Micah stared out the window at the darkness, listening to the howling wind and the dry hiss of the snow scraping against the stone and window panes. The first day of the Darklight Festival was always uncomfortable, for him. The Fest seemed to spring from nowhere. The days darkened, and everyone seemed to withdraw in the face of the chilling weather. He understood, intellectually, that the quiet in the city was due to the everyone’s festival preparations—everyone building lights, preparing decorations and gifts, hosts preparing food.
This year, he’d produced his own heaps and heaps of glowspheres. Whenever Jasper left for the evening and he couldn’t sleep (which was most nights), he sat at the workbench and harvested light from candles and the hearth’s fire, shaping it into rough, fist-sized globes with mirrors, dusting them with colour, and dumping them into barrels to be sent down to the infirmary. There the younger trainees wove ropes from the stems of plants left after the leaves were harvested for medicines, using the magics left in the tough fibres to connect the spheres in long, bright garlands.
The rest of the castle had their own preparations. The kitchens never slept, baking and cooking in shifts to prepare what seemed enough food to feed half the city for three days. Engineers and alchemists ceased all other work and churned out lights and trinkets and toys, games and tricks, noise makers and more musical instruments. Everything was cleaned and scrubbed, every room ready for guests. Clerks and diplomats withdrew into offices and prepared cards and invitations and letters. Everyone had a bag of gifts ready, or a performance, or a service capable of repetition across three days of celebration.
Then, just as the silent nights and quiet days seemed to sap the last of the life from the city, everyone burst out into song and laughter, lighting the night as bright as the days, wandering through homes and shops and businesses as though the entirety of Lunule were one enormous family sitting room.
All of the castle’s towers had been outlined in ropes of darkened spheres tonight, everything in place by the time the first hour after sunset had ticked away. Then Casper threw the torch out the window of the tallest tower over the city, and the light had leapt from torch to sphere, igniting the wash of colour, sweeping and cascading down and across the city, and everything burst into life and light and song and feasting and merriment.
But Micah wasn’t comfortable, even on the best years. Maybe he wasn’t good at quick transitions. He felt the press of anxiety as everyone rushed to complete their preparations. He felt the energy drained as people pushed their limits to be ready in time for that plummeting torch. It wasn’t the sweep of returning light that he anticipated so much as that unstoppable tumble down to the city’s depths. The pressure of all that anticipation focused on one moment, and everyone switching from tiredness, exhaustion, and expectation into simultaneous happiness and cheer was always jarring to him. It took him a few hours to settle into the gaiety and accept that, whether they were ready or not, the preparations were over and the Darklight Festival had begun, and in spite of his worries, people were having fun.
This year the preparations were fraught with more than the usual stress. Casper’s uncertain health and wild moods had raised the possibility that Micah would have to be the one to drop the torch, and Vronny had reluctantly admitted that the first major storm of the winter was likely to strike just as the fest began. The first of those problems had so far held off, and Casper had been more his jovial self than he had been in weeks, as though the celebrations had reminded him of who he was. The second, however, had absolutely come to pass. Light had spread across the city in a wave, and that wave had receded just as quickly as the snow and storm had arrived.
With the sound of celebration behind him, Micah stared out at the storm, missing the brightness of previous years, unsettled, and not even Jasper’s choice to stay at the castle during the fest was enough to stave off Micah’s traditional initial mistrust of the mood change. He knew he would get into the rhythm of the fest. He would. He just wasn’t there yet.
He wrapped an arm around himself and took another sip of wine, staring out and not seeing the bright, bustling city—only his reflection against a background of darkness and swirling grey. He thought he’d dressed brightly, but the vivid blue velvet of his coat seemed to eat the light around him, leaving his pale face floating above a smear of darkness punctuated by a few silver buckles.
“You okay?” Jasper said, his voice immediately behind Micah, making him jump.
“Mm. Don’t mind me. I’m sorry, it always takes me a while to…” He waved a hand vaguely, then flapped his fingers in the direction of the celebrations around them. “But now this storm—it will be ruining the festival.”
Jasper raised an eyebrow, glancing at the noisy room behind them. “This lot seem to be carrying on just fine.”
Micah glanced at him and followed his gaze back to the room. Tom and Marla were dancing, in Tom’s case rather badly. The Vedouci was singing louder than everyone else combined, Aaron was pranging his cup with a fork in time to the music, still trying to learn the words. Everyone seemed to be at least smiling and singing or dancing, or almost-dancing in their seats.
“Oh, yes. We’re in the castle, of course we’re fine. I mean out there.” He nodded at the window.
“You think a little snow is going to stop anyone?” Jasper asked with a slight laugh.
Micah frowned, staring at the swirling white that faded into grey, blocking any sign of what should have been gaudy, garish lights along all of Lunule’s walkways as well as the bonfires and all the lighted windows in the city. “I can’t imagine anyone wanting to go out in this,” he said quietly.
Jasper moved to stand next to him, taking in the storm’s strength for a moment as though finally awed into silence. “Naa-ah,” he said finally, grinning at Micah. “Even in my little village, we’d be out in this.”
Micah turned his back to the window and leaned against the cushioned seat. “I don’t understand the appeal,” he admitted, his eyes now on the revelry before him. “People can sing and dance any time they like. Why is it so much more exciting now, when it’s particularly unpleasant to gather?”
“You’ve never been to a townie Fest, have you?” Jasper said thoughtfully, studying him.
“I came to the castle when I was six. I probably went with my parents, but I can’t say I have any memories from it that have stuck with me.”
“So every year, it’s you and the same bunch up here,” Jasper went on, nodding at the room. “No change?”
“Well, obviously you’re new,” Micah said, sighing. “Tom was here before me, and Iveyas not long after. Aaron’s new. And there are always ambassadors or diplomats from places where they don’t keep the Festival, and feel no need to rush back home for it. Students, visitors…” He shrugged. “But if they don’t keep the Fest, they don’t really add anything new.”
“Right. Come on,” Jasper said, hooking his hand around Micah’s elbow and steering him through the crowd toward Casper.
Micah blinked, afraid of what Jasper had in mind. “Oh, no, really, Jasper—”
“Pardon me, Vedouci,” Jasper said, bowing formally and interrupting Casper between verses.
Casper turned and focused on him. “Oh, yes. Hello, Jasper. Are there two of you?” Veronica saw, and got to her feet, gently pushing Casper aside and taking over the singing with her breathy alto.
Jasper grinned and dipped his head briefly. “No, Sé Casper, just one of each.”
“Ah, well. Are you enjoying yourself? Yourselves? Or the Fest? I do hope you’re enjoying all of them.”
“I believe you’re in urgent need of more wine, Sé Vedouci.”
“I am, I …am I?” Casper looked into his glass and held it up to the light, where the deep purples and swirls of blue sparked brighter. “If I’m out of wine, Sí Jasper, what is all that?” He pointed at it with a surprisingly steady finger.
“You are so completely pished that you’re hallucinating wine,” Jasper said, trying to sound serious. “And to make sure that you don’t run out, I would like to take your heir out into the city to see something of the town’s Fest.”
Casper’s head turned sharply back to Jasper, and Micah’s heart nearly stopped—the Vedouci was nothing like as drunk as he’d seemed. Micah began babbling, unable to stop himself. “I’m sorry, Sé, I apologise. Jasper’s got this—”
“Good lad,” Casper said quietly, reaching out to set his hand on Jasper’s shoulder gently. “Don’t let him stop you. When shall I expect you back?”
Jasper blinked, puffing his cheeks out and considering. “Ohh, I dunno, really.”
Micah set his hands on Jasper’s near arm, drawing his attention back from the Vedouci. “We won’t be long, will we?” he asked, and felt his cheeks colouring at the hint of desperation in his voice.
“Micah, my beloved,” Casper said, lifting both of Micah’s hands free and holding them in his own. “Go with Jasper. He’s right. You should see the Fest—a proper Fest. You are the cleverest magician I have ever known—other than me, of course. But someday the worlds will look back and realise that I was but the road-builder making way for you. You need the world as much as it needs you. You will be safe, as I have said so. You’ve seen our revels every year since you were wee. Time to venture out, with this most excellent guide and companion.” He clapped Jasper on the shoulder, then patted Micah’s hands again gently. “You are my heir and my heart. But you are also your own man.”
Micah nodded, slipping one hand free and squeezing his mentor’s hand. “Sé Casper.” He genuinely didn’t know what to say. Casper was essentially telling him to go on a date that might last three days, or possibly end sooner if they froze to death. And a date with a man Micah was finding very difficult to resist, as well, but who didn’t seem to think of him that way. This could be the very worst idea in the world, or the very best, and there wasn’t much of a chance that it would be anything in between.
He let out his breath and gave their hands a single shake. “If you can remember this conversation when I come back, I shall be both surprised and disappointed.”
Jasper threw his head back and laughed, and Casper blinked once and narrowed his eyes with a smile. “Perhaps not yet a man. In consideration of your youth, I won’t have the room sing you on your way, but you’d best be on it before I change my mind.”
Micah smiled and allowed Jasper to tug him around and lead him to the door.
“Do we need to yoik all the way up to the lab for warm clothes?” Jasper asked, sounding remarkably responsible all of a sudden.
“Coats? No, we have a cupboard. Are you quite sure you want to do this?”
“Yeah,” Jasper said easily, staring straight into his eyes. He seemed a little confused by Micah’s reluctance, but comfortable with his own choice. “Don’t you? It really will be fun. Promise.”
Micah nodded without giving himself a chance to think. “Then yes.”
Jasper stepped aside and waved Micah past him and down the sweeping grand staircase to the main doors. “Then let’s find that cupboard.”
Micah glanced at him with a smile and pointed to a plain wood-panelled section of wall beside the doors. “It’s not hard. Just unobtrusive.” Jasper moved closer to watch, and Micah stroked the wood following the pattern of the charm, and then pushed the section of wall aside. “The front door is used more by visitors and for formal occasions, so you won’t have seen much of it. Briggs keeps it organised, really.”
Jasper had stopped listening, and Micah watched his face go vacant as he stared at what Micah had called a cupboard. He still forgot how many things Jasper hadn’t seen. So many casual aspects of life at the castle were completely new to him. Jasper was used to closets and cupboards being the same size inside as they looked from the outside, completely forgetting there were portals he could access. Micah didn’t understand how other households functioned that way; how could they possibly keep all of their coats in one closet? Even if everyone had only one coat. Even if half of them shared.
Jasper had wandered inside, and Micah followed him, heading for the far corner, where the Vedouci’s and Druhy’s things were kept. He glanced back as Jasper stayed silent. “Find something that will fit you, anything you like. And come further back—most of the things on these back racks are generally nicer.”
“You just…have spare clothes,” Jasper murmured, slowly crossing the room, pausing to turn around and look again.
“Well, yes. The castle is quite old. Where did you think I got the clothes to lend you when I turned you pink?” He folded his arms, watching Jasper’s awe. It was endearing. He wasn’t embarrassed about asking questions, and Micah always admired that. It would be quite difficult to find himself surrounded by all the best at a particular skill when it was something he couldn’t do at all, himself, but Jasper just waded straight through, fascinated and eager to explore. Of course Jasper had spent his entire life that way, but Micah never wanted to lose sight of any of Jasper’s amazing and admirable qualities.
“Never really thought about it, I suppose.” Jasper tore his attention away from the room in general and glanced at Micah before turning to the racks Micah pointed to. “So, just…anything?”
“Really and truly, yes. I think you’d prefer it if you chose something warm—oh, not that!” he added, seeing Jasper reaching for a shapeless black wool poncho.
“Why not?” Jasper asked, blinking.
Jasper plucked it off the rack and held it up. “Wow. It’s heavy.” He hefted it a few times. “It’ll be really warm—”
“Nah, it’s just plain, Micah. That’s not the worst thing in the world, you know…”
Micah turned away and flicked his gaze along a row of coats, seeing a likely candidate within reach. He pushed a few hangers aside and pulled it out. “Here, try this.”
Jasper draped his poncho over the rack, clearly not willing to give it up. He took the hanger Micah handed him out of instinct, glanced at it, and his hand snapped out as far away from himself as he could get as he stared at the long, heavy black coat with a subtle black-on-black pattern of swirls. Silver buckles ran down the front, and the silver fur lining the hood matched Jasper’s silver hair. “I can’t… this is… is this yours?”
“I’ve never worn it, if that’s what you mean. Try it on,” Micah added encouragingly. “Go on.”
“But this is… people will think I’m putting on airs,” Jasper said uncomfortably. “Isn’t there something more…anonymous?”
Micah turned away with a shrug, his heart sinking, and he didn’t like why. “You will be out with me, Jasper,” he said, trying to focus on the red of a coat in front of him and not on the redness of his face, brought on by the words with me. “And you have every right to some finery. I don’t know why you feel you don’t.”
“Well, because I’m not… I mean, you’re the Heir, Micah—”
“And everyone else isn’t,” Micah said, turning back quickly. “Do you think no one else has any right to matter? No one else should… what, no one else should dress well? No one else should be allowed to…” He waved a hand in frustration. Jasper looked a little stunned, so maybe he’d made his point. “Try it on. Please.”
Jasper nodded silently, and stared down at the coat again.
Micah shoved a few hangers aside randomly, hoping he hadn’t embarrassed Jasper. “It isn’t putting on airs. You’re not my servant. There’s no reason you should look like I’ve just brought you along to bolster my own frail ego.” He was still staring at the same deep red wool coat his eyes had first landed on before, hoping that if Jasper looked to see if he was serious, he would see Micah’s flush as a reflection from the bright wool.
There was a soft swish and slide behind him and he smiled, letting his breath out in relief. “Well,” Jasper said, his voice uncertain. “How does it look?”
Micah turned, and blinked in surprise.
Jasper’s beautiful grey hair stood out against the black, the grey fur of the hood looking like a natural extension. The dark brown of his eyes and his dark lashes seemed like the finishing touches. Jasper held the coat closed, checking the length against his shins, glancing up at Micah in nervous little flicks.
“Oh, that does suit you.”
“I’ll tell you what, it’s the warmest thing I’ve ever worn. And it doesn’t seem all that heavy.” He reached back and found the collar and pulled it up, then pulled the hood up over his head as well. “Yeah. This is good. You sure the red lining isn’t a bit…desperate?”
If he were being honest, Micah would have to admit he hadn’t noticed it. Nothing could really compete with Jasper’s face. Micah snorted. “On me? Yes. On you? Decidedly not. No.”
Jasper looked up at him again, and finally nodded. “Okay. If you’re fine with it, I’m set.”
Micah turned away, letting Jasper settle in. “And now you can help me.” He sighed. “I fear I’m a little more difficult.”
Jasper moved closer to stand next to him, their elbows brushing. Micah swallowed and kept his eyes on the rack. “What, trying to find something ornate enough for your grace and elegance and majes—ow!”
Micah wasn’t going to regret the punch on Jasper’s arm, not when he was already blushing to the ends of his hair. He could almost see the film of red his blush must be projecting. “I don’t want ornate.” He couldn’t get any other words out of his mouth.
“You’re actually not difficult at all, you know,” Jasper said quietly, reaching in to push some hangers around. He pushed straight past the red coat, not even hesitating over it. Micah found himself relieved. It was the sort of thing Casper would have worn without hesitation, and on Casper it might have seemed subtle. “It’s just that you keep trying to follow Casper’s style,” Jasper said, making the same connection. “I mean, you’re his heir, so it’s natural. That’s what you’ve seen. He’s been your role model. But you’re not him. You’re nothing like him, really. You want all the…” Jasper trailed off, one hand rotating vaguely in front of his chest as if trying to coax a word up from his heart. “Y’know? But your own.”
Micah gave him a sidelong glance. “I genuinely don’t know, no.”
“Ahh…” Jasper sighed in frustration, and continued flipping through the rack. “Oh, wait.” He paused, then pulled out a cloak. The outside was shining satin, pale blue, nearly white, with silver threads twisting along the edges in elaborate frost patterns, long silver sashes hanging from the neck in front, and the entire cloak as well as the deep hood lined in soft, white fur. “This. It has to be this.”
Micah tipped his head to the side, considering it. Or rather, considering Jasper considering it. He couldn’t stop stroking it, touching the cool, smooth satin, running the backs of his fingers against the fur lining. “Rabbit fur,” Micah said quietly. “It’s one of the few kinds of fur allowed at Foldings.”
Jasper glanced back at him, his lips parted, his eyebrows raised, a strangely naked look of hope on his face for a moment. “Really?”
Micah nodded silently. “And even then, only if they were raised at the castle or collected on the grounds. We don’t kill them simply for the fur. All of the meat at the castle, all the leather from that meat, every part… none of it goes to waste.” He couldn’t bring himself to say the important things, but as he couldn’t stay silent, there were worse words that could have fallen out of his mouth.
Jasper looked back at the cloak again, and then pressed it against Micah. “This. I need to see this.” He glanced at Micah’s face, then back to the cloak.
Micah took it from him. “All right.” He handed the hanger back to Jasper, and shook out the cloak. It was lighter than he’d expected, and he pursed his lips. It might not be warm enough. He swung it around his shoulders and settled it, and then shifted his shoulders as he felt something strange across them. “Oh. Oh. It’s got a touch of warmth in it.”
Jasper frowned. “It’ll need more than a touch…”
“No—magic. I’m surprised, though. I’ve not seen anyone wear this, so the warmth must be woven in. The spell version doesn’t last long, not if it’s cast on a thing. It only lasts a few hours if you cast it on something actually alive, because life holds the heat better.”
“Can I…?” Jasper asked, lifting his hand near Micah’s shoulder.
“Yes—oh…” Micah blinked in surprise as instead of resting his hand on the silk, Jasper slipped his hand inside the front and around onto Micah’s shoulder underneath it. “Can you feel it?” he asked, curious, as the look on Jasper’s face changed to something he couldn’t read.
Jasper bit his lip, then shook his head. “No. But you said it’s faint.”
“It’s not that faint. But this woven warmth charm—I’m definitely sure it’s magic. I just thought maybe you could, I don’t know… feel it reflected off… but no, of course not.”
Jasper slid his hand back out. Micah felt an instant of sadness, then temptation, imagining raising his own hand and setting it on top of the cloak, trapping Jasper’s hand inside, keeping Jasper’s fingers against his arm, then stepping closer and finally kissing those lips. He looked away quickly. “I think it should be warm enough, anyway, so long as we’re not outside the entire night. So. Acceptable, d’you think?” He pulled the cloak straighter, reaching up to the long silk ties at the top and pulling them down while Jasper stared at him.
“You’re…more than acceptable. Yeah, you’ll do.” Jasper’s grin returned as he looked up into Micah’s eyes again. “Not a complete embarrassment.”
“Thank you,” Micah said drily, pulling the ties across his chest and reaching back behind himself, under the cloak, to tie them.
“Here, what you doing?” Jasper asked, stepping close again as if to help.
“No, it’s fine, I’ve… yes. There.” He finished tightening the knot and pulled his hands back out. “It ties behind.”
“This way I won’t be strangled within sight of the door.” When Jasper shook his head, Micah brushed the cloak back further on his shoulder and half-turned, showing the knot he’d tied, settled around the middle of his back, under the cloak. “See? This way if the wind pulls at it, the weight won’t be against my neck.”
“Right. Okay, clever. You sure you’ll be warm enough, though?”
Micah pulled up the hood and wrapped the cloak across him in front, throwing one side up over the opposite shoulder and pushing his hands through the openings left for them. “Gloves and a scarf and I’ll be fine.”
“No, no gloves,” Jasper said firmly, and moved back toward the door. “No. Come here.”
Micah pushed the hood back again, trailing behind. “Jasper, our hands—”
“Will be much warmer in these,” Jasper said, tossing something at him.
Micah caught it against his chest. Long, grey mittens, a knitted cuff on them that ran halfway up his forearms under the sleeves of his coat. The palms were leather, and the backs and the lining were fur. He flexed his hands speculatively, studying them. “I don’t like having my hands restrained like this. Mittens feel so…clumsy.”
“Ahh, take the evening off, why don’t you. If anyone looks threatening, I’ll pop them before you could get a spell off anyway.”
Micah gave him a lopsided smile. “There’s more than one kind of attack.”
“Yep, and there’s more than one strength of punch, too,” Jasper said easily. “You wanted something around your neck?”
Micah nodded. He very much did. He wanted it to be Jasper’s lips, or his fingers. There were times it was unbearable to have anything touching his neck, but he was finding more and more often that when Jasper was around, he had to cover his neck with something, somehow, to try to distract him from the craving for Jasper’s touch. This was going to be one of those times.
Jasper turned away and began looking around, finding shelves and drawers he hadn’t noticed before. Micah took a few steps, but couldn’t look away from Jasper. The black coat looked good on him. Now that Jasper had stopped worrying about it, it looked natural on him—far more natural than Jasper’s own coat. The lines down the back of it swept in from his broad shoulders to his narrow waist, and reminded Micah once again that Jasper was very nearly as tall as he was. His striking grey hair looked even more distinguished, and the glimpse of the red silk lining was like an illicit glimpse of skin. Micah swallowed again with a dry mouth, and wound up coughing.
“You okay?” Jasper glanced back over his shoulder.
“Hrm. Ah, yes…”
“’Cause… No, wait, I think I’ve got… yeah. Yeah, this.”
Micah straightened, trying to look as if he’d just turned back and hadn’t been staring at Jasper’s every move like a vine searching for the sun. “Mm?”
Jasper turned around with what was clearly meant to be the matching scarf for the cloak, judging by the embroidery. It was a thick, heavy, draping length of silk, and as Jasper unfolded it, his eyes running the length of it with a slowly growing grin, Micah saw that it was half his height wide, and twice his height long.
“It’s the same colour as your hair,” Micah said, and hesitated. “Oh, no, really, Jasper, you must wear it—.”
Jasper raised his eyes but not his head. “Nah, this one’s your’s. There’s another one that goes with this coat.”
There was something decidedly more than fetching about the way Jasper’s eyes shone through the dark lashes, so close to his cheeks. Micah blinked the thought away and started to reach for the scarf, then paused, making a face at the mittens he’d already put on.
Jasper shook his head. “Leave ’em. I’ve got you.” He stepped forward with the scarf across both his hands and lifted them. Micah bent his head, catching just a wisp of Jasper’s soft, spicy scent as he settled the chill, heavy silk around the back of Micah’s neck, inside the collar of his coat. Micah shivered, but couldn’t stop himself from bending his neck to feel the cool slide of silk against his cheek. When Micah looked up, Jasper had the serious, intent look he always had when he was working in the lab. He wound the scarf several times around Micah’s neck, layering it carefully, close but not tight, and then slipped in a knot at the back and another in the front, leaving two lengths of silk hanging down Micah’s chest before stepping back.
“Yeah, I’ll bet we won’t have any problems being let in anywhere we go,” Jasper said, fighting another grin.
Micah raised an eyebrow, reaching up to smooth the scarf down under the cloak. “There’s never been any question that I would be allowed to enter,” he said, keeping his voice cool. “Let’s see if you can keep from embarrassing us.”
“Ha!” Jasper turned back to the drawer and pulled out a red scarf.
Micah blinked. He’d been expecting black, but now that he saw it, of course it had to be red. Nothing in the world could ever disguise Jasper’s sheer exuberance for long. He smiled as Jasper flung the length of rippled, fine-knitted wool around his neck carelessly, getting it all twisted in the process and looking absolutely splendid anyway. He tied it and tucked the ends under his coat before snatching a pair of black mittens out of the drawer and pushing it closed again. “After you, Sí Micah.”
Micah turned away, feeling even his ears going red this time. “Hush,” he said, pulling his cloak tighter around himself and waiting at the door for Jasper, who was still pulling his mittens on and tucking them in. When Jasper was out, Micah carefully maneuvered the door closed with his mittened hands, finding it took more concentration than he’d expected.
“I’ve got this one,” Jasper said behind him. Once the cupboard was shut, Micah turned to see what Jasper meant, and saw both his hands on the door handle of the front door.
“One moment,” Micah said, suddenly nervous. He hurried over, pulling up the hood on his cloak, his hands thrust through the arm openings and holding it in place. “Ready.”
Jasper pushed the door open. It was clearly a struggle to get it moving, but then it was pulled out of Jasper’s grip and banged back against the outside wall. Jasper was pulled out after it, and Micah heard a shout of laughter before he was close enough to the door for the storm’s wind to catch him, as well. His cloak whipped forward off his shoulders like wings unfurling, and he felt himself being dragged out into the dark.
He stopped almost immediately, catching his balance and digging his feet in, hunching over in shock. He couldn’t breathe. It was as if the air had suddenly become solid, squeezing his chest until it couldn’t move. Icy pellets stung his face, and there was something wrong with his nose. He flailed an arm out blindly in Jasper’s direction.
“Just wait,” Jasper shouted, and Micah felt hands on his shoulders, pulling him up and turning him so his back was to the wind. “You okay?” Jasper asked, leaning close, their foreheads almost touching.
With an effort, Micah managed to open his eyes. The lids stuck a little, and then he realised even his eyes were cold. Or maybe his eyelids; it was difficult to tell. He shook his head at Jasper, stumbling forward in another gust, and Jasper caught him against his shoulder, wrapping his arms around him. “Here.” Jasper reached down and pulled the scarf up across Micah’s face, covering everything below his eyes. His own red scarf was already across his mouth and nose. “Better?”
Micah shook his head again. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t breathe. His throat was tight, his nose was glued shut, and he was beginning to panic.
“You’ve got to breathe,” Jasper told him. “You can do it. It’ll be okay. Your lungs are resisting because it’s cold.”
Micah stared up at Jasper’s face. The snow was blowing into his dark eyes and already sticking to his lashes. Micah leaned his forehead against Jasper’s and finally managed to gasp in a breath. It had only been a few seconds, but he felt as if he had been about to drown. “Sweet Meg, this hurts!”
“Just breathe a bit. It’ll warm your scarf up, which’ll help warm the air before you breathe it in. Your nose is stiff and prickly because the insides are a little bit frozen. Just keep breathing, slow as you can manage.” Jasper let go of him and caught the ends of Micah’s scarf, tying it in back behind the hood of the cloak, helping to keep the hood in place. Micah nodded his thanks, grabbing the sides of the cloak and dragging them around him again.
“Come on. If we start walking, we’ll be around the far side soon enough and some of this will be blocked,” Jasper called, moving to stand on Micah’s windward side. The wind caught the ends of his scarf, flapping them into Micah’s face and momentarily blinding him. He tipped his head away, then back into the soft attack, finding it was warmer under the silk. He grabbed blindly for Jasper’s arm and moved closer.
“I’ve got you,” Jasper said, pulling his arm free and wrapping it around Micah’s shoulders.
“Is this safe?” Micah called. He could feel the cold taking bites out of his lungs with every breath. The stinging on his face wasn’t snow; it was the air itself, so sharp and bitter that his face buzzed with it.
“I’ve been out in worse. We won’t be long. The closest stop is about two minutes, if we hurry.”
Micah let himself be dragged and steered, bumping into Jasper’s side and shoulder every few steps. He wanted desperately to cast a blast of heat, but Jasper would feel none of it, and Jasper thought they could do this. Jasper’s whole point to bringing him out in this was to prove they could not only survive it, but enjoy a Fest that made it worth surviving. Micah had to try. Other people managed it, somehow. The only part that actively hurt now was the exposed top half of his face. If they stayed out long, he knew his toes would go numb, and probably his hands, but for now, he could breathe and keep moving one leg in front of the other.
As they moved farther from the castle, the wind came straight across them, actively pulling one side of Micah’s cloak out of his hands, but wrapping the other side so tightly around him that it was difficult to push his legs forward against it. Jasper’s scarf whipped about around his head, and Micah bowed his face against it, clutching his hood with one hand and the front of his cloak with the other.
“D’you know any of the songs?” Jasper asked suddenly.
Micah tried to turn and look at him, surprised, but flinched away. Facing into the stinging, biting gale was just too much. “I know some,” he called, his throat tightening and clenching shut, reflexively trying to protect itself from the cold.
“I’ll take care of our introduction. I’ve done loads of them. I heard them doing the welcome at the castle, so I know you’ve got that.”
Micah simply nodded. He’d already forgotten what they’d been saying. How could there be so much cold? There was more cold than his body could hold. It wasn’t a temperature; it was a physical thing, too big for him and trying to scrunch around him to fit, wrapping itself tightly against him, crumpled and spiky, cutting through every possible opening it found. This was impossible. He understood that now. Casper hadn’t realised how cold it was, and when they turned around in a few seconds and went back, no doubt everyone in the castle would be standing in the entrance, and there would be a roar to bring them back in through the doors, with not just warm wine, but hot wine, dark and richly spiced, something with the fire still in it, and possibly a warm bath. Or heat stones. A chair made of them. An entire floor of them. So warm that he would lie down on the floor and peel off every layer of clothing and only get warmer, letting the heat through to his skin that much faster.
“You okay with that?”
Micah startled, bouncing off of Jasper’s shoulder again hard enough to make Jasper look over at him. “Oh you little eege,” Jasper said, laughing and pulling his scarf down out of Micah’s face.
“Didn’t mind,” Micah said, shouting it, turning his face away from the direct bite of the wind.
“Yeah, but you can get hurt that way,” Jasper said, trying to tuck his scarf inside his coat and failing.
“Are we going back?” Micah asked.
“Well, later, yeah. But wait till the storm is over.”
“Good.” Wait till the storm is over. Yes. They were heading back inside and would try later, if Jasper was still in the mood.
“I didn’t realise you were that eager to get out.”
“Out of the castle. I wasn’t sure you wanted to do this.”
“Come out to the fest!”
“Aren’t we going in?” Micah asked, wanting to open his eyes and shake his head, but unable to do either. If Jasper let go of him, he knew he’d be knocked over, off the path, and he didn’t think he’d be able to get up again by himself. Sleeping seemed like a very good idea.
“You really are broken,” Jasper said, squeezing Micah’s shoulders. “I’ve got you, darlin’. You just stay with me. Nearly to the wall, now. Hang on.”
Micah stumbled as the incline changed, losing his hold on the cloak again. He could hear the satin whistling as it slid against itself, snapping beside him, the hood pressing into his face on one side and straining away on the other. He barely had the strength to pull his arm down, and he couldn’t manage to let go of his hood so he could use both hands.
“It’s going to be icy under this snow,” Jasper told him, hugging him closer. “We’ll just have to try to stay upright as well as we can, okay?”
Another blind nod. Jasper slowed, and Micah opened his eyes again briefly. He could see streams of snow moving like living fog across the path in front of them, curling, flickering, fading, deepening. Jasper inched them ahead, sliding a foot forward and testing the ground with his toe. Micah stumbled in his wake, and then suddenly he was moving, the cloak spreading beside him, sail-like, and he leaned back against it instinctively, sliding across the ice while upright. Then his feet stopped but his momentum continued, and they became a flailing tangle of arms and cloth.
He bumped a shoulder into a wall and caught his balance, scrambling for a moment as his feet caught up under his body. Jasper bumped to a halt next to him, gasping, breathless with laughter. Micah’s cloak was still flapping and flaring around him, lifting in unpredictable swirls and gusts, the knot of his scarf around his hood having come undone, and the silk snapped and slithered against his face. But at least now the wind was as confused as he felt, and the contrast with the concentrated blasts across the path in front of the castle made this pause seem almost warm.
“Jasper, how are we going to get back?” he asked, hardly knowing what he was saying.
“You’re going to be okay, Micah,” Jasper told him, cupping one mittened hand around the back of Micah’s neck and giving him an encouraging little shake. “You’re not in any danger so long as you stay with me, you got that?”
Micah closed his eyes briefly and shook his head, swallowing. “The cold…it actually hurts. It’s painful. How do you survive?”
“Aww, it’s not that bad,” Jasper said, pulling Micah’s cloak down around him and gathering it at the front so Micah could hold onto it. “There. Better?”
“Much,” Micah admitted weakly. “Jasper, honestly, tell me—you’ve actually survived worse?”
“Oh, yeah. Loads.” Jasper caught the flapping ends of Micah’s scarf and pulled it back down around his hood again, reknotting it tightly. “Should be easier to hang onto now, yeah?”
Micah peered up at him, watching the red scarf writhing and twisting above his head, the flare and billow of the skirt of his coat behind him. “How do you survive?”
Jasper squinted into Micah’s eyes for a moment. “Come on. The worst is over.”
Micah let himself be pulled away from the wall, Jasper’s arm around his waist. He bit back everything he wanted to say. His arms were trapped inside the cloak. If he tried to reach out and wrap his own arm around Jasper, then he wouldn’t be able to hold his cloak around him, and he desperately needed the warmth. He also desperately needed to press himself close to Jasper and hold him, press their hips together, push his face into that amazing, warm, smooth neck. He stumbled along, much of his attention focused on not leaning his head against Jasper’s shoulder, not reaching down for Jasper’s hand on his side, not stopping abruptly and kissing him. How he wanted that. If he could just stop and turn to Jasper, and bring their faces close, breathing his breath, letting his nose brush the tip of Jasper’s, outlining those quick, expressive lips, brushing them lightly with his own before crushing them, diving into him, tasting his mouth…
He stumbled again, shaking his head sharply, trying to focus. It was going to be a very long Festival.