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Infinity's End

The Break of Day

Part Two - Chapter Three

February 2nd, 1985

Kieran anxiously watched his pocket watch, waiting for the seconds to tick down to quitting time. Any normal day and he was eager to spend hours upon hours in his lab, wasting the day away. But not today. Nope.

He and Azriel had plans. Big plans. Azriel was going to show him another festival, one Kieran read about in the book Azriel gave him. Imbolc. It was a festival that marked the beginning of spring, ushering in the dawn of new life.

It was still freezing outside, which made it difficult to believe spring was here, but Kieran was too excited for this. Every time Azriel showed him some new celebration, he felt the trust between them growing deeper.

Two more minutes.

He stared at his watch, willing it to go faster.

“Ever heard the saying, ‘a watched watch won't work’?” His labmate, Eryis, leaned over the partition dividing their shared space. Amusement curled his thin lips. His light caramel skin hinted of distant relation to the Misae, but his smirk was all Jeode.

Kieran kept tracking the steady tick-tick-tick of the second hand. “Time moves at the same rate no matter what our psychologies tell us. Besides, I don't think that's how the idiom goes.”

Eryis laughed. “Must you correct me on everything?”

The hand struck six. Kieran leapt to his feet in triumph.

“Only on what you get wrong,” he replied with a wink and look that was all too smug.

Eryis was older and thought himself Kieran's better, but he hadn't been studying science and mathematics before he could walk. When it came down to it, Kieran was the master and Eryis the apprentice.

His labmate rolled his eyes. “You are insufferable, Azura brat.”

“It's part of my charm.” Kieran shoved himself into his coat and scarf before thrusting his feet into his boots. “Don't wait up for me, sweetcheeks. I've got a hot date tonight.”

Eryis straightened. He folded his arms over the stop of the partition as he watched Kieran whirl like a dervish, scattering schematics in his wake.

“We're never going to get this assignment done if you keep flaking out on me.”

Kieran waved a hand over his shoulder. “My desk, second drawer. I've had that schematic done for a week now. Have fun!” He wriggled his fingers and rushed toward the door.

If Eryis called after him, Kieran didn't hear it. He was too eager to make his escape. Azriel was expecting him, and the last thing Kieran wanted was to be late.

Three floors, three sets of stairs, and many moments spent ducking behind partitions and Kieran was out of the Jeode main building. A particularly harsh winter bombarded him in the face, but he endured, just glad that the snow was finally gone. It left mud in its wake, but that was better than the alternative.

Azriel waited for him, dark circles underlining his eyes. This was to be expected. He must have lost some sleep in order to share this ceremony with Kieran.

“Are you ready?” he asked as Kieran all but bounced toward him.

His friend grinned. “More than. Where are we going? What are we doing? Will there be food?”

A chuckle escaped from Azriel. “All will be explained in due time. For now, we’ll be exiting from the east gate.”

As it was before curfew, no one would question their desire to head into the forest.

Kieran nodded frantically. It was hard to keep his excitement in check.

“And after that? Or can we not say it aloud?”

“We are heading to Mapleston,” Azriel said, giving him an amused look as they joined the crowds of people filling Grayshire's streets. Luckily, they were already close to the gate.

Kieran scrunched his nose. “I've never heard of it.”

“It’s a small village, more residential than anything else. There are a few trades; they survive on trade and barter.”

That sounded interesting. The only time Kieran ever left Meropis was when Azriel invited him on one of his jaunts. There was so much more beyond the walls of Grayshire. Different cultures, thoughts, customs. Not much science though. It made Kieran itch to create.

“What do they trade?”

“Mostly handmade goods. They’re artisans. Weavers, carvers, and the like.”

“Weavers? Like tapestries?”

Kieran's interest perked further. His mother's birthday was coming up, and she had a fondness for weavings. She wouldn't turn her nose up at something Kieran hadn't bought in a Grayshire store either. She had an eye for the unique and beautiful, no matter its origin.

Azriel nodded. “I'll make sure to show you some.”

Kieran rubbed his hands together, though it caused static to build between his gloves. “Great. Mama would love a new one.”

“Of course.”

They reached the east gate. It was guarded, such was the standard, but unblocked. The soldiers were there to prevent the possible incursion of dangerous animals or Merihem, not that any had been seen so close to Grayshire walls in centuries. Millennia maybe. Only in Moriarty were the people scrutinized so carefully. The nobles of Grayshire didn't like the village peasants infesting their precious city, after all.

It helped, Kieran thought, that he was with Azriel. While his friend wasn't well-known at a glance, Kieran was pretty distinctive. Most of the Azura or Jeode were. Not to mention, there were few people in Grayshire who wore glasses, and it was kind of a rule that the general populace be familiar with the seven heads of the main houses and their heirs. Something that had probably saved several necks over the years. Quite literally in a few cases.

Beyond the gates, Kieran all but felt Azriel breathe a little easier. The trees remained in thick clusters, but stripped of their leaves, winter left the forest feeling a bit lifeless. Save for the evergreens, of course. The thick pines and firs were spots of green in the blur of brown.

“Now do I get my explanation?” Kieran asked as the last of humanity was finally out of sight.

“Imbolc,” Azriel responded as if the one word explained everything. “You've read all the stories I gave you, yes?”

“I didn't memorize them.”

Kieran huffed, but he dutifully tried to remember the collection of folklore. The book was one of his carefully guarded secrets. He read a story from it nearly every night, and he cherished it. He couldn't let his parents see though. Most definitely not Marduk. So he kept it in his laboratory.

Imbolc had to do with spring and beginnings. That was what he remembered. It was different from Ostara, which celebrated the joy of new life, the awakening of the land and life from the deep sleep of winter. Ostara had to do with people and reproduction. Imbolc with the harvest if he remembered correctly.

“It celebrates spring,” Kieran said finally.

“Close enough.” Amusement twined through Azriel's aether. “It’s the ceremony that invites the return of spring. It signifies the beginning of a new year, not astronomically but seasonally. It’s a time for purification, readying the land and the people to begin anew.”

Kieran nodded. “Right. I kind of remember something about that. But is there going to be food?”

The sound of Azriel laughter was one of the best in the world in his opinion.

“Yes, Kieran, there will be food. Of all flavors.”

“What else?”

“Candle lighting ceremonies. The traditional hunt. And cleaning.”

He made a face before he could stop himself. “Cleaning?”

“Relax. I won't make you take part in that. But yes, if this were your home, you'd be expected to clean it top to bottom.” Azriel folded his arms into his robes. “I've already done so for mine.”

Kieran stepped around a muddy puddle, though he would have loved to splash around in it for a while. He was getting too old for such frivolities.

“Why didn't you tell me? I could’ve helped.”

“Judging by your reaction earlier,” Azriel commented, “I didn't think you would have wanted to.”

Kieran waved a dismissing hand. “I don't want to clean some stranger's house, but I like helping you. I like learning about these things.”

Every time Azriel trusted him with another ritual he wasn't supposed to know about, or showed him these pieces of folklore, Kieran's insides warmed with affection. Azriel trusted him. To Kieran, that was worth more than all the presents in the world.

Azriel didn't even tell Titania about this stuff. Speaking of...

“Is Imbolc one of those things that His Holiness disapproves of?” he questioned softly.

Azriel rolled his shoulders, brown eyes dark with contemplation. “By half. The candle-lighting ceremony is filled with prayers to the gods of the harvest, so yes. But since there is nothing religious about the cleaning and the feasts, they are allowed by Grayshire.”

“Why didn't you bring Titania then?”

Azriel blinked. “What?”

“If it's nothing that'll get us into trouble, then you could have brought Titania.” Kieran shrugged. “You'll have to start telling her about this stuff eventually.”

To his surprise, Azriel's gaze wandered away. He looked troubled, possibly confused.

“I couldn't have brought her without explaining other things. I'm unsure of her reaction.”

“You've been dating for years,” Kieran said, his brow furrowing. “You mean you haven't told her anything?”

“I haven't felt that I could.” A small sigh escaped his best friend.

Kieran's jaw dropped. Literally. Azriel had barely known him for a few months before showing him the forbidden Samhain celebration. Oh, the baking yams and talks of costuming were nothing new, but the prayer? The small fire?

Yet, Azriel couldn't tell his lover of several years?

“What did you say about today then?”

Again, Azriel's discomfort became obvious. If it were possible for a man to attempt hiding in his winter attire, Azriel was doing so.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

Kieran was aghast. He, at least, had told Harper that he'd be with Azriel and not to bother looking for him. Not that they were attached at the hip or anything, but generally, whenever Harper wasn't out on a mission, they were together. And with that new unit they'd assigned Harper to, she was gone more often than not nowadays.

Harper hadn't protested. She'd just given him a funny smile, waved him off, and told him to have fun.

Azriel gave him a look of genuine confusion.

“Is she supposed to know where I am every second of every day?”

“No, but...” Kieran trailed off. “Never mind. Everybody's relationship is different, I guess.” He looked around pointedly. “How much further to Mapleston?”

“Still a while yet.”

Azriel hadn't been kidding. It took them the better part of an hour of trekking through the woods to get to there. Kieran heard it before he saw it, the sound of flutes and panpipes and drums filling the air. Excitement surged within him, and he only vaguely noticed that they were now starting to pass houses nestled along the road. He practically galloped out of the forest and into the village proper.

It really was small. Kieran could make out thirty, maybe forty, houses all crowded around each other. But there was laughter and music and the smell of baking bread heavy in the air. Despite the chill and the mud, everyone seemed to be having a good time. Paper flowers and lanterns decorated were strung across the main thoroughfare in bright bursts of color, as though inviting spring to return.

Kieran's stomach grumbled.

“Food first?” Azriel inquired with a teasing note to his voice.

“Please.”

Kieran pressed a hand to his belly. He'd been too excited to eat lunch, and it was past time for his after-work snack. After an hour's walk, he was starving.

Azriel chuckled and directed him to a handmade pavilion, little more than a bunch of sturdy poles and several stitched clothes spread across. It was big enough for the entire population of Mapleston to fit beneath, and the villagers had opted to forgo chairs, leaving only enough tables to display the food and little else.

They were so friendly, too!

Everywhere Kieran looked, people were smiling at him, greeting him, even though it was obvious he was a stranger. In a small village like this, they had to know each other by sight. Yet, they welcomed him with open arms.

“Help yourself!” one older woman ordered, crow's feet wrinkling her tanned features, her eyes bright and open. She gestured to a table piled high with freshly sliced bread and jars upon jars of what had to be homemade jellies.

Kieran's mouth watered.

“Is there any significance?” he asked as he selected slices of sourdough and rye and pumpernickel, slathering them in blackberry jam and orange marmalade and some kind of hazelnut blend. “To the food, I mean.”

Azriel nodded, sparing in his selections but taking part nonetheless. “All of the jams were prepared last year. In using crops from last year, we invite the crops from this year to be equally fruitful.”

“Mm. Sounds good,” Kieran said. Or tried to but he had a mouthful of jam that was just the perfect mix of sweet and tart.

Chuckling at him, Azriel led Kieran out of the crowd and to the edges, where they could enjoy their food in peace. Azriel, eating less than Kieran, took the opportunity to explain more in depth.

“The candle lighting will be at dusk,” Azriel continued, gesturing toward the far end of Mapleston, down the main thoroughfare.

Kieran rose on his tiptoes, able to see something set up in the distance. There also looked to be a great, flat expanse. A field of some kind maybe.

“What do they grow out there?” he asked, making a gesture to the flat ground.

“It's a lake, Kieran,” Azriel corrected with a snort. “Albeit a small one. It’s deep, however, fed by several underground springs.”

“Really?” He stuffed a piece of rye into his mouth. From what he could see, the lake was still frozen over. He wondered if he could walk on it.

Azriel finished off the last of his bread and brushed the crumbs from his gloves. He folded up his handkerchief and tucked it into his pocket.

“This time of year, I wouldn't recommend walking on it,” the brunet said, catching the look on his face. “But we can come back again in December. It's thick enough then for skating.”

Kieran grinned. He'd never done that before.

“Sounds like fun.” He stuffed the last of his own bread into his mouth, tucking away his handkerchief. “If we have to wait until sundown, what are we going to do until then?”

“Shop,” Azriel answered, though it was said with a resigned air. “You mentioned finding something for your mother?”

Kieran threaded his arm through Azriel's, tugging his friend against him. “I did. A tapestry. But I'm open to anything.”

“Good.” Azriel stumbled but allowed Kieran to walk in step with him. “Part of Imbolc for the residents is that they open their homes to visitors to display their crafts. It's why they are so friendly and why there are more people here than actually live here.”

Kieran had noticed that the village was rather crowded. There were far more people in the streets and under the pavilion than could possible live in the village proper or the surrounding houses. But if there were visitors from nearby towns, then that would make sense.

“They don't worry about thieves?”

“Not here. People tend to look out for each other. They have little enough as it is.” Azriel's voice turned contemplative. “By selling it out of their own homes, they avoid the merchant taxes charged by the shops in Grayshire.”

They entered the first house, and Kieran lost his grip on Azriel out of sheer delight. Everywhere he looked was colored glass, obviously crafted by hand and not by machine as often the case in Grayshire. There were figurines and vases and wind chimes and tea sets and even more things that would decorate a home or provide a functional use.

There was even a little owl, brown streaks through the clear glass to mimic feathers and inset with a brilliant yellow stone for eyes. It reminded him so much of Gwydion that Kieran had to have it. He picked it up carefully, finger tracing the smooth glass, and looked over his shoulder. Azriel was admiring a wind chime, one hand lifting to gently tap the lower-most piece. A gentle sound spilled into the house.

Kieran strode up to him. “Find something you like?”

“Mother loves chimes,” Azriel murmured more to himself. “In case you didn't notice, we must have a dozen or so in the garden. It's quite the racket in the middle of spring.”

“Can I help you, gentlemen?”

Kieran turned at the question. He offered a smile to the lovely young woman grinning at them in return.

“I'd like to buy this,” he said, holding up the palm-sized owl he carried. “And those chimes, too.”

“Kieran.”

He ignored Azriel.

“Both of them,” he repeated. “No matter what the gloomy man behind me says.”

The woman bowed. “Very well. Would you like them wrapped as gifts?” She moved past them, rising up on her tiptoes to unhook the chime from the ceiling.

“Just as purchases,” Kieran said, already reaching for his coin pouch. He tossed Azriel a smug look. “I'll let you wrap it for her yourself.”

Azriel's mouth moved, but he said nothing. His shoulders slumped in resignation.

The woman inclined her head, carefully taking the chimes with her to a small station, where she proceeded to wrap it in tissue paper before placing it in a basket. She reached for Kieran's owl and doing the same for it. So long as he didn't trip on their way home, both pieces should survive the journey.

“Thank you for your patronage. My name is Jessy,” she mentioned as they traded coin for the basket. “I make everything here by hand, and I also accept commissions. Feel free to return.”

“Oh, we will,” Kieran announced and took the basket. “Everything here is beautiful.”

A hint of red graced her cheeks and she bowed again That was the only reason she didn’t see Kieran smirk. It was always nice to charm others, even if he did have Harper already.

They left; Kieran tucked the basket under his arm with care.

“Where to next?”

“You didn't have to do that.”

Kieran shifted his gaze to Azriel. Only to find his friend staring at the basket as though he wasn't sure what it was.

“I know. I wanted to. Simple as that.”

An exasperated sigh escaped Azriel. “It's never that simple,” he murmured, but he tipped his head toward the next house. “They sell tapestries.”

“Then let's go.” Kieran grinned and started forward. That was only to scuttle back, grab Azriel's arm, and pull him along. “How do you know so much about Mapleston anyway?”

“I used to visit the villages a lot. Not since I graduated Conservatory, but enough that I’m familiar with their customs,” Azriel explained.

“Sounds like fun,” Kieran said.

He rarely left Grayshire. More than that, he barely left Azura manor or his laboratory. Until he met Azriel, all he ever did was go from one noble manor to the next or hide out in his laboratory.

He swore it's been like a whole new world since the moment they made friends.

“It is,” Azriel said, and he paused as though considering something. “I'll take you to see them. One by one. I mean, if you want.”

Kieran nearly bounced in excitement.

“I do want!” he declared. “And I'll hunt you down if you don't follow through with your promise.”

“I know you would,” Azriel replied, and his lips twitched. “But for now, let us finish our exploration of this one, yes?”

“Sure.” Kieran grinned.

After all, he still had a present to find for his mother. Maybe for Harper, too. Azriel always had the best ideas.

***

Cassandra Smith writing as Nicole Wilkinson
Copyright 2006-2016
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