Dezhrean usually wakes before either Vier or Ariadne, but on the first morning of May Ari’s bed is empty and the sheets next to Dezhrean are cold. The sun is just peeking over the mountains, so it can’t be too late, but he’s alone all the same.
Come to think of it, he does remember hearing Ari and Vier muttering about working out a deal with the landlady of the inn—maybe something going on in town, maybe something about the price of the room. He can’t quite remember. Last night after a long day and a good meal he’d only wanted to sleep as soon as Ari had mentioned the word “bed.” It had taken a mental replay of every single cleanliness lecture the priests ever gave him to convince him to bathe before passing out.
(At home, he’d be going to the temple first thing in the morning, kneeling before the altar while a priest gathered his hair and trimmed the split ends, murmuring prayers to Maelwyn for a healthy year. His father might have woken him early to watch the sunrise, or presented him with a new ring, inset with stones to catch the light. At home, his birthday would end with tables laden with sweets and the other elemancers putting on a light display. The scratchy cotton sheets suddenly feel unbearable.)
When he rolls out of bed, he finds a note on the bedside table, next to the lantern: Had to run some errands. See you later. Treat yourself in town. –Vier and Ari. The corner of the paper is pinned down by a modest stack of Forthalian coins.
At least I’m not totally forsaken, he thinks. He scoops up the coins and goes to find his pants.
The front room of the inn is nearly empty: two men at a corner table, with bread and milk set in front of them for their morning meal, and a sweet pastry smell coming from the kitchens. The landlady doesn’t look up from behind the desk when Dezhrean steps past out into the spring morning. This far up the mountain, the breeze is still nippy, so Dezhrean pulls his overshirt tighter around himself while he wanders down the high street. The roads are paved with stones here, thankfully for his poor shoes; the same stones seem to have been stacked together to form the buildings along the street. They look like bits of landslide, picked up and placed in neat rows and made habitable. Vier told him once that these old stone villages were army towns, built in the glory days of Fortalia’s military might by soldiers setting up encampments. Ari said that most of the towns at the mountain’s base were built from wood instead, slotted together carefully and mortared with gravel paste to keep out the weather. There’s wood here, too, hanging over the doorways and painted with simple symbols for the different shops.
Dezhrean jingles his new pocket money and ducks into the only other pub on the street. Maybe there will be something warm for breakfast.
As it turns out, there is—humani don’t drink anything like sweetmilk as far as he’s found, but hot chocolate is a delicacy on the mountain. The barmaid also serves him hotcakes covered in slices of preserved fruit, which was simmered in a pan until the sugars oozed out and caramelized into a sweet, gooey crust. After he eats he sits for a while, listening to the idle chatter of an early morning in the company of people who seem to have known each other their whole lives. The scent of cooking meat from the kitchen wafts through the building, bringing sleepy boarders stumbling down the stairs.
(He keeps an eye out for Vier or Ari through the window, but they don’t walk past. It’s not a very long street.)
Once the room has filled up enough that he can’t justify taking up a seat, he leaves again, peering in the windows of the different stores. Most of them are basics: cloth, produce, breads, meat. The butcher waves at Dezhrean with a bloody knife; he returns the wave and does his best not to wrinkle his nose.
He does stop in the textiles shop to poke around and emerges with a new ribbon tied in his hair—an icy blue satin with little bits of lace along the edges.
It’s not like there’s much else to do besides stare at the rocks in the road and look for insects, so Dezhrean makes his way back to the inn. The door creaks open and the landlady still doesn’t look up, although the tables are empty; too late for breakfast but too early for the lunch rush.
He’s almost made his way to the stairs with a vague idea about hunkering down with a book when the landlady finally looks up and says, “Hey, elf, your friends are in the back room.”
She points to a door wedged in the corner by the hearth, marked PRIVATE DINING – RESERVATION ONLY. He squints at the door, then back and the landlady, who flicks her fingers at him until he sighs and crosses the room. It’s nice to know where Ari and Vier are, but if they wanted him to join them they would have asked—
He shoves open the door and immediately gets knocked back by a warm weight ramming into his chest and a shout of “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEZZY!”
He spits Ari’s hair out of his mouth and grabs the doorframe to steady himself. Behind her, Vier cheers. “What—“ Dezhrean says, and then he sees the table in front of Vier, sees the wrapped packages on top of the clean white cloth and the unlit candles in their tiny glass dishes, he smells something—warm and sweet and delicious.
“We’ve been working on it all morning!” Ari says, and. Oh. Oh.
The empty beds. The hushed conversation with the landlady. The scent of baking from the kitchen.
Dezhrean turns around to look at the woman behind the desk, who glances up and winks at him.
“Come on in, Dezzy,” Vier says. “We gotta get this party started. Busy day today!”
“Busy?” Dezhrean says. Ari grabs his wrist and tugs him to the table, where the chair at the head has already been pulled out, and practically throws him into the seat.
“We’re taking you out!” Ari says. “There’s a spring festival down the road, the innkeeper’s letting us borrow a cart and a couple horses for the day. We won’t even have to walk. It’s gonna be amazing!”
“Presents first,” Vier says, and pushes one of the packages to Dezhrean. “It’s still chilly here.”
Dezhrean pulls aside the paper—it’s nothing fancy, just brown butcher paper, but he pulls out a set of brown leather gloves that feel like butter under his fingers. The other package is a new book: a collection of Forthalian folktales from all across the mountain.
“Both were Ari’s idea,” Vier says, sounding as much a proud parent as he possibly can. “Her parents helped collect the stories for the book.”
“I know, I know, I’m awesome,” Ari says, and wraps Dezhrean up in another hug. “But we gotta light the candles!”
“Candles?” Dezhrean says.
“It’s an old tradition,” Vier says. Ari slides the three candles across the table, then pulls out a matchbook from…somewhere on her person, Dezhrean isn’t sure he wants to know, and lights them one by one. “We wish for your good health and happiness, and when we blow out the candles the wind takes the prayers to Haelfim. The winds will guard you during the coming year.”
“We wish for your health and happiness,” Ari says, extinguishing the match with a practiced flick of her wrist. “You get to wish for whatever you want. You just can’t tell anyone what it is, ‘cause the goddess doesn’t take kindly to being tested by mortals, you know?”
Dezhrean stares at the candle, flickering in front of him. A wish sent to a goddess he doesn’t worship. A tradition he’s never heard of. A celebration meant for family, out here in the wilds of a foreign realm.
Vier lays his hand over Dezhrean’s.
“If you don’t want to, we can skip the candles,” he says. “We just thought it would be nice to do something.”
“It’s wonderful,” Dezhrean says, and his smile up at Ari and Vier is honest. “So…how exactly does it work?”
They each take a moment for their wishes. Ari and Vier whisper theirs, hands cupped over their mouths, voices low enough to be a barely-audible hum. Dezhrean stays silent, watching the wax drip down the side of the candle instead.
Whatever you want, Ari had said. And he wants—well, he wants. Some things he’s fairly sure not even a goddess can give him. Lighter shoulders, his mother back, a place he can call home without choking on it. Besides, he wouldn’t want to ask anything so drastic of a goddess who isn’t even his.
But maybe some things are in his reach, he thinks, and Vier and Ari lower their hands and look at him expectantly.
“Ready?” Vier asks.
Dezhrean nods. Together, they all lean forward and blow out their candles.
“Woohoo!” Ari says, and claps; the rush of air sends the little smoke curls dancing across the table.
“Happy birthday, Dezzy,” Vier says again.
“Hey hey, we’re not done here,” Ari says, but this time she’s looking at Vier—glaring, actually, Dezhrean thinks. “You need to give him the thing.”
“Thing?” Dezhrean says—it’s not like there are more packages on the table.
“I don’t—“ and whatever Vier was about to say gets cut off with a yelp. Ari glares again. Dezhrean has a sneaking suspicion that she’s been doing target practice on his ankle.
“The thing,” Ari says, and Vier flushes.
“Okay,” he says, and stands up. “So, uh, remember how I said your other presents were Ari’s idea? I wanted to get you something that I thought of, and it took a while, and Ari did end up helping a little, but I think I got you what you want most.”
He reaches out and offers his hand.
Dezhrean hopes his fingers aren’t shaking when he sets them on Vier’s palm and rises to his own feet.
What I want most, he thinks, and—he wants, he wants Vier to keep looking at him, to keep staring at him with that little blush across the bridge of his nose, to pull Dezhrean up and keep pulling and keep pulling until there’s no more space, until Dezhrean can feel his arms and his ribs and his heart and his mouth—
He swallows. Hard.
Ari shuffles backward on the other side of the table, like she’s trying to slide out of the moment.
Vier squeezes Dezhrean’s fingers, and with his other hand he produces a cupcake from behind his back.
“Ta-da,” he says.
For a moment, Dezhrean thinks his heart might just stop beating. His fingers go slack in Vier’s hand. His eyes fall to the cupcake, sitting there with its creamy frosting and sugar sprinkles and looking like the most horrible thing Dezhrean has ever seen in his life.
“I—I love it,” he chokes out.
And then Vier lifts the cupcake up and takes a bite of it.
Dezhrean can’t help it: his arm goes completely limp. His hand falls from Vier’s. And Vier, he just—swipes his thumb across his lip while he chews, dusting off the crumbs but not the dollop of frosting on his nose, and he keeps staring at Dezhrean, keeps blushing, until he swallows his mouthful of cake and very carefully sets the sweet on the table.
“Want a taste?” Vier asks, and this time when he reaches out it’s to pull Dezhrean in and kiss him square on the mouth.
Dezhrean is still stiff as a board. Their noses mash together, and sweet Maelwyn, he can feel the frosting smearing across his face, and Vier’s hand is tangling itself in Dezhrean’s hair, and Dezhrean’s hands are still hanging at his sides and he thinks his mouth might be gaping like a dead fish’s and—he can’t move, it’s like he’s shut down, he hasn’t been able to move past Vier licking his lips, his coy little Want a taste?
Vier starts to lean away. Dezhrean’s heart kicks up its tempo.
He reaches out, wraps his hands over Vier’s shoulders, pulls him back down. He’s never kissed anyone before but clearly Vier knows what he’s doing so he tries his best to imitate—in a moment of awful sloppy incoordination he sort of licks Vier’s mouth, which tastes like sugar and buttercream. Vier laughs against his lips when Dezhrean yelps.
Ari whoops again.
Slowly, despite the hands on his shoulders, Vier pulls away. The frosting has migrated to his cheek. “Was it okay?” he asks, eyes wide, cheeks flaming.
Dezhrean takes a moment to steady his thundering heart.
“Best present ever,” he says.