“Stand up straight, boy.”
“And brush those knots out of your hair before I cut them out.”
Gawain flinched, covering his braids reflexively as he retreated from his father’s scrutiny. He knew better than to think he could get away with these little acts of rebellion, but to stop would mean to admit defeat, and defeat would mean never being able to choose his own destiny.
All that got him through the day sometimes was the hope of earning that choice, if only he could survive to knighthood.
He ducked under a door hanging into a room belonging to one of the castle squires, finding her still busy getting dressed. “Hey! Bessie--“
“Not today, Gawain,” the squire said testily, not even taking the time to turn around and act surprised like she usually did. “You can either help me with this mail or keep flying.”
“All right, all right, keep your shirt on,” he said, catching hem of the mail tunic Bess tossed over her head and laying it down her back so it wouldn’t catch any of her glossy, speckled brown feathers. Just to be nice, he helped her with the leather buckles down the sides and the ties of the sky blue surcoat she pulled on over the mail, too.
Bess ran her hands over the thin fabric, smoothing out wrinkles so the baroness’ crossed-arrows insignia was neat and visible on her chest. When she finished checking her appearance, she took one look at Gawain and sighed. “Even Her Ladyship wouldn’t let you get away with that today,” she told him.
“Too late,” Gawain grimaced. “The old man already caught me.”
“Why do you try so hard to make him angry, Gawain?” she asked, hopping up to a perch jutting out from the wall and letting her feet dangle while she watched him pull his hair straight back, tying it high in the conventional, nondescript style of a soldier.
Gawain just scoffed in response. “I don’t have to try,” he explained lightly, flopping backwards onto Bess’ hard, narrow pallet without ruining his carefully brushed feathers. “He’s always angry; it’s like his hobby, or something.”
Bess laughed. “I’m sorry your dad’s so tough on you, ‘Wain,” she said, “but I think he just wants you to have a good future. Knighthood's not supposed to be easy.”
He didn’t want to answer, and perhaps Bess sensed that she’d overstepped, because she was about to change the subject when the faint sound of horns reached their ears, echoing louder as more and more heralds took up the call. In a heartbeat, she was gliding to the floor and buckling her sword belt around her waist.
“Ready or not, the Thalassans are coming!” she crowed, and Gawain perked up with curiosity despite himself. “Race you to the grand aerie?”
Gawain waved her off. “You go ahead; I’ll catch up.”
“Last one there’s fishbait!” she crowed over her shoulder. “Better hurry!”
Once she left the room, he went to the chest where Bess kept her things, rummaging briefly to find the sewing kit she kept to mend her clothes. Gawain pulled out the little shears she used to snip threads and, lifting the scrap of polished bronze he used for a mirror, made a bold decision.
Today marked the third visit by Nen of Thalassa to the surface world. (Well, fourth, really, if one were to count the time he climbed aboard a Templan junk on a dare from Kenn and ended up on a deserted island halfway across the Koine Sea, but Nen didn’t.) So far, he found Eiden Craig to be fairly impressive, but there were a lot of little things about the surface that marred the experience.
Take shoes, for instance. The Eiden beaches were pebbly instead of sandy, and the terrain only got worse from there, so the Thalassan delegation had to strap leather sandals to their feet to protect the delicate webbing between their toes. The shoes were nothing compared to the heavy boots he’d seen worn in the coastal states, but to Nen they were heavy and inflexible, and distracted him from the rugged scenery. He tried not to trip on the rocky paths to the baroness’ castle, so rarely used by the island’s winged inhabitants.
His next impression of Eiden Craig was the ceaseless wind blowing off the sea. The sharp cliffs were battered by gusts so strong that Nen felt one might knock him all the way back to the beach if he were very unlucky, and the drafty halls of the ancient stone castle were little better. He shivered in his lightly draped toga, envying the Eiden escort for their thick woolen leggings and the downy feathers covering their arms and backs like warm cloaks.
After a brief pause in an antechamber, the delegation was led into the grand aerie, and Nen’s first glimpse of the baroness was tinged with awe. The rough stone keep could never compare to the towering columns of carved marble that supported Thalassan palaces, but there was something grandiose in the way sunlight beamed through narrow, colored glass windows, illuminating dusty beams in the soaring rafters, crowded with Eidens watching the proceedings far below.
The baroness stood upon a dais with no throne, instead marking her station with the engraved silver circlet and richly embroidered cloak of Eiden rulers. Heavy tapestries covered the walls; telling, from floor to ceiling, the histories of her people.
“Milady,” announced an Eiden herald, dropping to one knee, “before you stands Her Most Serene Majesty, the Queen of Thalassa, to speak of peace between our peoples on behalf of her kingdom.”
Nen suppressed a yawn out of lifelong habit as his mother’s titles were read. It was a lot easier to look solemn without his brother pulling faces at him behind their parents’ backs, but there was also nothing to distract him from the drawn-out formalities being exchanged.
It was going to be a long visit.
Hours and hours into the night, Nen was still seated for a banquet that evidently had no intention of ending anytime soon. There was music he’d never heard before played on airy horns and aerial performances he couldn’t help comparing to dance in his own kingdom, sharp movements that took advantage of the pull of gravity to plummet faster than the smooth dives to which he was accustomed.
Tables laden with food stretched the length of the hall, the smell of roasted meats and watered-down Eiden ales making Nen feel lightheaded. Because the aerie was cool and drafty, the Eidens seated their guests in a place of honor around the crackling hearth in front of the baroness’ table. At first it had been novel - pleasant, even - being warmed by a fire, but as the night wore on Nen had started to feel like he’d rather take his chances with the cold.
Thankfully, his mother noticed his discomfort before it turned into real danger, better accustomed to the trials of surface diplomacy than he was. “Go down to the beach, Nennie,” she murmured between conversations, shooing him mercifully away from the table. “I’ll make your excuses; take your time.”
Nen needed no other encouragement to slip away from the feast and into the cool night air. He stumbled down the path to the beach, marked by wide-mouthed braziers piled with wood, casting just enough light to keep him from walking over the edge of the cliff. Someone had helpfully left a lantern burning at the water’s edge, but all he needed at the moment was the light of the stars shimmering on the waves.
Knowing he’d need to be dry and presentable when he returned to the keep, Nen loosened the clasp at his shoulder and slipped out of his toga, leaving the fabric folded neatly atop a rock with his borrowed sandals before wading out into the sea. Once the water came up to his waist, he shivered and plunged in headfirst, gulping down deep breaths to revitalize his dehydrated gills.
The splash hadn’t gone unnoticed.
When he surfaced, the lantern had moved, bobbing agitatedly along the shoreline. “Who’s there?” a shaky voice demanded. “Sh-show yourself!”
Nen sank back down, leaving just his eyes and ears above water, even though he was fairly certain the Eiden with the lantern couldn’t see him. Once the surprise wore off, he didn’t look as threatening as Nen first thought; a boy, about his own age, with a soft fringe of hair around his face and a soldier’s mail tunic, clutching an arrow fletched with the same white-and-grey feathers of his own wings.
He took a step towards the light, only to feel something sharp and fast lance past his face, nearly taking off an ear. “Whoa!”
“That was a warning!” the Eiden shouted in his direction, already reaching for another arrow to hold at the ready. “Not another step! Identify yourself!”
Nen raised his hands to show he was unarmed, for all the good a spear would have done him in the dark against uncanny Eiden projectiles. “I am Nen of Thalassa,” he said calmly, “part of the Queen’s delegation.”
“You -- wait, shit. Seriously?”
The Eiden tucked the arrow into a quiver at his hip and lowered his lantern apologetically, letting Nen splash ashore and look for his sandals. “I’m really sorry about that arrow thing, man,” he said while Nen dripped on the rocks. “I thought you were a spy or something.”
Nen frowned. “Were you expecting spies?”
“That or assassins,” said the Eiden with a shrug. “Anyway, I’m Gawain. Nice to meet you, Nen of Thalassa.”
“Gawain,” said Nen, testing out the name. He took the hand offered to him and had his arm enthusiastically shaken. “You’re one of the baroness’ soldiers?”
“Me? Nah.” Gawain puffed his chest out proudly so Nen could see the heraldry on his surcoat. “I’m my old man’s squire; he’s one of Her Ladyship’s knights.”
“Sorry,” Nen apologized for mistaking his rank out of habitual politeness, then: “How did you do that thing with the arrow? I didn’t see you use a bow.”
Gawain grinned, twirling an arrow between his fingers to show off. “What, this? The baroness’ family is famous for it; it’s not regular army stuff. I think they just teach the squires to keep us busy when we run out of chores.”
“I think it’s incredible,” Nen said honestly, perching atop a boulder and forgetting about drying himself off or getting dressed.
“More importantly,” chirped Gawain, hopping up beside him, “what are they serving at the feast?”
Nen tilted his head. “Weren’t you there?”
He probably imagined the hurt that flickered across Gawain’s face, because a moment later he was flipping his bangs and grinning. “I might have freaked my dad out by cutting my hair right before the diplomatic event of the decade.” Nen couldn’t help but smile back, knowing what he’d dare his brother to do next time the palace needed to be livened up. Kenn would never do it -- no Thalassan with any pride in their appearance would willingly give up the long, flowing locks for which they were famed -- but it suited this flighty Eiden character, blowing strands of hair out of his eyes like he still wasn’t used to its shortness.
“Okay, but what about the feast?” Gawain asked again, insistent. “C’mon, lemme live vicariously through you for a minute. Don’t leave anything out!”
It took a long time to describe the meal to Gawain’s satisfaction, the rich meats and hearty stews, crispy loaves broken open to reveal fluffy centers, the heady fragrance of wines imported from the coastal states. “And the fruits!” Nen exclaimed. “I’ve never seen half of them before!”
“Dude, you should come in the fall sometime! The cook does this thing with her herbed salmon that will make you believe in mag-- oh, shit.“ Gawain suddenly gasped and clapped his hands over his mouth, leaving Nen wondering what was wrong. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“What? Are you hiding actual magic in your food or something?”
“No...” Gawain mumbled. “You must think we’re all horrible barbarians now.”
That really confused Nen. “Why?”
Gawain wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Everyone knows Thalassans don’t eat fish,” he explained awkwardly to his lantern.
Nen didn’t believe it. He burst out laughing, startling the poor Eiden who looked half-convinced he’d caused an international incident with his big mouth. “Where did ‘everyone’ get an idea like that?” he asked, struggling to maintain a straight face.
“Because you’re-- I mean...” He seemed to rethink calling Nen a fish, though he’d probably grown up doing so. Nen knew the surface races had very little reason to like Thalassans. “You... also live in the ocean?”
“We eat fish, trust me,” Nen assured Gawain, who stared at him like he’d grown a second head. “No one should have to live on seaweed and shellfish. I think I’d die without tuna, seriously.”
“Wow...” Gawain was still staring. “I have got to tell the others! We don’t have to give up chowder in the name of peace after all!”
The lantern flickered, candles burnt down to waxy stubs, alerting Nen to how much time had passed while they talked on the beach. He hopped down from the rock where they sat, fumbling for his clothes in the dark. “I’m sorry, I have to go,” he said, wrapping the large rectangle of cloth around his shoulders and torso until it draped correctly. “I promised I’d be back.”
“Oh! Right!” said Gawain, surprised. “Sorry, man, didn’t mean to keep you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Nen hesitated before reaching out to shake Gawain’s hand again. “Um... I don’t know how much time I’ll have, but... will I see you around the castle?”
Gawain took his hand and shook it even more vigorously than before. “Definitely!” he declared. “Once I tell Her Ladyship about the fish thing, she’ll have to let me back in! I’m officially a bridge between our peoples or something for figuring it out.”
“Glad I could help,” Nen said bemusedly, not entirely sure how he’d ended up enjoying a conversation with an Eiden. “Another time, then?”
“You got it!” Gawain waved as Nen started up the path again, heavy feet carrying him away from the water.
Halfway to his destination, a joyful yell rang out over his head, and Nen looked up to see the dimly flickering lantern bobbing in midair, only faintly distinguishable from the light of the stars, tracing loops and dives leading indirectly upwards.
Gawain’s energy must be catching, Nen decided at that moment, because his sandals didn’t feel half as heavy as he followed the light like a lodestar back to the aerie, suddenly full of a lot more possibilities than he’d anticipated.