Short Story: Yule Promises
This short story was written solely for your enjoyment. It will not appear anywhere else (like in any upcoming Bianca books) and doesn't contain any major plot spoilers or information you must know to enjoy the main storyline.
It's purely a sweet Christmas—oops, I mean Yule ;)—story meant to bring you some joy and delight.
It contains characters from our latest Bianca novel, THE LOST MAGIC, so imagine it happening after that novel, but before the next one.
Consider this a "tour" of what's to come in the next book RISE OF THE DEMIGODS.
* * *
"Jikes," Leda murmured next to me. "Isn't this lovely?"
Together, we stepped into the Chatham Castle ballroom. A light pull of breath escaped me as I surveyed the area.
Lovely didn't do this place justice.
The ballroom sprawled with strands of garland, white winter berries with hard shells and soft interiors, and gentle candles that bounced with bright flames. Metal covers placed over small lamps cast shadows on the wall that rotated slowly, telling a story in moving forms.
The smell of cinnamon and fresh pine wound through the air.
Near the great hearth on the other side of the room, Council Members, their family, and other Coven Leaders milled next to the crackling fire. Tables piled with food lined the far wall, and goblets of mulled wine appeared here and there as servants zipped around.
Leda groaned, a hand on her stomach. "I'm starving," she cried softly, "and I want to eat all of that food, but there's no way I could even try all of it. Maybe we should each take one table and sample from it, then share the best ones?"
I laughed. "Now we're talking."
Piles of fig pastries, sweet honey caramels, chocolate truffles dusted with pink sugar, strawberry tarts filled with candied walnuts, and gobs of frosting smoothed over the traditional Yule cake awaited.
On the other side lay a fresh ham, carved turkey, mountains of potatoes topped with fresh better, fresh bread, and more.
"Camille would have been bonkers for this," Leda whispered quietly, and I smiled.
"Yes," I murmured, eyeing a giant red bow over the hearth. "She would have loved all the decorations."
In the far corner, an orchestra warmed up. Violins trilled up and down with gentle, high-pitched notes. Cello's boomed in the lower octaves. The whole room buzzed with life and the feeling of something new starting.
"For being the darkest day of the year," I said, "they've certainly managed to lighten the castle up."
Leda lifted a haughty eyebrow. "A lot of servants have cast incantations that are supposed to last all night. Fina said the kitchen has been preparing for the Yule Ball for weeks now."
Eyeing the food table, I didn't doubt it.
Not far down the spiral stairs on the far side, the kitchen would be buzzing with life. Cooks called to each other. Servants flew up the stairs, black-and-blue uniforms flapping as they passed. We advanced farther into the easy chaos.
Leda wore a green velvet dress she'd found at a second-hand shop. It was a touch too big, but a few alterations and tucks here and there gave her a festive glow. The dark material against her white-blonde hair and pale skin created a stunning effect.
She eyed me, as if reading my mind. "You look good in red," she murmured, refusing a glass of wine with a wave.
On purpose, I didn't look at my dress.
Priscilla had picked out this silk dress, which felt exorbitantly too over-the-top, although simple in design. Long sleeves. An elegant skirt lined underneath with ivory layers. To the front, the skirts tapered up a bit in a scandalous reveal of ankle that gave me a thrill. The deep crimson color and smooth flow of fabric left me feeling out of my element.
But it was beautiful.
Priscilla had also wanted to put a bow in my hair, but I had my limits. Instead, I'd washed my hair, dried it by the fire, then used a spell to smooth it out. It lay around my shoulders now, glossy and dark.
Violins jumped into a peppy song and witches headed toward the ballroom floor, as if drawn by magnets. Leda shuffled out of the way of the dancers, her gaze darting around.
"I haven't seen Hiddleston yet," I murmured.
She glared at me and I suppressed a delighted grin.
"I wasn't searching for him," she muttered.
"I never suggested that you were. I simply stated an observation, that's all."
"Besides, he might not come." She quickly added, "Not that I would know, of course. We don't talk."
She smoldered next to me, the back of her neck a bright red, and tried to pretend I wasn't there anymore. Her usual tactic to get rid of me when I aggravated her. A glimpse of Papa across the room made me amenable to giving her a break.
"I'm going to go see Papa. Do you need anything?"
"No." She waved a hand, looking relieved. "I need to find Scarlett and see if I can help her with anything. I'll find you later."
The crowd thickened in the few moments since we entered, and I had to sidestep my way around groups that had gathered. My skirt rustled as I kept an eye on Papa and attempted to navigate the crowd.
Moments later, I reached his side. He held a small goblet of water and smiled as he spoke to Matthais, the Head of Protectors. The Yull Ball was the only social event that Matthais ever attended.
"Bianca," Papa said, his eyes sparkling as he surveyed me. "You're lovely, as ever."
Matthais nodded. He cut an attractive figure with a dark black coat across broad shoulders, and a charcoal gray vest underneath. "A spitting image of your mother," he murmured deeply.
My grin widened with warmth. "The highest compliment, I think."
Matthais grunted, shot me a wink, nodded to Papa, and moved away. I watched him go until he disappeared into a transportation spell, then turned back to Papa.
"Reeves dressed you, I presume?" I asked.
Papa nodded and stretched his neck. "Yes. I promised him I wouldn't loosen the cravat until midnight."
I laughed, unable to help myself. Picturing Reeves commanding Papa around was all too easy. Our butler took Papa's appearance little too seriously, as if Papa's state of dress was a personal reflection on Reeves.
"How long am I required to stay?" Papa murmured, forcing a smile and a wave as someone strolled by. I kept my back to the room, already grateful for a breather.
"Until at least 2:00 in the morning."
Papa shot me a questioning look. "Why 2:00?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. It's what Leda would say. She'd have some opinion on it being appropriate, or something."
He chuckled with a shake of his head.
"Understood. And how do you plan to survive the evening?"
Find Merrick, came the thought before I could stop it, and enjoy myself the way I usually do.
Before we were lovers, Merrick and I had enjoyed each other as friends. Although, looking back, there had always been some sort of romantic tension between us. The attraction had been there, just not the safety of admitting it. The pressures of war and death and kidnapping had forced our emotions into the open while they were still fragile and delicate.
Having Merrick at my side was as easy as breathing. Nights like tonight, I longed for it back.
At least he had made it fun.
"Not sure," I murmured instead. "But I have some ideas. I'm on the lookout for Ava, though. She mentioned coming with Baxter."
Papa lit up. "Yes, that's right. Should be fun to see her."
I laughed. His affection for Ava, though he tried to stifle it, always made me laugh. Something in her bright eyes and stubborn ferocity had drawn him in.
Across the way, someone gestured for Papa. He nodded and indicated with a wave that he saw them. Then he turned to me.
"Do me a favor, will you?"
"Go around and thank all the servants. Tell them that you're grateful for them this Yule. Then talk to each Council Member." Before I could protest, he held up a hand. "I didn't say engage in complicated political discussion. A mere word will suffice. Thank you. Also, your grandfather is looking for you."
With a sigh, I nodded.
"I will talk to them."
He winked. "Thanks, B. Takes a lot of work to keep a Network cohesive. Pardon me. I need to discuss some education initiatives amongst the Southern Network with the teachers gild."
"It's Yule," I cried. "Can't you take a night off?"
He scoffed. "There's never a night off."
I gave his hand a quick squeeze, wished him luck, and watched as he faded into the crowd. Good for Papa.
But now I had my own fun to find.
* * *
While slipping across the room and populating a mental list of witches I needed to see, a scroll appeared in front of me. I stopped, stared at it to make sure it meant me, then accepted it when it didn't move.
The small piece of parchment unrolled itself.
Where can I find you tonight? Or are we going to play a game of hide-and-seek at the Yule ball?
My heart leapt into my throat. As hoped, he never failed to understand me. With a quick spell and a smile, I summoned a quill and scratched a quick reply.
The message fluttered away, and my heart went with it.
Agatha, a Council Member slid by. Seeing a chance to knock one person off my list, I turned to follow her.
Several conversations later, I moved toward a table of metallic pitchers filled with different types of drink. The pressure of someones eyes fell on me. Whirling on the spot, I glanced around.
A flash of sandy blonde hair, pulled back into a braid and tied with a strip of leather, caught my attention first.
Then his thick shoulders, handsome beneath a tailored black suit coat. Instead of a starched white shirt, like most male witches here, he wore a black one. A red ribbon had been sewn on one of his sleeves, a symbol of new beginnings.
The perfect Yule Ball statement.
The breath left me. Jikes, but he was handsome.
Council Member Greyson spoke with him on the other side of the room. Based on their mutually relaxed expressions, the topic didn't appear to be heavy.
Merrick stared right at me, brow half-raised as if to say, that's the best you can do?
I grinned slowly. He sobered, blinking several times. His lips parted, then closed. A ridge formed in his brow.
Then I transported away.
I landed on the other side of the hearth, near a tall evergreen tree decorated with white ribbons and red bows. Council Member Aldred was a few steps from here, so I could get that odious man off my list.
Merrick still stood in my line of sight, but from a different angle. A smile edged his face now that I had disappeared.
Another message appeared in front of me.
Found you. You're it.
My lips rolled together to stifle a grin. I lifted my head to find him again, but he'd already disappeared. Council Member Greyson spoke with Scarlett, Leda at her side. Ah. So Merrick would make this night fun after all.
Maybe the Yule Ball wouldn't be so bad.
With a sigh, I steeled myself to talk to Council Member Aldred. Then I had a friend to find.
* * *
An hour later, two burly servants wheeled a giant, crackling log into the middle of the Yule ball.
Flames crackled in the middle of the wood, glowing bright with hot coals that had been festering for awhile.
In the background, violins sang a mellow tune and the crowd hushed. Dancing had paused minutes ago, when Papa clinked his wine glass and gave a toast to new beginnings and a push toward new light. It had been short, appropriate, and filled with a surprising amount of hope on the darkest night of the year.
Now, witches bustled forward, taking slips of paper, quills, and writing their wishes for the new year on them. Once done writing, they folded them and set them on top of the smoldering Yule Log. The papers crinkled, burned to ash, and the smoke rose into the sky as an offering to the new year.
Brighter wishes for brighter days.
Eight messages had exchanged between Merrick and I. Once, I'd come close enough to touch him, but I'd withheld my hand. Since his return, we hadn't made any definitive move toward each other. We'd engaged in a careful dance, a back-and-forth as good friends, but uncertain ones.
Could lovers become friends again?
The path ahead wasn't all that clear, but not impossible either. Only the question of did I want to be friends . . . or more? lingered at the back of my mind.
From a distance, I commanded several papers my way, and made a show of writing on them at a nearby table. Papa would want me to set an example of enjoyment and participation. He and Scarlett stood near each other, writing their own.
"Oh, what are you writing?" called a witch with fluffy black hair and bright eyes. She leaned over my shoulder to see the papers, fanning herself with an unrolled, parchment. Wine made her breath heavy. Before I could answer, she kept walking, talking to no one in particular. "Very fun, isn't it?"
I finished the papers, folded them, and sent them to the Yule log with a spell. The words whirled through my mind as I watched the fire race up my papers, consume them in a burst of light, and send the smoke skyward.
Find the demigods.
Start the Sisterhood.
Save my Network.
The stuffy air seemed to press on me, and the overly-pungent smell of pine nauseating. With my list of witches complete, and Marten nowhere in sight, I transported away.
Merrick's turn to find me.
* * *
Snow fluttered down from a quiet sky.
I stood at the edge of Letum Wood, where the stars were still visible. A bright moon illuminated the night, casting beams of luminescence on top of Chatham castle. Torches flickered along the Wall, dancing.
My head tilted back as I sighed.
Flakes the size of my fingernail drifted around me, filling the air with wisps like cotton. I closed my eyes, feeling the cool kiss of winter on the sensitive skin above my eyes.
The trees murmured in my mind.
You belong to us.
She always comes back.
Relieved for the touch of my quiet forest and the chill of the air, I drew in a deep breath and let it back out again. A branch swayed overhead, sending a fall of glittering snow on top of me. I laughed.
"All right," I called. "Thank you!"
The tree shivered.
The joy has come, they murmured.
A quiet shuffle of sound came next. Merrick appeared not far away, standing there with a bright grin.
"I thought you'd find me here," I said with a smile.
He matched it. "When I didn't see you inside anymore, I knew right where you'd be. What was that, two hours? Your upper limit for a ball."
I laughed. "Yes, and two dances. Full ones!"
"I noticed because none of them were with me."
His intonation dropped, and my heart fell into my stomach with it. Warmth filled his gaze as he closed the distance between us.
"You didn't ask."
"I am now. Will you dance with me?"
He held out a hand. A hand so familiar I could have called it my own. Snow scattered at our feet. The leaves beneath us zipped away. Roots above the ground disappeared, sucked lower. I suppressed a laugh.
"Apparently," I said quietly, "Letum Wood wants us to dance."
His eyes sparkled as he smiled, and I slipped my hand in his.
At first, we moved together slowly. His thigh brushed mine, sending a jolt through my stomach. The smell of pine drifted off of him. Every now and then, his soft beard would brush my temple. Warmth enveloped me from deep in his arms and warded off the winter chill.
I closed my eyes to soak it all in.
"I wanted to tell you tonight how beautiful you look." He cleared his throat and his arm tightened behind my back. "Red suits you. You should wear it more."
"Thanks. You cut a handsome figure when you dress up."
"Did your father assign you witches to talk to?" he asked, more quietly this time, as the hush of the forest thickened the air. The trees fell silent in my mind.
"I thought so, when you actually spoke to Aldred and the world didn't fall into flames and fire."
An easy chuckle escaped me. "For just long enough to wish him a Happy Yule, yes. Then I left before he could respond."
"Wise woman," he murmured.
Back in the forest with him, memories flowed through my mind. Late trail runs. Late nights together. Watching the moon moments before he was called on what would be his final mission.
It all seemed so natural, having him back with me.
"Can I ask you a question?" I asked, leaning back to catch his gaze.
"Will you tell me what went wrong on your mission the night when you returned? When . . ."
The rest of my sentence fell off a cliff and crashed into the past. I didn't want to say the words when we broke up because I didn't want to hear them again. Not when this moment felt so good.
He swallowed. Moonlight limmed his features as he considered what I asked. Finally, he said, "One day, yes."
"But not tonight?"
Merrick would honor such a promise, though I wanted it sooner than that. When one day would be, I didn't know.
He'd been on a Protector mission at the time and their bond of silence and secrecy ran deep. At least, that had been my understanding. As I thought back, I realized that his Protector mission had been implied.
Merrick had never stated it.
Because he'd technically also been a Master of the North at the same time, it stood to reason that he could have been on a mission for the North. My intuition told me that the death of the Northern Network High Priestess, Farah, had something to do with it.
Officially, the Council stated that she'd died of a fever.
Yet, Council's lied all the time.
He drew me out of these thoughts when he murmured, "I would have worked through the distance and found a way to make it work between us, B."
Our break up had been a crashing of more than just lives. Ghosts had driven us apart, too. I'd pushed us to split out of fear. I wanted to save him from me, from the agony of long distance, from so many things.
Merrick had something on his soul that he needed to fix, but also the best for me. At the time, the best for me had been letting him go.
Now, I saw it all so differently.
The Bianca of today wanted to go to that aching, frightened Bianca, wrap her in my arms, and tell her to trust herself. But the past had gone, and I had to do that now.
"But," Merrick added so softly I almost couldn't hear it, "maybe we both needed time and space."
He hesitated, as if there was something else he wanted to say. The cracked lines of my heart that had healed back together wept again. Yes, time and space had helped both of us grow.
But could it be bridged?
A long, long quiet stretched between us.
"Do you know what you want, B?" he asked.
My breath caught in my throat. The open sentence lacked detail, yet I knew exactly what he meant. Almost a thousand nights lay between the Merrick and Bianca we had been then, and who were now. Lonely nights that we had both created because something haunted each of us.
Now, I'd let go of my ghost. My fear of killing him through what I felt was my cursed life. My propensity to lose those I loved the most.
But he hadn't let go of his ghost.
Until he could tell me about that mission that drove him back home without me, it would always stand as a wedge. He'd always wonder, always work toward it. I'd never have all of him.
Did I know what I wanted?
"Yes," I whispered.
He sucked in a sharp breath.
"When you've released yourself from whatever holds you back, we can talk about what we both want then," I promised.
My hands shook at my side as I said it. Until that moment, I hadn't acknowledged how deep my emotions had become. How much I wanted to be back in his arms. Now it fluttered around my chest like a painful wild thing, seeking escape.
He wasn't ready.
Merrick nodded. "It's fair."
I reached around him, pulled him close, and held him close. He stopped dancing, wrapped his arms around my cold shoulders. Together, we watched the moon.
And I wondered about brighter, lighter days ahead.
* * *
I hope you LOVED this Christmas—Yule, forgive me—short story featuring our two favorite characters. Personally, I look for any excuse to hang out with them, and I know you do, too.
If you haven't read LOST MAGIC yet, please do! Grab it at this link right here or look below for the audiobook and paperback versions.
That will get you a discount off the retailer price, because I'm all about getting you the goods.
In the meantime, have a happy holiday from all of us in Alkarra!