Disclaimer: I do not own any of the Nine Shiners or any of the Old Kingdom. They all belong to Garth Nix.

Chapter 1

The sun burnt bright orange, in stark contrast to the darkening sky. A light, mid-summer breeze blew gently through the long grass, catching the delicate, lilac skirt of the tall, pale woman who stood gazing at the setting sun. She smiled and turned to her companion, taking his hand in hers, expecting him to look back at her with the same adoring expression. Instead, he remained staring at the burning orange orb hanging low on the horizon, his face expressionless but his dark eyes reflecting the fiery colour of the sunset.

The woman sighed wistfully and looked back at the sky, still smiling. 'It's beautiful, isn't it?' she asked softly, moving slightly closer to her companion and resting her head on his shoulder. 'The way the light reflects off the clouds, and the colour of the sky.' She paused, expecting an equally awe-struck response. 'Don't you think it's beautiful?' she asked, directly addressing her companion this time.

He, however, was still silent, his expression unchanged.

'Orannis?' she asked, lifting her head from his shoulder and looking at him questioningly.

Orannis eventually sighed and faced her. 'What?' he asked in a bored manner.

She laughed, failing to pick up on his boredom. 'I was saying, don't you think it's beautiful?'

'Do I think what's beautiful?'

'The sunset, silly,' she answered playfully, gazing back at it.

'Oh.' Orannis' voice was still devoid of emotion, very unlike hers. 'It's the same as it is every night, Astarael.'

Astarael blinked at him. 'How can you say that?' she asked, putting her arms loosely around him. 'Every night it changes; the colour of the sky, the shape of the clouds, the way the Ratterlin reflects the light… None of it is the same two nights in a row.'

'If you say so,' Orannis sighed. He was, very obviously, tired of staring at the sky and he couldn't see what Astarael found so beautiful. 'We've been out for a while, though,' he added, a patronising tone to his voice. 'Won't your friends be wondering where you are?'

'I don't think they'll worry. Not yet, at least. It's not that late.' Astarael glanced at the towering mountains behind her, which were white with snow, even in the middle of the summer.

Orannis sighed. It looked like this would be quite a long night.

* * * * * * *

The sun had set at least two hours ago, Orannis knew. He glanced sideways at Astarael, who had fallen asleep soon after she thought he had. He had the urge to just get up and leave her there, but that would ruin their relationship, and that would ruin his plans. He didn't know much about the friends Astarael lived with, but he did know they were all powerful Free Magic beings, much like him, and that meant they might be useful.

Still, he was still very bored, and it was starting to get cold. The cold didn't bother him much - he could easily use magic to warm up - but it was an excuse to end his evening with Astarael. Gently, he shook her shoulder.

'Time to wake up,' he whispered in her ear.

'How late is it?' Astarael asked, a little groggily, looking straight up at the now-dark sky.

'It's getting quite late,' Orannis answered, trying to sound as caring as possible. 'It's been properly dark for a while now. I guess they'll be getting worried now.'

'They probably will,' Astarael agreed, sighing, and Orannis helped her to her feet. They walked, hand in hand, a little further up the river, then stared at the water and the looming silhouettes of the mountains for a while before Orannis finally let go of Astarael's hand.

'Well, good night,' he said, a little too formally. He hesitated briefly. 'I guess they'll ask you where you've been, won't they?'

'Even if they don't, I won't keep this a secret,' Astarael answered, her eyes gleaming. 'Will I see you again?'

'I suppose so. How about tomorrow night?' Orannis reluctantly suggested, mentally reminding himself of the reason he was doing this.

'I can't wait already,' Astarael smiled eagerly. She was clearly about to say more, but Orannis was fed up of listening to her poetic waffling now, so he drew her close and quickly kissed her. She seemed surprised at first, but then she relaxed and returned his kiss. When they broke apart, Astarael's eyes were shining with happiness.

Orannis watched her change fluidly into the form of a small, pale grey moth and flutter out of sight, and then he turned and made his way back across the grass.

* * * * * * *

Astarael expected the others to be asleep when she got back under the mountain; Ranna usually got her way when it got that late. She slipped through the silent, stone hallways as quietly as she could and had just opened the door of her private room, when someone pulled her into a crushing embrace from behind, dark hair tickling her cheek.

'Dyrim!' Astarael whispered. 'I thought you'd be asleep!'

'Of course we're not. Well, Ranna probably is, but the rest of us aren't,' Dyrim answered, releasing Astarael. 'So, where have you been then?' Her clear, grey eyes glittered expectantly.

'I was watching the sunset, as usual,' Astarael answered, blushing involuntarily and hiding behind her long, raven hair.

Dyrim raised one eyebrow, grinned excitedly. 'And…? That can't be all you were doing. You've been out for hours, and the sun set ages ago.'

'I was with… someone,' Astarael explained, still blushing and making it obvious that she was hiding something, which made Dyrim naturally more eager to make her reveal everything.

'With who?' Dyrim asked, growing increasingly excited. 'Oh, wait a moment; I'll call the others so they can hear. You need to tell us everything.' She turned to call down the hallway. 'Astarael's back! Come out here! You have to hear what she's been doing!'

Almost immediately, four more women appeared from the various rooms off the passage. Dyrim watched as they came nearer and then turned to Ranna, who had evidently just been woken up by Dyrim's voice as she was wearing a white night dress and had her golden hair tied in a long braid down her back.

'Where's Saraneth?'

Ranna yawned and shrugged her shoulders. 'I think she's still in her room. She said she'd be busy for a while.'

'Oh well,' Dyrim shrugged. 'Let's hear about Astarael's evening then.'

'Do you want me to see what Saraneth's doing?' Mosrael asked, glancing at the one door that remained closed with her pale green eyes.

'No, leave her,' Ranna advised. 'She told me she didn't want to be disturbed. I'm sure she'll come down when she's finished whatever she's up to.'

'It's her loss,' Dyrim said quickly, pushing Astarael into her room and sitting her down on the edge of her bed. The other four followed and sat near them, waiting impatiently for Astarael to start talking.

'So,' Dyrim started, eagerly leaning forward. 'Tell the others where you were.'

Again, Astarael blushed. 'I was watching the sunset, as usual,' she explained.

'And what about the three hours after that?' Kibeth asked, raising one eyebrow, much like Dyrim had earlier.

'She said she was with someone,' Dyrim stated, casting a sideways wink at Ranna, who rolled her eyes.

'With who?' Kibeth asked, casually flicking a few strands of her auburn hair out of her face.

'I was with a man,' Astarael grinned after a short pause, which was mainly for dramatic effect.

The pause got the required reaction. Belgaer stopped examining the ceiling and stared at her, Kibeth tried to hide the huge grin that had spread across her face, Mosrael let out an involuntarily excited gasp, and Ranna tried, and failed, to hide the look of utter disbelief on her face. Dyrim gave a characteristically giggly squeal.

'What's his name?' Dyrim asked after they had calmed down a little.

'Orannis,' Astarael answered, blushing brighter red. 'He's a Free Magic being, just like us.'

'What was he like?' Kibeth asked.

Astarael flicked her hair behind her shoulders. 'He's so romantic,' she sighed happily, gazing dreamily at the wall behind Dyrim. 'I was watching the sun set, and then he came along and started saying all these beautiful, poetic things about it. It was so wonderful. He's so sensitive and gentle, and he wants to see me again tomorrow night.'

'You forgot to mention the rather passionate moment you shared just before you flew back here,' Mosrael added with a knowing wink.

Astarael looked at her, surprised. 'How did you know about that?' she asked. 'Were you spying on us?'

'No, silly. Nothing can hide from me, remember? My sight improves so much when I'm in my dragonfly form, and I'm small and inconspicuous, so you wouldn't notice me even if I'm right next to you.

'I don't suppose you'd care to elaborate on this "rather passionate moment", would you?' Dyrim asked, grinned cheekily.

'We just kissed, that's all,' Astarael explained. 'Nothing that exciting, Dyrim.'

'Still,' Dyrim sighed happily. 'I bet Saraneth will be annoyed that she missed hearing this.'

'Missed hearing what?' asked a voice from the doorway.

The others turned to see Saraneth leaning casually against the wall, just inside the room. Once she had been noticed, Saraneth straightened up and walked towards them, casting an expectant look at Ranna, who quickly shifted position to make a space between herself and Astarael.

'So,' Saraneth said as she sat down, running a hand quickly through her raven hair. 'What's going on then? Where were you?'

'You sound like you're her mother,' Dyrim commented jokily. Saraneth shot an irritated glare in her direction. 'Well, you do,' Dyrim shrugged. 'If you'd come when I called you, you wouldn't have missed what Astarael was saying.'

'I was busy,' Saraneth answered shortly, making it clear that she was not going to elaborate further. 'Are any of you going to tell me what you were so excited about, or not?'

'Astarael was telling us where she was,' Belgaer explained.

'And about who she was with,' Kibeth added.

'Oh?' Saraneth turned to Astarael, who tried not to blush again. 'You were with someone?'

'She was with a man,' Mosrael cut in, before Astarael had a chance to speak.

Saraneth looked at Astarael, waiting for her to say more. Astarael shifted slightly.

'Well, there's not much more to say, really,' she admitted. 'They've said it all for me.'

'It sounded to me like you'd told them a bit more than that; I could hear Dyrim squeaking. Surely you won't mind telling it all over again, if it was as exciting as Dyrim seems to think it is.'

'In all honesty,' Belgaer said innocently, 'Dyrim gets excited if one of us changes our favourite colour, so her squealing isn't really the best way of telling how exciting something is.'

Dyrim glared at Belgaer and both Ranna and Saraneth suppressed a laugh.

'Are you implying that Astarael's story wasn't very interesting?' Kibeth asked.

'No, that wasn't what I meant,' Belgaer replied quickly. 'Sorry if it sounded that way,' she added quietly to Astarael.

'It's fine,' Astarael shrugged.

'Anyway, finish what you were saying about your evening with this man,' Saraneth prompted.

'We just watched the sunset, that's all,' Astarael finished.

'He made some rather poetic comments, you said earlier,' Mosrael reminded her.

'"He's so romantic",' Dyrim mimicked. 'Those were your exact words, I recall.'

'He was,' Astarael admitted, not bothering to hide the silly grin that had spread across her face. 'He was saying all these beautiful things about the sunset. He was just so wonderful.'

'It sounds like you're really taken with him, then,' Saraneth smiled. 'Good for you. It's about time one of us found ourselves a decent man.'

Ranna raised an eyebrow. '"Decent" meaning someone other than Yrael, I'm guessing?'

'Definitely,' Dyrim and Belgaer agreed simultaneously.

'So, what's your dream man's name, then?' Saraneth asked.

Astarael smiled again. 'Orannis.'

Saraneth's smile faded instantly and, for a moment, she had an odd expression on her face that none of the others could identify. Then, without another word, she stood up and swept quickly back out the room and out of sight.

This is the first story I've posted, so please let me know what you think of it!