Chapter Twenty-Three The Spring Festival
At dawn, Vénes awoke, the new day’s light shining on him from the windows. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, taking several moments to get his bearings on where he was. He had slept beside Shu-Giri nearly every night since coming to Jzamneh, and though the man’s playful spirit often confounded him, Vénes had grown accustomed to his presence. The realization quickened his heart, reminding him of Shu-Giri’s affections, suggesting that perhaps he was dear to him after all.
Vénes climbed out of the bed and prepared himself to face the day– and his admirer. As he became more wakeful, he remembered his turbulent emotions from the night before, and he felt anew his frustration that Shu-Giri had kept his son from him for so long. He groaned at the memory of Liam defending him. How could he justify it by saying that Vénes would have fled him had he known sooner? Was it right to take his love, and then change the circumstances? Sighing, he pulled a brush through his waves of hair.
When the sorcerer left his room, the smell of food rose up to him from the kitchen below. He followed the aromas downstairs, where he found platters of rolls, fruits, and sausages taking up most of the room.
“Vénes, good morning!” Liam announced joyfully. “It’s wonderful to see you awake. Come, sit at the table. Eat whatever you like; you’ll need your energy for the festival.”
Being reminded about the festival made him want to groan and return to bed for another day. Shu-Giri would be awaiting his answer during the festival. But what was Vénes to say to him? If he accepted him as his Rrandah, he would be forming a powerful bond and taking on immense protection from the gods. At the same time, the places where Vénes planned to go held danger and uncertainty, and he didn’t like the idea of putting a father’s life at risk. Besides that, the idea of being with a man who had a child was a bitter one to him. He felt that the treasure-hunter had taken advantage of his affections.
His growling stomach interrupted his thoughts. Vénes took a seat in the chair that Liam offered him. He had no chance to put together his own plate, as his friend quickly set a full one in front of him.
“These pancakes are amazing. Diase makes her own syrup– and the butter.” He set the butter dish and a row of syrup pitchers in front of Vénes.
“Where is she?”
“Diase,” Vénes answered.
“Ah.” Liam returned to his seat. “She went to takes some things to the festival grounds.”
“Is it starting this early?”
Liam took another sausage. “The opening festivities are at midday, when Ser is highest in the sky. But many of us spend all morning preparing for it.”
Nodding, Vénes began eating his breakfast, ignoring how delicious it was because he was still unhappy with both Diase and Phiare. “Then, when will… he expect to speak with me?”
“You’re still upset with him?” Liam frowned and shook his head. “You can go to him whenever you’re sure of your answer, Vénes. The festival will continue on past nightfall, and some even carry on until the next morning. When we share secrets or answers, it is usually evening, as we are lighting up the sky. But Vénes, I wouldn’t even mind if you took weeks to make this decision– and neither would Shu-Giri. Taking on a Rrandah is quite a responsibility.”
Vénes nodded, staring at his breakfast.
“Are you going to tell him ‘no’?” Liam asked, worry in his voice.
“I was going to… I have changed my mind again and again. I cannot rest on either decision, Liam.”
“Then there is hope for him, at least,” he said, grinning.
Before Vénes could complain, the front door opened, and Diase came in. She stepped into the kitchen, saying, “Good morning, Vénes. I’m glad to see that you rose on your own. I was about to rouse you.” When he only nodded, she went on. “I saw Shu-Giri this morning. He is leading the dancing for the opening ceremony. You should see him dance; he is exquisite.”
“A refined word for someone like him,” Vénes replied before taking another bite.
Diase pouted. “The Jzamneh have their own idea of exquisiteness, Vénes. Don’t be bitter towards me. I’m your friend, not the woman who had your lover’s baby.”
“Phiare is a good woman, too” Liam added. “How could she not give that child life? They didn’t do it to hurt, you, Vénes. Surely all those years of studying magic haven’t left you unable to understand that…?”
“I suppose,” the sorcerer replied, his voice moping.
“He asked me to give you this.” Diase laid a letter, sealed with wax, beside the sorcerer’s hand. “He misses you. It’s only been one night, but he’s miserable without you there.”
She crossed the kitchen to embrace Liam. “I’m taking another load to the festival grounds.”
“Let me join you,” he said, then turned back to Vénes. “You are welcome to anything you need in our home. Relax for now. If you need us, you know where we will be.”
“Very well,” Vénes told them, and watched them depart with bushels of food.
When they were gone, he picked at the rest of his food, staring at the letter beside him. The waxen seal sparkled with crystalline powder, and a jewel rested above Shu-Giri’s crest. It looked as important as his letters to the other village leaders or the Jzamneh council. At length, Vénes decided to clear the table of the remains of his breakfast, then took the letter to the next room, where he sat on the deep cushions of Liam’s couch.
Vénes pried at the seal, but it would not come loose from the parchment. Then he noticed the jewel sparkling, and looked at it more closely. Realizing tat Shu-Giri had enchanted it, he tuned his own magic to release the spell. The crystal glowed with lines of green and yellow, then fell into his hand. He smirked, but found the wax easier to break after that. He unfolded the letter to read it.
My Dear Vénes,
I have spent all night missing you. When Diase told me where you had gone, I wanted to rush to your side. I needed to hold you. Even though you don’t care for me as strongly as I love you, and you don’t like everything about me, you are still very important to me.
Can you forgive me for not telling you about my son sooner? You are both very dear to my heart. What Phiare and I did is not as unusual in Jzamneh as it is anywhere else. Even though I don’t love her, we both love our son. I know you will need time to get used to that. What I didn’t realize was how hurt you would be when you found out. Children are important to our tribe, and I had forgotten that some do not treasure them as much as we do. Can you understand?
When I asked to be your Rrandah, it was because I love you as much as I do magic, and I know how important that is to you. Together, we could share our powers. We could be stronger together than apart. I want to protect you and teach you my magic. Really, I just want to be with you.
Even if you go, I will never forget what you did for my forest. I am grateful to you, Venes. I know that you can be selfless and caring, no matter how hurt and bitter you act. That’s part of why I love you. What I gave your astral spirit will always be yours. I expect nothing for it. Just keeping living. You are a wonderful man; I have never known anyone like you before. Remember, I will always love you, no matter what.
♥ I will wait for you beside the fountain this evening.
Vénes wiped his cheeks dry and refolded the letter. Once again, he felt torn about what to do. Shu-Giri had often promised to love him ‘no matter what,’ but the circumstances brought his words new meaning. Vénes realized that he hadn’t loved the playful man in that way; his affection had been so conditional. But could he change that now? It meant that he would have to accept the other man’s fatherhood, to care for him just the same. He doubted whether he actually could.
The next few hours were spent wrestling with such thoughts. Could he manage? What if he failed? Back and forth he went, trying to navigate the labyrinth of his heart to reconcile his emotions. Midday was approaching when his decision became clearer in his mind. He wanted to see Shu-Giri; not speak with him, for that would only confuse him all over again, but just set eyes on him. Vénes gathered up his belongings and left his friend’s home, determined to reach the festival grounds in time for the opening ceremony.
He knew where to go simply by the throngs of elves and faeries gathered among booths piled with food. Everyone had come in their finest, most colorful clothes; a string of dancers in matching attire hurried past him, their jewels twinkling. Vénes watched the booth attendants lighting fires for grills and roasts, preparing all manner of recipes. He noticed Liam at one of the stalls, and stepped over to him.
“Well met, Vénes! It’s good to see you here. We’re almost ready to begin.”
“I didn’t realize you were selling food here,” he said.
Liam shook his head, his bright eyes sparkling. “Not at all, my friend. During the festival, we share with everyone who comes to us. Everyone has some role to play here, even if it’s just keeping the fires hot or bringing Diase and myself something else to eat.”
“A communal festival?”
“Of course. What sort of celebration would we have if we acted like merchants?”
Vénes smiled at the idea. “The Jzamneh really are close,” he said. “Like… a family spread across the forest.”
“Finally you understand!” Liam laughed uproariously, patting his friend’s back.
Before he could add any more, a fanfare sounded from across the festival grounds. Vénes saw the banner first, bearing the colors and crests of Jzamneh. As it moved closer, he could see that Shu-Giri was carrying it, smiling widely and greeting everyone he passed. Following him were two lines of similarly-adorned figures, elvan and fae, man and woman alike. And behind them, carrying another banner like the chieftain’s, was a fae woman, tall and glowing with silvery-pink light. She moved more gracefully than the others, who were lithe in step, and bore a softer smile.
“That is the council,” Liam whispered as they passed through the square.
“What about her?” Vénes asked, referring to the faerie.
He shook his head. “She isn’t part of the council. But…”
Vénes listened carefully for Liam to go on.
“They should announce it later; I’m not certain yet. Have you though any more about Shu-Giri’s offer?”
“The Rrandah promise? Somewhat. I have a better idea of what I plan to do.”
Vénes watched the group head towards the stage set atop a small hill. The throngs made way for their leaders to pass, welcoming them to the village. He remembered that while the tribal leader, currently Shu-Giri, resided in his home village, the council resided in other parts of the forest. They had gathered in their leader’s town to celebrate the festival.
From atop a hill, drumming began to roll through the air. Liam took Vénes’s arm and escorted him closer to the stage as Shu-Giri and the others ascended it, followed by a crowd of excited dancers. They bowed to the onlookers, who began cheering for them. The chieftain looked to the sky, watching for the right time to begin.
“My sweet Jzamneh people,” he began. “I welcome you, visitors and friends alike, to the spring festival! Let us dance to welcome the vernal midday. Ser is nearly overhead!”
That said, the Jzamneh council took his banner, left the stage, and took the seats reserved for them nearby. The drums pounded out an earthy rhythm, which Shu-Giri took as his time to begin his dance. Other instruments joined in, strings and flutes and cymbals, all moving with the drumbeats. The dancers joined in with their leader’s movements, some of them even singing, encouraging the light to rise higher and brighter above the colorful forest.
“He’s wonderful,” Vénes noted, watching him and admiring his movements.
Liam smiled beside him. “I knew you thought well of him.”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” Vénes replied. “I still haven’t decided anything. What am I to do about his son? I have no talent with children.”
“There is nothing for you to do. The lad has his father and mother, and Shu-Giri would ask you to act as neither. He only wants to continue a relationship with you knowing that the boy will be around. How was he to know how you would react?”
“I have to go. My vegetables will not cook themselves. Relax today, Vénes. Happy spring!”
Liam was running back to his booth before Vénes could get another word in, worsening his frustration. While he watched the dancing, the music came to a rising crescendo, climaxing as Ser mounted the center of the sky. Shu-Giri cried out words that he could not make out, some ancient Jzamneh blessing that raised equal cries and cheers from the crowd. He smiled, admiring how much they enjoyed celebrating the new season.
The opening dance over, Shu-Giri dismissed the dancers and beckoned to the fae woman whom Vénes had noticed earlier. She rose and ascended gracefully the stage to stand beside the chieftain.
“My dear people, I must say that I love you all. It has been an honor to lead you, to share audience with you and care for our tribe. Alas, these three years have sped by, and my residence as your chieftain will soon come to a close. The council has chosen our next leader, and she has come to meet with me today!” He smiled to the faerie his usual playful grin.
So, Vénes noted to himself, he is absurd and silly even with nobility.
The woman gave to the crowd a small wave, her slender arm peeking out of her silvery gown as she moved. “Greetings, dear friends.” Her voice was smooth, subtle as dew yet resounding as a waterfall.
“I present to you Lady Liaphense, from the southern reaches of Jzamneh. By mid-summer, she will be your new leader, ready to care for you as well as she has cared for her faerie-kind in the south.”
Applause rang out for Liaphense. As she was welcomed by the people of the village, Vénes left his seat and wandered between the stalls, eyeing the food curiously. He knew several of the villagers who were sharing their recipes during the festival, and they greeted him fondly. They insisted that he take whatever they had ready, so much so that by the time he can to the end of the row, he had a stack of both steamed and sweet rolls, a goblet of honey mead, and skewers of meats and vegetables of various types piled on a platter lent to him by a friend of Liam’s. He was relieved to see tables and benches set out nearby.
“If you’ll excuse me, milord,” a voice queried once Vénes had taken a seat and begun to taste the gifts of the festival.
He glanced beside him to find a young herald dressed in bold, bright colors, the emblem of Jzamneh embroidered on his jacket. “Yes?”
“His lordship asked that I deliver this to you,” the boy explained, holding forth a small round plate in his hands. It had been laden with an arrangement of cut fruit, laid atop flower petals that sparkled in the noon-day light.
Vénes blinked, uncertain. “Who…?”
“Our wonderful leader, sir.”
“You mean Shu-Giri?”
The lad nodded. “Indeed, sir. Would you like me to send him a message for you?”
Vénes took the plate from the boy’s hands and laid it alongside his other food. “Send him my thanks only. I shall see him later this evening.”
“He has invited you join him,” the lad added, his voice hopeful.
Shaking his head, he replied, “Tonight. When the village sets the lanterns alight against the dark night, I will go to the fountain.”
“I understand, milord. Bright springtime to you!” With a bow, the boy hurried off, back to Shu-Giri, Liaphense, and the council.
As he looked over the new platter, Vénes wondered why he had not seen Shu-Giri with a herald before the festival. He usually enlisted the village messenger to send his letters. Shrugging, he thought no more of it, and instead took a piece of fruit. In Jzamneh, it grew sweeter than anywhere else, rich in juice as well as color. Vénes had grown fond of it, which Shu-Giri no doubt realized.
After he’d eaten several pieces, he noticed a crystal in the center of the platter. It was still rough and unworked—or nearly so, he realized when he picked it up. A concave shape had been carved into it, smooth and careful. He shook his head, wondering what the playful man hoped to accomplish.
When Vénes had filled himself with food and finished off the mead, he headed back to Liam’s booth. He offered what he could not finish to his friend, who was grateful for the snack.
“How do you like the festival so far?” he asked between distributing food and checking his grill.
“It’s lovely,” Vénes replied. “Have other villages come here as well, to see Shu-Giri?”
“We have some visitors, but most villages have their own celebrations. Sometimes, if someone lives nearby, or in a very small village, they will come here. This year we have even more visitors, probably to see the new leader being announced. Some of them are family of the council.”
“You knew she was his successor, then?”
“The faerie? I suspected. The new leader is usually announced at the spring festival, but I wasn’t sure that it would be her. Did you see how majestic she is?”
“I could sense a lot of magic in her.”
“Indeed! She is a faerie guardian… sort of a queen or mother. There are few fae elders like her, but they are all very well-loved.”
“Liam, how are the leaders chosen? She is so different from Shu-Giri.”
“Well, Shu-Giri was chosen for his talents as a treasure-hunter. He was a village leader before the council selected him as Jzamneh’s chieftain, which he had to be to qualify. I believe they also liked seeing his role as a father.”
This fact surprised Vénes. “Even though he wasn’t in love with Phiare?”
“Aye, Vénes. Still, like a good leader must, Shu-Giri loves all of his people. Even though they had no romance, he looked after her and welcomed his son into his life. Let me say this plainly, Vénes: what Shu-Giri did happens all over Jzamneh. None of us are fickle or licentious. We take responsibility for our children. Sometimes love does grow from it, but we are not bound to it as many outside these woods are.”
“Why would he not love her?” Vénes asked. “After he laid with her, how could he not?”
Liam sighed, scarcely able to hide his frustration with the sorcerer. “From what I know, his former lover had passed away, and the one before that had left him under difficult terms. Phiare was there to console him, and I’m sure they were both lonely. Are you going to ask him to justify everything? He fell in love with you, Vénes. Could it have been destined? He sees you as a treasure sent from Jenh. If you doubt him still…” He stopped himself before he could say anything hurtful to his friend.
“He gave me this,” Vénes said, changing the topic. He held out the new crystal for Liam to look over.
“How sweet of him.” Liam admired the crystal’s rosy color, then looked closely at the carving. “He has a real talent for working crystals. I can do little more than garden, but I would love to be able to do this.”
“Are you saying Shu-Giri carved the heart into it?”
“Of course. He loves you. Who else would carve it and give it to you?”
“But…” Vénes shook his head. “I didn’t know he could.”
“He is a talented man, if anything. He’s probably hardly worked a thing since he started spending time with you.”
“What else do I not know about him?” the sorcerer asked, somewhat in jest and somewhat in frustration.
“What do I not know about Diase? If I ask, she will tell me anything. The rest unfolds as our love takes us through life. Be patient, sorcerer; You cannot learn every spell in a day, and you cannot learn everything about a man in a single season.”
“Perhaps,” he replied, though still unwilling to concede.
“Take your time, Vénes. When you have the right answer for him, you will know. For now, enjoy the festival.” That said, Liam embraced his friend and sent him on his way to join in the festivities.
The day carried on, lively with dancing and music of all sorts, which lasted even after dusk. As the sky darkened, the verdigris spring moon, Vélahran, rose full above Jzamneh Forest. Beneath it, Shu-Giri walked through his village, his fellow elves and fae greeting him fondly as they passed. In his arms he carried his son, tired from the day’s excitement and play.
Once he reached the village square, he sat on the ledge of the fountain, humming to the child as he waited. The evening was cool and calm as the celebrations began to relax. Hope filled the air, a tense impatience as villagers awaited answers and words of promise.
Shu-Giri hardly remembered the last time he’d waited like this. It seemed a far-gone boyhood dream. Vénes had promised him time and again that he would come, but Shu-Giri became impatient right away. Would the sorcerer be late? Had he uttered his words only to keep the chieftain at a distance, waiting? He trembled at the idea that Vénes would leave him, just as Sihlphan and Gelkrem had done to him years ago.
Had he been wrong to wait so long before mentioning his son? He refused to give up on this chance for love; although Vénes had said that he did not want children for himself, what else did he think of them? He’d repeatedly avoided the topic with various excuses. Shu-Giri was was fretting as such when Diase appeared in the square. He leapt to his feet and dashed across the cobbles to meet her.
“Is he coming?” he begged, his voice quivering.
“Aye, Shu-Giri. He has made his decision.” She walked him back to the fountain, where she embraced him tightly. “He looks serious, my friend.”
Shocked, the chieftain only stuttered, “Oh– okay.”
Diase stood back, concern in her eyes. “Do you want me to take your boy home?”
“No. I want Vénes to meet him, even if it won’t be for long. Could you tell Phiare that I will bring him by later?”
“Of course,” she replied. She kissed the child’s blue-green hair before departing.
Shaken, he went on waiting. His heart pounded as he reflected on how Diase seemed to believe that Vénes was bringing him grim news. Part of him preferred to eternally delay their meeting than face that outcome.
He sighed, hating the way the minutes felt like they passed slower and slower. By the time he heard footsteps approaching, he was starting to feel as worn-out as the child in his arms. Vénes had Liam was at his side, encouraging him to keep going. He seemed like an illusion, the way he stood out from the colors of Jzamneh, his robe dark, his staff foreboding, his demeanor serious in the ways of the Academy of Magic. Shu-Giri had not before feared the sorcerer; now he trembled to think what the man had to say to him.
“Vé…” he began, but his throat closed on the name. He began to feel hot, and his vision blurred, so that he could hardly see Vénes approach him, nor Liam leaving.
“Shu-Giri.” The sorcerer looked him in the eyes, stoic, the sound of his name hanging alone in the air.
Shu-Giri rushed into Vénes’s arms, careful to maneuver the child in his arm and he clung to him, feeling his heart pound against the other man’s chest.
“Don’t leave me,” he whispered. “My heart would break if you left because of my son alone. I love you, Vénes. I will tell you anything else you want to know. Just… please stay with me a little longer.”
The sorcerer’s hands rubbed Shu-Giri’s back, soothing him a little. “It’s all right,” he said, his voice even. His lover’s pink eyes looked up at him, shimmering with moonlit tears. “I am not leaving you.”
Shu-Giri sniffled and stared back at him in disbelief.
“Also… I would be honored to take you as my Rrandah.”
“You–” Shu-Giri blinked, hardly believing what he’d just heard. “Really?”
When Vénes nodded, he wrapped his arms around his neck, pulling him close to kiss him, fervently, letting the day’s tension pour out of him as he unleashed his passion. Although surprised, the sorcerer gave as much as he could in return, though he could hardly equal Shu-Giri’s emotions.
“I’m so relieved! I thought you were going to…” Vénes gave him a weak smile, and he went on. “What made you decide?”
“My brother,” he admitted, leading Shu-Giri to sit down again. “He has a daughter… but her mother left this life a few years ago. He misses her, but their child keeps him busy. Should he ever want to pursue a new love…”
“Then she would have to accept his daughter,” Shu-Giri finished for him.
“Yes. I would hate to see him lonely because he already had one child. It was difficult for me, though… because Phiare is still alive.”
“I ‘m grateful that you made this choice, Vénes.” He wiped his cheeks dry, watching the sorcerer closely, not wanting to look away, lest he disappear.
“Is this your son?” Vénes asked, looking down at the boy Shu-Giri’s arms.
“Yes,” he said, glancing between Faolan and Vénes with a relieved smile. “Yes, Vénes, this is Faolan.”
Then Shu-Giri looked down at the boy and said, more tenderly, “Son, this is Vénes. Do you remember when I told you about my new friend?”
The child nodded and smiled up at Vénes even as he clung more tightly to his father.
Vénes smiled back. “Pleased to meet you, Faolan.” Then he turned to Shu-Giri. “How old is he?”
“Four years,” he replied, grinning at his child. “He had a birthday just last week.”
“He looks tired. Should you not take him home?”
Shu-Giri nodded. “Phiare said that he could sleep in her home tonight… She thought that we would need time to talk. Will you walk with me?” With a nod from Vénes, the chieftain shifted the child to a different position in his arms, then led him from the village square to Phiare’s home.
“A letter arrived for you today,” Shu-Giri mentioned as they passed a row of bushes surrounded by tiny glowing faeries. “It bears the seal of Onsira.”
“A letter from the empress? Has she summoned me there?”
“It’s your letter, Vénes,” he told his friend. “I didn’t open it.”
“What will you do if I go to them?” Vénes asked, worry lacing his voice.
As they neared the end of a grassy path, Shu-Giri insisted that they discuss the matter later, one they’d returned to his home. From a window, Phiare saw the group approaching, and rushed outside to greet them. She embraced Shu-Giri, looking between him and Vénes worriedly.
“He said ‘yes,’” the chieftain whispered to the girl, sneaking in a grin.
She sighed in relief. “Thank goodness! Come in, please.”
Phiare escorted them into her home. Inside, Diase sat in an armchair, looking as nervous as the other two had been. Seeing Vénes beside her friend, she relaxed. They passed her by with brief greetings, Shu-Giri leading them down a hallway.
“This is Faolan’s room,” Shu-Giri whispered as he opened a door.
Vénes noticed that Faolan had closed his eyes as he laid on his father’s shoulder, and was resting peacefully. Seeing him so peaceful, he wondered how such a peaceful boy had roused such tension between Shu-Giri and himself.
“He’s already asleep,” Vénes noted.
Shu-Giri nodded. “I don’t doubt that. He’s had a lot of excitement today.” He leaned down and slowly lowered the child onto his bed. He pulled off his shoes and tucked a blanket around him. “Sweet dreams, son,” he whispered before leaving a kiss on his forehead. Then he took Vénes’s hand and led him out again.
In the main room, the girls offered Shu-Giri their congratulations, and Vénes their thanks. They stayed only briefly to share a few words, and were soon away to return to the chieftain’s home. They strolled beneath the forest canopy, surrounded by the scent of countless flowers and the distant sound of music as the last of the celebrants played on. Stars peeked down at them between the branches here and there, and hardly a word passed between them as they walked, so well did they enjoy the peace of the evening.