“Highprincess, there’s someone here to see you.”
Aramyn Carfiel, newly crowned highprincess of the Snowlands, leaned against the railing lining the tournament arena. Below, a pair of men squared off five meters from one another, each wielding a greatsword. One of the men had exquisite blue tattoos covering the majority of his face. A simple series of waves curled around the right eyebrow of the second man.
“Can it wait?” Aramyn said without looking back. “It’s about to start.”
“Only if I can join you,” a man said.
Aramyn whipped around and, a moment later, rammed into her brother with so much momentum that he had to step back to keep them upright. Varian laughed warmly.
“Don’t let me keep you from the tournament, sister. We can’t have your court thinking you overlook such time-honored traditions.”
“What are you doing here?” Aramyn said. “I didn’t expect you.”
He swept his eyes over her crown of twisted wood, perched daintily atop her brow. “I’m here to pay my respects to my new liege. And to our father.”
Releasing him, Aramyn turned back to the arena. Varian joined her at the railing and braced his forearms against the wood.
“Too flippant?” he said. “I don’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
She snorted. “Oh, Varian. We’ve clearly been parted for too long.”
To Aramyn’s left, a gaggle of nobles cheered when the burly man with the full face of tattoos swung his sword for the first time. The man with the simpler design—smaller, slighter—twisted away from the blow.
“It seems I’m just in time,” Varian said.
Tournaments were half the reason prominent Empire scholars described the Snowlands as a realm full of savages. They used the term as an insult, of course, but Aramyn had always found that absurd. The Snowlands had not been annexed for its economic benefits—the emperor demanded tribute in the form of lethal, arena-bred soldiers. Only the Snowlands could provide, because only the Snowlands raised warriors who fought with no care for their own survival.
A Snowlands soul was eternal, according to the Temple of the Old Gods. To die on this plane meant rebirth in the Other Place, and vice versa. There was nothing to fear or lament in death; Aramyn’s people, the snowborn, faced it as if greeting an old friend.
Empire intellectuals called such behavior savage—condemned it and vilified it from cosmopolitan universities in grand cities of white marble.
But the Empire clearly valued savagery, or the emperor would have no use for the Snowlands at all.
“Oh, he’s done,” Aramyn said when the smaller man tripped and nearly dropped his sword.
“He’s quick, but he’s too inexperienced with a two-handed weapon,” Varian said.
A second later, the stands roared with approval when the burly man beheaded his opponent.
Aramyn shook her head. “The ones I like never win.”
Varian waited until the man with the full face of tattoos had screamed himself hoarse in celebration before he said, “I left the Vale as soon as I heard Father was ill. I didn’t realize we had so little time.”
“He caught us all by surprise,” Aramyn said, fiddling with the wooden railing. “I called a druid, but she couldn’t do anything. Then I sent something to Novis, but of course the fire priests didn’t respond.”
“Only the emperor can afford them anymore,” Varian said. “Some are saying they’re going to withdraw from all of the courts except Arramas.”
“Fire priests rarely bothered with us, so it’s not much of a loss,” Aramyn said. “I haven’t even seen one in the flesh.”
“I’ve met the one in Arramas. Remy. He’s an unpleasant sort of man. Eastern, I think.”
The next round in the tournament was a classic: two teams of four, every warrior armed with a different weapon, and one man or woman from each side on horseback. Tournament officials released the fighters into the arena barely a few meters from the opposing group. The ensuing battle was complete chaos.
Varian groaned when one of the men on horseback died instantly to a couched lance. Blood sprayed everywhere. Aramyn wrinkled her nose.
“The Temple of the Old Gods interred Father in the crypt,” she said. “Three days ago. His tomb is still being cast in stone, but I can take you to pay your respects. We’ll just have to ask the high priest first. There might be rules after the death rites have been performed.”
“Lovely,” Varian said. “I haven’t seen the high priest in ages. I’m sure he’ll be overjoyed to scold me.”
“Well, you were supposed to become a priest. I’m sure the temple feels as if you’re turning your back on your true calling, or some such thing.”
The arena reset for the next match, sweeping sand over pools of blood and removing corpses. Varian considered the other nobles scattered around the observation deck with his piercing, light green eyes.
Varian was, for his part, classically beautiful in that distinctly Snowlands way. Most of Aramyn’s people dwelled high in the mountains, in perpetual winter, and struggled to function in places with too much sunlight. Ivory skin as iridescent as fresh-fallen snow marked a Snowlands native as clearly as red or blonde hair, a tall build, and sharp, elegant facial features. Varian’s dark red hair was swept back from his brow with pomade, and he wore a thick, well-trimmed beard against the realm’s famously unpredictable flurries. He was barely a year younger than Aramyn.
“When did you get into town?” Aramyn asked. “You must be starving. We can have lunch when the tournament’s over.”
“I’d rather get our visit to the temple out of the way first,” Varian said. “Let’s make sure I’m permitted to see the tomb before I convince myself I can have closure.”
Swords dominated the next round of the tournament. Aramyn spent most of the fight admiring the tattoos adorning each of the warriors’ faces. Naturally, those with her favorite designs all died gruesomely.
In the final round, the last two warriors faced off with bows—a slow and agonizing death.
“Arenas in the Vale are a bit less savage,” Varian said as one of the warriors took an arrow to the face and flopped to the ground. “I think it’s because so many of the noble families there are Empire lapdogs.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me.” Aramyn turned her back to the arena, where the last warrior standing was bowing to those cheering her victory. “Walk with me to the temple?”
“Lead the way,” Varian said. Cailu, the commander of Aramyn’s personal guard, positioned himself to shadow them out of the arena.
Fahethyr, capital of the Snowlands, could hardly be called a city; it was little more than a haphazard group of wooden buildings nestled along the coastal cliffs. Warm winds from the western sea made it the only truly temperate settlement in all the Snowlands.
The Temple of the Old Gods, just a short walk from the arena and the royal longhouse, was a perfectly square wooden building with a central courtyard full of ancient, gnarled trees. In ages past, Aramyn’s people had prayed to the gods from the depths of the forest, often going on pilgrimages of twenty or thirty kilometers to disconnect from the civilized nature of a town or village.
That sort of thing didn’t really work anymore, at least not in a society annexed by the Empire. The snowborn and their religion had been forced to adapt to stay alive. Now, even the smallest hamlet had a temple with a courtyard designed to simulate the solitude of wilderness.
Aramyn and Varian passed through the open doors of the temple, beneath richly polished wooden eaves, and into the courtyard, where bells chimed in the trees. Snow swirled everywhere, buffeted by a strong sea breeze, but the ground had been freshly cleared.
Cailu tipped his chin up to warn of someone coming as soon as Aramyn moved beyond the edge of the courtyard.
“Highprincess Aramyn Carfiel,” the high priest said, sauntering into the courtyard from one of the rooms at the back of the temple. “And Lord Varian Carfiel. What a surprise.”
Aramyn knelt on the cold, hard ground, bowing her head respectfully. Varian joined her a few seconds later.
Robes whispered across the frosty grass. Aramyn looked up; bright blue tattoos wreathed the high priest’s rugged, lined face. Long, dark grey hair fell to the middle of his back.
He touched his fingers to his forehead, then gestured for Aramyn and Varian to stand. “Your humility pleases the gods. I’m particularly pleased to see you here, Lord Varian. I haven’t heard that you visit the temple near your estate in the Vale.”
“I worship privately,” Varian said. “Which is more than can be said for most of the nobility in this realm.”
The high priest’s smile was sharp. “Indeed. What brings you here, Highprincess Aramyn?”
“Varian just arrived,” she said. “He had some hope of saying goodbye to our father. Could we have your blessing to enter the crypt?”
“Of course,” the high priest said. “The mason hasn’t finished carving your father’s likeness, though.”
“That’s all right. Such things are material.”
“A wise conclusion.” The high priest peered at them. “It does not do to mourn the dead. The rites have been performed. Don’t linger in the crypt for long.”
“We know our father has been reborn in the Other Place,” Varian said. “There’s some comfort in death, always. But the living are still left behind. And I never got to say a proper goodbye.”
“You have the blessing of the gods, always,” the high priest said. “Yes, even you, Lord Varian, who turned from your path to priesthood. The gods look kindly upon those who know loss, as long as they resist the path to despair. Find your closure in the crypt. And return here on the morrow to pray for your father in the Other Place.”
Aramyn and Varian both brushed their fingers against their foreheads as the high priest turned to leave the courtyard. When he had vanished into the back of the temple once more, Aramyn caught Varian’s eye. It wasn’t until they had moved beyond earshot of the temple, though, that Varian spoke.
“I think the high priest would prefer if you weren’t so deferential,” he said. “You give him nothing to work with.”
“He expects the Carfiel line to be just like the rest of the nobility,” Aramyn said. “Disconnected from the common people. Bought and paid for by the Empire. But Father always said I couldn’t rule the realm like that, and he was right.”
They reached the royal longhouse and hurried within—the snow was beginning to sting.
“I think I believe in the old gods, and the circle of death, and all that,” Aramyn said. “But there’s something that doesn’t ring true to me about the way the church runs. Probably because they’re as involved in politics as the nobility.”
“Though they would feign otherwise,” Varian said. “Maybe I believe in the circle of death too. But I’m not sure I’d ever admit it to the high priest.”
Smoke from the kitchen hazed the air inside the longhouse. A well-stoked fire warmed the main room. Aramyn’s wooden throne sat empty, its twisted branches eerily cast in shadow.
“Lunch?” Aramyn asked. “Then we can risk our lives walking to the crypt.”
The kitchen served roasted boar with vegetable curry, flatbread, and strong wine. Only the boar was a product of Snowlands culture: the rest could be attributed to Draserune, the southernmost kingdom in the Empire. Aramyn had always preferred Draseruni fare for its flavor and spice, though that preference often felt hypocritical, given her inherent distrust of most everything to do with the Empire.
“The church must have no idea what to do with you,” Varian commented as they ate.
He sounded rather proud.
After lunch, Aramyn and Varian donned their fur cloaks again to step out into the swirling snow. Cailu followed them through the muddy streets of Fahethyr. On the eastern end, slightly apart from the rest of the city, a neighborhood of sprawling wooden mansions—belonging to a variety of noble families—overlooked the raging seas. A burial crypt was carved deep into the cliffs below, accessible by a single narrow staircase.
Wind pummeled the cliff face, tossing waves of glittering snow against rock. Ice coated the stairs, so Varian went first, one arm around Aramyn’s waist in case she slipped. Cailu remained on the cliffs, guarding the steps.
A break in the cliffs swallowed Aramyn and Varian briefly in darkness before they emerged into a cavernous entrance hall. Orbs of light conjured by a fire priest—back when the Snowlands court could still afford one—illuminated the roughly hewn room.
Varian removed his hood, and Aramyn followed suit. The crypt branched out in three different directions. The west was the most ancient, lined with tombs of wild kings who had ruled the Snowlands long before the Empire existed.
“He’s in the east wing,” Aramyn said, her voice echoing.
Varian offered his arm for the short walk to the tomb. Just as the high priest had said, the mason hadn’t finished carving a likeness of Aramyn’s father—the face was incomplete. Running a hand over the bust, Varian loosed a breath.
“I hope what the church says about death is true,” he said. “I think I believe, and yet I still wonder.”
Aramyn pulled her cloak closer, her breath fogging in the icy air. “Me too. I read in a book once that fire priests pass through something called ‘the void’ when they come back to life.”
“I’ve heard that too.”
“I don’t know why we would be different. The snowborn. Just because of our gods?”
He let his fingers drop from the tomb. “Have the gods ever answered your prayers?”
“Sometimes what I ask for happens,” she said. “Sometimes it doesn’t.”
He sighed. “Me too.”
Aramyn stared at the tomb for so long that her eyes shifted out of focus. “I think, no matter what death is, it’s better. Better than what he was going through. But I’ll miss him.”
“I will too,” he said. “We’ll cross paths again, though, in this place or the Other.”
Resting her head against Varian’s shoulder, Aramyn said, “He felt guilty that I was destined to take the throne instead of you. He told me once when he drank too much.”
Varian frowned. “Did he say why?”
“Something about politics. He was such a cheerful drunk, you know, it was hard to keep him on serious subjects.”
Grinning, Varian said, “Gods, the drinking.”
“Mother was always so torn on it.”
“After I moved to the Vale, he used to come visit just to play drinking games until we were too wasted to stand up straight,” Varian said. “Last year I had to tell him I was getting too old for it. The hangovers are murder. I don’t know how he did it.”
“I think he felt guilty because he thought, out of the two of us, you were the one with a mind for politics,” Aramyn said. “Empire education was wasted on me.”
“I disagree. You behave in a way that will always have the church in the palm of your hand. And the church is more important than the nobility, by far.”
“Only because the nobles are too busy visiting the emperor to pay attention to their own kingdom.”
Aramyn closed her eyes. “I didn’t want it, Varian.”
“I think Father knew, too.”
“He would have spoken to the emperor about the succession if that were the case. He had faith in you.”
“He died within a week of growing ill. If he’d had more time to plan—”
“No,” Varian said. “Whatever you think, he believed in you. He thought you were the right person for this.”
“The emperor will expect me to pay court to him in Arramas soon. I have so little idea how to behave in a place like Iotorath.”
Varian shrugged. “I don’t think Father moved me to the Vale by accident. I’ve had eyes on all the frivolous things our nobility get up to when they’re going to see the emperor. I’m sure I can help you.”
She met his eyes. “You’re staying?”
He nodded. “I thought permanently. Is that all right?”
Aramyn embraced him so suddenly—for the second time that day—that he laughed. She smiled into the fur of his cloak, her chest feeling remarkably lighter than it had a moment prior.
“Of course it’s all right,” she said. “We savages from the Snowlands must stick together, you know.”
Varian grazed a hand over her long red hair. “And to think all those Empire writers assume we’re offended by that terminology.”