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~ 1 ~
Castle Ordnung came into view as
the dragon dropped beneath the thick cloud cover. From Rhyian’s perspective on
dragonback, the white towers and high walls looked only slightly less white
than the snowy landscape. The high queen’s crimson banner flapped furiously on
the heights, all the pennants of the subsidiary thirteen kingdoms arranged
below. Though it was still afternoon, the thick snowfall dimmed the light to a grim
gray, so gloomy the thousands of burning torches lining the parapets shone
Rhy snorted to
himself. So much for mossback’s much-anticipated viewing of the crystalline full
moon. With that overcast, no one would even see it. To think that he could be
at home in tropical Annfwn, celebrating the Feast of Moranu in the traditional
way—on the beach, shapeshifting, dancing, and drinking in the warm night.
But no. His mother
had issued a royal command that Rhy absolutely would attend the ball
celebrating the quarter-century anniversary of High Queen Ursula’s prosperous
reign. Nothing less could’ve forced him to attend. Not that Rhy didn’t love and
respect his Auntie Essla. But it seemed likely Salena would also attend. And
he’d rather be anywhere than in the same place as Salena.
Not something he
could or would confess to anyone. And even the queen’s son must obey royal
commands—particularly when his father, the king of Annfwn, did nothing to save
him. So there Rhy was, tricked out in the fancy dress outfit his mother had forced
him to wear via yet another royal command—the silver-trimmed black velvet making
him look like a mossback—plunging into bitter winter, and counting the minutes
until the following dawn when he would be free again.
The longest night
of the year had a lot of minutes.
would just ignore him tonight. It would be a big event in a huge castle. They
should be able to avoid each other. After all, they’d managed to avoid each
other for seven years since the incident. And she’d been the one to flee
Annfwn, clearly to avoid seeing him ever again. He couldn’t imagine she’d want
to see him now any more than he wanted to see her.
Zynda landed in
the cleared field set aside for the dragons. The cold wind whipped them cruelly
as soon as Rhy’s sorceress mother released her magic bubble that had kept them
warm on the journey. Zynda waited only long enough for them to scramble down
the rope-harness ladder before shifting into an elegant ballgown and furred
cape. “Brr,” she declared, joining them. “I always forget how cold it is here
“I don’t,” Rhy
replied caustically, but subsided when his mother glared at him. They rushed up
the cleared walkway, the torches lining it providing some warmth, though the
flames whipped and guttered with the wind.
shouting hails for Queen Andromeda of Annfwn, some giving Zynda’s husband, Marskal,
the Hawks’ salute, though he was long since retired from the high queen’s elite
guard. Finally, they made it inside the castle, and for once, Rhy appreciated
the thick walls. The stone edifices mossbacks favored might be as confining as
a cage, but they did cut the brutal winter winds.
It was like
stepping into a different world—and a different Ordnung than he’d ever seen
before. To honor the goddess Moranu’s rule over shadows and the dark of night,
the rugs, table coverings, and other hangings were all in deepest black. They
created a somber backdrop for the remaining decorations, which all celebrated
the return of light. Silver and gold threads wove through all of the black
fabrics, catching the candlelight. Crystal plates and goblets sparkled with
fire, everything in silver and gold. White gems of all shapes and sizes studded
everything, like thousands of stars, and garlands of evergreen boughs sporting white
moonflowers that gleamed like sweetly scented living pearls festooned the
walls, windows, mantels, and every other possible surface.
crystal candelabras—some suspended by silver wires, others perched in clusters
on every surface—held white candles blazing with light. More moonflower
garlands dripping with flashing crystals, and possibly diamonds, hung in
graceful swoops from the high ceilings.
Scribes sat at black-draped
tables scattered throughout the busy reception hall, using flashing crystal
implements to take notes for fancily dressed folks speaking earnestly to them.
In other places, hammered gold bins held countless rolled scrolls of paper,
with empty tables beside them, writing implements at the ready.
Rhy had no idea
what that was about, but he had to admit—silently, in the privacy of his own
head—that the mossback celebration of Moranu’s feast outstripped the one in
Annfwn. Certainly more elaborate. But then, mossbacks always did like things.
wearing a fancy velvet getup very like Rhy’s, came striding through the busy
hall, his twin sister, Stella, right behind him. His cousin embraced him,
thumping him on the back. Stella hung back, giving him her serious smile and a
courtly wave. Her sorcery gave her extraordinary healing skills but also made
her sensitive to people’s emotions and physical pains. She’d learned a lot
about shielding herself from the Sorceress Queen Andromeda, but not touching
people helped more than anything. Still, a crowd like this couldn’t be easy for
Rhy gave her a gallant
bow, then clasped Astar’s forearm. “Happy Feast of Moranu, Willy and Nilly,” he
said, using their childhood nicknames, originally assigned by exasperated
adults exhausted from chasing rambunctious shapeshifting twin toddlers, and now
used gleefully by their friends to annoy them. Surreptitiously scanning the
throng, Rhy didn’t see Salena anywhere. Last he’d heard, she’d been off in the
Aerron Desert making it rain. Maybe Moranu would look on him favorably—not that
She ever did—and Salena hadn’t come tonight.
“I’m so happy you
joined us, Rhy!” Stella beamed at him. “We weren’t sure you would, knowing how
much you hate to leave Annfwn, especially in winter.” As dark as Astar was
light, Stella looked very much like Andromeda, with storm-gray eyes that shone
almost silver like her argent ballgown. Her dark hair—the exact same unusual
rusty black as Rhy’s mother—was up in a complicated style that shone with red
glints where the light hit it.
“I wouldn’t have
missed this for the world, my gorgeous cousin,” he replied with his most
“Moranu save us
all,” Queen Andromeda said in a very dry voice as she joined them. “It’s
capable of polite speech. Who knew? Happy Feast of Moranu, niece and nephew,
it’s good to see you.”
“It’s wonderful to
see you, Auntie Andi,” Stella replied after Astar finished hugging their aunt
for the both of them. “Mother and Auntie Essla are getting dressed now. I’m to
ask you to join them in Her Majesty’s rooms.”
dusted off her leather riding pants unnecessarily. “Ah. Time to confront
whatever Glorianna-inspired creation my baby sister intends to dress me in.”
“Auntie Ami is
dressing you tonight?” Rhy asked, beyond surprised.
“Yes.” His mother
wrinkled her nose at him. “Which is something you’d know if you’d listened to
anything I’ve said for the last three days instead of sulking. Ami insisted on
designing gowns for the three of us sisters. Essla, too. We’re frankly
terrified,” she confided.
Even in his rotten
mood, Rhy had to smile at that. As the avatar of Glorianna, goddess of beauty
and love, his Aunt Ami embraced all things frivolous. “I’m amazed you agreed.”
grimaced. “We’re all making concessions so this event will be a perfect
celebration,” she replied meaningfully.
“I’m here, aren’t
his collar, smiling wistfully. “I know you hate this,” she said quietly, “but
you look very handsome.”
He batted her
hands away, but relented and gave her a hug. “Good luck. I’ll pray to Moranu
for you that the dress isn’t pink.”
“She wouldn’t do
that to me,” his mother replied firmly. “Would she?” She shook her head. “I’ll
see you all later.”
Once Andi left
them, Astar clapped Rhy on the back. “It’s been too long.” He waggled his blond
brows. “And we have a bottle of Branlian whiskey waiting to properly kick off
Rhy whistled in
appreciation. “How did you get that?”
“Being heir to the
High Throne might be the bane of my existence, but it does have a few perks.”
Astar shoved back his golden curls, grinning cheerfully.
“And Jak has
promised to bring aged Dasnarian mjed,” Stella added. “He sent a message that
Jepp and Kral obtained a few casks of the good stuff, and he’s bringing one.”
“Then we might as
well start on the whiskey,” Rhy said, “so we’ll be ready for the mjed. Who else
is here so far of the old gang?” There. He’d asked that nonchalantly enough. Please
say Salena isn’t coming.
“Jak arrived this
morning. Otherwise, only we have joined the party so far that I’ve seen,” Astar
replied. “But I’ve had a salon set aside for us to all meet up. Jak is keeping
a lookout for the girls to emerge from their primping, and he’ll bring them to
join us.” He smiled, every inch the golden prince. “It will be good to have all
seven of us together again.”
though?” Rhy said, scanning the crowd again with increasing dread. All seven
of us. So Salena was coming. In fact, it sounded like she was
already here. And they were going to be crammed into a tiny room together.
This night would
~ 2 ~
And there he
was. Rhyian. Like night made into flesh, Moranu’s loving hand all over him,
crowning him her Prince of Shadows. Salena couldn’t look away.
Amid the glittering
crowd, laughing with Astar and Stella, Rhyian stood tall and languid, black
hair in glossy disarray as if he’d just crawled out of some girl’s bed.
Probably had. He wore silver-trimmed black velvet, perfectly tailored. And, even
slouching with indolent grace, hands stuck carelessly in his pockets, he
dominated the room with dark radiance. Astar, ever the golden prince, dimmed in
comparison as he gestured widely, saying something with a wide and happy smile.
Rhyian nodded, clearly not paying much attention as he scanned the crowd.
Looking for his next conquest, no doubt.
bitter, she reminded herself. After all this time, she couldn’t possibly
care what he did.