Ring in the Northern New Year
By Ginn Hale
Music filled the air of the ballroom with tones as bright and rich as the perfume of beeswax and spiced wine. Guests, dressed in costly silks and furs, chatted, laughed, played cards and sipped drinks. But mostly they danced to rolling, sweet melodies.
Skellan watched couples swirling in circles beneath the gleaming of light of the gold candelabras and sighed. The joy in their expressions and enthusiasm of their motions lent even the most elderly and plainest of them a kind of grace. The beautiful amidst the gathering appeared almost luminous. His lanky sister, Hylanya, grinned in the arms of her favorite swordsman. Atreau Vediya led a pretty, love-struck woman in a lively promenade, while Kiram beamed in Javier’s embrace.
Skellan had enjoyed a number of dances himself already. He’d accompanied his sister and Cire across the inlayed dance floor twice each. Two charming young courtiers had made for pleasant partners as well but he’d not felt the thrilled delight that he recognized on the faces of so many of the people he saw around him. Of course, plenty of flushed glows arose from the wine as much as romance.
But Skellan had only to glance to Kiram and Javier and take in the way they seemed so enraptured with just each other–smiling those knowing smiles and hardly taking their eyes off one another—to feel certain that neither of them wanted to greet the New Year with anyone else. For them, no one else in the entire grand ballroom—or even the palace itself—mattered. They didn’t even have to know about the Labaran tradition: that those who greeted the New Year together would remain together.
Though clearly Cire had it in mind, from the way she lingered near Sheriff Hirbe at the card table. The sheriff appeared to share the idea and even lured Cire’s rat, Queenie, to him with a trail of nuts and seeds.
“So there’s joy awaiting the sunrise,” Skellan murmured to himself. He slugged down another gulp of wine. The spices danced across his tongue. A year ago he could only have dreamed of swilling such costly grog. In fact a year ago he’d been dressed in rags, hungry and alone. Now he wore scarlet silk, supped on the finest meats and stood in a chamber sweltering with the heat of all his cheerful company. He’d been toasted and paid tribute in several absurdly heroic verses earlier in the evening. He could hardly move without guards flanking him and folk all around smiling at him.
Still, somehow, he felt unknown and alone. He knew that he had no right to—had no reason to—but the previous decade of isolation seemed to rise up like ghost, enfolding him in a melancholy chill.
The musicians struck up a new melody and someone at one of the dozen card tables let out a cheer of delight. New couples took to the dance floor and a few retired to the tables to drink, gamble, gossip and flirt.
Across the room, towering up from amidst a group of high-ranking military men, Elezar stood. He’d donned Skellan’s colors—scarlet and gold—and Skellan couldn’t keep himself from watching him. Even among his own broad-shouldered, straight-backed countrymen, Elezar presented a powerful figure. To Skellan’s eyes he was the most handsome man in the entire ballroom, regardless of his scarred hand and stern features.
From time to time he returned one of Skellan’s glances with a brief smile, but then his attention turned back to a trim Cadeleonian named Captain Mequero. The sea captain would be sailing the Duke of Rauma’s ship back to his home country with the new day’s tide. Captain Mequero possessed the lean, strong features that Skellan knew Elezar favored—he and the one-armed cavalry captain, Tialdo, both did. They made good company for Elezar as well, all three of them speaking low and intently as if choosing between the white and red wines required the organization of a scouting party and deadly political maneuvering to accomplish.
Skellan smiled at the thought and, catching Elezar’s eye once more, raised his glass to him. For a moment he thought he noticed color rise across Elezar’s tanned cheeks. Then Elezar and all the Cadeleonians surrounding him toasted Skellan in return. How like Cadeleonians to leave the words unspoken and rely on gestures alone.
In that case Skellan wondered what he should make of the small, ivory box that Elezar passed, so very carefully, to Captain Mequero. If he hadn’t been watching closely Skellan might have missed the captain’s momentary pause in accepting the carved box, as if Elezar offered him too precious a treasure. Beside them, Captain Tialdo’s smile slipped and his brow creased.
Skellan strained at every magical ward wafting on the air to catch Elezar’s response to Tialdo’s unspoken question.
“I’m certain,” Elezar said. Then to Skellan’s annoyance, their conversation turned to horses. Cadeleonians as a race were apparently bred and born with strong opinions concerning horseflesh—even life-long sailors. While one dance ended and another began the group debated and as far as Skellan could tell, no one among them altered the others’ preferences a bit.
Skellan downed the last of his wine and turned to one of the many arched windows lining the wall. Patterns of frost traced the glass with frigid beauty. In the night sky, flurries of snowflakes whirled on the hot breath of fiery torches, shining in the light and then burning to vapor. Skellan laid his hand against an icy pane. Somewhere far to the north and high in the mountains the great troll Master Bone-crusher sang a low, rumbling lullaby. Skellan closed his eyes, feeling the faintest echoes of that distant melody as it drifted through the wards he’d hung across the earth and sky. The troll’s voice rumbled, deep and low, promising sweet dreams, just as he had years before.
But Bone-crusher protected other children now—orphaned trolls. Their voices rose to accompany Bone-crusher’s before they drifted to sleep. This song wasn’t meant for Skellan and he drew his hand back. Droplets of melted frost fell from his fingertips like tears.
Skellan grimaced at his own maudlin turn of thought and absently wiped the condensation across the thigh of his silken breaches. If he was turning snuffly and morose over a damp window and the groaning wind then he’d either drunk too much wine or not enough. He wasn’t certain which.
“Something troubling out there?” Elezar’s voice sounded from just behind Skellan.
He whipped around and found his man contemplating him thoughtfully before turning his solemn gaze to the blustering snowstorm outside the window.
“Only the wind making merry, tossing snow about,” Skellan replied. “The weather will hold for your Captain Mequero’s departure.”
“He’s hardly mine,” Elezar replied. The idea seemed to amuse him and that alone brightened Skellan’s mood greatly.
“Well, that’s his loss then,” Skellan replied.
Elezar laughed softly at the suggestion but then fell quiet. Skellan eyed him. Elezar commanded as varied a range of silences as did his horse. He held himself with the confidence of a swordsman and yet Skellan recognized something like nervousness in his lowered gaze. He’d clearly crossed between courtiers and dancing couples to reach Skellan but couldn’t bring himself to say why.
A foolish hope fluttered through Skellan’s chest. He ignored the longing, knowing how uneasy Elezar still felt in displaying his affection publicly. With Cadeleonian captains looking on he’d be all the more on his guard against giving away anything he deemed a weakness. They might dance, but well after the new year began. Perhaps when they were alone in their shared bedchamber.
And yet he’d come to Skellan. That meant much. Even if they weren’t in each other’s arms, they could be together when the city bells rang out the first hour of the New Year. Skellan wondered if it would be too much to take Elezar’s hand in his own. He glanced down at Elezar’s long callused fingers.
“You’re not wearing your signet ring.” Skellan knew that Elezar sometimes removed the emblem of his noble rank during sword practice but at formal gatherings the red bull always gleamed on his right hand.
“No, I’m not.” Elezar replied. Though as far as advancing the conversation went, Skellan felt it wasn’t much better than saying nothing. Elezar ran his hand through his dark beard. If Skellan hadn’t known better he would have said Elezar was embarrassed.
“Did you lose it up a horse’s ass?” Skellan asked as quietly as he could.
“What? No! Where do you get these ideas?” Elezar shook his head and gave another soft laugh. “I gave my ring to Captain Mequero.”
“Did you?” Skellan raised his brows. “That’s uncommon generosity.”
“Not like that.” Elezar’s lips curled into a wry smile. “You know, in Cadeleon we mark the first day of each New Year by swearing a resolution?”
Skellan hadn’t known, but he did now, so he nodded.
“After thinking on this a good while I’ve decided on mine.” The smile fell from Elezar’s expression and Skellan read a faint pain in his gaze. “I’ve realized that I needed to commit myself to my home.”
All at once Skellan felt afraid to hear anything more. He didn’t want to know what Elezar might have resolved to do and how it involved the ship that would be setting sail for Elezar’s homeland tomorrow. Skellan’s breath caught in his throat like splintered glass.
“I’m sending my signet back to my family,” Elezar spoke the words with a quiet intensity. “I’m relinquishing my claim to the Grunito earldom in favor of my brother, Nestor.”
The confession fell so far from what Skellan had expected that for a moment he couldn’t seem to grasp what Elezar meant. Then he realized.
“But your family—”
“My family will always be my family—for my part at least.” Elezar said. “But I’m not returning to Cadeleon. My home is here. With you.”
A grin that doubtless looked half-crazed broke across Skellan’s face. His blood felt as if it had gone from ice-cold to molten as dread burned away to radiant joy.
Outside, the first of twelve bells rang out and in the ballroom the musicians struck up the traditional Labaran New Year’s tune. Couples all through the chamber rushed to take the floor.
“Will you dance with me?” Skellan asked. A second wave of bells rolled from the city’s towers.
Elezar’s lips parted but he said nothing.
Instead he simply took Skellan’s hand in his own and led him onto the dance floor. Bells rang, music rose and doubtless numerous onlookers murmured. But for Skellan, he and Elezar may as well have been alone, holding one another as the past fell away and the beginning of a new life arose in the grace of their shared embrace.
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