The Darkening has settled smoothly this year. Ilhan is glad for it, for the fact that now the sky is wholly black, for the array of stars that remain present at every hour, and the constellations he can trace between them. He had missed these during Sun-Winter, when the days had been long and seemed unending.
It'll be a good Darkening, he thinks.
That is, until an oil-spill in the central Temple has High Priestess Heike close the Temple Library, and he can't get to an ancient journal he's Seen and has planned to borrow. Undeterred – having foreseen it, the Prince deems it fortunate that the Library has a door that connects it to the Winter-Palace. He will get that journal.
As the clergy still debates how to clean up the mess, Ilhan stands at a corner and watches the light-blue Library door pensively. It leads straight into a large circular room, which they will sneak into as soon as Ilhan deems it time. His brother, Iskander, crouches next to him, eyes darting to and fro down the corridor in case someone comes along after all.
"There's truly no one on this side," Ilhan murmurs. "It's nearly suppertime, and most use the western entrance." And we're waiting for all of them to clear out. The western entrance leads nearer to the palace kitchens and the dining hall for common folk connected to it.
"But we oughtn't be here," says Iskander. His blue eyes shine with excitement, and his smile is set on mischief. "Isn't it awesome?"
"No," Ilhan says. Iskander narrows his eyes and pulls his tongue out. The thought that they'll be caught does not trouble Ilhan; his Sight shows him they will, but it hardly matters. He'll have his book. The Three Voices remain quiet on the matter, but they've been quiet on a lot of matters. The fate of Prince Consort Leiandros is one, and Ilhan is still angry about it.
Iskander peers around the corner from behind a statue of Vetur, the Father-God-King of the Winter-lands. It's a simple statue as far as statues of the Winter-God go. The Quarter of Chanting has a far more detailed one; the robes have frail snow crystals carved into them, and his hair and beard almost seem real. Ilhan looks at the statue's wrinkled face now. The Three Voices do have an opinion on that: Vetur never grows old unless he wishes. Ilhan snickers.
"Do you See something funny?" Iskander asks.
"No," Ilhan says, again. Quickly, he adds, "I wondered what the Father-God-King would think of the statues." He's never told anyone except their Father that he has voices that speak with him, and Prince Leiandros had made him promise to keep it quiet. People needn't fear you more, he'd said. Most already don't understand his Sight – a blessing from the Father-King-Winter, or a curse from the Spring-Father? Ilhan had tried to explain once, that all he Sees are paths rolling and twining before him, choices to make and consequences yet to live. But they change so much – few things are entirely set.
"They're nice, I guess," Iskander says with a shrug. "I wouldn't like them. I'd want to look pretty."
Ilhan takes one long, good look at his brother. Iskander is so typically Winter-born he nearly becomes invisible in a sea of pale skin, white-blond hair and blue eyes. Even those nearer to the Brenna Sær in the south, with their browner skin and often amber eyes, have the ever-present flaxen hair.
"You're fortunate enough to grow handsome," Ilhan tells Iskander. And taller, too. He's not entirely certain he's happy with that detail. Iskander makes a fist and punches the air upwards.
"Let's go now," says Ilhan. "We have a library to visit."
Once they round the corner, the Library is a straight run forward. The doors are locked, but Ilhan has studied lock-picking – a lucrative skill his mother had publically disapproved of when she'd caught them at the Armoury doors. She'd then proceeded to refine his skill. "Don't scar the door," Iskander mutters behind him, as if an echo of Queen Yseult. Ilhan smiles. He won't.
Once they hear the click of the released lock, they hurry inside. The wooden bookshelves in the library creak as the Princes pass through. Iskander is a little more daunted than he wants to let on; he pulls at Ilhan's sleeve at every small noise. With some effort, Ilhan focuses his magic and conjures a small orb of light at his fingertips.
"That doesn't burn, does it?" Iskander asks. "I can smell the oil."
"This isn't a fire, Ísarr," Ilhan says softly. "It's – the magic concentrates and becomes visible, and I tell it to give light."
The burn of it is actually cold, apt for the Winter-lands. He's had to teach himself this trick, but he'd later found a book that explained it. He's written some corrections in the margins.
He walks to the far end of the room, where there's a small, circular pocket separate from the main Library. There, Princess Kalda, first of her line, had ordered the masons to carve constellations in the arching ceiling. There are merely two shelves here, and one chair; the smell of oil is gone as soon as they enter. They get a ladder from the main room and push it against the left shelf. The book Ilhan wants is on the fourth highest shelf, where all the other blue books are. Most books about stars are blue, but Ilhan catches the sight of titles about other things: potions, blue gems, ice sculpting – ice sculpting. He hesitates, but decides that he does want it. The book is a bit too far to his right; his fingers barely brush it. If he gently steps on the shelf, he should be able to grab it.
Somewhere in the corner of his mind, his Sight shows him High Priestess Heike approaches. His orb of light attracts her unwanted attention, and if Ilhan were to extinguish it she'd only be more suspicious. "'Tis time to get caught," he murmurs to his brother. Iskander puts on his cutest pitiful look just in time for the High Priestess to appear in the archway.
Ilhan fetches the book and cringes as the others fall slightly to their right. There isn't time to correct that, and the High Priestess' breathing interrupts all thought anyway. When he turns to her, Ilhan swears she'll murder him, proclaimed Heir to the throne or not.
High Priestess Heike is a tall, robust woman; she gives the impression of being a warrior rather than a relatively sedentary head of the clergy. Her light blond hair rests on her right shoulder in a side plait, and her dress is an almost silver grey, to compliment her dark grey eyes.
"Young Prince," she says with a smile at Iskander. She nods at Ilhan. She has the same pinched look on her face now as when she sees the Prince Consort, though she hides it better then. Within the walls of the Temple, however, she has some trouble hiding her distaste for the Prince Consort and "that sprog of his."
High Priestess Heike looks down at him, and says, "Why are you here?"
"I wanted to fetch a book," Ilhan briefly raises the books he carries.
"About stars!" Says Iskander.
"I want to know about the stars, yes."
"You already claim to see futures," She says, startled. "What do you need to read the stars for?"
Ilhan closes his eyes momentarily, sighs. "I needn't read the stars, and I don't want to read them. I want to know what stars are made of – how they are born and how they die. I Saw one die, and I want to know why it did."
"Only the Father-King-Winter and the other Gods know such things, and that's their knowledge to keep! Now put those back, lest I have a word with your Mother."
Mama won't be as cross as you think, Ilhan thinks. Iskander grabs his arm and runs past the High Priestess. As they leave the Temple, Ilhan tugs Iskander so they veer to their left, and then follows the corridor to the right towards the large wooden doors to the courtyard. They push against the doors to step out under the arched portico with its alabaster pillars. Every surface there in the courtyard, from the ground, to the benches, to the small potted fir trees, is covered with snow. The fountain's water is frozen.
Still panting, Ilhan looks upwards as he steps out unto the paved ground of the court; the sky is black and the sun will remain absent for many months still. Ilhan is far too content with the constancy of the stars to miss it. He turns to Iskander and smiles.
Ilhan returns under the portico to sit with Iskander on the bench to their left. Ilhan clutches the books to his chest, waits another minute or two before he sets them aside, and lets the orb of light dissipate. His hands over on the book about stars, but he picks up the one on ice-sculpting instead.
Iskander pokes at his arm but Ilhan swats him away. His mind's entirely into the book; it does not tell him to use a chisel at all, but instead instructs him to use magic.
After the war with the Spring-lands, magic had lost its focal point and dispersed, had spread everywhere and become too thin to use. Sigfried, their master of education and history, often mourns how a hundred years ago his grandparents could breathe Winter's magic, could easily pull at it and make wonderful things. It's returning now, Ilhan had wanted to tell him, It's returned on the day I was born. He can't say it.
"What will you make?" Iskander asks. Ilhan is still just on the third page of the book; it's only ten pages, but the writing is old, and some of the words are unfamiliar. At least the letters are quite clear.
Ilhan hasn't quite decided yet, beyond that it has to be something beautiful. A circlet for their Father, perhaps, or a necklace for their mother – no, a present for their unborn sister!
"Iordana's birth is a week away, midwinter," he says. "I'll make her a bracelet."
"Won't she be born on the eve of the new year?" Iskander says, frowning. "That's what Mama says that the midwife told her." Ilhan gives him a look. Iskander shrugs.
Once Ilhan has made it to the fifth page, he's quite certain what he must do. He hops off the bench and gathers some snow in his hands. It's dreadfully cold, but he's not in the mood to run all the way to his and Iskander's chambers and get mittens. Iskander, at the very least, is going to regret it in a bit, but for now neither mentions it.
Ilhan presses the snow between his hands and lets his magic poke at it until he can open his hands again and reveal a small crystal. It's a start. He'll need to make a cord and convince the crystals to attach themselves on it and stay. That'll be the most trying process.
He shows it to Iskander.
"I still feel the magic. It's warm," his brother says. That's something he and Mama do when magic is near; they're quite sensitive to it, even when it's just an echo of something old – as if crawls on their skin. "It's pretty, though."
Ilhan has Iskander hold the beads as he shapes more from snow; the book even tells him how to let the colours swirl inside them. He has to hold them towards the west, where the sun sets at dusk, and where the green spirits run towards when it is dark, like now.
He catches the purple and pink of dusks he hasn't seen for months now, and the green of the Sprinting Spirits above. Iordana's eyes will be green, like his and their Father's. She'll be tall and fierce like their mother, though her destiny seems not to lie within the Winter-lands. Ilhan can't quite See where she'll go; it's too far into the unknown future, but it seems she'll be quite happy. That's always good.
As Ilhan gives Iskander the seventh crystal-bead, he realises it's become too quiet; the wind makes no sound as it pushes against the fir trees. The silence presses against his ears, and when Iskander tries to speak, Ilhan only sees his mouth move – but much slower than it ought.
The stillness leaves with a little pop, and Iskander's eyes widen. When Ilhan turns around, he sees a boy about the same age as he–
His Sight goes abruptly blank.
Frowning, he concentrates on Iskander. The whiteness lifts; his brother and he will run up the stairs to the royal wing, their mother walks at a sedate pace far behind them. Everything between this very moment and then is white, like fog during Sun-Winter.
The boy is paler than Ilhan and Iskander in every aspect, from his snowy hair to his blue-grey eyes. His skin, however, has a blueish hue to it, as if it were made of icy water. When Ilhan steps a bit closer, the cold seems to rise from the boy's body. "But you're not a ghost."
"No," He says. "I am Vetur."
After a brief, stunned pause, Iskander says, "I thought parents weren't allowed to name their children after the Father-God-King."
The boy says, "I wouldn't mind. It would be cute."
For a brief moment, as if breaking through blindness, Ilhan sees the image of a grinning man transposed over the boy before him. As soon as he blinks, it disappears.
Ilhan says, "You truly are, aren't you? Vetur, that is. The Winter-King."
"Yes," says Vetur. "I haven't been King in ages, though. Won't be anymore, if I can help it." He sighs unhappily. "I'm a child for now, anyway."
There are so many questions there already, of ages past, of wars fought, of dynasties built and destroyed. Once, the people of Winter had lived far in the North, across the Murmuring Mountains. Father-King-Winter had commanded King Sigurd to go South, but why? More recently, merely a century ago, Winter had gone to war with Spring, and lost because their magic had suddenly vanished – why?
Iskander blurts out "Didyoureallydie."
Vetur makes a face. "Why do you –" His shoulders sag, but he straightens them again. "I did. Lauthe stabbed me with a poisoned blade. It was a very – it's a particular poison."
Ilhan looks Vetur over, wary. "And now you're a child," he says. It sounds ridiculous, unbelievable, but Ilhan cannot See Vetur's lies nor his truths. There's never been a person whose path he could not See, but no matter how he peers at Vetur, nothing reveals itself.
The Three Voices stir. Winter-King reborn, they mutter, offended.
Vetur spreads his arms and grins. "Now I am a child. It's a first, for me. Wouldn't recommend dying, to be honest."
"That's also a first," Ilhan says. "People don't often come back after they die."
Pappa won't, he thinks. He pushes the thought back with another: Iordana will be born soon. It doesn't work as he intends it to, because that means –
Ilhan takes a deep breath. He asks, "Why are you here now?"
Vetur has been studying Ilhan's face intently.
"You look peculiar, like Spring," says he. His eyes flit to Iskander, emphasising the comparison with Ilhan's peculiar looks, the dark auburn hair and green eyes. Vetur says, "and yet The Heads tell me you'll be King of Winter someday."
Ilhan shakes his head. He's first-born, but a bastard, and it matters not that his parents are now married. Iordana, at least, will be true-born, like Iskander.
Oh, Iskander. But Ilhan will not think of that either.
He tells Vetur, "That is still uncertain."
"The Heads don't lie. They're vague," Vetur says with a dismayed sigh. "They don't lie. You've been proclaimed heir. The first-born always is."
Ilhan tenses, then relaxes his shoulders. Perhaps he will be King. It doesn't matter to him, but it matters a great deal to his Mother. "I have. Mama wants me to take her mantel. I have much to learn still." But will the nobles like a bastard on the throne?
"Yes, I think I like you," says Vetur. "You'll be a King yet. Can't help who your Father is," he holds up Ilhan's chin. "I can see how your Mother fell for a Prince of Spring," Vetur says as he studies Ilhan's face. "They've always been pretty."
"They say the royal family descends from the Spring-Father," Ilhan says. "And that his looks are strong within the Auxentios line."
Vetur grimaces, releases Ilhan's face. His look of disgust seems not to leave him as he follows whatever line of thought he must've caught. He even shudders; his shoulders rise to almost touch his ears, and he shakes.
He says, "No. You look nothing like him. No."
How eloquent. Ilhan snorts.
Vetur looks at Iskander and frowns. Then his expression changes, saddens, ad Ilhan suddenly knows that expression, what it means; he's seen his own Mother look at Iskander like that, at times, but when Iskander isn't looking. He opens his mouth to, doesn't know what to say, and closes it again.
How Vetur knows about Iskander is a silly question; he is the God of divination, had created The Heads, the Three Seers.
"Why are you staring at me like that?" Iskander asks Vetur.
Vetur blinks. His expression clears. He says, too quick, "No reason. You reminded me of someone, but they're gone now, see? And I never got to say goodbye. But that, another time."
Vetur's gaze lands somewhere behind Ilhan. He grins suddenly, and Ilhan finds that too dizzying to relax completely.
"Oh, you've got my book!" Vetur says.
He picks up the book on ice-sculpting; for a moment, Ilhan fears the pages feel freeze under the touch of Vetur's fingers, but they remain unchanged. He'd have protected the paper, of course.
Vetur says, "I wrote this so long ago, in 1259 – the year Kjærvé, Kalda, and Kjölvar turned eleven."
It takes Ilhan no time at all to place the names; the first three royal children, those King Sigurd the First, had Fathered with a different Mother each. Kjærvé had inherited the throne after King Sigurd had passed, and Kalda had stayed by his side as High Priestess. Kjölvar had disappeared for three years shortly thereafter, to the place beyond the Murmuring Mountains.
Their Mothers are said to have been beautiful, terrible creatures – sorceresses in their own right, but cruel, wicked. But tales change through the years; Ilhan supposes they must have been simple women, demonised through time to shape an epic tale.
Vetur picks up the other book with a far gentler touch. He stares at the pages, even traces the handwriting, before he says, "This is Kalda's writing. She loved the stars. She'd look at them whenever they came out, especially when the Darkening had settled." Vetur looks up, to the sky above littered with stars.
There have been many philosophies, many theories about the stars, their origins, their movements, their matter, but Princess Kalda had been the very first to look at them, draw them, try her best to understand. Ilhan wants to be like her, a philosopher of stars. He wants to know their secrets.
Ilhan sees his chance to ask a question that has burned in his mind for years. "What are the stars made of?"
Vetur looks down at him, and inclines his head slightly to his left, and smiles at Ilhan in the same way Queen Yseult does before she earnestly says you're quite adorable.
"The stars are gas, and so they burn. Some stars are suns, and others are not."
Ilhan frowns. "Are there other worlds to these suns then? Are you a God there too?"
Vetur chuckles. "I was made here."
"Are Gods always so vague?" Iskander asks. Vetur's brows rise.
"I thought that was a fairly straight answer."
Iskander shakes his head; his feet swing to and fro from beneath the bench. His nose looks impossibly red, but he seems not to take notice. He still cradles the crystals. Vetur sits down next to him, places the books on his lap.
"What are you making?" Vetur asks Ilhan.
Iskander perks up. "Ilhan wants to make a bracelet for our sister."
"The soon-to-be? That's adorable." Vetur carefully takes one bead from Iskander. He studies it, weighs it, and gives it back to Iskander. "This is quite impressive," his eyes dart to Ilhan. "Would you like to be my apprentice?"
An apprentice to a God – Ilhan almost says yes without consideration. Vetur has often been a fickle God; he's not a trickster by far, but deals with him must be approached with caution. "What must I give in return?"
Vetur laughs. "Well educated, the Princes. You merely give your time, and your patience. Here," he takes the beads from Iskander; his hands close over them and in a blink, he has fashioned a bracelet. A pendant hangs from it – a flower Ilhan has never seen in the Winter-lands, but recognises from books and tales.
Vetur says, "For the Rose of Midwinter. It will grow as she does, and one day it will be a necklace." He gives Iskander the bracelet.
Rose of Midwinter. Ilhan had whispered that to his Mother once, when she hadn't known of Iordana yet.
The bracelet is a lovely thing. Vetur has made the ice of the beads into a light-coloured opal, and they seem to burn gently.
Awed, Ilhan says, "Thank you."
"You're very welcome."
Vetur's brows rise. "The Heads tell me the Queen approaches." He looks up at the clouded skies and waves his hand. They clear. "It seems I've found some pretty stars. Another time, Princelings!"
He vanishes with a gust of the wind; his body dissolves into snow which the wind carries away.
Iskander shudders. Ilhan shakes his head at him. "Come on."
They intercept their Mother just beyond the door. Brita and Beline, her personal guards, flank Queen Yseult's sides. Their Mother's platinum blond hair is tied back, probably in a braided bun. She smiles at them, but before she says anything, Ilhan is ready.
"I don't need this one anymore," he says. He gives her the book Vetur says to have written on ice-sculpting.
"You know the Temple Library is closed, Ilhan," says Yseult. "You could have waited."
Ilhan shakes his head. The oil would have gotten everywhere, what with how the clergy toils at coming up with a solution, and then he would have had to wait a month more. He's patient, yes, but he's already waited two months for their renovations before the spill had even happened.
"I'll ask to borrow the book next time," he says. "But can I keep the one about the stars?"
"Princess Kalda wrote it!" Iskander chirps. "Vetur said so."
"The Father-King-Winter?" says Yseult. She extends her arms to her children so that they walk with her. "You know not to speak his name, Iskander."
"He didn't seem to mind." Iskander mutters. Ilhan is merely relieved that their mother doesn't really believe they've spoken to the Father-God-King himself; he's not entirely sure it wasn't some trick.
"We show the Gods respect," their Mother says. "They have titles, and their names are not ours to speak aloud."
They near the stairs to the royal wing; Iskander communicates with a glance that he wants to race Ilhan to the royal chambers. Ilhan nods once, hands Beline Princess Kalda's book, and runs up the stairs.