Soren ran a hand through his hair, checking his teeth as he looked in the mirror. Rayla had agreed to go to the market in town with him and there was no way he was going to mess it up. He’d been pining for Rayla for too long. “Done looking at yourself, Soren?”
Soren’s back straightened immediately and he turned to see his father, disapproval clear on his face. “Just getting ready for my date, Dad.”
“With Rayla, I presume.”
Soren grinned. “Yep. She actually agreed to going somewhere with me.”
Viren nodded, walking up to Soren. It was quiet for a few tense moments, Viren casting him a critical eye. “Make sure you get her attention and keep it. Rayla is Harrow’s ward and Claudia is trying to get Prince Callum to give her the proper attention she deserves as a lady of her station. Our connection as a family can only strengthen if at least one of you marries one of them.”
Soren’s brows furrowed. “But, I like Rayla for Rayla. Besides, it’s not like Callum and Rayla like each other.”
Viren scoffed as he shook his head. “Are you that blind? Do whatever you must do, Soren, but make sure you get Rayla’s attention and keep it.” Viren moved to leave the room, pausing at the door. “And, Soren,” Soren looked over at him, “make sure that, no matter what, you have the needs of the family in mind at all times. After all, the three of us only have each other.”
Soren gulped. “We have Harrow, Ezran, and Callum. Even Amaya-”
“How did I raise a fool for a son?” Soren clamped his mouth shut, looking down at the ground. “Harrow is trying to force us out. So is Amaya and Callum.”
“They just don’t like dark magic. If you and Claudia stopped, it would be fine, Dad.”
“And risk the elves coming in and killing us all? Stop practicing our main means of defense? I don’t think so.”
Soren stayed quiet as Viren went on about the history of dark magic and all the good it’s done. He’d heard this a million times before. Soren didn’t really get Callum and Rayla’s or even Harrow and Amaya’s hang-ups with dark magic, but he also didn’t get why his family was so enamored by it. It was a tool, right? Only good or bad depending on how it was used. His father had once healed his sickly body so he could be a crown guard while dark magic was also responsible for loss of life. “Got to go, Dad,” Soren mumbled, walking out.
There was only so much of Viren he could take anymore. Something had changed in his father since the day he and Harrow had left to kill the Dragon King. He mumbled to himself far more than before, looked at mirrors more, and had even started becoming obsessed with primal magic to a degree Soren couldn’t remember his father being. It was almost like he was a man possessed, but, perhaps, that obsession had always existed in Viren.
Soren smiled when he saw Rayla waiting for him in the courtyard, her long hair in a side braid and her long legs clad in pants. Even leaning against a wall, hands in her pockets, she gave an air of knowing everything that was happening around her. She almost felt dangerous some days, like she was watching and waiting for a chance to do something.
He was about to shout out a greeting to her when he saw the soft smile on her face directed at Callum, who Soren was only now noticing was also there. Callum had his sketchbook open and was gesturing wildly with his hands. Rayla nodded along, her head thrown back and laughing at something Soren was too far away to hear. He was about to announce his presence when Callum reached out a hand and lightly stroked Rayla’s cheek. Soren paused, watching while Rayla’s eyes moved to Callum’s lips and she didn’t swat his hand away.
Even from where he was, Soren could sense the unspoken tension and want in the air between Rayla and Callum. Callum leaned in a tad before pulling away, his hand also falling. Rayla stayed still, eyes still locked on his. Their lips moved and Soren caught a few words: ‘sorry’, ‘dirt’, ‘fun’. Callum finally moved away, walking towards the castle and away from Rayla, though she watched him go with longing in her blue eyes.
Soren’s eyes narrowed for a moment before sighing. Well, his father may have been right, but maybe this date would change her mind. The look she gave him when she noticed his presence was friendly, but not filled with the same longing he had seen in her before. “Hey, Soren. We ready to go?”
Soren nodded. “Yep. I’m surprised you even agreed to come with me.”
Rayla shrugged. “I need a gift for Ezran’s birthday. Besides, you tend to be decent company most days.”
Soren grinned, running a hand through his hair. “Oh? Only decent?”
Rayla nodded. “Yep. Trust me, that’s a compliment.” They went through the town and looked for gifts for Ezran. They chatted and mumbled about what he would and wouldn’t like, bemoaning how hard it was to shop for a kid who could have anything he wanted with the snap of his fingers but always said he didn’t want anything. “I knew I should have asked Callum to come. He’s so much better at this than I am.”
Soren shrugged. “Yeah, the step-prince is good at that.”
Ralya’s whole demeanor went icy, slowly turning to him. “Why do you keep calling him that? It’s not nice. You’re better than that, Soren.”
“Well, I’ve known him almost our whole lives and-”
“I don’t care. He’s the prince. Even if he’s not the heir, that doesn’t change that Harrow raised him.”
“I know. It’s just-. Harrow loves him more than my dad loves me, I think. I guess it’s a way to make me feel better.”
“Does it really make you feel better?”
“Then stop.” Soren nodded, hoping Rayla would drop it. He felt a lot worse now than he had in a while, not only because Rayla was scolding him, but because it was becoming increasingly obvious that Rayla held a soft spot for Callum she simply did not hold for him.
“Why do you even care?”
“Because it hurts Callum that you do that. It’s like you’re trying to keep him down. I don’t appreciate that, to be honest. You pick on his insecurities concerning Harrow. Your parents may have divorced, but you were still raised by your dad. You can’t know what life is like for Callum.”
“What about your parents?” Rayla raised a brow. “You never talk about them.”
Rayla shrugged. “What’s there to talk about? I was raised by them until I was five and then was raised by their two friends. I get Callum a bit more because I understand wanting that connection. I get that grief of losing someone you love and not having easy access to people who are willing to or even can talk about them. Your mom hurt you and your dad is an ass, but don’t take it out on Callum anymore. Got it?”
“Got it.” They finally decided on getting Ezran a book on animals that neither had seen in the library to be from Rayla and, from Soren, a new hair oil from Del Bar that was supposed to be good for curls. They were quiet on the way back to the castle, the comradery gone. “Are you in love with Callum?” Soren asked. He had to know.
Rayla didn’t turn to Soren. He couldn’t read her posture or her half-hidden expression. “People really need to stop pushing us together,” she whispered. Before Soren could ask anymore, Rayla walked by him with a muttered ‘thank you.’ Soren didn’t know what to make of it, but, as far as he could tell, he still had a shot. Rayla hadn’t said ‘yes’, so maybe, he had misunderstood what he had seen earlier. Rayla just thought of Callum as a good friend. He hadn’t gotten confirmation that it was a date, but he hadn’t been told it wasn’t one either. It was his first big victory in his plans to finally court the elusive ward of Katolis.
“FUCK!” Rayla screamed in her pillow when she finally got to her room. “Damn the Sources!” Rayla raised her eyes and looked at the moon. Even Soren had figured it out. Were the gods mocking her? If even Soren had picked up on her being in love with Callum, how long would it be before this became too difficult to keep to herself? Could she even fulfill her mission?
Tears of frustration ran down her cheeks as she tried to control her breathing. She wasn’t so sure she could fulfill her mission anymore. Ezran didn’t deserve to die. She knew that. He clearly had no knowledge that the Dragon King was even dead or what had happened to the egg. As for Harrow, well, Rayla wasn’t sure how much of the plot against the Dragon King was him and how much of it was Viren. This was why she had come, wasn’t it? To gather information…but the hit was out for Harrow and Ezran. If they didn’t die, then Viren and Soren had to die. Viren probably deserved it, but Soren? No, Soren hadn’t been there and while Rayla had her suspicions that Soren and Claudia knew what had happened, she wasn’t so sure that they were involved or even approved of it.
Rayla lay in bed for hours, her mind awash in confusion. She had a mission. She had to fulfill the mission, even if she thought it was wrong. Rayla turned back to the moon. But Callum…was she willing to throw away a future with him for the mission? If she just let go, could she be happy with him? Would she even be able to hide the truth for that long? Probably not. Their children would be halflings. How would she explain that? Why did this have to be so complicated?
‘I never should have come here. I’m messing up. I messed up. I feel in love with the target’s son…I’m worse than my parents.’ Rayla didn’t dare think it, but she couldn’t deny the truth any longer: if Callum told her he loved her and wanted to be with her, she would abandon her old life and stay with him as long as he was willing to have her. Surprisingly, it was a lot more freeing to admit to herself than to keep locked up in her heart. Perhaps, the time was coming for her to go home. Could she even without completing the mission?
Rayla didn’t sleep that night and no further clarity came to her. No matter what choice she made, she was leaving behind those she loved. No matter her decision, someone was going to suffer and she was going to be the cause of it. As much as she wanted to be with Callum, she also still wanted Runaan and Ethari and even Tiadrin and Lain in her life. Even though they had betrayed the Dragon King, she still wanted all four of her parents. But, one thing had become crystal clear to her: the long she stayed, the harder the choice would be. She had to make a choice soon. Callum was fast approaching 18, old enough to court under the law and a lot of people were already expecting him to choose her. Could she give him that choice? Rayla wasn’t sure, even if that’s what she wanted most in her heart.