A Harmony of Fire and Earth
Antonia Aquilante © 2019
All Rights Reserved
“Your brother is alive?” The words burst from Arden without thought. Shock wasn’t allowing him to think.
Prince Gareth of Thalassa was alive?
And this wasn’t something Edmund had chosen to tell Arden before now? They were going to be married in the morning, and Gareth was Edmund’s younger brother, whom everyone had thought dead for years.
“Yes, he is,” Edmund said quietly.
Arden shook his head, more in disbelief than in denial. “How?”
Edmund glanced around the empty library, then back to Arden. “Can we speak of this in private?”
He wanted to protest, wanted to demand Edmund tell him now, but doing so would just be petulant. “All right.”
Arden took the time to gather up his things, leaving some books for the librarians to replace and taking the rest with him. His notes couldn’t be left lying around. When Edmund had found him, Arden had been doing research—as he had most days since Tycen had attacked Thalassa with magic, setting fires and menacing people along the border the two countries shared. He was determined to find a solution that would protect his new home, and the kingdom of his birth as well, since Tycen had begun doing the same to Aither. The army and the magic wielders on the border could do no more than hold back the worst of it, and too much was being lost to the flames. Until they could stop Tycen entirely, they needed a way to protect themselves.
King Torin, Edmund’s father and ruler of Thalassa, had tasked his magic wielders with finding a solution. Arden wasn’t counted among the group due to his position, but he’d studied magic his whole life—he could help. He’d found something he thought might work that very day. He still had a lot of details to figure out—more than details, really, but the theory was sound. What he already knew was they would need a strong magic wielder of each Element to perform it. Arden could take the Air portion, and Thalassa had plenty of strong Water wielders. An Earth wielder wouldn’t be a problem if Arden could convince one he knew to travel to Thalassa. The Fire Affinity was the problem, and that was when Edmund had shocked Arden by telling him not only was his brother alive, but he was a Fire wielder as well.
Arden walked silently at Edmund’s side through the corridors of the palace. The attention of the people they passed registered only dimly—they always garnered attention. Shock and a creeping sense of betrayal might be fogging Arden’s mind, but no one would ever know—no one could. There could be no hint of discord or distance between him and Edmund for anyone to see.
He didn’t want them to exist between him and Edmund at all.
The silence was probably bad enough. He and Edmund were seldom entirely silent when walking together. People would notice, and they would talk.
Arden cared about the appearances—he had to—but he cared more about him and Edmund.
They passed the whimsical fountain that marked the entrance to the wing where Edmund had his rooms. It was tiered and tiled in mosaics of glittering blue and green glass. Arden thought it beautiful, his every glance showing him something new. If he wouldn’t look bizarre, he’d stand and study it, trying to tease out all the little details. The art of the mosaics, so common in Thalassa’s royal palace, was breathtaking. But this palace on the sea was so different from Aither’s airy, soaring castle perched in the mountains. If Arden thought too hard about the differences, about how very far from home he was, how unlikely it was he’d ever see the castle or the house he’d bought for himself again, his head would spin.
He wanted to be where he was—he wanted to be with Edmund, which meant being in Thalassa. Edmund would be king someday, and Arden would stand beside him as his consort. But it was best if he didn’t think too hard about leaving behind everything he knew. Especially because he wasn’t really—Ciaran and Larkin were here. The twins were his closest friends, outside Edmund now, and had always worked with him—his secretary, his eyes and ears, his spies. For the moment, the twins showed no desire to leave.
Aither would be a difficult place for them these days. Their uncle had betrayed Aither and all of them, conspiring with Tycen to attempt an assassination of Arden’s sister, the queen, and to frame Edmund for it. Ciaran had helped Arden rescue Edmund and fled with them. Larkin had followed them to Thalassa with her husband and infant son, and though Merrick was one of Hollis’s councilors, even he didn’t seem to be in a hurry to return. At some point, Arden would have to talk to them, but something always seemed to be more pressing. And, really, he wanted them to stay. He loved Edmund and already liked Edmund’s sister very much, but he wanted his friends—his family—too.
Ciaran likely wouldn’t want to leave anyway since he’d fallen in love with Edmund’s secretary, Peregrine.
Edmund opened the door to his rooms for Arden and followed him inside. Arden had been given rooms of his own, but he hadn’t spent a single night in them. From the first moment they’d arrived, they’d stayed in these rooms together—perhaps out of some lingering fear from their flight across Aither or perhaps just because they loved one another and they could. Perhaps both. The servants knew, of course, and some might talk, but Arden couldn’t bring himself to care, not about this one thing. After the wedding tomorrow, it wouldn’t be an issue anymore.
Edmund’s—their—rooms were comfortable and decorated beautifully in Thalassan style with patterned tiles on the floors and luxurious fabrics in jewel tones, mostly greens. They very much looked like Edmund’s too, but the first full day he’d been here, Edmund had told him they could change anything to make Arden more comfortable. To make this place theirs.
He turned to face Edmund who stood a few steps behind him. “Edmund…your brother is alive?”
Edmund lifted his hands and let them drop helplessly. “Yes.”
“And he has a Fire Affinity?”
“How?” Arden asked again. “There wasn’t even a trace of rumor. Everyone thinks he’s dead. And a Fire Affinity?”
An Affinity for Water ran strong in Edmund’s family, and the generations before Edmund seemed to do all they could to keep it that way, only marrying those with a matching Affinity. Some families were much stricter about the practice than others. A strong Affinity for Air ran in Arden’s family, producing Arden himself, but they’d married outside it in past generations, which had resulted in a few children with Water or Earth Affinities—none had ever inherited the throne, but that was more a matter of chance of birth order than anything else.
For Gareth to inherit a Fire Affinity, there had to be one in the line somewhere, and Edmund’s family seemed too rigid in their adherence to marrying Water Affinities to marry outside—Arden was certain King Torin would not have approved of Edmund’s marriage to him if not for the necessary alliance it would bring. And a Fire Affinity? Fire and Water were opposing Elements, and Edmund’s family traditionally had something of a prejudice against Fire, though Edmund himself didn’t.
So how would a Fire Affinity make its way into the bloodline? Unless…
Arden looked up at Edmund and bit his lip, unsure how to put what he was about to say delicately. “Your mother…”
Edmund raked a hand through his shoulder-length dark hair. “I haven’t asked her—I couldn’t ask her—but she and Father have been estranged ever since we found out what Gareth’s Affinity was.”
If the queen had taken a lover—who either had a Fire Affinity or carried the potential for it—it would explain how her second son had ended up with his Affinity. And why Queen Senara lived apart from her husband and the court, returning only sporadically to fulfill the duties required of her. “She might not have…maybe it came from somewhere further back in the line.”
Edmund’s smile was sad. “Thank you for saying it, but I think we can both agree how unlikely that possibility is, knowing my family’s feelings on the Fire Element.”
“It doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Perhaps the potential has been there for a long time and just came out with your brother. Perhaps it came from somewhere back in your mother’s family, not your father’s.” Arden’s instinct to comfort Edmund was undeniable, even with his own emotions still in turmoil.
Edmund shrugged. “I don’t know. She didn’t deny anything. She just acceded to Father’s wishes.”
Could she have done anything else? Arden had no way of knowing what the dynamics were at Thalassa’s court and within its royal family so many years ago; he’d barely begun to get a grasp of them now. “Will you tell me what happened?”
Letting out a long sigh, Edmund nodded. He went to a chair near the fireplace and dropped into it. The fire crackled cheerfully, driving back the chill of the rainy winter day. Snow was probably deep on the ground in Aither’s mountains, but here they’d only had icy rain so far. Arden crossed the room to sit beside Edmund in the chair that had become his—when they weren’t snuggled up on one of the couches.
“Gareth was thirteen when he woke up one morning and the ends of his hair were bright red.”
Arden blinked once, then again. No wonder Edmund thought Gareth might be powerful. In most people, the use of magic caused changes in hair or eye color, but in some very powerful people, the changes came first. Arden had looked in the mirror one day when he was twelve and seen the first icy blue-white streak in his copper curls; the magic had followed, and constant use of it had streaked Arden’s hair liberally. Edmund’s use of his Water magic had added threads of green through his dark eyes.
Gareth would have known what it meant—they were all taught what to expect; they’d all seen it on others—and he must have been terrified to see red instead of the green he’d expected.
“What happened?” Arden asked quietly, dread edging out every other feeling.
“He cut it off, but it came back almost immediately. So he did it again, and the same happened.” Edmund closed his eyes. “Then Father found out.”
The dread intensified until Arden was sick with it. “Edmund, what did he do?”
Edmund didn’t open his eyes. “He was furious. Enraged. But careful to keep everything among only us—Mother, me, Kerenza, and Gareth. You know what happened to Mother. But Gareth…when he realized there was no hiding Gareth’s Affinity, he locked Gareth away, put it around that he’d taken ill and then died. There was nothing any of us could do or say to change his mind.” Edmund went quiet for a moment. “I don’t know that he wanted to look at Gareth anymore.”
Arden swallowed hard. How could a father do such a thing? Even as he thought it, his more cynical side told him exactly how. “Where is he? Has your father had him locked away all these years?”
Edmund shook his head sharply. “He got out, escaped somehow. His bodyguard helped him, and they ran. I gave him all the money I could; so did Kerenza even though she was just a child. I wish we could have done more.”
The last sentence came out in a ragged whisper. Arden’s heart broke. He reached out and took Edmund’s hand, holding it tight. “Do you know what happened to him?”
“No. Father had a few trusted men search, but they never found him. I think they assumed he ran for the Tycen border. But he was going to go to Mother’s family first, hoping they’d hide him or help him.”
Gareth had been so young. How had he survived? Had he? Arden wasn’t sure he could have at that age, out in the world on his own when he’d only known the sheltered world of the castle. He hoped Gareth was all right, hoped his mother’s family had helped. Hoped Gareth was out there somewhere, alive and well.
“I can ask them if they know anything about how we can find him.”
Arden didn’t want to ask this. “If we can find him…will he help? I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t want to have anything to do with Thalassa ever again.”
“I wouldn’t either. But I hope he still has some feeling for the kingdom and for me and Kerenza, if not our father.”
“And what about your father? What will he say if you bring Gareth back?”
Edmund looked at him bleakly. “I don’t know.”
Arden took another slow walk around the perimeter of a large fountain, watching the water fall over the mosaics, following the patterns the tile made. The corridors were dim, the palace quiet in the middle of the night. Was it still middle of the night, or was it closer to morning? He should go back to bed; it would be better if he could sleep—he was getting married in a few hours after all.
He did another slow circuit of the fountain.
In the middle of this private palace wing, no one was around to see him except the guard stationed just down the corridor, but Arden still shouldn’t be doing this. If the guard said something, there would be rumors flying around in an instant. He should have stayed in their rooms or gone to his own. But he hadn’t wanted to be confined. If it wasn’t cold and icy, he’d have gone out to the garden or onto a balcony. Out in the open air.
He turned at the sound of Kerenza’s quiet voice. Edmund’s younger sister had the same wavy dark hair and light-brown skin as Edmund and her mother’s delicate features. A single lock of vibrant green snaked through her hair, which was loose over her shoulders.
“Kerenza, what are you doing awake?”
“I could ask you the same question.” She smiled sadly and came closer, then sat on the edge of the fountain, her movements fluid and graceful, though it was the middle of the night. “You’re getting married in the morning. Aren’t you?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I?”
“And it’s because you still want to, right? Not because you have to.”
Arden glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to hear them. “Of course, I still want to. Why would I not want to marry Edmund?”
“Edmund told me he told you about…you know.”
Arden sighed and sat beside her. “He did.”
Kerenza was the youngest of the royal siblings, but she was as poised as Edmund. She smoothed her skirt. “We don’t talk about it, not really. It hurts that we couldn’t do anything to stop it.”
“You were only a child.”
“Edmund and Gareth were barely more than that.” Her voice dropped to a whisper on Gareth’s name. “Edmund tried to convince Father, to change his mind, but nothing he said worked.”
And Edmund, Gareth, and Kerenza had found out what their father was capable of. Arden knew better than most that rulers had to make difficult decisions, but what Torin had done…Arden couldn’t rationalize it.
“I miss him every day,” Kerenza whispered. “I don’t know what’s worse. He isn’t dead, but we don’t know where or how he is. Maybe he isn’t even alive. I never thought I’d see him again. I still might not.”
“We don’t know if we’ll be able to find him.” Though Arden prayed for Edmund and Kerenza’s sake that Gareth was alive to be found.
“I know.” She took a deep breath. “But right now, I want to make sure you and Edmund are all right.”
“I told you we are.”
“Yet you’re out here instead of with him.”
“Oh. Well. I just…” Had felt betrayed that Edmund hadn’t told him about Gareth sooner. Wasn’t it the type of thing Arden should’ve known? In all the time he and Edmund had spent together talking, learning about each other, shouldn’t this have come up? He was looking forward to a life with Edmund, to discovering more about him each day, but that Gareth was alive was more than a little quirk to discover.
And yet, how must Edmund have felt when Torin locked Gareth away? When Gareth ran? Edmund’s face loomed in his mind, his eyes drenched in misery. Arden’s heart broke again, and shame filled him at his selfishness. His own feelings were trivial compared to Edmund’s.
“I should go back to bed.” Arden needed to make sure Edmund was all right. He stood but hesitated. “Are you all right?”
“Fine.” Kerenza stood too and kissed his cheek. “Get some rest. It wouldn’t do for you to fall asleep during the ceremony.”
“No chance of that.”
Edmund had heard Arden leave their bed, but he hadn’t said anything. What was there to say? He’d shocked Arden with the knowledge Gareth hadn’t died, and maybe even hurt him by not telling him sooner.
He wasn’t entirely certain why he hadn’t, except he’d forced himself to not even think about Gareth from the beginning so he wouldn’t slip and reveal something he shouldn’t. Edmund wasn’t proud of it—in fact, he was sick at the thought. He was ashamed he hadn’t done more, ashamed he’d forced Gareth from his mind. Ashamed he’d hurt Arden in the process.
Gareth was gone, and he and Kerenza had begun almost to treat it as if gone really did mean dead. Perhaps that ashamed Edmund most of all.
Edmund stared up into the dark for a long time. It wasn’t how he’d expected to spend the night before his wedding to Arden. He’d expected to wrap himself around Arden in the pile of pillows that had found their way into the bed since Arden began sleeping here. He’d probably have woken up with Arden’s coppery curls in his face, and that would’ve been fine too.
Would Arden even come back to bed?
He scrubbed his hands over his face. He shouldn’t have let Arden go without saying something, without letting him know how sorry Edmund was for hurting him. They were getting married in the morning, not only because they loved each other but also to seal an alliance and mend a rift between two kingdoms caused by Arden’s sister. The alliance had originally called for Edmund to marry Hollis, but when she’d fallen for a ruse casting blame on Edmund for an assassination attempt against her, it had fallen apart. Arden had saved him from execution and had offered himself in Hollis’s place, something he and Edmund were quite pleased with, since somewhere along the way they’d fallen in love.
Edmund distracted himself for a while trying to pinpoint the moment he’d fallen in love with Arden, but he couldn’t quite find it. He could remember clearly the moment he’d felt a first rush of attraction toward Arden, but the emotion was harder to pin down. Perhaps because it had been a gradual slide—a connection deepening over time into enduring friendship and love. He didn’t want to ever do anything to damage that bond.
The door opened quietly, and Edmund sat straight up. Arden crept through and pulled up short, the abrupt movement just visible in the small amount of light filtering in from outside the bedchamber door.
“Oh. I didn’t mean to wake you.”
“I’ve been awake. I heard you get up,” Edmund said. “I wasn’t sure if you wanted company.”
Arden sagged a bit. He closed the door, leaving them in the insulating darkness of a room lit only by a dying fire. “I didn’t then, but I was wrong. I shouldn’t have left you alone either.”
Edmund let out a shuddering breath. He watched as Arden undressed without bothering to go into the dressing room, divesting himself of the clothes he’d pulled on when he left the bed and changing back into his sleep clothes. “Where did you go?”
“Took a walk around the wing. I needed to move, be out.”
If it hadn’t been cold and night, Arden probably would have gone for a ride. Riding was his way of feeling free and clearing his head, Edmund had learned. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner.”
Arden was still for a long moment, then walked to the bed and climbed in. He pressed himself to Edmund’s side. “I know.”
Edmund put an arm around Arden. Relief washed through him when Arden snuggled closer. “I would have told you. I just…didn’t think to yet.”
Arden nudged Edmund until he was lying down and then lay with his head on Edmund’s shoulder, dragging the blankets up over them as he did. Edmund wrapped his arms around Arden, holding him close. Just that much was an indescribable comfort.
“I wanted to march to Torin and demand to know how he could do such a thing,” Arden said after a few moments, his words quiet but vibrating with fury. “But nothing he could have said would’ve satisfied me. No one should do that to a child.”
“I tried to convince him not to, that he didn’t have to. He wouldn’t listen.” Edmund hated to remember those first days, the way he’d pleaded with Father and was punished for it until he’d realized it was a lost cause and stopped. It had been the only way he’d managed to see Gareth at all.
“Edmund, you were only…what? Sixteen? You tried. I’m sure you tried everything you could think of.” Arden’s arms tightened around him, strong and comforting. “What happened wasn’t your fault. It was Torin’s fault for even thinking to treat Gareth the way he did.”
So many years of knowing he should’ve done more couldn’t be undone so easily, but Edmund let himself be soothed. “I’m glad you didn’t go wake him up and yell at him.”
It would have been something to see, though, even if it would have made everything difficult. Which was quite the understatement.
Arden sighed. “It wouldn’t have helped. I would’ve felt better while I was doing it, though.”
Edmund chuckled. “Probably. I would’ve enjoyed seeing it.”
“I don’t know that I’ll ever look at Torin the same way again, knowing he could do this.” Arden’s words were quiet, but they went straight to Edmund’s heart.
“I haven’t seen him the same since it happened. I haven’t forgiven him.”
“I know, love.” Arden pressed a kiss to Edmund’s shoulder.
Edmund nuzzled into Arden’s curls, resting his cheek there and breathing Arden in. “Are we doing the right thing, looking for Gareth? Asking him to come back? Father has never expressed one bit of remorse that I’ve seen. Even if he had, it’s wrong to ask Gareth to come back to someone who did something so horrible to him.”
“We don’t have to. I could write to some magic wielders I trust and see if any of them can recommend a Fire Affinity to us.”
Edmund wasn’t surprised Arden had been thinking about it too. “Will we be able to find someone trustworthy? And in time? I worry about letting just anyone into our confidence. This is so important, and if a spy from Tycen got in and sabotaged everything…”
“I know.” Arden moved fractionally closer. “There are people I trust to ask, but we’ll have to be careful with any names they send us anyway.”
Gareth was their best option—if he could be found, if he even wanted to help them after all Father had done. But could Edmund subject him to whatever would happen on his return? “I don’t know what to do.”
“We could try both. He’s your brother, and I won’t stand for him being hurt. I won’t stand for you being hurt either.” Arden’s voice whispered in the darkness, a vow. “I wish I’d been here then, known you then, so I could have stood by you. Or perhaps just yelled at Torin all those years ago.”
The corners of Edmund’s mouth turned up at the sentiment. Arden was far too diplomatic to yell, but he could see Arden having words for Father, then and now. He rather wished he’d known Arden then too, for Arden’s very presence, something so necessary to him now. “Thank you, sweet.”
“There’s no saying we’ll even be able to find Gareth at all if we do look for him, or that he’ll want to come back. We can’t force him, and we shouldn’t,” Arden said after a moment.
“I never would.” Edmund laughed. It felt good, and painful at the same time. “I couldn’t if I wanted to. Gareth could never be made to do something he didn’t want to do even when he was a child. He was so stubborn. I can’t imagine that would have changed. I think he was born obstinate.”
Arden chuckled. “I look forward to meeting him someday, even if it isn’t for this. Will you tell me about him?”
Warmth moved through Edmund in a gentle wave, soothing more of the ache surrounding the hole in his life Gareth had left. “Whatever you’d like to know.”
“Oh, everything, but tonight, tell me a story of Gareth’s stubbornness when you were children.” Arden raised up enough to brush a light kiss over Edmund’s lips, before settling his head back down against Edmund’s shoulder. “Tell me a bedtime story, and then we’ll sleep and wake up on our wedding day. I’m very much looking forward to marrying you.”