Glaciem yelped and sprang to her feet, her heart thumping uncomfortably in her chest as she did. She spread her hands wide, calling for any water she could summon from the air. There was not much; the books in the room greedily sucked up whatever moisture they were able to find. She could only manage a small knife of sorts. It was thin and frail and would only give her one strike should she need it.
“Reveal yourself immediately.” She commanded, raising her weapon up in front of her.
Enemies of the Elders were few, but Glaciem and Bick had spent their life training for them and she was fully prepared to fight whatever threat that might have come upon the Elder’s home. She felt calm, nothing like when she had faced the guard, the agitating effects of the vision no longer controlling her logic and sense. Here, she was fully in charge, poised, and prepared to handle whatever fool who had been idiot enough to assume he could slip unnoticed into the Elder’s home amidst the bustle of the crowds below.
“You needn’t worry. I’m not here to cause you any harm.” A young man chuckled lightly as he stood up from the chair on the far side of the unlit fireplace.
It had been too dark for her to have spotted him originally. He held his hands up to show that he did not carry a weapon.
“Who are you?” She asked, no less alarmed and irritated at herself for having not scanned the room before.
He stepped towards her and into the afternoon light. He was handsome, with light brown hair and rich amber eyes. He looked older than Bick, but it couldn’t have been by more than a few years. He was dressed in simple, well-made clothes. He paused a moment to allow her eyes to adjust to the dim light before bowing to her.
“Currently, I’m a person bearing little significance to you, but I’ve known you for quite some time.” He said, holding his hand out to her.
She did not take it.
“You cannot know a person whom you have never before met.” She replied coldly.
He laughed. “I suppose you’re right.” He let his hand drop to his side gracefully. “My name is Alexandros. I am a friend to Strong Heart.”
“I did not ask how you know the First Elder’s son, I asked how you can claim to know me. I have never laid eyes on you until this moment.” She noted his relaxed stance and lowered her weapon slightly, still unwilling to let her guard down entirely.
He tilted his head and smiled impishly, clearly enjoying himself, “I’m your betrothed, Glaciem.”
Glaciem took care to conceal her annoyance at his declaration, unwilling to give him any sort of advantage over her, however small. She studied him for a moment before deciding he wasn’t a threat. The ice knife melted from her hands, the water dissolving into a wisp of mist. She weighed his words as she bent down to pick up her book from the ground, having dropped it in her haste.
“I don’t believe you.” She said finally.
She walked past him to leave through the door. If the library could not offer her solitude, she would find someplace else.
“It’s locked.” He turned to watch her.
She turned the handle and huffed. He was right. The door would not open.
“How on earth did you get in here?” She asked, frustrated. She had hoped to avoid any further conversation with this strange man whom she had never seen before.
“I entered the same way you did.” He said, gesturing towards the window. “You don’t suppose you’re the only one who’s thought of that, do you?”
Glaciem snorted, her irritation growing. “Of course not.” She admitted flatly.
With the Village having been so busy, she realized he could have climbed the wall and made his way into the library hours before she and Bick had even returned from the Border Tree. It was also possible that he could have been climbing the far side of the wall the same time as she had been working her way from her room. It would have been an amusing sight from the ground, and the fact that she now found herself laughing inwardly at the thought of two people simultaneously scaling the tower only served to annoy her even more.
She rested against the door as she faced him, her jaw clenching in between sentences. “Regardless, I would have thought any person not a family member of the First Elders would think twice before trespassing upon their property so freely.”
Alexandros’ grin widened as he fluidly turned to lean against the wall opposite the door, his eyes never leaving hers. It unsettled her. “I’ve never been one to follow the rules of decorum, to be honest.”
“Clearly.” Glaciem said as she clenched her fists in time with her jaw.
Alexandros continued, wholly unfazed by the bite in her words. “Strong Heart showed me this place earlier. I had been harping on him for weeks now to be allowed to meet you before the ceremony, hoping to introduce myself to you before we were ruthlessly thrown before the entire Village. Finally, he relented and told me about the library and how you scale the wall to get to it. It was a bit of a gamble; he wasn’t entirely sure if you would be coming here at all, but I was willing to wait and see. Besides,” he said, gently running a hand across the shelves of books beside him, “you have an impressive collection. I can see why you enjoy spending your time here.”
Glaciem was irked. Bick should have known better than that. “And what else has Strong Heart been so kind as to tell you? Does he now give you a full report of my whereabouts?” She asked, emphasizing Bick’s given name.
“No, Bick does not.” Alexandros retorted, emphasizing Bick’s nickname. “He simply showed me where I might find you and told me that if I could find a way up to this room without notice then I was welcome to try.”
“And did you think about the considerable challenge of climbing back down?”
Alexandros pulled a small, golden key from a back pocket. He took a step closer to her so she could see the small piece of metal glinting as it caught the light from the window.
“As clever as I supposed I was, I had not considered it. Strong Heart, however, did. He offered me a safer route. He said it was easier going up than down.”
Glaciem looked at the key for a short while before handing it back to him. “Well, you have met me. I am sure I’m not at all what you expected and I’m sorry to disappoint, but I fear I must get ready to meet…well, you, if you’re telling me the truth.”
She went to the window to open it and leave as Alexandros turned to watch her, his hand on the door handle behind him.
“You will find out soon enough that I’m telling you the truth, Glaciem. And you need not leave that way.” Alexandros moved to the door and unlocked it. He opened it for her. “It would be faster.” He said, nodding towards the hallway.
Glaciem paused as she weighed his offer silently. Finally, she moved away from the window and back towards the door.
“Thank you.” She said quietly.
“You are most welcome.” He replied quietly, moving aside for her.
She walked through the door, but stopped, pausing in the hallway. “I have never met another person who could scale that wall. How were you able to?” She asked as she turned back to Alexandros.
He grinned. “Do I impress you?”
She couldn’t tell if he was poking fun at her, or simply trying to make her smile. Neither option pleased her.
“No.” She replied stiffly.
“It seems you require more than gallant acts of bravery.”
Alexandros laughed loudly. “Believe me or not, amazingly enough, I did manage to climb that damned wall, though I can’t imagine doing it more than once. It was harrowing enough the one time. I don’t think I’ll ever try it again and you have my full admiration for climbing it regularly.”
He held out his hand to lead her back into the room and though the spark remained in his eyes, his tone was more serious.
“Please, don’t go quite yet. Talk with me for a little longer? I have failed utterly with your first impression of me…tell me what I might do to redeem myself.”
Glaciem looked back down the hallway. She didn’t want to go back to her room or the bathhouse and finding another place to hide from people would be near impossible at this point.
“Very well.” She sighed as she walked back into the room, ignoring the hand he still offered to her. She sat down in one of the chairs next to the dark fireplace, the one he had originally been sitting in. “Feats of stupidity, or bravery, or whatever you wish to call it, do not appeal to me in the slightest. I would prefer honesty from you above all things.”
“I suppose I should expect nothing less.” Alexandros replied as he sat down across from her. He pondered her for a moment. “If you desire honesty then you shall have it. I wasn’t lying to you when I said I have known you for quite some time, even though you may not have known me. Though, you are rather a popular subject among the people in general and are known to many, something you might not have been aware of considering how you spend most of your time underground.” He paused to raise an eyebrow at her.
She shrugged at him. She didn’t really have a good response.
He continued, “The First Hominem sought my family out five years ago, after yours and Bick’s altercation.”
Glaciem snorted at the thought as Alexandros allowed a small grin to pull at the corner of his lips. He continued.
“The First had settled on my older brother as your prospective betrothed. However, my brother would not be persuaded. He refused to bend, even at the threat of exile. My father, who if nothing else is an extremely clever man, suggested me instead. This was the chance of a lifetime, fame and renown. My father came from a wealthy family and he was not about to let the opportunity of further elevating his status slip through his fingers simply because one son refused to comply. The quandary, however, was that I was already betrothed.”
Alexandros stopped for a moment as he remembered. As he did, Glaciem silently noted the rueful snort that quietly escaped his nostrils.
“Her name was Rose, and I was entirely besotted.” He said quietly, looking at the dark and cold fireplace. “I was madly in love. I was young when I met her, our betrothal having been established in my fourteenth year which was much earlier than most. My family had arrived here nearly fifteen years ago from across the Mountains. We hail from the Northern Waters. We are of an old name and history and the Elders were very interested in the wealth of knowledge we could provide them. They made sure to strengthen our bonds to the Village as soon as a suitable girl had come of age. A decision too hastily made, they later decided.”
Glaciem raised an eyebrow in surprise. The people of the Northern Waters were unique; having lived with the threat of the Barbarians of the Salted Waters on one side, and the ruthless wilderness of the Mountains on the other. They provided many of the guards in the Village, a race of warriors and talented fighters. It was strange for anyone of the Northern Waters to travel to the Village without having first been called by the Elders.
Alexandros continued. “Even though marrying Rose would have secured our place among the people, my father wanted more. He wanted power, not just recognition. Power, wealth, knowledge, the favor of the Elders. Thinking about it, who would not wish for that? When my brother refused you, Rose was immediately married to him, thus revoking my betrothal and freeing my hand to take yours instead.”
As Alexandros finished, he studied Glaciem intently, any hint of mirth now gone from his eyes.
“You must have been devastated.” Glaciem replied softly after a time.
He looked at her evenly. “Quite.”
“I’m surprised you’re interested in speaking to me at all if that’s the case. Do you not despise me entirely?”
Alexandros shrugged. “There was a time when I did resent you. My father had married Rose to my brother without even giving me the chance to say goodbye to her. I was forced to watch her marry a man she did not love. I watched my brother silently bear the weight of my father’s commands and take the hand of a woman he barely knew. I watched them bear my nephew, the son who would have been mine. His name is Derens. He might become a respected leader of the village in time.”
“So you are angry with me then.” Glaciem did not ask, but rather stated it.
“No. I’m not.” Alexandros said quietly, shaking his head slightly.
“Why are you not?”
“You know as well as I, and probably more so than most, that the Laws of the Village are absolute. The will of the Elders cannot be argued. I realized my anger towards you was not caused by you, but rather because of the situation you happened to also be a part of. The reality is you had as little a choice in the matter and I, my brother, or Rose did.”
Alexandros’ eyes did not leave Glaciem’s until she finally blinked and looked away, uncomfortable with their blatant staring. The whole conversation made her uncomfortable. She shifted in her seat, discreetly trying to position herself into a less open angle.
“I’m sorry for the hardships your family and loved ones have endured. In some ways, it is my fault, whether you would admit it or not.” She said after a moment.
“You might be of the Blessed, but you shouldn’t presume to think so highly of yourself.”
Glaciem looked back at him in surprise and huffed, “That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
Alexandros gave her another lopsided grin.
Glaciem sighed, trying to suppress her irritation. “Must you poke fun at me when I’m trying to be sincere? I’m sorry. Truly.”
“Don’t be.” He said as he waved her apology away with his hand. “Strong Heart and I were already friends when he was sent to persuade me to consent to the match. I trusted him, and in all honesty, it didn’t take long for me to become interested. He’s quite fond of you. I believe he speaks more highly of you than he does his own father and mother.”
“I’m quite fond of him.” Glaciem admitted. “He is my dearest friend and brother. Though I’m not sure he was telling you the full truth about me if he described me as kindly as you say he did.”
She flashed him a rueful grin, surprising herself as she did. She was still uneasy with the man across from her. She hadn’t expected to be willing to jest with him, however mild it might have been.
“I can assure you he was most honest about what you might consider to be faults.” Alexandros said, his eyes dancing a little.
“I see. And…?”
“And?” He looked at her curiously.
“Well, surely you must have a more complete opinion of me now that you’ve seen me in person. I’m curious to know what it is.”
“And if my opinion of you is poor? What would you say?”
“I’d say you don’t have a choice in the matter.” She retorted bluntly. “As you said before, you know as well as I that the Laws of the Village are absolute.”
His response was somber, but even so, Glaciem could sense his amusement at her attempt to make light of their situation.
She did not reply and the two remained quiet as they considered one another. After a time, Glaciem shifted again, not so much out of discomfort this time, but more as a desire to rally her will to prepare for the evening. As she made to lift herself up from the chair, Alexandros’ voice broke through the silence.
“I am pleased at the thought of marrying you.” He said softly.
His response surprised Glaciem. She settled back into the chair, unsure how to answer him. Until now, the idea of a betrothed had been nothing more than something spoken of by others. She had never devoted any time to think about it, choosing rather to accept it as the inevitable fate of all who were not naturally born into Village.
When the issue had first been brought to her attention, the Elders had made it clear that, should she refuse, she would be parted from Bick and Narratus immediately. Her love for Narratus was well-known and as Bick had now become her closest companion, she had consented, as did all who were faced with an unwanted betrothal, of which there were a great many. Now, however, she was becoming more aware of its inevitability, and with that awareness came a swirl of feelings and thoughts that she was unable to fully interpret.
Finally, she said, “I’m glad you’re pleased. I have to admit I’m also a bit relieved. The Elders have made worse matches before.”
Alexandros chuckled. “I suppose that is all I could hope for.” He stood and offered his hand. “Please. You have rejected my hand each time thus far. Allow me at least one chance to hold it, if only for a moment.”
She hesitated a moment before accepting, allowing him to pull her out of the chair. Alexandros pulled her close enough for her to take in the clean scent of his clothing, the sharp aroma of some unknown spice pricked at the corners of her eyes. Glaciem braced herself as a jolt of panic zipped through her stomach, but he did not bring her any closer.
Instead, he simply turned her hand palm up and traced the blue design with his thumb, studying it before looking intently at her. “I am truly honored to be your betrothed, Glaciem. And I gladly offer you my loyalty in all things.”
Glaciem drew in her breath as Alexandros gently pressed his lips against the palm of her hand. His breath was warm against her skin, and the panic returned in full force, rising up in her throat and overtaking the steady thrum of her heart. Her cheeks burned as she yanked her hand away. His sincerity shook her thoroughly and she didn’t want to be in the same room with him for another moment.
“Forgive me,” He said sheepishly, looking at her, his grin apologetic. “I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable.”
“You’ve done nothing wrong.” She replied tightly, her voice strained.
Alexandros bowed slightly before stepping to the side so she could pass him. Glaciem forced herself to meet his eyes.
“Thank you for going through the effort of meeting me here.” She said softly, her fists balled tightly as she willed her heart to calm itself. “I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.”
He smiled softly at her. “You’ve done nothing to offend me. I’m sorry I took you by surprise. Shall we talk more at the ceremony tonight?”
“Yes,” she replied as she walked past him.
She did not look back.