NICOLAI did somersaults and flips across the cleared floor, twisting and spinning in midair, his nearly nude body gleaming in the light from the hall’s massive fireplace. Ander’s guitar accompaniment was perfectly timed to the impressive display of acrobatic skill and dazzling in its own right. Everyone at the lyceum was attending the party, and all roared approval when the performers finished their act.
Sorel sat down next to Thane and thumped him on the back. “What showoffs. Adorable, aren’t they?”
Thane grinned, filled with greater happiness than he’d felt in years. “I wish it could always be this way. Think what it would be like if we could just live safely with our friends and explore the art.”
“Someday we will. But for tonight, you should forget about the zamindar. We’ve earned the right to celebrate.”
Ander joined them, clutching his guitar and glowing from the praise the initiates had heaped on him. The sight of his well-favored lover, safe and happy, made Thane ache with pride and longing. Ander had begun to fill a place in his heart that had been too long empty. The thought of putting him at risk again, perhaps losing him, seemed intolerable.
Ander beamed at him, excitement making him look younger than his twenty years. “I got to see some of Nicolai’s routine this time,” he said. “I was too nervous to watch when we performed in Fochelis. He was popular there too.”
“I’m sure you were both brilliant,” Sorel said. “It’s not easy to get hired for a high-society event.”
Color crept up Ander’s face, his shy nature coming to the fore. “We were hired as companions. Not for our act. I was mortified.”
Thane laughed, pulling Ander over to sit beside him. “He’s teasing, you moonbeam. He knows the story. He just likes to see you blush.”
Sorel affected an unconvincing air of innocence. “I don’t know why my motives are always questioned. I’m just a simple merchant’s son.”
Thane rolled his eyes. “If guile were gold, you’d be the richest man in the kingdom.”
“And you’re grateful for that, don’t deny it. Anybody who stops aging at nineteen needs a lot of adult supervision.”
Ander held up a hand. “Don’t you two get started. Look, the dancing has begun.”
Thane heeded the advice, turning back to the dining hall. Most of the furniture had been moved outside, leaving only a few sturdy benches and trestle tables along the walls. Flowers harvested from the greenhouse decorated the tables, weaving in garlands around trays filled with smoked meats, spiced bread, cheese, and fruit. The cooks had even made pastries laden with chocolate and cinnamon. Snow swirling outside the tall windows sparkled like stars come down to earth to join the festivities. Dancers in circles touched hands, stamped their feet, clapped, and spun in time to a spirited branle. Laughter and music filled the hall, mingling with the scents of pine wreaths hung from the painted rafters and hickory smoke from the huge fireplace.
The sight of so much happiness, hard on the heels of near disaster, tugged at Thane’s resolve. He put an arm around Ander’s shoulders and held him tight. I can’t risk losing him. We’ve lost too many already. His lover’s warm presence anchored him as he watched the dancers and lost track of time. An idea began to form, a thought he never would have entertained before recent events.
He released Ander and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “We’re lucky to be alive, you know. The imperial patrol almost defeated us. All of us would have died, and the zamindar would have learned our secrets.”
Ander shrugged, not turning away from the music. “But we won. You won.”
“We won one battle, against one patrol. And now the zamindar knows there are mages who oppose him. He’ll not stop looking until he finds us. Maybe it’s time to find a safer place to live.”
Ander turned to face him, looking puzzled. “Are you serious?”
“He’s a worrier,” Sorel said. “You know how moody people his age can be.”
Thane glared at him. Sorel and Nicolai liked to pretend their slightly greater biological age conferred wisdom beyond his grasp. “We should at least consider it. Is it wise to risk our lives over land and buildings? We could return when we’re stronger. Besides, going somewhere distant would give us a chance to investigate new plants. Maybe a place with high mountains. Most of the specimens we already have in our collection are local or from warm lowlands.”
“My friend Leif told me about places like that,” Ander said. “His grandmother was born far to the east and told him stories about it. He says there are cities built like terraces on the sides of tall mountains. The ranges there are much higher than the peaks around here.”
Thane was about to ask what he knew about the eastern kingdoms when Nicolai sauntered toward them. His shaggy blond hair, falling to the collar of his soft leather shirt, was still damp from bathing after his exertions. He gave them a cheerful wave before sitting next to Sorel.
“Sorry I’m late. Skorri and Erik offered to scrub my back, and it took a bit longer than expected. They have strange notions of where my back is. And what scrubbing means.”
Sorel laughed. “You should have known what to expect. I’m surprised they didn’t lure you into their room and lock you away for the night.”
“Oh, they tried. But I didn’t want to miss the party. They had to settle for a short frolic in the water.”
“Too bad you put your clothes back on,” Ander said. “I think the crowd liked you better in a loincloth.”
Sorel put a hand on Nicolai’s thigh, rubbing it affectionately. “A natural preference. But you know northerners. Except when performing, he won’t take his clothes off unless everybody else does. It wouldn’t be proper.”
Nicolai’s answer was interrupted by a young woman who left the dance floor during a break in the music and stepped up onto a bench to their left. Katy was notorious for pranks and a bawdy sense of humor, but for once her expression was serious. She raised her right hand, putting the tips of her thumb and index finger to her mouth, and emitted a piercing whistle. Everyone turned to look.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll make this brief.” This announcement was met with scattered applause. She gave the offending initiates threatening looks but wasn’t deterred.
“You all know why we’re here. Making it through the past few weeks was an ordeal. We have every reason to dance and have fun. But we can’t forget to thank Thane for what he did, with Ander’s help. There was a sword at my throat when they launched their attack on the patrol. I thought I was done for. Many others suffered more.” Her stricken expression, at odds with her usual raucous manner, discouraged further taunts from the audience.
She turned to look down at Thane. “So I’m here to say thank you, for all of us. You probably don’t hear it enough.” When she looked up again, there were tears in her eyes. “We should mark tonight with more than dancing. Musicians, that’s your cue.”
The small band had obviously been prepared for Katy’s announcement. They lifted their instruments and played the introduction to one of the lyceum’s oldest songs, a paean to their cause and to the departed comrades who had fought to free the kingdom from the zamindar’s rule. Every initiate knew the words and joined in the singing. The music was somber but powerful, filled with pride and determination. It rang with conviction in the dining hall’s lofty stone confines.
Thane stood along with his friends and listened to the familiar words, wanting to join in the singing, but the ache in his chest threatened to overwhelm him. He felt Ander’s alarm through their bond and knew that his pain was being shared. Is it worth it? Lucian is gone, but Ander and the others are alive. How much sacrifice is enough? Frustration and grief made him want to weep, but everyone was watching, and they were relying on him for strength. Just like always. He clenched his jaw and forced himself to listen to the words. They resonated with his spirit despite the pain.
As soon as the song finished, Ander moved in front of him and raised his guitar overhead. Thane felt concern pouring through their bond, knew he was being shielded like a child, but didn’t care. He was grateful for the help.
“The party’s just getting started,” Ander said. “I’ll play a bit while you fill your plates and mugs. You’ll need the energy for dancing!” He lowered his guitar and started playing a rollicking jig. The initiates migrated toward food and mulled cider on a wave of happy chatter.
Nicolai took Thane by the arm and tugged him toward the door. “Sorel and I both felt it,” he said softly. “You need to go outside, get some fresh air. It’ll clear your head.”
Thane nodded. “Just for a while. I need to be in here too.”
“Come on, then.”
They made their way outside, stopping in the foyer to remove their capes from pegs by the door, then went to stand in the empty courtyard. Light from the dining hall spilled through the windows and painted golden patterns on a light dusting of snow.
“Are you feeling better now?” Nicolai asked. “Whatever was bothering you must have been bad. I’m not going to pry, but you know I’m ready to help if you need it.”
Thane sighed. It was futile trying to hide feelings from his sympathetic friend; they had shared a bond for two years. “I had a moment of weakness, I suppose. I want to keep everybody safe, more than anything. But I still know why it’s necessary to fight the zamindar. How can I do both?”
“You can’t. But I think you’re putting too much of the burden on your own shoulders. As you often do. Everyone here knows they’re at risk. They chose to accept it, for the same reasons you’re in this fight. You have to respect their choice.”
Thane looked up at the bright stars, trying to calm the ache that was starting to surge again. “I do respect them. Their singing reminded me of that. But I still don’t want to lose any of them.”
Nicolai nodded. “Especially Ander. I understand. I feel the same for Sorel. But I wouldn’t try to keep him from doing what he believes in.”
“That’s different. Sorel is the best fighter I know. Ander isn’t ready for the danger we face.”
“Then make him ready. Teach him the art, and teach him fast. He might surprise you. Sorel and I will help him learn other skills.”
Thane heard the wisdom in Nicolai’s words but was still anxious. “Good advice. I’ll speed up his training, starting tomorrow.”
Nicolai gave him a quick embrace. “I doubt that he’ll disappoint you. Now let’s get back to the party. I’m hungry.”