22953 YD (1662 CE) The North Mountains, Cydrithenna
After the camp feasted, courtesy of our Storm Giant allies, we turned in for the night, the sober amongst us even making it back to our tents without assistance. As a prince, I had a tent to myself, a blessing on nights like this when everyone thought recuperating meant soaking in alcohol. By the light of a small lamp, I studied a tome of magick, lying in a bed too oversized for my need.
An icy breeze swept across the pages of my book, chilling my hands and flipping too many pages over. The faint scent of woodsmoke, coming from the personal heating stove in the center of the tent, rushed out with the warmth. I covered the tome with a pillow to save my place, and I sat up to retrieve another fur from the end of the bed.
Downcast, Eleric peered at me from the open flap of my tent.
“Eleric? What is it? And could you please not let the warm air out?”
Eleric nodded and stepped inside. Lightweight leather armor covered his clothing, but his shoulders were absent his cloak. “Sorry. I wish we were allowed to bring proper heaters to these things. How could theybe a violation of Federation law?”
“Because warm troops do well,” I said, from beneath layers of furs. “Our technology would give us an unfair advantage, even with the smallest of disputes. It’s one of the few Drakon laws that I’m proud were adopted by the Federation.”
“I know, but couldn’t the First King have made an exception for heat?”
“The First King was a Vivifyal. Of course he was stubborn.”
“And probably the only Vivifyal you’ve ever agreed with.”
“And posthumously, at that.”
We shared a short-lived, quiet laugh.
“I don’t mean to complain,” said Eleric. “I know it’s the only way our kind can pay penance for what our ancestors did.”
“Shh,” I quipped. “Don’t let the others hear you. They might be offended by your ability to see the gray in our history.”
He smiled broadly, looking beyond the tent walls as though someone might hear that smile turn to laughter. I gave him a mischievous grin and nearly forgot that he had arrived with a far more melancholic countenance.
“Why are you here, Eleric?”
“He’s…down for the night,” he said, and I knew he spoke of Varin from the dart of his eyes to the rumble in his voice. “And he took Renny and Jemier down with him, though he’s got the most to sleep off.”
“Wonderful,” I remarked, unhappy with the thought of dealing with three hungover comrades in the morning. “And the other problem?”
“There is no other problem.”
“Come, Eleric, there must be another problem.” I masked, becoming him and mirroring his current disposition. In his voice, I said, “You look awfully dreadful for you. What else has my incredible brother done?”
Eleric sighed. “Please stop.”
I let go of the mask. “Sorry.”
“Renny decided they should celebrate in our tent, not Jemier’s or Varin’s. Renny’s passed out on the ground next to his bed. Jemier is literally under a table. And Varin…he’s in my bed. With my furs.”
“Apparently, Varin got drunk with that general and was too far gone for her to challenge with honor, so she wisely ditched them to play cards with some of the Storm Giants.”
“And when we parted, you found no one else to spend your night with? Must be strange for you not to have a warm bed at night.”
“Solin, I am not in the mood for this. Your brother, he said things…” He turned away from me. “Forget it. Good night, Solin.”
“Wait.” I shook my head and got out of bed. The cold latched onto my skin, despite the thick shirt and pants I wore. “That was wrong of me. You came here to talk, and I’m being crass while you freeze to death.”
“It’s fine. I don’t want to impose.”
“You’re not imposing. We made a pact, remember? To hell with them.” I motioned to a storage chest close to him; I’d set my cloak atop it when I returned earlier. My magick pinched at the garment, sucking the fleecy pool of fur-lined black into the air. “At least take this.”
I nodded at my cloak, which billowed and swayed toward him like a ghost on stilts. “You need to grab it from the air; I’m not very good at this—!”
Eleric uttered an “oomph!” as the cloak careened into him and flung itself over his head.
I cringed. “Sorry.” At least it had flown into Eleric and not the central stove.
He swam out of the cloak, plucking hairs and bits of its fur lining from his lips. Once he was free of it, he did not put it on, but instead appraised it.
“Is it good enough for a man of House Foundry?” I asked.
“I can’t take this; it’s too nice.”
I brought my novice telekinesis skills to the top fur covering my bed; the swathe of brown hovered threateningly. “Don’t make me give you this,” I grinned.
He shook his head. “No thank you. The cloak will do just fine.” With an elegant swoosh, he draped the cloak around his stable shoulders. “When do you even get to train all of your magick, anyway?”
“Every moment I get,” I said. “Only telekinesis hasn’t gotten that message yet.”
“But your illusions are masterful,” he said.
He winked at me, and I gave him a quick roll of my eyes before sitting atop the bed, pulling the now-relaxed fur over my cold feet.
“What would you suggest I do differently, oh Eleric, master mage of House Foundry?”
“Do you really want to know?”
He and I had never spoken about magick before, partially because he hadn’t a fiber of magick sewn into his being, and partially because he and I had only recently become reacquainted as maybe-friends. “Well, sometimes, I—” His eyes flitted to my side. “May I?”
I shrugged, nonchalant. “Of course you can.”
He sat down. I passed him one of the many furs I’d been previously buried beneath. It did not curb the frequency of white clouds he exhaled, but at least he wasn’t shivering so much. “You know books?”
I snorted. “Yes, I know books, Eleric.”
“Well, you know how some writers give you every detail, engage every sense?”
“Sometimes at great detriment to the pacing or dialogue—wait, why are you discussing literature with me? Since when do you read?”
He looked aghast. “I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but I do read. The library is one of my favorite places.”
“I’ve never seen you there, not alone anyway.”
“I go to the room? Near the back?”
I tilted my head at him. “Really?”
“My mistake. Go on.”
“Is that something you could do with your illusions? It will make them seem more real.”
“I already go to the library, Eleric. Why do you think I go there if not to study?”
“No, I mean engage every sense.”
Oh. “I’ve tried. It’s not easy. I have no way of knowing if it’s working.”
“You have no master to give you feedback?”
“Not for this.” I angled my head at him, bewildered. “Didn’t you know that?”
He shook his head slowly. “I…no, I suppose I didn’t.” He looked about the tent, then back at me. “Before we came to this place, did we ever spend time together? Without everyone else?”
“No. Probably not since we were kids.” We hadn’t. I had made sure of it. Jemier was the only one of the lot I’d trusted lately.
“Odd how that worked out because it feels like we’ve known each other forever.”
“You are surprisingly easy to talk to,” I said, withholding my saucy remark on the centuries we’d been acquainted.
“So are you.” His eyes flitted away, and when he noticed I’d caught his winsome smile, he focused on his hands. Were it not so cold already, I’d swear he were blushing. “Do you need help with your magick, then?”
“What do you mean?”
“Like someone who can tell you what works and what doesn’t.”
“I—” I’d been on this journey alone since mastering illusion. Quezhané had long run out of magick she could teach me. She’d become a mentor who occasionally tested me, but those moments were fewer and fewer lately, especially since Karrdil kept sending me along on these quellings. “Actually, would you mind? There’s something I’ve been working on.”
“Let’s see it.”
I raised my brows at him. “Are you sure? You’re not tired?”
“Weren’t you the one trying to sleep when I interrupted you?”
I grinned, shaking my head. I stretched across the bed, losing the fur, until I could reach the open book resting beneath my pillow. “I might’ve been reading this instead.” After Eleric passed me my lost fur, I plopped the book between us.
He beamed and studied the open pages, asking with his eyes if he could leaf through them. I granted him permission. “This is definitely not the kind of book I tend to read,” he said.
“What kind of books do you read?”
He gave me a devilish smirk. “I’m not telling.”
“Oh, you are dastardly.” I held my smirk until his gaze broke, then said, “Make a bowl with your hands.”
He wrapped his hands in the edges of the cloak first. “All right.”
An apple appeared in the furry bowl.
“I don’t feel anything,” he said.
“Right, so now—” I checked the book to be sure of the next step. The technique just didn’t make sense to me, but I tried it anyway. “Do you feel any—what?”
He snorted staccato. “It’s like I’m being tickled by a puppy’s nose.”
I gaped at him, horrified. I dropped the illusion. “In your hands, right?”
“Yes, in my hands.”
I sighed in relief. “That is not what’s supposed to happen.”
“Are you using telekinesis?”
I gave him an incredulous look. “Are you just aching to have a hook for a hand, or—?”
He burst into laughter, then covered his mouth.
“The puppy nose?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “You. You’re really funny, Solin.”
“I try.” When we both settled down a bit, I said, “But did any of that work?”
“I saw an apple.”
“But you didn’t feel it? Not the texture, the weight?”
He shook his head.
“Your other senses? Nothing? Couldn’t hear it?”
“Could I hear the apple?”
I rolled my eyes. “Fair enough. What about the smell?”
“All I can smell is you.”
He blinked at me. “Your cloak. It’s nice; I’m not complaining.”
Heat rushed up my neck and landed on my cheeks. “Oh.” I met his eyes. “It suits you.”
“Oh.” He pinched the cloak and rolled the fur lining between his fingers. “Actually, that’s brilliant, Solin. Here. Feel this.”
“My cloak?” I took the proffered hunk he handed to me. “What am I feeling for?”
“Close your eyes. Think about what you’re feeling.”
I closed my eyes but refused to think about the latter. “Tiny bristles of hair.”
“You must feel more than that.”
“I do; hold on.” I played with the fur, then moved my fingers to the heavy woolen fabric of the interior. “Scratchy.”
“Everyone knows that.”
“Ooh, you’re a tough master, aren’t you?”
“Scratchy in a wool-like way.” I opened one eye to see his deadpan gaze.
Footfalls outside drew our attention. Eleric pricked and stilled.
“It’s the Elite Guard,” I whispered. His shoulders relaxed. “Did you want to stay here tonight? I can retire to Jemier’s tent since he’s not there.”
“There’s no need.”
I offered him the ample space in my unnecessarily regal bed. “Do you really think I need all of this?”
“It doesn’t matter if you need it.”
“But it matters if you do.” I closed the book. “Did Varin threaten you?”
“More than normal, you mean?”
“Enough to make you jump at sounds and come to my tent, of all places.”
He shook his head. “No, he didn’t do anything worse than usual. I just…did he have to colonize my space while doing it? It just makes me feel…strange…and I don’t really know anyone else here to talk to and get my mind off it.”
He nodded. “That’s all, I promise. You don’t have to worry about me.”
“Good, because I was starting to, and the next thing you know, the world will be upside down, and I’ll be buying Renny drinks at the Wily Boar.”
Eleric snorted, then flattened his smile. “I like this, Solin. Right now.”
I gazed at him. “I like this too.”
I nodded, my pulse quickening. I drew in a deep breath. “We should get some rest, especially considering what we’ll be dealing with in the morning.”
He cleared his throat. “Right, of course. Wouldn’t want to cross a rancorous Varin after a poor night’s sleep.”
“Or a still-drunk Wraithstone.”
“The last thing we need for breakfast is a slew of asinine dares.”
“You mean you don’t want to streak through the camp wearing nothing but a pair of boots just to prove your member’s invincible to frostbite?”
“Oh, so you were at the last party then?” Eleric winked. I laughed. He stood from my bed, straightening the cloak. “Thank you for letting me borrow this.”
“You’re welcome.” We looked at each other, then looked away, and when I stole a glance at him in my cloak again—damn, it suited him—I said, “Actually, if you wanted—”
“I might take you up on that—”
We both paused, then laughed.
“You first,” I said.
“I was just thinking that I would take you up on that offer to stay, and I wouldn’t be bothered if you didn’t disappear to another tent.”
“I don’t have to disappear if you don’t want me to.”
“All right.” I made space for him to join me.
He pulled off my cloak with great care, refolding it and placing it where it once lay. He took off his boots and belt and removed what leather he wore. He sat down, giving me a tentative look before sinking beneath the blankets and furs and resting his head on one of my many pillows.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” he said. The stove light glowed bright, casting orange light upon the curves of his face and turning his hair into a translucent amber.
“I am capable of being hospitable from time to time. Especially when someone resolves to mock Varin and that oaf Renny with me. Consider this as a thank-you for the entertainment.”
His laugh came out like a whisper amidst the silence that had fallen over the camp. Only the footfalls of sentries sounded. “I want to thank you, Solin.”
“You just thanked me.”
“No, for earlier. For the talk, hell, for not making me eat a bear’s face.”
“I was the one thanking you.”
He propped himself up on his elbow. “I mean it, Solin. Thank you.”
Silence returned, but what would the quiet bring us if it sat too still for too long? Then again, what would silence tell Eleric about his Varin problem? The balance of power had shifted between them, and Eleric rightfully worried that this painted a target on his back. I suspected one already existed, and that every day it became clearer and more visually striking. “Apologize tomorrow. Say you were battle weary and then promise to share a drink with him when we get back to Heartwing. Take Jemier with you.”
He shivered. “Will that be enough?”
“Are you still cold? And yes, it will be.”
“I’m adjusting to the cold.”
“Would you like—”
“Would it be weird if—”
We paused and chuckled softly.
I gazed at him. “It wouldn’t be weird, Eleric.” I sat up, rearranging the furs to be more efficient at warming two, and he sidled in beside me. In his hair, I smelled the intangible comfort of closeness, and I lay on my back, stilling myself so that he would not hear the sudden reaction of my heart.
We lay with his head on my shoulder and his hand on my arm. Rustling pines, footsteps, and someone’s coughing fit broke the night’s tranquility, but with him, I became more attune. I heard every whisper of air through his lungs, his mouth, his nose. I knew how much space every breath demanded of his ribs, how soft-weighted his body was in this mattress, how the thin wisps of hair escaping his tie ran along the curve of my neck and tickled every nerve.
“What if he were to see us now?” he asked.
“We are sleeping, Eleric.” I closed my eyes, shifting focus away from this scent-based heatwave of a revelation and toward the realm of magick. Illusions clung to us and every surface in the tent. “He will not catch us. We are masked. I have not mastered how to mask sounds yet, so be mindful of that, but my magick should last all night, even while sleeping.”
He lifted his head from my shoulder. “You can fall asleep, and your magick will still work?”
“You have…become powerful, Solin.”
I tilted my head his way, lifting only one brow. “According to you, that’s not the case.”
“We can work on that,” he smirked, patting my chest.
“I look forward to it.” I placed my hand atop his. “You really are freezing, aren’t you?”
He curled his thumb around mine and nestled closer. “Not for long.”
“No, not for long.” We pulled each other closer until no gaps remained between us. Heat ran along the length of my body, and my chest ached with every breath of his scent. “Not all in Heartwing are as simpleminded as him.”
“With regard to…?”
“Everything, and…this. Someday I’ll have a chance to change how this is perceived. I hope.”
“It makes both economic and social sense. Plus, I also have a conscience. It’s true. Felwings come with those occasionally too.”
We shared quiet snickers.
He flattened his palm on my chest. “I can feel your heart, Solin. I can hear it.”
I massaged his hand with my thumb. “What does it feel like?”
He sat up now, the furs a cloak draped over his shoulders. He took my hand and placed it on his heart. “What does it feel like?”
I smiled and closed my eyes, listening with my fingers. “Like a drum.”
“A large drum.” His heart thrummed against my fingertips. “It’s the middle of the skin when its hit, but there’s no mallet. Just the bouncing of it, rippling up and down like a puddle in the rain.”
He leaned down, but my hand didn’t leave his heart. “What else?”
“The warmth of life, supple skin beneath soft cloth…” I opened my eyes and gazed at him, trailing my hand up his neck to rest along the curve of his prickly jaw. “Eleric, tell me you didn’t come here tonight for this.”
He shook his head. “No, I came here for protection.”
“You have it. Unconditionally, you have it.” I traced his chin. He kissed the heel of my palm, and then I kissed his lips.
“We are still masked?” he clarified.
“Yes,” I said between kisses.
“But not for sound.”
“Not for sound.”
We shared another small chuckle, nose to nose, and kissed. And kissed again. And kissed until our clothes were half off because it was too cold for us to tread further, but I took in his scent—fresh linen, dried in a warm spring breeze on a field of wildflowers—and he took in mine, and we connected until we fell asleep in each other’s arms.
I awoke to the comfort of floral linen, and my stirring caused Eleric to stir from sleep as well. He gazed dreamily at me, and a smile spread across his face before he kissed my cheek.
“Good morning,” he whispered into my neck. “You smell incredible.”
A shout from the vicinity of Varin’s tent stilled us. I sat up, shielding him from the flap of the tent, and checked my illusion. “We are safe,” I whispered.
“But not with sound,” he whispered.
“Not with sound.”
I patted his hand, signaling for him to dress. We avoided detection and made our morning appearances.
I took breakfast with Jemier, Eleric, and Corian around the stove in Jemier’s tent. Renny was still stuck on Varin duty. Varin was too drunk to come to breakfast.
“I hate everything,” Jemier complained, struggling to eat the morning’s greasy meat.
“Maybe you shouldn’t drink with people like Varin,” said Corian.
“Listen to her, Jemier,” I said. “She speaks the truth.”
“Must be why she bailed on us.”
“He was already drunk. So not worth it.”
“It was worth it,” he said. His nostrils flared as he brought a bite of food to his mouth.
“Was it, now?”
“He wasn’t joking. The drunker he got, the more hell-bent he got about those Frost Giants, so yes, it was worth it. Now please be quiet.”
Corian huffed and stabbed a piece of meat with a fork. “So your solution was to nearly poison him.” She waved the oily hunk in front of his nose before huffing again and shoving it into her mouth. He groaned and grimaced. “A solid punch to the face does the same thing.”
“I agree with Corian,” I said. “You shouldn’t be putting your leader at risk. There are better ways to calm his urges.”
“Renny and I were too disgusted and pissed off to care about that.”
“As you should’ve been,” added Corian.
“I’m not saying I disagree with your motive or the tactics.” I took a tray from a very enthusiastic battle attendant and poured two glasses of water. “I merely want it on the record that I’ve berated Jemier for endangering the crown prince.” I passed Jemier a glass and gave the other to Eleric. Corian looked at me with raised brows. I feigned that I’d only wanted to do two at a time and poured us each a glass too. “You are lucky his own anger did not reveal itself to the whims of alcohol. For that matter, that yours didn’t.”
Jemier looked at the water with disdain. “Am I supposed to drink this?”
“It is quite literally going to help you feel less like death. Yes, drink it. Drink mine too. You deserve it after a night of protecting the world from Varin.”
“And mine,” said Eleric, passing his water along.
Corian shook her head and sipped hers. “I’m not going into battle dehydrated.”
“I hate all of you,” whined Jemier before groaning into a glass of water. He eventually swallowed. “Sorry about your bed, Eleric. Where did you end up for the night?”
“Your tent,” he said. “Someone had to use it. Don’t worry, I barely touched anything. It’s like I was never there.”
Oh, he was good.
Jemier took another, more successful sip of water. “I’m glad you didn’t freeze to death.”
Jemier recovered enough for the day’s battle, picking up after Varin’s messes on the battlefield. Eleric was stunning, gloriously defeating his enemies with swift, fatal strokes, delivering mercy where mercy was wanted. We won the battle, disabling the town, and Varin never made good on his hideous threats.
That night, Eleric retreated to my tent, and we met beneath the furs again.