An Iron Breakers Holidays Short Story
by Zaya Feli
Ren wrapped his arms around the neck of one of the gilded stag statues and bent his knees, putting all his strength into moving it. The base slid a few centimetres before Ren released it with a groan, rubbing a pulled muscle in his lower back. He stepped back and sighed, catching a servant by the shoulder as he walked past.
“Will you ask Mr. Rivell if he can exchange the silver goblets on the dining table for gold ones? It's very important,” Ren said.
The servant smiled. “It's already been done, Your Majesty. You asked an hour ago,” he said, giving Ren a comforting smile.
Ren frowned, trying to line up the mental list of things he had yet to do. “Are you certain?” “Absolutely certain, Your Majesty.”
“Right. Thank you.” Ren let the man go, then rubbed a hand over his brow. He'd been up since three hours before dawn writing lists and checking inventory.
“This is really something.”
At the sound of Anik’s voice, Ren perked up. Anik walked slowly with his head craned back, taking in the hundreds of gemstones dangling from the ceiling and the golden silk drapes over every window.
“It's beautiful, isn't it?” Ren shone a smile at him as he approached. “Although not quite finished. We still need to roll out the white carpets, but I didn't want them stained before the dinner. And we need to make sure we have enough cubed ice for the dessert drinks. Help me with this?”
“It looks as if the royal jeweller and a tornado bred a baby, and it's this ballroom.” Anik grabbed the golden stag and pulled. Ren nearly lost his balance at the sudden motion. “Where to?”
“That's perfect.” Ren stepped back several paces, lips pursed as he imagined the completed sight. “The tree will look great in the centre.”
Anik came up alongside him. “How big does it have to be? There's room enough for three horse carts.”
“Well, it doesn't have to touch the ceiling, but it's the castle tree. It's got to be impressive.”
“And tell me again who has to go chop it down.”
Ren turned and offered Anik his most brilliant smile, which earned him a chuckle. Anik shook his head but leaned in to press his lips against Ren's.
“Valkon is coming too. It's a family tradition, you know,” Ren said, softer. He leaned into Anik's side when Anik put his arm around him. “I used to go out to the woods with Callun and Hellic every year on celebration morning to choose the most beautiful tree. Thais, too, when he was old enough. The golden stags were my mother’s. Lord Allin of Draxia, Elgrin's father, had them custom made as a Winter Lights gift for her the year Hellic was born.”
“They’re pretty,” Anik agreed. He turned and gestured to the rest of the ballroom. “But you don't think this is a little much?”
Raising an eyebrow, Ren followed Anik's gaze. Gems and glass decorations glittered from every surface; gold and white silks draped every chair and table and framed every window. The countless candles meant to illuminate the room were still unlit, but the lighting would be a sight to behold, the highlight of the evening.
“I don't follow.” Ren shrugged. “It's the Winter Lights celebration. That's what it's about.” “And you set the tree on fire,” Anik said, following Ren through the ballroom towards the entry hall.
“Not while it's indoors, silly.” Ren rolled his eyes at him over his shoulder. “First we cover it with candles and crystals, and then when the party is over we take it outside and burn it at midnight for all the city to see.”
“Because the guy in the legend found his way home to his family on a stormy winter night by following the glow of a burning pine. Got it.”
“The ‘guy’ was King Araleas, but yes. Are you having fun?” Ren gave Anik a pointed look.
“I'm sorry,” Anik said, sobering. “I'm not trying to make fun of your traditions. This is new to me. I'm sure we have plenty of customs in the Lowlands that seem strange to you.” He stopped Ren at the top of the stairs with a hand on his shoulder. “I've been worried about you.”
Ren frowned. “Worried?”
“You've been running around like a dozen wild horses.”
“Well, there's a lot to do today,” Ren said, doing his best to ignore the ball of nervousness in his gut.
“I'm not just talking about today. You've been on edge all week.”
Ren sighed. There really was no hiding anything from Anik. “For one thing, Lady Gwenalie and her husband wrote me a very intimidating letter urging me to live up to my father's traditions and standards for court celebrations.”
“Screw Lady Gwenalie.”
“It's not that easy, Anik. It's my first time hosting a Winter Lights on my own. Winter Lights isthe highlight of the dark winter. Literally. And not just for the court—for the entire country. What if it's a disaster?”
Anik placed both hands on his shoulders and tilted his chin down, fixing Ren with an intense look. “It won't be. And I'll help you. You know that.”
“I know.” Ren smiled.
Ilias' cheery voice echoed in the entry hall. The sight of him distracted Ren from the last of his anxiety as he descended the stairs, stopping on the lowest step to let Ilias wrap his arms tightly around first him, then Anik. Ilias' long hair was loose and covered in a fine layer of snow. Behind him stood the disgruntled servant who'd been busy dusting snow off Ilias' clothes the moment before. From beside the servant, Jayce smiled warmly at Ren.
“Is it snowing?” Ren asked, crossing the hall to wrap an arm around Jayce's shoulders.
“Only lightly, and I think it stopped as we arrived. Perfect weather for an outing. The sun is even coming out.” The tip of Jayce's nose was rosy from the winter chill.
“I'm glad you're joining us,” Ren said. “We've missed your company.”
“Setting up the new practice is a lot of work, and it's good to be back with friends. How have you been?”
“Are we ready to ride?” Valkon's voice, accompanied by the winter chill, cut off Ren's reply. The snow clinging to his boots earned him a pointed look from the servant. Keelan appeared from behind Valkon's large frame, golden freckles accentuated by his rosy cheeks. He smiled softly when he saw Ren and Ren gave him a little wave in return.
It had taken Keelan a long time to recover from what Halvard had done to him even after his physical wounds had healed, but he was a strong young man. As soon as he was well enough to get out of bed, Ren had given him his freedom and offered him a job and a place to live inside the castle. Eventually, their relationship had evolved into true friendship.
“The horses are eager to get going,” Keelan said, joining their circle. “Sakai didn't even want my apple when he saw Valkon bring the saddles out. I can’t wait to see the tree you bring back!”
Ren looked around at the group. Winter Lights would never be the same without Callun, Hellic, and Thais, but maybe this could be good too. “Then let's ride out.”
* * *
Aleria was a place of beauty at Winter Lights. Hardly a breeze stirred the falling snow. Lanterns hung outside almost every house, glass decorations sparkling on window sills under rooftops blanketed in white. Ren had opened the gates to the castle courtyard and guest barracks so that all who couldn't afford decent meals and warm beds in the coldest months would have a place to go. The people heading to and from the barracks waved as they rode past.
Snowy hills stretched undisturbed outside the city gates. A family of deer raised their heads in the distance, then darted off into the trees.
“The traditional meal is duck glazed with honey and stuffed with apples,” Ren explained, guiding his horse down the forest path away from the main road. Two draft horses plodded alongside them to help transport the tree back to the castle. “But I know how fond you are of a good roast, so I'm having the cooks prepare that as well.”
“Mmm, roast.” Anik sighed and Sakai swiveled his ears. “Cooked just right, juicy and tender with salted edges. I could eat it every day for the rest of my life.”
“You're making me hungry!” Valkon grumbled from behind Sakai.
“There'll be enough for you both, I'm sure,” Ren said.
“Are you?” Valkon argued. “You've seen how much that bastard can fit in his mouth.”
Ilias let out choked laugh from Ren's side, turning Valkon's face red as a tomato.
“Now, now!” Valkon mumbled into his beard, adding something about dirty minds and pure intentions.
“Is this the spot?” Anik asked, gesturing to the pines lining the forest path.
“These trees aren't very pretty. That one's all lopsided,” Ilias said.
“We can continue ahead a bit,” Jayce suggested. He held his hand up to shield his good eye from the glare of the snow. “They get denser and taller around the bend, I think.”
As they trotted along the path, fluffy snowflakes drifted from the sky. With them came the type of silence only ever experienced on snowy winter days, chilly but serene.
They slowed; Ren's horse shook snowflakes from its mane.
“Oh! Over there. Look at those!” Ilias pointed. His white horse nearly blended in with the snow when he guided her forward. “They're so fluffy and elegant.”
Ren followed the direction he pointed to a small group of pines a few hundred metres away. “Very promising, young tree scout,” Ren said with mock formality.
Ilias beamed. “Thank you, my king!”
Anik clapped briskly. “We better get to work before the storm picks up. Valkon?”
“Got 'em,” Valkon said, patting the tool sacks packed with axes and saws as he rode up beside Anik. “Let's fell a pine.”
* * *
They picked a tree standing proud near the front of the copse, plump, straight, and tall enough to nearly scrape the ceiling, just like Ren had hoped.
Anik handed him an axe and Ren did his best to make a good dent in the trunk, encouraged by Jayce and Ilias watching from the backs of their horses. It wasn't long before Ren had to surrender his axe to Valkon, retreating to his mount to watch the Lowlanders work in perfect unison.
Ren held his palm up, watching fat snowflakes drift from the sky and land on his skin, new ones joining the first before they melted. The wind was picking up, rustling the pine branches and sending small cascades of snow down onto the horses. He pulled his gloves back on.
“The sun is gone,” Jayce said, looking to the sky as Valkon and Anik secured ropes to the tree to control its fall.
“We should hurry,” Ren called to Anik, sliding back out of the saddle and wading through knee-deep drifts. “Do you want me to get the drafts ready?”
“Yeah. We're about ready to let her fall, I think,” Anik declared. “Good thing pine isn't so dense. Oak would have taken ages.” He patted the trunk above the deep triangular cut.
A hard gust of wind made the wood groan and Ren took a cautious step backwards. “All right. I'm on it.”
The dappled grey draft horses were used to deep snow, but even they seemed bothered by the wind, squinting against the snow pattering their faces. One tossed its head, making Ren lose his footing and nearly fall between its massive front legs. Anik's grip on the sleeve of his coat kept him upright.
“It's getting worse!” Ilias shouted over the howling wind. He'd wrapped his scarf around his head so only his eyes were visible above the snow-covered fabric.
Ren looked around. In no time at all, visibility had been reduced to only a few metres. From here, he could barely even make out the forest path, let alone the city in the distance. Another gust nearly pushed him off his feet. Sakai tossed his head nervously. “There's no way we're getting that tree back to the castle in this weather.” He leaned close to Anik to make himself heard. “It's uphill all the way.”
“You're right, it's not safe. Let's make our way back. We can return when the sky clears.”
Ren tried not to be too disappointed. Hopefully, the weather would clear as fast as it had worsened and they'd have time to return for the tree before dinner. He'd hate to send guards out toretrieve it while everyone else was celebrating with their families.
They packed and mounted up as fast as they could, but by the time they made it back onto the trail, the windy weather had turned into a full-blown snowstorm. Ren rode with his head down, relying on Anik to keep them on the path, but despite Anik's excellent navigation skills, he nearly rode them into the ditch twice. The ride back to the castle was only a few kilometres, but with the wind burning Ren's exposed face and the snow making it impossible to raise his head, the distance felt ten times that.
“The snow is too deep on the narrow path,” Anik called to him. “We'll have to turn and take the wider road.”
“Okay. You're– Wah!” Ren's belly flipped as his mare slid on the incline, going down on her knees and nearly sending Ren straight into the snow before she righted herself.
“You all right?” Anik asked, already getting a tight grip on Ren's reins.
“Whoa, girl.” Ren could feel his mount's agitation, but the horse was too tired to act up. He patted her neck. “I'm fine.” The mare took a few steps forward, rocking Ren awkwardly in the saddle. “Wait.”
“She's limping,” Anik noted. He slid off Sakai's back. “Pretty badly. How far to the castle?”
Ren swore. “From here... Close to two kilometres, I think.” A gust of wind nearly stole his woollen hat and he slapped a hand on it to keep it in place.
“Guys!” Ilias's trotted up beside them. “Maybe we can wait the storm out there.”
Ren followed his gaze, squinting against the snow. At first, he saw nothing in the sea of white, but then a dark form revealed itself between the gusts.
“Is that a house?” Jayce asked. His dark grey coat was crusted entirely white.
Anik got back onto Sakai and gestured for Ren to climb up behind him. “Let's find out.”
* * *
“It's a shepherd's barn,” Ren said between the sounds of Anik kicking frost off the half-broken door. The frozen group huddled behind them beside a drift of snow reaching almost to the roof of the abandoned building. “Farmers bring their sheep and goats here in the summer to graze. The barn works as both a stable and a place for the shepherds to sleep.”
The door opened with a crack and Anik peered inside. “I don’t think this one's been used in a long time, but it's dry inside and it doesn't look like the roof's going to fall.”
“Can we go inside? Please?” Ilias' voice came from what looked like a snowman on a horse.
Anik cleared the space below the door with his boot, then pulled it the rest of the way open so they could lead the horses inside.
The interior could hardly be called a barn. It was more like a collection of planks and beams miraculously held together by old dirt and frost. A number of stalls had crumbled along the walls and a single bed frame with no mattress was covered in old hay, taking up the back wall. Beside it, a considerable pile of snow had gathered under a hole in the ceiling.
“This is homey,” Valkon said, leading the two draft horses to the back and sweeping snow off their coats.
Jayce tugged the door closed behind the last horse with a groan, stopping the chill wind from blowing inside.
“This is kind of exciting in a way,” Ilias said, considerably cheerier now that they were out of the storm. He brushed snow off the top of Jayce's hat, standing on his toes to reach.
“Let's hope the excitement doesn't drag on.” Ren brought his horse to a stop so Anik could inspect her injured leg. Beside her, Sakai shook himself out, dusting Ren's shoulders in a second layer of fine white.
Anik stroked a hand down the mare's knee. “She's not hot,” he said softly. “That's good. Hopefully it's just twisted and she'll be fine with a bit of rest.” He straightened and combed snow out of her forelock, then scratched her head affectionately.
“We can start a fire while we wait. Over there's a good spot,” Ren said, pointing to the hole in the roof.
He gathered the wood from the broken stalls that weren’t already rotted to dust and Valkon helped him move the pile of snow and start a fire. In the meantime, Anik brushed the horses down with hay to keep himself warm.
“I hope the storm dies down soon,” Ilias said, peering between the gaps in the barn door. “It's just an endless blanket of white out there.”
“We may not be that lucky.” Jayce wrapped his arms around Ilias' shoulders when he shivered in the cold. “In Stag's Run, storms like these could last for days at a time and we'd have to dig our way out by the end.”
Ilias looked up from the scarf he’d buried his face in, a furrow between his pale brows. “If it keeps going, we won't have enough time to get the tree in time for the celebration tonight.”
Ren couldn't help but share a bit of his concern. The tree was an important tradition not just for the court but for all of Aleria. Hundreds crowded into Rosepetal Square with cups of hot tea to watch the burning. Aleria had never celebrated a Winter Lights without a tree to burn.
“All right, gather round,” Valkon said, nursing the small flame between his hands into a proper fire.
* * *
Their small fire did its best to fight the cold and Ren helped it along with all the spare wood he could find, but in a barn with more holes than a sieve, it was a losing battle. Outside, the wind rushed and howled. The sound of snow pelting the sides of the barn was punctuated by dull thumps as piles slid off the roof. Anik moved back and forth between Ren's mare and the fire. Valkon found some hay good enough for the horses to eat. The sound of chewing animals was at least a pleasant distraction from the constant barrage of snow against wood.
Ren paced, peering through the cracks, but all he saw was white.
Time passed too slowly and too quickly at once and Ren grew restless as the piles of snow deepened. Ilias, who'd been dozing by the fire against Jayce's chest, startled when snow slid off the roof with a sound like thunder.
Valkon went to the door, frowned, and gestured for Anik. “Pretty sure it wasn't this bad when we arrived.”
Ren followed Anik to the door and cursed when he looked out on a wall of snow instead of the endless white field of before.
“Snow fell from the roof above the door,” Anik said. He pushed, but the door didn't budge. When he tried again, a plank broke near the bottom and snow rushed in to cover the toes of his boots.
“Are we snowed in?” Ilias appeared beside them with eyes as wide as teacups.
“I'm sure it's not as bad as it seems,” Ren assured him, giving his shoulder a squeeze.
“What do we do?” Valkon asked.
Anik pursed his lips. “I guess we could try to dig ourselves out. But the snow is so loose and frosty, I'm not sure how far we're going to get.”
Ren scooped up a pair of planks and an old bucket. Tossing the bucket to Anik, he said, “We have to give it a try.”
* * *
Ren, Valkon and Anik got to work with planks and buckets, but despite their efforts, it was a losing battle. It took them ages to move enough snow to get the door open, and even then, the narrow gap
could only fit one of them at a time. As Anik had predicted, the snow gathered like sliding sand in the gap they created, filling it back up in seconds. All the while, more snow continued to fall. Ren kept going until his hands were so cold he could barely curl his fingers.
When Anik saw, he dropped his bucket, putting an end to their failed attempt. “It's no use.”
Bitter disappointment filled Ren's gut and he kicked the pile of snow, sending it flying into the air. “I can't believe it! We'll never get the horses through those drifts.”
Ren stalked to the fire and dropped to the floor. He flicked a twig into the flames with a sigh.
The crunch of hay alerted him to Anik's approach. “I'm sure it won't be much longer,” Anik whispered, taking a seat on an inverted feeding trough next to him.
Ren sighed even more deeply and rubbed a cold hand across his brow. “It's been over three hours and the storm hasn't lessened at all. Nobody's going to send out a search party in this weather. At this rate, it'll be dinnertime before we get home. We should be at the castle preparing for the feast. The guests are likely already getting ready for the night and I'm not there to greet them. We don't have a tree. I told the cooks I'd let them know when to start preparing the ducks, which should have been an hour ago, and—”
“Whoa there,” Anik said, holding up a hand. He used the same soft tone as when he was calming a skittish horse and Ren wanted to be offended by that, but the softness of Anik's honey-brown eyes deflated his annoyance.
“I just wanted it to be perfect. And now it won't be.” Ren glared down at his hands, biting his bottom lip against a rush of unexpected emotion.
“I get it,” Anik said quietly. He shifted closer and took Ren's hand between his own surprisingly warm ones. He raised them to his lips and blew warm air across Ren's knuckles. “Winter Lights is about home and family and it's your first year without yours.”
Ren shook his head, wiping his nose with the back of his free hand. “It's not that.” He raised his head and looked around at the others cuddled up together by the fire, watching him. “I have my family. Right here.”
Ilias cooed with emotion and hid his face in his scarf. Jayce kissed the top of his head.
Outside, the sky grew darker and their little fire cast long shadows on Ren's legs. “I really wanted your first Winter Lights to be good.” He turned to Anik, gripping his hand. “I wanted it to be special. I wanted you to see how wonderful and beautiful it was. Eat roast with me by the fire. Hold your hand at the burning. Instead, we're freezing our ears off in a dusty old barn.” To accentuate his words, his stomach rumbled loudly and Ren groaned, dropping his head on Anik's shoulder. “Besides, I hate to admit it, but I can't stop imagining Lady Gwendalie's smug expression.”
Anik's hand ruffling his hair brought Ren more warmth than the fire could. “The storm wasn't our fault,” Anik said. “We couldn't have foreseen it, and I'm sure Aleria will understand. In the meantime, we'll just have to make the best of it.” He cupped Ren's chin and raised his head to meet his eyes. “This won't be our last Winter Lights together.”
Something—a fear he hadn't dared put to words—ached in Ren's chest. He wrapped his arms around Anik's shoulders and hugged him tight.
“Oh!” Ilias looked up, brightening. “I have some dried dates.” He withdrew a small package from inside his coat.
“I have ale.” Valkon patted the water skin at his belt.
They all looked at Valkon.
“You keep ale in that thing?” Anik asked with a smirk.
“Yeah! What's wrong with that? It's cold out!”
“Why don't we play a game?” Ilias chimed in. “We can play....” He looked around, then picked up a twig and a pebble. “Battle sticks!”
Ren looked around at them, all hungry and cold, but happy.
Slowly, he nodded. He couldn't give them gold and glitter and lights, but even if a dusty old barn and some sticks was all they had, he wasn't going to spend the evening souring the mood.
* * *
Ilias tore strips from his white scarf and tied them into shimmery ribbons, hanging them from the beams and the horses' manes as festive decoration. He passed out dates to all of them while Valkon let the ale go round. They got two dates each and the ale tasted distinctly of leather. While Ren set up the little triangular towers of sticks, Anik fed one date to Ren's mare and the other to Sakai, who wouldn't stop nudging his shoulder for a treat. When Ren raised his eyebrow at him, Anik gave him a puzzled expression and declared the horses wanted to celebrate, too, so Ren gave Anik his second date. It wasn't a meal—it wasn't even a snack—but the sugary fruit was a small delight after the hard work of shovelling snow.
“All right, here are the rules,” Ren said, explaining the game to Anik and Valkon, who decided to each lead a team. Ren played alongside Anik against Valkon, Jayce, and Ilias.
Anik and Valkon quickly picked up the technique, knocking over the enemy tower with their handful of pebbles while avoiding the friendly towers on either side, then taking out the tower in the far back for extra points. Ren and Jayce were roughly even, Jayce having played many a game of battle sticks on endless watches in Stag's Run. Ilias bordered on hopeless, accidentally knocking over both friendly towers while managing to not knock a single stick off the enemy. That in turn devolved into Jayce helping Ilias cheat, then a full-on assault on towers that saw them all throwing the rules to the wind. In the end, Valkon climbed onto a questionably sturdy horizontal beam and stacked a tower of sticks there with his tongue poking out, then declared that he would wash and groom the horse of whoever managed to knock all the sticks onto the floor with just a single pebble.
Anik stepped forward, pushing up his sleeves. “Hold these,” he said, letting the rest of his pebbles fall into Ren's palm, then took him by the chin and kissed him, sending a wave of warmth through Ren's body. “For luck.” He winked.
“Farther back!” Valkon insisted, waving at Anik and making the beam creak under him.
“Oh dear.” Ilias held a hand over his eyes, peeking through two fingers.
Anik backed against the wall, raised an arm, and tossed. The pebble fell through the air in an elegant curve, knocking against the tops of the sticks. All but one fell to the floor, leaving the final stick balancing on beam's edge.
“I win!” Anik declared, raising his arms in victory.
“No, you don't!” Valkon pointed to the final stick. “I said on the floor!” As he said it, the beam cracked louder, dipping dangerously. Valkon waved his arms and scooted backwards with a curse.
The shift sent the final stick to the floor.
“Now I win,” Anik said smugly, watching Valkon wiggle inelegantly off the beam to land on the floor.
“You do not,” Valkon protested.
“I do, too! Did you hear that, Sakai? You're getting pampered tomorrow.” Anik stroked the stallion's neck.
Valkon opened his mouth to protest, but Anik started a song, raising his voice over Valkon's disgruntled protests. Anik turned to Ren with a foxy grin and clicked his heels together, offering his hand in invitation to dance. Ren knew none of the foreign words rolling off Anik's tongue in a cheerful rhyme, but he caught on to the dance quickly, letting Anik spin him to the rhythm of the others clapping along. When Anik finished his last beautiful high note, he dipped Ren low and pressed his lips to Ren's in a not entirely successful kiss, because Ren couldn't stop laughing long enough to kiss him back.
“Uh-oh. Guys!” Ilias headed past them to the fire. It had all but burnt down, just a few embers left in the pile of ashes.
“No wonder I was starting to get cold,” Ren said. He looked around. They'd used all the wood in
the barn for the fire, even going so far as to burn the cot. Unless they wanted to take apart the walls shielding them from the storm, they were out of firewood. “What now?”
“Well, I suppose we'll just have to cuddle up,” Anik said.
* * *
They built a bed of hay in one of the torn-down stalls and Anik made Sakai lie down. The stallion seemed content to let them huddle against his side—Ren and Anik by his stomach, Ilias and Jayce against his back. Sakai rested his head in Valkon's lap, reminding Ren of a big puppy.
“He's come a long way from when you first got him,” Ren said, stroking the dark horse along his side. The scars on Sakai's neck had faded, but no fur was likely to grow back there.
“We all have, haven't we?” Ilias said softly. The ring on his finger caught the faintest ray of light coming through the cracks.
Ren smiled. “How is married life treating you?”
Even in the dark, Ren could see Ilias' eyes light up. “It's been a dream.” He shook his head slowly. “Just over a year ago, I was a prisoner in Rowland's butcher shop. Today, I'm married to the kings' physician. The kings themselves gave me away at my wedding!” He laced his fingers with Jayce's.
“And now you're stuck in a barn with them,” Valkon noted.
“Today hasn't been so bad, has it?” Anik's hand was warm from resting against Sakai's soft belly when he stroked it down the back of Ren's neck.
Ren shifted a little closer and rested his back against Anik's chest. He supposed Anik was right.
“Have you thought about marriage?” Jayce asked, eye focused on Ren in the dark.
Ren flushed. “I, uh...”
“We've been busy,” Anik said, sensing Ren's discomfort. “Traveling back and forth between Aleria and Filisa. Between Frayne and Skarlan. The alliance with Evalyne. Negotiations with Draxia. We've hardly had the time to talk about marriage.”
Ren gave Anik a faint smile.
“But would you like to? Tie the knot?” Valkon pressed.
Ilias gave him a stern look. “You shouldn't put people on the spot like that!”
Ren gazed at Anik over his shoulder, seeing the same question reflected in Anik's eyes. Now wasn't quite the time he'd thought he'd be having this conversation, but today was proving to be a series of unexpected events.
“I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Ren said, taking a moment to bask in the fondness of Anik's gaze. “I've never seen a real royal wedding. If there's one thing people love more than Winter Lights, it's a royal wedding. All those people, the expectations...” Ren heard the insecurity in his own voice and frowned. He used to love that kind of attention, used to feed off people's excitement and revel in their eyes on him. He wasn't sure he was the same person anymore. Or maybe he got enough of attention from his daily life.
Anik shifted behind him, pressing his lips to the side of Ren's neck in a lingering caress that softened some of the tension in Ren's body.
“You've both had a lot to adjust to,” Jayce said. “Neither of you was born to be a king, yet here you are. I don't think anybody blames you for being a little unpracticed at all of this.”
“You could always get married in Filisa,” Ilias said. He folded his arms over Sakai's shoulder and rested his head there. “The people of Aleria would understand Anik wanting to get married in his home town and it would offer you a bit of a getaway.”
“There are fewer than a thousand people in Filisa,” Anik said, tentative excitement bleeding into his voice. “It wouldn't even need to be public. Could be just us by the lake. And the horses, of course.”
Ren shifted to look at Anik and Anik's cheeks flushed the same way Ren's had.
“Do you think you want something like that? It'd be nothing like a castle wedding. I can't serve you honey-glazed duck, but I make good roast pork.” Anik's tone was joking, but his smile was nervous.
Ren wanted to kiss the worry away, but it seemed too intimate a moment for an audience.
Instead, he took Anik's hands. “A wedding in Filisa sounds perfect.”
“Wait! Hold on!” Valkon interjected, the volume of his voice disturbing Sakai, who grunted with displeasure. “Are you proposing?”
Anik's eyes went wide. “What? No! We're just talking about it.” He released Ren's hand and rubbed the back of his neck, but not even the darkness could hide the red in his cheeks.
A laugh bubbled out of Ren, a release from the loaded atmosphere.
Anik huffed. “If I was proposing, you'd know it. Trust me,” he grumbled, bottom lip pushed out in a pout.
“Just making sure,” Valkon said, displaying one sharp canine in a smirk.
“All right, give it a rest,” Anik said.
Valkon laughed. “You're adorable when you're all shy and flustered.”
Then Ren frowned, focusing on the strange silence between their words. How long had it been so quiet?
“Valkon, I swear, I will—”
“Guys,” Ren said, looking up at Anik with wide eyes.
They all fell silent. Even Sakai raised his head to listen.
Ilias caught on, rising to his feet. “Has the storm stopped?”
“I think so.” Ren stood and dragged Anik with him to the door. He peered outside. All he saw was darkness. A soft chill blew in through the cracks, nothing like the gusts of icy wind. “Help me with the door.”
Anik and Valkon came to his aid, pulling the door entirely off its hinges so they could look outside.
The bright half moon illuminated the snow, lighting up the night, but the drifts were too high for Ren to see much more than the tops of the trees lining the field. He was about to say as much when quiet ringing followed by a distant voice gave him pause.
“I hear people!” Ren's heart skipped a beat. “Help me up!”
Anik turned with his back to the snow drift and folded his hands for Ren to step up. With a tight grip on Anik's shoulders, he gazed out over the landscape.
“What do you see?” Anik asked, voice strained from holding his weight.
Several lights bobbed in what was clearly a procession of horses drawing a snow plough behind them. As Ren waited, a rider called out again.
“Over here!” Ren shouted back, watching as the lights swung towards them.
“Hooray!” Ilias laughed.
With the plough and the help of five strong castle guards, clearing the snow from the barn entrance took no time at all.
“Your Majesty!” The flushed captain knelt before Ren in the snow. “My deepest apologies that it took us this long to reach you. We couldn't ride out in the storm. Are you harmed?”
Ren waved him off his knees, smiling up at Anik beside him. “All is quite well, captain,” Ren assured him. “Would you happen to know the time?”
“Three past dining hour, Your Majesty,” the captain said, guilty. “I'm afraid the guests have left the castle.”
“Cold roast is still roast,” Anik declared, and this time, Ren mirrored his smile. “And now I don't have to share it.”
Valkon shouldered up beside them. “Are you saying you aren't going to share your roast with the man who washes and grooms your horse?” He sounded genuinely offended, which only made the captain's expression even more puzzled.
Ren chuckled and patted the man on the shoulder. “I appreciate you taking time out of your evening for our sake,” he said. “Especially on Winter Lights night. Please take whatever food you want from the castle kitchen back to your family and take tomorrow off. The same goes for your men. And please see to it that the message is spread in the city that the tree burning will be postponed until tomorrow night.”
The captain bowed deeply. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
“So, were you disappointed by tonight?” Anik asked once they were back on their horses, riding through the lighted gates of the city, beautiful in the darkness.
“No.” Ren reached across the gap between them and grasped Anik's hand. “The golden deer will be just as pretty in the morning light. Besides, we got an appointment in Filisa to look forward to.”