(Merry Christmas Eve! Enjoy.)
Alethea traced the black specks carefully, her brush stroking then lifting off the wall with controlled force. She stepped back to examine her work. The outline of a wing unfurled on its white canvas, the tip grazing the edge of the window.
“Rafa,” she called.
A halo of black hair surfaced from behind a pile of cushions. Rafa ran a critical eye over her painting and a wry smile touched his face.
“I finally made the curves right. It’s brighter tonight than I’ve ever seen.” She swept her hand towards the window.
Her gaze wandered outside to the night sky, traveling instantly to the most familiar constellation: the two large wings, the arched tail, and the trail of dense stars that father called the dragon’s breath of fire. If you use your imagination, he would say.
She loved the skies. Her family and clan had the stone mountains and green earth under their feet, but from her little lodge overlooking the village, she had all the heavens above.
“Is Abi visiting tonight?”
The hopeful note in Rafa’s voice was so faint she would have missed it if she knew him less. Alethea glanced at his expression, but his face was turned towards the ground.
“Yes.” She frowned, an anxious crease forming above her brow. “She’s late.”
Abigail collected enough admirers to stretch from the foot to the peak of the Adamaris Mountain. That, at least, was the common sentiment in the clan according to Rafa, Father and Mother. Abigail dismissed the notion entirely. Alethea could not help the occasional prick in her heart when the subject arose. Would she win as many suitors if their places had been reversed? Nevertheless, she felt ashamed of the slightest envy. Alethea loved her sister, and neither of them had chosen their lots in life.
She stole another glance at Rafa. But for him to develop any special interest in Abigail—
Surely, he knew an orphan could never inherit the Chieftain’s role.
“Your mother is worried. She said Abigail’s been wandering off to God-knows-where on the mountain these days.”
Alethea felt her chest clench. “Abi can take care of herself. She’s just adventurous.”
“Ah, right, the hot-blooded dragon spirit inside her.” He rose to his feet and made a flourish with his hands. “I think Demarion is secretly proud. Like father, like daughter. But Ziva…” he trailed off.
“She fears the curse is meant for Abi.” She kept her tone neutral.
Rafa stared at her, his indigo eyes crinkling. “Lethe, she fears it was meant for you both.”
She heard the earnest empathy in his voice and flushed, looking away. Her family never showed greater favor to one daughter over the other. Abigail was their firstborn by mere moments, and tradition dictated that the eldest child of the Chief would inherit leadership of the clan. When Alethea arrived, a tiny bundle of flesh and bones, Father and Mother were delighted but afraid. Who would the Phoenix’s terrible curse fall upon?
Father could not conceal both children. The entire clan knew when Lady Ziva was with child. So he hid Alethea from the public, protecting at least one daughter. He built a cabin above the village for her, disguised as the family’s new private retreat. To the clan, Demarion Dragon-Chief and Lady Ziva bore a single daughter.
The oak double doors burst open, interrupting Alethea’s musing. Abigail barreled in, her dark hair flying wildly around her shoulders.
“Lethe, you will adore this tale,” she began without preamble, her voice echoing in the vaulted room. “Oh, Rafa, you will enjoy this too,” she added, spying him in the corner.
“Where have you been?” Alethea demanded.
“It’s not where I’ve been, but who I’ve been with.” Abigail winked, reaching into the fold of her mantle and producing a small bouquet of wildflowers.
“Is this another poor man’s heart you’re to break?”
Abigail waved off her sister’s sympathy for the unknown suitor. “This one is different. We met by accident, about a fortnight ago. I wanted to see the south side of the Adamaris, with the sea right below the cliffs. Some of the clan folk who ventured there said it’s the most beautiful at sunset.” She shrugged. “It was, albeit a terrifying climb.”
“Stars, Abi, Mother said not to go to the south face!” Alethea closed her eyes, and even the thought of the jagged heights sent a shiver through her.
“I know,” she grimaced. A shadow of guilt crossed her petite features but vanished swiftly. “Don’t tell her, please.” A mischievous gleam entered her eye. “But that’s where I met him. Just as the sun dipped out of sight, I saw his shadow on an impossible precipice.”
“Perfectly enchanting,” Alethea murmured in resigned agreement.
She felt a twinge in her chest. Alethea loved her stories, and though she feigned indignation at some of her tactics, she admired her sister’s daring spirit. Rafa said most the clan hailed her as a worthy heir to their father, regardless of whether she married.
Our fates fell in the right order. Abigail would not be able to stand a week confined inside the only walls Alethea knew her whole life.
And Alethea would not be able to brave the Adamaris or command the respect of the clan.
“We’ve been meeting since, every day if we can manage it,” Abigail continued. An unusually sheepish expression came over her. “I just didn’t want to tell all of you until I was more certain.”
Alethea felt a jolt. “Certain of what?”
“Well… he’s different,” she began, before breaking off.
Alethea followed her gaze to Rafa, who had stood silently since Abigail came in. His impish face appeared pale and vacant. She felt a brief pang of sympathy. She thought of Rafa as a brother—and Abi likely did as well. Still, they were not related by blood, and she could not fault him for developing feelings towards her sister. They were no longer children. It was Rafa, after all, who told Alethea of Abigail’s admirers and the high regard of the clan. She wondered for a moment how much his own appraisal colored those reports.
“Rafa, what is it?” Abigail stared at him, genuine concern in her eyes.
He did not respond, and Alethea scrambled for words to rescue him.
“He’s not feeling well,” she muttered.
“Sit down, then.” Abigail strode quickly towards him. “Stars, you look terrible—”
“Drop those flowers!”
His ordinarily tranquil voice boomed with power. Abigail froze in place, the bouquet still clutched between her fingers, and Alethea jumped, her eyes widening at him. Where did this fury come from? Abi mentioned a dozen suitors at least in the past! She wanted to shout her thoughts aloud, but knew she could not expose him like that.
“Rafa,” Alethea said slowly, “Please, calm down.”
He did not even glance at her. “Drop the flowers,” he repeated, more quietly but no less forcefully.
“What is the matter with you?” Abigail exclaimed, recovering enough to shoot an angry glare at him. “Are you jealous?”
Alethea bit her lower lip and looked worriedly at Rafa.
“There’s a briar rose in there, Abi,” he said, holding up his palm towards her. “Do not move. Just drop it.” He turned to Alethea now, whose face grew ashen. “You stay away too.”
“What?” Abigail stared, uncomprehending.
“It’s a Rosa Rubiginosa!” Alethea cut in. “The curse, Abi, drop it!”
But her sister appeared motionless now, her gaze entranced by the spray of flowers. “It can’t be,” she murmured slowly. She opened her hand to let the bouquet tumble out.
Alethea wanted to scream, but her throat constricted as a filmy pink flower caught on Abigail’s hand, a row of small thorns beneath its petals. Her sister drew in a painful breath and Rafa was beside her, his hand pressed against her back.
But her sister was unconscious already, a limp figure in Rafa’s arms. A small crimson stain appeared on the wooden floor beside the fallen wildflowers.