“Why am I even here?”
Rowan eyed Cassius beside them, and then made it a point to look between Ember and Alanna. Cassius didn’t even glance over. They sighed.
“Because I needed help,” they said. Then, after a moment, said, “And because you haven’t left the citadel since Belle and Stormy left and it’s not healthy for you. Besides, it’s so nice out! It’s warm enough to wear lighter layers now. I’ve been waiting for this kind of weather forever.” They opted not to mention how miserable Cassius had been since the dragon’s death was announced.
To make their point, since they now had everyone’s attention, they twirled around. The cloak they were donning flared around their legs, the feather lining making it look almost like a bird’s wings. Isadora had helped to make it after they’d collected a bunch of feathers lying around, and it was one of their favourites.
“I can’t believe you found that many feathers that weren’t broken,” Ember said.
“I have to been out of the citadel,” Cassius said, and then let out something that might have been a groan or a sigh. “Do you realise how much crossbow and archery training I’ve been put through? My arms are going to fall off, Ori. The situation’s dire.”
They snorted at the same time Ember did, rolling their eyes as they pulled their cloak back to their side, so it hugged them.
“Well, are you any good?” Alanna asked.
Cassius shrugged. “Does it matter? What’ll I ever do with it?”
As soon as Alanna glanced downwards, Rowan’s stomach twisted. And then, sure enough, she said, “Mishal was really good at archery.”
Ember put an arm over Alanna’s shoulders and sent a glare towards Cassius, daring him to say something. He kicked a rock instead and pretended like he hadn’t heard.
At first, after Alanna had picked up the habit of saying “Mishal was this” or “Mishal was good at that”, they had tried to avoid mentioning anything he might have been good at. Or, rather, “they” meaning everyone but Cassius.
But with Mishal being the one of them who was apparently good at everything, the plan quickly fell apart.
The rest of the walk to the village, which wasn’t about three minutes at most, was quiet. Rowan suspected that Ma sending them out for new saplings to plant near the front staircase was mostly to get them out of the citadel so they couldn’t stew.
And honestly, anything to feel useful and also get the others out of the Citadel so they wouldn’t be moping was an opportunity to leap at.
As they approached the centre of the village, the sound of music echoed through the air. They straightened and hurried forward with the others close in pursuit.
There were three people by the fountain, basked in rays of sunlight. Each one was playing a different instrument, one a harp, one a pan flute, and one was singing. There were a few other instruments laying off to the side, carefully arranged so they were not damaged by the small crowd that had gathered to listen.
They ushered the others over to the front of the little gathering to watch the procession, heart skipping in their chest. Alanna or Cassius might have protested, but they didn’t hear if they had.
When the song ended, a slow and nostalgic sounding piece, the one who had been singing broke off from the other two and approached.
Rowan knew her. Lira. She lived in the village, but often came to the citadel for music lessons, since they had better acoustics.
“Rowan!” Lira greeted, and then waved at Ember, Cassius, and Alanna as well. Then she grinned. “Come on. We’ve been playing sad songs all morning, I’m itching to play something fun. We’ve got a violin.”
“As if you needed to convince me,” they laughed.
They turned towards the others before Lira could pull them away. Ember gave them a thumbs up and even Cassius had the workings of a smile. Alanna looked unaffected by the cheer around her, but she didn’t look unhappy either, which was about one of the best moods she’d been in lately.
Lira guided them over to their other instruments, snatching a lute off the ground beside the violin. They’d played on it a few times, which meant they were at least familiar with it.
They picked it up and plucked each string. Lira snorted. “It’s already tuned,” she said.
But they wanted to hear it anyway. She was right, it was already tuned, although the A string was enough off to notice. Probably the changing weather. They tightened the bow string and slid it across a lump of rosin that Lira handed them, then quickly readjusted the pegs so all four strings were attuned to each other.
Lira gave them an easy, upbeat fiddle piece, one of the earlier pieces they’d learned, and they suspected it was for convenience on their end. They did only have so many songs memorised, so they appreciated the gesture.
They hadn’t gotten much of a chance for practising after the expedition, from helping Ma get ready for the farming season and sometimes needing a reprieve from the looming weight of Isadora and Mishal not being around. It would be nice, if only for a little while, to do so.
As the others got ready, they shed their cloak so as not to impede their bow arm. They were glad to have chosen a form-fitting long-sleeved shirt with simple bird embroidery and their high-waisted trousers. The other choice had been billowing sleeves, and that would have been distracting. At least, for not having a chance to practise recently.
They pulled their hair over their right shoulder so it didn’t get caught on the violin, and fixed their feather beret so the sunlight reached their face.
And then they started. The bright, fast tone filled the centre as before, and soon, the small crowd that had gathered to watch was dancing all together. Ember had grabbed Alanna. Probably a little forcibly, but Alanna was soon smiling with her. Cassius was twirling with a pretty girl wearing a pink dress with cropped black hair and smooth, dark brown skin. They were both laughing.
The bow skittered over the fingerboard a few times, leaving a small dusting of the rosin powder on the black surface. Correcting the bow to be centred was still a work in progress in their lessons.
They ran through two more pieces before Rowan knew they really should be getting back to the task at hand. The crowd was still lingering, everyone looking half-dazed by the music.
As they handed back the violin, they bade Lira goodbye, and collected their cloak.
They found Ember and Alanna sitting on the other side of the fountain with Lady Sylvania.
“Hello Sylvania,” they said, sitting beside her. “How’s the day treating you?”
“If the seasons would hurry up and stay warm for a while, it’d be doing an old lady some favours,” she grumbled. She reached out to pat Rowan’s hand. “You look very stunning today, as always, little songbird.”
“Rowan was just playing with the others, on the violin,” Ember said proudly, as if announcing an accomplishment she had done. “Did you hear the music?”
Sylvania smiled. “I did. It was very nice.”
“Thank you,” they said, warmth filling their chest. Then they leaned forward to glance between Ember and Alanna. “Where’s Cassius?”
Ember pointed past them and they turned. Cassius was to the side of the main thoroughfare around the fountain, talking to the girl he had been dancing with. His cheeks were rosy, and he was smiling.
“The other pretty one,” Sylvania said, distractedly.
Alanna frowned. “But he’s a boy,” she said. “Is he that pretty?”
Cassius ducked his head as the girl gave him a quick hug and then pattered off. He approached them with a shy smile. Ember sprung off the side of the fountain and met him in front of the others. She grabbed his cheeks, pinched them, and turned to grin at Alanna while Cassius stared at her in confusion.
“Look at him, Lana. He’s a pretty boy.” Ember patted Cassius’ cheek. “Isn’t that right?”
Alanna considered him, and then her entire demeanour fell. “Stormy was pretty,” she said.
They all sighed.
“Well, I’ve got to get back home, or Elsie will start fussing that I’ve gotten lost or hurt,” Sylvania said. Ember hurried over and offered an arm to help Sylvania stand. “Thank you. I don’t know what she’s in such a tussle about. These walks help get the blood flowing, you know?”
As Sylvania set off towards the residential end of the village, Cassius said, “Huh. Hey, Ori, how much do you know about truebloods?”
They tilted their head. “They’re pre-destined leaders of each of the kingdoms. They have special blood with magical properties to which the extent of hasn’t been discovered yet by those who have tried to research it. Why?”
“Why are they pre-destined?” Alanna asked.
Rowan ran his hands along the feathers on his cloak. “I’m not sure anyone knows, but if they do, nobody here does or has resources on it. Honestly, I don’t know that much about it. Only that the kingdoms that lost their trueblooded rulers, well.” They made a crumbling motion with their hand. “Those are all the kingdoms that lost their trueblood rulers, and then their ruin came soon after.”
“Why?” Alanna asked, face screwing up.
“No idea.” They sighed, glancing at their hands in their lap. “That’s why it would have been so cool to go on the expedition to the ruins.”
Cassius sat beside them on the fountain, and Ember took the space between them and Alanna that Sylvania had been formerly occupying.
“So… kingdoms not having their trueblooded rulers or whatever. Not good?” Cassius asked. He sounded like he’d swallowed something wrong.
“Very not good,” they agreed.
“Huh,” Cassius repeated. “So, listen. Remember that council meeting I said I happened to accidentally overhear?”
Alanna frowned. “You eavesdropped on a council meeting? That’s bad!”
“Yeah, it is,” Cassius said dismissively. “Margaretta mentioned the truebloods, but I didn’t really think about it. It’s not like there’s a class about truebloods, and Marita only mentioned it a few times. I didn’t think it was that important. I think she mentioned that two of the kingdom’s don’t have a trueblooded heir?”
Their pulse fluttered. “Not important? Didn’t you hear what I just said?”
“I did now, yeah, but not before. I was worried about Isa and Mishal!” he said defensively, cheeks flushing. Then he crossed his arms. “I mean, I was worried about Isa, and not Mishal. I’m not worried about Mishal.”
Normally, that would have been perfect material to tease Cassius with. Right now? “I don’t— Why would they be talking about that? Why wouldn’t two of the kingdoms have trueblooded heirs?” They tugged at a feather and regretted it when it loosened from its fastening. Cassius was still muttering about Mishal. “Cassius! That’s like, announcing you knew a devasting earthquake was about to hit two kingdoms and you didn’t think it was important?”
“Why are you so panicked?” Ember asked. “It’s not our problem. Maybe Margaretta announced the expedition to help or something, but what are we going to do about it?” She tugged a lock of his hair. “C’mon, songbird, relax.”
If two trueblooded heirs had recently undergone their blood rituals and failed, maybe the monarchs had reached out to Margaretta to see if they had any resources to help. They were a historian’s guild after all. The expedition made perfect sense that. It must have been the reason they couldn’t have waited for Rowan to get a little older in order to come along.
“Yeah,” they said, and let out a breath. “That’s a really good point. We should probably go pick up those saplings before it gets dark too.”
Ember patted their shoulder. “Right.” She hopped off the fountain again. “Oh, and Cassius? I definitely heard you say you were worried about Mishal, and I’m never letting you live that down.”