A prince was standing in her candle shoppe. It was so bizarre that Vivian could hardly enjoy the look of utter confusion on Tilda and her friends’ faces.
“What did you say?” Vivian whispered.
“I’m escorting you to the festival.” The Prince flashed her a grin. “Don’t you recall? You promised me a dance.”
She had mockingly said she owed the Prince a dance for all the loveliness he’d brought. Oh stars, she wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole. That’s why his friends had laughed. She had been conversing with royalty and not even known it.
Yet, he was staring at her with no cynicism on his face. As if he, a prince, a Starling, was really here to dance with a candle girl.
“I can’t dance,” Vivian mustered.
“I’ll teach you.”
There was a sound like a horse whinnying and a cat being stepped on. Tilda Dovetail, delicately clearing her throat.
“Viv, darling, I couldn’t have possibly heard that right. Are you hosting the Prince of Andúrigard?” Tilda pranced over beside Vivian and laced an arm through hers as if they were best friends.
But Vivian could barely feel Tilda’s lace-gloved fingers pinching at her arm. Could barely hear Tilda’s squeaky little breaths. There was only the space between her and the Prince. His eyes did not move from hers, not even for a moment to acknowledge Tilda.
“Get out,” Vivian said. Though her gaze did not leave the Prince’s, it was clear who she was speaking to. “Leave my shoppe. We are closed.”
Tilda gave a startled inhale and dropped her arm. “But Viv—”
“The lady asked you to leave,” Prince Darius said, also never dropping Vivian’s eye. “My guards are outside. They’d be happy to escort you, if needed.”
Tilda made a blubbering noise all the way out of the shoppe. The door chimed mercifully as they left.
And then Vivian was left alone with the Prince.
“Thank you for staying open for me. I won’t be long.” Finally, he broke their stare and looked around the shoppe. “I returned for more than just taking you up on your offer. I’m of a mind to purchase two gifts, and then something for myself.” His words had a distinguished edge to them that made her conscious of the cobwebs that drooped from the beams like banners and the speckles of dust suspended in the dying sunbeams.
She swallowed and turned, taking down a few different candles. “The selection is slim. We were very busy today with the festival, Your Highness.”
“You mean the stupid festival?” There was laughter in his words. “Please, call me Darius.”
“Darius,” she echoed the word. The name was made to be formed by her lips, and she was suddenly taken with the urge to say it again, scream it, whisper it, yell it, moan it—
Her thoughts cut off with the shake of her head and she realized she was staring at the curved angle of his jaw, the broadness of his shoulders, the intensity of his storm blue eyes that were very much trained on her. He was giving her the most peculiar look.
“I’m Vivian,” she said finally.
And now it was her turn to give him a peculiar look, because she wasn’t sure how, but they had somehow exchanged much more than names.
“Is it true what you said?” she asked. “There are guards outside?”
“Princes don’t have the luxury of going anywhere alone.” He inclined his head toward the window.
Through the dusted glass, Vivian saw the silhouette of two Celestial Knight: soldiers of both the Church and Kingdom. Adorned in golden armour, they wore coloured sashes around their waists, one yellow, the other blue. That meant they were Starlings, graduates of the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars, capable of wielding untold magic. But only when the sun hid, and the stars appeared.
“They didn’t feel the need to accompany you in here?”
“Are you dangerous?” Prince Darius asked with a smile.
“Very.” It wasn’t a lie.
He chuckled and she busied herself by laying out a spread of candles on the wooden counter. Prince Darius had seen such horror in his life, not much could frighten him now. At only nineteen, he was a renowned hero, beloved by his people, championed by the Church.
Unification Day was a dull holiday prior to the events of three years ago. A day to celebrate the surrender of Kirrintsova and Medihsa and their swearing of loyalty to Andúrigard. Every year, there was a long and dreary fealty renewal in Wolfhelm, where the young wards from Kirrintsova and Medihsa bent the knee once again.
But three years ago, tragedy struck the capital. The royal family was attacked by a long-banished cult led by their leader, the Dark Prophet. This cult meddled in the forbidden Dark Star magic.
Vivian’s vision blurred and her breathing turned shallow. She gripped the counter.
“Are you alright?” Darius grabbed her arm. His hand was rough, calloused from hours of swordplay and archery training, she could only presume.
“Quite,” she managed. “Just a dizzy spell.”
He released her and offered a kind smile. How he could still find such warmth was a testimony to his honour. He had been the only survivor of the Störmberg family massacre. And not only had he avenged them by singlehandedly striking down the Dark Prophet that night, he drove the cult away and led his people in peace for the last three years.
He truly was the hero the people believed.
Now, Darius had turned dull Unification Day into a grand festival of both memorial of his family and celebration over his defeat of the Dark Prophet. As if the smell of sugar sticks could blot out the stench of blood that soaked the streets that night, or the minstrels’ singing could silence that screams that had rung from dusk to dawn.
She wondered if the celebration helped Darius forget the memories of that night.
It didn’t for her.
“You’ve managed to hold onto your ribbon,” Darius said.
It didn’t sound like a question, but she answered him, nevertheless. “My brother gave it to me last week. He traded a poor boy a loaf of bread for it. My sister, oh, she was so cross! Told him he had bread for brains. It’s just that my brother can be, well,” she shook her head, a blush crossing her features. “Above all things, he’s kind.”
“It looks lovely on you,” the Prince said. “Brings out the blue in your eyes.”
“My eyes are grey.”
Darius gave her one last look then uncorked a candle, bringing it up to his nose.
“That one’s Honey Maple. We collect the syrup fresh from Ashwell Grove.”
“I’ll take it. I know someone who could use a little sweetness in her life.”
He popped the wooden cork out of several more candles, smelling them. As he did so, Vivian found herself telling stories about the candles, how they were made, the type of people who purchased them. And she told him the stories she imagined when they burned the candles in the shoppe. Somewhere between the stories, she forgot that finding words were hard. They strung together more easily moment after moment, and for every one of her stories, Darius had one to match. As the wicks burned down, the stories started to resemble somethng very much like conversation.
The light in the shoppe turned from buttery cooper to the deep red only an autumn sunset could bring.
Darius, followed her gaze and sighed. “I suppose I really should pick a candle and stop taking up all of your time.”
She wanted to tell him he hadn’t taken anything, that she’d gifted it to him, and gladly would do so again. But instead she just held up one of her most popular candles. “Try this one.”
He bent his head. “Ahh.” He inhaled. “Vanilla. I’ll take this one for myself.”
She tried for a word, but somehow only exhaled.
He tilted his chin up at her. A storm raged in his eyes. He was like that, all of him, rippling of static that could strike into lightning at any moment.
He straightened. “And lastly, one for my friend. Do you have a candle that smells like the sea?”
“Yes.” Vivian dug for only moment before she found what she was looking for. The wax was dyed a startling blue. “It’s quite accurate. I used to live by the sea.”
She smelled it before handing it to him, and saw dark blue water, heard gulls overheads, and tasted salt on her tongue.
As he reached for it, his heavy cloak fell loose, revealing the shine of silver brocade. He wore an elegant outfit of fine navy fabric. The silver thread was woven in constellations.
The uniform of a student who attended the Celestial Academy for Fallen Stars.
Hide. Never come out until the shadow passes. The school is evil. Do you understand, my children?
“Another dizzy spell?” Suddenly, his hand was on her arm.
She pulled away from him. “I j-just…thought I saw a shadow.” There was no reason to be afraid of the Prince. He was only here to buy a candle. It had nothing to do with her at all. “You really caught one?” she asked, even though she knew she shouldn’t. “You’re a Starling?”
“Yes, I caught my star but earlier this Moon. Have you ever seen the star showers, Vivian?”
It was a rhetorical question. Stars fell as often as rain over Thraina. She offered him her truth. “Only glimpses.”
Glimpses through frosted windows, through the cracks of a crate.
He studied her for a moment, and shifted uncomfortably, as if he wanted to say something more, but a rigid view of politeness held him back. Finally, he asked, “Have you ever thought of attending?”
Last month hundreds of young people gathered in the town square, waiting as sky skiffs fluttered them up to the waiting Isle of Argos. All for the annual ceremony where a potential student could claim their magic. Although stars fell across Thraina, there was only one place you were permitted to catch them.
Only one place you could catch them and not be hanged for it.
The Meadow of Shattered Stars, on the Isle of Argos, right beside the Academy. Many claimed the stars were more potent up there, but Vivian wasn’t sure she believed that. She wasn’t sure what she believed.
She narrowed her eyes and laughed. “How did you know I wasn’t there? One of the hundreds of hopefuls with no star to fall unto waiting hands, who flew down in shame to a life without magic, to work in a dreary place like a candle shoppe?”
He didn’t break her gaze. “If you were there, I would have seen you.”
The idea was prosperous. She believed him.
“And,” he admitted, “I overheard that shrill of a woman talking to you. She was wrong though. The magic would not burn you. It would ignite you. The stars would line up in the sky for the grace of your lips.”
The way he spoke of it…it didn’t sound dangerous or wicked as Father had said. It sounded magical.
But she summoned some of her sister’s common sense. “You’ll never see me there.”
“Why not? Contrary to what many people believe, the school isn’t just for nobles. Many commoners—” he coughed, stumbling over his words. “Not that you’re, what I mean is—”
He broke off and ran a hand through his blond hair, a red flush from cheek to cheek.
“It’s alright. I am what the world made me,” Vivian said softly. “The sky is for Starlings, and the ground is for girls who work in candle shoppes.”
“Well, it is a wonderful candle shoppe. I do thank for letting me stay.” He placed a handful of verdallions on the counter. “In truth, this is the first time I’ve felt like I could breathe all day.”
“I hate crowds too,” she admitted. “The shoppe has been mad since we opened.”
“Thanks to the ruddy prince.” He gave a cheeky grin.
“He’s not so bad after all.” And for the first time in a very long time, Vivian felt a true smile spread across her face.
She finished wrapping his candles and handed him the paper bag. This was the part where she told the customers to be safe, never to burn their candle too long or leave it unattended. But there wasn’t any space for words between them.
He turned to leave, opening the door but a crack. Music wafted in, the minstrels singing tales of heroes and loss and courage all mixed together.
Then Prince Darius dropped the bag by the door and said, “I do believe you still owe me a dance.”
His mouth curved in a half smile. “Think of it as practice. I can slip away after my barrage of duties to properly escort you around the festival.”
There were a million excuses on her lips, but she was stepped from behind the counter, and Vivian stopped in front of him. Vivian was tall compared to Tilda and the other girls in town, but Darius was so much taller than her.
“One dance,” she whispered. “Until the end of the song.”
“Then we better begin.” His heartbeat was so loud it nearly blocked out the music. It thrummed between her ears as if it were her own. Was it possible? Could it even be? Was the Prince of Andúrigard nervous?
He placed one hand on her waist, then twined his other hand through hers.
“Until the music ends,” he whispered lowly.
And then they were moving about the candle shoppe. It wasn’t really true, what she had said before, about not being able to dance. It was more that she didn’t remember, it had been so long. Her father used to bring out his old music box and they’d waltz around their cabin in Seagrass. Father was the best, dancing on his toes. Marion always had to be the leader, and Timothée, well, he was hopeless as he was with most things, always tripping over his feet.
It was like it all came back to her as Darius led her around the room. The biggest miracle of all was that she didn’t even feel the slightest bit foolish.
His hair had fallen slightly askew over his brows. She clasped his hand tighter when the music outside the shoppe stopped, but he kept moving, and so did she. It felt like maybe she’d gotten her wish after all, that she was stepping on clouds.
Her swirled her around once more before she fell into his chest, and they stumbled to a stop, clattering the candles on the walls.
“I told you,” she laughed, “I can’t dance.”
“I don’t know about that,” he said lowly. “Perhaps you just need more practice.”
“Indeed.” She stepped back, but felt his hesitation to release her hand. Outside, the sky was darkening. If she didn’t get home soon.
Darius stared out the window. “Did you know I’ve been to every Unification Day since I was born, but I’ve never even tried the sugar sticks?”
“Those are highly regarded as the very best part of it all.”
“Why do you think I’m so upset about it?” His smile was the glimpse of sunlight through a storm.
She took a step closer.
“I’d love to escort you to the festival,” he said.
She could almost hear herself saying the words: Just give me a moment to clean up. We can go together. And we can eat sugar until our fingers and lips are sticky with it.
Words like that were for girls with destinies. Not sick girls like her. She’d almost forgotten it. That she wasn’t just a commoner working in a candle shoppe.
Her doom was decided.
She swallowed, looked down. “I have to get…get home.”
Sadness flashed across his face. “I cannot say I am not disappointed. If you were there, it might make the whole arduous affair more bearable.”
“I’m truly sorry,” she said, each word more difficult to speak than the last.
“Do not say this is goodbye, then.”
“You can stop and get a candle the next time you are in town.” There was a heaviness to her heart. If she told Marion of this meeting, no doubt her sister’s fear would grow wild. One town to the next, as real as ghosts in each one.
She tugged at the ribbon in her hair until it came loose then clasped his wrist. Of all the days to be bold, today you decide to touch a prince.
But Darius was still, letting her guide his wrist forward, and for a moment, the only feeling was the frantic fluttering of his pulse beneath her fingers.
She carefully tied the ribbon around his wrist, knotting it into a bow.
“There,” she whispered. “Now you can’t forget me.”
She meant to drop her hand, but his fingers curled around her own.
“You know that won’t happen.”
And she did. She felt it in the shift of the air. She flicked her head up at him and wished there weren’t tears in her eyes.
His expression mirrored her own.
The door jingled opened and the two Celestial Knights stepped inside. “Your Highness, the hour of the ceremony approaches.”
He was ushered out, and suddenly she couldn’t remember if she said goodbye. Or if it even mattered. But the candle shoppe was so quiet she could still hear the ringing of their words between the wooden walls.
She stared at the bells, still jingling back and forth. And Vivian knew if she stayed there, she would never see Prince Darius again. She’d stay in the shadows of the candle shoppe until she burned away like the wicks and wax.
Her breath hitched in her throat. She pushed outside, blinking frantically in the crimson light. The streets were still crowded and frenzied. Hiking up her skirts, she pushed through the swarm until she caught the golden glint of his hair.
“Darius,” she called.
He kept moving forward, surrounded by his knights.
“Darius!” she yelled.
Finally, he turned and the smile on his face was so spectacular, her heart fluttered. “Vivian!”
She would wear a cloak, stick to the dark awnings. She would find a way. There had to be a way.
“I’ll come,” she yelled, willing the wind to carry her words. “I’ll come to the festival!”
“I’ll find you!” he called back.
“They’ll be thousands of people there!”
The crowd swept between them like a current.
“It does not matter.” He waved his hand, the blue ribbon fluttering in the wind. “I’ll find you.”
And Vivian Greywick, who had not believed in anything in a long, long time, believed in that.
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