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The Solstice King

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  Cin stared dubiously, scrambling out of the way as Rofaryn made his way over. Thick cloth protected Rofaryn’s hands from the broad, shallow metal bowl he’d just pulled off the fire only to wedge it into the small pit the others had dug out in the sand to match.

    “But- I still don’t quite understand it…”

    Fayden slid around Rofaryn to upend a bag of small dried fruits into the pan as Celyid uncorked his flask, pouring the entirety of its contents into the steaming bowl. Rofaryn grinned at Cin, striking a match-

    “What’s not to get?”

    -And lit the whole pan ablaze, bluish flames billowing across the liquor, illuminating them all in pale light, cooler than the winter moonlight that scattered over their small camp. Rofaryn sat back on his knees as the others circled around, gesturing for Cin to join them.

    “C’mon, it’s the longest, coldest night of the whole year- you’ve gotta keep warm somehow! Whoever gets the most down the hatch is crowned the Solstice King. Now, as to the matter of who goes first…”

    Rofaryn’s eyes lingered on Cin long enough to make the blond uneasy, rust-red eyes glittering in the unnaturally blue firelight, and Cin looked between him and the strange game setup until Rofaryn swiveled, pinning Khehaic with a grin and poking the bigger man in the chest.

    “...By the virtue of bein’ on the lighter’s right, Khe, you’re up! First contender for the crown...”

    “Aw, damn…” Khehaic’s grumbling was good-natured enough, as he scooted closer to the bowl to examine the fiery contents carefully. He gave Cin a little advice as he considered his options.

   “The trick, Cin, is grabbin’ one of the floating ones, not the sinkers. It’s tempting to go for the nice pile in the center, but then you’ve got to go in deeper to grab them…” Khehaic moved fast, popping a shriveled, flaming raisin into his mouth and making a face as he swallowed it down.

    “Oooh, didja burn yourself already, baby?” Celyid teased from across the circle, “Ready to go out, first round?”

    “Course not. Fayden, your turn. Gonna try and reclaim last year’s title?”

     Fayden already had both sleeves rolled up, balancing on his haunches with a bright, toothy grin, scanning the fire as he picked out one special. “...Aaaaand….” He darted in, grabbing a bigger fruit and only dancing it in his fingers a little as he shoved the whole thing into his mouth with a pinched expression. He swallowed it and did a triumphant, grinning sort of wiggle with a smirk and no less than two birds flipped at his impromptu competitors.

  Celyid rolled his eyes at Fayden’s overt showmanship, leaning in to study the bowl for a long, grumpy moment. “I hate this damn game. Not as if bein’ named the Solstice King actually does anybody any good-”

    “-You don’t know that, Cel. Not like you’ve ever won.” Fayden piped up.

    “Hush.” Celyid muttered. He elbowed Cin to get his attention. “Now, one of the things to think about here, is whether you want a big one or a small one. Bigger’s easier to grab, but harder to put out on your tongue…”

    Celyid grabbed for a dried peach, but made a face as he bit down on it and burning liquor spit all over him. He waved a hand in a wild little flail, cussing and shoving his fingers into the cool sand beside him, and blew on his lower lip as best he could as the other boys laughed. 

  “Finally found something too hot for you, Cel? Couldn’t handle it?” Rofaryn teased as Celyid side-eyed him, pushing his thumb against his pinked lip. The blond visibly thought better of his bitter response and softened his expression instead, leaning into Rofaryn’s side.

    “Much too hot for me, baby. Unlike you. Wanna kiss it better?”

    Rofaryn shoved Celyid off with a laugh, “This game’s all about keepin’ warm, Cel, but your sweettalk is leavin’ me cold. H’ran, you’re next.”

    H’rannith stared at the bowl, otherworldly pale flames wisping over the liquid surface. He darted in to neatly pluck a small fruit from the edge and pop it into his mouth- and promptly spat it out with a screwed-up face. “Why is it always raisins with this game? Terrible idea, all of it.”

    Jevai took his turn promptly, finishing while H’rannith was still speaking and turning to glance aside at Cin, tilting his head toward the bowl.

    Cin stared at Jevai, at Rofaryn, and then at the blue flames licking at the edges of the beaten metal bowl. It was nice to look at, sure enough, but… he lifted a hand, pushing forward too tentatively and drawing back. The riot of laughter around him only gave him further pause, reddening. 

  “C’mon, city boy! Afraid of a little burn or two?”

  “Don’t wuss out on us now-”

    Cin gritted his teeth in concentration, and a hand laid on his arm- Rofaryn, he realized, glancing aside at his grin. “Just go fast. Don’t overthink it.”

    Cin sucked in a breath, looking at the lapping flames, counted a rapid one-two-three to himself, and on three he plunged straight for a reddish fruit, bluish fire dripping off his fingertips as he popped it into his mouth just as quickly. The fire went out in a snap against his tongue, leaving behind the sweet burn of liquor and blackened cherry. He chewed and swallowed, and the others cheered as loud as they’d laughed, crowing. Khehaic opened his flask to pass around as Rofaryn’s turn went just as quickly.

    “Alright, a good swig for each, and we go again!” Rofaryn announced cheerily with a shove at Cin’s shoulder.

    “We just go til everyone’s soused, or someone does something dumb-”

    “--and usually, that’s around about the same time-” H’rannith added with a shrug,

    “-though one time, we did run out of fruit first. Then it was just a drinking game with a pretty bowl of fire to watch.”

    “No, because then we just started passing the bowl around to drink instead, remember? Cel lost half an eyebrow that time-”

    “Ahh, that’s right. I took a pass and stumbled off to bed when somebody suggested that one.”

    “Smart man. But smart men don’t get crowned King on winter solstice, do they?”

    “...True ‘nough.”

   The game lasted long into the night, til the bitter snap to the air faded away to flushed cheeks and wide grins. They made it until the fruit ran out and the liquor burned dry and, with most of the others having passed out or wandered off, Cin was summarily named the Solstice King.

    Cin grinned, settling back into the sand as he looked over the remnants of the game. He was pleased, cheeks flushed and the world spinning pleasantly overhead. He turned to nudge Rofaryn, who was flopped back onto his back nearby.

    “...So if I’m the king, the Solstice king, what’s that mean? What’s my prize?”

   Rofaryn dragged himself upright to squint at him.

    “Ah-- right, you-- well, just a truly magnificent hangover, mostly. An’-- oh!”

    Rofaryn grabbed the shallow bowl, still sticky with dried liquor, and he scrubbed at it with a handful of sand to get most the mess off before upending the bowl and holding it up with a drunken flourish. He placed it, somber and deliberate, upon Cin’s brow.

    Cin raised an eyebrow, the makeshift crown tilting crookedly on his head before he reached up to steady it with both hands. Rofaryn extended an arm, gesturing grandly out toward the clear dark sky and sands and only almost falling over once in the process.

    “-But don’t worry. For tonight, your kingship is uncontested, all you can see is yours… and the best thing is, the headaches almost always wait ‘til morning to come knockin’.” Rofaryn laughed at Cin’s bemused expression, slinging an arm around his shoulders gracelessly.

    “See? Good game. Not half so cold, eh? So. Happy Solstice, your majesty.”