King Ezran of Katolis requests the honour of your presence at the upcoming festival to celebrate the Five-Year Anniversary of Armistice and Peace.
Rayla blinks twice at the invitation.
“You don’t want to go,” Runaan pipes up.
“No.” She finishes reading the contents of the letter. “I guess not.”
He’s leaning against a counter in her living quarters, careful with the kettle as he splits the brewed tea evenly between two cups. He’s gotten better living with a single arm. She’s learned he likes his independence, even swats her hand gently when she offers it, so lately she keeps to herself. To make up for it, she makes sure he’s not in the room when she sparks the flint to bring the tea to a boil. She doesn’t think the extra effort is helpful.
He slides her cup across the counter and Rayla puts away the scroll, shifting her gaze to the downpour of rain behind the glass window. Unconsciously, one of her hands reach to worry a single braid of hair, which has gotten ostensibly long in the past few years.
“…I know that face, Rayla. You’re reconsidering,” he says.
She pauses, tweaking her expression a smidge. Reconsidering, overthinking, hesitating. It’s all the same. “I have a penchant for that, don’t I?”
He sighs, “Since you were a child.”
She sneaks a glance back at the parchment scroll like it haunts her. “Runaan, please. Tell me what I should do.”
He inhales sharply before shaking his head, expression stony. “You’re not a child anymore, Rayla. I’ve long stopped telling you what to do.”
She looks away, bites her tongue. As expected of him. She has to repress the dull ache in her heart, not let herself be consumed with grief. A decade ago, he would have said otherwise. She despised it then, but now she wishes she were more like him. She’s too indecisive, utterly incapable of making a solid choice and sticking by it.
Nowadays, he’s careful to intervene. He doesn’t know she relishes him scolding her for something stupid, or calling her out on bullshit, because even for a small, miniscule moment life seems simpler. Sooner or later, reality hits its inevitable stride and now he has to rely on her to tie his hair, cut his food, spark a fire. He abhors it, and yet he offers her a smile of thanks. She’s not blind to the contempt and frustration concealed underneath. Lately it’s become unbearable to watch.
“If you go, might I make a suggestion?” he interrupts her train of thought.
“Anything,” she means with full sincerity.
He motions to the scroll, the problematic thing. Things would have been easier if it didn’t land in her hands. “Bring it with you. It contains a king’s seal. Peace may be at hand between the nations, but people are slow to change.”
She frowns and then nods, wordlessly. There’s no arguing the statement. “And what about you?” The question comes out more bitter than she intends.
He sighs, more in exasperation, and he rubs the bridge of his nose. “Rayla, I’ll be fine. I’m capable of caring for myself.”
She purses her lips, relinquishes the thought and regrets asking. “...I know. I’m sorry.”
That’s how she got here. Rayla remembers their conversation clear as day. She sits perched on a forest tree, capturing a landscape view of Katolis, which stills stands tall and proud despite years of war.
It’s been ten years now since she discovered that the egg of the dragon prince had not been destroyed.
Five years since the peace treaties were signed.
Five years since she joined the Dragon Guard.
Five years since she’s seen either of the princes.
One of them is a King now. Back then, she hadn’t anticipated joining the Guard would cut her out completely from their lives. At this point, it’s up in the air whether they even remember her fondly. This invitation may very well be a simple token of their past friendship.
Rayla hops off the tree. She pets the stocky mare she purchased from the first town across the border and gingerly feeds it apple slices without the core. To her luck, the creature has been a gentle one – she could never read animals as well as Ezran could. Eventually, she figures out the direction of the castle and realization sinks that she can make it by the afternoon. Her mind starts whirring, treading down that familiar path.
She could still go back.
Pretend to be lost? She never meant to come this direction.
Did she forget the scroll?
She fishes a hand inside her pack, because really, she could go back for it – never mind, it’s sitting in neat folds in the bottom of her bag. And the seal is intact. Her efforts are fruitless.
You’re an idiot, Rayla. You’ve already gotten this far.
She sighs, hoisting herself on the horse and beckoning the creature to a slow trot. She briefly considers taking the rocky cliffsides, just as she did a decade ago, but with the king’s seal, she could enter through the front gates, as a normal person would. She’d think it blasphemous if she were an assassin, but she’s removed herself out of those garbs and teachings a long time ago.
The guard at the front gate is mildly curious about her.
He doesn’t come off judgmental, maybe a little wary, but she’s encountered worse. He reads through her invitation, verifies the king’s seal, and then has a moment of contemplation to himself. Afterwards, he hands her back the invitation.
“So, I assume you’re coming from far?” he pipes up.
She looks up from her pack, shrugs lightly. “Yes. From Xadia, actually.”
He whistles in fascination. The distance isn’t as wide as people perceive, perhaps only few strict days with short rest. But even with a declaration of peace, only few have truly covered the distance. It’s one of those things that will take time, like recovering from war.
“If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know the king?” continues the guard.
She hesitates for a moment. There’s a window in her head where she can see her younger self sitting in camp, surrounded by elven assassins. Under the moon, sharpening her blades, keeping vigil on cold nights, wary of all sights and sounds. She’s imagining how she would go about killing a young prince. A child. And there was always a sliver of doubt. In hindsight, she’s glad for the stolen egg. She never would have finished the task.
“I…knew him as a child,” she answers.
“Well, nice to know the king has connections outside the pentarchy. You’re the first of your kind to pass the gates for the festival,” he remarks, and Rayla remembers only a few souls in this town know of her. And even fewer understand the undertaking and sacrifices she’s made for the sake of peace.
Rayla’s gaze trails to the castle up ahead. “You wouldn’t happen to know the best way to speak with the king, do you?”
“In your case?” He seems surprisingly optimistic. “Your invitation has a special seal. It might be your ticket to skip the line and see him directly. Give it a shot.”
“I see…” she’s saying, relieved she may not have to scale those jagged and precarious cliffs a second time. “…Thank you.”
She walks on ahead, entering as a visitor, taking in the sights. There’s a nearby stable where she drops off the horse and pays the stable hand a hefty pouch of gold. Money has no value in Xadia, but crossing the border meant she’d have to get a hold of some. From one town to another, she snagged a couple of easy bounties and paid them off to keep comfortable.
Venturing forward, Katolis surprises her.
The town is bustling in the afternoon light. Townsfolk chatter amongst themselves in all corners, vendors set up their stands and a myriad of colourful signs and flags drape against the wooden walls and across the streets. With war no longer a terrible and painful prospect, the town carries on with merriment and joy.
The first pair of eyes reach her and the façade disappears as quick as it began.
They’re cold, uneasy and afraid. The group of vendors on her right gawk with alarm too. An enemy walking amongst them. Maybe it’s her horns? The colour of her hair? Maybe her markings. Rayla trudges forward, wonders if she spoke to them, offered to help set up their booths, cooked for them, did their chores, gave them all the money in the world, would they change their minds? Perhaps not. It was her kind that took the late King Harrow.
Runaan’s words linger. This town celebrates a fractured peace.
Five years is a long time.
It goes without saying, but she’s nervous because of it. She leans forward in her seat, elbows resting on her knees and she’s reduced to staring blank at the plush carpets. Guilt seeps in, because Rayla knows this is not the first invitation Ezran has flown out to her. He’s sent many. Personal updates, town celebrations, news of Katolis. Callum also sent a few letters of his own. She doesn’t remember when he stopped.
Ezran made her this promise back when she announced her induction into the Guard, and he’s never broken it. His duties as King would prevent him from visiting often, but she reassured him it didn’t matter. She’d make the effort to stay in touch as well.
What a fucking lie.
She would put them in the back burner of her mind until now.
The door opens, prompting her to stand. The armored guard motions to her. “The King is ready to see you now.”
Unsteady on her feet, she wills herself forward. Her heart picks up its pace. On the way, she takes her time, appreciates the portraits, listens to the click of her boots, counts her steps. Stalling. Her arrival into the room is met with suspicious eyes and wary stances. Already she’s had her fair share of encounters with guards. She didn’t anticipate the two of them would have company, but he is the King after all.
“Welcome back, Rayla,” someone speaks.
She jolts a little, startled because she didn’t expect his voice to be so deep and then she finds him in the middle of the room, garbed in regal attire coloured gold and red. The good-natured smile on his features puts her at some ease. She watches as Ezran looks to his company, signs a few commands and then one after the other, they file out in single line.
She looks back at him, mouths a grateful thanks and waits until the doors are shut. Finally, she casts a good inspection on him. This is the same boy she chased through the castle corridors, helped down a mountain, traversed the wide and open seas, consistently put herself in harm’s way. One of the very few to understand. He’s taller now, perhaps a couple inches more than herself, and at a ripe age of twenty. A handsome young man, with familiar blue eyes and a spitting image of his father.
“Do you, uhh, recognize me?” he asks after some time.
She clicks back from thinking, not realizing how long she’d been staring so vacantly. “Y-Yeah, of course. Ezran, you look…”
“Older? Sharper? Wiser? More handsome maybe?” he continues, grinning.
She grins back, realizing just how much she’s missed his company. “All of it. And kingly too, might I add. Should I be calling you ‘your majesty’ from this point forward?”
He waves a hand and makes a face, dismisses the notion as silly. “No need for that. Especially not from you. You’re like family to me.” Rayla winces somewhat and the corners of her mouth lose their grip. She watches him move towards a bench by the window and then beckons her over. She follows suit and takes the seat next to him.
“I take it you’re still part of the Guard, right?”
She nods. “That’s right.”
“How’s our boy Zym doing?”
Her mind fills with colourful images of the dragon prince. The not-so-little sky creature, with bright blue scales. A troublesome thing, and yet destined to become one of the most unfathomably powerful creatures to exist. She wishes he were still small.
“He’s doing well, just like you, Ezran. Growing up too fast, learning his place in the world, even his own powers. He’s an expert hunter now too. To think he used to fit on my lap…those times seem so long ago.” She amends the words in her head: those times were a long time ago. She shifts the subject. “He misses you, you know.”
Ezran smiles. “I actually paid him a visit about a year ago.”
Rayla hides her shock poorly and then shrinks in her seat. She looks to the ground instead.
“I wanted to pay you a visit too, but you weren’t there at the time.”
She probably had the week off, just as she does now. Looking back, she was probably sitting at home, counting down until she has to return, fretting about Runaan, sleeping off her worries for two days straight.
“I’m sorry I disappeared for so long,” she comes out with it, relieving a longstanding weight off her chest. “These years after the war have come and gone so fast. I’ve been at the Guard for most of the time and the adjustment wasn't easy.” Here, she grips her fists a little too tight, and she softens her voice. “It’s still not easy.”
“It’s okay,” Ezran says, always the empathetic one. “It hasn’t been easy here either. Even now, I’m still learning the ropes. You do what you have to. I’m just glad you’re here now.”
She finds the means to smile, because deep down that’s all she wished to hear. “Thank you.”
“Ah, I almost forgot my manners,” he pipes up, rising to his feet. “You probably came a long way, haven’t you? Would you care for a drink? Or early supper? Maybe you prefer to get some sleep first?”
She thinks of her journey.
Long days, short rest, but her body’s been through worse. For that, she has to think farther back and peel just the surface of the aforementioned years. She’d been tasked to examine post-war fallouts and deal with the aftermath. Focus on rebuilding relations between races, fixing the broken parts and pieces, everyday counting losses and everyday mourning them.
She thinks of the Dragon Guard. Time ticking slow. Hours stretching into days. The stale and stuffy air of the mountains. She’d taken an oath to protect the dragon, which meant fortifying defences, halting unexpected coups, ending the rising rebellions as if the war never stopped. Days and nights spent alone enduring biting winters and harsh storms, lathed with sweat and dirt, all the while still trying to find ways to be thankful.
“Maybe a jelly tart?” she asks, because maybe, just maybe, that will permanently cleanse her mind, purge the hardship. He raises a fine-arched brow and she can see he doesn’t fully know, can only pick up a trace of her inner workings because he’s observant. If he’s at all concerned, it doesn’t show.
He goes along with it. “Sure. I can send someone to pick up a batch. There’ll be plenty at the festival so you won’t have to worry about that.”
She smiles in response, quelling the restlessness in her veins. She weighs her elbows down on her knees to stop them from fidgeting.
“I’d like to invite you for dinner too, if you’re up for it.”
Rayla has no reason to refuse. “Sure.”
“Good. I’ll make the arrangements then,” he asserts, glad to hear it. “Is there anything I can do for you in the meantime?”
She smiles up at him, grateful for his fervent goodwill. There is something, more like someone, she has in mind. The other half of the princely duo. She mulls it over briefly for a second, wonders if the time is right, and then concedes. “Umm, Callum. How is he? Is he…here?”
Ezran gives her a knowing smile, because of course he expected her to ask, and then keeps his face levelled and neutral. Maybe he’s gauging her reaction.
“The Banther Lodge. He prefers the open space for magic practice. You’ll probably find him there. Do you remember where it is?”
She rises from her seat, waving a quick hand in dismissal. “I remember.” Nestled in a forest clearing, right beside the river. Their designated ‘winter’ lodge. “Do you mind if I…?”
He shakes his head. “Not at all, but do me a favour? Tell him to come back when the festival starts. He can’t hide in there forever.”
That teases a chuckle out of her. “Sure. I’ll see you later.”
She takes her time, doesn’t vault towards the trees or take to the cliffs. She walks to the lodge, not arriving until the sky bleeds orange red hues of sunset.
Callum is a both a human and an archmage in the making, which is a strange combination. He’s come a long way from the boy who tripped over himself daily, harbored a long crush on the mage next door and carried a weird sense of humor. Clumsy, awkward, even a bit of a jerk. And yet in spite of that, when they first met, he lied to her about his identity to protect his brother. She knows now that was a testament of strength – her first clue that he was never as weak as he looked on the outside.
Now the world knows him as a bright mage and understands what he’s capable of. He only needed time to find his place. The two of them may be stumbled to a sour end, but still she’s happy for him.
Rayla slows to a stop at the front door of the lodge, twists the knobs to find they’re not open. Not that she expected them to be. She takes a step back, surveys for open windows.
It’s the winter lodge.
It’s been empty for months.
No winter. No humans.
She shakes off the memory, deciding she’ll check around the area first. Not a second later, a gust of wind sweeps the grounds. Leaves and dirt grains move in contained swirls around the perimeter. Caught in between, the wailing winds induces shivers on her spine and she holds her ground, stopping to close her eyes and cover her mouth. The spell settles afterwards and the weather becomes still again.
I’ve always been kind of bad at well, everything.
And then you called me a mage.
This is not the simple Aspiro incantation spell.
She strides towards the back of the building, stopping short of the large clearing because after five years of total absence, there he is, standing within reach. He hasn’t noticed her yet. Callum’s got his nose in a book and at his feet, a shabby and well-worn backpack. There’s another book on the ground. She guesses maybe a sketchbook. Maybe he hasn’t changed too much.
She observes for a bit, watching as he scribbles notes on the side of the page. He draws the familiar sign in the air, murmurs something in Draconic and then the wind picks up again. But this time, it’s small and short. The gust dies as quick as it started. His concentration is snapped. In a smooth motion, he turns in her direction, and she has little time to react.
But she doesn’t move at all, only looks on. Their gazes carry no spark, no magic, not even a flicker of joy from seeing an old friend. Hers is an inspecting, tired gaze while his is tainted with doubt, like he might be imagining her. She swallows down a gulp, forcing herself to press forward.
You could still go back, Rayla. Turn around. Turn around. He doesn’t-
“Rayla…” He’s frozen, unable to say much else.
She stops before him, really looks him in the eye, somehow prove she’s real.
His expression is bewildering, a mixed bag of shock, confusion, panic, and horror until he corrects himself and settles for indifference mingled with light surprise. A poor disguise for the turmoil underneath. She’s in utter disbelief at how clear these emotions are to her still. Then again, she always read him with ease.
“It’s been a while, huh?” she forces out with resolute calm, even though she can’t help but look up and stare at those green eyes to see if she can hear his thoughts.
He takes a deep breath after her utterance and closes his eyes. He doesn’t reply right away.
“Yeah, it has…” he says with a soft undertone and she can almost hear him counting time in his head.
Silence comes between them and Rayla doesn’t know what to do with it. This conversation played out easier in her head. Now she reprimands herself for thinking she can simply walk in unannounced, forget what’s happened and expect them to shake hands. She stops herself, loosening her stance and casting her gaze in his general direction.
“Umm, Ezran told me you’d be here.”
He’s still trying to fathom that she’s standing in front of him. “Okay.”
“He, uhh, wants you to return in time for the festival.” Rayla hadn’t anticipated how awkward this would be. This early into the conversation and she’s almost grasping for words. “…he said you can’t hide in here forever.”
He perks up at that, like the words ring familiar and then he clears his throat. “Oh…” Realization sinks in his eyes. “Is…Is that the reason you’re here?”
Rayla hesitates, not sure if he’s asking if she’s here because Ezran sent her, or if the festival, in general, was what brought her here.
“I came for the festival,” she tells honestly.
“The festival,” he repeats curtly.
She hears the doubt in his voice and gives him an offhand look.
He continues tersely, “You came all the way here for a festival?”
She raises a brow tentatively at his manner. Him spelling it out like that is off-putting. “That’s right,” she insists calmly. “Your brother invited me. Is that so hard to believe?”
She’s taken aback that he says it with such candor. “And why is that?”
He might be more lucid now, but the disbelief taking up his expression gives him away. He’s still wrapping his head around her, searching for understanding.
“Because you…left. Just when the war was settling and the world was starting to see things our way, you disappeared,” he explains slowly, the pain in his voice tangible and felt. “…you work yourself busy at the Guard for several years and lose contact with us. And now you decide to show up?” He scratches the head back of his head, but it’s more to soothe himself.
“No precedent, no warning, no letters. Nothing.” The unsteadiness in his voice only masks some of his frustration. “Rayla, you could have wrote back. You could have said something.”
The familiar guilt trickles through. She has no rebuttal for that.
“Callum, I’m so sorry,” she whispers.
He’s still shaking his head, so he might not have heard it, but if he did, it doesn’t register.
“Do you know what’s the worst part?” he continues. She doesn’t interrupt. “After all these years, I still don’t understand why you left. Why I had to do it alone.”
She’s irked by the inflection in his tone. It’s two questions, not one. The latter one is an old and tired argument. She hoped it wouldn’t be brought up again and yet here they are, tossed back to the start. She’s grown jaded and weary talking about it, especially in front of him. And now she catches his frustration, because he’s goading her into it, guilting her even.
“I’ve already explained it, Callum,” she starts, voice stiff. “It had to be done by you. A human returning the dragon back to where he belongs. Because by doing that, you right the wrongs of the past. That was the gesture that mattered, because that was what ended the war.”
It’s to no avail. He shakes his head and it baffles her how nothing gets through, even in the most trying times. She exhales deeply, refusing to lose herself.
“Rayla, we spent years fighting the same war. We both walked through these warring lands because together, we agreed returning Zym would bring peace between our nations.”
She rubs the bridge of her nose in vexation. “Callum, that’s not the point.”
“Yes it is!” he exclaims, flustered by the notion, arms gesturing wildly to prove his point. “If you had just come with me – the whole way – and if everyone had just known what we did, what we went through to end the pointless fighting, then maybe-”
“Maybe what?” she cuts off, voice raised because she’s scared of where this is going.
He lowers his hands and hesitates to say it, “Then…” Another gulp. “…then maybe there wouldn’t be this divide between our races.”
Fuck. That’s not fair. Rayla steps back, shoulders tense and fists clenched. She looks on aghast, but it comes from a place of disappointment and anguish. “Are you blaming me for this broken peace?”
“No, I’m not,” he asserts firmly, standing his ground. He had five long years to make up his mind. “I’m saying you saw it wrong. From the start, it should have been an elf and a human working together for the sake of peace. That was the gesture that mattered, because it could have solved more than the war, but you never listened. You didn't trust me.”
“That’s ridiculous, Callum. Of course I trusted you.”
“Then how did we get here?” he asks pointedly, gesturing to this time and place and situation. But Rayla notices he’s changed his tone. Using ‘we’ instead of ‘you’, because he’s also mad at himself. He drops his face into his hands, rubs the anger out of his eyes as he inhales and exhales staggered breaths.
She doesn’t know how to answer that. Instead, she looks to the ground, unable to look at him and see the pain and damage written there. So she keeps silent, wonders the same thing. What have we done to each other?
He lets out a sigh, lets his hands loose beside him. He contemplates for a second, searches for his own answers, but comes up empty. No matter what, his mind comes back to the same old question.
“Rayla, back when the war ended…” He pauses, because it’s difficult to ask. "…why did you leave?” His voice is softer this time, more defeated. “Is it something I did? Because if it is, I’m so sorry-”
“Callum, it’s not. I promise,” she stops him. Do it quick before he sinks deep into that mind frame and starts blaming himself.
Silence finally overcomes them. She doesn’t realize how stiff and wooden she is until she shifts her weight. She blinks several times, tries to stop tears from leaking through. Stay strong, she tells herself, even though she feels anything but. He doesn’t notice. His eyes are on the ground, hands in his pockets as resignation takes over. It doesn’t feel right. They’re both starved for touch, in need of comfort that neither are willing to give.
He breaks silence first.
“Look. Rayla, I didn’t mean to spring this on you. Seeing you standing here, I got carried away,” he explains. She nods, watches as he kneels down to gather his books into his pack. For the first time, he offers her a smile. It’s more apologetic than anything. “Just forget about me and what I’ve said, but please, please stay. For the festival. For Ezran especially. I know it would mean the world to him.”
Her expression loses its hardness. With him, eventually it would. “Okay.”