Ever since Ember had blustered about how she wanted to go to Chromium, Rowan had been sitting on it. And the more they thought about it, the more sense it seemed to make, especially with the Grey Masks on their tail.
Alanna only seemed to care as long as the others, Cassius in particular—he had been the one to look after her more closely than Rowan or Ember—were going. Cassius seemed amiable.
As amiable as he could be. The four of them were sitting at one end of the barn, waiting for Enoch to return, and Cassius was moping atop a haybale. Artemesa sat just beneath him, and she was evidently greatly irritated by Cassius not paying attention to her. He sighed, for the thousandth time, and glanced across the room, where Caddy and Hypatis were going through their things to make sure they had everything for their journey even further north.
“Of course he’s leaving,” Cassius said, as though this were not obvious. “Must everything turn sour with enough time?”
Ember rolled over to swat his curls. “Stars and seas, you sound like a terrible combination of Mishal and a poet. It’s disgusting.”
“Maybe you can write letters to each other,” Alanna suggested. “Send him poetry.”
“See? Even Alanna’s not as hopeless as you are.”
He scowled and turned, so that he was watching them all upside down. Rowan snickered at the sight, such a twisted expression flipped. “Even if this doesn’t end up as you would have hoped, Rascal, you’ll find your dashing prince.”
Cassius’ scowl faded as he peered towards Rowan, then his nose wrinkled as though he had smelled something foul. “I only know one prince. Ugh, I would never.” He shuddered, almost comically in its exaggeration. “Eugh, why did you even say that? What a terrible thought.”
For a moment, everyone stared at him. Then Ember, unwarranted at first glance, burst into laughter so hard that she was in tears moments later. Alanna began a fit of her giggles, burying her face in her hands as though to contain them and failing.
It was then that Rowan understood and began trying to keep their laughter under their breath. Cassius had such a dreadfully disgusted look on his face that if the thought of such a couple was not hilarious in and of itself, the expression Cassius wore certainly was.
“That wasn’t funny!” Cassius protested.
Ember slapped the haybale. “Can you imagine? You and Stormy? The world would explode!”
“They’d kill each other if they spent more than two hours alone together,” Alanna added, raising her head out of the clutches of her hands. She looked more joyful then Rowan had seen in some time, her pale eyes glittering blue even in the dim light of the lanterns.
“At least your life would never be boring, constantly tormenting one another,” Rowan pointed out. They didn’t expect it to bring Cassius comfort, and they were not disappointed as Cassius flipped back over onto his stomach and glowered at all of them.
“I’d rather be strangled by a tree,” he responded, dry as a sun-bitten bone. Then he stuck out his tongue, like a bitter taste had come upon his tongue. “Euch.”
Alanna’s laughing slowed, though her joy did not escape her. “Mishal isn’t that bad,” she said.
“But he is!” Cassius said. Artemesa had one of her feet over her nose and her feathers were all ruffled up. “Look, you’re scaring Mesa!”
“I thought you said you two have an emotional bond,” Rowan said. “Are you scaring her with your own revulsion?”
Cassius blanched. “Well, if I am, it’s your fault.”
“I am not the one who started this,” Rowan reminded him.
“You said prince!”
“And your first thought was Mishal?”
The side door of the barn slid open and Enoch stepped inside. The four of them went quiet as he approached, and he squinted at them. “What are the four of you conspiring about behind everyone’s backs?”
Ember, who had recovered but wiped a few tears that had gathered on her lower eyelashes, fell onto her back, and grabbed onto Enoch’s shoe. He frowned down at her. “Do you really want to know?” she asked.
He picked his foot up and out of Ember’s range and side-stepped away from her. “You’re right, I don’t.” He crossed his arms over his chest. “If the four of you are so set on a journey to Chromium, you need actual travelling things. And best hurry, there’s some strange activity about the Gates.” Though he had alluded to escorting them there, Enoch said he would not bring them into Chromium, though gave no reason for it. When pressed, it was Ember who had deflected. Whatever it was that scared Enoch away from the kingdom, Rowan had no doubt Ember knew of it.
Alanna tilted her head. “What kind of activity?”
Enoch’s frown grew grim. “Summermount soldiers. It never bodes well when the westerners set foot in the north.”
The mood turned sombre, the joy leaving Alanna and Ember’s faces in one fell swoop. Rowan’s own heart felt weighted at this news. The last time Summermount had come to the Divine Tundra, it had been to wage war, and a long and terrible one at that. It seemed they were always at odds about something.
But then what were Summermount soldiers doing here?
* * *
It was hard to make their way towards market without staring at the retinue of Summermount soldiers, who were being led by a group who looked to be an envoy from Glacier’s Keep, bearing the crest of their kingdom.
The entourage from Summermount, with their red tunics draped in long, dark chainmail, and burnished metal breastplates with the emblem of a glowing ruby, looked rather out of place. They stood out like blood on snow and did not look particularly dressed for the weather. Their pointed helmets did not appear to provide any warmth or shelter from the cold, though it was not so harsh now, they looked cold. Many had arms bared and were hunched forward, trying to shrink into themselves to retain their warmth. They all carried either a set of a curved, deadly blade that Rowan knew not the name of, and a red and gold buckler, or the shield alongside a spear with a blade at the point, polished and glistening.
Enoch was trying to press Cassius into getting a crossbow, though Cassius dodged and distracted at every opportunity and Enoch seemed to be getting quickly annoyed. Ember was whispering to an awestruck Alanna, about the craftsmanship of the swords, and about how she imagined, in Chromium, she could make something on par with these mighty and beautiful weapons.
Rowan was only paying enough attention to follow the threads of the conversation. They, as many others were doing, watched the soldiers being led around by those dressed in fine furs and pelts, and the armour of Glacier’s Keep.
But the two groups were steadily moving away, talking in conversation Rowan couldn’t hear. They glanced around almost absent-minded, to see those who had taken interest.
Their gaze caught on a figure across the thoroughfare with a drawn expression, leading a majestic though tired and damp Clydesdale, and who was watching the soldiers with a frown. He was dressed in a warm, woollen cloak dyed black, and hid what weapons or possessions he may have had.
And Rowan recognised both horse and rider.