A short story by Kat Dodd.
This was the first Solstice that the betrothed could spend together. In the previous years, Ren had been busy avoiding his duties and running around the countryside with his squire, while Cricket had been on the run, avoiding her uncle’s armies until she’d managed to reach sanctuary. As such, the royal couple hadn’t exchanged gifts before.
Ren hadn’t known Cricket long, and was at a loss at what to give her. His squire was no help, being worse with women than he was, and suggested that he just “get something pretty”. Ren asked his friends for advice, thinking that the more people he could get input from, the better it would be, but Alain’s advice appeared to be the best, which meant that Ren was roaming the Solstice stalls, trying to find something to give his fiance.
It wasn’t a love match, because royals didn’t get to have that. But he was fond of Cricket, and he wanted to give her something nice, that was appropriate to their stations and to their relationship.
He found a cloak that he was pretty sure was her favourite colour, since she wore a lot of clothes of a similar shade. It was thick and soft, and cost more than he’d prefer, but that just meant that it would be better to give her.
He couldn’t wait to see her face when she opened it. Surely she’d love it.
Cricket unwrapped the present, letting out soft sounds that proved she was pleased with the red cloak, praising its colour and softness and warmth.
And then to Ren’s absolute horror she threw it into the fire before Ren could move to stop her.
“Why would you do that?” Ren cried, still staring at the flaming cloak. Even if he pulled it out now, it would be ruined beyond all repair.
Cricket didn’t seem to understand why he was so upset. “It’s the best thing I owned.”
“So you threw it in the fire?” Ren’s voice cracked, and if his friends had heard it they would never let him live it down.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever owned, what was I supposed to do?” Cricket tilted her head at him in confusion.
“I don’t know, wear it? Use it? Not burn it within minutes of me giving it to you?” Ren’s voice was getting higher and more irate.
“Ohhhhh,” Cricket breathed out, “I think I see the problem. You don’t know my culture.”
Ren stopped short. “What?”
“Where I’m from, for Solstice, we destroy the thing that matters most to us as a gift to the gods,” Cricket explained. “A sacrifice that costs nothing is no sacrifice, but a sacrifice that is felt deeply… that is a true gift. We used to give people, but my grandparents put a stop to that practice.”
Ren just blinked at her. “What would you have done if I hadn’t given you something you liked?”
Cricket pulled a necklace out from under her dress. “My mother gave this to me, before she was killed. It has a lot of sentimental value, but no monetary value. I think the gods will prefer your cloak, because it has both.”
Ren thought for a long moment about the best way to go. It was true that he didn’t know very much about Cricket’s culture. She’d embraced his in most ways, but he hadn’t tried to learn about hers, and that struck him as deeply unfair. “Could you help me pick out something to burn, then? And tell me more about your gods?”
Cricket’s smile was blindingly bright as she covered his hand with hers. “I would be honoured.”
Next year, though, he was giving Cricket her Solstice present after she’d made her sacrifice.