CHAPTER THREE - CHANGE
Adar’s breath frosted the air ahead of him. Full night had fallen. Stars were sprawled out above the town as if cast negligently from a giant’s hand. The moon rose--bone white--above the trees and the scent of wood fires filled the air. It was his favorite time of year despite the growing dark. But Adar found no joy in this first night of the festival. In fact, he feared the uncomplicated joy he’d taken from the world would forever be altered now.
Draigh… why? Why would you leave me without a word?
But the last part of that thought was misleading, because Adar really wanted to know why his brother--his twin--would leave him ever.
“What’s wrong, Adar?” Kharis asked, slightly breathless already.
Her ebony forehead furrowed as she glanced at him. She could only glance, instead of look intently, because he was walking too rapidly, practically running, and she needed two steps to catch up with his one stride. Her long black hair, elaborately braided, swung back and forth like a metronome as she pumped her arms to keep up with him. Mox kept fluttering her wings as she watched Kharis’ frantic attempt to keep pace. Or maybe it was in a vain attempt to help her move faster.
“Nothing,” he lied to his best friend.
“Really?” Her voice dripped with disbelief at that.
He wasn’t being very convincing. Since he’d learned about Donal’s intentions and discovered that Draigh had run away rather than face him about them, he’d been seesawing between the cold rage of betrayal and the hot loss of grief. He’d left the house without saying another word to his aunt, and he would have walked straight past Kharis if she hadn’t run after him. He hadn’t even seen her there or remembered that she was coming to meet him. Everything had been blown out of his mind because of Draigh.
Though she lived in North Thistleford--the wealthiest part of the town--and had the farthest to come to meet him at his house, she had chosen to do so rather than meet him in the square like Fren and Kerym. But outside of Draigh, Kharis was the closest person to him. Even closer than Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom. She bucked tradition and more to be his friend, let alone come to this side of town unaccompanied by a personal guard. He would have loved her for that if there weren’t millions of other reasons to adore her. So lying to her made his stomach hurt, but he wasn’t sure he trusted his mouth not to betray him too.
Just like Draigh.
“You do know that I’m not buying what you’re selling, Adar,” Kharis said, not put off by his snipped words and dark looks.
She was trying to pull ahead of him so that he could see the disbelieving look in her dark brown eyes that he already knew was there. But he stared resolutely ahead.
They were going to the central square to prepare for the race. Him to participate and her to watch. North Thistleford residents didn’t participate. The race was for the lower people. She told him that the reality was the North Thistleford people worried they’d lose and the hoity-toity of the town couldn’t have that! Her disdain for her own class always had him smiling. But not tonight.
The race wouldn’t start for a few hours, but their friends and all the villagers would be gathering in the square to drink, eat, dance and listen to tales about the past, the witches and the dangers of being different. The last he was adding in, but it was the moral underlying every scary story that was told during the festival. Even the North Thistleford residents had to heed it.
“I’m just focused on the race tonight. That’s all,” he continued to lie.
“You’re focused on the race? Does that mean you’ll come in last this year?” she asked exasperatedly. “Because you really would need to put a lot of thought into how to lose worse than last year and make it even semi-believable! Kerym has been unbearable all year because you let him beat you last time! I think you’d shake even Cohnal’s confidence in himself if you did worse.”
Though he had never told her about his and Draigh’s “plan” to not stand out, she was really proof that no one believed they were in the safe middle. She thought his failures were a protest of the importance of foolish games to decide important things like life partners and business relationships. But as Fren would point out--not without some bitterness--Kharis was an Elder Family Scion. She didn’t need to play games when she’d already won from the moment she was born.
She put a hand on his nearest arm and forced him to slow down and then to stop. They weren’t quite at the bridge yet to the square. He could see Uncle Thom’s leatherwork shop not a few houses down. The shop was still alight as his uncle likely was putting finishing touches on leather work pouches, carved thongs for hair, and woven bracelets, which were favorites to be purchased during the festival. Unlike his fine leather coats and armor, these were the things that most of Thistleford could afford. To have anything by his uncle was highly prized. That afternoon, Adar had offered to help get the merchandise together and bring it to the stall in the square, but his uncle had waived him off.
“The festival is for young people to enjoy themselves! Especially in your eighteenth year!” Uncle Thom had said.
He was a tall man, well over six feet with thinning red-blond hair that barely concealed a freckled head beneath the strands. He was built more like a blacksmith than a tanner, though the work to skin and tan hides was no easy matter, not to mention the artistry to make them into quality goods. That’s where his uncle’s surprisingly long-fingered and expressive hands came in. They were an artist’s hands.
“Uncle Thom, the festival is for everyone,” Adar had objected. “Besides, more hands make lighter work.”
It was the same argument he would try to use with his aunt and he got nearly the same response.
“I’ve got Marc and the other apprentices to help me, so don’t you worry!” Uncle Thom had cupped his cheek and smiled affectionately at him. “Adar, between your work here and for Bialair at the apothecary, what time have you had for yourself recently?”
“I go into the forest everyday for Bialair,” Adar had protested. “Mox and I have the greatest adventures there. It’s hardly work!”
He’d patted Adar’s cheek. “I know you think that. But let’s have the greatest time with your friends in town and not out alone in the woods, yeah?”
Adar had eventually agreed to the time off. Now he wondered if his uncle’s extra insistence on having fun was because he knew that Donal--DONAL!--was courting Draigh.
And that I’ll be losing him.
And the illusion of us being together will be destroyed.
And I’ll be alone.
“Adar, what is going on?” Kharis insisted. Her kind, beautiful face was full of concern and her voice mirrored it. “Please, talk to me. And so help you, if you tell another lie!”
He faintly smiled at her mock threat. But not even she knew the true depth of his feelings for Draigh. Those were… Well, not even he was optimistic enough to think that anyone--even someone who cared about him as much as Kharis--would accept his incestuous feelings for his twin.
Yet he found himself bursting out, “Donal’s going to ask Draigh to join his household!”
Her expression went blank for a moment, but then became empathetic. She nodded. “Of course, and you’re sad about things changing. But you won’t lose him, Adar. Think of it as extending your family to include the Magans, not losing Draigh to them.”
Magan was Donal’s family name. Draigh would likely take it and leave Blackwood behind. Adar would be the only Blackwood left as their mother had no living relatives and no one knew what their father’s family name was. Not that Adar would ever take it considering the man’s seeming abandonment of his mother.
He blinked and looked into Kharis’ brown eyes more closely. Something in the easy and measured way she had answered struck him as off. “Did you… know?”
The faintest guilty expression flitted across her face, confirming his suspicion. “I’d heard... rumors.”
“Rumors? And you didn’t tell me?” He cried.
She didn’t shush him, but he knew he’d been way too loud. A couple who was walking by glanced over at them sharply. Kharis nodded to them and exchanged a, “Happy Nightfall” while he remained silent. He was sick and tired of worrying about what others thought! But he understood why Kharis did. Her family--the Helemaers--had founded Thistleford. They were one of the reigning Elder Families. There were expectations of her that she simply couldn’t buck.
While neither of her parents were mayor now, they had been prior to the current one. And Kharis’ grandparents and her great parents had all been mayors, too, in their time. Sometimes Adar thought that the people in North Thistleford just simply took turns being in charge even though everyone in town ostensibly voted, or could vote anyways, so the mayor could have been anyone from any area. But it never was. The mayor was always from North Thistleford and it was always one of the Elder Families of the town.
Another thing that doesn’t change about this place, he thought bitterly.
Mox nuzzled his cheek until his anger and pain lowered to a simmer again. Besides, he really didn’t care who was in charge of Thistleford. The whole town agreed that this was the way things were to be and they weren’t to change. So blaming them was pointless and he knew that Kharis felt the same as him on some level.
“Why didn’t you tell me, Kharis?” he demanded, more softly.
She let out a long sigh and grimaced. “I wanted to.”
“It wasn’t my place, was it?” she asked, looking back up at him, searching his face. “You and Draigh are brothers. Closer than that. I thought he would tell you when he was ready.”
He kept quiet for a beat. “You also knew it would hurt me. So you didn’t want the blowback?”
She lowered her head again. “I thought if anyone could tell you in a way that would lessen the blow it would be Draigh. Besides, what if I was wrong? I’d have put you through this for nothing! And truthfully, I’d also heard that he rejected Donal’s advances. Most people thought…” Here her eyes flickered up to him.
“That Draigh wouldn’t go to the Magans without it being a packaged deal. The two of you. Together.”
“We have that already. He wouldn’t need to join the Magans!” Adar crossed his arms tightly over his chest. Mox licked him anxiously.
“So you don’t think he loves Donal?” Kharis tilted her head to the side.
His heart fell somewhere past the soles of his shoes into the bowels of the Earth.
“I… I don’t know.” He rapidly blinked away tears. “He’s never mentioned Donal like--like that. And he would, wouldn’t he? If he loved him? Draigh’s not the type to scream his feelings, but love is… love. You can’t hide it. Not forever.”
Gods, not forever. Does he know how I feel about him and is he trying to escape me? No… no… he can’t...
“No, you can’t hide it forever. You’re right.” She bit her lower lip. “I haven’t seen any signs of it either. Draigh is… Draigh.” She let out a soft laugh. “Silent. Stoic. Deadly.”
They both laughed at that last bit. His laugh was a bit watery and he wiped the incipient tears away before they fell. Mox pressed her forehead against his left cheek and purred in solidarity. He petted her tail. The emotions that were strangling him eased a little.
“I don’t think he loves Donal. I don’t think he even wants to be partnered. So why is he doing it?” Adar asked. He sounded a bit like he was bleating sheep.
She sighed. “If it’s not love then it’s strategic.”
“Kharis, forgive me, but Draigh doesn’t care about joining the North Thistlefordians,” he said with a shake of his head.
The Magans were a second tier Elder Family. A family that served the others by keeping the town safe. Their members were never the mayor nor members of the council that the mayor headed. But they were well respected to be sure. And a big step above Aunt Cathe and Uncle Thom socially, if he were honest with himself.
But only if you care about that sort of thing and Draigh doesn’t!
“You’re right. He doesn’t.” Kharis wasn’t at all offended that he didn’t care about status like hers. Not that he’d thought she would be. She always saw things like this out of cold, clear eyes. “So maybe it is for love, but not love of Donal.”
She looked at him meaningfully. He blinked and held Mox’s tail a little too tightly. The felinees mewed piteously at him and he eased his hold.
“You don’t think he’s--he’s doing this for--”
“For you? So that you have an increased chance of joining a good and noble household? Yes, I could see Draigh doing exactly that,” she answered.
He nearly stumbled as his head spun. “No, that idiot! If he thinks I want that--”
“He likely thinks you don’t. Or you wouldn’t even consider it. Not while he was at home with you. But if he were gone? You wouldn’t be held back then,” she said.
And he thought of how, at the moment of realizing Draigh’s absence, he had decided not to play it safe that night in the race. That wasn’t the kind of freedom that Draigh likely wanted for him. But he wasn’t wrong that Adar curbed his own wants and desires for Draigh.
But I could never love anyone else as I love him. My whole soul rejects it!
“He avoided me tonight after Aunt Cathe gave it away,” Adar said. “He went out the window.”
She chuckled mirthlessly. “Somehow when I think of Draigh, I never think of him using doors. But, Adar, I can’t believe he won’t talk to you before he formally accepts Donal’s offer.”
“He hasn’t. Aunt Cathe thinks it will happen at the end of the festival.” Adar swallowed bitter bile. “So instead of enjoying it, I’ll spend every moment in agony, waiting for him to drop the blade.”
“Did you think that nothing would ever change?” Kharis’ voice was gentle, but her words were strong. “That you’d go on sharing your childhood bedroom and neither of you ever have a partner?”
He opened his mouth, but then shut it. In truth, he had never really allowed himself to even imagine what would happen in the future in any concrete way. A house with just Draigh and himself had seemed a step too far for even his imagination. But had he really thought they could stay in their single beds and never share them with anyone else? Had he really pictured them getting old and gray under their childhood roof?
He’d been lucky that Draigh had never seemingly found a boyfriend before. If he’d coupled with anyone, he’d hidden it well and done it elsewhere. Maybe some of those nights on the wall had actually been spent in a lover’s bed while Adar, foolishly, waited for him at home. Just because Adar’s stomach churned at the thought of anyone’s lips but Draigh’s, his twin wouldn’t have felt the same.
“I feel like I’ve been dreaming and now I’m awake and I don’t like this,” Adar admitted.
“You’re not alone in that. Reality has a way of… creeping up on you.”
She lowered her head again. He studied the elaborate braiding of her black hair. He couldn’t imagine the amount of time it took to make it look so lovely, but in its elaborateness it reminded him of the shifting alliances and town politics he hated. She never engaged in that with him or he with her. He sometimes wondered if that was why she chose to be friends, let alone best friends, with him. A twin. The son of an outsider. Someone different. He was perhaps her least and most complicated relationship.
“Change is hard,” she finally said. “And I know how much Draigh means to you. I still think you should look to this as an expansion of your family, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t mourn what’s past.”
Mourn. That’s so final. But she doesn’t know that with his leaving I’m burying my heart forever.
She tilted her face back up to look at him. He caught sight of the delicate silver necklace with blue gemstone around her neck. That was new. And that wasn’t all. While it wasn’t unusual for Kharis to have fine clothes and jewelry, even new things relatively often, her outfit tonight was exceptionally well made and stylish.
She wore a dark blue coat with a fur collar and cuffs that hugged her generous curves and then flared out bell-like after drawing in at her waist. There were large silver buttons imprinted with her initials keeping it closed. Her leggings were a silver gray velvet and she had thigh-high boots in a darker gray suede with a small heel.
“You’re really dressed up. More so than any other Nightfall,” he realized with a bit of a start.
She grimaced again and nodded. “Grandmother ordered the material for the coat from River Rush, and Grandfather had the necklace designed and made in the Granite Hills. They just arrived in the caravan this morning though they were requested nearly a year ago.”
She touched the necklace briefly and it sparkled in the light from the shops. But she quickly dropped her hand as if she wasn’t as fond of it as she might have been. She loved her grandparents, he knew, but they were very tough on her with high expectations. Higher than her own parents’ expectations, which were already in the stars. Not only was Kharis expected to behave like a model Elder’s daughter, she had to learn intimately her family’s trading business, for she was going to take it over someday.
Only the Helemaers knew the secret paths through the Moonfall Forest to the other towns that skirted the plains and mountains where the witches lived. They alone had treaties to move goods to and fro between the far flung settlements. Others had tried to set up trading routes themselves, but the witches had destroyed their caravans and dropped the burned remains in front of the town gate.
Some whispered that it was the Helemaers who were really behind that destruction in order to keep their monopoly on trade, and that the witches had nothing to do with it at all. Not that Adar believed that. Kharis was learning the business and if there was something like that going on she would never have agreed to be a part of it. No matter what the cost.
And she would have told me. But I have secrets. She could have them too.
“You look beautiful. I should have said earlier. Should have noticed,” he quickly said. “Among other things.”
But she just smiled and shook her head. “You have weighty matters on your mind. More important matters. Besides, you’ve always seen me, not my clothes or jewelry. I appreciate that more than you know.”
His forehead furrowed as he connected a few things in his head. Like him and Draigh, Kharis was 18-years-old, too. So even though she was a North Thistlefordian of an Elder Family, she would be expected to partner with someone too soon. Maybe this festival.
He knew that there was no one who had captured her heart. But that didn’t matter. She was the Scion of Helemaer. She would partner with someone appropriate. But who?
“Your grandparents aren’t getting you all dressed up for… for someone special, are they, Kharis?” he asked.
She gave him a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. “I think we’ve had enough gloomy talk about life partners tonight, don’t you?”
“I… I guess so.” But he had his answer. There was someone that had been chosen for her and she didn’t like that choice.
She looped her arm through his and started leading him towards the square. “Come. I want to drink my weight in mead and eat it in sweet bread, roast meat and everything delicious.”
“Okay. I’m down for that.”
He tipped back his head and laughed. It was genuine laughter. His bright nature wanted to surface, even as part of him was mourning. And what if Kharis was right? That his brother was doing this for him? And what if Adar could convince him not to? That there was another path for them to take? Together. Well, the festival was hardly over. He had time to plan.
“And maybe, if we stuff you with enough food,” she poked his flat stomach, “people might actually believe you could come in last place in the race.”