Rowan rolled their eyes and tugged on one of Cassius’ curls. “I wasn’t even touching you.” They gently ran the comb through a knot in his hair, and Cassius squirmed. Again.
“I can brush my own hair, Ori,” Cassius grumbled.
“Really?” Rowan purposefully gave him another tug and Cassius yelped. “I wouldn’t have known. You always look like you’ve never seen a comb in your life.”
From where she was crouching to lace the tall, white hide boots, their ma pursued her lips to hide her smile. That made Rowan grin. Ember, from her place on Cassius’ bed, didn’t even try to conceal her snicker.
“They’re right,” she said. “Wear all the nice, pretty clothes you like, but you always look like you’ve just fallen out of bed.”
In the mirror, they watched Cassius roll his eyes. “It’s so tangled all the time, it takes forever. It just gets all frizzy.”
“That’s because you try to brush it when it’s dry.” Rowan held up the wide-toothed, ivory comb and waved it in Cassius’ face. “Use this when it’s not wet. Learn how to take care of yourself, rat.”
Ma stood up and gave them a stern look, even though her eyes were glittering. “Don’t call Cassius a rat.” She appraised Cassius and adjusted the collar of his tunic that curled out from his neck in a wing-like point over his shoulders. “He looks very pretty. The blue embroidery brings out his eyes, and the gold lace highlights his hair and skin tone.”
Rowan sighed, mostly satisfied with Cassius’ curls—it wasn’t like they would be able to tame them anymore than they already had—and set aside the ivory comb. “Everything brings out his eyes, Ma. Everything looks good with his hair.” They pinched Cassius’ ear, gently, and Cassius squawked, swatting them away. “I swear, you’re using magic.”
“Am not!” Cassius protested. “What would you even say to invoke that? Blend this mortal vessel to attire?”
“You’d be more likely to turn into your own trousers,” Rowan replied.
Ember snickered again, doing absolutely nothing to help with the preceding of dressing Cassius for tonight. She was only half ready either, even though Rowan had implored her to bring her own clothes to put on while they and their Ma helped Cassius out. She’d tied back her hair with a silk ribbon to hide the fact she hadn’t brushed hers either, but there was some smear of something on her nose and she wasn’t bothering to wipe it off.
“Nobody’s turning into anything,” Ma said, and then grabbed Cassius’ hand and guided him to stand up.
She made a twirling gesture with her finger, and Cassius whirled around. The train of his pearl-coloured tunic flared out around his legs. Rowan crossed their arms, appraising the snowy outfit. Ma was right, even the white brought out the gold-bronze of Cassius’ skin.
“Are you excited?” Ma asked Cassius. “Fourteen already. The years fly by faster than I can blink.”
Cassius’ smile at his opportunity to show himself off waned. He glanced down at his hands, partially covered by the dripping gold lace off his sleeves. “Yeah.”
Ma’s grin melted into a concerned frown. She tucked a fallen strand of black hair behind her ear and opened her mouth to say something.
“Hey, Ma,” Rowan interjected, before she could say anything. They loved their ma more than anything but trying to get to the root of whatever was bugging Cassius would take more than some motherly worry. “Could you go see how the set-up in the Gathering Hall is going? I think Ember’s mum and Cassius’ dad were working on the cake, and they wanted your input on edible flowers.”
She met their gaze with a knowing look, and then nodded and reached out to gently pat Cassius’ cheek. “Don’t go and get into any mud or give yourself any papercuts now.” She crossed the room to the door, and it clicked shut behind her quietly.
They shared a glance with Ember, and then turned to Cassius.
“So, how are you really feeling?” they asked.
Cassius shook his head and walked over to sit next to Ember on the bed. “I mean, yeah. Excited. It’s my birthday.”
Ember put her elbow on his shoulder and rested her chin against her fist. “Uh huh. And I saw a phoenix last week.” She went to reach for his hair, but Rowan cleared their throat, and she seemed to think better of it. “You’re a terrible liar.”
“Am not!” Cassius swatted Ember off his shoulder. Then he shrugged, groaned, and threw himself backwards onto his bed with as much drama as he could muster. “This is the last birthday that Belle’s gonna be here with me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Ember scoffed. “It’s not like they’re leaving forever.”
“I’m not stupid. I know she wants this, even if she’s too nice to say so.” Cassius frowned up at the ceiling. “She’ll go out into the world, and she’ll see how great it is, and then she won’t want to come back.”
Rowan sat down on the armchair Cassius had been occupying while they did his hair, threw on leg over the other, and stretched out their arms over the sides of the chair. “You’ve never been out there, how do you know it’s so great?”
“Yeah, and besides, who’s to say we don’t follow them?” Ember punched Cassius’ foot, but he either didn’t feel it or chose not to react. She winced. Punching his boot probably hadn’t been the wisest decision.
“Uh huh,” Cassius mocked. “And what if they don’t come back? Like, not even here, but at all?”
They frowned and tilting their head. Their hair slid over the exposed skin of their shoulder, untouched by their wine-coloured, velvet robe. “Why wouldn’t they?”
Glancing over between them and Cassius, Ember was frowning now too. Cassius pulled himself back up, his expression solemn now. “I overheard something. Something the council was talking about.”
Ember’s eyebrows went to her hairline and she smacked Cassius in the shoulder. “You eavesdropped on a council meeting and didn’t tell me?!”
“How’d you manage to not get caught?” Rowan asked
Cassius’ cheeks darkened. “It was kind of an accident.” He looked up at Rowan. “But that’s not the point. You know the tales of the cursed ruins, don’t you? I thought you were just telling superstition, but the adults are fussy about it too…”
Rowan raised an eyebrow and leaned back. “You thought I was what?” Then, because they knew it would irritate him, they smiled. “‘It’s just superstition.’ You know, you sound like Stormy.”
That earned him a gaped mouth and a scowl. “I do not—”
“He said the same thing.” Rowan shrugged.
“Oh, grow up you two,” Ember snapped. “What do the tales say? I mean, are Belle and Stormy in danger?” She crossed her arms. “Margaretta wouldn’t let them go if it meant putting them in harm’s way though, right?”
“I don’t think she believes the stories about the curses or whatever,” Cassius said. “She seemed irritated by the questions about it. Said something about not believing the superstition.” He frowned. “Gracia asked if they knew about the dangers, Stormy and Belle I mean. Margaretta said they do.”
Ember glanced towards them. “What are the stories about the ruins anyway?”
“Explorers and treasure seekers that go to the ruins, or even near ‘em, they say they never come back. Those that claim to have gotten close say they heard things, saw shadows. There’s always something there, like its discouraging anyone from going to the ruins.” They slumped in the chair. “Imagine if they’re true. What if its some kind of protection magic? Think of how old that could be! It could be magic nobody alive knows anything about. And what about what could be buried in the kingdoms? What kind of history would be lost there? What about a real explanation for how the three kingdoms fell in the first place?”
“That’s not the point though,” Ember said. “If nobody who goes there ever comes back, why would Margaretta be leading a bunch of people there?”
“She said something about a key.” Cassius shrugged. “Says she’s sure that we have it. The Chronicler’s Guild. The council? I don’t know, someone has it though. She said something about how curses are like locks?”
Rowan pulled a clump of their hair over their shoulder and began to twirl it around their finger. “No curse is unbreakable, some just can’t be worked out. Yeah, it’s like locks. Some even get rusty, or too old.” They looked down at their sleek black boots and knocked the end of their heels against the floor. “So, she thinks she has the key. How wonderful would it be? To be a part of the expedition that unlocked the secrets of the ruins and their history.” They scowled. “If I was a year older.”
“Bully for them, they’re dumb for not letting you come,” Ember said. Then she hopped from Cassius’ bed, and grabbed his shoulder to drag him with her. “C’mon. We only have a few hours before the party starts, and I need help with the stupid laces on my dress. Besides, Lana wants you to do her hair, ‘cus Belle was off in the village with Ash doing gross romantic stuff.”
“Good to know I’m her second choice,” they said, trying not to smile. They failed. Alanna’s hair was nearly as soft as theirs, and thick as anything. On one hand, the silkiness made it slippery, but the thickness balanced it out. When they could get Alanna to sit still long enough, they loved working with her hair.
Ember linked her arms between both Cassius and Rowan’s, and then began to drag them out the door. At least Cassius looked a little livelier.
For the first time since learning about the ruins, Rowan hoped that the stories were only superstition.