Love, magick, and murder.
22953 YD (1662 CE) The North Mountains, Cydrithenna
“Plenty of cold women to warm up in that town,” said Varin, as though people were prizes for him to sack. Beside him, his battle squire sharpened his sword. Other battle attendants filtered in and out of the ornately decorated royal tent. Two tended to the fire while we rested from the first day of yet another quelling.
The moment we’d become adults, we were deemed fit for a real battle, and my father often placed me and the others in a unit commanded by my brother. I didn’t know whether this was to keep us all safe while we forged ourselves as soldiers, or if it was to keep Varin out of trouble. I would’ve preferred to not take orders from my brother, but his horrific remark reminded me of my duty to not just Drakons, but the factions we fought. These were peacekeeping missions after all, and if I wanted to stop believing in that paradoxical name, it meant preserving the honor of our enemies in other ways.
“Who knew you were capable of providing anyone warmth?”
“Oh, shut up, brother. They’re cold because they’re Frost Giants, and savages at that.”
“They’re not savages, Varin,” said Corian, whose leadership I would have preferred over Varin’s. She must have been truly disgusted with him to not even use his designated title.
He rolled his eyes. “Here comes the history lesson…”
“No, really, tell us the difference, Varin. How are they savages and you, for example, are not?”
I didn’t mask the massive smirk that spanned my cheeks. Eleric and Jemier tensed. Renny glanced nervously between all of us.
“Because I’d know better than to cause an uprising against my Drakon masters.”
“This uprising is against Storm Giants. We’re on Storm Giant land. They fight alongside us and are in this camp right now and can probably hear you.”
“So? As our allies, they owe us fealty as their masters.”
“No, as our allies they are our equals,” she said. Renny put a hand on Corian’s shoulder, and she shrugged out from beneath it. “No, don’t you dare. I’m not wrong here.”
“I am your prince,” said Varin. “If I tell you that those mountains are covered in sugar, you believe it.”
Her eyes could kill worlds. “And if you march into those snow-covered mountains tonight, Varin, I will stop you. I promise you that.”
Yes, a much better leader than Varin indeed.
He sneered at her across the fire, then his eyes flitted to the blade his attendant was sharpening. “And how will you stop me, exactly?”
“The same way I do every time we train in the yard.”
I snorted, drawing both of their glares. “What? She’s not wrong.”
“Forget both of you.” He stood. “I merely wanted to suggest a night of fun, and Corian had to ruin it, as always. I wouldn’t really take up with some Giant, enemy or ally, Frost or Storm. And besides, it’s not like I was leaving her out of anything. There are plenty of men around here for her to warm herself upon. Some of them stronger than others.” He tilted his head quizzically at her. “That is if you even like swords.”
She stood. “Oh, I like swords plenty. Sharp ones, steel ones, short ones, long ones, slender ones, thickones…”
Varin grinned. “Well now you’ve gone and turned me on, Corian.”
She hid her disgust well.
“Have a drink at tonight’s feast with me.”
“Gladly,” she said. “So long as the boys come with.”
“And why’s that?”
“So they can watch me drink you under the table.”
Jemier and I burst out laughing. Varin bit his bottom lip in intrigue, and Renny furrowed his brow. Eleric blanched. Corian commanded us with raised brows to get up and follow her. We obeyed the order.
Eleric and I did not get along very well. I found him to be more jester-like than warrior, more licentious than romantic. Like me, he’d grown his hair long but styled it roguishly and kept it tied back almost permanently instead of in moments that called for it practically, as I did. Beardless, but not clean-shaven, his face bore only the wrinkles of smiles and laughter. Women often surrounded him, including Corian Scaleborn’s sister, Safryne. Eleric’s good looks and the attention of the elder Scaleborn drove Varin wild with jealousy.
And now we were stuck together during this ridiculous feast that our Storm Giant allies had thrown for us. A reward for a battle well won. No casualties, unless you counted the loss of Renny’s favorite dagger. Mead, wine, and beer flowed freely. Entire animals roasted above fires. Drums and horns had found their way out of trunks. No wonder so many warriors like my brother relished in war—they had an excuse to exercise their blood lust and get rewarded for it. No matter how necessary it was to keep the Frost Giants from invading Storm Giant lands, we didn’t have to cheer about it.
But a prince had to do right by his country. Varin and Corian’s contest had been put on hiatus by a conversation Varin had to have with the Storm Giants’ general, giving me the opportunity to sneak away. To my dismay, I hadn’t masked my exit and Eleric had followed me, perhaps using me as his excuse to leave the others. I tolerated his presence since he seemed unusually distant and uninterested in becoming a proper reveler, and it was probably better that I not be seen alone.
We stood off to the side of a tent for battle attendants. Eleric’s eyes focused sternly into nothingness, and he’d barely sipped his beer. Still. Odd for Eleric to not enjoy himself. Even odder for the two of us to engage in conversation or be friendly off the battlefield. Only in combat did any of our relationships change for the better.
Of our squad, Corian and I were the most magickally inclined, but the magicks we studied vastly differed. She took the offensive, brandishing the elements as a supplement to her deadly sword. I was the opposite, attacking the enemy’s wits with deception and then setting them up for a killing blow from a squad mate or my own blade. Only Varin scoffed at a setup for a takedown. The others enjoyed it, Renny especially. Eleric, however, rarely needed a setup. He worked the battlefield like a dance floor, executing enemies with a grace that showed them dignity in their final breaths. He was the antithesis of Varin in combat.
“I suppose we should eat something soon,” Eleric said.
“What would you prefer?” I asked, staring at the blanket of tents and glowing fires cascading down the gentle slope. “Cow? Boar?” I peered deeper into the camp. “Whatever that is?”
I squinted. “Is it?”
“I like not knowing my food has a face.”
“I’ll take care of your plate then.”
He laughed. “The prince, serving me?”
“You’re too good of a warrior to go hungry at night.” I weighed our options again.
We had a blended camp of Drakons and Storm Giants set up along a tree-sheltered ridge overlooking a ravine. Here in the mountainous, frigid north lay the border between three factions of Giants: Storm, Stone, and Frost, the latter two having banded together to disrupt the Storm Giants’ lumber mills in nearby towns. The ravine provided a natural barrier while the ridge acted as a watchtower, but the location could not have been colder; Eleric’s nose and cheeks were cherry red, and my face tingled. The chill bit into us despite the outdoor cookfires, despite the old-fashioned wood stoves that heated the interiors of tents, despite our cloaks and layers of clothes and fur we buried ourselves beneath.
Eleric inhaled deeply through his nose. “Is that dough?”
I stilled and tried to find the scent amongst the grease, alcohol, and smoke. “Pan bread?”
“I think so.”
“That doesn’t have a face. Let’s head in that direction.”
The tents were arranged in a maze by design, and with every soul in the camp braving the cold for the sake of fun, the pathways were cramped, made worse by the drunken soldiers who weren’t drunk enough to not salute me as I passed, but drunk enough to not realize they were stepping right in front of me to do it. I uttered “at ease” so often that I began to question the existence of the phrase.
“We’re not getting too far away from the others, are we?” Eleric asked.
“The farther the better.”
“What about Corian?”
“I’ve learned the hard way not to interfere on her behalf. She is quite capable of handling herself. Besides, Jemier and Renny are within earshot.”
“Renny’s stood by before.”
“Don’t I know it.” I told another soldier to cease their salute and carry on. “But Jemier won’t, and Renny’s in love with Corian anyway.” The bread eluded us. “Where the hell is this bread?”
Eleric gestured with his beer. “This way, maybe?”
We walked through a cloud of tobacco smoke. The Storm Giants must have passed out the cigars already. We choked on the cloud, waving the smoke from our faces as we tried to navigate the path.
“So sorry, Your Highness!” Another soldier at attention. The intoxicated Storm Giant soldier beside him looked up as though waking from a dream and gave me a half wave. Other Drakon soldiers took the cue and stood at attention.
I cleared my throat. The smoke smelled good, but it burned like hell. “At ease, seriously. All of you. Spread the word. No more saluting tonight.”
The soldiers gradually relaxed. One pulled out a cigar. “Would you like one?”
“No thank you.”
Eleric nudged me. The soldiers shared a circle of golden-brown pan bread.
“The pan bread,” I said. “Where did you get it?”
“Um, up that way.”
I nodded at the soldier. He saluted me. I let it go and thanked the whole group for their service today.
“All right, we’re going to do something,” I said to Eleric.
“I’m going to mask us, and we are going to get that damn bread if it’s the last thing we do.”
He chuckled. “You can mask me too?”
“I absolutely can.”
“How does that work? Like your other illusions?”
“So we don’t need to be touching for it to work.”
“No, we don’t have to—actually…”
“We would move around faster.” I extended my hand.
He set down his beer on the side of a tent and took my palm into his, and away we went.
We wove between soldiers and attendants without incident, if you don’t count the time Eleric’s hand slipped from mine and he smacked into someone, who, because Eleric was cloaked in my magick, twirled around to look for the source of the impact and could find no one. Otherwise, we made it to a glorious source of fresh pan bread unharmed and, more importantly, unsaluted. The attendants baking the bread for any who wanted some also offered us beer and private seats near the cookfire to sit and enjoy our meal.
“So.” Eleric leaned over, talking quietly to avoid the ears of our baking host. “That’s what it’s like to move around while invisible.”
“Yes. How did it feel?”
“Strange but liberating.” He stared at the fire. “I wish I could learn to do that.”
“To hide from your many admirers, no doubt.”
“From your brother, actually.”
I jolted. “Eleric, what did you mean earlier? That Renny’s stood by before?”
“Your brother just seems fixated on me lately. Calling me all sorts of things, threatening to teach me lessons. And Renny laughs like it’s a joke, but it’s not. I think Varin’s serious.”
“He’s a troll. They both are.”
“I think Renny’s just scared, so he goes along with it.”
“Don’t excuse his cowardice.”
“I’m not trying to.” He huffed out a cloud of white air. “I’m guilty of the same thing, anyway. I always leave when things get tense between you two.”
“Enough for you to hate me.”
“I don’t hate you.”
“Strongly dislike me.”
I gave him a nonchalant shrug. “No, not even that. I think I was more indifferent to you.”
“Well clearly we’re getting along even better than we used to when we were smaller.”
“That’s true. And you helped me get food without a face, so there’s that.”
I lifted my beer. “Cheers, Eleric.”
We clinked glasses.
“Now that we are more than indifferent to each other,” he said. “Tell me what Renny did to you?”
“Are you sure?”
“Very much so.” My throat tightened just thinking about it, but my body seemed more focused on defrosting than panic. “We were playing in the river, the shallow part.”
“The swimming hole?”
“Yes. We were very young. I think Varin had only picked up his first practice sword. Renny and Jemier were there, but Jemier had to find a tree, and so it was just the three of us. Anyway, Varin decided to play sharks, and he grabbed me and pulled me under.”
Eleric gasped. “Oh, Solin, I’m so sorry.”
“And then, um—” I held up my hand to pause and took a sip of beer. It went down my throat like a shard of glass. “—I’ve never told anyone this.”
“You don’t have to finish.”
I took a beat to breathe. “It’s fine. I’m fine.” After another deep breath, I said, “Varin swam up and then held me down there. I swallowed water. He started laughing and said I had to learn to breathe underwater if I wanted to swim better. I thrashed at his legs, and he fell only to come up angrier. My lungs burned, and I started choking so much I almost got sick right there in the river. And then…well Jemier came back at some point and was yelling. Varin let go, and by the time I could get above water Jemier was already in the river, halfway out to me. Renny’s face was red like he’d been laughing the whole time, but Jemier just took me home. We sat in my room on the floor for hours. He locked the door so no one could get in.”
I’d knocked the words out of Eleric.
“And that’s why Renny can go straight to hell with my brother, and why you’ll never catch me choking down the smoke of any cigar.”
“Solin, I’m so sorry. What do you need from me?”
What did I…need from him? “Nothing?”
“You’re giving me a look.”
“I’m just not used to that being the first thing someone says to me.”
“Well get used to it.”
I couldn’t help but laugh and release all that tension. “Yes sir.”
“All right,” said Eleric. “New pact. We’ll always have each other’s backs and annoy Renny whenever possible.”
“Oh, we’re forming pacts now?”
He smiled. “Yes. Is that not allowed at this upper level of not-quite indifference?”
“Typically not, but we can make an exception. Especially since you seem particularly adept at making me laugh.” I held up my beer again. “To pissing them off?”
“To pissing them off.”