All the others had gone outside to play in the snow, but Zephie touched Rue's arm and asked her to stay behind. She seemed both nervous and excited, so Rue waved Juto ahead of her and waited for Zephie.
Zephie smiled shyly and held out a box. The corners of the paper were uneven and the ribbon was a little lopsided, but Rue could see from the creases and folds in the ribbon that it had been retied many times.
"There's another gift, for later," Zephie said, "but this one is just between us."
It was oddly heavy for its size, and she untied the ribbon carefully. Zephie was all but dancing in place with impatience. Rue could remember when Zephie would do that because she wanted to get into her own presents and not have to wait for other people's. Now Zephie was craning her head, eager for the first glimpse of the present. It was so lovely sometimes to realize how much Zephie has grown.
Rue drew it out, as she sometimes did in more intimate circumstances, because they both enjoyed it. She folded the ribbon neatly and set it aside before she carefully removed the paper. The box beneath was beautifully carved with careful detail, intricate and abstract yet reminiscent of lightning.
"Go on, open it," Zephie said, her eyes bright.
Rue slid the lid off the box and found a book inside. Her lips shaped the title automatically as she read it. She had owned a copy of Tales of Lanzheim before the war, but it had been left behind when they'd had to flee. This was far finer than her old tattered copy, which she had read until it nearly fell apart. She opened the cover and the first illustration nearly took her breath away; Zephie had found someone to paint the pictures in colors so bright they were nearly jewel-like. She ran her fingertips over stories she had memorized as a young girl, and looked up to see a suspiciously blurry Zephie smiling at her.
"I thought perhaps we might read them together, now that I am old enough to appreciate them," Zephie said.
Rue carefully put the book aside and threw propriety to the wind, embracing her Queen and friend tightly.
"Thank you," she said, though the words were tight and strained.
"Merry Solstice," Zephie said.
As much as she liked the book, Rue thought the best present had always been in front of her.