Please note: I am still editing and may make minor changes to this text before final publication.
Settling onto the carved wooden bench beside his mentor, Aibek considered the disastrous morning. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t think of any reason why the meeting couldn’t have waited until later in the evening--after the celebration--or even the next day. Still, he’d wasted his morning and much of the afternoon rearranging sleeping accommodations for guests who couldn’t get along. The whole thing had been absurd and childish to Aibek, who had just wanted to get to his best friend’s wedding. He’d made it. Barely.
The cheerful music switched to a gentler tune. Aibek straightened his coat and turned toward the park's entrance. Zifa shuffled toward the arch, eyes locked on her groom. She wore an emerald silk gown with gold vines embroidered on the skirt that matched the lacing up the front. Aibek recalled when she'd bought the dress in Kainga. She was the first Nivakan bride to wear a city gown since the villagers had won their freedom, and her joy had been infectious. It had taken three visits to Kainga for fittings and adjustments before the dress had been ready, and she had laughed and talked all the way home from that last trip. Shaking himself back to the present, Aibek watched the bride make her way to the center of the park.
A crown of autumn leaves adorned her up-swept hair. As the crowd watched in silence, she raised a hand and wiped tears from her cheeks. Long, flowing bell sleeves lined with shimmery gold satin fluttered in the breeze as she moved.
Touched by the emotion written on the bride’s face, Aibek shifted in his seat and turned his attention to Faruz. A boyish grin lit the groom’s face – like he’d gotten away with some mischief. What could he possibly be thinking?
Zifa completed her maiden’s march into the park and held her hands out to her groom. Faruz folded them into his, still grinning, and waited for Valasa to begin the ceremony.
Valasa cleared his throat, and the murmurs of the crowd quieted.
“Under the watchful eyes of our ancestors and the eternal gaze of the Shadow Trees, we come together to join this man and this woman in the sanctified unity of marriage.”
Aibek half listened as Faruz and Zifa repeated their vows and agreed to love each other until the end of time and into the beyond.
Would Aibek find someone he wished to spend all of time with? He had once thought he could cultivate that kind of relationship with Ahren, but she’d been courting Vayna, the mayor in a nearby village, through the summer. He shook his head and focused on the ceremony.
Valasa droned on in the sanctimonious tones of his station before he raised his hands and faced the crowd.
“Let us all join together to support this new union, aiding them along their path in the ways of the ancient ones.”
The villagers stood as one, filing out of the park in reverent silence.
Aibek strolled the darkening boardwalk to the enormous Pavilion at the center of town, decorated for the event with colorful strands of autumn leaves and lanterns strung between heavy support posts. He leaned against a beam as broad as two men and surveyed the cheerful scene. Walls hung halfway to the floor around the perimeter, leaving the lower portion open to the boardwalks beyond. Beams like the one at Aibek’s back supported the pyramidal roof at regular intervals. Buffet tables overflowing with food filled the dais at the front. The sweet and savory scents permeated the space and Aibek’s empty stomach growled.
The scene reminded Aibek of the banquet the villagers had hosted to celebrate the hard work of the fighting force they'd assembled to save Nivaka from Helak's army the previous winter. Had that been a year ago? It seemed longer, but also recent and fresh in Aibek's memory. That night had ended in disaster with one woman dead and another injured.
A firm hand clamped down on Aibek's shoulder, startling him out of his reverie.
“This is how it always looked for parties when I was growing up,” Noral shouted over the growing chatter of voices. “The galas and balls in the city never quite compare.”
Aibek glanced over at his Aunt Ira. She’d never been to Nivaka before this visit, and she had spent every morning exploring and exclaiming over the intricate carvings that covered the buildings and rails. Mouth agape, she gawked at the Pavilion's splendor.
“Why would anyone ever leave a place like this?” She turned a confused look on her husband.
"Well, if I hadn't you'd have never known this town existed, now would you?" He grinned, then sobered. "Eddrick was the eldest. Everyone knew from his birth that he'd take on the mayoralty. I was just the younger son--the spare, so to speak. I caused trouble throughout my youth, then decided I had to make my own way. Here, I'd never be more than the mayor's brother." He sighed and rubbed a hand up her back.
"Thankfully, my father was a blacksmith and apprenticed me to his partner as soon as I understood not to touch anything that glowed. I had a useful trade that would allow me to live and work anywhere, and I took the opportunity to get out of my brother's shadow."
“I know, dear.” Ira smiled up at him. “But I do wish we’d come to visit before now. It’s more beautiful than I could have imagined.”
“Well, for twenty years or so we didn’t know if it was even still here.” Noral laughed, “I would have come if I’d known for sure it was safe. To be perfectly honest, I had been thinking of coming back when they showed up on our doorstep.” He gestured to Aibek and Serik, who had arrived while Noral spoke.
A flurry of voices and movement erupted at the south end of the Pavilion. Faruz and Zifa hurried through the crowd of well-wishers to the center of the dance floor, where they stopped and faced each other. Faruz had worked hard to overcome his injury after the previous winter’s battle, but he still walked with a heavy limp. Aibek watched, smiling, as his friend prepared to dance with his bride as he’d sworn he would. Few had believed him then, but he’d exercised and practiced for this moment.
The crowd clapped out a rhythm, and the musicians joined in at the same slow beat. The bride and groom moved together in a traditional dance, stepping and twisting in perfect synchrony. As they danced the rhythm sped up, and their movements with it. Their steps were ragged and frenzied by the time the song ended. The newlyweds laughed, catching their breath in the middle of the dance floor and waiting for the next song. Other couples streamed onto the open floor and twirled into place as the musicians played the opening notes of a popular dance.
Aibek watched the brilliant colors blur with the twirling of the dance, turned, and picked his way toward the buffet, squeezing between the revelers. After this song, Faruz and Zifa would start the line through the tables of food, and Aibek wanted to be near the front. That ridiculous meeting had kept him from lunch, and the sweet and savory scents of the food made his stomach snarl. His mouth watered in anticipation. What would he eat first? He cocked his head and examined the tables. Definitely the fish.
Before he could reach the first table, someone grabbed his arm.
“Hey there, Mayor!” A low, familiar voice called.
“Great party!” A woman said at the same time.
Turning, Aibek forced a smile and greeted Vayna, who had returned to his own village and led a rebellion after helping Nivaka win her freedom. He had been a frequent visitor through the year. Beside the brawny man, a tall woman in a pale pink gown watched the dance. Her blonde curls strained at the scarf tied about her head, a few strands bounced free at her face and framed her striking amber eyes.
“This is Marah. She’s the new mayor of Saher, the village south of mine.” Vayna gestured from the woman to Aibek as he made the introduction. “Marah, this strapping lad is Aibek, our host here in this fine town.”
“It is certainly lovely.” She swept her eyes over the Pavilion’s decorations as she spoke, then returned her gaze to the men. “Who does the carvings? And when do they find the time?”
Aibek smiled. “It started as a contest several generations ago, or so I’m told. Now, the craftsmen work on new carvings whenever they don’t have an order to fill. I understand they made thousands of new designs during Tavan’s rule.” He cocked his head. “You just got in today, didn’t you? You must be hungry.”
He gestured to neat piles of plates at the end of the buffet tables. Surely, he could move this conversation just a few steps to the left. Thankfully, the woman smiled and walked toward the food. Faruz and Zifa had piled fish and vegetables on their plates while Aibek spoke to the woman.
"Yes, actually, I am quite ready for a meal. Thank you." She stepped into the line closest them, and Aibek sighed in gratitude.
“My brothers are here somewhere,” she added, “but they abandoned me to catch up with their friends here. I gather they became quite close in the days leading up to Nivaka’s battle.”
Aibek nodded. “Yes, many of the divisions grew close as a thicket of nettles during their training.”
They chatted about her brothers and their journey, and within a short time, they reached the front of the line. He piled fish, squash, berry pudding, and cake on his plate.
Faruz and his bride sat at the table of honor at the front of the party, feeding each other morsels of food and laughing together.
Aibek smiled at his best friend’s happiness and searched for an empty table. There were none. Instead, he spotted Serik sitting to the right of the dais. It took a while to get to where the old man sat because he stopped every few steps to take a bite.
He sat beside his mentor and servant, surprised when Vayna and Marah slid into the empty chairs on the other side of the table. He’d forgotten his visitors in his hunger-fueled haste. Aibek choked on the mouthful of fish and gulped his wine to wash it down. Eyes watering, he waved for a nearby fairy to refill his carved wooden goblet.
“You all right?” Vayna asked with an uncertain laugh. “There’s plenty of food here, ya know. You can take your time and still get more later.”
Aibek laughed, coughed, and wiped his eyes with his napkin. The woman, Marah, watched him with a concerned expression.
“Are you dying?” Wayra asked, seating himself beside Serik. “’Cause I get to be mayor if you die.”
Zyanna, Wayra’s wife, settled in beside him, snuggling their infant daughter on her lap.
Laughing, Zyanna swatted at his shoulder. “You can’t say things like that!”
Wayra laughed and tossed his dark hair out of his face. “Of course, I can. He knows I don’t mean anything by it, don’t you?”
Aibek nodded. His throat still burned from the wine and he worked to control the coughing.
“You can’t die, you know. This place needs you.” Wayra grinned.
"Really, I'm fine," he answered once he had caught his breath. "I just got in a bit of a hurry." Aibek chuckled, then took a small bite of the squash. The flavor of the vegetables and herbs exploded in his mouth, and he realized he hadn't really tasted anything he'd eaten before then. What a shame. The cooks and fairies had slaved over these dishes around the clock, and their efforts deserved proper attention. He closed his eyes and let the smooth blend of flavors become the center of his focus.
He enjoyed the rest of the meal in silence. His hunger didn’t afford him time to talk between bites, but he did enjoy his friends’ playful banter. The fairies continued to refill his cup as he emptied it, though he didn’t pay attention to how often that happened. When he finished his meal, he excused himself from the table and went in search of a dance partner. A young local girl sat at the edge of the dance floor, staring into the throng of party-goers. Aibek smiled and stepped up to the girl.
“Would you care to join me in a dance?”
Her face lit up with an excited smile. Bowing, he held out a hand, and she placed hers in it. When she made it to her feet, he led her to the center of the dance floor and fell into the steps of the traditional dance.
They laughed and twisted beside and around each other and the other dancers in the line until the song ended. He excused himself before ducking under the low roof into the cooler air to catch his breath.
Settling onto a bench, he glanced around. The lamps were lit out onto the boardwalk, but only a few isolated couples had ventured this far from the party. One couple walked hand in hand; their heads bent close in whispered conversation. Not wishing to invade their privacy, he turned his head and gazed out into the darkness of the forest beyond the rail. He sat, breathing in the cold night air until his breathing eased and his arms felt the chill of the evening. The uniform coat his aunt had brought didn't provide much protection from the elements. The temperature stayed warm all year in Xona, and his clothing wasn't designed for Nivaka's climate.
The musicians played the opening chords of a newer dance from the city, so Aibek stood, brushed the dust from his breeches, and ambled back into the Pavilion. The party had kicked into full swing with throngs of people dancing, eating, and laughing. He spotted Marah. More of her blonde curls had escaped her scarf and bounced wildly around her face as she bobbed in her chair, keeping time with the music.
Squeezing between the revelers, he hurried toward her, hoping to reach her before anyone else. He cut through the center of the dance floor, moving sideways between the press of bodies until he stood before her. One hand behind his back, he bowed low and held out a hand. It trembled and he flushed. He couldn’t back out now; it was too late. Steeling his nerves, he bowed lower.
“Would you care to join me in a dance?”
He couldn’t disguise his eagerness as he grinned.
She smiled and set her hand in his. “Yes, thank you. I’d love to.”
With a flourish and a smile, he grasped her hand and led her to the dance floor. He strutted like a spring turkey as he took his place next to her in the line and danced through the song beside the lovely woman. He could feel the eyes of his friends and neighbors as he danced, and he struggled to keep from grinning like an idiot. Her arms were strong, and he had no doubt she could swing a sword with deadly accuracy, and that made him like her more. The rest of her figure was light and lithe, and he turned her easily through the dance.
He tried to ignore the softness of the skin at her wrists, the intoxicating scent of her perfume, and the delicacy of her waist but found himself distracted and disoriented. The notes all blended together as he struggled to concentrate on the dance. Twice, he stepped on her toes when she moved with the dance, and he stepped the wrong way.
The second time, she smiled and leaned closer. “Are you all right? You don’t look well.”
He flushed. “I’m fine, really. It’s a bit hot in here, though. Do you want to get some air?”
"Let's finish this song; then we'll walk a bit."
He nodded and swung right as the dancers around them twirled left, and he stepped on another woman’s foot before he could correct the movement.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” He tried to find the song’s rhythm but only managed to bump into a second couple. Why was it so hot? He couldn’t breathe. His vision blurred with the colors of the night, and he forced himself to focus on Marah’s amber eyes.
He managed to step in the right direction, and the steps came back to him. He executed the rest of the moves without further missteps and sighed gratefully when the music ended.
Why was his head floating? He couldn’t see or think straight.
He straightened and grabbed Marah’s hand. “Let’s get some air.”
She nodded; a concerned expression creased her delicate features. “How much fairy wine did you have with dinner?”
“Umm, not much, I think. I usually only have one cup.” His voice squelched, and he couldn’t manage to form the words. It wasn’t a lie – exactly. He usually did only have one cup. He just couldn’t remember how many he’d had with dinner.
Had he drunk too much? Maybe. The fairies had refilled his cup after he had choked, and possibly more after that. He ducked under the wall at the edge of the Pavilion, pitched forward, and stumbled. It took him several steps to right himself.
“Let’s sit down. You’re not quite steady.” She led him to a bench, and he flopped down.
“What did you do to the mayor? I haven’t seen him that wobbly since he got knocked in the head right after he showed up here.” Wayra sauntered over and sat beside Aibek with a grin.
Marah shook her head. “I think he had too much wine. I know I saw them refill it at least twice. Can you get him home? I need to get back to my brothers.”
Wayra laughed, and Marah strolled back into the Pavilion.
The rest of the night passed in a blur of colors and scents. The comfort of his mattress provided sanctuary from the dizzying confusion, and he fell to sleep without ever quite knowing how he had arrived there.