The shrine near the peak hummed with the energy of binding; Zoknas, the god of war, held a warhammer to the sky, his mouth open in a shout. Juniper trees framed his stone visage, and the little altar at his feet shone with the symbols for blood, honor, death, strength, and decay. Casimir plucked a few stems from the clumps of snow cotton surrounding the clearing to tuck away in his alchemy satchel. The sky above threatened a storm; wind picked up, rustling the trees, and wildlife retreated to safety.
Aria pulled on a soft black tunic and shrugged into her cloak. The agitation in her chest didn’t match her mood; dinner with Valtteri had gone swimmingly, as well as the ball afterwards. They danced five sets together, and every minute she found herself more drawn to him. Handsome, kind, and funny, his behavior reserved but charming—she could hardly believe her luck, in that her first suitor seemed to fit her so well. Still, she could only wait; her mother would never listen to her without every option on the table, and Aria suspected revealing her own desires in the match would only go poorly.
No, she felt agitated because Alistair had watched her from across the dining table, and across the ballroom. At first, he turned down drinks—but once their parents spent a few terse minutes at his side during the ball, he began downing glasses of wine like he could somehow drown himself in them.
Sebastian owned his own multi-level brick house in the courtier district of Tower of the Moon, just outside the palace gates. Caino peeled Aria’s cloak from her shoulders in the comfortable stone entryway; outside, bells began to toll for the closing of the gates at sundown. Sebastian exited his study, crossing the main hallway with an apple at his mouth, but he stopped when he spotted Aria.
“How was Weston?” he asked.
She waited until Caino had ducked away towards the servants quarters before she said, “Well, he’s a Forest Realm prince.”
Sebastian grinned, his usual reaction to anything others would find shocking. “By the gods, is he really?”
“He said his father is King Ezra, and he knows all about the political climate in the Ice Realm.”
“Everyone is talking about your meeting with the archmage,” Lukas said, his lips barely moving and his eyes fixed on a book. The library around them thrummed with late night activity; boys too lazy to complete their projects earlier, as well as boys who had nothing better to do than hang around bothering people, crowded the tables.
Of the forty or so mages in Casimir’s age group, Lukas had been the only one who seemed interested in actual friendship. Cliques always formed within the first few years, based on talent or brutishness, but Casimir had never been welcome in any of those; the boys with talent hated that he was better than them, and the abusive, aggressive boys didn’t interest him. Lukas sat alone in lectures and at meals those first few years, and he flushed and bolted when any of the boys Casimir hated tried to speak with him—which Casimir took as a good sign. He remembered wandering over to sit with Lukas at dinner one night at nine years old, on a whim—and ever since, the two had stuck together. Neither delved too deeply into their families or home life, which suited both of them just fine.
“There’s not much to say about it,” Casimir murmured back. He thumbed through a volume, keenly aware of the library keeper’s eyes boring into the back of his head.
Her mother clucked her tongue. Of the outfits laid out for her selection, Aria chose the only one of color—a sleeveless, icy blue lace dress with a high collar and a diamond cutout over her chest. A dainty coronet of sapphire and diamond weaved through her simple updo, knotted at the nape of her neck.
“I didn’t approve that one,” Vishnya said. Her mother’s long, black hair flowed nearly to her waist; the crown of the Ice Queens glittered atop it, the diamonds and sapphires mimicking the pattern of waves. Her dress, of sparkling white, had little shape but where it gathered at the waist. Beside her, Aria looked almost immodest in a dress that clung to her every curve.
“It was hanging by my mirror,” Aria said. “I didn’t feel like wearing white.”
Her father, with no interest in the proceedings, stared idly at the sea. Vishnya waved a hand dismissively.
“Well, it’s too late to change. The prince is about to arrive.”
Royal guards lived in a ramshackle cluster of little wooden houses tucked away on the east side of the palace wall. Sebastian’s groom escorted Aria along the cobblestone street, and though she kept a hood pulled over her face, she still attracted stares. Her silver cloak covered her all the way to her feet, hiding the tunic Sebastian had custom made for her the day after he freed her from the brothels.
“Seb, please,” Aria had pleaded when he presented her with the box. “You just spent five hundred thousand coins getting me out of that wretched place. I’ll never be able to repay you.”
“I don’t want you to repay me,” he said, pushing the box into her hands. “I want you to remember who you were supposed to be.”
“I lament that we’re having this conversation again so soon,” Archmage Sobik said.
“The circumstances are subtly different, which means the conversation isn’t really the same at all,” Casimir replied.
He sat at a table in the archmage’s domed quarters at the top of the college. Snow swirled past the windows; a blizzard had raged for three days, and two young mages had already been lost in the snow trying to find their way to Bucori, the capital of the Spine.
“Casimir,” Sobik said firmly. “You cannot create your own spells.”
“Then why bother teaching us the mage language?”
“You must learn the language to perform the sort of enchantments you’d need as a court mage, or as servant to a noble family.”
“But never research further, or experiment.”
“That is reserved for mages of my stature.”
“I don’t see you doing much research, archmage,” Casimir said.