Title Image: A white dragon from the neck up with his mouth open and a long red tongue sticking out. He is turned to the left and has one blue eye looking toward the audience. On a multicolored background with frosted edges and a light snowfall around him. Text on the photo says: Lieutenant: Part 1
In honor of the holidays, I give you a winter short story inspired by 6 Royal Wishes. Reviews and critique welcome!
Eloira spun away from the mirror. Her long braid whipped behind her as she swung her freshly polished, ice-blue bow off of her shoulder, wrapping her left hand about the grip while her right flew behind her. She notched a silver-tipped arrow and pulled the string taught, aiming straight at the intruder’s chest. Her eyes flashed.
Valorae propped herself up against the doorframe. Her long, royal purple skirts billowed around her as she settled into a comfortable stance and let out a loud cackle. A teasing smirk slithered onto her face and her green eyes sparkled with mischief. “Ooh, feisty today, aren’t we, Ellie?”
Eloria scowled, lowering her weapon half an inch. The puffy sleeves of her dress slipped down past her shoulders. Damnit. She dropped the stirring of her bow and reached around to tighten the top tie that held up the garment. Again. “What do you want?”
Valorae’s eyes softened and her features contorted into an exaggerated pout. “Eloira, why must you always be so… suspicious? Can’t the Lieutenant simply come by to wish her favorite apprentice good luck on her big day?”
Eloira closed her eyes and let out a long breath. She didn’t have to see the sneer curling up the corners of the other huntress’s perfectly glossed lips. Sure enough, when her room came back into focus, Valorae’s cheeks were sunken in as though she’d swallowed a sour raspberry. Eloira scoffed, her black leather boots thumping against the floor as she crossed to the bed and slid the quiver of arrows from her back. It landed just inches from the baseboard with a thunk. “You may be a year older than me—”
“And much wiser,” Valorae cut in.
Eloira exhaled through her nose. More humble, too.
“What was that?” Valorae hissed.
Oops. Had she said that out loud? A satisfied smirk danced at the edges of her mouth, but she bit it back.
“Nothing.” Eloria spun around in time to see the taller girl preening her long ebony curls while flirting with herself in the mirror. She groaned inwardly.
Really, Lucia, you had to pick her? Shameless cad.
The moment the thought entered her mind, Eloira winced. She was in no position to question the queen’s decisions, but every time she had interacted with Valorae since they met at the Solstice Ceremony three years ago, she only came off every bit the spoiled, selfish brat that Eloira’s intuition had painted her. Eloria had absolutely no idea how such a prissy princess had managed to climb the ranks so quickly that she and Valorae had ended up on the same level of the royal court, let alone in competition for the same position.
Well, actually, she did have one thought, but it was almost too undignified to entertain. Though, maybe not for Valorae. Nothing was impossible when it came to that girl.
“I simply said that I am your equal in rank. Until Lucia says otherwise, you are not the Lieutenant, and I am certainly not your apprentice.” Eloira scrunched her nose in contempt and snatched the midnight blue shawl from wear it lay on her crumpled comforter, draping it around her shoulders. The bow remained clutched between her fingers as she fumbled with the knot that secured the cape around her neck.
“Yet,” Valorae replied.
Eloria gnashed her teeth. “I have just as much a chance at taking over Amar’s old post as you.”
Valorae let out a short laugh. “Oh, please.”
Heat rose to Eloira’s cheeks. She pressed her lips together and dug her nails into the frame of her bow, raising it again. “This thing can pierce a whole lot more than that precious ego of yours.”
Valorae’s grin grew that much wider and she rolled her eyes. “Your mother might have been a legendary archer, but you?” She snorted and shook her head. “You’re just a glorified servant girl.”
A growl rumbled forth from somewhere deep in Eloira’s chest. She stepped closer. “Want to say that again?”
Valorae shuffled a few steps backward, but her smug smile never faltered. “If you’re so great, Ellie.”
Eloria snarled at the moniker and raised her weapon a little higher.
“Why did the queen ask you to host the Solstice Ceremony, instead of letting you find Elderberry yourself, hmm?”
Eloira bristled. “At least I have some involvement in the mission,” she spat. “What are you planning to do all day, rest on your laurels? The Hunt isn’t allowed to scout with the beast tamers during the challenge, remember?”
Valorae arched an eyebrow. “Do you really think some silly little decree is going to stop me?”
Eloira relaxed the vice grip on her bow. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a small “o.” Valorae grinned. Her gaze darted down either end of the empty corridor before she opened the right flap of her own cloak. Eloira squinted. Then gasped and did a double take when she caught sight of Valorae’s own quiver slung across her back.
“What are you…?”
Valorae sighed, dropping the fabric and stepping over the threshold of the door and into Eloira’s room. “You and I both know more is at stake this year than just a chance to light the Everfrost Tree.” Her voice took on a cold edge that made the younger huntress shiver. “Finding Elderberry isn’t a job for some amateur trying to worm their way into Lucia’s court. It’s a dangerous mission that could alter the lives of everyone in Everwinter.”
Eloira nodded. Her mother’s status as the first hunter ever to successfully capture a Cameleon Dragon—Elderberry’s father—after hr had disappeared hung over her like an anvil on a rusty chain since the queen had announced the young dragon’s disappearance two months ago. Everyone in the valley had set out to find him, but so far, no promising leads had shown up. Two weeks ago, Lucia made the executive decision for his safe return to be the challenge that would earn one lucky citizen a chance to adorn the Everfrost tree with its crown jewel.
Valorae’s lips set in a grim line. “If he isn’t found by sunset tonight—”
“There will be no one to light the Morning Star,” Eloria whispered. The color faded from her cheeks and a frigid sweat dampened her palms.
Valorae nodded. “And Everwinter as we know it will cease to exist.”
Eloira’s heart hammered in her ears. Her mouth lost all moisture as she staggered backward and slumped down on the bed. Her bow dangled at her side as it slowly slid from her grip. She took a few long, deep breaths before blinking back to reality and setting her gaze on Valorae. “So… What are you going to do?”
“I can’t let some silly stroke of luck determine the fate of an entire realm.” Valorae huffed and planted her hands on her hips. “After the ceremony, when the amateurs’ names are drawn from the lottery and those crazy enough to accept the challenge take off at sunrise, I’m going after them. If saving all of Everwinter doesn’t secure the lieutenant position for me, nothing will. She pulled the long, purple velvet hood attached to the back of her cape over her head. Most of her face was distorted by shadow. Only her bright, ruby lips were visible in the foggy, early morning light that streamed through the bedroom window.
Eloria’s features hardened as she pushed up from the bed. She scooped up her quiver and swung it back over her shoulder. “Not if I find him first.”
A calculating grin split Valorae’s face, her eyes dancing with madness and thirst for competition. She held out her hand and met Eloira’s with a firm shake. “May the best huntress win.”
Eloira smiled. “I intend to.”
“And Diedren Halsenberg.” Elora let the strip of parchment flutter back into the crystal raffle ball as the crowd parted and the last lottery winner—a slender girl with unusually tanned skin, fiery red hair, piercing green eyes, and a pretty deadly looking crossbow slung around her back—came up to stand behind her fellow contestants.
Queen Lucia rose from her throne just to the left of the podium, wishing all six of the competitors luck before bidding them on their way. Valorae and Eloria remained at their posts with their hands folded delicately in front of them. They trained their eyes on the horizon as the last of the ships disappeared over the hill, the sled blades attached to the bottom of each boat scraping across the icy surface of the frozen river.
“Come now, my huntresses,” the queen called, beckoning them to her side as she turned and headed back up the walkway toward the palace. “Elderberry’s safe return is in their hands now. We shall know the successor by sundown.”
“Yes, Milady,” Valorae answered, bowing slightly and trailing behind the queen.
Eloira mimicked her reply and shot the elder huntress a questioning look as they followed their ruler over the winding path.
Valorae only winked and tightened her grip on the weapon camouflaged by her cape.
Eloria smirked and nodded her understanding. Their plan to join the beast tamers was not squelched after all. If only they could sneak away from the queen.
“Queen Lucia!” As one, the three of them turned in the direction of the servants’ quarters, only to see the newest guard rushing toward them.
He skidded to a stop in front of the monarch, leaving sloppy boot tracks in the fresh snow behind him. Eloira smirked as she noticed Lucia put a gloved hand over her mouth to hide her smile. The man dropped to one knee and dipped his head.
“Yes, Chandler?” Lucia arched an eyebrow.
“My deepest apologies for disturbing you, Your Grace,” the boy said. “But the captain has instructed your presence in the command room immediately.”
Eloria heard Valorae’s boots crunch against the icy snow as she slid closer and nudged the younger girl in the ribs.
This is our chance, Valorae mouthed.
Eloria nodded and they slunk away as Lucia followed the guard in the opposite direction, their conversation echoing in the air.
“Did he state the nature of this request?”
“No, Your Highness; only that it was of the utmost importance…”
Eloira shook her head, happy to let the howl of the wind drown out the rest of the guard’s words. She had other duties with which to concern herself.
Only when they reached the entrance to the palace stables did the sense of guilt return to gnaw at Eloira’s stomach. Even if their quest truly was for the good of everyone in the Valley; was it really safe to blatantly disobey Lucia’s orders? She bit her lip and watch Valorae march straight toward the strongest stallion available—a midnight black mare—and began saddling her up without the slightest hesitation.
“Valorae?” She glanced around at the remaining mounts. “Do you really think we should be doing this?” Eloria winced as the older girl paused from tightening her horse’s girth and exhaled sharply through her nose, shooting her a glare.
“I already told you–I’m not leaving the fate of my home in the hands of a few lucky strangers.” She shrugged and turned back to her horse. “The Lieutenant position is as good as mine whether you follow me or not.” She paused and a sickening smirk contorted her features. “‘Though, I’m sure your mother would be proud either way.”
Eloria sucked in a breath and clenched her teeth. She balled her fists at her sides and stalked across the hay to the nearest stall. Which held a wild grey stallion that only the old Lieutenant had ever possessed the skills to tame. It whinnied and bucked as she unlatched its gate, grabbing the lead rope just before it could bolt. “I’m not letting you win without a fight.”
Part 2 coming next week!