Prelude to War

Prelude to War: Short Story #1

When creating characters who have a history together, there’s a certain level of back story that goes into building their relationship.

When creating characters who have a history together, there’s a certain level of back story that goes into building their relationship. Over the next few blog posts, I’ll be sharing with you short stories that capture the lives of the characters in Desperation, before Maelstrom’s war began tearing lives apart.

Charlotte and Aurek

Unrequited Letters

The wooden soles of my shoes clacked on marble as I drudged across the southern bridge connecting the housing wing to the rest of the palace, and Salon Séraphique where I was expected. The sound wasn’t alone. Beside me, my personal guard strolled, escorting me. He was here to ensure I didn’t wander off, as I had a habit of doing. Well, wandering was a mild description of what I usually did, but that was how he’d phrased my actions when he’d met me at the entrance of my chambers.

If Mohar hadn’t come for me, I could have slipped away like I’d intended. I did not enjoy formal events. Especially not ones where I was expected to do things. Like being the center of attention. Of his attention. After months of waiting for letters that never came.

“Princess,” Mohar murmured in our native tongue. “You will wear a hole in your lip if you continue to chew on it.”

My mouth opened, releasing my lip from between my teeth.

“Are you nervous?”

“No,” I muttered. I was something else entirely.

“If you intend to slip away, you should know the Queen will be very displeased.”

I scowled at the hallway ahead. Mother was always displeased when I evaded my duties. It never stopped me, even if it did make me hesitate occasionally. 

“Is he here already?” I asked, both wanting to know and dreading his answer.

“Yes,” Mohar answered. “He entered the city some time ago. He should be at the palace anytime now.”

Anytime. He had yet to enter the grounds. I would have felt him like I felt every person now, like tiny fairy bells, tinkling in the space of my mind that knew my home so very well. I was always aware, always knowing who was in my space. It was one of the gifts the Elementals had bestowed upon me. There were very few people who could surprise me. He was one of the few who could slip my notice, but only when my attention was preoccupied.

It wasn’t now.

Knowing he was here, and that he hadn’t come straight to the palace, irked that tight ball of anger in my chest, churning it until it glimmered hot and biting. No word for months, and now he didn’t bother to come to me and remedy his neglect. He was a prince. He had priorities, many of which I was unaware of, and the thought that I wasn’t high on that list did not sit well. Not even a little.

He and I were betrothed when I was born. For him, that time had only occupied a small fraction of his life, but it had been my entire life. I’d always known I would marry him, even if I’d only actually met him the year before. He was my indelible eventuality, and everything I had to look forward to. Yet, he couldn’t be bothered to respond to a few letters. I’d spent days working on each of those letters. I hated writing formal letters. I’d done it because I wanted to hear from him, to know how he was, and if he was alright.

Well, the letters hadn’t been purely out of concern for his wellbeing. I’d wanted to tell him about myself. We knew so little of each other despite the stories my mother and father shared. Tales of his heroism, his skills with commanding armies, and his exceptional power. He was made something exceptional in my eyes, until he couldn’t bother to answer even one of a dozen letters.

I huffed and looked out to gardens lining the side of the palace. The spring foliage had everything in gleaming in vibrant blooms. Dazzling yellow daffodils, pungent lilacs of powdery purple, irises so blue it was a wonder they weren’t painted, and hundreds of other flowers made the garden glow with health. The sight made me want to dawdle into the greenery and forget my mother’s summons.

“Feet on the ground,” Mohar’s stern reminder shattered the hold I had on the air beneath my feet. I stumbled when the several inch drop had me tripping over my own toes. I hadn’t realized I was doing it, which was surprisingly normal for someone my age. No other child in the palace could use their element, but I’d always been special in that sense. Just like my sense for power, the ability to use my element, my Air, was also a gift from the Elementals.

Soon my view of the garden was cut off by walls as we entered the Southwestern building. Unlike the housing quarters, these were opulent with creamy marble walls and floors with smatterings of gold and black. The paintings on the walls were bright and full of life, reflecting the nature that resided both within and just beyond the palace. They and a few pieces of glassware were the only real sparks of color in the hall. The furniture was all woods stained black or bleached nearly white, the doors and molding even matched.

The decor matched our lands perfectly. Our element was colorless—unseen, actually. But air allowed the colors of the world to flourish. So while we, as Daeva of Air, lost the color to our hair and eyes as our power grew, the world around us gained color and vibrancy.

Salon Séraphique stood open, welcoming. I felt anything but. Apprehension had my body taut with tension. I didn’t want to see him, and I especially didn’t want to see him while surrounded by other people. In front of them, I would be pressured to act as they wished. I didn’t want to be calm and proper and everything they wanted. I wanted to be angry, hurt and lonely, because I was, and I didn’t want to pretend otherwise. Pretending was lying, and we didn’t do that. Not even to ourselves.

“I need a minute.” I spun on my heel to go back the way we came. Mohar caught me by the back of my collar like a kitten, turning me back to face the room.

“The Queen knows we’re here. There’s no turning back.”

I could if I wanted to, which I did. Unfortunately, I felt my mother’s wind a moment later, her words summoning me.

“Charlotte, enter.”

Wishing I’d fled on the bridge where walls were no objection, I adjusted my skirts and stepped around the doorway. The room matched the hallways with its white and gold floors, bountiful colored paintings and artfully distanced furnishings. I paid them not an ounce of attention, choosing to focus on my mother and father.

They stood near the open patio doors, sunlight streaming in from the world beyond. Their attire was formal, their clothing shimmering finery that complimented the crowns adorning their heads. The crowns weren’t the glamorous things they would wear for a formal dinner, but my mother’s still rose several inches above her head, and my father’s thick braid of white gold, diamonds and other precious stone set in the weaves.

There were other people in the room. Courtiers and delegates from other nations. Knowing eyes were on me, judging, I ensured my posture was perfect and my gait silent. I stopped just meters away and dipped, curtsying as I’d been taught years ago.

Me’re, Pe’re,” I murmured. As their only daughter and heir, I was the only one allowed to not use their titles in formal events. It wasn’t the proper thing to do, but the way my father smiled at me indulgently told me he welcomed the familiar greeting.

Mohn cur,” my father said, affection warming his voice. He held his hand out to me, drawing me close when my fingers fit in his grip. “I am sorry for not coming to see you this morning. How were your lessons with Master Chulp?”

He meant he was sorry for not giving me a break from my charms lessons. Something he knew I actually enjoyed and needed no distraction from. Unlike algebra.

“They were great,” I beamed. Pulling my hand from his, I clasped mine together. With only a thought to guide my magic, I pulled my palms apart. Between them, a sparrow in flight emerged. It hovered between my palms, perfectly still. Until I wiggled my fingers. Like a marionette, the wings moved and the body bobbed as if flying through the sky. “We went over making illusions move naturally today. I can only do it when I use my own movement to guide them, but he thinks I can do it with just intentions in a few weeks, if I keep practicing.”

My mother’s hand, pale and elegant, passed under the illusions. She lifted her palm, and I moved the illusion to keep the sparrow flying above her skin. My gaze narrowed, attention focusing as I worked to keep the illusion realized and moving. 

“Good.” Her voice was an approving hum, as she brought the illusion closer to her eyes. Her palm rotated. I tried to keep the illusion with her movements, but my hold over it fizzled and broke. I sighed with the release of magic. She smiled and took my hands in her, squeezing warmly. “You are years ahead of your time, Mohn ange. Perhaps tomorrow you can sit with Prince Aurek and learn from him instead of Master Chulp.”

My face soured, nose and lips scrunching up in distaste. There were no secrets between my parents and me. They knew how I felt about my intended and the letters that had gone unanswered. Despite their best assurances that he would return them if he could have, I was still angry. He was still a Prince of his empire until we wed. The position came with responsibilities and dedications I had yet to feel for myself. He could not be at my beck and call at all times.

But not even a single letter?

“Perhaps.” The single word was not hopeful.

My mother’s smile was knowing and soothing. Her hand left mine to fuss with my own tiara, adjusting it among my pinned up silver curls. “You will see. All will be well by this evening.”

“Yes, Me’re.”

I knew better than to argue with my mother, but that didn’t make her right. Even if she usually was.

Minutes dragged by as courtiers approached us, or called my mother or father over to conversations. Children weren’t typically invited to these occasions, leaving me with no one my own age to join in conversation. It suited me to be alone in a room full of people. Even the eyes that watched me when I entered drifted away, leaving me to be own thoughts and allowing my attention to focus on my senses.

I felt the instant Prince Aurek stepped into the palace. The bell of his power was cool and soft, like icicles cracking under sunlight. He was suppressing himself, something most Daeva did when in the presence of Daeva of other elements. Two more joined his shortly after, equally as cool but louder and humming with mirth. His father, King Aiden, and another member of his family. It felt male, as if tones had genders. His brother, maybe? They weren’t bothering to keep their power as tamped down as Aurek was. Was he trying to keep me from noticing him?

The thought sent a heated tremble through me. My skirts moved around my legs, a strong breeze sweeping through the room. My eyes slid closed, my attention passing to the air around us, feeling movement throughout the palace. I ignored most of what I felt, seeking him.

Massive hooves beat against the cobblestone entrance. The mounts huffed and snorted, coming to a stop at the entrance to Espoir Palace. Three people dismounted, followed by a dozen more, their riding leathers settling around them. Bodies moved toward them, staff members offering them greetings. Words passed between them like vibrations on the wind. I wanted to pull them to me, to have even a hint at Prince Aurek’s reaction to finally entering the palace grounds. 

“Charlotte.” My mother’s warning tone drew my attention from the wind. I closed my element down as soon as I realized she felt what I’d been doing. The breeze moving my skirts dropped to something subtle and natural, bringing with it only the scent of the lilacs blooming beyond the patio, and not the voice I longed to hear.

My cheeks heated, making me glad my back was to the room.

He was here. Finally.

The urge to storm to the massive entry doors came and went. If I were alone and had no worry about proper greetings, I would have. But, my mother and father were here, along with the courtiers and delegates from other nations.

Foot steps approached behind me. Mohar’s words were soft when he informed me of Prince Aurek’s arrival. I nodded my thanks. When he didn’t return to the room, I knew he was staying close to deter me from slipping onto the patio and into the forest.

My hands were folded before me in a practiced placement. My fingers barely twitched, something that would have given away my impatience had I been facing the room. Especially when the formal announcement of the Royals arriving finally came.

“King Aiden Romanov of the Arctic Empire and his two sons, Prince Flynn and Prince Aurek.”

I felt eyes on me before the Master of Ceremonies finished. I knew without looking to who those eyes belonged to. Or, I hoped I did. Had he looked for me the moment he entered, or was it someone else? Paela, I didn’t want to look. What if it wasn’t him?

Clutching my hands into fists, resolve steeling my will, I turned. Aurek stood to the left of his father and brother. Though they all had similar features, there was no mistaking him. Not to me. He may have been the only clean shaven one of the three, but his hair was just as crimson as his family’s. The carmine color wasn’t because of his element, like my fading silver locks were. It was simply his family’s heritage that sported the color. Anyone with the color was of the Romanov line in some way. Those eyes, though, piercing glacier blue, were all his. I met them, feeling the impact like his spear, pinning me in place.

I broke the connection of our eyes to take him in. The worry that had built in me during his absence eased. Two arms with all their fingers, two legs that held him proudly. If he’d been hurt, nothing had been permanent. The relief was so strong, my shoulders dropped and my hands slipped apart, falling to my sides. I’d worried he’d lost the ability to write, and thanked the Elementals he hadn’t. Instead of being incapable of writing, he just hadn’t.

The anger that had been doused by my relief roiled back, a hundred times hotter than it had been. He really just hadn’t bothered to write.

Aurek took a step into the room, those glacier eyes still locked on me.

I couldn’t face him like this, not in front of so many people. All the words I’d pent up for months would fall from me, and I would embarrass my parents.

I was on the patio, my body dipping under Mohar’s reaching arm, before my mind caught up with my element. The stairs were merely a guide to my path that I glided down, my feet never touching the steps. My formal skirts fell from their clasps behind a massive rhododendron, leaving me in loose fitting trousers to dart over the blooming garden and into the forest beyond.

I could feel him approaching on the forest floor from my perch in the trees. Beside me, a falcon in her nest gave an appreciative coo, as I held out several varieties of grass and moss to add to her home. Beneath me, occupying several branches, a family of squirrels chattered. They all quieted at his approach, though I was certain they were only reacting to my stiffness.

I’d left the party only a short while ago. He must have followed as soon as I left to make it out here so quickly.

Despite his approach, I made no move to acknowledge him. He’d made me wait for months. I could make him wait too. Though, when I thought he wasn’t looking, I’d glance down, finding him leaning against a tree or lounging across a log. Every now and again, he held something flat in his hands. It looked like parchment.

If I thought time would chase him off, it didn’t. The afternoon cooled and darkened to dusk, yet he remained near by, following when I changed trees, maintaining the distance between us by remaining where he couldn’t get to me. He was of the Arctic, not of Air. I was sure he could climb a tree if he wanted to, but not fast enough to prevent me from hopping to another before he got to me.

Staring up into the canopy filtered sunset, I debated whether he would stay well into the night. The thought came and went as easily as smoke. My parents would send the Royal Guard after me, if I stayed too long, then I would need to actively hide. I was fairly certain the only reason they hadn’t was because Prince Aurek had followed me.

Sighing, I stepped off the branch I’d stood on and dropped. The wind caught me near the ground, bursting upwards to slow my fall until I touched the ground as if stepping down a single step. My trousers fluttered against my legs, making me glad I’d removed my skirts or they’d be in my face.

“Prince Aurek,” I said in High Speech. The words were unfamiliar to my tongue, leaving them so heavily accented it nearly didn’t sound like high speech at all.

I turned to where the bell of his power told me he was. He pushed off a tree he’d been leaning against to stride toward me. He stopped an arm length away. Despite my earlier check to ensure he was in one piece, his clothing had eluded me. He still wore his sharovary and fur trimmed kaftan, the outfit appearing completely foreign and luxurious at once. When he was here, he usually adorned styles like our own, but this was an outfit entirely from his homeland.

“Hello, Princess Charlotte.”

His voice was deep, calm and disarming. I’d wanted to hear it for months, had imagined hearing it, had conversations with it in my mind. Finally, getting something I wanted too desperately snipped the wick on the bomb of my anger, leaving the sparks to spit and fizzle.

“You are—not hurt?” I asked, the words finding the path out of my mouth difficult.

“I am well. You seem to have become more skilled at flying during my absence.”

My cheeks warmed at the compliment. I tapped my bodice, just above my diaphragm. “She guides me.”

By she, he knew I meant my element. She, my Air, was the guiding hand who taught me everything I needed to know. Her presence was like a second instinct within me, overwhelming my own when my element was afoot.

“My letters—are received?”

“They were received, yes.” His hand slipped under the edge of his jacket, pulling out the parchment I had seen him holding from up in the trees. It was a small stack of folded papers, the bottom pieces darker with water stains, the top appearing pristine. “Your stories brought me peace in a place where such things were hard to find. Thank you for writing and sending them to me.”

“Where I was, it was not a place where we could send letters. Incoming communications were of no issue, for the power bringing such things came from a distance. Sending would have put us in more danger than we already were. I only had the opportunity to send letters a week ago, when we returned to sanctuary. I thought instead of getting letters a day before I arrived, you would appreciate me delivering them myself.”

He held the stack out to me. On the top most envelope, scrawled in his tight, precise script, my name was written. It was bound neatly with ruddy twine. I took them, turning the stack on its end to see each folded envelope. There were eight letters, four short of the dozen I’d sent, but eight more than I expected this morning, and seven more than I needed to utterly dispel any memory of anger.

“Thank you,” I murmured, holding them against my bodice, fighting the urge to tear into them and read the words I’d longed for.

“They are written in the high speech. I am not yet fluent enough in French to write with any skill. Though, if you cannot yet read it, I will gladly read them to you.“

“No, I am learning. I will read them.” It may take me days to understand them, but I would do it on my own. A realization had me looking up to him. “My letters are French.”

“Yes, I have a trinket that translates written word into high speech. It is not always accurate, but your letters were written perfectly.”

A smile turned my lips, and I snuggled the letters closer. “I am angry, but now—thank you.”

He took a step toward me and knelt, one knee pressing into the leaf litter. Frost formed where his knee rested, slowly thickening into ice until his pants were separated from the ground by a clear sheen. Fingers touched my chin, lifting until my eyes met his. “Are you angry now?”

I shook my head. “I thought you did not write letters back.”

“Were you angry, or did you feel pain?” He dropped my chin to tap my sternum. “Pain here.”

A responding tightness grew inside me, beneath his tapping fingers. I nodded, because in that moment, I didn’t have words to say that I knew he would understand.

“That feeling, it is hurt, and perhaps disappointment. I am sorry for causing you to feel such things. It was not my intention.”

My bottom lip trembled. “I am worry.”

“You are not worried now, are you?”

“No. You are here.”

“Then you were worried. Or, I was worried,” he said, emphasized the difference in his words and mine.

I nodded, fighting to keep my lip still and losing. “I was worried?”

“Yes, was. Was is for things in the past.”

I tried to smile, but it vanished as soon as it came. “I was—disappoint—ed?”

His features softened, and a small smile, one only I ever got to see, lightened his features. “You are not any more though, yes?”

If we’d still been in the palace, I’d never have gotten closer to him. I’d have excused myself, finding privacy until I could control my expressions. We weren’t in the palace though. We were in the woods, where no one else watched. No one who would scold me for being inappropriate. So, I didn’t care how many rules I broke when I shuffled forward, using one arm to hug him close while clutching his letters tightly between us.

“You cannot stay always, but will you stay longer?”

 “Of course.” His arms closed around me, hugging me just as tightly. “Your birthday is in a few weeks. I will remain until then, and perhaps a few weeks more.”

I nodded, snuggling closer. “Me’re said I should ask. Will you teach me more about charms?”

“If you wish it, yes. Though I will warn you, if you do not like my lessons, you will not slip away as you do with your other tutors. I will come after you and we will continue wherever I find you.”

I laughed, delighted and excited. Pulling back from our embrace, I took his hand and pulled up, urging him to his feet. “We return and start.”

He did as my hand beckoned, rising to his feet. “I believe your mother and father would want any lessons to wait until tomorrow. Dinner should be underway now.”

I shook my head and kicked one foot up, drawing his attention to my pants. “No dress, no dinner. We start tonight.”

“Demanding little thing,” he murmured, affection clear in his tone. I smiled at his words and started back to the palace, his hand held firmly in mine.

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