A wish for change
I wrote this short story last year for Christmas and then life happened and I never got around to posting it. This is somewhere before or around what happens in Crown of Conspiracy, the first book in The Ilvannian Chronicles. Enjoy!
Step by careful step, I inched closer to the Tarien, mindful of the crunching sound my boots made in the snow. Deep in conversation with Elara, it was clear she wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings—helpful in my case, but she would soon learn her mistake. Judging by the tone of voice and the wild gesticulations, she was angry about something, and I had a fairly good idea what it was.
Four days earlier, Haerlyon had snuck a skunk into her bedroom to repay her for the stunt she had pulled on him—filling his boots with snow. She’d waited in his room to watch his reaction, and his howl of surprise had woken up half the palace at the crack of dawn. He had chased her through the corridors, but with numb feet, it had been quite a challenge.
His payback had lingered a lot longer.
Long enough for the Tari to have her daughter’s room evacuated and cleaned out properly, which meant the Tarien had had to settle in with Evan. Neither of them was happy with the arrangements.
“I’m telling you,” Shal muttered. “I’ll get him back for this… and my revenge will be sweet.”
Elara folded her arms in front of her. “You do realise this will be a never-ending feud, Tarien?”
Shalitha huffed, puffing out her chest. “So be it then.”
Elara shook her head.
While scooping snow into my hands, I crept closer and realised Elara was keeping an eye on me—inconspicuously. Without warning, I dumped an armload of the white powder into the Tarien’s neck, eliciting a shriek from her as it slid down her back. She turned on me so fast I was barely in time to jump back.
People looked up as her voice carried across the field. I roared with laughter, watching her with a big grin on my face as she tried to get the snow out of her clothing. When her eyes snapped to me, I knew I was in trouble. My feet caught up faster than my brain, and I was running before I realised, chased across the fields by the Tarien.
It wasn’t the first time.
Here and there, the ground was slippery with icy patches, and one or two times, I barely managed to keep my balance. Although the snow made my progress infinitely harder, I was still outrunning her.
At least, I thought I was until a snowball caught me square between the shoulder blades. As I turned around, another snowball came pelting my way, and I caught it in the chest. A few feet away, the Tarien stood grinning at me, hands on her hips by way of a challenge.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I called to her.
“Why? Are you afraid I’ll hit you again?”
“Oh, please,” I snorted, my lips quirking up into a grin. “The only reason you managed to hit me was because I wasn’t looking. You’d have to throw your hands along to make it hit!”
Her lips pulled up in a lopsided smile. “Oh, really?”
Without unlocking our gazes, we both picked up snow and rolled it into a ball. Having trained with each other for as long as we had meant we knew each other’s tells—we also knew each other’s deceitful ways and neither of us batted an eyelash against playing dirty. In fact, I daresay, she had even less qualms about it than I did.
A snowball whistled past my face.
As a devious grin spread across my lips, I hurtled mine in her direction, catching her on the shoulder despite her attempt at dodging. She grunted and glared at me. I laughed. While I was forming another ball in my hand, I watched her do the same, but what I hadn’t counted on this round, was her seizing an opportunity and rushing at me instead.
I stepped back, lost my balance, and fell into the snow as she slammed into me.
She grinned down at me while sitting on my chest.
“Hea-vy,” I gasped, flailing. “Can’t… Breathe…”
Shalitha snorted, crossing her arms across her chest. “Who’re you calling heavy? I don’t come anywhere near your fat ass.”
I frowned at her as if offended and gave her a firm push.
She didn’t budge.
Instead, the smirk on her face deepened. In truth, I wasn’t making much of an effort throwing her off—I was trying too hard not to respond in any kind of way to her proximity, especially not in that way. If she found out how I really felt about her, I’d lose everything. The snow in my back was a small mercy, cooling me down as quickly as warmth flooded through my body.
“Comfortable?” I asked.
“Very much so.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” I replied, and before she knew what was going on, I had her pinned into the snow, grinning down on her. “What did I teach you about staying on guard?”
She grunted, trying to wrestle me off her. “Not fair.”
“I’m only playing by your rules, Tarien.”
Splaying both hands against my chest, she tried to push me away, but the only effect it had was my heart picking up speed—which I hoped to the Gods she wouldn’t notice—and little jolts coursing through my veins.
I made myself comfortable, sitting back on my haunches, thereby pinning her legs firmly beneath me.
“Alright, fine!” she growled. “Now get off, grissin.”
Laughing, I rose to my feet and held out my hands to help her up. It was a tentative offer of peace, but whether or not she would accept it was anyone’s guess. To my surprise, she took it and pulled herself to her feet, dusting her cloak from the worst of the snow.
“I’ll get you back,” she said, a promise twinkling in her eyes, “and you’ll never see it coming.”
I grinned. “Promises, Tarien? Are you sure you can afford them?”
She scowled at me and punched me in the shoulder before stomping through the snow, leaving me behind rubbing my shoulder. I watched her leave, trying to ignore the swirl of emotions going through me.
Calm down, Imradien.
I was of half a mind to drop back into the snow to cool off before returning to her, but my duty was at her side, so with slow, agonising steps, I made my way over to where she was chatting with Elara and Xaresh. When she cast a look over her shoulder, silver eyes watching me approach, I couldn’t help but follow the curve of her smile to the bridge of her nose, to her hair, and back to her eyes. My heart skipped a beat when she tucked a wayward strand of hair behind her elongated ear—one I was eager to trail with my fingers to see how sensitive she was.
With a shake of my head, I dispelled the thoughts, pushing them back to the darkest recesses of my mind.
“Xaresh tells me everything is ready for tonight,” Shalitha said when I came within earshot. “I guess it’s time to get ready.”
I nodded and inclined my head. “Of course, Tarien.”
After struggling out of my wet garments, I carefully stepped into the tub Mehrean had drawn up for me, hissing as my toes touched the hot water. I was cold to the bone after Talnovar’s stunt. Slowly, I lowered myself in the tub, gritting my teeth against the scalding heat. If this was what being boiled alive felt like, I hoped I’d never have to go through it again.
“Had fun outside?” Mehrean asked, looking amused.
I shrugged, feeling a smile spread across my lips at the same time as heat rose to my cheeks. I looked anywhere but at Mehr.
“You suppose?” The amused tone in her voice had me look up, and I found her watching me with brows arched in surprise, her shoulders shaking in silent laughter.
Cupping my hands, I splashed water at her, eliciting a howl of laughter as she danced out of the way.
“Let’s wash your hair,” she offered in hiccups, desperately trying to get herself back in order.
I scowled at her, slipped underneath the surface and broke it again just as fast. A shudder went through me as I wiped the water from my face. I’d never been fond of staying underwater for too long.
Mehrean hummed under her breath in response. A minute later, the scent of orange and vanilla permeated the air, intensifying as she started rubbing it into my hair, massaging my scalp in the process.
“Your mother has requested your presence before tonight’s festivities.” Mehr’s voice cut through my blissful reverie.
“She didn’t tell me. She only asked me to tell you.”
I nodded slightly. It was anyone’s guess what Mother wanted whenever she summoned me. It could be as much to tell me I need to do something as to chew me out for something I’d done.
“Try to be nice,” Mehr mused. “It is Wannenyah after all.”
“Your words are insulting.”
“But no less true. You’ve got a penchant of getting under your mother’s skin without even trying.”
“She’s not a saint either.”
Mehrean chuckled softly. “No, she’s not, but she’s the Tari and your mother. She does know what she’s doing.”
I harrumphed, folding my arms in front of my chest, only to relent with a sigh moments later. “I guess so…”
After Mehrean finished washing my hair, I stepped out of the tub and allowed her to wrap me into a warm robe. With winter well and truly enveloping the country, the palace was cold at best, which meant baths were nice until you had to get out. With chattering teeth, I tiptoed over to the fireplace and sat down on my lounger, pulling my feet up under my robe. At least the warmth of the hearth chased away the worst of the cold.
“Have you decided on your wish yet?” Mehrean asked, brushing my hair.
I shook my head. “Not yet. So far, the last ten wishes didn’t yield anything, so I might try something else.”
Mehrean ceased her activities for a moment. “What did you wish for the past ten years?”
“Not going to tell.” I grinned.
After she had finished my hair, I set to dressing myself in two layers of underclothing, deerskin leather trousers and boots, a blouse and a leather overcoat that would keep me warm enough during the outdoor celebrations. Picking up my cloak, I draped it across my arm and walked to the door, my lips quirking up when I caught my reflection in the mirror. Mehr had braided my hair, but instead of it looking like something quick, she’d made it wide and festive.
“Not half bad,” I murmured under my breath.
Mehr chuckled. “I wish you’d say that more often when I dress you up for court official businesses.”
I rolled my eyes at her, a wicked grin on my lips. “Neeeever.”
Laughing, we left my room. Talnovar and Xaresh, standing guard outside my door, looked up in surprise. Xaresh looked quietly amused as he inclined his head. Talnovar’s look was more one of wonder, although I wasn’t sure at what. Besides, the look on his face passed so quickly, I wasn’t even sure it had been there.
“Ready?” he asked.
Even without trying, the Tarien looked every bit as festive as if she were wearing a dress, which she wore far too little in my humble opinion, but I valued my life enough not to mention it to her. I knew she hated the complicated dresses more than being penned up inside the palace. Besides, with the current weather, she’d be an icicle if she wore one, and while my duties came down to saving her life with my own, doing so by freezing to death was not high on my list of ways to go.
“Stop staring,” Xaresh muttered under his breath, and looking up, I found my fellow guard watching me with a smirk.
“I’m not staring,” I returned, feeling a little put out.
His brows arched in surprise, the look in his eyes conveying his disbelief in my claim. With a snort, I turned back, only to find the Tarien looking over her shoulder at me, a questioning expression on her face. I waved my hand in dismissal. This was not something I was going to discuss with her.
Once we arrived at the Tari’s reception chamber, Xaresh took guard outside the door, while I held it open for the Tarien and Mehrean, who awarded me a secretive grin and a wink as she passed.
Nohro, do they all know?
With a shake of my head, I stepped outside until the Tari’s voice halted me.
“Please stay, Anahràn,” she said. “This concerns you too.”
Xaresh sniggered, so I shot him a dirty look before stepping back inside, closing the door behind me firmer than intended. The Tari raised her eyebrows in question, and I mumbled an apology as I took up my position somewhere behind her daughter. Both Evan and Haerlyon were present too, the latter looking way too mischievous to be up to anything good.
“Before any of you start,” The Tari began, “let me warn you I’m well aware of the antics you are up to”—she looked from her daughter to her youngest son, lips pressed in a thin line—“so let me warn you right away. If either of you messes up tonight’s celebrations by getting back at one another”—her eyes flashed to me then—“and that goes for you too, Anahràn”—her gaze returned to her children—“I will be the one getting back at you, and trust me when I tell you neither of you are a match for me.”
Brother and sister scowled at each other, missing the amused look on their mother’s face. My brows shot up in surprise, but when I looked at Rurin for answers, he just shrugged, his face split in a wide grin.
“Promise me nothing will happen tonight?” Tari Arayda looked at Shalitha and Haerlyon sternly.
Evanyan kept his mouth wisely shut. Then again, he’d never been one to pull pranks nor was he any fun if you did, so he was usually left alone. I caught him glancing at Mehrean, quickly looking away when he realised I was watching him.
None of my business.
“Promised,” the siblings replied simultaneously.
Judging by the set of their shoulders and the way they looked at each other, this promise would be annulled as soon as the day ended. The Tari cleared her throat, and when I noticed everybody was looking at me, I realised she was waiting for my answer too.
“Of course, Tari,” I replied, awarding her a bow. “I’d never do anything to upset the celebrations.”
Convinced none of us would do anything the next few hours, she allowed Rurin to place her cloak over her shoulders and guided us out of the reception chambers. Xaresh and Elara, who must have arrived while I was inside, stepped in line and followed our merry procession through the hallways.
This time of year, the palace was mostly deserted. Most courtiers had gone home to celebrate the holidays with their family—the same went for the men and women in the army, and servants in the palace. Usually only those without a family, like Elara, or with a family too far away to travel to, like Xaresh, stayed at the palace to celebrate with the royal family.
That was one of the things I admired the Tari for—she didn’t leave anybody out.
When we stepped out into the gardens, we were greeted by the giant bonfire they’d been building for days. Speckled across the field, several smaller fires had been built, in case people wanted to spend some time with their special ones.
Maybe one day.
Breathing in deeply, I followed the royal family down the stairs, amazed by the fact they managed to navigate these small steps without fail, no matter how slippery they were, as if it was ingrained in their being. More than once, I’d gone down the last few steps on my ass.
A yelp drew my attention.
I was just in time to spare the Tarien a similar faith.
“Thank you,” she mumbled, flashing me an impish smile.
She kept her hand in mine. Her fingers were cold to the touch, and I wanted nothing more than to keep her hands in mine and warm them up. It wasn’t appropriate, so as soon as we were down on the ground, I released her hand, stepping back with a light bow.
The Tarien looked amused, but where I had expected a comment, none was forthcoming. She did stay by my side as we walked over to the grand bonfire, and to my surprise, she hooked her arm through mine.
“Relax, Anahràn,” she chuckled. “Aren’t you here to protect me?”
I snorted. “From what? White flurries landing in your hair?”
“I was thinking from breaking my neck,” she mused, “but if saving me from flurries is your thing, by all means, go for it.”
I glanced at her, arching a brow. She laughed and tugged the tip of my ear, pulling my head towards her. Her laughter ran across the field as she slipped away from my arm and dashed after her brothers.
“She likes you,” Elara said from my left.
“You like her.” Xaresh said from my right.
A groan escaped my lips as I drew my hands down my face, scowling at both of them. If it was this obvious to everyone in the world, I had to take a step back. I watched as they continued towards the great bonfire while I stayed behind, my eyes on her.
When Elara and Xaresh stepped up behind me, I glanced over my shoulder to find Talnovar standing way back, arms folded across his chest, face back to stone as if emotions were foreign to him. Turning back to the bonfire, I listened to Mother speak about family, friends—people who are always there for us in our time of need but also in time of joy. Again, I glanced over my shoulder, my lips pulling up in a wry smile.
“I’ll be right back,” I whispered to Elara.
Drawing my cloak tighter about me, I made my way over to him. His attention snapped to me the moment my feet crunched the snow beneath me, and his eyes never left me as I walked in his direction.
“What’s with the distance?” I asked once I got close.
He watched me, lips pulling in a roguish grin. “I can better watch what’s happening from this distance. Can’t have anyone jump you, can I?”
I snorted. “I’d have believed you, Anahràn, had Rurin not been at Mother’s side. He’d have done the same as you had there been a threat.”
“You have Elara and Xaresh at your side.”
I tilted my head, regarding him quietly. Something else was bothering him but getting the truth out of him was like pulling teeth, so I decided to go for a different approach.
“Walk with me.”
He couldn’t ignore an order and he knew it.
“Where are we going?” he asked, glancing at me.
I shrugged. “Just a walk.”
“Tarien,” he said, sounding exasperated. “This really isn’t the time to take a stroll.”
“On the contrary.” I grinned. “This is the perfect time to be taking a stroll.”
Like before, I hooked my arm through his and headed in the direction of one of the smaller fires. At first, he tensed beside me, but on our way there, he eased up a bit.
“People will start thinking all the wrong things if they see us like this,” he said, glancing around.
I chuckled. “Since when do you care about what other people think.”
“Your reputation should not be blemished, Tarien.”
He sounded so stiff, so formal, like he always did when he decided his emotions weren’t important.
“My reputation is fine, Talnovar,” I replied, looking up amused. “Nobody will think twice about my Anahràn escorting me to a private fire.”
He tensed again. “But they will. Please, Tarien, let us return to the main bonfire?”
“Only if you join us there.”
His arched stare was priceless, and I knew I had him exactly where I wanted him to be. Either he had to agree to us standing at a private fire, bringing rumours into the world he wouldn’t want to deal with, or he’d join me at the main bonfire, as he should. He relented with a heavy sigh and a shake of his head.
“You drive a hard bargain, Tarien.”
I grinned up at him. “Somebody has to keep you in line.”
He snorted, and when he looked at me, I saw amusement twinkling in his eyes. At least he was thawing somewhat.
When we returned to the fire, the Tarien took up position on her mother’s right side, motioning for me to stand behind her. I knew she didn’t believe in propriety, but I did—for the most part, especially at moments like these. Even though this gathering was informal, I couldn’t let my guard down, especially not now when everyone seemed to be on to me. Cold fingers brushed mine and when I looked up, I found the Tarien looking at me.
She’d taken a step back at my side.
“Whatever is going on with you,” she said, “stop it. At least for tonight. Enjoy yourself. We used to have so much fun on Wannenyah. What happened?”
We grew up.
I smiled down at her. “We both have our duties, Tarien. We didn’t use to have those.”
“Don’t remind me.”
We laughed, and with her hand in mine, I slowly relaxed. She was right—we did use to enjoy ourselves, and aside from our duties, nothing had changed, except that everything had. She had. I had. We were considered adults with responsibilities, and in my case, that responsibility was her.
The whole love affair worked for the Tari and Rurin, but we were not them.
With a shake of my head, I looked at the Tarien with a smile, deciding to revel in her closeness while it was allowed and less frowned upon.
“Time for our wishes,” she whispered from my left, pulling her slip of parchment from a pocket.
I took out mine and swallowed hard.
It was a silly superstition, and yet every year we gathered around a massive fire and threw in our wishes for the new year—personal wishes, wishes for others, wishes for the grander scheme of things. It didn’t matter.
Together, we stepped closer to the fire, and together, we threw our deepest wish into it. I watched as the paper caught fire and danced in the flames, heedless of its demise, until it was nothing but ashes. Placing my hand gingerly between the Tarien’s shoulder blades, I guided her away from the fire to watch at a distance. I felt a shiver run through her and watched as she pulled her cloak tighter about her. Fighting my fear, I laid my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, wrapping my cloak around her in the process.
“What did you wish for?” I felt the hum of her voice against my shoulder.
“For something far out of my reach,” I said, a soft smile on my lips, aware of the irony in that statement. “You?”
“Change,” she replied, her voice husky. “I wished for change.”
Song of Shadows (prequel) is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter.
Crown of Conspiracy (book 1) is available on Amazon and KU Dance of Despair (book 2) is available on Amazon and KU
Whispers of War (book 3) will be available on Amazon and KU on December 3rd.