And now, Chapter One and a glimpse of Chapter Two of The Long Night of the Crystalline Moon from UNDER A WINTER SKY!
~ 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 clearly.
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.
Hopefully Salena 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 in winter.”
“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.
Guards saluted, 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.
The elaborate 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.
“Rhy!” Astar, 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 her.
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 charming grin.
“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.”
Queen Andromeda 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.”
His mother grimaced. “We’re all making concessions so this event will be a perfect celebration,” she replied meaningfully.
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
She straightened 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 this celebration.”
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.”
“Won’t it, 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 be endless.
~ 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.
Don’t be bitter, she reminded herself. After all this time, she couldn’t possibly care what he did.