Reign of King Ziyan, 3 years before Split
Chapter one: Rolo Ice Island
“Stop it, you’re scaring me.”
Darkness punctuated by the softest red. Xarthanias blinked, and found himself in a dimly lit cave, his dead Aunt Chanurise sitting by a stone wall with a stern look to hide her amused smile.
“Stop it, Fredric, you’re scaring me!” pled a younger Xarthanias. His evil cousin laughed uncaringly and continued to make demonic projections on the wall. The dying fire cast his face in menacing shadows. The fire did nothing to fight the biting cold, and Xarthanias’s nose burned, his eyes stinging. At three years of age, he had put up with his cousin’s teasing for thirty whole minutes, not wanting to seem like a baby, but Fredric was acting out a war scene in the shadows and it was all too congruent with the screaming and clanging of weapons just a few feet above their heads.
Xarthanias’s brother Nolle was sitting not too far away, drawing what looked like a crescent moon behind mountains. As he watched, Nolle traced a circle around the symbol. Xarthanias opened his mouth to scream at his twin, to tell him to look out. One of Fredric’s shadow hands was creeping toward unsuspecting Nolle, and as its tentacle-like fingers wrapped around his neck, Xarthanias felt an icy hand of death wrapping around his own ….
Xarthanias jerked awake, his hand flying to his neck, coming away dripping with melting snow. Fighting the urge to scowl, he scooped the snow out of his hood with great dignity. His face burned with rage as he tried to figure out who had thrown it, but fifteen faces innocently and dutifully observed the lesson. Xarthanias sighed and pulled up his hood, hoping to block out anymore nightmares. Blasted history – it was putting him to sleep.
Squinting through the omnipresent snow, Xarthanias tried to figure out what stuffy Lord Megal was talking about now. How could he tell which ice monster was which with this snow?
Suddenly, Xarthanias was oppressed by the warning essence of his twin.
Pay attention, Xar, Nolleban scolded, never taking his eyes from Lord Megal. We’re supposed to be making a good impression here.
How can I still be living? Xarthanias asked, groaning inwardly.
“And this is the oukmel-kabila, one of the oldest species of ice dragon, and the largest. They can reach lengths of up to fifty yards, and their dorsal fins can be ten yards high. This one is about three yards under the water.”
Xarthanias released the reigns of his horse to yawn and stretch, and shake off the dream. Unfortunately, stuffy old Nolle was right. He did have to make an impression. Rumours of war had been resolving themselves into plots over the last few months.
Now that the snow fell harder, it was easier to make faces at his brother as Lord Megal droned on about the frozen monsters trapped in the ice. They were at Kabila Lake, the palace just out of sight in the snowstorm. Apparently, the lake had suddenly solidified scores and scores ago, and the lake dragons had been trapped in frozen animation. A strange creature that looked like a horse-sized lizard bared its teeth at Xarthanias, two feet below him, eyes wide in eternal anger. The fin of a shark-like dragon loomed like a tower beside Lord Megal. Even atop his steed, the fin was above his head.
Besides Xarthanias and Nolleban, there were about sixteen other men: lords, princes, and guardsfrom the Palace at Kabila Valley. The twins, together with their parents, their cousin Fredric and Fredric’s father Prince Zondarban had come from Despartus on a diplomacy mission. As little as Xarthanias wanted to be stuck in the treaty meetings with his father, even less did he want to be out in the cold listening to dusty history. But his father had told them to share in the pride of Rolo Ice Island, and show a desire to understand the finer workings of this frozen kingdom.
The worst part was trying to look excited as the Rolans showed them one monument after another after another. Nolle, at least, was making polite conversation, but Xarthanias couldn’t be bothered. Fredric was supposed to be here as well, but as usual the worm had squirmed his way out of duty and was probably off sneaking around, usurping and the like. As usual.
“…and that’s how Kabila Valley got its name.” Megal finished, and the Rolans turned to Nolle and Xarthanias expectantly.
“So all of this is because of a sudden cold flash that struck the island? How could a whole lake have frozen that fast?” Though Nolle had been slipping sips of wine for the past two hours that they had been stuck out there, he still seemed interested enough. Xarthanias rolled his eyes, and didn’t care who saw anymore. Diplomacy was one thing, but torture? Was that what it took to keep these people happy? Xarthanias stroked his horse’s thick, soft coat, his fingers cold despite his thick, fur-lined gloves.
These people dressed like animals. He longed for his warm, sunny home, and for real clothing.
“There is no natural way it could have happened, it’s true,” Prince Gonyi cut in eagerly, smiling appreciatively at Nolle. Unlike the twins, who were wrapped in scarves and swathes of wool, everyone else wore only their hoods against the frigid weather. “We’ve found no answer. The only thing that could explain it is meirens.”
Xarthanias huffed. “Of course, anything that can’t be explained is credited to the sky spirits. Don’t you people have scientists or something?” he asked of a nearby companion. Though he had no doubt heard this story every season of his life, the man seemed to be deeply immersed in the story. A look of injury overcame his pale features. Prince Rafi, Xarthanias recalled. Gonyi’s third brother, probably fourteen years old. “Don’t you have any common sense?”
“You are all familiar with the patron meirens of Pessolanius,” Gonyi continued. Spoiled brat. The crown prince probably just wanted to impress everyone with the facts he had memorized from books. “Theshatna, the Wandering Ulrien of the West, where Cremavium now lies.” – Hail Cremavium, Land of Lore, Xarthanias automatically thought to himself. Where the ale and the women are free. – “Persautara, the Winsome Ulrien of the South, Betesia the Wise Ulrien of the East. And Zanurya, the Winter Ulrien of the North. Betesia was the Queen of the Ulriens, and Zanurya was jealous. There were many wars between them, and during one battle, Zanurya created a spell that crystalized the Island instantly. Nothing had a chance to escape.” Prince Gonyi indicated the angry frozen monsters beneath them, the frozen arcs of water above them. “The blue of the Rolo Ice comes from the blood of the meirens who fell that day, just before the freeze. And it is said that Betesia fled, but Zanurya was remorseful for what she had done, and she took the bodies of her fallen brothers and sisters and gave them proper burials. We are going to that burial site next.”
Lord Megal nodded appreciatively at Gonyi. Megal was not much older than Xarthanias, twenty at the most, but already he had the dry demeanor of a tired old man. The expedition continued on.
Being here, it was hard to imagine that Rolo and Despartus were on the brink of war. Part of the reason that Xarthanias refused to go to the meetings was that he preferred to stay oblivious to such touchy subjects. Wine tasted better when you weren’t worried about whether it was poisoned or not. Xarthanias knew that his father would rather not have him there anyway. He was the last person a king would want at a negotiation. He would probably end up starting a war in the council room. He smiled. Now, that would be a sight to see! Stuffy old men at arms! Flying scrolls, flying ink, but then, a servant comes in announcing lunch.
In the pass, the snow was deep. The shadows were even deeper. Xarthanias could barely see three feet in front of him. His horse, whose name he couldn’t remember, plowed confidently through, powerful muscles driving him forward. The horses here were smaller than the ones in Despartus, and the people were too. Xarthanias still hadn’t gotten used to his feet nearly dragging on the ground. Above them was the dusty white sky, and the light moved sluggishly through the inkiness. A dark spot on the rock resolved itself into the entrance to a gaping cave. Xarthanias yawned again.
“Remove your hoods,” Megal intoned. “We have reached the entrance of the Ice Tombs.”
Squinting, Xarthanias saw that everyone else had already bared their heads, even Nolle, and Megal was speaking only to him. Hastily he yanked back the hood of his cloak, exposing his head to the biting wind and the stinging snow. Megal lit a torch, and passed the flame to six others who led the way into the mouth of this new beast.
At first it was hard to tell what it was that they were supposed to be looking at. Sconces mounted on wooden panels were lit, and as his eyes adjusted, Xarthanias saw that the cave was made of wood and ice. Clear, flame-lit columns stretched from the glassy floor to the ceiling covered in snow encrusted spines. The walls were furnished with glossy mahogany cases that looked like coffins. Like Kabila Lake, the ice was tinged with the faintest hint of blue. They dismounted and went to the centre of the vast cavern. The lee offered a grateful solace from the cold wind and swirling snow.
“The Ice Tombs.” Xarthanias shuddered. Surrounded by the dead and the lost. He thought he saw a shadow dart behind the ice, and he flinched before reminding himself not to be a baby.
But even as a man, the shadows frightened him, and he sympathized with his little-boy self.
They were led deeper into the catacombs, and Lord Megal continued. “When the Freeze hit, many were killed on the passage from North Basin to Kabila Valley. They didn’t get much of a chance to escape.”
Lord Megal touched the flame he was holding to a depression in the ceiling, and with a whoosh, the whole room was awash in light. Small white tubes with holes in them filled with fire somehow, and they snaked all around the stalactites. The shadows within the walls of ice became people. Behind the shelves of coffins, between the walls they screamed, they cowered, their hands raised against an unseen enemy. A woman sobbed over her wailing baby. Near Nolle, a man pressed his hands against the glass wall, yelling for help. Xarthanias could hear their shouts, feel the frozen essences of terror and despair. Deeper into the ice they turned into dark silhouettes, cast into shadows once again.
A chilling, eternal tableau.
Nolle pressed his hand against the head of a small boy whose head was turned away, his other hand reaching toward a very old woman behind him. Cringing when his fingers made contact, he hastily took his hand away. Xarthanias stayed by the wall of the room, only moving his eyes. He didn’t dare walk. His trembling legs would probably give out on the slick floor. He faked a bored yawn, peered toward the entrance of the tomb to see if the light was fading yet. Again he thought he saw a shadow flicker at the corner of his vision, but he dismissed it. Surely this tour was over soon. What more could there be?
“To honour them, we bury those of the Royal House here.” Prince Gonyi shuffled to the centre of the wall of coffins and grasped the edge of the biggest and most elaborate one. On the side were words written in curling Gedian. Xarthanias had barely paid any attention to his Old Languages tutor, and the only thing he could make out was the word Yanaos, which meant “king”, and a name: Delo Guanhan. “Our first King, Guanhan, was the first to be buried here,” explained Gonyi as he struggled to pull back the lid of the coffin. “It was his dying wish, and after that, we buried all our dead in these tombs.”
Suddenly the lid flew backwards, and Gonyi jumped back with a scream.
With a simultaneous, deafening scrape, four more coffins opened, and out sprang five bloody, moaning, cloaked corpses.
Shouting and jumping back, Xarthanias drew his sword along with everyone else. In a moment of ambush, Gonyi was the one who was supposed to give orders, but his words seemed to be sticking in his throat and his mouth gaped like a fish.
“Tahreosir,” he whimpered, his sword limp in his hand. Heaven help us.
For a moment, there was a thick blanket of astonished silence. Outside, the wind howled. Finally, a laugh from one of the corpses broke the silence. Surrounded by blades and alarmed men, the risen dead collapsed into a fit a laugher. Gonyi, after the colour returned to his face, dropped his sword and reached to slap the shoulder of the nearest dramatist, pulling back his cloak at the same time. An offensive splash of bright red hair assaulted their eyes.
With a look of thunder, Xarthanias sheathed his sword and started toward Fredric, who was almost a foot taller but he didn’t care at the moment. How dare the fool embarrass them like this!
A hand grabbed the back of his cloak, and Lord Megal interrupted the attempted murder.
“But where is King Delo?” Megal exploded. He still had his sword out, and he swung it toward Fredric who stepped back with surprised eyes. “King Aukai? Princess Muriye? What happened to our dead?” The blade was pressed up against Fredric’s throat, which was covered in what looked like dried blood. It ran in streaks from his eyes like tears, and was caked in his hair.
A guilty look clouded his eyes.
“Who cares?” Gonyi crowed, throwing up his hands. Fredric looked much too pleased with himself as everyone else laughed. Xarthanias shook off the constraining hand and glared at his brother, who gave him a knowing glance. Xarthanias’s glare intensified. “It’s good to know that these Desparatans have a sense of humour after all! Here I thought they were dusty old kalincas!”
“Here’s to diplomacy!” Fredric yelled, raising a fist.
A few days later, Nolle looked down, down, down. The wind rose up to whistle through his bones.
“That looks dangerous.”
“What? No! It’s completely safe!”
“Really, Xarthanias? Because I think it looks very unstable.”
“Oh, you’re unstable! Don’t be ridiculous, Nolle; look, it’s frozen right through.”
Nolle took a swig, squinted. “Then, Xarthanias, why can we not hear each other whenever we go near it?”
Xarthanias turned away from the ice bridge and gazed steadily at his twin. “I don’t know, Nolleban! Please, it’s the end of both of us if we’re late for dinner again!”
“We wouldn’t be running late if you hadn’t dragged us out here in the first place.”
It was an old argument between them. Nolle was beginning to remember why he didn’t let his twin pony him around on his dangerous whims anymore. When would they learn their lesson? They were seventeen and this was the same trouble they found themselves in as small children. Nolle remembered that no matter what he tried to do, they always ended up being late for dinner. It was worse when it was just him and Xarthanias—usually they had Osarius and Belladia to help bail them out. Today it all fell to Nolle.
Kreptis etsi elea. Was this the circle path that he was doomed to follow?
Xarthanias had wanted to explore the glacial ranges that hadn’t been on the tour, and Nolle had reluctantly agreed to come. He still had plenty of wine left anyway. He tried to invite their cousin Fredric to accompany them, but a fiery glare from Xarthanias had Fredric backing away. He claimed he was still tired from retrieving the real bodies of the dead royalty after his sordid little prank.
Though they had been warned against exploring the ice fields alone, they had snuck out after lunch today and ventured up and up. At the moment, it wasn’t snowing like the sky thought it would never snow again, and the sun was actually shining around the white peaks. The frosty giants were nothing like the volcanic mountains at home.
Nolle had never considered how difficult climbing mountains would be, and as they went higher, snow had started up that got gradually heavier and heavier. Their cloaks had been designed for cold weather, but still Nolle shivered, and Xarthanias’s lips were turning blue. Telepathy was hard here for some reason, and they often had to talk out loud to be heard. Nolle’s suggestions of turning back hadn’t registered with his brother; to him, this was another part of a game.
Through the whiteness of the snow, Nolle could see the sun trying to penetrate. It wasn’t really snowing after all; wind was blowing snow off the mountains. The two continued up until they reached the very top of the mountain they were climbing, where the falling snow grew thin. Down below, the abundant flakes swirled like a handful of flour tossed high in the air, cloaking the path they had taken. From this high up, the palace was only barely visible, a tiny speck in a patch of shy sunlight. The high peaks of other mountains rose up all around them, and connecting them to one another were dozens and dozens of ridges and sparkling blue ice bridges. Some were nothing more than frozen, hair’s-breadth arcs of water, but others were so wide that they were part of riding paths. With the bright blue sky to compare only a glance away, the ice looked nothing more than a strange shade of white, but if he concentrated very hard, he could tease the blue hue into sight. As they watched, speechless time had crawled by, and before they knew it, long shadows flowed from the frozen fingertips of the mountains. Dinner was always served at sundown. Nolle had no idea how long it had taken them to get up there, but he knew that they had to leave, right now.
The vastness of the mountain range confounded their sense of direction, so the only thing they could think to do was head towards the tiny child’s replica of the palace in the distance. Instead of going straight down the mountain, they kept the palace in sight by taking the ice bridges across the range. The glide of their soft boots over the ice drew delicate singing noises from the bridges.
Now they only had this last bridge to cross. Something felt odd about it, like its frozen solidity was only a façade. In the falling darkness, this one was bluer than all the others, so blue it looked as if it were frozen dye. They couldn’t even go near it without losing the power of their orbalite pendants. Nolle could no longer sense his twin, and the lack of essence was lack the oppressive weight of absolute silence.
Xarthanias was right. Nowhere to go except forward. With a shrug, Nolle took a step. He rubbed his wool boot on the surface of the bridge and it sang like the others, so he took another step, Xarthanias following close behind. Dusk concealed whatever was down below. They were halfway across the long bridge when suddenly all the hairs on the back of his neck stood straight on end and a horrible shiver went through him. He came to an abrupt halt, Xarthanias bumping into him.
There was a loud, reverberating crack. With a yell Nolle fell to the ice, eyes darting erratically. After a moment of absolute silence, his brother’s hand hauled him to his feet. He shot Nolle a look.
“Nolle, you little luvren, stop being a baby. That was just the bridge adjusting to our weight. Now come on, if you don’t want it adjusting itself into nothing.” Tense and wary, Nolle said nothing. Xarthanias did keep a little closer to his brother before proceeding. “Come on, then. We might be in less trouble if we at least look like we tried to make dinner on time – ”
The next step they took collapsed the bridge.
Before they could blink they were tumbling downward among ice chunks the size of boulders and raining shards. This time, Xarthanias was screaming like a luvren too. He held fast to his brother’s hands as though it would somehow save them.
They bounced in the air like they had hit something solid, and then they started falling sideways. The wind had changed their course and they were now headed even deeper into the gully. The bump had loosened his flask of wine, and before he could grab it, it sailed off into the darkness. Nolle’s normally placid nature was carried away with the wind. “Xarthanias, you stupid little—”
Nolle gripped his brother tighter. “And no, this is not an adventure that I should ‘embrace’—wait a minute, I can hear you! I can feel your essence, too!”
Such shocking intelligence in one so young.
Shut up, Xarthanias! I have an idea!
Well, now would be a wonderful time to share, Nolle. Before we splatter would be marvellous.
Take off your cloak!
Take it OFF! I said I had an idea, do it now!
Even as he mentally screamed at Xarthanias, he was taking off the heavy cloak. He may as well have been naked for all the good his shirt did him; the wind dug its claws ravenously into his skin. He yanked Xarthanias’s off for him, since he was still staring at Nolle stupidly. He told Xarthanias to hold on to it by one corner, and he did the same with his.
Levitate my cloak! Nolle ordered, as he concentrated on the cloak streaming upward from Xarthanias’s hand. He could only find purchase on the highest upper part because of the graphite in Xarthanias pendant, and then he focused as hard as he could on stopping it from falling. He could feel a tug on his hand from his cloak as Xarthanias did the same, but he ignored it, keeping his mind on the other cloak. They were slowing down!
At last, they stopped falling altogether, and hovered in the air, struggling to stay still against the blowing wind. The ground was barely a hundred meters away.
There we go! For a second, Xarthanias lost his hold on Nolle’s cloak.
“Focus, Xarthanias,” Nolle hissed, for telepathy would break his concentration. “Slowly, slowly, we’re going to go down. Whatever you do, don’t drop me.”
They floated slowly downward, and when they felt solid ground beneath their feet, they collapsed on the craggy, cold earth. A little ways off, half buried in the snow and shadow, was Nolle’s flask.
* * *
The next day, Xarthanias waited in his room in the Palace, wondering what Nolle was mad at him about. Sure, they had been irredeemably late for dinner yesterday, holding up the entire occasion, and sure, their mother was forcing them to go to the ball tonight, but they were alive, and parties and balls were almost as good as festivals and playing fireball, if you knew how to play it right.
Finally, the Rolan Council of Turac had reached an agreement with the Desparatan representative Council of Eram, and the nations celebrated this victory. The agreement was to not make a decision at this time, and to continue negotiations later.
Certainly the party was better than another drafty tour. Though a part of him was amused at his cousin’s trick, mostly he was annoyed by Fredric’s need to show off. Okay, and maybe he was the tiniest bit jealous that he hadn’t thought of the trick himself. Not that he ever could have done it. But still. He scowled for a moment at his white carpet.
Nolle should have been thanking him for saving him from another dreadful hour of studying or basically moping around the palace doing nothing but drinking his stupid ale. He snorted. It was a good thing he was the one who would wear his father’s crown one day, because if Nolle had been born first, the entire kingdom would perish from boredom and neglect.
As always when he thought of his future as king, Xarthanias’s consciousness dissolved into daydreams. He would wear the crown with flourish. Since the day he was born, joyous planning had been put into his coronation ceremony. As he would be the tenth king of Despartus, his coronation would be an occasion more celebrated than that of any other king before him. It was an honour and a cause for festivities. Every detail had been relayed to him about his pending Ceremonies of Ten and though they weren’t for another ten years – what Xarthanias saw as a cruel trick considering all of the truly exciting aspects were being told to him now, at age seventeen – he already felt as though he had the world under his thumb.
Lounging in his obtrusively white room, he thoughtfully polished the tips of his boots with his gloved fingers while he waited for Nolle. He was only across the hall, close enough for Xarthanias to feel the rage in his twin’s essence. He shifted, feeling as though he were standing too close to a fire. Xarthanias tried again to tell his brother that it wasn’t that bad, he should calm down, and get ready to have a good time, but Nolle put up the mental wall again. Xarthanias’s message floated uselessly just outside his brother’s door.
Unable to sit still, he crossed to his window. All the windows in the palace were quite small to preserve heat, and some were so thick that one could not make sense of the warped world beyond. His window lent him a slightly wavy view of a pond not far from the palace, and he could make out the figures of skaters. Fredric, the tallest by a foot and the one with the brightest hair, weaved in and out, wobbling on his skates and caught by laughing friends before he could spill to the ground. His father Zonderban came into view, and everyone left the pond. The ball was in progress, but the most important people arrived last. Ha! Fredric, an important person. The tilag could barely even keep his hair on.
He turned his attention to the ceiling of his room. He was glad that the sun had gone down. When it was up, his room was unbearably bright, the white drapes doing little to block the light out. The carpet was like a snow panther’s fur, his bed a large expanse of frosty coverlet. The pillows resembled blocks of ice. Even the fireplace was white (what a trial to keep it clean!), and when it burned, the flames seemed to give off cold rather than warmth. Xarthanias would have rather been outside, where he could have an excuse to bundle up in his cloak and winter boots. Simply being in this room turned his fingers blue.
Finally, Nolle emerged, and Xarthanias rose from his bed and opened his door. Nolle was already halfway down the white hallway. Xarthanias caught up and tried to clap Nolle reassuringly on his white-clad shoulder, but Nolle caught his hand in midair and gave him a level, dangerous gaze. Mustering up the malice from his good spirits to glare back, Xarthanias ripped his hand out of Nolle’s grasp and continued on to the ballroom without him. After a moment, Nolle stalked after. What a luvren. Upset simply at a lecture from their mother. If Nolle was going to be a stick-in-the-mud, he could do it by himself, Xarthanias resolved. He would have fun without him.
They reached the ballroom entrance. Past the guards at the open double doorway, people dance, and food and drink was passed out on silver trays. Nolle stiffly followed Xarthanias through.
It was like stepping outside; a shiver crawled up Xarthanias’s spine. Everything from the ball gowns to the gloves to the tables and the chairs were so white he had to squint to see. Ladies had icy diamonds on their gowns and in their hair, and the humungous chandelier was cut crystal in snowflake patterns. Noblemen wore white boots and white feathered hats, with white capes and white sashes. Xarthanias glanced at his dark brown boots, red coat, and black belt. He was an unsightly stain on the perfect white spectacle that was Rolo Palace. Nolle was dressed for the occasion, of course, but at least Xarthanias wouldn’t crystalize in the frigidity seeping from the room. He took in the sheerness of it all as he and Nolle wandered the ballroom, accepting a cut crystal chalice of white wine that was offered to him. Nolle politely accepted one, stared at it wanly for a few moments before taking a small sip. His eyes slit in pleasure as the drink touched his tongue. If there was one thing the Rolans did right, it was their wine. Unable to resist taking sip after sip, he was soon flagging down a waiter to bring him another, and he knocked back two more glasses before taking one to stand with. It, too, was gone in five minutes. By this time, he was swaying slightly, and his begrudged demeanor had segued into one of amusement and contentment.
If there was one thing Nolle did right, it was being a happy drunk.
Swooping from out of nowhere, Fredric pounced on Nolle, nearly knocking him over. Hail, Rolo! Land of lore, where the wine is divine and the attire’s a bore!
Enjoying the party, Nimbus? Nolle asked luridly, smiling at Fredric. Nolle called him Nimbus because his hair was like a cloud, but at the moment, it was like a bloody stain atop his white-clad body. Xarthanias edged away.
He was too distracted to drink his wine. They stood near the outside of the expansive room under the wraparound balcony that overlooked the partygoers, Nolle in an intoxicated dance with Fredric and Xarthanias regarding a group of young women whom he had noticed about the palace. Most of the people on Rolo Island were snowy-blond with icy blue eyes, but the white gowns the women wore brought out the honey tones in their hair. Next to them, Xarthanias’s golden hair was brown. Their blondness brought images of Belladia back in Despartus, but the thought of his supposed sweetheart evaporated when the prettiest one, who had creamy skin and nicely shaped lips, caught Xarthanias watching them and offered a catty little wink. He smiled, handed his untouched glass to Nolle – who knocked it back without hesitation, still jigging with his cousin – and was about to amble over when something cold and wet landed on the top of his ear and slid down his neck.
…icy hands of death…
Startled, he jerked his head up, wondering if the ceiling was leaking snow from the palace roof, but he saw Prince Gonyi and his friends laughing down at him from the wraparound balcony. Staring at them for a moment, Xarthanias turned away from the pretty girls and clipped up the stairs to the balcony.
Unstable on his suddenly too-large feet, Nolle left his brother’s glass on the nearest table and followed. Fredric was about to come as well, but he was swept up by a beautiful young Lady, to whom he bowed gallantly and took up dancing.
From this vantage point they could see everything, and everyone, including their mother and father talking with the king and queen of Rolo Ice Island. For once his mother didn’t look like she was about to have another set of twins, and his father was actually laughing at something the other king said.
It sometimes baffled Xarthanias how two such powerful people could be so uptight. King Ziyan had an entire kingdom at his disposal, and his mother could have whatever she wanted at any time. When he was king, Xarthanias vowed he would have more fun.
He recognized only three of the six people there: Gonyi and his younger brother Heftan, and Reistes, a cousin or some other relation. Gonyi was only nineteen, and had proven to be quite immature, in Xarthanias’s eyes. In a metal bucket on the floor near the balcony railing was a melting collection of snow. Gonyi slapped Xarthanias on the shoulder and gave slap-happy Nolle a passive nod.
“Xarthanias! So glad you could make it.”
Xarthanias regarded him without expression before replying. What’s that for? he asked of the bucket.
Shifting slightly away, Gonyi smiled again. “You take some and drip it on people down below. They think the roof is leaking!” Gonyi and the rest howled like dogs. Xarthanias tilted his head mockingly.
Is that the best joke you have? Come now, even you can do better than that, I’m sure.
Gonyi grimaced. “It’s really unsettling how you Despartans do that. What is this, magical or something?” He snatched up the orbalite pendant around Xarthanias’s neck.
“No, it’s not magic,” Xarthanias replied smoothly, prying Gonyi’s fingers off the stone. “The intricacies of telepathy and telekinesis are for another time.” Xarthanias’s voice, so little used, sometimes startled him.
“Alright. You want to try this?” Gonyi nodded at the bucket. “It’s actually quite funny. Sometimes they scream, or their companions think they have perspired through their ball clothes!”
“Isn’t that quite rude?” Nolle slurred with an uncoordinated frown, speaking up for the first time. Nolle couldn’t care less about Gonyi’s discomfort with telepathy, but he was having trouble even thinking. He looked around for more wine.
“What’s this?” Gonyi crossed his arms, his eyes fixed shrewdly on Nolle. “I didn’t know you brought your little sister, Xarthanias.”
Xarthanias pursed his lips but said nothing. Don’t start, Nolle, he thought to his brother, but Xarthanias wasn’t even sure if Nolle could hear him. Nolle kept his green eyes level with Gonyi’s comparatively pale ones only for a second, and then they lost focus. After a moment, Gonyi turned back to Xarthanias. “So anyway, give it a try. Here you go.” He handed the metal bucket to Xarthanias.
Nolle stumbled forward and took the bucket from his brother. The others exchanged amused, raised-eyebrow looks. Xarthanias remembered why he never took Nolle anywhere anymore. Even drunker than he had ever been, he was still a wet blanket. He really was a luvren in the worst way.
“Xarthanias, don’t!” Nolle insisted, though his words ran together nearly incomprehensibly. “Jewannag’tintrubble ithmoth’er ghen?”
To translate, Prince Nolleban tried to say, “Do you want to get in trouble with mother again?”
Puzzled for a moment, Gonyi paused, and then the smile in his scrawny face was wicked like the end of a whip. “Ah, yes, I do remember you had an incident with the Rolo ice the other day. Did your little sister scream like a baby girl, Xarthanias?”
Though Xarthanias couldn’t agree more that Nolle needed to lighten up – and sober up, because he was worse when he was sloshed – teasing felt plainly cold-hearted from scoffers other than him. This was quite enough. “No, Gonyi,” said Xarthanias slowly, taking a step toward the other boy. Gonyi’s smile faded. Xarthanias and Nolle were quite a bit taller than him and his friends and more impressively built. Gonyi’s white clothing made him look wraith-like. “Nolle was the one who saved us. He may lack a sense of humour, but at least he can keep his head in an emergency. I’ve heard stories about you and your friends and the Rolo ice as well.”
Gonyi swallowed and looked away for half a second but showed no other signs that Xarthanias had hit the mark. “He saved you? I doubt that. He’s nothing but a little girl-child.” Again with the hoots and guffaws from Gonyi’s brainless friends.
“Eye knot!” Nolle snapped, leaving nothing but mocking smiles in the silence’s wake as he swayed. Uneasily Xarthanias shifted his gaze from Gonyi to Nolle and back, uncertain of what to expect. Nolle’s wine-induced demurral front was slipping by the second.
“Prove it,” Gonyi spat.
Nolle jerked his hand at the bucket in Gonyi’s` hand, and all the ice water floated up in a bucket-shaped bubble and hovered over Gonyi’s head. Well. That proved his telepathy still worked. “This your idea of a joke?” Nolle asked quietly, concentrating hard on the words, letting the water go. Gonyi stood frozen and speechless as the water crashed over him, and his friends scurried away shrieking. Xarthanias raised his eyebrows and folded his arms over his chest, fighting his smile. “Well, know what I say to that? Pish…posh!”
Gonyi’s eyebrows drew together in befuddlement as water dripped off him onto the floor. The fact that Nolle had just doused him in freezing water was forgotten as apprehension replaced his enragement.
A glimmer like a single star on a black night shone in Nolle’s drunken eyes. Xarthanias had the feeling his hermit twin was going to make this night very memorable. Nolle closed his eyes. Anticipation like a heat wave shimmered in the air as they all watched Nolle. Heftan made a sound of surprise and pointed over the railing, breaking the silence. Disbelief widened Xarthanias’s eyes as he turned and beheld the sight before them. A gigantic wobbling bubble of Rolan white wine floated just out of reach, high over the party below. Balls of wine floated up from the goblets around the room to join the giant bubble. An unstable image of people shouting and pointing showed through, like looking into a puddle of yellow-tinged water. Choking on his surprise at his brother’s arbitrary display of rebellion, Xarthanias flicked his eyes back at Nolle, who smiled, eyes closed, like he had lost his mind. But clearly he hadn’t. Or maybe, in fact, he had. It was remarkable that Nolle had the control for this mindmap, as he was sloshed as a lake and only seventeen, to boot.
The drunk mindmaster’s green eyes opened.
Xarthanias whirled in time to see the bubble drop onto the people below. All he could do was stare and listen to the screams.
“Should really tell your father to get that leaky roof fixed!” Nolle laughed as he grabbed hold of Xarthanias and careered drunkenly away.
Well, here’s to diplomacy.