At the head of the Great Hall, Glaciem sat next to Bick. Her chair was in the middle of all others seated at the Table of the Elders. The ceremonial chair that had been reserved for her was far too big and far too hard. It made her back ache the moment she sat down. She had spent the majority of the night shifting uncomfortably, unable to find a position that didn’t send waves of discomfort up her spine and into her hips.
The entire Village had spent the whole of the evening taking turns congratulating her, a long line forming along the side of the room, slowly moving by her. She was obliged to acknowledge each one, offering her hand to the men who lightly touched their lips to it, something that irritated her skin to no end. When the women passed by, she gave them what she hoped looked to be a courteous nod.
Bick was in the chair to her left and seemingly in a wonderful mood. He laughed gaily with those who stopped to speak with him before they paid their respects to Glaciem. The Elders, five on Glaciem’s side and four on Bick’s, sat tall and were quietly enjoying the feast, their black robes in stark contrast to the festive clothing of the guests. Their stones glimmered brightly in the light of the many torches hanging from the walls, their many colors reflecting back into the eyes of civilian and guard alike.
Glaciem had immediately noticed Narratus’ vacant seat. She had not, however, been so foolish as to enquire about him to the guard who had escorted her to her seat at the beginning of the feast. Her earlier encounter with the guards had taught her better.
She still felt uneasy whenever she thought of the House of Meeting and of her vision. Questions regarding the nature of the boy she saw in the Forest and why she had not been permitted to see Narratus wrestled in her mind, further tangling her thoughts and deepening the discomfort in her stomach. She had not been able to stop thinking about it the whole evening, the jovial atmosphere exacerbating her nerves more than anything.
While her unease was nothing compared to what she had experienced earlier during her vision, she wholly regretted eating from the platter in her room earlier. The fact that she was being deliberately kept from the old man gnawed at her incessantly and her stomach threatened to reject what little food she had managed to get down. Not only was Narratus was as precious to her as she to him, she was confident that he was also the only one in the Village who would have the answers she so desperately craved.
“You look as if you’re being held here as a captive.” Bick leaned over to hiss at her. “Can you at least try to smile?”
“Forgive me, but my mind is preoccupied with other, more important things.” She whispered back.
Bick snorted. “More important than your betrothal ceremony?”
“Yes.” Glaciem snapped. “Besides, there are too many people I don’t know, and it is far too loud! I don’t understand how you’re in such high spirits. How can you abide it?”
“You need to put the events of earlier aside and focus on what is happening right in front of you!” He raised his voice a little, though she could not tell if it was out of frustration or so he might be heard above the noise of the crowds.
She looked at him skeptically, “And pray tell, how should I go about doing that?”
Bick grinned at her, “Well, for one, you might try a sip of what’s in your goblet.” He held it up to her with a wink. “You might like it!”
Glaciem sniffed at the wine sloshing in the cup Bick had shoved in her face. She took it from him and immediately set it back down without drinking.
“If you are suggesting the only means by which I can enjoy myself tonight is to get drunk, then you can keep your sage advice to yourself, brother.”
Bick laughed and took a long drink from his own goblet. “I’m not suggesting you should get drunk, I’m only suggesting that you not worry so much about things you cannot control. Narratus is fine, I’m sure of it, and I’m sure the guards were placed before the House of Meeting for a perfectly sound reason. You were nervous about tonight, which is why you acted as you did.”
Glaciem gave him a look that made it clear she wasn’t convinced.
“Glaciem,” Bick said, exasperated. “There is nothing to worry about. Look. Tonight has come and no terrible disasters have befallen us. Everything is as it should be.”
Even as he said it, Glaciem could see the barely visible falter of his smile.
“The Tenth Elder’s seat is empty. All is not as it should be.” She retorted, pointing at the empty chair at the end of the table.
“That Tenth Elder is ill.” Bick countered. “You should enjoy tonight for his sake if nothing else. He will want you to describe every detail to him later.”
He picked her goblet back up again and held it in front of her, lifting his eyebrows in expectation. She sighed, conceding to his request and took it, holding it up to him in a toast. They clinked the edges of their cups together and drank deeply. She felt the sweet wine burn its way down her throat and settle deep within her belly, warming her from the inside out.
Glaciem closed her eyes and silently beseeched the heavens for peace of mind and for her stomach to still, but as she did, she knew she wouldn’t be granted either one. As she opened her eyes and looked around, the world shifted under her chair. She had drunk too much too quickly and had eaten too little food. The rich liquid was a rich drink reserved for ceremonial gatherings and was quite potent, something she now realized with chagrin.
“Oh heavens, Bick, what have you done to me?” She looked at him worried, the wine far stronger than the watered down variety she was accustomed to drinking.
“I have done nothing, Icicle! It is no fault of mine that you can’t hold your liquor.” He laughed loudly and stood up, holding out a hand for her to take.
She took a deep breath and raised herself up. Though she was not as unsteady and she might have expected, she still felt wobbly and her limbs were heavier than normal. She accepted Bick’s hand without realizing that she had done so, and allowed him to pull her away from her chair. He led her out from the long table where the Elders could see them, a crowd parting for them as they passed.
“What are we doing?” She asked as she silently tried to gather her wits.
“We are going to make you enjoy this night whether you wish it or not. Dance with me.”
“I don’t trust my feet.”
“I don’t care.”
When they reached the center of the room, Bick turned to smile and bow first to the Elders, and then to the musicians. As he held Glaciem’s hand lightly, poised and ready for the music, the audience offered their applause, the sound of enthusiastic clapping echoing up to the high ceilings of the Hall.
“No, Bick, please don’t make me.” Glaciem quietly begged as it became apparent that he intended for them to not just dance, but to showcase it in front of the entire Hall.
“You’re going to miss the beginning if you don’t focus.” He replied, ignoring her protests. He held her hand tightly in case she should try to escape. “After tonight, these will be your people, Glaciem. Be the protector they need you to be.”
The music began. The tune was lively, an old piece from the Singing Islands, well-known and loved by all. There were no words; according to the customs of the Islands the dancers were meant to do the singing through their movements. The dance, though simple, was quick and light-hearted and one Glaciem and Bick had been forced to learn years ago along with all other traditional dances known to the Village. At first, they had both fought hard against Narratus, but over time their distaste for the dancing turned to enjoyment. It helped quicken their feet and steady their balance when brawling.
Glaciem and Bick began and she was relieved to find that, even with the wine, she moved with ease. She realized now with overwhelming gratitude to Narratus that they had been given the unfair advantage of learning how to dance in the privacy of the inner courts as opposed to out in the open as most did. She knew every movement from memory and could have closed her eyes and still known exactly where Bick was on the floor. They were both light footed and as they turned and pivoted, the skirts of her dress and the length of Bick’s cape only served to further grace their already fluid movements.
The dance took them across one end of the room and back to the middle, their hands and steps always meeting with precision and elegance before moving away again. The guests laughed and clapped in time with the music. Glaciem avoided the eyes of those watching and instead focused on the further corners of the Hall, where she spotted Alexandros. He was leaning against the wall with his arms folded, his fingers tapping in beat with the music. He was watching her, a smile playing across his lips as his eyes caught hers.
Her heart jumped a little at seeing him, the shock of him there bringing her focus back to the reality of their betrothal. She missed a step and met Bick half a beat too soon. He furrowed his brows at her mistake and improvised a quick turn that set them back into the rhythm of the music, the audience none the wiser.
I must pay attention, lest I make fools of us both.
Glaciem forced herself to look away from Alexandros and turned her attention to Bick. He smiled at her when he caught her eye and she returned the look. She was determined to see the rest of the dance through without further blunders. She tightened her grip on Bick’s hand as he twisted her around, taking care to keep the skirts of her dress lifted just high enough to keep from tripping on them.
The music ended and the dance had led Glaciem and Bick back to the center of the room where they had first begun. The room erupted with applause.
“I can’t breathe!” She gasped, trying to speak loud enough for Bick to hear, and trying to avoid looking around the crowd, especially the corner where Alexandros was standing.
“Let’s go to the balcony to catch our breath.” Bick was breathing heavily, his eyes shining.
They walked hand in hand to the Elders’ Table.
“I beg you father that we might have a moment outside.” He said as he bowed to the First Hominem.
The First Hominem hesitated before nodding his consent, his eyes cold towards his son. Glaciem furrowed her brows, but Bick turned and began walking away from the table, seemingly unfazed by his father’s callousness. The First stood as they turned to leave.
“The Elders bid you all to allow our dancers a moment of solitude!” He said in a loud voice as Glaciem and Bick weaved their way through the people. “Eat and drink, for this is a momentous night to be remembered by all! There is much more celebrating yet to do!”
The guests applauded as the Elders raised their glasses in a toast, all who had drink following suit. Bick turned to watch his father drink, his expression a mix of emotions, none of which Glaciem could interpret. After a moment, he pivoted on his heel led Glaciem out the main hall as those who had been sitting at tables now stood to offer them ovation, tipping their cups and goblets in their honor.
They walked slowly with their backs straight and their heads held high. Glaciem discretely looked around the room and noted that Alexandros was no longer in the corner.
As soon as they were out of sight and had reached the flight of stairs leading to the balcony above, Bick gave her a mischievous grin which she readily returned. They both broke out into a run, going as fast as they could manage, skipping as many stairs as they dared without tearing the fine material of the skirts and cape billowing behind them.
When they reached the top, they were even more breathless than before. Glaciem collapsed against the balcony wall, desperately trying to fill her lungs with air, the boning in the dress making it near impossible. Bick joined her, holding his arms out to catch the cooler winds gently flowing about them.
They looked down at the empty Village below them. Almost everyone was inside, still dancing and feasting, the sound of music and laughter wafting up the steps. The only people who could be seen outside were the guards.
When their breathing had slowed, Bick dropped his arms to his sides and turned to look at Glaciem. He pursed his lips, as if mulling his thoughts over one last time.
“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you. Something you should know before the night is over.” He said at length, his eyes dropping back to the ground.
She tilted her head, waiting for him to continue, when a guard who had followed them up the stairs interrupted.
“My lord Strong Heart, you are needed by the Elders.” He said, bowing low as he spoke.
Bick looked at him questioningly. “The Elders have only just given us leave to be alone.”
“Forgive me, but the First Hominem has called for you. He says it is an urgent matter, one that is too important to be delayed.”
Bick looked at Glaciem helplessly. She nodded for him to go, not turning away from the balcony wall.
“I shall return shortly.” He grabbed her head between his hands and kissed the top of her head in dramatic fashion.
He turned and walked swiftly down the steps, the guard following closely behind.
It’s just as well. Glaciem thought.
She would normally never have turned down spending time with Bick, but just now she found the silence of her own company more appealing. She was, however, curious as to what he had wanted to say to her.
She stared absentmindedly at the empty Village streets. As she let her eyes travel past the outer walls and to the tops of the Forest trees, she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around as Alexandros walked past her. He joined her along the balcony wall, leaning against it as she did.
“I see you received my gift.” He said, nodding his head towards the blue gem about her neck.
She touched it lightly with her fingers and turned back towards the balcony. “I did. Thank you.” She looked at him from the corner of her eye, unsure whether to be irritated or benevolently understanding at his interruption.
“You are most welcome.” He smiled warmly at her and turned to look over the Village, following her gaze.
After a moment’s silence, Glaciem asked, “I do wonder though, were you obliged to beg a key off of a servant in order to put the necklace in my bedroom, or do you want me to believe you climbed through the window this time as well?”
Alexandros grinned, but did not look at her. “Oh neither, my lady. You may not know this, but I am a wizard of sorts. I magicked it to your room.”
Glaciem snorted. “And I suppose my brother being called away as soon as we had reached the balcony could be credited to your wizardry as well?”
“I promise you I had nothing to do with that.” He shifted himself so he was facing her, resting his elbow against the wall. “I had intended to stop you as you left the Great Hall with the intent of speaking to you alone. It seems fate has looked kindly upon me and offered me an alternative to begging yet another favor of Bick.”
She raised an eyebrow skeptically. “I suppose I don’t have any other choice but to take you at your word.”
“What reason have I to not tell you the truth?”
“You don’t.” She said, the words coming out more sharply than she had intended. She paused and made a mental effort to soften her voice as she explained. “You must understand I’m still uneasy with the idea of believing a person I have never before met, let alone trusting everything they say.” She turned towards him, “Trust is paramount, and once lost, I don’t know if it could ever be regained.”
“I’m telling you the truth. You have my word.” Alexandros replied, his tone far more somber than she had anticipated.
She looked away again, uncomfortable with his stare. “I believe you.”
“I’m being serious with you.”
“I said I believe you.”
Alexandros leaned forward slightly. “Glaciem, I want you to understand that I am in earnest when I tell you I have no intention of ever lying to you. I tell the truth, and I tell it from my heart, from the very core of who I am.”
She grinned ruefully, “Then, you did magick the necklace into my room?”
Alexandros laughed quietly, but did not answer. Glaciem chanced a glance at him before letting her eyes drop again, unable to hold his gaze.
“You are an extreme sort of person.” She muttered, running her fingers absentmindedly along the walls.
“How do you mean?”
She paused for a moment. “You don’t seem to do anything unless you put everything you have into it, both when you tease and when you’re serious. All I said was that I don’t tend to easily trust or believe people I’ve just met, and you take the opportunity to vow to me your honesty forever. I’m not so sure everything I say should be taken as seriously as you seem to take it.”
Alexandros tilted his head as he considered this. “I suppose that’s true in some respects. I only meant to assure you that I intend to treat you as you deserve to be treated. This isn’t a small matter to me. Our betrothal, that is. There’s quite a bit of pressure on me what with knowing you are the last Daughter of the Forest. It’s a daunting thing.”
“Do I intimidate you?” She looked at him in surprise.
He grinned at her and she was beginning to notice how infectious it was.
“Would you be shocked if I told you I was terrified of marrying you?” He said, the softness of his voice a polar opposite to the mirth in his eyes.
“Was your first impression of me so unpleasant then?”
His grin widened as he looked back over the Village, refusing to reply. The night was growing colder and the moon was shining brightly, washing them both in clear, white light.
“You’re ignoring my question.” She said, still leaning against the ledge and facing him.
“It was a silly question.”
She pursed her lips and ignored his comment.
Let him be stubborn then.
They were silent, both lost in their own thoughts as the night breezes continued to ruffle their clothing and hair.
“To be honest with you,” Alexandros said, breaking the quiet. “I’m terrified of marrying you because I’m not convinced I’m worth your hand.”
She looked at him silently, studying his expression. His eyes met hers, caution evident on his face. She hadn’t really thought about the fact that Alexandros might be just as uncomfortable with the idea of marrying her as she was uncomfortable with the idea of marrying him.
“Have you nothing to say to that?” He said, moving away from the wall, shifting uneasily.
“We could always refuse the betrothal.”
“Why on earth would we refuse the betrothal?” Alexandros asked in surprise.
Glaciem shrugged. “Do we really want our lives to forever be dictated by the Laws of the Village and the Elders’ wishes? You’re terrified of marrying me and I’m marrying into the Village because of a foolish quarrel with the First Elder’s son five years ago. After we’re married, I will be relegated to the role of Village guardian and protector against the Forest, my Forest, for as long as I live. Which is something else to consider. I’m a Wielder of the Elements. I’m supposedly immortal. Do you want to be wed to a person who will never age with you; who will never age at all?”
She stopped, realizing she was saying much more than she had intended to.
“Would it be so bad to be expelled from the Village if it meant we would be free to choose our own futures and destinies?” She finished quietly after a moment.
Alexandros looked at her confused. “You’re jesting.”
She faced him dead on, her eyes boring into his. “And if I’m not?”
“No…” Alexandros said earnestly, though his voice was soft. “I don’t believe my future or destiny lies elsewhere. I don’t want to refuse the betrothal.”
“What if I refuse it?” She asked.
“Are you going to?”
She tilted her and contemplated. She thought of what it would be like to be forced out of the Village without being able to say goodbye to Narratus or Bick. She thought of the hardships that would befall Alexandros and his family. Though she did not know him well, she did not wish him or his loved ones harm.
“No. I will not refuse it.” She said after a while, wishing the apprehension tightening in her chest would lessen as the words left her lips.
Alexandros’ grin returned. He gingerly reached out and took the blue gem in his hands. She could feel his fingers graze her neck as he lifted it, the chain pressing gently against the back of her neck.
“This is my mother’s.” He said, looking at it fondly. “She bade me give it to you. She said the blue reminded her of your Element.”
“It’s beautiful,” Glaciem responded. “I have never been given something quite so extraordinary. You must thank your mother for me.”
“You could always thank her yourself. You shall meet her soon enough.”
“What type of lady is she?”
Alexandros chuckled. “She’s a bit too wild to be called a lady, but she is the most protective and loving woman you shall ever meet. Of all the members of my family, she is the most pleased with our betrothal. Not because of elevated statuses or renown, but because she is genuinely happy. For both of us.”
Too wild to be called a lady.
Glaciem grinned slightly. She had a feeling she and Alexandros’ mother would get along well.
Her hand went up to the necklace, her fingers brushing against his. “She was right.”
Alexandros tilted his head, a silent question.
“When I first saw the necklace, when the light hit it just right, it did look as if water was moving inside it.”
He gently set the gem back against her neck and looked at her, a mischievous glint in his eyes.
“It is true you can pull water from the air?”
“It is.” She looked at him questioningly.
“Did my dagger in the library not convince you well enough, then?”
Alexandros simply shrugged and looked at her expectantly.
Glaciem grinned in amusement. He had asked so earnestly that she didn’t have the heart to refuse him. She stretched her fingers out to him and his hands moved to her palms, tracing the markings of blue with his fingers as he had done in the library. He studied them with fascination.
“Watch.” She commanded softly.
She cupped her hands together and her markings began to glow brightly in the night air. She could hear a small chuckle of wonder from Alexandros. She smiled widely as little flakes of snow began to form together. At first, a small white ball the size of a pebble materialized, hovering between her hands, but soon it grew into a dense snowball perfectly spherical and roughly the size of a piece of fruit. It was covered in twirling filigree snowflakes; an extra touch of detail she wagered he would appreciate.
She handed it to him and he held it in his hands as if it were thin glass, afraid it might shatter at the slightest movement.
She laughed, “Don’t worry, it’s quite solid.”
His grin grew even more.
“In fact, it is so solid that….” she said, trailing off, looking over the wall, an eyebrow lifted impishly.
Down below, guards were still circling, talking to each other and not paying attention to what was above them. She grinned wickedly at him and gestured ever so slightly towards the guards.
“I am shocked my lady would suggest such a thing.” Alexandros said, his own grin now a wide smile as he teased her.
He took careful aim and flung the snowball as hard as he could towards one of the guards. It landed with a thud against the back of his head and exploded into a thick cloud of shimmering dust. The guard shouted in surprise and looked up to where the blow had come.
Anticipating this, Glaciem dropped down below the wall’s surface and grabbed Alexandros’ hand, pulling him down with her. They sat hunched together on the ground, laughing as quietly as they could, holding their sides to stay their breathing.
“I can only imagine what the Elders would say if they saw us acting like children.” Alexandros whispered in between their muffled laughter.
Glaciem smiled. “Bick and I have been misbehaving for years and they’ve never managed to catch us yet. I don’t intend for them to do so now.”
It didn’t escape her that Alexandros had yet to let go of her hand.
“May I?” He asked suddenly, looking at her with expectant eyes.
“May you what?” She asked in surprise.
He slowly raised his head above the wall and, seeing that the guards had walked away to try and find their assailant, stood up. He pulled her up with him.
“May I?” He quietly asked again as he raised her hands to his mouth, just shy of his lips, hovering as he waited for her to answer.
Glaciem looked at him confused, “It’s just my hand, you don’t need to ask permission to kiss it. It’s a common courtesy here.”
Alexandros rolled his eyes at her. “I’m not asking to kiss your hand as some random person offering you a courtesy. Earlier, in the library, you were uncomfortable when I kissed it. I didn’t want you to think I was acting out of turn if I did so again without first asking.” He held her hands firmly, but did not move them closer, waiting patiently for her consent.
Glaciem did not know how to answer him, the gaiety she felt only moments before fading rapidly. While she could see he was genuine, he was still a stranger to her. She knew after tonight they would spend the rest of his life together, and yet she could not help but hesitate at the thought of the intimate gesture.
“Forgive me.” She murmured finally and though she did not pull her hands out of his grasp, she did gently push them back down to their waists. “I’m still uneasy with this.”
She turned her head and looked away from his inquiring eyes, but as she did she felt him release a hand. He gently tipped her chin with a finger. She looked up at him and shifted awkwardly. Eye contact had never been a strength for her.
“Please don’t apologize. Especially when you’ve done nothing wrong. In truth, I’d rather you never feel as though you should apologize to me.”
Glaciem blushed and her stomach curled into itself. As she opened her mouth to protest, she heard something behind her. She turned around to see Bick standing behind them.