When they made as much progress as they could for the day, they returned to the castle and cleaned themselves up. A servant told them immediately upon returning to the castle that Ezran wanted to see them as soon as they were ready. Paying their growling stomachs and aching muscles no mind, they each bathed and met with Ezran in the throne room.
“We’ve made a good dent,” Callum informed him, though his voice didn’t hold as much hope as he probably wanted Ezran to feel. “More people are helping out, so it should at least be clean and the vendors should have stands by the time the festival starts. The tournament isn’t going to suffer too badly. There were some extra weapons that got damaged, but most everyone has their own.” He looked to Rayla.
“One section of the scavenger hunt got completely destroyed,” she continued. “They’re working to connect the piece before and the piece after so it can function without that stage.” She sucked in a breath. “Speaking of the stage, there’s no hope for it. The best we could do is make a small platform, but that won’t be big enough for all the larger performances, and there’s nowhere else they could safely perform. Musicians, plays, everything that can’t be a simple street performance will have to be cancelled. I really don’t see any solution other than to cut the festival a day short.”
Ezran ran a hand through his messy hair, his expression full of worry. “Okay...okay, I’m sure we can figure something out. King Ahling’s fine, but Queen Fareeda and King Florian are...they’re not mad, but they want to make sure that they’re still getting a full festival. They’re excusing the lack of decorations and stage, but they want just as many events as were promised.” He groaned and exclaimed, “Why are adults so frustrating?”
“If it’s any consolation,” Callum offered, “I have a theory about who the arsonist is. I could be wrong, but it’s a starting point. Aanya might want to be here for this, do you know where she is?”
Ezran sent a servant to find her, and she was with them in the throne room within minutes.
“I did some asking around,” Callum started, “And a couple of people say that they saw the arsonist. One man, working alone, but it was dark, and they couldn’t see his face. The only thing the saw was white hair, and I know that doesn’t narrow it down, but hear me out.” He cast a glance to Rayla, then turned his attention to Aanya. “I don’t expect you to know him, but there’s a vendor from Duren who’s been giving us trouble. His name is Matvey, and he’s planning to sell pastries. He was trying to serve lemon cakes, which could kill elves, and I saw him about a week ago purchasing a bunch of primal charms, mostly Sunfire.”
“Not to mention the fact that he wanted to use fire in his stand,” Rayla muttered.
With a nod, Callum said, “There’s that too, he’s already got an affinity for fire. Everything he’s been doing points to him as the arsonist.”
“He’s not subtle.”
Aanya sighed, her eyes closed. “I wish I could say I didn’t know him.” Opening her eyes again, she explained, “Unfortunately, that’s my uncle. He wasn’t allowed to live in the castle before I was even born, and he’s been trying to prove himself to me for years, prove that he’s worthy of living in the castle, but he has a history of endangering people and refusing to change his stance on things like the separation of elves and humans. He’s never gotten to this level before, but he’s probably just...snapped.”
Now it was even more important that they hadn’t arrested Oelsi and Kimar earlier in the day. Callum only wished that he’d had a chance to directly question Matvey, who had disappeared from Rayla’s group during cleanup. He had only helped for about two hours before he vanished. There was no telling if he went back to wherever he was staying, or if he left the city entirely to go back to Duren.
“We’ll find him,” Aanya assured them, her tone turning dark. “He won’t be allowed to sell at the festival, and he’s going to have a high-security escort back to Duren, where I’ll take care of him properly.”
Tension left Rayla as she let out a breath of relief. “Thank you. But, as Callum said to me earlier, we do need to investigate first.” Letting a wicked smile onto her face, she suggested, “Let me question him.”
Callum looked at her with wide eyes. “Please tell me you’re not using the swords.”
“Oh, I’m using the swords.” Before Aanya could voice any concern, she clarified, “I won’t hurt him.”
Aanya nodded. “I trust you to find the truth. And when you find him guilty, I’ll take care of him.”
“Thank you, Aanya,” Ezran said with a grateful smile.
She left the throne room (kindly spending time with the other kings and queen, much to Ezran’s relief), and Rayla was about to take her leave with Callum when Ezran asked them to stay for a few more minutes.
“We still don’t have something for the last day of the festival,” he reminded them. “We were relying on those performances. There was a full-length play to perform, and a bunch of skits, full musical groups. Right now the only thing we can have is street performers, and that’s not going to be enough.”
Rayla shrugged. “I don’t know what you want us to do, Ez, that stage was huge, there’s no way we can repair it in time.”
He looked like he was going to burst with whatever he was going to say, but he still held himself back. “Look, I...I don’t want to push you, but…” Taking a breath and closing his eyes, he rushed, “You need to get married at the festival.”
“We need to what , now?” Rayla blurted.
“I know, I know.” Ezran covered his face with his hands. “I can’t think of anything else to save the festival, I can’t! If there isn’t something great for the last day, then Florian and Fareeda are going to be upset, and our alliances with Evenere and Del Bar are shaky at best, and this could be the one thing that tips them over the edge to decide that the alliance isn’t worth it, and…” He paused and calmed himself. “Look. This isn’t ideal for anyone. I’d rather do nearly anything else, but we don’t have many options. I know that you’re not really engaged, but if you could just consider-”
“You know ?” Callum nearly shrieked, making Ezran jump.
Rayla’s heart stopped. What...what did he mean, he knew? How had he found out? There was no way Corvus told him, Corvus wouldn’t betray her trust like that. Had Callum told someone that told Ezran? Had they been too obvious? She thought they had done a perfect job - how many times had they kissed in front of people by now, for the moon’s sake?
Keeping his voice down, Ezran repeated, “I know that you’re not really engaged. And before you ask, I figured it out on my own, pretty quickly too. You really think either of you would have kept it from me for a year? Callum, just the last time you were here, you were - nevermind, the point is, faking an engagement is stupid, no matter what your reasons were, but right now, your marriage at the festival would save everything.”
Callum’s face was bright red as he sputtered, “Wh - no! We can’t actually get married, that would be...it’d be ridiculous! We were planning to call off the engagement right after the festival, we were never actually going to get married!” He didn’t say it, but Rayla caught the meaning in his words - the wedding actually happening was the only way the whole situation could possibly get worse.
“It was all just meant to make my parents leave me alone,” Rayla admitted, crossing her arms in front of her, shrinking in on herself. “I promised Callum it wouldn’t go this far. A marriage is so hard to undo, and even if we somehow got fake married , everyone else would believe it, and there would still be a lot of political difficulties to make sure everyone understood we weren’t really married. We would have to say we lied to them, and it would be an even bigger mess either way.”
“Okay.” Ezran held his hands up. “I know, I’m asking a lot - more than I’ve ever asked of you before, or will ever ask again. I’m...I’m sure we can figure something else out for the last day of the festival, but since this is something that’s kind of readily available and you’re basically already married, I thought I would bring it up.”
Rayla floundered for a moment before demanding, “What do you mean, we’re basically already married?” It was a weak question, she knew, especially after all the thinking she had done about the very topic. But if someone else saw it too...then what was it?
Ezran looked flabbergasted for a second, like he was shocked that she had even thought to ask. “You...you’ve always acted like you’re married. You’re best friends, you love each other more than anyone else, you would do anything for each other, you spend every moment together. I’ve had politicians asking me how long you two have been married. And I know that other people’s perceptions of your relationship doesn’t determine what it actually is, but you know that you’ve basically been married since you were my age. But if you don’t want to put that label on it, that’s fine, but you’ll have to help me come up with something to replace the performances.”
“We’ll think of something,” Callum immediately replied. “We’ll figure it out.”
They would. They’d definitely be figuring something out. Rayla wasn’t exactly sure what it was they would be figuring out, but something was going to come to light, she could just feel it.
“We’ll think of something,” she repeated, knowing fully well that she would be talking to Callum later that evening about what Ezran had said.
Don’t say it though, Callum.
She hoped beyond hope that he didn’t say it.