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.
Casimir knelt before the shrine and brushed aside an offering of sage and lavender to place his hand on the rough stone. Spending every summer in Reziva, he should have visited the shrine many times, but he buried himself in books instead. When Valtteri wasn’t around, the library was his only refuge from his father’s beratement—and as Casimir got older, Valtteri spent more time away.
Valtteri’s promise to spend the majority of this summer in the city still rung in Casimir’s ears. He had graduated mage college, after twelve long years, and now had two more to practice his magic to the fullest extent, pinpointing once and for all where his true strengths lie. Part of him never wanted to return to Reziva, but Valtteri’s promise called like a sentinel. If anyone hated Prince Bohdan of the Southern Arm more than Casimir, it was Valtteri—and a few months in the city wouldn’t ruin him, if it meant he and Valtteri could catch up on the time they lost as brotherly confidants.
His mother, though—Casimir shook his head and closed his eyes, losing himself in the feel of the magic contained within the shrine. His mother merited little thought. She would likely refuse to see him.
Casimir’s skin prickled with the energy of Zoknas. Bound weapons took too much energy to maintain during an actual battle scenario, though a bound bow suited purposes when he traveled through dangerous areas of the Ice Realm. He used the magic to fortify his bound arrows so they might do more damage in future travels, even if he would always prefer the feel of real moonsilver in his hand during battle.
Thunder rumbled in the black clouds above, and the air crackled with electricity. Casimir removed his hand from the shrine, his skin growing cold as the energy seeped from him. He donned his hood and turned south for the footpath that led back to the white stone walls of Reziva.
Rain began to pour by the time his feet found the cobblestone streets of the city. Most of the residents ran for cover, but Casimir only jogged lightly; his robes dried the rain at a preternatural rate, even if not completely. Two guards before the third level lowered their pikes as he approached, but twitched them up again just as soon. Even with the cloaking spell of his hood shadowing his face, Casimir’s stature made him recognizable.
He slowed from a run to stride into the entrance hall. Turrets of rain poured from the roof into the gardens, creating mini waterfalls along the gallery above the hall. Some visiting courtiers stopped to admire the beauty, but Casimir shoved his hands in his pockets and split to the west side of the castle.
He encountered few but servants in the bright white hallways, dotted with open air balconies and elaborate candelabras, as he treaded the familiar path to Valtteri’s room in the west tower. One balcony overlooking a weeping willow tree in the center of the gardens drew his eye, but he found only his youngest brother, Elya, with a notebook in his hand.
“Hey, Cas,” Elya said. “When did you get back?”
“An hour ago,” he said. “What are you doing in there?”
Elya flushed. “My tutor told me I should try to write a poem about nature, to practice my vocabulary.”
“Poems are only good for flowery language. You should be reading to practice and expand your vocabulary.”
“She says I’m not very imaginative.”
“You’re eight, Elya. I’m sure you’re imaginative enough.”
He grinned. “Father was talking about you yesterday at dinner. Valtteri got really annoyed.”
“What was he saying?”
“Valtteri asked about you being the court mage. Father didn’t like that idea.”
Casimir shook his head, his eyes on the gardens. “Oh, well. I told Valtteri not to do it.”
“Will you show me some magic later?” Elya asked hopefully.
Casimir smiled slightly. “Sure. Come by my room.”
Elya nodded and settled himself back into his pile of cushions, the notebook balanced on his leg. Casimir continued on his way, grinning to himself.
“You never announce when you’ve arrived,” Valtteri said when he answered Casimir’s knock.
“So father can track me down? I’d use an illusion spell to sneak in if I thought it was worth the energy.”
Valtteri had been in the midst of changing; he left the door open for Casimir and crossed the room to grab his tunic. Casimir considered the pile of books beside his bed.
“All military strategy,” he commented. “Last time it was novels.”
“Father keeps making comments about how my skills need improvement.”
“You’re nineteen years old, and you’ve already earned the rank of captain.”
“Well, yeah, but I figure I can always learn more, whether he’s right or not.”
Casimir crossed his arms. “You shouldn’t listen to him.”
“I feel like I have to, or he’s going to give my seat to Regan.” Valtteri finished the lacing at the collar of his tunic and turned to don his gauntlets. “I was going to spar with the armsman this afternoon, but we can do something, if you want.”
“I got here over an hour ago,” Casimir said. “I was up at the shrine.”
“We could still go out to the pond.”
“Anything to keep me out of father’s teeth, I guess.”
“He’s distracted today. That girl he volunteered to ward arrived at dawn.”
“Who do you think she’s intended for? Eamon?”
“I can’t imagine it’s Regan. Her fortune isn’t large.”
Casimir thumbed through one of the volumes on military history. “What’s she look like?”
“Eh,” Valtteri said dismissively. “Nothing too appealing, at least not to me. She’s pretty, I suppose, but not striking.”
“What an outstanding recommendation.”
Valtteri laughed. “Well, she wasn’t brought in to throw at my limp dick.”
Casimir snorted. “Speaking of, I hope you took my advice the last time I saw you.”
A little color stained his cheeks, and he avoided Casimir’s eyes. “I might have.”
“You wouldn’t be joking about it if you hadn’t come out the other side. What happened?”
“Nothing,” Valtteri said unconvincingly. “I just met a girl at a pub in the Spine. She was pretty. Not old blood, though—I think she might be from the Plains Realm originally. Nice blonde hair.”
Casimir smirked. “Next you’ll say she was shapely and fertile.”
He shook his head with a scowl. “Shut up. Yes, oh great one, you were right. Without father around to watch my every move, I find myself capable in bed.”
“Do you think you’ll see the girl again?”
“Of course I will.”
“I was thinking you’d do more of a one off sort of thing.”
“I liked her, quite a lot. I’m not going to use her like that.”
Casimir held up an appeasing hand. “I didn’t mean to make you defensive. How will you see her, though?”
“She lives pretty far south. It’s not a ridiculous trip from here, nor would it be hard to hide.” Valtteri leaned against the end of his bed. “What about you, though? I told you to get some experience with women.”
“I’ve been out of mage college for three days,” Casimir said. “By the gods, I need some time to forget how many men I was trapped in there with.”
Valtteri laughed. “You should be sure to steer clear of this girl father brought in. If he thinks you have any interest, I’m sure he’ll do something awful. Look around the pubs, instead.”
“I’m more likely to find a prostitute, that way.”
“If she’s clean, it’s all the same for your first time, really.”
Casimir made a face at him, and he laughed again.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here before father hears you’re back.”
Casimir and Valtteri descended to the entrance hall. The rain had slowed to a trickle, but the little waterfalls accenting the summer gardens still tinkled down from the roof. The hall was empty save for their brother, Eamon, and a thin, dark haired girl.
“That’s the ward,” Valtteri murmured to Casimir as they trotted down the west steps. “I think her name is Petra.”
Casimir raked his gaze over Petra, once, taking in her soft, heart-shaped face and delicate build. Most women of the old blood had a harsher look about them, but Petra stood demurely, waifishly.
“I thought Elya was lying,” Eamon called over at Casimir. “I told him our dear brother would never come back here if he had the choice. He’d be too likely to piss his pants the next time he saw father.”
Valtteri flipped Eamon off, but Casimir said, “I wasn’t the one with a bedwetting problem, as I recall, Eamon.”
Eamon turned a brilliant shade of puce, but beside him, Petra laughed, a light, clear sound. She met Casimir’s eyes, and a smile twisted her mouth, at once shy and wicked. Striking, even.