A MIDWINTER SCARLIGHT SCENE
ONE YEAR AGO
Castle Mir’s ballroom was decorated with pine garlands and countless golden ornaments to honor the saints. It was the most beautiful midwinter feast that Bryn could remember. Her mother, the Queen, had truly outdone herself to impress their visitors from Wollin and Dresel.
“Are you pleased to see your betrothed again tonight?” Bryn asked her sister. Elysander had been betrothed from birth to a duke from Dresel and had only met the man a handful of times. He was Elysander’s same age and, while not a large or imposing man, had appealing brown eyes. Bryn had never heard Elysander speak an ill word against her betrothed—a paragon of a dutiful daughter. Bryn teased, “Will tonight be the night you let him do more than hold your hand?”
Elysander rolled her eyes and then elbowed Bryn in the side. “You know that mother is looking for a husband for you tonight, too, don’t you? So, it might not be that long before you’re letting a man do more than hold your hand.”
Bryn’s jaw fell open before she could pretend not to be flustered. “I won’t be sixteen until next year.”
“Sixteen is when you should become engaged,” Elysander explained. “Naturally, Mother will be scouring the kingdoms for husband possibilities long before that. Why do you think she’s gone to such expense to decorate the castle and invite all the unwed royal men from Wollin and Dresel?”
It sullied Bryn’s mood to think of herself as a pawn in her mother’s games. It was her duty to marry someone for a political alliance, yes, but it didn’t mean she had to like it.
Most of their guests had arrived some hours ago and were already thick into the festivities. Midwinter feast wasn’t as formal as other annual gatherings; food was laid out on tables, and attendees were free to grab whatever they liked; no fine china plates or silverware on this night. Musicians were playing a lovely velta for the dancing couples in the center of the ballroom.
Her father ascended to the dais that held his and his wife’s thrones. He waved a hand toward the musicians, silencing them. Almost immediately, the room fell obediently quiet.
“Where are my children? Mars, Elysander, Bryn, come join me.”
Bryn was surprised to be included—her father usually only involved Mars in formal affairs and Elysander occasionally. Never her.
She and Elysander exchanged a look and made their way through the crowd to the dais. Mars joined them there, cheeks red—he’d been dancing with a girl from Wollin.
Their father announced, “Our visitors from the distant kingdoms would like to present the entire Liren family with a midwinter present.” He signaled to a Wollin prince, who joined them on stage.
“We are honored by your generous welcome to your kingdom,” the prince said. “In return, our hunters have scoured the woods at the border between the Mirien and Wollin and exterminated the beasts responsible for so much missing livestock.”
The prince motioned to the ballroom doors. They were flung open, and a dozen servants came in, dressed in Wollin reds, carrying pelt after pelt. Beautiful gray fur stacked high. There had to be dozens of pelts.
“One hundred wolf pelts,” the Wollin prince declared.
The audience erupted in applause at the extraordinary gift. Bryn’s father, the king, looked pleased, but Bryn only felt sick. She pressed a hand on her side, knowing the scars hidden beneath her dress.
So many wolves.
Nine years ago, she’d been attacked by wolves and would have lost her life if Rangar Barendur of the Baersladen hadn’t saved her. She had been no fan of wolves ever since that day, but even so, it turned her stomach to see so many pelts. She knew for a fact that wolves were not responsible for the missing livestock—she’d overheard her brother speaking of human poachers from Wollin. So these wolves had been slaughtered for sport. Or worse, to cover human crimes.
“Excuse me.” She stumbled down from the dais, feeling ill. Anger flashed in her father’s eyes, but she ignored him. Instead, she pushed her way through the crowd, trying not to think about one hundred slaughtered wolf carcasses, and went out into the cool night air on the balcony overlooking the remembrance garden.
She breathed in winter air until her hair cleared. Overhead, the night was clear and moonless. The Winter Star shone on the southern horizon brighter than she had ever seen it before.
Does Rangar Barendur see this same star?
She hadn’t seen the youngest Baer prince since that night nine years ago when they were both just children. The entire Barendur family was forbidden from setting foot in the Mirien after claiming that Bryn belonged to them.
She shivered, wondering if he still believed that.
How old would Rangar be now? Nearly Mars’s age. Practically a man. She found herself running her hand along the soft lace at her dress’s collar, thinking of the prince. Wolves had scarred his face, surely destroying his beauty, but she still found herself immensely curious to know what Rangar looked like now. What would he have thought of the slaughtered wolves? He had only slain the wolves in self-defense, never as a gift.
Far away, beyond forests and mountains, Rangar Barendur listened to the distant music of the festivities within Barendur Hold’s Great Hall. He had spent the evening drinking with his brothers and feasting and dancing with any Baer girl who asked. But at some point, it had gotten too much. He’d grown weary of the merriment and stepped outside into the Hold’s courtyard to look up at the Winter Star.
It wasn’t long before he had company. A girl in a cloak made her way down the courtyard path. When she reached him, she pulled back her cloak’s hood.
Aya, a girl training with Saraj to become a falconer—a girl he’d danced with more than once that night, not to mention the few times they’d snuck off into an empty hallway and made love in the dark.
She trailed her fingers over his arm, a smile on her lips. “Want some company?”
His body responded in ways that his mind didn’t agree with. Aya was beautiful and strong, but as he’d been staring at the Winter Star, all he could think about was Bryn Liren’s fair hair, almost as bright as the star itself.
“Not tonight, Aya,” he said as gently as he could while not leaving room for question. “Try Val.”
She raised an eyebrow and shrugged, then went off to find another man to warm her bed. Valenden was always ready for a tryst, and there were plenty of Baer men who had their eye on Aya.
Alone in the courtyard, Rangar let his mind wander about his Mir princess. The year before, he and his brothers had snuck into the Mirien to see her from afar. She wasn’t a child anymore. Soon, she’d be of marrying age. Her mother, the queen, wouldn’t hesitate to promise her hand to whatever royal offered the best alliance. Some other prince would soon have his hands all over her.
He shifted uncomfortably. He’d saved her life, and her soul belonged to him. It had ached not to be close to her all these years, never knowing if she was safe. The fralen bond between Savior and Saved was not something to take lightly.
He ran his hands over the scars on his face, wishing that it was her hand on him instead.