The assassins guild had been talking for days about whether or not to go in and kill King Harrow and Prince Ezran now or wait a few more months or even a year. Queen Zubeia was in distress and the call for revenge was ringing loud and clear throughout Xadia. First, eight years ago, the humans had attacked them unprovoked and murdered one of their citizens for their perverted dark magic. Now, they killed the Dragon King and the Dragon Prince's egg. Xadia could not let this go. The only question was: when?
Runaan looked at Rayla out of the corner of his eye. He knew she wanted to prove herself worthy. He personally found it difficult to believe that his friends, Tiadrin and Lain, his parents, had abandoned their post. In the back of his mind, it didn't make sense. They knew better. But, a Skywing elf who had also been part of the Dragon Guard had admitted they had all fled when the humans killed the Dragon King. There was nothing anyone could do to stop the Silvergrove Ghosting the pair now. But, Rayla could do the right thing in their stead and proclaimed herself ready to do whatever it took to right their wrongs.
"It's better to go now. Who knows how long the Dragon Queen has?" Runaan turned his attention back to the conversation his guild mates were having. A cacophony of sounds as they tried to plan the best course of action that would bring them all back home and, hopefully, stop these humans from killing anymore Xadians.
"The humans will know it's us right away."
"So what?! We want them to know what they did was wrong!"
"True, but, if we wait, maybe we can cause doubt. They'll destroy themselves trying to figure it out."
"We have never not admitted we've taken life before. Why should we do it now? We take life but we don't take it lightly."
"Yes, but this is our chance to not only get the humans fighting each other, but to also get the Moon Nexus back!" There was silence for a few moments. Every Moonshadow el,f even a thousand years after the humans were forced out of Xadia, still felt the string of losing contact with the Moon Nexus. It went deeper than pride; it was an irreplaceable piece of their heritage, culture, and magic that was forever lost to them because the humans refused to accept their lot in the universe as non-magic users. "All I'm saying is, kill two Moon Phoenixes with one arrow. Sow dissent AND fulfill the contract."
Runaan turned to Rayla. Her young face was stony as she took in what everyone was saying. Young... He looked her up and down. She was strong, but those who didn't know better would see her as a slip of a thing. Slowly, a plan formed in Runaan's mind. At any other time, he would have been horrified by the idea. Rayla was his daughter as far as he was concerned. His apprentice, his greatest joy besides Ethari. Ethari would never forgive him. But... Runaan stood up, getting the attention of everyone in the room. "I have an idea. It involves my protegee, Rayla, and getting honor back for her parents as well as stirring doubt in the Pentarchy."
"What do you propose, Runaan?" The guild master had a steeling expression as he stroked his beard.
Runaan smirked. "We play the long game."
"Absolutely not!" Ethari roared. "We already lost Tiadrin and Lain. We aren't losing Rayla!"
"She's going to be fine, Ethari." Runaan breathed through his nose. As he expected, Ethari was displeased.
"She's too kind, Runaan! Too loving. Her heart isn't made for a regular mission and you want her to do this?! Send Bandlr or someone else."
"She's the only one her age whose properly trained. She's faster than all of us and quick on her feet."
"Then send yourself or a group."
"They won't suspect a young girl travelling on her own. The longer she does nothing, the more likely they will be to think everything is fine."
"And if they catch her after she succeeds? They'll kill her! They'll kill our daughter and you're sending to the slaughter."
"She'll die with honor and rise above what her parents have done." Even to Runan's ears he sounded so detached. He winced.
"You...you can't be serious. Runaan, she's our child. Not by blood, but we raised her. She's only 15. She'll be 16 when her training's over. You can't...you can't do this." Ethari's voice was shaking as he started to breath a little harsher. "She's just a child."
"Rayla's already agreed, Ethari. There's nothing either or us can do now."
"You didn't even ask me first!" Ethari breathed deeply for a few moments before his face became stone. "So, that's it, then? You're just going to say good-bye to our little girl?"
Runaan ran a hand through his white hair. "My love, it's not that simple. Queen Zubeia ordered the two hits. We have to do the job."
"Then take a squad like tradition says and do it! Do not send our Rayla into the human lands alone. What if the spell fails and she's found out? What if she slips up? We have no idea when the time is even right. We may never see her again! Do you want that? Because I don't! Rayla shouldn't be made to go because of her parents' actions."
"No one is making me do anything," Rayla piped up from the chair. Runaan had completely forgotten she was in the room and, judging by his slight jump, so had Ethari. "Yes, Runaan offered my name for the plan before asking me, but I agreed. I had a fair chance to give someone else the job and I said I would do it. I'm going, Ethari."
"Rayla, please, don't do this."
"Why do you lack faith in me?"
Ethari shook his head. "It's so much more than that. You're a child, Rayla. Don't throw away your chance for a future when tradition holds you shouldn't even be considering this."
"What future? If Xadia doesn't do anything, the humans will eventually believe they can do whatever they want. What if they start killing elves or more dragons for dark magic? We're already at war. We have to act!"
Ethari looked between the two of them. "You know what? Both of you, do whatever you want."
Runaan started reaching for his husband. "Ethari-"
"I'm going to my sister's, Runaan. I need time to process sending my child, OUR child, over the border to be alone and carrying out a mission ALONE for who knows how long." Ethari slammed the door behind him; silence reigning for a few minutes.
"Well," Rayla looked up at Runaan, "he took that better than we expected."
Runaan sighed. "He's right, Rayla. Think long and hard about this. You have been given 24 hours before you're officially assigned this task. We are asking you to give up an untold amount of time. You might never come back."
Rayla looked directly into his eyes. "I know, but I don't have a choice. Someone has to do this and it should be me. If my parents had just stayed, maybe, the Dragon Prince would still be alive. Besides, they'll probably believe me easier than someone like Bandlr whose already all muscle at 14. I'm young and fast, but I'm slight enough. No one will believe I'm a threat if I say I come from a farming village."
"You're right. I'm so proud of you, Rayla. I'm sure you'll be able to come back home one day."
It took Ethari two weeks to come around, a new blade for Rayla in hand and a flower for when she went on her mission. He still barely talked to Runaan and, if Runaan was being honest, he couldn't blame him. Rayla was going to be spending a few months with Lujanne at the Moon Nexus followed by a bit of time in the village by the Cursed Caldera before making her way to the capital. There was no room for error and she was going to have to learn how to act human fast.
The flower Ethari made was set into the fountain, the whole of Silvergrove watching. Runaan knew he and everyone else would be keeping an eye on it. Rayla had to succeed.
6 months later
Callum groaned as Soren sent him to the ground again. "C'mon, step-prince. Wasn't your mom the strongest general is Katolis? You shouldn't be this weak after this much training."
Callum glared a bit at his...friend?...tormentor? Callum wasn't sure who Soren was to him anymore besides the big brother of his crush. How Claudia and Soren came from the same parents was beyond Callum. Though, Viren did give Claudia more attention because of her magic. More love, probably. "My mom was a lance specialist. Why don't we try that?"
"Princes use swords; even step-princes."
Callum looked down at his feet. "The king can use a lance."
"ARGH! It's just not how it's done, OK? Sword first, than lance. Now, on your hands and knees and give me a hundred push-ups." Callum groaned and was about to follow through when Caludia raced through the courtyard to stand in front of Soren. She started miming a bit, a big smile on her face. "What is it, Clauds? Use your words."
She squealed. "There's a girl whose just come from the border. She asked to see the king and she looks about my age, maybe a year younger."
Soren and Callum's brows furrowed. "Why does she want to see the king?"
"Don't know, but she's pretty cute. She might be your type, Sor-bear."
"Uh-huh. You don't know my type, Claudia. You've proven that how many times now?"
Callum didn't bother staying for what was bound to be an argument between the two. Instead,he hurried to the throne room, running to Ezran and Bait with a handful of jelly tarts with them. "What do you think she wants?" Ezran asked.
"No idea. Whatever it is, I'm sure the king will hear her out."
"You know, you can call him 'Dad.' I really think he'd like that, Callum."
"He's the king, Ezran, and I'm just the step-prince."
"But, he raised you and I know he loves you."
Callum closed his eyes briefly. "It's complicated, Ez."
Ezran pouted a bit, but dropped it. When they finally made it to the throne room, they stood to Harrow's right while Opeli and Viren were standing to his left. Before them was a pale girl with hair a few shades lighter than Soren's and light blue eyes. She stood perhaps an inch taller than Callum and was dressed in plain robes that marked her as a member of the farming class.
"Your Majesty," her voice was clear and projected throughout the room. She took a sweeping curtsy, though almost lost her balance doing so. She raised her eyes when Harrow told her to rise, slowly coming back up to face the room. "I come from a town on the border. We were attacked not too long ago." She looked down, a tear slipping down her cheek. "I'm all that's left of my village. Please, I need help. I have no family."
"Who attacked your home?" Viren looked straight at her, eyebrow raised.
"I believe it was elves." Viren and Harrow shared a look before turning back to the girl. "They kept saying something about dragons when they came but everything happened so fast it's all a blur."
Viren cleared his throat. "And why did you come all the way here? Surely there were others who could look after you."
The girl looked distressed, twisting her hands together a bit. Callum couldn't help but notice just how pretty she was, with a Cupid's bow on her top lip, high cheekbones, and large eyes. But, there was something slightly off, something that in the back of his mind was saying it wasn't quite right. Maybe she was too pretty? "To be honest, I tried a few times but they either didn't want me because of the possibility of the elves coming after me. I just hoped that I could be safe here."
Harrow nodded. "Of course, dear child. You are welcome to stay as long as you like. And, I am so sorry for the trials you have faced before coming here today."
Viren sent a glared at Harrow. "Harrow-"
"Not now, Viren. We have to look after our citizens. Always." Harrow turned back to face her. "What's your name, child?"
She looked at the five in the room, a soft smile on her face. "Rayla. My name is Rayla."
Chapter 2: Year One
The long-awaited second chapter. Just a reminder, updates to this will be sporadic. There is no set schedule and I do not write linearly, so, I cannot promise when chapter 3 will come out.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Rayla glared a bit at her reflection in the mirror. How could she look just like herself and look nothing like she always did at the same time? Her horns were gone, her skin lacking the pink undertones, and she had the human pinkos. No…pinkies. They were called ‘pinkies.’ Her hair had yellow in it now and her lavender eyes were now a piercing blue. She hated it. Even her voice had lost it’s Silvergrove accent. She had spent the whole six months trying to get rid of it only for the powerful illusion to take care of it for her. Rayla quirked a lip as she remembered how she had reacted to that back at Lujanne’s. Lujanne had taken the whole thing as a learning process, that she was capable of losing her accent, but Rayla had been frustrated with the situation.
Rayla put a hand under her bare eye. She was sorely missing the dye normally under her eyes. She felt naked without it. The dye…she hadn’t been able to bring any with her and the design she chose….it had been a variant of the one her parents had put on her.
Rayla wasn’t foolish. She knew why the Assassins Guild had approved Runaan’s plan so easily and why no one but Ethari had opposed the idea. It didn’t matter if she died in the process; she was here to make up for her parents’ disgrace. “You two just had to run away…”
Rayla turned her head to look around the lavish room. She had hoped that King Harrow would take her in and give her a place among the palace staff. Easy to hide, easy to maneuver. That’s not what was happening, apparently. The room was right next to Prince Callum’s if she had heard correctly because she had asked for a view of the moon. Rayla walked around the room. It was too big, the balcony too ostentatious. She needed the moonlight to continue to charge the talisman, but she didn’t need all this. The dark purple stone had been created by all the mages of Silvergrove and crafted by Ethari. Lunjanne had added her own illusion magic and the power of the Moon Nexus had made it even stronger. It had to be perfect. She had to be perfect.
The moon was slowly rising, signaling the end of the day. Dinner had been awkward to say the least. They had done introductions and Viren had glared at her the whole time. His son, Soren, had stared at her for most of the time. Rayla was used to people staring at her, but this was different. All she knew was she didn’t like it. One of the princes, Callum, had also stared at her most of the night. But, his look had been different than Viren’s suspicious one and Soren’s….whatever that was. Callum looked at her with pure confusion. Did he see through the illusion? Lujanne had warned her that incredibly magically sensitive beings would be able to see through it, but that shouldn’t count a human, right? Right?
As she stepped onto the balcony, she sighed at the cool breeze that came over her. She heard a scritch-scatching to her right and turned her head to see Callum drawing the half moon. The moonlight was hitting the planes of his face and his green eyes almost looked like they were glowing. When he looked up again, she saw the emergence of a sharp jawline; something that would come as he grew older. He was a lot more handsome than her initial perusal had indicated. “Drawing the night sky, Your Highness?”
He yelped, startled out of his thoughts. “Oh! Rayla, right?”
She quirked a brow. “Yep.”
“Sorry. I just…get into a groove, I guess.”
“Don’t let me keep you from your ‘groove.’”
Callum gave her a soft smile, before turning back to his sketchbook. They sat in silence for a bit, Rayla perfectly content to stare at the stars. After some time, Callum nervously coughed. “Do you want to see?”
“Sure.” Before Callum could hand the sketchbook over to her, Rayla got on the ledge of her balcony and jumped onto his. He looked shocked for a moment, unsure. “Everything OK?”
“Yeah. I’ve just never done that before. I don’t think I’d have the confidence to not fall to my death.”
Rayla shrugged. “You need good control and balance. It’s not that tricky once you get those two things.” Callum had a look of disbelief on his face, but showed her the sketchbook. Rayla’s eyes went wide as she stared at the picture. Callum had indeed drawn the moon, craters and all, but he had also drawn her. There was a peaceful expression on her face. “I didn’t realize you were drawing me.”
“Sorry. I should have asked first.”
“No, it’s fine. I’m amazed you would pick me to draw.”
“It was hard not to. I have a feeling you don’t often feel as at peace as you did right then.”
“What makes you say that?”
Callum shrugged. “Just a feeling. Maybe I’m projecting. I don’t feel at peace very often myself.”
Callum nodded. “The king is my step-father and he’s been great, but our relationship isn’t really the parent-child one I want.”
“And your biological father?”
“Dead. Has been since I was about a year old. And my mom died about ten years ago.”
Rayla was quiet for a few moments. “I don’t know where my parents are. I was raised by their friends.”
“Don’t be. It’s for the best.”
Callum looked away for a bit. “You said your village is gone?”
“And it was elves?”
Rayla shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe. I don’t really know. Everything’s a little fuzzy.” Callum let it drop, but he turned his eyes back to her. There was that look again. “What?”
“You’re looking at me like you’re confused.”
Callum flushed a bit. “Sorry.” He apologized too easily, Rayla decided. He tried to make himself small and unnoticed. Why? Weren’t humans supposed to be arrogant? “I don’t know how to explain it, but when I look at you, something’s…off.”
“I don’t know. I asked Soren and Claudia and they both said you’re just really pretty and I’m not used to it.”
Rayla blinked twice. “What do you think?”
The light flush on his cheeks became a dark red. “I mean, you are quite pretty, but I don’t think that’s it.”
“What do you think it is, then?”
Callum stood up, so he was almost at her height. He was about an inch shorter than her, their eyes almost meeting directly. His lips were a lot fuller than she had thought. He tilted his head, an intense look directed right at her. “Do you dye your hair? Claudia does.”
“No.” Rayla gulped. He was too close. Could he hear her heart beating loudly? Why was it beating so fast? What was happening? She had to get out of here! “Sorry, but it’s late. I think I’ll head to bed.”
“Of course. Good night.” Rayla quickly turned and got on the railing to jump back onto her balcony. She turned her head to see Callum still looking at her with that same intense look. She gave him a quick wave and closed the balcony doors. Rayla leaned against the door, putting a hand to her chest. Why was her heart threatening to beat out of her chest? Was she almost caught? No….That hadn’t been it. Prince Callum was dangerous to her mission. That she knew.
“Harrow! We can’t trust her!”
Harrow pinched the bridge of his nose as Viren continued to denounce his commitment to Rayla. “We must care for all of our citizens.”
“Prove to me she’s one of our citizens! There has been nothing about what she claims! No villages have been attacked. NOTHING!”
“Viren, there could be a million reasons why her story isn’t adding up. What if she hit her head and this is the story her mind’s put together? We’ll help her find her home. If there is no home, I’ll give her one until she’s ready to leave.”
“This is a mistake. We can’t just take anyone in! Do we want a repeat of Duren? You don’t think things through enough when you’re trying to be compassionate.”
Harrow grit his teeth. “Let’s make something clear. I take full responsibility for what we had to do in Xadia. I lost my wife because I didn’t think ahead enough. My sons have to grow up without their mother! But I will not leave someone in need. I am trying to build a world that will accept the love and compassion that is so strong in Ezran.”
“His heart is far purer than mine ever was. He forgives easily and is incredibly understanding. He’ll be a better king than I am. But, I have to show compassion and understanding as well.”
“Harrow, listen to me-”
“The subject of Rayla is closed. She stays unless she proves she cannot be trusted.”
Viren growled low in his throat, quickly leaving the room. Harrow sighed as he leaned against his chair. Pip began to sing, the melody almost cheerful.
The next morning, Rayla followed Callum and Soren as they went to do their lessons. Callum looked completely unenthused while Soren kept sending smirks her way. What was with this blonde idiot? She watched Soren basically not teach Callum much of anything, except to expect to fall down. Which, would have been fine if he was also teaching Callum how to get up quickly. “Can I interject?”
Soren gave her a cocky grin. “No offense, but what does someone from a farming village know about swords?”
Rayla wracked her brain for the excuse Lujanne and her had come up with. “I’ve seen the military practice often enough. Besides, you don’t think children pretend to play with swords?”
Soren shrugged, handing her his sword. Rayla shook her head, taking Callum’s from the ground. “You’re not teaching him right.”
“With all due respect, I’m teaching him fine.”
“You’re teaching him to expect to fail but not how to get back up. In other words, you’re screwing with his confidence. That’s not teaching.” Rayla lunged forward, Soren barely able to block it. “His mother used a lance. Train him on that.” Soren pushed back, shock on his face as Rayla spun and used his own force against him so that he leaned forward, almost losing his balance. “Not everyone is made for the same thing.” Soren spun to face her. They traded blows, but it was obvious to all that Rayla was the superior swordsman. She was too light on her feet and knew when to add the right amount of power. She also knew when to back off, which was ultimately Soren’s downfall as she finally swept his legs out from under him, landing him on his back.
“You-You SWEPT THE LEG!” Callum exclaimed. Rayla smirked over at him. She wanted his attention on her, she realized. She wanted his praise.
“That’s not a thing in sword fighting!” Soren groaned from the ground.
“Apparently it is.” Everyone looked up to see Harrow, Viren, and Opeli at the entrance to the courtyard. “Rayla, you have a lot of talent in sword fighting.”
“I played a lot as a kid with fake weapons.” Viren raised a brow as Opeli looked her up and down.
“Perhaps, you would be better suited to training Callum.”
More time with Callum? BAD IDEA. He wasn’t suspicious of her, but he saw through the illusion, in some way he knew it was there. Rayla turned to see Callum looking at her. There was hope in his gaze instead of confusion. How could she refuse him when he looked at her like that? “I would be honored, Your Majesty.” She briefly curtseyed, sighing when the adults moved on. ‘I’m in trouble.’ “Alright, Prince Callum. No more swords. You’re going to be learning how to use a battle lance.”
“Let’s do it!” He looked so excited, his toothy smile and shining eyes hit her heart way too hard.
As they moved through practice, every little touch sent lightning coursing through her body. His laugh was infectious and his questions were actually incredibly insightful. The hours passed so quickly, she had barely noticed when dinner time came and judging by his expression, he hadn’t either.
As Rayla lay in bed that night, her heart still hadn’t slowed down. Every time she closed her eyes, a pair of green ones haunted her. Was this a crush? No, it was too intense for that. Either way, she had to pack these feelings deep into the corners of her heart and forget about that. There was no room for error. She couldn’t…she couldn’t fall in love with someone she was going to leave without a family. ‘Oh, gods…I’m falling for him….’
Callum went through his sketchbook. It’d been several months since Rayla had come and his notebook was becoming filled to the brim with pictures of her. The last time he had drawn Claudia had been the day Rayla had come. That itch in the back of his mind was still strong, but he felt drawn to Rayla in a way he didn’t know was possible. Every move she made had his immediate attention. Her laugh was infectious and her snark and sarcasm showed an intelligent mind that was screaming for knowledge and also an eye for loopholes. She had taken to lessons with him and Ezran, devouring knowledge almost as soon as it was presented to her, though she preferred to be outside and moving about. It was hard to keep her attention for long when the sun was shining and there were things to do outside.
“Hey.” Callum looked up to see the object of his thoughts smiling at him from her balcony.
“The moon’s full.” Callum nodded, wondering where this was going. “Back home, we sing and celebrate the passing of each cycle. I haven’t been able to do it much since coming here. Do you mind if I sing a bit?”
“Not at all.” Callum had not expected the haunting voice that Rayla had when she sang. He felt the gooseflesh on his skin as she vocalized for a bit.
There's an old familiar silence
When I'm lost inside my heart
I can't hear the voice inside me
So I look up to the stars
There is darkness ever waiting
I can feel it in the air
So I call upon my angels
Are you still there?
When the wind bends the branch to softly touch me
When the band plays your song
I feel strong enough to keep dreaming
Even when I'm all alone our love goes on and on
When the wind bends the branch to softly touch me
When the band plays your song
I feel strong enough to keep dreaming
Even when I'm all alone our love goes on and on
When she finished, she turned to him. Callum was struck speechless. The softness on her features as she sang compared with just how deep her song reached his soul…In the back of his mind, Callum remembered a conversation his mother and Viren’s ex-wife had once had when he was little. That, sometimes, souls called out for each other in ways no one could run away from. The light of the full moon hit her gaze and Callum wondered if that’s what was happening. Was his soul drawn to Rayla’s? It felt like it. “Thank you for sharing that,” he whispered. Whatever spell had taken over the both of them, he didn’t want to break it.
“You’re welcome,” she whispered back. When they parted for the night, Callum stared at her balcony for a few moments longer. He wasn’t quite sure when he had stopped liking Claudia, but he knew that what he was feeling for Rayla was far stronger and, most likely, not nearly as easy to let go of.
The song is Love Goes On and On by Lindsey Stirling and Amy Lee. If you have not seen the Older Rayllum AU content that is Lindsey Stirling's Between Twilight, go to YouTube and watch it!
Chapter 3: Year One Part 2
“You called, Dad?” Claudia announced her presence. Viren turned to her, sighing as he faced away from the mirror he had gotten back in Xadia. He still hadn’t figured out it’s secrets, but he had seen a cloaked figure appear every once in a while.
“Yes, Claudia. We need to talk about relationships.”
“Oh.” Claudia blushed, putting a few strands of her dark hair behind her ear. “Did you hear about the girl at the bakery? I know it’s unorthodox, but-”
“You don’t have time to be worrying about bakery girls, Claudia.” Viren sat in his chair, gesturing for Claudia to sit beside him. “Ever since Rayla got here, Prince Callum’s attention has drifted from you to her.”
“That’s not acceptable.”
Claudia looked down at her hands. “He’s my friend and I didn’t want to embarrass him, but I never liked him, Dad. I like girls.”
“I know. But we’re a different cut above people who work in bakeries.”
“That’s not what Harrow says.”
“Claudia, please. In order for our families to be closer together, in order for us to keep living a life you're accustomed to, I need you to make an effort to get Prince Callum’s attention again.”
“Dad…I don’t want to. If he wants to be with Rayla-”
“Soren wants to be with Rayla. You’ve seen how he makes a fool of himself around this castle when she’s in the room. Don’t you want your brother to be happy? It frees Rayla up if Callum’s taken.”
“How would I even do it?” Claudia put her arms around herself. Viren got up, wrapping an arm around his daughter.
“Callum wants to learn magic. Though both he and Harrow are deeply opposed to dark magic, start teaching him how to use the primal stone. Private lessons. Do whatever you can.”
“I don’t know….”
“Claudia, look at me.” She finally did, confusion in her green eyes. Viren shook his head. He hated that he was asking his own daughter to sacrifice her happiness, but he had plans. Harrow was growing more and more distant from him. Killing Thunder and taking the egg hadn’t done their friendship any favors. If anything, it had deteriorated it. They argued constantly and Harrow had threatened to send him out of the castle. Viren couldn’t let that happen. Harrow was becoming too against dark magic and was starting to doubt everything they had built towards. What if Xadia attacked and Katolis was defenseless? Or worse, Harrow tried to make peace and Xadia used it as an excuse to invade the entirety of the Pentarchy? Viren couldn’t let that happen. “Please. It’s important that you do this.”
“OK, Dad. I’ll try my best.”
Rayla watched from the window as the royalty from the other kingdoms came to the castle. They were coming to celebrate Ezran’s eleventh birthday. “They’re here,” she whispered to Callum and Ezran. They both looked over at her, interest on their faces. “Have you really never met any of them?”
“I met the former Queens of Duren when I was four,” Callum started, “but, besides, that, no. This party for Ez is pretty unorthodox.”
“Why? Seems counter-intuitive. You get a stronger alliance when you all know each other, right?” Rayla glared at herself in the mirror. Was that too obvious? Callum and Ezran were really trusting individuals, but she really could be slipping as she grew comfortable here.
“There’s a concern about influencing the other kingdoms. There’s a desire to be friendly, but to also be separate and to respect differences. Duren and Katolis have usually had a reasonably close relationship compared to the others. But when you have a country like Evenere, which is far out compared to everyone else, it can lead to concern about plotting and alliances.”
“Fair, I suppose.”
“We’re going to get ready for the party. You coming?” Rayla nodded, keeping her eyes on the window for a moment longer. This was the other reason she was here; information. As she followed the princes to their rooms, she noticed just how rushed everyone was. They were moving about and it felt like the whole castle was being remodeled. “Good thing I moved out months ago,” Callum said to Ezran.
Rayla raised a brow. “‘Moved out?’”
“Oh. You didn’t know?” Rayla shot him a look of confusion. “Ezran and I used to share a room. The day I turned 15, which was right before you got here, I finally got my own room. It’s next to Ezran’s, but I needed space.”
“Why did you two share a room for so long?”
Callum shrugged. “Maybe because of our mom’s death. I know I had nightmares and didn’t like being alone and when Ezran needed a room because he outgrew the crib, I offered mine. I only moved because the king suggested it.”
Ezran sighed. “Call him ‘Dad,’ Callum. He liked it when you did that one time.”
“It felt weird,” Callum whispered.
“Because you made it weird. You apologized right after and everyone could tell that you were thinking about it for a long time. He liked it. For all the Big Feelings Times we have, the two of you are so hesitant to be open about this.”
Rayla was quiet as they argued about whether or not Callum should call Harrow ‘dad’. What was she going to do while the royal families were here? If she mingled too much, it would be obvious that she was trying to get information. Viren was already suspicious of her. But if she stuck with Callum and Ezran she would be missing out on an important opportunity. When they approached their rooms, they saw Soren and Claudia arguing in the hall. “Can we help you?” Rayla called.
The two turned, smiling at the trio. Soren cleared his throat. “Rayla, I was wondering if you would like me to accompany you tonight? Usually, for these things, people take dates and-”
“Callum already asked and I said ‘yes.’” Rayla’s eyes widened a bit. It was the perfect chance. If Callum was her date, then she could meet the royals and have an excuse to not be too conspicuous. But, that hadn’t been why she had said that. She didn’t want to go with Soren. She looked over at a sputtering Callum. “Right?”
“Yeah,” he muttered. “I asked a little bit ago. Sorry, Soren.”
“Oh,” Claudia interrupted. Rayla’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a shame, I was hoping you and I could go together, Callum.”
“Really?” Callum raised a brow. Rayla looked at her door. She didn’t want to hear this. “Why?”
“Well, you and I have known each other for a long time, so…maybe the two of us could start thinking about dating.”
“But…Claudia I saw you in the bakery last week. You and the helper were very clearly flirting and making-out.” Claudia flinched. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I’m sorry, I’m not interested in you like that anymore.”
Claudia’s jaw dropped for a moment, biting her lip when the shock probably wore off. “OK. That’s fair. Ezran, will you be my date?”
Ezran looked down at Bait. “Can Bait come?”
“Of course,” Claudia smiled.
“Sure!” Claudia, Soren and Ezran moved on, heading to their rooms to get ready. Callum hung back, still looking at her.
“I never asked you.”
“I know.” She said it so matter of factly it probably shocked him if his continued stare was any indication. “I didn’t want to go with Soren. I’m sorry I put you on the spot like that, but I didn’t see any other choice.”
“Is that the only reason?”
‘No’ almost escaped her lips. He needed to stop looking at her like that, like she was something to be admired and adored. “I trust you. Is that not enough?” Callum held her gaze for a moment longer, finally nodding. They stood in the hall a bit longer, static crackling in the air between them. “Besides, you need a good guard. Who better than me?”
Callum chuckled. “True. You can take anyone in the crown guard.”
“Yes, I can. And don’t you forget it.” Rayla turned away, entering her room. She leaned against the door for a few moments, pressing her clenched fist to her heart. Her heart was beating too fast. It always did that when he looked at her too long. ‘Does he see? Can he see through the illusion?’ She couldn’t tell. Ever since that first night on the balcony when he said something about her appearance was off, he sometimes looked at her like he could see through to her true form. He never said anything, so Rayla had no way of knowing if she was being paranoid or if he was quietly observing.
That wasn’t it, though. They talked on their balconies almost every night. Their winter at the Banther Lodge had been cozy and intimate and she had gotten to know him, Ezran and Harrow more. She liked what she saw. Liked it too much. Also….Ezran. Oh, gods, Ezran. Was she really here to kill Ezran? The more time she spent with him, the more she realized he was just a child and how wrong all of this was. The Dragon Prince hadn’t deserved to die, but, would justice be achieved by killing another innocent?
‘Stop it, Rayla! You’ve been having too many Big Feelings Times with them. You are here for a job. It’s not your responsibility to judge what is justice and what isn’t.’ It wasn’t her job at all. Rayla pushed away from the door and made her way to the bed. There was a blue gown on the bed. The gold embroidery on the skirt was obviously meant to be reminiscent of the uneven towers of Katolis. She ran a hand down the expensive silk. ‘Too much…’ Rayla pulled her clothes off and dressed in the gown. When she looked in the mirror to make sure it sat correctly, she was startled by her reflection. Human…she looked human. Would she ever get used to seeing blue eyes, rounded ears and blonde hair staring back at her?
Rayla stepped forward for a moment, hand touching the reflection and the other touching the necklace. What she wouldn’t give to pull it off and see herself looking back at her. Lujanne’s warning screamed loud in the back of her mind. ‘If you take that necklace off, the illusion will break. If you put it back on, you will not look exactly the same. There is no way of knowing if that difference could be explained away or not. You can never take it off as long as you are on this side of the border.’
Rayla quickly put the necklace under her dress. She didn’t need people asking questions. She did her hair in a loose bun, several chunks framing her face, and her small braid used to wind it all together. She had never thought about her looks before coming here. It was a distraction. There were most important things to do than having perfect hair. There were a few tubes and jars of, what she assumed, was make-up. “No way.” Rayla was not going to paint her face with human cosmetics if she wasn’t allowed to wear the dye of her people.
She put on the low heels Opeli had most likely picked out for her. The dress covered the heels. What was the point of wearing them if no one would even see them? She shook her head; just thankful she hadn’t been given anything with a corset or laces. She had seen that fashion here in Katolis and it didn’t interest her at all.
She looked in the mirror one more time and walked out the door to the hall. Callum was waiting for her. Her eyes widened as she took him. He was in a red jacket and a fancier version of his black pants. There was clear padding on his shoulders as well as the same embroidery of the uneven towers. His eyes scanned her form, slowly taking in every detail. She both wanted to hide and stand firm in his attention. “You clean up pretty good,” she finally said.
“You look beautiful.” That wasn’t fair…he couldn’t say things like that. Not when she was fighting her heart against him. Her heart was so desperate for her to run into his arms, tell him the truth, and maybe, just maybe, it would all work out. That wasn’t how things worked, though, was it?
“Thank you. I’m just hoping I don’t trip on this dress.” She lifted the skirt a bit to show the shoes. “I’m not used to heels, either.”
“You’re a pretty good dancer, though.” Rayla smiled. Callum had been tasked with teaching her how to dance since he wasn’t terrible at it. Rayla had taken to it quickly. It may not have been the same steps she knew, but Silvergrove was full of dancing. It was in their keys, their celebrations, their harvest, everything.
“You need to stop complimenting. You’re going to make me think you mean it.”
“I do. You’re amazing, Rayla.” Callum cleared his throat. “Shall we go?” He held his arm out, giving her the crook of his elbow. “I can’t wait to for you to show me off.”
“I’m showing you off?” Rayla chuckled.
“Of course. I’m the step-prince of Katolis. I need to be shown for the whole world to see. Oh…is the whole world going to see?”
Rayla looped her arm through his. “No. Just the important people.”
“Same thing.” Rayla laughed as he stuck his tongue out at her. They waited for Ezran and walked with him to get Claudia and Soren. The group of five exchanged pleasantries, Soren stumbling on his words as he complimented Rayla.
“The dress really suits you, Rayla.” Soren bowed a bit. “You sure you don’t want me to escort you?”
“I’m sure.” They walked behind Ezran and Claudia, who looked back at them every once in a while. Rayla didn’t know what game Claudia was playing, but she didn’t like it. It wasn’t acceptable to play with Callum’s heart like she was. “You got a problem with this?”
“No,” Claudia said too quickly. “Just wasn’t expecting it.”
“After seeing you give lingering looks to half the girls in the castle, I wasn’t expecting what you asked either.”
Claudia was quiet. Rayla wasn’t sure if she was simply refusing to answer or if she had offended her. Either way, Rayla couldn’t find it in her heart to care. They arrived at the hall, waiting for Ezran and Claudia to be announced. “This is so much,” she whispered.
“I know,” came Callum’s soft reply. “You can stay by my side all night if you want.”
“Thank you.” They walked forward when Opeli gestured.
“Introducing Prince Callum and King Harrow’s ward, Ms. Rayla.” Rayla took in the room. She saw a lot of figures she had seen from the window. She could hear whispers flitting to her ears.
‘She’s stunning. Look at that face!’
‘I heard a rumor she was gifted with weapons, but she looks so slim.’
‘They look uneven, don’t they? A rare jewel like that next to the step-prince?’ Rayla’s eyes flitted around the room, trying to find that particular voice. She saw a young man with a crown on his head dressed in golds and creams.
“Who is that?” she gestured with her chin when she got Callum’s attention.
He looked over and was quiet as he thought. “I think Prince Kasef of Neolandia.”
“So no avoiding him?”
Rayla looked back at Kasef. He was staring at her with heat in his eyes. She had heard rumors that Kasef acted like a child when he didn’t get a toy he wanted. “I don’t trust the way he’s looking at me.”
“How’s he looking at you?”
“Like he wants to eat me. I couldn’t be less interested.”
“Really? A lot of girls think he’s attractive from what I’ve heard.”
“I’m not into selfish children disguised as men. I’d rather kiss Soren, and I’m not into himbos, either.”
“‘Himbos?’” Rayla winced. Right, that was a Xadian term. Hopefully she could play this off.
“Not very bright, but muscular and kind. Well, he’s kind with Ezran. I don’t like how he treats you.”
“He’s not so bad,” Callum looked down at his feet. “He can be a pretty good friend when he wants to be.”
“He calls you the ‘step-prince’. I’ll believe you when he apologizes for that.” Callum didn’t push it. They finally made their way to stand by Harrow and Viren, standing off to the side. Rayla tuned out Harrow’s speech about friendship and forging connections to be a united Pentarachy. She’d heard Harrow practice it a million times. Watching everyone’s reactions to it was far more telling. There seemed to be a good-natured attitude in the air. Kasef, though, rolled his eyes every so often. Rayla looked at a young girl with blonde hair in a crown. She stared at Harrow with an intense gaze, but moved her eyes down the line. When she made it to Rayla, they held eye contact for a few moments. In those moments, Rayla saw a world of strength and pain. Someone who wasn’t willing to back down and didn’t trust because they were betrayed every time. “Queen Aanya,” she breathed.
Callum looked where she was, nodding slightly in ascent. “Yeah.”
Aanya held the gaze. What did she see? Finally, Aanya broke away first, but Rayla felt like she had given Aanya far more than she had learned herself. “She’s Ezran’s age.”
Harrow’s booming voice broke through Rayla’s concern. “Please, enjoy the night. And, again, thank you for coming to celebrate Ezran’s birthday.” Rayla stood to Callum’s side as the royals came up and introduced themselves. She curtseyed and kept her head down as much as good as she listened to everything around her.
When Kasef got to her, he picked up her hand and placed a kiss on it, a smirk that he probably thought was charming on his face. “May I have the first dance?”
“Already promised it to Callum.”
“Third?” Kasef’s voice was straining, squeezing her hand.
“Harrow.” It bothered Rayla how quickly lies left her lips lately, but she felt no guilt for this.
Callum coughed a bit. “Look, she clearly isn’t interested-”
“Was I talking to you, step-prince?” Kasef hissed. Callum looked down at his feet. “Thought so.”
Rayla glared at Kasef, snatching her hand away. “He’s right, I’m not interested. Pick someone else to annoy.”
“You’re bothering me and you’re asking to make sure you got my name right?”
“I just want to be sure I know the name of the woman I plan on pleasuring tonight.”
“Then you’re talking to the wrong girl. Not happening tonight, tomorrow, or ever.”
King Ahling sighed. “Kasef, leave the girl alone.”
Kasef cocked his jaw, but moved on. Rayla didn’t stare after him, looking straight ahead lest he turn back and think she was encouraging his behavior. Aanya was next. They stared at each other for a few moments. How did this tiny human queen make her feel so small? Aanya nodded. “I’m Aanya, Queen of Duren.”
“Rayla, a simple farm girl.”
“Not what I hear. How does a farm girl get so good with a sword she beats a member of the crown guard or so good with a spear she trains a prince?”
“We watch the military and play a lot. I’ve got good reflexes, I guess.”
“I see.” Aanya stared at her for a few more moments. “Has anyone ever told you that there’s something not quite right? It’s like something is pulling at the edge of my mind when I look at you.”
Rayla nodded. “Callum said that.”
Soren piped up from behind them. “It’s because she’s so pretty. You know how beautiful women make you stop in place. Same thing.”
Aanya was quiet, staring long and hard at Rayla. Finally, she turned away. “I see.” She turned back and nodded her head. “It was a pleasure to meet you.”
Rayla grabbed her hand, shocking them both. Aanya raised a brow but did nothing else. “What do you see?”
“I see someone who was deeply hurt by someone they love but hides it because it’s easier than thinking about it. I see confusion and anger and hurt. I also see a heart that’s too good for the world we live in, one always concerned with war breaking out. Perhaps, if you let go of that hurt and forgave, you could be happier.” Aanya walked away before Rayla could say anything.
“How did she do that?”
“She’s good at reading people,” Callum whispered.
“That’s an understatement.”
“You have to be if you live the way she does. Sycophants, assassination attempts, regents pretending to love her like their own child, whispering in her ears. It caused a stir when she took the throne last year. Everyone said she was too young, but she couldn’t trust the regents anymore. She’s either going to be one of the greatest rulers the Pentarchy has ever seen or she’ll be so clouded by distrust she’ll be a tyrant.”
“What do you think?”
Callum mulled it over. “She’ll be a good queen, I think. Maybe she won’t always make the popular choice, but she’s well-known for loving her people. She views them as her family because she lost her parents when she was a baby.”
The night dragged on. Rayla meant dignitaries and nobility who stared at her like she was a piece of cattle on display. Her face hurt from smiling and her feet hurt from the heels. The biggest reprieve had been dancing with Callum. A simple waltz had left her imagining they were the only two in the room. He had that effect on her, like the rest of the world just melted away and there was no one left but them. She had clenched her fists in Ezran’s clothes when he danced with Claudia while she and Ez danced.
“Rayla?” Ezran whispered. She looked down. “Callum doesn’t like her anymore. I don’t know what Claudia’s doing it, but anyone with eyes can tell her heart isn’t in it.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Rayla whispered.
“Then why are you so upset?” Rayla didn’t say anything. She danced with Harrow in silence, smiling at his jokes, but unable to get rid of the cloud hanging over her head now.
When she came back to the dais, Kasef was waiting for her. “May I have a dance?” he asked. Rayla couldn’t put her finger on it, but she had a feeling he expected her to say ‘yes.’
“Don’t you give up?” Rayla shook her head. “Will you leave me alone if I do?”
Kasef smiled down at her. “I can promise you you’ll never want me to.”
Rayla snorted. “Sure, but promise you’ll leave me alone.”
“If you truly wish it, if you let me have this dance, I will leave you alone for the rest of the night.”
“I’ll hold you to it.” Kasef took her hand and pulled her way too close when they got to the dance floor. Rayla pushed herself a more than appropriate amount away. “You’re pushy.”
“How old are you?” Kasef asked.
“Marriageable age in Neolandia.”
“Cool,” Rayla huffed under her breath.
“You’re quite stunning. Why would you choose to be the step-prince’s date?”
“He’s nice and I like him.”
Kasef pulled her closer again. “I have experience with women.”
“How nice for you.” Rayla was going to slap him if he didn’t stop.
“A beautiful woman like you should be draped in silks and dripping in diamonds.”
“Come on. I’m offering you a chance no other farm girl would ever get.” Kasef spun her, and brought her back far too close. “If you keep my bed warm every night, I’ll give you all the pretty things you never dreamed of.” His hand snuck down her back and he groped her ass.
Rayla couldn’t hold back. She slapped him so hard his head swung to the side. “DO. NOT. TOUCH. ME.” Rayla held firm as he turned his head to look back at her. “Learn to take a ‘no’ every once in a while, and stop acting like a child. Actually, that’s not fair. Children know that ‘no’ means ‘no’. You’re spoiled and you need to grow-up.” Rayla walked away before he could say anything back. The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop.
“Well,” Aanya’s voice carried throughout the room, “I don’t know about all of you, but I think this party should move on. I’m tired of dancing. King Harrow, I heard that Katolis has a beautiful garden.”
Harrow nodded. “It does indeed. Let me show you all.” Rayla stayed back as everyone went to the gardens.
“You OK?” She was startled back into reality as Callum took her hand.
“I’m fine. Just grossed out.”
“Not even the jerkface dance could make that better.”
“No, it couldn’t.”
“What do you need?”
“Can we just go to bed? Or would that be rude?”
“Given the circumstances, I think it would be OK.”
“Did I really just slap the crown prince of Neolandia?”
“You did and it was awesome.” Callum chuckled with her, gently putting a hand on her upper back. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“Anytime.” He looked up into her eyes and she almost fell into them. His lips her so close and they were alone. He moved away before she could let her heart make the decision for her.
‘It’s for the best, Rayla. You’re heart is a fool.’
Chapter 4: Year Two
Rayla watched on as Ezran and Callum argued. “I’m telling you; I can talk to animals!”
Callum folded his arms. “It’s the raccoons all over again.”
“No. This is why you don’t have friends!” Rayla’s eyes went wide at that.
“Callum! Stop it!” She wasn’t even sure how they had gotten in on this bizarre argument. One minute they were enjoying their free time between lessons and the next Ezran was talking about how the horses were complaining about kissing in their stalls. Callum hadn’t taken kindly to it, calling Ezran a liar and now, apparently, Ezran could talk to animals. Rayla felt a headache coming on, but she also knew Ezran didn’t lie. “Just hear him out.” Rayla bent down to look Ezran in the eyes. “Ez, can you prove it?”
Ezran nodded. “The mice saw you two having conversations on your balconies. Every night, you two talk.”
Callum shook his head. “You could have easily overheard that. My room is right next to your’s and you have a balcony, too.”
Ezran groaned. “I’m sorry about the raccoons, OK?! I didn’t know they were all liars, but I’m not lying!”
Rayla put her hand on Ezran’s shoulder. “I know you believe this, Ez.” She looked at Bait in his arms. Ezran had always seemed hyperaware of Bait’s feelings….She took Bait and walked over to the stacks, ignoring Ezran and Callum asking what she was doing. “OK, frog. I’m going to tell you something nobody in this castle knows.” Bait looked up at her with his grumpy face, but croaked in acceptance, at least, she supposed he did. When she looked behind her and saw that the boys were still far behind them, she picked Bait up and whispered close to where she assumed his ear hole was. “My parents names were Tiadrin and Lain. My adoptive fathers called each other ‘My Heart.’”
Rayla turned back to Callum and Ezran, walking back with Bait. She had no idea what Bait was capable of communicating, but she figured, if Ezran could understand any of this, it would convince her. Rayla handed Bait to Ezran, and gestured for the glow toad to talk.
“What’d she do, buddy?” Ezran sighed. Callum raised a brow, clearly wanting to know himself. Ezran looked up and smiled. “That’s adorable.”
“What is?” Rayla asked.
“Your dads calling each other ‘My Heart.’ That’s so romantic!” Rayla’s eyes went wide. Callum looked at her, waiting for her to speak, she was sure.
“He can talk to animals,” Rayla said. Before Callum could ask, she walked away. She was going to have to be even more careful. If Ezran could hear the mice…she couldn’t say anything out loud. Nowhere was safe. Rayla’s eyes went wide as her breath came out in harsh pants. Had she slipped at any point? Would Ezran be able to understand her mumbles to herself? Rayla but her hand to her chest as she felt her heart beating loudly. “Oh, no…oh, no.”
“Rayla! How you-you OK?” Rayla looked up to see Soren, staring down at her. “You look like Callum when he’s having an anxiety attack.”
Was that what was happening? Blood was rushing in her ears. She had already failed and now…what if they figured if out and locked her up? They would kill her. Callum….Callum would hate her….Why did that hurt more than anything else? Rayla felt tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I’m fine,” she whispered. She couldn’t let anyone see her be weak. She was not weak. She was strong and brave and she would not fail in her duty.
“You don’t look fine. Do you want me to take you to your room?” Soren wrapped an arm around her shoulder, lifting her up. When had she sunk to her knees on the floor?
“I said I’m fine!” She pushed him away, putting her hand on the wall to steady herself. “I’m fine. Thank you, Soren.” Soren backed up, nodding at her.
“Do you want to, maybe, talk about it? I can be an ear for you if you want.”
“No. I’ve got it. Just learned something that shocked me.” Rayla walked away from Soren, ignoring his disappointed face. She didn’t have time for his flirting, even when he was trying to be kind. When she made it to her room, she settled on her bed and laid against the bed. She tried counting backwards, tried working through it. She tried a Big Feelings Time in her head, but nothing was working.
The tears of frustration came hard and they came fast. She was going to fail, just like her parents. She was a failure. This is why the guild had sent her. They had sent her to fail, get rid of her and end her miserable bloodline. She could feel herself spiral down deep into corners that couldn’t possible be true, but certainly felt true in the moment. Or was it true? Did they think she was doomed to fail?
She heard knocking on her door, but ignored it. She didn’t want to see anyone. “Rayla?” She turned her head to see Callum, his soft eyes staring right at her. Rayla turned away. She didn’t want him to see her like this. “Soren said you were upset.”
“You don’t look fine.”
“Leave me alone,” she whispered in her pillow. “You wouldn’t get it.”
Instead of him leaving, he sat on the bed next to her. “You’re right, I probably wouldn’t.” She turned to look at him. He smiled down at her. Softly, hesitantly, he stroked her cheek and ran a hand through her hair. Rayla’s breath caught in her throat. “When my anxiety gets to be too much, I imagine my mom. It’s been so long since I’ve seen here, but she’s this calming force in my life. I miss her, all the time. I don’t remember my father, at all. I just know I have his eyes and talent for art.” Callum removed his hand, moving to the art journal he kept at his side at all times. “Do you want to see something?”
Rayla nodded, sitting up. She rested her head on his shoulder, taking in his scent of rosemary and balsam. He flipped through the pages until he finally landed on a picture of Sarai, Harrow, him, and Ezran. “It’s beautiful.”
“I draw this picture every year. I want to remember us from back then. My mom can’t grow old anymore, but I want us to have a family portrait every year anyways.”
“You look so much like her.”
“Thanks. It’s always a compliment when people say that.” He was quiet as he slowly flipped the pages for her to look through. “You missed the Jerkface Dance.”
“I did?” she whispered.
“I did the trick you did, with Bait. Ez now knows something really embarrassing.”
“NOPE! It’s bad enough he knows.” Rayla didn’t push it.
After a few moments, she sighed. “I felt trapped by the fact that Ezran understands the mice. If he does, does that mean we don’t have secrets here?”
“I felt really upset about that too. Ez said he ignores the mice and has asked them to be quiet when they know he’s there. At least, about the things they hear around the castle. It’s too much of an invasion of privacy.”
“He’s a good kid.”
“He is. I felt really bad for saying that’s why he doesn’t have friends. Ez has always been a weird kid. But, that’s not fair, is it? He’s the future king. No matter what he does, people are going to look at him differently.”
Rayla raised her head, turning Callum’s head to look at her. “You’re both just doing your best. It’s too much burden for one so young. It’s not just him; everyone looks at you differently, too. I heard Viren offered magic lessons.”
“Claudia did. Primal magic since she has a primal stone. I’m gonna learn sky magic.”
Rayla smiled. “Do you promise, no dark magic?”
“I promise. It’s a shortcut and all it leads to is disaster. My mother…maybe she would still be alive if dark magic hadn’t been an option in the first place.”
“Maybe. Maybe it was her time. Who’s to say?”
Callum stared in her eyes. “It gets worse when I look in your eyes.”
“That tingling something’s off.” Rayla turned her head away, letting him go. “I’m sorry! That was rude!”
“No, it’s fine,” Rayla wrapped her arms around herself. For a second, she had forgotten the spell was there. He had looked at her like she was everything…stop, Rayla. Just stop. She couldn’t have him. She turned back around, Callum still looking at her. “Thank you. I feel better after you told me that Ezran doesn’t heed the mice.”
“I thought that was it. But Soren wasn’t sure. And, since he watches you so much…”
“He needs to stop. I’m not interested. Not my type.”
“What is your type?” It was so quiet she wasn’t sure she had heard right.
Rayla looked at him for a few moments. “Smart, willing to admit when they’re wrong, loving, kind.” She gulped. “A massive dork. Come on, we have lessons still.” She couldn’t give him time to think about what she had just said. If they did, what if he felt the same? Would she throw everything away to be with Callum? Rayla turned her head to look back at Callum, hand still holding her’s. Yes, she would give it all up if he loved her back as much as she loved him. She could never give him a chance to.
Callum huffed as he did his fifth fulminis. “Claudia, isn’t there any other spells?”
“You’re not ready, Callum,” she muttered. She was watching him with a critical eye. “You’re very quick with a primal stone, honestly. It took me weeks to get to this level. Dark magic was always easier.”
“Maybe I’m destined to be a sky mage?” Callum asked. The possibilities would be endless.
Claudia shook her head. “We were born with nothing. That’s why we need dark magic and primal stones. Come on, try dark magic. I’m sure you’d take to it right away.”
“No thanks,” Callum stood firm. Claudia was always trying to tempt him with dark magic and dates these days. He didn’t get it. The dark magic, he could. Claudia didn’t see just how dangerous it was yet. But the dates, that made no sense.
“OK. You wanna go get some jelly tarts?” And there was the date.
“No thanks.” Claudia nodded, not looking too torn up. “Is Viren asking you to ask me out?”
Claudia’s back straightened, turning away from him. “No?” It came out as a question. “I just think you and I would be good together.”
“Yeah, while I’m in love with Rayla and you’re not even attracted to me.” Claudia was quiet for too long. “You know I’m in love with Rayla, right?”
“So is Soren. Soren would be a good choice for her. He’s always trying to impress her and his sword fighting skills are pretty good.”
Callum looked down at his feet. That was all true. Rayla was too cool and pretty for him. She was his teacher and his friend, nothing more. There’s no way he could convince someone like her that he was even an option. “I know. I just don’t want us both to be miserable with each other.” Callum walked out of the room, heading towards the grounds. It was almost time for his lesson with Rayla. He saw her facing off against Soren. As always, it was clear as day that Rayla was the superior one with a weapon. She dodged and flowed like it was a dance, sweeping the leg effortlessly when she got bored of the match.
Callum saw that the crown guards around them were nursing injuries of their own. Rayla had probably gone through the lot of them. She finally swatted Soren’s sword out of his hand, putting the tip to his chin. “I win.” Her voice was crisp and clear, turning to look at the lot of the other guards. “He lasted longer than all of you. Do not forget that he is the head of the crown guard for a reason. You all need to stop making jokes about how a tiny girl keeps beating him. I think I remember Queen Sarai being the former general and incredibly skilled with a spear. Also, isn’t General Amaya a woman?”
One of the guards looked disgruntled. “You’re a slip of a thing and you’re so good.”
“I’ve got a lot of toned muscle. I prioritize speed over bulk. It’s not that complicated.” Rayla looked over at him, as if she had known he was there the whole time. Had she? “I’m doing the same with Callum. Making a move faster is just as important as might.”
“And how do you know that?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Rayla walked away, handing the sword to a random guard and grabbing two spears. “Good, you’re here. Let’s get this session underway. They were a good warm-up.” Callum followed before her, in awe of just how cool she sounded. They went to their more secluded grounds and went through the warm-ups of stretches and following basic spear-holding positions. “Eventually, we’ll get you doing swordplay again. Just to please everyone. How was your lesson with Claudia?”
“She suggested dark magic again.”
“And you said ‘no’?”
Why did she always sound so concerned when she asked that? “Of course. I have no interest in it.”
“Good.” Rayla turned away for a moment. She quickly spun the spear in her hand and turned to face him, moving to strike. He blocked her, trying to hold her ground as she added power behind her moves. She moved around him, trying to teach him how to keep grounded on his feet. “Better! Stand firm. No matter what, you cannot lose your balance. It’ll all be over if you do.” Callum nodded, bending his knees a bit. “Bad choice,” Rayla whispered. Callum couldn’t stop her from using her spear to sweep his legs out from under him, knocking him flat on his back. “You reacted to what I said in an obvious way. If you had waited, maybe I wouldn’t have noticed.”
“You’d have noticed. Don’t act like you wouldn’t have.”
“True.” Rayla stared down at him before offering her hand to help him up. “You are getting much better, though. I’m proud of you.”
Callum flushed at her words. It had been a little more than a year since she had arrived, crashing into their lives and disrupting his heart in every way. She now had to look up at him as his growth spurt had started. He watched as she spun the spear in her hand again, moving like it was a dance partner. Everything she did was like a dance. Perhaps, in another life, she was a dancer for a theater troupe. “Thanks.”
She smiled back at him. “Dinner will be soon, Your Highness. Go wash up.”
“What about you?”
“I want to stay here a bit longer. The peace and quiet does me good.” He nodded, leaving her behind. When he turned back for a last look, he saw her looking back at him, a soft look on her face. What did that mean? It reminded him of how his mom had looked at Harrow back when she had been alive. But, he couldn’t hope for that from Rayla. Someone like her was made for far better than him.
Chapter 5: Year Two Part Two
Rayla sighed as she felt Callum’s forehead. “He’s still burning up.” The doctor sighed, gesturing towards the medicine to the side.
“Make sure he takes it, Lady Rayla.”
“OK.” Rayla barely noticed as the doctor left the room. Callum had come down with a high fever and a sore throat a few days ago, complaining of aches and shaking as he grew pale very quickly. The past 24 hours, he had barely been conscious, and when he was, his gaze was unfocused and his breathing worse.
Rayla had barely left his side since he became bedridden, finding it difficult to leave him. The whispers that it was improper couldn’t get her to leave him. Harrow visited frequently and Ezran rarely left the room, either. Currently, Ezran was discussing something important with Opeli. Rayla should care, it was her job to care, but she didn’t. Gently, she held Callum’s hand and ran her thumb along the back of his hand. “Get better. Please. I can’t do this without you.” What even was ‘this’? Her mission? No. Life? Maybe. “I need you.”
“Is everything OK?” Ezran asked from behind. Rayla didn’t even turn around, nodding as her eyes remained on Callum’s prone form.
“The doctor didn’t look pleased, but he said Callum needs to keep taking the medicine.”
“That’s probably the best we could have hoped for.” Ezran sat in the chair on the other side, Bait in his lap. “Maybe if you told him you love him-”
“Stop it, Ez. I don’t love him.”
“Why are you lying? Everyone can see it. Well, not him.”
Rayla looked over at Ezran, shaking her head. “No, Ezran. He’s meant for something better than me. That’s final.”
“Why are you like this? You two wouldn’t be the first couple where someone was from a royal background and the other person wasn’t.”
Rayla stayed quiet. She knew the real answer why she couldn’t be with Callum, but Ezran didn’t. “He needs more water. I’ll get a maid to go get some.”
“Let it go, Ezran. Please. My feelings are not important. I’ll ask for them to bring us dinner here, too, OK?” Ezran sighed, but nodded in assent. Bait looked at her with concern. Great, the glowing frog was also worried about her.
Rayla grabbed a passing maid, asking for water and dinner. Instead of heading back in and risk being interrogated by Ezran again, she took a walk around the castle. Everyone stared at her like she was a ghost. They had barely seen her in a few days, but was it really that surprising? The sunlight against her skin as she passed the windows felt nice, warm. “He’s going to get better, right?” she whispered into the air.
She hadn’t seen Claudia since Callum fell ill, despite how often she tried to hang around nowadays. Rayla didn’t trust it. Viren had to be up to something. The longer she was here, the clearer it was that anything involving dark magic was Viren’s idea and that he convinced Harrow to take that route. Harrow didn’t trust dark magic anymore, supposedly, and they fought constantly.
“You can’t be serious!” Rayla turned to the door on her right, shocked that it was Harrow’s study she had found herself in front of. She quietly opened the door, looking in to see Viren and Harrow arguing. “No more dark magic!”
“Xadia hasn’t attacked us, Harrow!”
“GREAT! Excellent! Why are we tempting fate?”
“Because that girl-”
“Do you mean Rayla?”
“Yes, her. She came in out of nowhere, no evidence of what she claimed anywhere, and you just took her in. What if she’s a spy?”
“She’s a child, Viren.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. What if all of this is a ploy to get access to you? What if she wants to marry one of your sons?”
“She’ll have my blessing if she and Callum actually confess their feelings for each other.”
“I can’t believe you are encouraging them. You should be encouraging Callum to pay attention to Claudia.”
“Viren, Claudia likes girls. Everyone has known that since she the incident with the bakery girl. Why are you so desperate for the two of them to be miserable?”
“Because it would unite our houses!”
“And, what, Viren? Bring you back into my good graces? Make me forget what you did to that egg?!” Rayla’s eyes widened, wrapping her hand around her mouth to keep the gasp from escaping. They still hadn’t discovered she was there, but she wasn’t going to risk them learning.
“It doesn’t matter, Harrow.”
“IT WAS AN EGG! An innocent! Killing Thunder because he killed Sarai was one thing. But you killed his egg and took a magic mirror. And the Dragon Guard? You want to explain to me what happened to them?”
“I told you, they ran away!”
“I don’t believe you. What did you do?” Viren was quiet for so long Rayla didn’t know if that was the end of the conversation or not. She heard clinking followed by a gasp from Harrow. “What have you done?!” She couldn’t see through the crack, but whatever Viren had showed him, it had caused Harrow’s face to go pale. “They were people-”
“Elves who were going to kill us!”
“You can’t prove that! If you had just left the damned egg alone, Viren. What have you done? Free them at once!”
“NO! That just leaves a bunch of elves running around Katolis!”
“How many do you have?” Viren was quiet again. “Gods, how long have you been doing this? Do you keep them for experiments?”
“No. I’ve never released them.” Released them from what? Rayla wanted to know what was happening, but neither Harrow nor Viren was being explicit enough. What if…whatever it was, it was her parents? Did something happen to her parents? Had they not abandoned the Dragon Prince after all? “Whose to say what would happen if they were ever released from the coins.”
Rayla didn’t have time to contemplate it. Harrow growled a ‘get out’ and she had to quickly move away as Viren stormed out of the room. He saw her and glared.
“You don’t belong here, girl.” Viren walked away, not turning back to her.
Rayla looked in the study only to see Harrow slouched in his chair. He looked like the weight of the world was on his shoulders. “Your Majesty?” He looked up, nodding. “Is everything alright?”
“Fine. How’s Callum?”
“The doctor said that he needs to continue with his medicine.”
“Of course. He’ll be fine, then. Will you and Ezran be having dinner in his room again this evening?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Please, Rayla, call me ‘Harrow.’” She nodded.
“Harrow, I heard you and Viren arguing.”
“Don’t mind it, Rayla, please. Just too old men arguing about old things.”
“But, you mentioned the Dragon King.”
“Rayla. I trust you, I do, but I need you to understand that I have not always done the right thing. I’ve let my grief consume me.” Rayla waited for him to continue, sensing that if she said a word, he wouldn’t tell her more. “In my grief, I made a bad decision. I went with Viren on a mission of revenge, to kill the Dragon King for killing Sarai. Sarai deserved to live.”
“But, Sarai took a life.”
Harrow looked down at the ground, a tear going down his cheek. “She shouldn’t have been there. She went because she believed we should stand together, but she didn’t believe in the mission. She thought it was a shortcut. And what happened? She was right. It worked, but it cost us her life. Ezran has no memories of her and Callum was effectively orphaned. It was my fault. If I had just made a decision sooner, if I had been smarter with the Queens of Duren….”
Rayla placed a hand on his shoulder, gently rubbing it. “I’m sorry. Everything I’ve heard has made her out to be a wonderful person. She didn’t deserve to die. Do you regret any of it?”
“I don’t know. I regret how things have played out and for letting Viren persuade me into using dark magic, but I don’t feel regret for killing Thunder.”
“What about the egg?”
“I have no idea what Viren’s done with that egg. I wonder if he destroyed it or used it or is lying to me. Either way, it was an innocent and should have been left alone. What if Xadia comes for my sons in revenge?” Rayla gulped. ‘That’s why I’m here, Your Highness.’
“Maybe you should ban dark magic. Stop Ezran from having those same choices offered to him?”
“Viren has too much influence. It’s my own fault. Taking away dark magic could leave use defenseless. Besides, Xadia would get what it has always wanted but what about letting us back in?”
“What if that’s what it would take? An act of good will?”
“It’s too late for me. It’s not too late for Ezran and Callum, though. My hope is that they will choose peace every time. Some day soon, I hope you will stand with them.”
Harrow finally looked up. His green eyes were full of such hope and sorrow it almost broke Rayla’s own heart. “I see the way you look at Callum. Your souls are screaming for each other. You never deny it; your feelings or that he has them for you. Why don’t you act on it?”
“Because, I am not meant for this life. Because I don’t think he loves me the way you and everyone else seems convinced he is. Even if he was, you can’t rewrite the stars for two people. I have to return to him. Good day, Harrow.” Rayla curtsied to Harrow before he could say more and left. The egg could still be alive. The Dragon Prince could still be alive! She was going to have to search every corner of this castle until she knew for sure whether or not that was true.
For now, she had to return to Callum and Ezran. When she got back to the room, Callum’s eyes were half-open. He groaned, hand reaching out towards her. She rushed forward, taking his hand in her’s and holding it to her chest. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I’m sorry I was so long.”
Ezran stayed quiet, but she could feel his eyes on her. Rayla didn’t care. She fed Callum his dinner and barely left except to bathe and take the occasional walk. When Callum recovered three days later, he awoke to Rayla holding his hand, a relieved smile on her face. “Morning, sleepyhead. We missed you.”
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.
Anyone else obsessed with new Pokemon Gotcha music video?!