a/n: hey, thanks for checking out Starry Veins! This is the novel I wrote for Round V of LMS, and it's still a first draft! While I don't discourage any feedback, I prefer not to receive feedback on grammar! I'm not polishing this draft up yet, so I'm not as concerned about editing. I am, of course, open to all feedback, but I ask that you keep this in consideration! Thanks <3
The horses Danica scrounged money for and bought are beautiful. Tall, muscular creates with feathers on their legs and huge, snuffling noses. One was a glossy, deep russet bay who looked red in the sun, with a flowing black mane and kind eyes. The second was a pale grey, with a thin, glossy mane and patchy white fur, and was more lithe than the first.
It was easier to focus on how lovely the horses were than to think about what they were for.
Ember watched Danica and Enoch saddle them, her chest tight. Cassius was so close his shoulder pressed into hers.
“We should go talk to them, shouldn’t we?” Cassius asked.
She glanced to their right. Standing together, just as she and Cassius were, Ori and Alanna huddled like two people caught in the rain. But the rain had passed and left its mark on the land, turning it all the sludge, even days after. The skies were clear and blue without breeze, but the sun felt as though it held no warmth anymore.
That was the point, wasn’t it? She tightened her hand into a fist, and what she held in her palm dug into her flesh.
But she wasn’t going to let them off without saying anything. She set off towards Ori and Alanna, Cassius quickening to keep in step with her. She eyed him and saw that held was holding the box at his back, angling his wrist so it did not look so much like he was deliberately hiding something.
Ori watched them approached and smiled softly. Alanna still stared at the horses softly.
“Weren’t we just doing this?” they asked, tone light. “I don’t suppose Isadora and Mishal thought they’d have to wish us to be careful when they left, though.”
Cassius bent his head towards the ground. “I know we missed your birthday and didn’t even celebrate when we got here like we said. And if we had money… But we don’t.” He took his arm out from behind his back and offered it out to Ori. “It’s not a violin, but it’s not… nothing. Happy late birthday?”
“From both of us,” Ember added, pointedly. From the corner of her eyes, she saw Alanna had finally glanced over.
Ori took the box from Cassius’ hands. It was a rich mahogany wood, polished and lacquered to a perfectly smooth finish. It smelled of forest and sap and jasmine. Ori opened it, and a soft melody began to play. A smile spread across Ori’s face as their brows dipped forward. For a moment, Ember was worried they might cry.
They looked between her and Cassius. “This is beautiful. Where did you—” Their mouth twitched. “Is this where the two of you snuck off to in the middle of the night last night?”
She shrugged innocently and shared a look with Cassius. “Of course not. Do you like it?”
Ori laughed and shut the box with care. “I love it, of course I do. This is very sweet you two, thank you.”
She exhaled as silently as she could as Ori wrapped her and Cassius in a hug, pulling them both close. It was nothing like Mishal’s hug at all, but it broke her heart all the same. How had they come to this?
When she pulled away, she turned to Alanna, and this time held her gaze. “We didn’t forget about you.” She held out her hand and unfurled her fist. Resting neat as she’d found it was the pendant they’d grabbed for Alanna. A single piece of grey moonstone, in the shape of a teardrop, hung from a glistening silver chain that gathered in her palm like water.
Alanna’s eyes were wide, and her mouth parted, as she took the pendant slowly from Ember’s hand. She held it up to catch the midday light, and it winked like a droplet of water.
“It’s— I—” Alanna looked to Ember, then to Cassius, and back again to the pendant.
“I’m sorry for getting angry with you for wanting to see Stormy and Belle again,” she said. “I just don’t want to miss you too, is all.”
Alanna let the necklace fall gracefully into her other hand and smiled lightly. “I’m sorry I got angry with you for wanting to see Chromium. You really won’t come?”
She shook her head. “I’ve gotta do this. Just like you’ve got to go see Stormy and Belle. Tell them we said hi, and you all should come up to Chromium if Margaretta isn’t dragging anyone off on expeditions.”
Alanna laughed. It was wet. Tears were pooling her eyes, turning them a similar shade as the moonstone, if not for the arctic blue brightening them.
“I’m sorry too,” Cassius said, his voice quiet and small. “I wish it was different. I wish Isadora had come with Jax and we were splitting again.”
She sniffled and stepped towards him. Cassius pulled her into a hug and squeezed his eyes shut, and Ember could practically feel the pain that was radiating from him and Alanna both.
“Don’t you mean Isadora and Mishal?” Alanna asked, muffled by how she had nestled her face into Cassius’ shoulder.
It was so small it was barely visible, but Cassius smiled. “No, of course not. If he’s across Stellarsyl, I don’t have to hear him.”
Alanna smacked him on his shoulder, and he pretended to stagger backwards. “Even if he came here for me?”
Cassius over-exaggerated a considerate frown. “I don’t know. That’s asking an awful lot, for me to know that he’s so close. I think I’d have to draw the line there for things I’d do for you.”
Ember joined in and tapped the back of Cassius’ head. With her hand. A little rougher than a tap. He yelped. “But you would have someone to torment, which you love. Oh, Cassius, just admit that you miss him.”
He rubbed the place she’d hit him and gave her a dubious look. “There’s a whole world of people to prank, why would I care who it was? He isn’t even all that fun to prank, it was only because he was so serious all the time.”
“I’ll tell him you miss him,” Ori said, arms folded over their chest and a glint to their dark eyes.
Cassius scowled. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Well, you can’t stop them,” Alanna said. “And if they don’t, I will.”
“He won’t believe you anyway,” Cassius said, raising his nose into the air haughtily.
Ember snorted. “You look like a snooty lord.”
He bowed dramatically, eyes closed and eyebrows high, keeping his nose in the air. The light caught his curls, highlighting how pale they had gotten. “How dare you speak of someone of such excellency in that way. Why, I’ll have you thrown into the stocks, I will, you peasant.”
Alanna giggled into her hand and Ember laughed freely. Ori snickered as they shook their head, and Cassius just bowed again, exaggerated this time, as a player in a stage play would.
“Are the two of you ready to go?” Danica called. She was standing at the side of the bay, now saddled and bridled, and looked expectantly towards the four of them.
Ember sobered, as did everyone else. Alanna’s eyes were downcast, Cassius lost the humour in his expression.
“I can put the necklace on for you, if you’d like,” Ember said.
Alanna nodded sombrely. She gave Ember the pendant and turned around.
Ember drew it around Alanna’s neck and shoved aside her long and flowing hair. She clasped the chain together and let out a quick, full exhale. “There you go.” Alanna turned, and Ember smiled weakly at her. “It’s really pretty. Matches your eyes.”
Alanna reached up to her chest, where the pendant rested. “Thanks, Em,” she said. Then she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Ember’s waist.
Since they had left, Alanna had grown almost to her height. It tracked since Isadora was rather tall, but even so, Ember wanted her to be small again, the littlest of the six of them. Her face was still round, but she looked older than she had when they’d left.
“Don’t grow too much ‘til we see each other again, okay?”
“No promises,” Alanna said, pulling away with a smile. Tears dripped from her eyelashes and she sniffled.
“Remember, Mishal doesn’t have me or Cassius around anymore, so if he starts getting too serious and focuses too hard on books, you’ll have to jolt him out of it,” Ember said grimly.
Alanna squinted, still smiling. “I’m not going to prank Mishal.”
“Then I guess his expression will be stuck in a frown one of these days permanently.”
She gave Alanna one last hug, as Ori and Cassius did the same. And then they were approaching the horses. Ori swung onto the grey as graceful as anything, legs lean and situationally only a little awkwardly on their mount. They patted the grey’s neck, and the horse bounced their head as if to nod.
Danica helped Alanna onto the bay. As Alanna settled onto her seat, she was openly crying now and seemingly doing her best to get herself situated despite it. Her nose had turned red, and she glanced back now towards Ember and Cassius.
Ember’s chest was tight. She smiled, best she could, as she felt warm tears slip down her own cheeks, and raised her hand in a wave.
Enoch came to stand behind her. She didn’t turn to him, but acknowledged his firm and steady presence behind her.
She reached down and fumbled for a moment until she found Cassius’ hand. She wrapped her own around it and squeezed, hard. Hard enough she could feel the bones shifting under her grip. But Cassius said nothing, did not even squeak in protest.
They stood there, watching, as Danica, who had mounted behind Alanna, turned the bay away. With a nudge of her heels, with Ori following close behind, they rode off towards the southern entrance to the Blessed Gates.
And she watched them, with Cassius at her side, until they disappeared. Just as they’d done with Isadora and Mishal.
She was unusually cold that night, but dreamt of lying on a mountainside in a bed of ashes under the full, warming beams of the sun. She awoke, feeling toasty, and she thought as she let out a sigh that she could see her breath in front of her, though it was not cold outside.