Claudia was halfway across the ballroom before she realized she had forgotten to put her shoes back on. A few of the other guests were giving her curious looks as she rushed by with her large, feathered mask and heeled shoes dangling from her hands and what was almost certainly a crazed look in her eyes.
At that moment however, she couldn’t care less. Callum had been enchanted by some kind of elf sorceress and the Gods only knew what she had planned for him.
Claudia’s father was still sitting in his usual chair behind King Harrow’s throne, his mask pushed up onto his forehead and an expression of unbridled boredom on his face. Claudia glanced around as she approached, spying Ezran and the king both shuffling around the dance floor and joyfully entertaining guests.
Viren looked up as she approached and gawked at her disheveled appearance. “Claudia!” He said in a viscous whisper. “What in the name of the five kingdoms do you think you’re doing?”
She ignored him and scuttled up the dais, her hands beginning to flail as she tried to quietly convey what she’d seen. However, her father was having none of it. He rose to his feet, took hold of one of Claudia’s wrists and dragged her into a hallway toward the kitchen.
Once they escaped the view of the ballroom, Viren confronted her. “I want an explanation.”
There’s no synonym for cinnamon. There’s no synonym for cinnamon. Claudia repeated in her head to get her thoughts and her words under control.
“Callum’s under some kind of elf spell,” she said simply.
Viren’s anger faltered and was replaced with a burst of bewilderment. “What?”
She recounted what she had seen, repeating a few details when she began to speak too fast. During the whole thing, her father listened with a steadily-creasing brow and by the time she finished, his face had contracted into a full scowl.
“I believe I told you to keep an eye on Prince Callum tonight,” he said coolly.
Claudia blanched. “I tried, Dad, I really did. But by the time I caught up with him it had already happened.”
She watched frustration wash over him before quickly ebbing as he took a deep breath. Claudia, meanwhile, stayed rooted to the spot, anxiously watching the tidal wave of emotions pass over his face.
“I’m sorry,” said Viren, his tone now noticeably calmer. “I let my astonishment get the better of me. None of this is your fault, Claudia. You did the right thing by coming to me.”
Claudia’s body sagged with relief when he put a hand on her shoulder. “What are we going to do?”
Viren considered the question, his eyes unfocusing for a moment before settling on a point behind her shoulder. She turned and saw that the elf girl had returned to the rest of her group. Claudia scowled in her direction.
“Moonshadow elves are a proud race,” Viren said. “They’d sooner hack off a poisonous limb than try and mend it. Perhaps they could use a little assistance removing this particular limb.”
Claudia smirked. “I think I can handle that.”
Viren smiled back at her. “I know you can. But for now, I think we should keep things a bit...subtle.”
“I can do subtle,” Claudia replied assuredly.
Viren quirked a skeptical eyebrow at her, glancing down at her still-bare feet and dangling peacock mask.
“Oh come on, this is a bad example! Let me help, I can go whip up a quick sleep spell or something. We knock her out as the elves are leaving and then we make her tell us what she did to Callum,” Claudia said.
“If one of them were to go missing tonight, they’d have a knife at King Harrow’s throat before daybreak. Besides, eyes from all five kingdoms are here tonight. If word were to get out that Prince Callum was... consorting with an elf, regardless of the circumstances, it could cause a scandal that could threaten Katolis’ seat in the Pentarchy.”
Claudia groaned. Politics was so aggravating. “Fine. So what’s the plan?”
Viren glanced around, nodding politely as a few members of the waitstaff passed by with silver platters laden with wine goblets. “We need to prove that there’s an infection in their ranks. Once we do that, the other elves will take care of the problem for us. No need to dirty our own hands.”
“What makes you so sure the others aren’t in on it too?”
There was a flicker of something in Viren’s eye that Claudia couldn’t quite identify. Certainty, perhaps? Maybe a hint of arrogance?
“Trust me, Claudia,” he said. “And go find your brother.”
Rayla slunk her way back to the troupe after leaving Callum in the garden, trying her best to ignore their accusatory glances and glares but finding the daggers in Runaan’s eyes especially hard to avoid. As soon as the crowd of humans around them thinned, he took hold of Rayla’s arm like a vice and pulled her into a tight whisper.
“Where were you?”
“Garden,” Rayla replied, keeping her voice level. “Looking for ways inside.”
Runaan glowered and searched her face for signs of dishonesty, but Rayla remained impassive. He might be an excellent lie-detector, but he’d also taught her, perhaps a little too well.
Apparently coming to the same conclusion himself, Runaan huffed and released her. “This discussion isn’t over,” he whispered vehemently before his fierce expression melted into a polite smile as a man with muscled arms as thick as Rayla’s head and a curly mustache approached their group.
Rayla slipped into the ensuing conversation, thrilled for the momentary distraction. The man was eager to hear of life in the “wilds” of Xadia and seemed especially taken with Ram, who hardly suppressed his look of disgust. When Rayla heard the faint click of the veranda door opening behind her, she took a nonchalant step to the side, hopefully concealing Callum’s reappearance from her companions.
She only hoped they didn’t see her shiver under the prickling sensation of eyes gazing at her back.
She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t go through with the mission, not now, not after seeing that one prince was hardly more than a child and the other was...Callum. Oh Gods, Callum.
Assassins weren’t supposed to have sympathy for their targets. That wasn’t their job. Their job was to execute justice. The whole point of attending the party had been to get inside the castle and examine the layout, the patrol habits of guards, and gather information they would need when they returned to carry out their true mission.
When the King of Katolis had announced that his second son would be running late for the festivities, she’d turned to Runaan with confusion and worry. They hadn’t been told anything about another prince.
“No matter,” Runaan had whispered back. “Keep to the plan.”
Keep to the plan. Ignore the childlike wonder in Prince Ezran’s eyes. Ignore King Harrow’s declaration that the elves were to be treated as guests. Keep to the plan. But Callum hadn’t been part of the plan. That damn human had shattered her defenses without even trying and had left a very dangerous thought in her head.
“Bad things won’t change until someone is brave enough to take the first step.” His words hadn’t stopped reverberating in her head since he’d spoken them. What if he was right? What if they could find a way to stop the war without chasing more and more blood?
The rest of their evening at the castle was relatively uneventful, and the elves were respectfully, if not a little cautiously, escorted out when things started to wind down. Rayla held her breath when the royal family — the entire royal family — approached their group one last time to shake their hands and bid them farewell. In a credit to her training, she kept her face straight when Callum bowed to her and complemented their performance. However, that didn’t mean she didn’t catch the cheeky glint in his eye.
Rayla kept her composure even as they trudged their way back into the forest and toward Tenebris. Once they were safely away from the prying eyes and ears of the crownguard, Runaan rounded on her.
“You should consider yourself extremely lucky that none of the humans noticed your little stunt. You could have easily set us back months,” he said as they approached the hill overlooking the settlement. Rayla let out a long breath through her nose, deliberately ignoring the snide huff she heard escape from Andromeda’s mouth.
“Nothing happened,” Rayla replied gruffly. “No one saw me.”
Behind her, Skor mumbled. “No one that you know of.”
She turned to glare at him, but said nothing more as they completed the rest of their short journey. Rayla stayed doggedly silent until she and Runaan shuffled into their hut. The others would hear of the details of their conversation soon enough, but for now, Rayla could do without their added layers of judgement and cynicism.
“Speak,” Runaan said harshly the moment the door had closed behind them. His arms folded into a tight vice across his chest.
Rayla took a deep breath, reminding herself that Runaan was a rational, level-headed man. Not only that, but he’d been a father to her for almost all of her nineteen years. She could talk to him.
“I think we might be making a mistake,” She said, tossing her mask into a dark corner of the room.
Runaan just stared, his own mask long-since thrown into the woods. “What are you talking about?”
“The mission,” she replied, catching herself as she started to fiddle with her fingers. “I mean, the prince is just a boy. He hasn’t done anything wrong.”
Runaan’s eyes narrowed. “And the Dragon Prince was only an egg when the humans destroyed him. He wasn’t even given the chance to see the light of day.”
Rayla winced. “I know, but what will happen if we kill them? Another king will seek revenge against us, and then we’ll retaliate again, and the whole thing will keep going until one of us dies out.”
“Rayla, we have our orders. I know that a night among humans can be unnerving, but I trained you better than to lose your footing at the first sign of uneven ground. We have a job to do.”
“But aren’t we just proving that we’re exactly what they think we are? Bloodthirsty monsters?” Rayla looked up only to immediately wish that she hadn’t. Runaan’s eyes were as sharp as the arrows in his quiver.
“They are the reason our people starved instead of venturing outside of the Silvergrove’s illusion. They are the reason the children of Lux Aurea have never seen their home without soldiers patrolling the streets. They are the monsters. Or have you forgotten that? We are here for justice,” Runaan said as his voice started to rise.
Rayla’s own pulse was beginning to quicken. She didn’t understand how much clearer she could be. “What we call justice, they call murder! We don’t have to do this, we can find humans who are willing to talk. There can still be peace.”
“Enough!” Runaan shouted. “You know we do not take lives lightly; we do it because we have to. I will not hear another word about this.”
Rayla scowled. She had never been on a mission with Runaan before. She had never seen what he was truly like when he had the light of duty and obligation shining on him. Frankly, she didn’t like it.
“Fine,” she hissed, not giving him the opportunity to get another word in before fleeing to her room and slamming the flimsy door as hard as she could. She didn’t hesitate before grabbing her winter cloak and holstering her blades on her back just in case. She leapt out the window and started to run.
The invigorating light of the moon helped her ignore the sting from the cold. The latest full moon had just passed a few nights ago, leaving a little less than a month before they were expected to take their binding oaths.
Rayla eventually kicked the decorative shoes from her feet and bounded into the trees. She jumped from branch to branch, scrambling high enough until she could see the outline of the castle. She settled on a sturdy branch, resting her back against the trunk. Her breathing was only slightly heavy, but the cold was biting at the thin sheen of sweat that had gathered on her brow.
She tucked her cloak around herself as tightly as she could, lamenting that she hadn’t changed out of her silly dress before deciding to storm out into the wilderness. Although, she supposed the cold was calming in its own way. It kept her mind sharp as she thought about what the hell had just happened.
Runaan hadn’t listened, he’d just looked at her like she’d gone crazy. Maybe she had. That would explain a lot about what had happened in the last week.
Rayla heaved a heavy sigh. Anyone else but Runaan would have immediately called her a traitor for the things she’d said...just like her parents. Her throat tightened.
No. She wasn’t like them.
They were cowards who abandoned their posts. The world was the way it was because they failed. She wasn’t a traitor. She was just trying to save lives that didn’t need to be destroyed. Maybe she was also trying to save one life in particular from a fate worse than death.
“Callum,” she said aloud, watching as the cloud of her breath rose and dispersed among the stars.
She couldn’t even pretend that she hadn’t wanted to kiss him this time, that it hadn’t been an even greater rush than before. She was well and truly infatuated with a human.
What was she expecting to come of this? They couldn’t be together. Whatever fantasy she’d been building in her head could never possibly have a happy ending. He would be coming back tomorrow and she would tell him the truth, and he would hate her for it. That would be the end.
Was she still willing to defy Runaan for that? Defy her people?
Before coming to the human kingdoms, Rayla had only had one other true encounter with a human and it had been just as confusing. The occupation had reached moonshadow territory when she was about eight years old. At which point, residents of the Silvergrove were ordered to remain behind the village’s veil of illusion unless absolutely necessary.
Rayla, being the child that she was, had lasted for about three months before breaking that rule and venturing out to the adoraburr meadow. She’d been heartbroken to find much of the long grass trampled and almost all of her little friends gone.
As she’d sat crying on one of the low-hanging branches, a rustle caught her attention. She’d looked up to find a startled human soldier wearing a livery of red and gold, his golden eyes open wide as he took in the sight of her.
Rayla had quickly scanned her surroundings, looking for some sort of sharp stick or rock she could use to defend herself, but paused when the human held out his hands.
“I’m not going to hurt you, little one,” he’d said. She could still remember his voice, gruff but kind, calling out to her. He’d removed his helmet to reveal neatly-trimmed dark hair. “Are you alright?”
Rayla had said nothing, but allowed the man to slowly approach her. He’d left his sword on the ground behind him and slowly reached into a satchel at his side. She’d panicked until she saw him take out a chunk of bread and offer it to her with a kind smile. Then he asked if she’d eaten that day.
She hadn’t, and it had been her aching stomach that guided her hand forward to accept the offering.
“I have a son who’s not much older than you,” the man had said as she ate. “I know I’d be worried sick if he was out on his own. Do you need help getting back to your parents?”
Rayla never got the chance to answer before an arrow came shooting across the meadow and embedded itself just below the man’s clavicle. He'd let out a yell of pain and shock that still haunted her nightmares on occasion. She’d watched the fear creep across his face as he scanned the treeline and caught sight of Runaan charging at him with blades drawn. The human had offered one final look to Rayla before turning and running for his sword.
Runaan had shouted for her to flee and she’d obeyed, sprinting as fast as her little legs would carry her. However, she hadn’t been quick enough to outrun the sound of clashing metal, followed by the soldier’s final cry of agony. She’d glanced back just long enough to see his body collapse into a heap, Runaan’s blades dripping with blood. She’d been scolded endlessly that night. Runaan had lamented her foolishness for being so easily persuaded by a human.
“He would have used you to get into the Silvergrove,” he’d said. “A human will do anything to get what they want.”
All the while, the feeling of the bread in her stomach hardened into stone.
From that day forward, Rayla had told herself that it had been a harsh but necessary lesson in human manipulation. The man had only been using kindness as a front to get to her people and he would have killed her the moment she stopped being useful.
Now, however, she wasn’t so sure. Maybe that man really had just wanted to help a starved little girl get back to her family and he’d paid for his sympathy with his life. Perhaps this was why humans and elves were still at war. They’ve been fighting for so long that neither could recognize an act of genuine decency when they saw one.
What if there just hadn’t been an act that was big enough to break through the hatred? Sparing the lives of a king and a prince in the name of peace could be enough to pull down some of those walls. She knew it. If only she could just get Runaan to listen.
Her eyes wandered back to the castle, watching as a light in one of its many windows was extinguished. She smiled just a little, wondering if maybe it was Callum turning in for the night. She pulled her cloak a little tighter and adjusted her posture on the branch. She should try and get some sleep too.
Soren didn’t like the idea of sneaking into Callum’s room when he wasn’t around, much less going through his stuff. His father assured him that the prince had simply forgotten a gift intended for their elven visitors and requested that it be delivered on his behalf. However, that didn’t stop the feeling of discomfort growing in Soren’s gut.
He wasn’t even entirely sure what he was supposed to be looking for. What kind of gift do you get for a bunch of glorified prostitutes anyway? Soren considered the answer as he opened another drawer and found an assortment of charcoal pencils.
Over the years, Soren had rarely shied away from an opportunity to give Callum grief for his lack of muscles, coordination, and overall unprincly-ness. Even though those opportunities seemed to be fewer and farther between these days.
But despite the teasing, the verbal jabs, and sometimes the literal jabs, Soren always considered the older prince a friend. He’d been a good kid who’d grown into a good — if not nerdy — young man.
But dammit if he hadn’t made his stupid gift hard to find.
Soren groaned as he closed the doors to the armoire. So far, all he’d managed to find was a book on animals that was clearly meant for Ezran, a startling amount of parchment, and a very large pile of dirty laundry.
“Come on, Soren, think,” he said aloud to himself as he scanned the room. “If I were the step-prince and I wanted to hide a present, where would I put it?”
He thought for a moment, slowly rotating as he examined every piece of furniture with scrutiny. He was about halfway around the room when it finally came to him.
“Pfft, duh,” he said with a smirk as he approached the bed. Looking underneath, he found only dust bunnies and a long-forgotten boot. But when he lifted the mattress, he was rewarded with a glimpse of paper.
He grabbed the page triumphantly while being careful not to tear it. Once it was safely extracted, Soren saw the face of a familiar elf drawn with meticulous care and detail. This was the elf that Callum had disappeared with when they’d gone to Tenebris.
Soren’s smirk evolved into an outright grin. So this was why Callum had ‘forgotten’ to bring down his gift. He’d obviously meant for it to be delivered a bit more discreetly.
Frankly, Soren could see why. The picture was beautifully done. The elf woman looked up from the page with slightly-parted lips, tousled hair and an expression Soren usually only saw when he had an enthusiastic nighttime companion. Her eyes in particular were full of a startling amount of lust, enough so that Soren swore he felt the temperature of the room increase a few degrees.
Wow. He didn’t know Callum had it in him.
Clearing his throat, Soren turned the drawing over, keeping the elf’s face obscured as he made his way back into the corridor. He made a quick detour to the Crow Lord’s tower to grab a leather tube to roll the parchment into to keep it safe. He shot the Crow Master a wink for good measure before heading out into the night.
There were still a few stragglers from the party who had yet to retire for the evening. Some were milling about in the courtyard with their jewels and finery doing little to hide the familiar sway in their footing and the color flushing their cheeks. Soren bowed respectfully as he passed each by, pausing for a moment to offer a viscount from Evenere directions to the lavatory.
Once he had crossed through town and into the wilds of the forest, Soren allowed himself a moment to take a deep breath of the cool air. As much as he’d rather be in bed, he didn’t necessarily mind a late-night trip to Tenebris, especially now that he knew the nature of Callum’s gift.
Soren would be lying if he said he’d been excited by the thought of Claudia marrying anyone. She was his little sister; he still didn’t like to think about her being old enough to court, much less marry. No one could possibly be good enough for her.
However, Callum had made a valiant effort. He was kind to her, he liked magic and junk just like she did, and he seemed to genuinely care about her. So when he’d heard that Callum had caught wind of Claudia’s indifference, a bit of Soren’s heart broke for the guy.
Soren was glad to have proof that his pick-me-up trip had in fact succeeded in distracting Callum from the incident. He hoped this meant the prince would be joining him on more excursions to the settlement in the future. After all, everyone needed some good, harmless fun every now and again.
The remainder of his trot through the forest remained unremarkable and he reached Tenebris in nearly-record time. Most of the windows of the little shacks were dark as he passed by and Soren came to the realization that he didn’t know which hut belonged to the woman he was looking for, or even what her name was.
Soren frowned, looking around for some glimpse of her. The few elves who were still awake eyed him nervously. It wasn’t often a crownguard came into the little town still dressed in full armor. However, none of the worried faces were the right one.
He was about to start knocking on doors when he finally caught sight of a woman with long white hair. Soren smiled as he approached her pulling the leather case from his back.