Authors: Ginn Hale
iram stared with red-rimmed eyes out at the fields lining the road to the Sagrada Academy. Only desiccated sunflower stalks and tracks of broken soil remained from the harvest. ^e land looked as ragged as he felt and the dark confines of the Tornesal carriage offered him no more rest than his sumptuous bed had the night before. Despite exhaustion, hard liquor and hours spent wandering unknown streets, sleep had eluded him. Just as it evaded his restless mind now.
Outside, blue jays flashed their brilliant wings from a stand of apple trees; red leaves fell as the birds took to the air and swept past the creaking luggage carriage. Kiram shuddered at the sight of them and the scabbed gash in his forearm throbbed as if pulsing with poison. A week ago he could have found the birds a lovely distraction on such a cold fall morning. He might have delighted in their graceful flight and taken little note of how closely the flock followed the steady course of this single carriage.
Now he knew their chase betrayed a malevolent intent. ^ey flew as portents of the shadow curse, spies for the man who controlled it.
Slumped across the seat opposite Kiram, Fedeles Quemanor groaned and twitched, his peaceful doze turning fitful as the jays circled overhead. He gave a strained gasp and rolled his head from beneath his arm. Kiram glanced to Fedeles' face but for an instant he saw only Javier in those sharp, troubled features.
A longing so intense that it felt like pain shot through Kiram. He rubbed his tired eyes. He couldn't afford to think of Javier. What had been between them was over. ^ey had both destroyed it last night.
^is morning Javier had hardly met his gaze and offered no response when Kiram greeted him at the breakfast table. Instead he'd risen, abandoning his meal, wished Fedeles good day, and departed for the Sagrada Academy. Less than an hour later the dour staff of the Tornesal townhouse had efficiently packed Kiram and Fedeles into this musty carriage as if they were just two more pieces of Javier's luggage. While Fedeles dozed, Kiram deliberately turned his gaze from the trunks and leather chests emblazoned with Javier's family crest and tried to set his mind to other subjects.
But the strong physical resemblance between Javier and Fedeles roused all the thoughts Kiram had wished to forget. The stench of debauchery seemed to drift from the leather carriage seats. How could it be that those minutes he longed most to forget could burn in his memory with such painful detail?
Fedeles' legs shifted, brushing briefly against Kiram's calf and the contact offered Kiram a strange kind of comfort.
Both Javier and Fedeles were long-limbed, pale-skinned young men who sported ink black hair and handsome features. Ms morning the random shadows of luggage and Kiram's own exhaustion cast a harder line to Fedeles' jaw and lent an arrogant curve to his lips. ^e bulk of his new velvet coat offered the illusion of Javier's angular musculature to Fedeles' thinner frame.
The two of them could easily have passed for brothers, even twins. It was no wonder that some gossips whispered of scandalous relations between their parents. But Kiram knew Fedeles deserved better from him than to be seen as some proxy for his cousin, so he shifted his leg away.
Suddenly Fedeles jerked upright. With consciousness, much of his likeness to Javier fled. His dark eyes flashed wide as his mouth twitched between grimaces and grins. He caught Kiram's hand in his long fingers and Kiram couldn't help but note the power of his grip. Nearly as crushing as Javier's had been last night.
"They want to kill him, Kiri," Fedeles whispered. "The birds-" He cut himself short as a jay dived past the carriage window. The color drained entirely from Fedeles' face, leaving his mouth pale as chalk.
"I won't let them harm you, Fedeles," Kiram assured him. Fedeles shook his head as a violent shudder passed through his body. A wild, manic grin jerked across his lips but his eyes remained wide and terrified.
"Look here, Fedeles." Kiram lifted his lotus medallion from beneath the collar of his shirt and held it out. Even in the dim light of the closed carriage the gold surface glowed. Sacred Bahiim symbols gleamed as if throwing off their own light. Kiram hoped that, if nothing else, the medallion might distract Fedeles from his own fear.
Fedeles stared at the medallion like a fascinated crow.
"My uncle's partner is a Bahiim, a Haldiim holy man. He gave this to me. The lotus is a sign of powerful protection among my people, you know."
According to Alizadeh this medallion was more than that. It served as Alizadeh's spyglass, offering him the chance to detect the inner workings of the shadow curse and perhaps even to identify the man who controlled it. As Kiram held the medallion up now, he hoped that it would catch some hint of the dark magic that directed the jays in their pursuit of Fedeles.
The medallion swung on its chain as the carriage bounced over rough cobblestones. Light glinted off its polished surface. Then, without warning or seeming reason, the jays suddenly broke off from their chase. With a few harsh calls they fled into the thick woods that encircled the Sagrada Academy.
As he watched them go, Fedeles' expression lit with joy and he threw his arms around Kiram, crushing the air from him in his fierce embrace. Then Fedeles released him to press his face against the window and glare in the direction that the jays had fled.
"Stay away. Stay away. Stay away," Fedeles whispered as if reciting a holy chant. Then he dropped back into his seat.
"Good riddance." Kiram too felt better with the birds out of sight. He wondered if perhaps now he might steal a few moments of sleep. But when he closed his eyes his thoughts churned with the sour memory of writhing whores and Javier's proud glower.
Kiram straightened up, awake again.
Across from him, Fedeles hummed a bright tune. Now and then he moved his legs and tapped his toes against the floor of the carriage, keeping perfect time. After a few minutes he patted Kiram's knee.
"Dancing, Kiri," Fedeles informed him.
Kiram smiled. He didn't know why, but out of everyone at the Sagrada Academy only Fedeles seemed to know the Haldiim diminutive of his name.
"We'll dance a quaressa." Fedeles continued sweeping his feet in graceful motions across the carriage floor. "Left foot out and back, out and kick." Fedeles demonstrated and then looked expectantly at Kiram's motionless feet.
Though Kiram realized what Fedeles wanted, he still felt a moment of resistance; the bitterness of last night clung to him. But Fedeles was the last person he could blame for any of his troubles with Javier. So Kiram emulated the motions while Fedeles beamed with approval.
"Now right foot." Fedeles again demonstrated the dance step and Kiram copied him.
Laughing and grinning, Fedeles led him through the footwork of an entire quaressa. Last night Kiram had been so hurt and repulsed that he'd imagined he would never again find anything Cadeleonian charming. But this morning his sense of adventure seemed to have returned.
And in his own way, Fedeles was wonderful company, because for all his madness, he accepted Kiram without judgment and right now Kiram appreciated that more than anything.
"Again, again!" Fedeles crowed. Kiram obliged, mirroring Fedeles' steps and kicks from his own seat.
Leather trunks creaked and the carriage bounced beneath their weight. More than once Kiram misstepped, knocking knees and ankles with Fedeles, but Fedeles laughed it off. Kiram quickly improved. By the fourth time, their steps were almost perfectly synchronized. Fedeles sang out the names of his favorite horses, calling often for Kiram's black gelding, Firaj. Then he delightedly crowed for Javier's white stallion, Lunaluz.
Out of the corner of his eye Kiram thought he did catch a flash of white through the dense forest lining the road. Reflex- ively he looked and then felt the drop of disappointment as he discovered only a stand of white-barked birches growing among the dark woods.
The carriage rattled around another bend and the vast fortress of the Sagrada Academy loomed ahead of them. The heavy stonework of the main building dominated the grounds, rising three stories and thrusting its two watchtowers even higher. Kiram took in the whitewashed expanses of stables and sparring house without regard but scowled at the cerulean roof and gold steeple of the chapel.
Alizadeh and Rafie had only referred to the man controlling the shadow curse as the 'man on the hill' but it seemed obvious that if anyone at the Sagrada Academy would gladly plot murder and torture at the behest of the royal bishop it would be Holy Father Habalan.
Then Kiram wondered just how many jays sheltered among the gnarled oaks and fruit trees on the chapel grounds. Two of the birds perched in the branches of a tall pear tree. As the carriage rattled past Kiram was certain that the birds returned his gaze with calculating stares.
Suddenly Kiram remembered the merciless way that the flocks of blue jays had attacked and ravaged Nakiesh's sisters. Not even their own deaths had deterred the jays' assault.
Kiram looked away from the chapel and caught sight of familiar faces among the students gathered at the stables. A sense of something like safety returned to him. Fedeles leaned back into his seat and closed his eyes.
When the carriage drew to a halt, both Kiram and Fedeles bounded out to greet the waiting Grunito brothers. Nestor welcomed them with a toothy smile while Elezar simply used his massive frame to deflect other giddy students from crashing into their friendly exchange.
Kiram noted the brighter color of Genimo's auburn hair as he ducked past Elezar. Kiram and he exchanged cool, indifferent gazes but said nothing to each other as Genimo sauntered to Fedeles' side.
Kiram searched the throng of Cadeleonian students, grooms and house servants. They surrounded him in a sea of straight brown hair, dark eyes and light, freckled skin; their builds ranged from short, brawny grooms to the mountain of muscle that was Elezar Grunito-all of them quite the opposite of Kiram's slim Haldiim build, light eyes, dark skin and curling blond hair. Javier was not among them. His absence made Kiram anxious and uncertain of what to expect when he did arrive.
"Are we the last of the Hellions?" Kiram had to raise his voice to be heard over all the surrounding shouts and greetings.
"Most of the rest have gone up to the dormitories," Nestor replied and then he yawned widely. Kiram wasn't sure if it was just the hard morning light but Nestor looked nearly as tired as Kiram felt. His plump, pink cheeks seemed hollow and his small gold spectacles couldn't quite hide the shadows beneath his eyes. Nestor had encountered his own romantic troubles last night, Kiram thought, but he didn't want to ask about them in front of everyone.
Housemen in gray liveries slipped past Kiram and Fedeles, hauling away the luggage. Grooms saw to the horses and carriage.
One of the whip-thin Helio twins alighted from a different carriage and his friends greeted him, asking about his brother in hushed voices. Kiram peered past them, still searching.
"Javier's at chapel," Elezar informed him. "How any man can stand to attend morning and afternoon service is beyond me."
"I thought he might be," Kiram replied. All at once he didn't know what more to say. He'd seen too much of his fellow Hellions' passions last night. Now he couldn't quite meet Elezar's hawkish gaze.
"I should see Fedeles to the infirmary." Genimo stepped past Kiram, leading Fedeles by the hand as if he were a child. Fedeles smiled, but Kiram could see him pulling away from Genimo's grip.
"Fedeles can stay with me," Kiram offered. A pained expression flickered across Genimo's narrow features.
"He needs to see Scholar Donamillo for his treatment, but I'd be happy to turn him over to you afterward." Genimo didn't meet Kiram's eyes but instead stole a quick glance to small scar on Kiram's cheek. "Unless Javier objects."
"Why on earth would he?" Kiram responded, though it occurred to him that Javier could refuse just to spite him. Javier could be cruel when angered and as far as Kiram could tell, right now he was furious. Still, Kiram doubted that Javier would be so petty as to use Fedeles like some pawn.
Kiram felt briefly frustrated with himself for being too attached to Javier to think poorly of him even after last night. It would have been much simpler if he could dislike Javier, or failing that, just forget about him.
"If the two of you are going to stand around wondering why Javier does anything he does, Fedeles is never going to get to his treatment," Elezar commented.
Genimo scowled at Elezar, then turned his attention back to Fedeles.
"Come, Fedeles." Genimo pulled Fedeles along while Fedeles stumbled and dragged his feet behind him. There was nothing Kiram could do for him and he knew Scholar Donamillo's treatments were the best hope Fedeles had for survival until someone could find a way to break the curse. Still, Kiram wished that Fedeles didn't dread them so much.
"We'd best clear out from in front of the stables as well," Nestor said as another carriage rolled up.
The three of them took a wandering path towards the main building. Dry golden blades of autumn grass crunched beneath their shoes as they crossed the lawn and Kiram noted that dark rose hips now dotted the potted roses. Many of the apple trees sported bare branches while a litter of yellow leaves lay across the ground. Despite the bright sunlight a chill hung in the air and filled the deep shadows of the main building.
"Summer seems over all at once," Kiram commented.
"True, but there's plenty of ripe apples now." Nestor's broad smile brightened his face despite the dark circles beneath his brown eyes. "And with the autumn tournament over, you and I won't be spending every waking hour in battle practice."
That would be a relief, Kiram decided.
Nestor seemed surprisingly cheerful, given the trouble he'd been in the previous night. Riossa's lonely, hapless arrival at the Grunito house must have worked out.
"Well," Kiram glanced to Nestor, "aren't you going to tell me what happened after I left your mother's party?"