Though he couldn’t spend much time with Ghia, for she was working, he found himself having a good time at the Cauldron nonetheless. The food and drink flowed and tasted like ambrosia and nectar. There was the standard ale, of course, the shandygaff Circe’s Cauldron was famous for, and hot spiced rum-apple cider, a seasonal favourite, along with a creamy egg drink called noge that was also traditional around this time. On the food menu was roast boar, turkey, what vegetables could be scrounged at this time―cooked expertly―and a sinful array of baked goods: gingerbread, always a favourite, a cake with fruits and nuts in it that only a few seemed to like (Jules being one of them), and orange-squash pie with clotted cream on top.
A team of musicians played in the corner of the taproom, by the fireplace, and space had been cleared as a dancing floor. Jules was on his third cup of noge by the time he felt light and airy enough to be led onto the dance floor: first with a young dama whose attentions were quite welcome, and then with a young man Jules would have easily spent more time with. There was either a good selection of dance partners there that night, or he was just extremely lucky, for each dance was better than the last, filled with flirtations and laughter.
He wouldn’t let it get any farther, of course, but it was nice to feel as if he were young again.
Not that thirty-two’s old, he amended, looking at the still-beautiful Kasandra who was now pushing seventy, looking no older than forty-five. It’s just not terribly young anymore. He looked wistfully at Ghia, radiant in a green velvet peplos, her red hair pinned back with a gorgeous silver clasp. Her smile never wavered, no matter how full the trays on her hands were, and she treated each patron with the same good cheer.
Quite the Midwinter Fairy, he decided. Though I doubt even she could grant my Midwinter wishes. His jaw clenched then, and he looked away, stoutly taking another sip of his noge. He didn’t want to think about Nucalif. Not tonight. Not ever again.
A hush fell over the room then as a blast of cold air came in through the open door. Jules looked to see what had caused the sudden silence and nearly dropped his stein. Bellica Yarrow stood, as if a smile had been nailed to her face. Major Caelum beside her. His smile was quite a bit more genuine.
“Bellica. Major,” came Ghia’s resonant voice, and Jules instantly knew why Yarrow was here, out, celebrating Midwinter for the first time in almost two decades. He wondered how Ghia had done it. “So glad you could make it.”
The spell cast over the customers was broken, and the chatter and music started up again. As if under a different sort of spell, Jules found himself standing and making his presence known to his superiors.
“Happy Midwinter, Yarrow, Caelum,” he said, waving them over. “There’s room at this table if you’d like a seat.”
Yarrow and Caelum exchanged a glance, and it was the major who graciously accepted for the two of them.
As the officers were seated, an awkward silence fell, for Jules still felt he could not look Yarrow in the face. What had possessed him to ask them over? I must be mad. Or just painfully polite.
Luckily Caelum broke the silence with banal conversation, asking Jules how his Midwinter Eve had fared so far.
“Can’t complain,” Jules said with a smile that was, at least, half real. “Good food and drink, good music, and lovely wenches,” he added with a friendly leer at Ghia, who had made her way to their table.
She snorted. “Not too loud, Jules, or some other patrons might think they can get away with that again.” She braced her tray against her hip as she stood, leaning with her hand against the back of his chair.
He leaned back and looked at her like a dog begging for scraps. “Aw, come on, Ghia. I want to see your aunt beat someone twice her size again!” he said, laughter rippling through his voice. Caelum chuckled as well, for he’d been there for that day and it had been a rather entertaining sight. Yarrow merely smiled, tight and strained.
Ghia rolled her eyes and asked them for their orders. Unsurprisingly, Caelum ordered food for the two of them, while Yarrow ordered a full tankard of ale for herself. Ghia didn’t even raise her eyebrows. Yarrow’s penchant for drinking was well known. Jules asked for a refill on his now empty noge stein, and Ghia gathered his other steins from the table.
Caelum’s eyes followed her appreciatively as she left, taking in the mix of red and green where her hair met the peplos, but the look in his eyes was avuncular, not desirous, Jules thought, feeling even worse about his attraction to the healer. Caelum had also watched Ghia grow up.
“She’s quite the Midwinter Fairy, isn’t she?” Caelum asked, echoing Jules’ earlier thought.
Yarrow stood abruptly. With a curt “Back in a few,” she stalked off towards the privy.
Jules’ heart twisted with the same familiar pain. She was leaving because of him, he knew. He should have been there for his bellica, and instead he had deserted her in her time of need. She must be going as crazy as I, he thought, ashamed.
Caelum was looking at Jules rather more shrewdly than one would expect from the man, who was not exactly famous for mental acumen. “You two alright?” he asked. Maybe he saw more than he let on, most days.
Jules nodded, wishing he could lie easily. “We’re fine,” he said, and wished he had a stein to take a drink from. “Are you two alright?” he asked, somewhat pointedly, and Caelum laughed.
“We’re always fine,” he said, but it was a bit too quiet, and Jules knew there was still no progress on that front.
They fell into a silence neither awkward nor comfortable, as Jules reflected on his muddled emotional state. Things had been fairly simple before Nucalif: serve a bellica he longed for but could never have, for it was plain as night to everyone in Athering that Yarrow and Caelum were, well, destined for each other. Plain to everyone except the two of them, of course.
It was Caelum, the poorly educated farm boy from Southland, whose literacy skills were still lacking and who had only gotten as far as he had only because of Yarrow’s influence on him, who was clearer about how he felt for people than Jules and Yarrow, whose education had lacked nothing in childhood or adolescence.
I suppose there are different sorts of intelligences, Jules thought, staring at the tall, fair-haired man who sat with him at the table. Caelum had never lacked clarity about how he felt for Yarrow–he’d confessed as much to Jules one drunken night while they played Queen’s Ransom, on the march to Nucalif. That night Jules had packed away his hope, for he could see that Yarrow would never feel for him as she did for Caelum.
Caelum might be just as doomed, however. His ineptitude with words made it impossible for him to talk to Yarrow about it. And she was denser than stone.
Would Caelum still harbour that purity of feeling if he’d seen what Jules had seen in Nucalif? It had certainly muddied the waters of the medic’s emotional sea.
He gritted his teeth and re-adjusted his seat in his chair, willing the memories away. It did no good to relive the horror. Yarrow had to be innocent, for whatever pathos Yarrow lacked for most things Atherians held closely to their hearts, like patriotism or religion, she maintained a great respect for the law. What he had seen…could surely not have been Yarrow committing one of the most heinous crimes in the nation.
She had to be innocent. Set up by an agent of Empress Zanny, or Empreena Zardria, probably. His dreams meant nothing. They were just the crazy rants of his subconscious.
I’m just going mad, I know it. She must be too.
Before he could gather enough courage to leave the table in search of her, Ghia arrived with their drinks and the information that the food would be a little longer. Jules made himself sit in his seat and was pleasant to the healer but his mind was far away, thinking about treachery and poison.