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Secret & Forbidden

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“Soren come back, this was a bad idea,” Callum moaned as he struggled to free the frayed end of his cloak from a prickle bush. Ahead of him, Soren let out an exasperated sigh.

“Seriously? I thought you were like the biggest nerd for magic and Xadia junk. How are you complaining this much about going to see elves?”

“You didn’t say anything about sneaking through the forest to do it,” Callum grumbled as he gave a great tug, finally freeing his cloak, but not without the accompanying sound of fabric tearing. He sighed. “I was doing just fine, you know. Staying in my room was working out great.” 

“Uh huh,” Soren said as he continued trudging forward without slowing, his lantern swinging from his belt while he used his sword to cut through the brush. “And were you just planning on staying in there for the rest of your life? I’m pretty sure you would’ve had to leave at some point.”

Callum held tight to his hood as a low-hanging branch threatened to yank it from his head. “I’m not scared of Claudia. I would have been perfectly fine.” 

“Right, which is precisely why I found you moping all by yourself. Look, I promised to cheer you up and that’s what I’m going to do. So just shut up and let me take you to the cheer.” 

Callum’s shoulders slumped a bit. Soren had a point. Sitting in his room looking at his old drawings wasn’t going to change the fact that Claudia didn’t like him the way he liked her. He didn’t regret overhearing her conversation with her father. It was better that he knew something like this now before he made a big mistake. However, that didn’t mean it hadn’t stung to hear her say that she didn’t want to marry him.

Callum sighed and kicked a loose pebble into the grass, the sound frightening a bluejay that had been resting in a nearby bush. The bird trilled in irritation before flying off to presumably find a quieter place to spend the night. He watched it with just the slightest hint of envy. How nice it would be to have wings to carry him away from his problems. 

Instead, he had Soren to whisk him away from the castle to distract him. Callum chuckled a little to himself as he looked up to see the off-duty crownguard  shove past a particularly strong branch. Despite his teasing and torture during sword fighting lessons, Soren really was a good friend. 

Callum might as well try to take his mind off his disaster of a morning and move on. Besides, wasn’t Harrow always talking about improving relations between humans and the elven refugees? 

Yeah, that would surely go over well as an excuse if they were caught outside the castle in the middle of the night. 

Soren continued hacking a path through the brush until they finally emerged onto a  remote trail. Callum spent a moment picking burs and leaves from his cloak, stopping them once more as he pulled a surprisingly-large twig from his boot. 

They trudged forward, the thick branches above their heads keeping them relatively dry as a fine mist fell from the clouds. Spring was only days away now and Callum was relieved to finally be feeling some relief from the bitter cold. The air around them was still brisk but it also carried the crisp scent of budding plant life. Despite his initial complaints, Callum had to admit it felt good to get some fresh air. 

After another ten minutes of walking, the trees ahead of them started to thin and Callum saw the ground sloping downward into a hill. As they approached the crest, Soren turned to him once more, a bright smile now proudly decorating his face.

“Alright, Your Highness, welcome to Tenebris.” Soren gestured down to where the hill tapered into a valley. At the bottom were perhaps a dozen small, ramshackle houses arranged in no discernable order. A dirt road weaved between them and a few thin streams of smoke rose from chimneys. From this angle, he could barely make out a few figures dotted among the houses.

 It would have looked like any other rural outpost or settlement if it weren’t for the tiny balls of light slowly circling above it like leaves caught in a breeze. 

Callum’s eyes widened as his feet carried him down the slope ahead of Soren. As they approached, he could see that the lights were little balls of pure fire, suspended in the air without aid. They cast a warm, orange glow on the buildings, illuminating the imperfections in their construction, yet somehow also making them appear all the more inviting. It was beautiful and Callum could feel himself already forgetting his argument for returning home.

At his side, Soren was trotting along, gleefully keeping an eye on his expression. “See? This is much better than your room.” 

Callum nodded deftly, his heart rate increasing as he caught sight of a few silhouettes. While some looked completely human, others were leaner with pointed ears and horns jutting up from beneath unusually colored hair.

Elves. 

There were real-life elves. Callum could hardly believe it. He’d read about them in books since he was a child and in the last year he’d caught glimpses of them here and there at the market. But he’d never seen one up close.

“Come on,” Soren said, tugging at his sleeve as they approached the first building. “This isn’t even the best part. Don’t forget to keep your head down, step-prince.” 

Callum followed, his boots occasionally sliding on the damp earth, though he was a bit too preoccupied to notice. A lively tune had reached his ears and was growing louder as they moved into the little town. 

There were more humans than he would have expected. In fact, Callum saw far more humans around him than elves. Many of them looked much like Soren, crownguards free of their armor and off duty for the night. Most also had tankards in their hands, ale sloshing while they laughed and sang boisterously. Soren had told him that Tenebris had managed to become somewhat of a hub for nightlife in recent months. Even so, there was an ease here that Callum hadn’t been expecting.

They rounded a slight corner and Callum’s eye was suddenly drawn to an imposing woman with skin like melted cocoa and hair like burgundy. She was a sunfire elf, he noticed as she passed by with a severe look. The golden markings that ran along her brow creased perfectly with her glare. 

His eyes snapped to the left as another elf emerged from one of the small homes. This elf was clearly a moonshadow, with his long silvery hair and purple face markings. Callum had read that moonshadow elves were unparalleled in the ways of stealth and deception. There was even documentation that they could vanish entirely beneath the light of the full moon. Although this elf looked just as domestic as any other townsperson. In one hand he held a bucket while the other gripped a sack of what appeared to be potatoes.

Callum’s hands, meanwhile, were itching for his sketchbook. 

Soren continued to lead the way deeper into the settlement, raising his hand in greeting to a few of the humans they passed. Eventually, he brought them into what seemed to be the equivalent of a town square. It was fairly small, with assorted barrels and crates arranged in a semi-circular fashion. A few large kegs of ale were being kept busy as the humans filled and refilled their tankards. Above them, the little balls of fire continued to cast their warm glow. A sizeable crowd of humans had gathered, their eyes fixed on the center of the square. Through the crowd, Callum struggled to see what they were looking at, his view obscured by the tops of heads and boisterous humans who had drunk too much to remember the limits of personal space.

He did however, catch sight of a pair of elves sitting on some rickety boxes nearby, their hands occupied by strange-looking instruments. A moonshadow man was plucking rapidly at the strings of an ornate harp that rested between his legs. To his right, was a sunfire woman playing some kind of flute that somehow sounded like a quartet all on its own. The music they created was rich and lively, their feet tapping in time with the beat. 

A few men parted in front of him and Callum was finally able to see what was holding the crowd’s attention. A group of six moonshadow elves were gliding across the ground in perfect time with the music. Their bare feet skipped and weaved around each other as backs arched and hands extended. Callum felt his heart give a great shudder. They were captivating. 

His experience with dancing was limited to the parties he attended as a prince of Katolis. The affairs were usually pleasant, if not a little dull. More often than not, Callum would find himself dancing with some nobleman’s daughter in a modest waltz as he attempted not to tred on her feet. 

The elves danced, not with carelessness, but with a kind of surrender that was fascinating. They spun on the very tips of their toes, let their hair fly wild as they spun and paired off to grasp each other’s hands. They wore what he could only assume were traditional Xadian outfits -- a stark contrast to the ball gowns and tailored tunics he was used to seeing dancers wear. They wore form-fitting clothes in shades of black and green that hung from their bodies like second skins. 

Callum felt warmth gathering in his cheeks. 

As they circled, he caught sight of one of the smaller dancers in the group. She looked like she could have been around his age and her eyes were the color of Duren violets. Those eyes were alight with pure joy as she moved with her partner, their palms pressed tightly together. Callum watched as her muscles flexed with each movement, her body truly that of a dancer. 

His other thoughts faded away as the last note of the song echoed out into the chilly, March air and the woman and her partner sprang away from each other. She balanced on one pointed foot while her back arched. She kept one hand on her partner’s shoulder as he dropped to a kneel. The other couples mimicked the pose on either side of them as their performance came to an end.

Callum’s breath disappeared entirely when the eyes he’d been admiring found his. 

For a brief moment, their gazes held firm to one another and Callum took in every possible detail of her face. Her cheeks were flushed and he could see a small glisten of sweat shimmering on the dark purple markings that curved like claws beneath her eyes. Her white hair was a bit disheveled, save for a small section that had been braided and tucked behind her right ear. 

She was incredibly beautiful. 

Before he was prepared, the musicians struck up another, much slower tune and the elf girl turned away from him, but he didn’t take his eyes off her as the group began its next performance. It was full of soft, steady movements and impeccable balance and Callum hoped that when her eyes drifted back over toward his section of the crowd, they were searching for his once again. 

It was only when Soren clapped a heavy hand on his shoulder that the spell was broken. 

“What do you think, buddy? Pretty great right?” Soren asked with a wink.

“Y-yeah, she-they, they’re amazing,” Callum winced as he watched Soren catch his little slip. 

“See? I told you there’d be lots of pretty elves to distract you from my sister,” he said, a sly grin spreading across his face. “You stay here and enjoy the show, I’m gonna go track down some drinks.” 

Soren didn’t spare him another glance as he retreated toward one of the nearby kegs and a group of people apparently knew. Instead, Callum wandered around to the opposite end of the circle where the crowd was thinner and there was a precarious barrel for him to sit on. His sketchbook was out and his charcoal in his hand as soon as he sat down. The dancers, the crowd, the ambiance, everything had an air of casual revelry that he’d never experienced in the castle. He wanted to capture it all. 

At home, there were the quiet halls and expansive library that he loved, but they were often weighed down by the heavy burden of politics. Royalty didn’t have time to dance for fun. They danced to maintain appearances and broker deals.

This place was different and he wanted to remember it always. 

His hand flew around the page as he first outlined the landscape followed by the small huts. He smiled when he finally began to sketch the people. The dancers quickly emerged as the focal point, the young elf with the violet eyes smiling in the middle. A semicircle of mostly-human spectators surrounded them, their hands raised in applause. Callum would fill in the details later but he was pleased with his start.

The scene had just begun to really come to life on his paper when the sound of actual applause made him look up. The dancers and musicians appeared to be stopping for the moment, much to Callum’s disappointment and the crowd was tossing a myriad of coins in their direction. He grinned and reached for the coin purse on his hip and pulled out a gold piece. 

He waited until the young woman was looking back in his direction and flicked the coin as hard as he could. Much to his relief, it made it to her feet and he was pleased to see her eyes widen in surprise as she picked it up. She looked up at him and Callum offered a little wave, silently wishing he could lower his hood just a little more.

She eyed him with curiosity before another elf with long hair and harsh eyes whispered something in her ear and captured her attention. Callum hoped she would be able to keep his coin for herself, she deserved it after that performance. 

As the crowd began to disperse, Callum turned his attention back to his sketch, wanting to make sure he got the positioning of the dancers just right. Soren returned briefly to deposit a tankard of ale by his side before quickly disappearing once again. 

Callum quickly forgot about the drink as he continued his sketch. The outlines of the people were complete and now he was fully engrossed in capturing the moonshadow woman’s face. It took him four tries before he was satisfied with the curve of her markings and her horns were also proving difficult.

So engrossed was he that Callum didn’t hear the soft padding of footsteps rapidly approach him. It was only when a familiar gold coin was dropped unceremoniously onto the page that he jumped, nearly sending his pencil skittering across the drawing. He looked up and once again experienced the spontaneous disappearance of oxygen in his lungs when he saw the woman standing in front of him, her arms crossed over her chest. 

She looked even younger than he initially thought, perhaps even just a couple years apart from him. She’d changed out of the distinctly-Xadian clothing she’d performed in and was now wearing a plain set of men’s trousers and a green tunic with a length of cord knotted around her slender waist. Callum would have thought her even more beautiful if it weren’t for the deep frown she was also wearing. 

“What do you think you’re playing at?” Her accent was incredibly new to him. She dropped the hard “t” and “ing” sounds from the ends of her words and there was a slight roll to her “r”s. He also didn’t miss the twinge of malice in her words. 

“Excuse me?” He asked as he picked up the coin and closed his sketchbook. He was beyond confused. 

Her eyes just narrowed. “I don’t know who you think you are or what you’re expecting to get from me for this kind of money, but you can forget it. Despite what you and the rest of your soldier friends seem to think, we’re not a bunch of whores waiting for a human to come along and fix all our problems,” she said, moving her hands to her hips. 

Callum was stunned, both by her choice of words and what they were implying. He felt heat creep up his collar. 

“I wasn’t trying to...proposition you,” he said, whispering the last words. 

“Really?” She asked, her expression suggesting that she didn’t believe him in the slightest 

“Really!” Callum replied emphatically, standing up to look at her face-to-face. He was surprised to find that she stood about an inch taller than him. He held the coin back out to her. “You’re a great dancer. That’s all this was about, I swear.”

She glanced between him and the gold, her lips pressed into a tight line. “Let me make this abundantly clear,” she said, her voice lowering to a frightening octave. “If I take this from you now, at no point in the future will I owe you anything.” 

“Perfect,” Callum said, still holding out the coin. He let out a little breath of relief when she finally moved to take it from him. He watched as her four-fingered hand brushed slightly against his as she took it, sending a shiver across his shoulders in the process.

“Thank you,” she said carefully, slipping the gold into her pocket.

Callum nodded and offered her a small smile that she didn’t return. Instead, she continued to eye him appraisingly, glancing down at the torn edge of his cloak then back to his hood-covered face. He shifted uncomfortably beneath her gaze. 

“Um, am I allowed to ask you a question?”

She glared in response, her hand dipping back down toward her pocket.

“No, no no! It’s nothing weird, I swear! I just wanted to know your name.” Callum’s hands shot out defensively. He had a suspicion that if he were to see that coin again, it would be hurtling toward his head. 

She paused, her lips quirking upward in what might have been a smirk.

“Rayla.”

Callum’s eyes widened, a little shocked she’d actually given him her name, before his face relaxed into another smile. “I’m Callum,” he said, extending his hand out to her. 

After only a few seconds of hesitation, Rayla accepted his hand and shook it with a firm grip. Her skin was surprisingly rough and Callum was fascinated to see just how much his own hand dwarfed hers. 

“So, you’re obviously not a crownguard,” Rayla said as she pulled her hand back. “How did you find your way to our lovely home?”

“I’m friends with one,” Callum nodded over her shoulder to where Soren was now very loudly flirting with the sunfire woman who’d been playing the strange flute. His cheeks were flushed from ale. 

Rayla’s nose wrinkled. “Can’t say you’re getting any points for your judgement of character,” she said with distaste. “Your friend over there certainly likes to try and proposition elves around here.”

Callum winced. “I’m sorry, I’ll talk to him. Soren’s a good guy, he can just get a little…”

“Perverted?” Rayla said dryly.

“I mean, I was going to say ‘misguided’ or something more diplomatic. But you’ve probably earned the right to pick the word,” he said.

Rayla’s laugh was a sound Callum immediately knew he wanted to hear more of. It was light and boisterous, a far cry from the tentative giggles he often heard from the women at court. Rayla laughed like she didn’t care who heard.

“Personally, I think I’ve earned the right to kick his ass, but we can negotiate that later. In the meantime, come with me. Your gold’s gonna buy us something better to drink than the piss your soldier friends like to tote around,” she said, gesturing to his untouched tankard still sitting in the dirt.

Callum held his breath before doing as he was told. He felt his heart thrumming in his throat a bit as he watched the way the firelight reflected off her hair. This was perfectly normal, he told himself. Following an elf he didn’t know to apparently get a drink was totally fine. 

Soren caught sight of them as they passed and he shot Callum a decidedly un-stealthy thumbs up, sloshing a bit of ale dangerously close to the sunfire woman at his side. Callum pulled the sides of his cloak down a little further and continued walking. 

Chapter Text

Callum was still unsure of how exactly his day had led him to this moment. Rayla was a bit...brazen, but so far didn’t seem to fit the murderous depiction of elves he’d amassed as a child. That wasn’t to say he couldn’t still feel the sweat creeping down his neck as he followed her through the crowd. 

She stayed silent as she walked, though he was impressed to see the other elves step aside to give her some extra space as she passed by. A few even nodded their heads in a quick greeting. She was well-respected then, or at least well-liked, among the other elves. Interesting.  

Rayla led him back down the path and toward one of the little houses near the edge of Tenebris, glancing back only once to see if he was still following her. She knocked quickly on the door then waited as a shuffling noise stirred inside. Callum took the opportunity to examine the building. He didn’t know much about architecture, but even he could tell it was fairly poorly constructed. The thatch roof seemed to be leaning heavily to one side and the wooden boards that made up the walls were mismatched and partially rotting in places. He grimaced as he thought of what the winter must have been like inside the tiny shacks.

The door scraped on the ground when it finally opened to reveal an elderly moonshadow woman with a round face and hunched back. Her dark skin bore the marks of a long life and a ragged scar ran from her left temple and across what should have been her right eye. Instead, there was only a purple-ish mound of flesh that was permanently closed. Her hair was white like all moonshadow elves, although the thick braid that hung across her shoulder seemed a bit duller and more grey than most. 

How long did elves live anyway?

Callum tried not to stare as Rayla smiled at the woman and pulled the gold from her pocket. “Gu leòr airson botal fìon?” She asked in what he could only assume was elvish. 

The old woman gasped a little before replying, her shaky hands coming up to push away Rayla’s, almost like she was scolding her. They spoke quietly before Rayla finally folded the coin into her hands and clasped them together. The old woman sighed and shook her head before retreating back inside.

Callum dared a glance around the flimsy door and caught sight of a small front room lit by a single candle. He couldn’t see much else except for an elegant bow mounted on the wall. Before he had a chance to look closer, the woman returned with a large green bottle sealed with bright red wax. She offered it to Rayla, murmuring something under her breath and eyeing Callum suspiciously.

Rayla took it and leaned down to kiss the top of the woman’s head. “Tapadh leat,” she said gently.  

Callum straightened up under the woman’s gaze and offered her a little smile and tentative wave. She merely quirked an eyebrow at him. Rayla chuckled before grabbing an edge of his cloak and tugging him away. Callum didn’t protest, shivering as he felt the old woman's eyes on the back of his head until they rounded a corner. “So, where are we going?” He asked, hoping he sounded casual as he fell back into step beside Rayla. 

She glanced over at him. “Why? You getting nervous?”

Callum swallowed. Yes. He was becoming very aware of the fact that they were rapidly approaching the woods while his bodyguard was somewhere far behind them getting drunk. 

“N-no, not at all.” He cursed his voice for cracking a little.

“Don’t worry, I’m not gonna kill you,” Rayla said, her lips pulling up into a smile. “But I could if I wanted to, for the record.” She flashed him a wink that Callum somehow found enticing and a bit terrifying all at once. He had no doubt that she could in fact kill him.

They walked until they passed the last of the houses and emerged back into the valley that surrounded Tenebris. Rayla led them to a scraggly-looking tree, close enough to the settlement so that the light from the magical fires still reached them, but far enough away that there was no longer any crowd to contend with. She plopped down onto the damp grass and began fiddling with the wax seal on the bottle before finally ripping it off with her teeth. 

Callum chuckled as he watched her. Rayla definitely wasn’t what Opeli would consider ‘lady-like.’ 

“You gonna sit down or what?” Rayla asked before taking a triumphant swig from the bottle. 

Callum obeyed, leaning his back against the tree and being careful not to brush against Rayla’s shoulder. “So, what are we drinking?” He pointed to the bottle. 

“Moonberry wine,” she said, handing it over. “It’s a Xadian recipe.”

Callum had never been much of a drinker. He’d been allowed to since he turned 18 and there was ample access in the castle. Even so, the occasional glass at dinner was usually more than enough for him. But his curiosity to try some from Xadia was outweighing his past experiences. He felt the cool glass beneath his fingertips and rose it steadily to his lips, tipping the liquid forward. 

He was pleasantly surprised by the flavor. It didn’t sting the back of his throat like most other wines did. It was tart -- though not as tart as wines made from Katolis grapes -- but there was a mellow sweetness that hung pleasantly on his tongue even after he swallowed. 

“Wow, that’s...really good,” he said genuinely as he passed it back. “Although I guess if it’s one gold per bottle, I would hope it is.”

Rayla gave him a confused look for a moment before realizing what he meant. “Oh, no, Noemi will give these away to any elf who wants one,” Rayla said as she took a second swig. 

Callum raised an eyebrow. “So, why’d you give her that much?” 

Rayla shrugged. “Same reason you gave it to me, I suppose; she works hard at what she does, even if it’s not terribly practical. She’ll spend all day out in the forest picking enough moonberries to make one of these, just so the elves here can have a little taste of home.”

Callum fell silent. He hadn’t really been thinking about how the elves of Tenebris were strangers here. He couldn’t imagine how much some of them must miss their real homes. In fact, he couldn’t imagine how most of them could stand being around humans.

“Why are you talking to me?” Callum blurted out before he could stop himself. He blanched as he watched Rayla’s brow furrow. “Sorry, I don’t mean I like that. It’s just that, you don’t seem too fond of humans. Why would you want to share a drink with me?”

Rayla stopped, apparently thinking over her answer as she took another swig. Callum was relieved to see that she didn’t seem upset by the question at least. She eventually sighed and leaned farther back against the tree, her eyes looking back over the settlement. 

“I don’t know,” she said eventually. “I probably shouldn’t be talking to you, if I’m being honest. I guess I didn’t realize how bad things would be here, how hard it is to see so many elves who’ve given up hope. I suppose I was just trying to distance myself a bit.” 

She passed the bottle back and Callum took it, their fingers brushing briefly once again on the surface of the glass. He took a large drink. 

“You think things in Tenebris are bad?” From what he’d seen that evening, the elves in the settlement had seemed fairly good-spirited. They danced and drank and some were even chatting with the human visitors. The buildings could be better but he also knew this place had been constructed in a hurry last year to house the emergency evacuees. 

Rayla shot him a look that told him he was being naive. “Do you know why this place is called ‘Tenebris?’” She asked, gesturing out over the irregular roofs. 

“I thought it was named after the Dragon Queen who ruled when humans were driven out of Xadia?” 

There weren’t many books in the castle library that spoke of Luna Tenebris, but Callum had garnered enough to know that she’d been the one to enact the Merciful Compromise, exiling humans to the west. She had been a fierce and formidable queen.

“That’s the reason we told the humans when we came up with the name,” Rayla said, still not looking at him. “But in ancient draconic, ‘Tenebris’ means darkness. The first elves who were brought here called it that because they had already given up hope. They’d already seen their villages burned to the ground. To them, this place is no better than a hole in the ground.”

Callum felt a chill blow over him. From what he’d been told, the elven refugees were brought to the human kingdoms from towns and villages that were already struggling to support themselves. It was presented to the people of the human kingdoms as an act of kindness. But if what Rayla was saying was true, they weren’t here as a courtesy, they were prisoners of war. 

“Is that what happened to you?” He asked, his voice a bit smaller now. “Did you lose your home in Xadia?”

Rayla glanced back at him. Her face was mostly passive, but he could see the flicker of emotion hiding behind her eyes. “You ask a lot of questions,” she said, pulling the bottle back from his hands. 

He shrugged. “You said you wanted someone to talk to. I’ve been told I’m a good listener.”

There was that little hint of a smile again. “How about we make a deal? You get five more questions, but I get to ask you five of my own.”

Callum smiled. It was a deflection, but it was a good one. She was still a stranger, after all. She didn’t need to talk about her life in Xadia with him if she didn’t want to. “Sounds fair. Ladies first.”

Rayla snorted. “Alright, who are you really? Like I said, you’re obviously not a crownguard so-”

“Hold on,” he interrupted. “Why am I obviously  not a crownguard?”

Rayla’s full smile finally made an appearance. “No offense, but it doesn’t look like you’ve ever held a claymore in your life. So, tell me, are you really some courtier hoping to end up as an earl?”

Callum believed his status as prince meant he was actually already a duke or something, but he didn’t want to be the King’s stepson that night. He just wanted to be Callum.

“I, uh, I work in the library,” he said, rubbing at the back of his neck. It wasn’t entirely a lie. He’d become somewhat of an apprentice to the librarian after all these years. He never had much of a head for battle tactics, so he’d forgone war meetings in favor of cataloging and reshelving books and scrolls. 

Rayla quirked a skeptical eyebrow at him. “Uh huh, and why’s a librarian so worried about being recognized?” She reached over and yanked his hood down fully over his face. Callum jerked back, reflexively pulling the hood back until it fell around his shoulders. He watched Rayla’s eyes widen just a fraction as she finally got a good look at his face. He looked away as he felt warmth blooming on his cheeks.

“I just don’t get out of the castle much,” he said, not bothering to pull the hood back up. “I’m nothing special.” 

There was a beat of silence between them as Callum continued to feel Rayla’s eyes studying him. He’d never stopped to consider how humans must look to elves. He found her astonishingly beautiful but did she find his fifth finger and lack of horns repulsive?

“That makes two of us, I suppose,” she said, finally breaking the silence. 

“Huh?” Callum replied as he was pulled from his self-conscious internal monologue. 

“Nothing special,” Rayla said, echoing his words. “You and I have that in common.” She raised the bottle as if in cheers before passing it back to him. “Your turn to ask a question now.”

“Oh, right. Umm,” his mind was suddenly drawing a blank. “How...long have you been dancing?”

Rayla laughed. “Since I was a kid. It’s kind of a moonshadow elf thing. Dancing is a way we celebrate and express ourselves. We dance for birthdays, weddings, courtships, full moons, you name it.”

“That sounds amazing,” he said genuinely. “Exhausting but amazing.”

“Yeah, it is,” she said with a smile. “So what are things like living in a castle? Lots of fluffy pillows and fancy clothes I imagine.” 

“It’s comfortable,” he affirmed. “I’ve lived outside the castle before and I remember things being a lot more work. But it has its own downsides. It can get a bit stuffy being surrounded by politics all day.”

Rayla nodded as he took another drink. He could feel a pleasant warmth beginning to settle in his gut and his nerves were calming down considerably. “I know I’m fortunate to live there, and I try not to take it for granted, but I know that I do sometimes. There’s a whole world outside of Katolis that I’ve never seen before.”

“Yeah, well, the rest of the world isn’t exactly in a good place at the moment,” Rayla said. “Maybe sticking close to home isn’t such a bad idea.”

Xadia had been a war zone since Callum was a child. He’d grown up with adults telling him that it was where soldiers fought for a brighter future and where many of them were cut down by merciless elves. They’d told him it was somewhere he would never go until the war was over. 

But when he’d gotten old enough to read through the historical tomes in the library, he learned about a place full of wonder where magic was everywhere you looked. It had sparked a lifelong curiosity about the magical lands and the elves who called them home.

He took a moment to look at Rayla out of the corner of his eye. She wasn’t what he’d been expecting at all. He’d been told all his life that elves were cruel and unreasonable, bloodthirsty and manipulative, but Rayla just seemed like a person. 

She must have felt his eyes on her because Rayla turned to shoot him a look. He cleared his throat nervously and held out the bottle. “Here,” he said, at a bit of a loss for what else to say. He wanted to smack himself when he decided on, “Your turn for the wine of truth.”

He was pleasantly surprised when he was rewarded with another round of genuine laughter from Rayla, her shoulders shook as her chuckles were carried off into the night. “Wine of truth, huh?” Her voice was wobbly and she had to wipe a few tears from her eyes. 

Callum was beaming, beyond relieved that she hadn’t been offended at his childishness. “Yep, you’re not allowed to tell a lie when you drink it.” 

“Alright,” she said with amusement. “Ask me a hard one.”

“Did you have a family back in Xadia?”

Rayla’s eyes flickered with what looked like pain and Callum almost opened his mouth to retract the question but she answered anyway. “I did. My parents disappeared a long time ago but their friends took me in and raised me. One of them is here with me but his husband is still in Xadia.” 

“That must be hard for you all to be apart,” Callum said sympathetically, scooting just a little closer to her but still leaving space between them.

“It hurts,” she said, nodding and looking down thoughtfully at the bottle. “It hurts a lot more than I thought it would.” 

Callum resisted an urge to reach out and touch her. “Loss is hard. My mom died when I was a kid and I still miss her everyday,” he said quietly.

Rayla gave him a sympathetic look of her own before swigging deeply. The bottle, he noticed, was already half empty. “My turn,” she said. “Why did you come here tonight? I know the soldiers like to come and drink and gawk at us but I can’t figure out why you’re here.”

“I had a bad day and my friend thought I could use some cheering up,” he said.  “I’ve always wanted to know more about elves and Xadia and Soren seemed to think I’d like it here.”

“And do you?” Rayla nudged his shoulder.

“Is that your fourth question?” He asked with a smirk.

“Why not,” she said, rolling her eyes alongside a little smile of her own.

Callum stopped to think for a moment. What did he think of Tenebris? On the one hand, it contained all the magic and wonder he’d been dying to see for years. But, on the other, these elves were only here because humans had pulled them from their homes.“It makes me a little sad. I guess I never thought about how painful it must be for your people to be here,” he said finally. “I’m sorry. I’m glad I got to meet you though.” 

He thought she was moving to nudge his shoulder again, but Callum blushed when he realized Rayla had scooted over to lean gently against his arm. 

“I guess your company hasn’t been half bad either,” she said quietly, choosing to look out over the valley instead of at him. 

They finished off the rest of the bottle as they sat in a companionable silence. Callum could feel his head pleasantly buzzing as the warmth of Rayla’s arm against his continued to distract him. Callum felt lighter than he had in months. 

He hadn’t expected to talk so much about himself that night, but he’d found Rayla surprisingly easy to talk to. She was thoughtful without being overly judgemental, she was kind and he truly loved the sound of her laugh.

The elf who’d been playing the flute-like instrument apparently decided to strike up another tune. The notes floated over the houses toward their tree. It was a bit muffled, but Callum still thought it was a lovely song. He glanced up and saw one of the little fireballs floating overhead. He looked to his left and saw Rayla watching it as well, the light dancing across her face like golden waves. 

He took a deep breath, deciding that tonight he would be brave. He would be brave like the prince everyone wanted him to be. 

“Would you teach me one of your dances?” He asked.

Rayla’s eyes snapped to his with surprise, her mouth open but no words coming out. When she finally spoke, her voice was much quieter and gentler than he’d heard so far that night. 

“Why?”

Callum swallowed. “Because they’re beautiful.” he said truthfully, though a bit meeker than he’d intended. 

He watched the color rise in Rayla’s cheeks, feeling his own warming as well. Then Rayla stood up without a word and reached for both his hands. Callum let her pull him to his feet with ease. It offered him another chance to examine her fingers. It was odd only feeling four  -- like her hands were missing something -- but they also fit so nicely between his own.
“You-umm-you have to start standing behind me,” Rayla said, glancing over her shoulder. 

Callum nodded silently, the blush heavy on his cheeks now. He did as he was told, moving to stand about a half-step behind her. Rayla instructed him to drape his right arm across her shoulders while she kept hold of his left. It was a position somewhat akin to a backward hug and Callum hoped she couldn’t hear the rapid thudding of his heart. 

When Rayla heard a good spot in the music to jump in, she began to move, crossing her legs gracefully to the left and urging Callum to do the same. He did, managing to keep his feet free of stumbles as they crossed back to the right. 

“Now you raise this arm,” she said as she gave his left hand a squeeze. He obeyed, pulling her arm up along with his. Rayla slipped her body beneath the little bridge their arms created and gave a twirl. 

She stopped in front of him, their hands still locked and their eyes following suit. Another little fireball had floated their way, casting even more light over them and revealing that the tips of Rayla’s ears also wore a dusting of color. 

“Now you’re supposed to spin me,” Rayla said, her voice inching closer and closer to a whisper. 

Callum nodded, unable to keep his eyes off her as she spun once, twice, three times. He wasn’t sure what stray stroke of bravery possessed his free hand to move but it somehow found the curve of Rayla’s waist with ease as she came to a stop, once again facing away from him. He felt her tense slightly beneath his touch before relaxing. 

“That’s not one of the steps, you know,” she whispered, glancing over her shoulder and shooting him a soft smile that immediately shattered the rest of his nerves. 

“I know,” he said, returning the whisper. He stepped closer until her back was pressed completely against his chest. He could feel the strong muscles he’d been admiring during his performance. She gave a little shiver in his arms. 

“I still have one more question,” he said.

Rayla turned her head even more to look at him properly, her face painted with an expression he didn’t recognize. “Ask,” she said.

“Can I kiss you?”
Callum wasn’t even sure if she said anything in response before her lips collided with his. He’d never kissed anyone before but he’d read plenty of books that described the act. None of them did it justice. 

Rayla’s lips were soft but firm in their ministrations as they pushed and pulled against his, urging him forward as he did the same. The hand that had been on her waist began to wander up and down her side. His eyes slipped shut as he took in every sensation of what was, without a doubt, the most intimate moment of his life. He felt the round flesh of her rear pressing against his front; he tasted the sweetness of the wine on her lips as his tongue swept across them; he heard the short, rapid breaths she was taking. 

It was when his wandering hand accidentally brushed against the swell of her breast that Callum found himself again, remembering with a jolt that they’d both had quite a bit to drink. He pulled away panting as she did the same, her pupils blown wide.

“I-I’m sorry,” he said fervently as he stepped back. He remembered her very-convincing threat to kill him if he tried anything. “I didn’t mean to get carried away, I promise.”

Rayla turned to face him properly and brought a hand up to tangle in his scarf. “Shut up,” she said, her voice low and dangerous. She stepped backward until she collided with the trunk of the tree, pulling Callum along with her. Before he could plead for her not to strangle him with his own scarf, Rayla had yanked his lips back onto hers.

Her tongue darted into his mouth and Callum’s eyes rolled closed, his hands finding her hips. He pressed her harder against the tree, relishing every little sound she made while her hands moved to his hair. 

“Callum,” he heard her gasp quietly, nearly making him come undone then and there. 

“Rayla,” he moaned back as her mouth moved to his neck, sucking and biting at a spot beneath his scarf. 

“Callum!” A third voice called out, making both of them freeze in place. 

Callum glanced around the tree and saw Soren stumbling out into the valley as he continued to call out, not seeming to care who in Tenebris may or may not be trying to sleep. “Where are you? It’s time to go home!”

Rayla shifted a little and Callum looked back to see a veil of nerves had appeared over her. “Sounds like it’s time for you to go back to your castle,” she said guardedly, trying to squirm out of his arms.

Callum frowned as he maintained his hold on her hips. “I know I already asked all of my questions, but can I have just one more?” He pulled her in closer until their noses were nearly touching. She nodded once, making him smile. 

“Can I see you again?” His heart was already aching at the thought of their magical night being over already.

Rayla sighed and brought a hand up to gently caress his cheek. “I don’t think your king would be too happy if he found out his librarian was seeing an elf.” 

Callum was beyond done letting the crown dictate his life today. “Then I’ll leave the castle, go buy a little cottage and be a farmer or something.” After all, it wasn’t like they would miss the “step-prince” very much anyway. 

This time Rayla laughed. “You’re not serious. You wouldn’t leave your cushy palace job to go dig in the dirt because of me. You don’t even know me.” When she tried again to push him away, Callum didn’t resist but he also didn’t make a move to leave. 

“So let me come back and get to know you,” he implored. “Rayla, please. I want to know you.” He wanted to come back and talk to her during the day, when his head wasn’t swimming with wine. He wanted to learn more about her and her life in Xadia. He wanted to see her dance again.

She crossed her arms. “What if we decide to move on? Head to Duren in time for the spring harvest?”

“Then that’ll be your choice, but why not give me a chance in the meantime? What do you have to lose?”

“I could be thrown in jail for bewitching a human with ‘Moonshadow Madness’ or whatever it’s being called these days,” she said dryly. 

“I won’t let that happen, I promise.” Callum took her hands. 

A few seconds passed. Callum could see the thoughts racing through Rayla’s head while they listened to Soren’s shouts getting closer and closer. She let out one more long, heavy sigh before muttering something in elvish under her breath.

“Fine,” she said. The word sent a torrent of relief through Callum, splitting his face with a wide smile. “But,” she said severely, holding up a finger. “If I find out you’re just playing me, I swear I’ll kill you.”

Callum could only smile wider. “You have my word.”

Soren was practically upon them, the ale in his system likely the only thing slowing him down. Callum could hear his heart pounding in his ears.

He clutched Rayla’s hands a little tighter and looked into her eyes once more, admiring the glow of the moonlight reflected in them. “Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, knowing his foreign string of confidence would surely fade soon. 

Rayla rolled her eyes before closing them and leaning forward. Callum met her lips with his and felt another rush of adrenaline surge through him. It was over far too quickly in his opinion and his lips were still puckered and his eyes were still fluttering when she pulled away.

“You’re out of questions, dummy,” she said, running a hand down his chest. “And we’re out of time.” With that, she shoved him firmly away from the tree and straight into Soren’s field of view.

There you are!” Soren called out, his words slurring slightly. Callum stumbled to find his footing for a moment on the slick grass, his vision wavering as the alcohol in his belly protested the sudden movement. Once the ground stopped spinning and his feet found purchase, his eyes shot back toward the tree but Rayla was already gone.

She really was amazing, he thought as Soren jogged the brief distance over to him. He clapped a hand on Callum’s shoulder, knocking his thoughts away from Rayla and making his knees threaten to buckle. 

“Come on, nerd. Let’s get you back before anybody notices you’re gone.” Soren tugged him along and back up the hill and toward the city. Callum didn’t say much as they trekked their way up, though he let himself glance back once or twice, hoping to catch just one more glimpse of Rayla. She was nowhere to be seen. 

Before he was entirely ready, the forest was upon them and Callum eventually lost sight of the little fireballs and the rooftops of Tenebris altogether. Despite the cold of the night, Callum felt decidedly warm and comfortable. 

“So,” Soren said casually as he relit his lantern. “Saw you walking away with that moonshadow chick. That go well?”

Callum blushed, the feeling of Rayla’s lips against his still fresh in his mind. “Uh yeah...I think it did.” Another strong slap to his shoulder made him stumble, his foot catching a root and sending him to his hands and knees as he tried to keep his face from colliding with the forest floor. 

“Ha! I knew this was a good idea!” Soren said jovially, not seeming to notice or care that Callum was now splayed out on the dirt. “See? I told you that booze and pretty elves are the best cure for a shit day. Tell me all about it. You got so lucky too, I’ve been trying to get her on board for months.

Callum briefly considered burying his face in the dirt before groaning and getting back to his feet. “It wasn’t like that. We had some wine and talked.”

“Oh, yeah, I gotcha. You talked, ” said Soren as he finally turned to look at him. He shot Callum, what might have been an attempt at a wink, but instead was just an overly-enthusiastic blink of both eyes. 

Callum sighed, knowing that any efforts to convince Soren of anything at this moment would be futile. Although, he was swiftly warming to the idea of letting Rayla beat him up.

Chapter Text

Rayla watched Callum and his crownguard friend stumble their way up and out of the valley. She’d scrambled up high into one of the larger trees at her first chance and hadn’t moved a muscle. She didn’t know if she could handle Callum catching her eye again. It was only when the light of their lantern disappeared completely into the treeline that she let herself slump back, her heartbeat still raging in her ears.

She wanted to cry, she wanted to scream, she wanted to bury her head in the dirt and never come back up. 

She’d kissed a human. 

Rayla looked up through the branches to the nearly-full moon hiding behind a thin layer of clouds. She felt the warmth of her arcanum embrace her while guilt continued to fester in her gut. 

“What have I done?” She whispered into the night. 

She hadn’t meant for any of it to happen. She’d just wanted something, anything to take her mind off this place for one night. Asking him to drink with her was a split-second decision that she’d half expected him to refuse. Instead, he’d followed her and drank with her and listened to her. She hadn’t been prepared for someone to actually listen to her. 

He hadn’t been big and bulky like the soldiers. She’d been more than confident that she could take him down if he tried anything. So, she’d let her guard down and they’d talked as if their people hadn’t been fighting for generations. He was charming in a goofy sort of way, he was well-spoken and thoughtful and when she finally managed to get that hood off, she’d also found he was quite handsome. 

Rayla pinched the bridge of her nose. Every elf in Xadia would call her crazy if they could hear her talking about a human like that. Frankly, she was beginning to question her sanity herself. 

Her balance was only slightly off-kilter as she leapt back down the branches. She glared at the empty wine bottle still sitting on the grass about a dozen yards away. She hadn’t drank since before they left Xadia but this whole place was so damnably depressing that she’d just been looking for an excuse to go to Noemi. 

She scooped up the bottle and froze as her mind flashed back to the sight of Callum’s lips wrapped around the rim, followed by the vivid sensation of those lips pressing against hers. What in the world was wrong with her? She’d been in Katolis for little more than three months and she’d already put their entire mission in jeopardy for the sake of her libido. 

Sleep, she needed to sleep. She couldn’t deal with being an embarrassment to her people and slightly drunk at the same time.

Rayla trudged back into Tenebris, seeing that most of the humans had either left or passed out somewhere. Although she could also hear some incriminating noises coming from a few of the huts. She chose not to think about them. 

“Where have you been?”

Rayla chastised herself for flinching at the sound of the voice. She knew better than to let her guard down enough to be taken by surprise. She did her best to gather herself as she turned and saw Andromeda sitting casually on an empty keg. 

She was perhaps five years Rayla’s senior, her long hair framing a stern face that had sent a fair share of glares her way since they’d traveled together. She’d also somehow been appointed Rayla’s de facto babysitter when Runaan wasn’t around. 

“I’m allowed to go for a walk, aren’t I?” Rayla said, watching as Andromeda’s brow twitched in irritation. 

“Callisto said he saw you ‘going for a walk’ with a human,” she replied pointedly. 

Rayla held back the surge of panic that raced through her. “There’s human’s everywhere,” she attempted to deflect. “I can’t help if some of them walk in the same direction as me.”

Andromeda didn’t seem convinced, her eyes narrowing as she caught sight of the bottle still clutched in her hand. She shot Rayla a look of disapproval. 

Great, the last thing she needed was the others thinking she was a drunk.

“Is there anything else?” Rayla asked impatiently, more than ready to be done with the conversation. 

Andromeda just looked smug. “Pity you didn’t leave any of that to share,” she said, nodding at the bottle. “Runaan’s looking for you.” 

Even better. 

Rayla took her leave without another word, not wanting to give the older woman the satisfaction of seeing her fear. She continued onward toward her makeshift home where Runaan would surely be waiting for her. She could do this. He didn’t need to know what had happened. Nothing had happened. 

Pushing open the door, she found him hunched over a crate examining a scroll of fine parchment. He didn’t bother looking up when she came in.

“An opportunity has finally arisen,” he said, still looking at the scroll. Rayla straightened up. “Be ready to make our next move in a few days.”

Rayla forced her mind to clear as she nodded. This was why she was here, to avenge her people and help take back their homes. She needed to focus. “You’re sure we can trust this lead?”

Runaan let out a sardonic laugh as he finally turned to look at her. “I don’t trust a thing about these humans, but this is what we have to do to get into the castle.”

Rayla’s heart gave a little lurch. Callum said he worked in the castle. Though she doubted a librarian would have much cause to wander around, she couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if he spotted her, if he got in their way. She’d created a loose end.

“Umm, Runaan?” she asked. “What if some of the humans recognize us? They come here in droves most nights.”

“It doesn’t matter,” he said plainly. “When the time comes to carry out our mission, there won’t be anything the humans can do.”

Rayla grasped at the small flicker of reassurance that appeared among her anxiety. It would be okay. Callum wouldn’t be an issue. It was then that Runaan’s eyes flicked down to the bottle and raised an eyebrow. Rayla winced, why hadn’t she just thrown it away?

“Rayla, I understand a mission like this can be stressful, but I hope you’re keeping a level head.”

Rayla squared her shoulders, already incredibly tired of defending herself that night. “I’m just doing what you said. Our people need money while they’re living among humans. I’m just ‘stimulating the economy.’”

“By drinking?” Runaan said in a voice that very much reminded her of getting caught with adoraburrs in her pockets as a child. 

“Yeah,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m a grown up, I can spend the gold I earn however I want.” 

Up went Runaan’s other eyebrow. “Gold? A human paid you a gold piece tonight?”

The curses in her head grew a little louder. Gods, she got the biggest, fattest mouth when she drank. “Yes,” she said carefully. “Just for the dance, nothing else. I gave the whole thing to Noemi.” 

Runaan just sighed and ran a hand through his long hair. “Rayla, I told you that humans will try and bribe and manipulate their way into getting what they want. Too many of our people have already had to resort to other...favors to keep themselves alive. I don’t want you falling into the same trap while we’re here.” 

She scoffed and moved toward the door to her room. “I’m not going to whore myself out to a bunch of humans. You don’t have to worry about that.”

Runaan moved to follow her. “That’s not exactly what I was implying.” He cleared his throat. “The human who paid you might not have demanded anything tonight, but they may try to hold it over you later. All I am saying is that you need to be careful.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. She’d been hearing the same lecture over and over since they left the Silvergrove. Nobody trusted her here, not Runaan, not the rest of the team and especially not Andromeda. “Yep. Careful, got it.” Rayla said as she flopped down on her thin cot with her hands behind her head. She could feel her dam of sarcasm preparing to burst with the added influence of the alcohol. 

Runaan, presumably sensing her changing mood, sighed and moved to leave her be. “I trust you with this mission, Rayla. You may be the fastest and strongest of any of us. I know that you will do what’s right to help us take back our home.”

Before she could respond, Runaan took his leave, closing the door as he retreated back into the rest of their ramshackle house. She was left in darkness, save for a few beams of moonlight that filtered through the uneven thatch of the roof.

She could do this, she knew she could. She’d been preparing her whole life for a mission like this. She would show Runaan that she wasn’t a stupid, irresponsible child. She would prove that she wasn’t like her parents. 

But hadn’t she been “stupid” and “irresponsible” when she’d kissed Callum? She might not have completely “whored herself out,” as it were, but she hadn’t stopped him when he’d touched her. In fact, she’d welcomed it, craved it even.

She felt the weight of her heart double in her chest.

No, no, no. That’s not what was happening. They talked, they shared some wine and she relieved a little stress, that was all. She hadn’t been manipulated. She’d been the one calling the shots. She hadn’t been distracted. 

But she’d still agreed to see him again. 

Why had she agreed to see him again? Rayla let her hand fall from the side of the cot, her fingertips brushing against the floor. It had been foolish and reckless. 

And she hated that she still wanted to see him again. She’d never met someone who’d been so eager to get to know her, someone who’d made her laugh and asked to dance with her. She’d never wanted to kiss someone before. 

In addition to the warmth in her belly, Rayla began to feel warmth stinging her eyes. He was a human, she was an elf. Their kind didn’t kiss and hold each other; they fought and died and occasionally screwed for money. 

A tear went running down her cheek and Rayla’s hand shot up to fist into her hair. She bit her tongue as she felt the crackle of a sob forming in her throat. The walls in this hellhole were damnably thin and she didn’t need Runaan rushing back in thinking that she’d lost her nerve. 

She had to get a gip. She couldn’t let herself break down just because one man had given her some attention. He might not even come back at all. Why would he? There was no reason for a human to want to spend time with an elf, no matter how sweet his words had been. 

If Callum did come back, she would just have to end whatever fantasy he was trying to fulfill. And if he didn’t come back at all...well, that would be that. 

Rayla took a few deep breaths, letting her pulse settle and her tears dry. In the meantime, what would be the harm in indulging in the memory of a night that would never happen again? She laid back and let the events play through her mind one-by-one. 

She remembered catching sight of the cloaked stranger in the crowd and thinking nothing of him at first, assuming he was there like all the rest to gawk and jeer at the elves who hadn’t been strong enough to hang onto their homes. Instead, when she’d glanced at him again, she saw him looking at her like she was a piece of art. It was disarming and confusing. 

Then he’d thrown that damn coin and set her blood boiling. Since her group arrived in Katolis, the other elves had been telling them to “play nice with the humans and they’ll play nice back.” However, she’d grown weary of the obscene comments and air of superiority that came with most of the humans. 

Callum, on the other hand, had been positively fearful of offending her. Not to mention he was the farthest cry from arrogant she’d ever seen.

“I’m nothing special,” Rayla whispered the words again. She wondered how many times Callum had told himself that.

Then he’d asked her to dance. It was a dangerous decision at best, and maybe that’s partially why she’d agreed. His fingers had left scorch marks along her body and she hadn’t been able to stop herself when he asked to kiss her.

Rayla brought a hand up to her lips. She wasn’t weak. The people of Tenebris knew who she was and why she was here. She was going to make things right. Tomorrow she would have to forget how much kissing a human had set her on fire and how desperately she wanted to do it again. She couldn’t hold onto the tiny glimmer of anticipation at the possibility of seeing him again. She had a job to do. 

But for now, Rayla allowed her last thought before drifting off to sleep to be of Callume and the way he’d moaned her name as she kissed his neck.


Callum and Soren managed to sneak back into the castle without issue despite both of them still being fairly inebriated. Soren shot him one last wink as he scuttled off toward the barracks. 

Callum rolled his eyes as he slipped inside his room and closed the door behind him, embracing the momentary darkness as his eyes adjusted. His mind went blank for a brief, cleansing moment as the shapes of furniture slowly started coming into view. 

Harrow had arranged for him to move into a larger room when he turned 16, saying that a young man needed his space. While he loved Ezran dearly, Callum was very glad they no longer shared a door. 

It was a relatively large space when compared with his childhood room. A few stone pillars lined the perimeter and a massive scarlet rug had been unfurled in the center of the floor. A row of windows covered the east wall and offered him a beautiful view of the sunrise in the mornings and off in the corner was a door to a small but private lavatory.

Callum had been a little unsure of what to do with such a space all to himself but over the last few years, he’d made it his own. A new drawing desk sat in one corner, surrounded by shelves of pencils and paints. He’d hung some of his artwork up on the walls; a portrait of his mother, a landscape he’d sketched from the top of the tallest tower and a few other small pieces. Opeli had even brought in a few potted plants to help “brighten things up.”

 He crossed the room, finding his steps were still a bit unsteady as he fumbled around on his desk for a candle. Once he’d managed to light it, he watched as the small flames licked up from the wick. It seemed so much less impressive than the magical flames he’d seen in Tenebris. 

But what his solitary candle did manage to do was illuminate the jumble of loose pieces of parchment. Callum immediately spotted Claudia’s face smiling up from one of them. 

He’d known about the possibility of their match for years. As he’d crept closer to marrying age, he’d started to become fond of the idea of her being his wife one day. Claudia was brilliant, funny, ambitious and extremely pretty; of course he’d ended up with feelings for her. He’d never said as much aloud, but with all the time they’d spent laughing together and enjoying each other’s company, he’d at least thought they were on the same page. It turned out they weren’t even in the same book. 

Callum reached for the sketch and crumpled the page in his hands before tossing it vaguely in the direction of the bin in the corner. He felt like a fool. He didn’t blame Claudia for not loving him, but overhearing her say it to Viren so definitively had still broken a piece of his heart. 

At this point, the talks of their marriage were still in their preliminary stages, but he knew he’d have to have a discussion with Harrow. He’d married Callum’s mother for love, surely he would understand Callum wanting to call things off if Claudia’s heart wasn’t truly in it. 

But that would have to be a problem for a new day. Callum’s eyes were rapidly becoming heavy and the pleasant warmth in his head was settling into a thick haze of fatigue. He shrugged off his coat and the rest of his clothing, hoping on each leg as he removed his boots. Tugging on a nightshirt, he stumbled his way into bed and ran a hand through his hair. 

He didn’t want to think about what had happened that morning; he didn’t want to think about the conversations he would have to have in the days to come. Soren had snuck him out of the castle to cheer him up, and he’d succeeded. Callum wanted to think about his night in Tenebris. He wanted to think about Rayla. 

She’d been like a dream. When he closed his eyes, he could still see the way her body moved in the firelight. He could still hear the boisterousness of her laugh. Most unbelievable of all, he could still feel the ghost of her waist beneath his fingertips and taste the wine that had hung on her lips. 

Maybe she’d just been as drunk as he was, but it had meant the world to Callum to talk to someone who’d seemed so genuinely curious about him and who’d found him attractive enough to want to kiss him. It had felt good to be wanted. Gods, he wanted to see her again so badly. 

He didn’t doubt he could get Soren to sneak him out again -- he’d been trying to get him to “loosen up” for years -- the only hurdle he’d have to cross first was Ezran’s birthday party at the end of the week. Guards would be on extra patrols as dignitaries and royalty from the other kingdoms arrived in Katolis to celebrate. His next visit to Tenebris would likely have to wait until after. 

Callum groaned as he flopped across the bed and reached for the strap of his sketchbook. He pulled the book onto his lap and quickly found the page where he’d sketched Rayla’s troupe dancing among the crowd. He’d captured her mid-spin, her body twisting expertly as her hands extended above her. Most vibrant of all was the smile that spread across her face and reflected into her eyes. She’d looked so happy and free when she danced. 

Callum turned to a fresh page and began a new sketch. In his mind’s eye, he saw Rayla with her back against the scraggly tree, her lips swollen, her eyes half-lidded and reflecting the intensity of their kiss. He blushed. 

The candle flickered away on his desk as his pencil drifted across the page, the scratch of the charcoal on the parchment the only sound breaking through the silence around him. He’d let his imagination wander when doing drawings in the past. There was a sketchbook or two he kept hidden far away from anywhere where they could be accidentally discovered. This, however, was a memory, and it was one he didn’t want to forget anytime soon. 

He knew he should be more concerned that she was an elf and that he’d needlessly put himself in danger by sneaking out. He knew, he just couldn’t find it within himself to care at that moment. Those were another set of concerns that could wait for another day. 

Callum fell asleep with his pencil still in hand and his sketchbook in his lap, both items eventually falling from his grasp and onto the floor. However, the images from his night in the forest continued to dance through his dreams, bringing a smile to his sleeping lips. Outside, the night continued its swift march toward morning.

Chapter Text

“I don’t understand why you’re being so stubborn about this,” Viren said, the occasional thunk of his staff against the stone floor punctuating his every other step.

Harrow stifled a yawn as he tried fitfully to rub the sleep from his eyes. The sun had only just appeared in the sky when Viren let himself into his chambers and he hadn’t stopped talking since. It was entirely too early for this. 

“I’ve told you a hundred times, I’m not going to rush the occupation. If we push ahead with reckless abandon, we put our people’s lives in more danger. We are better continuing at our current pace.”

“It’s been thirteen years, Harrow, and everything east of The Territories remains in elf hands. It’s unstable.” 

Harrow groaned as he threw off his blankets and reached for his robe. He could feel a familiar pain beginning to form in his temples.

“Yes, but you seem to forget that The Territories require constant attention. We are in a precarious position. Every kingdom in the Pentarchy has now begun taking in elven refugees because our armies have been acting too brash and destroying their villages. If anything, we need to slow our efforts and focus on minimizing casualties.” 

Minimizing casualties ?” Viren echoed back in disbelief. “Do you expect those men and women to not defend themselves? Besides, you’re the one who added the evacuation clause into the defense pact in the first place. The human kingdoms now have more mouths to feed because you were overly sentimental.”

Harrow’s eyes narrowed. “I added that clause to make sure our soldiers handled the situation delicately. Yes, they are marching in the name of a more united future, but if they trample through homes and over families to get there, then how are we any different from them? This was meant to be as peaceful a process as possible, instead children have been orphaned and villages are in ashes! My answer is still no, Viren.” 

He was practically shouting now, his hands thrown up in exasperation. Harrow watched as Viren brought a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. His friend gave a great, heaving sigh and stopped pacing. “I know that you want peace and I know that the state of the refugees bothers you. You are a kind man, but the price of peace is not always easy to bear.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Harrow snapped back. 

Viren held up his hands defensively. “Of course you do. I’m sorry, I do not mean to be patronizing.” 

Harrow deflated a little. “Viren, you are my oldest friend. I value your council, truly, but this occupation was never what I wanted.” He walked toward the door to the balcony, the echo of Viren’s footsteps following behind him. 

“I know, but when Thunder fell, we had to make a move. Xadia was weak; we had to take advantage of the opportunity before they sought revenge. They could have easily threatened you or the princes,” said Viren.

Harrow pushed open the door and emerged into the crisp morning. He could smell the freshness of an overnight rain in the air accompanied by the soft rays of sunlight pushing their way through the puffy clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day. 

“I will not let my boys suffer because of my mistakes,” he said quietly when he reached the banister. He looked out over his kingdom, everything slowly coming to life for the day. His people had been wildly in favor of the Xadian occupation since the beginning. Taking back the lands their ancestors were once free to live upon satisfied a carnal desire for many of them.

With the winds of praise at his back, Harrow had let the years pass and the size of their movement grow. After two years, the rest of the human kingdoms had joined the effort. His guilt had driven him to add the stipulation that any time an elven city or village was destroyed, the kingdom at fault would become responsible for the innocent lives that were displaced. The other monarchs had agreed begrudgingly and for more than a decade, their unwillingness to care for elves had kept their armies in line. 

But Viren was right. Things had become more unstable in recent years. Fear and loathing on both sides were driving the body counts up. 

Harrow was not proud of what he’d done. His desire for revenge against Thunder had snowballed into thousands of deaths. Sarai would never have let him go through with any of it. 

Viren took his silence as an opportunity to approach, laying a gentle hand upon his shoulder. 

“You are doing the right thing,” Viren said. “You are building an empire where your sons will never have to fear elves. When Ezran becomes king, he will rule over united lands.”

“Violence and fear cannot hide behind a mask of peace,” Harrow quoted from one of his many books on philosophy, his eyes drifting out over the treetops to where he knew the elven settlement lay. 

Harrow could hear the wariness in Viren’s next sigh. This was indeed an old argument. “Your devotion to finding the most diplomatically poetic ways to refuse me continues to amaze.”

Harrow chuckled. “I must take my pleasures where I can.”

Viren moved to lean against the banister to his right, resting his staff against the stone as he too took in the sight of the kingdom’s morning view. Looking at his friend, Harrow could see the same signs of age that he’d found creeping onto his own face when he looked in a mirror. When had time whisked them away from being young men? 

A younger Viren would have been distraught to learn that he would one day come to look so much like his father. The gray that started in his beard was now inching ever closer toward his hairline and the lines around his eyes told tales of countless sleepless nights. 

Harrow felt the hands of time gripping his own body as well. He could feel it in his back on cold mornings and in the leg that never quite healed properly when it was broken after Thunder’s death. He could see it as his boys grew closer and closer to becoming men themselves. What a strange thing it was to be but another player in the game time played. 

“I suppose it’s not the first time your pleasures have come at my expense,” Viren said with a soft chuckle. “I seem to remember taking the blame on more then one occasion when our childhood antics went awry.” 

Harrow snorted. “To be fair, they were almost always your idea,” he said, recalling a distinct memory of the high cleric’s robes mysteriously turning a violent shade of pink overnight.

Viren smiled and Harrow once again saw a flicker of that young man who used to pull pranks and torment the castle staff with him. “And almost all of them were brilliant. Baring a few...miscalculations.” 

“I believe you were responsible for the butcher’s daughter being sprayed by a skunk-hare.”

“As I said, ‘miscalculation,’” Viren said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Besides, she was a conceited thing. It probably did her some good to learn a bit of humility.” 

They laughed together, not as a king and his advisor, but as two friends who had seen each other through childhood. The sound carried through the air, taking with it some of the weight on both their shoulders. 

“I do have a bit of a ‘peace offering,’ if you will,” Viren said. 

“Oh?” Harrow replied, raising a brow as he turned to look at him.

Viren nodded. “I know the state of the refugees bothers you.”

‘Bothered’ was putting it rather lightly. Since the first refugees were brought to Katolis nearly a year ago, they’d been primarily segregated from the rest of the kingdom. The craftsman and artisans among them would come into town during the day to sell their wares, only to retreat back into the forest at night. The human citizens had threatened riots if the arrangement became anything more, and the elves didn’t seem too keen on living among them either. So Harrow had been working toward a slow but steady integration. 

So far, he had no proof it was working aside from the rumors of the...looser visits humans would pay the elves once the sun went down. Viren insisted it was all part of a natural progression of curiosity. Harrow was more inclined to believe it was exploitation. 

“And with Prince Ezran’s birthday on Friday,” Viren continued. “I thought, ‘what a perfect opportunity to promote a bit of peace.’”

In light of our previous conversation, forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical,” Harrow interrupted. 

Viren shot him a look. “I heard of a group of elven performers who have newly settled. I thought the crown could hire them for the prince’s birthday as a show of goodwill. They get paid for their services -- since they seem so vehemently opposed to charity -- and you get to take a step forward in your plan for unity.”

Harrow blinked. He was taken aback; it was the first time he’d ever heard Viren propose something for the betterment of the humans and the elves of Katolis. “That’s...actually a wonderful idea,” he said, trying and failing to find a downside. “Viren, that’s perfect!”

Harrow beamed and threw his arms around Viren, laughing as his friend sputtered at the hug. 

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard those words from you in that particular order,” Viren said as he brushed the wrinkles from his robes. 

“You should try agreeing with me more,” Harrow replied, making Viren snort.

“I’ll do my best, Your Majesty.”

They stayed on the balcony in companionable silence until the morning fog had completely lifted from the ground and the pastel colors in the sky gave way to a firm blue. 

“You know,” Harrow said casually when they finally moved to head back inside. “After all these years, it looks like our families may finally be coming together officially.”

“Yes,” Viren said, the rhythm of his staff hitting the floor once again resuming. “Claudia is amenable to the idea. I know she values her friendship with Prince Callum very much.” 

Harrow frowned a little as he held the door open for them both. “Does she not love him?”

“I think Claudia is a spirited young woman who hasn’t given herself much time to think about things like marriage until now. But believe me, it will be a good match.” 

“I just want them to be happy,” Harrow said as he retreated behind a screen to change out of his nightclothes. “We were both fortunate enough to marry for love. Our children should be given the same opportunity.”

“And they have been. Even the High Council seems to think it’s a good idea,” Viren called out to him. 

“If I’d listened to the council, I never would have married Sarai,” Harrow said, remembering the skepticism of some councilmembers that a prince wanted to marry a widowed general who already had a son by another man. 

“The council has its moments of guidance , I suppose.” Harrow could hear the sarcasm dripping from Viren’s words. “I would never be one to take it as gospel.”

“I can’t say they’re the biggest fans of yours either,” Harrow said as he emerged from behind the screen and attempting to straighten his belt.

Opeli is not the biggest fan of me,” Viren corrected tersely.

“She’s not as bad as you make her out to be. She can be a bit...severe at times, but she cares deeply about the kingdom and its people. What more could I ask for in a high cleric?”

“There, I’m afraid, I must disagree with you again,” Viren said.

From there, their conversation began to drift to the more mundane matters of the day, like the state of the fields after their relatively-harsh winter and the continued details of Ezran’s birthday party.

“Did you hear that he wants a masquerade?” Harrow asked with an amused smile as they walked together toward the kitchen. 

Viren groaned. “Isn’t fourteen a little old for costume parties?”

“I think it’s sweet,” Harrow replied. “Ezran has maintained a remarkable sense of wonder and innocence, even into his teenage years. I’d hate to see it stifled. Besides, I think we could all use a bit more fun these days.”

Viren stayed notably silent. 

“Oh come on!” Harrow nudged his shoulder. “I think you could stand to loosen up most of all, Viren.” 

He rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, Your Majesty.”

“See? Now was it so hard to agree with me?"

They walked together down the halls before a pair of guards opened the oak doors to a private dining room off the kitchen. It was not the main hall they used during large gatherings and feasts, but a smaller, more intimate room the royal family -- and by extension, Viren’s family -- used for their daily meals. 

Harrow was pleasantly surprised to see Ezran already sitting at the worn table, a bowl of spiced porridge in front of him. A warm fire had already been lit in the hearth, casting a pleasant glow across the dark wood paneling. Harrow had always loved this room. It was where his family could come together away from the prying eyes of the kingdom. They could be just like any other family, eating and talking about their pans for the day. He held those moments even closer after Sarai died.

“Morning, Dad!” Ezran said cheerily as he lifted his spoon to his mouth. “Morning, Lord Viren.” 

“Good morning my almost-birthday boy,” Harrow said as he walked over to his son and kissed him on the cheek. “I was just telling Viren about your party.”

Ezran’s eyes and his smile widened in tandem. “Doesn’t it sound amazing?!” 

Harrow laughed. “You and Callum can head to the tailor’s today to finish getting your costumes sorted. Speaking of which,” he glanced around and saw no one else in the room. “Where is your brother? He’s usually up before any of us.”

Ezran reached over to where Bait was sitting on the table and scratched beneath his chin. “I don’t know. Barius said he hasn’t seen him yet today.”

Harrow frowned. “That’s odd. He’s not usually one to sleep in so late. I wonder if he’s not feeling well.” 

“Perhaps the topic of the High Council’s discussion yesterday kept him up late,” Viren offered as he reached for the teapot at the center of the table. 

“Perhaps. Ezran, would you mind going to check on him after breakfast?”

Ezran smirked and promptly shoveled the rest of his porridge into his mouth before standing up. “I’m done. I’ll go check on him now,” he mumbled through his full mouth. “Come on, Bait.” With that, he dashed from the room. He’d hit a growth spurt earlier in the year and never missed a chance to see how fast his newly-long legs could carry him.

In his wake, Bait gave Harrow and Viren each a grumpy look before his tongue shot out and snatched a stack of toast from the table. He belched loudly before following after Ezran. 

“Wonder and innocence indeed,” Viren said as he stirred honey into his tea.


Up in his room, Callum was just beginning to stir, but the thrum of a roaring headache was forcing his eyes to remain shut. The bright light of day filtering in through the windows was not helping.

Oh dear Gods, was this what a hangover was like? He’d heard Soren and the other crownguards talking about them after a night of drinking, but they usually laughed it off on the way to the kitchen. Laughing was the last thing Callum wanted to do.

He groaned and brought a hand up to his head. He would have to add this to the ever-growing list of reasons why he didn’t usually drink. Rayla would probably be pleased to know she’d so thoroughly put him out of commission.

Rayla. 

Callum’s eyes finally opened as his hand fumbled across the bed looking for his sketchbook. He sat up carefully as he pulled the book into his lap and saw her. 

She really wasn’t a dream.

Callum’s pulse began to quicken. Last night had really happened -- sneaking out, seeing Tenebris, watching Rayla dance, drinking with her. His head and stomach each gave another uncomfortable lurch. Yeah, the drinking had definitely happened. 

But that meant he really had danced in the forest with an elf he just met and kissed her underneath the light of the moon. In fact, they’d kissed a lot.

Never in his life had Callum thrown caution to the wind like that. It was exhilarating, terrifying and he already knew that he wanted to do it again. Even beneath the waves of pain and nausea, he could feel the pull to go back. 

He brought a finger up to the page, careful not to smudge the lines as he caressed the area around Rayla’s cheek. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel how soft her skin had been. 

A sudden crash made Callum nearly fall from his bed. He looked up to see his heavy door swing open before colliding with the stone wall with a loud crack. The sound reverberated through his head like a swarm of angry bumble-scorps. His eyes snapped shut once more and he groaned in agony. 

He was never drinking again.

“What’s the matter with you?” Ezran’s loud voice was like another knife in his scalp. Callum grabbed a pillow and hurled it in his brother’s general direction.

“Go away,” he moaned, pulling his blanket over his head. 

Ezran didn’t listen -- of course he didn’t -- instead, Callum heard a second slam of the door, followed by an added weight at the end of his bed. 

“Are you sick?” Ezran asked, prodding at Callum’s leg beneath the blanket.

“No.”

“Are you coming down for breakfast?”

“No.”

“Who’s this?”

“N-What?” Callum begrudgingly pulled the blanket back, blanching when he saw Ezran sitting with his sketchbook in his hands. 

“When did you meet an elf?” Ezran’s lips had curved into an impish smile. 

Callum lunged forward and made a grab for the book but Ezran was too quick. He stood up and took the book with him, walking around the room as he continued to examine Rayla’s picture. 

“I’ve never drawn an elf before. I was just practicing,” Callum said quickly as he tried to free his tangled legs from his bedding. 

“No,” Ezran dismissed immediately. “You’ve seen her. There’s too much detail for you to have imagined this.” He flipped back a page and his eyes widened as he saw the landscape of Tenebris with Rayla dancing in the middle. 

Callum finally freed himself, crossed the room in three strides and snatched the book, but the damage had been done. Ezran’s eyes were wide and his mouth had formed a perfect “O.”

“Ez, shut it, it’s not what you think.”

“You went to Tenebris,” Ezran said with wonder. “I thought Soren was kidding but you actually went.”

Callum sighed and ran a hand through his hair. This was not helping his headache. “Fine. Yes, okay, we went. But you can’t say anything to anyone.” 

“Why? I thought Dad says humans and elves should be more friendly.” 

“Yeah, but Dad also says not to sneak out of the castle in the middle of the night and drink Xadian wine in the forest.” Callum said dryly as he reached for the water jug beside his bed. He poured himself a healthy cup and drank it in one go before immediately pouring himself another. 

“Wait,” Ezran snickered. “Are you drunk?”

“No,” Callum said before downing his second cup of water. “I was drunk last night. Now I’m hung over.” 

Ezran began to laugh in earnest and Callum shot him a glare. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” Ezran took a deep breath. “Are you okay?” 

Callum rolled his eyes. “I’m fine. All things considered, last night was...fun.” 

“Yeah?” Ezran asked as he picked Bait up from the floor and returned to his spot on the end of Callum’s bed. “What was it like?”

Callum glanced back down at the page and smiled. “It was incredible,” he said as he sat down beside Ezran. “There was music and dancing and real magic, Ez.”

Ezran smiled. “And elves?”

Callum blushed. “And elves.” 

“So, are you going to tell me about her?” Ezran scooted a little closer and pointed eagerly to where Rayla’s form danced in the middle of the page. 

Callum would have laughed at his little brother’s enthusiasm if it didn’t also currently make him want to smack him. But Callum just inhaled deeply, letting the breath out slowly and deliberately before handing the book back over to Ezran. 

“Her name is Rayla,” he said reluctantly. “She was part of a group of dancers. I gave her a coin, she bought us some wine and we talked for a bit.”

Ezran snorted. “So you snuck out, got drunk in the woods and flirted with an elf?” He said, counting each offense on his fingers. “You’re right, Dad would absolutely kill you if he found out.” 

“I didn’t say I flirted with her!” 

Ezran flipped back to the sketch of Rayla beneath the tree. "Yeah, you're right. I'd say based on this, you did more than flirt.” Callum yanked the book back and stuffed in beneath his pillow. 

“Don’t you have some birthday cakes to taste test or something?” He asked exasperatedly. 

“Not until tomorrow. Besides, Barius knows what I like,” Ezran replied with a smile. 

A beat passed as they sat in silence, Callum sipping on a third cup of water while Ezran scratched a dozing Bait’s head. Callum was grateful to find the pulsing pain in his own head was slowly dissipating. 

“Soooo,” Ezran eventually said. “Does this mean you don’t like Claudia anymore?”

Callum had been dreading this question. He knew it was one he needed to ask himself, but the sting in his heart was still making it difficult. 

“She doesn’t like me, Ez. I heard her say it. I don’t want to marry someone who wouldn’t love me.” 

Ezran reached out and took his hand, squeezing it tightly and offering him a sympathetic smile. “I’m really sorry, Callum.”

Callum felt a few tears blooming in his eyes. “Yeah, me too,” he said quietly. It was better that he knew now, he told himself once again. It was better to know before he married someone who didn’t love him. 

Even so, he hadn’t been prepared to hear it so bluntly. He’d been hanging around the door to the High Council chambers yesterday morning, hoping to hear some snippet of their conversation about his potential match when Claudia and her father had rounded the corner. 

“Would I really have to get married?” Claudia had groaned as Callum slunk into the shadows.

“Yes, Claudia. It’s a wise choice for you and the kingdom. I thought you and Prince Callum got along well,” Viren had responded.

“We do, Callum’s a great friend. I just...don’t like him that way.”

Callum hadn’t heard the rest of the conversation as his ears instead flooded with a shrill ringing. He’d stood there, hidden from view with tears in his eyes, until the last echo of their footsteps had dissipated. It wasn’t until the High Council adjourned and Opeli’s confused face interrupted his anguish that Callum had found it in him to leave. He’d stayed in his room for hours afterward, only mumbling a half-hearted response when Ezran had come up to see where he’d been. It was only when Soren threatened to break the door down that he’d finally emerged. 

“Are you going to see Rayla again?” Ezran’s question brought Callum back from the past. What was done was done, there was no changing it now.

Callum smiled and squeezed his brother’s hand. “I’d like to,” he said.

“Can I meet her?” Ezran asked hopefully.

Callum chuckled. How exactly does someone introduce their kid brother to the elf they kissed? “We’ll see, Ez, but we’ve got a birthday to celebrate first, right?” He was grateful when Ezran went along with the change of subject. He loved his brother but he still needed some time to process things for himself. 

So instead they talked about Ezran’s party and speculated over what kinds of costumes people might wear. They spent the rest of the day together, making their way down to the kitchens to talk with Barius about the dessert plans and fulfill Callum’s sudden need for something crispy and stuffed with cheese. The first carriages of delegates from Duren arrived later in the afternoon and the princes joined Harrow in welcoming them with pleasantries and a dinner of winter stew. 

It was a nice day and exactly what Callum needed. During it all he didn’t think about Claudia or what he was going to say the next time he saw her. Although, every now and then, his mind did drift back to Tenebris as he wondered how Rayla was spending her day.

Chapter Text

The days that followed were filled with much of the same: Ezran shuttled him around the castle to finalize decorations, food and other aspects of his impending birthday party. By Thursday, a multitude of nobles and even a few of the other monarchs had arrived for the celebration. The castle staff were buzzing with extra duties and the citizens of Katolis were in good spirits as the waves of new visitors brought in extra business. Everyone seemed cheerful ahead of the young prince’s birthday.

Callum, on the other hand, had spent the last three days agonizing over whether to try and send Rayla a letter. He was planning on asking Soren to take him back to Tenebris on Saturday but should he write to let her know? His tutors always told him it was rude to drop by unannounced. Or would a letter be presuming too much?

Nevertheless, the wastebasket in his room was now overflowing with balled-up pages bearing various forms of “Hi, you might not remember me but I’m the human you kissed the other night.” Or, “Hey Rayla, I don’t know if you absolutely regret everything that happened but I can’t stop thinking about you.”

There was also the complication that all the castle’s mail went through the Crow Lord. He wasn’t sure exactly how he could address a letter to Tenebris without word getting back to Harrow. Nor could he imagine the elves would react well to Rayla receiving a letter delivered by a royal crow. 

Groaning, Callum pushed himself away from his desk, rubbing his weary eyes. Ugh, he was being an idiot. Rayla probably couldn’t care less about hearing from him anyway. He, on the other hand, hadn’t been able to get her off his mind all week. 

The picture he’d drawn of her after their kiss had been carefully torn from his sketchbook and now lived hidden in a drawer beside his bed. It had become a bit of a ritual for him to pull it out at the end of the day and dreamily remind himself that that night had really happened. 

Plus, he didn’t need that picture anywhere within Ezran’s grasp.

A knock at his door made Callum jolt backward and nearly topple from his chair, only saving himself by grasping the edge of his desk.

“Callum? You in there?” 

He’d been purposefully avoiding Claudia all week, doubling back when he heard her voice at the other end of a hallway, having his meals slightly earlier and steering clear of places like the library where she usually spent her days. 

But it appeared that his luck had finally run out. 

“Callum, I can hear you in there. Come on, I need to show you something,” Claudia called out, knocking on the door again for good measure. 

“J-Just a second,” he said, scrambling to his feet and grabbing his wastebasket. He quickly dumped the contents into the fire, making sure the parchment started to catch before turning back to the door. 

A burgeoning dread hovered around the wood. He knew what conversation was waiting for him on the other side and he was wholly unprepared to face it. He gripped the handle with a sweaty palm and grimaced before giving it a swift pull.

He didn’t have more than a few moments before Claudia was upon him, her hands laden with various items as she walked into his room.

“Finally! I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said exasperatedly as she walked over to his desk and dumped a handful of small stones, a large book and her primal stone onto the surface. Callum was immediately glad that he’d disposed of the evidence of his previous activity. “Watch this, you have to see what I learned.”

With a wide, eager smile on her lips, Claudia took the primal stone in one hand and a handful of the stones in the other. Not waiting for a response from Callum, she used one finger to draw a small rune. “Aspiro,” she said gently before blowing a steady stream of magical breath. The air lifted the stones and began spinning them in a tight circle above her hand. As they spun faster and faster, Callum could see Claudia’s eyes excitedly darting from the display to his face, waiting for a reaction. 

Ordinarily, Callum would have fawned over the trick like he did whenever Claudia showed him a new bit of magic. This time, however, his head and his heart were still attempting to catch up with her sudden appearance. 

Apparently catching onto his silence and stiff posture, Claudia frowned and let the spell fizzle out. “Hey, what’s wrong?” 

Callum’s stomach lurched. “I-I’m fine,” he fiddled with his fingers, suddenly missing the gloves he’d outgrown a few years ago. “It’s just… Do you want to go for a walk?” He wasn’t good with confrontation on a normal day and this was a conversation he would prefer to have outside of the confines of the castle’s stone walls. 

“Alright,” Claudia replied, eyeing him with confusion as he led them out into the hallway.

Katolis had been having a string of unseasonably warm weather the last few weeks. The sun was shining above them as they headed into the courtyard and the cool air was carried by just the slightest breeze. The kingdom was hopeful for an early and prosperous spring. 

Despite the breeze, Callum could feel sweat starting to bead along his brow and his mouth was rapidly becoming very dry. He cleared his throat before taking a deep breath. He could do this. He could do this. 

“So,” he began tentatively. “I kinda heard what you said to your dad the other day.” He glanced to his left and saw Claudia’s brow crease as she considered his words.

“Oh! About what I got Ez for his birthday? Don’t worry, I was just kidding. I don’t actually have an owl griffin pup -- well, not a whole one anyway.”

Callum made a face. He’d never been much of a fan of dark magic’s requirements for creature parts.

“No, that’s not what I mean,” he said, interrupting as she began to drift toward a tangent about the uses of owl griffin feathers. “I-uh-actually meant what you said to him about...me...and getting married.”

Claudia’s eyes instantly widened in horror. “Oh no. Callum, you weren’t supposed to hear that,” she said, reaching out and pulling him to a stop beside a small tower of boxes.

“I know,” he said. He kept his eyes pointed downward at the stone beneath their feet as his hands clenched into fists. He wasn’t going to cry. Instead, he forced his voice to stay even as he continued. “But I think we need to talk about it.” 

“Yeah, okay,” she replied quietly. They each lifted themself onto a box, sitting with legs and arms tightly crossed. They didn’t look at each other. The heavy weight of silence filled the gap between them as Callum thought of what to say. He could feel his chest tightening with every breath. 

It was Claudia who spoke up first. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean for you to find out that way.”

“Did you mean for me to find out at all?” Callum asked. 

“I don’t know,” she said with a sigh. “I thought this was what we were supposed to do, you know? I thought that if I gave myself enough time, maybe I could start to…” 

“Love me?” He asked plainly, watching Claudia nod out of the corner of his eye. 

“I love hanging out with you and being your friend,” she offered. Callum could feel her eyes on him now. “I always have.”
He swallowed. “Yeah, me too.”

They both waited as a member of the cleaning staff passed in front of them, carrying a bucket of some kind of liquid. They both raised their hands in greeting as the man offered a polite bow in Callum’s direction and a friendly wave to Claudia. 

“I really am sorry, Callum,” Claudia whispered. He felt the crack that had formed on his heart aching anew. “I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“I know,” he said, coughing a little to clear the lump from his throat. “But I don’t think we should go through with this.”

“You don’t want to get married?” Her voice was small and remorseful and it nearly made Callum crumble.

He shook his head and finally looked at her. The tears that he was fighting so hard not to shed had begun flowing from her eyes instead. Despite the ache in his chest, he reached over and took her hand. 

“No, but you didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, squeezing her fingers gently.

She squeezed his hand back and replied, “I should have said something sooner. I shouldn’t have just let things keep happening.”

A tear lost its grip on her eyelash and fell from Claudia’s face. It splashed onto the back of Callum’s hand, warm at first before the air quickly turned the spot cold. Something inside him broke at the sensation and Callum released her hand and stood from his seat. 

“I-I need to go talk to my dad,” he said, hearing his voice beginning to waver.

Claudia could see the panic beginning to form in his eyes and stood too, her hand extending back toward him cautiously. “Are you okay?”

Callum tried his best to muster what he could of a reassuring smile. “I will be,” he said. “Thanks for apologizing, Claudia.”

With that he turned and headed for the first door he could find. His breathing was growing shallow and the taste of copper was beginning to burn in the back of his throat. Callum continued to walk until he found himself in the larder. Around him he saw bottles of milk, slabs of cheese and sheets of rolled pastry all being kept cool by the room’s refrigeration. The room was empty but he imagined Barius or one of the other cooks would be by before long to replenish ingredients. 

Callum closed his eyes as he sunk to the floor beside a crate of vegetables and tried to breathe deeply. The air got caught on the lump in his throat but the coolness helped to ease some of the swelling and quell the taste of blood. 

Breathe, just breathe, he told himself. His panic attacks were not a new thing. His mother had been there to help forge his technique for calming down when he was just a child. He’d been through this more times than he could count.

Didn’t make it any less unpleasant though. 

He was okay, he reminded himself. He’d told Claudia the marriage was off; he’d done what he needed to do. Breathe in, breathe out, just remember to keep breathing. He stayed beside the crate of vegetables until he felt his chest unclench and his body slump in the absence of tension. 

He rested his head against the wood of the box, taking one more deep breath and smelling the earthy scent of the turnips inside. All he needed to do now was talk to Harrow. That wouldn’t be so hard, right? The king valued love above all else. He would understand why Callum couldn’t marry someone who didn’t love him.

“Umm, Your Highness, do you...need something?”

Callum’s head snapped up to see a confused-looking cook staring at him from the doorway to the kitchen, an empty bowl cradled in one hand. 

The cold of the room did nothing to deter the heat from rising in his face. 


Callum found Harrow in his study, a pile of scrolls to his left and his royal seal on his right. 

“Callum!” Harrow said brightly as he stepped into the room. The king’s study was usually a bit of a mess and that day was no exception. Documents were spread across several tables with large books keeping them pinned down. A few dishes lay stacked in a corner, the evidence of late-night meals undoubtedly brought by Opeli when he’d forgotten to come down for dinner. 

Nevertheless, Callum had always liked this room. The plush rug that spanned nearly the entire floor was worn but soft, a few of his own drawings and paintings decorated the walls, including a portrait he’d done last year of himself, Ezran and Harrow standing proudly together. 

His stepfather pushed himself back from his desk, looking grateful for the distraction from the less-than-regal side of ruling a kingdom. “Do you need me to go somewhere with you? The gardens? Into town? Anywhere that’s not here?” He asked eagerly.

Callum smiled. Harrow had never been fond of paperwork. “Actually, Dad, I was hoping you had a minute to talk?”

Harrow gestured to another chair as he put on a smile of his own. “I can do that too.” 

Callum sat and ran a hand through his hair. With his belly full of bread offered by a very confused kitchen worker, he felt a bit more confident he could make it through this conversation. Claudia had taken him by surprise. He was going to Harrow on his own terms. 

For the better part of his childhood, Callum had felt distant from Harrow. He was the man his mother had married only a few short years before she died, leaving 4-year-old Callum and an infant Ezran behind. Harrow, in his heartbreak, had struck back against Xadia a year later, bringing down the King of Dragons and instigating the ensuing occupation. 

For most of the following thirteen years, Callum had been unsure how to act around the man. He was a prince under Harrow’s crown and a son in all but blood, but there had been a closeness that was missing. 

A lot of heart-to-heart talks and more than a few shed tears later, Callum had come to the point where calling Harrow ‘Dad’ was as natural as could be. He knew he’d had a birth father but Harrow had raised him, been there for him during his awkward years of adolescence and as he’d begun to grow closer to adulthood. 

He was a good man, which was why Callum was able to quell the bubble of anxiety in his stomach as he spoke. “Umm, it’s about Claudia and the whole...arranged marriage the Council has been talking about.”

The cheerfulness in Harrow’s expression shifted into polite sincerity as he folded his hands and gave him his full attention. “Go on,” he said kindly.

Callum replied without preamble. “I don’t want to go through with it.” Harrow’s eyes flickered with surprise. 

“All right,” he said evenly. “May I ask why? I was under the impression you’ve liked Claudia for quite some time.” 

It was good to know everyone else seemed perfectly aware of his feelings for Claudia. Callum sighed before diving into his retelling of the overheard conversation and his subsequent conversation with Claudia just an hour ago. Harrow listened, only interrupting to occasionally clarify a detail or ask a follow up question, his hands staying folded beneath his chin. 

When he finished, Callum was surprised to see Harrow’s first action was to stand, walk silently around the desk and pull him up and into a tight hug. Callum wrapped his arms around his stepfather without hesitation. 

“I’m sorry,” the king said softly as he patted the back of his head. “Heartbreak is not something that is ever made easy, no matter how many generations fall victim to it.” 

Callum gave a little hiccup in place of a sob but he felt a few streaks of tears fall from his eyes before quickly being swallowed by the fabric of Harrow’s tunic. 

“Of course we can call off the marriage,” he continued. “I told you and your brother years ago that you would be able to marry for love like your mother and I did. I intend to keep that promise.” 

Callum didn’t trust himself to speak in that moment so instead he clung tighter to Harrow, letting the waves of sadness run their course before eventually pulling back to wipe his eyes. “Thanks, Dad,” he said with a small smile. 

Harrow returned the gesture, showing no annoyance at the damp patch now decorating the shoulder of his tunic. “I will speak with the Council when they reconvene after your brother’s birthday. Don’t worry, everyone will understand.”
“Will they though?” Callum asked a little skeptically. 

Harrow shrugged. “I mean, maybe not everyone will understand but they’ll have to deal with it,” he said making Callum chuckle. “May I ask you another question?” 

Callum nodded as they each returned to their respective seats.

“How are you feeling after all of this?” It was a simple question, all things considered but it still gave Callum pause. How was he feeling? 

The little voice inside his head had been telling him for years that he would never find someone who would love him through all his faults and fumbles. Hearing that the one woman he’d been holding out hope for didn’t like him back had shattered something inside of him. Claudia would always be special but there was a numbness that now resided in the part of his heart where she had once resided. 

Not to mention the fact that he hadn’t mentioned anything of his trip to Tenebris or meeting Rayla. That added an entire new, complex layer to the situation that he wasn’t sure how to dissect yet. 

“I-I don’t really know,” Callum said finally. “A little stupid I guess, for not seeing what was right in front of me, but also relieved that I found out before things went too far.”

Harrow nodded. “The heart can sometimes blind us to the way things truly are, but you are not stupid for believing in it. I’m proud of you for coming to me. It took strength.” 

Callum felt a weight leave his heart and the first few stitches begin to mend the portion that had been cracked. 


Elsewhere in the castle, a similar, yet very different conversation was also about to take place. Claudia was still feeling guilty as she trudged through the halls to her father’s office. Callum had always been a good friend to her and she’d always found his crush endearing. It almost felt like the end of an era to see the spark vanish from his eyes when he looked at her. 

She’d truly been hoping to talk things through with Callum in private when whispers of marriage started being thrown around, but she’d never found the right time. Now, because of her dawdling, she’d left her friend heartbroken. Gods, sometimes she just felt like the worst person.

She steeled herself before knocking on her father’s door. He’d been heavily in favor of the marriage since the beginning. This was a talk she was most definitely not looking forward to. 

Hearing no response, Claudia opened the door, finding her dad hunched over a pile of books and mumbling to himself. 

“Hey, Dad,” she said, trying to sound as chipper and casual as usual. Her father jumped, clearly not having heard her entrance. She winced. “Sorry, bad time?” 

His eyes were wild for a moment before they settled on her standing in the doorway. His posture slackened a bit and he exhaled with what seemed to be relief. “No, please come in. Forgive me, I was just working on a rather tedious problem.”

“Anything I can help with?” Claudia offered, closing the door behind her as she walked in. She tried to glance at the texts but her father was quick to close them and move the books onto the floor and out of sight. 

“In time, perhaps,” Viren said as he brushed a bit of dust from the surface of his desk. “Was there something you needed, Claudia?”

Here goes nothing. “Yeah, can I talk to you about something?” Viren placed his hands on his lap and smiled reassuringly.

“Of course,” he said. “What seems to be on your mind?”

Claudia found a strand of her dark hair and began twirling it between her fingers. “So, I know you were excited about it but Callum doesn’t want to marry me anymore.”

The smile vanished from her father’s face. “And why would that be?” He asked calmly.

“He maybe, kinda heard me tell you that I didn’t like him that way,” she said. She was keeping an eye on her father’s face; he was staying silent but she could see a familiar vein beginning to protrude from his temple. 

The silence hung between them for nearly a full minute before Viren let out a groan that was full of disappointment. “Claudia, I know this is a large thing to ask of you but I need you to understand the gravity of the situation.”

Claudia’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean?” She watched Viren rub his eyes, his lids sinking heavily beneath his fingers.

“I mean there’s a lot more riding on this marriage than you might think.” He stood from his desk and walked over to place a hand on Claudia’s shoulder. “You have been given a pivotal opportunity to ensure that our family remains in a position to help the kingdom and humanity for generations to come. This is a heavy burden to place on your shoulders but you are strong. I know you can do this.”

“But I don’t understand. You’ve never gotten hung up on our positions before. I don’t care about being a princess. I can be just as helpful from right here,” she gestured around the High Mage’s office. 

Viren’s gaze and his grasp on her shoulder hardened. “The state of the kingdom is precarious. King Harrow is drifting farther and farther from the practicality that dark magic offers. I fear that if we do not keep ourselves close to the throne, Katolis may lose its grip on the war.”

Claudia looked to the ground. She wanted to do right by her father and the kingdom. The political advantage of the marriage couldn’t be denied. She didn’t like it but it was how the world worked. Even so, she’d already managed to hurt Callum badly . There didn’t seem to be much room to come back from that. Not to mention, she still really wasn’t interested in marrying him.

“Dad, I can’t force Callum to marry me. If he doesn’t like me anymore, what am I supposed to do?”

Viren chuckled mirthlessly. “Trust me, a young man’s attention is not so easily lost. Regain it. Stay close to him, talk with him, joke with him. We will be back on track in no time.”

Claudia sighed and fumbled a little under her father’s grip. “What if...what if I don't want to get married?” She asked softly, knowing in her heart that there was no escaping this. Her father was the paragon of logic and practicality that she’d always aspired to be. He knew what was right and she trusted him unconditionally. 

Viren softened, his kind smile reappearing as he placed a finger beneath her chin. He tilted her head back up to look at him. “I know this is hard, but it is the right thing to do. You will make a magnificent princess, Claudia.”

Tears welled in her eyes and she pulled her father close for a hug. She could do this. She could do this. She had to do this. She didn’t have to think about the marriage now. She could just think about spending time with Callum and waiting to see that spark in his eyes again. She would wait for him to blush and stammer around her like he’d done since they were children. 

All she had to worry about was getting Callum back. She could handle the rest later.

Chapter Text

The morning of March 19 found Callum standing stock still with his arms held out on either side as the royal tailor examined him. His costume for Ezran’s party was perfect, just as all of Valora’s work was. 

Callum’s scarlet tunic had been traded for a crisp, white one with a rich, blue vest. She’d also made him a pair of ebony dress pants that fit him like a dream and a matching jacket. It was all pulled together by an elegant silver mask that fit against the upper half of his face with sharp angles. The mask itself was inlaid with delicate iridescent swirls that he thought looked like clouds.

It was a simple outfit in comparison to Ezran’s griffin-inspired ensemble, complete with a beaked mask, but Callum couldn’t have asked for anything better. It was his brother’s big day after all. 

Besides, he was far more preoccupied with the possibility of seeing Rayla again the next day. 

He hadn’t come up with a way to tactfully send her a letter, despite the two dozen or so he’d drafted over the last week. That also didn’t take into account the number of drawings she’d been appearing in. He thought he was finally getting close to getting her eyes right in his latest project. There was just something about the curve of them that he hadn’t been able to capture.

“You may drop your arms now, Prince Callum,” Valora said. The expectancy in her voice told him it was not the first time she’d asked. 

“Oh, right, sorry,” he said sheepishly as he obeyed. Valora shook her head as she snatched a few pieces of lint from his jacket. 

“What do you think, Your Highness?” She asked, gesturing to the full-length mirror beside him. Callum looked over and saw almost exactly the same design he’d sketched for her a few weeks ago -- nothing overly grandiose but sleek and sophisticated. He’d hit what he thought was his final growth spurt about a year and a half ago and still wasn’t quite used to the new length of his legs or the broadness of his shoulders. Even so, the man he saw looking back at him was just that -- a man. 

“I love it,” he said with a smile. “I look older.”

“You are older,” Valora said, patting his arm. “You are not the same little boy I used to sew short pants for.”

That was definitely true. It seemed like a lifetime ago that Callum’s mother had brought him to live in the castle. He was 18 now -- an adult in the eyes of the kingdom. He was allowed his own glass of wine at meals, he could sit in during royal meetings and he could choose to study whatever he wished. It was both a burden and a blessing to finally be the adult he’d craved to become as a child. 

“If I may be so bold, Your Highness, it appears you’re having trouble removing your head from the clouds today,” Valora said. 

Callum caught her amused expression over his reflection’s shoulder. She’d always been a kind woman and a friend to the entire royal family. Over the years, she’d never been afraid to throw a little good-natured teasing their way. She and Sarai had gotten along famously. 

“I guess I’ve had a lot on my mind the last few days.” His mind traitorously flashed back to the sight of Rayla dancing beneath flickering firelight. 

“Would it happen to have anything to do with a young woman?” Valora asked slyly as she readjusted his collar. 

Callum was suddenly grateful for the mask covering his cheeks. “Uh, kinda,” he said as he fidgeted with his fingers. “But she’s not the person everyone thinks.”

Valora’s eyebrow raised slightly. 

“She’s not really the kind of person I thought I’d like. I’m not even really sure if I like her. We just met, but I want to see her again.” He was starting to ramble now and Callum took a moment to bite down on his tongue before he accidentally gave something away that he shouldn’t. “Could I ask you for some advice?” He said instead. 

Valora smiled before sitting down on the edge of the platform, patting the spot beside her. “I’ll do my best,” she said. 

Callum untied his mask and let it slip down his face as he took a seat beside her. “What would you do if you were interested in someone but everyone around you would tell you that it’s wrong?” 

Valora leaned back thoughtfully, mindful of the pincushion she had strapped around her wrist. “Well, Sevie and I were fortunate enough to have the support of both our families.” 

Callum had met Valora’s wife, Sevanne, many times. She was the more soft-spoken of the two, but they were always smiling when they were together. Their son was only a few years younger than Callum and was also turning into a charming young man. 

“But if we hadn’t,” Valora continued. “I can’t say there would have been much that would have stopped me from being with her. So I suppose my advice would be, whoever this girl is to you, let yourself decide what to think of her. Don’t give anyone else the right to do so on your behalf.”

Callum smiled. He hadn’t intended to have this conversation with anyone today, let alone Valora, but he was glad that he had. She was a lot like his mom in many ways -- blunt, passionate and just a little bit scary if you managed to make her mad.

“Thank you,” he said, leaning over to give her a sideways hug. “That helps.”

“Good,” she said with a firm pat on his back. “Now get out of here before you make me sentimental. Oh, and remind your brother that if he gets jelly anywhere on that costume of his, I’ll sew him to a rug.”


Callum spent the rest of the afternoon doing his best to avoid the seemingly endless lines of visiting dukes, duchess, ambassadors and the occasional monarch. He’d already spent the better part of the week smiling and bowing and shaking hands and was becoming remarkably sick of it. 

Then there was Claudia, who had been surprisingly clingy since their talk the day before. She’d sought him out to apologize at least three more times and sat directly beside him at breakfast talking about her latest research on unicorns. Ordinarily, Callum would appreciate the attention and her effort to make things up to him, but he could have used at least a few days to process everything for himself. 

It was for all of these reasons that Callum found himself tucked into a remote, shadowy corner of the library as evening began to fall. A large book was propped open on his lap. He was already dressed and ready for the party, though he’d removed the mask and placed it on the floor beside him to read. 

The book he’d spent the last several hours perusing was about elves -- moonshadow elves specifically -- and he was finding the whole thing incredibly fascinating. There weren’t many books about elven customs and traditions in the royal library and those that did exist were almost certainly dated by a few hundred years. Even so, Callum had fallen head first down the rabbit hole of knowledge they provided. 

The pages echoed what Rayla had said about dance being particularly poignant in their culture and while its nuances were fairly mysterious, there were at least a few documented accounts of ceremonial dances. He’d even come across one rough illustration of a routine that looked vaguely similar to the dance Rayla had been teaching him. He blushed when he read the caption denoting it as a courting dance. Must be one of those dances that changes meaning after a few generations. 

Callum hoped that when he saw her again, he’d be able to talk with Rayla more about her culture. Elves were fascinating and she was so...not what he was expecting. She was a lot like him in many ways: she’d been lonely, aching for someone to talk to and a way to escape from the things around her. 

The elves of Tenebris were struggling, there was no doubt of that. Humans weren’t helping and the elves were stranded in lands that were not their own. It wasn’t right. In addition to learning more about Rayla, he’d also been looking for some way to help the elves that wouldn’t offend them. He hoped to come up with a plan to take to Harrow but so far was coming up empty handed. Perhaps Rayla would have some ideas when he saw her again. 

If he saw her again, he reminded himself. He was trying to keep his hopes from running rampant. There was a very real chance that Rayla wouldn’t want anything to do with him again. 

Callum was just about to begin the chapter on moonshadow elf politics when he heard the familiar three impacts of Lord Viren’s footsteps as his staff impacted the polished wood floor. Callum froze when the footsteps rounded the corner of his alcove and Lord Viren’s face suddenly appeared over him, looking down to where he sat gracelessly on the floor. 

To say that the older man intimidated Callum was, at best, a slight understatement. There was a coldness in his eyes that never really seemed to thaw and during the few tactical meetings Callum had been a part of, Viren had proven himself to be especially ruthless when it came to the possibility of casualties. 

It didn’t take long for Viren to shake off his surprise and instead eye Callum scrupulously. “Reading in the dark is bad for your eyes, Your Highness,” he said coolly. 

Callum resisted the urge to flinch under the admonishment. He wasn’t a child getting caught out after his bedtime. “Umm, yeah. Thanks, I just lost track of time a bit.”

Viren pulled a delicate silver pocket watch from his trouser pocket. It was then that Callum noticed he was not dressed in his usual mage robes. Rather, Viren wore a more billowing style all in black. A few unknown baubles and trinkets hung from his belt along with a mask that bore a long, pointed nose like a beak. 

“You best hurry along then. Lose anymore time here and you’ll miss the festivities,” Viren said, flipping the watch to show the time. Callum’s eyes widened. 

He was late. Springing up from the ground, he shut his book and held it beneath his arm, not terribly keen on letting Viren know what he’d been reading. Callum snatched his mask from the ground before awkwardly shuffling around the other man.

“Thanks, I guess I’ll see you there,” he said. Viren gave a half-hearted grunt in response but his attention had already transferred to the shelves of scrolls and books. Callum didn’t hesitate to scurry away, nodding to the librarian on his way out. He’d return the book later. For now, he needed to get to Ezran’s party.

He hurried down the halls, briefly stopping by his room to deposit the book and check his hair in the mirror. While he wore it slightly shorter than he had growing up, it still managed to shape itself into the same unruly mess. He sighed, it would have to do. 

He jogged to the ballroom -- the hum of music and conversation already in full swing inside. He was definitely late. 

“Prince Callum,” one of the guards called out to him as he approached. There was a hint of relief in her voice. “We’ve been looking for you. The King and Prince Ezran have already had their introductions. Would you like us to announce you?”

“Oh no, that’s okay,” he said adamantly, shaking his head as he put his mask on. “I’ll just go in.” 

The guard seemed unsure but allowed him to slip through the door quietly nonetheless. He was grateful, he didn’t think his anxiety could take an entire ballroom of people stopping to look at him as he arrived late to an event. He also found himself incredibly glad for Ezran’s choice of a masquerade. Hardly anyone turned to acknowledge him as he entered and those that did didn’t seem to recognize him. 

The ballroom was already a magnificent room to begin with, limestone pillars flanked both sides with rows of massive windows making up the eastern wall. The floors were rich, dark wood with the pattern of the uneven towers running through the middle. Filling the room was a crowd that was just as impressive. Gilded formalwear was made even more elegant by the addition of sculpted masks inlaid with jewels and other treasures. Billowing skirts and finely-fitted trousers milled about gracefully without leaving so much as a scuff on the floor. 

Callum swallowed hard. It was beautiful, in its own way, but parties like this always managed to make him feel claustrophobic. He took a few deep breaths before diving into the crowd. He needed to find Ezran. 

Thankfully, his anonymity continued as he weaved his way around person after person. Rather than the panicked apologies he would usually get in a crowd when people recognized him, Callum was only receiving half-muttered acknowledgements when people bumped into him. It was incredibly refreshing.

It took him a few minutes to cross around the edge of the room, deliberately avoiding the dance floor in the center for fear of being pulled in. He found Ezran unsurprisingly camped beside the dessert table, a large piece of persimmon pie on a plate in one hand. Queen Aanya was chuckling at his side and brushing some stray crumbs from his burgundy jacket. 

The sight made Callum pause, one eyebrow rising beneath his mask. When had she and Ez gotten so chummy? His brother got along with most people and he and Aanya had been pleasantly acquainted since she took over the throne of Duren about four years ago. She’d only just celebrated her own 14th birthday in June and was already considered a well-respected and well-loved monarch like her mothers before her. 

It was a little foreign to see her laugh though. She was more mature than many adults, himself included Callum thought, and she was often very stoic. He wasn’t even sure he’d heard her laugh before. 

Callum shook off his astonishment and approached the pair. 

“Valora is going to kill you if you mess up your clothes this early in the night,” he said casually to Ezran before turning to Aanya and offering a respectful bow. “Nice to see you again, Your Majesty.”

“Callum!” Ezran exclaimed as he wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Where have you been?” 

“We were sad to see you absent from the royal introduction, Prince Callum,” Aanya added with a smile as she offered back her own friendly bow. 

Callum rubbed sheepishly at the back of his neck. “Yeah, I got a little distracted in the library. Sorry I’m late, Ez.”

His brother shrugged. “That’s alright. I’ll just collect my birthday jerkface dance later.” Aanya made a little snort noise into her glass before covering it with a tactful cough. 

“Fantastic,” Callum said plainly. 

Ezran smiled, his cheeks raising the edges of his golden mask. While Callum’s outfit was simple and understated, Ezran’s was equally grand and extravagant. The back of his jacket was embroidered with a golden griffin and his mask flared out with delicate spirals that looked almost like feathers. 

Aanya’s ensemble consisted of a navy gown slit at both sides with a pair of white leggings underneath. The focal point was definitely her mask, which was painted with a colorful array of flowers. 

“At least you didn’t miss the surprise,” Ezran said as he knelt down to not-so-subtly place the remainder of his pie on the floor before slipping it beneath the table with his foot. Callum heard a telltale croak before a cheerful yellow light began emanating from behind the tablecloth. 

“What surprise?” He asked.

“Dad said Lord Viren came up with some special performance that he thinks I’m really going to like.”

“Lord Viren came up with it?” Callum didn’t bother to hide his skepticism. “Are you sure it’s not going to be some kind of dark magic sacrifice?”
“I admit I was apprehensive as well,” Aanya said. “Your High Mage is far from my favorite person, but King Harrow seemed very confident.”

“Huh,” Callum said thoughtfully. He was curious. Viren wasn’t his favorite person either, the tone of their run-in in the library was proof of that, but Callum also wasn’t a person to turn down the opportunity for someone to prove him wrong. 

The trio spent the better part of the next hour chatting and catching up as a few other guests dipped in and out of the conversation to wish Ezran a happy birthday. Callum watched with pride as his baby brother offered kind but firm handshakes in return, somehow managing to recognize and address each guest by name despite the masks. Callum had found himself jealous of Ezran’s social graces on more than one occasion but tonight, he was just happy to see him happy. 

Callum smiled and shook his own fair share of hands as well, thinking it only polite that he actually announce himself to at least a few people. Though he was pleased when Prince Kasef didn’t approach. As the crown prince of Neolandia, Kasef had been attending more and more political events on behalf of King Ahling, who had apparently been fighting some fairly severe arthritis in his knees. The 23-year-old had proven himself to be hot-headed and fairly narrow-minded in addition to being a talented warrior. Plus, he’d never been one to hide his feelings on Callum’s status as a “step-prince” of Katolis.

The music that had been filling the ballroom began to fade. Heads turned in the direction of the dais at the front of the room where King Harrow was now standing. In addition to his own costume of gilded feathers, Harrow wore a bright smile. 

“Thank you all once again for joining my family in celebrating Prince Ezran’s birthday,” he said, his deep voice filled the space with ease and prompted a brief round of applause before he continued. “It is my greatest wish that when Ezran takes my place as king, he will find a kingdom and a world at peace. To be at peace, we cannot just take the path that is easy. We must look farther than ourselves, farther than we are comfortable. It is with that goal in mind that I would like to personally welcome a group of special guests tonight.”

With that, Harrow swept his arm out to his left. A guard pulled open a side door and a group of costumed people emerged and headed for the dance floor. 

Almost at once, loud murmurs and even a few gasps began rising from the crowd. Ezran, who’d grown considerably during the last couple of years and was well on his way to inheriting Harrow’s height, was still straining on his tiptoes to try and see the mysterious people.

Callum, however, had found a gap in the crowd and watched as the strangers approached. He could see long, flowing fabric that shone with teal and white. Their masks were dark and curved away from their faces in tendrils that reminded him of antennas. However, what took his breath away most of all, were the horns sprouting from their heads and the white hair that surrounded them. They were moonshadow elves. 

Callum looked closer, his pulse picking up pace. They weren’t just any moonshadow elves, he realized. This was Rayla’s troupe. His ears deafined to the whispers of the other guests as he moved through them trying to get to the edge of the dance floor. He finally broke through just as the last elf in line took her place. 

It took more effort than he expected not to say her name out loud when he saw her. Rayla was really there in front of him. 

The musicians struck up a slow melody led with violin and the elves began to move. Their movements were slower than he had seen in Tenebris, but no less practiced and synchronized. Callum kept his eyes on Rayla as she spun and dipped, the skirt of her dress flaring out beneath her like a flower in bloom. 

The crowd remained hesitant, some moving farther away from the elves while others continued to point and whisper behind gloved hands. It was a rather ingenious way to get elves and humans in the same room, Callum thought. Who better to have as an audience than a bunch of royals and nobles who care too much for their own image to make a scene? Harrow was making a political statement as much as he was celebrating Ezran’s birthday and Callum found it incredibly brave. 

The whispers and murmurs turned to gasps as the music grew faster and the dancers lifted their arms into the air, revealing large, shimmering wings that sparkled like thousands of tiny gemstones. Callum’s eyes widened. It was moon magic, and with the help of their illusory wings, the rest of their costumes finally made sense to him. They were archangel lunarises -- moon moths -- dancing flawlessly beneath the light of the ballroom’s chandelier as if it was moonlight. 

More guests began to watch in amazement instead of fear as the magic swelled. Soon the whole room was bathed in the little twinkling lights. The violin continued until it was the only instrument left playing. A few more high, reverberating notes rang out and the elves came to a stop with deep bows. 

When the magic faded, a little more than half the crowd began to applaud with various levels of enthusiasm. Others still looked too shocked, afraid or even angry to form a response. However, those who clapped, Callum included, seemed genuinely pleased. 

Callum tried to catch Rayla’s eye as she and the others acknowledged the crowd with polite smiles. He thought for a moment he had succeeded when her gaze lingered slightly in his direction, but she turned away before he could raise his hand fully to wave. 

During the performance, Ezran had made his way back to the dais to watch with Harrow, presumably for a better view, and was now also applauding emphatically. Viren, despite having been the mastermind behind the elves’ presence, stood still and guarded behind the king’s right side. Callum wasn’t sure when the High Mage had even joined the party.

As the applause died down, Harrow held out a hand to address the room once more. “Wonderful!” He began by calling out cheerfully. “I would like to thank the elves of Tenebris for joining us tonight. They have done so, not just as entertainers but as my personal guests. Please, let us all enjoy the rest of the night together.” 

For the next hour, the moonshadow elves continued with various magic-infused dances, each one garnering just a bit more applause than the last. The range of their routines was really quite impressive, Callum mused as he continued to watch with rapt attention. For some, they were almost exclusively on the tips of their toes, dancing separately but completely intune with each other. While during others, the elves partnered in pairs and moved so quick and flawlessly that Callum wondered if they needed magic to get their hips to move like that. 

Around them, a few human couples even began returning to the dance floor, making futile but good-natured attempts at keeping pace with the elves. It was quite the sight -- humans and elves dancing just feet apart. The air was still thick with trepidation from both sides but Callum couldn’t help but smile at the little glimpses of peace the night was offering. 

He continued to try and get Rayla’s attention but to no avail. She seemed thoroughly concentrated on her performance. Her back was a little tenser than last time he’d watched her dance and the light in her eyes just a bit duller. Though he supposed that if he were the one dancing in front of a group of elves, he’d be more than a little nervous as well.

When they had completed their final routine, Callum watched Harrow and Ezran approach to shake each of their hands. He almost made a move to join them but froze when he remembered one very critical detail of his night in Tenebris. 

He hadn’t told Rayla he was a prince. 

In the midst of his storm of self-pity that night he’d lied and said he only worked in the library. His blood ran cold. He had to tell her the truth before she found out some other way. He hadn’t doubted her threat to kill him if she found out he was deceiving her.

But with their performances at an end, other curious humans began to approach the elves with questions. A handful of crownguards remained nearby, presumably instructed to protect either side should the other start trouble. 

Callum cursed as he saw a council woman from Del Bar begin to talk Rayla’s ear off as she tried to sip on a drink. He needed to talk to her alone. 

He needed a distraction. 

Thankfully, he knew the perfect glow toad for the job. Callum brushed passed a few ambassadors from Serpentpass to get to where Ezran and Harrow had settled into a conversation with -- Callum winced -- Prince Kasef. 

Great. 

“Prince Callum, I was wondering where you were,” Harrow said when he caught sight of him. To anyone unfamiliar with him, Harrow’s tone would seem playful, but Callum knew his stepfather and he could hear the hidden edge in his words. He would undoubtedly be receiving a lecture about being late. 

In the meantime, Harrow draped an arm around his shoulders and pulled him forward. Callum didn’t miss the judgemental look that flashed across Kasef’s eyes. The older prince’s costume bore a resemblance to a Neolandian vulture: large, vicious creatures that the armies of Neolandia used as war birds. Callum thought the choice of a cold-hearted scavenger was an apt comparison for Kasef. 

“Prince Kasef was just telling us about his younger sister. I still can’t believe that sweet little Korinn is already 16,” Harrow said. 

Callum offered a slightly-clenched but respectful bow. “Your Highness,” he said in Kasef’s direction. “Good to see you.”

Kasef mimicked the gesture. “You as well,” he said tightly. 

The smiles on neither young man’s lips reached their eyes and there was a layer of tension that settled over them. Clearly Kasef also hadn’t forgotten how Callum had called his plan for charging on the ruins of Elarion “A bit foolish” during the last summit. 

“I uh, hope you’re father is well,” Callum offered when he felt Harrow give a discreet but sharp pinch to his arm. 

“His condition is unchanged,” Kasef replied shortly before seemingly also taking stock of the surrounding company and continued in a much less derisive tone. “But he remains strong and in good spirits.”

Callum nodded. “I’m glad to hear that.” And he was; Ahling had always been kind to him over the years. He could recall the king’s hearty laugh and the stories he would tell of magical elephants that used to rome the deserts. 

In defense of the rapidly-growing air of discomfort, Callum turned to his stepfather. “I hate to intrude, but I was actually hoping to borrow the birthday boy for a minute.”
Perhaps sensing the awkwardness himself, Harrow apparently decided to take pity on him. “Of course, who am I to come between a boy and his gifts.”

Beside them, Ezran smiled and looped his arm through Callum’s. The brothers both said their hasty goodbyes before Callum steered them back in the direction of the dessert table. 

“Are you actually going to give me my present?” Ezran asked suspiciously. 

Callum thought of the thick book on Xadian animals he’d come across in town a few weeks ago and where it was currently sitting wrapped on his desk upstairs. 

“I will. I swear I will give you your present and help you the next time you steal from Barius if you do me a favor,” Callum said, bending down and scooping Bait from beneath the table with one fluid motion. 

Ezran quirked an interested eyebrow as the glow toad was deposited into his arms. 

“I also need you to not tell Dad about it,” Callum added. 

Ezran’s eyebrow shot up even more and was quickly joined by a devious smile. “I’m in.”

Callum would find time later to worry about his brother’s growing affinity for breaking the rules, but for now, he was just grateful. 

“Rayla’s here,” he said, dropping his voice to barely more than a whisper. He put a stern finger against his lips when Ezran’s eyes shot excitedly toward the group of elves. “And I need to talk to her. Can you and Bait keep everyone busy for a minute?” 

Ezran nodded emphatically. “I thought I recognized her,” he said quietly. “Leave it to me.”

Callum clasped Ezran’s shoulders and planted a large kiss on his forehead. “You are the best little brother in the world and you have my permission to repeat that whenever you want.”

Ezran beamed. “Come on, Bait. Let’s go save Callum’s girlfriend from the boring people.” Before Callum could correct him on the “girlfriend” bit, Ezran had disappeared into the throngs of people. 

Callum circled around and positioned himself behind a pillar to Rayla’s right. He could hear the boredom in her voice as a large man discussed how he had once been to the Breech as a young boy. He tried not to laugh when Rayla made a sarcastic comment about how thrilling it must have been for the man to have almost seen Xadia 40 years ago. The man simply agreed and continued with the story, not picking up on her cheek. 

Before the man could get too much further back into the story, there was a large clatter somewhere towards the center of the room. Callum smirked at his brother’s speed as he moved around the pillar. The sea of heads around him all turned toward the commotion, whispering words of curiosity and concern. They were all sufficiently distracted as he approached Rayla, watching as she looked toward the distraction as well.

Callum approached quietly and reached for her hand. The second his skin touched hers, her eyes shot in his direction as she yanked her hand back. Her expression was livid for just a moment before she took in the sight of him and it changed to one of confusion. Callum pulled his mask up and offered her a smile. 

“Call-” Rayla started before Callum put a finger to his lips and gestured behind him toward the door to the veranda. He reached out his hand again and waited. 

A bright flash suddenly erupted from behind her, followed by Ezran’s voice calling out, “Sorry, everyone! Bait’s feeling a little under the weather.”

Rayla glanced around at all the nobles now rubbing their eyes and mumbling about glow toads before looking back to Callum. He felt a zap run through his fingers when she placed her hand in his and let him pull her away. 

Callum tugged his mask back down as he led them to the door, the smile not leaving his face as he opened it and slipped them out into the chilly night. He said a silent “thank you” to Ezran as they went, eternally grateful that the distraction had gone off without a hitch. 

However, in his excitement, Callum failed to see the pair of eyes that had followed him across the ballroom and widened at the sight of him sneaking away with an elf.

Chapter Text

Callum pulled them out onto the veranda and down a set of stone stairs into the garden before he slowed down. He was pleased to find Rayla did not attempt to snatch her hand back along the way.

He kept walking until they were nestled among a row of rhododendron hedges that were bare and dormant for the winter. However, their branches were thickly woven into a wall that shielded them from the castle windows. Satisfied, Callum turned back and felt his chest tighten as he took in the sight of Rayla standing there next to him. 

“Hi,” he said lamely.

Rayla gave a little snort. “Really? Is that all you can say after stealing me away like that?”

Callum blushed. “I was under the impression it was more of a rescue.”

“Mmm, I suppose it was,” she said with a nod. “I didn’t realize upper-class humans could be so boring.”

“It takes some getting used to,” he affirmed.

Rayla finally dropped his hand and Callum watched as she pulled her mask away, revealing a look of relief on her face. He could now also see that the lids of her eyes had been painted with some sort of shimmering white paint that matched her hair and reminded him of freshly fallen snow at daybreak. Combined with the flowing dress she wore and the slight curl in her hair, she looked like something straight out of a storybook. 

“You-um-you look really nice tonight,” Callum said. He was no longer sure what to do with his hands so he elected to stuff them into his trouser pockets as he tried not to look at her lips. 

She glanced down at her costume and tucked her small braid back behind her right ear. “Thanks,” she said. “You don’t look too bad either. I didn’t think librarians got invited to this sort of thing.”

He tried to swallow but was unsuccessful. Apparently his heart had migrated into his throat. 

“That’s actually why I wanted to talk to you,” he said. “I mean, I wanted to talk to you because I’ve been thinking about you and now you’re here but-” Callum paused to take a deep breath, blushing furiously.

Keep it together.

“I meant what I said the other night. I would like to get to know you, but there’s something I wasn’t entirely honest about.” 

Rayla crossed her arms over her chest, her mask still dangling from one hand. She eyed him curiously.

“I don’t work in the library, not officially. I spend a lot of time there and help out sometimes, but I live here because King Harrow is my stepdad...So I’m actually kind of a prince.” He closed his eyes and braced for some kind of impact, ready for Rayla to shout or throw something. Instead, she stayed completely silent.

Callum glanced up and saw her eyes wide with surprise as perhaps a dozen emotions passed across her face. He saw doubt followed by confusion and a hint of anger but then there was a look of fear that he didn’t quite understand. He almost would have preferred the anger. 

“Rayla, I’m sorry I lied,” he said gently, taking a tentative step toward her. “I was having a bad day and for once I want to just be me instead of the prince. But I still shouldn’t have done it. I hope you can forgive me.”

Rayla stared at him, her arms now clutching at herself and trembling slightly. “Y-you’re the second prince?” Her voice was almost quiet enough to disappear in the wind. 

Callum nodded.

She sucked in a sharp breath that came out shaky when she released it. Her eyes darted around anxiously for a moment. When she looked back up, the anger had returned to her face. 

“What the hell is wrong with you? Why would a human prince stroll into an elf settlement and-ugh!” She was trying to keep her voice down, but was obviously finding it exceedingly difficult. “Why did you let me kiss you?”

Guilt rolled in Callum’s stomach. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. I didn’t even mean to meet you. Everything else I said was true; I was just there because Soren thought it would cheer me up.”

“Oh yeah?” Rayla shot back. “And what did you need cheering up from?”

Callum winced. “Th-The High Council has been wanting me to get married but I found out the girl I thought I’d marry didn’t actually like me that way.” The words sounded so juvenile when he said them aloud. 

Rayla continued to stare at him. For ten seconds, then twenty, she said nothing until she threw her hands up into the air. “I’m an idiot,” she said exasperatedly. “I am actually an idiot for thinking that night was anything but a mistake. Of course you’re the damn prince, of course you’re supposed to get married, of course this whole thing was a bad idea.”

Callum wasn’t sure, but he thought he could see tears beginning to well in her eyes. “Rayla…” he said, reaching out to her.

“Don’t,” she replied sharply, making his hand freeze in midair.

Callum sighed and let his arm fall all together. “Can I try and fix this?”
Rayla rounded on him. “Why? Why in the world do you insist that you want to get to know me? What reason could you possibly have?”

“Because I like you!” Callum practically shouted before covering his mouth and glancing toward the castle. He kept his voice considerably lower as he continued. “I liked talking with you, I liked watching you dance and I thought that maybe you liked some things about me too.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. “I’m an elf.”

“And I’m human,” he agreed. “And I know that we...skipped a few steps the other night but why can’t we just start over?” 

He bent at the waist and swept his hand out in front of him in a casual bow. “I’m Prince Callum, it’s nice to meet you.”

Rayla covered her face with her hands, muffling a groan as she sank down onto the grass. “Callum, you don’t get to just redo things and pretend like the past didn’t happen.” Her voice was muffled as he knelt beside her. 

“I don’t want to pretend like it didn’t happen,” Callum interjected. “I-uh...I happened to like kissing you.” His thoughts flashed to the portrait of her in front of the tree and the sensual look he’d captured in her eyes. That particular drawing was now safely hidden beneath his bed. “I just thought that maybe we could back up a little bit? I can prove that I’m not some spoiled brat who’s trying to take advantage of you and maybe we can be...friends?”

“Our people don’t get to be friends, or whatever we are. I shouldn’t even be anywhere near you. Humans killed the Dragon King and his heir.”

Callum frowned. “And the Dragon King killed my mom. But if elves and humans keep hating each other because they think they have to, then people are going to keep dying.” 

Rayla’s mouth opened and closed a few times. “I didn’t realize he was responsible for your mother’s death.” She bowed her head. “I’m sorry.” 

He nodded. “She was an amazing woman. She was a fierce warrior,  but she valued the lives of all creatures human or otherwise. It wasn’t a popular opinion, but she stuck to it anyway. She taught me that bad things won’t change until someone takes the first step to change it.”

“Is that what we’re doing here? Changing things?” Rayla replied skeptically.

“Maybe? Or maybe we’re just two people who enjoy each other’s company and don’t want other people telling us what to do.” Callum’s nerve returned enough to reach out and tuck her braid back behind her ear. She didn’t flinch away this time and Callum watched the pointed tip of her ear quiver slightly under his touch.

“What do you think?” He asked softly. “Want to give it a try?”

She left the question hanging in the air, glancing at the hand that he hadn’t quite pulled away from the side of her face. His pulse kicked up when she leaned over and pressed her lips lightly against the tip of one finger. “I really don’t think you’re going to like what you find when you get to know me,” she said. 

“If it’s okay with you, I’d like to decide that for myself.”

Rayla let out a long, unsteady breath. “Moon above, forgive me for what I’m about to do,” she said, glancing upward at the sky. “Callum, I need to tell you something too, something I haven’t been honest about either.” 

Callum raised a brow. He could see that same hint of fear returning to her face and her hands were nervously twisting the fabric of her skirt. “Rayla, it’s okay. You can tell me. When I say I want to get to know you, that includes the tough stuff.”

Rayla let out a single, dry laugh. “Are you always so insufferably optimistic?”

Callum smiled. “My dad calls it ‘relentless positivity.’ You should meet Ezran, he practically radiates the stuff.” 

“You’re both annoying then,” she said with a little smile of her own. “I’ll tell you, but there’s something I need to do first. Will you...will you come back to Tenebris tomorrow night?”

Callum had to resist the urge to jump to his feet and whoop like a child. “Of course,” he said instead, hoping he sounded nonchalant. 

Rayla nodded before slumping back against the leafless hedge a little more. “What in the world are you doing to me?” 

“Whatever it is, you’ve been doing the same thing to me.”

He dared to scoot a little closer to her, Rayla turning to give him an exasperated look, but not protesting. All the while, Callum could feel the knot in his stomach steadily loosening. He’d told her the truth. She didn’t hate him. In fact, she’d invited him to see her again.

Somewhere in the distance, a bird trilled into the night before a sharp breeze swept across the castle grounds. The cold air made the tops of the trees sway and Callum shudder. If he was cold, Rayla must be freezing. He stood and brushed as much damp grass and dirt from his trousers as he could before offering his hand to her. She took it, grasping firmly as he pulled her to her feet. 

He’d intended to offer to take her back inside. However, once she was standing, he found it hard to look away. In her frustration, she’d slightly smudged the shiny paint above her right eye upward toward her brow. He wanted to touch her; He wanted to reach out and wipe the smeared paint and run his fingers through her hair. But friends didn’t do those kinds of things, he reminded himself. 

He jumped a little when Rayla’s hand appeared on the edge of the mask he’d forgotten he was still wearing. She paused, looking into his eyes for permission to continue. Callum granted it with a quick nod, neither breaking eye contact as she pulled the mask upward and exposed his face. 

“I still think this is a bad idea,” she whispered, brushing her fingers down his face and tracing a line across his jaw. “And I hate that I’ve been thinking about you too.”

Callum caught her hand as it drifted from his chin and brought her fingers to his lips. He kissed each one delicately, immediately committing the sensation to memory. The muffled music from the ballroom mixed with the chirps of crickets and other nighttime creatures around them. 

“Would you teach me a human dance?” Rayla asked, her gaze lowering to his lips just long enough for him to notice. Callum could feel his body quivering from something other than the cold now.

“Why?” He asked with a coy smirk, his memory alight with where this particular question had led them last time.

However, Rayla’s expression remained serious. “Because you’re probably going to hate me after tomorrow,” she said, lifting a hand to silence him when he opened his mouth to object. “And I want to dance with you one more time before that happens.” 

Callum’s heart tugged with sympathy for this beautiful woman who seemed to think so little of herself. He hadn’t known her long, but he’d already seen evidence that she was graceful, talented, kind, and mercilessly witty. How could she think he would hate her? 

He leaned forward so their foreheads were resting against each other. If she didn’t want to hear his disbelief, he would show her. “Put one hand on my shoulder,” he said with what he hoped was gentle reassurance. 

Rayla did as he asked. Her hand slid into place while he took hold of her waist. “Mind if I lead this time?” Just as he’d hoped, the question replaced some of the worry in her eyes with mirth.

“Depends on how good of a teacher you are,” she threw back. 

He began to lead her through the basic steps of a waltz, initially counting the timing aloud, though it didn’t take long for Rayla to catch on. He threw in a little twirl when the music began to speed up, earning a chuckle as Rayla spun with more gusto than necessary.

“Feeling a bit daring, are we?” She quipped.

Callum shrugged. “It seems to happen a lot when I’m around you.” To emphasize, he pulled her a little closer before moving his hand up from her waist and easing her backwards into a small dip. Rayla’s smile grew even more.

When he pulled her back up, Rayla draped both arms around his neck and pulled herself in close to him. They swayed gently in place, the actual steps of the dance forgotten. The music faded from one song to another but they paid it little mind.

“How am I doing for my first lesson?” Callum asked, resting his head lightly on her shoulder. He felt the shake of her laughter against his cheek.

“Not bad. You’re definitely not the worst dance partner I’ve ever had.” 

“As far as I’m concerned, you just called me your best dance partner.” She laughed again, nuzzling just slightly against his head in a way that made Callum’s heart melt. 

When yet another song came to an end, he felt Rayla glance over at the castle before up at the sky. 

“Don’t say that you have to go,” he whispered.

“I have to,” she said, her body slowly coming to a stop. “And so should you.” 

Callum knew she was right. They’d already tempted fate enough by staying out as long as they had, and Rayla would be the one in danger if a crownguard happened to spot them together like this. 

He sighed, and looked up when a hand gently caressed his cheek. Rayla tilted his face up and he saw the sadness creeping back into the corners of her eyes. “Callum, whatever happens tomorrow, I...I want you to know that I didn’t expect to meet a human like you.”

That scared him. That sounded too much like a goodbye, one that she didn’t expect to come back from. What could she possibly need to tell him? Before the question could leave his lips, Rayla had stifled them with her own.

Callum became overwhelmed with the sensation of taking a drink of ice cold water after a long drought. He hadn’t realized how desperate he had been to kiss her again. Now that he was, he thought he might drown in the sensation.

She kissed him deeply and desperately, her fingers pulling at his hair, his clothes, and his arms. He responded in kind, slipping his tongue into her mouth and not bothering to hold back a low moan when hers twisted against his. 

Maybe the wine hadn’t been what got him drunk last weekend after all, maybe it was just Rayla. He could feel it again now; the sweet intoxication of her lips slotted between his was stronger than any liquor he could imagine. 

Callum understood now how some people could become addicted to such a sensation, why they would chase after the high time and time again, even when it left them dizzy and breathless the next day. He didn’t want to let Rayla go. He wanted to spend the night in her arms and kiss away whatever fears were holding her back. He wanted her to be the last thing he saw tonight and the first thing he saw in the morning. 

But before the dream was even fully painted in his mind, it was wiped away when the warmth of her lips vanished from his. He tried to chase after it and managed to secure another peck to her lips before Rayla stepped out of his arms.

“Goodnight, Callum,” she said, her breathing definitely heavier. 

He watched silently as she slipped her mask back over her eyes and tried to smooth some of the wrinkles from her dress. She turned to leave but Callum couldn’t help himself. He reached out and caught her hand, pulling her back to him and causing a little noise of surprise to escape her lips.

He caught those lips in one last kiss, one achingly-tender kiss that Callum poured every ounce of longing and passion he could muster into. Rayla clung to him, kissing him back for a few weightless moments before she pulled away once more.

“You can’t keep doing that when I try to leave,” she said in a sweet whisper next to his ear. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Can’t I just keep kissing you until it is tomorrow?” He asked, mouthing lazily against her neck. 

Rayla shuddered before taking a deep breath and a step backward. “Goodnight,” she said again. This time when she turned, she really did disappear back into the darkened garden. 

“Goodnight,” he whispered after her. He tried to listen to the sound of her footsteps padding through the grass. However, she was apparently just as light on her feet even when she wasn’t dancing, for he barely heard a twig crack. 

Callum lingered for a few minutes more, trying to get control over the cacophony of his heartbeat and the raging smile on his face. He made a half-hearted attempt at flattening his hair and straightening his tunic before pulling his own mask back over his facing and making his way back into the castle.


Earlier...

 

Claudia had been waiting to approach Callum all night. At first he’d been missing during the start of the party and when she finally did recognize him among the sea of masks and eveningwear, she couldn’t keep track of him long enough to catch up. 

Her father was adamant that Callum would come back around to the idea of marrying her and that the whole arrangement would be for the good of the kingdom. Despite her platonic feelings for Callum and the apathy she felt toward the idea of marriage in general, Claudia could understand her dad’s reasoning. She wanted to do what was right and Callum had liked her for a long time. It would make him happy too. She could do it for her kingdom and she could do it for her friend. 

So when she spotted him talking to Ezran, she was quick to head in their direction. The heels of her shoes clicked beneath the skirt of her dark mauve gown. Her handmade peacock-like mask was perhaps a bit too large, as she managed to clip one or two guests on the side of the head as she changed direction. However, she hadn’t been able to help herself at the thought of a masquerade. 

Once again, Callum began moving away from her before Claudia could reach him and Ezran disappeared all together. She quietly groaned in frustration, fighting the heavy urge to simply shout to her friend across the room. That wouldn’t be proper, her father’s voice said in her head.

But how hard was it supposed to be to get one stupid dance? 

Claudia quirked a curious eyebrow when Callum came to a stop beside one of the large stone pillars that outlined the room. She knew he’d never been a big fan of parties, and crowds sometimes triggered a panic attack. Perhaps he was taking a moment to himself. 

A large clatter in the middle of the ballroom stole Claudia’s attention away. She saw Ezran clutching Bait, a waiter’s silver serving tray laying empty on the floor in front of them. Ezran was smiling guiltlessly at the many eyes now staring at him, chuckling as he apologized for his glow toad’s poor manners. 

“Sorry, everyone!” He called out. “My little frie-”

Claudia had heard that phrase enough times to know to look away from the little creature. Years of admittedly-good pranks from the crown prince had honed her reflexes. 

Sure enough, the glow toad’s blinding flash erupted from the corner of her eye, making her wince. She glanced back in Callum’s direction to see if his anxiety was being exacerbated by sudden blindness. Instead, her own eyes flew open wide at what she saw. Callum had made his way over to the group of elven performers and was now holding his hand out to one of them, his mask pulled up and a tender smile on his lips.

Claudia froze. Was he asking her to dance? Their performance had been impressive but she hardly thought that warranted a dance with one of the princes. 

Claudia’s eyes managed to widen even further when the elf girl actually took his hand and Callum began pulling her away from the rest of the group. However, he didn’t lead her to the dance floor, instead he opened a door to the veranda and pulled them through. Claudia blinked as the door closed behind them, not entirely believing what she’d just seen. 

The crowd around her slowly started recovering from Ezran’s display when she snapped herself out of her stupor and took off after the pair. Whatever was going on, it wasn’t safe for Callum to be alone with a moonshadow elf. Claudia had been more than a little apprehensive when her dad had told her there would be elves performing in the castle. He’d always said that elves moonshadow elves specifically were dangerous and devious and shouldn’t be trusted. 

Yet when she’d objected to their attendance at a party full of royalty and other important figures, he’d told her that it was necessary and she needed to trust him. She did trust her father, more than anyone, but at the moment, she couldn’t help but silently call him an idiot. 

Claudia threw open the door to find an empty veranda and no sign of Callum or the elf. She kicked off her obtrusive shoes and hiked up her skirt with one hand as she ran to the banister and began scanning the gardens below. The flower beds and shrubbery were still bare from winter, making it easier to see through the empty branches. Yet she still couldn’t spot them anywhere. 

Her eyes narrowed. Whatever the elf was up to, Claudia wasn’t going to let her get away with it. She dove her hand into the pouch at her side and yanked a handful of its contents: the ashes of a Del Barian eagle and a nearly-spent shadowlife candle. It would have to do. 

Claudia snapped her fingers and the wick of the candle sprang to life. She pulled the stopper from the vial of ashes and sprinkled them over the flame, turning it from bright orange to a dark purple. “Hsa fo nellaf esir dna eb ym seye.” 

She blew one long, steady breath and saw the form of a smokey eagle take shape before her vision temporarily went dark. When she blinked, she was greeted with a view of herself from the eagle’s eyes. It was disorienting and Claudia made a mental note that she could probably use a haircut, but the bird took flight before she could dwell for too long. 

It soared high above the gardens, scanning the ground for its targets. Claudia meanwhile was clutching the bannister in front of her as the borrowed view threatened to make her nauseous. Thankfully, it didn’t take long for the bird of prey to spot a patch of snowy white among the barren gardens. Under her will, it swooped down and Claudia could clearly see Callum kneeling in the dirt beside the elf. She let out a relieved breath as she took in his apparently-unhurt form. They weren’t far, she could cancel the spell and be there in a flash if she ran fast enough. 

But the casual nature of their postures made her pause. Claudia continued watching as the eagle landed in a tree, its eyes still aimed at the couple sitting on the ground. The elf was not attacking, nor did she seem to be holding Callum against his will. He was making no effort to get away and didn’t seem perturbed in the slightest about his choice of company. 

Claudia was baffled. Her mind was reeling as she tried to come up with some kind of explanation but was left wanting. 

Callum gave a little shiver before standing from the ground and swatting the clumps of grass and dirt clinging to him. He then offered his hand to the elf girl for a second time, gently helping her to her feet. But he did not drop her hand when she was standing. In fact, the pair continued to look at each other as if their lives depended on it.

Claudia herself was too stunned to do anything. Her mouth had fallen open at some point and she imagined that if she could see her hands, her knuckles would be white against the bannister. Her breath hitched when the elf brought a hand to Callum’s face and pulled up his mask, her fingers caressing his cheek on their way back down. 

It was a tender gesture, intimate even, and still Callum showed no sign that it was unwanted. On the contrary, he looked enraptured by her...perhaps even spellbound. 

Was that what this was? A spell? Did this elf somehow bewitch Callum? Claudia had never heard of such a spell, but there was much about primal magic that had been kept secret from humans. For all she knew, there could be a spell for false affection or even lust.

The elf’s lips began to move and Claudia cursed her own spell for only enhancing her sight and not her hearing. She was deaf to the elf’s words and couldn’t read her lips well enough to know if they formed some kind of incantation. 

Regardless, the result was clear when Callum took her hand from his face and began to kiss it softly. 

Claudia’s hand shot out of its own volition, making a futile effort to stop what was happening beyond her grasp. In doing so, she managed to knock the candle from its perch and off the edge of the banister. The flame extinguished and the spell broke, leaving Claudia suddenly staring once more through her own eyes. 

It had to be a spell. There had to be some kind of magic responsible for what she’d just seen. She needed to fix this. She needed to get Callum back before this elf took advantage of him. 

She needed to find her father.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Rayla had spent many nights sleeping in the cold. In fact, on their journey into the human kingdoms, she, Runaan and the others had spent most of their nights in ice-covered caves with their campfire burning low to avoid being spotted. However, that didn’t make it any more enjoyable for her to wake in a frostbitten tree with ice crystals dangling from her hair. 

She had tucked herself under the fabric of her cloak as entirely as she could, continuing to curse the stupid dress she wore underneath. But she’d reused to go back to Tenebris the previous night, not with the way Runaan had reacted. Instead, she’d fallen asleep looking at the castle while trying to guess which window belonged to Callum’s room. It was likely well-past midnight when she’d given up trying to convince herself that she wasn’t completely infatuated by him. It took too much energy to keep pretending she wasn’t falling head-first into this thing she wasn’t prepared for. 

Rayla groaned as she unfolded her chilled limbs, hearing a few muscles pop at the movement. The morning was still young, with the sun only just rising high enough to begin warming some of the overnight freeze. Callum would be back in Tenebris that night, and if Rayla knew him, which she believed she was beginning to, he would most likely be early. She would need every precious hour in between to try and convince Runaan to call off the mission. 

Sighing, she stood up. It was going to be a long day. 

Rayla took off, leaping from tree to tree and ignoring the sting of cold beneath her bare feet. It was still incredibly likely that Callum would never want to see her again after she told him the truth. But she still couldn’t let this happen. More death wouldn’t solve anything. She would endure whatever that meant for her. 

The people of Tenebris were already starting to stir when Rayla reached the edge of the forest. Smoke was rising from the flimsy chimneys and a few elves were loading a cart of goods to take to the Saturday market in town. Runaan, always an early riser, was likely also awake and waiting for her. 

Quickly weaving through the houses, Rayla silently reopened her window before climbing back inside. She sighed heavily with relief when she changed into a pair of warm leggings and a worn but comfortable long-sleeved gipon. The hut was silent as she dressed but Rayla held her breath as she opened the door.

Sure enough, Runaan was seated at the little table in the corner. But something was noticeably wrong. Rayla could see dark circles under his eyes and his hair, which was usually neatly tied back, had been left loose and was slightly bedraggled. She wouldn’t describe him as a vain elf, more of a regimented one, and he took pride in keeping his appearance as neat and tidy as the rest of his surroundings. Seeing him as anything but was unnerving. 

Glancing around, Rayla also caught sight of Runaan’s bow, which had been removed from its hiding place beneath the floorboards and was now laying strung against the wall. Rayla frowned. 

“What’s going on?”

Runaan looked up at her, the fatigue on his features doing nothing to mask the cold fury in his eyes. “You betrayed me. You betrayed us all.”

Rayla’s heart came to a shuddering halt in her chest. “What are you talking about?”

Runaan scoffed and revealed a piece of parchment crumpled in his fist. He threw it unceremoniously to her feet. Rayla eyed him warily as she bent to pick it up. A high-pitched ringing sounded in her ears when she looked down and saw a portrait of her own face. 

The paper was crinkled and some of the charcoal lines were smudged, but the likeness remained unmistakable. Rayla knew all too well what moment the drawing had captured; she could see it in her carnal expression and her freshly-kissed lips. This was the night she’d met Callum.

“H-How did you get this?” She asked as her hands began to tremble.

“Andromeda intercepted a human guard who came looking for you last night. It was apparently meant to be a gift ,” he practically spat the last word. “Now I understand why you were so quick to defend the humans. You’ve let yourself be corrupted by one.”

“Runaan, no, it isn’t like that. Callum wants to stop the fighting as much as we do. He’s kind and he-” Rayla bit her tongue, realizing her mistake too late. 

“Callum?” Runaan repeated in a low growl as he pushed himself up from his seat. “ Prince Callum? You foolish girl, what have you done?”

“I haven’t done anything wrong!” Rayla shouted back. “I want peace and so does he!”

“The humans do not want peace!” Runaan brought a fist down on the table, the frail wood shattering into splinters. “They want to control us, to own us. The Dragon King and his heir are dead and the Queen remains a prisoner in her own home because of them!”

“And the Queen of Katolis is dead because of Avizandum,” Rayla countered. “It’s a cycle that’s never going to end unless someone stops the fighting. Don’t you see that?”

Runaan glowered at her. “All I see is a traitor.” 

The word stuck in Rayla like a dagger. Traitor is what the Silvergrove called her parents after they ran from their posts. Traitors were damnable, unforgivable, cursed. 

“I am not a traitor,” she said cooly. 

“Then prove it. Vow to me that you will carry on the mission and never see him again.” From the pouch at his side, Runaan pulled a length of binding ribbon. 

Rayla stared at the white fabric. It’s delicate appearance hid what every moonshadow elf knew was a sinister punishment for those who couldn’t complete their duties. She had never seen a binding in person, but as a child she’d heard tales of the agony that came with having a limb slowly squeezed from your body. 

Even so, taking the oath and receiving a ribbon had been what she’d been training for almost her entire life. For so long she thought they were a sign of a warrior, a true defender of Xadia.

A little voice urged her to make the vow. Promise to take the lives they’d been sent for and go back to the way things were. She could pretend like this whole week had never happened and do what was expected of her. It would be the easy choice, the safe choice. 

But then she thought of Callum and his kind-faced little brother and the man in the woods who had offered her food all those years ago, and she knew she could never go back. A tear slipped from Rayla’s eye before she even realized she was crying. 

She followed its path downward and watched as it dripped onto the parchment in her hand. Looking at the picture once more, she realized that she had already made her choice when she’d kissed a human. She was already damned.

“I can’t,” she said softly, looking back to Runaan with remorse. 

A crack appeared in his composure as just a hint of anguish flashed through the anger. “Rayla, I’m begging you; don’t do this.” He glanced toward his bow.

Rayla reached back for one of her blades. She calmly flicked it open and held it without hostility. With her other hand she kept the page clutched to her chest. Her eyes fell shut and more tears shot down her cheeks. She pictured being home in the Silvergrove picking lunablooms for Ethari’s birthday, Runaan letting her ride on his shoulders when she got tired of walking. She saw the three of them snuggled together beneath a blanket to watch the stars. 

And then she recalled a different kind of vow she had once made to Runaan.

“A long time ago, I promised you that I would be brave,” she said, tucking the page into her breast pocket and getting to her feet. She unfurled her second blade and readied herself to defend. “I intend to keep my promise.”

She could fight him off, she knew she could. He had said himself that she was probably the best and fastest out of all of them. She could keep him at bay long enough while she looked for an opening to run. Where she would go from there, she had no idea, but it would have to do for now. 

But Runaan didn’t attack, nor did he make any move to reach for his weapon. Rayla inhaled sharply when she saw a single tear run down his cheek. Never in her life had she seen Runaan cry. The sight of the little droplet felt like a kick to the gut.

“The others asked for your death as punishment. It was not an unreasonable request given what has happened,” he said, turning away from her. “But many years ago, I made my friends a promise of my own to keep their daughter safe, and I too intend to keep my promise one last time.”

“Runaan…” Rayla said, her eyes widening as her blades lowered. 

“You are no longer welcome in Xadia,” he continued. “The others and I will be leaving at once, but you will not be coming with us.” He cleared his throat and turned to pick up his bow and bag. “I hope you will take advantage of this act of mercy, as it will not be shown to you a second time.”

Rayla’s blades fell from her grasp entirely. Runaan still refused to look at her as he hoisted his belongings onto his shoulders and took a step toward the door. Panic surged through Rayla’s veins and without another thought she shot forward, crossing the room in three strides and throwing her arms around him from behind.

She clutched tightly at the fabric of his cloak as a sob tore through her throat. He froze under her grip but did not pull away. 

“I love you,” she managed to say.

Runaan turned, pulling her hands from the fabric and holding them gently in his. He didn’t shed any more tears, but Rayla could see them swimming in his eyes when he finally looked at her . “I will always love you,” he said shakily before pulling her into a tight hug. 

Of her surrogate fathers, Ethari had always been more affectionate, but Runaan was always her fiercest protector. He defended her from judgemental eyes who looked at her and only saw her parents. He kissed her hands when she accidentally cut them on her blades. He would stroke her hair when she had nightmares. 

And if there was ever a time that Rayla needed his embrace most, it was now. She couldn’t bear thinking that this would likely be the last time she ever saw him. She was terrified of all the things she would be letting go of when she finally released him.

So she held on for as long as she could, feeling the cloth of his tunic slowly dampening beneath her face. She held on until Runaan pulled his arms from her shoulders and placed a finger beneath her chin.

“Goodbye, my little blade,” he said, placing a quick kiss on her forehead.

Without another word, he swept through the door and was gone. Rayla caught a glimpse of Ram, Skor, Callisto and a smug-looking Andromeda waiting outside before the door shut in her face. She sucked in a few uneasy breaths before her legs gave out beneath her and she crumpled to the floor.


The day marched steadily onward around her. Meanwhile, Rayla couldn’t decide whether to hope that time would speed up or slow down. 

Her head was spinning. Runaan was gone. Her entire life was gone. She would be ghosted the minute he got back to Xadia. Everything she ever knew had vanished. All because of one human, one human who may hate her by the end of the day. 

Rayla felt a wave of bile begin to rise in her throat. She scrambled across the floor and found an empty basin just in time. She wretched for only a few seconds — one of the benefits of already having an empty stomach, she supposed. But the sting of acid in her throat ignited a fresh wave of tears in her eyes as she slumped back against the wall.

“My heart for Xadia,” she whispered, coughing at the acrid taste in her mouth. That was the vow she’d been prepared to take at the binding ceremony.  Her heart had always belonged to Xadia, even if Callum had started pulling it in another direction. Somehow she would find a way to fix this. She would see Xadia again.

Rayla rinsed her mouth and crawled into her cot, eventually falling into a light but merciful sleep. It was deep enough, however, that she didn’t hear the swift knock at the front door, nor the sound of the wood as it creaked open. 

But her eyes shot open and her hands searched for her blades when Rayla felt the pressure of a hand on her shoulder. She thought for a moment that Andromeda or one of the others had doubled back to kill her after all. 

However, she didn’t find a spear or sickle at her throat. Instead, she saw the single, wrinkled eye of Noemi staring down at her with concern. The old woman shook Rayla’s shoulder firmly with one hand and held a woven basket in the other. Rayla could just see the top of a waterskin peeking over the wicker. 

Rayla sat up slowly. “What are you doing here?” She asked in elvish. 

Noemi carefully lowered herself down onto the end of the cot, reaching into her basket to retrieve the waterskin. 

“The others are gone?” She replied, also in their native tongue. 

Rayla’s stomach churned again. Runaan had insisted that none of the Tenebris elves were told about their mission for their own safety. But that didn’t mean they hadn’t grown their own suspicions when the group of six strong, young moonshadow elves arrived in the dead of winter. 

She hadn’t even considered what the other elves must be thinking after watching all but one of their supposed-saviors disappear into the morning fog. Did they know she’d been left behind in exile?

Rayla looked away from Noemi as she replied with a single nod. 

“But you are still here?” Noemi asked calmly. 

Rayla’s hands fisted into the thin blanket. Her second nod was a bit more curt. To her relief, Noemi didn’t appear aghast or angry. She simply replied with a nod of her own before handing Rayla the waterskin. 

“Drink, child. It looks like you need it.”

The water was not cold, but it still did wonders to soothe the raw flesh of her esophagus. As she drank, Rayla took the opportunity to glance toward the window —the shutters were closed but she could see the strong light of early evening leaking in behind them. 

“Thank you,” she said to Noemi after a few more grateful sips. “Have the humans started to arrive yet?”

Noemi pulled a few pieces of fruit from the basket and handed them over without preamble. “Not yet, but soon. The others are hoping a few extra kegs of ale will distract them from the lack of entertainment. 

Rayla winced. Before she and the others got here, Tenebris’ nighttime entertainment had been much more...physical. Skor had suggested they perform as a distraction. But now that they were gone...

“I can still dance,” Rayla offered. “It won’t be much, but I can help.”

Noemi chuckled. “You smell like vomit and you look like death, girl. I think it’s best if you take a break tonight.”

Rayla blushed and took another sip of water and let it swish around her mouth for a bit. “Will the others be okay?”

“They are frightened and confused but they will manage,” said Noemi. 

Frightened and confused didn’t sound even close to describing the last few hours, Rayla thought. “What about you?” She asked as she put the fruit to the side and sat up a bit more. “You don’t seem scared.”

“I’ve been around for a long time, dear,” she said. Her single eye closed in what Rayla suspected was intended to be a wink. “It takes a lot more than this to scare me.”

Rayla smiled just a little. It wasn’t much, but it was the first hint of levity she’d felt for hours. 

Noemi reached out to pat her hand before slowly hoisting herself back up and shuffling toward the door. “Be sure and eat that before you come outside,” she said, turning back to gesture at the fruit. “A little sugar is good for a grieving heart.”

Rayla did so, peeling away the skin on the little orange spheres as Noemi left. She had never had this particular kind of fruit before. They looked like human oranges but smaller and their taste was sweeter and less sharp against her tongue. Rayla ate them both as she watched the shadows slowly lengthening across the floor.

Noemi had always been one of the kindest elves in Tenebris. From making her moonberry wine to looking after the few children in the settlement, she always seemed more than willing to help. She would even volunteer to take goods into town when the younger elves couldn’t. Humans didn’t seem to deter her in the slightest. Rayla admired her gumption fiercely. 

A little extra gumption would do her good in the coming hours, Rayla guessed. Sure enough, she heard chattering among the elves outside that the first humans of the night were in sight. 

Rayla sighed. She hoped, whatever the outcome, that the night at least went quickly. She elected to walk the few dirt roads through town as the last of the daylight retreated from the sky. The fresh air filled her lungs as the first rays of moonlight emerged. 

Kegs had already been set up and more were being rolled in by humans. A few of the musicians had still gathered in the square to play, though the music seemed slightly less lively that night. A few elves were also gathering in a dark nook between two houses, tucked slightly out of view. They eyed the arriving crowd with thinly-veiled disgust as they adjusted the collars of their clothes to hang a bit lower. 

Before long, Rayla spotted a blonde man making his way through with a hooded figure at his side. She held her breath, willing her legs to move forward but finding them inexplicably frozen in place. She heard the crownguard — Soren, she remembered Callum calling him — shout boisterously at another human before patting them on the shoulder. 

The cloaked head beside him turned and Rayla got a brief glimpse of Callum’s eyes as they scanned the crowd. Her body finally moved, quickly ducking down behind one of the kegs while her heart vibrated.

Panic wasn’t an emotion Rayla had much patience for ordinarily. If there was something she didn’t like, she either confronted it or avoided it, end of story. Fretting about it so much that it made her palms sweaty and her chest tight was just a waste of time and energy. 

But there Callum went again, making her feel things she wasn’t expecting. Rayla groaned. 

“If you’re looking for a drink, sweetheart, I’d be happy to help you out.”

Rayla glanced up and saw an older human man leering at her. His cheeks were already flushed and drops of ale were clinging to his graying beard like dew. She grimaced. 

“I’m fine, thanks,” she said dryly as she got back to her feet. She turned to leave but was stopped by a sloppy hand grabbing her upper arm, the fingers grazing far too close to her breast. 

“Don’t be like that,” he slurred in her ear. “I’ll give you five whole copper if you let me take you ‘round back and bend you over a crate.”

Rayla caught a whiff of the man’s putrid breath and gagged. She peeled his hand off her arm, holding back the urge to break one of his fingers while she was at it.

“No.”

The man frowned and took a step toward her. “What? I’m a paying customer. All you pointy-eared freaks are good for is sucking co-” 

She’d heard enough. Rayla’s knee came up and swiftly connected with the man’s groin, sending him toppling over into the dirt. He gasped for breath as his hands cradled the delicate flesh between his legs, sputtering out curses and slurs in her direction.

“I don’t think you’re going to be in much shape for anyone to suck that for a while,” Rayla said. She hoped the bastard would be icing his crotch for a week. 

Rayla turned to return to the main crowd, but was startled to find a pair of wide, green eyes gaping at her with amazement. 

“Callum,” she said, sputtering a little in surprise, but keeping her voice low enough so the drunkard on the ground wouldn’t hear. “How-?”

“I-um-heard that guy starting to yell,” he said, rubbing nervously at the back of his neck. “And then I saw you and thought you might need help.” He looked down to where the man was now emptying the contents of his stomach onto the ground. “But it looks like you have things under control.” 

Rayla flushed. She hadn’t been aware of how loud the prick must have been. Sure enough, a quick glance behind Callum’s head revealed at least four other people with their eyes pointed in her direction. Great, just what she needed.

“Don’t worry,” Soren said as he approached. “I’ll take care of Mr. Busted Nut over here. You guys go do what you need to do.” He wiggled his eyebrows at them both. 

Rayla rolled her eyes, wishing Callum could have brought a different guard. Nevertheless, she reached down and took Callum’s hand and began pulling him gently away. Callum

“I’m sorry,” Callum said, squeezing her hand lightly once Soren had disappeared from view. “I’ve been talking with him about being more respectful. But he’s still convinced we’ve been...hooking up.”

“I’m surprised he’s the one you’d want as your escort then. He doesn’t seem like the type who’d be good at keeping a secret,” said Rayla. She hadn’t thought about where to have this particular conversation, so she decided that the tree where they’d had their first kiss was as good a spot as any.

Callum chuckled. “He’s better at it than you’d think.”

His voice was starting to sound farther and farther away to her as Rayla’s head started swimming in panic. Now that he was finally there in front of her, she wished she could go back to that afternoon, crawl into bed and pretend she didn’t have to do this. 

“Hey, are you sure you’re okay?” Callum asked, reaching over and touching her shoulder with a careful hand. “That creep didn’t hurt you did he?”

The look on Callum’s face told her he wouldn’t hesitate to march back into town and escort the drunk to prison himself. That look, coupled with the gentleness of his touch, quickly became too much for Rayla to handle. 

“I’m fine,” she said, but she could tell she was crying again. In the last twenty four hours, it felt like she’d cried more than she had during her entire childhood. She was exhausted.

Callum scrambled closer to her, tugging his hood back and pulling her into his arms. “Rayla, it’s going to be okay, I promise. Soren and I will take that guy back to the castle and-”

Rayla shook her head, grasping at Callum’s arms with quivering fingers. “I-It’s not about him.”

“Then what? Please tell me so I can help you.”

This was why she needed to tell him the truth, she reminded herself, this overwhelming kindness of his. This was what he’d been doing since they met, proving to her that humans could be good. He didn’t deserve to have anything taken from him, much less his family. But she’d already taken from him; that’s what was making the whole thing hurt so damn much. Before she’d even known what was happening, she’d taken his trust, and now she had to shatter it. 

“The others are gone,” she said before she could talk herself out of it. “Runaan and the elves who were with me last night.”

Callum brought a hand to her cheek, caressing the pattern of her markings as he wiped away some of her tears. “They left without you?” The question was laced with sympathy she didn’t deserve. 

“They left because of me, because I couldn’t go through with it,” she hiccuped a little as the words tangled into sobs. 

“Rayla, I don’t understand,” he replied lightly. “Go through with what? What are you talking about?”

Rayla took a deep breath and looked him dead in the eye. She wanted to remember this — remember his touch, his voice, his kindness. She wanted to burn all of it into her memory before it was gone. 

“Callum,” she whispered. “My troupe...I-we...we weren’t run out of Xaia. We’re assassins sent to kill the king and his son.” 

This was it, this was what she deserved, the moment he saw her as the monster she truly was. Horrific disbelief flooded through his eyes like a hurricane. Rayla forced herself to look into his eyes as they widened in horrific disbelief. 

“N-No,” he said shakily as his hand fell away from her cheek. “No, that’s not true.” 

“I’m sorry, Callum.” 

Silence. Horrible, agonizing silence filled the air in the wake of his touch. Whatever hints of warmth that had been riding on the early-spring breeze vanished. Rayla wrapped her arms around herself but it did nothing to stifle the cold. 

Callum’s breathing hitched as he began to cry as well. The air trembled through his lips and his eyes were scanning the ground wildly. His disbelief turned into something else, something more painful. 

Panic. 

Rayla could feel it pressing against her ribs and she could see it in Callum’s wild expression. She hated herself for doing this to him. 

“I’m sorry,” she said again, her nails beginning to dig into the skin of her arms as she fought to keep herself from being completely overcome. “I wanted to tell you last night but I needed to try and fix things first. I thought I could convince them to call it off but...I...I’m so, so sorry.”

Still Callum offered nothing in response. His body was shaking violently now and his hands were clenched tightly against his sides. 

“Callum…” Rayla said. “Please say something.”

He looked up and Rayla nearly fell to her knees under the full force of the agony and betrayal on his face. 

“...You were right,” he said so softly that she almost didn’t hear. Rayla chanced a step forward but felt her stomach lurch when Callum immediately stepped away from her. “You were right,” he said again, his tears catching the moonlight and shimmering against his cheeks.

“This whole thing was a mistake. Meeting you was a mistake.”

Rayla had prepared herself for the hatred. She’d been telling herself all day that Callum would never forgive her. What she hadn’t prepared for was just how much it would hurt to see it actually happen. Her nails dug even deeper into her arms. Physical pain was something she could handle. It was like an old friend compared to the torture that was searing inside of her chest.

“I didn’t want to hurt you,” she said. Her knees were beginning to shake. 

Callum shook his head dismissively. “Yes you did. That’s exactly what you came here for. You wanted to hurt every human in the kingdom. That’s what revenge is.”

“I thought it was what I had to do,” Rayla responded desperately.  My village has been starving and scraping by since I was a kid because everyone was terrified of human soldiers burning down our homes or taking us to places like this,” she gestured back at the ramshackle houses. 

“People have told me my whole life that I didn’t have the stomach for it, that I wouldn’t be able to take a life. And then I got here and I started to see that they were right. I was already having doubts before we met.” Harder and harder she clutched at her arms. She’d likely broken the skin by now, but she couldn’t find it in herself to stop. “I meant it when I said I didn’t expect to meet a human like you. I didn’t think there were humans who wanted to stop the fighting.”

Without warning, one of Callum’s fists lashed out and struck the trunk of the tree, its bare branches shuddering from the blow. Rayla winced as she saw a trickle of blood run from his fingers and quickly become lost among the bark. 

“Just stop it,” Callum said in a sharp whisper. He ran his uninjured hand through his hair as he took a deep, steadying breath. “Were you just using me to get to my family?”

“No! I swear that’s not what happened. We had no idea the king had more than one son. After you told me, I tried to convince Runaan to call the whole thing off. But then someone delivered...this.”

Rayla reached into her pocket and pulled the paper from inside. She tried to smooth it out as best she could before holding it out to him. Callum didn’t try to take it from her, but his brows raised in surprise when he saw what it was.

“How...?” He asked with a touch of suspicion. 

Rayla shook her head. “Someone tried to deliver it to me last night but one of the other elves got her hands on it first. They took it as proof that I’d been corrupted.”

Callum fell back into silence while he processed this, all the while, Rayla didn’t dare move a muscle. She was afraid she would startle him like a fawn and send him skittering away in fear. But he didn’t run. Callum just wiped his red, tear-soaked eyes and looked at her grimly. 

“Will they be back?”

She lowered her head in shame. She had no doubt the others would return to finish what they started. They’d already been inside the castle; they knew the layout; they had what they needed. The only loose end they had was her. Rayla knew every detail of their plan to assassinate the king.

She knew they planned to attack during a full moon and under the cloak of their moonshadow powers. She knew they planned to push hard and fast through any guards while they climbed the king’s tower from the inside. She knew the king was to die first, then they would find his son. She knew there were two shadowhawk arrows in Runaan’s quiver just waiting to be sent back to Queen Zubeia.

But now that they thought Rayla had been bewitched by a human, they would be forced to rewrite the steps of the entire mission. It would take time, but they would be back, and they would be ready.

In response to Callum, Rayla simply nodded, giving him the confirmation he needed to slump against the tree. He gripped his hair, a line of blood running from his torn knuckles. His family was still in danger. 

“I don’t expect you to forgive me,” she said. “But I can help keep them safe.”

“How?” He asked skeptically.

“I can tell you what I know, patrol the forests, try to head them off before they get here.” The desperation in her tone had grown stronger. 

“No,” Callum interrupted, making Rayla’s hands clench even harder. “How can I trust you, Rayla? For all I know, that’s not even your real name.” 

She could hardly see through her tears now. How could he trust her? How do you trust someone like her, who’s trained to lie and manipulate?

“Maybe you can’t,” she affirmed. “Maybe you should just kill me.” 

They looked at each other, the air between them heavy and tense. The rhythm of Callum’s breathing began to pick up. Rayla watched sadly, intently at the rapid twitches of his lips. From the start of this whole messy thing between them, she’d known that it wouldn’t last — couldn’t last. She should resent him and his family for what had become of Xadia. But damn her to oblivion if she hadn’t started to let herself be lulled by Callum’s sweet words of peace. 

It would be so much easier if he just killed her. 

There was an old creed in moonshadow culture, particularly among assassins, that death is an ever-present state. Life and death go hand-in-hand at all times; without one, there cannot be the other. Therefore, death was not an ending, merely a progression.

It was a philosophy born even before the time of the Merciful Compromise. It gave bravery to warriors headed into battles they could not win, and solace to the ill and elderly as they fought afflictions. It assured them all that there was no need to fear death, for they were all already dead. Rayla had never truly believed in it, not like Runaan did anyway. But on this day, she didn’t fear death, not when she felt enough pain to last a lifetime. 

The sound of hoarse gasping stole her attention and Rayla noticed that Callum was doubled over, clutching his chest as he convulsed. Forgetting her uncertainty, Rayla finally released her grip on her arms, her fingers leaving behind an army of scarlet crescents as she stepped back toward him.

“Callum!” Her hand slipped beneath his and felt his chest. His heartbeat was frighteningly erratic. But before she could do anything else, Callum jerked away, stumbling over his own feet as he recoiled from her touch. 

“D-Don’t-” he said quickly. “P-please don’t.” He choked a little on the words and a few gravely coughs scratched their way up his throat. “I h-have t-to go.” 

One last look was all Rayla got before Callum turned around and headed toward the hill as fast as his unsteady legs could take him. Her outstretched hand followed him. She wanted to do more; she wanted to call out to him, tell him it wasn’t safe to go through the forest by himself and beg him to let her take care of him. 

But that wasn’t her place. He didn’t want her as a protector. He didn’t want her as anything anymore. So instead, she swallowed the last of her own sobs and let him go. No sooner had he crested the hill before Rayla took off running into town. She shouldered her way through humans and elves alike until she found who she was looking for. 

Soren was surrounded by a handful of other humans and appeared to be in the middle of leading them through some kind of sordid tale. He guffawed and gestured emphatically as his mug of ale sloshed but didn’t spill in his clearly-practiced hand. 

“And that’s when I said, ‘take those stupid cabbages somewhere else, old man!’” Soren slapped his knee and the group roared with laughter, all of them murmuring about merchants and vegetables. 

Rayla remembered Callum’s labored breathing and cleared her throat loudly and impatiently. The laughter immediately subsided into weak chuckles and Soren caught her eye, smirking at her shrewdly. 

“Hey...you,” he said, pointing his finger and snapping it a few times as he tried and failed to remember her name. “You guys finished already?”

Rayla desperately wanted to tell him where he could shove that finger, but she resisted. Now wasn’t the time. “I need to talk to you,” she said simply. 

Her tone was blunt and it seemed to clue Soren into the fact that she was being serious. He stood up and the other humans parted to let him by. He eyed Rayla appraisingly. She imagined that she must be quite the sight — eyes still damp and swollen, cheeks red, and arms marred by the punctures of nails. And most notably, Callum was no longer with her.

Soren’s eyes narrowed and he dropped his tankard to the ground in favor of gripping the front of her shirt threateningly. Rayla felt ale splash onto her legs and feet but kept her face calm, not blinking and not looking away from the imposing human in front of her. Around them, a few humans and elves fell silent, anxiously watching the confrontation. 

“What happened?” Soren asked quietly and fiercely. “Where is he?”

“He headed back toward Katolis by himself,” she replied, wincing when she heard the drawing in her pocket crumple even more under Soren’s grasp. “He’s alright.”

“For your sake, you better hope he is,” Soren shot back at her. He released her shirt and shoved her roughly aside as he headed after Callum without another word. 

The remaining group of humans glared at her, either upset at whatever she’d done to anger their fellow crownguard, or for chasing away their entertainment. Rayla didn’t know and frankly, she didn’t care. 

Ignoring the snide looks and comments, Rayla slipped quietly back into her hut. Once the door was closed behind her, she retrieved the drawing from her breast pocket before stripping out of her tear- and ale-soaked clothes. 

It was over. She’d done what she thought was right, and now she was more alone than she’d ever been in her life.

Chapter Text

Callum could hardly breathe as he lurched through the trees and brush. His insides were on fire and his vision was cloudy and distorted. He didn’t want to believe it; He didn’t want to believe he was really that stupid. 

But he was. He’d been stupid enough to kiss an elf he didn’t know — an elf who’d literally said she could kill him if she wanted to — and then he’d been stupid enough to start having feelings for her. 

He should have just let the council marry him off to some duchess like they wanted. Katolis would get a nice little nest egg of land or gold, as well as a strengthened bond with one of the other kingdoms. It was all Callum would ever be good for.

A jagged rock caught the side of his boot, bringing him crashing to the ground. The bloodied knuckles of his right hand protested as he tried to catch himself. He felt the freshly-clotted wounds rip back open and send blood and pain seeping back down his fingers. 

Callum closed his eyes, tucked his head between his knees and let out a miserable, throaty cry of anguish. The sound reverberated through the trees, stretching and distorting until it sounded more like the wail of a wounded beast. 

He needed to get up. He needed to warn Harrow about the assassins. But he couldn’t move. Callum’s arms wrapped around himself as his forehead sank until it was resting against the cold dirt. That’s where he belonged after all.

“Callum!” A voice came echoing behind him. He didn’t respond, what was the point? Instead, he just listened to the fevered footsteps approach. “Callum!” Soren’s voice called again, this time with recognition as he caught sight of his huddled shape in the dirt. 

There was a firm tug on Callum’s shoulders as Soren lifted him up. “Are you alright?” He asked firmly. 

Callum nodded, his windpipe too swollen to speak. 

“Did she hurt you?” Soren continued, looking sternly at the state of his knuckles. 

Callum thought about the question for a moment. Had Rayla sent his heart and his self-esteem plummeting off the precipice they’d been perched on since the incident with Claudia? Yes, entirely. Did he want Soren to go marching back to Tenebris and run her through with his sword? No, he supposed not.

After all, Rayla had told him the truth, or at least what she said was the truth. And if it turned out that she wasn’t lying, her information may end up saving his dad and his brother’s lives. He needed some time to process that. 

He offered Soren a shake of his head, to which the older man let out a little sigh of relief. They spent the next several minutes sitting in the dirt, Soren rubbing surprisingly-gentle circles on his back while Callum’s breathing gradually evened out. Eventually, he felt the grip of anxiety and self-loathing loosen from his chest and his airway reopened. 

“Th-thanks,” he croaked out, along with as much of a smile as he could muster. 

Soren gave him one more pat on the back and shrugged nonchalantly. It wasn’t the first time he’d helped coach Callum through one of his panic attacks. When they were kids, there were plenty of instances when Callum had been overcome by anxiety, especially after his mother died But when he was about 16, Ezran caught a bad case of Bog Fever that left him practically comatosed for more than a week.

Callum had never been so scared of losing his baby brother, and on the fifth day of waiting for him to pull through, he sort of lost it. He had a fit in the dining room and accidentally smashed a teapot and three cups when he began having spasms. Soren had been the only other person in the room at the time and had initially leapt up to take him to the infirmary. But that sent Callum spiraling even more, and he’d begged Soren not to take any of the doctors away from Ezran’s care.

So Soren had stayed, awkwardly soothing Callum’s nerves with encouragement that Ez was going to be just fine. He even cleaned up all the spilled tea and shattered ceramic. Callum had been mortified afterward. He didn’t like to burden people with his attacks, and he and Soren hadn’t exactly been the best of friends at the time. Callum had apologized profusely for putting him through it.

But Soren hadn’t jeered or berated him. Instead, he’d told Callum that, “big brothers get to be afraid sometimes too,” and left it at that. 

Since then, there’d been two other instances where Soren had been in the right place at the right time during one of Callum’s attacks. He’d gotten more confident each time, gently reminding him to breathe and keeping others away so they wouldn’t crowd him. It had created an unexpected, but welcome, bond between them that helped bridge the rocky gap created during their childhoods. And Callum was grateful for it now more than ever. 

“I’m going to ask you again now that you’re calm,” Soren said as he unhooked a waterskin from his belt and poured some over Callum’s hand, washing away the dirt and debris. “Did that elf hurt you?”

“No,” Callum replied steadily before taking a sip from the skin when Soren offered it. “She...she warned me.”

Soren’s brow creased in confusion. “About what?”

Callum thought carefully about his next words. There was an attack coming. He didn’t know how or when, but Rayla believed her comrades would be back. The kingdom needed to be ready. But if he said she had been one of them, it would likely guarantee that she would hang, or at least spend the rest of her life in prison. 

He supposed she could be lying. Maybe her troupe really hadn’t abandoned her after all. Maybe her entire speech was part of some larger plan to manipulate him.

But why would she even tell him about the assassins at all? If she wanted a way to get close to Harrow and Ezran, she would have done better to keep the whole thing under wraps. It wasn’t like he’d suspected her of anything. What reason would she have for giving up the element of surprise like that?

Unless she really was telling the truth. 

“Assassins are coming to kill Dad and Ez,” Callum said with conviction.

Soren’s eyes widened and he shot to his feet. “Are you serious?”

Callum nodded. “She, uh, said she heard a rumor during her crossing that moonshadow elves were planning to attack some time after winter.”

“We need to get back to the castle now ,” Soren said, reaching a hand out to pull Callum to his feet. “She really just told you that?” He asked as they took off at a jog. “Why”

Callum swallowed hard. It was a question he still wanted to find an answer for too. “I’m not sure.”. Soren looked skeptical, but not overly so, which Callum was grateful for. 

They continued at a swift pace until they successfully made their way through the forest, across town, and over the castle bridge. Callum was panting and his eyes itched from the lingering tears he’d been brushing away while they walked. 

“Has the King already gone to bed?” Soren asked as he flagged down a maid carrying a basket of laundry. 

“No, sir. His Majesty is in his study with Lord Viren,” the man replied as he hefted the basket from one hip to another. Soren thanked him with a pat on the shoulder that nearly sent him tumbling forward. Callum helped the maid right himself before he and Soren took off toward one of the staircases.

They climbed several flights before reaching the king’s rooms. Soren knocked firmly on the door to the study and was rewarded with a quick reply of “enter.”

Harrow and Viren were huddled around an old chessboard that Callum had been told went back six generations of royalty. Both men looked up at the sound of their entrance, each placing down a glass of what appeared to be brandy.

“Evening, boys,” Harrow said with a smile. “Care for a game? Fair warning, I’m on fire tonight.” 

“Maybe later, Your Majesty,” Soren said with the stern, measured voice of a crownguard captain. Harrow and Viren both took pause at his tone, their own expressions hardening with urgency.

“What’s going on?” Viren said, looking straight at his son.

“We’ve received word that a band of elves may make an attempt on King Harrow and Prince Ezran’s lives,” Soren replied. “Moonshadow assassins.”

Harrow stood, his brow pulling together into a deep crease. “When?” He asked grimly. 

Soren shook his head. “Not sure. But a full moon seems likely.” 

“And where exactly did this rumor come from?” Viren added, grabbing his staff as he too got to his feet. “Can it be trusted?”

Soren nudged Callum with his elbow and gave him a prompting look. Callum steeled his nerves and stepped forward, pulling the attention onto him. “I heard it from an elf,” he said. 

Matching looks of surprise appeared on both of their faces.“An elf warned you of an assassination?” Harrow asked. “When did you speak to an elf?”

It occurred to Callum at that moment that he hadn’t given any thought to an excuse for why he’d snuck out of the castle. Even though he was an adult in the eyes of the law, he didn’t doubt for a moment that Harrow would still ground him for this. But before he could open his mouth to explain, Soren stepped in.

“It was my fault,” he said. “I took Prince Callum with me to Tenebris.”

“You what ?” Viren’s look of concern shifted to one of indignation. “You brought the prince into that hovel?”

Harrow raised a hand to quell him. “Viren, it’s not against the law to visit the settlement, and at least they went together. Although, I would have preferred you visit during more respectable hours,” he said, shooting Callum a pointed look. “What’s more important is this rumor you heard.”

Callum nodded and continued. “A girl told me. She said she heard it during her crossing into the Pentarchy.”

“And you believe her?” Harrow asked, folding his hands calmly behind his back.

“I think so.”

Viren frowned and began to pace, the crackle of the fire in the hearth adding to the rhythm of his staff connecting with the floor. “With all due respect, Prince Callum, the word of an elf means very little. They will lie, cheat, and do anything necessary to keep humans under their thumbs. Does this one know who you are?”

“Yes,” Callum replied, thinking briefly of his confession in the garden and the dance that had followed. His heart lurched.

Viren made an exasperated noise. “You would be wise to be more careful with your identity, Your Highness ,” he said, emphasizing Callum’s title pointedly. “This elf is likely just trying to gain some royal favor. Her claim is implausible at best.”

Callum soured at the dismissal. “So what if she is? A threat is still a threat.”

“He’s right, Viren,” Harrow interjected. “An arrow shot blindly still has a chance to hit its mark.” 

Viren was one of the only people in the kingdom who could get away with openly rolling his eyes at Harrow’s philosophical idioms. Harrow paid his exasperation no mind as he continued. “Soren, alert the rest of the guard. Nighttime patrols are to be doubled — tripled during the full moon — and Ezran is not to leave the grounds after dark without a full entourage. The same goes for Callum.”

Callum blinked. “But the threat was only against you and Ez.”

“That may be so, but you are also my son. I will not take any chances with either of your lives,” Harrow said with a nod of dismissal to Soren, who bowed before leaving the room.

Callum supposed that not leaving the grounds after dark without a full guard was about as lenient a punishment as he could have hoped for. 

“Not to worry, Prince Callum. I imagine we’ll have this whole mess straightened out in no time,” Viren said with a smile that looked like more of a grimace. 

“There you have it,” Harrow said with a genuine smile of his own. “Thank you for bringing this to us, Callum. We can all sleep a little wiser and safer tonight.” 

“Speaking of sleep, I believe I will take this opportunity to slip away,” Viren said as he retrieved his brandy glass and headed for the door. “Goodnight to you both.”

Callum and Harrow each bid the High Mage goodnight before the click of the door declared they were alone. Callum shuffled, wanting desperately to collapse into his bed, but feeling the weight of his stepfather’s gaze on the side of his head telling him otherwise. One look in his direction assured him that he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Sit,” said Harrow, gesturing to Viren’s empty chair at the chessboard. Callum hurried to obey as Harrow filled a fresh glass of brandy and set it in front of him.

Callum quirked an eyebrow. Harrow wasn’t much of a drinker to begin with, and he often lamented how old it made him feel now that Callum was of age. He couldn’t remember his step-father ever directly offering him a drink before. 

Harrow, seeing the question on his face, shrugged in response. “Seems as if you could use it.” He took his own seat across the board and began resetting the pieces. “As much as I wish it wasn’t; coups and assassination attempts will be a part of your life and your brother’s life forever. I’m sorry you had to confront that tonight.” 

Harrow held up his glass and Callum followed suit, the crystal clinking delicately before they each took a small sip. The liquid ran down Callum’s throat like syrup and tasted like melted toffee. He shivered slightly as it began warming his belly. 

“So, is sneaking out a new thing, or did you have a whole teenage rebellion phase that I missed?” Harrow said casually, his eyes focused downward as he moved one of his pawns two spaces forward. 

Callum sighed and examined the game in front of him before eventually moving a pawn of his own. “After everything...with Claudia...I just needed to get away from things. Don’t be upset with Soren, he was just trying to help.”

“Oh, I’m not upset with him,” Harrow said while moving another piece. “I’m upset with you.” He looked up, not with the eyes of a king, but with the eyes of a father who’d raised two sons without a mother for more than a decade. 

Guilt mixed with the alcohol in Callum’s gut. “I’m sorry.”

“I know you are, and you’re allowed to make mistakes. But I thought I taught you to be smarter about making them.” Another pawn slid across the board, followed by a bishop. “Our relationship with the elves of Tenebris is still unstable. As a prince, you going there in the middle of the night with only one guard was incredibly dangerous. Not to mention, it sends an unscrupulous message about the monarchy.”

“I know,” Callum replied softly, taking his time considering his next move.

“Did you tell any more of them who you are?”

Callum shook his head.

“Good.”

They continued the game in silence for a few more minutes, each occasionally taking sips from their glasses or crossing their arms in contemplation. It had been a while since they’d played together like this and Callum was assuredly rusty. He watched as Harrow began steadily capturing his pawns, a knight, and both bishops before eventually surrounding his queen.

“I’m going to ask you something else before Opeli gets wind of this and makes it twice as uncomfortable,” Harrow said as his rook pushed forward and delivered the final blow to Callum’s queen.

Callum surrendered the piece before taking another drink. He could already guess where this question was headed. 

“Despite my efforts, I know there has been a rather...promiscuous...reputation surrounding evening visits to Tenebris. And I know how much the betrothal meant to you,” Harrow said, clearing his throat and adjusting the collar of his tunic.

Callum wanted to throw down his king and concede defeat if it would spare him from this particular conversation. 

“What I’m trying to say is...this girl you met...do we need to make preparations for any kind of possible scandal?” Harrow asked. 

Callum blushed. For the amount of attention being given to his sex life during the last week, Callum thought he would at least have a sex life to discuss.

“No,” he said quickly, moving another pawn without really paying attention to the placement. “There wasn’t anything like that.”

“Good,” Harrow replied quickly, moving another piece of his own. “That’s very good.”

It didn’t take much longer for Harrow to claim victory, with most of his pieces having survived the entirety of the game, while Callum’s side of the board had dwindled significantly. He offered Callum a triumphant smile. 

“Looks like your old man can still beat you in a few things,” he said with a smug wiggle of his eyebrows. 

Callum huffed out a laugh. “I’m pretty sure you can still beat me in most things.” Swordsmanship, arithmetic, and public speaking all came to mind rather quickly, but Callum was grateful for the joke to lighten the mood. 

He reached for his drink, intending to swallow the last of it, but stopped when Harrow’s eyes quickly snapped to his hand before shooting him a look. Callum silently swore as he realized he’d been drinking and playing with his right hand, meaning Harrow had been able to see his scabbed knuckles the entire time. 

“Uh, I tripped on the way back to the castle.” Callum swallowed. That wasn’t entirely a lie.

Harrow leaned back in his chair and drained the last of his own drink. “If you promise me that you didn’t start whatever fight that came from, then I’ll pretend that I believe that.”

Technically, Callum had thrown the first and only punch of the evening, although his opponent hadn’t seemed too perturbed. In fact, he’d probably done more damage to himself than the tree. Regardless, he confirmed to Harrow that he hadn’t attacked anyone, which seemed to be a good enough answer for him.

Harrow glanced at the rapidly-dimming fire and yawned. “I suppose it’s past both our bedtimes,” he said heavily. “It’s been a long night.”

Harrow stood and crossed over to embrace Callum warmly. “I may be disappointed in your disregard for safety, but I want you to know that I am very proud and grateful that you came to me.”

Callum hugged him back tightly. He was grateful too. If assassins really were out there, he wanted to know, even if it cost him another part of his already-fractured heart. 

“Oh, and one more thing,” Harrow said as they both headed for the door. “As part of your punishment, you get to tell your brother that he now needs an escort after dark.”


Viren scowled darkly at every servant and staff member he passed as he stomped through the halls. Every shocked and affronted face he received in return only added to the whirlpool of irritation swirling in his stomach.

He was livid. 

Soren had always been a simple boy — quick to run to the training yard in lieu of his lessons — but Viren had never thought his son would be stupid enough to bring one of the princes right into that elven dumping ground.

A demure-looking nightmaid gasped as he let out a particularly colorful curse and dropped the polishing rag in her hand. Again, Viren ignored it. He didn’t have time for the trivial opinions of the staff.

The only voice he wasn’t immediately tuning out was the one whispering steady encouragements in his ear. Viren was too upset to truly hear the words, but the voice’s even tone was keeping him from fully erupting with anger, at least while he was still in public. 

However, once he locked himself tightly within the sanctuary of his study, Viren’s composure broke. He swiftly drank the remaining brandy in his glass before hurling it as hard as he could toward the wall. The crystal shattered instantly against the stone, the sound washing over him with satisfaction. 

“There, there,” the voice in his ear whispered. “Do you feel better now?”

Viren’s scowl deepened. “I have done everything you instructed and your plan has done nothing but fall apart.” He reached for a candlestick on his desk and threw it against the wall as well, the steel clattering loudly upon impact. “Not only is that elf whore still alive, but now she’s blabbed to the prince. This isn’t what you said would happen.”

“Patience, my dear friend,” the voice replied calmly. “I’ve told you from the beginning that my sight of the future is imperfect. But rest easy, we are still on the right path to reach the goal we both desire. Your children have simply created the need for a few more...creative solutions.”

A tome of ancient history followed the candlestick and crashed against the wall before dropping into the pile of glass shards. Viren had been so sure he’d cleaned up Claudia’s mess at the party. The moonshadow elves should have killed their traitorous companion and things should have continued on. But once again, the stupid creatures proved they were only useful when they were in pieces. 

At least there was one elf that wasn’t completely useless. 

“So what do we do now?” Viren asked, gripping the side of his desk and resisting the urge to flip the entire thing over. 

“For now, we wait,” said the voice. “In the meantime, come to me. I have a gift and I want to see your face when I give it to you.”

Viren looked to the painting that concealed the entrance to the tunnels, hesitating for only a moment before making his way down to the underbelly of the castle where a very special mirror was waiting for him.