The sun was nearly gone. Krateia glanced around at the people surrounding her; once she was certain nobody was watching her, she unscrewed the top off the tiny vial and swallowed the contents in one gulp.
It burned as it went down her throat. She shuddered and slipped the vial back into the folds of her dress, daring a quick glance at Aigle to see if the other girl had noticed.
Nobody seemed to have noticed. They were too busy talking excitedly amongst themselves.
Krateia knew she shouldn’t be at the party. She hadn’t slept properly for – what was it? Five days now? She wasn’t sure. But it was one of Nyx’s parties, literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If Krateia rejected the invitation, she would never get another one.
That was why she was standing in a ballroom, in a midnight-blue dress belonging to her mother when she had gone to the party Nyx had invited her to, with at least a hundred other people. All were waiting for the sun to go down. When the last sliver of the sunset surrendered to shade, that was when the party would begin.
All around were tables covered with glasses of wine distilled from grapes and morning dew. Others had sweets, creams, ices, everything someone like Krateia could long to taste their entire lives and never, ever try. The hall was lit as if by a thousand candle flames, but there were no candles in sight.
Daylight faded completely. An excited breath stirred the crowd as they looked around expectantly. Loud gasps echoed everywhere as a tall masked woman appeared in the centre of the room.
Nyx. Their hostess.
All eyes were drawn to her. Her long hair hung in curls down to her back. Her strapless gown was the same colour as any other dress or jacket at the party, but it was made of a rich velvet with stars sewn into it. Different constellations shimmered as she raised her hands and removed her feathered mask, revealing clear grey eyes. Slowly, she smiled. Her lips parted to utter a single word.
Lively music broke out. People snatched up glasses of wine and eagerly drank. Krateia stayed where she was for a moment, unsure what to do.
“Come on!” Aigle grabbed Krateia’s elbow and pulled her over to the nearest table. She pressed a silver bowl filled with pink ice into her friend’s hands. Krateia used a delicate spoon to taste the ice. It flooded her mouth, nearly drowning the wildfire’s aftertaste. She ate the entire thing, savouring spoonful after spoonful.
When she looked around for Aigle afterwards, her friend was gone. She stayed by herself, watching everyone as they talked and laughed. Some joined hands and began to twirl around in a reckless dance.
When Krateia dared to look around for Nyx, she saw her talking to a man in a simple black shirt open at the neck and plain trousers. His hair and beard were black as well, and his eyes sparkled in the light.
When she looked in their direction again, she saw him watching her. He was frowning. Embarrassed, she blushed and turned back to the table.
Eventually, the music, voices and laughter became too much for her. Her feet ached from standing for too long. Krateia slipped away, out of the light and into the shadows, where lesser candles glowed. She just wanted to find a place to sit down for a while.
All her life she had wondered what one of Nyx’s parties would be like. Somehow, a party hosted by a goddess was just like every other party she had attended.
She finally found a place to sit: a small couch placed in a circle of moonlight. Krateia sat down and sighed with relief, swinging her feet up onto the couch beside her.
Krateia looked up sharply. It was him. She was so startled, she couldn’t find her voice. His eyes sparkled even in the dark.
Then she did. “What are you doing here?”
“Partly avoiding my family. I’m not really needed through there. It’s far too bright in that room for my tastes.”
“Is all your family in that room?” Krateia asked, blinking hard to try and lighten her eyelids. They felt very heavy all of a sudden.
He laughed. “Just my mother. Trust me, you don’t want my brother in a place like this.”
Krateia discreetly fumbled around for her vial – then realised she had drunk the last of the wildfire.
The couch dipped as he lowered himself onto it. “You’ve been avoiding me, Krateia.”
Her fingers stilled. “How do you know my name? What do you mean, I’ve been avoiding you? I don’t even know who you are.” She put her hand to her mouth to try and stifle a yawn.
“Yes, you do.” His voice was soft and sad. “In fact, you’ve been avoiding me for a while; it’s been five days now.”
“What are you talking a…” Krateia’s voice disappeared as she met his eyes.
She did know who he was.
He reached out, put his hands on her arms and gently pulled her close. He smelled of warm wine and winter spices; his shirt was soft, so soft. Her head was tucked beneath his chin, her cheek resting against his chest.
“It’s all right, Krateia. I’ll watch over you.”
His arms were warm, like fur on a frosty night. She closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift away, safe in Sleep’s embrace.