“Oh, please,” Rayla hissed as she and Callum stood off to the side while Ezran tried to calm everyone down. “It was so obviously them! Who else would have a motive to destroy the festival?”
“Trust me,” Callum grumbled back, “I want to get them arrested here and now just as much as you do. But we don’t have any proof. We can’t just accuse them without having something on them.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Is ‘they poisoned the prince of Katolis’ enough? They’ve already committed treason, Callum, we can lock them up and be done with it. I guarantee that there won’t be any more attacks after they’re put away.”
“They’re not necessarily the only people who didn’t want the festival to happen,” Callum reasoned. “It could have been any number of people who set this fire, it might have even been someone we’ve never spoken to. And if that’s the case and we arrest your parents, then they’ll be locked up, and an arsonist will be running free.”
Rayla sighed in frustration, crossing her arms. “I hate when you’re reasonable.” He watched some tension left her shoulders.
He tried not to let it show how relieved he was that he got her to calm down, just a bit. This was all going to be harder to deal with if they were too angry to see what was going on around them.
“We’ll figure it out,” Callum muttered, taking Rayla’s hand and pulling her toward Ezran, who had given question-answering and panic-quelling over to Soren.
“We’ll really have to prioritize,” Ezran told them, and quickly began rattling things off. “Don’t worry about decorations. Vendors are the first priority. If they can’t sell anything, they’re losing a ton of profit they’ve been counting on to feed their families. Then Callum, you make sure the tournament is okay and give them what they need, and Rayla, you handle the scavenger hunt, help them recreate anything that might’ve gotten damaged.”
With a nod, Callum confirmed, “Got it. What about the stage? The performers?”
Ezran gave a helpless shrug. “I trust you. If there’s time and people willing to help, a makeshift stage could be built, but we might have to cancel most of the last day’s performances.” He truly looked like he might cry.
Rayla put an encouraging hand on his arm. If anything could make her attitude turn around in a second, it was Ezran. Softly, she said, “Don’t worry about it, Ez. We’ll figure it out. You put us in charge of this, and we’re not going to let you down.”
Taking a shuddering breath, Ezran nodded and pulled Rayla into a hug. If they weren’t facing arson and the absolute destruction of everyone’s hard work as well as possible political collapse, Callum would have let himself focus on how funny it was to see Ezran so much taller than Rayla that he could lean his head on top of hers.
“Okay.” Ezran let go of Rayla and straightened his clothes, already stained with ash. “I need to get back to the castle. King Ahling and Queen Fareeda are going to be arriving soon. I have to go smooth things over and make sure that this won’t have any political effects.”
“Go on,” Callum said, gesturing toward the castle. “We’ll clean up.”
Ezran retrieved Aanya and they rode back toward the castle. Hopefully, things would go smoothly enough there.
And hopefully, things wouldn’t turn into an even bigger disaster in town.
“We need to get a team together,” Callum sighed, looking out at the damage. “There’s no way we can do all this on our own.”
Within the hour, they had a team assembled. Claudia, Corvus, Amaya, Gren, and Janai all offered to pitch in, and Soren continued helping by lending emotional support to townspeople and answering as many questions as he could. The cleanup team was split in two, and they received their assignments, figuring out who would go where, and making sure everyone knew that vendors were the first priority. They were about to disperse when another voice arose.
“Could you use four more hands?”
Callum’s blood ran cold and Rayla closed her eyes to steel herself. This was the last thing they needed.
“I don’t know,” Rayla snapped. “Have you got any more matches?”
Instead of the expected defiance from Kimar and fake surprise from Oelsi, both of them looked genuinely confused.
“What are you talking about?” Kimar questioned. She gestured to the rubble. “Do you think we did this?”
“Just like the time you said you didn’t set our campsite on fire because you ‘didn’t want anyone tracking you,’ when you could have easily used an illusion.” Rayla crossed her arms, seething.
Oelsi’s eyebrows shot up, baffled. “You were there for that? I thought you were away with your aunt.”
“You told me directly that it wasn’t a big deal that all of our things burned, and you offered no comfort, no help, no-”
Callum stopped her with a touch of her hand. Quietly, he told her, “This isn’t the time or place. Take Janai with you, I’ll take Oelsi and Kimar. If they’re guilty and try something, then I have fighters with me, and I can stop them with magic. Okay?”
She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” Gesturing to Janai, she called, “Change of plan, you’re with me,” and led her group to the other side of the town square.
Okay. So at least that crisis was averted. But he was going to have to keep as close an eye as possible on Oelsi and Kimar. If they really were the arsonists, then it was going to be difficult to clean up the mess and keep them from setting any more fires.
It was okay, though. He told Rayla it would be okay, so it had to be. He could figure this out. And he wasn’t alone. He had Amaya and Gren with him. There was no way they would let anything happen to him, and they could easily arrest Rayla’s parents on the spot if necessary.
Gren and Kimar were assigned to sweep up as much of the rubble as they could while Callum, Amaya, and Oelsi tried to salvage what had survived of the vendor stands and discard what was too charred to use. There had only been two or three stands spared of flames, while all others were at least half burned.
Most of the work was done in silence, save for Gren’s occasional attempts at making conversation. He did get the message fairly quickly that nobody was in the mood to talk, and that Callum wanted minimal interaction with the two elves in their group, but didn’t give up in his quest of friendliness.
“Do you have any stories about Rayla when she was little?” Gren asked as he separated the charred remains of a stand from the pieces that had survived.
Callum tensed, waiting for Kimar to snark at him, shut him down, destroy the light inside him as quickly as she could.
Fortunately, Oelsi answered first.
“Rayla’s not a mage,” he began. “But her uncle Runaan taught her a couple of spells when she was just learning to talk. She wasn’t even walking yet, but she was a fast crawler. Kimar would chase after her, and she would shout a spell and go completely invisible, then keep crawling.” He chuckled at the memory. “It always terrified Kimar. And me. I had never known fear until my baby disappeared in front of my eyes.”
“Runaan wasn’t allowed to teach her any more spells after that,” Kimar added, a smile in her tone.
With a fond nod, Oelsi continued, “Lucky for us, Rayla didn’t retain the spell in her memory, so it did stop before she started walking. But that was when the tree-climbing started. I think she was about two years old the first time she scaled a tree, no problem. She fell a couple of times, too, but we were always there to catch her.” He paused for a moment before quietly saying, “Unlike when we left for the Dragon Guard. Runaan did most of the work raising her while we were away. We never stopped loving her, and she never stopped being the best thing that ever happened to us. But I have to admit...I don’t have many memories of her growing up.” His face fell and he went quiet.
Callum bit his tongue to resist making a comment about how they could stand to act like she was the best thing in their lives every once in a while. Then she might actually believe it. But he couldn’t say that, not now. It wasn’t the time or place, just as he had told Rayla, and it almost sounded like there could actually be some regret there.
“The mage who attacked the dragon king and queen used a dark magic that controlled our actions,” Kimar whispered, so quietly that Callum wasn’t entirely sure he heard her right. “He forced us to run. We were prepared to fight - to die - to protect Thunder. To protect the egg. We tried to tell Rayla what happened, but she didn’t want to hear it. She called us cowards and decided she wanted nothing to do with us.”
“So we let her,” Oelsi finished. “We let her for a long time, and every day hurt.” He looked at Callum with desperation in his eyes. “All we want is to support her like parents are supposed to.”
It seemed like they were telling the truth. It really did. But their actions in the past weeks hadn’t reflected that. Supporting their daughter didn’t mean that they would try to destroy her relationship. Supporting her didn’t mean putting her through hell and criticising her every move.
“Then do it,” Callum eventually said. “Actually support her. I know that Moonshadow elves are really reserved with their emotions, but you can show your daughter that you love her and care about her. You should show her that you love her, and let her know that she’s good enough just as she is. No more, no less. Rayla is Rayla, and that’s perfect for me. Maybe let her know that it’s perfect for you too. But only if it’s true. If you lie to her about how important she is, then I will personally make your lives hell.”
Oelsi opened his mouth to reply when a hand on Callum’s arm caught his attention. Soren was at his side, nodding to a small crowd.
“I’m gonna need your help with this one,” he explained, a wince on his face. “The prince’s word is almost as good as the king’s.” When Callum nodded and waved for his group to continue their repairs, Soren wheeled over to the group and announced, “Alright, everyone, this is Prince Callum. He’s going to tell you what’s going on.”
“The festival is still happening,” Callum assured them. “We’re going to make do with what we have. The ball, tournament, scavenger hunt, and feast are still happening. The only thing we’re worried about is performances. There’s no stage, and no time to make a new one, but we’ll inform you if anything changes with that. In the meantime, several of us are going to be investigating to find out who the arsonist was, and we’re going to make sure that they don’t get away with it. They will be facing consequences from King Ezran. So while all of this is happening, the best thing that everyone can do is pitch in. If everyone gives a little bit of help, then we can still make this a great festival, and it’ll make it easier on me and Rayla to find whoever did this.”
Murmurs of understanding rose from the group. A few of them asked what they could do to help, and he split them between his own group and Rayla’s.
Among those people was Matvey, who wandered over to join Rayla’s group, and whose stand had miraculously survived the fire.
They still needed to investigate and find solid proof, but Callum definitely had a hunch as to who their arsonist was. He put Amaya and Gren in charge of his group, giving himself some time to ask around and gather all the proof he needed.