“I don't like it, Aksel,” Liv whispered for the seventh time that morning.
“I know, but it'll be more of a problem if I don't,” the feran replied before kissing her gently. “I'll come back, Liv, I will.”
“But Aathrain? Does Colonel Shahriar really need you to go?” she pleaded, hugging him close.
Aksel sighed. A sad sigh, not exasperated. “Yes, he does.” His wife of four years buried her face in his neck, sobbing slightly. He tightened his arms around her, the expanse of the channel between the continents already tearing at his heart.
“Thinking about Liv again?” Cha'risa asked.
Aksel looked over at her and shook his head. Sergeant Cha'risa Darzi wasn't about to let him live down the fact that when he wasn't actively involved in doing something he was thinking about home. However, he really ought to have realized that denial was futile.
“Yeah, sure. You've thought about her every minute of every day since we left. Get a grip, Captain, you're acting like you'll never see her again.”
“You're not married, Darzi,” Lieutenant Eleazar Basara interjected. “Eyes to the road ahead and one day it'll be the road home.”
“Bas, stuff the quotes,” the woman countered sharply.
“You lot arguing like cats in a cradle again?” Captain Lerenvalhûn called from several meters ahead.
“Darzi never stops, Randost,” Aksel replied, nudging his horse, Devika, into a trot to catch up with his fellow officer.
“How true, how true.”
Randost Lerenvalhûn and Aksel Rok had gone through the army together from the beginning. They had signed up at the same time in the first year Sílar and humans were trained alongside each other and ended up bunking together. The best story to tell would be that they overcame racial prejudice or some other thing of that nature which would grant them the moral high ground in any confrontation. But, to be perfectly honest, they, and the rest of their squad, bonded over mutual hatred for their irritating, bureaucratic drill instructor. The two had always been promoted together, put on assignment together, even fell in love with and married sisters. Livia and Floressa Barone. As it happened, they were the daughters of the same irritating drill instructor.
“You think there's much point to King Iskandar's 'goodwill mission'?” Aksel asked after a few more minutes.
“I don't since we're not technically at odds with Gaeleda, but whatever keeps people off the battlefield, right,” his friend replied, absently rubbing his horse's neck. “You know how it works. Family first, job second-”
Arkham'sul was one of the southern city states had was informally called Canyon City. In the early days of recorded history in the southern continent, animal herders and farmers began hollowing out the rock at the far west end of the fertile canyon they had wandered into in search of good grasslands. They followed the river into the wall, first making only a thin path, then a road, then crude structures to shelter livestock, small buildings to serve as homes that would withstand the elements, and so on until they accidentally created a city.
The city became an independent state with a king, government and laws and over time Arkham'sul gained power and scholars came. Philosophers came. Engineers, artists, scientists, they fell in love with the idea of the kingdom in the canyon. Technology emerged with help from magica that created artificial sunlight, heating and cooling systems and defenses. The city began to simply exist within the carved out rock, somehow alive.
Aksel considered the city beautiful. It was always warm enough, not too bright and tiny elements of wonder blanketed every inch of every step whether it was a sun prism channeling the very rays of the great star itself or children playing safely in the street or grand, expansive carvings in the stones. These northern cities were ugly and coarse and cold. The only good thing being above ground afforded was the stars. On the first night aboard the ship across the Pass of Veriswen he decided to take Liv to see the stars when he got back. The northern Sílar said Mesak had given them the stars and Oraver had molded them into the constellations and whether that was true or not didn't quite matter. Not to him.
“Eliska, you really need to focus, if you can't grasp this concept what will I do with you!” Madame Iona cried, throwing up her hands in defeat.
“The concept is grasped,” Eliska sighed, setting down the teapot and grabbing a cloth to clean up the spilled liquid. “The execution is a bit more elusive.” As she moved Madame Iona took the opportunity to rant about and attempt to fix Eliska's blonde hair. Like most Sílar of the far north she was fairly tall, blonde, pale and had light eyes. Light green, like the green through the white haze on mint leaves.
“... You can use a war hammer with ease, but you can't pour a ceremonial tea or fix your hair like a lady!”
Before Eliska could spit out a harsh response the door opened to reveal her older brother and caretaker, Reikard. Reikard and Eliska looked alike and like their other brother, Balmoral. And like their parents. The Sílar of the north were characteristically beautiful and some claimed that this was because they killed the ugly ones. That, of course, was not true.
“Ah, Anher Toravanthar!” Madame Iona simpered, straightening up.
“Madame Iona,” he said, nodding in greeting. “How is everything going?”
Eliska cut off her tutor. “I’m impossible and will never get a southern husband. We really ought to head back up to the mountains.”
He sighed, shaking his head at her. “You know we can’t, Lis. I have a promise to keep.” He turned to Madame Iona. “Is it your professional opinion that her case is hopeless?”
“Well, it’s hard to say-” Before she could finish Reikard grabbed his sister’s hand and began pulling her out of the house.
“Reikard, am I really never going to marry?” she asked. Before now she had never really thought about it, then she had been forced under the tutelage of the Witch.
“I think that whomever Madame Iona was trying to prepare you for wasn’t worth marrying anyway.” He let go of her hand when they reached the street. Madame Iona had a small apartment on the third square of Aathrain and it was always a wonder to Eliska that she was allowed to live in the company of the craftsmen and the scholars. Perhaps Teaol and Amonrond had some sort of agreement about it.
The climb up the stairs to the fourth square was slow in the summer heat of mid-afternoon, but they had been invited to another party at the Rhuiloth’s. They had entered the city just a day after the Ronoleasoran engagement party and that had been not two weeks ago. Southern tradition on the northern continent was that the parents of the groom would hold their engagement party first, then the parents of the bride. Mostly all the same people came, but each family wanted a chance to show their wealth and consequence. After a few months in these southern cities she wanted to go home. At home a party was celebrating a good hunt or maybe an actual wedding, not a chance for the rich to congratulate themselves on making political connections.
The Toravanthars were staying with the Elenlithes on the south side of the fourth square. The Elenlithes were kind, gentle, honest people and Lady Rosatharia Elenlithe was their aunt on their livista’s side. Lord Caunion Elenlithe was not a complete northerner, nor a native of the Aathrain area, but the last Sílar from Cazoera. Cazoera was the first city founded in Gaeleda in the first age. During the latter part of the fifth age it fell into ruin because of the intense weather that ravaged the area and the last to leave it was Caunion. Due to that he was very old, now and had memories spanning over five thousand years.
When Eliska and Reikard reached the house they were greeted by the Elenlithe’s only child, Lucien, who was about Reikard’s age, perhaps a bit younger. Unlike his cousins his hair was cropped short and his beard no quite so wild, but he was just as tall, fair and beautiful.
“I take it Madame Iona has been discharged,” Lucien said with a smirk as the three made their way upstairs.
“You take it rightly,” Reikard replied, his mouth set in a grim line. “This whole business is unsettling to say the least.”
“You think it’s unsettling? All these southerners are idiots and Livista and Ost’hr want me to marry one!”
“I’m a southerner,” Lucien pointed out, vaguely offended.
Eliska considered this for a moment, then shook her head. “No, you’re not. Not really. Your parents are both northerners and you’re part of our family. The blood of your heart is from the north, even if the water you drink is from the south.”
Lucien stopped in his tracks, tilting his head to the side. “That is a very odd analogy.”
She shrugged before going into the room she was staying in to start preparing for the Rhuiloth party.
Landon pulled his cloak closer around him and stared into the dying embers of the fire. A few feet away he could hear his horse breathing steadily, a sign she was all right. He had wanted to follow the path on Aido’s map, but he told him to cross the Path of Veriswen at a spot where there wasn’t a port. He trusted the man, but he wasn’t yet sure how far. With one final sigh he let himself fall slowly asleep, one hand wrapped around the tantō.
In the morning he scattered the remains of the fire and grabbed an apple out of his bag, giving half to Yakira before saddling her. He ate his half as they started off down the road. In the distance he heard two young, male Sílar talking, just like every morning since he’d left Oscorai. Occasionally, he’d catch sight of them behind him and they never seemed interested. They were wealthy, he could hear it in their accents, see it in their posture. He guessed they were from the islands since they sounded like Miss Evi, but he couldn’t be sure at this distance. All he could do was keep his head down and follow the map.
“Lis! We’re leaving soon!” Rosatharia called up the stairs.
“Coming!” Eliska called back, quickly checking herself one last time in the mirror. She ran down the hall, and stopped when she reached the stairs, descending them slowly in an atypical fashion. When she found the bottom no one spoke. That was until she started laughing.
“What’s so funny?” Lucien asked, crossing his arms.
As soon as she could she replied, “I was just thinking about how only in stories the girl warrior will dress herself for a party and when she comes down the stairs everyone is speechless because they never knew she was beautiful.”
“Alright, let’s go,” Rosatharia said, rolling her eyes. “Verisira and I were never like this, were we, Caunion?”
“You can imagine the answer to that question is the desired one, ashi,” her husband replied carefully, as the door was shut behind them by the steward. Eliska suppressed another fit of laughter as the five of them made their way to the Rhuiloth’s home on the north side of the square.
No one used carriages in Aathrain. They couldn’t since the horses were stuck on the first square. This created a phenomenon called The Walk of the Peacocks. At least once a week, sometimes more, almost all of the residents of the fourth square would go to one gathering or another in their grandest attire, showing off like the vain birds their parade was named for. In harsher weather awnings were stretched across the walkways to alleviate the need for rain cloaks.
The Rhuiloth home was already alight with dance and music when they arrived, greeted politely by Areldë Rhuiloth, the current matriarch of the family. Her brother and his wife had perished in a wave of the White Fever, leaving her to care for their four children, Jenna, Laerassion, Aenor and Saivania. The word was that all but Jenna, the youngest, had turned out badly, cruel even. Jenna, however, was being married to a vashr most considered cruel, so it didn’t matter anyway.
“Ah, Anhera Eliska!” Areldë cried when she reached the younger Toravanthar, her smile sickly sweet and patronizing as she clasped her hand.
“Lady Rhuiloth,” she replied, giving her best attempt at a diplomatic smile. She noticed Lady Rhuiloth trying to motion over one of her nephews and spoke as quickly as was polite, “It was so kind of you to invite my brother and I and I do so wish we could continue to converse, but I believe my aunt had need of me.” She curtseyed, extracting her hand and hurrying off in the general direction of Lady Elenlithe. Upon seeing her aunt and uncle speaking with the Lord and Lady Ronoleasoran she absconded to the empty balcony.
At least, she had assumed it was empty.
She sank down on to a stone bench, wrapping her arms around herself. The air had cooled for the summer night and the star vines were open to the moon. After sucking in a deep breath of fresh air she closed her eyes and prepared to lay back and sleep the night away when a voice rudely interrupted her.
“Bored with the birds already?” Eliska looked to her right to find a vashr lounging across the back of the bench.
“I, uh, didn't know anyone was out here,” she said, sliding closer to the far end of the bench.
“I wouldn't think you did as your previous actions suggest,” he replied, nonchalantly examining his nails.
“Meaning what exactly?”
“If I hadn't said anything you would have ended up with your head in my lap. I was just trying to save you the awkwardness.” Eliska chuckled and relaxed her shoulders. “You're the northerner, right?”
“You say it like I'm the only one.”
“Only one that's new,” he replied glibly. “Out of curiosity, what's it like on top of the world?”
“You've never been to the far north?” she asked, wondering in the dark parts of her mind if he believed the southern stories.
“No,” he said with, perhaps she imagined it, a hint of sorrow.
“You should add Héroth's Deep to your route. At least, I'm assuming you're a traveler. I've been to at least four parties in the past two weeks and this is the first I've seen of you.” She paused for a moment. “I think you should have liked it.”
“I may go. Someday.”
“Make it someday soon.” Even with the perceivable eternity before her, Eliska believed what could done at the present moment should always be done immediately. It made little sense to much of the other Sílar who were content to move through life rather slowly and could wait years to accomplish anything. However, due to their exceedingly long life, it seemed as though they never changed.
“I think I shall go after you have returned,” he replied, “I think it should be frightfully dull if I don't know anyone.”
“I'm afraid you won't be going soon, then. I'm not supposed to go back until I've married some southern dignitary.” She waved dismissively, communicating, in part, her distaste for the plan.
He nodded. It was only then she realized she did not know his name and he did not know hers.
“I'm Eliska Toravanthar of the Locholeas Mountains,” she said hesitantly, unsure if the title was at all necessary, but he played along.
“Daermornian Lithelwa of the Southern Archipelago.”
“Really?” Her eyes widened in curiosity while he did the gentlemanly thing and kissed the back of her hand.
“I take it you've never been that far south.” Daermornian grinned, one side of his mouth higher than the other.
“No. Northern pride and prejudice and whatnot,” she said, jest in her tone. Cocking her head to the side, she said “You don't look like you're from the Southern Archipelago.”
Red fluttered in his cheeks. “Most people just ask if my parents were from there.” Like many courtiers, Daermornian was far more used to dancing around subjects like old philosophers and never saying what was really meant. In the silence that followed Eliska wondered if she had offended him.
She had begun an attempt to remember Mistress Iona's rules for apologizing when he spoke.
“My father was from Galador, actually. Jeryan and I have just been to visit relatives.”
It clicked. “You're the elder son of Daeron Lithelwa and Eruwael Kithastyir.”
“Yes.” He nodded solemnly. “You can say it: I'm the son of the flower merchant.”
Eliska laughed once before saying. “It's only shameful if they aren't good at it. You're father has held monopoly on the iris trade for over a hundred years.”
“I suppose that's true.”
Quiet fell again and Eliska simply observed her conversational partner. He was attractive by standards that she did not share. She preferred a northern beard. Especially red. Daermornian, and his brother, were blondes with southern brown eyes and the pale gold skin of the islands. He looked odd, maybe exotic, and she couldn't imagine a universe where a southerner thought she was attractive.
In Héroth's Deep, she was a beauty. In Aathrain she was strange. Wild blue eyes, blonde hair in braids, not twists and muscle and scars under her sleeves rather than the unmarked skin and bones that she was “supposed” to have. It was not in fashion for jarë and lelian to be competent. However, it was Eliska's opinion that if southern and south northern males ever ran into those that were, they would see what they were missing. Her friends at home agreed wholeheartedly. The only one who thought it was a bad idea was Kulthindir who said he didn't want southerners anywhere near his seven younger sisters. The northerners could be prolific breeders, but it was only to be expected. It was cold in the mountains. And frightfully dull.
“Do you stay long in Aathrain?” Daermornian asked, rising to stand by the balcony railing.
“I don't know, another month at least.”
She thought for a moment. Livista and Ost'hr hadn't expected it to take even this long, but it seemed they would have to improvise. “We'll try other cities, I suppose. Arkham'sul, Quelos'nira, Enayrualas, places like that.”
“Oh, I'm quite sure it will be, but it's apparently unavoidable.” A though flitted through her head and slipped out of her mouth before she could check herself. “I wonder that you're not married.”
“I should be,” he said, laughter dancing behind his words, “But the lady I was to marry met with a rather attractive guard one night. You may imagine the rest.”
“Did they run away together or did the Lithelwa family decide it was beneath their dignity to rear the child of another man?” she asked, almost mockingly.
“Both. The latter first and the former second,” he replied, almost gleefully, “She was nice, but not for me. Not really my type.”
“And what, pray tell, is your type?” Her eyes sparkled mischievously as she rested her chin atop her fist.
Daermornian released a short, breathy chuckle. “I'm not entirely sure. I suppose I may find out while I'm in the world. I'll be saddled with the iris empire before I realize it.”
“Not your mother's governorship of the islands?” She was now frightfully confused. The titles of the northern holds were passed from parent to heir or heiress.
“That's electoral, I'd have to campaign for that position and I'd really rather not,” he explained, striking Eliska with the idea that she knew so little of the world. “I've not much for leading, really. The Ronoleasoran heir is, though.”
“Is he?” She actually hadn't met him as of yet, but she was sure the introduction would come soon enough.
“You can see it in his eyes, the way he moves. He could lead an army, I think.”
She narrowed her eyes at him, “lead an army for what purpose? There hasn't been conflict since the Age of the Empire.”
“Oh, the conflict never left us,” he answered quietly, conspiratorially, “Why do you think they hate us in these southern cities, Anhera Toravanthar? Why do you think it's so vital that you wed a southern aristocrat? Tension is high and patience is thin, but I don't think the powers that be are to blame.”
“Then who, pray tell?” she hissed, attempting to find fault with his theory. War was the last thing anyone wanted. Well...
“A power that isn't,” he responded vaguely. He stood, and Eliska noticed his height immediately, he wasn't short, but, well, he wasn't tall, either. “If we stay out here too long people may talk.”
“As if they aren't already?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.
He laughed darkly and offered her a hand. “A dance, if I may, Anhera Toravanthar?”
She took the hand and stood with a smirk, “Only if you promise to explain yourself.”
“At a more appropriate venue,” he said easily, “You have my word, as a gentleman.”
“What about as a flower merchant?” she inquired as he led her inside.
“Only if you want it.”