Dashan tugged at the constricting collar around his neck for the hundredth time. If his father had been close enough to see it, it would have earned him a clip behind the ears, but Tirian Caverlock was in the centre of the evening’s celebrations, surrounded by a circle of important guests. His laughter boomed out occasionally, too-loud and too-false. It made Dashan want to plug his ears with wax.
The room was decked out beautifully, flickering lanterns perched on every available surface and decorations artfully draped from walls and arched windows. The frosted-in windows added to the almost-magical atmosphere. It was too perfect though, a show put on for the benefit of others. There was no true warmth in this house, no sense of belonging. Not for Dashan at least. His brother Regan, two-years older and legitimate, stood proudly at their father’s side, shoulders straight and bright smile on his face.
Tomorrow was mid-winter, a traditional day of celebration and feasting to mark the shortest day of the year. Dashan’s father held this reception on mid-winter’s eve every year, never one to pass up the chance to host the most important nobles of Alistriem’s court. Lord Egalion wasn’t here though. A thrill of satisfaction curled through Dashan’s chest at that—his father would hate that the king’s most senior advisor and closest friend had chosen to ignore this gathering. But Lord Egalion spent every mid-winter’s eve sharing dinner with his only daughter, something Dashan knew that few others did. The sharp satisfaction he felt faded, replaced by a hollow longing. It would be nice if there was someone in the world who loved him like that.
Abruptly he turned and left the room, unable to stand there and watch any longer. He’d be punished for leaving, but that would be tomorrow, and despite the late hour, tomorrow was still a long way off. He managed to avoid being spotted by any of the household staff on the way back to his room, and as soon as the door shut behind him, he tore off his overly-confining formal jacket and too-shiny boots. The boots he tossed across the room. The jacket he dropped on the floor on his way to the closet.
After slipping out his bedroom window and through a little-used side gate in the high walls surrounding his father’s Alistriem home, Dashan moved quickly through the streets of the rich quarter towards the docks. Nobody took any notice of him. It was late for the wealthy folk to be out and about, even for mid-winter’s eve, and the simple clothing he’d changed into marked him as a servant boy at best.
At the docks, he crossed the main road and headed up the forested hillside leading to the palace. The snow carpeting the ground was crisp and hard-packed, his boots sinking in a few inches with every stride. As he ran, a fresh snowfall began drifting down, lodging in his hair and cloak. When the lights on the palace walls appeared through the dark trees ahead, all thoughts of his father’s awful dinner and inevitable punishment left him. In its place an anticipatory excitement kindled, warming him from inside out.
It was late enough that Cayr was expected to be long in bed. But the twelve-year-old prince and heir was clearly still wide awake, lamplight spilling from his bedroom window. The sound of voices floated to Dashan as he slid the window open and climbed inside, and he rolled his eyes. Of course she was here. Lord Egalion would have tucked his girl in bed long ago, but that wouldn’t have stopped her escaping out the window the same way he had. She and Cayr were joined at the hip most of the time.
“Dash!” Cayr leaped up from his bed at Dashan’s appearance. “I was hoping you’d come tonight. I’ve spent all day with my father speaking with the nobles and passing on our traditional mid-winter gifts. I thought it would never end.”
Dashan opened his mouth to reply, but before he could say anything, a sharp voice accosted him. “You’ve got snow all through your hair. It’s melting on the carpet.”
A beaming grin spread over his face as he turned to Alyx Egalion, absolutely the snottiest eleven-year-old he’d ever encountered. He matched the grin with an exaggerated bow. “I’m so very sorry, your lady-ship. It is snowing outside.”
She scowled at him, green eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Why are you here?”
“To take us all out to have some proper fun.” He clapped his hands. “Come on, grab your cloaks and let’s go.”
Cayr needed no further urging. He was heading to his closet before Dashan had even stopped speaking. Alyx opened her mouth—no doubt to complain—so Dashan cut her off before she could. “If you’re too scared to go out in the dark and snow, kitten, feel free to stay here on your own while we actually enjoy ourselves.”
Her eyes flashed at the dare, and Cayr gave a little snort of amusement. Alyx was never one to back from either spending time with Cayr or a challenge from Dashan. His words mixed both nicely, and exactly as he’d planned, she conceded with a sigh.
“All right, fine. But only if you promise to stop calling me kitten.”
“Absolutely.” Dashan backed towards the window. “Kitten.”
He took them back down the hill, their three sets of footprints intertwining through the pristine snow. At the bottom they stopped to catch their breath, and the moon chose that moment to come out from beneath the clouds. Alyx turned to Dashan, cheeks flushed from the cold, eyes bright from their run and the always joy of the three of them together, and Dashan’s breath caught in his chest. Beautiful. The thought was as unexpected as it was powerful, and he dismissed it as quickly as it had come, putting it away in the box of things that made him sad. He refused to be sad tonight.
“Where are we going?” Cayr asked, as bright and happy as Alyx, snowflakes tangled in his tousled blonde curls.
Dashan tapped a finger to his nose mysteriously. “Just follow me, Your Highness.”
The prince huffed at the title and reached out to shove Dashan hard. He laughed and shoved back, and for a few moments they wrestled together, slipping and sliding in the snow.
Cayr and Alyx followed him through the outskirts of the city to where the waterfall flowing down the hill from the palace cascaded into a wide lake. It all stood frozen, the waterfall a glistening series of ice sheets under the glowing moonlight, the lake covered in drifts of snow.
Many townsfolk were skating on the lake, taking advantage of the fine evening. Nobody in Rionn worked on mid-winter’s day, and so even the hardest workers could afford a late night out.
“If Cayr breaks his leg skating, the king will not be happy,” Alyx said dubiously as Dashan led them closer to the shore.
“What makes you think I’m going to break my leg!” Cayr was indignant. “I can skate.”
“I know you can. I’m just saying.”
“Father will be fine.” Cayr dismissed her concerns, and Alyx shifted her gaze to Dashan, giving a little shake of her head. Somehow, some way, the prince of Rionn was his best friend, and Dashan loved him. But in addition to his many good qualities, Cayr Llancarvan was stubborn and rarely willing to consider the consequences of his actions.
“Don’t worry, we’re not skating,” Dashan said, giving Alyx a reassuring smile. Her nagging normally irritated him no end, but he was in a good mood, brought about by their momentary freedom and the beautifully clear night.
As he finished speaking, several children came running out of the trees nearby, shrieking in delight. A handful of other children appeared moments later, chasing them with snowballs in their hands. Most missed, and those being chased turned to stand their ground, throwing snowballs back.
Grinning, Dashan bent down to scoop up a handful of snow. Alyx was watching the children, fascinated, and his snowball caught her unawares right in the face, spraying her with cold ice. She turned to him, staring in shock, and he started laughing, unable to help himself. With a shout she was launching herself at him and sending them both crashing to the snow.
Mere months away from being fifteen, Dashan was bigger and stronger, but he allowed her to win, letting her hold him down while a laughing Cayr pelted him with smaller snowballs until he was begging for mercy. When she finally let him go, clambering to her feet, she held out a hand to help him stand. He took it, and her gaze went straight to the sleeve of his shirt, clearly far too short for his gangly, quickly-growing body. Her jaw hardened, eyes flicking to his. Even at eleven years old, she understood far more than he ever wanted her to about his life. Clearing his throat, he tugged down the sleeve and turned away to find the nearby group of children had paused in their game to watch.
Dashan offered them a friendly grin. “They got me good, huh?”
One of the boys stepped forward, flashing a quick smile. He was small for his age, with a mop of untidy hair and intelligent green eyes. “Seems like you were ganged up on. Maybe we could help you even the numbers?”
A girl at his side nodded, bright blue eyes glowing with exertion. “We could use a couple extra for our team if you want to join us?”
Dashan shot a quick glance in Alyx’s direction—joining a group of city kids in a snowball war wasn’t likely to go down well with miss prim and proper Lady Egalion, but to his surprise she was nodding eagerly. Cayr was already moving forward to join them.
Delight and warmth trickled through him again, and he gave them a wide, laughing grin. “Bring it on.”
Soaked, cold and weary, yet happy as they’d ever been, the three of them trudged back up the hill from the city. Dashan never wanted to let go of how he felt. The practical part of him knew it would be gone, like it had never been, as soon as he returned home. So he prolonged the inevitable, insisting on walking Alyx home. Cayr of course then insisted on doing the same.
“I’m starved,” Alyx said as they walked through the palace gardens and crossed into the Egalion estate. “I wish mid-winter feast was now, but it’s still hours away.”
Cayr smiled at her. “I’m sure your cook will feed you a good breakfast before then.”
Dashan looked away. For Alyx and Cayr, mid-winter feast meant sitting together at the king’s table, joined by her father, Astor and Sparky, the king’s closest friends. It meant companionship and good food. For Dashan it would mean his father’s displeasure and Regan’s snide comments.
Alyx glanced at him, something on her face telling him she understood his sudden silence. There was no pity in the look though. For that he would always consider her friend.
Lord Garan Egalion appeared at the top of the stairs to their right as Alyx pushed the door to her home open, and Dashan winced in expectation of a pointed telling off. Instead Alyx’s father had a little smile on his serious face as he came down the stairs.
“Don’t tell me there was a leak in your roof last night, Prince Cayr. You’re all soaked.”
“Not at all, sir.” Cayr was all politeness.
“We had a snowball fight, Papa.” Alyx went straight to her father, wrapping her arms around him and letting him swing her around. He held her tightly, uncaring of her wet clothing or damp hair. Dashan felt that hollow longing again and tried his best to ignore it. It didn’t matter. He would be grown up soon. He wouldn’t need anyone to care about him then.
“I should get home, sir.” Dashan cleared his throat, bowed slightly for propriety’s sake, then turned for the door.
“Prince Cayr, I assume you’ll be breakfasting with us this morning?” Garan’s voice sounded behind him.
“I’d like that, Lord Egalion. If I could share a carriage with you back over to the palace for lunch, I’d appreciate it.”
There was a smile in Garan’s voice as he replied, “I’ll get Safia to send a message over to the palace to let your father know you’ll be spending the morning with us.”
“Papa, can Dashan join us for lunch today?” Alyx’s question had Dashan stopping in his tracks at the door, stunned. Garan must have been equally surprised, because there was a long pause before he answered.
“Aly-girl, I’m sure Dashan’s father expects him at home for mid-winter feast.”
“He doesn’t want him there, though,” Alyx said, sounding irritated with her father. Dashan suddenly wished the ground would swallow him whole. “Dashan should be with people who want him. When he isn’t being annoying of course.”
“Lord Egalion, I’m sure my father wouldn’t mind an extra seat at lunch.” Cayr jumped in before Alyx’s father could say no. Cayr’s father would actually mind very much, and Cayr, Garan and Dashan knew it. Lord Egalion turned to meet Dashan’s eyes, considering. Dashan tried not to squirm under that sharp look. “I don’t want to be a bother, sir. It’s nice of Alyx and Cayr to invite me, but I understand that it’s not appropriate.”
“Whatever other’s views might be, I don’t find it a bother having you at lunch, lad,” Garan said kindly. “Why don’t you and Cayr track down Safia and get him to dig out some dry clothes for the both of you? Alyx, you go upstairs and change, please. I’ll let cook know to prepare extra for breakfast.”
Cayr beamed from ear to ear as he grabbed Dashan’s arm, dragging him away before Garan could change his mind. He glanced back to see Alyx hugging her father, whispering something in his ear. Garan chuckled and nodded before shooing her upstairs.
“Happy mid-winter, Dash!” Cayr said as they reached the parlour, where Safia was working. The delicious smell of baking pastries swept over them. His mouth began watering.
Dashan smiled, a genuine one, not the one he used to hide from the world. “Happy mid-winter, Cayr.”
Cayr shoved him, eyes still light. “Better be on your best behaviour for lunch though, or Alyx might decide you’re too annoying.”
Dashan assumed a solemn expression. “I promise not to pull her hair more than once.”
Their joined laughter rang through the house.