Chapter 1: Beach Day
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Rayla never intended any of it to go this far.
Yet there she sat as the royal tailor tried to keep her attention as they settled on a design for a wedding dress. A pit had taken up permanent residence in the bottom of her stomach, weighing her down like lead. A few days ago, she had been fine, everything between her and Callum was okay. They knew that one way or another, they would be fine.
But with what he had told her just the day before…
“My Lady,” the exasperated tailor sighed, pushing the sketch toward her. “I understand that you have a lot on your mind with the festival, but I do need you to focus for just a few more minutes so we can finalize the design.”
She looked at the page, but couldn’t quite process what was on it. That must have meant she didn’t hate it, so she handed it back and said, “It’s perfect, thank you.”
He didn’t try to hide it when he rolled his eyes. “Are there any elements I should be including that are important to your heritage?”
Truly, Rayla did try to think about it, but after a few moments, all she managed was, “Boots. I...I want to wear my boots.” It was a weak answer, and didn’t exactly answer his question, but it was the best she could do.
Another sigh, and the tailor nodded. “Of course. I’ll make sure that the design goes well with your boots. Now, I know that doing this is not how you would like to spend your morning, and that you aren’t sure about what you want. I will only ask if you trust me.” He looked at her with a determined expression.
She nodded. “Yes. You’ve made things for me before, I trust that you know the best thing to make for me.” Scrubbing her hands over her face, she muttered, “Thank you for putting up with me.”
With a snicker, the tailor replied, “Your fiance wasn’t any better when he and I were planning last night.”
It really wasn’t supposed to turn out like this.
THREE WEEKS AGO
“Look, I know that this is outside of what you guys normally do, and I know it’s unpleasant, but we’re shorthanded, and I really need your help.”
Rayla could not be more annoyed with the prospect of heading festival preparations. Sure, she could do it, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to endure the stupidity she would have to deal with for the next three weeks. She was a warrior, an assassin , she wasn’t meant to plan festivals.
But she did love Ezran, and even after five years, he knew that she would do anything for him. Not that he abused that power.
“What would our responsibilities be?” Callum asked, rubbing the back of his neck. He was clearly thinking along the same lines she was.
Ezran handed them a list a few pages long. “I swear it’s not as much as it looks like. Street vendors and performers will be doing most of their own work, you just need to make sure that everything is safe and appropriate. And I really mean it when I say that everything needs to be checked that it’s appropriate, because one year we had a vendor trying to sell enchanted...adult toys.” He shuddered.
Rayla couldn’t help but snort. “Not sure how he thought he would get away with that, but I give him credit for trying.”
“Yeah, well, you can give credit to as many rule violators as you want if you’re the one checking them over.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair, no less messy than it was when they met. “I know you guys would rather be traveling and negotiating and bringing people to peace, but this is what I need from you. It’s the fifth anniversary of the end of the war, the leaders of the other five kingdoms will be here, and we have more guests from Xadia every year. This festival has to be the best one yet, and there’s no one I trust more than the two of you to make sure things are perfect.”
Callum put a hand on Rayla’s shoulder and told his brother, “It’s fine, Ez. We can do it. Don’t worry about anything.”
Telling him not to worry about anything might have been a stretch, but no matter how badly Rayla did not want to do this, she was well aware that she was going to do it anyway.
A relieved smile on his face, Ezran replied, “Thank you. You have no idea how much you’re going to be helping me out.”
“No worries,” Callum assured him, a grin on his lips. “We’ve handled way worse before, right Ray?” He playfully nudged her in the side with his elbow. “How bad could this be?”
“You’re not allowed to tempt fate anymore,” Rayla informed Callum, folding her arms.
Offering a weak smile, Callum observed the fight happening between two vendors about who could occupy the exact space they both wanted. “If it makes you feel better, fate doesn’t exist?”
She shook her head, grabbing her blades and flicking them out. “That absolutely does not make me feel better.” Determined, she started toward the vendors.
“No swords,” Callum interjected, grabbing her by the arm.
“I wasn’t going to hurt them.” Still, she put them away. “Just using some intimidation. Threaten them, and suddenly everyone’ll be nicer to each other.”
Callum slipped his arm around her shoulders. “I know the tactic. You’ve used it enough times during peace negotiations. But this is a simple squabble about festival placements. We can handle this without bringing out the swords.”
“Not as quickly, but fine.”
Lucky for them, it was a simple miscommunication that led them to believe that they were both entitled to the same spot. Callum resolved their argument quickly and even offered to help them set up their stands. And of course, they were easily swayed by the prince, willing to listen to his every word. Some negative part of Rayla told her that it was just because he was the prince that they were listening to him. The rest of her knew that it was simply because of who he was as a person, and the genuine sweetness in him. If he weren’t so good, he could easily weaponize that sweetness. Instead, he offered to help street vendors set up their stands.
Which did put them behind schedule for the day.
They did manage to scope out the area and help people figure out how things were going to go during the festival, but the few people with whom they did need to meet throughout the day were less than happy that they were late.
Eventually, they had crossed everything they’d needed for the day off of their checklist, and began heading back toward the castle.
Things were so different from the first time Rayla had been welcomed into the castle. She was only fifteen at the end of the war, five years before, when she was still taller than both Callum and Ezran, and she felt the need to have her swords out whenever walking the grounds of the castle. For a long time, Callum wouldn’t let her wander on her own, for fear that someone would try to hurt her. Since then, her presence had become just as frequent and normal as Callum’s, and any glares or threats she once received had subsided.
To Ezran’s despair, their presence around the castle had become a rare commodity. They had been traveling all around the world, negotiating with kings and queens, governors, and heads of elven clans. Rayla had always liked traveling. This position as a royal ambassador between the human kingdoms and Xadia was perfect for her, and even more perfect because she got to do her traveling with Callum. When they did stay in Katolis, it was never for more than a couple of weeks at a time. They’d arrived from Duren two weeks ago, and they were to stay at least until the end of the festival. They would likely have a new mission by then, and they would leave for another few months to carry it out. Since they hadn’t traveled for pleasure in years. Everything was political now. Even the festival that was keeping them stagnant in Katolis was nothing more than a political affair.
When they returned their horses to the stables outside the castle, Callum took Rayla’s hand and brought her back to the present.
“You okay?” he asked.
She hesitated a moment before nodding. “Yeah. Just thinking.” Looking up at him, she questioned, “How long has it been since we’ve gone on a trip that didn’t have anything to do with politics? No treaties, no mediating, no convincing elven towns that they can’t generalize all human beings as evil.”
Callum thought for a moment, sucking in a breath. “It’s been a while, definitely.” Flashing her a grin, he suggested, “Why don’t we do that after the festival? We could go somewhere just for fun. Remember that beach we found, what, three years ago?”
With a groan, she replied, “How could I forget? I still haven’t forgiven you for throwing me into the waves. When did you even get strong enough to do that? Mages are supposed to be weak.” She poked his arm a few times, testing to see how soft the muscle was.
“These things always happen when you’re not looking,” he teased. “Just like how you weren’t looking when I threw you into the ocean.”
“Because you’re the worst.”
“But you love me.”
“No, I think you’re probably the worst.”
Callum chuckled, bumping his shoulder into hers. “Whatever you say.”
They entered the dining hall, and when they sat down to eat, Rayla said, “I’d like to go on a trip. That’d be nice. Maybe not to the beach, but I’m sure we’ll have an easy time finding somewhere fun to go from all the places we’ve been.”
With a smile, Callum replied, “I think I’d like that too. No politics, no dealing with the mess this world insists on being. Just you, me, and the road.”
Just talking about it took a weight off Rayla’s shoulders as she returned his smile. “That sounds nice.”
Chapter 2: Stargazing
Callum is determined to cheer Rayla up after their long day of festival preparations.
The moment Ezran asked them to head festival preparations, Callum knew that it wasn’t going to make either of them particularly happy. He just hadn’t expected this intense of a reaction from Rayla.
She was nearly dozing on her horse as they rode out of the town square. Their whole day was spent sketching out decorations and arguing with a vendor from Duren who was angry that he couldn’t use any sort of fire to adorn his stand. Apparently, the possibility of the whole stand going up in flames was not motivating enough for him to practice basic fire safety. A thinly veiled threat from Rayla, however, did the trick. Sometimes they really did need those swords. It did make the world leaders much more likely to calm down and start working together, and it always perked Rayla back up.
This time, though, there was no such luck. While it did get the vendor to shut up and listen to them, Rayla’s mood had only gotten worse throughout the day. As they rode back to the castle, she muttered about how she was going to sleep for a hundred years right after they ate dinner.
“A hundred years?” Callum pouted. “But what about hanging out with me? Or do I have to kiss you and wake you up, since I’m your prince?” He smirked teasingly.
A smile tugging at the corners of her lips, she warned, “If you wake me up, then whatever happens is your fault. Remember that I’m specially trained to kill princes.”
“That may be true, but if you wanted me dead, something tells me that you would have done it long ago.” He grinned at her as she rolled her eyes.
“Maybe so,” she replied. “Or maybe I’ve been gaining your trust all these years just so I can kill you in your sleep.”
A dramatic hand to his chest, Callum cried, “You would betray me like that? Me, your best friend? I’m hurt, Rayla!”
“Sure you are,” she chuckled, pulling her horse close enough to him to give him a gentle shove and throw him just a bit off balance. “Dummy.”
It was nice to see her smiling again, but her shoulders remained slumped, and there was still no sparkle in her eye. Simple joking around wasn’t going to cut it. She was going to need some intense recovery time. Fortunately, Callum knew just the thing.
Just before they reached the dining hall in the castle after returning the horses to the stables, Callum put a hand out to stop Rayla from entering. She glared at him and said, “Callum, if you don’t let me in, I’m going to eat your arm.”
“First of all, no you won’t,” he stated. “Second of all, you need to go rest. I’ll bring food up for us. Meet me on the roof.”
She studied him with narrowed lavender eyes for a few moments before shrugging. “Fine. But mark my words, I won’t forgive easily if I don’t get something to eat.”
A hand on her shoulder to turn her around and nudge her in the right direction, he replied, “Yeah, yeah, some crimes can’t be forgiven, justice will not be denied. Now go to the roof, and I’ll bring us plenty of food.”
As she walked away, he headed through the dining hall and into the kitchen to find a worker. He stopped the first worker he found and asked for her to help him transport food. She kindly assisted in filling a plate, then followed him up to the fourth floor and held both plates while he crawled through a window to access the roof. He took the plates back and thanked her, pressing a coin into her hands for her effort.
Rayla was already there, as expected. Her knees were tucked under her chin as she gazed out toward the horizon where the sun was beginning to set. The soft orange lit up her features and made her look even more angelic than she usually did.
Callum shook his head at the thought. She was his friend, and that had never changed. It never would change. There was no need to think of her like an angel when all he needed to think of her as was his friend. Besides, she wouldn’t want him to think of her as angelic anyway. She was Rayla, and that was more than good enough.
Sitting down next to her, he slipped her plate into her hands. She took it with a grateful smile and started shoveling food into her mouth.
They ate in silence as the sun went down, bathing them in the last bits of warmth from the day. For the first time since Ezran first mentioned the festival to them, there was a sense of peace settling between them. This was their chance to breathe and simply be.
It wasn’t until after the sun had set that Rayla finally spoke.
“Sorry I’ve been miserable about this whole thing,” she muttered. “I guess I’m just out of my element.”
Callum chuckled and wrapped an arm around her. “We’re both way out of our element. This should be mine, considering who I am, but I’d much rather be adventuring with you.”
With a nod, Rayla whispered, “Me too.” She tilted her head back and looked up at the sky, the first stars of the night making themselves visible.
Callum followed her gaze and laid down to get a better look at the stars. “I don’t like being stuck in one place for long anymore. I used to be okay with it, but then I met you. Now being on the move is so natural for me - for us - that it’s all I want to do. Don’t get me wrong, I love being here with Ezran, but I’d rather it be like it was when we were kids and we were getting Zym back to Xadia. All of us traveling around and having all sorts of adventures together.”
She joined him in laying down and gave him a smirk. “Are you going to make this into one of those stupid ‘this festival-planning can be an adventure if we just think of it as one’?”
“It could be if you want it to be,” he teased. “But no, that’s not what I was going for, because there’s no way it would work for either of us. Although we can get through this by thinking about where we want to go after the festival. Because as much as we tell ourselves that the festival is good for the world and it raises morale, that’s not going to get us through.”
Nodding, she sighed. “You got anywhere in mind that you’d like to go?”
He thought for a moment and let a wicked smile cross his face. “We could go to the Moon Nexus and visit Lujanne. That’s a better alternative to the beach, right?”
Rayla groaned and covered her face with her hands. “No way. The Moon Nexus itself is great, but I’m not going out of my way to visit Lujanne. Try again.” He wasn’t sure if it was the light of the stars and the crescent moon reflected in her eyes, but there was some life back in her.
“Alright, so no water and no Lujanne. How about…” He snapped his fingers and suggested, “How about Evenere? We haven’t been there in a while.”
“Yeah, not since Queen Fareeda told us that we were a disgrace for not hating each other, and didn’t want me anywhere near her.” Rayla’s expression hardened. It had been three or four years since then, and Queen Fareeda had come to Katolis on a diplomatic trip once since, but she had never apologized for the way she treated Rayla. Even if her attitude toward her had improved by a small margin, that wasn’t enough to absolve her of what she said.
“We wouldn’t necessarily have to see Queen Fareeda,” Callum pointed out. “She doesn’t even have to know we’re in Evenere. But if you don’t want to go, then we don’t have to. Let’s see…” He thought for a few seconds more. “There are plenty of places in Xadia I haven’t seen. There must be a hundred things you still want to show me. Why don’t we just travel through Xadia and go wherever we want?”
She turned to face him and smiled - a real, genuine smile, with life behind it, and the joy he’s been trying to help her feel. Quietly, she said, “That would be nice. Just you and me, just travel and adventure.” Her voice grew soft and her eyes fluttered for a moment before shifting to lay her head on Callum’s shoulder, settling into him.
Callum remembered the first time she had fallen asleep on him like this. It was the day before they returned Zym to his mother. Both of them had been having nightmares - mostly based around Callum’s stupidly using dark magic - and decided to sleep in each other’s arms, because if they had each other close, they knew that everything was okay. It worked that night, and every time since. It had become normal for them to sleep like this. Back when they were kids, it made his heart nearly pound out of his chest, but now that they were older, it was how they were both most comfortable.
Part of him was glad that they’d remained such steady friends over the years. Only once when he was fifteen and she was sixteen did things ever change between them, and that was when Rayla told him that she had feelings for him. He hadn’t felt the same way toward her at the time, but they were both so determined to maintain their friendship that it was easy to move on from it, and Rayla made the active choice to set aside her feelings, making it possible for them to continue as the best of friends.
Now, four years later, Callum’s heart tugged at him. It almost made him angry that he developed feelings for her after they were past it. It had been barely a year after her confession that they went to the beach and he wanted to scream because of how cute she was while sitting decidedly on the sand, Callum’s jacket covering her to protect her pale skin. What kind of friend would he be if he turned around and confessed the same thing to her after she made sure she moved on? He couldn’t tell her how he felt.
But that was okay. It didn’t matter that he didn’t get to tell her that he was in love with her. He was happy as long as they stayed like this, comfortable, trusting, and the best of friends.
The friendship was what mattered. She was what mattered. As long as she was happy and they stayed close, Callum couldn’t ask for anything more.
Chapter 3: Confession
Rayla gets some unexpected visitors, and makes an even more unexpected claim.
“Is it just going to be something different every day with you, isn’t it, Mr. Matvey?”
Rayla crossed her arms, eyeing the pastries on the vendor’s stand.
Massaging his temples, Callum kept an even tone as he asked, “Are you trying to hurt people? Because if you are, we’ll have to ask you to leave. Wanting fire on your stand was bad enough, but this could kill people.”
Matvey, the vendor with whom they’d argued just the previous day, sputtered in offense. “Are you saying that you don’t like my lemon cakes? I’ll have you know, these are well-loved throughout Duren, and I don’t need the approval of Katolis-”
“That’s not it, Mr. Matvey,” Callum cut him off. “I’m sure the lemon cakes are delicious, and I don’t doubt that any human would love to have some, but citrus is incredibly poisonous to elves. I thought that was common knowledge by now, honestly.” That got him to shut his mouth. “We have more elven guests every year, and we want to make sure that the festival is as safe and enjoyable for elves as it is for humans. You’re more than welcome to serve pastries, but they can’t have citrus in them, okay?” He was impressed with himself for not losing his temper with this man. If they had to argue with him every day about not putting anyone in danger, then he would have to renegotiate with Ezran about this whole festival-planning thing.
Any normal person who heard that their baking could easily kill people would have been surprised and apologetic. Matvey, however, seemed determined to give them the hardest time he possibly could.
“I could put up a sign,” he reasoned. “Let everyone know that they’re lemon. I could tell any elves that want to buy that they shouldn’t have it.”
“We understand that this is your specialty,” Rayla said, an edge in her voice. “But catering only to humans during an event that is supposed to bring humans and elves together is counterproductive and discriminatory. I’m sure you have many other pastries you’re excellent at baking that don’t involve citrus.”
Matvey grumbled, saying something about how catering to everyone was discriminatory against him, and Callum couldn’t help but roll his eyes. All this time since the war ended, and there were still people with that line of thought.
“We’ll come and check on you in a few days,” Callum informed him. “I’m sure that your stand will be safe for everyone by then.” He had to restrain himself from letting the bite into his tone that he wanted to.
“Of course, Your Highness,” Matvey sighed. “Everything will be perfect.”
With a nod, Callum replied, “Thank you,” and took Rayla’s hand to lead her on toward the next order of business.
Or at least, he tried to. They were almost immediately interrupted when someone started calling after Rayla. Both turned to see who was calling her. All Callum saw was a pair of Moonshadow elves, but apparently, Rayla saw something different. Her eyes widened and her grip on Callum’s hand tightened as she started pulling him away from them. Who even were these people? Why was she so desperate to get away from them?
“Rayla,” the man greeted with a smile when they caught up. “Rayla, it’s really you.”
She steeled herself, but turned to them nonetheless, her jaw set. “In all my glory. I didn’t expect you to be in Katolis for the festival. Or ever.”
Okay, so there was a lot of bad blood there. Callum wondered for a fleeting moment why she never talked about these people she disliked so intensely. But then again, if she hated them enough and never had to see them, there was no reason to talk about them.
“That’s some way to greet us,” the woman chastised. “After all this way we traveled to see you, the least we could get is a pleasant hello. But we have heard rumors of you visiting Xadia every so often, and you haven’t come to see us once.”
Rayla’s grip on Callum’s hand was so tight with anger that he started to truly worry. What in the world was going on?
“Why would I?” she asked through gritted teeth. “After abandoning the Dragon Guard and not bothering to maintain a relationship with me since well before then, why would I try?”
The Dragon Guard. Her parents were part of the Dragon Guard.
“Wait,” Callum cut in, looking between the couple and Rayla. “You’re…?”
“My parents,” Rayla muttered, gesturing to them. “My dad, Oelsi, and my mom, Kimar.” With a deathly glare in their direction, she spat, “The cowards of the Dragon Guard. Probably only here because they’re running from something else.”
Callum stared, dumbfounded. If he was being honest with himself, they talked about her parents so infrequently that he had all but forgotten that she even had parents. Yet here they were, standing in front of them. Rayla had Oelsi’s eyes and Kimar’s height. Part of Callum knew that the shape of an elf’s horns was determined by their parents’, but he hadn’t thought about applying that to Rayla. She was a perfect blend of her parents in every way, and he mentally kicked himself for not realizing the moment he saw them that they were related to her.
“Rayla,” Oelsi said softly, “if you give us a chance, we can explain what happened that night.”
Scoffing, she replied, “Save your breath. I don’t care. If your ‘explanation’ had made any sense when it happened, then I’m sure you wouldn’t have avoided me for the past six years.”
“You didn’t l isten back then,” Kimar snapped. “You didn’t give us the chance to tell you what happened, you cut us off, and I suppose ‘dark magic’ wasn’t a good enough reason to save ourselves for Runaan either.”
“Dark magic didn’t make me turn back when I traveled across the world to return Zym to his mother - something that I never would have had to do as a fifteen-year-old child if you hadn’t run away.”
Before Kimar could retort, Oelsi put a gentle hand on her shoulder, just as Callum gave Rayla’s hand a soft tug. Rayla inhaled a sharp breath and loosened her grip on Callum’s hand, turning toward him as she tried to calm herself down.
“We just wanted to see you, Rayla,” Oelsi whispered. “I know we haven’t been active in your life since you were young, and you deserve better than that. If you want us to leave, we can. We see now that you’re...much more grown up than either of us expected. And you’re doing so well here.”
Looking down her nose at them, she confirmed, “I am. I’m doing better than you could possibly imagine. I’m a royal ambassador of peace, a close friend of King Ezran, who made me an honorary knight.”
Callum glanced at her, but tried not to show the confusion on his face. That last part was definitely not true, Ezran had never given her a knightship, honorary or otherwise.
“And I’m engaged to Prince Callum.”
That was even less true than the knightship. At least Ezran would probably give it to her if she asked, but an engagement was a whole other matter. How could she just tell her parents so calmly that they were engaged? What in the world had prompted that? It wasn’t like her father wasn’t acknowledging how great she was. She had nothing to prove to them. She had nothing to prove to anyone , and she knew that. What did she even think this was going to accomplish?
It was taking all of Callum’s willpower not to scream in confusion and fear. Did this mean that she knew how he felt? He hadn’t told anyone about his feelings, not even Ezran. She couldn’t possibly know. Yet there she was, holding his hand, and telling her parents that they were getting married. Callum could hardly breathe. This wasn’t what he wanted, this was going to come crashing down around them, and everything was going to be weird from then on. After how hard they’d worked when they were younger to make sure things weren’t weird after she’d told him about her feelings, they couldn’t afford to let it get weird now that they were grown. But she couldn’t just say things like that, who had told her that it was okay-
His attention snapped back to Rayla and her parents, blinking through the fog in his head.
“Uh…” He took a breath and managed an awkward smile. “Sorry, I, uh, guess I didn’t hear the question.”
Wrapping her arm around him, she repeated pleasantly, “Just telling my parents that we were thinking of the spring for our wedding.” There was some sort of insistence in the way she looked at him. Maybe even desperation. Which made it impossible for him to foil whatever it was she was doing.
“Of course,” he replied, slipping his arm around her in turn. “I just...didn’t realize we were going to start announcing it.”
Fake innocence and confusion on her face, she prompted, “You don't remember what we talked about last night? We wanted to have Ez's blessing and announce our engagement after the festival.”
Which meant...actually telling other people that they were getting married. Acting like a couple. Planning an actual wedding, and a royal one at that. Callum's mind couldn't fathom what was happening. It was like Rayla had yanked a rug out from under his feet and sent him crashing down. There was so much rushing through his head, feelings he'd repressed for years, confusion and terror piling up inside him.
And he found himself saying, “Right. I was tired last night, I don't remember much of what we talked about.”
Shaking her head, she rubbed her hand between his shoulders. “I knew I should've brought it back up this morning.” Turning back to her parents, she said, “As you might’ve guessed, we haven't told anyone. Still getting used to the idea of other people knowing. You won't tell anyone, will you?”
Oelsi and Kimar exchanged a hesitant look before Oelsi replied, “Of...of course we won’t. That’s yours to tell, and we’re...happy for you. We, uh…” He glanced at his wife. “Are you sure about this, Rayla? It’s not a decision that should be taken lightly. Especially in marrying royalty.” The concern on his face was only thinly veiled with fake happiness.
“We’ve thought it over for a long time, Oelsi,” Rayla assured them, her tone biting as she pulled Callum closer. He made a distinct note of the fact that he did not call him ‘dad,’ or even ‘father.’ “Just because you don’t know him doesn’t mean that I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Did she, though? Callum certainly didn’t know what she was doing, what sort of game she was playing. His heart was pounding in his chest so hard that he felt it in his throat. Yet he couldn’t find it in himself to get her to stop the lies.
“We’ve spent the past five years by each other’s side,” Callum explained. “If we haven’t scared each other off by now, I sincerely doubt we ever will.” Grinning at her, he added, “I think we’re the only ones who can truly handle each other.”
“You’ve got that right.” There was relief in her eyes that would have been undetectable to anyone who didn’t spend every waking moment with her as she concluded, “Thanks for coming, really, stay as long as you like, but we need to be getting back to festival preparations. Enjoy your stay.” She tugged Callum away without giving her parents time to reply.
Once they were far enough away from Oelsi and Kimar, Callum yanked Rayla into a small alley and hissed, “What was that? What are you thinking? If this is your idea of proposing, I can’t say I’m impressed.”
He expected Rayla to match his frustration, but her expression was remorseful as she said, “I’m sorry, Callum, I really am. I didn’t mean for that to happen, and I had no idea they would be here. I panicked. It was really sudden, I know, and I don’t plan to go through with anything. We just need to pretend until my parents are gone.”
“ Why ?” Callum demanded. He grabbed a fistful of his hair, trying to keep himself from losing his temper. “Why do they need to think that you’re engaged? Or knighted? Are you trying to show off? Because I think that being a hero and a royal peace ambassador is more than enough. Why wouldn’t that be enough to think you can impress them? Why aren’t you enough?”
Rayla shook her head, looking down at the ground between them. “I was never enough for them. Even when I was little, I was the one who hesitates, can’t follow through, gives up too easily. So they gave up on me. Let Runaan raise me while they were part of the Dragon Guard. I’ve hardly seen them since they left me with Runaan.” Her face hardened and she clenched her fists, her voice gaining a bite. “Then they think that they can just show up after all this time and be my parents? They think that they can tell me it was my fault that they didn’t want to be part of my life?” She let out a shout of frustration, hitting her fist on the wall behind her. “They lost the chance to be part of my life a long time ago. They thought that I gave up too easily, but they gave up on me, then on the dragon king and queen. They need to see that I’m better than they are. I didn’t give up on Zym when it almost got us killed, and I didn’t give up on us when it was all over. They’re going to see that I don’t need them and that if anyone needs to change, it’s them.” Taking a deep breath, she quieted and looked back up at Callum with earnest eyes. “Please, Callum, just do this for me. We don’t have to formally announce it, just as long as we convince Ezran, Soren, and Claudia until the festival is over. Then, as soon as my parents are gone, we can tell them that marriage wasn’t for us, and we can forget it ever happened. Please.”
Leaning against the wall, Callum sighed and looked out into the town square. “We don’t have to do this. There are other ways to show your parents how great you are. You should just talk it out with them. At least your dad seems to want to talk things out with you.”
Folding her arms, Rayla mused, “Not now that they think I’m engaged to a human prince, they don’t.”
Frustration bubbled into anger as Callum glared at her. “So this whole thing is just to make your parents so angry that they won’t talk to you?” He’d known since they were kids that she hated her parents. He’d known that she didn’t want anything to do with them. He knew, and he understood. To a point. There was only so much he could understand after all three of his parents had died. If he had the chance to speak with any of his parents again, he would take it in a heartbeat. But he had always loved his parents deeply, and they had always loved him just as much. It was different from Rayla’s relationship with her parents. Callum just couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to even give them a chance.
“Yes,” Rayla insisted. “I’m doing this so my parents won’t talk to me. You saw how they reacted when I said I’m marrying you - don’t you think it’s about time they start accepting the way things are now? Things have changed - in the world, and with their daughter.”
“The fact that they’re in Katolis is huge. Three years ago, barely any elves dared set foot here.” The town square was mostly filled with humans, as usual. But every year, there were more and more elves. One day, Callum and Ezran both hoped, there could even be an equal population of humans and elves.
“It is,” she relented. “It’s pretty great that they feel comfortable enough to come to Katolis. But this isn’t about that. This is about what they’ve done to me. So please.” Rayla cupped Callum’s cheek to turn him back to face her. “Please, just pretend with me for a while. It’s only until my parents go back to Xadia. Then we can ‘break up’ and go back about our lives as friends.”
Right. That would be the tricky part.
Callum sucked in a deep breath. “Can you give me some time to think it over? It’s a pretty big commitment, even if we’re not following through with getting married.”
“Of course.” Rayla retracted her hand and stepped toward the square. “For now, let’s just continue like we have been.” Her reassuring smile was enough to melt Callum’s anger away completely. “Nothing’s changed between us. We’re the same as we’ve always been.”
It was nice that she thought that. He told himself that all he wanted was for things to be normal between them.
Yet as Rayla held his hand, pulling him to the next vendor to evaluate, he knew that there was no way that he could treat things like they were normal. Not if he said yes.
They both took dinner in their respective rooms.
Callum could barely eat anyway. He paced the length of his room for so long that the shadows had completely shifted by the time he sat on his bed, head in his hands.
His heart rate hadn't slowed since Rayla sprung the news that they were engaged. This was all too much. Her whole plan was ridiculous, but now that she was set on lying to her parents to convince them, it would be nearly impossible to change her mind. If he said that he wouldn't do it, she would simply avoid being around both Callum and her parents at the same time for the next few weeks until the festival was over.
After all the time they’d spent together throughout the past five years, he knew her well enough to know how much she hated her parents. He understood, he really did. No one was required to like their parents, especially after the way they’d treated her and refused to be part of her life. But this gave her a chance to reconcile with them, and all she wanted was for them to leave. Whereas Callum was never going to get another chance with any parents.
He groaned, flopping back on his bed. He knew that he was displacing his own feelings onto her situation. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t the same. While he did understand, he absolutely could not relate. Who was he to tell her how to deal with her parents who just about abandoned her as a child?
If he couldn’t rationalize that he should continue pressing for her to talk to her parents, then that only left the issue of his feelings. Those stupid, stupid feelings that he’d been trying to get rid of for years. As far as he knew, she had no idea how he felt, and she definitely did not feel the same way. It wouldn’t be fair to place pressure on her by telling her that he was actually in love with her. And it also wouldn’t be fair to use the situation for his own benefit.
Then again...it also wasn’t fair that she decided this without at least discussing it first. What was the harm if he was a little selfish?
He turned the idea around in his mind. If he was able to fake this engagement, that would give him the chance to experience a romantic relationship with her. Then, if they went through with the plan Rayla had proposed earlier, they would stage a breakup, and there was the possibility that going through those motions would resolve Callum’s feelings. Then when it was all over, maybe they really could go back to normal. Back to only being friends, like both of them wanted it to be.
Yeah. Like they wanted it to be.
It was as good a plan as any.
(I have nothing to say for myself)
Chapter 4: Sunset Kiss
Rayla and Callum set boundaries.
Rayla sat in her room on the window sill, idly cleaning her swords. They hadn’t gotten much practical use in the last few years, so she didn’t need to sharpen them as much as she used to need to, but it was nice to keep them clean and ready for anything, just in case.
Like being ready to threaten someone who was trying to ruin the life she’d built for herself.
With a huff, she tried to shake the thought from her head, angrily continuing to clean her blades, and trying to focus on them. Runaan had given her these blades when she was fifteen, not long before the mission to kill King Harrow and Ezran. She missed Runaan every day, and he was even closer to the front of her mind, now that Oelsi and Kimar had shown up. Runaan was the only semblance of a parent she’d ever had. She wished he could be around to help her with this disaster she’d accidentally created.
It was going to be an interesting few weeks, no matter what happened. Part of her knew that it would be just as interesting, if not more, if Runaan was there.
A knock on her door almost made her jump and she had to make sure not to hurt herself on the blades before she called, "Come in."
Callum opened the door, as she expected - she knew his knock anywhere. He looked tired. Tense. And honestly, Rayla couldn't blame him. She knew that it was stupid to say the first thing that came to her mind that would get her parents to back off, and she owed Callum so much for not exposing her lie.
"Thank you for going along with things earlier," she murmured, settling back down and running the cloth over her sword. "I know it was something we should have talked about before I made the decision to say it, and it wasn't fair of me to spring it on you." Giving him a desperate look, she begged, "Please, will you go along with it? I know I'm asking a lot, but it's important to me, and we can even set up boundaries to make sure that we're not overstepping and still convince Ez, Soren, and Claudia that we're engaged, and-"
"I'll do it," Callum interrupted, crossing the room to sit next to her.
Rayla blinked at him. She certainly didn't expect it to be that easy to convince him. "You...you will? What changed your mind?"
He smirked and said, "You'll owe me."
There it was. With a sigh, she replied, "Thought so. What'll I owe you?" It wasn't like she was unfamiliar with owing Callum favors, annoying as they were.
“You’re going to help me research for the text I’m writing on Aaravos. If we go to the mountains in northeastern Xadia, he’s said to have lived there for a while.” He was growing more animated as he spoke about the text he’d been compiling for the past year. “We could stop there during our trip and get a ton of information, and having your help would make such a difference -”
“Fine, fine,” Rayla laughed, waving her hands to get him to stop talking. “I’ll help you research. But there are no guarantees that I won’t complain about it the whole time.”
With a large grin, Callum stuck his hand out and said, “Deal.”
She shook his hand and felt a weight lifted off of her. “We should still establish boundaries and get our story straight. How long we’ve been together, when either one of us proposed - can we agree that I proposed? I was the one to get us into this anyway.”
“Sure,” Callum chuckled. “You proposed. But we were probably together for a while before that happened. How long do you think is appropriate that we could’ve kept it from Ez and our friends?”
Rayla considered for a moment. “Well, we’re not here very much, so I think we could get away with a solid year. Maybe less. We can say that we weren’t sure if it would go anywhere, so we didn’t want to tell anyone about it.”
“Good call,” Callum told her, nodding thoughtfully. He was quiet for a moment, then got up and crossed the room to rummage through her desk. When he extracted a sheet of paper and a pen, he continued, “We should write down our boundaries to make sure that both of us stay comfortable with everything that happens.” He settled into her desk chair and motioned for her to join him.
She took the few steps towards him and sat on top of the desk to look at the page. “What’ve you got?”
“Well…” He avoided eye contact, opting instead for staring down at the desk, running his fingers through his hair. “I mean, there’s obvious physical boundaries. Like, uh…” Glancing quickly up, he muttered, “All of our clothes stay on?”
Rayla felt her cheeks heat up as she straightened and insisted, “Of course! For the moon’s sake, Callum, that’s not something I would expect, or even want from you, no offense.” Had she been putting out the implication that she expected that from him? It was even more important than she realized that they talk this through before anything else happened.
His shoulders relaxed and he let out a breath he seemed to have been holding, dipping the pen in an inkwell to write down the first boundary. “Okay. Good. Yes. I mean, we’re already pretty physically affectionate, I guess you would say, so there’s not much that we need to worry about in that department, since it’ll be almost the same as we normally are.”
The heat in her cheeks was creeping down her neck. He needed to learn when to stop rambling, or it was going to be the death of both of them. Still she inhaled a deep breath. “That’s true. The one thing I do need to ask about is if you would be comfortable with kissing. Anyone we tell we’re engaged would expect us to kiss at least once. We can keep it short and chaste. Would that be okay?”
That gave him pause. He tapped the pen on the page and thought before slowly replying. “I...suppose that would be fine.”
His hesitance did not go unnoticed. Rayla leaned toward him and tried to read the expression on his face. It was definitely nervous, but there was something else to it that she couldn’t quite place.
“Are you sure?” she asked. “We can find ways around it. Cheek, forehead, hand kisses. I want you to tell me if you’re uncomfortable.”
“No, it’s okay!” That other something in his smile made her doubt his words, but she did know that he would tell her if it genuinely wasn’t okay. “It’s weird - really weird - but it’s okay! And if it gets too weird, we can always addend our list, right?”
Still not convinced, Rayla narrowed her eyes. He was right. They could edit the list later on. So she sat back and said, “Alright, but you better let me know if you’re uncomfortable. Now for me.” She pointed to the page. “No stupid pet names.”
Callum pouted. “But I’m so good at stupid pet names!”
She shook her head. “Absolutely not, you’re not calling me anything but my name, especially in front of other people.”
“Okay, but consider this.”
“‘My Ray-la of sunshine.’”
She opened her mouth to retort, but quickly shut it again, rolling the nickname over in her head. Almost every part of her wanted to tell him that there were absolutely no exceptions, she would have his head if he called her by any stupid pet name.
And yet that one small part of her…
“ One stupid pet name,” she grumbled.
Callum’s face lit up a he scribbled on the paper. “Okay, but what if we had like, a list of pre-approved names?”
He huffed, but relented. “Alright, just that one. For now. But remember that we can edit the list later.” Looking up at her and got back on track, asking, “Can we keep any details about the wedding as vague as possible? Like, you said ‘late spring’ to your parents, I don’t want it to get any more detailed than that.”
“We can do that,” Rayla confirmed.
They compiled a satisfactory list and Callum wrote out a second copy for himself to keep. After they solidified their “love story” and decided to tell Ezran in the morning, Rayla shoved her copy of the list of boundaries into a drawer of her desk and finally looked out the window to see that the sun was setting. It was the beginning of July, so the setting sun meant it must have been much later than it looked. She would never get used to going to bed when there was still sunlight outside, but she and Callum did need to be up early in the morning if they were going to talk to Ezran before reviewing a play meant to depict the end of the war.
Callum stretched, apparently noticing the time as well.
“I should get to bed,” he said as he stood.
Rayla nodded and let him take a few steps toward the door, debating in her mind whether or not to stop him. It was a stupid reason to keep him from going to bed. It was a stupid idea in general. But so was everything else they were doing. Was it really so stupid, or would it help them out? If it helped them and there really wasn’t any harm...what was the problem?
“Callum, wait,” she blurted. He stopped and turned to look at her with a quizzical expression. She didn’t meet his eyes. “If, uh...if we do have to kiss to convince people that we’re engaged, then, um…. Well, people will probably be able to tell if our first kiss is on the spot. So...do you think we should, um...get the first one out of the way?” She only spared a split second to glance at his face and gauge his reaction. His eyes were wide and she kicked herself for even suggesting it.
She’d made him uncomfortable. Now he was going to be upset and decide that the whole thing was off, or at the very least, they needed to immediately edit their list to make sure that they had even less physical contact than usual. Stupid, stupid Rayla. She had already messed everything up, and this was going to be a complete disaster. What was she thinking? She couldn’t just ask to kiss her best friend, they didn’t see each other that way! If any sort of kiss was still on the table, it was going to happen only when it needed to, not in the privacy of her room as the sun set behind them.
Rayla nearly jumped when he said it. Okay? Really?
Hesitantly, he stepped back toward her as she slid off the desk she was still sitting on. They met halfway, in the middle of the room.
“Best to get it over with,” Callum nearly whispered, his eyes flicking back and forth between hers, then down for just a moment to her lips.
She nodded. “We’ll get it over with, and then the next time won’t be as awkward. You know that if our first kiss happens in front of Ez, he’ll see right through us.”
With a light laugh, Callum agreed, “Yeah. I will never know how he can detect every lie anyone ever tells.”
They were stalling and Rayla knew it. She looked up at him and searched his green eyes, trying to find anything in them that would tell her to back off, that this was a bad idea, that she was being as ridiculous as she thought she was. But none of that was there. He was definitely as anxious as she was, but he seemed...more sure of himself. She only spared a second to wonder why that was.
She put one hand on his shoulder, the other on his face, stroking his cheek with her thumb. He closed his eyes for a second before wrapping his arms around her waist to pull her closer. Rayla was positive that her heart was going to pound out of her chest. All the adventures they’d had, all the crazy things they’d done, and she could hardly think of a time when she had ever been more nervous than she was right then.
“What’s a kiss between friends?” Rayla asked feebly. It was mostly directed to herself, but maybe he would interpret it as speaking to him. She hoped he would.
Callum gave the slightest nod, but remained still. It was up to her, then.
She closed the gap between them, her hand slipping around to the back of his head to pull him toward her. Their lips met, and for a few long seconds, it felt like the rest of the world had disappeared. They had been flipped upside-down, thrown through space and past all the stars, and were hurtling back down to earth, but never quite making it there. It was like they were in an eternal freefall, with only each other to hold onto, Callum’s lips on hers and his hands on her waist the only anchors she had to the physical world. Her spirit had all but left her body. Her only indicator that they both still, in fact, remained in their bodies was the sensation of her stomach turning over and over, telling her that this really was just as strange as her mind believed it to be.
It was both the longest and shortest few seconds of Rayla’s life before she pulled away, breaking the kiss. Callum’s eyes were filled with light, but she couldn’t tell if it was because of the sunset or because of what had just happened.
“That,” Rayla breathed, “was the worst kiss I’ve ever had.”
Callum chuckled and leaned his forehead against hers. “I know you well enough to know that it’s also the only kiss you’ve ever had, which objectively also makes it the best.”
“And you ruined it.” She stepped backwards to give him some space and plastered a teasing smile on her face. “But I know that I’m also your first kiss. Which, I’ve got to say, you could have done a lot worse than me for a first kiss.”
“You don’t know if I ever kissed Claudia.” He folded his arms defiantly.
Rayla rolled her eyes. “You would have told me by now, but fine, I’ll humor you. Did you ever kiss Claudia?”
“Of course I did, I had a crush on her for years.”
“I don’t believe that for a second.”
They laughed together, and Rayla was grateful for the release of tension after such a charged moment. Her stomach still hadn’t settled. Where in the world had all those moon moths come from? From what she’d always heard as a child, people only got moon moths in their stomachs when they were in love, not when they were practicing a fake kiss with their best friend.
She opted to ignore it for the moment and changed the topic. “Alright, now go tell Ez that we need to talk to him tomorrow, then go to bed.”
With an overdramatic flourish of a bow, Callum replied, “As you wish, my Ray-la of sunshine,” and turned to leave the room.
The moment he closed the door, she eased herself down to sit on her bed, staring at the floor, illuminated with the last light of day. She really hadn’t thought that the kiss would feel like as big of a deal as it did. Moonshadow elves rarely used kisses as a sign of affection. It was more of a human thing. Rayla had never much thought about the possibility of having a first kiss, much less the effect it would have on her.
But it was over, now. It was done. And the only thing she could think about was that she was glad that her first kiss was with her best friend.
Chapter 5: Flowers
Rayla and Callum tell Ezran the news.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night.
Rayla told herself that it was because she knew that this was going to change things between her and Callum. Their relationship had hardly changed in years. They had been the same ever since she was sixteen and decided that they weren’t going to fall apart over a dumb confession.
Things like that were easier to bounce back from when they were younger.
It was also easier to bounce back when nothing had ever really transpired. This time was different. She had made sure of that the night before.
Then there was the fact that they were about to blatantly lie to Ezran , of all people. If anyone could possibly call them out on their lie, it would be Ezran. And while he wouldn’t necessarily be angry, there was no way he would let it go easily.
Everything had piled up and turned Rayla into a ball of nerves. She’d left her room not long after sunrise and gone down to the courtyard to train. It had been a long time since she’d actually needed to fight anyone, but there was going to be a tournament during the festival, and Rayla had every intention to win, out of practice or not. If she wasn’t going to sleep, she could at least use this time to practice. It always helped her figure out what was going on in her head, anyway.
She spun, slishing her blade out, slashing at the moon moths that had taken up residence in her stomach.
Switched her blades into hooks, cut through the air that had gotten too thick between her and Callum.
A handspring into a roll, maneuvering her way around her parents and through the danger she’d created.
She whipped around to hold her blade to an imaginary enemy’s throat, and found Callum just barely out of reach, wide-eyed and leaning back so he wouldn’t get hit.
“For the moon’s sake, Callum!” Rayla exclaimed, flicking her blades into the hilts and attaching them to her back. “You know not to sneak up on me like that, I could’ve killed you!”
“Yeah, I know!” He straightened and held a bowl of fruit and a water skin out to her. “When people inside were saying that they hadn’t seen you get anything to eat before coming out here, I wanted to bring you breakfast.”
Hunger hadn’t even crossed her mind. Now that he’d brought it to her attention, she probably did need to eat something. She took the bowl and water gratefully, leading Callum to sit on a bench with her.
They sat in silence for a few moments as Rayla popped peach slices in her mouth. Callum had learned the hard and fast way not to give her anything with citrus; he had offered her grapefruit when she was first staying in Katolis after the war, and she had taken it as a threat. Instead of calmly telling him that grapefruit would kill her, since she was well aware that humans were dumb and didn’t know anything about elves, she had drawn her blades and gone on a tirade about how she should have known he would turn on her. The fear in his eyes as he looked at her had almost broken her heart. Now, she smiled at the memory, remembering how she jumped so quickly to such a ridiculous conclusion. Either way, Callum made sure never to give her anything with citrus again. For over a year afterwards, he was constantly asking her if certain fruits were safe for her to eat. He’d since memorized not only what was safe for her, but also what her favorites were. It was sweet, she thought.
“You ready to talk to Ez?” Callum asked, breaking the silence.
Rayla’s stomach did flips again, but she managed to swallow the strawberry in her mouth. “Ready as I’ll ever be, I suppose. It’s not like we have much more time to prepare, anyway.”
Callum made a noise that sounded like it might be agreement, then suggested, “Let’s go on a walk. I know you’ve already been getting some exercise, but I could use some too. We can drop the bowl off on the way.”
She nodded and stood, downing the rest of the water as they began to walk toward the gardens. The path they took led them by the back door of the kitchen, where they dropped off the bowl before continuing down a trail of flowers. Somewhere along the way, Callum’s hand found hers, and they laced their fingers together, a silent show of support.
Coming to an abrupt halt, Callum stopped Rayla with a tug on her hand before he let go, bending down to pluck pink flowers from the ground. When he had a handful, he spun around to face her, a large grin on his lips, and held them out to her with a bow. “For my lady.”
Rayla laughed and accepted the flowers, closing her eyes to smell them. “They’re almost as lovely as you.”
He gave her a look of fake offense. “That’s my line. But I guess I’ll just have to tell you that you’re as sweet as a jelly tart.”
Groaning, Rayla gave him a gentle shove. “If you start calling me a jelly tart, we’re going to have some issues. I told you no more nicknames.”
“Issues already?” Callum whined. “But we’ve only been a couple for a day!” It took all of Rayla’s resolve not to look as embarrassed as she felt. There was no way she would get used to him referring to them like that.
“I feel stupid carrying these around,” Rayla said, holding the flowers up in an attempt to change the subject. She shoved them back toward him. “You hold them.”
Callum took them back and held them as delicately as he could. “Would I make a pretty bride?”
She snickered. “The prettiest of all.”
“Oh, wait, wait!” He put the flowers in her hands once more and turned her by the shoulders so he could stand behind her. He parted her hair and started to fold pieces over each other, plucking flowers from the bunch and attempting to braid the flower stems into her hair.
When she caught on to what he was doing, Rayla chuckled, “I don’t have anything to tie my hair off with, it’s just going to fall out.”
“I’ll tie it with a flower!”
“That’s not going to work.”
“I’m a mage, I can make it work!”
It didn’t work.
Her hair was full of flowers, tied into the worst braid she’d ever had (which was impressive, since she’d once braided her own hair when she was three). Callum went through four flower stems snapping, two of which he enchanted with an earth magic spell, before he gave up and let it be. Her hair slowly unraveled, flowers falling to the ground as they walked.
“There you are!”
Callum jumped and Rayla’s hands went to her blades when someone leaped out in front of them, then rolled their eyes in sync when they saw that it was Ezran.
“Both of you need to stop sneaking up on me this morning,” Rayla growled. “I’ll be imprisoned for life for killing a king.”
Ezran shrugged and replied, “You wanted me to meet you, and I had to sneak away from Opeli to get here so she won’t trap me for lessons. I’m just keeping you on your toes.” An excited expression on his face, he asked, “What was it you wanted to tell me? Also, Rayla, what in the world happened to your hair?”
“Callum happened to my hair,” she deadpanned.
The three fell silent, avoiding Ezran’s other question.
“Let’s keep walking,” Callum diverted. “It’s a beautiful day, and you don’t get out as much as you want to, right, Ez? Let’s just enjoy it for a bit.”
With a huff, Ezran complied. He did have a tendency to complain whenever they were in Katolis that he didn’t get enough time to just be outside, enjoy the sun, and talk to the animals. It was clever of Callum to use that as a diversion; it was one of the few things Ez couldn’t actually argue against. Still, they knew that they couldn’t stall for very long. They had figured everything out the night before, they knew what they needed to say, but no words were coming out. The only sounds as the three walked along were of their feet on the cobblestone path, and the birds singing in the trees.
“Is it about the festival?” Ezran eventually asked, letting a bird land in his hand.
“The news?” Callum confirmed. “No, but preparations are going...well, I guess. There’s one vendor from Duren who’s been giving us trouble, but I don’t think he actually means any harm, he’s just…” He looked to Rayla as he searched for the right word.
Finishing for him, Rayla chimed in, “An idiot?”
He nodded. “I wasn’t going to say it in those words, but yeah.”
Ezran only allowed a few more seconds of silence before he stopped walking and turned to them, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. He set the bird on a nearby tree branch and demanded, “Okay, you two wanted to tell me something. We can’t dance around it all day, just tell me.” He folded his arms and stood his ground to let them know that he wasn’t budging until they told him.
Exchanging a nervous look, Callum and Rayla swept their gaze over the garden to make sure that there wasn’t anyone around to overhear them. When she looked at Callum, his face was so contorted in anxiety that she firmly took his hand and nodded to him, turning back to Ezran.
“We’re getting married,” she blurted. There. The hardest part was over.
Ezran’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came out. After trying a few more tries, he finally let out an excited yell and threw his arms around them.
“It’s about time, you idiots!” he exclaimed. “Congratulations!” Letting go of them, he took one of each of their hands and questioned, “When did this happen? How long have you been together? And why didn’t I hear about it? I mean, it was pretty easy to infer, but still!”
Rayla couldn’t help but laugh, squeezing Ezran’s hand. “We’ve been together for about a year, but we didn’t know if it would go anywhere. And since Callum’s a prince, you know, we didn’t want to make a big deal out of something that might not pan out.”
“Speaking of which,” Callum interjected, “we’d still like to keep it quiet, at least until the wedding gets closer. We know there’ll be people who aren’t happy about it, so we’d like to keep the riots to a minimum.”
“Smart,” Ezran agreed with a nod. “Well, if you haven’t guessed, you have my blessing.” He turned on his heel to keep walking down the path, a spring in his step as he asked, “Oh, by the way, Callum, are you planning to tell Aanya while she’s here?”
They hadn’t even considered Aanya. There were ideas thrown around a while ago about Callum marrying her, partially because of Katolis’s strong alliance with Duren, and partially so they could both avoid any other arranged marriages. They didn’t discuss it often, but when they did, Aanya made it clear that if Callum found someone to marry in the time before anything was finalized with a betrothal, he was more than welcome to pursue love instead. Neither of them were particularly interested in the arrangement, but were interested enough in staying away from anything that could turn out disastrous.
But even though nothing was set in stone and they didn’t much care for their failsafe, it could be possible that Aanya would find it suspicious that Callum didn’t dissent the idea when they visited Duren for her seventeenth birthday the previous month. She could figure out that something was up. They could make as many excuses as they wanted, but some part of Rayla told her that Aanya wouldn’t believe it unless there was an actual wedding.
Which there wouldn’t be.
“Uh…” Callum looked toward Rayla, his brow furrowed in concern. “I guess we should.”
It was one thing for Rayla to lie to her good friend Ezran. It was another thing entirely to lie to the queen of another kingdom.
“Sure,” she found herself agreeing through a strained smile. “We’ll probably be spending time with her anyway.” They could sort things out with her later. Since they planned to stage a breakup, that meant that it didn’t really matter who knew. They just had to keep it fairly quiet for the sake of ease.
Ezran asked them as many questions about the wedding as he could while they walked. Whenever they encountered anyone else in the gardens, he politely changed the subject to Bait’s most recent jelly tart stealing methods, but quickly brought attention to the wedding again once they were out of earshot. They rattled off as many answers as they could while keeping it vague - spring wedding, of course Ez will be the best man, probably Opeli will officiate, they’ll likely combine their cultures in the ceremony.
The hardest part was over, and Ez was happy about it. This might not be as hard as they thought it was.
Just a reminder that Callum's about to turn 20 and Aanya in this story has just turned 17
Chapter 6: Moonberry Juice
Callum and Rayla tell their friends the big news.
Rayla’s hand in Callum’s was the only familiar thing keeping him grounded throughout the day, but it was also the most foreign thing he had ever felt.
He was reeling. He could play it all off with jokes, he could act like everything was normal, just like he had been for years. But everything he’d been pushing down for so long had only grown closer to the surface. If anyone simply scratched over the surface, he was sure that it would all come bubbling out. He couldn’t keep it down for long.
Good thing this was short-term.
“You’ve been doing great,” Rayla praised him quietly, swinging their hands between them after Ezran left. “We’ve still got plenty of time before we have to be in town. Do you want to go see Soren, Claudia, and Corvus?”
Of course he did. He always wanted to see his friends, especially since he rarely got to see them anymore, being always outside of Katolis. The last time they’d seen those three before getting back in town was over six months before, at Claudia and Corvus’s wedding. The question was if he would be able to tell them. He had already frozen up in telling his own brother. What were his friends going to think?
Well, at least there had already been one unexpected marriage among them. He and Rayla were definitely believable as a couple, he knew that. Nobody had expected Claudia and Corvus. They made a good pair and were happily married, Claudia teaching magical theory to young mages, and Corvus a crown guard.
Maybe visiting them would be exactly what he needed. Even if the prospect of spreading the word of this engagement terrified him.
“Yeah,” Callum finally replied, feeling steadier than he had been all day. “Yeah, let’s go see them.”
Soren, Claudia, and Corvus lived in a cottage just beyond the bridge leading away from the castle. It was a fairly lengthy walk, but not long enough in Callum’s opinion to warrant taking horses. There had been debate before Claudia and Corvus’s wedding about whether they would take the cottage, accept living in the castle, or find a place in the town. They figured since Claudia taught in town and Corvus worked at the castle, it would be convenient to live right in between. They could still get Soren to doctors in the castle, and bring him along when they went into town. It was a sweet, quiet place to live, detached from the bustle of castle and town life, but close enough that they could participate in either if they wanted to.
It was much easier on Callum’s mind to be going to them without them knowing beforehand that he and Rayla had an announcement to make. They could spend some time with friends without it hanging over their heads.
Rayla knocked on the door, and within seconds, it was bursting open, Claudia’s excited face appearing.
“You’re just in time!” she exclaimed, pulling them both inside. “Corvus made pancakes for brunch, and there’s more than enough to share! And oh, oh! I’ve got moonberry juice too, I just got it in town yesterday!”
She dragged them to the table, where Soren and Corvus already sat. Claudia retrieved two more plates, filled them with pancakes, grabbed a pair of cups, poured them full of moonberry juice, and dropped it all in front of Callum and Rayla.
“No dark magic went into the making of the pancakes this time, right?” Rayla teased, prodding at the pancake with her fork.
Claudia groaned, covering her face with her hands. “You use dark magic in your cooking one time , and then it’s all anyone can think about. I didn’t even make these, I told you Corvus did!” With a huff, she sat back up and said, “ No , there’s no dark magic. Not unless Corvus has taken up a new hobby.”
“Dark magic is serious stuff, Corvus,” Soren chastised, his face grim as he pointed his fork at him. “There’s a reason the tiny king made dark magic illegal, and it’s not just because he likes to talk to the frogs you’d use.”
Bewilderment in his features, Corvus began, “But I didn’t - I don’t - you know what? Never mind,” and continued to eat.
“Did you never tell him the magic pancakes story?” Callum asked, incredulous. “Also, Soren, isn’t Ez taller than you now?”
Soren shrugged and said through a mouth full of pancake, “Probably, but since I’m in this chair, everyone seems like they’re taller than me. He’s still the tiny king.”
With a nod, Callum replied, “That’s fair.”
As they all ate their non-dark-magic-infused pancakes, Claudia recounted the story to Corvus of when they were at the Moon Nexus and she was trying to convince the boys to return home with them. Apparently, the only part of their Moon Nexus stay that Corvus had heard was about Soren’s zipline, when Ezran told him about it on their way back to Katolis. Soren took that as an invitation to jump in and tell about the “date” Callum took Claudia on that ended with both of them in tears.
“I thought my timing was bad,” Callum joked, “but you chose the moment we were about to kiss to tell me that my dad was dead.”
“See!” Rayla elbowed him in the side. “I knew you never kissed her.”
Holding a finger up to stop her, Callum replied, “We never kissed that night, but you have no proof that we never kissed at all.”
“Kissing as kids doesn’t count.”
“I never said it was when we were kids.”
Claudia snorted and interjected, “What brought this up? Why were you debating whether or not Callum and I have kissed?”
Ah. They hadn’t planned for the conversation to so quickly take this turn. Callum and Rayla exchanged a look.
“Do you want to tell them, or should I?” she asked, a hand brushing over his in silent support.
Callum took a deep breath and decided it was his turn to say it. He forced himself to look at them as he said, “We’re engaged.”
He expected a stunned silence, incredulity, or some form of surprise. Instead, he got Soren shouting, “Finally!” and Claudia breathing a sigh of relief. He expected something like Ezran’s reaction, but the pure relief in the room almost offended Callum. How long had they been waiting for this? How many times had they discussed it without him knowing?
What really did it was Corvus silently getting up, leaving the room for a moment, and returning to hand Soren a coin.
“You were betting on it,” Rayla groaned, scrubbing her hands over her face. “Of course you were. How old is this bet?”
“Please,” Soren chuckled, “Claudia and I have had a running bet since we met you, Rayla. So I might’ve beaten Corvus,” he flipped the coin in his hand before flicking it across the table to Claudia, “but Clauds beat me.”
Happily stuffing the coin in her pocket, Claudia said, “Thank you very much. I always knew I’d come out victorious.” She sat back with a smug grin on her face.
“Okay.” Rayla took a breath and focused on Claudia. “You never confirmed or denied anything about whether you and Callum have kissed, though, and since you know now that we’re getting married, it does matter. Not in the sense that I’d get mad at either of you, I’m just trying to prove a point to my idiot fiance.”
Her grin only growing, Claudia mused, “I don’t want to tell you. Maybe we did. Maybe we didn’t. The world may never know.”
All eyes turned to Soren, who slammed his hands on the table and had an ecstatic look in his eyes.
“CAN I PLAN YOUR WEDDING?”
“Uh.” Callum had no idea how to respond to that. “Wh...what makes you even want to?”
Soren gestured to his wheelchair. “I have a lot of free time since, you know, I’m not a crown guard anymore, and there’s not much else I can do. I’ve been doing a lot of reading - it’s really cool, you should try it sometime - and I have a bunch of books on culture. I happen to know exactly how to plan the perfect wedding for a prince of Katolis and a Moonshadow warrior. Trust me, the wedding will be perfect, and you won’t have to worry about anything. Little decisions here and there, that’s it. Leave the rest to me.” The way he spoke was so hopeful that it was almost difficult to tell him no.
Try as they might to tell him that his planning their nonexistent wedding was unnecessary, they left the cottage that day with a wedding planner, as well as a distinct lack of knowledge about what new bets were placed as soon as they walked out the door.
Chapter 7: Fireflies
Callum expresses his anxiety about the engagement.
After saying goodbye to their friends, Rayla and Callum spent the rest of the day meeting with the team that was in charge of putting up decorations, scouting the town and working through what they thought would be best. Callum, with his artistic eye, seemed to be enjoying himself. Rayla could not have been more bored. When he saw her eyes glazing over, Callum did his best to subtly bring her attention back, but it always wandered again. This was absolutely not her area of expertise. Since when did it matter if the banner hung ten meters off the ground or twelve? She was itching to sit in with the judges of the fencing tournament as people demonstrated their ability to win entry to fight. She had already earned a place in the tournament, to no one’s surprise, and she would love to see the competition. It was the only thing about the festival that she always looked forward to. If she was being honest, she couldn’t remember ever taking notice of the decorations apart from the fact that they existed.
Still, she endured, and gave half-hearted opinions whenever asked. It kept her busy. It kept her parents from insisting that she had to spend time with them.
At long last, they headed back to the castle, but they had barely walked through the gates when Amaya intercepted them.
“‘Are the rumors true?’” she asked, Callum translating, before even extending a greeting.
Rayla furrowed her brow in bewilderment. “What rumors?”
She signed rapidly and Callum kept his eyes trained on her to carefully relay what she was saying. “‘A rumor has been going around the castle all day that you two plan to marry. Is it true?’”
With a groan, Callum said, “Rumors already? Who even heard us?” He turned to Rayla, eyes wide. “We didn’t think to check for any gardeners this morning, did we?”
Rayla relented and said, “It’s true,” crossing her arms protectively over herself. She wanted to shrink away. Her relationship with General Amaya had never been as good as Callum and Ezran wanted it to be. While Amaya had gotten easier to be around over the years since the war ended, there was no telling how she would react to this news. Usually, Rayla wasn’t one to run away. This time, however, she wanted nothing more.
To her surprise, she found an arm wrapping firmly around her, the other around Callum.
When she let them go, she signed, “‘I’m so happy for you. You deserve happiness, and it’s wonderful that you know you’re happiest with each other.’” She motioned for Callum to be quiet, so he lowered his voice to be soft enough that only Rayla could hear. “‘Janai and I also plan to marry within the year. I have you two, as well as Ezran, to thank for showing us that we didn’t have to be enemies.’”
Callum grinned and replied, “Aunt Amaya, that’s great! Thank you for telling us. Make sure you let us know in advance when the wedding is so we can attend.”
Her lips twitched up in a smile and Callum translated, “‘I expect the same from you. Congratulations.’”
“Congratulations to you too,” Rayla said, feeling relief course through her.
Amaya patted them both affectionately on the shoulder before excusing herself and allowing them to continue their night.
They’d been on their feet for the vast majority of the day, but as they approached the castle, Rayla didn’t feel quite ready to go inside. Dinner, some peace and quiet, and bed sounded amazing, but not yet.
“Do you want to stay out here a little longer?” Callum asked, as though he had read her mind.
She nodded, unable to stop the smile that crossed her face. No matter how much time they spent together and how many years they’d been friends, it never ceased to amaze either of them that they could always tell what the other was thinking.
Neither spoke as they walked down the same garden path as they had that morning with Ezran. The sun was setting, and after all the people they’d spoken to and all the words they had exchanged, there was nothing else to say. Some people would want to have some time alone after a full day around others, barely a moment to truly rest. If Rayla had been with anyone else that day, she would have needed the rest of the night to recover by herself before doing it all again in the morning. But this was Callum. He was always her exception.
“Look,” he whispered, pointing ahead of them.
As the sun went down, small lights appeared in the garden - fireflies. She’d once told Callum that there weren’t many places in Xadia with fireflies. Whenever she got to see them in the human kingdoms, it always felt like the first time, and her heart swelled with excitement.
She crept forward, keeping low to sneak up on the fireflies while Callum hung back. One thing assassin training had made her good at was catching fireflies. Callum, on the other hand, was too loud and too clumsy to be any good at it. She could catch five in the time it took him to catch one.
In the manor she’d perfected while visiting Neolandia, she cupped her hands around one of the bugs, perfectly trapping it, before straightening up and turning with a grin to face Callum.
“Still better than you,” she teased, carefully opening her hands to let the firefly crawl around.
“I’ve accepted that you’ll always be better at catching them,” Callum chuckled. “It’s fun to watch you do it, anyway. Way more fun than doing it myself.”
The firefly took off from Rayla’s hand and rejoined the others. She sat on the nearby bench, leaning on the back to watch the blinking lights flying over the flowers as Callum joined her.
“Not that I haven’t been thoroughly enjoying having a whole new way to tease you,” he began, “but are you sure that this is what we should be doing? We didn’t mean for word to get out, but now it has. People think this is actually happening.” She noticed that he chose his words carefully, making sure not to mention marriage or a wedding. If anyone else overheard, there was no telling what else would be going around the castle in the form of rumors. “It’ll be…a lot to explain to everyone when it doesn’t. Don’t you think you should just talk to your parents?”
Rayla sighed. “I know. But we talked about ending it publicly so there wouldn’t be any confusion as to why it’s not happening. I know that you probably think doing this instead of me talking to my parents is childish, but you don’t know all the history there. If anything, this is because they don’t deserve the truth.”
“But other people do,” Callum insisted. “Look, I’m just worried about how far this is gonna go. The leaders of the other kingdoms are going to be here soon enough, and with rumors already going around, there’s not going to be any way to keep it from them - from Aanya.”
She cast him an annoyed look. “Oh, so this is about your relationship with Aanya? You could have just said so if you want to be with her.” If it had been under any other circumstances, she was sure that she would have told him to go for it and marry Aanya. Or maybe she wouldn’t. She didn’t expect herself to get so defensive about it right away, but she certainly didn’t feel like changing her stance.
“Ugh, no, Rayla, that’s not what I-” He took a breath and moved closer to her, extending a hand toward the fireflies. One landed on his finger and he allowed it to explore his hand. “That’s not what I meant. If I do eventually marry her for the alliance, then I don’t want her or her council thinking that I’m one to back out of things like this.”
“Then we ask Aanya to keep it quiet too.” Rayla put a finger against Callum’s palm and the firefly crawled over to her. “She would do that for us.”
They were silent for a few beats, their full focus on the bug crawling between their hands, blinking happily.
“I’m scared about how far this is going to go,” Callum breathed, almost too quietly for Rayla to hear. “I know you don’t want to, but I think it would be great for you to make up with your parents. Or at least tell them why you don’t want anything to do with them. Clear the air. It would be a lot simpler than...this.”
Don’t say it, Callum.
Rayla didn’t give much thought to what it was she didn’t want him to say.
“Simple for you,” she lamented as the firefly flew away. She withdrew her arm and leaned on it. “Not for me. Not for Olesi and Kimar. I promise I won’t let it go too far. The time frame I threw out to them yesterday isn’t for almost a year. That gives us plenty of time, and we really will only be using this month. Then they’ll go back to Xadia and leave me alone for another six years. Everything will go back to normal.”
“But what if it doesn’t?” His voice was desperate. Afraid. Maybe even sad. “What if they want to stay? Or what if they decide that they want to be a more active part of your life? What if it’s not just this month, Rayla?” When she turned to look at him, his face was overrun with fear.
She firmly took his hand. “It won’t go that far, Callum. I promise. And to be honest…” Hesitating, she considered whether or not to say the thought that had occurred to her. Her heart jumped into her throat as it passed through her mind, and pounded hard at the concept of saying it. She swallowed and did it anyway. “How different would it be for us? We spend every waking moment together. You’re the only person I can stand to be around as much as I am. And, I guess, I assumed we’d always be together in some sense of the word.”
Callum stared wide-eyed, and she had to tear her gaze away to look at the firefly that had landed on the back of the bench. It was terrifying and confusing to say it, but wasn’t it true? They were basically already married. They’d kissed. Most people they met thought that they were at least a couple, if not already married. Once or twice, they’d been asked what their children looked like. How different was it to put a new name to their relationship? It really wasn’t that different at all. They were still them, and they always would be.
So why did it scare her so much?
Chapter 8: Rain
Callum goes into town on his day off. He gets intercepted.
A day off when the first day of the festival was only ten days away was the last thing Callum expected. He and Rayla were supposed to be double-checking the new outdoor decorations and the stage at the edge of the town square, making sure everything was safe. An unexpected rainstorm, however, made sure that they wouldn’t be doing anything outdoors for the festival that day. And since everything indoors on their agenda wasn’t quite ready, they had the day to themselves. Rayla was taking the day as a blessing to let her rest. The moment she saw how hard it was raining, she knocked on Callum's door and informed him that she would be doing approximately nothing that day, and that if he needed her, he could find her in her room. Though he didn't say it, Callum wondered how long that was actually going to last.
He chose to go down to the town by himself anyway. He took a horse and kept them both dry with the help of a spell he'd picked up from some mages in Xadia. It was nice to be able to act like he was engaged to Rayla and to openly express his affection for her, both with permission to kiss her publicly, and to give her more small, loving touches like he’d learned elves do instead. But this time alone really was a good thing for both of them. They finally had the chance to catch up on their own thoughts instead of needing to voice every thought that came to their heads about the festival and whatever lie they had to come up with on the spot about their engagement.
Unfortunately, there was still a tugging deep in his gut. It would be one thing if they were both pretending, like she thought they were. This was another matter entirely, and part of Callum still felt dirty for taking advantage of it. They'd been keeping the act up for a few days now, and everyone close to them seemed thoroughly convinced. He hadn't slipped and admitted anything to her while they were alone. He hadn't even tried to kiss her when no one else was around. In his opinion, he was doing a fantastic job of keeping the act up, and he was going to continue doing so.
It was selfish. He knew that it was selfish. It was wrong to use her to resolve his own feelings, but it was also wrong of her to make him help her lie to her parents just because she didn't want them around. She was not only weaponizing their closeness, but she was also turning her own parents' racism against them. Which...as he thought about it, might not be a bad thing. If the fact that it was an elf/human relationship was what upset them, then they could be as mad as they wanted and go home to Xadia.
Either way, there was no way he was going to stop helping Rayla with this stupid escapade. And now that it was believable, they had to have something to show for it.
When he reached the town, he checked his horse into a stable and walked down the street to a jewelry shop, attracting annoyed glances from the townspeople who didn't have a spell to keep them dry.
The door of the shop next to his destination burst open and a man stepped out, shoving a variety of sun, earth, and ocean charms into his bag.
"Mr. Matvey!" Callum greeted when he recognized him. "How are your preparations coming?"
Matvey jumped when Callum called to him, but quickly straightened and offered a short bow. "Your Highness, good morning. My preparations are coming along well. No citrus and no fire, just as you and Lady Rayla have instructed." Callum noted the hint of bitterness in Matvey's tone, but chose not to say anything.
"That's good to hear!" Callum grinned, but it was clear that Matvey wanted nothing to do with him at the moment. He probably wanted to try out the charms he'd just purchased. So, waving and opening the door of the jewelry shop, Callum said, "Good luck with everything. We'll see you tomorrow for the next safety check!" and left the man alone.
The clerk behind the jewelry shop desk snapped to attention the moment Callum entered, rattling off, "Prince Callum! What a pleasant surprise! Is there anything I can help you find today? What are you looking for? I'm not sure if we'll have anything to suit your Royal Highness, but we do have the highest quality jewelry in town! Is this for you or for someone else?"
He allowed himself a light chuckle as he approached the desk, looking around at all the sets of jewels. "I'm looking for two things today. I didn't want to go to anyone in the castle for it. There would be too many questions. Too many people listening."
Leaning forward, his eyes wide in awe, the clerk asked, "What can I help you find? Don't worry, I won't tell anyone why you're here if you don't want anyone to know." Callum found that hard to believe, but okay.
"You have elven jewelry here, right?" he questioned, glancing around. Pointing, he answered his own query. "Ah, there it is. Even sorted by primal source, very nice." He stepped over to the wall of elven jewelry and looked over the Moonshadow pieces. He selected a set of simple dark blue cuffs with silver edging meant to fit around an elf's horns. He'd learned in Xadia that elves would wear cuffs on their horns if they were married, soon would be, or were in a committed relationship. She wouldn't want a ring for their engagement, fake or not. The cuffs would mean much more to her.
Practically vibrating with excitement, the clerk whispered, "If I may be so bold, Your Highness...are those for Lady Rayla?"
Callum put a finger to his lips with a smile. "They are. Would you help me find a ring? Nothing too ornate."
"It would be my pleasure!"
Once Callum got it through the clerk's head that no, he didn't want the fanciest ring in the shop, he was able to find a ring fairly quickly - just a silver band with a blue jewel to match the cuffs for Rayla.
He paid and thanked the clerk, happy with the purchase and even happier to get away from the overeager man. Activating his spell to keep dry again, he stepped out of the shop with every intention to go straight back to the castle.
Oelsi and Kimar had other ideas in mind.
They were right outside the jewelry shop, looking surprised to see him as though they hadn't intended to run into him.
"How nice to see you," Callum greeted through a forced smile. It was great that he had a day to do whatever he wanted, and he was grateful that Rayla got some time on her own, but all he wanted at that moment was for her to be next to him and help him out in this situation.
"And yourself, Prince Callum," Kimar replied, sounding kind enough, but with the same edge to her voice that Rayla would get when she was just trying to be civil with someone she hated.
"We've been exploring the town," Oelsi stepped in, his tone more genuinely pleasant than his wife's. "It's lovely. And it's wonderful to see how many accommodations there are for elves, be it with food, clothes, or entertainment. Do we have you to thank for that?"
At least Oelsi seemed like a nice person. Callum appreciated his effort and replied, "Ezran, actually. Rayla and I don't spend much time in Katolis, we're always traveling around. Once the war ended, Ezran wanted to make sure elves would feel welcome here, so he implemented inclusion in as much as he could. I'll be sure to let him know that you like it." He moved to start walking to the stables, hoping that would be the end of the conversation.
"Your Highness," Oelsi said, taking a step toward Callum. "We would love to get to know the young man marrying our daughter. Would you join us for tea?"
"Of course," Callum managed. "When would you like to meet? I can let Rayla know, and we can-"
"Don't worry about all of that," Kimar interrupted. "We want to get to know you , and I think we all know that'll be a bit more difficult with Rayla running what she thinks is interference. She won't let us talk to you if she's here." She gestured across the street to a tea shop. "How about now? I’m sure the rain has freed up some of your time from the festival. The only free day you’ll get for a while, if I’m right."
She was right, and Callum didn't like that at all. He was hoping that if he suggested waiting for Rayla, that would get him out of this entirely. But no, his luck had to be bad enough to get him trapped with Rayla's parents on the only day he didn't have her with him.
"Okay," he agreed, unable to think of an excuse on the spot. "Let's have tea."
If it hadn’t been for the sound of the rain on the windows, there would have been nearly no sound between Callum, Oelsi, and Kimar as he stared into his tea. He felt so tense that he was sure that his shoulders were never going to relax.
Oelsi insisted that he pay for Callum’s tea, which was very kind of him, but the meeting certainly didn’t seem like it was as innocent as they made it out to be.
It had been a long time since Callum had been this nervous. Leaders of nations didn’t scare him. Dark mages didn’t scare him. Angry elves and dragons didn’t scare him. That was, except these ones. They made no direct threats, they didn’t have any visible weapons, and Oelsi’s smile really did seem genuine. Kimar, however, had a look in her eye that suggested she had at least five hidden weapons on her at all times, and she had an idea of how to kill him with every single one.
“The cuffs you got are a good color for Rayla,” Oelsi said at last. “You didn’t have any for her before today?”
Callum shook his head. “No, we wanted to make sure we had my brother’s blessing before making anything official.”
“How nice,” Kimar commented, sipping her tea. “Of course, King Ezran’s blessing is the only one really needed when you’re marrying our daughter.”
Something in the way she said it made him seethe. He felt a surge of confidence as he replied as kindly as he could, “Well, we don’t have Runaan here to ask for his blessing. Since, you know, he’s the one who raised her, taught her, and whose opinion she would take into consideration.” Immediately after the words left his mouth, Callum was itching to get out of his seat and never see them again, if only because he didn’t want to see their reactions.
“Runaan,” Kimar hissed, “wouldn’t have approved either. He would have been the only one who could convince Rayla how ridiculous this whole thing is.”
“Well, he’s not here.” Callum narrowed his eyes at her. “And it’s Rayla’s choice. She can back out if she wants, but that’s her decision to make. Not yours, and not Runaan’s.”
Kimar was about to start again when Oelsi put a hand on her shoulder. “He’s right. Rayla’s nearly twenty-one. She’s old enough to make this decision for herself. Besides.” He offered a strained smile. “It’s old-fashioned to get permission from the bride’s parents.”
It was surprising, in Callum’s opinion, how relaxed Oelsi was acting about everything. Or, maybe he wasn’t relaxed, and was just trying to reign in Kimar. He definitely knew what that was like, as he was the one who had to reign in Rayla every time she got riled up.
“Tell us about your time together,” Oelsi prompted. “You two delivered Azymondias to his throne, right? What were some of the adventures you had while traveling to Xadia?”
For all the time he spent talking with people about peace and trying to mediate, he didn’t get to think about their journey very much. It felt like so long ago that he had been that scared boy, running from the castle with his little brother, a dragon egg thought to be dead, and the assassin who, just ten minutes before, had been trying to kill both of them. That moment, so terrifying at the time, was now a fond memory, as were most of his memories involving Rayla.
“We were just kids at the time,” Callum mused. Maybe telling a story about how good they were together would start convincing Kimar that this marriage was okay. “We had no idea what we were doing or how to save the world, but we were going to do it, no matter what it took. For Rayla, that meant we had to take a few boats as we made our way across the world. She hated every moment we spent on boats, but she powered through, no matter how bad it got.
“I remember when we tried to sail across a bay before a storm started. We didn’t beat the storm while we sailed, and Rayla was so sick. Being the idiot that I was, when we got to an island for safety, I decided to go into the heart of the storm to see if that would help me learn sky magic. It nearly killed both me and Zym. It was stupid, and I knew it was. Rayla knew it too. She tried to talk me out of it. The last thing she needed was a prince of Katolis and the prince of the dragons dying in a storm, but we did it anyway.
“But even when we came back to the boat unsuccessful and I admitted that it was stupid, Rayla didn’t chastise me. She didn’t yell at me or tell me how dumb it was, even though she had every right to, and the fact that she wasn’t feeling well was only making it worse. Instead, she set aside how she was feeling and decided to comfort me instead. She hugged me and let me know that she was glad I didn’t have the guts to die out there.
“I know it seems like a small thing, but it’s always meant so much to me to know that she really, really cared. I always knew she did, but that was one thing that kind of solidified it, you know? And now...I don’t think there’s anyone I care about more in the world. She’s so giving and caring. I don’t know how I didn’t fall in love with her back then, but I’m glad that I did eventually.”
As he finished his story, he realized the overwhelming truth to those final words. He loved everyone around him. He loved Ezran more than anything, and he loved Soren and Claudia so much. But Rayla...how he felt about her was entirely different and so, so much stronger. If it was her being asked to tell stories that would point to how in love they were, she would probably have to lie about it. Callum didn’t need to lie.
“She’s good,” Oelsi whispered. “She’s always been good - better than we’ve ever been - and she deserves the best that the world has to offer.”
Kimar nodded. “She does. Which is why, unless and until you convince me that you’re everything she deserves, I will stop at nothing to convince her that she could do better.”
Alright. Maybe a sweet story wouldn’t do the trick.
The fear that ran through his veins the day that Rayla chased him through the castle with her swords was the same fear coursing through him at Kimar’s words.
“Thank you for the tea,” Callum muttered, standing. “I need to get back to the castle.”
With a smug grin, Kimar waved and said, “Good luck, Your Highness.”
Chapter 9: Illness
Rayla's worried when she hears that Callum is sick.
Rayla knew that Callum went into town, despite the rain. She didn’t ask why, and he didn’t tell why. As long as it wasn’t related to the festival, she wasn’t required to care. But when word quickly spread through the castle that Prince Callum came back from town looking like he was sick or might faint, she suddenly was much more interested in what had gone on in his day.
She made her way to his room as quickly as she could, knowing that someone was going to tell the royal doctor that the prince was unwell. The doctor would be by soon enough, so she just needed to get to him and see if he was okay.
She barely knocked on his door before letting herself in and leaping over to sit on the foot of his bed and examine him. He was pale and shivering, his breathing uneven but as controlled as it could be, and an arm thrown over his eyes. Crawling closer, Rayla pressed her fingers to his forehead, then to her own. Did he have a fever?
“‘M fine,” Callum mumbled when she put her fingers to his forehead again. “Panic attack, and now I’m...really nauseous.”
Rayla snorted. “Sure, that definitely qualifies as ‘fine.’ Have you eaten?”
He shook his head. “Not since early this morning.”
Rolling her eyes, Rayla informed him, “The doctor’ll be here in a minute. I’ll make sure he asks someone to get something for you.” A beat of silence passed as she listened to him try to steady his breaths. She sighed and took his hand. “Do you want to talk about what happened? What started the panic attack?” He’d had a few in the time they’d known each other, and only one or two in front of her. They weren’t frequent, and Callum usually said that they were “over nothing,” but there was always some sort of trigger, no matter how small it was.
He hesitated before answering. “I don’t want to.” Moving his arm from his eyes, he looked at her, concern in his features. “But we should.”
That...wasn’t a good thing to hear. Her mind filled with all the different terrible things that could have happened. Had someone found out about their ruse and spread the word? Had the rumors gotten worse? Was there some sort of threat to either - or both - of them?
As he opened his mouth to tell her, the door opened again and the doctor stepped in, carrying a kit of instruments with her. Rayla slid off the bed and sat in a nearby chair to give her room to work. She hugged her knees to her chest and watched as the doctor listened to Callum’s heart and breathing, asked him questions about what he had done that day, how he was feeling. Callum tried to dismiss it as the aftermath of his panic attack, but the doctor didn’t seem convinced.
“You said you haven’t eaten since this morning,” she prompted. “But did you drink anything that could have made you nauseous?”
Callum shook his head. “I had some tea. I think he called it beufling tea? But I really think it’s just because of the panic attack, there’s no reason the tea would-”
“Callum,” Rayla cut him off, closing her eyes and inhaling deeply to keep herself from yelling. “Beufling tea makes humans sick.”
“It does?” He propped himself up on his elbows to look at her, wide-eyed. “That...might be it, then.”
The doctor grabbed an extra pillow laying on a chaise and tucked it behind Callum to keep him elevated, asking, “Who gave you beufling tea?” while she put away her instruments.
He looked anxiously between Rayla and the doctor. “Uh...that’s what I need to talk to you about, Ray.” Casting his eyes down, he admitted, “It was your parents. They insisted we have tea together. Your dad got me beufling.”
Nodding, the doctor picked up her things. “I’ll leave you to talk, then. I’ll ask the kitchen to send something up for you to eat as soon as you can stomach it.” Addressing Rayla, she said, “Make sure he drinks sips of water consistently. The last thing we need is him getting dehydrated on top of having been poisoned.” She crossed the room and left.
“It sounds worse when she says ‘poisoned,’” Callum pointed out.
Rayla sighed and crawled onto the bed again. “Because you were , dummy. You won’t die, you’ll just be sick for the evening.” She hardened, glaring at the blankets. “There’s no way Oelsi didn’t know that you can’t have that sort of tea. It’s the only kind of Xadian tea that would make you sick, and he made sure that you got it. I can’t believe this.”
He almost sounded wistful when he commented, “Oelsi was so nice, too. I thought he was trying to keep Kimar from, like, destroying me.”
“He probably was,” Rayla replied. “But that doesn’t mean that it was because he doesn’t want you destroyed.”
Callum closed his eyes and took deep, even breaths, a tell-tale sign that he was feeling worse. Great. This was going to be a long night.
Between waves of severe nausea and some vomiting, Callum filled her in on what had happened with her parents - the dispute about whose blessing they would ask for, Oelsi wanting to hear a story about them, and all of Kimar’s threats. If Rayla had been angry at them before, she didn’t even know what she was now. She could barely contain her fury in her body and ended up pacing the room, shouting and flailing her arms.
“What makes them think they have the right to do that? They don’t have the right to show up out of nowhere and suddenly want to be my parents, and they certainly don’t have the right to threaten and poison my best friend! What does that even mean, they’ll stop at nothing to make sure I can do better? They don’t even know you, they can’t make that judgment! What, is it because you’re human? Because you’re a prince? No, I don’t care, they should respect whoever I choose, because it’s between me and the person I choose to marry, and no one else! They need to go. We’ll convince Ezran to send them back to whatever hole they crawled out of, ban them from the festival, whatever we need to do.”
Her tirade continued through a kitchen boy bringing broth, bread, and water, as well as Ezran coming in to check on his brother. He sat quietly to let her finish, but clearly wasn’t listening to any of it. She didn’t blame him.
“I’m so sorry I dragged you into this,” Rayla mumbled, finally sitting back down and massaging her temples. “I never should have told them we’re engaged.”
Callum shook his head. “It’s okay. Really, it’s fine. We’ve handled worse from much more powerful people. Besides, we’ve got the king’s blessing. What can they do to us?” He smiled through his discomfort.
“It’s true,” Ezran chimed. “Actually, threatening and poisoning the prince could be considered treason, even if you’re just sick for the night.”
“Right!” Perking up, Rayla asked, “So you can make them leave? You can keep them away from us?”
Giving a half-shrug, Ezran replied, “I think the best I could do is imprisonment, which I don’t think is what either of you want.”
“It’s not,” Callum confirmed before Rayla got a chance to say that she was content with anything that kept her parents away.
Rayla huffed, motioning to the glass of water to remind Callum to drink. “What were you even doing in town today? We didn’t have anything to do for the festival, you could’ve just avoided this situation entirely by just sitting around and drawing all day or something.”
“Right! Could you grab my bag?” He pointed to where it was sitting on the floor. She retrieved it and handed it to him so he could dig around for whatever he was looking for while he continued. “Now that we have Ezran’s blessing, I wanted to make things official.” He pulled out three objects: two dark blue horn cuffs and a silver ring.
She softened upon seeing them. “Callum, you didn’t have to.”
“No?” he asked with a grin, slowly sitting himself up. “But I wanted to.” Holding the cuffs out, he questioned, “Rayla, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”
She let out a light chuckle. “Of course I will. Let me put the cuffs on myself, they can be tricky.”
When she donned her new jewelry and Callum had placed his ring on his finger, she caught him staring at her. If humans could have literal stars in their eyes, he would have as he breathed, “I never thought I’d see the day when you would be wearing those, especially when they meant you would be marrying me.” He took her hand, and her heart rate picked up. She could feel color rushing to her cheeks. “Rayla, I love you to the moon and back.”
“You guys are disgusting ,” Ezran exclaimed, standing. “Good to know you’ll be better by tomorrow, Callum, I’m going to leave so I don’t have to watch this anymore.”
They both laughed as he left, Rayla doing her best to make sure Callum didn’t laugh too hard and make his condition worse.
“You really didn’t have to get these,” she repeated. “It’s not like we’ll be using them for very long.”
He shrugged. “It’ll help sell the act.”
Her stomach was in knots, and the cuffs felt like they were burning themselves into her horns, but she nodded. Whether to her own insides or to those around them, she confirmed, “It’ll definitely help sell the act.”
Chapter 10: Scarf
Callum gives Rayla a nostalgic gift, and Ezran makes a comment that sends her reeling.
It was late when Callum was feeling noticeably better. He was able to stomach the food that had been brought to him, despite the fact that the broth was cold by the time he was able to drink it. Rayla had made sure that he finished all of the food, and drank water. There was no way he was going to go sick and hungry on her watch. She had some harsh words to exchange with her parents once she saw them.
When Rayla stifled a yawn and settled into bed next to him, Callum told her, “I’m doing fine, if you want to go to bed. You don’t have to take care of me all night.” He didn’t make a strong case for himself as he lightly stroked his fingers up and down her arm.
“Maybe I want to,” she told him, stretching contentedly.
He shrugged. “I don’t mind, but remember that everyone believes we’re engaged. If you don’t leave my room, there’ll be a whole lot more rumors in the morning.”
He wasn’t wrong. That was another annoying thing about being stuck in Katolis. If they were at an inn in Xadia, no one would care if they shared a room for the night. But in the human kingdoms, their preference for sleeping near each other was interpreted to not be as innocent as it was.
Groaning, Rayla sat up. “Or you could just tell your dumb humans around the castle that not everything comes back to that.”
“Would if I could.” He sighed and propped himself up next to her. “But you know how bull-headed humans can be. There’s no way they’d believe us.”
Rayla stood with a huff. “Fine, I’ll go sleep in my room. Don’t you be coming in in the middle of the night because you missed me.” She turned on her heel to leave when something caught her eye draped over his desk chair. How had she not noticed it earlier? She hadn’t seen it in years. She picked it up gingerly, as though it was going to fall apart the moment she touched it.
“Oh, yeah,” Callum said with a grin. “I found my old scarf the other day. Isn’t it great? I mean, it’s a lot more worn-out than I remember it being, but it’s nice to know I still have it.”
They had both long since gotten rid of the clothes they wore while on their adventure to return Zym to Xadia, having grown out of them years ago. The only piece either had been able to retain was Callum’s scarf. The gold detailing was worn and the ends were fraying, but it was still the same scarf, and still held with it the time they had spent getting to know each other and forming the bond that not even a Sunforge blade could sever. It was silly, she thought, but holding the scarf now, five years later, felt like she was holding the manifestation of their bond in her hands.
“I can’t believe you still have this,” Rayla muttered, running her fingers over the fabric. Making herself snap out of the daze it had put her in, she threw it around her neck with a flourish, turning dramatically to Callum with a wry smile. “I wear it better than you.”
“You wear everything better than I do, Ray,” Callum laughed. “You can keep it, if you want.”
“Really?” She was probably more surprised than she should have been. After all, it was just a stupid scarf. It wasn’t important, and the person who made it probably made dozens more just like it. It wasn’t special. It was just a scarf. And yet…
Callum stood and crossed the room to her, taking the ends of the scarf in his hands to wrap it in a fancy knot that she absolutely would not remember how to do, pulling her ever so slightly closer to him as he did so. The look in his eyes was soft as he said, “It suits you.”
She smiled, feeling a hint of redness in her cheeks. “Thanks. I suppose it wasn’t terrible on you. But then again, you were fourteen, and everything looks terrible at that age.”
Her heart skipped a beat. It hadn’t done that since she was sixteen. What she would have given back then to hear him say something like that, see him look at her like she was the only thing that mattered in the world.
They were older now. She was past that. He’d probably looked at her this same way a hundred times before, and she was only now realizing because of that ring on his hand.
Don’t say it, Callum.
“I’ve always looked amazing in everything,” she replied, allowing her smugness to take over. “Except hats. Whoever invented hats was just trying to laugh at me.”
Callum chuckled and shook his head, placing a kiss on Rayla’s forehead. “Go to bed. We’ve got some catching up to do tomorrow, and Aanya and King Ahling are supposed to be arriving. It’ll be a big day.”
“You’re the one who needs rest,” she protested. “But fine, I’ll go, and I’m taking your scarf with me.”
He rolled his eyes but the smile on his face didn’t fade. “Good night, Rayla.”
She stepped out of his room and started making her way down the hall. Her room wasn’t far, just a few doors down, and at the end of the hall was Ezran’s room. It was nice to be so close to both of them, and even better that they all had their own space for whenever they needed it. They did have a tendency to congregate in one room and spend half the night just hanging out, but she enjoyed having her own room nevertheless.
As she was about to open her door, she heard footsteps coming from Ezran’s room. When she looked up, Ezran waved at her, that friendly-but-definitely-up-to-something look that he’d perfected on his face.
“Aw, you’ve got Callum’s old scarf!” he commented as he drew closer. “It looks good. Did he give it to you?”
She nodded with a smirk. “Yeah, it looks better on me. But what’re you still doing up?”
Ezran crossed his arms. “I’m the king, Rayla. I can be awake as long as I want. No one can tell me when to go to bed.”
“But in reality?”
“In reality, my bedtime is ten.”
She snorted. “There it is.” Leaning against the doorframe, she asked, “So what’s up? Did you want to talk to me?”
Ezran bobbed his head with a small shrug. “I guess. I really just wanted to, uh...congratulate you and Callum. I don’t think I really believed you guys at first. I thought you were playing a prank or something, since only one of you has liked the other at a time before. Honestly, I didn’t think you guys would be able to keep it from me for as long as you have, but I really am happy for you, and I hope everything turns out well.” He offered a grin, as pure as could be.
For a few seconds, Rayla wasn’t sure how to respond. When had Callum ever liked her as anything more than a friend? Was it before her confession? After? How often had he talked about it to Ezran? How was this the first she was hearing about it?
Eventually, she let a smile cross her lips in return, pushing those thoughts to the side. “Thanks, Ez. We’re excited. I’m excited. It’s great to finally be doing this after all these years.”
He looked at her intently for a minute before nodding. “Yeah. I’m excited for you guys, too.” Motioning to her door, he said, “I’ll let you get to bed. I’m gonna go bug Callum.”
“You do that,” Rayla chuckled, opening her door and waving to Ezran.
She flopped down on her bed, fingers gently caressing the scarf still around her neck. Even when Callum hadn’t asked to be engaged for a month, when he got poisoned by her awful parents, when they had much more that they needed to worry about, he was still putting her first and giving her a gift that could have held as much sentimental value for him as it did for her. She found herself wondering what she had ever done to deserve someone as good as Callum.
As she changed into her night clothes, she couldn’t get Ezran’s words out of her head. If this whole engagement was playing with feelings Callum used to have, maybe even putting him in distress because of it, then they needed to talk that out. He needed to tell her so she could reevaluate. Her dislike of her parents was never going to outweigh how important he was to her. She wasn’t going to let him fester in feelings that should be brought to light, not if it was hurting him.
He had been the one to agree to it, though. As stubborn as she knew she was, if he had told her that there was no way he was going to go along with her crazy plan, she would have just ignored her parents, or maybe eventually told them that she lied, and tell them that it was because she hated them and wanted them gone. He knew her well enough to know that she would have figured out something else if he hadn’t been willing to go along with it. But he had told her that it was okay, so maybe he was just as far past those feelings for her as she was past her feelings for him. (There was the matter of the skipped heartbeat, but she didn’t think much of it; she was tired, and sometimes she remembered sparks of what she used to feel. That was all.)
Right. He had told her that it was okay, and she trusted that he would tell her if it wasn’t. So for now, everything really was okay.
She gently laid the scarf on the vanity in the corner of the room. She would be wearing it tomorrow. And the next day. And probably the day after that.
Chapter 11: Dreams
Callum has a dream of the future he wants, and he needs someone to listen.
Callum stretched and blinked his eyes open, seeing Rayla laying next to him, bathed in early morning light. Her eyes were squeezed determinedly shut as she nudged him with her foot.
“Your turn,” she murmured.
He became aware of the sound of a baby fussing across the room. Rolling out of bed, he lifted the baby out of her crib, and she tightly gripped his shirt with her five fingers as he stroked her brown hair and tiny horns. He gently kissed her forehead and brought her back to the bed, laying her between himself and Rayla, who had already fallen back asleep.
The soft orange light made Rayla’s skin and hair glow, causing a halo around her. He sighed contentedly, ever so gently brushing her hair out of her face and whispering, “You really are my Ray-la of sunshine. I love you so much.”
Rayla mumbled something back that resembled, “I love you too, dummy.”
A bird crowed outside his window and woke him.
He looked to the space next to him in his bed, surprised to find it empty. Right. Rayla had never stayed the night. Because she had her own room and they weren’t married. That sweet baby didn’t exist.
And she never would.
Callum’s heart ached. He should have known that he wouldn’t be strong enough to do this. He knew that it was only going to get harder when he gave her those cuffs two nights ago, and when Ezran came back to his room to babble about how happy he was that his favorite people were actually getting married.
He was an idiot for thinking this could be good for him. He knew the moment he saw Rayla wearing his scarf when she met him to greet Queen Aanya when she arrived the previous day. He certainly hadn’t expected her to start wearing it around when he gave it to her, and it almost took his breath away. They hadn’t even needed to tell Aanya that they were engaged, because she asked about their relationship the moment there weren’t any prying ears.
It was just going to hurt to keep pretending like this, having dreams of a future where they were married with a child, and then only wake to remember that none of it was real. He had to lie to her to keep up what she wanted, lie to himself that he could handle it, and lie to everyone around him, even if the lie was the only thing he really wanted. Everything was a lie, down to the ring on his finger.
He needed to talk this out with someone. But who could he talk to? The two people he really wanted to talk to were ones he absolutely couldn’t let know about this. This was the only thing in his life that he could have Rayla’s input for. He couldn’t talk to Ezran, because then the ruse would be up, and he wasn’t trying to end it before figuring things out in his own head. If he went to Soren or Claudia, there was no guarantee either of them wouldn’t let it slip, and they definitely wouldn’t be able to pretend that they didn’t know. For as good of a liar as their father had been, they were terrible at it. He couldn’t risk the truth getting out. While he didn’t have to worry about that if he talked to Amaya, he had the feeling that it wouldn’t go over very well with her…
There was no one he was able to trust with this. Every possibility was a long shot at best.
A knock sounded on his door, pulling him out of his thoughts.
“Come in,” Callum called, sitting up and running his fingers through his messy hair.
A servant opened the door and bowed. “Prince Callum. Queen Aanya is requesting time with you today. Is there a time that I should tell her you are available to spend time with Her Majesty?”
Nodding, Callum made his way out of his bed. “Yeah. Yeah, tell her that I’ll meet her outside in a half hour.” They didn’t have anything to do until the afternoon, so Rayla was spending the morning with her parents, no doubt yelling at them the whole time, and he didn’t have anything in particular to do.
The servant bowed again and left, closing the door behind him to allow Callum to get dressed to see Aanya.
Aanya. She already knew about the alleged engagement, was indifferent enough about her relationship with Callum, and was just far enough removed from the situation. And, most importantly, she could keep a secret.
Maybe he did have someone he could talk to.
He dressed and stopped down in the kitchen to grab something for breakfast. Luckily, his stomach was back to normal after getting poisoned the day before (he reminded himself to be more careful around Rayla’s parents; there was no way he was going to let them slip him anything more powerful than beufling tea).
Within a half hour, he was out in the courtyard, and spotted Aanya sitting on a bench, basking in the sun.
“Good morning!” he greeted, sitting next to her. “I’m glad you came, it’s so good to hang out with you.”
“I’m glad to see you as well,” she replied. “I know it hasn’t been long, since you were just in Duren a month ago, but it seems like a lot has changed in that time.” She gave the polite smile that always told the recipient that she knew too much.
With a chuckle, Callum rubbed the back of his neck uncomfortably. “Yeah, uh...nothing was definite then. We didn’t want to let anyone know unless we were actually planning on getting married.”
Aanya rolled her eyes good-naturedly and stood, motioning for him to follow her as she started walking. He trotted alongside her in silence, wandering the castle grounds. It wasn’t until they were well out of earshot of anyone else that she finally spoke again.
“I’m not sure why you’re doing it,” she began, “but I can tell that you and Rayla aren’t really engaged. And I’m not saying this because I’m territorial or anything, I know you’re in love with her, and the prospect of you and I marrying was purely a political failsafe. You don’t need to pretend to me.”
He half expected himself to start denying it, to protect the secret, protect Rayla. But as he wracked his mind, Aanya really was the only person he could talk to about this. She already knew, anyway. It was pointless to try to keep it from her.
Callum let out a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. With it came the whole story - Rayla’s parents, how she felt about them, why she enacted this crazy idea and why he went along with it. No detail was spared as he rambled about how he had been in love with his best friend for years, but never held any sort of hope that she would ever love him back after they had already gone through one denied confession years ago.
“This whole fake engagement thing was supposed to make it easier to deal with,” Callum sighed. “But it’s only made it harder than ever. Like, I was fine, I really was! I was perfectly happy just having her as my best friend, and if you and I got married, then I’d be content with that too. It didn’t really matter as long as I got to stay close to Rayla, but now, I don’t know.” When he finished, he glanced at Aanya to gauge her reaction. As usual, her face was perfectly polite, listening intently to the story.
“I think you do know,” she encouraged him. “You know that you’re in love with her, and you know that your childish fake engagement isn’t helping.”
“Callum.” Aanya stopped walking and crossed her arms. “She confessed to you when you were younger. When you told her that you didn’t feel the same way, did either of you decide that it was too much for your relationship to handle? Did either of you decide that it was too weird, and you needed to walk away?” She waited for him to shake his head before she continued. “You aren’t the type of people to let something like this destroy you. If she doesn’t feel the same way, she’ll tell you so, and you’ll work through it just like you did back then. And if she does feel the same way, then you get to explore this new side to your relationship.” With a shrug, she finished, “I don’t see the problem.”
He couldn’t help but scoff. “Come on, Aanya, have you even experienced anything like this? Take out the whole fake engagement, have you ever faced the problem of having deep romantic feelings for your best friend?”
“Not once, and I don’t have any interest in doing so.”
Snorting, he said, “Yeah, see, I don’t think that makes you entirely qualified to be giving advice. I just needed to get it off my chest.” He began walking again, looping back toward the castle.
Aanya caught up. “Sometimes you need an outside opinion, rather than someone who’s been in the same situation. And my outside opinion is that you two have a bond strong enough to withstand anything. Including this.”
“If I tell her,” he reasoned, “then everything’s just going to come crashing down. She’ll insist on ending the lie right then and there because she wouldn’t want to hurt me. It would put her in worse standing with her parents, Ezran will be mad that we lied to him, Claudia would give us those disappointed eyes, and I don’t even know if Soren would ever talk to us again. It would make everything so much worse.”
Raising an eyebrow, Aanya pointed out, “She would destroy everything just to make sure you’re comfortable? To me, that sounds pretty dedicated, Callum. And since you’re not comfortable, you should tell her. You’ll either work it out, or get together for real. Either way it happens, it’ll make you stronger together.”
She did have a point, but he didn’t entirely want to admit it. Part of him really wanted to continue pretending to be engaged to Rayla, because at least when they were in front of people, he got to show her how much he loved her, but he was starting to slip. If he’d had just a minute more with her the other night when he gave her his old scarf, he was sure that he would have all but confessed his love on the spot. He would have kissed her, or poured out everything that had been building up since he was seventeen. And how would she have reacted? Would she still have left his room, or would she have stayed until they were certain that they were going to be okay and keep working through it?
Something told him that it was the latter. And an even bigger something told him that it could very well be worth the risk.
“Okay,” he whispered. “I’ll tell her.”
Chapter 12: Holding Hands
Rayla spends the morning with her parents.
If only to tell them off for poisoning Callum, Rayla spent the morning with her parents. She made sure not to bring her swords with her, for fear that not everyone would make it out of the morning alive (the knives in her boot and the inside of her vest didn’t count, she decided). But the lack of swords didn’t stop her from imagining the ways she could maim them with any objects they passed by. (Those glass ornaments a vendor was working on making could be good for shattering in their eyes. Bakeries had ovens, usually big enough to at least stick their arms in. Or, hey, Matvey liked keeping citrus fruits around. She could get revenge for Callum by slipping them just enough citrus to make them as sick as they made him.)
Or she could suck it up and endure one morning without harming her parents.
“She’s not listening, dear,” Kimar sneered. “Our boring lives in Xadia are less important than her wedding.”
Rayla rolled her eyes so hard that she wasn’t sure they would return to their original position. “And apparently your spite is more important than being happy for your daughter.”
With a sigh, Oelsi said, “I can stop boring you. Stories about your aunt Andromeda are probably much less exciting when you haven’t seen her since you were little.”
“It would be great to hear about Aunt Andromeda,” Rayla snapped, “if it wasn’t coming from someone who poisoned my fiance. Which, you know, Ezran would throw you in prison for life if I only say the word, because poisoning the prince of Katolis is treason. Forgive me if I’m not particularly interested.” She stabbed at her food. They’d been in the restaurant for an hour, but she had hardly eaten anything on her plate.
“I told you.” He rubbed his temples with closed eyes. Despite not having heard it in years, his tone when he was trying not to lose his patience was exactly the same as it was when she was a kid. “I didn’t know that humans can’t tolerate beufling. We haven’t exactly been in the human kingdoms as long as you have.”
“And you shouldn’t be here now. You can go tell Andromeda that she can come tell me her stories herself.” She stood to leave.
“Rayla.” Kimar caught her wrist, firmly enough to stop her, but not so tightly that she couldn’t pull away. “We know we haven’t been around for you. You needed us, and we let you down.” She visibly steeled herself, clenching her jaw to prepare herself for what she said next. “I’m sorry , Rayla. We didn’t just fail as part of the Dragon Guard, we failed as parents, and we’re trying to make up for it. No, I don’t like the human prince, I don’t think he deserves you, and I want to be able to help you avoid making a mistake. But that’s because I’m your mother . I want to help you like a mother should. I want what’s best for you.”
Narrowing her eyes into a glare, Rayla said, “That was an awful lot of what you want with no regard for me or Callum. I’m old enough to make my own decisions. I have been for a long time, and I don’t need an overbearing mother now. What I need is someone who has my back, and that’s Callum, every time.” She pulled her hand away and started toward the door.
Oelsi fumbled to leave money on the table as Kimar stood and chased after her. Rayla wanted to scream, and the hidden knife in her vest felt very enticing at that moment. Was it too much to ask for them to leave her alone?
They had only gone a few doors down the road when Rayla sighed in relief upon seeing the only face that could make the situation better. Callum was walking toward her with Aanya at his side. When they spotted her, they both waved with smiles on their faces (something was definitely off about Callum’s, but she could address that as soon as her parents were gone).
She broke into a run and threw her arms around him, not hesitating to kiss him. He was stiff, but he held her close and kindly returned the kiss before she let go and firmly took his hand in hers.
“I didn’t think we were meeting until later!” she exclaimed, putting more enthusiasm into her voice than strictly necessary.
Motioning to Aanya, he replied, “We decided to come down early. Aanya wanted to see what we’ve been working on.” He looked at her and she gave a small nod with a smile.
“He also got me away from my servants,” she joked. Casting a glance at Oelsi and Kimar hanging back a few feet, she said, “I would like to see the town, though. Would you show me around?”
It took all of Rayla’s willpower not to show exactly how relieved she was. “Of course.” She turned to her parents. “This is Queen Aanya of Duren. If you’ll excuse us, we’re going to escort her.”
Kimar scowled, but Oelsi nodded in understanding. He took his wife’s hand and led her back down the road to wherever they were staying, waving at Rayla as they left.
“Thank you,” Rayla sighed, squeezing Callum’s hand and resting her head on his shoulder. “You have no idea how badly I wanted to get away from them. You two showing up was an absolute miracle. I love you to the moon and back.”
Callum snorted. "We expect me to say stupid things like that, but when you say it, it’s the cheesiest thing I’ve ever heard."
"You said it first, so I needed you to hear how stupid it sounds." Straightening, she grinned at Aanya. “Where to first? Anything in particular you want to see?”
Aanya waved her hand with a mischievous smile. “I’ll look around on my own. You two have work to do, so I won’t keep you. You just looked like you could use the word of a queen to get you away from your parents. Oh, and if anyone asks, I slipped away when you weren’t looking and there was nothing you could have done to stop me from wandering off.” She winked and walked away, hands innocently held behind her back as she looked around at the new decorations.
“I liked her before,” Rayla said, pulling Callum to walk with her. They still had time before they needed to look over tournament preparations. “But she really is fantastic.” She bumped her shoulder into his, grinning. “Maybe you should marry her.”
Callum chuckled awkwardly. “Yeah, maybe…” He took a breath like he was going to say something, then stopped. A few seconds later, he asked, “How was your time with your parents?”
She rolled her eyes. “As terrible as I expected. My mother thinks I’m a child. She was insisting that she just wants to be my mother now, that she wants ‘what’s best for me,’ but she didn’t actually care, she just wants to be controlling. Oelsi swears that he didn’t know he was poisoning you, but I don’t believe that for a second.” Looking at him, Rayla saw that his shoulders were tense and his gaze was cast well away from her. He was uncomfortable. She took her hand out of his and asked, “Callum? Are you okay?”
He nearly jumped out of his skin, but met her eyes. “Y-yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine.” He tried to convince her with a smile, but it looked just as forced as his voice sounded.
“Callum.” She stopped in front of him, hands on her hips. “If something’s bothering you, I can’t help unless you tell me. If you’re uncomfortable, you need to tell me so we can reevaluate. So please.” Resisting the urge to take his hand again, just in case it was making him feel worse, she dropped her shoulders and let her voice soften. “Please tell me.”
His eyes - she had always loved his eyes - went from wide and nervous to gentle and soft. “I’m okay, Rayla. I was...up late drawing, so I’m just a bit jumpier than usual. I promise.” His hand found hers instead, and she made no effort to protest.
It wasn’t true, though. He was keeping something from her. Even though she understood that it might not be bad to keep a secret every now and then, he always told her what was bothering him. What was it that he had to keep hidden from her?
Ezran’s words flashed into her mind, telling her that at some point, Callum had feelings for her.
No, that couldn’t be it. She shook the thought from her mind as they continued walking through town. If he ever felt anything for her, he would have told her or gotten over it long ago.
Either way, whatever was bothering him, she knew that he trusted her enough to come to her with anything. Whenever he needed her, she would be there to listen to whatever it was. For the time being, she kept holding his hand in a silent show of support as they watched entry fights for the tournament.
Big shoutout to Kuno and "Sides of the Moon" with the character Andromeda :D It's an incredible fic, and if you haven't read it yet, go do that. If you have, you've got good taste :3
Chapter 13: Teasing
The group taste-tests food for the festival.
“If you don’t get that away from my face right now, I swear, Callum, you’re going to regret the day you were born.”
“Aww!” Callum slipped an arm around Rayla and stuck the forkful of peach cobbler closer to her. “You don’t like peaches? That’s a shame, because I think you’re just peachy !”
“Remember how I almost lost a hand when we were younger? You’re about to lose yours.”
“I didn’t think that a festival food tasting day would lead to threats,” Claudia laughed. “You two sure you should be getting married? Or do you think you should make sure you’re not going to dismember each other first?”
Pulling Rayla closer, Callum grinned. “She won’t hurt me. She loves me too much. Otherwise, she would’ve killed me a long time ago.”
Rayla sighed, exasperated. “Unfortunately, you’re right. Let me taste that stupid cobbler.” She snatched the fork out of Callum’s hand and pointed at him threateningly. “If you start calling me a peach, you better sleep with one eye open.” She popped the fork into her mouth to evaluate the taste.
“I wasn’t going to,” Callum replied, his tone mischievous. “But now you’ve given me ideas.”
With a glare, Rayla reminded him, “We agreed no more stupid nicknames.”
Soren snickered from across the kitchen. “No more stupid nicknames? What do you have already?”
“I will maim you, I swear on Ezran’s throne.”
Callum huffed. “She’s my dear fiance who I love very much and I’m going to respect that she doesn’t want anyone to know her dumb nickname, but you mark my words, Rayla, there will be more nicknames.”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.” She untangled herself from him and approached the kitchen table to inspect the platters laid out.
It was so easy for Callum to say things like that, even in front of all of their friends. He had expected it to be harder to tell the truth and tell her how he was really feeling, even if she didn’t know it was the truth, but it all came out so easily. They had been pretending for a week, and every “I love you” was easy, every embrace was natural, every bit of affection he showed her in public was genuine.
Yet when they were alone...that was when things got hard.
He still felt stiff from when he had told Aanya he would talk to Rayla about his feelings and proceeded not to do exactly that. The possibility that she could decide to walk away was too much for him. In his head, he knew that she would never do that. For better or worse, no matter what, they were always facing the world together. She could handle it if she knew he was in love with her, and he could handle it if she didn’t reciprocate. But that tiny flicker of fear that she could tell him that she didn’t want to be around him anymore after that revelation...it was safer to keep the information to himself. Besides, he could always use his original plan to hope that "breaking up" would help him resolve and rid himself of these feelings. He didn't need them to persist and weigh on both him and Rayla. Neither of them needed that.
But it did get hard when she was laughing at something Corvus said that Callum didn't quite hear and she was carefully brushing crumbs off his old scarf, taking good, gentle care of it while she enjoyed herself. He would spend his whole life watching her if he could.
He snapped back to reality as Soren waved at him to get his attention.
"Ohh, Corvus." Claudia sidled up to her husband, taking his hand as she looked at Callum. "Did you see the way he was looking at her? Do you remember when you first spaced out when you were looking at me? He's so in love."
Kissing her forehead, Corvus replied, "I still space out when I look at you. I've just gotten better at functioning when I do."
Before Claudia could respond, Soren interrupted, "Yeah, yeah, everyone's cute and in love, but we came here to taste food for the festival, not each other. Clauds, can you pass me whatever that is? Since we all know that I'll be the final judge of what actually gets served."
Rayla snorted. "So you'll have the final say in what food is served at the wedding too, won't you? Since you're so good at this kind of thing?" She put something in her mouth and made a face.
"Obviously," Soren scoffed. "Speaking of which, why in the world haven't you come to me for wedding planning yet?"
With a shrug, Callum said, "Because the wedding is almost a year away and we have more to worry about for the time being? Like pulling off a successful festival, even though particular vendors and parents want to make it impossible for us? It's not really the time to be planning a wedding."
Soren sighed, but nodded and grumbled, "Yeah, I guess you're right," before tasting what Claudia had passed him.
Corvus beckoned Callum over, gesturing to a spread of dishes from all over the world. The kitchen staff had told them that they were attempting a dish from each human kingdom, as well as from each primal source. From the look of it, they had gotten it just right.
"I've gone a lot of places," Corvus said, "but you would know better than I would about whether or not this is right."
As much as he had wanted to leave this task to Soren, Claudia, and Corvus, this was exactly why he knew that he and Rayla had to be present. They were the only ones who would know if the food from around the world was accurate or not. Luckily, most dishes and pastries being served were specialties from Katolis.
He took bites of each dish, and Rayla joined him, evaluating them all for herself. When Rayla couldn't place whether or not the Earthblood food tasted right, she wordlessly lifted the fork up to him and he accepted by eating the bite from her. He didn't even get a chance to say what was off about it when the others erupted.
"You guys are so gross," Soren exclaimed. "Can't you take it somewhere else?"
"He was getting to that dish next!" Corvus jumped in. "He was going to taste it anyway!"
"Okay, even I know that that was overboard," Claudia teased.
Rayla shrugged. "If any one of you are planning to help with the wedding, you'll have to see us feeding each other cake. There's no way around it. We can't feed ourselves, it's just not how it's done."
"It's true," Callum added, nodding solemnly. "Rayla and I are both afflicted with a rare can't-feed-ourselves disease. It gets worse when cake is involved." His stomach did a flip when Rayla giggled and flashed him a grin.
"You both are absolutely ridiculous," Corvus said, shaking his head, but making no effort to hide the smile on his face. "You really are perfect for each other."
"Yeah." Rayla bumped her shoulder into Callum's and happily replied, "We are."
Yeah. They were.
Chapter 14: Sightseeing
Rayla takes some time to herself.
It didn't escape Rayla's notice that Callum was quieter after Corvus had said that they were perfect for each other. She had even confirmed his words. It was true, they always had been perfect for each other. As best friends. They'd agreed a long time ago that best friends was what they wanted to be, and they had proven time and time again that it was how they worked best. They didn't need to be anything more, and they didn't want to be anything less.
Surely Callum knew that. Surely he remembered. Surely he knew that she was referring to that.
His expression was far away. He was able to participate in the rest of the tasting, but only barely. He was distracted. And his distraction was distracting her. She kept wanting to ask him if he was okay, if there was anything they needed to sort out or talk about. Every time she caught his eye, he smiled like everything was fine. She had to trust that he would tell her if something was wrong. She couldn't exactly talk freely in front of their friends, and if he really was as fine as he wanted her to think he was, then there was nothing to worry about. And if he still wouldn't tell her what was bothering him, then it was out of her hands.
After reporting to the head cook about what they liked and what needed to be altered, Rayla turned to the small group and announced that she was going to go for a ride.
"Would you like some company?" Claudia asked before anyone else had the chance to.
Rayla shook her head. "Thanks, but I'm good. I think I need some time to myself."
She clearly didn't want to let Rayla go on her own - Claudia had always been way too observant of social cues - but she smiled and said, "Okay. I hope you have a good ride."
Callum pressed a kiss to Rayla's cheek and asked, "Meet me later for dinner?"
"Of course," she assured him. "I'll see you later."
She said goodbye to the others and got out of the kitchen and down to the stables as quickly as she could. Finally, when she took a deep breath of fresh air, she felt like she could breathe again. It wasn't just that the kitchen was stuffy and hot, despite all the windows being open. She had realized that she hadn't had much time to herself since any of this started, and even less since Ezran had planted that seed of doubt in her head.
Luckily, Callum avoided horses as much as he could, given his track record with being bad at riding them (and they never tended to like him either, which gave Rayla plenty of fuel to tease him). So when she greeted her favorite mare and saddled up, she was sure that she wouldn't be disturbed. For the next few hours, it was just her, the horse, and wherever she ended up. At the moment, nothing in the world sounded better or more refreshing.
She and her mare trotted through the castle grounds and across the bridge to turn into the woods. As soon as they were away from the castle, Rayla signaled the horse to pick up speed, and soon they were galloping through the forest, weaving around trees, jumping over logs, avoiding dropoffs and ditches. The wind whipped through Rayla's hair and filled her lungs. When was the last time she let herself breathe like this? How long had she felt cooped up and restricted? It already felt like a lifetime that they had been in Katolis, when it had only been about a month. For how long before then was she keeping herself cooped up in some other way?
Moments like these didn't come often anymore. They were hard to find, and usually, when the opportunity for release presented itself, Rayla couldn't take life up on its offer. She was always busy negotiating peace, trying not to die in the human kingdoms, trying to keep Callum alive in Xadia, or, lately, navigating the unfamiliar territory her relationship with Callum had become.
She thought that she’d completely gotten rid of what she’d felt for him when they were younger. Those days were so long past that it had never occurred to her that Callum might have developed reciprocating feelings. She'd spent so long ignoring any possibility of their friendship developing into something more that she had almost forgotten that it possibly could .
How different would it be for us?
Her own words felt like nothing but taunts to her now. Even after the week they'd spent fooling everyone, telling people that she was in love with Callum, kissing him, throwing around vague ideas for a wedding, referring to the trip they wanted to take as a honeymoon instead of just wanting to travel for fun, she couldn't get herself to say that their relationship would be much different if they were married. Really, how different would it be? They were perfect for each other. They always had been.
Why did Callum shut down after that was said? They had always known it. At least, she had. Maybe Callum was only now realizing it.
But it didn't matter. This was temporary. Once everything settled down, they could go back to how they had always been - still perfect for each other, but in a way that didn't involve wedding plans.
If they could go back to normal.
She slowed her mare and came to a stop overlooking the cliff that dropped off into the river. The castle was just on the other side of it, an island in the water. It was almost ironic that she ended up staying in Katolis castle, with how much she hated water. Just to be around her friends, she braved being surrounded by water, and they never teased her about it, never reminded her that it was there or tried to scare her with its presence. Instead, she felt safe in the castle, around all those humans. It was amazing how much the world had changed since the fall of the king of the dragons. It was amazing how much she had changed. Everything was different than how she knew it as a child, and she didn't want it any other way.
If only she could accept things being different between her and Callum.
There was a rustling behind her. At first, she dismissed the sound as a rabbit or a deer making its merry way through the brush. But that sound was bigger than a rabbit or a deer, and much too careful to be a wild animal.
She sighed and rolled her eyes, turning to see who had followed her. There really was only one person who could have kept himself concealed for so long without her noticing his presence.
"I know you're there, Corvus," Rayla called. "You don't need to keep hiding."
As expected, Corvus emerged from the throng of trees on his own horse, a sheepish smile on his face.
"What a coincidence that we decided to take a ride in the same area!" he lied.
Rayla chuckled and shook her head. "Coincidence, sure. Who sent you to follow me? Claudia or Callum?"
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
She scrutinized him, his eyes averted to the ground. "Claudia, I'm guessing. Callum probably has no idea that there was even a reason for my needing time alone." Sometimes she was still amazed at how dense he could be.
Corvus chuckled and nodded. "If you need me to leave, I can. Claudia just wanted me to make sure you were okay. She noticed you and Callum were a little strained there."
With a shrug, she replied, "It's fine. We're still getting used to the idea of people knowing we're getting married. It's strange to talk about it with other people, since we've only talked about it with each other for so long."
"I understand," Corvus said. "Claudia and I took a long time to announce that we were getting married. Even Soren was surprised."
Rayla snorted. "It's not hard to pull the wool over his eyes. Was he always stupid, or did he lose half his brain just before I met him?"
"He's always been stupid, don't worry. But he knows it now."
"Good to know."
They sat in relative silence for a few minutes, allowing themselves to look out at the view. It really was beautiful. No matter how many times Rayla saw it, she didn't get sick of looking at the vast expanse of land, the towers of the castle in the distance, the water flowing below, trees all around, and the town not far away. It always helped her slow down and let her mind catch up.
But there was only so much catching up it could do when she couldn't talk about it with anyone. She knew that she was the one who set the restriction not to tell anyone else about their ruse, but would it hurt if it was Corvus? He was excellent with secrets. And besides, she wouldn't be angry if Callum confided in someone removed from the situation. It was hard when they were the only ones the other had to talk to. Maybe it was good to talk about it with someone else.
"Hey Corvus?" Rayla began hesitantly. "If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell anyone? No one at all, not Soren or Claudia, none of the other guards."
Corvus cast her a confused look from the side, but nodded.
She sucked in a breath. She could still change her mind, but if she opened her mouth again, there was no taking it back.
She took the plunge. She let him know everything that had happened from the moment her parents made themselves known. Callum's resistance and insisting that she should talk to her parents, their agreement to communicate and keep things comfortable as possible between them, Callum's change in behavior, the flips her stomach was doing and beats her heart would occasionally skip. Never in her life had she been one to blush, but in the past week, she had blushed several times, each one having to do with Callum and the way he was looking at her or talking to her.
"I don't know what it is," she moaned. "This isn't how I felt when I was sixteen and told him I was in love with him. This is different. I felt so much more sure back then. Is it...am I remembering what that felt like, and that's tricking my brain? Am I just confused about what Ezran told me, that Callum's had feelings for me in the past? I just, I keep thinking about how you said we're perfect for each other. There's no part of me that doesn't think that's true, but how true is it? Where do we draw the line? Is the line friendship, or is the line marriage? I have no idea if it's love, friendship, or a memory. But I do know that he and I fit together, and we always have. I just..." She took a deep, steadying breath. "I don't know where to go from here."
Corvus was quiet as he absorbed the information. While he thought, she noted that she almost felt lighter. Just telling someone everything that was building up inside her was helping. If riding in the woods at top speed was freeing, then this was an entirely new level of freedom she was feeling.
"Feelings truly are a fickle thing," he finally said. "It's smart to try and rationalize your feelings with your head, but sometimes they don't always agree in the moment, and that's okay. Not everything is going to be in perfect sync all the time, but you can go off of what you know. You said that you know you and Callum fit perfectly together. Instead of thinking about how you feel about the idea of fitting together, try to think about how that part of your relationship makes you feel. You're allowed to not know the name for what you're feeling, and you're allowed to figure it out as you go along. Let your heart tell you what it wants to say, and think about how the cause of that makes you feel. Don't dwell on the ideas instead of what's right in front of you."
She let that sink in. It was true, she was overthinking ideas and concepts instead of how she and Callum were truly functioning together. Despite any awkwardness they'd been fighting through, they were doing really well together. She needed to make sure that she talked to him whenever she felt something needed to be addressed, and trust that he would do the same, instead of worrying all the time that he was keeping something from her.
With a sigh, Rayla smiled at her friend. "Thanks, Corvus. I feel better about it now. I know that we'll be okay. Somehow."
He nodded. "Happy to help. Did you want to head back to the castle?"
"You go on ahead," she offered, waving toward the bridge in the distance. "I think I want to look at this view for a little longer."
Chapter 15: Callum's Birthday
Callum gets a surprise for his birthday.
Callum stretched as a yawn escaped him. The sun was already high, one of his favorite things about summer. He had probably overslept. Rayla usually came to wake him up when he slept a little longer than he was supposed to, since she was always bragging that elves didn’t need as much sleep as humans did. Why hadn’t she come to wake him this morning?
Oh, well. Maybe she had forgotten. Or, maybe for once her life, she overslept as well. It didn’t matter.
He rolled out of bed and dressed for the day, trying in vain to get his hair to behave. When he accepted that the one damn piece was absolutely not going to lie down, he sighed and made his way downstairs. Maybe there would be someone in the dining hall he could eat with.
Upon opening the door to the dining hall, however, he discovered that there was not one person to eat with, but seven - Ezran, Rayla, Soren, Claudia, Corvus, Amaya, and Aanya - were all around one table, with a pile of something covered under a sheet at the end of the table. Ezran jumped up the moment he saw him.
“Callum!” Ezran shouted, throwing his arms around his brother before dragging him over to the table. “Where have you been? We nearly sent Rayla to make sure you weren’t dead!”
He chuckled and sat down between Rayla and Ezran and grabbed a roll from the middle of the table. “What’s going on?”
Claudia raised an eyebrow incredulously. “Do...do you really not remember what today is?”
Days were starting to blur together with the upcoming festival, and if Callum was being honest, he had no idea what day it was. He mentally counted the days, trying to separate them and determine what in the world was going on. Was it Rayla’s birthday already? No, that couldn’t be it, her birthday was after the festival. Which meant-
“Oh!” he nearly shouted. “It’s my birthday!”
Rayla and Soren both snorted.
“Told you he forgot,” Rayla laughed.
Amaya dug in her pocket and flipped a coin across the table to Rayla, who caught it expertly.
“Thank you very much!” She turned and placed a hand on Callum’s shoulder to say, “Happy birthday, you big dummy,” and kissed his cheek.
With a deep, exasperated sigh, Callum asked, “Is there anything in my life people don’t have bets on?”
Ezran thought for a few seconds - actually, deeply thought - before saying, “I don’t think anyone ever bet on how long your hair would get when - no, nevermind, I remember Soren and Aunt Amaya betting on that one. Um...I don’t think anyone’s bet on how often you draw?”
“Nope,” Aanya offered. “That one’s been bet on. Speaking of, Callum, are you still using the same sketchbook you were using when you were in Duren last month?”
He groaned, but told her, “No, I’m on a new one.”
“Pay up, Corvus.”
“When did you two even talk?”
“Does it matter? I won the bet.”
“I can’t believe you guys would make and win bets about me on this, the day to celebrate my birth, and how many wonderful years you all have been blessed with my existence.”
“To be fair,” Soren interjected, “we bet on you on days that aren’t your birthday too.”
“Yeah, I got that.”
“Alright, enough picking on my fiance,” Rayla laughed, standing. “That’s my job. I think a birthday celebration is in order.” She stepped over to the end of the table and pulled the sheet away to reveal a gaggle of gifts, then pulled Callum up to drag him over to them.
Embarrassed at the sudden outpouring of affection, he told them, “Aw...guys, you didn’t have to do that. I didn’t even remember it was my birthday, you didn’t have to do so much for me.”
Rayla rolled her eyes and placed a terribly-wrapped package in his hands. “Shut up, it’s your birthday. This one’s from Claudia.”
He received all sorts of spellbooks, charms, and drawing charcoal. Each gift made him more grateful and brought him closer to crying with joy and love for everyone around him.
It was when he reached the last gift that he broke.
“Rayla,” Callum said, his voice wavering. She had told him that this gift was from her, but he was afraid to even touch it once he saw what it was: a set of paints of such high quality that he’d never even seen a set in person. “How in the world did you get these?” They were so difficult to make and rare to find that they were known to be incredibly expensive, and he had never even hoped he would lay eyes on them, let alone receive a set for his birthday.
With an innocent smile, she replied, “Don’t worry about it.”
He stopped. If there was one thing he knew at that second, it was that her smile was anything but innocent.
“What’s that supposed to mean, Ray?” he ventured to ask, narrowing his eyes.
Her eyes widened and she put a dramatic hand to her chest. “Whatever do you mean? All I did was get the love of my life the paint he deserves.”
“No, seriously, this paint is ridiculously hard to get ahold of,” he insisted. “My stepdad could never find any for me, and let me tell you, he tried.”
“Maybe she killed someone for it,” Aanya casually suggested.
“Aww!” Claudia clapped her hands together and exclaimed, “Did you finally get your first kill, Rayla?” At Callum and Ezran’s horrified looks, she corrected, “I mean, uh, oh no! Killing people is bad and you shouldn’t hurt people to get things for Callum!”
Laughter carried over them, and as much of a joke as it was, Callum couldn’t help but be suspicious that she actually had killed someone, or at least made an incredibly shady deal to get those paints.
“‘It would be dangerous for her to get her hands dirty,’” Amaya signed with Ezran translating. “‘Obviously, she had a hitman do it.’” He gasped. “Aunt Amaya!”
“No, she’s right!” Corvus jumped in. “It makes sense that if Rayla had to hurt someone to get those paints, she would have a hitman do it instead of herself. She’s close to the king and the prince, which puts her in a precarious position, and-”
“Corvus, dear,” Claudia cut him off. “I don’t actually think she had anyone killed. Or killed anyone herself.”
Rayla nodded. “Right. Nobody needs to know how I got my hands on these, all we need to know is that Callum likes them, and it was the perfect birthday gift for him.” She cupped his cheek in her hand. “So don’t worry about it. All you have to do is enjoy your new paint.”
Before Callum could think about what he was doing, his hands were on the red scarf around her neck, pulling her toward him. He pressed his lips into hers, wrapping an arm around her waist. She gave a surprised squeak and held her hands on his shoulders as though she was going to push away, just for a second. But she didn’t, and instead returned the kiss with what seemed like the same enthusiasm he felt. Her loving touch warmed him from head to toe. His head felt like it was filling with cotton, and the rest of him felt entirely weightless as he held her close, happily kissing her, and pouring everything that had been building up in his heart into the point of contact between their lips. He had expected there to be butterflies in his stomach, but there were none. Instead, for the first time since the whole thing started, he felt sure.
When they parted, Callum leaned his forehead against Rayla’s and whispered, “I love you.”
She chuckled lightly, but kept her eyes downcast as her cheeks flushed. Usually, she would say something witty, or she would call him cheesy, or dramatic, or over-the-top. But she was quiet, tense, and very, very red.
All at once, he wracked his cotton-filled brain to try and remember every boundary they had set. Had he crossed one and embarrassed her? This was his first time initiating a kiss between them; was it written somewhere that that wasn’t okay? Or was it not okay to kiss her in front of so many people? All of them knew, but that didn’t mean that she wanted to be so affectionate in front of them. And he had acted purely from his heart - had she noticed that? Did this one kiss let her know how truly in love with her he was? Was it all about to come crashing down, and on his birthday, no less?
Rayla tilted her head up and placed another small kiss on Callum’s lips before pulling away with a smile. Oh. So maybe it was okay.
A sausage hit Callum in the arm before falling to the floor. He blinked and looked toward where it had flown from.
“Get a room!” Claudia yelled, holding another sausage, ready to let it fly.
Smirking, Rayla sat down and replied, “Maybe we will. His birthday’s only just started.”
It was Callum’s turn to feel himself blush a deep shade of red as he sat next to her.
Ezran clapped his hands over his ears and said. “Ew, no, stop. I am literally begging you not to say things like that in front of me.”
“Things like what?” Rayla teased. “For all you know, we could just go through his new spellbooks together. Maybe he’ll paint a picture of me. Or, most likely, we’ll be so exhausted from planning this festival you put is in charge of that we’ll fall asleep immediately.”
“Oh, speaking of,” Callum began, “what’s on the agenda for today?”
“For you?” Rayla tapped his nose. “Nothing. You get to enjoy the day. We got a lot done yesterday, and I’ve got a couple things I can do on my own. If I need to, I can handle Matvey on my own. And you can’t do anything with scavenger hunt plans anyway, or else you’ll be disqualified.”
He’d been so caught up in making sure everything else went smoothly that he’d almost forgotten about the scavenger hunt. It was the best part of the festival, in his opinion. It spanned two days, and every piece had an accompanying puzzle or riddle to help find it. The winner of each year’s scavenger hunt got to help create the hunt for the next year. Callum had come close for the past two years, but hadn’t yet won. Maybe it was his lucky year.
“Thank you, Rayla.” Turning to the rest of the group, he said, “Thank you, everyone. I’m so lucky to have you all.”
Ezran bumped his shoulder. “Happy birthday, Callum.”
Chapter 16: Moonlight Kiss
Callum and Rayla talk about whether or not they need to revisit boundaries.
I would like to preface this with telling you that I am not at all sorry.
“So here’s a question.” Callum held up a slice of Xadian orange. “Two, actually. How do more of these grow if they don’t have any seeds? And why do Xadian and human oranges have the same name if Xadian ones aren’t citrus?”
“You think I know the nuances of Xadian agriculture?” Rayla snorted, snatching the slice from Callum and popping it in her mouth.
He shrugged. “Thought it was worth asking. We can find some farmers who do know the nuances when we go on our trip.”
“Great,” Rayla chuckled. “We’ll be doing magical research for your Aaravos fan text, as well as learning about how fruit is grown and how it doesn’t kill me. Sounds like an exciting trip.”
He rolled his eyes with a grin. “We’ll do plenty of other things. We can do something super dangerous and cool, or we could spend a whole week just laying around. Whatever you want. If we happen to encounter some farmers, though, I want to ask them questions about how in the world the oranges are grown.”
They sat back in comfortable silence, gazing across the river toward the town from their spot on the roof. The day had long since ended, and in Callum’s opinion, it was one of the best birthdays he’d had yet. The only way it could have been better is if Rayla was around for more of it, instead of stuck in festival preparations. But he got to be with her now, goofing off and sharing how exasperated they were with Matvey, who tried to tell Rayla that he was being oppressed because she wouldn’t let him take over the spot recently vacated by the person who was supposed to have a stand next to his, and make his area twice as large as everyone else’s. Luckily, Callum and Rayla (and a very stern Ezran) had agreed that it was best for Rayla to leave her swords at the castle when she went to the town, so she hadn’t been able to threaten Matvey. Ezran hadn’t been particularly happy to hear that Rayla had used that tactic the week before.
She looked tired, having done everything on her own during the day. She wasn’t as burnt out as she was the first few days of festival preparations, but he could see the slight sag in her shoulders, the lazy lilt in her smile. She was working so hard, and pretending to be engaged on top of it.
Speaking of which...he still wasn’t entirely sure about her reaction to the kiss earlier that day. It was understandable if she was just surprised, but there were a few seconds there where she wouldn’t look at him, and if that had anything to do with discomfort, he needed to make sure he knew where he went wrong so he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
“So I know this is weird to bring up…” he started, looking up at the half moon. “But, uh...when I kissed you this morning…?”
Rayla tensed and she stared decidedly away from him. “Um. Yeah. What about it?”
“Well...uh…” He rubbed the back of his neck and tried to remind himself that this was okay to talk about. “You just...you seemed to have a strong reaction to it. I just wanted to know if I was within bounds. I guess it was, uh, more intense than I intended?”
She shook her head, a little too quickly. “No, it was fine! We agreed that it was okay. I was surprised, I didn’t expect you to kiss me for giving you a gift you deserve. But, I’m sure you didn’t expect it when I kissed you when I ran into you and Aanya in town, so maybe we’re even?” She turned toward him, but kept her eyes down. “I wasn’t thinking at all when I made that joke after Claudia told us to get a room, I’m so sorry if I made you uncomfortable with that. I didn’t mean anything by it.”
Laughing awkwardly, Callum said, “I definitely wasn’t expecting that joke, but objectively, it was funny! And in town, I didn’t know we were going to start kissing in front of people. Is that something we should have discussed? Should we just, like, revisit the boundaries list and figure out specifics? I’m fine, but if you need to, I’m willing.”
“I’m fine too,” she rushed. “As long as you’re actually fine and not just telling me that so I don’t know that you’re really uncomfortable. Because you can tell me that. If you need me to back off, I can do that. In fact, since we’ve got people convinced, we could just do away with kissing in general if we want. If you want. Like I said, I’m fine, so it’s up to you.”
They paused for a second before they both gave light laughs, letting themselves breathe.
“I guess we’re just feeling weird about the whole kissing thing in general, aren’t we?” Callum asked. “You know, you’ve never told me how Moonshadow elves show affection. I know that you guys don’t usually kiss, so what do you do instead?”
With a shrug, she said, “It’s subtler with us. We don’t really touch each other at all in front of other people unless a pair are in a romantic relationship, so it’s mostly just...little touches. Holding hands, things like that. The things that…” Her cheeks flushed. “The things that we already do.”
“Oh.” He felt his own face reddening. “So, uh...What do we do, then?”
She shifted uncomfortably. “We could stop forcing ourselves into this position and stick with forehead and cheek kisses, or we could…”
Callum raised an eyebrow when she didn’t finish her sentence, though he had a feeling he knew what she was going to say. “We could what?”
Curling in on herself, she averted her eyes and muttered, “Practice?”
It was what he expected, yet he was still surprised when she suggested it.
He took a few moments to respond. Rayla had just opened her mouth to probably begin another monologue about how they didn’t have to and they could just drop it entirely when Callum said, “Okay.”
She looked at him, wide-eyed. “Are...are you sure? We can just forget about it if you want-”
“I’m okay as long as you are,” he assured her.
Shifting toward him, she nodded. “I’m okay.” Her eyes flicked down toward his lips for half a second, making his heart pound in his chest, then back up to his eyes. “So how do we...practice?”
Callum reached a hand out and placed a gentle hand on her jaw, brushing his thumb over the mark on her cheek. Quietly, he said, “Like this, I guess.”
Her hand went to the back of his neck, and her eyes looked so nervous, but so sincere. He felt her hand trembling, and he was sure that his was as well. Why was it so much harder now? They had managed it three times already, and this wasn’t even their first time kissing when they didn’t have to perform for anyone. It was just them. They could always be themselves and be completely genuine with each other. Always.
With a deep breath, Callum smiled awkwardly and said, “What’s a kiss between friends?”
Rayla’s brow furrowed, but she managed a smile back. “Right.”
It was Callum who closed the distance, tugging her closer and pressing his lips delicately into hers. His stomach flipped. Any butterflies that hadn’t been there that morning had come with a vengeance, and every point of contact with Rayla felt like fire on his skin. Her calloused hand on his neck was burning an imprint, her cheek felt like it was scorching his fingertips, and her lips, oh her lips…. Her kiss sent electricity through his whole body. The cotton returned to his head and left him weightless, wanting nothing more than her touch. His free hand found her waist and pulled her closer as her arm snaked around his him, sending more fire through him with the more contact they had. To Callum’s surprise, Rayla was the one who inched closer and deepened the kiss, holding him tighter. It was such a stark contrast from their first kiss, that evening in her room. That one was hesitant and foreign. This one, though...it felt like Rayla might actually mean it.
It was both an eternity before they parted, and far too soon, and as he looked at her in the moonlight, he already regretted his comment about being friends. He needed to tell her how he felt, and this was the perfect time. She was absolutely glowing under the moon, and the spark in her eyes was so invigorating that he was afraid he would forget how to breathe as he looked at her. He wasn’t sure if he would even be able to survive another moment without letting her know just how deeply he loved her.
“Rayla,” he breathed, caressing her cheek.
She brushed his messy hair from his forehead. “Yes, Callum?”
His heart was hammering harder than he’d ever felt it beat before. This was it. He had to do it. He had to tell her. There was no better time, and there was no telling how soon another chance like this would come. He was shaking, and he was sure that she could feel it too. Maybe she was feeling everything he was. He hoped she was.
“It’s late,” he whispered, leaning his forehead against hers. “You’re sparring with Corvus in the morning, right?”
Rayla nodded. “Gotta train for the tournament.”
“You should get some rest.” Callum removed his hands from her and sat back with a soft smile. “You’ve done a lot today. Thank you so much for such a great birthday.” He was going to kick himself later for this, he just knew it. It was just like him to completely throw away the perfect moment.
Getting to her feet, Rayla ruffled his hair and said, “Anything for my sweet prince. Good night, Callum.” She crawled through the window to get back inside and head down the hall.
And he let her go.
Chapter 17: Braids
Things start heating up with the festival.
Dodge. Block. Strike. Dodge. Dodge. Strike. Block.
Rayla felt so alive as she sparred with Corvus. He was the only person she’d found in Katolis who gave her a real challenge. The only thing that could make this fight better was if she was in an actual fight, with real danger. She didn’t get many of those anymore, but Corvus was a good second choice.
Block. Strike. Strike. Dodge.
An elbow made contact with Rayla’s face and knocked her to the ground. She hadn’t dodged quickly enough. Unfortunately for her, Corvus was a crown guard, and she was out of practice.
Corvus stood over her, his blade pointed to her, heaving heavy breaths.
“What, you’re taken down by a nudge now?” Corvus teased.
She could already feel the area swelling, and put a hand to it. “You’re fighting dirty.”
Chuckling, Corvus hooked the chain of his weapon to his belt and offered a hand to help her up. “Lots of contestants are going to be fighting dirty in ways that the judges won’t catch. You have to be prepared.”
Rayla rolled her eyes, but accepted help in standing. “Okay, I’ll give you that, but an elbow to the cheek would get you a pretty big penalty.”
“I’m not going to be doing that during the tournament,” he reasoned, “but some others might. Do you want to go again?”
She shook her head, opting to sit on a nearby bench. “In a little bit. Since I’m so rusty, I need more rest than you do.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice.
“I thought elves were supposed to have more endurance, Rayla!”
Turning to the voice that came from behind her, she smiled to greet Claudia, who sat next to her and handed her ice wrapped in a soft cloth.
“How’d you know?” Rayla joked, pressing it gently to her cheek.
Claudia shrugged. “I figured one of you would’ve hurt the other by now. Although I’ll be honest, I thought I would’ve been giving the ice to Corvus.”
“Way to believe in your husband,” Corvus sighed. “I’m feeling the encouragement.”
“Well!” Claudia gestured to Rayla. “You’ve seen how she fights! You fought her when she was what, fifteen? And she nearly destroyed you! You’ve got to admit that she’s really good!”
With a half nod, he confirmed, “Very true.” He leaned against the nearby tree and asked, “How’s the cheek feeling? I promise I didn’t mean to hit you that hard.” Rayla removed the ice pack and Corvus grimaced at the mark.
“I’ll be fine,” she chuckled. “Maybe you got me so good because my hair was in my face. Claudia, would you mind helping me? I’d braid it myself, but I need my hand for the ice pack.”
“Of course!” Claudia turned Rayla by the shoulders and started combing her fingers through the white hair. Tapping the tip of one of Rayla’s horns, she said, “Your cuffs are pretty. Did Callum get them for you?”
Rayla nodded, then remembered she was supposed to keep her head still for Claudia. “Yeah. We elves wear them instead of rings. I don’t know how closely you looked at his ring, but it matches my cuffs.” As Claudia began braiding, Rayla couldn’t have been more grateful that they couldn’t see each other’s faces. She was sure that her own was pink, remembering the moment she and Callum had shared the night of his birthday. Corvus smirked at her and she sent him a quick glare, shifting the ice on her cheek.
“You two are so sweet together,” Claudia mused, expertly weaving Rayla’s hair together, working surprisingly well around her horns. “Do you have a date for the wedding yet?”
When Claudia tied off the braid with a ribbon Rayla provided, she turned back toward her. “Nothing solid yet. We were thinking late spring, but I’m liking the idea of winter instead. Maybe February.” She laid the ice down and felt the neat braid. “You did a great job with this. You want to do my hair for the wedding?” It was a joke, but she realized a second too late that Claudia had no way of knowing.
“Yes!” Claudia exclaimed, almost bouncing in excitement. “Okay, February, that’s…” She stopped, wrinkled her brow, and exchanged a glance with Corvus, who pursed his lips. There was definitely something going on in that exchange, but Rayla couldn’t tell what, and Claudia just said, “I’m so excited for the wedding. It’s gonna be great!”
It was nice to know that someone was so happy about it. Though, it would definitely be hard to break the news to her that she and Callum weren’t actually getting married. She and Soren would get over it, but just thinking about their disappointed faces when they told them that the wedding wouldn’t happen was enough to make her heart fall.
Wait, was her heart falling because she was thinking about their potential reactions, or because of something else?
Enough thinking about that, she decided, standing up. She stretched and looked to Corvus with a grin. “You ready for another round?”
Corvus returned the eager look and unhooked his weapon, giving it a few controlled swings. “You know I am.”
They took their place in the middle of the courtyard and Rayla drew her swords to face off against her opponent once more. She readied herself, making sure her stance was solid, hoping her cheek wouldn’t swell any more and obstruct her vision.
Just as she was about to leap at him, she heard Ezran’s panicked voice shouting their names.
She whipped around and put her swords away, running to Ezran to meet him halfway as he sprinted across the courtyard.
“Ez,” she said, supporting him as he panted. “Ez, what happened?”
He looked up at her with more concern in his features than she’d seen in a long time, and it made her stomach drop like lead. What in the world had made Ezran so upset and anxious? She would personally kick the ass of whoever dared to upset him.
Aanya trotted up behind Ezran and told her, “You need to come see what happened, Rayla. It’s...it’s bad.”
After briefly telling Corvus and Claudia that they had to call it quits for the day, she ran with Ezran and Aanya to the stables and they all leaped onto horses a stable boy had just finished saddling for them. They raced out of the castle grounds and across the bridge, galloping as fast as they could toward the town. Ezran and Aanya still hadn’t told Rayla what was going on, but she was feeling worse about it by the minute.
Then she saw the smoke.
Oh, no. No, no, no!
She urged her horse to go faster, faster, as fast as the horse’s legs could carry them. This could absolutely not be happening. There was no way.
But when they entered the town, half the vendors’ stands were still smoldering, and the stage that had been made for performances was entirely destroyed. There were no decorations to speak of - now they were only ash. All the work she and Callum had put in was nothing compared to what the vendors had done, some of whom prepared all year for the festival, some of whom put up decorations, built that stage, put together the scavenger hunt, and so many more things. Organizing was one thing. It was another thing entirely to make it a reality, and now those people saw their hard work burned to a crisp.
Rayla barely registered the running footsteps until Callum was in front of her, trying to catch his breath.
“I put out as much of the fire as I could,” he panted. “Ocean runes, wind spells, you name it. I even had help from some of the elves here, and we weren’t able to stop it.” He grabbed fistfuls of his hair as he looked anxiously into the town square.
Anger bubbled up inside Rayla. She took Callum’s collar firmly in her hand and demanded, “Did you see who did it?”
“What? No! If I saw, then I would’ve been in time to stop all of this from happening!” He removed her hand from his collar.
“I can’t believe this,” Rayla muttered, beginning to pace. “I can’t believe this! The festival starts in days , people have been building these things for months! There’s no way everything can be rebuilt in time! There’ll be no stage, no decorations, no vendors! How dare someone think that they can set fire to everyone’s hard work?” Even worse, this was supposed to be the biggest festival yet, and the leaders of the other kingdoms were arriving that day. If the festival didn’t go perfectly, then they had more things to worry about than a lack of decorations.
“Who would do this?”
Ezran’s voice was so small and distraught that Rayla stopped pacing and put a supportive hand on his shoulder.
Callum inhaled deeply and looked over the throng of upset people. “I don’t know, Ez. But we’re going to find out.”
Chapter 18: Childhood
Cleanup begins in the aftermath of the fire.
“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.
Chapter 19: Secrets
Rayla and Callum talk with Ezran about how to save the festival.
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.
Chapter 20: Hurt
Callum works off anger from Ezran's suggestion.
Have fun :) These couple chapters are gonna be a wild ride.
"I can't believe this," Callum was saying that evening, pacing the length of Rayla's room. He hadn't cooled off the slightest bit from talking with Ezran, and now it was possible he simply never would. "How could he ask that? He knew that it wasn't real, how could he possibly think it was okay? What, are we just pawns to him? Playing pieces that he can move around a board and come up with the perfect scenario that'll work out just fine for him, not caring if anyone else is okay with it? He can't just say things like that, he can't just.... Ugh, I don't know if I can forgive him for asking us to get married, that's absolutely ridiculous! Us telling a lie for a little bit with no intention to follow through is one thing, but him asking us to have an actual wedding just because some leaders will be disappointed if they don't get to see something extravagant?" He kicked the bedpost and let out a short yell of frustration.
None of this would have happened if Rayla hadn't decided that she needed to show off to her parents to get them away from her. They didn't need to do any of this. He could have carried on the same way, quietly loving her and not minding that she didn't feel the same way. They were best friends, and that was okay. They couldn't continue to just be best friends if they were married, and he couldn't keep his feelings hidden from her, either. But if she knew, then not only would the friendship fall apart, but a marriage would as well. All because she wouldn't grow up and talk to her parents.
Part of him knew that he couldn't place all the blame on her, or on Ezran. He had gone along with it, even though he had the choice not to. He could have revealed the ruse at any time, but he didn't. But that knowledge only made it worse. He wanted someone to blame outside of himself, and at the moment, Ezran was the easiest target.
"What is it even supposed to mean when you guys say 'how different would it be?'" he continued. "It's way different! Sure, we've kissed, and we're affectionate, but that's because we're close, not because we're in love! Romantic love is a completely different thing than what we have, and you can't force a friendship to become a marriage, you just can't! It wouldn't be fair for either of us if we even considered going along with this! And even worse, the festival starts in just a few days, how could he possibly expect us to be ready for a wedding in that time, ridiculousness of the situation aside? No one can plan a wedding on this short of notice, and we can't.... Ugh." He sat on Rayla's bed with his head in his hands, trying to breathe through his anger.
For a fleeting moment, he wondered why he was the only one angry at Ezran's suggestion. Rayla had to be just as upset about it as he was, but she was quiet, sitting at her desk and fiddling with a quill.
"Is it so ridiculous?" she whispered.
Callum looked up at her, gaping. "Wh - of course it is! It’s not fair! It was ridiculous to ever pretend we were engaged, and I only went along with it because-" He cut himself off, realizing what he was about to let slip. Taking a breath, he corrected himself, "I just want to go on our trip after the festival. I just want to go on a nice trip, just you and me, and go wherever we want, research Aaravos, and not worry about any of this."
"I know," Rayla said softly, not meeting his eyes. "That's what I want too. I didn't want to participate in any part of the festival except the tournament. Everything this month has been out of my comfort zone, but if we don't leave our comfort zone, we'll never grow, right?"
"Rayla." Callum spoke her name slowly, feeling his own voice waver. "What are you getting at?"
She glanced up at him, only for a second, then returned her focus to the quill. "What if we did it? They always say that you should marry your best friend, so how much harm would it really do us? We're strong - do you really think that you and I would fall apart over this?"
"Maybe, yeah!" He threw his hands in the air and started pacing again. "When have you ever heard of a situation like this going well?"
"Like an arranged marriage?" Rayla stood too, finally setting the quill aside and looking him in the eye. Her tone was getting heated. "Like what you'll have with Aanya if we don't get married? You don't even care about that marriage, and you're friends with her! Why is it so much different with me?”
“That one’s political , Rayla! You don’t go into a non-political marriage without romantic love! We can’t force our friendship to be something it’s not, that’s not fair!”
“You keep saying that,” she exclaimed. “Why is it so unfair to marry your best friend? The circumstances aren’t what either of us would want even if we were in a romantic relationship, but Callum, a little more food and some music isn’t going to cut it for the end of the festival! Something big needs to happen, and if anyone should be doing something as absolutely idiotic as this, it should be the two of us!” Her eyes were alight with fire, ready to argue the point as far as she needed to.
Callum felt himself trembling as he lowered his voice. “You got us into this mess. So you figure out something else that’ll save the festival. It’s your job to get us out of this.”
She didn’t back down. “But why do we need to get out of it? Are you suddenly in love with Aanya now? I wouldn’t blame you, but you need to tell me a reason other than ‘it’s not fair,’ because a lot of things in this world aren’t fair. We’ve both heard stories of friends growing to love each other romantically, or being okay with being married and simply remaining best friends. I’ll be honest, out of everyone, I would rather marry my best friend, because I know that no matter what happens, we’re going to work through things and always be there for each other.”
“Of course we are,” Callum whispered. “I love you so much, but…we can't. I can't. I...” He didn’t dare finish. Even with how emotional he was, he couldn’t let himself say it.
“Callum.” Rayla took a step toward him and gently held his left hand, fiddling with his ring. “As your best friend, I’m asking you to marry me.”
Chapter 21: Aged Up
Rayla makes some good points.
He stepped back, his eyes wide, and took his hand from her. A lump was forming in his throat and he choked, “You promised.”
Rayla closed her eyes and winced, like he had dealt a physical blow. “I know. I know I promised it wouldn’t go this far, but now it has. I’m not afraid, though, and I don’t know why you are.” She looked at him and he felt her gaze penetrate his very soul.
Shaking his head, he repeated, “It wouldn’t be fair.” That was the only thing he seemed to know how to say.
Her tone growing frustrated, she insisted, “What’s so unfair? You didn’t answer me if you’re in love with Aanya. I swear, if you’re in love with her, I’ll stop everything, I’ll come clean.”
“Why will you only come clean if I’m in love with someone else?” Callum felt his anger rising again. “Why is that the only qualifier?” He bit his tongue to keep from pointing out that her last promise didn’t seem to mean anything.
“Because you're the only one who matters to me!" she shouted. She looked like she was going to cry. Her fists were clenched at her sides and her eyes were starting to turn red. Her voice barely a whisper, she continued, "I don't care what everyone else thinks. I really don't. I care about Ezran, and Soren, Claudia, and Corvus, but their opinions don't matter to me as much as yours does. I've been telling myself this whole time that if you tell me you're uncomfortable, I'll back off. If I upset you, I'll back off. If you really, really don't want to go along with this anymore, then fine, I'll get over it. If you're in love with Aanya, then I'll call the whole thing off, because if her opinion matters to you, then it matters to me. So Callum, please tell me. Yes or no, are you in love with her? Because I will do whatever it takes to make sure that you're happy."
He had no idea what to say. He knew that she cared. They hadn't gotten as close as they were over the past five years without knowing that they both cared. But to know that she would give up everything she was pouring herself into just to make him comfortable and happy...
"I'm not in love with her," Callum muttered. "I like her, but not like that. We're friends, and I like hanging out with her. I guess I'm more used to the idea of marrying her politically because it was presented a while ago. You and me...this is all so new." Well, it was new for her to be in on the idea too. It was new to be talking so openly about the real possibility of marriage.
Rayla took his hand again and gently said, "We could get used to the idea of you and me. Because I care about you, and I know you care about me, and we could make that work. We've survived worse than an unexpected marriage. This isn’t anyone’s first choice, but I know that this is a way we can help Ezran. And marrying you to do that isn’t the worst thing I can think of."
He squeezed her hand, not meeting her gaze. "I might be marrying my best friend, and it’s still controlled by politics. No matter who I marry, it’s going to be political, there’s no way around it. I’m a prince, Ray. Whether I marry you, or Aanya, or anyone, it’s going to have an impact on Katolis, as well as on our standing with the other kingdoms and Xadia.”
“That’s another reason why this is important.” Her tone was earnest, like she was begging him to see whatever side she was seeing. “This would be a royal wedding. The prince of Katolis marrying his untitled elven best friend. It’s big, and we can show them that if they have a problem with a marriage between a human and an elf, then that’s their problem and they need to sort it out with themselves.”
Callum shook his head. “That’s not all, though. I know Ez suggested this to make things better, but if they don’t approve, then it could break alliances and start another war, and he knows that. They might’ve shrugged off our friendship, but we’re not kids anymore, and a marriage is completely different. They can’t shrug it off. People might try to hurt you, Rayla, and I don’t want to put you through that.”
“I’ll be fine,” she insisted. “I can defend myself, and if you’re that worried, we can increase security around us. I’m sure Corvus would volunteer to keep us safe. We would be okay. We’re always okay, some way or another.” The look in her eyes nearly melted his heart. She truly believed every word she was saying. And if he was honest, he did too.
With a heavy sigh, Callum murmured, “It's stupid that my relationship with my best friend is being dictated by whether or not kings and queens are happy."
"Then let's not make decisions based on that," she suggested. "Let's make a decision on what would make us happy. Would it make you happy to spend your life with me?"
He stared at her. Of course life with her would make him happy. There was nothing else he wanted more in the world. All he wanted was to stay with her forever, to truly marry her, not because of politics or because of a festival going up in flames, but because he loved her, and because she loved him too. But if she knew - if she knew that he already felt the way she thought they would grow to feel, if she knew about the dreams about a happy life together with a child, if she knew how frequently he thought about it, how frequently he got lost in her eyes…. If she knew, then it would be more than just the festival going up in flames. The last thing he wanted to do was disillusion her. There was no way that he could win.
“I want to be by your side forever,” Callum breathed. “You’re my best friend, and I love you to the moon and back.”
A soft smile making its way onto her face, she replied, “I love you too.” Her words stabbed him directly through the heart. If only she knew how much she was killing him, saying that without the same intention he had.
“I’ll go along with this,” he relented, trying to divert his thoughts. “But you have to swear to me that if anything - anything - comes up that could possibly save the festival that doesn’t involve us getting married, we’ll take it.”
She nodded. “Absolutely. If something else comes up, we’ll keep going with the original plan, and you’re free to marry whoever you please, be it me, Aanya, or anyone else." Rayla looked so confident. So sure of herself. Sure of both of them. “We’ll tell Ezran that we’ll do it, and then announce it to the other leaders at dinner tomorrow night? That’ll give us a bit of time to look for something else for the last day of the festival.”
It was the best they were going to get for the time being. As glad as he was that there was something he and Rayla could do to help Ezran, everything about this shook him to his very core. The concept terrified him, and he knew in the back of his mind that if they did get to the point of telling the other leaders, he wouldn’t be able to keep his feelings a secret any longer.
He needed to tell her. Here, in her room, while they held hands and she silently supported him, would be the most opportune time to let her know, before anything else happened.
He stayed quiet.
Chapter 22: Proposal
Callum, Rayla, and Ezran have dinner with the other leaders.
King Florian arrived the next morning, the last leader of the human kingdoms to arrive. The leaders of two elven clans, one Earthblood and one Moonshadow, also made an appearance, to their surprise. The invitation had been extended, but Ezran had never received a reply. It was nice, though, to know that they felt comfortable enough to show up anyway. Ezran made sure that there was always room at the table.
Callum and Rayla weren't able to spend much time in the town, since they were expected to spend time with the monarchs. All they'd had time to do that morning was question a few people about whether or not they'd seen the arsonist, as well as if they knew if Matvey was still in town. No one had seen him since the previous day when he was helping with cleanup.
When someone came to bring them back to the castle, they asked Amaya and Gren to continue looking for Matvey and question him if they did find him. If anyone could handle the task, it was them. At least Amaya could intimidate Matvey, and Gren could charm information out of him.
They'd tried in the few spare moments they had to come up with anything that could possibly save the last day of the festival. Performances were out of the question. The kings and queens would have no interest in a tour of the town, since they would have already spent several days in Katolis. The only idea that had gotten any ground was turning the day into a music and dancing event, but the whole festival was set to begin with a ball at the castle, and all were invited. It would seem like a repeat of the ball, simply set in the town. They were out of options.
On their way back from the town, they stopped at Soren, Claudia, and Corvus's. There was one thing they had to do before formally announcing anything.
"Soren," Callum greeted, a smile on his face, but fatigue in his tone. "How busy are you in the next few days?"
With a shrug, Soren marked his book and closed it on his lap. "Just living that Soren life. Not as exciting as one would hope."
Callum and Rayla exchanged a look.
Taking a deep breath, Rayla stated, "We've moved the wedding up to the last day of the festival, and we need help planning it."
Soren's entire being brightened and he immediately replied, "That's so awesome! You leave everything to me, okay?" The sparkle in his eye told them that it was useless to argue.
Still, Rayla tried. "You don't need to do everything -"
"Everything," Soren repeated. "I mean, except for the stuff you guys have to do. You get to work with the tailor about your clothes, you have to write your own vows, I'm not doing that for you, and you'll have to practice your first dance. But don't worry about anything else, I'll talk to Opeli and ask her to officiate, I'll figure out the food and the music. It'll be happening in town, since it's part of the festival, right?" He barely let either of them confirm before he continued. "Oh, and there'll be musicians on the last day too! They can play for the wedding! I'll be making sure everything is perfect, and I can promise you, this will be everything you ever wanted. You guys need to start on your parts as soon as possible. I think Clauds said that you have a dinner tonight, so after that, get right on your preparations, alright? We'll check back in tomorrow."
"Thank you-" Callum tried to say, but Soren was already wheeling himself toward the door to go who knows where and start in on his first order of business.
As they continued back to the castle, Rayla joked, "Well, that's one thing off our shoulders. We're lucky to have Soren."
Callum merely nodded, not making eye contact with her. Her heart dropped. He'd been quieter since the previous night. She felt horrible for convincing him to go through with it, especially after she had promised him - she swore to him - that it wouldn't go this far. For all the times he had said that it wasn't fair, he was right. None of it was fair, and she couldn’t wait until they caught Matvey, or whoever else set those fires and forced them into this corner they couldn’t get out of. She may have gotten them into this mess in the first place, but it wasn't her fault that it had gotten as deep as it was. Everything would have been fine if it had gone the way they'd planned.
Once back at the castle, Rayla changed into one of her nicer outfits appropriate for interacting with royalty. It certainly wasn't as practical to move around in, but it would win the favor of the people whose high opinions they needed. But for herself, she added Callum's scarf to the outfit. The leaders might think it looked old and shabby, but she was sure they would understand if she explained that it was important to her and Callum. Since they were apparently announcing their marriage at dinner that evening.
Rayla was trembling. She knew that she had nothing to be afraid of. As upset as Callum was, and as scared as she was, he was still her best friend, and they would get through it together, just like they always did. They'd gotten through the toughest of times together. This would only solidify that they would get through every set of tough times by each other's side. That was all it was. They were planning to spend their lives by each other's side in some form anyway. There wouldn't be any harm in calling their friendship a marriage.
They met with Ezran an hour before the dinner was to take place. The dining room was pristine, places set for each leader and their respective spouse. Ezran had insisted that Callum needed to sit next to the elven clan leaders, Rayla on his other side. He'd debated whether to put Rayla next to them, but decided that he didn't want to shove all the elves together and make them feel like he was pushing them away. It was already going to be bad enough to have them in the same room as Queen Fareeda. At first glance, she was so kind, but the longer one spoke with her, the racist tones of her speech became too apparent to ignore.
Ezran was running back and forth from the room to talk with servants. He was so far into panicked overdrive that he helped them bring the food in. Rayla would have volunteered to help as well, but Callum had a look in his eye that said that he was two steps away from a panic attack, and there was no way that she was leaving his side.
"Are you okay?" she whispered, brushing her hand against his.
He only spared her a glance before shrugging. "Relatively. It's not like there's anything we can do except go with it."
She felt a pang of guilt. Lacing her fingers through his, she leaned her head on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Callum."
Heaving a wavering breath, he said, "I always thought there was the possibility we might...you know, get married. Someday. But I just didn't...I don't want it to..." He shook his head. "Nevermind."
"No," Rayla told him, trying to keep her voice gentle. "It's not 'nevermind.' We can talk about this and you can tell me what you're feeling."
The way he looked at her made her wonder if his heart was breaking, or if he was going to be breaking hers.
"They're gonna be arriving any second," Ezran exclaimed, bursting into the room. "Thank you guys so much for coming early, I don't want to be alone with all of - are you okay?"
"Fine," Rayla blurted, flashing a smile. "Is Opeli joining us?"
He shook his head. "Not for dinner, but she'll be dropping in later. She said she had something to do, I saw her with Soren, weirdly enough. But it's fine, I'm the one everyone wants to see, they want to talk to the king now that I'm close to being of age to not need a regent. Let me tell you, Callum, this is not a fun position to be in."
"We'll help you through it," Callum offered. "It's only for a few days. And we, uh..." His eyes darted to Rayla. "We're going to do it."
Ezran looked more relieved than he had in years. "You have no idea how much you're helping me out. I'm sorry I pressured you guys into it, but I know you won't regret it."
They could hope. They could hope, and work to make sure there was no regret.
Luckily, Aanya was the first to arrive. She was the only ruler without anyone accompanying her, and she seemed to like keeping it exactly like that. She grinned when she saw that nobody else was there yet, and she got a few minutes with her friends.
"I was in town this afternoon," she began. "It's looking so much better than it did yesterday, you and your teams have done a wonderful job of getting it cleaned up."
"Thanks," Rayla replied, keeping part of her attention on Callum to monitor how he was doing. If there was any indication that he needed to leave the dinner, she would make sure to come up with an excuse for him to leave. The last thing she wanted was for him to have a panic attack.
They only had a couple of minutes to chat before other rulers began entering the dining room. Rayla took it upon herself to do most of the talking for her and Callum. She'd watched him at enough of these events to know what to say and how to act. He was a natural at it, and she could definitely use some work, but she could get by and save him the trouble for now.
When everyone had arrived, Ezran kindly asked them to take their seats, and Rayla thanked whatever powers that may be that he had placed her between him and Callum, with Aanya directly across from her. That would make things much easier on her, and with Callum next to the Moonshadow clan leader who had mentioned she was a mage, those two would have something to talk about.
What Rayla hated most about these events was how stilted everything felt. Laughter was controlled, voices were kept low, they made an effort to keep everyone in one conversation. A side conversation here and there was fine, but it was considered rude to speak to no one but the person next to you. And of course, she had to be nice. So whatever awful opinions that got spewed ended up being things she couldn't always argue, lest she risk angering people.
"I was so saddened to hear about what happened in the town," King Ahling was saying. "And just before the beginning of the festival, too! How are things coming by way of repairs?"
"They're coming along well," Rayla informed him. "Prince Callum and I gathered teams to clean up and teams to rebuild. I'm sure you heard that the stage for Sunday's performances is too far beyond repair for us to have any plays or skits."
King Ahling nodded sadly and King Forian asked, "What do you plan to do in place of that? I did attend the festival a few years ago, and I must say, the plays were the most enjoyable part of it for me. Only slightly better than the tournament."
She restrained herself from rolling her eyes. Of course he would be making a point to tell her how important to him the only thing they couldn't have was. Instead of showing him her annoyance, she replied, "I think you'll be happy with what we've decided to do." Turning to Callum, she asked, "Do you want to announce it?"
Fear flashed in his eyes for just a second before he pushed it down and nodded, his signature enthusiastic smile he used in these situations making its way onto his face. "We might not have a stage, and most performances might not be able to go on, but Lady Rayla and I have chosen, since we were planning to soon anyway, to marry at the festival."
A silence fell over the table, and Rayla's heart rate picked up. This was so different from any of the other reactions they'd gotten. Ezran had been so excited, Soren and Claudia had been relieved, Amaya had been happy.... This was a totally different type of surprise.
"Congratulations!" Aanya piped up, breaking the silence. Her lips were tilted in almost an amused grin. "I'm so happy for you. I pray that your marriage will be long, healthy, and happy."
Queen Fareeda sputtered. "I'm sorry, you'll be marrying? At the festival, of all times and places?"
"Yes," Rayla told her firmly.
"But you - you're..."
"I think that's wonderful," the Earthblood leader, Padma, praised. "What better way to celebrate this anniversary of peace?"
When Rayla glanced at Ezran, tension visibly left his shoulders. He hadn't said anything about it, but it had been clear that he was nervous about what the elves would think about the marriage, and it looked like he was experiencing a dream come true to hear them speak positively about it.
"Peace is one thing," King Florian added, "but marriage between a human and an elf.... I don't think the world is quite ready for that, yet. Don't you think you should...perhaps postpone the wedding? Or marry sometime other than the festival?"
"Oh, let them marry when they want," King Ahling defended. "They're clearly happy and in love. We are guests in their kingdom, and they have just extended us an invitation to the wedding. It's becoming to accept and congratulate them."
Queen Fareeda tried again, "But this type of marriage is-"
"Progressive and revolutionary," Aanya cut her off. "This type of marriage is going to lead us into a new age. An age where discrimination between humans and elves will be a thing of the past. And besides that, I spend time with Prince Callum and Lady Rayla outside of political affairs whenever I can. There is no one better suited to bring us into a new age than they are. And under King Ezran's rule, Katolis is doing a great deal to bring humans and elves closer together every day. And if Prince Callum and Lady Rayla are happy with their marriage, then there is no reason to argue. They deserve happiness, just like everyone else does."
Queen Fareeda and King Florian exchanged annoyed looks, but didn't find the words to retort. Eventually, King Florian replied, "I suppose you're right as usual, Queen Aanya. We should be congratulating them. I accept the invitation to your wedding, and also wish you well." His tone didn't exactly say the same thing, but it was a start.
Rayla couldn't silently thank Aanya enough for getting them to see that it was a good thing. While the rest of the dinner was more tense, at least it was out in the air, and no one was trying to argue it anymore, which meant that Rayla didn't have to fight with anyone. Aanya could fight as much as she wanted, as a human queen, and Rayla appreciated every single time she stood up for her.
When the sun went down and everyone began retiring to their respective rooms, Rayla let out a breath she felt she'd been holding all dinner. The hardest part was over, and it wasn't even as bad as they expected it could be.
"Off to prepare for the wedding, I suppose," Rayla commented as she and Callum began down the hallway. Unfortunately, he was still quiet. Usually, she would be fine with that and not mind walking with him in silence, but now, she felt the need to talk for both of them. "You're meeting with the tailor tonight, right? I meet with him tomorrow. I have no idea what I want my dress to look like. Never much thought about it. I was always more interested in the practicality of my outfits, which I'm sure you know. Even this one is restricting, and my skirt's not even that long. But either way, I'll work something out with the tailor. While you meet with him tonight, I guess I'll start writing my vows. Shouldn't be too hard, I'll really just be listing all the reasons you're my best friend."
She almost winced as her mind screamed Don't say it, Callum, don't say it .
Callum's eyes were red and he looked like he was about to cry. That wasn't the face of a panic attack. That was the face of utter distress.
Don't say it.
"I can't keep doing this," he whispered.
She stopped and took his hand, gazing at him in concern. "Doing what? Us?"
With a half nod, his breath caught and he continued, "I can't keep lying to you - to both of us. Ray, I've been in love with you for years. Ever since that day on the beach when you were sitting with my jacket over your head. I didn't want to say anything - I couldn't say anything. We had only just gotten past one set of unrequited feelings, we didn't need to deal with another, so I kept quiet. With this whole engagement, I thought that maybe if we had a breakup, then I would just get over it and move on, but now we're getting married, and you don't feel the same way about me as I feel about you. It's not fair to either of us. You don't deserve to hold the burden of my feelings, and it hurts me to keep doing this. I know that we just announced it, but I can't do this. I don't want to force you into a marriage where I'm the only one with romantic feelings. You don't deserve that." He tugged his ring off his hand and pressed it into Rayla's palm. "I would marry you tomorrow. Anytime, anywhere, I would marry you in a heartbeat. But I don't want to do it unless you really want to marry me. It's up to you."
He turned and started running down the hall before she could get the chance to reply.
She stood alone in the hallway, her hand still in front of her, clutching tightly to Callum's ring. He'd said it. She hadn't even realized that that was what she was trying to avoid him saying this whole time. All she'd known was that she had the vague feeling that she wanted something left unsaid, but now it had all come out at once. And it made sense. His reactions during every of the engagement, yelling the previous night that it wasn't fair but not explaining what, everything made sense now.
He was in love with her. And he had been for years. He'd been suffering in silence for three years. Had she noticed, and simply dismissed it, or told herself that she was going crazy?
The worst part, she felt, was that she had no idea what to think about what had just happened. She thought she'd left her feelings behind when she was sixteen. But it seemed like a lot of things hadn't been left as far behind as she thought.
Chapter 23: Marriage
Callum goes down to the town to clean up by himself.
If asked about how he got through his meeting with the tailor who was kindly making Callum a new suit for his wedding, Callum would have no idea. He had found a quiet place to cry for a few minutes before meeting with the tailor, and during the meeting, he knew that he was unfocused, and that he was driving the poor tailor crazy. But they had settled on a design, even if Callum didn't entirely remember what that design was.
It was late when he got back to his room. He should have been tired and ready to go to bed. But he couldn't. His mind was racing through what he'd said to Rayla and how they were going to work through this now that he'd completely destroyed their relationship. Everything was going to fall apart and it was his fault. If he had just kept it together, if he had just kept quiet, then this wouldn't have happened, and they would be okay. If he just hadn't fallen for her, then he would be fine. Marrying his best friend would be fine. But marrying the girl who didn't love him back, that wasn't fine for anyone.
And he couldn't get his mind off of it. Off of her.
He tried pacing. He tried reading. He tried drawing.
Nothing could get his thoughts off of her, and nothing calmed him enough to go to sleep.
He had no idea what time it was when he accepted that he wouldn't be getting any sleep that night. If he was going to be awake all night, then he might as well be productive.
The hallways were empty as he walked through the castle. The only sign that there were, in fact, still living people inside was the occasional guard at their posts. They gave him strange looks, but didn't question why he was wandering so late at night. He couldn't have been more grateful that the guards were too tired to care where he was going. If anyone asked him what was going on, he just might not be able to keep it together.
Making his way down to the stables, he quietly woke his favorite mare, the easiest to ride. He saddled her up and did his best to leave as silently as possible so he wouldn't wake the other horses. Once out of earshot, they picked up the pace and started toward the town. He would let her sleep in one of the town stables while he worked.
Two full days of cleaning and repairing had done a world of good. Most of the ash and broken pieces were out of the town square, and several stands had been repaired for vendors. There was still plenty of work to do, though, and everyone planning to sell or perform (in any way they might be able) had to focus on what they were doing. They didn't need to waste time worrying about the mess in the town. He could be the one to worry about it, instead. At least it would give his brain something to do. And he could use a hammer to pound out some of his frustration.
With every pound of the hammer into the new stand, another "what if" passed through his head.
What if he had told her how he felt when he fell in love with her years ago? Would they have stayed friends?
What if he had just kept his mouth shut? Would he and Rayla have had a happy marriage? Would she have eventually fallen in love with him without him needing to expose how long he had loved her?
What if he had refused to be her fake fiance? Wouldn't things just be normal? Or would she be angry because he hadn't helped her defy her parents?
What if he just left? Abandoned the festival, his life in Katolis, his best friend, his brother.... No, that one was stupid. As badly as his legs wanted to carry him out of town to live in the woods and survive off of fruit and rainwater, that wouldn't help anything.
And as productive as he was being, building stands didn't seem to be helping his head much either.
He had barely started building a second when the sun started to rise and give him more light. Unfortunately, even after physical labor and trying not to shout at the stand that he couldn't seem to make sit evenly, he still wasn't tired.
Wiping sweat off his brow, he continued, his anger at the daylight and at the stand and mostly at himself being the only thing keeping him motivated and awake.
The sun was peeking between buildings when Callum heard the sound of wheels down a pathway. Was it normal for people to be awake this early in the morning in town?
He turned to the source of the sound and saw Soren making his way over, a notebook in his lap.
"What're you doing out here so early?" Callum asked, setting down his tools and brushing dust and ash off his clothes.
Soren raised an eyebrow and looked him up and down. "I could be asking you the same thing. How long have you been out here?"
Callum shrugged. "A while."
With a sigh and a sympathetic smile, Soren placed the notebook on the uneven stand Callum had just finished. "Pre-wedding jitters? I get it. Well, I was up all night sketching out how the ceremony will be set up after I met with Opeli. She's more than happy to officiate the ceremony. It's actually perfect that you're out here, because I want your opinion and I have a couple of questions for you."
It could not be a worse time, but Callum relented. He kept his left hand behind him to hide the lack of a ring as he looked at the notebook and told Soren that the setup was perfect (even though he could not possibly care less about the arrangement of chairs).
"I know that we're doing pretty simple," Soren continued, "but Rayla needs flowers. I know that she’s meeting with the tailor for her dress this morning, but flowers are just as important as the dress. Now, culturally, the moon lily would be the most appropriate for the wedding, but those are only found in Xadia, and there's no way we can get those before the wedding. So what's her favorite flower?"
Callum didn’t need to think about it. “There’s a type of blue rose she found when we were younger, but we’ve only seen it at the Moon Nexus. That’s also too long of a journey get them back in time for the wedding, though. Even with horses, the round trip will be over a week.”
Soren narrowed his eyes determinedly. “I will immediately send the fastest soldiers I can. And I’ll ask an Earthblood elf to go too so they can preserve the flowers. Even if it’s simple and short-notice, your wedding will be perfect.” It was funny, in Callum’s opinion, how set Soren was on making it the best wedding possible. It wasn’t even a wedding for a real couple.
“Thanks,” was all Callum managed to say, forcing a smile. He turned his attention back to the stand and busied himself with trying to make it more level than the last one was.
Soren wheeled a little closer and cast Callum a concerned look. “You okay, man? It’s okay if you’re nervous. You can talk about it if you need to.”
He stopped, heaving a deep breath and avoiding making eye contact. After a few moments, he whispered, “I told Rayla that I’m in love with her.”
“Uh, yeah, I sure hope you did. You are getting married.”
“We are, but…” If anyone deserved to know, it was Soren. The wedding planner should know in advance just in case everything came crashing down around them. He was pouring so much work into this, and if Rayla decided to call it off, then Soren deserved an explanation.
He was about to begin into the story when he heard footsteps and rummaging. He turned to see who else was up at this ridiculously early hour, and nearly bolted from the scene when he saw who it was.
Oelsi and Kimar picked up where they had apparently left off the night before and quietly began loading and sweeping rubble onto a cart to take it away from the town square. When Soren saw Callum shrink back and try to hide behind the stand, he sighed.
“You can’t avoid them forever,” Soren told him, his volume just low enough for Callum to be the only one to hear. “I can stay here while you talk to them if you want.”
The part of him that didn’t want to inconvenience Soren, especially with how busy he was planning a whole wedding in just a few days, almost told him that it was okay for him to go. His fear of Rayla’s parents, however, won out, and he nodded to ask him to stay.
Gathering his courage, Callum straightened and set down his tools to approach Oelsi and Kimar. They didn’t say anything, but spared him a glance as they continued building.
“Thank you for all your help,” he muttered, staring at the ground between them. “It means a lot that you would spend your time cleaning up this mess when you came to Katolis to see your daughter and enjoy the festival.”
Oelsi allowed a kind smile on his face. “We’ve seen how hard you’ve been working to make it come together. Rayla, too. We know she used preparations as an excuse to not be around us a few times, but she’s poured herself into this, and we want to see it happen. She deserves that much.”
“She deserves the world. She deserves better than you.” Callum surprised himself with his words, but stuck to them, clenching his fists at his sides. “She deserves parents who show her that they care. Who make a point to remember her childhood - hell, who make an effort to raise her. Rayla is incredible, and brave, and her kindness to you is so much more than what you deserve after what you’ve put her through. I don’t like either of you, and I think that you owe Rayla not only an apology, but a reform in your behavior. Instead of being childish, you could show her, for once in your life, that you love her. If you don’t show her, then we have to assume that your words are just as empty as we both think they are.”
A silence fell, and Callum nearly ran from the scene like he had the previous night. But when he felt Soren behind him in silent support, he stood his ground.
“She deserves someone who’s always going to be on her side, no matter what.”
Kimar’s comment almost made Callum jump. He agreed, but where was she going with that? He expected her to shout at him, but it seemed like just the opposite.
“That’s not to say that I like you either,” she clarified. “I still think that a human prince is far from the type of person she should be with. But I have seen that you’re on her side and how much you’ll do for her. It’s...admirable. I suppose.”
He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Kimar was calling him admirable? Saying that maybe it was good that he was with Rayla? It was far from acceptance, but it was impressive nonetheless. He felt just a little taller at that.
“Thank you,” he repeated. “You should know that Rayla and I have decided to move our wedding up. We’ll be getting married on Sunday, the last day of the festival.”
Surprise on their features, Oelsi and Kimar exchanged a look.
“That’s wonderful,” Oelsi said, though his tone didn’t sound terribly excited. “Kimar and I...uh, we weren’t planning to stay for the whole festival. We need to travel back to Xadia after the first day.”
“Oh.” Maybe it sounded like disappointment to them, but Callum was just annoyed. All this pestering and inserting themselves into their lives, and now that they knew that their daughter’s wedding was only a few days away, they didn’t even want to be there? What kind of parents would leave town just days before their daughter married? It didn’t matter if they didn’t like him, they should be there to support Rayla.
“If you would accept it,” Oelsi continued, “We could offer you a piece of marriage advice.”
Callum nearly rolled his eyes. Great, marriage advice from the pair he’d just told off, who had proven themselves again and again to be untrustworthy and unkind. He didn’t say anything, but Oelsi seemed to take that as permission.
“Be genuine with each other.” Oelsi’s voice was quiet and reflective. “Tell each other the truth, even when you don’t think it’ll do anything good for either of you. It’ll help your relationship to grow and be better every day when you don’t hide things from each other.”
His heart twisted in his chest. He had finally decided to be genuine with Rayla and stop hiding his feelings from her, but he had ruined everything.
Memories of Rayla coming clean with the truth throughout their relationship entered his mind. Each time she had told him the truth, they had only gotten closer and their bond had gotten stronger. When she told him and Ezran about her assassin’s binding, when they spoke about his father’s death, when she told him she loved him….
Maybe it was good advice. And maybe it would go both ways. They could come out of this stronger than they had been before.
“We’ll be sure to follow it,” Callum breathed. “I’ll always be genuine with her. Always.”
“Mark my words,” Kimar said, crossing her arms with a smile twitching at her lips, “if you’re not, I’ll come and destroy you myself.”
Even though it was technically a threat, for once, Callum didn’t feel afraid. Instead, he told her, “I’d like to see you try.”
Chapter 24: The Ball
Rayla's been in a haze, trying to figure out her feelings toward Callum. The festival begins.
Warning for Rayla having a depressive episode, the worst of which is losing track of what day it is.
Rayla felt a haze come over her after the dinner with the leaders, and she couldn’t quite seem to shake it. She was aware that at some point, evening had become night, night had become morning, and someone had come to tell her that she needed to meet with the tailor. Which she probably did do. She had vague memories of making decisions for last-minute preparations, but couldn't remember what they were. Callum wasn't there for any of them. It didn't really matter, though. Everything would be fine.
With the festival, that is.
She laid in bed, but didn't sleep. There was light coming through her window, but with the sound of the rain outside, she couldn't tell what time it was. Had a full day passed? Two? Or had it only been a few hours since her world had come crashing down around her? It felt like an eternity, but she couldn't decide if it was a short eternity or a long one.
Callum loved her. Callum had loved her for years , and somehow, she had missed it. She'd mistaken his affection for platonic love, assumed that he was treating her like a friend, not as someone he was in love with. And maybe he was treating her as a friend. Maybe he'd pushed down those feelings to make sure she was comfortable, like she had all those years ago. But it didn't even matter anymore. She'd been too stupid to realize, and put him in a situation that must have been killing him for weeks. She must have been killing him. She'd kissed him, she'd decided they had to convince everyone that they were getting married, she talked about a wedding, and she must have made it so much harder for him. And the worst part was that she enjoyed it. As much as she'd ignored it and refused to acknowledge anything she was feeling apart from her spite and smugness at upsetting her parents, there were so many moments that she'd even wished that it wasn’t an act.
Her fingers on one hand brushed against the cuffs on her horns while the other tightly gripped Callum's ring that she'd put on a chain to wear around her neck. The only functioning part of her brain made sure that the ring was tucked under Callum's old scarf that she continued to wear, hiding their problems from everyone else, but keeping it with her nonetheless. But even when she was alone, she didn't take the ring off, and she kept the cuffs firmly on her horns.
She didn't have to keep them. Callum had left everything up to her. She could find Soren and tell him that it was a mistake, everything was off. She could throw the cuffs and Callum's ring in the river, never to be seen again.
She clutched the ring tightly.
Her mind traveled back to when she was sixteen. She and Callum had been on a diplomatic journey with a member of the high council, as well as a few guards. They hardly got a minute away from everyone else, and they were both tired and annoyed that they had been forced into a political position when all they wanted was a few weeks to relax. They had a tendency, since they couldn't spend much time together, to slip into each other's rooms late at night and fall asleep by each other's side. It was one such night after Callum had gotten her through a particularly emotionally difficult day, when he was in her room and pulled her into his arms. Just as they were drifting off to sleep, Rayla had muttered that she was in love with him. He had bolted upright and asked her to repeat what she said, and they ended up without sleep that night, because they decided their time was better spent talking through everything and coming to terms with the fact that he didn't reciprocate her feelings.
What she would have given back then to hear him say what he had said to her after the dinner. But now he had finally said it, and she didn't think that it was what she wanted anymore. Wasn't she over it? Hadn't she buried those feelings long ago, leaving them in the past, where they belonged?
Things weren't supposed to turn out this way. He wasn't supposed to be in love with her.
Yet she was planning to marry him anyway. Was love really going to be the reason she called off an engagement? If so, then they never should have been planning a wedding in the first place.
A knock sounded at her door, but she couldn't find it in her to get up, or to tell her visitor that they could come in.
The door opened anyway, and Ezran's soft voice said, "Hey Rayla. I know you're not up to it, but the ball starts in a couple hours, and we need you there. You should start getting ready." After a few moments, he asked, "Do you want me to send someone to help you?"
She shook her head and pushed herself up to sitting. Her whole body felt heavy. "No. I can get ready on my own." Looking up at him, she questioned, "How long until it starts?"
"Two hours," Ezran replied, closing the door behind him and taking a few steps toward her. He scrutinized her face. "Your eyes are red. Have you been crying?"
Her first instinct was to deny it and tell him that she was fine. What escaped her instead was a weak, "I don't know. Probably." It didn't matter if she told Ezran. He already knew everything anyway.
"Callum told me what happened," he whispered, sitting on the bed next to her. "I know it's got to be hard for you. So let me know if you need anything, okay? And if you need to step out of the ball for a few minutes at any point, other than the first dance, you can do that, and I'll cover for you. Okay?"
Words couldn't express how grateful she was to have Ezran. She managed a smile and said, "Thanks, Ez. I'll be down to the ballroom in two hours."
With a nod, Ezran wrapped her in a hug. "It's going to be okay. One way or another, things will be okay. You and Callum aren't the type of people to let this destroy you. You didn't before, and you won't now." He pulled away, gave her an encouraging grin, and left the room to let her get ready.
She heaved herself up off her bed and meandered over to her wardrobe. Luckily, since this ball was an event open to the public and townspeople weren’t expected to have high-class gowns and suits, Ezran had chosen to have the event less formal. As one of the centers of attention, Rayla was glad that her dress didn't need to be floor-length, and she was allowed to wear something easy to move in. She had a knee-length lavender dress for these occasions, made of a light material and flowed with her movements, perfect for a hot summer evening.
After slipping into her dress, she sat at the vanity she rarely used. Ezran was right - not just her eyes were red and puffy, but her cheeks were blotchy as well. Her hair was a complete mess, and part of her wondered if she had gone around the castle like that (if she had even been out of her room in the past day). She sighed and picked up a comb to brush through her hair and get it manageable.
It didn't take her the full two hours to do her hair. Within a few minutes, she had half of her hair back in a bun with the rest lying on her shoulders. She had plenty of time to spare, and part of her wondered what she would do with that leftover time. The rest of her knew that she would spend it the exact same way she'd spent the rest of the day: barely functioning, staring off into space, losing track of time, and wondering where she had gone wrong.
When she stood from her vanity, her eyes landed on the red scarf on her bed and reminded her that she needed to cover the ring around her neck, lest anyone notice that it wasn't on Callum. She could tuck the ring under the neckline of her dress, but then she risked it coming loose. It was safer to wear the scarf, which would complement her dress well, but was that such a good idea? She'd worn it nearly every day since Callum gave it to her, but she hadn't seen him since he confessed to her. Would he even be at the ball? She had no idea where he had been, and they had barely spoken about the ball. Would he not show up, and she would have to share the first dance with Ezran instead? Would he show up and avoid her the whole time? Would wearing the scarf give him the wrong idea about how she felt? How did she want him to think she felt? They were supposed to be getting married, after all. Was it so bad if he believed that she was in love with him? If they went through with the wedding, it was more than likely that she would fall in love with him over time, wasn't it? Be it days or years, it would happen, she knew it would, but if she wasn't in love with him quite yet, would it be bad if she let him think she was? Or.... If she didn't know how she wanted him to think she felt, then did she even know what all the jumbled-up emotions inside her were saying? For all she knew, the reason she couldn’t focus and couldn’t sort out what she was feeling was because she wasn’t able to hear the one part of her that did know what she wanted.
Rayla closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath. She needed to stop overthinking. It was silly, getting so mixed up about whether or not she should wear a scarf. She had worn it every day for over a week. While Callum's feelings were new to her, it wasn't like they had really changed. He was still Callum. She was still Rayla. They still fit together just as well as they did before. The scarf was still soft. It still smelled like him. And it still filled her heart to hold onto this physical manifestation of their bond. Even if it was old and had seen better days, it was still bright, vibrant, and theirs .
Carefully, she wrapped it around her neck and made sure it covered the ring. All she needed to do was slip on her shoes, and she would be ready.
For the time being, she opted to sit in the window sill and watch the rain as it came down. A lot of people would be walking to the castle from the town. If she heard correctly earlier, Ezran had sent carriages to bring people up so they could stay dry, but there was no telling if it would be enough.
Apparently she got lost in thought again, because when another knock sounded on her door and she was pulled back into reality, the sun had shifted behind the clouds. Was it already time?
She slipped her shoes on and opened her door, expecting Ezran or a guard telling her that it was time to report to the ballroom.
Instead, Callum stood there, clad in the purple suit jacket that had been specifically made to match her dress for occasions like this. He looked exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair was sticking up at odd angles.
"Are you ready?" he asked quietly.
She nodded and stepped out of her room, closing the door behind her. Callum offered his arm, and she took it gratefully, allowing him to escort her down to the ballroom.
"I wasn't sure if you were going to come," she whispered.
He let out a laugh that didn't have much joy behind it. "Can't really skip it." He glanced at her and asked, "Are you okay?"
How in the world was she supposed to respond to that? 'I've been so emotionally destroyed that I don't know what day it is'? 'I'm terrified that I did something to lead you to believe that our relationship is something it's not, and that I'm continuing to do so right now'? 'I don't know if I ever truly resolved my feelings from forever ago, and I'm having a crisis about it'?
"As okay as I can be, I guess," she told him. Holding tightly to his arm, she insisted, "Please, I don't want things to fall apart between us. I'm so sorry that I - I don't know, but I want you to know that I don't see you any differently than I did before."
He snorted. "Is that supposed to make me feel better?"
"No, that's not what I-" She stopped herself before she could ramble. "I mean that we're the same people we were just a few days ago. Your feelings were there the whole time, I just didn't know about them. The fact that I know how you feel now doesn't change that you're still my best friend. And...and my fiance."
Callum tensed and stopped, just a short ways away from the ballroom.
"Only if you want to," he reminded her. "There's no plan for a formal announcement tonight. Ezran left that up to us. All we'd have to do is stop Soren and dismiss it to everyone else as rumors. We could still have a dance or something on the last day instead of a wedding. Don't think that you have to do this just because you told Ezran you would."
His words were soothing, and they slowed her heart rate. She leaned her forehead on his shoulder. "Thank you, Callum. I...I'm really not sure about all of it. But it means the world to me that you're approaching it this way." Lifting her head back up to look in his eyes, she asked. "Do you want to call it off? Because if this has ruined things for you, I understand, and I want to respect your boundaries."
He shook his head. "It's...it's not the marriage that I have a problem with, Ray." The softness with which he said her nickname made her heart jump into her throat. "I don't want to go through with a marriage that you're not comfortable with. I understand if you're not in love with me. But if we get married and I'm in love with you and you don't feel the same way, then it's unbalanced, and it's not fair to either of us. I want you to be happy, and if this wouldn't make you happy - if it wouldn't make either of us happy - then you have the opportunity to back out."
“Okay,” she breathed. “I need a bit of time. Thank you.”
With a nod, Callum placed a stiff smile on his lips. “You ready to go socialize?”
She groaned with a small laugh and reached up to fix his hair. “No, I want nothing less right now. But come on, let’s do it.” She pulled him along to descend the stairs into the ballroom and into the light of the chandeliers, into the gaze of everyone who wanted to catch a glimpse of them.
People were beginning to arrive, some dry, and some dripping wet. Servants met them at the door and offered towels for people to wrap around their shoulders and dry off a bit before the festivities of the ball began.
Rayla and Callum were allowed to roam the room, together or separately, despite Ezran’s post at the north end of the room to greet whoever came to speak with him. He pouted at the fact that he had to stay in one place, but held onto the knowledge that he could join the party later on.
They said hellos to the people of Katolis, guests from all the other kingdoms, brand new guests from Xadia, and they pretended that they cared to interact with the nobles. It got easier the more they did it. Small talk wasn’t terribly difficult, just boring. She could only comment on the rain with so many people.
Finally, they were able to escape and find Soren, Claudia, and Corvus, who were arguing at the edge of the room.
“-still is terrible at using the right number of syllables, but at least sonnets are consistent!” Claudia was animatedly arguing her point, arms flailing, and gesturing to Soren, who looked disgruntled.
“But he better uses the spirit of the limerick!” Corvus retorted. “He can write sonnets, sure, but the limerick is obviously his strong suit!”
“I don’t know,” Aanya offered, taking a sip of her drink. “His freeform poetry is my favorite.”
The other two all but combusted in anger at her while she smirked and very clearly fought back a laugh.
Ezran sidled up beside them. “They’re arguing about Soren’s poetry again?”
Nodding, Rayla replied, “Sounds like it.”
“While they fight,” Callum told her, “I’m going to get us something to drink. Be right back.” He slipped away toward the food and drink.
Ezran nudged Rayla in the side, taking the opportunity to speak lowly while the rest of the group argued. “How are you guys doing?”
She shrugged. “Not great. But it’s not like there’s anything I can do about that.” Folding her arms in front of her, she murmured, “I...might need to call it off. It’s not fair, because I don’t reciprocate how he feels.”
He gave her a curious look. “Don’t you?”
That caught her off guard. She spluttered for a second and tried to say that no, she didn’t, she was sure of it - well, almost sure of it. But nothing comprehensible came out. She steadied her mind and tried to reply, but the moment she did, Callum returned and held a glass out to her. She accepted it while silently trying her hardest to shake off those two stupid words from Ezran. Why did he insist on giving her these tiny comments that send her reeling? Would it be so hard to let things be?
Within a few minutes, Ezran gathered everyone’s attention and announced that it was time for the first dance.
“To begin the dance, please welcome to the floor the two people who made the festival possible. Even when everything was falling apart and the world was against them, they worked with what they had, and let nothing get in their way. My brother and one of my best friends, the two who never give up. Esteemed guests, Prince Callum and Lady Rayla.”
Callum gently took Rayla’s hand and began leading her to the center of the dance floor, a spark of life, and maybe even joy, back in his eyes. He loved dancing, even though he’d told her on multiple occasions how terrible she was. Yet with how casual an affair this was, she doubted it mattered. It wasn’t like this was a choreographed dance. They could do what they wanted and dance however their feet led them.
The music began, a soft swell of string instruments allowing them to take their positions, her hand on his shoulder, which was higher than it had been the last time they’d danced, and his on her back, holding her close. Violet eyes met green ones, and the electricity in the gaze seemed to charge their feet to begin gliding across the floor. Callum led effortlessly, pulling her along with him and helping her to mirror his steps. He spun her, and her skirt fanned. He led her through a set of steps that was more complicated than it needed to be, and she couldn’t help but giggle.
The longer the song went on, the more into it they got, grinning and twirling, laughing and leaping. Callum tried to lift her, and they both tumbled to the floor in a heap of laughter as others joined the dance around them.
“Rayla,” Callum said, cradling her cheeks in his hands as they stayed on the floor, ignoring everyone dancing around them. “I want you to know that no matter what happens, no matter what you decide, I love you, and I want you to be happy. Seeing you happy is more than good enough for me.”
His words pulled mercilessly at her heart, and she took his hands from her face, pressing a kiss to each hand. “I love you to the moon and back, Callum. Even if I don’t know in what way.”
He got to his feet and tugged her up as well to rejoin the dance, less wild than before.
As they stepped in time to the music, some movement near the exit caught Rayla’s eye. Oelsi and Kimar were already leaving. She didn’t even know that they were in attendance. Were they leaving because of the dance? Their moment on the floor? Just because they felt like spiting her again?
No. She closed her eyes and took a breath.
“Everything alright?” Callum asked, leading her through a spin.
She looked at him and smiled. “Everything’s fine. I just saw my parents leaving, but you know what? I can’t change how they think or feel. All I can do is be in control of how I react to them. Besides, it’s a festival. I might as well enjoy myself.”
“That’s the best outlook you can have,” he affirmed, dipping her. She nearly sipped, but held tight to him until he brought her back up to standing. “And even if they’re being terrible and spiteful, know that I’m always by your side.” The song came to a close and he tenderly kissed her forehead. “Always.”
Chapter 25: Honeymoon
The festival goes into full swing.
As balls went, Callum decided that that was one of the best he’d attended. It was nice that it wasn’t overly formal, and it wasn’t stuffy and filled exclusively with nobles.
The night had gotten easier once he and Rayla had loosened up. They were able to ignore the fact that her parents slipped out, and Rayla became a main object of attention once people realized how terrible a dancer she was. Townspeople wanted to dance with her, King Ahling was delighted to attempt a dance, she had a wonderful time on the floor with Aanya, and a number of elves tried to teach her traditional dances. It was fun to watch, and every so often, someone pulled Callum in to see if he would be able to teach her, with no luck.
He changed into his nightclothes, slipped into bed, and stretched, feeling the activity of the evening finally catching up to him. A yawn escaped him and he settled into bed, ready for sleep to take him.
His door creaked open.
Keeping still, he mentally ran through his defenses. He could use magic to blow whoever it was back, he knew the basics of self-defense, and as a last resort, he did have a knife in his nightstand.
Footsteps approached his bed. He kept his hand under the covers and drew a rune.
The intruder’s voice whispered, “Callum-”
Before anything else could happen, he threw the blankets off and called, “ Aspiro !” and the person fell backwards onto the floor.
“Callum,” she growled, and he was suddenly aware of the voice and the silhouette he would recognize anywhere, now softly illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window. Rayla stood and brushed herself off, wrapping her robe around her nightclothes.
“Sorry,” he quickly said. “What’re you doing in here?”
She averted her eyes to the floor. “I, uh...can I stay for tonight?”
He shifted to lay on the farther side of the bed so she could climb in next to him. “Did any guards see you?”
Rolling her eyes, she replied, “Of course not, dummy. I’m smarter than that.” She draped her robe over his desk chair and settled under the covers, facing him.
Things may have loosened between them during the ball, but together in his bed was an entirely different matter. His heart was pounding as he looked at her. All the tension between them was back, and then some.
“Could you not sleep?” he breathed.
With a shrug, she said, “Probably. I just...wanted to be around you, I guess. I might not know what to make of everything going on, but I do know that I like spending time with you. So right now, I’m not going to call off the wedding, because I know that I like being near you, and a wedding would mean that I get to do that for the rest of my life. And that doesn’t sound too bad to me.”
“Okay.” Callum’s voice was so quiet that even he could hardly hear it. He hesitated for just a moment before slipping his hand into Rayla’s. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and closed her eyes.
After taking another few seconds to look at her in the dim moonlight, he closed his eyes to let sleep take him as well.
If there was anything he didn’t want to do when he woke up, it was get up and get to the town early.
When he opened his eyes and saw Rayla still turned toward him, sleeping soundly, it was even harder to convince himself to start the day. He knew that she was beautiful, but it was another thing entirely to see her laying next to him, looking so peaceful. With all the tension they’d been experiencing for the past couple of days - weeks - it was a relief to see her like this, instead of stiff and nervous.
He reached a hand out to brush her white hair out of her face, then stopped when his eyes landed on the jewel around her neck. His engagement ring. He’d expected her to keep it in her room, if she kept it at all. But she wore it around her neck, as close to her as she could, hidden by his scarf. If this wasn’t going to be the death of him, then he didn’t know what would be.
Gently, he shifted closer to press a gentle kiss to her forehead.
Her eyes fluttered open and she stretched and settled back in. She murmured, “Morning,” with a lopsided smile.
If she wasn’t calling off the wedding, then he had a whole lifetime of lopsided early-morning smiles and bedhead waiting for him, and that excited him more than the prospect of anything else in his life.
“I have to go down to the town,” he whispered, propping himself up on his elbow. “The scavenger hunt starts early, and I want to check how things are running before I join it.”
Rayla nodded and sat up, running her fingers through her messy hair, trying to get it unstuck from her horns. “I’ll go with you if you don’t mind waiting for me to get dressed.”
“Not at all,” he replied, helping her with one particularly knotted part of her hair.
They both climbed out of bed, and Callum selected his clothes for the day while Rayla listened at the door to hear the guards pass by so it would be safe for her to slip out and back into her room unnoticed. He changed into comfortable clothing and stepped down the hall to wait for Rayla. It was only a moment before she was ready, looking just as put-together as she always did, not at all like she had just been bleary-eyed and bedheaded a few minutes before.
Together, they made their way down to the stables to take a pair of horses to the town. As they were about to leave, Soren called their names, quickly wheeling across the courtyard to get to them.
“I’m so glad I caught you,” he sighed, flipping open the notebook on his lap as soon as he stopped. “Where are you two going on your honeymoon? That’s going to determine a lot about the food at the wedding.”
Callum and Rayla exchanged a glance before she said, “You really don’t need to put this much thought into it, Soren. Any food that’s already being served at the festival or sold by vendors is fine.”
Shaking his head, Soren insisted, “Not good enough. You need food that’s going to reflect your relationship, as well as what you want from the future. Don’t test me, I know exactly what I’m doing.” His face and tone were deathly serious.
“We weren’t planning to go to any one place though,” Callum explained, trying not to laugh. “We’re planning to travel around and go to a bunch of different places.”
That gave him pause. Soren looked down at his notebook for a second before saying, “Okay, we’ll just go wild with the food then. I’m sure that your marriage will be wild too, so it’ll work.” He scribbled a note down and asked, “Also, how do you plan to spread the news? I thought you would announce it at the ball.”
Callum looked to Rayla. That was completely up to her.
She shifted, looking a bit uncomfortable, but decided, “We’ll announce it after one of the big events.” Her eyes flicked to him and he gave her a nod. He would keep his mouth shut and let her announce it or not.
“Okay, I won’t worry about that, then. Thanks, and have fun in town.” He crossed something off his list and snapped his notebook shut, wheeling himself away.
Half an hour later, Callum and Rayla were riding into town and checking their horses into a town stable. It was still early, but the town was already bustling with people. All the vendors had new stands - less decorated, but still as functional as their original stands. There was a person juggling, a bowl in front of him for donations, and there were a few children grouped around a storyteller, animatedly recounting one of the great tales of Katolis. It didn’t matter how early it was to the townspeople. The festival had begun, and that was going to be the only thing on anyone’s minds.
“Looks like everyone’s having a good time,” Rayla commented, tossing a coin into a street performer’s donation cup.
“We might have actually pulled this off,” Callum replied, feeling himself brighten. He put an arm around Rayla and pulled her into himself. “Thanks for all your work on this.”
“Me?” she laughed. “This wouldn’t have happened without you. You worked so hard, and even more, you’ve had my back through everything that’s gone on.” The look she gave him as she stepped in front of him and took his hands nearly made his heart melt into the ground. “Thank you, Callum. We absolutely deserve our trip after this.”
He nodded and squeezed her hands. “We definitely deserve it.” Motioning to the arena, he prompted, “You’re one of the first fights, right? Go on, beat some crown guard butt.”
“You know I will,” Rayla joked, then took off toward the tournament.
Callum turned and started heading toward the meeting area for the scavenger hunt. The hunt was supposed to last two days, just like the tournament, and all participants needed to be debriefed and given their first puzzle. It wasn’t a normal scavenger hunt in that they had to go from one location to another to another; each destination gave them a new puzzle to get to the next. It was Callum’s favorite part of the festival, and he wanted to get started as early as possible. Corvus was competing this year, and he was determined to beat him.
He stopped when he heard Aanya’s familiar voice as she trotted up to him.
“I’ve had people looking,” she lamented, “but nobody can find my uncle. Everyone thinks Matvey left town.”
At least that meant that Matvey couldn’t ruin the festival again, but it could also mean that he would slip away and escape consequences for his actions.
“If that’s the case,” he considered, “then we don’t have to worry about it until after the festival.” With a grin, he put a hand on Aanya’s shoulder. “Enjoy it, Aanya. We’ll deal with Matvey after.”
That didn’t seem to make her feel much better, but she nodded. “Okay. Alright, you’re doing the scavenger hunt, right? Come show me how it works, I want to try.”
Chapter 26: Pregnancy
Rayla works through some things in her own head.
Rayla’s first fight was easy. It wasn’t a crown guard she was up against, but a farmer from Neolandia who knew the moment he saw her that there was no way he was going to win. The fight was over in seconds.
Most, if not all, of her fights were happening that day. The first bracket was fighting to find their champion that day, and the second bracket was fighting the next day. Then they would end the tournament with the winners of each bracket facing off. With any luck, Rayla would be the one to finish it.
Since her next fight wasn’t for a while, she went to sit on the benches with Ezran and Claudia, who had come to cheer her on. As she drew closer to them, however, she grew suspicious; Ezran looked like he was going to vibrate out of his skin.
“What’s so exciting?” she asked, sliding into the seat next to him.
“Can I tell her?” Ezran squeaked, bouncing up and down.
Claudia chuckled and rolled her eyes. “Usually it would be rude to tell someone else’s news, but since I’m here, you can-”
“Claudia’s pregnant!” Ezran cut her off.
“Oh!” Unexpected, but definitely as exciting as Ezran thought. “That’s fantastic! When’s the baby due?”
With an ear-to-ear grin, she replied, “February. I’m two months along, Corvus and I just recently found out. That’s why we hesitated when you said February for the wedding.”
“Makes sense,” Rayla said with a laugh. “It’d be hard to be part of a wedding while taking care of a newborn. Callum and I will definitely come back here around that time so we can meet the little one.”
“We will be roping you into helping out with them,” she told her.
“I wouldn’t expect anything less. The wee one’s got to know their Auntie Rayla.”
They tossed around potential names while waiting for Rayla’s next fight. Ezran hated every name Claudia came up with, but they reminded him that this wasn’t his baby, she could name her child whatever she and Corvus agreed on, no matter how ridiculous it was. The worse the names got, the more Ezran leaned his head into his hands, defeated.
There were several fights before Rayla’s next one. Each fight was relatively short, but altogether, at least an hour had passed, maybe two, and Rayla started getting excited to fight people closer to her level. As she watched some of the competitors, she knew exactly which ones were going to be fun, and observed their techniques as closely as she could. Lucky for her, with her first fight being so short, nobody could take as good of note of her own techniques.
“Wish me luck,” Rayla said as she stood and flicked her swords out to make her way back into the arena.
“You better win!” another voice called. Rayla turned and saw Callum and Corvus approaching to take the place she’d just vacated.
She shouted back, "Won’t be a problem for me! You’re the one who needs luck to beat Corvus in the hunt!"
A playful lilt in his voice, he replied, "Oh, you don’t need to worry about that!" Corvus could be heard making a sound of offense.
Rayla entered the arena and looked her new opponent up and down. She was an Earthblood elf, but not a warrior. Rayla had seen the way she'd fought, and it wasn't like an experienced fighter, despite how well she won her fight.
The bell sounded, and Rayla readied herself, watching the other elf to see if she would strike first. They stood still for a few moments, weighing the possibilities of each other's actions. Eventually, Rayla chose to make the first move. As a trained assassin, and having seen the Earthblood elf’s fighting techniques, Rayla had the upper hand by far.
She lunged forward and went directly for the girl's legs, hearing Callum cheer from the stands. That nearly distracted her enough to trip, but she turned it into a roll to get behind her and jab her elbow at the girl’s calf. Her leg slipped from under her, but she recovered quickly and spun to strike Rayla's shoulder with her staff to get her to fall backwards. First to fall would lose the round, and Rayla was determined to stay on her feet.
Within a minute, she was able to get her opponent off balance and shove her down quickly enough that she couldn't recover. The bell sounded, announcing Rayla’s victory.
She flashed a grin at her friends on the benches, sheathed her blades, and offered a hand to help the Earthblood elf back to her feet. They exchanged thanks and compliments regarding each other's fighting styles. She then started back toward her friends, head held high, to watch more matches.
That was certainly her mother's voice, but it was...softer than she was used to.
She turned and saw her parents, hanging back from the group of people watching the fights, almost like they were nervous to join the audience.
With a sigh, Rayla approached them and resisted the urge to cross her arms. "Oelsi. Kimar. I didn't expect you to be here."
Kimar closed her eyes for a moment and said, "I wanted to tell you that you're fighting well. I see Runaan in the way you fight, but I also see you . You're...a kinder fighter than Runaan was. And I'm impressed. Truly."
Rayla narrowed her eyes. Was this a trick? Was this building up to try convincing her that she was better than Callum and deserved more than being tied up as an ambassador of peace? She steeled herself to argue, ready to defend Callum and her relationship with him.
"We've been talking," Oelsi told her, placing a hand on Kimar's shoulder. "We know that we haven't been good to you - through your life, and in these few weeks. We've been especially terrible to Prince Callum. It was cruel and underhanded of me to give him beufling when I knew that it would hurt him, and I'm sorry. You said on the day we spent the morning together that you need someone who has your back, and we haven’t. But the more we've seen of you and Prince Callum, the more we've realized that if anyone has your back, if anyone appreciates and loves you like you should be, it's him. And...you deserve each other."
Her heart squeezed and ached. Did she really deserve him? He was so kind and so good, and deserved better than to be with someone who wasn't sure how she felt about him.
But she was sure how she felt about her parents. Her entire being wanted to tell them that it was too late to try to make things right after all they'd put her and Callum through. The damage was done. And with Oelsi's admission that he intentionally poisoned Callum, her anger was only growing. She took steady, deep breaths to keep herself from losing her mind at them.
"We always saw you as the one who gives up too easily," Kimar continued. "And we heard from Runaan as you grew that you still hesitated and had trouble seeing things through. We didn’t even bother to spend enough time with you to see if it was true. We thought that you were a coward, but really..." She inhaled sharply and finished, "We were the cowards who were too scared to raise a child as good and powerful as yourself."
Rayla wanted to scream at them, but kept herself under control. If she lost her temper, then they won. Even if they were apologizing, she was determined to be the bigger person, and said through gritted teeth, "It's good to finally hear that from you. But I'm not the only one who deserves an apology. Callum needs to hear you say that just as much as I do. He didn't sign up to deal with you and your tricks. All he ever signed up for was to be with me."
"You're right," Kimar muttered, staring at the ground. "We will be talking to him as well."
"We just wanted to tell you that we're sorry," Oelsi whispered, reaching for Rayla and gently touching her arm. "And how proud we are of you. If there's anyone you deserve better than, it's us."
Rayla sighed and put her own hand over her father's and managed, "Thank you. I accept your apology." She wanted to walk away, but she knew that she had something to confess in turn. After a few seconds, she forced herself to say, "The wedding's been moved up. Callum and I are getting married on Sunday." The temptation to leave it at that was great, but she urged herself on. "And...all of it has been a lie. I wanted to show you that I'm better than you thought I was, and make you angry so you would leave me alone. So I told you that I was engaged to Callum. But I suppose it doesn't matter that it was fake now, since we're getting married anyway. I know you were going to leave early, but if you wanted to stay for the wedding, the invitation is open to everyone in town."
Their faces showed pure shock, and Rayla felt her cheeks heating up under their gaze, averting her eyes from them.
"We...uh..." Oelsi tried, then cleared his throat and made another attempt. "I'll be blunt, Rayla, that wasn't smart. You didn't need to pretend to be engaged to the prince to convince us that you didn't want us around, or that you're better than we could have imagined. You've gotten yourself into quite the situation. But at least you'll be with someone who loves you."
With a chuckle, Kimar added, "He gave us quite the lecture on our treatment of you. He really does love you, and he’ll defend you to his last breath. And if you look deeply in your heart, I think you'll find that there's a strong love there for him too, no matter what kind of love it is."
Rayla nodded and whispered, "I know." She turned to walk away and rejoin her friends.
She took a seat next to Aanya, who must have arrived during her fight. The others were talking about something, probably Claudia and Corvus's baby, or maybe the scavenger hunt, but she couldn't quite process it. She was too caught up in her own mind.
She knew that Callum loved her, and she knew that she did love him, in some sense. She had been assuming the whole time that she loved him as her friend, and that she had completely resolved and rid herself of the feelings she'd held for him as a teenager. But the longer she knew that he was in love with her, the less sure she was. All she wanted was to be sure. He deserved that much.
Callum saying her name brought her out of her daze.
"Sorry?" she said, blinking away the thoughts bouncing around in her head and bringing her attention to him, sitting a few seats down from her.
He gestured widely, excited. "You swept the leg! During your fight! Do you know that Soren still tries to tell me to this day that it's not a real battle tactic? It works for you all the time, how could he still doubt it?"
“Has he ever seen it?” Aanya asked. “They say that seeing is believing.”
“Even if he hasn’t,” Callum reasoned, “there’s no way he could doubt Rayla’s skills. If anyone could sweep the leg, it would be her, and I happen to have seen it on multiple occasions. It’s impressive literally every time.”
Chuckling, Rayla ran a hand through her hair. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him. “I don’t deserve you, Callum. You’re too sweet to me.” Only for a short moment did she let herself glance at Callum, whose brow was knit together in concern.
Aanya scoffed. “Yes, you do. As much of an idiot he is, it would be stupid for either of you to be with anyone other than each other.”
“You are perfect for each other,” Corvus added, a small, encouraging smile on his face. “Even if you don’t see it sometimes.”
She wasn’t sure how much longer it was before her name was called for her next fight. There was a lunch break in there somewhere. She vaguely remembered eating, then sitting for a while with her friends. Callum, Corvus, and Aanya left, and Callum returned, likely having worked more on the scavenger hunt.
But she stood, waving to the group, to approach the arena again. This time, she didn't take full notice of who her opponent was, or even if she knew him. All she processed was the sounding of the bell to begin the fight.
Her head was too full of her parents' insistence that they saw the love between her and Callum, and the comments from Aanya and Corvus. How were they supposed to know if she deserved Callum? They knew just as well as she did that relationships aren’t always what they seem to be from the outside. Though, she had confided in Corvus and told him things going on below the surface of the relationship, and Aanya always knew more than she let on.
Corvus had told her weeks ago to stop fighting with her emotions, but she clearly hadn’t much followed that advice. Though, what was she supposed to do when she didn’t even know what she was fighting against? What was she supposed to do when she was positive that everything jumbled up in her head was merely the memory of how she felt when she was younger?
Her heart fell, and the fighter nearly clipped her shoulder with his spear, and she spun out of the way in the nick of time. Her reaction time was definitely slower, and she wanted so badly to focus her attention on this fight, on using the hilt of her sword to trip her opponent, but Callum's cheers from the stands distracted her.
Focus, Rayla, she chastised herself, blocking the spear with her sword and knocking it out of his hand. If she had just been a bit faster, she could have knocked him off balance before he retrieved his weapon. If her head was with her in her body, she would have ended the fight already, but with her head and heart in the stands, her chances of winning the fight were dwindling.
Wait, why had her heart fallen with the knowledge that she was only remembering how she used to feel? It was true. Back then, she had been so sure. There were no moon moths in her stomach, no uncertainty. She had fallen for him hard and fast, and didn’t let his lack of reciprocation get to her. She’d prioritized their relationship over her feelings, and it had worked. The feelings were long gone.
She gritted her teeth. Those feelings were gone . She had been sure then, and now she wasn’t, that was that. This uncertainty was entirely different from what she felt when she was a teenager, which meant that it couldn’t possibly be the love she thought it was. Wasn’t she always sure?
She dug in her memory for when they first started growing close, dodging the spear aimed at her feet. She fell for Callum, hard and fast, but it was hard to pinpoint when. Maybe when he was unconscious after the fight with the dragon was when she first really noticed it. And after that...how had she felt around him? She was comfortable with him. She was happy to be around him. And...every so often, when he looked at her the right way, or he used a tone of voice she wasn't expecting...moon moths would begin in her stomach, and sometimes her heart would skip beats. Now that she thought about it, she'd gone to a healer in Xadia because she was afraid there was something wrong with her. The healer had told her she was in love, and for the next week...she had barely been able to look Callum in the eye.
So...there had been a time when she wasn't sure about her relationship with Callum. A time when she felt exactly how she did now. Which meant that the more time she had spent with him, the more they had worked through their problems, the more he proved time and time again that she could rely on him, she grew sure.
Why wasn't she sure this time, then? If she'd spent all this time by his side, all this time getting to know him and knowing that she would do anything for him, why wouldn't she be sure about loving him? It frustrated her more than she could even think.
Why? Why did that frustrate her? Why did the concept of not being sure and even telling him she didn't love him make her sad? Letting herself actually, truly love him scared her, there was no doubt, but not loving him...she didn't want a world where she didn't love him. A future where they continued to be friends made her happy. But a future where they freely loved each other nearly made her giddy.
How long had that reaction been there? Was it new? Had it made her so happy the whole time? Was that why she had been so readily okay with marrying Callum?
She thought she’d squashed her feelings long ago, but it felt like she was lifting up a covering and finding them there, intact and strong, if a bit different than before. She had let them sit in some locked-up recess of her mind for so many years, of course it was going to look different than it did before. But she couldn’t deny that she had just pulled back the curtain on true, genuine feelings she still held for him, after all that time. Her heart was pounding in her chest, and her spirit was lifting. She loved him. She loved him, and she always had. How had she missed it?
She lost her balance and fell on her knee. Luckily, one knee on the ground didn't count as a loss. Quickly, with newfound motivation, she whirled around and wedged her foot between her opponent's, catching one of his feet as she pushed herself up and twisted his weapon out of his hand, sending him reeling backwards and falling to the ground.
The bell sounded. She was the winner.
She tossed the spear to the ground and turned to the stands. She needed Callum to know everything she had just worked through, every thought that had gone through her head. His expression was full of excitement for her, but she could hardly spare a thought for the win. She found herself shouting at the top of her lungs, "CALLUM! I LOVE YOU!"
*party sounds* SHE DID IT, TEAM!
Chapter 27: The Baby
Callum and Rayla talk about her revelation. Her parents make a confession.
Callum’s heart stopped. She didn’t need to do that. They hadn’t talked about an announcement, or anything with the public. And he certainly didn’t want her to feel like she had to say things that she didn’t mean.
When his heart restarted, it sank. Why was she still pretending?
Still, he got up and dragged his feet a few steps toward her while she ran for him. He only had a second to ground himself before she leaped and threw her arms around him, holding him tightly to herself. They nearly fell to the ground, but Callum took a step in the direction of her momentum and they ended up spinning in place, their arms firmly around each other.
When her feet landed back on the ground and she looked up at him, a sparkle in her eye, she asked, “My next fight won’t be for a few hours. Can I come with you on the scavenger hunt?”
“Sure,” he replied, doing all in his power to remain upright. He felt so faint from her public declaration that he wasn’t even sure he could solve the puzzles properly. “But remember that if you give me any help at all, I’ll be disqualified. I’m going to beat Corvus, and I’m gonna do it fairly.”
“I’ll keep my mouth shut,” she assured him, unwrapping her arms from his neck and slipping her hand into his instead.
They walked away from the arena, toward Callum’s next hunt destination.
As soon as they were out of earshot of any pryers, Callum quietly told her, “You didn’t have to do that. You don’t have to keep putting on a show.”
“No!” she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks, pulling him to a stop as well. “No, Callum, that’s not it. You see, I...I’ve been thinking so much, there’s been a lot in my head, mostly about us - about you - and I’ve been overthinking it, I know I have. Corvus even told me not to. And I know that you love me, and I was thinking about the future, and the possibility of not being with you, and that made me so sad. Even if marrying you scares me, not marrying you would be awful, and there’s no way I ever truly got over you when we were kids, I think I just pushed those feelings down far enough that I thought they were gone, and the feelings I have for you now are definitely different, but they’re there, and they’re real, and for the moon’s sake, I know it sounds like I’m making it up, but I’m not, and I really do love you, Callum, and I’m so scared, but-”
Callum cut her off with laughter. He didn’t even know where the laugh came from, but it bubbled out of him, unrestrained, and dare he say it, joyful. Some part of him was telling him that she was just messing with him, that it wasn’t true. His anxiety was definitely spiking, but he hadn’t heard her ramble like that in so long. If she’d been cruel enough to play a joke like that on him, then she wouldn’t have been so nervous, and she wouldn’t have poured out probably more than she intended.
He brushed his hand gently over her cheek, tucking behind her ear a stray piece of hair that’d come out of her ponytail, and breathed, “I never thought I’d see the day when I’d hear you say that and mean it. You gigantic idiot.”
With a sigh, Rayla’s shoulders dropped and a smile crossed her face. “For all the times I’ve called you a dummy, I’m the real dummy.”
“You could say that again,” Callum chuckled, pulling her into a hug. “Are you sure, though? This is a huge step. I know you didn’t think it would be that different for us, but this is different from being best friends. Are you ready to make that leap?” He leaned his cheek on top of her head.
She shook her head. “Absolutely not. I’m terrified. But I love you so much - to the moon and back. What about you?”
His hands were trembling. “I love you to the moon and back, too. But I’m so scared. I’m still willing to do this, but it’s up to you. If you need more time before we jump into this headfirst, we can figure something else out.”
Pulling herself away, Rayla took a shaky breath and smiled. “I’m not ready, but we’ve always figured things out together. We can work through to make it a good, long, and healthy marriage. We’ll be by each other’s side anyway, and we don’t necessarily have to treat it like a marriage right away. We can take it slow. And besides, calling you my husband doesn’t sound bad at all. I think it sounds nice.” She reached behind her neck and under the scarf to unclasp the chain Callum had seen on her that morning.
“Are you saying what I hope I’m hearing?” he whispered.
She slipped his ring off the chain and held it out to him. “Prince Callum of Katolis, if I win the tournament tomorrow, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”
Callum held out his hand and let her slip the ring onto his finger. Her hands were shaking just as hard as his were.
“I’d marry you even if you didn’t win the tournament,” Callum told her, his breath catching. He wasn’t sure if he was going to laugh, cry, or shake so hard that his skeleton left his body. “I’d marry you tomorrow if I could.” He pressed a kiss to her lips.
Rayla grinned against him. “I’m going to win the tournament, though, and we’re going to have a dramatic announcement once I do. Can you wait one more day to get married?”
With a fake-exasperated sigh, he replied, “I guess.” He stepped away from her and held her hand tightly in his, pulling her to his destination for the scavenger hunt. “It doesn’t really matter to me when, where, or how we get married. As long as you’re by my side, I’m happy.”
Her smile could light up the darkest nights. She really was his Ray-la of sunshine as she said, “Me too.”
Callum’s next destination on the hunt was a person instead of a place. She was selling flowers, hidden in plain sight as a vendor, and when Callum gave her a ribbon from the previous puzzle, she gave him a yellow tulip with a small piece of parchment attached to the stem. They stepped to the side of the bustle in the square and he read the hint, trying to decrypt the meaning of the words, find out if there were any hidden messages, where it would lead him, and how it connected to the tulip.
He muttered his way through the clues, telling Rayla his theories and how he thought everything connected. Her eyes were glazed over most of the time, but she asked the occasional question, insisting that she was still listening. He didn’t mind if she spaced out, but it was sweet of her to express interest in the puzzles.
Once he reached the next destination and swapped the tulip for a feather, it was around time to get back to the arena for Rayla’s next fight. He felt securely ahead of Corvus, who he saw not long ago still with the ribbon, so it wouldn’t hurt to take another break and watch his fiance.
“Go beat him up,” Callum softly encouraged her, placing a kiss on her forehead.
“You know I will,” she replied, grinning.
She opted to stand by the arena to watch the fight before hers, since she would be fighting one of them in just a bit, and Callum sat down with the group.
“Callum,” Ezran cried, his face scrunched in distress. “Please, please help come up with names for Claudia’s baby. These two” he jabbed his thumb toward Claudia and Aanya “are terrible at naming children, and should not be trusted.”
Shrugging, Claudia said, “I think that Noritplyankus is a great and sophisticated name.”
Ezran looked like he was actually going to cry at that as he whispered, “Please don’t.”
He thought for a second before suggesting, “Name your baby Callum.”
“What if it’s a girl?” Aanya asked.
“You’re my brother ,” Ezran scolded. “You’re not supposed to betray me like this.”
It turned out that ‘Noritplyankus’ wasn’t even the worst name that had been thrown around. Aanya was exclusively suggesting names that started with C (“Claudia and Corvus, you have to keep the trend going”), but all of them were terrible. ‘Casserole’ and ‘Canker Sore’ were only a few of the stupid names tossed out. Ezran’s disgust with them was growing stronger by the minute, and he eventually excused himself with the reason that he was going to help the people giving pony rides to kids.
Just as the fight ahead of Rayla’s was ending, a hand touched Callum’s shoulder and he jumped, turning to see...oh no.
“We need to talk to you,” Kimar quietly told him. “Do you have a moment?”
His eyes darted from Kimar and Oelsi, to Rayla, to his friends, and back to the couple in front of him.
Sucking in a breath, he stood. “Sure.”
They pulled him aside and tag-teamed in telling him that they’d already spoken to Rayla, and felt the need to apologize. Apparently, she had told them that they hadn’t really been engaged, and they’d informed her that they were going to support the two of them with whatever they decided.
“Funny story,” Callum chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably. “She figured out how she feels, and the wedding’s happening. For real.”
Oelsi gave a light laugh and shook his head. “She’s definitely learned how to commit. And to think this used to be the girl who had trouble doing anything because of her hesitance.”
The comment immediately activated the part of Callum that was ready to jump to her defense and tell them that they didn’t know anything about her, but before he could, Kimar put up a hand to stop him.
“We’re not here to fight. We’re here to apologize, and to…” She huffed and stared at the ground. “To turn ourselves in.”
He raised an eyebrow at them. “What do you mean? What happened?”
The two exchanged a look, and Oelsi took the liberty of explaining. “We didn’t set the fires. We had nothing to do with it. But the one who did...his name is Matvey, and he’s been hiding in our room at the inn. We told him that we were planning to leave tonight, so he left our room this morning and we haven’t seen him since - he might have left town, the place he had for vending pastries is empty - but we know that it was unwise to hide him. We should have turned him in the moment we found out it was him. We were angry with Rayla, and angry with you, and with the festival, and whatever your judgment is for us, we know how much we deserve to be punished for this.”
“Thought he was just unhappy about the festival in general,” Kimar grumbled, crossing her arms. “Didn’t realize how anti-elf he was until we were the recipients of his passive insults. Which, of course, we don’t only regret it because he’s a racist ass, but it’s a large contributing factor.”
Callum couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He ran an anxious hand through his hair, stepped side to side, tried to find an outlet for the fear and anger they had just ignited in him. Every part of him was overflowing with fury and fear, running through possibilities in his head of where Matvey could have gone, and where he could be now.
After a few seconds, he hissed, “How could you do that? You really thought ‘hey, maybe the guy who set the town on fire isn’t actually that bad’? You’re surprised that he hates elves? He’s been putting people in danger the whole time he’s been in Katolis! And you thought it would be a good idea to hide him?” He took deep breaths, trying to keep himself from losing his temper any more than he already had. “If he left town, then great. But I don’t believe for a second that he did. If you see him, I need you to tell me, Rayla, or a guard right away, and if you can, catch him before he can get away. He needs to face the consequences, and he can’t be allowed to run free when he could vandalize even more and hurt everyone here.” Already, his eyes were darting around, looking for Matvey in the crowd.
“Of course,” Oelsi whispered, gaze down. “We’re sorry, Prince Callum.”
You better be , Callum wanted to shout. He sighed instead. “We’ll catch him. And we won’t let him hurt anyone else. Keep your eyes out.” He turned from them and took his seat in the stands again.
As much as he wanted to focus on Rayla’s fight and watch her win against Marcos, cheer her on, tell her that she was amazing and that he loved her, his mind was entirely consumed with thoughts of what would happen if they didn’t catch Matvey. Would he target houses instead of festival stands? Crops instead of a stage? How many elves would he try to hurt? How much farther was this going to go?
Another tap on his shoulder jolted him back to reality, and he saw Aanya reaching in front of him, pointing to someone in the crowd.
“That’s him, right, Callum?” Aanya whispered. “That’s Matvey.”
Callum looked where she was pointing and saw the same mop of white hair that had brought him so much grief over the past month.
“That’s him,” Callum growled. “When Rayla wins the fight, tell her that her parents have some explaining to do. I’m going to end this now.”
Before Aanya could respond, he took off running toward Matvey, whose back was turned to him. If he stayed like that, then Callum could take him down, no problem, and get him detained in no time.
Unfortunately, Matvey must have heard the sound of Callum running, glanced at him, and bolted from the scene. That was all the proof Callum needed that Matvey was truly the arsonist. An innocent man wouldn’t run.
He chased him away from the arena, over a set of barrels full of cider, through the throng of people in the crowd. For as old as he was, Matvey was fast . Callum knew that he couldn’t use magic, not with how many people were around, and the risk of hitting someone else. But He wasn’t sure if he could catch him without magic either.
Matvey yelled something, then was gone.
Callum stopped in his tracks, looking frantically around. Where had he gone? He approached the place where Matvey had disappeared, and saw the broken pieces of a Moonshadow charm. Of course. With all those charms Matvey had bought before, he used a Moonshadow illusion to disappear. If he had Rayla with him, she would have been able to see through it and they would catch him, no problem. But Matvey had chosen to use it in one of the only instances that the best Moonshadow elf for the job wasn’t around.
He scrubbed his hands frustratedly over his face. Matvey had gotten away again, was aware that Callum knew he was the arsonist, and was completely disguised. There was no way that this was going to end well.
Chapter 28: The Dinner
They find Matvey still running free. Rayla has her final fight of the tournament.
“I can handle it, Ez, really,” Rayla insisted, taking a tray of jelly tarts out of his hands. “I don’t have anything to do until my last fight this afternoon. The servants and I can handle this, you go back to town and keep giving pony rides.” She was decidedly not telling him that it was taking all of her focus to pay attention to the trays instead of the events of the previous day.
Ezran shook his head, laying a sheet over a cart full of food to protect it when it was to be brought down to the town. “It’s fine, I’ll help out here. I don’t want to be down there listening to King Florian anymore. Do you have any idea how hard it is to slip away and enjoy a festival as a king? This is my escape.”
Covering her own cart and handing it off to a servant, she asked, “Is that girl still singing? The one who got drunk and stood on a vendor’s stand yesterday?”
With a sigh, Ezran nodded. “Last I knew. The only ruler that’s enjoying her is Aanya, but I think that’s just because she thinks it’s funny when things go wrong.”
Rayla snorted. She had talked with Callum the previous night about how they had each confided in someone, and suddenly, Aanya’s teasing made much more sense. The fake engagement was free entertainment for her. Since most people thought that it was real anyway, they hadn’t much thought to tell anyone that they were actually, happily getting married. It was probably a good idea to tell the people who knew it was fake before.
They were actually getting married. It was happening, and Rayla was excited, to be sure, but her hands shook as she loaded more trays onto carts. She knew, in the logical part of her mind, that they would be okay. They would be absolutely fine, and they would work through things the way they always had. But it was so foreign and so fast to be stepping into this territory. She’d had another meeting with the (very exhausted) tailor that morning, and he made final adjustments on her outfit for the wedding, and that seemed to make it so much more real. Since all the planning had been fake, none of it felt like it was attached to a real wedding, and part of her was still convinced that it wasn’t actually happening.
“You’re gonna drop it-!”
She snapped back into reality and caught the teetering tray, only losing one biscuit from it.
“Thanks,” Rayla breathed, being careful to set it securely on the cart.
Ezran rolled his eyes. “Rayla, you know I love you, but you’re really distracted. What’s going on? You’ve been so good at focusing on things for the festival up till now.”
She looked up at him and couldn’t keep herself from grinning. “Callum and I are getting married tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I know. I was the one who asked you to do it sooner rather than later.” He covered another cart and passed it off to a servant, giving them a thumbs-up.
Rayla shook her head. “No, Ez, we’re actually getting married. Did you know that Callum’s been in love with me for years?”
“Welcome to the world of the living,” Ezran laughed.
Okay, that was on her. It was probably obvious to everyone else, even though she’d never even considered it before the previous week.
“Well, did you know that I’m in love with Callum?” she asked. He couldn’t possibly know that one, since she hadn’t even known.
Without missing a beat, Ezran replied, “You never got over him. Ask your next question, but the answer is probably also going to be that I know.”
“How do you know these things?” Rayla muttered. She put her hands on her hips. “Alright, fine, so you’ve known the whole time how we’ve felt, and you know that this is a real wedding. So do we have your real blessing?”
He looked at her in sympathy. “Sorry, I can’t give my blessing, because you guys lied before.” The shrug he gave her made it look like he was truly telling her there was nothing he could do.
She threw her hands in the air, nearly knocking into a cart. “But you’re the one who asked us to do this! And we’re not lying anymore!”
“Sorry,” Ezran repeated, but let the smallest ghost of a smirk on his lips. “It’s treason for me to give my blessing now.”
“No, I’m the king. You have to listen to me.”
“I’m still not a citizen.”
“You will be tomorrow.”
He had her there. They maintained eye contact for a few moments, staring each other down, then burst into giggles.
It took until the early afternoon to get all the food on carts and ready to bring down to the town. After the end of the scavenger hunt and tournament, they were presenting the people with an informal feast. There were dishes and desserts from all over the world, each one safe for both humans and elves, having been checked and double-checked by Callum and Rayla. The food was perfect - the only thing about the festival that hadn’t yet gone wrong, and Rayla prayed that it stayed that way.
The pair made their way back to the town, and Ezran slipped away to talk with the ponies before a king or queen could spot him. If Rayla was right about where Callum was in the scavenger hunt, then she had an idea about where in the town he would be. Hopefully, he was as close to the end of the hunt as she thought he was. If he didn’t win soon, then he would lose to Corvus.
He was all but frantic when she found him, sitting on the ground and scribbling on a clue parchment, trying to solve the puzzle. She plopped down next to him and watched. When she had been helping with the organization of the hunt, she hadn’t learned how to solve the puzzles, but she knew a couple answers. It looked like he was starting to get close, but he still had some solving to do.
While he was deep in thought, Rayla looked out at the throng of people. They’d notified the guards to increase security and keep an eye out for Matvey, now that they knew he was still in Katolis, so she wasn’t terribly worried. But just in case, she scanned the crowd for him.
“I’ve got it!” Callum shouted, jumping to his feet. He turned and yanked Rayla up, pulling her along behind him. “Of course! And the first clues pointed to it too, I can’t believe that I didn’t expect this to be the last location, Ray, I think I’m gonna beat Corvus! We have to get there fast, though, I saw him holding the glass bottle, which means he’s not too far behind.”
A shock of white hair caught Rayla’s eye and she pulled her hand from Callum’s, taking off in that direction.
“Ray?” Callum called, confused.
She stopped for just a second before hissing, “Matvey,” and turning back around to make sure she didn’t lose track of him in the crowd.
Abandoning the hunt, Callum fell behind her as she pushed through the throng of people, tripping over herself to get to Matvey. She couldn’t let him get away. He was only going to hurt people if he did, and there was no way she was going to let that happen. Not again. Not when things were going so well, and not the day before her wedding.
Matvey started running. Rayla picked up speed, knocking into someone she heard Callum apologize to. Just as they reached the edge of the town square, Matvey crushed something in his hand and shouted a spell she’d heard Runaan use many times. Callum stopped, probably completely unable to see Matvey, but Rayla kept going. He looked the same to her. One of the many, many benefits of being a Moonshadow elf. There was no illusion she couldn’t see through.
“He’s here, Callum!” she yelled, tearing out of the town and running toward the forest.
She saw the glow of a rune being drawn behind her as Callum prepared a spell. This was it, they were going to catch him and put it all to rest-
The ground fell out from under her and she shrieked. From Callum’s shout, she knew that he must have fallen too. She looked down at saw mud below her, swallowing her legs up to her knees and keeping her stuck in the ground.
Matvey smirked over them, placing a third charm back into the pouch attached to his belt. “As disgusting as you elves are,” he sneered, “these charms are so helpful. Someone without a connection to a primal source can use them. Who knows when you’ll need an Earthblood charm to create a mud pit for an idiot prince and his pet?”
Rage boiled inside Rayla and she started trying to fight her way out of the mud as Matvey sauntered away, smug grin on his face.
“Callum!” Rayla shrieked, trying and failing to lift her legs out of the mud. “Don’t you have a spell to stop him?”
“Earthblood spells, Earthblood spells,” he muttered, drawing a rune, then changed his mind. “No, not that one…. I don’t know the rune for the spell he used on us…. I can’t see him, I don’t know!” His voice was frantic, drawing more runes, and waving them away.
“Have fun sinking,” Matvey called behind him with a casual wave. “I’m sure somebody will find you soon. If I decide not to use my Sunfire charms while you’re here, of course.”
Rayla scrambled, trying to drag herself out of the thick mud, but it was too late. He had already gotten too far away for Callum to safely use magic on him, and he was going to rejoin the people in town within the minute, disappearing in the crowd.
“Guards are keeping an eye out for him,” Rayla sighed. “And they must have seen us chasing him before he activated the charm. Hopefully they’ll get him as soon as the Moonshadow spell wears off, before he can cause any more trouble. Let’s just get ourselves out of this.” She was in mud up to her hips, and there was no way they could count on someone finding them.
“Sorry I let him get away,” Callum grumbled, reaching for the solid ground in front of them and trying to pull himself out.
Shaking her head, Rayla replied, “You couldn’t even see him. It’s not your fault. We’ll get him.”
“We can hope.”
Rayla dragged herself out of the mud first, then helped pull Callum out as well. He used an ocean rune to clean them both off, at least a bit, but they would definitely be going through the rest of the day covered in dirt.
“You go win the scavenger hunt,” she told him, “and I need to get to the tournament. We’ll leave Matvey to the guards.”
They ran back into the town, parting as soon as they got to the square. Rayla wasn’t sure how much time she had left before her fight, but if she was too late, they would give the championship to the winner of the other bracket by default. There was no way she was going to lose by default. And hopefully, depending on her opponent, she wouldn’t lose at all.
She reached the arena, milling with people who were waiting for the final fight. The full bracket had already fought while she was preparing food with Ezran. She had considered getting there early enough to see who she would be fighting, but the excitement of it all made her want to keep it a surprise for herself.
The only person in the stands that Rayla knew was Amaya. While Rayla found it impossible to use sign language with only eight fingers, she was starting to understand a good amount of it. And since they were on good terms, there couldn’t be any harm in talking to her.
She sat down next to Amaya and waited for her to notice and turn to face her.
“Have you been enjoying the fights?” Rayla asked.
With a grin, Amaya nodded and signed back, It’s going to be an interesting final fight.
“Yeah? Who am I up against?”
The smile on her face grew, taking on a mischievous edge. You’ll find out. You won’t be disappointed.
Rayla’s heart beat faster with anticipation. This was getting more exciting by the minute. An intense, difficult fight was exactly what she needed, especially after the frustration of losing Matvey again.
The last few minutes of the break flew by as she talked with Amaya, who absolutely refused to give up the identity of the other fighter. She would be finding out soon enough, and she had already kept herself from watching her opponent’s fighting techniques, but it was certainly fun to try to drag it out of Amaya. That woman was a fortress in and of herself. It was admirable how little she was willing to say, just to tease Rayla.
The judge entered the arena and drew everyone’s attention. “Please welcome to the arena the finalist of yesterday’s bracket, Lady Rayla.” There were some cheers and applause as she stood and leaped into the arena to join the judge. “And today’s finalist, and the reigning champion three years running, Janai.”
She should have known. Some part of her probably did know, but the rest of her was well aware that she was nowhere near skilled enough to beat Janai of all people. No Sunforge blades were allowed in the tournament, but Janai didn’t need it to beat Rayla.
Sparing a glance toward a very smug Amaya, she saw her sign, You’re going down . Rayla didn’t doubt it for a second.
“I need a favor,” Rayla whispered as soon as Janai joined her in the arena. “Callum and I are getting married tomorrow and I need to announce it. Could you go easy on me? Let me win?”
Janai snorted. “I’m not the reigning champion for no reason. I’m here specifically to kick your ass.”
“Okay, that’s fair,” she relented. “But you can win again next year, fair and square, because we both know that if I enter again, there’s still no way I can beat you.”
“Good thing you know that,” Janai told her with a smirk.
Rayla chuckled and said, “It would be stupid of me not to.”
The judge exited the arena and called for the start of the fight. Neither one of them moved for a few seconds. Rayla felt the entire audience holding its breath.
She jumped first, feinting to one side and rolling to the other, going for Janai’s knees. The way Janai moved told her that she anticipated it, but let Rayla make her move and try to buckle her knees, before she leaped away and shoved at her shoulder with the hilt of her sword to throw her off balance - but not enough. Anyone watching would think that Janai was giving it her all, that she was just tired from a day full of fights. Anyone who didn’t know just how much Janai could do. There was no way that Amaya wouldn’t be privy to what was going on, but Rayla was sure that she was kind enough to keep her mouth shut about it.
The fight was difficult, to be sure. Janai had so much more training, and like she’d said, she wasn’t the reigning champion for no reason. She was an incredible fighter, and nearly knocked Rayla on her back not one, not two, but three times before ultimately, Janai stepped out of bounds.
The bell sounded, declaring Rayla the winner.
It wasn’t a grand victory. There was no real satisfaction in winning like this. But as cheers rose from the crowd and she saw Callum’s excited face among them, she was glad that Janai helped them to have this moment. She gestured for Callum to join her.
As he leaped over to enter the arena, Rayla shook Janai’s hand.
“Only because it’s you and Callum,” Janai growled lowly. “You owe me.”
“Common trend,” Rayla replied. “I’ll give you the pin later, if you want it.”
When Janai backed away, the judge raised Rayla’s hand in victory, and she was presented with the coveted golden pin in the shape of a pair of crossed swords.
Callum reached Rayla and swept her into a dip and kissed her, eliciting a surprised squeak from Rayla, and more cheers from the crowd. She held onto him tightly and gave herself over to him and his kiss, growing giddier by the moment.
When they resurfaced, she put her hands up and waved them, trying to quiet the crowd.
“Prince Callum and I have an announcement to make,” she called as voices quieted to murmurs. She slipped her arm around his waist and declared, “Tomorrow afternoon, here in the town square, Callum and I will be having our wedding. All are invited to attend and celebrate with us. Until then.” She gestured to the square, where the food was being set out. “Enjoy the feast!”
People filed out of their seats, some offering them congratulations before heading to the feast. Rayla was careful to watch the throng of people, but kept as covert as possible, trying not to show her nervousness over Matvey.
In an attempt to distract herself as she led the way to the square, Rayla asked, “Did you beat Corvus?”
“Technically, yes,” Callum replied. “But I didn’t win.”
She raised an eyebrow, confused. She hadn’t seen anyone solving as quickly as Callum and Corvus had been. “Who won?”
With a light laugh, Callum nodded to a smug Aanya. “I want to say that she beat me with beginner’s luck, but I think she cheated. It’s fine, though. There’s always next year.” He grinned, not appearing to be brokenhearted over not winning.
“You’ll get it next year,” she confirmed, kissing his cheek. “And if I train enough, maybe I’ll beat Janai for real. They say that marriage can make you into a better, more motivated person.”
“Guess we’ll have to test that theory for ourselves,” he teased. “Come on, let’s get something to eat. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Chapter 29: Music
Everyone is restless on the day of the wedding.
The next morning was a whirlwind. Callum was hardly aware of what was going on as Soren dragged him and Rayla all over the castle. At some point they looked at a gigantic cake and apparently said they loved it. He tried on a suit, and while it fit perfectly, he had no idea what it looked like. He could hardly imagine it mattered, though. Soren was hellbent on making sure everything was perfect, but everything already was.
Every time he looked at Rayla, he was reminded that they were getting married today . Just a week ago, he'd thought such a thing to be impossible, that she wasn't in love with him, and she never would be.
But when she looked back at him, and her eyes softened, and she smiled...he could barely think. His best friend was about to become his wife, and there was nothing in the world that could possibly make him happier. He couldn't have cared less about what the cake looked like, or if he had a new suit. He would marry Rayla anywhere. All that mattered was that he loved her, and she loved him. She loved him .
Soren dragged them to the town in the late morning to make sure that everything was going well there. Apparently, he had gotten some helpers to set things up in the town square, but he was muttering "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself," and wanted their final approval.
"Who thought it was a good idea to put a last-minute wedding into a festival that was already in shambles?" Rayla joked as they rode into the town.
"Ezran," Callum deadpanned. "Although to be honest, I think he knew that it was a bad idea, especially since he knew how Queen Fareeda and King Florian would react, but it was probably the least bad idea we could have come up with. It's not like we had a lot to work with."
Rayla nodded. "True. And I suppose that we're not absolved of blame, since we did agree."
"Terrible idea," Callum teased. "Worst decision we've ever made."
"Probably." She laughed, but Callum sneaked a glance at her to see if her expression reflected the same thing. The last thing he wanted was to be going through with this if she still wasn't certain. But the only thing he saw on her face was a smile - happy, and maybe even peaceful. After all that'd happened, she deserved nothing but peace.
The energy of the town was entirely different from the days before. Vendors and street performers were still out, but there was little excitement. There was no scavenger hunt to play in, no fights to watch, and no big performances going on throughout the day. The people were getting antsy. They needed something to do, and the wedding wasn't scheduled until the late afternoon. They needed to come up with something for people to do, and fast.
"There aren't enough musicians around to gather a band," Rayla told him. "And there's hardly anything we can improvise without any materials or volunteers for something new."
There was one flutist playing, though. Maybe for the moment, that would be just enough.
He approached the flutist, motioned for her to keep playing, and dropped a few coins in her cup for a donation, then returned to Rayla, taking her by the hands and leading her to stand a few feet away from the musician.
"Please don't tell me we're dancing," Rayla murmured. "We just did this the other day at the ball."
"I do know that," he replied, beginning to lead her in a simple step. "But people are going to want to see as much of us as they can today. And they're bored. So let's not worry about being good, and just have fun." He spun her and she nearly tripped over her own feet.
He encouraged her to use him for support to keep herself upright, and restrained himself from teasing her over being a skilled fighter, light on her feet, until it comes to dancing. She let him lead her, and trusted him to help her when she began to struggle. They laughed together and nearly ended up falling like they had at the ball, but people seemed interested, and maybe even willing to join in themselves.
"You two are terrible," a familiar voice chuckled.
Rayla froze and broke away from Callum, turning to her father. "I thought you two were going back to Xadia."
"We were," Kimar said with a shrug.
"We didn't get too far outside of town," Oelsi explained with an awkward smile. "It would be pretty terrible of us to miss our daughter's wedding."
Snorting, Callum said, "That's an understatement." And was expected of them, but he chose to leave that part off.
Oelsi took Kimar's hand and led her into the space Callum and Rayla were occupying. With a wave of his hand, Oelsi said, "You have more important things to do. Leave the entertainment to us. We've got much more than just dancing for these people. They won't even know that hours have passed by the time you're back to get married."
He hesitated for a second. Was it really okay to leave the people in their hands? There was no way he trusted them, and it wasn't likely he ever would. But could it be okay to just leave this one thing with them...?
"Don't screw it up," Rayla instructed.
With a roll of her eyes, Kimar said, "Wouldn't dream of it, dear."
Well...it couldn't hurt. They might as well hand this task over.
They briefly met with Soren to admire a flower arch that had been made for the ceremony, but it only put Soren on edge because the people he'd sent to the Moon Nexus for Rayla's flowers still hadn’t returned (obviously, since it was too long of a trip, like Callum had told him, but why listen, anyway?). Rayla insisted that she didn't need flowers, and no, she would absolutely not wear the veil that had been prepared for her, but there was only so far she could get with him.
After they finished with Soren, all that was left to do was get ready. For their wedding. For the ceremony that would bind their lives together forever. Where Opeli would announce before everyone that they were going to cherish each other until death did them part.
Callum wasn't nervous. He was excited. He was ecstatic for this to finally be happening. It was a dream come true, and now the only thing to worry about was making sure he didn't screw it up. He couldn't screw it up. This was too important, he didn't have the luxury of not worrying about it, like Rayla's parents didn't have to worry about whether or not they could keep the people entertained. But all they had to do was perform for a couple of hours. This was the promise of a lifetime with Rayla. He knew that he'd always be by her side, and he'd wanted to marry her for years, but even as he put on his new red suit jacket trimmed with gold and green, he knew that he wasn't ready for this. And Rayla would understand if he got to the arch and told her that he wasn't ready. She wasn't either. They were jumping into this way too quickly, and letting too many other factors dictate their actions.
Maybe he was a little nervous.
It truly was a stupid plan. But it would work for the festival, and more importantly, they would work together. They didn't need to treat it like a marriage for a while; they could ease into that. This wedding was just another way for them to say that they loved each other and they would go through everything together. They were best friends, and marrying his best friend was one of the best choices he could ever think of making.
His fingers shook as he buttoned up his jacket that he knew was far too warm for July. He couldn't bring himself to sit still for even a second, and opted for pacing his room, alternating between looking over his vows and trying to get his hair to lie flat. How was it not time to head down to the square? What was left for him to do? Was he supposed to pace and give himself a heart attack before he even got to the town?
A knock sounded on his door. He jumped and squeaked, "Come in."
Claudia entered his room, grinning, and quickly pulled him into a hug. "How're you feeling? Are you ready?"
"Absolutely not," he told her, bouncing in place.
She smiled understandingly, then ruffled his hair, destroying his work to get it neat.
"You know I'm not gonna be able to get it to look like that again," Callum whined, running his hands through his hair.
Claudia laughed and said, "That's the point. If you go down there with your hair neat and flat, I will disown you."
With a roll of his eyes, Callum said, "Okay, fine, I won't worry about it. I'll just worry about...everything else." He started pacing again.
"Hey." Claudia put a gentle hand on his shoulder to still him. "I get it. Getting married is scary, even when it's someone you've loved for a long time. And I know it's especially rough, having to move the wedding up so much. But you and Rayla are gonna be fine. Today's going to be a great day, and the two of you are going to have an amazing marriage. I know you will." She offered an encouraging smile and a squeeze of his shoulder.
"Thanks," he sighed. "It's just...a lot."
"Trust me," Claudia chuckled, sitting at the foot of Callum's bed. "I know. I've been dealing with Soren, and that alone is a lot."
Leaning against his desk in an attempt to calm himself, Callum nodded. "Yeah, he's a little too pumped about the wedding. He's been trying to convince Rayla to wear a traditional Moonshadow veil that she hates. Speaking of, I thought you were going to be helping her get ready? Didn't she want you to do her hair?"
Claudia snorted. "If anyone else goes to help her, she might just snap and kill someone. I did her hair before servants started coming in to help, and now she's going insane. She's terrifying the servants."
He felt his heart melt, just a little bit more, and let a smile cross his lips. "I'm so glad I'm marrying her." A bit of tension left him. Nothing made him happier than hearing about how Rayla was reacting to everything.
His door burst open and a wild-looking Soren wheeled in.
"Is it time to go?" Callum asked, pushing himself away from the desk.
"Yes," Soren replied, "and I'm going to escort you to the town to make sure that you and Rayla don't try to go down together. Clauds, you go with Rayla. We can't have the two of them seeing each other before the wedding."
Saluting her brother, Claudia confirmed, "Yes sir, Mr. Wedding Planner," and slipped out to go down the hall to Rayla's door. Callum heard her knock and Rayla scream.
"You know it's not a big deal if she and I see each other before the wedding, right?" Callum said, following Soren out of his room. "I mean, it's all superstition. It's not like the world will end or the marriage will be invalid."
Soren reached up and grabbed his collar, yanking him down. "You will not see Rayla before the beginning of the ceremony, or so help me, I'll be the next arsonist."
Callum laughed and held his hands up in surrender. "Okay, okay! It's not a big deal to me, so fine, we'll make sure we don't see each other!"
Releasing him, Soren nodded, said, "Good," and led Callum into the town.
The walk felt shorter than usual. Callum blinked when they left the castle, and suddenly, they were entering the town. He blinked again, and Soren was parting crowds of dancers, shouting things like "Make way for the groom!" and getting people's attention to let them know that the wedding would be starting soon. Before he knew it, they reached the flower arch. Opeli was already there, reviewing what she was going to say to officiate. She looked up and closed her book, pulling Callum into a hug.
"Congratulations," she said, and held him at arms length to grin at him. "Seems like yesterday you were just a little boy, running around the castle. Now look at you. I'm honored to officiate your wedding."
"Thanks," he replied, straightening his jacket. "Big moment. I'm...I'm really excited." As nervous as he was, he kept looking in the direction of the castle, hoping to catch a glimpse of Rayla.
People started to gather, sitting in whatever chairs they'd managed to arrange in the morning, reserving the front row for kings, queens, and clan leaders. A pair of seats were left empty for King Harrow and Queen Sarai.
Callum bounced in place, unable to contain the excitement and nerves in his body. If he kept staring toward the castle, maybe he'd see Rayla. She should be arriving any moment. She and Claudia should be riding into town at any second. It was time for her to be there, to walk down the aisle, and to declare before everyone that they were going to spend the rest of their lives together.
Where was she?
Wasn't she supposed to be arriving by now? She and Claudia hadn't left that long after he and Soren did, right?
Ezran came running through the town and skidded to a stop by Callum's side, trying to catch his breath as he said, "Sorry I'm late."
Shaking his head, Callum told him. "It's okay. I...I don't think she's coming. I think she changed her mind." His shoulders dropped as his heart sank into his stomach.
Ezran snorted. "She's coming, Callum. She's not going to leave you at the altar. She's loved you for years, she's not going to chicken out now. And even if she did decide to wait on the wedding, she's not the kind of person to not let you know."
That...was a good point. Callum took a deep breath and tried to focus on Ezran's encouragement. He and Rayla would be fine, they really would be. She would show up, and within the hour, they would be married. She would be his wife. And everything was going to be okay.
A pair of horses galloping through town could be heard nearby. He perked up and stood on his toes, as though that would help him see her.
Rayla and Claudia rounded the corner on their horses, and Rayla leaped off before fully stopping, smoothed her hair, and grinned at Callum from the opposite end of the aisle while a stable boy took her horse and Claudia carefully dismounted.
All the air in his lungs left him. She didn't wear a traditional gown, but a green outfit with pants and her favorite set of boots. The top of the dress was decorated with gold lace, and connected to an open skirt that flowed behind her and showed off her boots, brushing against the ground, and trimmed with gold and Katolis red. As expected, she wore no veil, and she looked happier for it. But as she started walking toward him, Callum heard Soren hiss, "Where are the flowers? She's supposed to have flowers! I swear-"
A shadow passed overhead. Rayla froze in her tracks, looking up at the same time Callum did.
The silhouette of a dragon flew over them. People started to murmur and panic. But wait...did Callum recognize that dragon?
“Zym!” Rayla shouted, bolting from the aisle toward where it looked like he would land. Callum followed, sprinting behind her.
Zym was big . He still had lots of growing to do, but he had to be the size of the dragon they’d protected right outside Xadia. And as he landed in a spot clear enough, Callum saw that he wasn’t alone. He had two people on his back: the Earthblood crown guard Soren had sent for the flowers, and a Moonshadow elf that he recognized all too well.
They leaped down, and Lujanne presented Rayla with a bouquet of blue roses. “You thought that you could get married without telling me? After all we went through together? Well, it doesn’t matter, I’m here now, and there’s no need to worry.” She pulled them both into a tight hug, and Callum caught the long-suffering expression on Rayla’s face.
“Long as these flowers aren’t really worms, I suppose you can stay,” Rayla joked, slipping around Lujanne to hug Zym. Callum joined them, and Ezran bounded in as well, shouting and whooping as he joined the hug.
Once they were satisfied, Rayla led the way back to the town square. ‘Surprise’ didn’t cut it to describe the people’s reactions. Some were terrified, others confused. Ezran, Soren, and Claudia all brightened when they recognized who had made an appearance, and Ezran told everyone to stay calm, that Zym and Lujanne were welcome guests.
Zym took a place in the back of the seating area, the others found spots to sit, and Callum stepped to stand at the front once more.
Rayla caught his arm. With a smile, she asked, “Walk with me?”
It wasn’t traditional for the bride and groom to walk down the aisle together. But, as much as Soren wanted it to be, not much about the wedding was traditional anyway.
Callum grinned and bent his arm so he could escort her down the aisle. Musicians began to play softly, and together, they took the short walk to Opeli, stopping to face each other under the arch.
Opeli opened the ceremony with welcoming the guests and congratulating Callum and Rayla once more. She moved into a poetic telling of what a marriage should be, and how long, happy marriages function. It took more of Callum’s strength to keep it together than he expected when Opeli gestured to the two empty seats in the front row and told them of the bond that kept King Harrow and Queen Sarai strong. They would always defend each other, always encourage each other, and always love each other, no matter what happened.
Taking a shaky breath as he thought of his parents, Callum saw that Rayla caught his reaction. She took one of his hands with hers as Opeli asked them to exchange vows.
“Callum,” Rayla began before he had the chance, squeezing his hand. She likely jumped in so he wouldn’t start crying the moment he opened his mouth. “I can’t believe the number of things you put up with when you’re with me. You go with my crazy plans, you bring me back down when I get too riled up, and you’d gladly help me fight anyone who deserves it. You’re kind and supportive, patient and funny, and you’re the best friend I could have ever asked for. But I’m not standing here today just because you’re my best friend. I’m standing here with you because I want to be with you forever. I love you to the moon and back, and I can easily say that, no matter how scared I am, this is the most exciting day of my life, because I’ll be able to call you my husband.”
If her goal really was to make sure he didn’t cry, then she had failed. He used his free hand to wipe tears from his eyes.
He took another deep breath, steadying himself, and let himself look at Rayla - really look at her. The smile on her face was soft, and so, so genuine. She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen, and in that moment, she was the only person in the entire world.
“I love you, Rayla,” he managed, fighting back tears. “We’ve had some rough times, some of them too recent to admit, but we’ve been by each other’s side through all of it, and I want to continue staying by your side for the rest of our lives. Someone once told me that to know something truly and deeply, you must know it with your head, hand, and heart: mind, body, and spirit. I love you with all of myself, and I always will. No matter what happens, I will hold you dearly, and I can promise that I’ll always have your back. You light up my life, Rayla, and I am over the moon to be marrying you.”
She snorted. “That’s how long it took you to come up with another moon joke?”
“To be fair, I’ve had a lot going on, I didn’t have much time to think of jokes and nicknames for you.”
Her smile grew and she took a step toward him while he swiped more tears away from his eyes. This was it. The ceremony was drawing to a close, and in only a few more moments, they would be married.
That was exactly when someone at the back of the crowd screamed, “FIRE!”
Chapter 30: Romantic Flight
The wedding is a resounding success.
People jumped out of their seats, scrambling to get away from the fire that was consuming a vendor stand at the back, and starting to lick at a nearby building. There were screams about the arsonist, trying to point to where he went, nobody quite sure which direction he had gone. Luckily, a pair of ocean elves were at the back of the crowd, and put the fire out before it got out of hand.
“We’ll go that way,” Rayla instructed Callum, pointing behind him as she dropped the flowers on the ground. Corvus tossed her swords to her and she flicked the blades out. “Corvus, you’re over there. Gren, Amaya, take the last two directions. Gather guards if you need to.”
Callum turned to Ezran, Soren, Claudia, and Aanya. “Get everyone to safety. And if you see Matvey, don’t hesitate to take him down. We don’t know how many charms he has left.”
“Subdue him,” Aanya amended. “I want to have a few words with him and make sure he gets what he deserves in Duren.”
They all voiced understanding did as they were told, fanning out through the city in search of Matvey. Callum ran as fast as his legs would carry him, Rayla right by his side, swords at the ready. He scanned the area, looking desperately for Matvey, praying to whatever powers that be that they caught him. He’d gotten away twice , and he couldn’t let it happen again. Nobody else was going to get hurt. Not on his watch.
“Where did that damn excuse of a man get to?” Rayla growled, slowing. “He’s fast, but he wanted to disrupt the wedding. He wouldn’t have gone far.”
Callum nodded, turning in place to see if there was anywhere visible that Matvey could be hiding. “Yeah. Think we should split up on our way back?”
With a shrug, she replied, “It’s as good an idea as any.” She pointed to the opposite side of a building they’d passed. “I’ll go that way. We’ll meet back up in the square.”
“Be careful.” Quickly, he put his hand on her waist to bring her closer and place a kiss on her lips.
She rolled her eyes with a grin. “Yeah, yeah, I promise not to get killed as long as you promise as well.”
“Just for you,” he said, returning her smile before he started jogging back toward the square.
Callum slowed, looking between buildings, keeping himself ready to use magic. He hadn’t heard any shouts that anyone had found Matvey. Where could he be hiding? Where could he possibly have gotten to so quickly that no one had found him?
Just before he stepped back into the square, an arm slammed him into the side of a building, knocking the breath out of him, and his head hitting the wall hard, sending stars through his vision a shooting pain through him. He tried to double over on himself, but the arm across his shoulders kept him upright.
Trying to focus on the perpetrator, he saw the flushed skin and singed white hair of Matvey, glaring at Callum with hatred in his eyes.
“You’ve lost, Matvey,” Callum wheezed. “The whole town is looking for you. Someone’s going to step around the corner any second and take you down.” He moved his hand at his side, trying to make sure that Matvey couldn’t feel the movement.
Matvey scoffed, toying with a pair of charms - one Sunfire and one Moonshadow. “They’ll never even see me. You’ll have burned and I’ll be invisible by the time the even realize I’ve been here.”
That made Callum laugh, as much as he could before pain made him wince. “You underestimate my wife. She doesn’t plan to let you get away, and it’s impossible to change her mind once it’s set.”
“Your wife ,” Matvey spat, shoving harder across Callum’s chest, “is a bigger fool than you are, thinking that a marriage like yours could work. This wedding is an abomination, and the festival is a joke. It’s laughable that you would think that humans and elves could ever come together. No matter what, it’ll always go down in flames.” Snapping the Sunfire charm in half, he hissed, “ Ignis ,” and small flames formed above his hand.
Callum’s heart rate picked up and he drew a rune at his side, trying to keep Matvey’s hand as far away from him as he could, but not able to tell quite how much room he had.
He released the spell with “ Aspiro frigis ,” but not before someone tackled Matvey away, into the empty town square. The spell clipped Rayla’s shoulder and earned him a glare as she tried to pin Matvey to the ground.
“Get off of me!” he shrieked, waving the hand supporting the fire.
Within a second, the flower arch had caught flame, and Rayla was screaming in pain. She rolled away from Matvey and away from the fire, putting out what Callum saw to be part of her skirt that had smoldered and burned her leg.
Callum stumbled over to Rayla, feeling his stomach lurch, and pulled her up and away, telling her, “Don’t go anywhere near him, Ray.”
She took a step forward, readying her swords. “A little burn isn’t taking me out of commission.”
“I know,” Callum said, putting his arm in front of her to stop her as Matvey scrambled to his feet. “But I don’t want to hurt you, and I very much want to hurt him.” He drew the rune for fulminis .
Rayla grabbed his arm, even though Matvey was digging through the pouch on his belt for another charm. “No, Callum, Aanya said to subdue. No lightning.”
Quelling the spell, he gestured to the burning arch, leaving behind a mere skeleton of what it used to be. “He deserves for us to hurt him! Then we’ll hand him off to Aanya, and she’ll give him what’s coming to him!”
“Remember that cycle of violence and revenge,” she muttered. Matvey extracted the charm he wanted. “We just have to get that pouch away from him.” She lunged for him, taking him by surprise so he dropped the charm, and she yanked him away from it, holding him in an armlock and struggling to keep him from escaping, then insisted, “Callum! Get his belt!”
Callum stepped toward them, then wobbled. The ground seemed to be moving below him, and bringing Matvey and Rayla farther away with every step he took. Had his head really hit the wall that hard?
There was no way he could reach them without falling. He knelt down to keep himself upright and drew the aspiro frigis rune again, blinking to get his eyes to focus on it. He inhaled, and Matvey pulled away from Rayla, kicking her in the stomach so she fell on her back.
“What happened, Callum?” she cried, crawling over to him as Matvey started to run. “Are you okay?”
He shook his head, one hand touching the spot that’d hit the wall, the other supporting him on the ground as he carefully turned toward Matvey and released the spell, blowing ice toward him. He wasn’t sure if he would miss again, but Matvey tripped and fell forward, his foot seemingly caught in ice.
When Matvey twisted around to try and free his foot, the familiar shadow passed overhead, and Zym landed in the square, placing a front foot securely on Matvey’s back to keep him pinned down.
Members of the search party flooded into the square. Aanya ran to Zym and Matvey while Rayla put an arm around Callum to support him and help him over to them as well.
Matvey flailed his arms and kicked his free foot, trying to wriggle out of Zym’s grasp, yelling all the while. “This whole festival never should have happened! Anyone who supports this is going to get exactly what’s coming to them, and I’ll be there to watch! Ezran and Aanya in power means death for humans, and I won’t stand for that! Anyone with a brain is going to try to stop all this, just like I have! There will be more like me! You’ll never get rid of us!”
“I’m sure,” Aanya told him dryly, crossing her arms. “But I think we can handle it. Scream all you want, but this is a new age, and I’m proud to say that Ezran and I are leading us into it.”
He scowled at her. “You’re just like your mothers. You’ll end up like them, too.”
Aanya stood taller. “My mothers were great women, and they were right to keep you out. I’ll be keeping you in the castle, but not in the way you’ve wanted all these years. You’re the one who’ll be getting what’s coming to you.” She nodded to Rayla.
Callum let go of her and assured her that she was okay to stand on her own, and allowed Rayla to step forward and flick out a sword, bringing it down at Matvey’s side, passing only through the belt. She yanked his belt away from him, taking the pouch with it, and tossed it to Aanya.
When a set of crown guards arrived, Aanya instructed them to keep him in the dungeon until she was set to go back to Duren. Zym lifted his foot and allowed the guards to drag him away, kicking and screaming though he was.
“Well!” Ezran exclaimed, clapping his hands together as though nothing had happened. “Now that we’ve dealt with that, I believe we have a wedding to finish!”
The next half hour was spent coaxing guests that it was okay to return to the square, and that the threat was gone. People filed back into their seats, expressing worry over Rayla’s burned leg, but she assured them that she was okay, it was nothing major. Callum, however, was still having trouble focusing his eyes, stars in his vision. As long as he could get through the rest of the day, he would be fine.
Opeli tied their hands together with a silk cloth and turned to Callum, a smile on her face. “Prince Callum, do you take Lady Rayla to be your wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part?”
Nodding, Callum felt the tears returning to his eyes. “I do.”
“And Lady Rayla,” Opeli continued, her smile growing. “Do you take Prince Callum to be your husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do you part?”
Rayla squeezed Callum’s hand under the silk, and it looked like she was about to start crying as well when she said, “I do.”
“With this binding,” Opeli declared, placing her hands on the silk, “not only your hands are tied, but your lives. You have promised today in front of friends and family that you will treasure each other, and now it is my distinct pleasure to pronounce you husband and wife.” She addressed the crowd to say, “For the first time, I present Prince Callum and Dutchess Rayla.” She removed the silk and gestured for them to take the last step of the ceremony on their own.
Callum didn’t hesitate in pulling Rayla close to kiss her. Her hands went to either side of his face as he held her by the waist, wanting nothing but to be closer to her. Finally, after so many years, he could pour everything he felt into this kiss, pour all of himself out for her, and unashamedly, unabashedly, let her know in front of everyone how much he loved her. And finally, he could peacefully know that she felt the same way about him.
When they parted, Callum rested his forehead against hers, grinning, and whispered, “We just got married.”
“I know,” she whispered back, stroking his cheek. “I was there.” Straightening, she firmly took his hand and led him back up the aisle as the guests cheered for them, showering them with love.
Callum wasn’t sure if his smile could grow any more. Was it even possible for his heart to hold any more love than it already did? Not only was he married to the love of his life, but he knew for sure that they were safe, and that they were surrounded by people who supported them and would be at their sides through everything.
The chairs were cleared and placed around the perimeter of the square, opening up an area for musicians and dancing.
As Callum led Rayla to the center of the newly-cleared dance floor, he murmured, “We never had time to practice this, did we?”
She shook her head, stifling a laugh. “It’ll be a disaster. But that’s fine, it was never gonna be good with me dancing.” Concern crossing her face, she reached up and gently brushed his bangs off his forehead. “How’s your head?”
“It’s seen better days,” he chuckled, rubbing the lump on the back of his head. His vision was still going in and out of focus, but he could probably manage.
“Take it easy,” she said, placing her hand on his shoulder as the music started. “We’re allowed to do that, now that the festival’s ending.”
He held her close, keeping his focus on her so he didn’t get dizzy and fall while he began stepping in time to the music. “We get to go on our trip now.”
“If you had told me a few weeks ago that our trip would be a honeymoon,” Rayla chuckled, “I would never have believed you.” Callum led her through a spin.
“Neither would I,” he replied. “This is more than I ever dared dream about.”
A smirk on her face, Rayla asked, “Did you ever dream that we could do this?” She went up on her toes and pressed a kiss to his lips.
Smiling, he told her, “I dreamed of it all the time. And now I get to kiss you all the time.”
Rayla rolled her eyes teasingly. “Sap.”
“Maybe.” He stepped on her foot and nearly fell over, saved only by Rayla’s embrace. “Maybe I’m just falling for you all over again.” Grinning widely, he raised his eyebrows, waiting for her to laugh.
She groaned as the dance ended. “We’ve already got your dumb little ‘to the moon and back’ thing, and you’ve made moon jokes, we don’t need any more things like that.”
“You married me by choice,” he reminded her. “You’ve got a whole lifetime of me saying dumb things. Look forward to it.”
“Fortunately, I am.”
While guests danced and ate, Callum and Rayla made rounds to talk with leaders and wish them well, as most were leaving in the morning to return to their kingdoms. Queen Fareeda stuck her nose up at them and offered only a curt congratulation, but it was an improvement from the dinner a few nights back. Something told Callum that Aanya had given her a talking-to.
The sun began to set, and a few people set a (controlled) bonfire in the middle of the square for people to dance around. It was beautiful to watch silhouettes spinning and leaping in front of the fire, making the most out of the celebration. The way they danced, without a care in the world, it was like they had all forgotten about the incident during the ceremony. Matvey didn’t matter. The burned stands and arch didn’t matter. The only things that mattered were the music and the happiness that was radiating off of everyone.
Just like at the ball, everyone wanted to dance with Rayla, teach her to dance, and be silly on the dance floor with her. Claudia stole Rayla and Callum for as many dances as she could, Callum lost count of the number of times Rayla tripped and nearly fell on her face as he hung back from dancing as much as he could. Whether from all the activity or from his head, he wasn’t sure, but he was exhausted. As happy as he was to be celebrating his wedding alongside a festival of peace, all he could think of was getting away from the activity and curling up in bed.
Rayla appeared next to him and handed him a drink. “If one more person decides that they’re going to be the one to succeed in teaching me to dance, I think I’ll just collapse and die on the spot.”
“Only if I get to die with you,” Callum retorted.
“Not allowed,” Soren called as he approached. “For all my hard work, there is no way either of you are dying right after the wedding. You’ve got to stay alive for at least another week.”
Snorting, Rayla said, “Sure, we’ll keep that in mind.”
Callum took her hand. “Soren, thank you so much for all you did to help us. This wouldn’t have happened without you.”
“You’re damn right,” Soren replied, crossing his arms and puffing out his chest.
“We have a lot of people to thank,” Rayla laughed. “We never even would’ve gotten together if not for Ez, Aanya, and Corvus.”
Keeping their voices down, they briefly explained to Soren that they had never intended to get married. His expression was horrified, as though they had betrayed him by giving him that information.
“I can’t believe you two.” He shook his head.
“Neither can we.”
Callum jumped at Kimar’s voice behind him, then winced at the pain in his head as Soren wheeled away to give them some space.
“Would you look who’s still here,” Rayla mused. Most of the hostility was gone, but Callum could see that her walls were still up.
“We’re leaving early tomorrow morning,” Oelsi explained. “What, you expected us to leave right after the ceremony?”
She glanced between Callum and her father. “A little, yeah.”
“We clearly have some things that we need to work through,” Kimar muttered, staring at the ground between them. “But we’re getting there. Thank you for being patient with us. If you don’t mind...we’d like to come visit the next time we can.”
Rayla’s features softened and she let go of Callum’s hand, passing her drink off to him, in favor of holding one of each of her parents’ hands. “You’re always welcome in Katolis. And maybe I’ll come see you in Xadia soon.” She hesitated for a moment, then pulled them both into a hug. Callum had to hold himself back from laughing when he saw how surprised they both looked before reciprocating.
They broke the embrace, just in time for Zym to lumber over and nudge Callum with his nose, searching for affection. Callum chuckled and stroked Zym’s face, now almost as big as Callum was tall.
“Zym,” Rayla said, gesturing to her parents. “You should meet Oelsi and Kimar. My parents, and former members of the Dragon Guard. They did their best to keep you safe before you hatched.”
His eyes brightened and he smiled, giving them affectionate nudges as well, taking a few excited steps before sitting down.
“How you’ve grown,” Oelsi chuckled. “You’re growing into a fine king of the dragons. I look forward to seeing you lead Xadia in this new era.”
Ezran stepped over to them and added, “Me too,” while giving Zym a hug.
Callum and Rayla said goodbye to her parents, and wished them a safe trip back to Xadia. When they left, Ezran hugged them both tightly.
“Congratulations, guys. I’m so happy for you.” He pulled away and grinned at them, then gestured to Zym. “He’s still learning to talk, but he wanted to know if you guys need a few minutes away from everyone. He’d be willing to fly with you.”
“That sounds great,” Callum sighed, looking at Rayla, whose shoulders relaxed. He could see now that she was tired too. It had been a long day.
Zym lowered himself down, and Callum and Rayla gave their drinks to Ezran before they climbed on Zym’s back. He found a place where he could take off without disturbing anyone, and within seconds, they were in the air, flying high above the town square. Callum could hardly see anyone on the ground, and the bonfire appeared no bigger than the flame of a candle. The wind whipped through their hair as Zym swooped around, taking them away from the town, over the forest, the river, the castle, and around again. Though it did nothing for his dizziness, Callum felt like he could breathe again.
Rayla wrapped her arms around him from behind and rested her chin on his shoulder so she could say, “Do you know that I love you?”
His heart swelled and he couldn’t stop the grin on his face as he turned to kiss her nose. “I love you too.”
Ahhhh I can't believe there's only one more chapter!! You all have been so supportive and kind, I'm glad that you've stuck with it and endured my ridiculousness!
You can relax now, the next chapter is an epilogue and allows these dorks to finally be happy <3
Chapter 31: Rayla's Birthday
Nearly a week after the wedding, it's time to leave for the honeymoon.
Rayla blinked her eyes open. From the amount of sunlight coming in through the curtains, she knew that it still had to be pretty early. And as expected, Callum was still asleep.
They were facing each other in his - their bed - and had apparently fallen asleep holding hands between them. She smiled and gently stroked the back of his hand, taking a moment to look at him before she got up.
They had been married for almost a week. The festival was long over, and most guests had gone back to their respective homes. Ezran had insisted that she and Callum leave the day after the wedding so they could begin their honeymoon, but they had chosen to stay for a few days, helping to clean up the town, and enjoy things being relatively normal for a bit.
So far, not much had changed between her and Callum. They were taking their relationship slowly. Everything had happened so quickly. They had to adjust to being much more than just friends, even though they were already married. It was working, though. Things were different, and they were never going to go back to the way it was before. But Rayla didn’t want it to. Her heart filled with joy the longer she looked at her husband, with his messy hair sticking up in every direction, and the smallest, most relaxed smile on his lips.
She drew their hands closer to her and pressed a kiss to his hand. At the movement, Callum’s eyes fluttered open, and when he focused, he offered a lopsided grin.
“Morning,” he murmured, stretching.
“Good morning, sunshine,” she replied, capturing his lips for a mere second.
Callum sighed and told her, “I’ll never get tired of waking up next to you. Happy birthday.”
She tapped his nose. “You can wish me an even happier birthday tonight after we settle into our inn.”
His face flushed a deep shade of red and he looked away for a moment. “Only if you’re ready for that. We can still wait on it if you want.”
With a shrug, trying to conceal her own blush, she said, “I wouldn’t be asking if I wasn’t ready. But you have to let me know if you are too.”
A few seconds of silence passed between them before Callum nodded. “I think I am.” He brushed her hair away from her face and kissed her gently.
The door burst open, making them both jump, bolting upright.
“Breakfast time!” Claudia exclaimed, throwing the curtains open.
His face in his hands, Callum begged, “ Please don’t do that, Claudia. You can’t just come in like that, and you know it.”
Claudia rolled her eyes. “Oh, please, Callum, you’re practically my brother, and Rayla and I are close enough for me to come into her room. Besides, I knew you’d barely be awake by now, anyway.” She clapped her hands. “Now get up! We wanted to have breakfast with you before you two leave for who knows how long!”
“Alright, alright,” Rayla laughed, sliding out of bed. “We’ll meet you down there, just give us a few minutes.”
She accepted that, and bounded out of the room, closing the door behind her.
“You know,” Callum said, pulling fresh clothing out of his wardrobe, “if one of us barged in on her and Corvus, they’d be yelling at us.”
“She’s clearly excited,” she mused, changing into her day clothes. “We’ll have plenty of time with just the two of us.” She hooked her swords on her back and threw her vest on, waiting for Callum to be ready.
After a quick check that they were both packed and prepared to leave for their trip-turned-honeymoon, they made their way hand-in-hand down to the dining hall to join their friends. It was so nice to have the stress of the festival, her parents, an arsonist, and a wedding all out of the way. The castle was so much quieter now that they weren’t constantly running around and getting things ready for something or other. Everyone seemed to finally be able to rest.
They reached the dining hall and opened the doors, only to be met with shouts from everyone there. Rayla drew her swords immediately, then blinked at what was happening. It was just like what they had done for Callum’s birthday, with everyone around the table, a stack of gifts at one end, and everyone, including Amaya, Janai, and Aanya, there to surprise her. Except this time, they were all stifling laughter at Rayla’s battle-ready stance.
“You can put those away, Ray,” Callum chuckled, a hand over hers. “It’s for your birthday.”
Sheathing her swords, she snarked, “Figured that one. But you didn’t have to do this for me, it’s really okay.”
Ezran rolled his eyes as he pulled Rayla’s chair out for her. “Yeah, ‘cause we’re definitely not going to celebrate your birthday. Be real, Rayla, you were getting this party if you wanted it or not.” He started serving food for her.
She held her hands up in surrender. “Alright, I won’t protest a party. Long as I don’t have to plan it, I’m good.”
“Good thing we have Soren,” Callum joked.
“ Listen ,” Soren said, a fist on the table. “I was so good at putting your wedding together. I knew it would be perfect, and I realized that planning these things is my calling. It’s not poetry after all! I’m going to be an event planner, and I have you guys to thank for showing me!”
“Oh great,” Corvus groaned, a good-natured tone in his voice. “You’ve given him ideas.”
With a shrug, Callum said, “I mean, if it gets me out of planning another festival, I’m all for it. What do you think, Ez?” He nudged his brother with his elbow.
Ezran considered for a moment. “I think we could use an official Royal Event Planner.”
“Would you look at that, Clauds.” Soren turned and grinned at Claudia. “I’ve got an important job now.” Claudia merely shook her head with a smile.
They ate and laughed, making the most of the time they had together. Aanya insisted that Rayla open her gifts immediately, for fear that the other nobles who had accompanied her on the trip would try to drag her away earlier than she was ready.
Rayla could hardly handle the outpouring of love as everyone showered her with gifts like new cloths for cleaning her swords and a couple of books (one of which was suspiciously about Xadian agriculture). Callum made certain that she received his gift last.
“I know you’re really attached to my old scarf,” he started as she lifted a pair of new green scarves out of a bag. “But, uh...I had matching ones made for us. Your color this time.”
She grinned and looped one scarf around him, pulling him close to plant a kiss on his lips. “I’m keeping the old one around, but I’ll match you with this new one.” Dramatically, she flipped the new scarf around her neck over the red one.
“Amaya says you two are ridiculous and gross,” Janai deadpanned. “We never should have let you get married.”
“Okay, but I couldn’t watch them pine after each other any longer,” Aanya mentioned. “It had to happen, or I was literally going to die.”
“We all were,” Claudia snorted. “Good thing Ezran got their butts in gear.”
Gesturing with a flourish, Ezran said, “You’re welcome.”
Callum put his arm around Rayla’s waist and pulled her close. “Now we get to gross you out for the rest of our lives.”
“And, hey, another upside,” Aanya cut in. “Married Callum means that we don’t have to figure out a political marriage. So thank you, Rayla, for snagging him up so I wouldn’t have to.”
With a laugh, Rayla said, “I would tell you it was no problem, but it kind of was.” She nudged Callum in the side. “You gave me so much grief. Long as it’s over now, I think we’ll be alright, don’t you?”
“We’ll be alright either way,” he told her, a loving smile on his face. “We’ll always be okay.”
They said their goodbyes and gathered their things. Despite the insistence from the council that they take a carriage and a pair of guards, they chose to depart on horses instead. This was their one chance to travel without anyone else, and they were going to take it. Besides, it wasn’t like they needed guards. Whatever the trip threw at them, be it arsonists, a festival, or difficult parents, they could handle it. Whatever life threw at them, they knew they could handle it. All they needed was the other by their side, and they could handle anything.
As they rode away from the castle, they knew that it was them against the world, just like it had always been, and like it always would be.
And that's a wrap!!
31 chapters, I can't believe it!! This has been an absolute blast to write, and you all have been so delightful, I've loved reading all of your comments and talking with you! Thank you so much for all the love and support <3
I'm currently working on two more Rayllum works (probably longshots) - one is fluff and humor, the other is pure angst.
In the meantime, while I'm working on those, you can come talk to me on Tumblr! Drop by and say hi, I would love to talk to you! I'll be posting the chapter on Tumblr later (when I'm off work, bc I'm a bad person who spends my workday on AO3), with links to my Rayllum playlist, and specific songs that helped me in writing this fic.
I love you guys so much!! Thank you again, and I hope to talk to you soon <3