think this the longest you’ve gone without calling me ‘Your Highness’.”
She blinked. “Oh. Um…”
“It was nice,” he said. “And you know, you could just call me Callum.”
She hastily retracted her hand. “It wouldn’t be appropriate—”
“Why not? We’ve known each other since we were, like, fourteen. Soren and Claudia call me by just my name.”
Rayla floundered and scrounged something up. “Moonshadow elves believe in keeping a certain amount of distance. It makes duty easier to manage.”
“Oh.” He searched her face; for what, she wasn’t sure, but she felt exposed all the same. “Even with friends?”
“I—uh—” Were they friends? She’d kept telling herself they weren’t, but why else would she be so invested in how he feels outside of training or just simply protecting him? “I never had many,” she mumbled quickly. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh,” he said, and she bristled at the softness in his voice. “I’m sorry—“
“No, it’s not—I was so busy with training growing up, is all. Never had much time for it.”
“Still. It sounds lonely.”
“I had my family,” she said, almost grimacing as soon as she’d said it. She and Runaan were still on stiff terms even after all this time. Her parents were part of the Dragonguard, and she hadn’t seen them since she was ten. Under her bed were several letters from Ethari, which she hadn’t had the heart to reply to. But lonely wasn’t bad, was it? Lonely meant she’d be fine when everyone else was gone. They basically all were anyway.
“Still,” Callum said, but his smile eased. “I’ve never heard you talk about your family.”
Rayla shrugged. “It never came up.” She got up suddenly. “You ready to try again?”
Callum stared up at her for a moment. “Oh. Um. Sure.” He slowly got up from the bench, following her back to the middle of the courtyard.
“So right now your biggest issue is speed,” she began, before Callum could say anything else. “It’ll get easier over time as you grow more comfortable with your technique, but for now…”
“Are you sure I can’t go with you?”
Callum smiled, just a tad sadly as he packed up the last of some of his things in a knapsack. It would be important to travel light. “Sorry, Ez. It’s a journey I’m supposed to take mostly alone, and you’d get tired of it real soon anyway.”
“No I wouldn’t.”
“It’s at least two months. Do you really wanna be away from Mom and Dad for that long?”
“No, but you can’t want to, either.”
Callum paused. Fair point. “Yeah, but I’m older—technically an adult, now—so it’s easier to be away from them for a while. And I have to go. It’s my pilgrimage.”
Ezran pouted from where he was sitting on Callum's bed. “Do you have to take Rayla too? She always turns a blind eye when I steal jelly tarts from the kitchen. Whose gonna do that now ?”
Callum smiled a little. Rayla had always been Ezran’s not-so-secret favourite guard. “I’m sure you’ll figure something out. It’ll be good to brush up on your stealth skills, yeah?”
“I guess,” Ezran mumbled. Even at only thirteen, he’d already shot up in height, and was too big to sneak in through the vents.
He knew Ez was thinking along the same lines. “Send Bait in solo?” Callum suggested.
“Maybe.” He glanced at Bait, who had perched himself on Callum’s desk with seemingly no intention of moving from it anytime soon.
Which reminded Callum… he fixed his brother with a firm stare. “And while I’m gone, don’t touch my stuff.”
Ezran pouted. “I would never ,” he said, as innocently as he could manage. It would be pretty convincing if Callum hadn’t spent years finding jelly fingerprints all over his clothes and books.
“I’m serious,” he said. “No stealing my shirts, or going through whatever sketchbook I leave behind. Or my class notes. You actually have to listen to Kazi.”
Ezran sighed. “Fine. Can I have one coat while you’re gone?”
“Why? You have plenty of your own.”
“I’ll miss you.”
Callum softened. “I’ll miss you, too.” He straightened up. “Look, here—” He went over to his closet and pulled out the blue coat he’d worn when he was around Ezran’s age and pulled it over his baby brother’s shoulders. “If you don’t grow out of it too fast.”
Ezran slipped his arms through the sleeves, smiling. It fit him better than it had Callum at that age. He looked at Callum again, then threw his arms around his waist. “Stay safe,” he mumbled as Callum hugged him back.
“I will. Take care of yourself and listen to Mom and Dad, okay? And Kazi. And don’t eat too many jelly tarts before bed, or you’ll get sick.”
“I know, I know.” Ezran pulled away first, only to hop up on Callum’s bed and let his legs swing as much as they could now with his height. “So, are you excited?”
“Yeah,” he said, and he meant it. Even if some parts of the situation weren’t exactly what he’d expected. “I’ve been reading up on Sky magic and it looks really interesting. And just getting to go to Xadia for the first time will be amazing.”
“Even if you have to pass through some Order territory?”
Callum smiled a little. “What? Don’t you trust Rayla to keep me safe?”
“Of course I do,” said Ez petulantly, and then in a brighter tone, “It is nice she’s the one going with you.”
“Yeah.” Callum turned back to his bag, some warmth in his chest. “It is.” Even if she had been a tad standoffish in their training the other day, but he wasn’t about to say he knew her well enough to know or understand her moods. But maybe this trip could be a chance to try.
“You’re excited to be traveling with her, huh?”
Callum’s brow rose. “Um… yeah? I just told you that I’m excited to go to Xadia.”
“Yeah. With her .”
He shrugged. “You said it yourself. Rayla’s cool.”
“Yeah, but I don’t watch her train every morning.”
Callum nearly dropped the book he was trying to pack away. A furious flush rose to his cheeks. “How do you know…? I don’t do that every morning.”
“You’re not exactly discreet, Callum,” Ezran said plainly. “You’ve gotten better at hiding your crush now than you were with Claudia, but—”
“ Crush ?”
“I don’t have a—” His cheeks were burning. “She’s nice, and I think she’s cool. That’s all.”
Callum’s voice grew warning. “ Ez .”
“What? I think she likes you, too.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Rayla does not like me.” Why would she? Asking for a dance wasn’t outside the realm of friendship—although Viren’s interruption had probably saved both of them the embarrassment of her saying no at the ball, anyway. He turned and threw a sharp look at his brother over his shoulder. “I don’t want to talk about this, Ez.”
Ezran let out a long sigh. “Fine,” he said, hopping off of the foot of the bed. He took Bait off Callum’s desk and tucked him under his arm. “I’ll see you at dinner.”
A farewell dinner was planned tonight, just for the family.
Callum figured he should offer up at least a small peace offering. “I’ll sneak you a jelly tart?”
Ezran’s face lifted and he smiled, a mischievous and familiar glint in his eyes as Callum smiled back at him. “You better.”
“Hold on.” Harrow caught him by the shoulder when Callum went to leave the dining room with his mother and brother, his tone light and cheery. “I want a word, Prince Callum.”
A faint, playful smile crossed Callum’s lips. “My king?”
Years ago, he might’ve addressed Harrow as that, seriously so, when he couldn’t get away with not addressing him at all. It had taken a while for him to feel fully comfortable with calling his stepfather Dad , and he didn’t know if he would’ve been able to do it, if not for his mother. But they were here, warm and comfortable as Harrow released them and they walked the long way round the table towards the roaring fireplace, and Callum was glad for it.
“I just want to make sure you’re going to be smart,” Harrow began, “and safe. You know you’ll have to go through Earthblood and Skywing territory, to reach the Sky Nexus. The mages there may not be particularly fond of teaching an Allied human.”
“It’s not like I’m first,” Callum said, “but I will be safe, I promise. That’s why I have Rayla, right?”
A faint smile played on Harrow’s lips, not unlike the one Sarai had had when she’d summoned him to the library that day before his birthday gala. “I know, and I trust that we’ve placed you in the best hands. She’s a capable young woman. But be on your guard all the same. Things are… uneasy.”
Callum’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?”
“The Order is advancing on Lux Aurea, again.”
“Your aunts have reported it.”
“But they won’t get far.”
“No, but if war does break out— real war…”
Callum’s gaze drifted to the fire, watching the logs crumble beneath it. He thought of the little he’d learned of Dark Magic, what he knew it could do. The lack of limits it had, the slippery slope it built, the way the Order saw it as a mountain to climb. Questions of sentience and consent blatantly ignored for power.
His voice was quiet. “We don’t have the upper hand, do we?”
“No,” Harrow admitted heavily. “We don’t.
Callum’s lips pressed into a thin line. “We’ll be careful,” he said. “And we’ll get back as soon as we can, and… if there’s anything I can do, once I’ve connected to the arcanum—”
“We’re hoping it doesn’t come to that.” Harrow looked at him. “My wish is that you and your brother get to grow up and enjoy yourselves, and assume your responsibilities at your own pace. That being said… mage hood may not be your most powerful asset.”
“What do you mean?”
“Marriage, son,” Harrow said softly.
Callum tried not to grimace. “Right. Swaying neutral Earthblood lords, right?”
“Perhaps,” said Harrow carefully. “It would not be to anyone you detest. And hopefully will not be necessary at all. I was allowed to marry for love. You deserve the same option—the window of opportunity just may not be open forever.”
Nettled, Callum said, “I can’t just choose when to fall in love with someone.”
“No, but it doesn’t hurt to keep your eyes and heart a bit more open. That person might be closer than you think.”
Callum rolled his eyes. “If you’re talking about Claudia—”
“I’m not talking about anyone in particular,” Harrow said, now smiling slightly. “Although no, I was not talking about Claudia, either. I’m just saying things can sneak up on us. That’s how your mother was for me.”
Callum smiled a little. Even if his relationship with his stepfather hadn’t started out as close as it was now, he’d always known beyond a shadow of a doubt how much his parents loved one another. “I’ll think about it,” he said. “Though I don’t think I’ll be able to do much about it till I get back.”
“You never know,” Harrow said cheerfully, and then, turning somber. “We’ve already had some surprises recently, haven’t we?”
Callum thought of his cube ceremony. He hadn’t expected Sky. He hadn’t expected… He cleared his throat. “Yeah. We have.”
Harrow placed a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll be alright, son.”
“I know.” Then he realized Harrow wasn’t just coming over to hug him, but also leaning down to kiss his forehead, and Callum struggled against his father’s grip. “Hey, Dad—don’t you think I’m a little old for—?”
Harrow’s lips found Callum’s hairline anyway. “Nope.” Then he pulled him into a tight hug. “We’ll see you off in the morning.”
Callum smiled slightly in spite of himself. “Okay. Goodnight, Dad. I love you.”
Harrow clapped him on the shoulder one last time. “I love you, too, son.”
They departed at dawn, the sun not even up yet when Callum said goodbye to his family. His parents hugged him tightly, then Ezran came back for a second one, before they finally let him go. Rayla left only strict instructions to a few guards on duty before they mounted their horses, Callum struggling with the saddle before he settled in. They were well through the woods by the time the sun began to rise, and Callum already found himself nodding off.
“Hey.” A sharp nudge to his side. “Not so fast, sleepy prince.”
Callum smiled a little, even in his sleepiness. “Sorry,” he yawned. “Not used to being up so early.”
“It’s better that we get a good start, and we can stop before dusk with a good amount of distance between us. And you don’t want to go falling off the saddle.”
He’d nearly fallen off multiple times without nodding off, but he didn’t mention that. “How do you stay awake?”
“I’m used to getting up early.”
“Even earlier than when you’re training?” he asked, nearly covering his mouth. Because it totally wasn’t weird to keep mentioning that you watched your crownguard/trainer in the mornings when no one else was around.
Rayla just smiled faintly. “I train for about two hours every morning, so I’m not sure when you’re catching me, but it’s likely that I’m nearly done by the time you’re up to see.”
Callum’s brows rose to his forehead. “Two hours?”
“My old mentor got me in the habit,” she said. Her smile faltered for a moment.
“You were ten when you started training, right?” he asked. Rayla nodded. Callum vaguely remembered his mother giving him that bit of information when she’d first come to the castle to train with the crownguard. He’d been so impressed by it. He still was.
“Like you said.” Her lips twitched. “Intense.”
Callum’s smile grew. “Are you excited to go back to Xadia?”
“It will be nice to see it again,” she said. “It’s been a long while.”
“What’s your favourite thing about it?”
She glanced at him, her smile threatening to grow. “You want me to name one thing I like about a huge mass of various territories?”
“Fine. Give me a list.”
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly. “How about we wait until you get there? I’ll even show you around, if we have time.”
“Really?” He couldn’t hide his giddiness even if he’d tried.
“Yes. But we have to get to the border first, which means no more falling off steeds. And no falling asleep on them, either.”
Callum held his hands together in an almost excited clap, the reins bunched between his fingers. “Right, right.” Xadia . Wow. He excused it by deciding that it was the best way to keep him awake, as he asked, “What was it like growing up there?”
Rayla was quiet for a moment. “Well, I’ve spent a quarter of my life here in Katolis now. There are elves who would be better equipped to answer that than me.”
“Well, yeah,” said Callum with a strange smile. “But I’m not asking them . I’m asking you .” Then he winced. “Not that you have to answer, I mean—it’s not—it’s not an order.”
“It’s okay,” she said, and he counted it as a victory when she gave him a small smile. “What I remember is… dusk, mostly. Moonshadow villages are usually cloaked in it by magic. Mine was no exception. It was nice, though. Peaceful. We mostly kept to ourselves, but we looked out for each other. Did what we could for the good of the community. Many Moonshadow elves never leave the villages they’re born in.”
“Why did you leave then?” he asked.
Rayla bit her lip. “Just… thought I’d be able to do more outside of the Silvergrove. My village, that is. Katolis felt as good a place as any. And I’ve enjoyed my time here.”
“Yeah,” said Callum, and then thoughtfully, “It is different though, isn’t it? I guess… I still remember when I first came to the castle. It just seemed so big .”
“How old were you again, when you first came to the castle?” she asked.
“Three or four, I think. My mom moved pretty quickly after my… birth father passed away. But the king is a good man, and a good dad. So I was really lucky. Am really lucky. Even if I don’t enjoy everything being a prince requires.”
She smiled. “Like sword fighting, Your Highness?”
Callum threw her a grin. “You make it bearable and you know it.”
“Maybe so,” she said smoothly, even if he swore he caught a hint of pink dusting her cheeks. “And your training isn’t on hold just because we’re travelling, by the way.”
“Hey, I may have been falling asleep, but I wasn’t foolish enough to dream of that.” He raised his chin. “Intense, remember?”
“Ah, you’ve been learning quickly, then,” she smiled. “You’re sure it’ll stay bearable?”
“As long as you’re the one teaching me,” he said, feeling a little bolder when Rayla glanced away with a flush. “Who trained you growing up?”
Her smile flickered. “Um, his name is Runaan,” she said. “He’s the leader of the assassins in my village—but he trained me more as a protector, obviously.”
Callum’s pitch was off. “Obviously.”
Rayla let out a low chuckle. “I almost joined them,” she said, “but his husband—one of my caretakers—was worried about me joining, and I was so young. He… thought I was too soft-hearted.”
“I dunno,” said Callum thoughtfully. “You’re pretty tough.”
She rewarded him with a tiny smile. “I am,” she considered. “But… it’s different, taking a life. I never really had it in me, so…” Her voice hardened. “That being said, I won’t let anything stand in my way when it comes to keeping you safe.”
“I know,” Callum smiled. “And, um, that’s a good thing, by the way. That you’d rather take as little life as possible.”
Rayla’s smile softened. “Some would disagree, but… thank you.”
His eyes crinkled at the corners. “You’re welcome.”
They rode on for another stretch before taking a quick stop in a clearing, feeding their mounts and stretching their legs. Callum had some trouble with the stirrup, like always, but Rayla never said anything—neither offering help nor deirison—and that was more than he could say for the few occasions he went out riding with Soren back at the palace. The sun was shining brightly now, rays of light filtering through the trees and bouncing off the lush, green leaves of summer. He watched the light catch in Rayla’s silver hair as she pet her horse, and, not for the first time, resisted the urge to draw her.
He didn’t know why, exactly. It just felt like he’d never be able to get it right.
She fished through her own knapsack once her horse was settled, before pulling out some bread and fruit and tossing it over to Callum. He caught an apple awkwardly, accidentally in the crook of his arm when it missed his hands, and dropped the packaged bread flat out. Rayla picked it up from the dirt, brushing it off the white wax paper.
“We’ll have to work on your hand-eye coordination too,” she said, the corners of her mouth twitching. She placed it in his other hand, before holding up her own. “Thought it about time we had breakfast.”
Oh, right. It was still morning.
They sat down at the base of a large tree, Callum shifting a little to stretch out his legs, his brain short-circuiting at a brief brush of his thigh against hers. He hadn’t meant to sit so close, but now he was here, and wouldn’t it be rude to scoot away? She’d already started eating and clearly didn’t mind, probably didn’t care, and why did he care anyway?
He glanced over when he saw Rayla peeling some sort of small, round fruit in her hand that seemed to be covered in thick pink leaves with yellow tips. It almost looked like a small domed dragon egg, going by pictures he’d seen. He watched as she peeled away enough leaves and then easily broke off a piece of the fruit, soft looking and like an orange, and popped it in her mouth.
Then Rayla caught him looking and he floundered. “No seeds,” he said, hoping his face didn’t look as flushed as it felt.
“Xadian fruit,” she said. She broke off another piece, holding it out to him. “Wanna try?”
His fingers brushed hers as he took it. It always surprised him how small her hands were, even more than how calloused they were. He lifted the slice to his curled lips. “You’re sure you’re not poisoning me?”
“I just ate it,” she said, almost laughing. “If you’re being poisoned, so am I.”
“You could know something about elven immunity that I don’t,” he said, even as he popped it into his mouth. “Or,” he said, after swallowing, “you did poison the both of us on purpose, for some reason, and in a few moments we’ll just fade away together out here.”
Rayla snorted. “And you just ate it with that consideration.”
“Well, if I have to spend my last moments with anyone,” he mused, and she glanced away with a slight flush. “Besides, I’d literally be lost without you.”
“We’re not that far from the castle,” she said. “You could find your way back. Unless you failed geography?”
“I’m good at drawing maps, not following them.”
“I weep for your old palace tutor, then.” They both laughed again, and he looked at her, his gaze lingering this time. He’d hardly ever seen her so relaxed, just leaning against the tree, her face flushed from barely-suppressed laughter.
“We’ll pray that Ez is better with Kazi, then,” he said.
“Of course it was Kazi,” Rayla smiled. “What a poor, patient soul.”
“Hey, they actually trust me to help with some of Ez’s lessons.”
“Not geography, though.”
Rayla tilted her head slightly. “It’s sweet that you help out, though.”
Callum smiled. “Thanks. He wanted to come along actually. He was particularly disappointed that I was bringing you along too. Apparently you turn a blind eye to his jelly tart escapades?”
Rayla smoothed her face over but her eyes betrayed her mirth. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
His smile widened. “Yeah, not surprised you’re his favourite crownguard. I guess we’ll just have to share.” Then he turned back to his apple and took a big happy bite. When he glanced at her again, her eyes were still wide, her cheeks a pretty red. “What?”
“N-nothing, Your Highness,” she said, turning away. Her hair fell over the side of her face a bit like a curtain. “I didn’t realize that I was…” A glimpse of her throat as she swallowed. “Your favourite.”
“Of course you are,” Callum said. “That’s why I requested you for the trip.”
“Oh.” Rayla coughed. “I thought it was Her Majesty’s choice.”
“I mean, my mom definitely approved, but she asked me if I had a first choice for who would come with me, and…” Hesitance crawled up the back of his neck, feeling like an itchy blush. “I hope you don’t mind that I chose you—”
“No,” she said quickly, and then more softly. “No, I don’t mind. I’m… honoured, actually.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. “Oh good,” he breathed in relief. “I’m just—I couldn’t think of anyone else I’d be comfortable with, for so long, and… I guess I assumed you’d be okay with it, too?”
“You assumed correctly,” she smiled.
“Though I should probably ask next time?”
Her brow furrowed. “Well, you are my prince,” she said, and he wasn’t sure why he liked the title when she said it like that.
“But you’re also my friend. What you want matters too.”
She glanced at her knees. “I’m glad you picked me to come with you,” she admitted quietly. “I would have missed you otherwise.”
Callum smiled, daring to touch his knee to hers, even if it was brief. “I would’ve missed you, too.”
She cleared her throat. “We should probably get going again soon,” she said. She stuffed the rest of her bread into the little paper sack and got up from their spot against the tree, walking back over to her horse and slipping it into her knapsack. “Let me know when you’re ready.”
He exhaled slowly in an effort to make the sinking feeling in his chest go away. “Right.” He quickly finished his bread before pushing himself up onto his feet, crumpling up the wrapper in his hand. He tucked it into his coat pocket, this one longer but still blue, not unlike the one he’d given to Ezran.
So Rayla had trouble admitting they were friends, even Callum just grew more and more sure that they were. Alright. He could work with that.
They’d be spending at least the next two months together, not including the time he’d have to stay at the Sky Nexus while forging his connection, either.
How stubbornly or shyly standoffish could she be, really?
He’d chosen her.
The thought kept Rayla up that night, when they’d made camp in between towns. She’d let them away from the main road and pitched up two lightweight, Moonshadow modelled tents where they’d be safe and sheltered from the elements, although the night was quiet. Quiet enough for her to sit outside her tent instead and stare up at the stars. She needed to do something . She couldn’t very well just go to sleep, now that her mind wouldn’t stop racing.
I would’ve missed you, too.
Ugh. Why had she gone and said anything? And why had he been so… nice, about it? Prince Callum had always been kind, humble, and fairly down to earth, just like the rest of his family. She could correct him during his sword fighting lessons and his pride was never wounded. But he’d been friendly and earnest and asking questions, wanting to get to know her, it seemed like. That was harder to reconcile or to brush off.
Well, if I had to spend my last moments with someone. What had that been about? Rayla shook it off.
She had a job to do. She couldn’t go getting fond of some soft-eyed prince who said sweet things on a whim. Even if they were… friends . Or at least, for some reason that she couldn’t decipher, Prince Callum saw her as one. Then again, he also saw Soren as one, so maybe he wasn’t the best judge of character… Not that Soren was malicious or even cruel; he wasn’t. But he wasn’t particularly supportive of the prince either, at least as far as she had seen. Although she’d never seen him be mean to Prince Ezran…
And he’s not the one on this mission, came a tiny voice in her head. The prince picked you.
She shook it off, even if it clung a bit more stubbornly. Of course you are , Callum said, when speaking about his favourite crownguard. She let out a huff. Stupid racing thoughts, stupid racing heart when he’d sat so close.
This was going to be a long, long trip, wasn’t it?
Chapter 3: Maps and the Moon
It was another almost full day of riding before they reached an inn, and Callum felt beyond sore when they finally dismounted and brought their horses to the inn’s adjacent stables. He only stumbled a little as he dismounted—Rayla was graceful as always as she practically floated off her mount—and they quickly said goodbye to their horses before leaving them to the stablehand to feed and care for for the night.
The inn itself was rather small, but as they stepped in, Callum could see the charm. The wooden walls were polished and clean, a rich medium-dark brown, the grain of each wooden piece creating a wall pattern of its own. There was a small, tinkling bell at the door, which rang as they entered, the front desk decorated with various succulents in tiny pots.
The inn receptionist seemed young, not much older than Ezran, with floppy blonde hair as they looked up from their book.
“Two rooms if you have them,” Callum requested. The receptionist blinked, before pulling out a box of keys from underneath. There was only one pair left.
“We only have a single bed available,” the receptionist said absently, holding out the key as they looked back at the book. It was open almost to the end.
Callum glanced at Rayla, who had turned stiff. “There’s really no other rooms? Could you at least have an extra bed brought in?”
“You and your girlfriend need that much room?”
Callum’s eyes hardened like flint. “Watch your tone,” he said sharply, channelling the sort of voice he’d learned to use the few times Harrow let him sit in on council meetings. He took out his papers stamped with the royal seal and put it forth on the desk. It took them a moment, but the receptionist’s eyes widened when they saw it, before finally looking up.
“It’s the only room,” they said, more present this time. “My father’s gone for the next few days so there’s really nothing I can do.”
“You have more servants, don’t you?” said Callum tersely.
“Then give us the room, but make sure there’s two beds in it. Understood?”
The young teenager’s eyes flickered between them, before nodding. “The room will be ready shortly.”
Callum tucked the seal back in his bag. “I’m sure it will,” he said, still frowning. He stepped back closer to Rayla. “We can eat in the dining hall in the meantime.”
The tips of Rayla’s ears were still red, but she nodded silently as they walked into the cafe area near the back. At the very least, the kitchen staff was nicer, even if they hadn’t yet realized who Callum was. It was probably for the better; pulling out the seal and title was never fun. The clerk probably thought he was a noble who had the favour of the royal family, not a prince, which was likely safer, too.
“I’m sorry about that,” Callum said to her quietly, once they’d been left with their drinks and steaming plates of shepherd’s pie.
“It’s fine,” Rayla said. “Just took me off guard a bit.”
“If they really can’t find anything, I can just sleep on the floor,” he offered, but Rayla shook her head.
“I’m supposed to be the one serving you, remember?”
“And your job is to keep me from getting lost or hurt or killed, not to have a pisspoor sleepover.”
Her brow furrowed. “Sleepover?”
“You know. When friends stay the night at each other’s rooms and—”
“I know what a sleepover is,” she said, but she’d begun to relax.
“And this is kind of like a sleepover. So no, I’m not going to let you sleep on the floor. I’m travelling, you’re working, therefore you need to sleep more.” He shrugged. “Consider it an order if you have to.”
Rayla bit back a snort. “Real convincing.”
“I’ll break out my princely voice again if I have to.”
She actually smiled this time. “No need,” she said, rolling her eyes fondly. “I think you made that poor kid shit their trousers.”
“They were being more than rude,” he said. “Besides, being a prince has to have its perks sometimes. You deserve to be comfortable.”
Her smile softened. “Thanks.” She glanced down at her half-finished dinner. “I never really had sleepovers before,” she said, and maybe it was to change the subject, but it was an opening all the same.
“Really?” Callum said, brightening.
“Didn’t have time for them.”
“I only really had them with Ez and Soren, and this was all back when we were kids, but it was so fun. We’d stay up and have a bunch of snacks and… sometimes, would play pranks on the castle guards. In my defense, I was like, eleven.”
Rayla’s smile lifted. “Did they work?”
“Sometimes. Soren had a lot to explain when he joined the crownguard and finally had to work with some of his victims. Then sleepovers were just me and Ezran.”
“And I imagine far more jelly tarts?”
“Maybe. Back when we were younger, Ez could just flash his puppy dog eyes and get whatever he wanted, so stealing the tarts was even easier.” Callum smiled wistfully. “We were pretty cute kids, if I do say so myself.”
“Well, I know he was,” Rayla said.
“Hey,” Callum laughed, “you would’ve seen my dad’s first family portrait. Are you saying I wasn’t cute?”
“I’m not not saying you were,” she said, taking another bite of shepherd’s pie.
He took a sip of his drink. “So long as you aren’t calling me ugly now.”
He guessed Rayla was hungrier than he thought, because she mostly focused on eating the rest of her shepherd’s pie for the rest of the meal.
They were just about finished when the waiter came over to clear their plates. “I hear your room’s ready,” he said, and Callum smiled gratefully.
“Thank you,” he said. “We’ll check at the front.”
“And don’t mind them,” the waiter said, nodding towards the front desk. “The owner’s their father, put them in charge for the week. They really don’t want to take over ownership for the inn.”
“I guess I understand that,” Callum said slowly.
“Still not an excuse to give a young couple on vacation a hard time. I hope the rest of your stay is more pleasant.”
“Oh, um, we’re not—” Callum cleared his throat and waved his hands, laughing nervously. “We’re not a couple. Friends. Just friends.”
The waiter just hummed in reply, before leaving them alone at the table. With a room to go to, that they’d have to share. With that sitting between them.
“Weird, huh?” Callum tried, his smile still nervous. Rayla rose from her seat, frowning and red in the face.
“Let’s just go check in,” she grumbled and Callum winced when she strode ahead and could no longer see his face.
He’d always known Rayla wasn’t much of a romantic—unlike the other guards and crownguard, who sometimes entertained flirtations with one another—but was the idea of him and her really that bad? Not that there was anything, but still.
They got two keys from the clerk and headed upstairs. Their room wasn’t too small, room enough to breathe even with a cot shoved in. At the center of the room was a single king-sized bed, with soft wall lamps for mood lighting. A tall mirror lay by the closet door on the opposite wall. It briefly crossed his mind that this room might be used normally by couples on their honeymoon, but—
Nope. Nope, that wasn’t helping anything with their situation.
“I’ll take the cot,” Rayla said before he could say anything, claiming her spot by setting her knapsack down on top of the thin blanket. “And I should go check on the horses before we turn in.”
It was a good ten minutes’ walk to the stables, so she’d be gone for at least twenty, and fatigue weighed him down. He didn’t like the idea of falling asleep until she got back, but they were pretty safe in Katolis, and his body may not give him much of an option.
Callum tried for a small smile. “Goodnight, then.”
Rayla returned it with an equal (little) amount of gusto. “Goodnight, Your Highness.”
Callum sighed when she shut the door, then set down his pack and pulled off his shirt, rummaging through for his night clothes. It was day one and he’d already felt like he had walked, fallen off, then gotten back up onto a tight rope a good ten times in a row with her. Not that he really had anything to lose… other than his dignity, and having non -awkward silences.
He sat down on the edge of the bed once he was in his night clothes, running a hand through his hair as he stared at her knapsack on the tiny cot. He frowned, before pushing himself back up onto his feet and taking her bag, setting it down on the bed. He set his own bag down at the side of the cot before slipping beneath the thin covers and wrapping them around him.
He wasn’t sure what he’d done, if anything at all, but hopefully it’d be enough of an apology. At the very least, she’d be more comfortable.
His eyes were closed but he still hadn’t fallen asleep when he heard the door open, before shutting firmly again as he heard Rayla let out a small huff. He cracked an eye open, watching her in front of the mirror as she tied her hair up before stopping short. Her eyes followed the mirror’s reflection to the bed, then to Callum in the cot. He quickly shut his eyes fully, hoping he looked asleep, counted maybe a few seconds, and then slowly cracked just one open again, just to steal a peek.
Rayla’s face had gone soft—softer than he had ever seen it look before, and maybe softer still than she would have allowed it to be, if she knew he was looking—her cheeks and brow smoothed out, her lips gently curved into a sweet, peaceful smile. He could hardly keep from smiling, too—he liked that look on her face, and liked being the reason for it. Or rather, the bed was the reason for it, but her having a nice place to sleep was still sort of because of him, wasn’t it?
He shut his eyes again when she turned and tucked her hair behind her ears. His span of congratulating himself ended abruptly when he heard the soft shuffling of fabric, as she changed into her sleep clothes too. He turned his face more firmly into his pillow and away from her, hoping she would just think of it as an unconscious shift, if she noticed at all. There was a soft click as Rayla turned off the rest of the lights, and he took a chance and opened his eyes again, watching her walk back towards the bed in a loose nightgown.
Callum shifted and closed his eyes one last time.
One town to the Sky Nexus down, who knew how many to go.
Rayla had never been more grateful for her habit of getting up hours before sunrise than that morning. Not only because an earlier start was wise, but also because it meant she could go to the bathroom and change and look well, presentable, well before Prince Callum woke up. Not that it mattered how she looked around him. Besides, more than that, they would have to wake up to one another and talk about any of last evening’s awkwardness. Or the fact that he’d very sweetly given up his bed for her.
She’d have to thank him for the last one, when she wasn’t feeling so strangely exposed. Preferably when she felt like she could look him in the eye again.
It would also be a relief to leave the inn. Not just to get on the road, but also to get away from all the people who thought they were a couple. Because it was a ridiculous notion, and could not be farther from the truth, and clearly made him nervous and uncomfortable too. Even if it wasn’t a terrible cover. Safer than revealing his true identity wherever they went. Katolis was as safe as they would be at any point in this journey, most likely, but that didn’t mean it was smart to go parading around as a prince without a proper royal entourage and accompanying crownguard to make sure nothing happened.
His voice was low and rough and sleepy and she clenched her jaw at the way it sent shivers down her spine, and she schooled her expression into something pleasant, neutral, before she turned around to face him. The prince was sitting up in the cot, the blanket tangled up by his legs as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, his hair messier than she’d ever seen it. She could have slapped herself for the way her fingers itched to fix his hair for him. “Hey,” she said, keeping her voice neutral. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”
“It’s okay, you didn’t,” he said with a slight yawn and a sleepy smile. “How long have you been up?”
“Long enough to get dressed.”
“Are you gonna do your training?”
“I—wasn’t planning on it. We don’t have time for that every day now that we’re on the road.”
He nodded, still blinking sleepily. “Makes sense. I guess I’ll get dressed and then we’ll grab our stuff and go down for breakfast?”
“I was going to let you sleep in a little longer, if you wanted. We’ve been making good time.”
“It’s only day two.”
“And we’ve made good time in the past day.”
He sat up a bit straighter, looking unimpressed. “You don’t have to pamper me, Rayla.”
She smiled a little. “Oh, you’d rather I wake you up before the crack of dawn and hurry us back onto the road every morning?”
“You made sword fighting bearable. You could probably make that bearable too.”
It was far too early in the morning for her face to be heating up like this. “We’ll probably figure out some happy medium,” she said quietly. “I’m done using the bathroom, I can check on the horses while you get ready and pack and then come back up so we can go down to breakfast together. Sound good?”
He nodded. “Yeah.”
She was reaching for the doorknob, to head out the way she would have done without second guessing it even a few days ago. But not today. She looked back at him over her shoulder. “And thank you,” she said, just his first name, void of title, burning in her mouth, even if she couldn’t quite get it out. “For last night. It was very sweet.”
His smile made her think of the first few rays of light at sunrise. “Anytime,” he said softly. She slipped out before her heart could swell too much.
By hell or high water, he really was going to be the death of her, wasn’t he?
Breakfast was a simple, quiet affair, and they got back on the road without much trouble. It was hotter than the day before when the sun had finished rising, the main roads crowded (which really meant just a few other travellers here and there) now too, and they kept their horses nestled close together.
“You’re not used to riding for this long,” she figured out by noon, “are you?”
Prince Callum gave her a slight grin even as the reins slipped in his hands. “Am I that obvious?”
“Only to me. Your secret is safe with me, Your Highness.”
“I appreciate that, but I doubt it’s much of a secret at this point.” When his horse began to stray again, Rayla caught the reins for him this time, and he let out a long sigh. “Sorry.”
She tugged him back over. “It’s alright.”
“Soren’s tried to teach me how to ride a horse properly a thousand times, but it never seems to stick.”
Rayla rolled her eyes. “Yes, well, Soren can be particularly hard-headed.”
Prince Callum’s brows rose. “What do you mean by that?” he sounded surprised, maybe even a tad defensive, at the derision in her voice.
She pressed her lips together. “He’s hard on you, unfairly so. Makes mean jokes.” She frowned. “And from what I know of his time teaching you, he’s not particularly patient, anyway. Everyone has to start somewhere.”
“Soren can say what he likes about me,” the prince said, now frowning back at her. “It doesn’t matter.”
“But he’s disrespectful, what if he said those things about Prince Ezran—”
“But he doesn’t.”
“Why is it alright if it’s you, then?”
“Because he’s never wrong? Because—look, Soren just needs someone he can give a hard time to. I can take it.”
Rayla sighed, looking over her horse’s head. “Doesn’t mean you should. Especially not from someone you call a friend.”
“He is my friend.”
A tiny scoff escaped her.
“Rayla.” His voice was almost sharp. Then he let out a long, low sigh. “Do you want to know why?”
Remembering her place a bit more—although she doubted that had been Prince Callum’s actual intention to make her remember it—Rayla looked at him and tried to do so a bit more softly. “About which thing, Your Highness? Why are you friends, or why is he so mean?”
“Both.” The prince stared straight ahead. “When I was eight and Soren was twelve, my—my mom got sick. Dad tried to keep me away from it—Ez was too little, he didn’t have a clue what was going on—but he couldn’t, not fully. And he was busy with the palace physician trying to figure out what to do. So I went to Soren and asked if he had any advice—because his mom had left too, a few years back. Willingly, to Del Bar, after she and Lord Viren separated. And that was one of the first times I ever cried in front of Soren, either, but he sat me down and convinced me that everything was going to be okay. So yeah, he can be a real ass, sometimes. But he’s there when it matters. And you don’t have to like him, or be his friend, but I am.”
Rayla softened. “I just… You’re more capable than you know, Your Highness. And he may be your friend, but he’s wrong about a lot of things about you. You have talent, and potential, and… you don’t deserve to be put down. Not by anyone. But I’m glad that, when it matters, you have been able to depend on Soren.”
Prince Callum glanced over at her from the corner of his eye. “You’re not gonna fully agree with me on this, are you?”
He looked away. “Good.”
Her brow furrowed. “‘Good’?”
“Yeah. It’s good that you disagree with me.” He smiled just the tiniest bit. “It means we’re friends.”
She blinked in surprise, before turning away as well. “I… suppose we are.”
He looked back at her, his smile growing. “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard you agree, out loud, that we’re friends.”
“Keep pushing and I’ll retract it.”
His tone turned positively cheery even as they both looked at the road. “We are friends.”
He was impossible . Why did she like him again? Rayla stole a glance and saw the pleased little smile on his lips, the happy gleam in his eyes at something so simple. Oh. Right.
“And if we’re friends, which we are,” he continued, and Rayla couldn’t help the small smile sneaking onto her face, “you’ll have to get used to just calling me Callum eventually.”
“Eventually,” she parroted.
“Well I look forward to it.”
She flushed again. “I’m sure you will.” She caught his reins again. “Now don’t fall off your horse, Your Highness. We still have a long way to go.”
At lunchtime, when Callum finished quickly and took out his sketchbook, Rayla shook her head at him when he started to sketch a flower. “Nu-uh,” she said. “Draw a map.”
“Uh—?” He lifted his eyebrows at her.
She bit off a piece of her Xadian orange. “I want to try and make sure you always know where you are, so that if we ever got separated, for whatever reason, you’d be okay.”
“But we won’t, right?”
“I’ll do what I can. But this is my way of… making sure I can protect you even if I can’t physically be there, too.”
“Then we’ll find our way back to each other.”
Rayla smiled faintly. “I’d do my best. But you’d need to know where you are for that, anyway. So.” She gestured at him. “Go on.”
He sketched the Drekkini Allied territories first: Katolis and Duren, first of all, and then Lux Aurea and the Sunfire elves up farther north, the misty lands of the Moonshadow elves lower south. The dragon lands, pushed back and away from their ancestral home near the Storm Spire. Some of the Tidebound territories, both in the northeastern ocean and some larger lakes, with more detail on Diamond Cove and the Jade Expanse. The Midnight Desert smack in the middle of Earthblood elf territory, the largest swath of land owned by Lord Taelin. He labeled each town and territory he knew of with small, careful letters, his penmanship clean and precise, before he finished off by marking Del Bar, Neolandia, and Evenere.
A small smile twisted her lips into something wry and approving. “Not bad. I think Kazi would be proud.”
“And we’re…” His stick of charcoal moved parallel to a tiny river trailing out of mid-Katolis, past the little tower he’d drawn to represent his family’s castle. He stopped close to it. “Here?”
Rayla’s fingers folded over his wrist as she guided his pencil to hover just under the south side of the river, adjusting slightly. “Here. We’re technically following the main roads, which are based off a smaller river that runs nearby.”
Rayla released his hand. “You were close, though."
“Wait, could you show me again?” he asked, his hand drifting ever so slightly. “Help me draw the river?”
“Help you… draw it?”
“Uh, you can guide my hand again, I’ll try to fill it out as we go along.”
“Um. Are you sure you don’t just want me to draw it? It may be simpler.”
Callum handed over his piece of charcoal and then Rayla leaned over, too, his sketchbook open on his crossed-legged thighs and knee. She’d never been this close before, her eyes on the page, her hand careful not to smudge any of his lines as she slowly added one of her own, hair falling like materialized moonlight over her pale cheek. Her hand wobbled, and Callum’s fingers wrapped around hers, loosening her grip. “There,” he said quietly. “Don’t wanna break it.”
Rayla cleared her throat. “Right. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Just keep it steady.” He eased the base curve of her palm slightly off the page.
She finished the river off, drawing little waves within the thin strip to mark it as such, the same way he had with the lakes and rivers, before she looked up at him. He could see the light array of freckles dotting the bridge of her nose. She smiled weakly. “I’m not much of an artist.”
He smiled softly, his fingers almost itching to brush that loose strand of hair from her face. “You did fine,” he murmured. “And now I won’t get lost.”
At least, not in anything but her eyes. Bright, round, and deep violet, as pretty as the rest of her, brought out that evening on his birthday by the silver in her dress—
She pulled away. “Well, now you have a good map on hand,” she said lightly. “And a good idea of where you are.” She picked up her fruit from where she’d laid it on her other knee and finished it off.
“Yeah,” Callum said, still a little dazed. “Um, thanks.” He blinked a few times, feeling almost as if he’d gotten the sun in his eyes. But the sun was behind them, so why…? “Uh, if you’re done your fruit, do you want to keep going?”
She glanced at him with a slight smirk. “Now who’s the one hurrying us back onto the road?”
His face grew warmer. “Oh, sorry, I didn’t—”
Rayla laughed, a rare thing; she never laughed at him during sword fighting practice even when he was screwing up. This one was throaty and bright at the same time. It was his new favourite sound. “I’m kidding,” she said. “I’m almost done. Get your stuff ready, I’ll join you in about two minutes.”
Knowing him, he might need all that time to just get in the stirrup properly, Callum knew. He pushed himself up. “Will do.”
He did end up needing the extra time, still not used to gauging how far to throw his other leg over to the other side, still trying to adjust himself in the saddle when Rayla was already done and on her own horse. He could see the sparkle of amusement in her eyes as she kept the rest of her face neutral. “What?”
“Nothing, Your Highness.”
“Do you want to laugh at how long it took for me to get up here?”
“I would never ,” she said, even as the corners of her mouth twitched. Part of him just wanted to hear her laugh again.
They put their horses forward into a trot. “Can I ask you more questions about Xadia?” he asked. “I’ll let you laugh at me.”
He swore he caught her biting her lip ever so briefly. “Fine. What’s your first question? Choose carefully. You’re only getting five today.”
“Okay, uh…” He’d asked about Xadia plenty yesterday, and the way magic was interwoven with nature, everywhere. “Um, what are your parents like?”
Rayla wrinkled her nose at him. “That’s not about Xadia.”
“Aren’t they Xadia n ?”
She rolled her eyes, smiling slightly. “Fine, if you really want to use up a question on that. They’re part of the Dragonguard, in the Dragon Queen’s lair, to protect her and King Avizandum’s egg. It hasn’t hatched yet.”
“Wow. That’s… really cool,” he said. “But you still haven’t told me what they’re like. Just what they do.”
Rayla let out a soft snort. “I dunno. My mum’s usually more quiet and serious, except when she’s angry or even just irritated. I learned a lot of colourful language from her at a very young age.” She smiled when Callum chuckled. “And my dad is… a lot nicer than most Moonshadow elves. When I was really little he used to take Mum and me to the meadow nearby or to get this dessert we have there on a whim, even when they were supposed to be training, or when I was supposed to be in school. That was before they left to be in the Dragonguard, but…”
“When did they leave?”
“That counts as another question,” she said. “You sure you want to ask it?”
Callum paused, seemingly thinking it over, before he said, rather softly, “If you’re okay with answering it, then yes. But if not, that’s okay too.”
“It’s alright. I was five.”
“Oh.” He looked at her, his eyes softening. “That’s… really young.”
“They visited for most of my birthdays, and they still write letters. Besides, they left me in the care of their best friends, Ethari and…” Her voice faltered a little. “Runaan.” She straightened up. “So I was okay.”
Runaan was also her trainer and mentor, Callum remembered. An assassin. He didn’t push it. “And uh, in the Silvergrove, right, what’s your favourite dessert?”
Her shoulders relaxed again. “Moonberry surprise.”
“What’s in it?”
“Fourth question. You’re sure?” She grinned when he nodded. “Too bad, because I can’t just tell you what’s in a moonberry surprise. That defeats the whole purpose.”
“That was mean.”
Rayla laughed, very pleased with herself, so he couldn’t really mind it. “I can tell you that even though moonberries are red, moonberry surprises are purple and blue.”
“Is that the surprise part?”
“No, and stop trying to get me to spoil it,” she mock-scolded. “And that was your fifth question.”
“What? Oh come on, that is not fair.” Still, he smiled when Rayla laughed again.
“That’s what you get for focusing on family and desserts. Now you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for another five questions.”
“Please, just one more? A real one?”
“I don’t know…” she said in an almost sing-song voice, bright and teasing.
“I’ll let you ask me five questions.”
“Why would I want to ask you questions?”
Callum pouted at her. “Just one more, that’s all I’m asking. And I could give you dirt on Soren?”
Rayla snorted. “He reveals enough about himself, but fine, if it means you’ll stop with the big puppy eyes. One more question.”
This time, he was fully prepared. “What are dragons like?”
She smiled thoughtfully. “Adult dragons are… big, mostly. Almost as big as mountains, with voices like hail and storm. For the ones who are as old as mountains and can speak, anyway. I’ve only seen one up close when I crossed over the border the first time around; the couple of others I’ve seen didn’t have their voices yet. But they’re magnificent. Otherworldly, all the same.”
“Wow,” Callum breathed. “I’d love to see one someday.”
“You sure? They’re more scary than anything if you’re up close and did something wrong.”
“...But we didn’t do anything wrong, so…?”
“Still scary if you’re not used to it.”
“Well I have you to protect me, don’t I? My dragon whisperer.”
Rayla turned away with a snort. “Yes, Your Highness. It’s not as though my swords wouldn’t be a dragon’s toothpicks.”
“I guess we can just look at a dragon from afar, then,” he bargained.
“Even that isn’t certain. Most of the dragons stay up above the clouds, we might see one on a clear day if we’re lucky, but…” She shrugged.
“Something else to look forward to,” he said hopefully. She smiled a little as she glanced back at him; her cheeks were tinged that pretty pink again.
“We’ll see,” she said. “And that was all your questions. Only five tomorrow, and that’s final.”
Callum let out a long, dramatic sigh. “Fine. Are you going to ask yours now?”
“That’s another question,” she grinned and he barely resisted an eyeroll. “Um, okay… what is your favourite spot in the palace?”
He was quiet for a moment. “Either the library or the courtyard.”
“The courtyard? Even though that’s where you’re forced to learn sword fighting?”
“Is that your second question?” he shot back, lips twitching. She wrinkled her nose at him.
“I can always graciously grant you another question.”
“Now it’s definitely my second question.”
“The courtyard is a good place for drawing,” he said. “It’s wide and open and in nature, with people, but also private enough and close to home so I don’t have to get worried about getting caught in the rain.”
“Oh.” Something in her expression seemed to flicker, although what and why he wasn’t sure. “That… makes sense.”
He almost bit his tongue. He didn’t want to scare her off but she seemed almost… disappointed? He looked between her and the horizon as their horses rode on. “And, you know, it’s nice… because that’s where I got to spend time with you.”
She flushed a little, glancing at him. “Even when it means I occasionally end up accidentally smacking you with a wooden sword?”
“Good, because I don’t see that stopping anytime soon.”
Callum laughed. “No hope of you giving me an easier time once I’m a mage?”
“Not a chance.”
His smile softened as he rested his eyes on her. Well, today was going better than yesterday, it seemed, and yesterday hadn’t even been bad. “Come on,” he said. “Ask your next four questions.”
Rayla knew he meant well—which was why she relented to his insistence that he should pitch up his own tent for the night—but she couldn’t hold back a smile as she watched the prince struggle, a pole in each helpless hand. She assembled her own a little more slowly, partially to allow him a better chance of keeping pace with her. Mostly so she could glance back and watch him struggle more, equal parts amusing and endearing.
But once her tent was pitched and his was still depressingly lopsided, she asked, “How’re you doing over there?”
“Fine!” he said just a tad too quickly. “Work in progress, you know?”
“Yeah. You know it’s okay to ask for help if you need it?”
He nodded. “Mmhm, yeah, I know, but I do not need help, and—” He went to fit one of the poles into its hole and nearly poked himself in the eye. He deflated. “Okay, I need help.”
Chuckling, Rayla crossed over and then knelt beside him. “What are you struggling with, Prince Callum?”
“They won’t stay… up. I don’t know.”
Rayla took one of the poles from him. “Just do what I do, okay?” She paused in her task a few times once she’d fit it in the tiny metal loop, then strung up the tent material along it, to make sure His Highness was following along. He seemed attentive, still a tad confused, and concentrated all at once. Green eyes, dreamy and intense…
She looked away quickly, not even trusting herself to look at his hands. She didn’t need to get distracted by how large they were, his fingers only fumbling when he was unsure. Didn’t need to wonder if he had callouses between his thumb and forefinger from hours of drawing—
“Is that okay?” he asked, and she forced herself to look at his work. It was still slightly crooked, but far more secure.
“Yeah.” There were quite a few things wrong with it, but nothing extremely detrimental. It would hold at the very least. “You did a good job.”
He beamed at her with the brightest smile. “Thanks. You’re a good teacher.”
She smiled and then stood. “I’ll go get the fire started.”
He sat down nearby as she started the fire, a couple of her flints setting off a nice spark that leapt into the pile of wood and kindling, before growing slowly into a decent little fire. She packed her stones away and sat back down next to Callum, watching the way the warm light of the fire glowed against his face. The stories she’d read had always said that princes were handsome, but she’d never expected one to be so beautiful in real life.
She looked away.
If she let him in, then what would happen? She knew she was fond of him, thought he was handsome. She did… have a soft spot for him. But right now, she’d done a pretty good job at keeping it contained and under wraps and hopefully not too obvious, especially to him. But if he kept being persistently sweet—if they were friends—then what was she supposed to do?
“Hmm?” She sat up a little too straight, glad the firelight could hide her blush. “What is it?”
He held up the map they’d drawn earlier. “We’re here, right?” He pointed to a spot on the map, a ways by the river. He was actually close, but… “A little more north than that.”
He moved his finger. “Here?”
“That’s south.” He moved his finger again, much too far this time, and Rayla bit back a laugh as she took his hand, guiding his finger to their location. “Come on, don’t be silly. There, see?”
He looked at her with a soft smile, their hands lingering. “Yeah. Thanks.”
Rayla’s smile fell, and she took her hand away quickly, turning from him ever so lightly. “You’re getting better at directions,” she said, as nonchalantly as she could.
“Thanks,” he repeated. He glanced up. “Um, I have a question about moon magic.”
She nearly teased him about going above his question limit, but this, at least, was a safe topic. One that didn’t focus on his eyes or his hands or his mouth or the way his skin glowed in the light of the fire. “Sure!” she said, a bit too brightly. “What is it?”
“Is it true that you can turn invisible under a full moon?”
“Almost invisible,” she corrected. “But, yes, invisible enough to not be seen by humans when we’re moving too quickly.”
His eyes lit up. “That is so cool . Only under the full moon? Or does it go by phases, like, half invisible at the half moon, and—does how long you can do it depend on the phases of the moon too, or—”
Rayla chuckled. “No, just under the full moon. I think there are some who can do it any time, but those elves are powerful moon mages, and don’t have much use for it anyway. Full moon is just when the connection is strongest, and magic is easiest.”
“Oh.” She watched his face grow thoughtful. “I never thought about the connection shifting like that.”
“Only for some Primals. I’m pretty sure Sky stays fairly consistent, and it only matters for those who aren’t mages, anyway. The cube said your connection was strong, right?”
He hesitated. “Yeah,” he said carefully. “It glowed pretty brightly.”
“Then you have nothing to worry about,” she said confidently. “You’ll get it.”
He smiled a little. “Thanks. I’m really glad you’re here with me.”
Rayla glanced away, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “You’re very persistent, Your Highness.”
“Persistent? At what?”
“At making me your friend.”
“Well…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “That’s not a bad thing, is it?”
“It’s not,” she said. “Just… different.”
“In my village… Everyone is family, but in a way that also means no one really is. There are very few people who are loyal just to you . Who would choose you. But friends are choices. And you could have anyone. So I…” She looked away, elbows folded over her knees as she played with her fingers. “I don’t understand why you would choose me.”
“Hey.” His voice was a gentle prod and he smiled when she looked up at him. Her expression was meek, but maybe a tad hopeful or curious, too. “One day you will.”
She tilted her head at him. “I will?”
“Yeah. I’ll just… keep telling you till you believe it. And then I’ll keep telling you after that, anyway, too.”
Something like hope filled her chest and she couldn’t quite squash it, in spite of everything. Even though she knew that he’d been pining after Claudia since before they’d even met.
There. That almost did it.
“We should probably get some rest,” she said. “We still have an early start.”
“Oh. Um, okay.” He gave her a small smile that made her heart flutter. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
Her throat tightened as she smiled back. “Goodnight, Your Highness.”
Chapter 4: The Moon Nexus
It took another week to reach the Moon Nexus. Slowly, Rayla got used to a camping and inn routine, learned to fight down the blush that rose whenever they were mistaken for a couple, maintained that she take the cot, and trained His Highness in sword fighting in the evenings around their campfires, because he was still cute when he was pouting. Got used to having the prince in such close proximity, of his personal questions and perpetually cheerful nature with only the tiniest bit of whining. Overall, she had quite a good handle on things.
She just hadn’t done a very good job at not becoming even more fond of him than she already was. So she was helpless to stop the warm feeling in her chest when she watched his expression as they made their way to the top of the Moon Nexus.
She couldn’t blame him for being so awestruck; it really was a beautiful place, with polished stone steps and towering archways, Moon druids practically gliding along in their shimmering robes. A faraway lake shone in the horizon, but Rayla didn’t look that far ahead for long. Watching his awestruck face was a much prettier view, and she’d passed through the Moon Nexus once before, on her way to Katolis when she’d travelled there for work five years prior.
“Are all the Nexuses like this?” he asked, turning to her with that same excited grin on his face.
“I don’t know,” she smiled. “I’ve only ever passed through this one.”
Prince Callum’s gaze turned back to his surroundings. “It’s amazing,” he breathed.
“Too bad you didn’t get moon,” she teased and he blinked, taken aback for a moment, before he grinned.
“As much as sharing a Primal with you sounds lovely,” he said, “that would mean our journey would be much shorter, so I’m not sure the tradeoff is fair.”
Rayla smacked him lightly in the arm, barely keeping down her flush. She almost felt affronted, horrified slightly that well, she’d smacked her prince, when Callum laughed loudly and her shoulders eased. “You’re too honest, Your Highness,” she said, her heart still pounding madly in her chest.
“I don’t think there’s such a thing. I didn’t think you would think there’s such a thing.”
“Moonshadow elves keep things closer to our chest.”
“Hm.” He turned thoughtful. “So, me asking a lot of questions is kind of uncommon, then?”
Rayla nodded. “Uncommon, yes,” she said and allowed herself a slight smile, “but not unwelcome.”
He beamed at her. “Good. I like learning stuff about you.”
Rayla fought to keep her composure and managed a rather dignified nod of her head. “Good, as I don’t… mind you knowing some things.”
“Only some things?” His voice was low, and her face burned.
“I haven’t seen you here before! My name is Ellis!” A new voice was a welcome interruption to… wherever that conversation had been going. Probably nowhere, or at least nowhere good. A round faced girl with braids and a big smile popped up next to them, a furred cap on her head and pulled down over ears to shield them from the cold, but there were no horn holes and wore no cheek markings, so Rayla assumed she was human. Humans tended to be much more cheery than elves, anyway. “Are you here on a pilgrimage, or just to spend the night…? Most people think it’s too spooky here at night for a honeymoon spot, but I think it’s great, so you two have good taste—”
“No! No, I mean, I’m sure it is, but we’re not—” Prince Callum cleared his throat. “We’re on our way to the Sky Nexus? We’re just passing through.”
“Oh! That’s fine, too. It’s rather late—I suppose you’re staying here for the night, too?”
“Yeah, if you still have room?”
“Let me guess,” said Rayla flatly, “you only have one room?”
“Oh we have many,” said Ellis brightly, “but if you just want one—”
“We’ll take two,” Rayla said immediately.
“Two,” Callum confirmed with an awkward cough.
“Alrighty!” Ellis chirped. “It’s a good thing we don’t do illusions at night anymore, sometimes visitors in a single room would go a little nuts from the noises in the dark! Anyway—” She turned before she could notice the glance Rayla and Callum shared, “I can show you to your rooms and then introduce you to Lujanne?”
“Yes,” said Rayla, at the same time Callum said, “Thank you.”
“Your names, by the way?” Ellis said.
“I’m Rayla of the Silvergrove,” she answered, “and this is—”
“Callum of Katolis,” he said.
“It’s always interesting that so many people from so many different places come here!” Ellis said, as she led them up the steps. “How did you both meet?”
“We, uh, both work at the castle,” Callum said quickly and Rayla shot him a confused, slightly queasy look, but Ellis seemed too cheery to notice. “She was nice enough to come with me.”
“It is lovely to travel with friends,” Ellis agreed. “Right this way—” She pointed them towards a domed shelter with two intricately carved doors, the building small and near the end of the cobblestone pathway, up the hill’s staircase and onto a plateau made of white moonstone, same as the building. “Those should be empty, if you’d like to drop off your bags.”
Callum folded his fingers over the strap of his shoulder bag. “Yes, thank you, Ellis.”
He glanced over at Rayla as she set her things down in front of the door next to his, and she pretended not to notice. It was more sensible to be as close as possible, that was all. They’d be in separate rooms, but there was little point in having completely separate dwellings. She only looked up when she was sure he’d looked away.
Some brave Moonshadow elf she was.
Lujanne was tall with long white braids and just as cheery and eccentric as the young girl, if not more so—were all Moon mages like this? she wondered, not sure if she could take a whole Nexus full of them for too long—so it was a relief for more reason than one when she and Callum were allowed to walk back to their rooms on their own. Even as awkwardness took its place. He hadn’t told Lujanne he was a prince either, but why?
They found themselves back at the door to their rooms when Callum asked her, “Wanna come in for a minute?”
She paused. “Why?”
“I can’t spend time with my friend?”
“Of course you can, I just thought—you might be tired, after travelling.”
“I’m not,” he said, his brow furrowing. “But I understand if you are.”
Why couldn’t she keep her mouth shut for once? “No, it’s not that, I—why didn’t you tell them you’re the prince?”
His eyes widened, before he grabbed her hand and pulled her inside before anyone else could overhear. “Sorry,” he said, as he closed the door behind them. “I just—I don’t always want to be Prince Callum , and I don’t really have to be out here.”
“Yeah. It might seem silly, but… there’s sort of expectations that always come with being a prince. People can be weird about it sometimes, and… I don’t know. It’s nice to just be me. I don’t get to try it too often.”
Rayla rubbed her arm. “I hope I am not… weird about it.”
He smiled. “Nah. You’re okay. But uh, I know you usually use one of my titles, so while we’re here, you could use ‘hey you’? Just a thought.”
She smiled a little. “I’ll try, Your—Callum,” she corrected quickly.
He beamed at her next, his hair falling slightly into his eyes as he tilted his head at her. “See? That wasn’t so hard was it?” he said, half a tease and half the same genuineness he always had. “You just have to practice.”
“Practice calling you by your name?”
“You’ll have to drop the ‘your’ eventually. I look forward to it.”
She rolled her eyes fondly and then realized he was still holding her hand, his grip loose. She hastily snatched her hand back. She glanced away, her cheeks warm. “I should go unpack,” she said, her voice pitching a little in an attempt to sound casual.
“Oh. Okay.” There was a slight furrow in his brow, but he said, “I’ll see you later?”
She couldn’t ever say no to him. Not really, and something inside her suspected it had nothing to do with his position or any ideals of crownguard loyalty. “See you later… Callum.”
They went down to dinner together. Most of the moon druids, mages, and travellers sat in what seemed like an outdoor pavilion on smooth stones, an enchantment overhead to keep the elements and the wind out. Food carried by seemingly invisible waiters were distributed onto various stone tables with benches, and Callum and Rayla picked out the tiny corner of one just for the two of them. She smiled a little, watching his astonishment at the movement and magic around him. Fresh cups of tea floated over to them, their empty cups floating away as soon as the refills landed. Callum’s mouth remained clamped down in badly-contained excitement, his eyes wide and shining.
Rayla rested her cheek on the curve of her palm, looking at him. “Haven’t you grown up around magic your whole life?”
He spared her a glance and a grin. “You’ve grown up in Katolis a little too. There’s magic and mages, sure, but—nothing like this. It’s beautiful.”
Her eyes traced his face. It’s not the only thing . She poked him in the side with her finger. “Well eat some of your food, before it gets cold.”
“Do you think there’s a spell that would keep it from getting cold?”
“More likely in Lux Aurea,” she said, taking a sip of her tea.
If his face lit up any more, he would be the sun. “Wait, seriously?”
“Yeah. They usually have dishes and things with runes on them to keep them warm.”
“Oh, that is so cool —”
She pointed at his plate. “Just like your food.”
“I can’t help it,” he said. “It’s like… it’s not just a tool here. If this is what a Nexus in the human kingdoms is like, I can’t wait to see Xadia.”
Sighing and holding back a smile, Rayla grabbed a bread roll from his plate and thrust it into his face. “I will force feed you if I have to.”
Callum took her wrist, pushing at it as he tried not to laugh. “Never thought you’d be one to make threats. Haven’t you ever heard of sweet talk?”
She shoved the bread back towards his mouth, now grinning. “So I should butter you up?”
He laughed, eyeing the piece of warm but bare bread. “Maybe.”
Rayla lowered the piece slightly and batted her eyelashes at him. “Oh, you don’t think I’m charming enough without flattery?”
Callum leaned in, eyes alight with amusement, even as his voice softened a little, dropping in pitch, his eyes on her instead of the bread. “You certainly are something.”
Her brain short-circuited as though it’d been hit by a fulminus spell, and panicked by the flush rising to her cheeks, Rayla shoved the bread into his mouth. He let out a muffled exclamation, and she pulled her hand back as if burned.
“Sorry, I didn’t—” she sputtered.
Callum laughed, breaking off the half of the bread still sticking out between his lips, and chewing the rest, grinning at her through it. Her eyes flickered to the crumbs clinging to the corner of his mouth, and she clasped her hands tightly together, not trusting herself to not just reach out and wipe them away. There were many acts of affection that could be seen as just friendly, but Rayla was certain that wasn’t one.
Callum luckily didn’t seem to notice, how finally preoccupied with eating his food, and Rayla turned her attention back to her own meal, her soup as hot as her cheeks. The rest of the meal passed far more plainly than the beginning, the conversation Callum started pleasant and what she had grown used to, over the past week and a half with him. Easy, enjoyable, small talk that occasionally turned to mild teasing on both of their behalfs, and never boring.
This was easy. This was safe. It was even sort of nice, she thought, being just like anyone else here, instead of a prince and royal guard, her watching their backs in case anyone wasn’t too keen on the royal family, for whatever reason; Callum had been right.
The adorable, awestruck look came back on his face as most of the mages finished their meal, and some stepped forward to strum lutes and pluck harps, music swelling, the middle of the pavilion an empty circle. Other mages stepped forward to dance, although it didn’t seem to be for any sort of ceremony and ritual, a human and an elf pair laughing. Just for fun.
Callum stood up, and she quickly got onto her feet. “Are you ready to go?” she asked, when he held out his hand to her. “Er, Callum?”
“I think I owe you a dance.”
Her eyes widened. “What?”
“I was going to ask you, at the gala.”
“O-oh.” Rayla tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear; the tip felt like it was burning.
“You don’t have to,” he said quickly. “I just—”
“I thought you weren’t good at dancing?” she said weakly.
He smiled a little. “I’m not,” he agreed. “But here, nobody knows I’m the… so you know, nobody cares if I have two left feet. Uh, except you, maybe? I’ll do my best not to step on your feet, um, if—nevermind,” he went to retract his hand, “this was—”
“Sweet.” She smiled a little back at him, her face warm and her head light. Slowly, she slipped her hand into his, watching the way his fingers folded around hers. “And if I can teach you how to sword fight, I’m pretty sure I can teach you how to dance.”
Some of his nervousness faded as he beamed at her, and they both walked onto the pavilion floor together, Rayla’s stomach doing flips as he faced her and stepped closer. He’d done partner dances, she knew, but it still did little to prepare her for the way his land rested respectfully on her waist, his other holding hers. The brush of his fingers against hers, his fingerless gloves covering the rest of his palm.
“Um,” he glanced down at their feet, “is this how you do it back at your village too, or—?”
“Not really,” she smiled, “but I got the gist of waltzing during my first few years here.”
“Do you want to teach me a Moonshadow dance instead?” he offered.
Moonshadow elves reserved public propriety for anyone other than married couples, and their dances reflected. A dance like this back home would mean that she and Callum were—Rayla cut off that thought before she could flounder in it. Normally, only hands touched, more importance placed on eye contact and symmetrical, suitably matched footwork. But, as much as she hated herself for admitting it even to herself, she didn’t want him to pull away. To be any further than he had to be.
“No,” she said softly, giving his hand the lightest squeeze. “This is okay.” She led first, squeezing his hand as a signal for him to follow. The music wasn’t exactly a waltz rhythm, and she had to adjust the pace of their steps to something slower, but it was probably for the best. He had less of a chance of stepping on her feet or tripping, and… this was kind of nice. “See, you’re not so bad at dancing.”
Callum ducked his head and gave her a shy smile. “Once again, you’re just a good teacher.”
“Or maybe you’re just always better at things than you give yourself credit for.”
He let out a quiet chuckle. “I dunno about that, but… you’re still a good teacher, either way.” He looked up, his eyes widening before he pulled her flush to him, just in time for them to dodge someone who sped up and danced a little too close.
Rayla smiled up at him. “Hey, good reflexes,” she said, before realizing how close they were, their noses nearly touching. Her voice failed.
He put space back between them, his cheeks a bright red. “Sorry,” he spluttered, “I didn’t mean to, just—”
“It’s okay! It… It happens!” Rayla had to keep herself from cringing at the forced cheer in her voice, hoping he couldn’t hear it. Her eyes darted away and she fought down the flush on her cheeks; she had to salvage this somehow. Clearing her throat, she offered up a confident, “It means you’ve learned something, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, um, yeah!” He let go of her hand, rubbing the back of his neck. There was a convenient break in the music. “I told you, you’re a good teacher.”
Praying she wouldn’t regret it, Rayla gave him a small smile. “I guess next time I’ll be the one who owes you a dance. Thanks for not stepping on my feet.”
Callum smiled back at her, his shoulders easing. “I can make no promises about next time.” He took her hand, and this time she let him guide her back to the dining area.
“Next time, you might even be able to lead me,” she said.
“Yeah, then I’d definitely step on your feet.”
“It’s a risk I’m willing to take,” she said, almost slyly.
Callum grinned. “Oh really?”
“Mmhm.” She looked back towards the dessert at their table, tucking her hair behind her ear with her free hand. “Dancing with you is nice.” Actions—or statements, she reprimanded herself sternly—that could be taken as friendly. She hesitated; maybe this would help curb her forwardness? “That’s… something friends can say, isn’t it?”
He blinked. “I… think so? I mean, I don’t know why they couldn’t?”
“Unless you didn’t dance with them,” she considered, and he let out another chuckle.
“Yeah. The pool of friends I dance with is fairly small.”
“It’s only you.”
Rayla’s brow furrowed. “You’ve never danced with Claudia?”
Now Callum looked confused. “Why would I dance with Claudia?”
“Because you…” Was there anyway to ask this without incriminating herself? She’d likely already pushed things enough for one day. “And you’ve never danced with Bait either?” she joked instead. Much safer.
He laughed easily. “No, he’s mainly Ez’s dance partner. Or my stepdad’s, but not in front of anyone outside of the family. And you’re probably sworn to secrecy on that.”
She rested her hand solemnly over her heart. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s the oath my stepdad had you all recite upon induction.”
“It’s true. We also had to get knighted by Bait.”
“How’d he hold the sword for his ceremony?”
“That’s knowledge for the crownguard only.”
“Ah, yes of course.” He caught her eye, amusement gleaming, and they each gave into their grins and laughter.
Whatever awkwardness had been there in the middle of the pavilion was gone as they talked over their desserts, even occasionally stealing bites from one another. Rayla didn’t know where she found the nerve, but she decided not to look a gift shadowpaw in the mouth, for once. Eating dinner and dessert and talking was nice too.
Everything about Callum was nice.
There was a lightness in her chest as they walked back to their rooms together, feeling more like she was being walked back to her house by a nice boy in her village than a crownguard escorting her prince for safety precautions. She could indulge and play pretend just a little, if only in her head, couldn’t she?
They both stopped at their respective doors, pausing. “Goodnight, Rayla,” he said softly. The moonlight reflected off his dark hair, dancing in his eyes.
“Goodnight, Callum.” She waited for him to turn in, but he didn’t. His eyes moved past her to the pavilion below.
“You know,” he said, “I think I’m gonna miss the Moon Nexus a little, even if we’re only here for one day.” He smiled at her next, big and bright and soft. “It was nice to just see you enjoy yourself.”
Rayla smiled, warm. “Well I had a nice time with you. I always do.”
“So do I.” He made a half turn towards his door, and then back at her. “Hey, uh. Do you wanna go for a walk? I overheard some people at dinner talking about the gardens here. Apparently they’re really beautiful.”
“O-oh. You’re not tired?”
“No. Are you?”
She wasn’t sure she’d ever felt more awake. “No.” She smiled when he offered her his arm, and she took it, willing to play pretend for just a little while longer. Besides, he’d offered. It would be rude to refuse.
They went back down a staircase and stone path parallel to the one they had just walked up, leading away from the dining pavilion to gardens closer to the heart of the Nexus itself. The blooming flowers reflected the power of the moon, blue rose bushes, moon lilies glowing a bright white. Callum took it all in with soft, awestruck eyes, and Rayla had to admit it was beautiful.
“Castle flora isn’t going to be able to compare now, is it?” she said.
“We’ll just have to come back someday,” he said.
“We will once we’re done at the Sky Nexus,” she reminded him.
“Well, yeah, but even after that. I feel like… I dunno, the Moon Nexus is gonna keep being a special place. It’s so magical, and…” He looked at her, his smile wide and endearingly lopsided. “It’s the symbol of peace between our people.”
“Yeah,” she said softly. “I mean, it wasn’t intended that way, it’s been here since before the human kingdoms were established, but…”
“We can attach our own meanings to a place that holds memories,” he said. “But mostly I’m just really glad we ended up on the same side of this war.”
“So am I,” she said. “It’d be hard to be on any side where I couldn’t protect you.” Her cheeks flushed.
“I don’t know if you would manage it,” he said in a light tease. “You’d take one look at my big, soulful puppy dog eyes and switch sides immediately.”
Rayla smiled wryly. “Someone’s sure of himself.”
“Well you’ve never been able to say no to me.” Callum caught himself then, his smile giving way to mild panic, as though thinking it was because he was the prince. He opened his mouth but she didn’t let him get that far.
“I’ve never wanted to.” Her lips twitched. “But I will let you know, if, or when, that changes.”
He seemed relieved. “Good.”
They walked further into the gardens, stopping by some of the larger blue roses in full bloom. Rayla watched Callum consider one, before he reached down to pluck it and came away with a pained hiss. “Ow.”
Her brow furrowed. “You alright?”
“Yeah, just… nicked myself,” he said, holding out his hand to show the small red dot growing on his thumb. “Got swept away by the magic flowers. I didn’t think they’d have thorns?”
Rayla took his hand in both of hers, examining his thumb. “You’ll be fine,” she said. “It looks small, but We can put a bandage on it later. It might have stopped bleeding by then anyway. Just be careful next time you go trying to pick magic flowers. You never know what’s going to prick your finger or explode in your face, especially in Xadia.”
“Only some of them. I’ll show you when we get there.”
Callum smiled. “I knew this journey wouldn’t be the safest, but I didn’t think you’d also be protecting me from flowers.”
Rayla released his hand. “Shows what you know,” she teased. “But yes, flora, fauna, the whole deal — that’s why you need me.”
Callum didn’t look away from her face. “Yeah. I really do.”
She hoped the night hid her blush, as she looked around for a distraction. She looked at the flower he’d gone for and carefully broke off the rest of the stem and held it out to him. “For your troubles, Your Highness,” she smiled, letting her voice soften. Half a gesture and half a joke.
Callum put on a pompous air. “Ah, thank you, my loyal crownguard.” He took the flower from her, their fingers brushing. He held it in his other hand, the blood on his thumb drying up. He arched an eyebrow at her playfully. “I don’t suppose you can kiss it better too?”
All Rayla could do to save herself was give him a light shove in the chest, Callum taking a step back as he laughed. “Come on,” she said. “Clearly the lack of sleep is getting to your brain.”
He tucked the flower into the upper pocket of his jacket, the blue petals just brushing the red of his scarf. “Lead the way.”
The night had to end eventually, she supposed, even if she didn’t want it to.
Chapter 5: Campside
Morning in the Nexus was a little overcast, but still beautiful, breakfast as literally and figuratively magical as dinner had been. Though there were other parts of that evening that couldn’t be replicated.
“Did you sleep well?” Rayla had asked him when they’d left their rooms that morning, and he had nodded, even though he hadn’t, really.
His mind had just kept rewinding that evening over and over, the warmth of her soft, calloused hands—when he’d woken up, the blue rose she’d picked for him seemed even fresher than last night. When he’d asked her the same question, she’d simply shrugged, mumbling something about being antsy when she couldn’t do a perimeter check. He thought he’d seen a faint flush in her cheeks, but that was probably just the lighting, or his imagination. Seeing what he wanted to see.
Ugh. Maybe Ezran had been onto something.
“Do you always leave your food to get cold before eating it?” Rayla teased. Callum pulled himself out of his thoughts, glancing down at his almost untouched waffle.
“Just thinking,” he clarified, picking up his fork and knife to cut a piece and casting his eyes around the Nexus. “Guess the next Nexus we’ll be at is Sky, huh?”
“Unless we make a massive detour to Star or Earth, yes.”
“And just a week from here, we’ll be in Xadia.”
“A week and a half, maybe, but yes.” A slight crease formed in her brow. “We’ll have to take a boat across the Half Water Sea.”
He watched her, thoughtful. “You… don’t like boats?”
Rayla pursed her lips, her shoulders scrunching. “I don’t like water,” she corrected, almost a mutter.
“Oh.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Well we don’t have to take a boat. We could walk around it somehow? With our legs.”
“It’s the fastest way.”
“We’re allowed to take it slow if we want to, right? We’re not on a time limit.”
“I couldn’t ask you to elongate your pilgrimage like that—”
“You’re not asking,” he said, more firmly. “I’m offering.”
She glanced down at her empty plate, biting her lip. “If you insist.”
Callum laid a hand on her shoulder. “I’m just trying to make it a bit easier on you.”
Rayla looked up at him, her eyes surprisingly hard. “Well that’s not your job.”
He took a breath. “I know it’s not,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. This shouldn’t be so difficult. “But I want to anyway. Isn’t that enough?”
“If you decide to go the long way around, then you decide to go the long way around.”
“I’m asking for your opinion.”
“That shouldn’t matter.”
His voice and eyebrows rose. “Why not?”
Her volume matched. “Because you’re the prince!” Eyes widening, she quickly dropped her voice, and no one looked up; it didn’t seem as though anyone had overheard them. Probably disregarded it as a simple lovers’ spat, Callum thought bitterly. “Because you’re the prince,” Rayla repeated, far quieter, and a bit meeker too. “My prince.”
“Your opinion matters to me,” he said, softer. “I just… I don’t want to be just ‘your prince’. I consider you a friend, and I—I was hoping you’d started to see me that way, too.”
Rayla looked back up at him. “I do,” she said quietly, eyes darting away again. “And that’s the problem.”
“That’s literally the opposite of a problem.”
“Not if it means we’re taking longer to get you back home for my sake.”
“If I wanted to get there the fastest way or the normal way I would have requested any of the others, but I wanted you here. And all the delays and detours that come with it don’t matter to me. I don’t care if you’re scared of water. I mean, I do—that’s why I don’t want to put you in a situation where you’re uncomfortable—but it’s not a problem, Rayla, really. It’s just part of being a good friend. And one of the reasons I chose you is because I wanted to get to know you better, too.”
She didn’t look up, and for a moment he wondered if the redness in her face was tightly contained anger. Had he finally pushed too far? “Okay,” she said, before he could ask.
“Yeah. We don’t have to take the boat, I guess.”
“Okay. I’m sorry, I didn’t want to push, I just—”
“It’s okay,” she repeated, more softly, although she still didn’t look at him. “It’s… sweet. Thank you.”
He smiled, mostly out of relief. “Your comfort matters to me too,” he shrugged.
“I know,” she said. “And I don’t know if I’ll ever be used to it.”
“Then we’ll just keep trying to get you used to it.”
She managed a tiny smile. “We’ll see.”
They left before sundown, with warm wishes of safe travels from Ellis and Lujanne. Leaving so late in the day wasn’t ideal, but they left with plenty of food for the road, even if they had to camp on the side of it when it grew dark. Callum could pitch his tent and make the fire on his own now, quite pleased with himself, and Rayla let him at it. She took the time to sharpen her weapons and glance at their map for changes in the route plans—if her heart melted a little then nobody had to know—before leaving her tent and joining him back beside the campfire, where she saw him with his sketchbook propped on one knee.
She plopped down beside him, peering over in interest. “What’re you doing?”
“Oh, um…” He angled the sketchbook towards her, and she saw the bright burst of blue resting on the page. “I didn’t want it to wilt, so…”
It was the flower they’d picked back at the Moon Nexus, pressed and preserved between the pages. It was still open in full bloom, the petals as vibrant a blue as when they’d picked it. “When did you do this?”
“On the way here. I’ll probably have to keep it pressed for a few more days to make sure, but I just wanted to check on it to make sure it was preserving the way I want. It… carries some nice memories, I guess, and I wanted to keep it forever.”
“Oh.” She glanced away, her face heating up. “Because it was your first ever Nexus, right?”
“Um… yeah. Sure.”
“Yeah, that makes sense.” She focused on the blue of the flower, the slight wrinkles already forming in the petals. “I suppose you are the sentimental type.”
He smiled a little. “Some memories are worth cherishing,” he said, closing the book again. “You must have some memories you like to hold onto?”
A memory of one of their earlier days of training came unbidden, and she glanced back at the fire. “I’m sure everyone does,” she said with a shrug.
Callum looked at her and then shook his head, smiling. “Fine, I won’t pry, for once.”
“Oh, I didn’t mean to—”
“Rayla, it’s okay. I’m not entitled to know every little thing about you. Even if I’m sure it’s all interesting.”
She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around him. “Well… what would you even want to know?”
He arched his eyebrows. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Not the memory that had just come up. It might come off innocent enough, but she’d let enough nearly slip and they weren’t even halfway through their journey. It was too specific a memory. Her fondness might come through. He could put it together; he was simultaneously very smart and very dense about that sort of thing, it seemed, since she apparently hadn’t already given herself away. He couldn’t be as comfortable around her as he was, if she had.
“I do have a question for you,” she said, trying to sound as casual as possible, and his eyes lit up in interest.
“Go for it.”
“We’ve talked about your brother, and Soren, and I know your parents but… I do not know Lord Viren or Claudia as well. What are they like?”
“Oh. Well, Lord Viren is… He’s nice, sometimes. He and my dad have been friends since they were kids. He’s not… warm, but he is smart. He’s Ezran’s godfather so he dotes on him a little bit more. I don’t think he entirely knew what to think of me, but he doesn’t think poorly of me. I think? It’s weird though, because he and Claudia are really close, but she’s way nicer. Sweet, you know. Funny.”
Her chest tightened. “Yeah. She seems nice.”
“She might go with Soren for a few weeks later this summer to visit their mom—it’s a little sketchy, so close to the Del Bar border, but I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
“Oh. Maybe they’ll go while you’re finishing up your pilgrimage, so you won’t have to miss one another by too long.”
“Maybe. Why the interest in Claudia, anyhow?” Callum squinted at her. “I mean, if she’s your type, I get it, but she has a girlfriend named Evelyn, so—”
Rayla nearly choked on air. “A girlfriend?”
“Started courting in the Spring, I think. A herbalist from Evenere here to study Earth magic the right way. Claudia and I don’t talk much about her love life.” He winced a little when she didn’t respond, only staring at him blankly. “I can uh, still try and put in a good word for you though?”
“No! No, I am not —I just thought—” Rayla buried her face in her knees, knowing her cheeks were red. “I don’t like Claudia—although I do like girls. And boys.”
Callum was nonplussed. “Oh. Well Soren’s like that too.”
“I just—” Rayla chanced a glance at him out of the order of her eye. “I thought you and her were, you know. A thing. I know you like her.”
Callum laughed. “Yeah, when I was a kid. I mean, she’s smart and funny and she was older than me, I guess it’s normal. But I grew out of it like, four years ago. Which is probably for the best. We’re better friends now, anyway.”
The revelation shook her to the core, even if she couldn't let it show. “Oh. That’s… good.”
“Yeah, it does make things easier. Even if some people still think we’re… you know.”
Rayla tried not to cringe. “Sorry.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. It’s just a little awkward, and mainly just… embarrassing on my part, but it’s okay. I always kinda wear my heart on my sleeve. Mom and Dad say whatever I’m feeling is written all over my face.”
“Oh.” It kind of was, and he never made any efforts to hide it either, as far as she could see. “Well… It means you’re honest, in a way that’s rare.” She smiled a little, looking away. “I’ve always liked that about you.”
Rayla cleared her throat, glad her hands were already on something steady so he couldn’t see them trembling. “It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that I like you, Callum. We’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Well, yeah,” he said, and she could hear the growing smile in his voice. “It’s just… rare to hear you say it out loud. You’re usually a bit more guarded with me, I guess.” He paused, as though waiting to see if she would say anything, but Rayla didn’t trust herself to speak, and Callum didn’t seem bothered, as he continued. “And it goes without saying, but,” his voice was soft, “I like you too.”
An unexpected warmth burst in her chest and fluttered in her stomach, sending tingles across her skin. Like a friend , you dolt, she chided herself. Still, she couldn’t hold back her smile, even when she directed it at him.
“Finally wore me down, huh?” she said, only lightly teasing.
Callum leaned towards her. “More than worth the wait.”
She pushed lightly at his chest, if only to keep herself from looking at him. “So you got me to admit we’re friends. What’s next? I’m assuming you have some sort of twelve-step plan.”
“Hmm.” Callum pretended to think. “Well considering it only took a little over five years and two weeks for you to admit that we’re friends, maybe by the time Ez is ready to get married you and I can stand by the punch bowl and be my plus one so I don’t have to talk to any of the diplomats? How does that sound?”
He grinned. “Good.”
“Prince Ezran will be getting married like, eight years down the line I’m guessing?”
“Probably, but if you’re gonna be a guest at his wedding, you really should be calling him Ezran, too.”
“He’s going to be king eventually.”
“ Eventually . Besides, he’s never really cared for titles, either. Except for being my best man. He’s dead set on that.”
Rayla smiled. “That’s sweet, though. And a few years away I’m sure?”
Callum flushed. “I… don’t think it’s happening anytime soon, as much as my parents and Lord Viren keep pushing it. My parents are actually pushing it more; they want me to have the chance to marry for love before I get wrapped up into a political marriage.”
“Oh, well… That’s good, right?”
“Yeah, just… can’t rush or force that sort of thing, you know? You can’t choose who you fall in love with. Or when.”
Something in her chest tightened, dread pooling in her stomach. She understood all too well. Fondness felt so much smaller and easier to manage, to love with, than love . But when had her life ever been easy ? “I guess not.”
“Then again, if Ez and I get married around the same time, I might be able to convince him that he owes me, for letting him be my best man, and I can be his and not lose to Bait or something, after all.”
Rayla tried to laugh. “Good luck with that.”
“What about you?” He turned happy, curious eyes onto her. “Do Moonshadow elves come of marrying age at the same time humans do?”
Why did the conversation have to stay on marriage, of all things? “Kind of,” she said carefully. “Mainly just when we’re considered adults. It’s a little more… discreet.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well I’m not very familiar with how humans court, but you have… real dates and that sort of thing, right?” Callum nodded. “We bury everything under plausible deniability until the actual proposal, usually. Small tokens of affection, favours, gifts. Making plans with a few people and having it conveniently dwindle down to two is the closest we come to dating and it usually lasts for years, like that.”
“And then straight to a proposal?”
“Kind of. At that point, usually the two people talk, or they try to, and come to an… agreement, I guess. And it takes a lot just to get there, because you have to be absolutely sure before just… bursting open for someone, like that.”
“But if you don’t make your interest clear, how does the other person know?”
“They don’t. That’s sort of the point. It’s meant to build love without reward or expectation of reciprocation. And usually the other party will make their interest more clear by mirroring the initial gestures. But if they don’t, in the beginning, there’s enough plausible ability that the rejected elf can pretend like they never liked the person in the first place.”
“Does anyone ever… misread signals? Like, has anyone ever tried but the person they’re interested in doesn’t pick up on it, or the other way around?”
“I don’t know. Most Moonshadow elves marry within their village and have known their partner since childhood. It’s expected that you already know the person you’re pursuing well enough to read them properly. As much as we let anyone read us, that is.”
“So…” Callum looked into the fire, seemingly thinking hard. “How would someone know with you?”
Rayla knew she turned scarlet, glad she could blame it on the firelight and that the night was dark. “I don’t think anyone in my village would be interested in me at this point.”
“As much as I don’t believe that, that also wasn’t my question.”
“You asked a very personal question,” she said, drawing her knees closer to her chest again. “And if asking it sort of defeats the purpose, me actually answering decimates it.”
He was silent for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I didn’t mean to push again. It’s just so different and I want to… understand, I guess. It. You, better.”
Rayla peeked over at him. “It’s okay. How about… I tell you what Moonshadow elves don’t talk about, and then you’ll know what topics to not talk about first, maybe? Unless I open them up.”
Callum scooted a little closer, still careful to keep distance between them. “Okay. Thank you.”
Rayla gave him a quick smile, before growing more serious again. “We don’t talk about our fears, our love lives, our… intimate feelings, really. No overt gossip about other community members. No personal business regarding our families except to those who already know. We’re honest, but we’re not open, if that makes any sense?”
“It does,” he said patiently. “But if I ask you if you’re okay—I’m guessing admitting you’re in pain is a no-no, too?”
“It can be,” she acknowledged.
“How will I know if you’re actually okay or just telling me you are?”
“I… don’t know,” she said.
“I guess I’ll just have to learn how to read you.” He sat up, now almost smug, and Rayla rolled her eyes. “I think I’m getting there. I know some things.”
She let out a quiet snort. “Yeah? Like what?”
“When you go to feint in practice, your eyes flicker in that direction just for a second too long. You get a cute little crease in your brow when you’re really thinking hard and cough when you feel awkward. You’re so focused, when you’re training alone. You always take the second to last jelly tart and you pet Bait when you think no one else sees you. You have two different sort of laughs? One’s more of a snort and lighter in the throat. But the other is deeper and louder, more from the belly. You pick at your nails when you’re really, really bored. And sometimes, when you smile, you go all soft inside and it makes your eyes shine.”
Her face was burning. “That’s… thorough.”
Callum smiled at her, earnest and pleased with himself, and somehow soft, too, the smugness fading. Giving way to… it couldn’t be wonder . “It feels like the tip of the iceberg, to be honest.”
This was… too much. Too much of this soft, warm, tingly feeling that felt far too much like hope. Like a hope for something that she never should have wished for in the first place. Couldn’t wish for, because it couldn’t happen.
Time to shift the spotlight of his soft eyes.
“Sometimes it feels like I can’t figure you out, either,” she revealed quietly, because it was also true.
“Well, what did you want to know?” he asked, smiling patiently.
“I didn’t mean—“
“Rayla.” Even more patient now. “You don’t always have to backtrack with me. Look at me. Do I seem easily offended? Have I ever cared about formality with you?”
She turned toward him slowly, still not quite able to look him in the eye. “No, it’s just… I don’t know how to do this.”
She nodded. “With you.”
He blinked, brow furrowing. “And I’m… more difficult to be friends with?”
“Kind of? I’m technically working for you, for your family, and I don’t have the history that Claudia and Soren have with you, not really. But you’re also really easy to be friends with, I just…” She pursed her lips. “One day one of us is going to leave and I don’t want it to hurt.”
Callum’s brows shot up. “Leave? What do you mean?”
“You’ll get married and maybe live somewhere else. Or I’ll go back to Xadia permanently, or something. I’ll miss everyone else at the castle, if that was the case, but I could say goodbye to them. I…” A lump formed in her throat. “I don’t know how to say goodbye to you.”
He stared at her for a moment and then pulled a face. “Who says I’m letting you say goodbye? You think I wouldn’t visit?”
She started. “But you’re—”
“The prince,” he finished, “ and your friend. In equal measure. You’re gonna have to try way harder than that to get rid of me.”
She almost laughed. “I’ll do my best to believe it,” she promised.
“Good,” said Callum, as though the matter was now decided, or at least settled. “Now,” he drew the syllable out, “what’s hard to figure out about me?”
She bit her lip as she thought carefully. Nothing that would give her away, but… “Well I thought you liked Claudia,” she considered, “but clearly I was wrong about that.”
Which was still information she was processing, honestly. Callum, not crushing, not interested, not being basically Claudia’s future betrothed? It would keep her up at night for the next week at least. “Is that… what you’re having trouble figuring out about me?” he asked, a grin growing in his voice.
“No,” she said a little too quickly. “I was just surprised. And… wondering why that changed, I guess.”
“I don’t know, really,” he admitted. “The crush just… faded. I remember when you first started training me, I was glad Soren wasn’t my teacher—you’re a way better fit for me—but I was kinda disappointed, too, because Claudia stopped hanging around during my lessons, y’know, to chat with me but mostly to mess with her brother. And then after a few weeks I just… stopped caring.”
“Oh. Is there any reason why?”
Callum grinned at her. “Are you sure you’re not trying to get over your crush on Claudia too?” he teased, laughing when Rayla swatted him in the arm. He sobered and straightened up. “But no, I can’t really pinpoint why. But sometimes it’s hard to tell when you start liking someone, right? You’re kinda in the middle of it before you know it’s started. So it would make sense the reverse is true, too, wouldn’t it?”
“That makes sense. Um… sometimes you get this really faraway look in your eyes, like you’re here but not really.”
His smile widened and softened. “Ez calls that my ‘planning out a drawing’ face. I’m usually trying to remember an image I saw and really liked, so I can draw it later.”
Rayla perked up. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen any of your art. I mean, we’ve all seen you sketch and I’ve caught glimpses, but…?”
Callum reached over for his sketchbook and laid it on his knee. Rayla scooted closer along the log, their knees touching as he opened the book up on his right thigh and her left. “Flip through,” he said.
She did, turning the pages over slowly, pausing longer at the ones that had multiple sketches, all good enough and seemingly from the past couple of years or so, rather than the last five. Most of the drawings were of castle scenery, cast across different seasons. Servants and guards, Soren and Claudia, a few of his mother and father together and individually, plenty of Bait and Ezran and his whole family. Even Viren, face scrunched up with flour on his beard and a giggling Ezran standing with Barius the baker in the background.
“I try to draw a bit of everything,” he said as she continued to flip through, up until the present day pictures he must’ve done the other night at the Nexus, as it featured its architecture prominently, and the Moon mage girl, Ellis. “Fun people I meet or places I go, or my family, and the people I love.”
Rayla flipped back through, to the section that had the biggest assortment of crownguard sketches. But none of her. She tried not to let her heart sink. He said they were friends and she believed him, but… “You’re really good,” she said. “They’re wonderful. You got everyone’s expressions perfectly.”
She looked up at him in surprise. “What? Everyone here looks perfect. What—”
“I haven’t figured out how to draw you yet.” A faint flush coloured his cheeks and he flipped all the way to the back of the book, a wide swath of pages in between that and where the sketches left off, before nudging the book back her way. “Believe me, I’ve tried, but…”
There were dozens, if not more, half started sketches across the last three pages. The silhouette of her figure, messy curve of her horns, the slope of her blades in the courtyard, some sketches a little further along than others, but nothing cohesive. Nothing complete. A few places he’d pressed the pencil hard against the paper in frustration, maybe, the line darker than the rest, at not being able to get it right. Get her right.
Her chest filled with warmth. “It looks like you started just fine,” she said.
“I don’t want it to be just fine. It has to be perfect. You’re—” He cleared his throat. “It’s just frustrating. I can usually draw people, human or elves, no problem. But you’re different.”
Her lips twitched. “Difficult?” she suggested.
She raised a brow. “Challenging?”
“It’s just… different. I want to get you right so badly that I get in my head and then…” He smiled softly. “You don’t know how to say goodbye, and I don’t know how to draw you yet. But one day I’ll do you justice, and hopefully by then you’ll also realize that we won’t have to say goodbye.”
Rayla slowly nodded. “I guess I understand,” she said, smiling back at him. It was impossible not to. “You’re… challenging, too. In becoming my friend. I know I can be stubborn and standoffish sometimes—”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind.”
She ducked her head, her smile growing. “Exactly.” She played with the ends of her hair. “I’m doing my best to get used to it,” she promised. “However unusual it is.”
Callum sounded a little unsure now. “Plenty of people like you.” His family, his brother. Both of the princes’ favourite crownguard from her fellow crownguard, who she got along with amicably enough.
“Not when they know me.”
His brow furrowed. “People in your village?”
Rayla fidgeted with her fingers next, glancing up at him nervously and then away again. “The other kids in my village didn’t really… like me. They didn’t think I was funny. And they were jealous, I guess. Because my parents are on the Dragonguard, and that’s a big deal, and I was a good fighter, and… I don’t know. With my adoptive father… Runaan, I know he loves me. He really loves me. But I also know—” Her eyes burned. “I’m a disappointment to him too.”
“I’m too soft-hearted. I hesitate. And then I take a position in the human kingdoms…” Her voice broke a little. “He must think I’m wasting my talents. And in his eyes, that’s worse than having none at all.”
Callum frowned, a steely look in his eyes. “What did he want you to be instead?”
Rayla swallowed hard. “An assassin,” she whispered.
“And I thought I wanted it, too,” she admitted. “I trained so hard for it. I excelled in training. Surpassed so many people older and more experienced than me. But then I would always…” She let out a cheerless laugh. “One time I overheard him and Ethari talking, late at night. Arguing. The first time I’d ever heard them fight. I hadn’t even known they could fight, till then. And it was about me, and Ethari—Ethari said if I got sent out, I’d get myself killed, he said I was too goodhearted, and Runaan was quiet for a long time and—he disagreed. He said I wouldn’t get myself killed, but that I—I’d get everyone else killed, in the troupe. That my heart wasn’t hard enough to do whatever it took. Not to kill elves and… not to kill humans, either. Humans were Runaan’s targets the most, of the Dark Order.”
“So I applied to train under the crownguard. Both Katolis and Duren. Katolis responded first. I… I couldn’t stay there, and know that… I was wasting everyone’s time.” She let out a shuddering breath. “They still have no idea I overheard them that night. Runaan was just angry I wanted to leave. Ethari sends letters, but… we haven’t spoken since I left. And they were the two people who knew me the most, and…” A lump formed in her throat. No no no , she couldn’t cry—
“Rayla.” He reached for her shoulder. “Can you look at me?”
“I’m fine,” she said quickly. “I’m—”
“Rayla.” His hand dropped from her shoulder, resting over hers in her lap. Slowly, she lifted her eyes, finding him staring back at her steadfastly, a firm set to his jaw, although his face was kind as ever. Her fingers trembled under his and he squeezed them. “I can’t speak or interfere in your family business,” he said softly, “but you’re not a failure and you weren’t wasting anyone’s time. Those kids shouldn’t have been mean to you and your fathers should’ve been more honest, and way nicer about it. And you have nothing to worry about. I like how stubborn and determined you are. I like that you can be standoffish—it’s not my favourite mood of yours, but—you’re cute when you’re angry. I mean—” He cleared his throat. “The more I get to know you, the gladder I am that I do. So you’re doing fine, and you’re a good friend, and a good warrior, and I’m glad you’re here in Katolis. I’m glad you’re here with me. And things will work themselves out and I’m sure your dad wants to talk to you but—Moonshadow elves aren’t the best at expressing themselves, right? So he’s probably having as much trouble as you are now with it. It’ll be okay. You’ll see.”
Warmth bloomed in her chest and coloured her cheeks as she smiled at him. A soft sigh escaped her. “How are you so optimistic about everything?”
“Good things happen in life, when we wait,” he said. “I met you, didn’t I?”
Rayla glanced away, managing a soft chuckle. “I suppose so,” she said, her hand tingling under his.
“Do you remember how awful at sword fighting I was when we first met?” he prodded. “Now I’m way better.”
“You are,” she agreed.
Callum scooted closer, grinning. “Gee, I wonder who’s responsible for that?”
“Your own hard work?” she played along, her face lifting when he shot her a look, lips still curled. “And me, maybe a little.”
“Maybe more than a little.” He squeezed her hand and watched her face carefully. “You okay?”
“Yeah. Just… still not used to heartfelt speeches, I guess,” she said, trying to sound lighthearted. “Thanks.”
“Anytime.” He glanced at their hands, running his index finger over hers. “And I know you already know this, but I like that you’re softhearted. And I think it’s part of what makes you such a good crownguard.”
“You really care about the people you’re protecting. Not just out of duty or service, but because you really care. You have true courage, and a big heart. You shouldn’t be ashamed of it. It’s one of my favourite things about you. It should be one of your favourite things about yourself, too.”
She looked at him, her heart swelling, suddenly far too big to be contained inside her. Like… part of it had to be given away.
Like part of it already was.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, reluctantly pulling her hand away. “It’s getting late, and I’m not about to have you falling asleep while we’re riding tomorrow morning.”
“Okay.” He got up far too cheerily from their log and held out his hand to help her up.
Rayla looked up at him, teasing to distract herself from the warmth of his hand in gesture other than comfort. “What, no complaining? No bargaining?”
“I take care of you,” he said simply, letting go, “and you take care of me.”
She softened. “I think I’m okay with that.”
“Good. Cause that’s kinda all that friendship is.”
“Then I guess that makes us fast learners.” Her heart pushed stubbornly against her ribcage. “Goodnight, Callum.”
He smiled brightly, like dawn had come early. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
Chapter 6: Surely To The Sea
They had stopped at the closest village when they bought tickets for the boat, a small, scrappy thing that at the very least was made of sturdy wood. It could only take twenty people at a time across Half Water Sea, known for its tumultuous storms, and was one of the cheaper but safer ferries, too, running more often than any other. At the very least, they would be below decks for most of the trip, even if she’d still be able to feel it.
The captain was a charming if eccentric, red bearded man with two eye-patches, named Villads (she gave up on trying to figure out where the silent ‘d’ fit in) and a squawky, spitfire parrot named Berto as his first mate. Somehow.
She went below decks to their room with their things as soon as the captain began to pull the anchor up, the shifting of the boat making her stomach queasy. This was going to be a long three days, but it would save them time on their journey and... did she want to save them time? Callum had only agreed to take the boat because she’d insisted it wouldn’t be that bad, really , and even then, he had taken plenty of convincing. She just hoped she hadn’t been inadvertently lying.
She sat down on the bed when the boat lurched to a start, and so did her stomach, and for a moment she regretted that they’d taken lunch before this. Why had she insisted on the boat? To make their trip go by more quickly? It wasn’t as though that was what she wanted. What she wanted was—
Rayla barely made it to the toilet before she started retching. At least Callum was still up on deck, enjoying the sight and sea breeze and not seeing her like this . Maybe she still had some herbs in her pack for the nausea? She could take a few leaves and try to sleep through this nightmare, and hopefully Callum would be none the wiser. It would be difficult, maybe, considering they would still be sharing a room, but manageable. Sometimes he was more focused on other distractions than paying attention to her. If she played her cards right...
She stumbled back into the main part of the cabin, rummaging through her knapsack for a small bag of herbs.
Shit . “Yes?”
“Can I come in?”
“Uh—” It was his room too. He didn’t need permission (let alone as the prince). “Sure?”
The door opened, and Callum’s face was pink from the cool air above. “You should come up, it’s—” His smile faltered when he saw her bent over her cot. “Hey, is everything okay?”
“Fine,” she managed. “Just a little seasick. Totally normal.” She held up her bag of medicinal herbs. “See? Already have something for the nausea. I’m fine.”
“Oh, Rayla, if I’d known you get sick—”
“It’s not a big deal. I can just try to nap through it, and you can take one of my blades when you go out—” Another wave of nausea hit her, and she sat down on her cot, holding her stomach.
“Yeah, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Probably best,” she said, smiling feebly. “Not exactly the best crownguard right now.”
“You’re not feeling well. Don’t worry about being a crownguard or my bodyguard right now, just… Have you taken the medicine yet?” Rayla shook her head. “Okay. Take it, and I’ll get you some water.” They did have some spare glasses in the bathroom. He went and filled one while she made herself chew the herbs, bland but not unpleasant. She was still chewing when he came back with a glass, and she took it gratefully, taking slow, careful sips. Callum sat down next to her, a hand on her back.
“Thanks,” she mumbled, flushing.
“Have you thrown up yet?” he asked worriedly.
“A bit, but I’m fine—”
Callum shifted to adjust her pillows so they were more upright. “Here, lie down,” he said, his hand light on her back.
“I don’t need you to take care of me,” she said with a slight frown.
“Friends take care of friends,” he said. “And you’d be manhandling me right now if our situations were switched.”
Rayla wrinkled her nose. “Manhandling?”
“You know.” He placed his hands on her shoulders in a sort of demonstration. “Hands all over me.”
Her face burned, and she turned away. She placed a hand on her stomach, hoping it would come off as just another wave of nausea. She laid down, the pillows propping her up, relieved and disappointed when his hands fell away from her shoulders. Something warm bloomed in her chest when he pulled the blanket over her.
“Is there anything else that can help with the nausea?” he asked.
“Not really? I tried not to go on boats as much as possible,” she muttered. “Last time I was on one was when I was travelling to Katolis in the first place.”
Callum sat back and evaluated her, with those thoughtful, kind eyes of his. “You really wanted to get away from home, huh?”
It hit her, not for the first time, just how much she’d told him the other day at their campfire. And everything he’d said, too. I like how stubborn and determined you are. I like that you can be standoffish—it’s not my favourite mood of yours, but—you’re cute when you’re angry. I mean—
“People back home weren’t like you,” she said softly. “Running was easy.”
His lips curved. “How strong was that medicine?” She could practically see him making a mental note to go check the label on the bottle later. When she didn’t answer, though, he took her hand. “Like me? What d’you mean?”
“You know. Nice. Persistent. Forgiving.” She raised her head and met his eyes. Her head did feel a little fuzzy. Sleepy. “You like me.”
Callum went a pretty shade of pink. “I, uh—”
She gestured between them with her hand that wasn’t being held by his. “We’re friends.”
He ran his thumb over hers, smiling softly. “Yeah. We are.”
Her eyelids fluttered. “Just don’t get sick,” she commanded. “You’re hard enough to take care of already.”
He chuckled softly, low and warm. “Aye aye, captain.” He drew the blanket up a little further. “Get some sleep, Rayla.”
She let out a quiet hum in response—maybe she had taken one herb too many—when she felt something warm and soft on her forehead. The gentle press of his lips only registered once he’d pulled away, giving her hand one last squeeze before letting go and walking away. Maybe to get dinner, or something?
She felt suddenly feverish, her skin hot beneath the blanket. A forehead kiss was tender. Intimate. Something you didn’t do for just anyone. Maybe not even for a friend... or at least not for anyone who wasn’t a close friend. Were they close friends? Were they more ?
No. No no no— He was a prince. She was his bodyguard. How many more times would she have to get that through her stupid head—
Rayla turned onto her side, pulling the blanket tighter around her. The medicine and remnants of nausea were just making her a bit delirious. She’d have her head on straight when she woke up. Make Callum take the bed and insist on her having the cot for once.
When she woke up.
He checked on her again that evening, gently pressing his palm to her forehead. No fever, thankfully, so it probably just was seasickness and weirdly strong medicine.
This was all his fault. He’d known Rayla was apprehensive about travelling by water, he should have investigated further before allowing her to insist that they take a boat. If being on water did this to her, it was no wonder she’d been wanting to avoid it.
He brushed a loose strand of hair from her face. She was still pale, but thankfully the green tinge had left her face.
You like me.
He swallowed. Her statement had nearly made him choke on his own spit, and well—Callum knew enough about himself to know that wasn’t an entirely platonic reaction. A platonic reaction was a smile at knowing how Rayla meant it, or relief when it became clear that it was through friendship. Not for his heart to skip a beat and keep pounding even after her clarification. Or had Ezran just gotten into his head?
Or, more likely, had Ezran just seen the connection between his head and his heart before Callum could realize there was a disconnect at all?
Maybe not that far. Maybe… Maybe Ezran was a little right. Just a little. Because it was normal for anyone to spend almost a month with a funny, strong, pretty girl and catch some feelings. Rayla was unlike anyone he’d ever met, and she was his friend—and Callum was pretty sure he could only catch feelings for someone he was already friends with anyway, if his few past crushes were any indicator—and... A tiny crush. He could handle that. Bury that, right? No big deal. No need to be awkward or weird or make Rayla uncomfortable when she literally had to keep travelling with him.
She snuffled in her sleep as she shifted and it was all he could do to keep his heart from doing a little skip. She was cute when she was sleeping, too.
And now he was staring, which was also non platonic. Probably.
He sighed to himself, before tucking her in one last time and he went to go to the cot when her hand grabbed his wrist.
“‘S cold,” she mumbled, not opening her eyes. “Don’t want you to give up your bed again.”
Callum smiled softly. “You’re not feeling well,” he said.
But she shook her head, pushing herself up a little to blink at him. Still a little bleary from the medicine, but cognizant enough of everything, if the frowning twitch of her lips was any indication. “Don’t make me argue with you.”
“I don’t think you have the strength to pick me up right now, so...” he teased, already knowing he’d bend if she pushed. Even if it meant leaving her on that cot... He pursed his lips. “How about we compromise? We have two days on this boat. You sleep in the bed tonight, and I’ll sleep in it tomorrow.”
“If the boat keeps rocking I’m not going to sleep through the night,” she grouched. “Or fall back asleep once I wake up.” She didn’t let go of his wrist. “Just share the bed, Callum.”
His voice cracked in a way it hadn’t since he was fourteen. “W-with you?”
She really must have still been out of it, just enough to nod and tug him closer. “Helps having something solid close by.”
He twisted his wrist and then squeezed her fingers. “Just gimme a second,” he said and then escaped her grasp, striding over and picking up the medicinal bottle. He read the label and the side effects. Nothing about impaired decision making. Just sleepiness. So she really did want to share, not something she was saying because she was too out of it to know. Maybe just sleepy enough for her guard to be down, but nothing she didn’t want. His stomach did a little backflip.
By the time he got back to the bed Rayla had pushed herself up more, a done look on her face. “You finished over there or what? There’s no point in going back to sleep if you’re just gonna wake me up getting settled.”
Giving in, Callum smiled as he walked back over, sitting down to take off his shoes, even as he scrunched up his face at her. “Is that any way to talk to your prince ?”
Rayla’s face went from pale to a deep red, and she shoved at his shoulder before curling up further in the blankets. “Shut... shut up,” she mumbled and he threw her a wide smile once his socks and shoes were off, just as an added reassurance, in case she needed it. He slipped in under the covers beside her.
“This okay?” He reached for her shoulder, and she turned back towards him.
He watched her face soften even if it stayed a little pink. “It’s fine,” she said. “You’re fine.”
She slowly rested her head on his shoulder as he wrapped an arm around her—“Something solid, right?” he murmured—even if neither of them moved any closer. She only hummed sleepily in reply, her lips chapped and slightly parted. She hadn’t had much water the past day, he remembered. “Do you want me to get you some water?”
Rayla lightly pinched his side. “Just go to sleep, Callum.”
He smiled a little. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
Hopefully the mess hall stayed open late too, but they had some snacks in their bags just in case too. He smiled a little when he felt her breathing slow and even out as she fell back to sleep.
Whatever she wanted, he’d give it to her.
Her head hurt when she woke up that morning. She didn’t want to get up or open her eyes, even. She was warm and cozy otherwise, and it couldn’t hurt to stay in bed if she wasn’t feeling well, right?
She reached for the end of her blanket, but felt something more solid instead. Her brow furrowed, and she slowly opened her eyes. She blinked the sleep out of them a few times before her vision focused on how her hand was lying on Callum’s upper arm. The connected arm that was still slung over her waist and had some slight definition underneath the sleeve of his tunic. She swallowed, her throat dry from morning. She probably needed some water. She needed…
Her gaze lifted, and she flushed at how close her face was to his. Oh, why hadn’t she just let him take the cot? If he wanted to be stupid and sore and chivalrous, she should have let him. Rather than wake up like this.
She bit back a yelp when he drew her closer, nuzzling against her shoulder as he mumbled something she couldn’t quite hear. Oh gods, was he awake?
“...What?” she chanced.
“...soft…” His breathing remained slow and even. “Stay in bed. Don’t leave, pillow...”
Was he... sleep talking? She couldn’t help but smile a little as he continued mumbling incoherently. She could handle being his pillow, she supposed. Even if part of her was mortified and all of her was flustered. Slowly, she relaxed, even if she had to keep her hand from going up to stroke his hair. This wasn’t so bad. And his sleep-talking was kind of cute.
Wait, no, the entire problem was that it wasn’t bad. And she was sharing a bed and cuddling with the prince of Katolis. Her prince . Her friend. Oh gods. The real problem was enjoying this too much .
Reluctantly, she placed a hand on his shoulder, gently pushing him away. “Hey,” she said quietly. “Wake up.”
Callum drew her close again. “Pillow,” he whined, burying his face in her shoulder again.
Rayla did her best to take some of her pillow and press it up against his face instead without accidentally elbowing him in the face. Her bony shoulder couldn’t be better than an actual pillow, right? It didn’t work very well, though, and eventually she gave up. If he wanted to use her as a pillow, there were worse things. And clearly he was pretty deep in sleep, too, as she could feel him breath deep, his breath warm and ghosting over the edge of her collarbone. Rayla pursed her lips, glancing down at him, his closed eyes and long lashes, before she let her hand move from his arm to his hair, lightly stroking it. Warmth bubbled in her stomach when his body sighed against hers, and she stared at him for a moment longer, indulging herself for one more second before closing her eyes. They could stay in bed a little longer. Maybe she could sleep off her headache.
She let her fingers run idly through Callum’s soft hair until she fell back asleep.
This ship had the best pillows. They were soft, warm, and smelled really nice, even if there was a loose feather tickling his nose as he began to rouse. He opened his eyes, and… okay, it wasn’t a feather, even if it was still white and soft, but what…?
His eyes widened when he realized what he was holding wasn’t a pillow.
Rayla let out a soft yawn, her eyes fluttering open, and for just a moment, they looked at each other, before scrambling apart, Callum’s head nearly hitting the wall.
“Sorry!” he said quickly. “I-I didn’t mean—”
“It’s okay!” She glanced back at him with an adorable bedhead, hair slightly wavy, her cheeks tinged pink. “It… it was cold last night.”
“Y-yeah, I mean...” Callum’s hand went to his own head and found one part of his hair smoothed down. How had that happened? It wasn’t even the side that had been on his pillow (he didn’t think so, anyway).
Rayla covered her mouth with one hand. “Sorry,” she blurted. “You just—you stirred a little and it seemed to help you go back to sleep.”
“Oh, you…?” Vaguely, he remembered dreaming about soft fingers in his hair.
Rayla seemed to be composing herself, her lips thin and pressed together. “I won’t do it again—” she said quickly.
“No, it’s okay,” he assured her, waving his hands. “It—it was kinda nice.” He cleared his throat. “It was nice. I guess I was more tired than I thought.” He rubbed the back of his neck, seeing the way she still looked mortified and closed up, and gave a slight cough. “Guess I got too used to being lazy at the palace, huh?” he offered. A silent I’m giving you a way out of this conversation because the last thing he wanted was for her to be uncomfortable around him all over again.
Rayla peeked over at him. “I wouldn’t call you lazy ,” she said. “Pampered maybe.”
“You mean spoiled.”
She smiled faintly. “Your word, not mine.”
Callum ambled himself out of bed as naturally as he could manage with the sheets still a little twisted. “Ah, how will my pride ever recover.” He glanced over at the clock and squinted before looking back at her. Which was dangerous, because she was still adorably rumpled and technically sitting in his sheets. “I think the mess hall is still open this late, if we wanna grab dinner?”
“I might just get some water,” she said. “My head kind of hurts.”
“Oh, okay. Do you want me to bring back anything?”
Rayla picked at her nails. “Do you have to go?” she asked in a small voice.
“Of course not,” he said without even thinking about it. He stepped back towards her. “Are you okay? Besides the headache, I mean.”
“I’m fine,” she said. “Just looking forward to being on land again.”
Callum sat back down next to her but on the covers this time. “I’m sorry. Once we head back home, no more boats. I promise.”
“That’s sweet, but not very practical. It’ll take longer—”
“And you won’t get sick. It’ll take maybe a few more days, a week longer at most. Besides, I think I’ve made it clear before that I don’t ever mind getting to spend more time with you.”
Rayla softened. “You have,” she agreed.
“And next time,” he said, almost a little stern, “you have to promise you won’t put yourself through something like this again, alright? I’m not worth it, or whatever.”
She frowned at him suddenly, as though he’d said something wrong. “Yes you are.”
“Rayla, I don’t want you to put yourself through this because I’m the prince, that’s not—”
She scowled. “You think I would do this for just anyone?”
Callum blinked, caught off guard in more ways than one. He stared at her. “Well, no, but the point is next time we come across a situation like this, I want you to be honest—and I’m not saying you weren’t honest this time but—just tell me, because I don’t want you to be uncomfortable and sick for my sake. I know it’s still kinda hard for you to tell me no because you’re my knight, but I want you to, and—”
“I know that—”
“Then why didn’t you tell me it was going to be this bad?” His voice rose despite himself. Did she always have to be so stubborn? How many times were they going to have this conversation? “I thought I was finally getting it through your thick skull that we’re friends and that means we’re on equal ground, you don’t have to go along with whatever I want just because I’m the—”
“I didn’t agree to take the boat because you’re the prince,” she snapped. “I did it because you’re important to me!”
Callum was quiet for a moment, looking at her even as she glanced away. He resisted the urge to reach out and smooth down her hair. “You’re important to me, too,” he said. “But I don’t understand why you agreed to take the boat if...”
“I know you’ve never been on one before,” she mumbled, and it was true. The only kingdom one had to travel by sea to get to sometimes was Evenere, and Callum had never had to go that far. Carriages had always sufficed on the few occasions he and the rest of his family had left Katolis. “You’re so curious.” She pressed her lips together, looking furious with herself. “I thought you’d enjoy it. You were up on deck appreciating the view until you came down to get me.”
Callum’s brow furrowed and he reached for her hand. “I mean, the view is pretty nice,” he admitted. “But mostly I was wishing you were up there to enjoy it with me. Why d’you think I came looking for you?”
A tiny smile flickered on her face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be up there with you,” she said quietly, but Callum shook his head.
“That’s not the point. The point is that, whatever we do, I want you there with me, enjoying it too. And we can’t do that if you’re miserable.”
Her eyes crinkled, even as she looked down at the way his hand lay across hers. Rayla’s voice was quiet as she looked back at him. “You’re a really good guy, Callum.”
His throat went dry as he looked back at her. “Oh. Um. Thank you.”
He really didn’t want to pull away.
Then the boat gave a lurch so big even he felt it, and Rayla wrapped an arm around her stomach, drawing away. “Yeah, might want to wait on the food,” she said weakly.
“Right, sorry,” Callum said. “I can get you some water? I figured you might be a little dehydrated after today.”
“That would be great.” She shot him a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
He squeezed her hand and then let go. “Of course,” he said, standing up and turning away so he wouldn’t have to look at her face. “I’d do anything for you, too.”
Chapter 7: Cabin Fever
They disembarked after a couple more days of staying belowdecks, their snack supply saved by Callum taking food from the mess hall whenever Rayla had to sleep off the nausea. She nearly flung herself at the ground in relief once they got off the boardwalk. The main reason she didn’t was because Callum helped her down, offering his hand and then placing it at her lower back as a steadying sort of warmth, and she wasn’t about to move away from that .
They turned to wave goodbye to Captain Villads and Berto, both having been decent parts of the experience in spite of it all. And if Rayla didn’t let go of Callum’s hand as they said their goodbyes, well…
“It’s too bad we won’t see them on the way back,” Rayla said as they headed into the nearest town together, their things in tow. “They were… nice.”
“Yeah. I mean, we didn’t get to see much of them anyway. Maybe if they’re porting at the same time we’re on our way back?”
“Maybe.” The town was small but with a thriving marketplace, and they stuck close together walking through the throng of elves and humans. Stalls sold magical amulets, intricately woven tapestries, jewelry, baked goods and more. She smiled when she saw Callum’s face lit up in curiosity, his eyes flitting from window display to window display.
“Remember what we’re here for,” Rayla said, even if she couldn’t keep the fondness out of her voice. “Two new mounts for the ones we had to leave back on land, remember?”
“Yeah, it’s just fun to look.” He looked back at her, almost seeming to consider her for a moment. “You don’t wear a lot of jewelry, do you?”
She blinked at him. “It wouldn’t be very practical,” she said. “Moonshadow elves are hardly decorative.”
“Right,” he said, “but if someone wanted to get you something, what would be the least… in the way?”
“I don’t know. Some elves I know wear horn cuffs, since they're easy to keep on and forget about. But a lot of the time, particularly in my village, it indicates that they’re engaged or married, anyway.”
“Oh. And I guess rings or bracelets might get in the way of un-flicking your blades?”
She nodded. “Moonshadow elves also don’t like to modify our ears very much, with earrings. It’s more common with Sunfire or Skywing elves.”
“Oh. Is… there any reason why?”
“Culturally, when a part of our body is lost or modified like that, it’s usually in having failed to keep a pretty serious vow. So doing it for decorative purposes never sat right, especially with the elders. And as a more practical reason, our ears are just sensitive.”
“Oh. So only horn cuffs, and only in relationships.”
Rayla bit back a smile. “You really are lucky you’re cute, sometimes.”
“Wait, you think I’m cute?”
It was what sounded like genuine hope tinging his words that made her flush, as she finally let go of his hand. He looked as dazed as she felt. “As if you didn’t know.”
“No, actually, I—whoa—” And almost got run over by a haywire cart, as him and Rayla careened towards the closest stall, her grabbing his arm to drag him closer to safety if she had to. He didn’t look very concerned at having almost been knocked over, his eyes still on her. “I didn’t—er, that information.” He carefully stepped over a crate lying on the ground and swallowed hard. “I was not aware of—of that.”
Rayla rolled her eyes—mostly because if she didn’t, she might do something really stupid like turn around and kiss him, more tempted than ever just because she thought, for once, that he might actually let her—and steadied him by the arm instead. “Horses, Your Highness,” she reminded him, wry enough for it to be a nickname rather than a title.
“R-right.” He had to speed up to catch up to her as she strode past the marketplace a bit, towards the stables where a few steeds were resting.
“Hello?” she called, trying to keep her voice steady even as she felt Callum’s warmth beside her. “Anyone here?”
A head popped up from one of the stables and Rayla saw the antlers before she saw the face. An earthblood elf with a pale green hue, bright eyes, and long, gangly limbs covered in brown fabric. “Yes?”
“You’re in charge of the horses?”
“I am!” She stepped out of the stable, dusting loose hay off her clothes. “Did you need anything?”
“Yes, two horses, please.”
“Did you have a prior reservation?”
The earthblood elf shook her head at them. “Everyone who steps off any of those ferry boats needs a horse, little lady. They go fast.”
Rayla frowned. “So there’s none available?”
“Well, luckily for you, there is one left. Big enough to carry you and your boyfriend, no problem.”
Rayla’s cheeks were burning, but instead of correcting her, she said, “Great. Thanks.”
It was easier to keep his identity private if everyone assumed they were together, after all.
Rayla paid for the horse and a new saddle, not daring to look at Callum throughout the exchange. She didn’t know what sort of expression he would wear, and more than that, she wasn’t sure what expression she wanted him to be wearing. Cute and flustered, giving her heart horrible hope, or just nervous about her being offended, or clear indifference—more proof that he didn’t like her like that beyond almost everything about the past five years.
She mounted the horse once they were outside, steadying it for a moment, assessing its temperance. The horse took a moment to steady, pushing forward, and she tugged the reins a little. Great, a stubborn horse on top of everything. No wonder everyone had already reserved the others.
Whatever. Nothing she couldn’t handle.
She held out her hand for Callum to mount behind her, still not willing to look at him.
“Do you want me to take the reins?” he asked. She blinked, finally looking at him. His eyes were soft with concern, not at all what she’d been expecting, and it made her heart twist.
“I figured you’d be pretty tired, from the boat and everything. I know I’m not the best at riding, but you could help me make corrections, and… you’re a good teacher, I’m sure I’ll get the hang of it.”
Rayla nearly smiled. “You rode your own horse just fine.”
“I almost fell off a few times.”
“Yeah, almost .”
He raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms over his chest. “Is this your way of saying yes?” he said dryly.
She reached out her hand again. “Come on.” His grasp was firm as he took it, and she tried to ignore the flutter of heat that ran up her arm as she tugged him on, holding onto him as he regained his balance, getting his feet into the stirrups. “You alright there?” she asked, a tad cheekily.
Callum threw her a look over his shoulder. “I’m fine,” he said and she just bit back a grin.
“Just stay on your guard, this one’s kind of stubborn.”
“Yes, because it’s not like I have any experience with handling stubborn creatures.”
She kicked him lightly in his calf. “Shut up,” she mumbled, but she rested her chin on his shoulder as they began riding. She kept her arms secure around his waist, not for the first time appreciating how warm and solid he was. When she felt the horse straying, she grabbed the reins, her hands over his as she helped him steer the horse back on course.
“Thanks,” he said, glancing back at her.
She wrapped her arms around him again, mumbling, “Eyes on the road.”
He listened, even as he said, rather lightly, “Road’s not as pretty.”
She hid her blushing face in his shoulder. “You’re the worst,” she said, managing a mutter.
Callum simply patted her hand and went on steering. “I know. And yet you like me anyway.”
She didn’t trust herself to respond. The next time the horse strayed, he managed to pull him back on track, and she could feel the effort as the muscles in his back shifted under her cheek. All those afternoons sparring out in the courtyard hadn’t been for nothing, apparently. She supposed the courtyard was just being used by Soren and the rest of the crownguard now. And it didn’t seem like Callum was going to pick up conversation, for once, thinking she wanted some silent rest, until she started one herself.
“Do you miss the castle?”
“A little bit,” he replied. “It’s the longest I’ve been away, but I don’t mind so much. It’d be way lonelier without you.”
“I have to admit,” she said slowly. “I was surprised you picked me instead of Soren.”
“Yeah. At least before, I thought you were closer to him.”
“We’ve just known each other a little longer. And he’s my friend, but it’d also be kind of… exhausting, spending over two months travelling just with him? Soren works best in small doses. For me, anyway.”
She chose her next words carefully. “And I don’t?”
She could hear the smile in his voice as he said, “Honestly, I always found myself wishing lessons were longer, once I started training with you. I always looked forward to seeing you again. Soren’s kind of like a shot, you know? Fast. Kind of burns. But you’re like... a bottle of wine, or something. Nice. Savoury.”
Rayla had no idea how she remained composed, only that she said, very steadily, “I never thought you’d be much of a drinker. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of your family drunk, let alone you.”
“We might have to change that,” he said with a grin. “Stop at an inn by a pub one of these days. And I’m not, really—Mom and Dad let me have sips of their wine since I was fourteen—but... it might be fun to see you loosen up.”
She rolled her eyes, mostly because her heart was still pounding. “I am not going to get drunk with you, Callum. One of us has to stay alert, remember?”
“Nothing’s happened so far, and if we’re just in our room—”
“We’ve been in Katolis so far, but the closer we get to the Breach, the more we have to keep our guard up.”
“Don’t you wanna have fun and stop and smell the roses sometimes?”
“I already did that with you,” she said flatly, “and I care more about keeping you safe.”
Callum let out a sigh. “Okay,” he said. “But we could keep stopping to smell the roses. Like, it’s not a one-time thing. Doesn’t have to be drinking together, but... I really like hanging out with you. I don’t want that to end.”
Her fingers tightened on her sleeve. “Why would it end?”
“I dunno. Out here on the road, I can tell we’re closer and that you’re treating me, y’know, like a friend. But once we’re back at the palace and you’re being reminded how princely I am all of the time... I don’t want you to close up again.”
Rayla rested her chin on his shoulder, craning her neck to look at him. “You’re not going to lose me,” she said quietly. He kept a hand over one of hers, giving it a quick squeeze.
Then, more flatly, “I’m still not going to get drunk with you.”
Callum chuckled and she felt the rumble of his chest as he did so. “I know.”
They stopped in a town with high walls and under a huge cliff-face surrounded by thick, pine tree forests. The local inn was just a few blocks down from the tower in the very centre, aptly named the Tower Inn.
This time, when they checked in, they didn’t ask for an extra cot. Callum glanced at her, seemingly mildly surprised, but he didn’t say anything as she took the key and nothing more and they dragged their bags up the stairs, their new horse locked in the adjacent stables.
“Guess we’ll be going with the couple cover story from now on, huh?” he finally asked.
Rayla shrugged. “People keep assuming, so… It doesn’t seem we have to try very hard to convince people.” She pressed her lips together. “Besides, sharing a bed went okay last time.”
His face and ears burned. “Oh. Yeah. Uh, so—you wouldn’t mind if it…?”
She looked back at him as she opened the door and arched her eyebrows. “‘I wouldn’t mind if’ what...?”
“If we… ended up…?” He gestured vaguely with his hands, and she blinked at him. He let out a frustrated sigh, his cheeks visibly flushing. “Kinda cuddling, you know. Like last time.”
“Oh.” Rayla’s cheeks flushed a pretty pink, and she shrugged again, crossing her arms over her chest. “Well it wasn’t,” she coughed, “unpleasant, so. Yeah. It’s fine. I mean, it would be fine. If it happened again.”
“Okay. That—that’s great, I mean—”
“So it’s about dinnertime,” Rayla said quickly, striding away from him and plopping down her bags at the foot of the lone, singular, bed. “I think the dining hall is already open, whenever you’re ready.”
“Oh.” Callum brushed past her and set his bags down too, including his sketchbook. “Are you hungry?”
“Um… yeah. Might as well eat and not have to go back down, right? Once we’re settled in here it can be for the night.”
His face lit up, so suddenly and unexpectedly it almost took her breath away. “Hey, we can finally have a real sort of sleepover now that you’re feeling better!”
She smiled a little. “Sleepover?”
“We can get some sweets from downstairs, and I have a pack of cards on me. It’ll be fun.”
“Aren’t we a little old?”
Callum was undeterred, if not also clever as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Have you ever had a sleepover before?”
“Well, no, but—”
“And you’re never too old to do something you’ve never done before. Please?”
How could she say no to those eyes? And if she was giving into him, why not also dig a bit more of her own grave while she was it, as she reached over and booped him on the nose with her finger, although she didn’t smile. “You’re very lucky you’re cute. Fine. Let’s have a sleepover.”
Callum beamed and then trailed after her as she left the room. “Or just lucky that I’m very cute?” he tried.
“Don’t push it, princey.” Still, she couldn’t help but smile when he sat next to her on one of the benches once they were downstairs, so close that his thigh pressed up against hers. His excited smile as he rambled over his soup and bread and she chimed in occasionally.
Very cute indeed.
Their bag of cookies was nearly depleted when they finally stopped playing cards, Rayla picking it up surprisingly quick and winning every other round after the second. They were evenly matched, but Callum was determined to one up her, eventually. Mostly it was nice to see her get competitive, her eyes alight and shoulders hunched in concentration before she set down her cards. He taught her how to shuffle a deck, sometimes placing his hands over hers to help with the motions and... Well, it was a good thing she was concentrated more on that rather than how red his face got as a result.
“Maybe it’s easier with five fingers?” she mused.
“Or maybe your hands are just tiny,” he grinned.
Rayla laughed. “Your hands are the ones that are huge, mine are normal sized.”
“Are not.” He reached over and took both her hands as though to prove it, lining up their fingers. “See? Yours are tiny.”
“Normal,” she insisted, although maybe she was a little out of breath from laughing. Not that she’d been laughing hard, but what other reason was there? “Yours are big.”
“Hm.” He hummed, glancing at their hands, and then shifted his so her fingers fit in between his before folding them each over. So their hands were interlocked. “Funny, how elf and human hands fit together perfectly, huh?”
“Yeah,” she murmured. Her cheeks were dusted a soft pink, and he took a chance, running his thumb over hers.
She let go suddenly, standing up as she fidgeted with her nightgown. “I’m going to go to the bathroom,” she announced, before quickly heading in.
Callum sighed. Had he done something wrong? He thought today with the horse, and the... he had thought it was flirting, that maybe... But maybe it wasn’t fair to flirt and push a little until he knew what he actually wanted out of it. Did he want to know if Rayla liked him? Did he want her to know that he was super kind of very sure that he liked her? (Like a lot.) And if the answer to both of those questions was yes, what then? Would they... did he want to court her?
Images of walking around the castle gardens, sneaking off to the kitchens, and actually getting to dance with her at parties bloomed in his mind’s eye. Not too different from what they’d done the past couple of weeks, actually. Making her smile, making her laugh. More holding hands, getting to flirt openly. Buy her a necklace the way he’d wanted to at the marketplace. Getting to... kiss her.
Callum let himself flop onto the bed on his back and placed his face in his hands. Oh, it was huge stinking yes and he was in so much shit. Like, up to his neck in shit. And worse still, it felt deeper and different than anything he’d felt for Claudia, now that he was aware of the huge sort of gaping thing in his chest.
The bathroom door creaked open and she stepped out, her hair up the way it had been the night at the gala. Gods, no wonder he hadn’t been able to stop looking at her. He could hardly stop looking at her now, in a simple shirt and leggings. After some difficulty, though, he managed to find his voice.
She sat down on the other edge of the bed. “It’s fine,” she said lightly.
“And... you’re fine?”
Rayla nodded. “Are you okay?” she asked. “You look kind of dazed. Did you drink enough water today while we were riding?”
“Um, I think so?” Was he really this pathetic and lovestruck, as he asked, “Do I feel hot?”
Rayla’s brow furrowed as she placed a palm on his forehead. “A little warm,” she said, “but I don’t think you have a fever, so that’s good.”
“I think we just need time to get our land legs back,” he shrugged when she drew away.
“Might be smart to head in early,” she suggested. “If you’re ready to have the sleeping part of the sleepover?”
He almost objected, just to see her give him that fond eyeroll and and tease him again. But he was too aware, now, too aware of how pretty she was and how close she was and that she was in the same bed as him. Oh gods, how was he going to sleep tonight? Even if she would be able to soothe him to sleep again by stroking his hair, he’d be too paranoid about something slipping up if he started sleep-talking again.
“Uh, yeah, sure. I’m just gonna go change and wash my face. Then you can change?”
“Yeah.” She turned away again, and he both wished and didn’t wish that she wouldn’t keep biting her lip like that as he got up and got some sleep clothes from his knapsack.
He splashed cold water on his face in the bathroom first before stripping and changing. This was maybe the worst time to figure this out. At least if he’d noticed it sooner, while they were still at the castle, he could investigate whatever their options might be, and then she would have a way out if she didn’t feel the same. (Even if he thought, or hoped, that she might, just a little.) And if things didn’t work out, they wouldn’t have to spend another month at least travelling one-on-one.
He stepped out of the bathroom, only glancing at her briefly as he made his way to his side of the bed. She didn’t look back at him as she went to the bathroom, her nightgown tucked under her arm, and he pulled the covers over him, sighing to himself. Would it be weird trying to share a bed, now that he knew? Sharing a bed had already been a little weird, but now that he knew ... extra weird?
He glanced over at the bathroom door, figuring he had at least five minutes before she came back out. After a second, Callum hoisted himself up and reached for his sketchbook. A way to clear his head and focus on something else, if only for a little bit. He started on the marketplace they’d passed through today, paying special mind to the necklaces—a little more vividly ingrained than everything else because he’d considered some for Rayla, and—well, that was circular. He left the sketch half finished and then started on drawing their horse. That was safer.
He glanced up when she came out, and he almost smiled to himself when he saw that her hair was still up. “What are you drawing?” she asked when she slid into bed beside him. He tilted the book so she could see better, and she smiled. “Looks just like him, stubborn thing.” Her eyes lifted to his. “You did really well with taking the reins, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks.” His smile lifted. “I had a good teacher.”
She rolled her eyes even while she smiled. “I didn’t teach you how to do everything .”
“I mean, there were plenty of instructors before you,” he agreed. “But your lessons are the ones that stuck.”
Rayla glanced at her hands in her lap, her face flushing. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” He nudged her lightly in the side. “You’re just good at getting through to me, I guess.”
“Well… you’re a good listener,” she said, still not looking up. “Most of the time.”
He frowned. “Hey, I remember what you tell me.”
Her cheeks turned pinker. “I meant about listening to me about eating your food before it gets cold, and stuff like that, doofus.”
“Oh.” He closed the sketchbook and set it down on his bedside table. “I just… don’t mind letting my food get cold and stuff if it means I can talk to you more.”
“I’m not worth that.”
Callum frowned. “Why do you do that?”
He sighed. “Why don’t you think you’re worth anything?”
“You don’t think you deserve to be my friend, even though you do. You don’t think that the people in your village were wrong about you, even though they definitely were. You don’t think you’re worth me putting off food or putting your comfort first. I don’t get it. You’re incredible. You’re smart and fast and funny. You’re a good friend. And you would deserve good things even if that stuff wasn’t true, which it is.”
Rayla stared at him, stunned, a little pink in the face when she looked away. “I don’t know,” she mumbled. “I couldn’t do the one thing I was supposed to do. I can’t do anything right. Even with this job, I was stupid enough to go and—never mind.”
Callum stared at her. “Stupid enough to what?”
Her jaw tightened. “Forget it, Callum, I’m not telling you. You’re my job, not my therapist.”
“I’m your job,” he repeated faintly. “After everything, I’m still…” He swallowed at the lump in his throat. “Fine. Fine. Whatever.” He pushed himself up. “I’m going for a walk.”
Rayla was still scowling, but she looked up. “I can’t let you go alone—”
“Well I’m your prince,” he said, “aren’t I?” He pulled on his boots and his coat. “And I order you to stay here. I promise, I’ll try to make sure you don’t fail your job .”
He shut the door more sharply behind him than perhaps was necessary and let the cool night air sting his face when he stepped out onto the street a couple of minutes later, still heated, before he pulled his scarf up over his face. Just a quick walk around the block to clear his head.
And to do his best to get Rayla out of his heart, apparently, too, before he got burned.
Chapter 8: Written In the Stars
He was quiet the rest of the morning. Rayla hadn’t known just how much Callum talked—perhaps because she’d grown so used to it—until he had stopped talking entirely. He had gotten back to their room late, kicked off his boots and fallen asleep with their backs to each other. No entangled limbs in the morning. He’d been generally unresponsive when she’d made breakfast plans, and then hadn’t talked at all over breakfast. Had taken their horse’s reins without a word.
She’d fucked up.
Maybe it was a weak excuse after everything, but she hadn’t expected him to care. Not that much, anyway. Not enough to be hurt by it. She’d expected him to brush it off and bounce back like always, maybe give her some space. She hadn’t expected... this. Funny, almost, how you could be in love with someone for four years and still not know every side of them.
When she held onto him during the ride out of town, neither talked, and she didn’t rest her head between his shoulder blades. He didn’t sit close to her when they took their lunch stop late that afternoon. In some ways, Rayla guessed she should’ve been grateful. Wasn’t this how it was supposed to be? Wasn’t this the most effective way to finally get over him? And maybe if he hadn’t been hurting—if this distance and quiet was his usual, normal self—she would let it slide. But not when he was only like this because she’d hurt him.
She glanced down at her sandwich, her stomach churning. She could just apologize. She could tell him she didn’t mean it, that she just…
Just what? That she was saving face because she’d been in love with him since she’d first come to the castle? That she’d fallen for him fast and hard and told herself over and over again that she’d never mean anything to him, so she had to let it go?
That last night in the inn, she’d gotten scared, because if she meant something to him, then how was she ever supposed to move on?
“Callum?” She winced as soon as she said it, her voice smaller than she’d meant for it to be.
“Yeah?” He sounded distant, his attention on the sketchbook, but not cold. Not yet.
“I…” She swallowed. Tried again. “I’m sorry,” she said quickly, shoving her half-eaten sandwich back in her bag.
He looked up. “Rayla…”
“We should get going,” she mumbled, looking away. “If you’re done. Do you wanna take the reins, or should I?”
“I can take them,” he said, only struggling a little when he mounted. He held his hand out to her, smiling softly. The midday sun shone around his head, and she had to remind herself to breathe when she took his hand.
Was that really all it took? Could it really be that easy?
She climbed onto the horse behind him. Thought of how she’d fallen for him as she wrapped her arms around him and knew that yes, yes it was.
The sky shimmered with twilight when they stopped and set up camp for the night, with the nearest town only half a day away. After that, it was just a matter of crossing the border into Xadia. They set up one tent, an unspoken agreement between them after sharing a bed on the ferry and in the inn. He helped her build a fire, and she knew for sure they were okay when he sat close to her again, his sketchbook balanced between his knee and hers.
“What are you drawing?” she ventured, glancing over, his arm slightly obscuring the view.
He tilted the sketchbook so she could see better. “The view of the mountains, when we stopped for lunch.”
“Thanks.” He looked up from his sketching. “You didn’t eat lunch.”
“You didn’t finish your lunch.”
She mustered up a shrug. “I wasn’t that hungry.”
“Aren’t you hungry now?”
Rayla swallowed, busying herself by reaching for her bag, even as she said, “I didn’t think you were paying attention.”
“I always pay attention to you.”
Gods was she glad he couldn’t see her face until she schooled into something other than a flaming mess.
“Like when you noticed me training in the mornings?” she said, trying to sound casual.
Callum flushed. “Well, uh. Yeah. Like that.”
She looked up from her bag, smiling a little. “You know you could’ve just sat outside if you wanted to talk after.”
“You always seemed so focused, I…” His smile was so hopeful it made something in her heart twist a little. “Something we could start doing when we get back?”
“Why not?” She nudged his knee with hers. “You’re—you’re my friend. Even if I was stupid to forget it for a second.”
“Did you really forget?” he asked softly. His eyes were patient, and her smile faltered as she tried to think of a response.
“I…” She let out a short, loose breath. “I do this thing, sometimes,” she said, looking into their campfire. “Where I just want people to not push, or to leave me alone, but sometimes—you’re a really good, caring guy, but my walls just go up and I didn’t want to hurt you, I just—wanted you to back off, I guess. But I should’ve just said that. Instead of what I actually said. You didn’t deserve that. You are... so much more than just a job to me, Callum.”
Callum’s eyes shone as he smiled. “Thank you, Rayla.”
Slowly, she unfolded, and then held out her hand. Cleared her throat a little. “So... you were saying my hands are small?”
He took it, beaming. “Yeah. It’s actually really cute.”
“I still think that yours are just big.” Heat rose to her cheeks when his fingers slipped between hers, enveloping her hand. “And… you were right, about elf hands and human hands… fitting.”
“See, if mine were too big, they probably wouldn’t fit as well,” he said, and Rayla’s smile twitched.
“I never said they were too big. Just that mine aren’t that small.” She tucked her hair behind her ear with her free hand. “Everything about you is exactly how it should be.”
He shot her an incredulous look. “Rayla, you saw me go through puberty.”
She flushed. “Well lots of girls always thought you were handsome, even then. I would hear some of the younger servants,” around their age, “talking about it sometimes.”
Callum was quiet for a while, his lips pressed together and brow furrowed as though he was processing the information when she looked over, before he looked back at her and said, “Well, what did you think?”
Her cheeks burned. “About what the servants said?” she tried.
She glanced away. “You don’t need the ego boost,” she said, trying to sound exasperated. It would have been easier if his thumb didn’t run over hers like that.
“Hm.” Callum squeezed her hand. “Well, just for the record,” he said, “I don’t care what everyone else thinks.” He gave her hand one last squeeze and then pulled away. “Are you okay if we head in early tonight? I think I’m still pretty tired.”
“Yeah,” she said, even if the pounding of her heart was too fast for her to be anything but wide awake. The sleeping bags they had arranged in the tent were smaller than the beds they’d share, and her heart was still racing when she slipped into the covers beside him, his arm wrapping around her waist.
“Is this okay?” he said sleepily.
She shifted so his head rested against her shoulder, her heart rate slowing as she ran her fingers through his hair. “This is fine,” she said softly, and he nestled into her.
The mountain border was lit with moonlight as they rode across the path, their horse walking at a slow, even pace. Long ago, Rayla explained, it had once just been a moonstone path, unable to be used for long periods of time and only at certain times of day. But once the Alliance between Moonshadow elves and Katolis and Duren had strengthened, they had allowed for a proper bridge to be built across the Breach. There were still runes on the stones, though, and she pointed each one out to him, as well as what it meant or what charm it was holding. He had his chin rested on her shoulder as his eyes followed her finger over each of the runes.
Rayla stilled when he idly traced one into her stomach with his finger, over the soft cloth of her green tunic. “Like that?”
She swallowed. “Um. Yeah.” She looked straight ahead. “You’ll be able to pick up sky runes in no time, too. Looks like your artistic side will come in handy.”
Hot air wafted over from the lava below at different intervals, the night otherwise cool, the moon waning. They hadn’t ridden much at night, but they were so close to the border...
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“Hmm?” Her face heated when he held her closer.
“You were shivering.”
“Oh. Um… I’m okay. Thanks.” She had some self respect, after all. Even if Callum didn’t loosen his grip and she didn’t want him to, although he didn’t trace any more runes.
Their horse didn’t pause when they took a few more steps out of Katolis, stepping off the stone bridge before clopping onto solid Xadian ground.
“Welcome to Xadia,” Rayla smiled. She could easily imagine the awed look on his face as they rode into a night sky full of stars. “We’re not even at the interesting part yet.”
Callum was so quiet she thought maybe something was wrong, before his hand grabbed her arm. “Can—can we stop the horse for a second?”
“Uh, sure, why?” She tugged on the horse’s reins, and he stopped just in time for Callum to dismount and take out his sketchbook. “ That’s why?” She slipped off the horse along with him, still holding onto the reins.
“It’s my first real sight of Xadia,” he said, outlining some of the rocky formations on the horizon.
“This part of the border’s pretty barren. We’re gonna pass through some woods soon—”
“And I’ll draw that then. I wanna remember my very first time, here with you.”
Her breath caught quietly in her throat, and she softened and smiled despite herself. “You’re finally going to draw me?” she murmured, even if she tried to pass it off as nonchalant. Teasing. She didn’t think she quite managed it.
His smile was soft, and maybe a little nervous, as he nodded, tearing his eyes away from his book and surroundings to look at her. “Is that okay?”
“Yeah.” She gazed back at him. “It’s always been okay.”
He beamed at her. “Just keep looking at me,” he said as he focused back on the page. It was a little strange, just sitting still, turned towards her prince as he glanced between her and his page. To know that so much of his attention was on her.
And the background. Of course. The stars and Xadia. It wasn’t just her. She caught his gaze lingering and tried to keep it together.
Maybe—just maybe —mostly her.
She managed to school her expression into something neutral if not annoyed when he looked back at her, his drawing finished; he’d positioned her near the horse, caught in a beam of moonlight, and he grinned when he saw her real face. “Still lucky I’m cute?” he tried.
She flushed. “Shut up.”
“So you don’t want to see it?”
“I didn’t say that ,” she said and sidled up to him. Something in her heart fluttered when she saw it. “Oh, Callum…”
“Is it okay?” he asked, and she could have kissed the nervous look off his face. (She didn’t. But she could have.)
“It’s beautiful.” Maybe too beautiful; her hair framed her face perfectly, which she was sure never happened in real life, the horizon soft and vast behind her. Stars twinkling down, the moonlight somehow shaded even if he had nothing on him but charcoal pencil. “Are you sure you couldn’t get me right all these years?”
“It still kind of feels like I can’t,” he said, their shoulders brushing. “But not because I don’t know you well enough anymore. It’s like… there’s so much, and I wanna fit it all in, you know? You’re too vibrant to capture in a still image. Always moving, always thinking.”
Rayla turned to look at him, their noses nearly touching. “Is that why you’re always trying to figure me out?” she asked, with the faintest of smiles.
“And the other part?”
His eyes were soft. “I just like knowing you,” he said. “A lot. I like you a—”
Their horse tugged hard at the reins, and Rayla nearly fell over trying to tug him back. Then cleared her throat. “Guess he doesn’t like being so close to the heat,” she murmured. “We should probably get going.”
“Oh. Yeah.” He shut the book and slung the strap back over his shoulder, taking her hand when she mounted first. He was able to get on a little more easily now, Rayla noticed, and she tried not to think too hard about it when he wrapped his arms tight around her waist from behind again, his chest pressed along her back.
She couldn’t let herself think about what he was about to say. What she hoped he was about to say. Mostly because a small part of her thought that maybe that hope wasn’t so ridiculous after all.
They set up camp once they reached the woods, and Callum was grateful for the fire in the cool air. Everything about the place teemed with life in a way that it didn’t seem to back at home; even the grass and dirt under them felt like it was thrumming with some sort of energy he couldn’t explain. They had a tent set up, but he didn’t feel like heading into it. The sky was so clear, the stars so bright. Even the usual sounds of a forest at night had a rhythm to it, a musical quality that wasn’t quite the same back home.
He didn’t glance away, even when he knew Rayla was poking her head out through the tent flap. “You coming or what?” she asked, half yawning. It made sense she was tired; they’d rode all through the night and most of the day.
“Yeah, in a bit.”
Rayla sighed, crawling out to join him by the fire. “What are you thinking about now?”
“Everything feels different here. A good different,” he elaborated, “but the sky’s the same as back home.”
“Well, yeah, it’s still the same continent.”
“I know, it’s just… I think it’s nice. That we all share the same sky, at the end of the day. The same stars.”
Rayla smiled a little. “That’s… poetic, Callum.”
He shot her a grin and then looked back up at the stars. “My literature teacher would be happy to hear it.”
“And your astronomy teacher?”
“I’m not sure if I like your implication,” he teased and she laughed. “But for your information—” He nudged his hip against hers. “I remember the constellations just fine. There’s the south star.” He pointed along. “And then the mama banther and the baby banther.”
She looked up, following where he pointed. “I was so confused when I first heard about Katolian constellations,” she said. “I think I had night duty for the first time a few months in, and Juniper—” A crownguard who was cool and friendly with Soren, if Callum was remembering them correctly. “Started talking to me. They pointed out a ladle in the sky and I had so many questions.”
“The giant soup ladle?” Callum’s finger shifted to another cluster of stars, and Rayla nodded. “I’m guessing you have different constellations?”
He beamed at her. “So what do you see?” he said, soft with excitement.
“Most of our constellations, Moonshadow wise, has to do with a god named Garlaf. He’s the god of justice and punishment. One fist is for revenge, the other for vengeance.”
She peered over at him. “What? You have crime and punishment in Katolis too.”
“Yeah, I just didn’t expect, um…” He cleared his throat. “So, uh, which fist is which?”
Rayla smiled a little. “I think the right one is for vengeance?”
“And… there’s a difference between vengeance and revenge?”
“Oh, yes. Garlaf’s specialty.”
“So like, does that translate over to fights between Moonshadow elves? Like depending on whether you punch someone with your right fist or left fist, that indicates a different reason behind the fight?”
She nodded solemnly. “Yes.”
Then she let out a snort, and something in his heart lifted even as she teased him. “Of course not, dummy. It’s a legend, it’s not going to translate to real life. Besides, who thinks about what hand they’re punching with?”
“Hey, I was just trying to see how far the cultural differences went,” he said, smiling when she laughed again. “I like seeing you relaxed,” he said softly.
She flushed, her laughter quieting, and he nearly jolted out of his body when she rested her head on his shoulder. “Even when I mess with you?”
“Even then.” He let his cheek brush the solf silver of her hair. Slowly, he reached for her hand, his heart fluttering when her fingers slid between his. “Hey, Rayla?”
“I…” His face was warm, and oh gods, was his throat closing up? Nope. He had to get it out, especially since he hadn’t been able to back at the border. It would be better to put it out in the open and have her know, right, she’d tell him no if she didn’t feel that way, which was probably the case, but he always liked being honest, and unless the universe gave him like, a sign not to, then—Callum cleared his throat. “Rayla, I think I—”
She sat up. “Is that a shooting star?”
She pointed skyward. “Look!”
Callum looked up, and, sure enough, a spark of light streaked across the sky. Shit . Stupid universe. Maybe that was the sign after all. “Yeah, I see it,” he said weakly, trying for a smile. “Do elves make wishes too?”
“More like prayers for Garlaf to bring swift judgment to our enemies,” she said with a slight smirk. “But yes, wishes are acceptable too.”
“Hmm.” He tried not to look down at their lightly touching hands. “Do elves not normally wish for things?”
“Same goes for humans.” Callum glanced down anyway and tried to get his voice to work.
“I suppose you do?” she said fondly, before he could.
He smiled when she craned her head a little to look at him. “What makes you say that?”
“You’re sweet,” she stated, maybe a tad shy. “And sentimental. You like mushy stuff.”
His lips curled. “Mushy stuff? And you don’t?”
She flushed, glancing back up at the sky. “Maybe more than I should.”
Callum didn’t have to crane down to look at her. “So,” he prodded. “What would you wish for?”
Her fingers slipped out of his and his heart mourned the loss. “Something I can’t have,” she said quietly, and ambled onto her feet. She played with her hair for a moment. “I think I’m gonna turn in. It’s been a long day.”
“Oh. Okay. I’ll join you in a bit.”
She paused by the open tent flap, the lantern inside illuminating her face and her frame. “Goodnight, Callum,” Rayla said softly.
“Goodnight, Rayla,” he said, and he watched her slip inside.
Something I can’t have. His brow creased. To be able to go home to her family, probably, after where she’d left things with her fathers. It couldn’t...
She had to know that she already had him.
Rayla wished she could slow her heart rate and just sleep already. She drew the sleeping bag they were using as a blanket tighter over her, trying and failing to force her racing mind to stop and shut up. She couldn’t believe she’d been so
. She’d rested her head on his shoulder and gotten swept up in the stargazing and euphoria of being back in Xadia, like they were on some kind of date. And then… What would he have said, if their horse hadn’t interrupted? If she hadn’t pointed out the shooting star?
Something I can’t have . Why had she said that!
A lot. I like you a— She buried her face in her pillow. Why had he said that ?! Of course he liked her a lot, they were friends, very truly, firmly friends, especially now that they had made up after their fight and she’d been stupid and persnickety, but—They weren’t even at the Nexus yet. They still had another two weeks of travelling, at least. How was she supposed to survive all this and keep her trembling, twittering heart intact when every time he looked at her now, almost always softly, it made her want to combust!
She froze when she heard the rustling of the tent flap being undone, then secured again, and felt Callum’s weight settle behind her, glad her eyes were already snapped shut. It was better and safer and just generally smarter to pretend to be asleep, even if her sudden shift had made her hair fall over her cheek. Rayla held back a shiver when she felt him brush a strand of hair from her face, his fingers gentle and tender before he wrapped his arms around her from behind.
Going to sleep cuddling. That was... new. Certainly not unwelcome, even if it did nothing to calm her heart. It just made her want to turn around and kiss him. She felt his warm breath on the back of her neck as he buried his face in her hair, and she was suddenly too hot to fall asleep for awhile.
It was going to be a long, long trip to the Sky Nexus... but at least, they were in Xadia.
Chapter 9: The Meadow
some very light blood and violence in this chapter; nothing serious, descriptive or gory at all, but mentioning it here just in case
He was always adorable, but most especially when they were travelling through Xadia. Callum gawked at everything, wide eyed with amazement. Every plant and animal astounded him, from grass to squirrels to melodaisies.
“If we were on foot, I’d be able to show you even more.”
He perked up. “Really? Like what?”
“Don’t look at me like you’re willing to give up the horse now at the drop of a hat,” she chided.
“Is there a place we could drop him off here on the way back? If you’re okay with being on foot till after we’ve crossed back over the Breach,” he added quickly. She bit back a smile.
“Maybe. Might take a few more days, but I think you’ll like it.”
“I’ll like what you show me, or having a few more days with just you before we get home?”
Rayla kept her eyes on the road, a dirt path their horse trotted along, the reins loose in her hands. “Both.”
If she was going to detest herself no matter what she did, she might as well flirt back. Just a little. If he was flirting too, and not just being earnest and oblivious and sweet. She tried to ignore the flutter in her stomach when he rested his chin on her shoulder, his arms already around her waist.
Part of her wanted to point out it would make it harder for him to take in the view, if he couldn’t turn his head whichever way he wanted, but she also didn’t want him to pull away. Or say something incredibly flirty in reply that would make her turn red when he could see her face. And she really couldn’t think about how close his face was to hers, how if she turned her head just the right amount—
“Hey, how far away from here do you live?”
Her fingers jolted. “Oh, um. Not far.”
Callum was quiet for a while. “Do you want to go... stop by?”
The urge to snap at him came and went. He was just asking a question, she reminded herself. Giving her an option. “Not really,” she said. “It’s... complicated.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Okay.” He didn’t question further, surprisingly quiet as they rode along. Could it really be that easy?
“There is one place I could show you, though,” she said. “If you’re alright with another detour?”
She turned around to smirk at him. “It’s a surprise, though. And a good two hours away.”
“I’ll be patient.”
She wanted to kiss the tip of his adorable nose so badly, his smile sweet and broad, eyes eager. Rayla settled for patting him gently on the cheek. “Then keep the ogling at magic to a minimum, and we might even get there sooner.”
The meadow looked ordinary enough, Callum thought, if not for the trees framing it and the multi-coloured grass. He slid off the saddle after Rayla, her grin wide and happy mischief gleaming in her eyes. He’d never seen her look so close to giddy , or quite this relaxed and excited. It made him want to stare at her rather than the meadow, to be honest, even if the latter turned out to be very cool and magical anyway.
Still, she nudged him away from her and into the meadow, and he listened, although he quickly glanced back at her as she waded in after him.
“So, uh, what did you want to show me?” It was pretty, obviously, but not quite a surprise, he supposed.
Rayla reached down into the grass. “You’ll see,” she promised, then said, “Catch!” and he held out his hands too late as she tossed him something, his hands clasping around nothing. But something stuck to his jacket sleeve, and he carefully tugged it off his elbow, his eyes widening when it let out a quiet squeak. He turned it over in his hand; it was a small yellow puffball, and he nearly startled when it opened up two big eyes.
“It’s an adoraburr,” she explained, smiling wide. “I used to come here and play with them all the time as a kid.”
“It’s so cute,” he whispered, gently patting the adoraburr with his finger.
Rayla was beaming. “I knew you’d like them.”
It was equally cute chaos after them, as they bounded in the grass like little kids and became embroiled in the adoraburrs. They stuck to everything except most skin and faces, it seemed, and Rayla laughed when they gave him clown hair. When a few tumbled out, he reached over to catch them, letting out a yelp as he tripped over his own feet, and Rayla reached out to catch him, only managing to stumble over as well.
Which was how he found himself lying on his back in the softest grass he’d ever felt, with a very flushed Rayla on top of him. Her hair brushed his cheek, her face pink and staring into his, their bodies lined up. She was soft, and gods she was beautiful. Her hair was like liquid silver in the sun, and he brushed a strand out of her face. Even just the trace of her was warm. And he didn’t want her to move away. He wanted her this close, always.
Then Rayla wrinkled her nose, pushed herself up and off of him, and picked an adoraburr out of his hair. “Good thing they’re resilient, or you would’ve just squashed hundreds of the wee things by now.”
Callum sat up, trying to push down his disappointment. “Well, you knew you were bringing me into a meadow full of tiny, adorable things to chase. I’m sure you wouldn’t have put them in danger for my sake.”
“You’re saying I knew you’d fall?” she teased.
He rested an elbow on his knee. “I thought you’d be better at catching me,” he admitted.
Pride a tad wounded, Rayla gaped at him and pointed a finger. “That is like, the first time I’ve let you fall.”
“You let me fall in training sometimes.”
“No,” she argued stubbornly, “those were times I decided to knock you onto your butt. Totally different.”
“My butt would disagree. It hurt just the same.”
“Hm, your pride too?”
Callum arched a skeptical brow. “Have I ever had a lot of pride?”
Her smile softened. “I guess not.”
“I’ve always been—what was it?—sweet and sentimental?” He grinned at her. “Your words, not mine.”
“Hm, and if you come back to Katolis with a swollen ego, it’ll be all my fault.”
Callum plucked an adoraburr of his scarf and tickled it in his palm, the thing letting out happy squeaks. “You do compliment me a lot,” Callum considered, not looking at her. “It’s kinda nice.”
“Well, yeah. That… That’s what friends do, right?”
It struck Callum then that in many ways, all of this was very new for her. Close and personal friendships, maybe, especially with someone she was initially unsure of where she stood with. That what might seem flirty or romantically inclined to him was just... her being Rayla and trying to be a friend. That, maybe, someone she considered her first real friend in years confessing his feelings for her... would be a huge mistake and just make her close right back up.
“Yeah,” he said, trying to give her a reassuring smile when he looked up. “You’re one of my best friends.” Rayla’s face shone.
“Thanks. You’re… my only best friend, I think.”
Callum’s smile grew. “I mean, it’s you and Ezran, for me. I don’t even think I’m his best friend.”
Rayla caught on immediately. “Bait?”
“Hence why I never had any pride to wound.”
“Ah, well, if you have to come in second to a frog—’’
“Whatever. I’m sure you’re still up there with him.”
“And first pick with you?”
She flushed a little. “It’s not as though there’s a long list, but yes.”
“Well, we can always make that list bigger when we get back home. You’re already Ezran’s favourite crownguard. And I’m sure you get along with some of the other crownguard?”
“Yeah,” she said, and tugged on her hair. “But I don't think most of them like me too much. They think I’m too serious, just cause they always see me on guard duty, and they tease me, kinda.”
Callum frowned. “Tease you?”
She let go. “It’s not that serious.”
His frown deepened. “Rayla, if they’re saying or doing anything mean or inappropriate to you, I’ll bring it up to my father immediately and we’ll have them properly disciplined. They have no right to—”
Rayla gestured with her hands. “No, no, nothing like that. Just, you know, teasing me for taking everything so seriously. That’s all.”
“You’re sure? Because if there was a problem—”
“There’s not.” She tucked her hair behind her ears. ‘But thank you, Callum.”
He was still frowning, but softened when she looked at him, her smile growing. “Alright,” he gave in. “But just for the record, I like you exactly the way you are, seriousness and all, and so should everyone else.”
Her cheeks flushed again, and she leaned in, quickly pecking his cheek before he could register her lips against his skin. “You’re a really good guy, Callum.”
Oh, he should just let the adoraburrs bury him alive; he was a goner. Beyond a goner, as he felt his whole face heat up, even the tips of his ears. He didn’t know what to say or what to do, nor did he trust himself to speak.
This was her first close friendship, and she was being affectionate because she’d learned from him. That was all. He couldn’t read too far into this, into the way she flushed sometimes when he flirted, or even what had just happened. He had to get a grip and not just kiss in her in the middle of this really cute meadow because she was an equally cute girl—
“We should get going before it gets too dark,” she said.
Callum pouted and gestured around to the adoraburrs. “But they’re so cute!”
Rayla stood up and then reached down to offer him a hand. “You’ll just have to sketch them later,” she placated. He took it, trying not to think about how small and warm her hand was in his as she pulled him up onto his feet. “We’ll visit them on the way back, I promise.”
He let her be the first to pull away. “Fine,” he said with an over-dramatic sigh. “I’ll spend the entire time at the Nexus thinking about those little guys.”
“Well, now that we know where your priorities are,” she said with a slight smile. Still, he followed her back to the horse, who seemed to be enjoying the Xadian grass. “Do you want to take the reins this time?”
“Oh. Yeah. You’ll have to make sure I don’t make a wrong turn, or something, though,” he said, mounting a little more easily now after nearly a month and a half of doing so. “These roads are different than the one in Katolis.”
“You mean Katolis actually has roads?”
Callum gave her a sliver of a smile. “Maybe.”
She wrapped her arms snug around him and he wished he could hold her back. Wished he could hold her, really hold her the way he wanted to, at all.
“The path is mostly straight before we make camp again, anyway,” she said, her cheek pressed between his shoulder blades.
“Can we stargaze again?”
She sounded amused. “Are you asking for my permission?”
“I’m hardly your prince here, and you’re the guide.”
Rayla’s voice softened. “You’re always my prince.”
And maybe there was something in the inflection of ‘my’ that sounded a little different, but it sent a thrill through him, and a flood of warmth. He rested one hand over hers, on his stomach. “I don’t have a problem with that.”
Even if it was always as her friend, that would be more than enough.
She was awoken by a rustling noise near their tent. She reluctantly extracted herself from Callum’s arms, blinking the sleep out of her eyes as quickly as possible. She still had a job to do, after all.
“Rayla,” Callum mumbled, reaching blindly for her side of the tent. She brushed his hair back.
“Go back to sleep,” she whispered, just in case he wasn’t sleep-talking. He clung to her pillow in her stead, and she smiled a little. “I’ll be back soon,” she promised, before leaving the tent as quietly as possible. It was probably just an animal, not even big like a banther, but still worth investigating, just in case.
She had expected a night-squirrel with its glowing blue tail, or maybe a unicorn—they strayed near the border, sometimes, this time of year—not five figures skirting around their campsite and dressed in long Xadian garbs, some with horns—antlers—and some without.
Rayla reached behind her, a hand on one of her blades. She flicked them out and they glinted in the sheen of the moonlight as the figures drew closer and stepped into the faint light, two carrying torches. Shit. Their horse was still tied to the tray though, even as he whinnied nervously. It wasn’t like she and Callum could just leave all their stuff and travel with nothing, even if much of it had clearly marked them as wealthy... bandits had spied them from the high trees along the main roads, maybe? Garlaf, she should’ve planned for this. But she hadn’t, so now she had to fight their way out of it.
Ultimately, she had to move first, leaping over the dead campfire with a swish of her blades as a feint distraction and sweeping the legs of the figure closest to her. The Earthblood elf hit the dirt with a thud but she naturally retreated back towards the tent. She couldn’t let them cut her off from it. Cut her off from Callum.
“Leave now and I won’t have to hurt you,” she snarled.
“Your boy toy in the tent, ain’t he?” one leered.
Her grip on her blades tightened. “I’m warning you,” she said, her voice dangerously low.
And then, a sleepy voice behind her, from behind the tent. “Rayla?”
She struck as soon as she saw the elf move. Her left blade caught him in the side, the right his arm, the cut shallow but long and ripping through the seam of his tunic. She turned her head and saw Callum peeking his head out from behind the tent flap, his eyes widening when he saw the elves surrounding her.
“Run!” she yelled, before turning her attention back to the elf in front of her. She caught her opponent’s attack, the brunt of his sword’s blow, with both her blades, her arms shaking a little under the weight. She’d always been the fastest and the most resourceful, but it was always frustrating to be up against someone who was, despite herself, physically stronger or taller than her. She let her arms give way under the weight, the blow falling short and then raised one of her blades and embedded it deep in the second elf’s side. She pulled it out as he crumpled to the ground and she took a step back to not be caught under the body.
Her first kill . A grim part of her wondered if Runaan would be proud, but she couldn’t linger on that thought long, when she saw another form far too close to the tent for her liking, as Callum seemed caught mid-exit. Why wasn’t he running like she’d told him?
“Callum,” she snapped, bounding over, and displeased further when he just stood behind her, more or less, looking around frantically. For what?
“I’m not just gonna leave you,” he said fiercely, and then edged his way over to the horse and took his sword off the saddlebags. He shed the sheath, the blade long and his grip unbalanced.
Her sweet, brave, stupidly loyal prince. Fear and affection raged in her heart. But at least it was technically three to two, now. Much better odds. Even if he was a distraction, as she deflected a swipe just in time, swinging the attack down and it grazed her thigh inside, just over her tunic. It stung, and she knew it would hurt more later, as she returned the strike with a hard slash to her opponent’s side. They crumpled. Two down, one more to go—one who was currently giving Callum a hard time, his blows vicious and quick. Her heart squeezed when he landed a blow on Callum’s upper arm, her prince letting out a sharp yelp. She was moving before she’d had a chance to tell her legs and arms what to do, and found herself standing over Callum’s attacker, one of her blades embedded in his stomach.
She pulled it out quickly, her stomach lurching. She turned towards the remaining bandit she hadn’t fully felled, willing her voice to work, but it didn’t have to—he was already running away, a hand pressed to his side.
Rayla swallowed hard. “We have to get moving,” she said, and she hated herself for the way her voice trembled. She cleared her throat, bent down to wipe her blades off in the grass and then tucked them away, coming back to Callum. He looked as pale and shaken as she felt. “Are you okay? Besides the—”
“Yeah,” he said, a little breathless. “Are… are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I know you got cut—”
“It’s shallow,” she assured him. “We’ll take care of it soon. We just… we need to get away from here. There might be more of them out there than we know. Just get on the horse, I’ll pack up the tent; you shouldn’t be aggravating your arm.”
“Are you sure—”
“Just do it!”
She hadn’t meant to snap, but it was too late to take it back as Callum held up his hands. “Okay, okay,” he said, frowning as he mounted their horse. Rayla quickly took apart their tent and rolled up sleeping bags, her leg aching with every step, but it was manageable. Still, she was grateful for the hand he offered after she strapped their pack to the saddle and put her foot into the stirrup, trying not to wince as she mounted. She took the front, taking the reins in her hands and nudging the horse forward.
She tried not to look at the corpses they left behind.
His arm was mainly just sore now, sticky with drying blood when they finally stopped after thirty minutes, having put a good amount of distance between them and the site of the attack. Callum’s heart-rate had hardly slowed, though; he could still feel it beating in his chest. Although his parents had insisted on him not travelling alone, for good reason, had insisted on a knight to protect him, all this time he’d been thinking of Rayla as a guide, not—
She was silent as she pulled some first aid supplies out of one of their packs, her face paler than normal when she turned to attend to him, sitting on the grass in a more densely wooded area.
“Could you take off your shirt for me?”
If he seemed flustered, she didn’t react. “So I can clean up your wound, and see if you took any more damage.”
“Oh. Oh, right.” He started undoing the belt around his tunic. “And what about your wound?”
“I can take care of it later.” Her leggings were dark, but he could still see a faint outline of blood around the rip just above her knee, near her inner thigh.
“Does it hurt?” He tugged his shirt off, wincing a little at the stinging in his arm.
“Not really.” She was staring stubbornly at a nearby tree and not at his chest, before she seemed to steel herself to look at his arm. Did she not like the sight of blood? She took a rag, pouring some water from her canteen out onto it to wet it. “This might hurt,” she said, and she began dabbing at it, wiping away some of the dried blood. It did sting a little, but not as much as when she put some kind of antiseptic cream on it.
“Have you treated wounds before?”
Rayla grit her teeth. “Do you ever not ask a million questions?”
He stuck his tongue in his cheek. It wasn’t worth pushing. “Sorry.” She bandaged it quickly, the gauze taut against his skin, and maybe she had treated wounds before, because she tucked the end in neatly and the whole process was over rather quickly.
“Done. You can put your shirt back on.”
He didn’t, instead watching her as she began to put some of the supplies away. “Wait, you’re not gonna treat yourself?”
“It’s basically a scratch.”
“And mine wasn’t?”
“You almost never get hurt, you’re more sensitive.”
“Well that’s just condescending.”
“That’s not what I—”
“Then let me treat your wound.”
She stared at him. “What?”
“If you don’t treat your wound, it could get infected. And if your wound gets infected, and you get sick, or worse, and then you won’t be able to protect me. So let me treat your wound ,” he said pointedly.
Her jaw shifted, and she sighed, setting the first aid supplies in his lap before sitting down in front of him. “Fine.” She rolled up her pant leg, her brow furrowing a little when she had to pull it up over her cut.
He re-wet the rag, using a clean part of it to gently wipe at her wound when he sat next to her. “It doesn’t hurt?” he asked, more gently.
“No. Just stings a little.”
He dried it off with a clean part of the rag, before applying some of the same antiseptic cream from a little mostly-full tube. His eye followed the soft line of muscle up her thigh, ending at where her pant leg was rolled up. “I’m sorry I couldn’t help.”
“I tried to help you fight them off, and I screwed up. Even though you spent all this time training me. I’m sorry.”
“Callum, you did fine. That was your first real fight, and you honestly never should have been in that position. You held your own.” Rayla reached up to lift his face and offered a tiny smile. “I’m proud of you.”
He smiled faintly. “Then… why did you seem mad at me?”
Her own smile faded. “I… Um…” She glanced away and gnawed at her bottom lip.
“Rayla. You know you can talk to me.”
She kept her hands to herself, her fingers curling in on themselves. “I’ve never killed before,” she said quietly. “That’s what I was supposed to do, growing up, but I wasn’t able to and... now I have. Just robbers and now... they’re dead.”
He remembered their conversation a while back, about her guardian. Runaan. How she had been too soft hearted. “You were defending us. If you hadn’t, maybe…”
“Maybe. But I don’t know.”
“And… how does it make you feel?”
Her bottom lip trembled a little. “Sick. Sad. Frustrated, because… now I know they were right about me.”
“Right about you?”
“That I’m too soft-hearted. That no matter how much training I do, or what kind, even when I’m doing it in defense, I can’t just… be okay.” Her voice was tight. “I don’t know how they can do it. I don’t know how they can watch the life leave someone’s eyes and just be okay .” Her eyes watered, and he gave her knee a gentle squeeze.
“You don’t have to be okay with it. It’s okay that you’re not okay!” he said empathetically.
“It was my duty to keep you safe, and I did it, so I don’t know why—even the other Crownguard would be fine with—”
“This isn’t about the other Crownguard, this is about you, okay? And you have a good heart . That’s never, ever a bad thing. I would rather see you be torn up on the rare circumstance you do have to take someone’s life than do it all the time willy-nilly, any day of the week.” Rayla let out a soft snort, and he ran his thumb over her knee. “Your compassion makes you stronger than any of the other Crownguard I know. Don’t tell them I said that,” he added, smiling when it elicited a weak laugh. “And probably more than any of the assassins you trained with, too. I wouldn’t change anything about you. Least of all this.”
She looked up at him. “So, when you had to see me… do what I did, back there…?”
“What about it?”
“I just…” She turned away, wiping at one of her eyes with the corner of her sleeve. “Didn’t want to scare you off, I guess.”
He took both her hands in his. “I could never be scared of you.”
Relief made her breath stutter in her chest and he could hear it since he was listening for it. She gave his hands a light squeeze. “Good. Thank you.”
He didn’t let go. “Rayla?”
“Hm?” She looked up, now a bit more at peace. Being vulnerable still wasn’t fun for her but she’d done it, for his sake, and hopefully for her own. But Callum still wanted to know, even if he thought he might be pushing his luck with his next question—even if it arguably didn’t need to be asked, but he needed her to know that he knew.
“Were you scared for me?”
Rayla was quiet for a moment, before nodding. “I was terrified.”
“Good,” he said and she blinked. “Because that means you know how I feel about you, too.”
Her eyes were wide as a soft flush pinkened her face. (Or maybe that was just the light of the sunrise playing tricks on him.) She squeezed his hands before slipping hers out. “So… you gonna bandage me up, or…?”
“What?” And then Callum glanced down at her leg, the antiseptic cream already having seeped into her wound just a little. “Right, sorry,” he said quickly, and he wasn’t able to wrap them quite as neatly as she had, but it was good enough with a bit of guidance. She rolled her pant leg back down.
“Not bad,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Thank you, for teaching me,” he said. “And for talking to me, about… everything.”
“Well… That’s what friends do.” She pushed herself up onto her feet. “Do you want to rest for a bit? We can try to catch up on a few hours’ sleep.”
“You’re not tired yet?” he checked. She shook her head. “Then we should keep going while we’re still ahead.
Rayla looked him up and down as though impressed before putting her hands on her hips, and Callum did his best not to blush under her gaze. There was something in it he couldn’t quite make out. “That’s very practical of you.”
He shrugged, striding over to take their horse’s reins. “You had to rub off on me eventually.” He tugged the horse back over to her. “So,” he said, turning back but not raising his head, “which one of is gonna steer—”
Rayla hugged him tightly. It took his brain a couple of seconds to catch up before he returned it and held her close. “I’m really glad you’re safe,” she whispered. He smiled, burying his face in her hair.
“I’m glad you’re safe, too.”
He didn’t want to let go, but did so anyway only when she began to pull away. “And I’ll steer,” she said. “You can sleep a bit. You look tired.” She reached up and touched his face, her hand lightly resting over his cheek as she stroked her thumb under his eye as though to prove her point. Callum closed his eyes contentedly, leaning into her touch without thinking.
“You’ll be okay?” he asked quietly. She took her hand away, and he silently mourned the loss.
“Yeah. You can make it up to me tomorrow morning,” she grinned, and he knew that he would do just about anything for her.
And maybe she was starting to get used to the idea that they were here to protect each other. That he was here to take care of her just as much as she was here to take care of him. And if not, well... Callum had time on his hands (and on his side).
After a couple more days of camping, it was nice to finally take refuge in another inn. The Golden Crest was a somewhat infamous tourist trap near the Katolis-Xadian border, a bustling town square similar to ones in the human kingdoms in the centre of miles of marketplace vendors and stands selling goods, food, and trinkets. Some humans had started the settlement long ago, but it was primarily staffed by elves that had no or loose alignments, mostly Skywing and Earthblood. There were only two rules: no fighting, and don’t leave without buying something.
Rayla thought the name was a little on the nose as they approached one of the inns in the centre of town after leaving their horse at a nearby stable, the plaza literally shaped like a crescent moon. It wasn’t too far from the Silvergrove, she thought idly, letting her thoughts wander even if she kept Callum from doing so. They were safe here, lost in the anonymity of the crowd and their own simpler, travelling clothes—tunics and pants and cloaks, her sword and his scarf and sketchbook—but they didn’t want to get robbed. Her leg still hurt a little, too. She already knew that although mostly dead, the bandits would leave her on edge for a long time.
“Stay close to me,” she muttered, trying not to jump when Callum’s hand slipped into hers and held on tight. He gave it a gentle squeeze, and she silently scolded the butterflies in her stomach. There was a large inn that seemed more luxurious near the very centre of town, shimmering white and seemingly sprinkled with gold.
The perfect place to get robbed. They took a few steps more, staying close as they came to a humbler inn, the sign a little faded but otherwise affixed to the building. “You good here?” she asked. He was smiling softly at her, and she nearly rolled her eyes. What a sweet, clueless sap.
“Wherever you think is best,” he said. “You’ve travelled more than I have.”
“Not by much.”
“I’m down for any place that has a bed,” he affirmed. He’d never complained about camping but Rayla knew it was a far cry from anything he was used to, as the closest his family got to camping had been holidays at the winter lodge.
“Well, we have options if they decide to make us sleep on the floor.”
Callum blinked. “How would they be able to give us a room and make us sleep on the floor? Unless we got paired with two other people and they got the bed, but even then it’d be kinda awkward to have two couples in one room, don’t you think?”
“Callum,” she said, smiling a little. (And trying not to analyze the use of the word “couple” too closely.)
“It wouldn’t be a very good business practice,” he continued, before he caught the quirk of her eyebrow. “You were teasing me again?”
“It’s not hard,” she smirked.
“And you always get such a kick out of it, too,” he said idly, nearly smirking back at her. Her face heated. Oh, what a terrible time for him to be suave. “That’s why I let you do it.”
She glanced away, biting her lip to keep from smiling too hard. “Keep talking like that and I’ll think I have you wrapped around my finger.”
His fingers caught hers, interlocking instead of grasping. “Don’t you?” he grinned. She didn’t let go.
“If the rest of the crownguard knew how shameless you are,” she mock-scolded.
“Yeah, well, you’re the only person that gets to know now.”
“Hm, well now I feel special.”
“Good. You are.” There was something firm in Callum’s voice, like it was absolute truth, and Rayla decided not to dispute it.
She squeezed his hand, her voice softened by sincerity. “You are too.” Neither let go when they finally stepped into the inn and up to the reception desk. “One room, please.”
The room was fine, it turned out, a basic single room with a large bed near the middle, with a single adjoining bathroom and some drawers pushed up to the wall. Nothing too different from anything they would’ve encountered in the human kingdoms. It was somehow even cozier, here, with their awareness of all the busyness just outside their window.
“I had no idea anywhere in Xadia was this crowded,” Callum said, setting his knapsack down by his side of the bed.
“It’s only a few places. The Golden Crest has only been around for… less than a hundred years, I think? Humans and Skywing elves saw a business opportunity, so…”
“Oh. Yeah. I know they do a lot of business with Del Bar.” Skywing elves were high in demand for those who could fly up to snowy peaks and carry goods and the like.
“Well, neither have ever been one for simplicity.”
“Like the Moonshadow lack of jewelry, you mean?”
She smiled a little. “Sure.”
Callum glanced out the window. “It does kinda look fun out there,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of pickpocketing here, but…”
Rayla thought for a moment. “There are a few pubs that I’ve heard are decent.”
“Yeah, but they have a higher drinking age here.” Katolis’ drinking age was sixteen, but it was nineteen in most of Xadia, as far as he knew. And flashing around his royal papers and ID wouldn’t be smart even if he was of age, either.
“I could buy you a drink,” Rayla offered.
He looked up. “You’re nineteen?”
“I thought you were my age.”
“I mean… technically? It’s still about a year’s difference, but I only just turned nineteen—”
Rayla flushed, glancing away as she mumbled, “About a week ago.”
His eyes widened. “You didn’t say anything!”
“It wasn’t really relevant!”
“Well now we have to go out and do something,” he emphasized. “It’s your birthday—or was, we should do something special.”
“I don’t really do much on my birthday as it is,” Rayla shrugged. “Ever since I started working at the castle, it hasn’t really been a big deal.”
“I mean,” Callum said, “we don’t have to do a big thing. It’d just be nice to do something , y’know, especially ‘cause you haven’t for a while. We could just go out for drinks, anyway?”
She smiled softly, warming under his attention. It had been so long since she’d gotten more than just a passing greeting for her birthday, and she’d never minded, but this was… “Well, I’ll have to get them for us, since you’re technically still not drinking age, but we can have something taken out for dinner and bring it back here?”
“Yeah, that sounds great! And I’ll pay you back too.”
“It’s your birthday. Or was. Either way, let me treat you? Please?”
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly. “Fine. You’ll get to see more of the city on the walk over, anyway.”
“Yes—I mean—” Callum coughed. “I passed a pub, the Dragon’s Den, on our way in? I could meet you there. I think I’m gonna shower first.”
She arched one eyebrow. “Is that right?” It was... unusual, and Callum wasn’t very good at covering up his feelings. This didn’t seem like his usual brand of earnest genuineness.
He patted his shoulder. “Check up on my battle scars.”
Rayla snorted and rolled her eyes. “Alright, fine.” Whatever he was up to couldn’t be bad. Maybe he just wanted to privately draw her a card or something else that was sweet but unnecessary; just getting to spend another day with him was more than enough. “I hope you’ll be smelling like a rose for my special day, but I don’t mind waiting.”
“The Dragon’s Den is just down the block. I can walk there by myself.”
Her brow pinched. “Callum,” she began. “I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.”
“But…” His eyes shifted, and then he sighed. “Okay.”
She crossed her arms over her chest. “You don’t still have to shower, do you?”
“No. I… wanted to see if I could surprise you.”
An eyebrow shot up. “Surprise me?”
“I was gonna go to one of the stands in the marketplace and see if… it was a stupid idea, you’re not really into accessories and stuff and I’m still only getting to figure out what you like—”
“Oh, Callum.” She took his hands in hers. “That’s really, really sweet of you. But as much as you’re my friend, I also have to keep you safe. This isn’t really the trip for… surprises. As much as I’m sure I would've loved it under different circumstances.”
Callum’s face fell. “I know, I...”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” she assured him, squeezing his hands. “If anything you’re too sweet, but I don’t need anything special. Just you, okay?”
He smiled softly, lifting her hands and kissing her knuckles without breaking eye contact. “Okay.”
Oh, damn the fluttering in her heart. She reluctantly slipped her hands out of his, before she could allow herself to read further into this. (Not that there was anything to read into.)
“Now come on,” she said, winking before she could stop herself. “Let me buy you a drink.”
They made their way back with their dinner and drinks without any trouble, and Callum was secretly glad that they could have it in the privacy of their own room, instead of in a crowded, noisy pub. It would be easier to talk, for one, and being surrounded by a lot of people had never been Callum’s favourite thing, either. Rayla had gotten them some kind of poultry dish with some bread, and a few bottles of ale to wash it down.
Besides, at the pub, they wouldn’t be able to sit on the floor in their pajamas, with an extra blanket spread out under them and some spare pillows around them. It was almost like an indoor picnic as they opened up the windows and let the end of day heat seep into the room (and to air it out).
Elven ale tasted different, but not by much. Katolis wine and the like was usually just grown at home or imported from Duren, but there were still some elven wines and such that made its way to the royal dinner table. He was about to ask which Rayla preferred when he remembered that she’d been underage when she’d moved to Katolis long term, and his chest warmed a little at the thought that this was a part of her home that they could experience for the very first time, together.
“What’re you smiling about?” she asked, glancing up while she poured them glasses. “You got that sappy look on your face.”
“Is this your first time drinking in Xadia, too?”
She blinked. “Oh. I guess it is. Weird.” She stared at him. “Wait, why are you smiling about that ?”
“I know you lived here for the first fifteen years of your life,” he said, “but… it’s kind of nice to think about the other things we’ll get to experience here for the first time together.”
She let out a soft snort, warm and fond. “Well, it’s probably changed in the past four years, so, yeah, I suppose there’ll be things I’ll be learning about with you.” She took a sip of her ale. “Still feel confident about me as your guide?”
“Have you been drunk before?”
She poked his cheek with her finger. “Just wondering if you were a lightweight.”
Callum scoffed. “I wasn’t exactly going to get drunk at political functions or family parties. Unless I wanted to embarrass myself or my family even...” His voice quieted and he coughed. “More than I already did.”
Her smile faltered. “What do you mean?”
“I dunno. I just… I can’t really ever do anything right. I was always an awkward fit for prince, especially at first, when I was making all my first impressions, so.” He shrugged. “I know, like, I didn’t grow up in it at first, but… I dunno, sometimes I feel like I should’ve gotten the hang of it by now. And my mom somehow does it seamlessly, so… it’s kinda just me that doesn’t fit. And then even when the Cube of Aaravos does glow for me, it—” He clamped his mouth shut.
Rayla’s brow furrowed. “It what?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly, avoiding her eyes. “Just... took a bit, to glow.”
She pursed her lips. “Callum?”
“It’s nothing, really,” he said, a little too quickly for it to be convincing.
“Callum, you know how you’ve said that I can tell you anything?”
“That goes both ways, you know. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, but if something’s on your mind, and I can help, then I want to.”
“Even if… it might upset you?”
For a split second, Rayla wondered if anything had glowed for him at all. If this entire trip was just… But he wouldn’t. He wouldn’t have done this all just to save face, especially with everything else at stake.
Besides, would she have really minded if the purpose of this trip had been a farce?
“You can tell me anything,” she repeated, and Callum took a deep breath.
“It wasn’t just the Sky rune that glowed for me.”
It took a moment to sink in. “What?”
“Sky was the first one that glowed,” he said, “before… everything else did. I don’t remember the order, I… I was so glad when Sky glowed for me at all, and then all the others, and, I was scared and confused, and I—”
Rayla nodded silently. No wonder he’d been scared. The only other being in the world with a connection to every Arcanum was Aaravos, and the only good thing about the elf was his cube.
“—so my dad and I thought that we could just go with Sky for now, and we could figure it out later, if we had to figure it out at all, I mean, I don’t have to do anything about the others, and—Rayla? Please say something.”
“Who else knows?” she asked, her voice soft.
He blinked at her. “Um. My dad, as I said, and Opeli, um… that’s it.”
She did a quick mental process and figured the king had relayed the news to Opeli. But not even the queen or the crown prince—at least not before Callum had left. “I’m the first person you’ve told?” she guessed.
He nodded, frowning. “And now I’ve made what was supposed to be something special to you all about me and—”
Rayla threw her arms around him, hugging him tight. “Thank you for telling me,” she whispered. “I promise, this’ll stay just between us.”
She melted into him when he hugged her back, holding her close. “I don’t know what it means,” he said, his voice thick.
“That’s okay. You don’t have to, and you don’t have to figure it out yet, either. We have time.” She stroked her fingers through the hair above the nape of his neck. “You’re not alone.”
She didn’t let go until he was ready, pulling away with a soft smile. His eyes were rimmed with red. “Thank you,” he said. He wiped at his eye. “Gods, it’s so good to have it off my chest now.”
“I can imagine,” she said.
“I just—I don’t want people to think I’m… that I’m like—”
“You could never turn into Aaravos.” Rayla reached over and wiped her thumb over his cheek. “You’re kind and gentle and caring.”
Callum leaned into her touch, his brow still furrowed. “The worst thing is, I… I wouldn’t hate connecting to all the Arcanums. A part of me kind of wants to, but…”
“Like I said, you don’t have to figure it out now. We still have a couple weeks until we reach the Sky Nexus, and we can tackle that first, okay?”
“Okay.” He sighed. “I’m so glad you’re the person on this trip with me.”
“So am I.” Rayla didn’t pull away. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s done for my birthday in a long time.”
Callum puffed out a quiet laugh. “It’s like, the bare minimum of what you deserve.”
She tilted her head at him, finally taking her hand away as she leaned back with a slight smirk. “Oh yeah? What do I deserve, then?” She was caught off guard by the soft firmness of his gaze when their eyes locked.
“The world. Full of people who love you and let you know that they do.”
Rayla smiled softly, glancing away. “I should’ve known you would say something sweet.”
“It’s true. And I’m one of those people, hopefully. Or, at least, I want to be.” His voice was as soft as his eyes. “If you’ll have me.”
People who love you. Her heart ached, but not in a painful way. “Oh, Callum,” she whispered, heart now in her throat. “Of course I will. You’re my best friend.”
He beamed at her, and it made her heart skip a beat. “Good. Because you’re mine.”
“Good. Now drink with me.” She nudged his glass into his hand. “This is supposed to be a mutual thing, right?”
He smiled a little. “Right.” They clinked their glasses together and took a drink, Callum pausing to ask, “Wait, does this mean I get to see you drunk?”
Rayla snorted. “You wish. And I’m not going to let you get drunk and have a hangover, either.”
“Then I’ll just consider it another first for later.”
Rayla rolled her eyes fondly. “If we’re ever in a secure enough place, maybe. Though from what I’ve seen from some of the other crownguard, it’s really not worth it.”
“Have you ever been tipsy before though?”
“No. Have you?”
“Once,” Callum revealed. “I was sixteen and figuring out my limits a bit more. Then Dad kinda scolded me. Reminded me to be a good example for Ez.”
“Oh.” Rayla nudged his knee with hers. “You are a good example. Besides, I can imagine you tipsy right now.”
“Yeah. I bet you just get even more sappy and sweet.”
“I mean, I don’t remember what I said to Bait that one time I did get tipsy, but I’m sure he thought the same.” They both chuckled, setting their nearly empty glasses aside.
“Well, Ezran isn’t too far from that age, anyway.”
“Yeah.” Callum let out a quiet snort. “He’s probably gonna have his first sip of wine and immediately hate it. And then ask for a glass of milk instead. I mean, I guess that’s what I kinda hope for, anyway.” He leaned back on the heels of his palms. “Even though he’s getting older now, he’s still a kid . And I guess I just want him to stay that way for as long as possible. He’ll have so much to worry about when he’s older, so…”
“You’re a really good big brother.” Rayla laid a hand on his shoulder. “And I know you don’t always feel like you fit, but... you’re going to be a really good advisor to him, too. He’s lucky to have you.”
His smile softened. “Thanks.” He sat up a little, scooting closer to her as he glanced down at their empty plates. “And since you spent at least half the time comforting me, we have to continue celebrating tomorrow.”
“Callum, I don’t need—”
“I know. I want to. Uh, if you’re also okay with that.”
Rayla smiled a little. “Just don't do anything too crazy.”
“I was just thinking I’d pay for your pancakes.”
“You technically do anyway,” she pointed out. “My salary is your family’s money.”
His brow furrowed a bit, but then he straightened and said, very nonchalantly, “So, another birthday. Another year. And you uh, like working for my family?”
“Yeah. They’re good people. And it’s been fun watching Ezran grow up, and… getting to grow up with you, in a way.”
His eyes lit up. “I wish we’d started talking more sooner.”
“I didn’t know if it would be appropriate,” she shrugged. “Moonshadow elves don’t really answer to any monarchs other than the King and Queen of the Dragons, and while I was employed by your family, they’re not... my king and queen so much.”
Callum pursed his lips. “Then why were you so concerned about me being your prince?”
“Uh, well, you’re also a human... prince.”
“Why would that matter?” Elves and humans, at least in Katolis with Sunfire and Moonshadow elves, had been allies for a long time. It wasn’t always smooth waters, but things were good, mostly. There were even some elf-human couples and families, although they were more rare.
“I guess, I just...” Rayla fiddled and struggled with her hair. “I made sure to really put up that wall, when I first arrived in the palace, even if it’s no longer necessary, because—well, because. I liked you.”
Callum blinked. “You liked me,” he repeated, very blankly. He certainly hadn’t thought Rayla had disliked him. Was that the same as liking?
Rayla rolled her eyes as though he’d misunderstood somehow. “Yes. I—” She grit her teeth and shot him a bit of a glare. “I liked you, Callum.”
“Oh.” Then it clicked. “ Oh. ”
She looked away, her cheeks and the tips of her ears tinged pink. “Yeah. I don’t know, we were kids and you were handsome and nice. But I thought—well, I didn’t know you then, and you did like Claudia, so I just—” She shrugged. “I was never the most friendly person to begin with.”
“You had a crush on me,” he said, lips curling.
Rayla huffed. “Yes, third time we’ve been over that, so will you—”
“No, I—” He touched her shoulder and turned her towards him. “I think it’s cute.”
She rolled her eyes again, unable to look into his face now. “Again, we were kids, and it’s not like I feel that way anymore, so—”
He hoped the way his heart cracked didn’t show on his face. Wasn’t that something he practically already knew, anyway? “Yeah. Yeah, that’s—well, obviously.” He coughed. “Got to know me and it died, I suppose.”
She softened a little. “No, it’s not that—”
“No, it’s okay. It’s like… I learned that Claudia was better as a friend, and you kinda… did the same with me. I guess.”
“Um. Yeah. I guess.”
Callum cleared his throat. “Well, I’m very flattered,” he said. “Fourteen year old me would’ve been thrilled.”
“I think fourteen year old you was otherwise preoccupied, but thank you.”
“Fourteen year old me could’ve been an idiot around more than one pretty girl, thank you very much.”
Rayla glanced over at him, even if her expression was still a little nervous. “You thought I was pretty?”
It was barking up the wrong tree, maybe, but Callum wouldn’t stop himself from being honest. “I’ve always thought that.”
She smiled slightly. “Thank you. I guess fifteen year old me had pretty good taste.”
And tastes changed, especially from fifteen to nineteen. He ignored the sinking in his chest as he managed to return the smile. “Thanks,” he repeated. “And thank you for telling me. I know opening up and that sort of thing still isn’t your favourite. Have you ever told anyone else?”
“Of course not. Although... that’s one of the things Soren would tease me about. I guess I used to be more obvious.”
Callum considered it and then shrugged. “Sounds like Soren. Well, what’s one thing that nobody knows? Whether you told them or not?”
She bit her lip. “You haven’t told me something nobody knows, either.”
“Huh.” Callum tipped back another swig of ale and then looked at her, a pleasant buzz in the base of his skull. Night was falling outside their window now, the sky going from pink to an inky blue with the lantern on the sole bedside table glowing. “You want something funny,” he finally said, “or something real?”
An intrigued look came into her violet eyes and Rayla leaned a little towards him, their shoulders brushing. “Whatever you want to get off your chest.”
Callum finished his second mug of alcohol and then looked at her. “My memory’s perfect, basically, for drawing, but some stuff from when I was really little... I can’t remember what my bio dad looked like.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, but he shook his head.
“It’s okay.” He glanced at her half full tankard. “So?”
Rayla downed it like she needed some liquid courage before she could speak. “I think I’m in love for the first time,” she whispered, looking into his eyes, “and it’s terrifying.”
Callum exhaled shortly and then tried to steele his voice into something steady. And not him, evidently. Of course not. Why would it be? “And it’s terrifying because...” he tried to understand. “You don’t know if it’s requited?”
“I know it’s not,” she clarified. “And that’s okay, I’m just—scared I’m never going to get over it.”
Callum’s throat tightened. “Someday you’ll find someone that’s gonna love you the way you deserve,” he said quietly. “Whether it’s this person finally realizing how lucky they are before they miss their chance, or you moving on to someone else.”
Rayla’s lip quivered. “I don’t know if he’ll ever… feel the same.”
“Then you’ll move on. Because you’re too amazing to not find someone who’s gonna be just as in love with you as you are with them.”
She took a shaky breath. “Like who?”
Like me , he could have said, if he’d been the person she was talking about. Instead, he said, “Like someone who’s so good you’re gonna feel like you dreamed them.”
She smiled sadly. “I don’t know if more than one person like that can exist.”
“You never know. And even if they don’t, maybe… you might find a better dream.”
Her eyes crinkled and she leaned over and kissed his cheek. “You’re a really sweet guy, Callum.”
He tried for a smile, the urge to turn his head and give her a proper kiss burning a hole into his chest. “I’m just… glad I can be your friend.” He turned away just a bit, just in case she’d be able to see into him if he looked at her any longer. “Whoever this guy is, I hope he’s fine with staying close to Katolis, if it works out. I’d miss you if he ended up whisking you off to somewhere far away.”
Rayla smiled. “He’s close,” she murmured. “Anyway, I think I might start to turn in, but, um. This was really nice. Thank you, again.”
“Anytime. And remember, it’s still technically not over.”
She chuckled softly. “Of course.” She stood up, picking up her plate and tankard to set down on the top of their drawer. He got up and helped her clean up as well, their picnic blanket and pillows set on one of the chairs in the room, before they both slipped into bed. His heart ached when she curled into his arms, at having her so close, but somehow further than ever.
“Goodnight, Callum,” she mumbled. He buried his face in her neck, wishing not for the first time that he could kiss it.
Even as she drifted off beside him, he could hardly get to sleep. It was almost impossible with everything he knew now; he’d had a chance. And he’d missed it. And now she was actually in love with someone else, while he… had fallen in love with her too late.
yes we know they're stupid, feel free to scream in the comments
Chapter 11: Desert Flowers
Rayla couldn’t stop thinking about what she’d said even more than a day later, already approaching the Midnight Desert. What the hell had she been thinking? Admitting that she’d had a crush on him to his face . Admitting that she was in love with someone. With him! And she hadn’t even been drunk. She had nothing to blame but her own weakness and the annoying way Callum just pulled all the feelings out of her whether she wanted him to or not.
Worst of all, she wasn’t sure that she hadn’t given herself away. Callum had been quiet over the past 36 or so hours. Still attentive to her and excited about Xadia, but a little more subdued. Maybe the hot weather was getting to him, as they travelled closer to the Midnight Desert. Maybe homesickness was finally settling in. Maybe he’d figured her out and was feeling guilty that she loved him and—
The one thing Rayla had hoped, from telling him, was that it would finally let her get over him, but admitting it—out loud, too—only seemed to have made it worse. She thought her throat couldn’t get any more dry whenever he held her hand, or their eyes met, or she made him laugh as they set up camp. The very few times she thought she might have caught him staring. (Stupid—where else would he have been looking?)
But now she felt like the desert flowers on the edge of the changing terrain, stranded too far from their water resource to do much more than shrivel and wilt and die of thirst. They hadn’t adapted to their environment yet.
She looked up, sitting up a little too straight in the saddle. “Hmm?”
“Remember the map you had me draw? And the Midnight Desert was somewhere on there?”
“The one that’s too hot to cross?”
“We’ll go around it,” she said. “Why do you think I allotted extra travel time?”
Rayla swivelled a bit to look back at him. “You sound disappointed,” she said, almost accusatory.
Callum pressed his lips together. “I’ve just never seen a desert before,” he mumbled. “And I know there’s some towns and an oasis in it and around the fringes... flowers and creatures that don’t exist anywhere else in Xadia.”
“Creatures that you don’t want to run into,” she said. “Like Soulfang serpents, for starters. And other risks like heat exhaustion. And more bandits.”
One of his hands left her waist and touched her thigh, where her scar lay under her leggings. “Okay,” he said quietly. That night was scary for him too. “I understand.”
Rayla stiffened, her skin still burning when he took his hand away. “Besides, you keep talking about wanting to spend more time with me,” she teased feebly.
“Yeah,” he murmured, and Rayla’s heart sank a little. Had he changed his mind somehow ever since that night? Or just now that things were slightly different between them?
She swallowed and plucked up her nerve. “Are you alright?” she asked. Normally Callum told her yes or no without asking. “You’ve been a bit quiet recently.”
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Just… been thinking.”
He rested his chin on her shoulder. “I just don’t get how someone could not like you.”
Rayla hastily looked towards the front again to hide her blushing face as best she could. “Well,” she said, “you might be rather biased, as my best friend. I can be serious and a bit of a stick in the mud, and standoffish, and—”
“Yeah, I know all that,” Callum cut her off with a frown. “It’s not like we’re friends and I don’t know you’re flawed, Rayla.”
“Oh. Well.” She felt rather silly when he put it like that. “I know, I just—”
“All I’m saying is,” Callum said, almost roughly, “is that the guy’s an idiot.”
“No he’s not,” Rayla bristled. “He’s allowed not to like me back.”
“You’re sure there’s no chance he likes you back and he’s just good at hiding it?”
Rayla shook her head. “He wears his heart on his sleeve most of the time.” Oh, gods, why hadn’t she just said she was sure instead of giving a detail ?
“Oh. I didn’t know that was your type.”
Her lips twitched ever so slightly. “Oh?” she tried to play it smooth. “What do you think my type is?”
“I dunno. Tough? A good sparring partner? More emotionally in tune I guess because one of you would have to be,” he teased back.
“Shush,” she mumbled, fond in spite of herself. “And he is tough and a good sparring partner, I’ll have you know.”
“Oh,” he said, sounding disgruntled. Then he gasped. “Oh God it’s not Soren is it—”
“ What? ” Rayla burst out laughing. “Oh gods no—” She wiped the mirth from her eyes, her heart a little lighter for a moment. “No, it’s never been Soren. And it especially wouldn’t be after how he treated you.”
“Still, he’s… tough and a good sparring partner. I just thought—”
“Callum. Me and Soren? Really?”
“I don’t know,” he defended. “You don’t seem too close to any of the crownguard. Unless... is it someone from back home? The Silvergrove?”
She didn’t want to flat out lie to him, so she tried to be as firm but light hearted as possible about it. “Callum, whoever holds my affections is none of your concern. Although it’s sweet that you’re protective.”
“I just hate the idea of anyone hurting you.”
Rayla softened. “Don’t worry. He would never knowingly hurt me.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“What? Callum,” she tried, “you can’t will my feelings away and you can’t make someone else fall in love with me just because I love them.”
“I know, I just...” Callum sighed. “I wish I could change his mind, somehow. I want you to be happy.”
“I know. But he deserves to be happy too, and if that’s not with me, that’s fine.”
His arms tightened around her waist. “I just don’t get how someone could not be in love with you.”
Her cheeks burned. “Callum,” she said, very carefully.
“Can we drop this? Please?” She didn’t have to try to make her voice strained and tinged with sadness. “I don’t really want to talk about it anymore.”
“Oh. Yeah, of course.” He gave her a slight hug and squeeze from behind. “I’m sorry.”
Rayla rested one hand over his on her stomach. “Don’t worry about it. Your friendship makes it easier to handle.”
She wasn’t sure what either of them had said, because he was just as quiet after that. She supposed she couldn’t will away his feelings of discontent, either, and knew it was best she’d kept it secret that he was the object of her affections. If he knew he was the one tearing her heart... it’d tear him apart, too.
There were some things she would never tell anyone, and it seemed like this was one of them.
But maybe it was the guilt at knowing how torn up he was about it, already, that made her cave when it came to crossing the Midnight Desert. “We can stay in one of the fringe towns,” she bargained. “And if we find a good guide, I’ll consider letting us go across. If .” Callum’s ecstatic grin had made any and all headaches regarding the plan worth it, though.
“Yes! Thank you!” And then he’d hugged her tight, and his warmth still seeped into her skin as they went out that evening to the center of town, looking for anyone that would be able to cross the Midnight Desert, and willing to take them along.
Rayla told him not to wander when he entered the tavern, even if it wasn’t too crowded or seedy looking that she wanted to keep him glued to her side. She let him go to the bartender and ask questions about the drinks being served while she scouted out any potential guides. Most seemed to wear the same sort packs and flasks, used to travelling across the desert constantly rather than just once like the travellers wearing thinner cloaks, such as Callum and herself.
Then, she heard Callum excitedly call over, “Hey Rayla, this one has an ambler !”
She turned to find him sitting next to a blue skinned Skywing elf on a stool, with short turquoise hair, wings, and one eye coloured blue, the other coloured yellow. There was a sharp edge to her grin. “Sure do,” she chirped in an accent that was a far cry from the Silvergrove, as Rayla approached. Callum and the Skywing elf were sitting awfully close together and it made her skin itch.
“Does she?” Rayla’s voice was tighter than she wanted. “And who is this now?”
“Naimi-Selari-Nykantia,” she said, pointing a self-congratulatory thumb towards herself. “But most people call me Nyx.”
“She has an ambler, Rayla,” he emphasized, leaning over. “I didn’t realize there were any that were domesticated this far south.”
Rayla batted him away. “Yes, I heard you the first time.” And she wasn’t about to admit she’d always wanted to see an ambler, either. “Well, what’s this Nyx’s asking price?"
“Well, every extra body is more weight for the poor thing, so maybe—”
Nyx leaned back in her chair. “Well,” she said in a low voice, “I can see by his scarf that your boy-toy is some kind of Katolian noble, so pay me... 20 gold pieces and I’ll keep that information to myself, if nobody else has figured it out yet. Some not so savoury types around here, y’know.”
Rayla went from mad to livid in a matter of seconds, then looked at Callum, who seemed like a shadowpaw caught off guard by an incoming cart, and she scowled, stuffing the ends of his scarf under his jacket.
“Fine,” Rayla growled, glaring. This was awful, but it would have to do. They didn’t have the money to pay that much and then pay someone else who was a bit more trustworthy; they still had a return home trip to finance, after all. “But keep your mouth shut .”
“As long as you pay,” Nyx shrugged, knocking back some of her drink. “When do you plan on leaving?”
Nyx pulled a face. “Ugh, I may have to charge extra for getting up that early.”
Rayla flicked out one of her blades, sizing it up under the counter and between their bodies, so only the three of them could see it pointing at Nyx. “Or you could just do as I say,” Rayla hissed, “to make sure you get up at all. ”
Nyx was still, then nodded. “Okay! Fine!” Her shoulders relaxed a little when Rayla withdrew her blades. “Jeez, so serious.”
“And you get payment after we’ve boarded.”
“Fine, fine!” Nyx straightened out her little vest. “Don’t get your tunic in a twist, jeeze.” She glanced at Callum. “You know, this is kind of your fault. If you were giving her the proper attention I bet she wouldn’t be so uptight—”
“That’s enough!” Rayla got up from the counter, tugging Callum along with her. Her face was warm. “We’ll see you in the morning. Don’t be late.”
“What did she mean by ‘proper attention’?” Callum asked as they left the tavern, and Rayla shook her head.
“Nevermind that. I can’t believe you wandered into a tavern like that by yourself.”
“I didn’t wander . I was right by you, I was also just asking around.” Callum sighed, his face falling. “Look,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry about the scarf.”
Rayla looked away, softening despite herself. “It’s fine,” she said quietly, and rubbed her wrist. Her cheeks felt hot. “I’m sorry she called you my—” Her lips twisted in displeasure. “Boy-toy.”
“Oh. That?” Callum smiled a little. “No, it’s fine. I mean, a bit weird, but I guess I get why she’d assume that we’re… y’know. Nice to have a little variation in there. We’ve gotten boyfriend, husband, fiancé. Nice to see something new.”
Rayla let out a quiet snort. “Seriously?”
“Yeah. It’s not a bad assumption to make. Kind of flattering, actually.”
She stared at him. “Flattering?”
“Yeah.” He shrugged and smiled at her. “You’re pretty. And obviously wouldn’t be with just anyone , so it’s kinda flattering that they’d assume someone like you would go for someone like me.”
“... What? ”
At her continued staring, a flush climbed onto his cheeks and he looked away. “Yeah, sorry, I know it’s probably weird for you.”
“N-no,” she stammered, her heart racing. “It’s not weird , I just—didn’t realize you were looking at it that way.” Her brain turned over each and every word, fixating, her heart pounding with something that felt feverishly and foolishly like hope, before she frowned. “Wait, what do you mean ‘someone like me’? You—you’re wonderful. ”
Callum smiled softly, and maybe a little sadly, at her as they approached the inn they were staying at. “I dunno,” he admitted. “I’m getting better at being a, y’know,” his voice dropped to a whisper, “prince, but I’m still... my Cube doesn’t glow properly. The only thing I’m really good at is still art. Nobody I’ve liked has ever liked me back.”
Her heart sank a little, but she tugged him into the inn, into their room. She sat him down on their bed and didn’t let go of his hands before she continued, “Callum. Your Cube glowed on all sides because you’re extraordinary. There’s literally been no one like you. And no, Aaravos doesn’t count, because he’s not kind and hardworking and sweet like you. You’re an amazing brother and son and your family is so lucky to have you. Your people love you. You’re a good prince, and a good friend. You see the world in such a unique and vibrant way because of your art, and someday—” Her throat turned thick. “Why, I bet someone’s already madly in love with you and you don’t even realize.”
Somehow, his eyes grew even sadder. “Not anyone who really knows me.”
Rayla sighed, then leaned forward to kiss his forehead. “Well you’re my best friend,” she said softly. “And I love you very much.”
Callum’s eyes shone in the dim light. “I love you too.”
Hearing him say it shouldn’t have made her heart flutter the way it did. Not like that , she reminded herself. She curled her fingers under his chin. “Now chin up,” she said. “We should get ready for bed. We have an early start tomorrow.” She drew her hand away, and her heart nearly burst out of her chest when he grabbed it, pressing his lips to the back of her knuckles.
“Thank you,” he murmured. Rayla’s throat was dry as she swallowed.
“Of course. You’re my best friend.”
Her palm was sweaty when she slipped her fingers out of his, because he didn’t let go until they were physically too far apart for him to hold on any longer, and Rayla splashed some cold water on her face in the bathroom to get a hold of herself. People thinking they were a couple at various stages of seriousness wasn’t bad but flattering, to him. Someone like you. He thought she was pretty .
What if…? No. No, that was crazy. He couldn’t actually like her back . He could think she was pretty and think highly of her without actually thinking of her like that . Even as more words and sentences filtered through her head. You’re cute when you’re angry. You certainly are something. I like you exactly the way you are. I just don’t get how someone could not be in love with you. How undeniably flustered he’d been, even to her, when she’d called him cute. How much he’d worked to get to know her and given her second chances. The way he’d asked her to dance and kept the flower she’d given him, and taken care of her when she was sick and kissed her forehead.
Oh, the hope that was blooming in her chest was far more dangerous than any other threat they could encounter, but Rayla couldn’t find a way to tamper it down.
Maybe there was a tiny chance that he liked her, too. But what would she even do if he did?
Rayla took a deep breath. There was no point in thinking that far ahead. There was no point in thinking about this, seriously thinking about this , when she was still on a mission and had to keep a clear head. And what if she was wrong, and then things were weird ? Weirder than they already sometimes were?
But none of it stopped the giddy feeling from growing in her chest. The insane urge to push a little further than she already did.
Maybe she didn’t have to be a desert flower after all.
Callum had already changed for bed when she exited the bathroom and they swapped places, so he could brush his teeth and wash his face for the night. She slipped into her side of the bed, sitting up and waiting for him rather than lying down like she usually did, the lantern on his bedside table. She watched him as he came out and slipped back into bed next to her, and before she could overthink it, she leaned over and pecked his cheek.
“Goodnight,” she said quickly, laying onto her side and pulling the covers over her so she wouldn’t have to see his face.
Then his arms wrapped around her from behind, warm and strong with his chest to her back, and he pressed a soft kiss to the nape of her neck before resting his forehead against her shoulders. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
Her head was still light as they settled for the night. Maybe hope wasn’t so foolish after all.
Any bleariness from their early rising was almost completely forgotten as soon as he saw the ambler. The creature almost looked like a gigantic cross between the camel and a domesticated bunny, with floppy ears, large, kind eyes, and as big as almost any adolescent dragon (from scale pictures, anyway).
The ambler lowered her tail, the end flared out like feathers. Only when they nudged their horse onto just the end, the ambler lifted them with ease, the tail showing no sign of weakness as it set them down onto the large saddle covering its back. Nyx was flitting around the ambler’s head, then her feet, before she flew back up to her seat on the ambler’s head, well above the general saddle.
“Everyone ready?” she called out, taking hold of the reins. Callum stumbled a little off the horse, Rayla helping him down with a quick squeeze of his hand.
“Ready!” he called out, and Nyx prompted the ambler to move.
For such a big creature, it moved with a fair amount of grace and steadiness. The horse settled on the far side of them, and Callum stood at the edge, watching the town fade into the distance.
“Wow,” he exhaled. It seemed like everything in Xadia would never stop taking his breath away. He glanced over. Rayla included.
She smiled fondly at him and it made his heart nearly skip a beat, the way it did last night, after kissing his cheek for the second time. Would it be a bad thing if he kissed her cheek once, if he dared?
“We’re not even in the desert yet,” she said, resting her forearms along the saddle railing.
“Still, seeing everything this high up is… Wow .” He looked at her, his heart pounding in his ears, before he quickly pecked her cheek. “Thanks for all this,” he said by explanation, even as his face burned. Rayla stared at him, stunned, her cheeks flushed a pretty pink.
“Oh. Um, yeah of course.” She played with a strand of hair near her face, glancing away. She chewed on her bottom lip and his eyes followed the motion. She cleared her throat and cast a look out towards the desert, before back at him, and Callum quickly looked away lest he be caught staring. “Does the desert live up to your expectations?”
“I mean, I expected a desert,” he joked, “but… Yeah, it looks amazing. The sand looks almost black from here.”
“It is. That’s why it’s called the Midnight Desert.”
“Oh. Oh! I thought it was just dark all the time, like Moonshadow elf villages.”
Rayla blinked. “Did I tell you that?”
“Maybe? I think I also read about it in a book.”
The tips of his ears turned red. “Um… Actually I remember looking through one like the morning after the gala? I just remember thinking it was a shame we didn’t get to talk more, and there was this picture of what the houses looked like. I dunno.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I thought I’d told you I’d done some research?”
“You did,” she remembered. “I just...” She placed her hand over his on the railing. “It’s very sweet of you, is all. Most people don’t make that much of an effort to learn.”
“I like learning about you.”
“Yes, you’ve made that clear. And I like learning about you.”
Callum smiled a little. “I know.”
“And you drew me,” she teased. “You’ve made progress.”
He laughed and ducked his head before looking back at her. “Hey, in my defense, I still don’t think anything can compare to the real thing.”
Rayla narrowed her eyes even as her smile grew. “Flirt,” she accused.
Callum blinked, blushing, before he plucked up his courage again. She hadn’t taken her hand away. “And?” he mused nonchalantly. Like so what if he was flirting with her, even if his heart was racing.
Rayla’s cheeks turned pink. “I-I—”
There was a sudden jerk, and Callum wrapped an arm around Rayla to keep them both from sliding forward as the saddle rested on a slant and the ambler stopped.
“Sorry!” Nyx called from her seat, not sounding very apologetic at all. “Nyla’s got her foot stuck. Gimme a mo’!”
Callum let out a sigh of relief as Nyx flew down to inspect the ambler’s foot, sunken down in the sand, and then realized he was still holding Rayla to his chest. He let go. “Oh uh, you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she said, still a little flushed. “Um, good job at keeping your balance there.”
“Oh. Yeah. I had a good sword-fighting teacher.”
“I’ll have to tell Soren once we’re home.”
Callum rolled his eyes, smiling. “Aren’t you the one who’s always talking about taking his ego down a peg?”
“Yeah, which is why I’m gonna tell him what a better teacher I am,” she said, and they both laughed. “Honestly, his loss for not recognizing such a good student.”
“Don’t you think we’re maybe a bit biased?” he wheedled.
Rayla tucked her hair behind her ear and shot him a smile and feigning tone. “Why on Earth would I be biased?”
It was pointless to push his luck, Callum knew. She was in love with somebody else . But he wanted to say Because you like me . Hadn’t he already pushed enough? How much could a little more hurt? “Because you’re my best friend,” he said instead, and Rayla’s smile softened.
“Sap,” she said affectionately. They started moving again, more smoothly this time, and Rayla rested her head on his shoulder. “The desert does look pretty beautiful from up here,” she murmured.
He didn’t take his eyes off her. “Yeah. It does.”
The oasis was beautiful, surrounded by iridescent blue walls to keep out the Soulfang serpents and other dangers of the desert as night fell. There were vendors, a pub, and tents—a blue medic one, stationed there, the rest orange or beige for an assortment of travellers—all clustered around the trees, lake, and thin grass. Rayla helped their horse down onto land and tied his reins to a tree as they unpacked, but when she looked around, Callum wasn’t nearby.
Rayla looked at Nyx, who was counting coins as she added them to a larger bag. “Hey, do you know where Callum is?” she asked. Nyx didn’t look up, but her mouth quirked up into a slight grin.
“Why, worried about your boyfriend?”
“ No ,” Rayla grouched. “And he’s not my—” She took a deep breath. “It’s just not best for him to go wandering off by himself. Did you see which way he went?” The crowds were much too thick and tall for her to make it out from here.
“Think he said something about going to the bathroom,” Nyx shrugged and leaned against one of the palm trees. “So if you two aren’t dating or eloping, whatever, then what are you?”
Rayla grit her teeth. “It’s none of your business.”
“Oh come on.” Nyx raised her eyebrows. “Cause if you do want to stake a claim, you should probably do it now. There’s lots of pretty girls around and he’s not a bad looking fella.”
“I don’t have a claim to stake,” Rayla retorted, unlatching one of the saddle bags. “We’re just friends.”
Nyx laughed. “Are you sure? I heard you two on the entire ride here. That’s an awful lot of flirting.” She sobered. “Bit annoying, actually.”
“Well, you’re… hearing things,” Rayla said feebly. “It’s not... none of it is serious. It’s just joking.”
“On your side too, sweetheart?” Nyx pushed herself up from the tree, glancing over Rayla’s shoulder. “Ah, the object of your affections is back.”
“Shut up ,” she hissed, before turning around. Callum was jogging towards her with a bright eyed smile, his scarf tucked under his jacket. “Callum! Where were you?”
His smile faltered. “Uh, bathroom?” he said, his voice a tad squeaky, but Rayla couldn’t figure out if he was lying—or why he would if he was. Whatever. Maybe he’d just wanted to wander around and forgot to wait for her.
She sighed. “Callum, you have to let me know if you want to go somewhere. It’s fine if you don’t want me around, but I just need to know if you’ve gone somewhere in case, okay?”
“Oh, no, Rayla,” he stumbled over his words and his feet on his way over to her. “It’s not that. I always want you around, I’m sorry. I just knew you’d be busy unpacking and it’s been a long day for both of us, so—” He reached for her hands. “I’ll let you know next time if I have to go. I promise.”
Rayla let him take one, but brought her other to lightly touch the back of his hair. He was lucky she could never stay mad for long. Besides, a tiny nudge of guilt might be more effective. “Okay,” she said. “Because otherwise you know I’ll worry.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” Nyx sent her a look over Callum’s shoulder but Rayla steadily ignored her, her attention drawn back to Callum when he smiled a little. “Come on, I’ll make it up to you. We can get dinner or go dancing or something?”
This would be their last real stop before the Nexus, since the Storm Spire was only another two days away once they’d crossed the desert. Then Callum would be busy with trying to connect to the sky arcanum and she wouldn’t have to spend every moment by his side.
Rayla gave him a tiny smile. “Okay. But we can’t spend too much money, okay? Just a couple of drinks.”
Callum grinned. “Yes! Thank you. We’ll have fun.”
“Oh I bet,” Nyx mouthed and Rayla shot her a glare. Then the Skywing elf shooed them away. “Run along, you little love bugs. Nyla and I are staying here for the night but you can set up your tents wherever you want.”
“Thanks Nyx!” Callum said, before taking Rayla by the hand and heading for the nearest pub and he held the door open for her and ushered in her. “And I promise,” he added, “we’re not going to get drunk.”
And maybe it was because the oasis felt safe, a place where flowers didn’t die of thirst, that Rayla shot back, “Too bad. I bet you’d be a cute drunk,” and let herself glance back at his face after she’d walked in ahead. He looked a little flushed, but it could have been the heat or the crowd in the tavern.
They found a little table with a bench near the corner of the room, the flat cushions made out of old leather and maybe even ambler hide, not far from the small dance floor. They came back with a couple tankards of ale, bread and cheese and chips and slid onto one side of the bench, sitting as close as possible. Mostly, Rayla rationalized, so she could steal some of his chips.
“Hey.” Callum swatted her hand away before taking a bite of his ham and cheese sandwich. “You’re not even done with your chips yet.”
“Yours taste better,” she said, swiping one. “You added more salt.”
“You could just go get more salt,” he pointed out.
Rayla pouted. “But then I’d have to get up.” And leave, and not sit this close to him, and Rayla didn’t want that. Suspected that maybe, just maybe, he didn’t hate it either.
Callum leaned over. “And I don’t want you to go?”
She gave a dramatic sigh and went to push herself up. “Well—”
His fingers wrapped around her wrist and tugged her back down. Her thigh pressed against his. “Just eat my chips, Rayla.”
She grinned in spite of her flush, helping herself to one of his chips. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“Insufferable,” he said ruefully.
“You love me.” She nearly choked on her chips once the words escaped her lips, surprised by her own confidence. If this was how hope made her act...
“Excuse me.” A new voice interrupted them before Rayla could dwell too much on what she’d just said. “Is this bench taken?” A young woman around their age with long hair was pointing to the spot on Callum’s opposite side and eyeing him with great interest.
“Oh, um,” Callum stammered. Rayla resisted the urge to throw him an incredulous glare. Could he not tell this woman was flirting? Or maybe... maybe he liked it. “Uh, I’m kind of eating with my friend, here?”
The woman looked at her for the first time. “Your friend?” she repeated unhappily.
“Yeah,” Callum said, looking over. “I think there’s a table over there that’s free?” Rayla nearly jolted when he wrapped an arm around her waist. That maybe he wasn’t just being oblivious and sweet, but very purposeful as well. Maybe.
Rayla leaned into him, allowing a little satisfied smirk to float onto her face.
“Have a nice night,” she said as the woman sneered, turned, and left. She didn’t pull away from Callum, her heart beating fast in her chest.
“That was weird,” Callum said. He didn’t let go of her, looking very dazed as he stared off ahead as the girl sat down. Music and people were beginning to pick up on the dance floor, growing in volume.
“Yeah.” Rayla swallowed hard. “Attractive, though.”
Callum’s head whipped around to look at her, his voice a little loud. “What?”
She cleared her throat. “What?” Oh, she was such a coward.
He blinked at her. “I—I thought you said something?”
“Just agreeing with you.”
“Oh.” For a split second, he looked almost disappointed , and Rayla internally kicked herself. “Um. Sorry about the girl. If she was flirting.”
Rayla’s tongue felt heavy. “You don’t have to apologize, it’s not your fault. I—” She wanted to say she didn’t care, but that was too much to manage. “It’s not like I’m your...”
“Yeah, but I’m still here with you.” He seemed to realize then that he still had his arm around her waist, but Rayla didn’t pull back, so he didn’t move it. He looked down at their almost empty plates and then back up at her, tossing their money on the table for their meals. “Do you wanna dance?”
Her heart fluttered a little. “Sure,” she said, and she missed his warmth when he pulled away, taking her hand and helping her up. But she didn’t have to miss it for long as he led her to the dance floor and tugged her to him.
Rayla laughed when he twirled her in a specifically silly spin, the music upbeat as they looped arms, doing an almost Moonshadow type of circling before switching halfway through the other arm. At some point they met in the middle, an arm around her waist while his other hand held hers, as they danced around just a little off-beat, laughing the entire time.
Then the music slowed, and her heart rate quickened as he pulled her closer, beginning to sway to the music.
“See,” he murmured, almost resting his forehead against hers. “I told you we’d have fun.”
Rayla rested her hand on his shoulder, her breath stilling when the hand that was holding hers interlocked their fingers. Then she cleared her throat. “Never said we wouldn’t,” she said. “I always have fun with you.”
“Even when I’m being annoying or wandering off?” he teased, his lips curling. Oh, why did she have to think about his lips?
“Even then,” she said, more softly than she’d meant to.
He gave her hand a gentle squeeze. “Hard to believe we’ll be at the Spire in two days.”
Her throat tightened a little. “Yeah. You’ll be busy learning magic.”
“I’m sure I’ll tell you all about it over dinner every day,” he said, meeting her eyes. “And I’ll probably bother you throughout the day, too, to show you what I’ve learned.”
“Introduce you to whatever friends I make.”
“I don’t know. I don’t even like all your friends back at the castle.”
“But you like me,” Callum pointed out, and then he gave her a soft, knowing smile, his eyes flickering away for a moment and then back to her face. “And I promise, I’m never gonna like someone more than I like you.”
She swallowed hard. “You might. Someday.”
“I really, really won’t.” His hand left her side to touch the corner of her jaw, and for a moment her breath stilled. “Why?” He tilted his head to the side a little, the tip of his nose almost brushing hers. “Were you a bit jealous earlier?”
Her eyes widened. “W-what? Why would—” She felt his warm breath ghost against her lips, and her heart nearly burst out of her ribcage. Her eyes closed. “Yes,” she confessed.
She could hear the smile in his voice as he leaned in. “Well don’t be.”
Slowly, Rayla opened her eyes just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming, her chest fit to crack open and reveal a million butterflies when she saw how close he was. His green eyes were heavily lidded, a faint flush to his cheeks, and oh gods this was really happening—
Someone bumped into them in the darkness, and it almost felt like being jolted awake from a dream as her body was shifted to the left and his to the side in steadying her. The rest of the room roared back to life in full swing. She’d never felt more breathless in her life, as reality seemed to crash in. They were really—they’d almost—she thought, at least, and—
And what would have happened afterwards, if they had?
“We should get going,” she heard herself saying over the noise of the crowd. “It’s getting late.”
“Oh, um.” Callum drew his hands away. “Yeah. Okay.”
They slipped out of the tavern together, and Rayla kept a few inches of distance between them. The evening air was chilly against her flushed face, and she hugged her arms to herself to keep from shivering.
“Here.” Callum was sliding off his coat, looking awkward even if he gave her a small, nervous smile.
“It’s okay,” she said quickly. She’d overindulged enough for one night.
“Oh. Um, okay. If you’re sure.” He didn’t put it back on, instead hanging it over his shoulder. “Rayla, is… Are we okay?”
“Did I say, or do something—”
“We’re fine , Callum.” She managed a tiny smile. “I’m just tired and don’t want you to be cold instead, okay?”
He was quiet for a moment and then a softer sigh, like he didn’t fully believe her, maybe. “Okay.”
Rayla held back a snippy reply. Tonight had been fun and there was no point in challenging him. Especially because if she did end up challenging, she’d probably end up spilling the beans that she—that he—that they’d almost kissed and she knew it.
Oh gods, they’d almost kissed. She’d wanted to kiss him so many times but somehow she hadn’t thought about how batshit insane it would actually be, and what it would mean, and the consequences—sweet Garlaf the consequences —of if it actually happened. He was a royal human mage and she was a crownguard and his knight and princes didn’t court casually and Callum was sweet but what if all he wanted was a fling, what if he wanted something serious—what if it was all a fluke and she was just the right girl at the right time?
They found Nyx and the ambler by the same tree was before, the creature curled up and resting. Nyx was smoking some kind of plant by herself, but she flitted down from her part of the saddle and waggled her eyebrows. “Did you two have fun?”
“Not in the mood, Nyx,” Rayla snapped and Callum kept his head down as they climbed up onto the saddle. Their bedrolls and bags were still there and Rayla unfurled hers in one corner, hoping Callum could get the hint that tonight they wouldn’t... oh gods they’d really been cuddling regularly hadn’t they?
“Jeeze,” Nyx muttered, glancing between them. “Forget I asked.”
Callum unfurled his bedroll in another corner, glancing at Rayla as he did so. She made sure not to catch his gaze, even if she couldn’t stop herself from seeing the slight shake of his head before he settled down to sleep.
How had everything become such a mess?
He’d fucked up. Oh gods he’d fucked up so royally, he’d known she wasn’t in love with him but he’d gone and read into things anyway and almost kissed her and fuck fuck fuck —
He was the biggest idiot in the world. No wonder she was mad at him. And now things were weird and—maybe some time apart at the Spire would be good for them. Give her space and time for him to get his head on straight. Because he’d known and shown his feelings anyway and—
“You two fight, or something?”
Callum cracked an eye open and saw that Rayla was rummaging through her pack for something. Socks, probably. Her feet always got cold in the night. Nyx was perched on the saddle edge above her.
“It’s none of your business, Nyx,” Rayla whispered back. Even this close his ears had to strain a little to listen.
“Hey, trust me, I know what it’s like to get a bad gift, but—”
Rayla looked up, her hair silvery white in the moonlight. “Bad gift?”
Now Nyx looked equally confused. “He didn’t give you his gift?”
Callum thought of the necklace currently burning a hole in his pocket and in the back of his mind. How was he supposed to give it to her now, purchased from one of the oasis vendors?
Nyx mimed zipping her lips. “Nevermind—forget I said anything. But if it’s not that, then what happened? You two were perfectly cozy earlier.”
“We were not —shut up. We’re… we’re friends.”
“Right.” There was silence for a moment. “Even though you clearly like him.”
Callum’s heart hammered.
“I do not,” Rayla scoffed.
Nyx barked out a laugh that might have woken Callum up if he’d actually been asleep. “Oh, that’s the least convincing lie you’ve told all day.”
“It’s not—and shut up , you’ll wake him—it’s not a—”
“If it’s not a lie, then why does it matter if he hears it?”
Callum could imagine the sour look on Rayla’s face, even as he shut his eyes. Part of him felt bad about eavesdropping, but it wasn’t like there was anywhere he could go without making it worse for everyone and even more embarrassing for Rayla.
“I don’t like him,” Rayla repeated, grumpily. She was quiet for a moment. “I love him.”
Callum almost gasped out loud. He had to have heard it wrong. After the disaster that was last night, she couldn’t possibly—
“Ugh, finally ,” Nyx said. “I really thought I’d have to push you both into a tent of your own to get you to admit it.”
“It’s not that simple,” Rayla snapped in a furious whisper. “I’m... I was sent along to protect him. I’m not—his world is full of politics and fanfare and he’s never looked twice at me until now, and I—I might want to go home someday.”
“So? He can’t just go with you?”
“I could never ask him to do that. He… I don’t know. Maybe, technically, he could. But I’m not going to put that on him, that would be a huge change, and he… He doesn’t feel the same anyway.”
Yes he does , he desperately wanted to say. His heart was pounding in his throat but it had never felt lighter at the same time.
“You really think that?” Nyx said skeptically. “Or is that just what you tell yourself, because you’re scared?”
“I’m not scared ,” she snapped. “I’m... rightfully cautious.”
“And courting’s a big thing for his crowd, it’s very fancy, and I don’t even know what he would want, and...” Rayla sighed. “I never thought I’d ever be with him. I wouldn’t even know how. That’s not changing now or anytime soon.”
“And if, hypothetically ,” Nyx dragged the word out, “he did feel the same?”
“I don’t know. We… we’re good where we are. It would change a lot, so suddenly, and...”
So he had to ease her into it, Callum realized. Tonight had just been too much too fast. He could do that. He’d be as patient as she needed, wait as long as he had to, just…
She loved him. His stomach did a giddy little dance and he drew the covers closer around him. She loved him! She loved him. He could give her the necklace. Take things slow. Maybe open up conversations, naturally, about those scarier things. Be honest and reassuring.
Eventually, tell her he loved her too.
“Get some sleep, kid,” Nyx advised, a slight flutter of her feathers as she spread her wings. “Things’ll be better in the morning.”
“How do you know that?” Rayla asked.
“I just know.”
Callum’s heart swelled. They really would be.
Chapter 12: The Gift
Callum seemed oddly cheerful in the morning, Rayla found, as they packed up their things and made the last leg of the journey out of the Midnight Desert. She’d expected him to be awkward, maybe even apologetic, about what had almost happened last night. It still sent a flare through her, cheeks heating, whenever she thought about the fact that they had almost—but it was best to put it behind them. Maybe he was just overcompensating, always looking for that damn bright side.
It was one of her favourite things about him, deep down, but it felt too good to be true. That she could come so close to crossing the biggest line she’d put down for herself and get away with it. Maybe Callum had realized he’d been caught up in the moment too, and their journey, and that it was a fluke after all, and he just didn’t want to hurt her feelings. Did he think she’d been similarly swept away? Or—her heart cracked—did he know that he was the one she was in unrequited love with? Rayla quickly pushed that option away. No, if Callum knew he was the one hurting her, he wouldn’t be cheerily talking with Nyx over warm flat bread at breakfast. He’d be quiet and apologetic and making sure to let her down gently. Boy couldn’t keep an actual secret to save his life.
Nor could Rayla stop herself from staring, her cheeks heating again when Callum caught her and she quickly looked away. She froze when he brushed a loose strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Your ears are pretty,” he said, almost absentmindedly, and for a moment Rayla wondered if she’d hallucinated it, as he turned back to his flatbread with that same lighthearted smile.
This was the last thing she’d expected, the tips of her ears burning up. She took a long sip of the water Nyx had provided. Had she somehow gotten heatstroke or midnight madness and the world had turned upside down?
She was silent when they began on their way, resting against the saddle railing, her eyelids just a little heavy. Maybe she was sleep-deprived. She had stayed up way too long, talking to Nyx about things she never should have revealed (though to Nyx’s credit, she gave no indication that they’d had the conversation at all).
Callum sat down next to her, and her face warmed as his thigh pressed against hers. “Still tired?” he asked, and Rayla nodded hurriedly.
Callum wrapped an arm around her shoulders, and she nearly jolted. “You can rest, you know.”
She glanced away, her face burning in the morning sun. “Callum, I don’t—” Don’t what ? She wanted him there, she wanted him this close, and seemingly oblivious to her feelings, but…
“I thought we were good?” he asked, slowly beginning to pull away. She looked up at him, her heart constricting at the tender look on his face. One that she could too easily imagine was love.
“We are,” she said slowly, and he wrapped his arm a little more snug around her as she rested her head on his shoulder. “Thank you.”
“No problem,” he said, his voice soft. “I slept like a baby last night but I uh... could see how it could be my fault if you um... didn’t?”
“No, it’s not your fault. I just, um, had trouble sleeping. That’s all.” She gave him a faint smile. “I’m glad you slept well, though.” At least one of them had, even if that meant he hadn’t been up all night thinking about their almost kiss. Clearly, she was the one it had meant something to, and it only stung a little.
“Promise me that you’ll try to catch up on some sleep when we’re at the Sky Nexus?”
“I’ll be training with mages all day, you won’t have to worry about protecting me. Besides, you’ll need to be well-rested on the way back, right? Please?” He met her eyes, his own big and green and her weakness. “For me?”
She bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Fine. You’re insufferable sometimes, you know?”
He seemed to beam even brighter for some reason. “I know. And I got you something.”
She blinked. “What?”
He reached between them to his pocket and pulled something out, hidden in his fist. “I meant to give it to you yesterday,” he said. “But um, I wasn’t actually going to the bathroom. I didn’t mean to worry you, I just… wanted to surprise you.”
Rayla looked at him curiously, then glanced back down at his hand as he opened it. Her heart melted and ached all at once; he was holding a small golden pendant, with a small green-blue stone embedded in the center. “Callum, you didn’t have to—”
“I know. I just thought—you’ve done so much for me and my family. Turning a blind eye to Ezran’s kitchen escapades, keeping the crownguard in order even if Soren can be a pain in the ass sometimes. Coming with me on this mission and keeping me safe and—being my friend. So I just wanted to get you something to say thank you and to... remember this time, I guess.” The necklace shone in the edge of his eyes when their gazes met. “I know I don’t want to forget it.”
Her throat tightened. “You know I’d still do it all over again, even if you never noticed it?”
“I know. Which is why I want you to know that I… I see you, and I’m so, so grateful for you.” His cheeks were tinged pink as he smiled. “And hopefully this is something that can remind you. Even if you don’t wear it that often.”
“Shut up, I’m never taking it off.”
Callum lifted his eyebrows. “Don’t you have to put it on first?” he teased, still holding it out to her.
Rayla paused, then, taking a chance possibly too wild, asked, “Help me put it on?”
His smile only grew. “Turn around for me?” he requested, and the position felt surprisingly vulnerable as she shifted so her back was to him, pulling her hair away from her neck. Callum’s breath was warm, just brushing her skin as he fitted the necklace chain over her throat and then did up the clasp, letting the small silver bud rest against her skin before he slowly drew his fingers away. She turned back towards him, the pendant light against the spot below the hollow of her throat.
“Thank you,” she said softly, pressing her fingers to it. “It’s beautiful. I love it.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, his expression soft as he looked at her. “It looks even prettier on you than I’d imagined.”
Rayla blushed, unsure of what to say to that.
“Oi, lovebirds,” Nyx called down from the top of Nyla’s head. “Is this your stop or not?”
Rayla flushed, scrambling onto her feet. The desert had been replaced by lush greenery in however many hours they had spent resting. “Yeah,” she called back as Callum got onto his feet next to her. “But we’re not—”
Callum handed Rayla’s pack to her and then patted their horse on the nose. “Let’s just be glad we’re out of the desert, right?” he said.
She blinked, a little surprised that he hadn’t let her correct Nyx, before taking the pack with a slight smirk. “Aren’t you the one who wanted so badly to see it?”
“Yes, and I did. And it was really nice, but way too hot.”
“So you don’t want to visit a second time?”
“Not unless it’s with you.”
Oh, he was going to be the death of her. “Well, we’ll probably take the long way around on our trip back, unless you’re anxious to get home.”
“Not really,” he smiled, both of them stepping onto the end of Nyla’s tail when she offered it. “But if we ever do a Xadia trip again, we could always go back together. Just spend as long as we want, wherever we wanna go. If you’d like.”
“O-oh. You’d want to?”
“Of course. I’ve had so much fun, and I know we’re gonna keep hanging out when we’re back home, but it’s not the same, y’know? Especially since Ezran will probably want to spend time with us, and I love him, but it’s, um…” He flushed a little in the rounded tips of his ears. “It’s not the same as getting to be alone with you, y’know?”
“Well I... I’d have to think about it,” she floundered, as they and their horse stepped off the tail. “I’ll have to get used to my crownguard schedule again once we’re back and resume—resume training, so...”
Callum’s eyes grew thoughtful and he was silent for a moment. “Well,” he said, “while you’re doing that... we could still talk, just the two of us, at least once a week?”
Rayla smiled a little. “Yeah. I’d like that.”
He brightened. “Okay then. Great.” They both looked up when Nyx landed in front of them.
“So can I have the rest of my payment now, or what?” she said, holding out a hand.
Rayla rolled her eyes as Callum fished out a bag of coins and tossed them over to Nyx. “That should be enough,” he said, still strangely cheery. “Thanks again for everything.”
Nyx blinked, seemingly taken aback by the genuine gratitude, before she straightened a little with a grin. “It’s what I do,” she said, before flitting back up to Nyla’s head. “Bye! And thanks for the tip!”
Rayla shot him a look as the ambler turned around to walk back into the desert. “Did you actually give her a tip?” she frowned.
“It’s okay,” Callum shrugged. “If we really get low on money we can sell some of my cloaks and stuff and buy cheaper ones. Besides, I kinda owed her.” He cleared his throat. “For stalling you a bit.” He smiled a tad knowingly. “Why are you so surly with her anyway?”
“Um, she blackmailed us with your identity?” Rayla bristled.
Callum’s grin didn’t fade as he adjusted the saddle bags. “And not also because she was a bit flirty with me at first?”
Rayla’s eyebrows shot up. “ What? Why would I—I didn’t even—wait, you noticed?”
“Kind of? I don’t think she’s genuinely interested in me, though. Just having fun.” He glanced back at her. “So that’s what bothered you?”
“ No , I just…” Rayla scowled and then hauled herself up onto the saddle, picking up the reins. “Come on, if we move quickly we can get to the Spire in no time.”
Callum exhaled and climbed on behind her, wrapping his arms around her like usual. It was blissfully quiet for a moment, enough for Rayla to ponder just what the fuck was going on, exactly, before Callum said, “Rayla?”
She didn’t totally trust herself to speak. “Hm?”
“You don’t have to worry about Nyx,” he said.
“I wasn’t worried.”
“Good, because you shouldn’t be.”
“Yes, I shouldn’t be,” she growled, snapping, her hands tightening over the reins, “because you’re not mine no matter how many people think you are.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Is that something that bothers you?”
“That you think I’m not yours?”
Rayla jostled the reins, keeping her eyes firmly ahead. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
She turned around to glare at him. “Callum, what are we even talking about, right now? I’m not jealous of Nyx. I don’t care who likes you. Can we focus, please?”
“Okay.” He let out a soft sigh. “I’m sorry.”
She softened. “No, it’s… You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just on edge right now.”
“No, I pushed. I didn’t mean to, but… I’m sorry if I overstepped.”
“You really, really didn’t.” She placed a hand over his on her stomach, giving it a quick squeeze. “I’m sorry for snapping. I just...” The truth burned on the tip of her tongue. “Maybe things are still weird for me after last night, a little,” she confessed.
“That’s okay,” Callum said softly. “I’m still trying to figure it out too. I—we kinda teased each other before but if you’re not comfortable with that anymore—”
“No, I’m okay with it, honestly,” she said. “I think we might be back to normal in a few days, just… I don’t know. But it’s fine. Really.”
“I am. Promise.” Rayla managed a smile. “And as long as you’re my best friend, I’m content.”
He gave her a light squeeze. “I am, forever. Nothing could ever change that, no matter what.” His voice softened. “No matter what uh, may... happen or be said between us. Or about us.”
Rayla leaned back against him, truly relaxing for the first time that morning. “Good.”
This time, when they set up camp together, Callum didn’t try to look away from her. Even if he knew he had to ease up in other ways. Being so flirty and forward and asking about Nyx and putting Rayla’s feelings on the spot like that, particularly when she was dealing with last night in her own way and didn’t know that her feelings were returned... no wonder she’d snapped. It was a constant balancing act between gently easing her into the idea of something different while also not pushing her too hard when she didn’t want to open up. One he’d have to adjust day to day, but it’d be worth it.
They sat by the fire together, and he slowly wrapped an arm around her shoulders, pausing to see if she’d push him away. She didn’t, instead leaning into his side, her fingers coming up to play with her necklace.
A good reason to look at her hit him then, even if it would mean moving away. “Rayla,” Callum said, “can I draw you like this?”
She sat up suddenly, the flush in her cheeks a little easier to see in the light of the fire. “O-oh. Um… Sure. Should—should I sit like this, or...?”
Callum smiled, letting his eyes linger on her face. “No, the way you were sitting before was fine, you—you’re perfect.”
Rayla’s lips turned up in a soft, almost shy smile as she began to relax, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear. “I haven’t sat for a portrait since I was a little girl,” she said as Callum sat on a log on the opposite side of the fire, facing her. He began sketching out an outline, all soft, long curves as he glanced between her and the page.
“That’s a shame. You’re a beautiful subject.” He looked back up at her, silently memorizing the way the firelight shone on her face, the dusky blue shadows of evening surrounding them. “I think I’d actually want to make this a painting, when we get home.”
Now that he knew it wasn’t a trick of the light, he could plainly see the pink on her cheeks—even if it was still hard to wrap his head around the fact that he was the one making her actually blush . To her credit, though, Rayla didn’t shy under his gaze as Callum let it sweep over her, tracing her face and the slight shadows of the fire. It was strangely intimate, to be able to look at her so openly and have her looking back at him. She blinked slowly, her eyelashes casting delicate shadows against her markings every time she did so, but her violet eyes held his own and her smile stayed soft.
He really would have to break out his painting supplies from a couple years ago and turn this into a proper portrait. She was so beautiful, a sketch could hardly do her justice. Callum thought of them back at home, with their new closeness, and the promise of it turning into something else. After he’d eased her into it and told her how he felt.
If he took a little longer to sketch her to have a little longer to stare at her, Callum didn’t think Rayla noticed, or if she did, she didn’t mind. And he didn’t take that much longer, either, eventually shuffling over to her and careful not to smudge the charcoal as he sat down next to her and held out the sketch for her to see. She leaned in a little closer to look, before smiling up at him with shining eyes.
“Callum, it’s beautiful.”
He smiled. “I’m glad you like it.”
Rayla paused, glancing back down at the sketch. Some hair fell over her cheek and he only just resisted the urge to brush it behind her ear, before she looked up at him again. “Callum, can I ask you something?”
“Anything,” he said automatically.
“Why can you draw me now,” she questioned, “when you couldn’t before?”
He looked at her again, his chest filling with warmth, and he nearly smiled at the fact that he knew its cause. That it was okay to feel this because she felt it too. “Because I can see you, now. I know who you are and that we’re actually friends and that I know that I...” love you. “That I’m always going to cherish you.”
Her lips twisted into a wry smile. “Cherish me?” she repeated, half teasing.
Callum ducked his head, chuckling and bumping her shoulder with his as he leaned in closer. “Hey, I mean it.”
“You’re such a sap,” she mumbled, the pretty pink flush in her cheeks never leaving. His heart completely melted when she leaned into him again with a large but adorable yawn.
It was true she hadn’t gotten much sleep the previous night, he thought with a tiny twinge of guilt; it was technically his fault. Callum straightened up a bit and then tugged her up by the hands along with him. “Come on then. Let’s go to bed.”
He wrapped an arm around her and they walked back to the tent together, butterflies fluttering in his stomach when he thought about sharing a bed again, with the knowledge he now had. His throat went dry as he laid down next to her, draping an arm over her waist.
“Is this okay?” he whispered. She’d wanted her space last night but they were face to face tonight. She was so close he could lean over and kiss her so easily .
“This is fine,” she whispered back, not looking at him. “I... missed it, last night.”
Callum smiled, taking one of her hands and catching sight of her wide eyes when he laced his fingers through hers and pressed a kiss to the back of her hand. “So did I.”
Rayla turned her eyes down to their joined hands, but she didn’t let go as she let her eyelids droop. “I’ll miss this,” she breathed. “Once we’re back home.”
Callum ran a thumb over hers. “Me too,” he said, even as he smiled; maybe they wouldn’t have to go too long having to miss it. Opeli would probably have a heart attack over it at first, but she’d deal with it, once his intentions were known. Courting officially for his class at his age was as good as a marriage proposal, in some ways. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
She gave him a sleepy yawn. “G’night, Callum.”
Rayla was warm when she woke up. She almost wasn’t sure she was awake instead of dreaming, when her eyes cracked open to find Callum’s face so close to hers, their hands still laced together. His other arm was still draped over her waist, holding her close, and she swallowed hard.
God, what the fuck did cherish mean? He’d drawn her and kissed the back of her hand, and they’d almost kissed, and—he’d called her beautiful and perfect and told her that she didn’t have to be jealous, again .
Rayla knew only two things for certain: one, she was still madly in love with him, and two, he was going to make her lose her mind.
She reluctantly disentangled herself from him, letting go of his hand last before sitting up. Ran her fingers through her own hair. They would reach the Storm Spire after another day of travel hopefully some marginal time apart would help her clear her head. She went to get up, too, to check on the horse, when Callum’s fingers wrapped around her wrist and he roused, blinking sleepily at her.
“Hey,” he murmured, voice rough from sleep and a smile already forming on his lips. All of her melted.
“Good morning,” she greeted, looking and leaning down.
“Did you sleep better?”
Oh, he was so sweet. “Yes,” she smiled. “Thank you.” He took her hand and pressed a lingering kiss to her knuckles before getting up, and her breath stuttered.
“Then let’s eat something and get on the road,” he said. “It’ll be good for us to get to the Spire.”
“Y-yeah,” she said, nearly breathless.
Callum’s smile turned to something resembling a grin, and there was an almost knowing twinkle in his eyes, if it wasn’t just her reading into things. Like he knew exactly what he did to her now. “Are you alright?”
“Yep! Fine,” she said a little too brightly. She pushed herself off the bedroll. “Be ready in ten minutes,” she said, not daring to look at him. “I just might swap my tunic.” Anything to get him out of the tent.
“Oh, no problem,” he said, looking a bit flustered—thank the gods—before ambling out and probably going to check on their horse. Rayla let out a shaky breath, tugging her tunic off over her head once he was gone and rummaging through her pack for another. They’d have to wash their extra clothes out once they were at the Spire.
Gods, how was she going to survive an entire day more of this? Of him being… still sweet and affectionate and considerate, like always, but there was something different. Something… more sure. He seemed more confident and while they’d always been a bit flirty, she had to shamefully admit now, this was in a similar vein, but not quite.
If she really wanted to foolishly indulge, it wouldn’t be so hard to imagine that he was wooing her.
Rayla shook her head, shoving a tunic on over her head. Ridiculous. Absolutely inane. And yet...
She stepped out of the tent, unable to fully look him in the eye. “Ready to pack up?” she asked.
“Mmhm.” Callum smiled broadly at her. And yet.
The closer they got to the Spire, however, the more apparent the war grew in some ways. There was a little walled town with lookouts near one of the forests, seemingly full of Earthblood elves. Other skywing elves flitted around with spears. Rayla made sure to keep Callum’s scarf tucked under his jacket and tunic, adjusting it for him, and debated having him flat out take it off, too, but she tried not to be nervous. The Spire was still technically neutral. Nobody there would have a problem with a human prince. It wasn’t really the skywing way and they made money off both sides of the conflict.
Callum took her hand as their horse trotted along with her holding the reins like usual. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah.” She squeezed it. “Just thinking through our options. I don’t think anyone would have an issue with you being a human prince, but…”
“It’s better if we keep it quiet for now?” Callum guessed. They passed through another swath of forest along a rather worn but empty traveller’s road.
“It’s not a big deal,” she said, even as he laced his fingers through hers.
“People have been assuming we’re a travelling couple anyway,” he said. “So that’s still our story if anyone asks?”
Rayla’s throat went dry. “Um, yeah. It’s a good one.”
Callum squeezed her hand. “You don’t mind it? I know sometimes it’s been a bothersome assumption in the past.”
“It’s not so bad. I guess a little awkward at first, but it’s easiest to go with the assumption that’s already in most people’s minds, since it’s harder to screw up anyway. And… you’re a good guy. If people think I’m with you, I don’t mind so much.”
Callum beamed. “Alright then.” They walked on, their horse trotting alongside them—they’d have to leave him in one of the stables before continuing on to the Spire. “So if anyone asks, what are we? Dating, or engaged, or married…?”
“We don’t have rings,” she pointed out. “Or horn cuffs, for me. Let’s just say dating.”
“Guess the necklace is a good show of proof too,” he chimed in, reaching over to play with the pendant. Rayla flushed, trying not to read too far into it. (Even if it was harder not to—it was an actual gift from him, how the hell was she not supposed to read into what he was saying—)
“Yeah,” she managed, clearing her throat a little.
“How long have we been dating, then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a year or so by now? Pretty serious if you’re giving me gifts,” she teased, even if it made the heat in her face worse
“Taking a travelling vacation for our one year anniversary, maybe?” he suggested.
Rayla did her best not to blush. “Sounds good. And you were chosen by the Sky primal so we thought, while we’re here, why not let you learn a thing or two?”
He smiled. “Yeah. Which means that you are a very excellent and gracious girlfriend to me.”
“Shush,” Rayla mumbled, almost smiling in spite of herself. She shouldn’t have been encouraging the thrill that rushed through her, even if this was all pretend. “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t support my boyfriend’s dreams?”
“Exactly.” Callum leaned over and kissed her cheek, drawing back with a grin. “So thank you. When do you want to stop for lunch?”
“I, um...” Rayla cleared her throat. “Ideally we could get closer to the base of the Spire first. Find an inn to stay in and eat at and stock up on some rations. It might be a trek to get up the mountain, too.”
“Okay,” he said brightly, but there was something measured and steady in his voice too. Something she felt like she could melt into, as he gave her hand another squeeze. “I’m following your lead, after all.”
Maybe something she could trust, in time, since it seemed like hope wasn’t so foolish after all. Rayla squeezed his hand back in turn. “Okay.”
Chapter 13: The Connection
The Spire wasn’t too crowded, only a few others around their age making their pilgrimage, some with a friend or family member and some alone. Skywing elf attendants were positioned at the bottom, midpoint, and top, the ones at the midpoint providing each visitor a spell to survive the thin air up at the top. It would be the last time anyone visiting would have magic done for them at the Spire, and Callum was already excited, his head still light even as magical air filled his lungs. His hand stayed in Rayla’s the entire time, and he didn’t let go even when they reached the main entrance near the top.
Rayla had given him a once over beforehand, making sure his scarf was tucked away under his jacket herself, and Callum let himself enjoy the proximity. The different shades of purple glittering in her eyes. He stayed close now as they walked into the chambers, bustling with elves and humans, noise echoing against the high stone ceilings.
It was so different from the Moon Nexus, but just as beautiful, with thin blue jewels like cracks in the walls, shrines and statues of winged creatures, and grey and blue skinned elves with green and blue hair, a few but not many with wings curving out of their lower back.
They wove through the crowd, their hands still clasped tight as Callum looked in the crowd for someone who might know what to do next.
“Looking for someone?”
Callum turned at the sound of the voice, a little sheepish when one of the blue skinned elves was looking at him. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with no wings and hair that stuck up in a slight point. “Yeah! Um, we just got here, I’m on a pilgrimage and I’m just… wondering where we go next?”
“Of course,” said the elf, his voice and tone calm and soothing. “My name is Ibis, and I am one of the head mages here at the Storm Spire. We have a part of the Spire sectioned away for arrivals and new mages, if you would like to be led there?”
Callum brightened at the words “new mages”. “Yeah.” He glanced at Rayla, her hand still in his. “Do I have to go alone?”
“You and your partner can stay in the same room,” said Ibis, glancing between them. “Though you’re aware that your presentation, and your training, will be done alone?”
“As long as I can see her at the end of the day,” Callum said, his smile growing when he noticed her blushing out of the corner of his eye.
“Of course. Well,” Ibis motioned for them to follow him, and they did, out the main chamber and up the continuing staircase. “So. A human and a Moonshadow elf. That must be an interesting story.”
Callum exchanged a glance with Rayla. “Yeah,” he said, “um, we’re both from Katolis. Well, she’s not, I am, we—”
“I worked as one of the guards at the castle,” she said. “My group would go out to the villages sometimes, and that’s how he and I met.”
“Yep. Really small village right next to the castle.” He smiled. “I saw an elf with beautiful eyes one morning and had to say hello. I’m still surprised she bothered to say it back.”
Rayla narrowed her eyes, but she smiled. “Well you were very dorky,” she admitted. “But a cute dorky.”
Callum beamed. “And we kept seeing each other, and it’s kind of history from there.”
Ibis gave them a small smile. “How nice,” he said, his tone pleasant but otherwise unreadable. “So many stories make their way to the Spire. It’s one of the things that keeps working here interesting.” They walked into a smaller chamber, leading down to a hallway. “We’ll assign you in the tenth room on the left. Make yourselves comfortable, and then you can come see me when you’re ready to present yourself. There are no more lessons for the day, so most of us mages will be milling around the same antechamber you wandered into.”
“Oh! Okay. And if I needed to wait till tomorrow?”
“Whenever you’d like, though I’d recommend starting soon. Still, once you’ve presented yourself, if you make a strong enough connection, we’ll want you to start initial training right away, so choose wisely.”
“Right. Thank you!” They went down the hallway as Ibis left and opened the door to their room, a pair of keys already on the dresser waiting for them.
They set down their knapsacks as Rayla said, “So, ‘beautiful eyes’?”
Callum smiled as he turned back to her. “Well, it’s true.”
Rayla blushed, any attempt at being nonchalant gone as she smiled a little to herself. “Well I was being honest too,” she said. “You are very dorky.”
Callum almost reached for her hand, but settled for leaning in her way. “Hm, and I already know you think I’m cute.”
Rayla rolled her eyes and leaned away a bit. “Don’t get cocky,” she said, smiling.
He blinked, mock-innocent. “It’s cocky to flirt with you?”
The blush in her cheeks deepened. “When we don’t have to keep up the act, yes.”
He considered pushing it. I’m not acting or There’s no one around right now . Callum took her hand and kissed the back of it before letting go. “Whatever you say,” he said, and then turned towards his bags to start unpacking. He had to ease her into it, he reminded himself, even if he wanted nothing more than to grab her face and kiss her. When he looked back, she was also unpacking, her cheeks still tinged a faint pink.
He’d try to find an opportunity to begin to gently bring it up sometime during the next month. The right moment to confess when he was sure it wouldn’t scare her off entirely. Maybe she’d get more used to the idea and he could try to court her soon. His heart swelled at the thought of courting her as soon as they arrived back home, but he couldn’t get ahead of himself. Her comfort was always more important.
Still, he couldn’t help but be excited for when he could finally show her how much he loved her. If he did this right, it would be someday soon.
After a few hours of relaxing, including a late lunch and dinner, Callum couldn’t put it off any longer. He at least needed to go to the antechamber to see more of what becoming a Sky mage would entail, and what possibilities for connection there were. Even if it left a tight pit of nerves in his stomach. What if he couldn’t connect, because he had to find each arcanum in order? What if all the primals except Sky had glowed correctly and Sky had been a fluke? What if the whole thing was a fluke? If he couldn’t connect, they’d come all this way and left home and been attacked by bandits for nothing, and—
He glanced at Rayla, who was combing out a tangle in her hair now that she finally had a small mirror again, and familiar, understood warmth flooded his chest. Well, not for nothing.
He pursed his lips and looked away, his heart heavy.
“You’re going to be fine, Callum.” She set down her comb without looking at him, before walking over and drawing closer, taking his hand and giving it a reassuring squeeze.
“It’d just be a really inconvenient time for the cube to be wrong,” he said with a weak laugh.
“I don’t think the cube is ever wrong,” Rayla said, “but your self-doubt always is.” She leaned up and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Now go. The sooner you forge that connection, the less likely it’ll be that we’re up into the wee hours of morning with you being all cute and excited.”
He felt a little lighter even when she let go. “You wouldn’t have to stay up with me,” he mumbled, smiling. The tips of his ears felt warm.
“I know.” She nudged him. “Now go.”
Callum lingered in the doorway. It would be strange to be away from her for longer than ten minutes for the first time in a while. “You’ll be here when I get back?”
Rayla smiled at him, her eyes soft, so full of love that Callum wondered how he had ever missed it. “Of course.”
His chest swelled as he took one more moment to look at her, before finally tearing himself away and heading down the hall. His cheek still tingled where her lips had touched it, and it was hard to clear his head even when he found Ibis in the main antechamber.
“I’m ready,” Callum said, and Ibis smiled.
“Right this way,” he said, and Callum followed Ibis outside, along a detached set of stairs, up to the very top of the Spire. It was a good fifteen minute walk if not more, but the view from the Pinnacle was worth it, a sea of clouds stretching out on either side like they were floating, existing, in an entirely different world, stunning its beauty this close to sunset.
Ibis sat down near the edge, patting the spot next to him. Callum sat down on it, crossing his legs under him the way Ibis did.
“Have you ever meditated before?” the mage asked. Callum shook his head. “Then you have a very long night ahead of you. Now, to begin.”
It was well past midnight when Callum finally made his way back to their room, only getting a little lost because the hallways had looked the same even with better lighting. Eventually, though, he cracked open his and Rayla’s door, the room lit by a candle stub on the bedside table.
Rayla was in her nightgown, but still sitting at the small table near the back instead of in bed, her cheek resting against her hand as her eyes threatened to close. They flew open when he opened the door a little wider, straightening up and smiling as she asked, “How was it?” It came out as a bit of a sleepy mumble.
“Mostly a lot of meditation,” he smiled. “But Ibis says it’s promising so far, so that’s good. Sorry I kept you up so late.”
“No, it’s fine.” She let out a soft yawn, flushing when she couldn’t keep it in. “So you’re connected?”
“Not yet,” he said. “But hopefully within the next few days.”
She smiled up at him. “Good.” She covered her mouth when she yawned again, rubbing the sleep from her eyes to no avail. “Sorry,” she mumbled again, “don’t know why—”
“It’s okay. You’ve been working hard.” He leaned down. “Wanna come to bed?”
She nodded, and she let out a little startled yelp when he scooped her out of her chair and into his arms, even as her arms fastened automatically around his neck. She looked up at him with wide eyes, their faces close. Her cheeks were red. “I—” She coughed. “I didn’t know you c-could do that,” she said weakly.
“Do you mind?” Callum asked. He had to hold back a grin.
“No. Just... unexpected.”
He had to have a little fun sometimes, as he clarified, “But not bad?”
Rayla’s blush (somehow) deepened. “No, it’s—good. Nice, I mean, uh—” Seeing her so flustered and stammering was adorable, but Callum decided to put her out of her misery, as he craned his neck and kissed her forehead.
“Come on,” he said softly. “It’s been a long day.” Rayla curled up against his chest as he carried her over, reluctant to let go when he laid her down on the bed. He got her tucked under the blankets before he got his night clothes from his pack and pulled them on in the bathroom, brushing his teeth and washing his face while he was at it.
When he came back Rayla had one cheek squished against her pillow, her hair spread out on the other side of her head as he curled up close to her, her bleary eyes still looking at him.
“Thank you,” he said, “for getting me this far.”
Her smile turned soft. “Thank you for bringing me with you.”
Callum reached out and brushed her hair from her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. “There’s no one else I’d rather have with me,” he confessed. She closed her eyes, melting under the warmth of his fingers.
“Goodnight, Callum,” she whispered.
“Goodnight Rayla,” he said, his smile lifting. “I love you.”
“Love you too,” she murmured, quickly falling asleep.
He swallowed hard, his fingers falling from her face to take her hand. She’d know how he meant it, someday.
It was strange to be the one waking up later the past few days, with Callum up before dawn to meditate with Ibis. By the time Rayla would see him at breakfast, he’d already been up for hours, a little drowsy but seeming otherwise refreshed, his hair a little mussed from the morning breeze and far too becoming on him. He hadn’t connected yet, but he seemed hopeful, partly because Ibis seemed hopeful. “It can take up to a week for most, and he’s already showing promise,” the Skywing elf had said, so Callum was relaxed for now. Rayla, meanwhile, wouldn’t have been surprised if he connected before the week’s end. And even if it did take him longer, she knew he’d find a way eventually. Her prince had a way of surprising people and he was one of the most capable people she knew.
Even with his studies already underway, he still managed to find ways to surprise her, after all this time, leaving her little sketches of the horizon on napkins, short and sweet notes throughout the days, and so many surprise hugs from behind that she almost wondered if it was on purpose. Thinking about him carrying her into bed the other night still made her face burn.
They still ate dinner together whenever they could, which was often. It wasn’t as though the dining hall was crowded, either, but he would still sit right next to her, close enough their thighs pressed together. He held her hand and was almost too good at keeping up the couples act.
The more Rayla thought about it, the more she thought that—just maybe—it wasn’t entirely an act.
He came down to their room just before lunch, and it was strange to think that it had been only four days and she already missed spending the majority of her day with him. He was beaming, energetic for someone who had been rising before the sun for half a week.
“Ibis says I’m close,” he said, as Rayla tied up her hair. She smiled, in her fondness wondering if the softness in his eyes was more than just her imagination. “I thought I’d be more worried about not getting it right away, but… I’m actually okay.”
“Good. You should be; we all know you’re going to get it eventually.” She paused when he came closer, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear, the tip twitching a little as his finger brushed it.
“You look pretty with your hair up,” he said, and the comment itself would have made her blush already. The fact that this was becoming more and more regular would be her heart’s undoing. “But I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. You always look pretty.” His hand dropped from her hair. “I think Ibis said we were having some kind of salad for lunch? I don’t remember the name, but he sounded excited. Well, excited for him. His tone’s always kinda hard to read.”
Rayla managed a laugh, as if he hadn’t just made her heart pause and constrict for the millionth time. “Yeah.”
“You wanna join?”
“I’m allowed?” Lunch and breakfast were the meals they most often ate apart.
He smiled softly. “Course you are. Come on.” They walked out of the room together, and Callum took her hand even before they were out of the guest wing. “Even if salad is a kinda weird thing to be excited about, right? I guess it makes sense when you’re teaching and meditating all day,” he said.
“Mmhm.” Rayla was just trying to keep her head on straight since Callum was holding her hand and that always made her insides fluttered, before she was distracted by the sound of giggling.
There were a human boy and a Skywing girl in helper’s robes in one of the passageways, and they were pointing at and eyeing Callum with a great deal of flustered, flirty interest. Rayla frowned, the slight twinge in her chest easing when Callum pulled her closer, wrapping his arm around her waist instead.
“Don’t worry about them,” he murmured, his lips pressed to her ear. Rayla tried and largely failed to hold back a shiver.
She spoke before she could think better of it. “I suppose I can’t blame them.”
Her fingers found his scarf, to ground herself in the fact that this was reality and not a dream and that whatever she did or said had consequences as her voice grew quieter. “They might not know you’re a prince, but you’re still very handsome.” This was the most blatantly she’d ever flirted. If he responded well to this, then...
She wasn’t sure what she expected, but it wasn’t him pressing his forehead to the side of her brow, his lopsided grin far too close and their cheeks touching. She wanted to grab his scarf and push him against the nearest wall and kiss him senseless. “You’re so cute,” he murmured, unmistakably fond, and the jumble of nerves in her stomach tangled and untangled, her heart thumping in her ears. He was responding well and pushing it further and what the hell did this mean —
She turned her head and pressed a kiss to his cheek, her lips lingering, but it was so close to the corner of his mouth that even he startled a little. She could feel the blood rushing to her face as she pulled away, an apology on the tip of her tongue. This was still just for the show, wasn’t it?
And then his whole face lit up, and what the hell was she supposed to do with that? He took her hand again and kissed the back of it in what had become familiar, and then maintained eye contact with her while he interlaced their fingers and gave her hand a squeeze.
“Come on,” he murmured. “Let’s go to lunch. If I’m late for my lessons Ibis will make me do overtime.” Which meant having longer until he could come back to her at the end of the day.
Maybe, if it took long enough, she would’ve worked up the nerve to kiss him by then.
Callum, kissless, connected to the Sky primal the following morning. It wasn’t outwardly eventful—he’d just been sitting, meditating when some loose thoughts and concepts that Ibis had taught him had pieced together—but the way it seemed to click in his head, and the confidence in his gut had been enough for him to know, even before Ibis had tested him by teaching him his very first spell. Tracing the rune in the air had been easy, and from the moment he uttered the word aspiro, all his previous worries were blown away, along with the wind released from his lungs.
He only exchanged one breathless, overjoyed grin with Ibis before another thought (or need) struck him. He had to show Rayla . Callum’s hands scrambled into a formal clasp and bow. “Master Ibis, can I—”
“Go ahead,” he said with a small, knowing smile, “but after lunch, we’re going to have a lot to do.”
“I understand. Thank you!” Callum bounced on the balls of his feet, like a kid before the holidays before he rushed down the pinnacle to the guest wing and down the hall to his room, flinging the door open. Rayla was standing in the middle of the room, adjusting her belt when she looked up at the sound of his entrance. She opened her mouth, a question in her mouth, but he couldn’t wait as he rushed towards her and pulled her into his arms, picking her up in a tight hug and spinning her around.
“Callum, what—?” she smiled in confusion.
“I’m a mage!” He set her down on her feet, grinning madly as he looked at her. Rayla’s smile grew, and she threw her arms around his neck, giggling when he spun her around again.
She drew away when they stopped, keeping her hands on his shoulders as they beamed at each other. She’d never seen him look this happy before. There was a soft light in his eyes, like every hope in the universe was suddenly possible. “Nobody likes a loud mage,” she teased. She softened, cupping the side of his face. “That’s amazing , Callum. I knew you could do it. I’m proud of you.”
“I’m proud of me, too,” he smiled. “Thank you. I couldn’t have done it without you.”
“Me? I didn’t do anything.”
“You were here. And you got me here. And you make me feel like I can do anything.”
“Well you’re sweet,” she said, her hands moving to rest on his shoulders. “And I’m glad you don’t hold yourself back around me.”
Callum leaned in a little further, joy and relief still thrumming in his chest. What he’d said was true, anyway, and he let his eyes drop to her lips and stay there. “Well,” he said quietly. “I didn’t say that."
The implication was too strong for even her to miss, as they stood alone in her room. There was no show to put on or secondary reason, no alcohol or one time fluke to blame it on. Her fingers curled into the fabric stretched over his shoulders, her eyes widening as her smile faltered. He really did like her. “What?” she said softly.
His eyes flickered up to meet hers. “It can’t be that surprising,” he whispered. “You’re incredible.”
She swallowed hard. “Callum...” One of her hands slid down from his shoulder to his chest, over his heart, and she let herself feel it beat before her hand curled into a fist, and she pushed it gently against his chest. “Congratulations, again,” she said, and then stepped away. She needed space—and time—to think. None of her hangups or reservations from the desert about a relationship had changed after all, even if she suddenly had a real reason to consider them.
Callum caught her wrist before she fully pulled away, looking a bit distressed for the first time. “I hope I didn’t make things weird?”
It was so sweet and so utterly him it made her heart twist and she smiled a little. “You’re already weird.” She shifted her hand up to hold his. “We’re fine,” she said. “I promise. I just...”
He brightened. “I understand,” he said, his smile creeping back over his face. “Take as long as you need.”
How he could both keep her on her toes and put her at ease at once would always be a mystery to her, but it wasn’t something she really needed to understand, as she leaned up and kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”
“Of course.” His eyes lit up again when he asked, “Can I show you the spell I learned? I have to do it outside.”
Rayla laughed, and things felt, somehow, normal again. “Sure,” she said, and she let him take her hand, her heart fit to burst as they both ran out their room and down the hall, out of the antechamber. Her heart was still pounding when they stood on one of the ledges and Callum showed off his spell, and she could see the love in his eyes for both magic and her when he looked back.
Things were definitely different now, Rayla thought, still a little lightheaded as she congratulated him with another hug. But maybe she didn’t have to be afraid of that. Nothing important had really changed.
He had just become more her prince, after all.
Chapter 14: The Prince of Katolis
The next two weeks at the Spire passed by in a sort of wondrous, hazy, dream state. The space between friendship and a relationship was nicer than Rayla had ever expected, the mutual awareness far less awkward than she’d envisioned.
It was Callum . Of course things were okay.
Even if it meant that the energy had shifted a little during certain situations. Neither of them had been able to get much sleep in the first week, both of them usually laying in bed, staring at the ceiling, getting used to what the intimacy of sharing a bed would actually mean in the future while also sharing it now. The second week fatigue had caught up with them, and they went back to their usual position of sleep cuddles, even if the contact was a bit more charged than it had been. They kissed each other’s cheeks more often and sometimes Rayla was the one interlacing their fingers, and she spent hours mulling over all the possibilities they had now when Callum was off training and she wasn’t busy exploring the Spire.
Eventually, though, even Ibis needed a day off, and Rayla’s restless energy needed somewhere to go.
“How about we spar together?” Callum suggested over breakfast when she couldn’t stop fidgeting. “We haven’t done that in a while.”
She raised an eyebrow at him, surprised for two reasons. The first was that he wanted to spar at all. The second, more comfortable one to ask and possibly get an answer for: “Ibis will let you?”
“He says I’m ahead of a lot of other students, and I should learn how to use magic with combat anyway. I just need to let him know.”
“And he won’t keep you out later?”
“He might, but not by much, and,” he grinned, “it’ll be worth it.”
“It’ll be worth getting your butt kicked?”
“By you? Always.”
It was difficult not to read into it, her cheeks already flushed, but she got up anyway and flashed him her most confident grin. “Fine. Meet you outside in ten.”
She took those ten minutes to change from her more relaxed tunic into her training clothes, her blades tucked under her vest. He was waiting for her outside their room with his jacket tied around his waist and Rayla smiled and rolled her eyes.
“I’m guessing that because you need to be able to draw runes to do magic, you want to do hand-to-hand combat?” she said, striding forward and taking his hand.
“Yes?” They’d trained in that sparsely in the castle, although she’d seen him grapple with Soren sometimes when they were younger, so in some ways he’d been better at that than with a sword.
“Then you should know you need to wrap your knuckles,” she said, tsking . His fingerless gloves wouldn’t be good enough. “Come on.” She took one of his hands and they sat down on one of the rough stone benches before she pulled out a roll of hand wraps. Rayla took the nearest hand back into her own as she began wrapping them carefully, not too tight, allowing herself to marvel at the softness of his palms. His hands were so large, and clumsy sometimes, but gentle and skilled in creation. She ran a finger down the lines in the middle of his palm, quietly marvelling at the fact that she could now, and not have to hide it.
Callum’s voice was warm, if amused (and a tad confused). “Enjoying yourself?”
She flushed, tucking in the stray end of the first wrap. “Making sure they’re tight enough,” she mumbled, even if she let a small smile slip. She raised her hand and pressed a kiss to the bandaged knuckles. “Now the other one.”
Callum placed his unbandaged hand in hers, his eyes resting on her while she worked. His free hand came up to tuck her hair behind her ear, his fingers grazing her cheek, and Rayla hoped he couldn’t feel the heat rise to them under his touch, either. Her fingers slipped slightly over the cloth.
“Stop,” she mumbled. “You’re distracting me.”
“Aren’t you always saying not to let your opponent distract you?”
“If you have one improperly wrapped hand it’ll be all your fault.”
He removed his hand from her cheek. “Fine. I’ll save my actual distractions for the match.”
“That’s not playing very fair,” she said, even as her smile grew.
Callum leaned in. “Hm, well I’m sure you’ll find plenty of ways to distract me too.”
She leaned over and pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek, her fingers finishing wrapping his hand by the time she drew away and saw the small ‘o’ shape his mouth had made. “I won’t have to try very hard.”
A flush crawled over Callum’s face. Rayla took his hand and pulled him up onto his feet, still riding the giddiness of her little victory before they walked out of their room, past the antechamber to one of the wider, circular plateaus, further from the cliffs but not too close to any benches. What constituted as a tiny spire courtyard was blessedly empty; Callum thought it was mostly used for meditation sessions at dawn.
“Think you can remember what I taught you?” she asked, stepping away from him.
“I think so.” Callum grinned as he lifted his fists. “I’m not that rusty.”
Rayla smirked. “I promise I won’t hit too hard,” she said, and then hurled her first punch.
He narrowly blocked it and a tiny surge of pride spread through her, but she couldn’t dwell on it too long when he returned her blow. He didn’t have the reflexes she did, understandably, so Rayla sidestepped and worked around him with ease, but Callum was better at blocking then she remembered—and that was before he started carving out enough space for himself to draw runes. His first aspiro made her hair fly in her face, obscuring her vision. She squinted, trying not to get hair in her eyes when she was knocked down. He’d kicked her feet out from under her!
Well, Rayla considered, it was time to stop going easy on him. She pushed her hair back, rolling out of the way when he went to pin her down. She sprang and hit him in the shoulder, then the opposite side, kicking his legs out from under him and grabbing him by the scarf to keep him from toppling over immediately. She sputtered when a blast of air hit her face and Callum wiggled out of her grip, his spell fading. Both of them hit the ground with a painful crunch but Rayla had the training to cushion her own fall.
Callum did not, moving over onto his side, but Rayla didn’t give him a chance to get up before she pinned him, a hand on each of his wrists to keep him from sneakily casting another spell and catching her off guard again. Her hips kept her weight on him so he couldn’t try and kick her off, either, her knees bracketing his thighs.
Rayla shook her head to get her hair out of her face, her breath a bit short as she grinned down at him. “Told you I’d win.” It faltered a little when Callum smiled back up at her, looking perfectly pleased.
“Oh, I think I won, too,” he said, and that was when Rayla realized she was straddling him. Her face turned hot, but she didn’t pull away. Did she want to? Her heart rate spiked and her throat went dry as she looked at him. He was waiting for her. To do something, anything. To see how far she’d push it.
She got off him, still flustered as she offered him a hand to help him up. “Was that what you wanted from sparring all along?” she mumbled, not looking at him.
“I mean, I was curious about how I would hold my own,” Callum said cheerfully. “But I had my suspicions.” His tone quieted a little. “Did you mind?”
“No,” she confessed.
“Then… Can I ask why you pulled away?”
She slowly glanced up at him. “Don’t want to be a distraction.”
He smiled. “You don’t want to distract me?” he asked. “From what?”
“From… what you’re doing here,” she said. “Training. Becoming a mage and everything.”
“I can become a mage and have a crush at the same time, Rayla. If anything,” he reached over and tucked her hair behind her ears, letting his fingers brush her cheeks. “Now that I’m not always trying to figure out if you like me back or not, I have a lot more brain space to use.”
He’d never said it so plainly before, and it made her heart thump loudly in her ears. “O-oh. You thought about it too?”
“All the time,” he said, with a smile so sweet and disarming she didn’t know what to do with herself.
Rayla’s hands settled for touching his side that had hit the ground. “Nothing hurts?”
“No. I’m okay. I’m in good hands.” He took her hands, and something in her chest melted.
“Shush,” she mumbled, even as she smiled. Reluctantly, she slipped her hands out of his. “We should go through a few more rounds. You’ve gotten a lot better, but we need to work on your reflexes.”
“Fine,” Callum sighed, but adjusted his stance accordingly anyway.
They sparred two more times and he nearly beat her on the second try, fumbling when he took a little too long to cast a spell, but Rayla was proud anyway. He was growing into quite the fighter—and the mage—under both her and others’ tutelage and the rewards of his own hard work and dedication. He was sweating by the end too, his hair a little messy, and Rayla tried not to think about how much it suited him... How handsome he always was.
“Hm?” She snapped to attention.
Callum mopped at his jaw with his scarf. “You uh, said you were going to show me the correct way to block with my forearm?”
“Oh, right.” Her cheeks heated, but he looked very pleased at having successfully distracted her. Rayla shook her head and lifted his forearm. “Like this,” she instructed.
He practiced the motion, finding the axis of both positioning and speeding until she nodded with satisfaction, and Callum rolled his shoulders, his arms sore. “I forgot you were such a tough teacher.”
“An effective teacher,” Rayla corrected with a smile.
“That too.” He sat down on the bench and drank from a flask.
She slowly took a seat next to him, no longer worried about their knees or thighs touching. “Callum?”
“Why did you want to spar, really?”
He was quiet for a moment, and she flushed under his gaze. “You can’t laugh,” he prefaced.
“I won’t,” Rayla promised and Callum hung his head a little before he spoke, turning his face to look at her sideways.
“I wanted to be close to you.”
“Oh.” The back of her neck felt warm. She smiled softly, reaching up to touch his cheek. He leaned into her touch and she swallowed hard. “You don’t need to spar with me to have that, you big dummy.” She leaned up and pressed her forehead to his. “I’m right here.”
“I know,” he said. “I just...” Rayla’s fingers found his jaw. He didn’t want to rush her and she knew it.
She gave him a smile. “I like being close to you, too.” She let her gaze lower, and she wondered if his lips would feel as soft as they looked. He would kiss her back, she knew. Rayla exhaled and her cheek brushed his. He was so close.
She pulled away at the last moment, her heart racing. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly, but Callum took her hand and gave it a small squeeze.
“It’s okay,” he said. “Take your time. I’ll wait as long as you need me to.”
Rayla squeezed his hand back. “Thank you. I think I’m still trying to get used to the fact that...”
“I have feelings for you?” he smiled.
“Sort of,” she said. “It’s... sinking in, but I’m just trying to wrap my head around the fact that... I can have you the way I want you, and everything that entails.” She gnawed on her bottom lip. “What everyone will think back at the castle...”
Callum smiled a little. “Actually, my parents kinda talked to me before we left. Not about you, or anyone specifically, but it was about… I still have time to pick my partner, basically. And my parents would prefer that over something political. They want me to be happy.”
“Even if it’s with me?”
“They like you. I think they expected me to have Soren come along, so they both seemed glad that I picked you. They already know that you’re reliable and trustworthy. And Ez adores you. He’d be thrilled. And, if we courted, you’d officially outrank Soren, which means you could tell him to shut up and he’d have to listen to you.”
Rayla let out a snort. “Not like he would,” she said, and Callum chuckled. “It’d be fun to give it a shot, though... and all the etiquette and stuff?”
He shrugged. “If I could learn it, so could you.”
She pursed her lips. “Lord Viren doesn’t like me.”
“Viren doesn’t like anyone.” Callum tucked her hair behind her ears. “And you wouldn’t have to weigh in on heavy political disputes either, like whether Viren’s right and we should start fighting the Order with dark magic too, or hear out Barius threatening to tax jelly tarts because Ez keeps stealing them. And I’m only crown prince once Ez takes the throne, which is way in the future, and then his own kids would be the heirs.”
The indication of their own future children’s place in the line—and the thought of having kids together at all—briefly made her head spin. It must’ve shown on her face, because Callum winced a little.
“Too much?” he said. “I can shut up now.”
“No, you’re fine,” she said quickly. “It’s just a lot to think about.”
“Do you want me to keep going?”
Rayla ducked her head and rested her cheek on his shoulder, her forehead pressing into his scarf and the crook of his neck. “Yes please,” she mumbled. If he could provide good enough answers... possibilities she could trust and believe in, then she’d finally be able to kiss him the way she’d always wanted to.
Even in her peripheral vision, she could see his face soften as he glanced down at her a little while he spoke. “We could go home,” he murmured. “And court for a while. And afterwards, when we were ready, we could get one of the smaller towers to ourselves, like my parents, and I could train in magic, and you could still help run the crownguard, and we could have a kitchen for ourselves, and a balcony, and just... be happy in a simple life.”
His voice was so soft and warm, the vision of it so lovely, Rayla almost wanted to cry. “I’d really like that,” she said quietly, snuggling closer. Callum wrapped an arm around her waist and tucked her further into his side.
“Just think about it,” he requested.
“I am.” She drew away, pressing a kiss to his cheek. “Thank you.
“Of course.” He gave her a quick squeeze before slowly drawing away. “So… Wanna walk around for a bit? I miss spending all day with you.”
Rayla beamed. “I’d love that.”
It was after another two days of training and Callum making difficult but quick progress that Rayla suggested they stay for another two weeks. They’d been getting ready for bed (a part of their routine that felt domestic now, and he wasn’t ready to give it up when they got back to the castle, so Callum had just decided that they wouldn’t) when she said it. “Maybe we should send your parents a letter,” she added. “Tell them how much progress you’re making.”
“You’d be okay with us staying longer?”
“We came here for your training,” said Rayla. “We want you to learn as much sky magic on your own before we go back home, don’t we?”
“Yeah, it just… You’re okay with it setting our schedule back a bit?”
“Yeah.” She sat back in bed with a slight smirk, and it struck him not for the first time how unfair it was that someone could look so pretty even in a loose nightgown. “What, you don’t wanna spend two more weeks around me?”
“You know if anything I just wish I could spend more of those two weeks with you,” Callum said, slipping into bed beside her. She softened, curling into his side as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders.
“I’ve missed you too,” she admitted quietly. “But you’ve been doing well, and you seem happy doing it.” She laid a hand on his chest. “This suits you.”
“Mmhm. Who knows,” she half teased, her lips curling, “maybe you’re meant to master the rest of the primal and become an archmage fit to rival Aaravos?”
His smile faltered. “That sounds…” He glanced away, his brow furrowing. “You think it’d be okay, for me to have all that power?”
“I think if anyone could use it responsibly, it’s you.”
“Still, it… It doesn’t feel right, that only a few people have access to it, you know?”
“Maybe you have access to it for a reason,” she suggested.
“Maybe.” Slowly, he looked back over at her. “If I decided to connect to all of them, would you come with me?”
Rayla gave him that soft, warm smile, the same one that always turned his insides to goo since the first time he ever saw it. “Of course I will.”
Callum smiled back at her, the bridge of his nose pressed to hers. “Good.” His eyes flickered down to her lips, but he drew away before he could push too far. She seemed flushed, but not too flustered as she settled against his shoulder, her horns pressing into her pillow.
“Now get some rest. You have two more weeks of training ahead of you.”
He shifted so his head was nestled into his pillow, and drew her closer. “What would I do without you?”
“Guess we’ll never know,” she said, sleepy but cheerful. She pressed a kiss to his cheek before settling down. “G’night, Callum.”
Pink sunlight peeked through the window of their room five days later as Rayla roused, light catching her eye. Something glinted, balanced on their windowsill. A raven’s talon. A Katolis raven . Unease was heavy in her stomach. Why send a letter now? She and Callum had only sent his two days ago; it couldn’t be a reply. Her hand found Callum’s shoulder as she pushed herself up and dashed to the window, fingers snagging on the messenger seal as she took out a folded out letter.
“What is it?” Callum yawned, sitting up in bed.
“It’s a letter from Katolis,” Rayla said. The parchment was the same, but no king’s seal. She unfurled it. Her eyes scanned the page, stopping at the first paragraph. Her stomach lurched.
“Rayla?” Callum swung his legs over one side of the bed. “What’s wrong?”
“I—” She swallowed hard, holding it out to him. “I didn’t finish it,” she said. He took it, his brow furrowed in confusion, and she watched him, her heart cracking apart as she watched his expression fall.
“No,” Callum said quietly. “No, it—we just sent them a letter, it—”
“Callum, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”
A coup at the castle. A hit on the royal family. King Harrow was dead. Queen Sarai and Prince Ezran were missing. Viren, waiting for the throne with the dark mages who were little better than Dark Order members like Aaravos. And all they had was a rushed letter in Councilwoman Opeli’s neat penmanship, before she’d presumably gone into hiding too—or possibly been captured, overtaken just as the castle had been.
Callum’s eyes were far too bright, rimmed with tears. Then his breath hitched, shallow and panicky, and his body folded over, burying his face in his hands. His shoulders trembled, and Rayla slowly placed a hand between his shoulder blades. “Callum?”
He took a short, shaky breath. “I—” His breath quickened, and she rubbed his back soothingly.
“Breathe,” she said gently, and took a slow inhalation.
“I don’t know what—”
“Shh. You don’t have to know what to do,” she said, trying to keep her own tears at bay. She couldn’t fall apart on him now, not when the rest of his world had. “It’s okay—”
Callum pushed her away. “It’s not okay! I never should have left—”
“You would have been caught in the attack—”
“At least I would still be with them! At least I’d be dead instead of alone!”
“Don’t say that,” Rayla said, her voice breaking. “And we don’t know if Ez and the queen are gone, they’ll need you—”
“We still don’t know if they’re even alive!” Callum’s voice broke, tears running down his face. “We have to—” He swallowed. “I have to go back, I—”
“Callum,” Rayla said when he stood abruptly, grabbing his knapsack. “You need to take a moment—”
“We don’t have time! We need to get back to Katolis and see what’s going on—”
“No,” she grabbed his arm. “Katolis isn’t safe, the best thing we can do is go to Lux Aurea with your aunts, they’re close and safe and have an army, we can figure things out from there.” He wrenched his arm out from her grasp and she tried to ignore the sinking feeling in her chest. “Callum, your mother and Ezran are probably on the way to Lux Aurea, too.”
“If they survived,” he said brokenly.
“We have to stay optimistic. Opeli might even be on her way there, too, and they’re all just separated. I know it hurts, but we have to keep moving forward. Our best bet is to assume that they’re okay. If… If we’re wrong, we deal with it then.”
Callum paused, and he shut his eyes tightly, fresh tears falling down his face. “My dad’s gone,” he whispered, his breath still shaky, and Rayla wrapped her arms around him.
“I know. I’m sorry.” She drew away, taking his face in her hands. “I’ll let Ibis know that we have to leave. Just… take a moment, I’ll be back and we can pack together. Okay?”
“Do you think it’s unsafe here too?”
“Possibly,” she said. “But I think it’s best not to take that chance. Better to get a move on, to Lux Aurea—”
Callum frowned. “I’m not going to Lux Aurea. I’m going back home to see what’s happened to my kingdom and my family.”
He turned away from her. “I’m not discussing this, Rayla. If they’re alive, they would’ve gone to the Banther Lodge—there’s a secret bunker there even Viren never knew about.”
Rayla sighed. She reached over, her fingers finding the ends of his hair, near the nape of his neck. “It’s not safe,” she said softly. “The journey there or the journey back. I know you’re scared and want to be in control, but this isn’t the way. We’ll be safe in Lux Aurea and it’s only a few days away from the Spire. Callum, please.”
He was silent and stony faced for a long time, before he said, “Go, then.”
“W-what?” Rayla started.
He turned impassive, tearshot eyes on her. “Go to Lux Aurea on your own, if you’re that worried. I’ll go home on my own.”
Her throat tightened, and she stiffened. “I was assigned to protect you,” she said, her voice quieter than she’d meant it.
“Well the ones who gave you those orders are dead, so—”
“Callum,” she said hoarsely. Part of her wanted to turn and run, to get out of this suffocating room and terrible discussion. Deal with her own grief. “Please don’t do this to me. I’m not going to leave you, I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”
His face softened, even if his eyes watered again. “Okay,” he said. “But I still need to go home. If I really am alone,” his voice wavered, stopped, then started again. “If I really am the last Prince of Katolis, then I have a lot of responsibility ahead of me.”
Her one hand stayed in his hair, her other wiping at his cheeks as tears fell from her own eyes. “I’ll go with you,” she whispered. How could she not, when she loved him as dearly as she did? As she always had?
Callum leaned into her touch. “Thank you.” Rayla’s hand slipped from his hair and cheek as she stood, but he took her hand before she could turn away. “Could you stay with me while we pack first?” he asked. “We’ll tell Ibis later, I just… I really don’t want to be alone right now.”
Rayla paused, and then stepped forward and took his head in her arms, holding him to her chest, his brow brushing her collarbone. She tucked his head under her chin before she tilted her face and pressed a kiss to his crown. “Of course,” she said, her voice hoarse. She ran her fingers through his hair. “I love you, Callum.”
“I love you, too.”
When he fully broke down in the middle of packing, Rayla held him still.
Chapter 15: The Long Road
They left the Spire the following day at dawn with an added book of spells and rune instructions in Callum’s backpack. He was silent on the way there, falling asleep on her shoulder when they retrieved their horse and continued the rest of the way at a light trot. Rayla didn’t think he’d slept at all the previous night, but neither had she, really. He never stayed asleep longer than an hour at a time, his arms tightening around her waist every so often as he would bury his face in her shoulder. She wouldn’t notice the dampness on her sleeve right away, but she would feel him tremble, her heart fracturing all over again until he lulled himself back to sleep.
It was like that for days, as the long road stretched ahead of them. Slowly the forests became more familiar, with small melodaisy seedlings and adoraburr clusters. They weren’t too far from the Silvergrove. They weren’t too far from his home. Or what was left of it.
The castle, taken. The kingdom in shambles. The royal family... All that was for certain left of it curled up at her back, but Rayla didn’t let her thoughts dwell in that shadowy hole. Prince Ezran and Queen Sarai had to be alive. Maybe even King Harrow’s death had been reported wrong... Lord Viren was many things, but a traitor ? He’d never been particularly warm or even polite to her, but he’d watched the princes grow up. He’d been close to the king and had always seemed to be on friendly terms with the queen, even if they’d publicly disagreed more often. This all had to be a mistake.
She’d give anything for it to be a mistake.
Callum was stubborn and despondent whenever they took breaks. He helped with the chores and setting up camp but each night Rayla had to try out a new coaxing method to get him to eat.
On a dreary day, they stopped when the sun finally began to set, and Rayla turned to check on him before dismounting. He was awake, but quiet, dark circles under his eyes. Her throat tightened at seeing his eyes so continually dull.
“We should set up camp before it gets too dark,” she said quietly.
“Okay.” He slowly let go of her so she could dismount, and she held onto his hands to help him off. “I’ll get the tent set up, you make the fire?”
“Alright. I’ll stay close, but call if you need anything, okay?”
Rayla hesitated, before leaning up to kiss his cheek. She thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch a little, but it was too quick to tell and if it was there, it never reached his eyes. He turned back to the horse they’d bought, pulling the tent out of one of the saddlebags and she swallowed the lump in her throat, forcing herself to go look for firewood. When she came back, Callum was almost done putting it up, well past the point of needing her help with it anymore.
It just exacerbated her feelings of uselessness in the situation they were in right now, but Rayla pushed that pang aside and set about making the campfire. She set up the logs and the kindling before reaching for her flint rock. The spark caught easily, and with a little fanning she was able to get a decent fire going before sitting down beside Callum. He was staring at his sketchbook, having taken it into his lap for the first time since they’d left the Spire, but it remained unopened, just sitting there.
Rayla placed a hand on his shoulder. “Callum?” she said softly.
He was barely audible. “Hmm?”
“Do you… want to talk?”
“I don’t know what to say,” he said, his voice quiet.
“That’s okay.” She glanced down. “Why did you take out your sketchbook?” Straightforward questions would be easy for him to answer, right?
“I thought maybe I could try to draw something, anything, just to… get out of my own head. And then I remembered that so much of my family is in it, and I know I would end up drawing them and I don’t…” His voice quivered. “I don’t know.”
“That’s okay. You don’t have to know what to do.” His expression remained unreadable.
“I keep remembering he’s gone,” he said. “And then—I don’t know if it’s worse, not knowing what—” He cleared his throat. “But there’s nothing I can do.”
“Callum. You are doing something. You’re travelling home. Getting closer to where you need to be. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Not fast enough.” He softened when Rayla winced. “Sorry. It’s not your fault.”
“It’s not yours either. We have to pace ourselves or it could take longer, and… I know it’s hard, but we have to keep you safe and healthy, too. You still matter.” Rayla leaned forward and let her forehead press into his shoulder. “You matter to me.”
Callum wrapped an arm around her waist, tugging her closer. “I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he whispered. “And got mad. I-I’m sorry I told you to leave. I don’t want you to leave, I...”
“I know.” Rayla pulled away to look at him, her fingers lightly grazing his jaw. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not okay,” Callum said. “I was a jerk and treated you like crap and—”
“Callum,” she sighed, giving him a small, tired smile. “ Please don’t argue with me right now? Just accept that your apology is accepted? Please?”
“Thank you.” Rayla pressed a kiss to his cheek. “Are you hungry?”
He looked at her, trying and failing to smile. “I’ll have something in a few hours. Okay?”
Rayla sighed, her thumb stroking his cheek. “Okay,” she said. “It’ll take time to go foraging, anyway. I won’t go far.”
“Of course.” She pressed another kiss to his brow before getting up, trying not to let her heart sink when expression faded from his face again. She had to travel a little deeper amongst the trees, but never too far that she couldn’t hear him or run back to him if she needed to.
Just the thought of losing him before had been enough to make her feel sick, but even in her worst imaginings, it had never felt real . Now, though... Rayla made quick work of gathering a little extra firewood and the most filling berries and fruit she could find.
Her heart eased a little when she came back and he was still there, even if it looked as though he hadn’t even moved, every breath so slow she almost had to make sure he was still breathing at all. She sat down next to him again. “Hungry yet?” Callum shook his head. “That’s alright. Just eat something before bed, okay?”
“Does it matter?” he said quietly.
She clasped her shaking hands together. “Yes it matters,” Rayla said, trying to sound firm and not short. “Callum, please, it doesn’t have to be now, but I can’t eat this all by myself and we don’t want it to go to waste.”
“Okay,” he sighed heavily, but he buried his mouth and nose in his scarf anyway.
Rayla blinked rapidly and looked away. Grieving was hard. She needed to be patient even if everything felt like pulling teeth now. Even if her own heart ached from the loss. She steeled herself, her face softening, and turned back to him to run her fingers through his hair.
“I’ll eat when you eat,” she said softly, and then rested her head on his shoulder. She heard him let out a tiny sigh before he raised his head a bit and popped a berry into his mouth. Picked up one of the frost-apples and took a bite. Her heart eased, and she rubbed his back when he coughed, his throat raw from all the crying he’d been doing. “You’re okay?” she checked, and he nodded, before she took one of the apples and began eating as well. She kept her hand on his back, every so often rubbing soothing circles between his shoulder blades.
Callum didn’t eat much, but he ate a decent amount, and Rayla was grateful for it as she finished the majority of everything else.
She turned her head and pressed a lingering kiss to his cheek. “Thank you,” she murmured. She nearly startled when he turned towards her, burying his face in her shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her. Her own quickly settled around him. “Hey, it’s okay.”
He nosed into her neck. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately,” he mumbled.
Rayla almost smiled. “Reassuring you?”
A little of Callum’s old, slightly askew self came into his voice. “Kissing my cheek.”
She let out a soft chuckle, even as she flushed. “Do you mind it?”
“No. It’s nice.” He held her tighter. “Things were supposed to be different.”
One of her hands trailed up to the back of his head, lightly stroking his hair. “I know.”
Callum drew away to look at her but not far enough that she had to retract her hand. “I wanted us to be happy,” he said hoarsely.
Her other hand moved to cup his cheek. “We can still be happy,” Rayla murmured. “Even if we’re not happy right now.”
He shook his head but leaned into her touch just the same. “This isn’t what I wanted to give you.”
“You don’t have to give me anything right now.”
“But I want to, I—” Callum sighed, his forehead pressing along hers. “I was supposed to take you home and... and court you. Now there’ll be war at the very least. I was gonna tell my Dad that I—and my Mom and Ez were gonna be so happy and—we would’ve had time to figure out all the runes glowing. And now…” Tears sprang to his eyes. “My life’s a mess, and I’m a mess, and my family—and you—and when I got mad at you I was so scared you’d listen, and leave.”
Rayla shushed him. “We’ll figure it out,” she said as steadily as she could. “You’re not alone.”
“But I—” His face screwed up and then shut down as he sealed himself away, frustrated, and Rayla felt her heart cave in.
“Callum, I miss them too.” Her voice broke. “Your father was a good king and an even better man. And your family... it was an honour to serve them. It is an honour to serve them. But I’m tired, too. I’m tired of having to push you and I don’t like it, I hate seeing you like this and I wish—I know how helpless you feel, because I feel it too. You’re all I have.” She blinked at her eyes as they began to sting. “So please don’t shut down on me like you have been. I can’t do this without you.”
Callum softened and it fully reached his eyes for the first time since they’d left. “I didn’t know I—I’m s—”
“You don’t have to apologize for anything. I just want to know that you’re here .” She took his face in her hands. “I need you here with me.”
“I need you too,” he whispered with a small nod. “Okay. Okay, I’ll try. I’ll try harder, I...”
“You don’t have to pull yourself together. You don’t have to have anything together, just… tell me where you’re at. And eat, without me convincing you, I... It’s scary to think what could happen.”
“I’m scared too,” he admitted. “I might be all that’s left of my family, I don’t want to lose myself.”
Clarity cleared her head and Rayla stroked her thumbs over his cheeks. That was something she could control and help with. Little reminders. Tiny corners of levity, or if not that, traces of hope. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll make sure of it.” She took a deep breath. “You are Callum and you are eighteen years old, and incredibly dorky.”
He shot her a look, but his eyes seemed similarly clear, no longer swimming in something she couldn’t see. “Rayla.”
“And incredibly talented,” she amended. “You are brave and stubborn and kind. So kind, and patient. You are an amazing son and caring big brother and nothing is capable of changing that. And you are the greatest friend I have ever had and I am going to help you find them, and I am going to make sure that you stay you...” Rayla closed her eyes. “The man I fell in love with.”
Slowly, she managed to open her eyes, and found him staring back at her with such a soft look on his face that she couldn’t stand it—the sort of look Rayla had always dreamed about, now here by the crackling fire in deep, dark reality. She moved without entirely thinking, her nose brushing his cheek as she pressed a soft kiss to his mouth.
Rayla pulled away when she felt him begin to respond, the soft pressure of his lips against hers enough to wake her. What was she doing? He was grieving , and she... “Sorry,” she mumbled, her face heating up, “I shouldn’t have—”
Callum took her face in his hands and kissed her firmly, shaping his mouth over hers. Her hands trembled as they reached for his shoulders, her head spinning as she kissed him back. His lips were warm and tasted like berry juice and somehow everything and nothing like she had ever expected, like she had ever dreamed. His fingers tangled in the edges of her hair and Rayla sighed when the kiss deepened, their bodies shifting to get closer, her arms wrapping around his neck. His hands left her face, one cupping the back of her head as his other arm wound around her waist, holding her close.
Nor was she thinking when she bit down on Callum’s bottom lip, and he let her deepen the kiss further, one of her hands grasping at his hair. His arm tightened around her waist. Callum’s fingers curled into the material of her tunic—
She pulled away with a start. They shouldn’t have been doing this— She shouldn’t have started this, her throat tightening when she looked into his face, pupils blown open and his eyes still rimmed with red.
“Callum,” she said, her heavy breath breaking. Her heart raced. “I...”
He swallowed hard, his eyes all too understanding. “We can’t do this right now,” Callum said, “can we?”
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.
His lips twitched and it felt almost like a betrayal, now that she knew what it was like to have them against her own. “Me too.” Callum eased himself away, just a tad. “Because I know that...” He smiled a little. “We can never get our timing right, huh?”
Rayla almost smiled. “Should’ve kissed you earlier.” She took a shaky breath. “You’re okay, though?”
“I… I mean, I’m not worse . I’m...” He chuckled lightly. “You’re the bright spot in all this. You know that.” He gave her a tiny smile. “You’re a good kisser, too.”
She flushed in spite of herself, but it was so nice to see his spirits lifted that she couldn’t help but smile. “So are you,” she murmured.
Callum gazed at her and it held new weight. “We’re gonna need to have a lot more self control from now on, aren’t we?”
Rayla swallowed hard. “Yeah,” she agreed, more breathlessly than she’d intended. “It’s, um, it’s pretty late. We should probably get some rest.”
He took her hand, lacing his fingers through hers. Her skin tingled when he pressed his lips to her knuckles, and she wanted to kiss him all over again. “Thank you,” he said.
“Reminding me what I have to hold on to.”
Rayla squeezed his hand. “I’ll remind you as often as you need.”
“I love you.”
She flushed, smiling a little. His eyes were still tired, still a little sad, the dark circles under them as prominent as ever. But some of the light had come back, and her heart fluttered toward it. “I love you too, Callum.”
It was another sleepless night, but for an entirely different reason this time. She was far too warm, not from Callum’s arms enveloping her (though he was, as always, very warm), but from the way her skin flushed, now that there was very little space between them. She’d kissed him. He’d kissed her (and kissed her, and kissed her). His breath was warm on her skin as he buried his face in her neck, like before, but it was different now. Rayla combed her fingers through his hair, trying to get her heart to stop racing.
Her throat was still dry. It didn’t make it any easier to stop thinking about it. Him. The kiss. His kisses. Oh gods, what was she going to do?
“Are you still awake?” he whispered. It was warm on her skin and she bit back a shiver.
“Yeah.” She stroked his hair again. “But you should be sleeping.”
“Should we not be… cuddling?”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I think I’d miss it if we didn’t.”
“Me too.” He held her tighter. “And… it makes it easier. Not that that’s a reason that we have to—”
“Shh. It makes it easier for me too,” Rayla admitted.
Callum went quiet for a while, before he asked, “Do you think we made a mistake? By... you know.”
She didn’t trust herself to look him in the face. She’d done one heartfelt and impulsive thing today. And yet... “No,” she said. Her fingers curled into his sleepshirt and Rayla sighed. “It was nice.”
“Good. ‘Cause… everything’s been terrible the past week, but not this. Never this.”
“I know. I just don’t want to make anything more complicated than it already is.”
“You aren’t.” Callum stroked his thumb over the small of her back. “You remember when we got attacked by bandits?” She nodded. “I was really worried I’d die without having gotten to kiss you first.”
She flushed. “Don’t say that,” she mumbled.
“I can’t tell you that I wanted to kiss you?”
“Don’t talk about dying.” She buried her nose in his hair. “I was so scared that night.”
“I was scared too,” he said, more seriously. “For both of us. I just...” He angled his head and pulled away to look her in the face, a proximity and position that had only grown ten times more dangerous than before. His eyes flickered down to her lips before flitting back up to meet her gaze. “What if we never get the timing right? What if this is all we have?”
“I promise we’ll have our time, soon. But we can’t—”
“Can’t what? We loved each other before any of this happened, why—”
“Callum, please.” She took a shaky breath. “I need to focus on keeping you safe. And you need to be prepared to leave me behind if things go south, and we can’t do that if we’re...”
“Well, then it’s too late, because I’m not gonna want to leave you anyway.”
“You might have to.”
“I won’t.” Callum frowned. “I don’t care how dangerous it gets, I won’t just leave you.”
“Callum...” Rayla took his face in her hands. “Your people need you.”
He turned his head and pressed a kiss to her palm. “ I need you.”
Rayla straightened and slipped her hands away. “I didn’t agree to escort you because I love you,” she said, her voice trembling. “I agreed because it was my duty. It is my duty. And you should be mindful of yours.”
Callum’s eyes were shiny as he glanced away, frowning. “Fine.”
She swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”
“I know.” Callum rolled over onto his side, his back to her as he closed his eyes and seemingly tried to drift off.
Rayla hesitated—what did she think this would do?—before scooting over to him and wrapping her arms around him from behind. Would he brush her off? But instead, she felt the tension ebb out of his body as he took her hand, and she squeezed it in a silent apology. She couldn’t change her mind or their situation, but she could still give him this.
Callum tangled his fingers with hers, his voice soft and sad. “I love you too,” he murmured.
They were mostly quiet the next day, for an entirely different reason than before. Rayla tried not to regret kissing him, tried not to regret saying what she’d said after—and she was right, she had to focus on her duty, their duty—but the stilted silence was heavy all the same, especially when she knew he was probably bursting with things to say. When she knew if he said all those things, she might grow weak and momentarily cave, and she couldn’t bear the thought of tearing herself away from him like that again.
Rayla made sure they still got their lunch break, mainly to give their horse time to rest, but she wasn’t too worried; they were making good enough time. It was a bit of a slog, having to walk around the desert, but they passed it quickly enough. They were even close to the Silvergrove, now. But given everything that had happened had happened, so long as her main priority of getting Callum back to the Banther Lodge to hopefully find the queen and Ezran alive and safe, Rayla could be patient. Soon enough they’d be crossing back in Katolis anyway.
The more she thought about it, the more it bothered her. The rest of the crownguard should have been able to at least get the queen and Ezran away, but then Soren was the captain left behind, and… could he have been working with his father the entire time? It was hard to imagine even for Claudia, let alone her doofy but generally well-meaning brother.
Most of all, she didn’t want to think that that family had anything to do with any of this. It would all be an unfortunate mistake, and maybe Callum wouldn’t have to lose that family too. Maybe.
She heard a twig crack and her ears perked up. “Callum,” she said, “get back to the horse.”
He raised his head from where he’d been nodding off against a log. “What? Why?”
“Something’s wrong.” The first time they were attacked, Rayla had assumed it was just for money. This time, though, and if they knew who Callum was... She stood up, squinting over the fire and pulling Callum up by the hand too. “Just get on the horse, if we have to run we’ll—”
“Rayla, watch—!” She let out a grunt when he suddenly pushed her to the ground, and was about to ask why when she heard him let out a sharp cry of pain.
Rayla picked herself up, her heart in her throat when she saw an arrow shaft sticking out of his shoulder. Her vision turned red and she flicked out her blade, throwing it over the fire towards a pair of glinting horn cuffs, and heard the assailant gasp and then choke. The elven attacker keeled over next to the fire, throwing Moonshadow white hair and unfamiliar markings into sharp relief, although she did recognize the sigil on his shoulder: Aaravos’ assassin guild, apparently for hire. Maybe the royal family’s assassination hadn’t been Viren’s plan after all.
She turned back to Callum, her heart dropping when she saw him crumpled up on the ground near where she’d fallen.
He moved, barely, trying to push himself up. She scrambled to his side, hoisting him up carefully by the shoulders and trying to get a good look at the arrow shaft. It didn’t seem too deep, but if these were Moonshadow styled arrows then...
She cradled Callum’s face in her hands, the whites of his eyes already carrying a greenish tinge. “Poison,” she said grimly.
He seemed to stare past her, his expression hazy. “What?”
Her throat tightened. Her brave, dumb human. “Come on.” She hoisted him up onto the horse, keeping him at her front when she climbed on beside him. “We’ll get you fixed up,” she promised, even if Moonshadow elves were protective over their antidotes anyway.
It was a good thing they weren’t far from the Silvergrove after all.
Chapter 16: Band Aids
The sun was hanging lower in the sky, glaring between the branches of the trees when Rayla stopped their horse at a familiar spot before scrambling down. Callum’s breathing was slow, but steady, his face pale and tinged with green.
“Where are we?” he managed, his voice hoarse. Rayla squeezed his hand.
“Somewhere we can get help.” She eased him down from the saddle and slung his arm over her shoulders, her heart and legs buckling under his weight; he was practically only held upright by her at this point and she tried not to let her worry overtake her. It had been a couple of hours’ ride to the Silvergrove, but the poison couldn’t be that fast acting, could it? “How do you feel?”
“Tired,” he mumbled. “Kinda… dizzy.”
“You can still breathe?”
“Would I be able to talk if I couldn’t breathe ?” he wheezed, almost irritably.
“Right. Sorry,” Rayla muttered. “Stupid question. I just—”
“No, ‘m sorry,” he mumbled. “Just—I’m fine, shoulder’s just heavy.” He let out a cough. “Legs too.”
She pursed her lips. “Okay.” They passed through the entrance of the Silvergrove, hidden by a series of bushes before making way to a small town. Her old house was just on the outskirts... There! Rayla lugged them both forwards, the horse following even without her holding on the reins. If the backdoor lock still jiggled the same, she could get in and get the antidote Runaan had, perhaps, without him even knowing she’d been home.
She managed to reach for the knob, but it jiggled before she even touched it, and she froze, holding Callum tighter when it opened.
“Rayla?” Ethari’s soft brown eyes stared back at her, and she swallowed hard. How the hell did she explain a five year absence with no reply to any of his letters, only to show up carrying a human prince with an arrow in his shoulder?
She couldn’t. But it was Ethari, and maybe, hopefully, he would understand just enough.
“He needs help.”
Ethari’s expression was resigned, but he held the door open for her, and she could have collapsed in on herself as she pulled Callum inside, into what had been turned into a back reading room with small end tables and couches and armchairs that blended into the rest of the Silvergrove’s green and brown earth tones. “The antidote’s upstairs,” Ethari said. “Lay him on the couch over there.”
Rayla set her prince down on a loveseat near the stairs, smoothing the hair away from his brow. “Was that your dad?” Callum managed, and Rayla almost smiled.
“Not biologically, but sort of,” Rayla said.
“Seems nice,” Callum mumbled out. She let out a soft snort, brushing his hair from his forehead.
“I can rest while talking to you.”
Rayla smiled faintly. “You know what I mean. How’s your shoulder? Does it feel like the poison is spreading?”
“Is there a way to tell?”
“Usually more pain.”
“Ah. Well, I still feel about the same amount of bad as before, but…” He gave her a faint smile. “At least you’re okay.”
“And I was supposed to be protecting you.”
“You still are. I just… got to protect you too.”
“Ahem.” Ethari coughed and Rayla snatched her hand back, flushing as she stood up to face him.
“Ethari!” Rayla’s eyes followed the movement of his arm as Ethari held up a glass vial. She breathed out a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”
Ethari walked over to Callum’s side, kneeling down to examine his shoulder. “He’ll have to stay for a few days, but,” he carefully took hold of the arrow’s shaft. “We should be able to remove the poison and before that, keep it from spreading. First we need to remove the shaft and arrow tip. Then I’ll work on a remedial salve for the wound and medicine for him to ingest.”
“What can I do?” Rayla asked.
“Get a piece of wood for him to bite. It’s going to hurt quite a bit, I’m afraid. The arrow isn’t deep but it is wedged in there, and with the poison...”
Rayla looked back at Callum, his face pale, wishing she could squeeze his hand before going up to Ethari’s little workshop with a sloping staircase off the back room. She grabbed a soft, smooth scrap of wood from his workbench and ran back down, finding that Ethari had already cut away the part of the coat and shirt sleeves surrounding his wound. Ethari had tended to her many times as a child with a band aid, but this was much worse than a skinned knee.
“How is it?” she asked worriedly.
“Not any different than it was a minute ago,” Ethari said, patient. “Now put the wood between his teeth so he doesn’t bite his tongue, and then hold a rag below the wound. You’ll want to apply pressure to help stem the bleeding.”
Rayla pursed her lips, before slotting the piece of wood gently between his till his teeth latched onto it. His eyes were heavily lidded, but still frantic as he glanced between Ethari and Rayla, and she took his hand, witness be damned.
Ethari took out the arrow shaft and head like ripping off a bandage. Callum let out a sharp cry, his hand tightening around hers. Rayla ran her thumb over his as Ethari began to clean it. “It’s okay,” she soothed, “it’s over.”
Tears formed at the corners of his eyes and she wanted to wipe them away but pressed the rag to his shoulder instead, applying as much pressure as she dared. There wasn’t too much blood, thankfully, and soon Ethari was applying a green paste. It looked similar to what Runaan dipped his arrows in, but a paler shade. Rayla eased Callum’s arm up, his limbs now too sluggish, as Ethari wrapped bandages around the wound.
“There you go,” Ethari said. He looked at Callum’s face, fully acknowledging his patient for the first time. “How do you feel, Prince Callum?”
“Just Callum,” he managed to mumble. “Tired. Numb?”
“How did you know I was...?”
“Your scarf has the royal seal, and who else would my daughter be supposed to protect?”
“Oh.” His eyes drifted over to Rayla, softening. “So I’m okay now?”
“You’ll need about a week of bedrest,” Ethari said, “but yes.”
“A week—? ” Callum went to push himself up, but Rayla beat him to it, her hands pushing down on his good shoulder.
“We don’t have time, Ethari,” Rayla said and Callum exhaled, clearly glad she wasn’t siding with her father. “We have to—his family—”
“Yes, I heard,” Ethari said gravely. “But you’ll be too weak to travel—”
“I feel fine now, can’t I just leave in a few days?” Callum pressed.
“I can take care of him on the way,” Rayla insisted. “Just tell me what to do.”
Ethari sighed. “Right now, the prince needs sleep,” he said. “We’ll figure it out in the morning, okay?”
She and Callum exchanged a look and Rayla waited for his reluctant nod before she followed suit. “Alright,” she said. “Should we bring him up to one of the guest rooms?”
“He’ll be more comfortable there,” Ethari said. “But be gentle,” he added, as Rayla slung Callum’s good arm over her shoulder and helped him up. She wrapped her arm around his torso for good measure, easing him over to the nearest staircase.
“Is Runaan home?” Rayla asked.
“Not yet,” said Ethari. “But he’s due back from his hunting trip tomorrow morning.”
Rayla’s lips pressed into a thin line. “Okay.” She made sure her hold around Callum’s waist was secure, then asked, “The first guest room on the right’s still open?”
“As always,” Ethari said. “Do you need help?”
“I’ve got him,” Rayla said. Callum leaned into her as they made their way up the stairs, rounding into a hallway where she led him into the first room on their right. She pushed the blankets aside before setting him down on the bed, a little chilly from disuse. Rayla drew the covers over him once he was settled, before sitting down on the side of the bed. “Comfy?” she checked, and Callum nodded.
She smiled, but it faltered quickly, and she took his hand. “Please don’t do that again.”
“Take an arrow or a blow for me. I’m supposed to be protecting you.”
“Hmm. I can’t agree to that.”
He reached up, raising his good arm, and tucked her hair behind her ear, his fingers grazing her cheek. “You’re really gonna argue with me right now?” he asked, cracking a smile.
She leaned into his touch. “If something worse had happened to you—If I hadn’t been able to get you help in time—” Her throat tightened.
“I trust you to protect me too,” he said softly. “And you did. If you’d gotten hurt, I wouldn’t have had a clue of what to do. And I would’ve been in more danger travelling here, if I’d even been able to get here.”
Rayla swallowed. She supposed that made sense, but… “I don’t like seeing you hurt.”
“I know. But I’m getting better, thanks to you.” He took her hand, pressing a kiss to the back of it.
Rayla flushed. “Dumb prince,” she mumbled, trying to sound more grumpy than fond. “Thank you for keeping me safe.”
“Always.” He squeezed her hand. “You should get some sleep, too.”
“You’ll be okay here?”
“Yeah.” Then Callum paused for a moment, looking down at their hands. “Will you be here when I wake up?”
“Of course.” She leaned down, pressing her lips to his forehead. “Wake me up if you need anything, okay?”
“Okay.” He squeezed her hand one last time and then let go. “I love you.”
Rayla smiled softly. “I love you too.” Reluctantly, she got off the bed, her eyes lingering on him before she left the room, gently closing the door behind her.
Ethari was waiting for her when she got downstairs. Two mugs of tea were at the table, one in front of the seat nearest to her. She slowly sat down, watching steam rise from the cup.
“So,” Ethari said, “you and the prince?”
Rayla flushed. “You’re not going to ask me about the past five years?”
“Thought I’d start with something easier.”
Ethari took a sip of tea. “The last five years then?”
Rayla traced the rim of her mug. Somehow this was so much harder than she’d already expected. “Could I get a more specific question?”
“You don’t want me to leave it open so you can start with something easier?”
She frowned, then said, “I got your letters. I… I didn’t open any of them.”
“Why not?” His tone was as patient as ever, and her throat tightened.
“Because I ran away? And I didn’t know what you would say.”
“That was sort of the point of sending letters. For you to know what I would say,” Ethari said, and Rayla let out a soft snort. “I was worried . I just wanted to know that you were alright.”
“Well, you clearly figured out that I made it to the castle, so.”
“Rayla.” Ethari sounded tired. “You know what I mean.”
She was quiet for a moment. “How has Runaan been?”
“Focused on his work, as always,” Ethari said. He hesitated. “You probably can imagine how he reacted, when we read the letter you left us.”
“I know, he was probably furious, which is why it was more convenient to just leave it in the first place instead of trying to ‘discuss’ it—”
“Yes, he was upset. But he was also worried too. We… After some time, I started to think about how… I’m sorry you didn’t feel like you could stay. And that you couldn’t even say goodbye.”
Rayla stared at him. “You’re sorry ?”
“I still don’t understand why you left,” he admitted, “but I know there must have been a reason you couldn’t talk to us, so I—”
“I heard you talking,” she said abruptly. “A… a few weeks before I left.”
Ethari’s brow furrowed in confusion. “About…?”
“You told Runaan you didn’t think I was ready,” she said. “That… I would never be ready.”
“It’s not a bad thing you weren’t cut out for Runaan’s profession,” Ethari said slowly.
Rayla set her mug down. “Then why did you act like it was?”
Her father lowered his gaze. “I knew that you wanted it,” he said quietly. “But perhaps that was our mistake, for acting like it was something you should have. Your job as a crownguard certainly seems to suit you better.” Ethari’s face grew solemn. “I am sorry you’re not serving the royal family under better circumstances.”
“Me too,” she gloomily agreed. Her thoughts drifted back to Callum, as her reunion with Ethari was never one she’d worried about. No, the storm with Runaan that would follow in the morning would be the one to weather.
“So,” said Ethari, lifting his mug to his lips, “you and the prince?” He took a long sip of tea, his lips curling even while Rayla fought down a flush.
“It’s not like that,” she said, even if she knew now that it very much was.
“It’s not?” said Ethari. “You might want to tell him that. He looks at you like you hung every star in the sky.”
Rayla snorted, not because it was untrue—she was sure it was true—but because of the irony. And here she was thinking that she’d been the most obvious one and vividly pining for far longer. “Yeah, well it’s a recent development,” she mumbled. And then her throat burned, because she couldn’t have Ethari thinking she loved Callum any less. “He was the reason I stayed.”
“Well I hope it works out between you two,” said Ethari. “Whatever it is. You should get some rest, too. You’ve had a long day I’m sure.”
Rayla took the mug in her hands. “Thanks for the tea,” she said, getting up. “And… everything else. I don’t know what I would have done if…” Her eyes burned, and Ethari got up, walking over to her and pressing a kiss to her hairline.
“No use in going over what ifs,” he said. “He’s fine, and safe, and so are you. That’s all that matters. Now get some rest.”
“I’ll make sure Runaan is reasonable in the morning.”
“Alright.” Rayla managed a smile. “Thank you.”
She went back up to the guest room with her tea, opening the door slowly as not to wake Callum. He was fast asleep, still pale but less sickly already, his mouth slightly ajar. His breathing was steady and it was the quiet sound of his breath that gave her the most peace.
Rayla stayed up for a while, taking slow sips of her mostly lukewarm tea. After everything that had happened in the past ten hours alone, it would take some time for the adrenaline to fully fade.
The tea was almost done when she heard Callum mumble, “You’re still awake?”
Rayla set her mug down. “Yeah, are you okay?”
He nodded drowsily. “Come here,” he requested. Rayla smiled softly, before slipping under the covers beside him. She settled into his side, his good arm wrapping around her waist.
“Your shoulder’s okay?”
“Kinda tingly,” he mumbled, “but it doesn’t feel bad.” He paused. “Things are okay with your dad?”
“Yeah. We talked a bit.”
Rayla smiled a little. “He likes you.”
“He does? I mean, I didn’t think he hated me, since he treated me and everything, but I don’t feel like nearly collapsing on his couch without a real introduction was the best first impression—”
“Callum,” she laughed. “You’re fine. He likes you, I promise. Ethari likes nearly everyone. It’s not as though you meeting my dads really matters, anyway, does it?”
He quieted, one of his hands grazing hers. “Doesn’t it?”
Her cheeks heated. She knew how he felt. “It could,” she admitted quietly. “But not right now. All you should focus on is resting, so you can get better.” She tilted her head up and kissed his forehead. “Rest, please? For me?”
“Okay.” He closed his eyes, drawing her closer when she rested her head on his good shoulder. “Goodnight, Rayla.”
She took one more moment to look at his face. He was still pale, but seemed relaxed now, if a little fatigued. Slowly, she closed her eyes, pressing herself closer to offer a little more of her warmth.
Rayla woke up late the next morning. Callum was still asleep beside her, his heartbeat steady under her palm, his breathing slow and even, and for a moment she didn’t want to get out of bed. They were safe and comfortable and warm here.
Then, she remembered that they were in her childhood home, and her eyelids flew open. How long had they been sleeping? She sat up, reluctantly disentangling herself from him as she looked out the window. It was still dark enough to probably be early morning; the sky wouldn’t take on a dusky hue till early afternoon, if she was remembering correctly. (She had also gotten used to the sun over the past five years, but surely she could remember how time passed in her own village.)
Then, she remembered Callum’s wound, now bound tightly by Ethari’s own hand. Her throat closed up. She glanced over before she could stop herself, his face still pale but with more colour in his cheeks than the day before. The paste Ethari had treated the wound with was working, thank the gods. She pressed a gentle kiss to his forehead. Callum roused a little, but settled again quickly, his breathing still even and slow, so she let him sleep in a little longer and left the bedroom, keeping the door open just in case.
Ethari was in the kitchen already when she passed underneath the doorway... and so was Runaan. Like Ethari, he looked utterly unchanged from how she remembered him, other than a few more lines around his eyes. Her two guardians sat at the table, heads bent and speaking in whispers that ceased when Ethari spotted her over his husband’s horns. “Oh good, you’re up,” Ethari said, but his smile seemed too tight to be fully genuine. She couldn’t blame him.
“You’re back,” Rayla said lamely, and Runaan frowned.
“This is my home,” he said, his voice dangerously calm. “I think I should be the one saying that to you. You’re the one who left, after all.”
“Runaan,” Ethari began, and Rayla’s jaw tightened.
“I didn’t come here to ask you for anything,” she said quickly. “I wouldn’t have even asked Ethari, I just knew I—anyway, I’m leaving soon so—”
“I thought we had agreed on a few days of bedrest at least?” Ethari asked. Runaan’s nostrils flared, but he didn’t seem surprised. Rayla swallowed hard.
“He’s resting now,” she said. “But he already seems much better.”
“He would be fine in his sleep,” Ethari confirmed. “But we should see how well he walks without you holding him up, first.”
“I don’t want to wake him just yet,” Rayla said, her voice softer than she meant it.
“You don’t have to. Though it is getting a little late. The prince might want breakfast?”
“I would also be interested in meeting the cause for you finally returning home after all these years,” Runaan said a tad testily.
Rayla shot him a sharp look. “His family is dead, Runaan. Don’t you dare be cruel to him.”
Runaan stood up. “You come back after five years without a word, bring a human to our home, and—”
“Runaan,” Ethari said more firmly. “Rayla, please check on the prince. Your father and I need to have a chat.”
Rayla rushed up the stairs, only hearing Runaan say, “Ethari, you know how I feel about—” before turning the corner. Yes, humans had been the ones to start dark magic, but plenty of elves had agreed and plenty of humans hadn’t. He was just prickly and angry (hurt?) about her coming home like this and Callum was the easiest thing to criticize on all fronts. He had barely reacted when Rayla had told him about the royal family.
Indignation flared in her chest. Callum didn’t deserve this, not ever, but especially not now. She’d get him out as soon as he was able to walk, and she could deal with her family issues later.
Rayla turned towards the guest bedroom, the door closed this time, and Rayla knocked on it. “Callum? Are you awake?”
“Come in,” came his voice, hoarse with sleep but otherwise clear, and she stepped in to find him sitting up. He had an adorable bedhead.
“You’re up,” she said, sitting down next to him. “How’re you feeling?”
“Sore,” he admitted. “But way better. What time is it?”
“Close to eight I think?” She caught the dubious gaze he threw in the window. “In the morning, I know the sky looks strange here.”
“It’s beautiful, though,” he said, turning back to her, and she could see the soft appreciation and wonder in his eyes. He really did love magic. Or maybe it was also because he loved her.
Rayla pushed that thought away and focused on pushing his hair back from his brow instead to inspect the bags under his eyes and the colour in his cheeks. “Ethari’s making breakfast,” she said, withdrawing her hand once she’d deemed him up to scratch. “Do you think you can go down the stairs, or should I bring it up?”
“We can go down together,” he smiled. “Although you might have to help. I wanna thank Ethari for everything, now that I’m feeling better and uh...” There was no real delicate way to phrase it. “Not dying,” he coughed.
Rayla rolled her eyes. Did he have to remind her? “Just don’t get that close again,” she said. She ran a hand through her hair. “Also, I should warn you now, my other dad’s downstairs.”
“The one who was harder on you?” The trained assassin who killed dark mage humans for a living, and Rayla knew Callum remembered that too.
She pursed her lips. “Yeah. Honestly, it might be better if I just bring the food up—”
“No, I’m okay. I mean, I’m okay with going down if you are.”
She winced. “He’s really not happy.”
“We’ll deal with it. Dealing with people who don’t like you is like, the backbone of court politics, you know.”
“I’m clearly not made for it then,” was her weak attempt at a joke, but all it did was remind her how unsuited she was in so many ways for him. If they courted—if it went further—then she would have to be.
Callum didn’t linger on it either. “Can you help me put on a new shirt?”
It occurred to her as she rummaged through his bag for a fresh one that she was very lucky Ethari had kept Runaan stalled in the kitchen, rather than one of her fathers finding her and a shirtless prince sleeping side by side in bed. She found a red tunic that wasn’t torn or smelly, and tried to ignore the flush in her cheeks when she helped him put it on. He sat on the edge of the bed, wrapping his arms loosely around her waist as she buttoned it up.
It was a particularly compromising situation and her cheeks heated; it was very hard to deny their proximity like this.
He blinked up at her innocently, a cheeky little smile on his lips. It was good to see him smiling, even if it was technically at her expense. “What? This is a very proper position for a prince and his knight to be in.”
She clucked her tongue at him, but in the end just let her fingers trace his jawline once she was done with his shirt. “We should go downstairs,” she said softly. He leaned into her touch.
“Okay,” he said, even as they both lingered. Finally, he stood up, slow and a little unsteady, and Rayla took his arm and draped it over her shoulders.
“All good?” she asked, and he nodded.
“Yeah. We just might have to take the stairs one step at a time.”
She gave his good shoulder a squeeze. “Fine by me.” He smiled again and it made her heart flutter, but she had no time to dwell on it as they made their way out of the bedroom and down the stairs. It was slow and a little clumsy, his expression taut with effort as she guided him down. But he wasn’t in any pain, and Rayla counted it as a win, even if they wouldn’t be able to leave just yet. She braced herself as they walked into the dining room.
“—just a boy,” came Ethari’s voice from the room.
“We both know he’s not just —”
“Because he’s a prince or because he’s human? Or both? I know why you’re cautious, love, but I think—” Ethari stopped short when he saw Rayla helping Callum in through the open doorway. “You’re back!” he said, and Rayla pursed her lips. Callum straightened by her side.
“Thank you for everything, again,” he said as Rayla helped him to a seat at the table (far from Runaan). She took the seat next to Callum.
“Well, you certainly look stronger now,” Ethari smiled. He placed a hand on the small of Runaan’s back, the latter with his arms crossed over his chest. “And this is my husband.”
Callum extended the hand of his injured soldier. “It’s good to meet you, sir. Rayla’s told me a lot about you.”
Runaan hesitated, but slowly took Callum’s hand under the eye of his husband. “A pleasure,” he said stiffly, like he’d rather be anywhere else. Still, it was more effort than Rayla had anticipated. The introduction was over quickly as Runaan sat down and Ethari walked around to their side of the table to inspect Callum.
“No sir. You did a good job.”
Ethari smiled a little, but said, “You still need to rest. The effects of the poison may be gone now, but it’s still weakened you. A few more days should do.”
“With all due respect, sir, is there any way to speed up my recovery, or do it on the road?” Callum’s face turned somber. “I… I just need to know what happened.” Rayla took his hand under the table, and Callum squeezed it.
“Are you sure it’s wise to be heading towards Katolis?” said Runaan carefully.
“I have to,” Callum said. “Whatever happened, I have to know. Especially if…”
“Especially if we find the Queen and Prince Ezran soon,” Rayla said, even if she couldn’t quite say it with conviction. “So they know he’s safe, and you can all work out a plan from then.”
Callum didn’t seem to believe it either, but he smiled sadly anyway. “Yeah. Maybe.”
Nothing could fix this, any of this, but... Rayla didn’t let go of his hand. Maybe, in time, no matter what he found waiting back for him in Katolis, Rayla could help him heal. And as for the present—travelling, his injury, Runaan—she would treat it like the stairs.
One step at a time.