If Cecilia couldn’t wear the dress she wanted, she supposed that the dress honoring Sayla, goddess of the hunt, was the most appropriate choice. But she would have liked it better if her father hadn’t tricked her into it. When she went to pick up her dress that morning, it had already been paid for and picked up. Rainer ratted her out and he didn’t even have the guts to tell her.
Instead, she’d been forced to wear the Sayla dress her father had commissioned. The ivy and floral embroidery were beautiful, but the bodice was very structured and tight. She still felt breathless from the Olney Step. The fact that she hadn’t completely embarrassed herself in front of the kingdom was a little consolation.
As the musicians started the next song, Cecilia’s father gave her an approving nod from his place beside King Hector and Queen Elena. Cecilia turned her gaze on Rainer, hoping that the golden mask wouldn’t hide any of her fury.
“You look beautiful,” Rainer said, tentatively.
The compliment was spoiled by the sting of his betrayal. “Spoken like a true traitor.”
“Come on. Forgive me for ratting you out. I didn’t do it to hurt you. I did it so you wouldn’t be embarrassed.”
“No,” Cecilia said, poking his chest. “You wanted you not to be embarrassed. You didn’t care about my feelings.”
She bumped his shoulder as she walked by him, ignoring the surge of guilt that ran through their bond. Rainer trudged along behind her as she wove through the crowd, desperate to find an exit.
“You can’t stay mad at me forever. We leave in two days for our first Gauntlet run.”
“I don’t know, I think I’m pretty good at staying mad.” Even as she said it, she knew it was a lie. How many times had she tried to will away her love for him? As if logic would move her stubborn heart. As if pretending she wasn’t enamored would make it so. As if denial was a spell that would turn her heart away from him.
It didn’t matter how she felt anyway. A relationship with her guardian was forbidden.
Cecilia slowed, realizing she was headed in the completely wrong direction. She was so nervous and overcome but the spectacle of the ball when she walked into the tent that she missed the chance to orient herself in the space. Now it was crowded, humid with the sweat of exuberant dancing and the scent of large floral bouquets on each table. She was too short to see past the swell of guardians and ladies. Had everyone in the kingdom always been so tall and she’d not noticed until she was trapped in a tent with them?
She stepped around a broad guardian and her gaze snagged Sylvie. A group of guardians was gathered around her friend, each looking more eager to hold her attention than the next. One handed her a glass of bubble wine and she brushed her fingers over his hand, batting her eyes behind her Goddess Desiree mask. Sylvie made it look so easy.
Cecilia scanned the crowd and found Cal a few feet from Sylvie looking miserable and heartsick, but also clearly trying to give her the space she wanted.
She closed the space between them. “Good to see you, Cal. You make a very handsome Clastor.”
Cal forced a smile and smoothed his hands over his bright blue tunic. “Thanks, Rez. You look lovely. Sorry to hear that Rainer ruined your fun.”
She frowned. “When does he not?”
“Go easy on him. He worries too much.”
“You don’t have to tell me,” Cecilia said, tapping her heart.
Cal laughed. “I know, but you looked like you were fuming after you dance and he looks like a lost puppy following you around.”
“We all have to deal with the consequences of our actions, Cal. I go easy enough on him. Now, do you want to dance, or what?”
His cheeks pinked, his gaze darting to Sylvie.
“She’s not your keeper,” Cecilia whispered.
Cal still looked hesitant.
Cecilia sighed. “I know it’s not ladylike and I’m supposed to wait for you to ask me, but we can both stand here feeling left out or pissed off, or we can dance one dance and Rainer will be grumpy that I didn’t dance my first free dance with him and Sylvie will be jealous.”
“She won’t be,” Cal said.
Cecilia eyed him skeptically. “Sylvie is my dearest friend, but she might be the vainest woman I’ve ever met. She’ll hate that she doesn’t have your full attention.”
Grief swelled in the air around Cal as he looked at her again. “She’s been through a lot.”
Cecilia studied Cal, wondering what had happened between her two friends that had made cal so heartsick and Sylvie so determined to exert her control over her marriage prospects. “I think maybe you’ve been through a lot, too. I don’t want to diminish your pain or sweep it away. But maybe we can just turn the volume down on it for a dance.”
Cal shook his head and laughed.
“Nothing,” he muttered, taking her hand. “The other day, Rainer told me he was worried he’d be scaring suitors off all night. It’s funny that instead you’re here now asking me to dance.”
Cecilia giggled and a burst of frustration shot through her bond with Rainer. She felt his eyes on her, but she focused on Cal as he led her to the floor.
She curtseyed and Cal bowed before sweeping her into the crowd as the dance began. It wasn’t until the third turn that she spotted Rainer brooding at the edge of the dance floor. He crossed his arms over his broad chest as he edged into Sylvie’s group of admirers and whispered something to her. Sylvie gave Rainer a placating smile and a shove toward the floor.
Cecilia craned her neck to keep watching but lost sight as Cal spun her again.
“Looks like someone wants to cut in, Rez,” Cal said. “Thanks for the dance.” He bowed and kissed her hand, passing it to Rainer.
He slipped into Cal’s place without missing a beat.
Cecilia scowled up at him. “Suppose I didn’t want to dance with you?”
“You made that clear by giving your first dance to Cal. You’ve probably started a scandal among the guardians.”
Cecilia rolled her eyes. “What a bunch of gossipmongers. I swear you’re all worse than the ladies at court.”
He smirked, but she felt a hint of genuine hurt through their bond. “You can’t expect to have every first, Rain.”
“I know,” he said, spinning her away before pulling her close again. “I’m hoping that was punishment enough that you’ll forgive me for the dress.”
She met Rainer’s bright green eyes. “I don’t know. I like you on your heels.”
“You’re supposed to be on my side, Rain. Not anyone else’s,” Cecilia said.
“There’s nothing you can say that will make me feel worse than I already do,” Rainer said.
Cecilia felt his crushing guilt through their bond. “That sounds like a challenge.”
He hung his head. “I’m sorry, Cece. I made a mistake.”
“Let’s call a truce for the sake of the Gauntlet. But just because I forgive you, doesn’t mean I’ll forget that you weren’t on my side when it counted.”
Cecilia wished she could stay mad at Rainer, but as the dance ended and he bowed and kissed her hand, she knew she had no choice but to bury their differences for the sake of their quest.
Rainer checked off all the things on his list. Waterskins. Bandages. Maps. Flask. He’d already done it twice, but now that they were traveling into the unknown, he compulsively went through the list of things that he could control, just to give himself a moment of calm between panic cycles.
Cecilia looked calm, if not tired and grumpy, to be up before the sun. He studied her like he’d suddenly see the seams in her facade, as if he’d notice something now that he’d missed the last twelve years.
But she looked like the same woman who’d been his best friend since they were children. Her long dark hair hung in a braid down her back, her green linen shirt rolled to her elbows as she grumbled about the humidity. Finally, she met his eye and smiled.
“We should start how we do everything else,” Rainer said.
Though their storytelling might have started a a way to keep Cecilia calm when they were younger, he relied on it now, maybe even more than she did.
They walked to the stable entrance, turning to face each other, standing on the precipice of the biggest journey of their lives. It would likely take them years to complete the Gauntlet, but Rainer wanted to mark the occasion.
In the great arching doorway of the Reznik Family stables Cecilia looked so small, but he knew now more than ever not to underestimate her just because of her stature. A sudden panic gripped him. When they were learning about the Gauntlet, the danger felt distant, but ever since his talk with the huntmaster he knew exactly how perilous their journey would be.
But Rainer was a warrior, and true courage didn’t mean being unafraid. It meant not allowing that fear to paralyze you. He knew a thing or two about faking bravery, having done it for years. This trip would be no different. He’d been waiting for this chance to prove himself, not just to his father and his peers, or even to the huntmaster he respected so much, but to himself.
He held up his hands as if to ward something off. Cecilia pressed her palms to his.
“Once upon a time there was a Guardian—” He looked at Cecilia expectantly.
“And a witch,” she replied.
Rainer grinned. “Who set out on a Gauntlet run—”
“And both came back safe, healthy, and happy,” Cecilia finished.
Rainer pulled her into a tight hug. “You’re going to be careful out there, right? No unnecessary risks?”
Cecilia drew back and waved a dismissive hand. “Of course.” A mischievous smile brightened her face. “Race you to the send off.”
She jumped onto her horse and rode off without looking back, leaving Rainer on his heels once again.
The Lost God arrives April 10, 2023.
Preorder coming soon.
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© Sheila Masterson 2023 All Rights Reserved