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looking for a way to break in

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“This is not a love story, but love is in it. That is, love is just outside it, looking for a way to break in.”
—Jeanette Winterson, Lighthousekeeping

“I hope that there will always be an us. In every world, in every story.” 
—Tina Tran, Let us always find each other

Prince Callum was not a particularly adept young man. He was handsome at nearly eighteen years old old, reasonably tall, and not altogether stupid, even if he was prone to putting his proverbial foot in his mouth. He had a good mind for strategy when he focused, although his explanations were often poor. He would make a good advisor to his younger brother, Crown Prince Ezran, someday, Rayla was sure of it. But with a sword or any sort of defense, he was rather hapless. She could see why the human crownguard, even its captain, Soren, had given up on him. 

She could see why, even if she disagreed with it. 

“Come on, Your Highness. You can do this.” 

The prince struggled to catch his breath, wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. She kept her sword, a wooden one, at the ready, while he held his own in a limp grip. They’d been practicing this parry all day and he still wasn’t fast enough to probably pull the, overall, simple maneuver off. Rayla didn’t know why it wasn’t clicking for him, but it couldn’t hurt to push; that was how she had learned.

“I can’t,” he said and she frowned. 

“You’ll get it. Just—”

“No. I won’t.” He dropped his sword to the ground and she blinked in surprise. “This is pointless. I’m just wasting your time.” 

“It’s my time to waste,” she quipped and he threw her a dry stare. Rayla let out a long sigh. “Come on. We can take your break early.”

They settled on the bench beneath the tall, ancient tree that had been there since the Schism. She passed him a half-full waterskin and he took it gratefully, gulping it down. 

“So,” she said as he finished it off, wiping at his mouth, “what’s giving you trouble?”

“I’m just not good at this,” he said. “I never have been.”

“Everyone can learn sword-fighting.”

“Consider me not ‘everyone’ then.” 

“I’ve seen you in the war room,” she said. “You have a mind for strategy. What is it about sword fighting that makes thinking more difficult?”

“I dunno. It’s up close? There are so many things and I can’t think far enough ahead and on top of all that, I just can’t do it right . My hand-eye coordination can be really terrible. Everyone tells me to think of the sword as an extension of my body, but that’s just the problem.” 

Rayla pursed her lips. “What if you thought of it as… a pencil?”

He looked at her. “What?”

“I’ve… seen you sketch, Your Highness.” Everyone did, since he did it everywhere. On the bench they were resting, in the more casual dining hall during family dinners, in the libraries, reading nooks, even more prolifically when he’d been in his early teens and she’d just come to the palace. And more than just sketching, she knew he was good at it, too. “If you thought of the sword as charcoal, or as a paint brush, do you think that would help?”

He was quiet for a moment. “What picture would I be making?”

“Depends. But you probably have to think on your feet while you’re doing a faster sketch sometimes, yeah?”

“I guess.”

“Then you’re just figuring out the picture as you go. Sword fighting is all about anticipation, yes, but defense, parrying, the whole art of it, so to speak, is about making your opponent do what you want them to do. Forcing them to bend a certain way or make a certain move that will give you the upper hand, or delay them from attaining it. You decide how the picture looks, so to speak.”

“So, like… if I was trying to draw something but someone kept trying to scribble on my page?”

Rayla smiled a little. “Sort of. Maybe if they were trying to erase it, instead?”

“Yeah,” he said, nodding slowly. “That… makes sense.” He looked at her with his own smile. “I think I’m ready to try again.”

“Yeah? Because you still have a few minutes of your break left.” 

Prince Callum let out a small laugh. “Once I finish my water,” he amended. “Thank you, Rayla. You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had.” 

She glanced away as her cheeks flushed. It was high praise, after all, from a member of the Katolian royal family. “Just don’t tell Soren,” she said lightly, taking a swig from her own flask.  

“He might already know, but I won’t. Unless he really needs to be taken down a peg.” 

“He usually does,” she grinned. She stood up when he was done. “Ready?”

“I think so.” He sat up, picking the sword off the ground as they went back to the center of the courtyard and got into position. “How’s my stance? I’m trying the uh—what was it? Staying light on my feet?”

Rayla tried not to smile. “On your toes, Your Highness.”

“Ah, right.” 

She allowed herself an eyeroll as he adjusted and then looked back at him. “Are you ready?”

The prince took a breath, then nodded, before striking first. She deflected, smiling a little when he got his bearings back a tad more quickly. Dodged one of her blows without her having to purposefully slow it down, although she did measure the strength of her swing in case it did land; she didn’t want to hurt him, even accidentally. This time, when he tried the parry, he pulled it off—and then grew so proud and so giddy because of it, it was easy after that to sweep the leg.

It was enough for her as she helped Prince Callum back onto his feet. “You did really well,” she said as he released her hand, frowning a little.

“I still lost this round.”

“Yeah, but you seemed much more comfortable, and your technique is getting there. You pulled off the parry. You’re improving. Don’t erase the small victories.”

Slowly, his frown faded, and he even smiled slightly as he looked back up at her. “Thanks.”

“Besides,” she said, “not even Soren can beat me in a sparring match, most days.”

Prince Callum’s eyes were thoughtful as he picked up his sketchbook from where it lay near the bench and slung it over his shoulder as she put their wooden swords along the rack outside of the ring. “Guess Moonshadow elves are pretty intense, huh? Uh, maybe not intense,” he amended quickly, “although that isn’t a bad thing, I just meant—” A nervous laugh. “Different, you know?” 

“Nah,” she said, turning around to face him again with a sly smile. “We’re pretty intense. I’ve been training with swords since I was five. Most children here start around age ten, don’t they?”

His shoulders eased once it was clear that she wasn’t offended. “Twelve, usually. But we get to start learning about Primal Magic at age ten.”

“Weird then,” she considered, “that you wait so long for the Choosing Ceremony.”

“It’s not that strange,” he countered goodnaturedly as they walked to the courtyard. “We have to wait until people are old enough to travel more or less on their own, remember? And forging a connection can be dangerous sometimes.” He grinned. “I am excited for my Ceremony, though.”

It was his eighteenth birthday in two weeks. There was a big gala and celebration the night before, per usual, but in the morning he would roll the Cube of Aaravos and see which primal rune glowed up, and that would be his arcanum. She knew his father was hoping for Moon magic; something to keep him close to Katolis and away from the other Nexuses still under the control of their enemies. Earth, Star, and Sky, the latter less so, were still fiercely guarded, Earth in particular. The sellouts. 

“Are you hoping for any arcanum in particular?” she asked before she could stop herself. It was an almost personal question and those weren’t allowed with the prince. Not that she thought he’d mind, but still. There was propriety and etiquette to keep in mind. 

“I think Sun might be really cool,” he confessed. “I could go see my aunt, too. I’ve always wanted to use a Sunforge blade someday.” Then he caught Rayla squinting at him, surely a strange smile on her face. “What?”

“I’m not sure you should be using anything other than wooden swords, let alone a Sunforge blade, until we can be sure you’re not going to cut yourself open with it, Your Highness.” 

“Then you could just keep teaching me till I get there. If you want,” he added quickly, and she smiled a little.

“That’s what I’m paid for, Your Highness,” she said dryly, and he laughed. 

“Not enough, most likely.” 

“Callum?” They both looked up to find the High Mage’s daughter standing in the doorway, arched windows on either side of her. The hallway of grey stone led off from the courtyard and into the castle, plants lining either side.

Claudia was tall and pretty, a couple years older, and wore a long black dress that matched her long dark hair. It hadn’t exactly been a secret that the prince had developed a crush on her a few years back, and though he seemed more relaxed around her now, something in Rayla suspected that it had never really gone away, for him. She could see why. 

Claudia, after all, was on a first name basis. She could see them having a happily arranged marriage in a year or two, especially now that Prince Callum would be of marrying age. 

Said prince perked up. “What is it?”

“My father and Queen Sarai want to see you in the library. If you’re done with your lesson for the day?”

“Oh. Of course,” he said, glancing back at Rayla for a moment. “I’ll see you later?”

“Yeah,” she said, smiling in spite of an all too familiar deflated feeling in her chest. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Your Highness. Don’t be late.” 

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he grinned, before following Claudia down the hallway. Rayla heard them laughing about something, and she took a deep breath, forcing herself to turn away.

It was just strange, she supposed, to think of all of them—of him—as grown up now.

His mother and his father’s High Mage were waiting for him in the library once they slipped inside, both adults bent over unfurled scrolls and discussing something quietly. They looked up at the sound of footsteps, Sarai smiling when she saw them.

“How was practice today?” she asked with interest. His mother was more gifted with a spear but she was rather talented at all forms of combat. Callum often thought that if she thought it wouldn’t make Rayla uncomfortable, his mother might’ve asked her for a sparring match just for a challenge.

“It was good,” he said cheerfully. “Rayla’s a really good teacher.”

Sarai’s smile shifted into something Callum couldn’t quite define, like she knew a secret that he didn’t. “Hmm. How nice,” she said, and she meant it, even if he couldn’t read the look on his mother’s face. He glanced at Claudia, but she had a similar expression, and his brow furrowed. 

“Why did you both want to see us?” Callum asked, suddenly eager to change the subject.

“Just you, son,” Viren corrected and Claudia slipped away with one last smile. It was rare but not unheard of for the man to be warm, his dark coat tailored and staff leaning against the table. 

“...Okay,” Callum said slowly. “What’s this about?”

“We just want to make sure you’re well prepared for your Choosing Ceremony,” Sarai said. 

“Oh. Well I feel pretty good about it, and it’s not like I’m not educated on the Primal, but—”

“Even holding the Cube can be an intense experience,” said Viren, a slightly wistful look in his eye, seemingly remembering his own Choosing decades earlier. The Ocean arcanum had called to him and he had answered, the shape of waves etched into his staff. Claudia had been given the Sun. 

Not every noble or person rolled the cube, and indeed not everyone who did had a rune glow for them, but Callum felt confident… alright, he hoped one would glow for him. It hadn’t for his mother but she had never had an interest in it, and Harrow’s connection to the Earth was weak, but there. Not that he expected to be better at magic than he was at anything else other than art, but magic was cool, and he wanted it. Maybe it would finally make people see him as something closer to a proper prince. 

“I know,” he said, “but I’m ready. I’ve done all my readings on the Primals, and have read all the history, and Ancient Draconic. I’m as prepared as I can be.”

“And remember,” Viren said, “there will be many eligible young nobles at your birthday gala this year.”

Ah. So that’s what this was really about. Callum frowned. “I’m aware, Lord Viren.”

“No pressure,” Sarai said gently. “But if you happen to meet someone—”

“I know,” Callum said, trying not to grimace. “Mom, I have a few years.”

“I know. But it never hurts to… open yourself up to the possibility, more. Unless you… already have someone in mind?”

Callum blinked. Who would she be referring to? Claudia, maybe? But his early-teens crush on her had faded basically into oblivion by the time he’d turned sixteen. Why, he wasn’t sure, but it was gone nonetheless. Kind of relieving, actually. They were much better friends now that he wasn’t consistently tongue-tied around her.

“I don’t,” he said blankly, and Sarai shrugged. “Uh, at all, so…?”

“Whatever you say, dear.” 

“Is that all you called me in for?”

“Lord Viren just wants to go over what you can expect from your Choosing Ceremony,” Sarai said. “Now that it’s closer than ever and so you can tackle any nerves head on well before it comes.” 

“I don’t have any nerves,” he mumbled, but he sat down anyway as Lord Viren passed him an open book on the table and his mother left the room. Callum glanced at the page, which bore a sketch of the Cube of Aaravos shown from all sides and all six runes. All of it familiar and something he had learned years ago.

The Cube was a gift from the elves to the humans who had sworn off Dark Magic, allied under the Draconic Royal Family centuries ago. Aaravos himself had grown to favour Dark Magic but he hadn’t originally, and instead helped carve in humans the ability to connect to the Primal sources at all, passed down along the generations, blah blah blah. A good thing too, since the elves who had sided with the Dark Mages, and become ones themselves, were starting to lose their primal through degradation and misuse. At least that’s what his Aunt Amaya’s military reports said, from the few he’d been allowed to read.

“I just want to prepare you,” said Viren smoothly, “for the reality in which no rune glows for you. Not everyone is made to be a mage. The king’s was faint, as you know, and so is his connection to the Primal. You may very well be the same.” 

It wasn’t personal, but the warning stung nonetheless. “I’m aware, Lord Viren,” said Callum, trying not to sound short.

“There is no shame in it, if it happens.”

“I know ,” he said, before taking a breath. “But it’s also just as likely it’ll glow, isn’t it?”

“That’s certainly the expectation for royalty,” said Viren, and then he paused. “I know I don’t have to explain your… situational exception.” 

Because there was always someone who had to bring it up, as if he didn’t already get the message. That he was a step-prince. An unchosen spare heir. Someone to be married off, likely for political advantage. His brother’s advisor, the best of all monikers.

“And we also know that bloodline doesn’t matter when it comes to magic,” he shot back, temper rising. “You and Claudia are connected to opposite primals. Our royality isn’t chosen on the basis of magehood, anyway. King Harrow is proof of that.” 

Viren narrowed his eyes, although Callum couldn’t tell what he was thinking. “Yes. It’s not.” 

“If the rune doesn’t glow, then I won’t go on a pilgrimage. Nothing else really changes,” Callum reiterated. “And I’m not nervous.” 

“Good,” Viren said carefully. “And either way, you will still have your birthday gala to think about. I know you say that you have no one in mind, but choose carefully, Prince Callum, while your parents still present you with a choice. You don’t want to waste it.”

“I know.” He couldn’t keep the shortness out of his tone this time—really, were all the older adults in his life going to be this focused on marrying him off for the next three years?—as he asked, “Is there anything else?”

“You don’t have any questions?”

“I think we’ve said enough.”

Viren’s lip curled. Callum was just glad the man was Ezran’s godfather and not his. “Very well, then. I suppose I shall see you at dinner.” 

Callum stood up. “See you then, Lord Viren.”

If he did go on a pilgrimage, one of the things he wouldn’t miss was this.

Still, it was hard not to smile when he stumbled upon his brother’s afternoon lessons with his tutor in the castle classroom. It was a homelier room than the much larger library, and better for Ezran’s more excitable nature, his tutor for today one of Opeli’s members. He must be learning history or linguistics. It would explain the bored look on Ez’s face, although it quickly dissipated once he saw Callum poking his head in the door. He perked up so strongly it dislodged Bait from his place napping in the young teen’s arms.

“Ah—finally excited about the northern battles for the border, I see,” his tutor, a Sunfire elf named Kazi, said. Then they followed Ezran’s gaze and turned around to see Callum. “Oh.” Then they bowed, glasses dangling on their nose. “Hello, Prince Callum.” 

“Don’t mind me,” he said. “Just stopping in to say hi.”

“I’m afraid we are a bit behind on the lesson,” Kazi said. “The young prince insisted on a jelly tart break.”

“I can’t concentrate when I’m hungry,” Ezran pouted. “And Bait was too grumpy about being hungry too.” 

Callum sighed fondly. “You wanna be done for the day, Kazi? Maybe I can get through to him.” He remembered his own history lessons, after all, and although he’d been a little more attentive and interested in it, it could still be very dry and repetitive sometimes. He wasn’t surprised Ez was having some trouble focusing. 

Kazi considered this for a moment. “Very well,” they said, rising from their seat and leaving the chalkboard behind. “Thank you, Prince Callum.” They turned their brown eyes on Ez. “I shall see you tomorrow afternoon, Prince Ezran. No jelly tart breaks.”

Callum grabbed the edge of the chalkboard and wheeled it closer, picking up a piece of white chalk and Ezran groaned. “You’re really gonna teach me?”

His green eyes scanned the board, seeing the tip of Lux Aurea bordered in by Duren to the west and the lands of the dragons mostly in the northeast, but Skywing elves didn’t care much for borders, even if they still cared for their Nexus.

“Just tell me what you went over today,” he requested, looking back at his brother. 

“Mostly alliances,” Ezran sighed.

“Well those are important,” Callum said, trying not to smile too much.

“It was kind of scary, actually,” Ez admitted. “I don’t like the idea that we’re boxed in by enemies.”

Three of the five human kingdoms had sided with Dark Magic, after all, blocking off Katolis and Duren from the western sea. Evenere was neutral, or so it claimed, but what they really meant was that it did trade with Neolandia and Del Bar and faced no possible consequences, Callum knew. Then there were the Earthblood elves, separating the Sunfire and Moonshadow alliance from full force, and taking up most of the Xadian continent. If war was ever fully waged, more than the terse… perhaps not peace, but stalemate they had now, the Drekkini Alliance would be fighting a war on both fronts. 

His father didn’t let him in the war room, but Callum picked up enough here and there. War wasn’t close, but… it wasn’t a dismissed prospect, either. 

“Yes,” he said, “but we also have friends. Like Kazi and Rayla, and the other elves who work here, and the ones in Xadia, remember?”

Ezran managed a tiny smile. “Yeah. Rayla’s cool.” It faded a little. “What would they do if there was a war?”

“They’d fight with us, against the Dark Order.” It was the Dark Mage guild that formed most of the opposing military. 

“Would they have to fight some of their own people?”

“Well, just like how some humans sided with Dark Magic and some, like us, didn’t, elves were in  the same sort of situation. But most Moonshadow and Sunfire elves sided with us, remember? I know the Earthblood elves tend to be a bit more split, but that’s just because there’s so many of them, I think.”

Ezran was quiet, for a moment. “So it’s pretty fifty-fifty?” he asked finally.

Callum kneeled down and placed a hand on his shoulder and tried not to think about how he’d said a similar thing to Viren about the Cube. “It’s pretty fifty-fifty,” he confirmed. “But that just means we’re not outnumbered, right?”

Ezran brightened. “Right. Thanks Callum.”

“You’re welcome. Now, the battles you were going over today?”

The young prince groaned again. “But they all happened like, a thousand years ago.”

“Still important to know how the Schism happened, Ez. So?”

His little brother picked himself up and then a piece of chalk and started drawing on the board. “Okay, mostly we talked about the Battle of Lux Aurea against the forces of Neolandia, back when Duren was neutral and let them walk right through—”

Slowly, over the next week and a half, security tightened over the castle. This was always the case, Rayla found, when a party was planned, whether for a birthday or some diplomatic function. The royal family liked to entertain and keep good relations with nobles, human and elven alike, and to check in with the common people and those who had neutral positions, like some Earthblood lords, to sway them where they could. And given that it was also the prince’s coming of age ball, this gala would be particularly extravagant. Even the guards (including her) would be required to dress up, although how practical that was made her rather bitter. 

How was she supposed to be prepared for a fight if she was in a dress?

It didn’t help matters that Soren thought the whole thing was hilarious. He wasn’t bothered at all, and instead spent many minutes musing out loud about how to style his hair, whether he could get away with wearing fancy ceremonial army and whether he and Rayla could get special treatment and drink some of the wine, since they were co-captains of the crownguard. She’d only rolled her eyes; any actual scolding would’ve just been another source of amusement for him.

“And they’ll be plenty of pretty ladies there,” said Soren to another one of the guards, a dark haired young man named Marcos, who looked extremely disinterested. Rayla rolled her eyes. Had Soren forgotten that Marcos was gay?

“Think he’ll choose one?” said a stringy Moonshadow elf, his crownguard helmet a little lopsided. 

Couldn’t anyone ever let a patrol shift up on the battlements pass silently ?

“Dunno,” Soren said. “But Callum’s not exactly a charmer.” The other guards had the nerve to laugh.

“The prince will be fine,” Rayla grouched. 

“Well, you would think so,” Soren said, and she frowned as she looked at him.

“What does that mean?” she demanded.

“Oh please,” Soren said smugly. “Everyone knows you have a soft spot for him.” 

Rayla gaped and then bristled. “I do not. I can simply see his potential, unlike the rest of you. And I get the payments to prove it.” 

Soren shared a smirk with the other Moonshadow elf. “Oh, so you don’t have a little soft spot for him, then?”

“I will deck you hard in the face if you keep talking,” she threatened, and Soren paled.

“Alright, sheesh. I won’t put in a good word for you now, then.” 

“Like I’d want it,” she said, in spite of the warmth in her face. She turned away sharply towards the horizon, glad when the conversation moved on without her to what may be for dinner tonight, and whether Barius would let them make any requests. 

What a bunch of fucking idiots.

“There’s no need to be nervous.”

Callum stopped struggling with the miniscule buttons on his sleek black vest, before he resumed. “I know , Dad.” Could they make these things any smaller? He hadn’t had trouble pulling on any of his gala garb—not the nice white shirt with a folded down collar, not the black slacks and dress shoes, not the cufflinks—just this dumb vest. That did, admittedly, complete the look, but it still felt strange to be without his scarf. And he couldn’t get his hair to lie entirely flat. 

“Would you like some help?” the king asked gently. Callum let out a little huff, before turning to face his stepfather. 

“Yes please.”

Harrow smiled before he did up the last few buttons of his son’s vest. “It takes practice,” he said. “Or at the very least, it’s easier when someone can do it for you.” He finished and stepped back. “There. How do you feel?”

Callum turned back towards the mirror in the king’s dressing room. There were a lot of words for how he was feeling. Irritated with the stupid buttons, tired of all the marriage talk, apprehensive about the results of the Choosing tomorrow—

“Weird,” he finally settled. 


“I dunno. I feel weird. I look weird.”

“You do not look weird. You look like my son, growing into a handsome young man.”

Callum smiled dryly. “You have to say that.”

“Maybe. But that doesn’t make it untrue.” Harrow gave Callum’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. “You’ll do fine, son,” he said warmly. “And you’ve already made me and your mother very proud.”

That made Callum smile for real. “Thanks, Dad.”

“Of course.” He glanced toward the door. “Ready to go?”

Callum took a deep breath. “As I‘ll ever be.”

Rayla had to admit the ballroom was beautiful, though. The floors shone, almost like mirrors, reflecting the twinkling lights hanging above. The entryway was tall and arching, the oaken doors kept open by two lower-ranking guards as guests trickled in. Blooming vines twisted around the pillars, and tables of food and drink lined the walls. Rayla fussed with her silvery skirts as she glanced out one of the gaping windows, dusky blue colouring the sky.

She’d relented in styling her hair up if only so it wouldn’t get in her eyes at all, if she had to lift up and gird her skirts in case of a speedy attack. Not that she really thought they would be attacked at a party. The castle had held plenty of others and in the five years she’d been at the palace, things had been relatively peaceful. But still, she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling in her gut. Things were going to start changing, she knew. Likely for the better, if everything went well at the Ceremony tomorrow and Prince Callum married well, too, but it was still a change. Still left open a possibility for things to go wrong. 

“Lighten up, would you?” said Soren, dressed in golden ceremonial armour. He held two goblets of wine and pushed one into her hand. 

She only took a sip to save herself from having to speak to him. How was it that the royal family hadn’t even made their proper entrance yet, and the night already felt long ?

Soren didn’t take her silence as a hint. “So, do you think he’ll trip on his way in, or just during the first dance?”

Rayla raised her chin and glared. “Why are you so hard on him?” she snapped. “Always putting him down, to his face or to others, and being mean. Aren’t you two friends ?”

Soren’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “I—uh—” 

He didn’t get a chance to finish his thought (if he could even form any) when a trumpet sounded, announcing the arrival of the royal family. Prince Ezran, per usual, walked in first, nearly a skip in his step and in nice Katolian red, followed by his mother, her black hair shiny and styled. Then the king, smiling and in even finer robes than he usually wore, his crown polished and gleaming.

“I-I just—” Soren spluttered, now finding his voice, although Rayla barely listened. “He’s the, y’know, step-prince, and—”

“He’s a member of the royal family,” she said coolly, “and you would do well to remember it.” 

Soren sighed. “It’s just supposed to be a joke, anyway.”

“Did you ever check if he was alright with being the punchline? Or do friends only speak that way about friends behind their back?” She frowned. “It’s not funny , Soren, and—”

Another trumpet drowned her out. She turned toward the sound, and she watched the prince enter, his family now facing him at the head of the room, patiently waiting. He was smiling, a bit nervous, but maybe most people wouldn’t be able to tell. He’d always been lanky, especially since his growth spurt at around sixteen, but the well-fitted vest revealed how well filled out he was for his age, his chest rising as he took a deep breath before walking towards his parents. He stood straight and tall, most likely reminded over and over beforehand to do so. Without his scarf, the sharp line of his jaw was easier to see. He looked—and was—every inch a prince.

It was easy for her to applaud alongside everyone else, even if she was just one face, lost among the crowd. Prince Callum’s smile tensed, his eyes scanning the room, when it settled on her, and it seemed to freeze her in place. His expression changed, relaxing, his eyes following the lines of her dress. His eyes lifted back to her face, and his smile returned, smaller and softer, this time. She gave him a tight-lipped smile back before finally forcing her eyes away. Well, she supposed she was a friendlier face than Soren.

She turned back towards the rest of the crowd as the fanfare settled and the celebration truly began, wondering when the room had gotten so warm. Her face was burning, and she took another sip from her goblet, hoping the drink would cool her burning skin down, somehow. 

It was easier to move to the corner of the room, not only to ease her mind with being able to survey, but also to get shuttered out of the way when the dancing started. The royal family didn’t partake, yet—the king and queen were fond of waltzing—but Prince Ezran had vacated his chair, leaving only his pet toad (frog? Rayla had never been sure) in it, and was leaning over his mother’s armrest, asking for something and earnest as ever. She didn’t look for Prince Callum, although he had somehow left his chair too; his family was there, and relaxed, and the other guards probably had an eye on him. 

Part of her almost wanted to ditch the ball and go on patrol with the guards who were still, officially, on duty, but the king had jovially invited her and Soren and well, it would be rude. Not that King Harrow was easily offended. Did she care about being rude? Soren was so casual, and while she would never let herself be that comfortable, maybe—

There was a peal of laughter and she looked up to see Prince Ezran guiding his mother onto the dance floor by the hand before they began to dance together, both beaming, and Rayla smiled. Alright, maybe she could stay. She didn’t want to miss anything. And although parties weren’t really her thing, when was the last time she’d been at one? At the younger prince’s birthday in March, maybe, almost five months prior?

It was moments like these that reminded her why she liked serving the royal family so much. They were good people, earnest and easy to like. They cared for their people, and for the Alliance. They truly acted as servants of their kingdom. Hopefully there would be more people like them in power, someday.

The music was fairly good, with woodwinds and lutes, slightly fast paced but not so fast that dancing was awkward or hurried. Humans, she had found, had different music than Moonshadow elves—different dances, too—but no less pleasant. And there were enough Moonshadow elves at the palace and living in the surrounding kingdom that she never missed her people too much. Even if Runaan had frowned at the thought of her being in the capital… 

“Psst.” Rayla rolled her eyes as Soren joined her by the back table, even his discrete signals far too loud. “Psst—”

“I heard you the first time,” she said shortly. “What is it?”

“You know he hasn’t stopped looking at you,” he said in a singsong voice. She rolled her eyes.

“What are you on about now?”

“Callum. He keeps staring at you.” Soren lowered his voice. “I guess it’s kinda sweet.”

Rayla snorted and frowned. “Oh stop it, Soren. Can’t you be serious for once?”

Soren blinked. “But I am. Look—he’s coming this way right now.” 

Her eyes widened. “What?!” She turned around, and sure enough, the prince was walking straight toward them. 

“Have fun,” Soren grinned, and he was gone when she tried to look back over at him. Oh, she was going to kill him one of these days. Still, maybe she could have him take pity on her.

Soren ,” she hissed, shoulders bent, but she whirled around, straightened up and smiled when Prince Callum came into view of her. “Hi,” she said and immediately wanted to smack herself in the face. “Your Highness.”

“Hi,” he repeated, smiling back. With a similar tension as he’d had before, but not quite. Was he nervous again? The entrance was over, easily the worst part, so why…? “You look really nice this evening. I mean, you always look nice, I—” He cleared his throat, suddenly pink in the face, and she stared at him. 

“Thanks,” she said, unsure of what else to say. 

He gestured towards the door. “I didn’t realize you’d be here. I thought you’d be on patrol with some of the other guards.

“The king wanted the crownguard to be up here, so he invited us. I’m… not really used to these kinds of parties, but I didn’t want to be rude.” She nearly bit her tongue. “Not that it isn’t nice and I’m not enjoying myself, I just…”

“It’s not really your thing?” he finished and she nodded, not trusting herself to speak. “Yeah. I get it. I’m not much of a party person either. It’s fun, but there’s a lot of people—” For him with expectations, she supposed. “And I’m not good at dancing.” 

So he wasn’t going to dance with any of the young women. The thought was strangely relieving. Why was it relieving? “I’m sure you’re not as bad as you think,” she tried. “You’ve been really improving in our training sessions.”

“Oh. Thank you,” he smiled. “Dancing is really important in Moonshadow culture, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said, a small drop of warmth spreading through her chest. It wasn’t as though Prince Callum’s interest in magic and other cultures was news to her, although it was still nice. “Did you learn about it from one of your tutors, or…?”

“I… kind of did some outside reading,” he said. 

“Oh.” She flushed a little, not sure why. It wasn’t as though his interest in her culture was because of her, after all. “Well, it’s different from this, but both are nice.”

“You must be a really good dancer.”

“I’m not bad,” she admitted and then tried for a joke. “You know, naturally graceful and all that.”

“Yes,” he said, rather quickly. “Yes, I’ve noticed.”

Rayla blinked. “You have?”

“Yeah, when you’re training out in the courtyard in the mornings.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s hard to miss.”

Their lessons were closer to noon. She glanced away, suddenly self-conscious and warm. But her solo, morning jogs in the courtyard, and whacking away at dummies… It wasn’t as though he was spying. The courtyard was a public space; anyone could see her. She just hadn’t thought he would want to. Did he want to?

“So, uh—” He swung his arm out towards the dance floor, and for one mad moment, she thought she caught his implication. That he was going to ask her to dance , with him . “Would you… Would you like to—”

“Prince Callum.” They both turned to see Lord Viren, looking as much at ease as Rayla thought he ever could, and still a tad severe, his robes sleek and black and proper, and without his usual staff. “There are diplomats and nobles who need to speak with you,” he said.

Callum’s smile faltered. “Of course,” he said, resigned. “I’ll be right there.” He looked back at Rayla with an apologetic smile, although he had nothing to apologize for. “I’ll see you later?”

She was definitely going to do everything in her power to avoid him for the rest of the night. “Yeah. Enjoy your evening, Your Highness.” 

“You too,” he said, his voice unmistakably soft. She left first, not looking back to see if he’d turned away yet. 

She walked a brisk pace around the edge of the ballroom, almost doing a lap. Counting her heartbeats (now racing). Trying to clear her head. She wiped her sweaty—sweaty?—palms on her dress. The deep blue bodice of her dress now felt far too tight around her chest. Stupid dress. Stupid dance. Stupid thought, thinking he was asking her to—as if he would ever

She took a fresh goblet of wine, draining it in the corner. Just one. That was fine. Anything to get her head (and heart) to stop racing.

She was a servant of Katolis. She was a servant.