1618 is about 14 years old for the cousins. They’ll be initiating into their clan and cults in a week or so. Varanis has already been living at the Vingan temple, but she’s been moved back to the House to prepare for the rituals. Mellia lives with her family at the palazzo, while Xenofos and his family live in the countryside.
Led by guards on foot, a middle-aged man and lanky youth on horseback precede a palanquin carried by two horses and entourage of servants.
Mellia is near the palazzo entrance. She gets up from where she was sitting and comes over. “Welcome. I am Mellia. May I tell someone you are here?”
The man is Xenotar, married into family. The youth is probably his son. “Please young lady, if you are so kind as to tell the majordomina that Valinyr and her family have arrived,” the man answers with a friendly smile. The youth is looking around like he was overwhelmed by all the sights of the city and its architecture.
Mellia smiles back and goes in search of someone to tell. She starts to, anyway…
Xenofos gaze sweeps the roofline, noting the riders of clay on the ridge before they stop at the girl.1Critical scan from Xenofos. Mellia fails and is thus about to be surprised. Perched on the edge of the building, above Mellia, is a young woman dressed in the Vingan fashion. Her red hair still hangs in the simple plaits of youth. It’s the grin that really gives her away. Her grin is pure Varanis and familiar to Xenofos from childhood. She’s still leggy, but she definitely looks more woman-like than child-like now. She looks ready to pounce.
“Uncle Xenotar! Xeno!” She calls out to them, just as she springs down from the roof, landing not too far from Mellia, but well away from the horses.2She didn’t tackle him! She passed an int roll and decided that jumping onto a horse would be bad.
Mellia stops, then yells, “Varanis!”
“Mellia!” Varanis replies, then laughs at her cousin’s startled expression. “I’m back!” Her eyes are full of mischief and her smile is contagious.
The middle-aged man smiles. The youth slides from his saddle trying not to get entangled with his rapier.
Mellia gives Varanis a quick hug, which is tolerated briefly before Varanis turns her to meet the approaching young man. “Mellia, this is Xenofos. His mother is my father’s sister. He’s a bit of a prig, but he has his moments.” She schools her expression into something somewhat serious as she says this.
“Varanis!” The voice of the youth momentarily pitches high before breaking. “You have changed I see. At least from the outside.”
Mellia gives Xenofos a sunny smile. “Welcome, cousin! I hope you will be happy here.”
“Pleasured to make your acquaintance cousin.” His bow is precisely the right depth but he sounds friendly.
“See? He’s so full of manners he makes my grandmother beam and then glare at me.” There’s the tiniest hint of resentment buried in the teasing.
Mellia remembers to curtsy.
He shrugs with apologetic smile to Mellia and answers to Varanis “My humblest apologies young mistress.”
Varanis shrugs, then darts past them both to greet the elegant woman emerging from the palanquin. “Auntie Valinyr!” She starts chattering to her aunt, who smiles tolerantly and answers the barrage of questions.
Xenofos looks after her with a wondering look but turns his attention quickly to Mellia.
Mellia asks Xenofos, “Should we find your room, or wait for Varanis?”
“I suppose it will take some time before we all settle down anyway. So you live at the palazzo household cousin Mellia? Or have you also come for the Festival of the Youth?”
“I live here. It is nice to meet all of the family.” Mellia sighs for some reason.
A high-ranking servant emerges from the house to greet Xenotar and Valinyr. Within moments, other servants are leading the riding animals away and the palanquin is being relocated. The adults make their way indoors and when Xenofos looks inclined to follow, his parents wave him away, encouraging him to continue his conversation.
Xenofos looks at his parents, nods and continues discussion. “We live in the estates most of the time. I have been here of course. But not often.”
Mellia looks thoughtful. “Apparently not, Xenofos. I don’t spend that much time hiding.”
Varanis rejoins them.
A servant passes by, “Has anyone seen Lord Irillo? He seems to have gone for a walk.”
Xenofos raises an eyebrow.
Mellia answers the servant: “I have not.”
Varanis glances at the servant but doesn’t reply.3 Irillo went for a walk, he probably doesn’t want to be found. Why give him away? “Mellia, is your mother finally ready to accept that you’ll be following Chalana Arroy?” Blue-gray eyes study her cousin intently.
Xenofos was about to say something else, but waits for Mellia’s answer.
Mellia tells Varanis, “Not quite.”
“But it’s so obvious that you are meant to wear the whites!” Varanis replies.
Xenofos looks at Mellia’s clothing, not yet of grown woman and not with cult runes. “Are you going to be initiated at this festival too?”
“She is still resisting the idea. I will become a healer this festival, yes.” Mellia is wearing pale pink.
Varanis announces, “Mellia’s definitely going to be a healer, Xenofos. Finest Nochet’s ever seen. She’s helped mend me a time or two, even when she wasn’t supposed to.” This last is said more quietly, as if to avoid being overheard.
Xenofos smiles “I can imagine that Varanis.”
“Mellia, I’ve missed you. I know I’ve only been away a season, but it feels so long! And Xeno, it’s been way too long! Look at you! You got taller.” Impudently, she ruffles his hair, looking down on him from her lofty two inches more.
“I have missed you too,” says Mellia.
“I see your grandmother has not yet been able to teach you behave like a lady,” Xenofos says twisting his head away, but not too quickly. ” Have you even learned to ride properly… “
Grey eyes turn stormy. It’s all the warning he gets. She hooks a foot behind his and shoves him, just hard enough to steal his balance, though not so hard he doesn’t have a chance to recover.
He grins. “That pavement looks a bit hard for wrestling. But I take that as a no.”
“Varanis! Xenofos could crack his head open!”
“Nah. His head is thick. He’d be fine, Mellia.” She flashes a grin at both of them. “I’ve been learning to fight with the Vingans, Xeno. I’ve been there for a season now, even though it was too soon to initiate.” The grin fades as she adds, “It was… I don’t want to talk about that. I have training every day and once I initiate, I can do even more training.”
He nods seriously. “Uncle Desdel has been training me. I see he would prefer to occupy me with nothing but clay tablets, but since uncle Sestar said I need to learn to ride and speak Truth before anything else it has been quite a lot of riding most days. And rapier. And spear. And javelin.”
When Xenofos mentions her father, Varanis looks away. The end of her plait ends up between her teeth and she blinks several times.
Mellia asked Xenofos, “Are you swearing to Humakt?”
Xenofos own face turns sad at mention of Sestar and he looks away when he finishes the sentence. He inhales deeply and looks at Mellia. “Most likely not. Uncle Desdel is enrolled at the Library and he wishes me to get my education there.” His voice is at that embarrassing stage when you cannot fully trust the pitch.
Mellia comments, “That is a strange training for a scholar.”
“I will ride with the Greens of course like my father and uncle…” He looks at Varanis and does not complete the sentence.
“Aha.” Mellia looks suitably impressed.
“I… I’ll be back in a minute.” Varanis flees into the house without giving either of them a chance to stop her.
Xenofos looks after her and clearly swallows a curse. “My uncle, her father… He rode north and never returned. Year of Starbrow’s rebellion…”
“Probably we should leave her alone.” Mellia looks troubled.
Xenofos replies, “I should not have talked about him. I was thoughtless.”
“Don’t blame yourself,” says Mellia.
A short time later, when the silence has begun to grow awkward, the red-haired girl returns. She’s wearing a determined smile and carrying a large linen napkin with something inside it. “C’mon,” she says. “Either of you up to climbing?” Her tone suggests she expects a negative response.
Xenofos shakes his head and looks at Varanis.
Mellia looks at her slippers, completely unsuitable for climbing and shakes her head.
Varanis arches an eyebrow at Mellia, then shrugs. “It’s fine. C’mon,” she repeats. “Behind the fountain then. We can sit at its base unless you’re both too grown up to sit on the ground with me and enjoy some pie.” She lifts the corner of the napkin to reveal the pastry within.
Xenofos nods and looks curiously around. “I remember the garden and the fountain… And taste of aniseed in the biscuits.”
Mellia grins and leads the way to the fountain. She chooses the sneakiest path there.
Xenofos looks at the meticulously cared for grass, takes off his short cloak and spreads it neatly in the shade.
With a quick look around, Varanis drops to the ground beside the fountain, folding her long legs beneath her. She ignores Xenofos’ cloak in favour of a small patch of brilliant sunshine. With barely restrained glee, she unfolds the linen to reveal three hand pies. “They’re berry,” she says, holding them out to her cousins. “And if we’re lucky, they’re still warm.”
Mellia accepts her pie after sitting on part of the cloak. “Thanks !”
Xenofos checks there is space for proper distance, folds his legs and thanks Varanis. “It was a pretty long ride. And slow, with all the carts and people on the road. And the palanquin.”
“I hate palanquins,” Varanis observes sympathetically. “I’ll never ride in one. Well, except for next week’s ritual. Apparently, we have to for that. I said I wanted to walk, but Serzeen said we all go by palanquin.” She bites into the pie and heaves a huge sigh of satisfaction. “Mmm. Still warm,” she mumbles around the mouthful of food. “Told you.”
“You two have to. I’ll be running,” says Xenofos.
“I don’t mind palanquins. I don’t think I will ever ride in one after this.” Mellia munches on her pie.
“No fair!” Varanis protests. “I want to run too! It’s not like I’m going to be Ernalda’s! But we all have to initiate to the Clan before we can join our cults and that’s mostly an Ernaldan thing. Serzeen says we will dance until we think our feet will fall off and then we will dance some more.”
Mellia winces at the mention of the dancing.
Xenofos looks at Mellia. “Well, at least you don’t have to run around the city walls painted black and red before that dance.”
“Thank the Goddess,” Mellia exclaims.
Yelm climbs high as the three of them compare notes about the bits and pieces they’ve heard about the upcoming initiation rites. By the time the pies are gone and they’ve run out of things to say, a servant approaches. “Lady Mellia, your mother is looking for you. Lord Xenofos and Lady Varanis, the Lady Mirava desires your attention.”
Xenofos nods and stands up, offering a hand for Mellia.
Mellia sighs. “Time for another argument. Be safe, cousins.”
Reluctantly, Varanis climbs to her feet and brushes away stray crumbs. The ends of her plaits look well-chewed and bits of hair have come loose. “I suppose we must. Mellia, it’s good to see you.”
Mellia let Xenofos help her up.
Xenofos bows lightly to Mellia and looks to Varanis and the servant for directions.
Mellia curtsies and leaves with the servant.
Varanis outpaces the servant within a few steps. Never liking to be led, she takes the lead herself and expects the others will follow.