HEARTHSIDE STORIES: Christmas at Thrawcliffe, by E.M. Wright
“You look—!” Royal finished with a gasp, his mouth hanging open.
Taryn smiled benevolently at him, pausing on the stair so he could take in her new gown. The green satin train caught on the stair behind her, the bodice showing off her narrow waist. The neckline swooped wide, displaying her collarbones, but as always, her sleeves hid her ams to the wrist, and her hands were hidden beneath black silk gloves. Her long copper hair was pulled half up and curled, catching the golden firelight of the many lamps glowing against the darkening of the day.
“Close your mouth, Roy, you shall catch flies,” she scolded teasingly. “Your father insisted I wear a new dress, since all your accomplished siblings are attending the party tonight.”
Royal rolled his eyes, offering her his arm. She ignored it pointedly, as she always did. They never touched, not if she could help it. It wouldn’t do to have him guess her secret. Not now. Not when she had been embraced by his family. “They are wards, not siblings, just as you are not my sibling.”
“Your father treats them like family.”
Again, Royal groaned.
The corner of her rosy lips quirked into a smirk. “Happy Christmas Eve, Roy.”
“Happy Christmas,” he replied, leading her through the halls of his ancestral family home, toward the newly redecorated ballroom. The Stokker household was famous for its Christmas parties, lush, extravagant events where imported champagne flowed freely and tables covered in food glittered in the lamplight. This was the first Christmas party held at Thrawcliffe Hall since Royal’s mother passed away, nearly two and a half years earlier. The holiday had been her favourite, and the entire household had felt her absence as they prepared for the party.
Chattering came from the ballroom ahead, and Taryn exchanged a glance with Royal. He grinned, nudging her with an elbow. “Are you finally going to show me the dances you learned at finishing school tonight?”
She didn’t dance. Couldn’t, because that would mean touching, and touching meant giving away her secret. “I reserve my dances for the man who will become my husband.”
“And how do you know who that man will be if you refuse to dance with him?” Royal caught her right hand, tugging her toward him playfully, and her entire body grew rigid.
“Let me go,” she hissed through clenched teeth.
He blinked, then appeared to realise what he’d done and let go of her hand, his cheeks colouring with a blush. “I--I am sorry, I do not know what came over me.”
She smoothed her dress with both hands. “Shall we join the party?”
Together, they made their way into the ballroom, dazzled by the elegant clothes already spinning around the room, the string quartet playing a minuet in one corner, and, at the far end of the room like a grand sentinel, the Christmas tree, its vast branches decorated with candles, fruits, baubles, and small packages wrapped in shining paper. Taryn’s heart leapt into her throat. How did she get so lucky? Only a few years ago, she had been on the streets, alone, unwanted, and starving. Winter was the worst time of the year because of the cold, the hunger, the snow piled in dirty mounds along the street, hiding dead and dying urchins from view. And now? Now Christmas was something to celebrate, a time of joy, love, laughter, and light. She turned, ready to apologise to Royal for her outburst, only to discover an older man standing in his place, offering her a flute of champagne.
“You grow more beautiful each time I see you,” he said, his low voice carrying the musical lilt of Indian English. Taryn smiled, feeling a little warmth come into her cheeks as she accepted the drink, cradling it in her left hand.
“You are too kind, Mr. Shadih. How are your studies?”
Adnan Shadih was like her, in a way, though he was eight years her elder. Lord Stokker took in street children who showed potential, educated them, and elevated their place in society. It was a program he’d started long before he’d had his own son, and Taryn was the latest in a long line of adopted wards. Sometimes, she wondered what the lord saw in her compared to the others, who were now doctors, generals, and mechanicks. “They are going well, thank you for asking, Miss Roft. And may I ask what you are doing these days? I heard you graduated from finishing school this spring with flying colours. Are you betrothed yet?”
She had to school her features to keep from showing her disdain for the idea. She was only seventeen; why did everyone keep insisting she get married? “Actually, I am attending Grafton’s School of Mechanicks in London with Royal.”
Shadih snorted. “What? That is an all-boy’s school.”
She smirked. “It used to be an all-boy’s school. Thank you for the champagne.” She tilted the glass toward him and turned away, weaving her way through the crowd.
“Hors d’oeuvre?” a flat voice asked from behind her. Taryn turned to see one of Lord Stokker’s biomaton slaves standing there, offering her a plate of crostini. A cold shudder ran down her spine.
“No, thank you,” she said, but her voice came out pinched and ragged. She hurried onward through the crowd, rubbing her left arm, telling herself there was no reason to react this way. She’d seen biomatons hundreds of times. They were as much a part of upper-class society as titles and finishing school, and if she was to live a normal life, she needed to get used to it. Still, she couldn’t ignore the icy metal fingers running down her spine, reminding her of what she was.
“Tiger, look!” Royal exclaimed, catching her off-guard. He pointed to the windows overlooking the garden.
Taryn felt her trepidation fall away. Large, fluffy white snowflakes drifted down outside, coating everything in a white blanket. Taryn’s breath caught in her throat.. People gasped and pushed toward the window, but Taryn barely noticed them. It was just her, and the snow outside, and Royal beside her. She knew she’d have to interact with more of the guests as the night wore on, and likely even the biomatons who served them, but that could wait.
And tomorrow? Tomorrow she had the whole day with Royal and his father alone, to celebrate, to feast, to rest. She glanced at her best friend out of the corner of her eye, gratefulness welling in her heart. She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
He turned big, surprised eyes to her. “What was that for?”
She just shrugged, smiling coyly. “Merry Christmas, Royal.”
This short is based on the world of Sedition, by E.M. Wright. Sedition is slated to release with The Parliament Press on April 27th, 2021, and will soon be available for pre-order. Add it to your Goodreads TBR list, here!