Divine Rivals by Rebecca Ross
Genre: Teen & Young Adult Fantasy Romance
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Title: Divine Rivals
Author: Rebecca Ross
Genre: Teen & Young Adult Fantasy Romance
Cold fog had settled over the depot like a burial shroud, and Iris Winnow thought the weather couldn’t have been better. She could hardly see the train through the gloam, but she could taste it in the evening air: metal and smoke and burning coal, all woven together with a trace of petrichor. The wooden platform was slick beneath her shoes, gleaming with rain puddles and piles of decaying leaves.
When Forest came to a stop at her side, she stopped as well, as if she were his mirror. The two of them were often mistaken for twins with their wide-set hazel eyes, wavy chestnut hair, and the freckles that spilled across their noses. But Forest was tall, Iris petite. He was five years her senior, and for the first time in her life, Iris wished that she were older than him.
“I won’t be gone long,” he said. “Only a few months, I think.”
Her brother glanced at her in the fading light, waiting for her to respond. It was eventide, the moment between darkness and light, when the constellations began to dust the sky and the city lamps flickered to life in reply. Iris could feel the draw of it—Forest’s concerned stare and the golden light that illuminated the low-hanging clouds—and yet her eyes wandered, desperate for a distraction. A moment to blink away her tears before Forest could see them.
There was a soldier to her right. A young woman dressed in a perfectly starched uniform. Iris was struck by a wild thought. One that must have traveled across her face, because Forest cleared his throat.
“I should come with you,” Iris said, meeting his gaze. “It’s not too late. I can enlist—”
“No, Iris,” Forest replied sharply. “You made me two promises, remember?”
Two promises, hardly a day old. Iris frowned. “How could I forget.”
“Then speak them back to me.”
She crossed her arms to ward off the autumn chill and the strange cadence
in Forest’s voice. There was a hint of desperation she hadn’t heard in him until
now, and gooseflesh rippled across her arms beneath her thin sweater.
“Take care of Mum,” she said, mimicking his baritone. It brought a smile to his face. “Stay in school.”
“I believe it was a bit more than a gruff ‘Stay in school,’” Forest said, nudging her foot with his boot. “You brilliant academic who has yet to miss a day of class in all her years. They give awards for that, you know.”
“Fine.” Iris relented, a blush nipping her cheeks. “You said, ‘Promise me you’ll enjoy your final year of school, and I’ll be back in time to see you graduate.’”
“Yes,” Forest said, but his smile began to wane.
He didn’t know when he’d return. It was a promise he couldn’t keep to her, although he continued to make it sound as if the war would end in a matter of months. A war that had only just begun.
What if I had been the one to hear the song? Iris thought, her heart so heavy it felt bruised against her ribs. If I had encountered the goddess and not him . . . would he let me go like this?
Her gaze dropped to Forest’s chest. The place where his own heart was beating beneath his olive-green uniform. A bullet could pierce him in a split second. A bullet could keep him from ever returning home.
She was interrupted by a shrill whistle that made her jump. It was the last call to board, and there was a sudden shuffle toward the train cars. Iris shivered again.
“Here,” Forest said, setting down his leather satchel. “I want you to have this.”
Iris watched as her brother opened the clasp and withdrew his tancolored trench coat. He held it out to her, arching his brow when she merely stared at it.
“But you’ll need it,” she argued.
“They’ll give me one,” he replied. “Something war approved, I imagine. Go on, take it, Little Flower.”
Iris swallowed, accepting his trench coat. She slipped her arms into it, belting the worn fabric tight across her waist. It was too big for her, but it was comforting. It felt like armor. She sighed.
“You know, this smells like the horologist’s shop,” she drawled.
Forest laughed. “And what, exactly, does a horologist’s shop smell like?”
“Like dusty, half-wound clocks and expensive oil and those tiny metal instruments you use to fix all the broken pieces.” But that was only partly true. The coat also held a remnant of the Revel Diner, where she and Forest would eat dinner at least twice a week while their mother waited tables. It smelled of the riverside park, of moss and damp stones and long walks, and Forest’s sandalwood aftershave because, no matter how much he wanted one, he couldn’t grow a beard.
“Then it should keep you good company,” he said, slinging his satchel over his shoulder. “And you can have the wardrobe all to yourself now.”
Iris knew he was trying to lighten the mood, but it only made her stomach ache to think about the small closet they shared in their flat. As if she would truly store his clothes somewhere else while he was gone.
“I’m sure I’ll need the spare hangers, since—as you well know—I keep up with all the current fashion trends,” Iris countered wryly, hoping Forest couldn’t hear the sadness in her voice.
He only smiled.
This was it, then. The platform was nearly empty of soldiers, and the train was hissing through the gloom. A knot welled in Iris’s throat; she bit the inside of her cheek as Forest embraced her. She closed her eyes, feeling the scratch of his linen uniform against her cheek, and she held the words she wanted to say in her mouth like water: How can you love this goddess more than me? How can you leave me like this?
Their mother had already spoken such sentiments, angry and upset with Forest for enlisting. Aster Winnow had refused to come to the depot to see him off, and Iris imagined she was at home, weeping as the denial wore away.
The train began to move, creeping along the tracks.
Forest slipped from Iris’s arms.
“Write to me,” she whispered.
He took a few steps backward, holding her gaze. There was no fear in his eyes. Only a dark, feverish determination. And then Forest turned, rushing to board the train.
Iris followed until he disappeared into the closest car. She lifted her hand and waved, even as tears blurred her vision, and she stood on the platform long after the train had vanished into the fog. Rainwater was seeping into her shoes. The lamps fl ickered overhead, buzzing like wasps. The crowd had dispersed, and Iris felt hollow—alone— as she began to walk home.
Her hands were cold, and she slipped them into the coat pockets. That was when she felt it— a crinkle of paper. Frowning, she assumed it was a candy wrapper that Forest had forgotten about until she pulled it out to study in the dim light.
It was a small piece of paper, folded crookedly, with a vein of typed words. Iris couldn’t resist smiling, even as her heart ached. She read:
Just in case you didn’t know . . . you are by far the best sister I’ve ever had. I’m so proud of you.
And I’ll be home before you know it, Little Flower.
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