Ariel Durkee

The Equinox Festival

Today was the day he would tell his secret. Avedis knew it in the dark before the sun rose, lying in his bed wrapped against the brisk, refreshing chill of new autumn. He knew it days before, when Virendra had quietly leaned over during supper to remind him of the Equinox Festival. He had never hidden anything from his twin before, and it was eating him up inside.

He heard the soft click of his door opening, the soft padding of boots on the marble floor that would be ice underneath bare feet. The footsteps stopped next to his bed, and there was a rustle of fabric.

“You don’t need to do that, I’m already awake,” Avedis said flatly, and a deflated sigh came from the darkness.

“Aw, come on,” Virendra complained, tossing his pillow-weapon onto the bed. “What are you already doing awake anyways? I always wake you up, lazy.”

“Whatever,” Avedis said, bracing himself against the cold as his brother yanked off the blankets. He hadn’t slept a wink, so there had been no waking to do.

“Get up! It’s time to go if we don’t want to get caught.”

“I’m up, I’m up.” He watched as his brother scurried from the room, giving him space to dress. He had his clothes ready, tucked secretly underneath the bed, and pulled the warm layers on as fast as he could; Avedis hated the cold. It made him feel every more anxious than he already did.

He finished lacing his boots just as Virendra returned. Even in the unlit room, the young prince’s grey eyes sparkled with excitement, absorbing whatever light in the room they could. “Equinox Festival,” Virendra whispered, and pushed past Avedis to the window that would lead them from the confines of the castle to the outside world. He opened it, and a burst of wind stormed into the room.

Today is the day I will tell him, Avedis thought, the wind making his eyes water as he climbed out the window, over a small precipice and into the tunnel built in the walls of the palace.

Once on solid ground, the princes set off along a familiar path through the woods, traveling deeper as the sun began to rise. After a while they could hear the sounds of the Festival, which had gone on all through the night, drifting towards them. Usually he felt a sense of new beginning in this place, a season of shedding old leaves so that new ones can grow in spring, but this time Avedis was tense, nervous, unable to focus on the amazing colors, smells, and sounds as they approached the makeshift gates. A painted man at the doors took their money, and admitted the hooded young boys without a second glance.

“What do you think Mah and Da would do if they knew we went to this every year?” Virendra asked his brother, gratefully accepting a cup of bright red berries that stained his lips and fingers when he ate.

“I think they would lock us in our rooms for the rest of our lives. Well, they’d lock you in your room, and probably just toss me out.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t toss you out,” Virendra said. “Have a little faith in them.”

“Why should I. They have no faith in me,” Avedis said. His brother was the only person that had ever had any faith in him, during their eleven short years of life, and although Virendra didn’t know, that faith was teetering on the edge of existence. All it would take was the admission, a few words, and everything might change. Even knowing that, Avedis knew in his bones that he must reveal the truth. They were not true brothers with secrets between them.

“What’s with them, anyway? I don’t understand why they blame you for everything. Even when I try and take the blame they ignore me.” As he spoke his eyes wandered, glittering, taking in the baubles, sculptures, carvings, magic tools, food stands, and everything else that was for sale at the Equinox Festival. He couldn’t get enough of it, all the wonderful variety and color. It was the opposite of life in the palace, so confined and mundane, each day the same as the next.

“It’s because you’re the first born and heir to the throne, and I’m second born, worth nothing unless you die. They don’t want to be sour at you because then you’ll turn out sour, so they put it all on me.” Avedis watched the vendors as they walked past, but found nothing that caught his eye.

“Maybe we should both talk to them. Sort this all out, like a proper family,” Virendra offered, and when he smiled at his brother, Avedis only rolled his eyes.

“It’s fine, Virendra. That’s just how it is. Maybe someday I can get them to love me.” The words were ash in his mouth. Knowing what he knew now about himself, it was no question as to whether his parents would love him someday, but rather, if they would tolerate him, allow him to continue being their son, continue living in the palace.

“I love you,” he said matter of factly, stuffing the rest of the berries into his mouth. “It doesn’t matter what Mah and Da think, just do what you like. Do exciting things to make yourself happy. You know, I think you should take a risk today. Do something crazy. I know it will make you happier.”

Avedis’ pulse quickened when, for half a moment, he almost took the opportunity to tell. He hesitated, and faltered, though, and in the next moment Virendra’s small hand was wrapped around his wrist, pulling him forward to some unknown destination. Second thoughts filtered in; was it really worth what might come if Virendra knew about the change in him? The King and Queen would be livid, disappointed, disgusted. Their whole lives they had been taught to hate people like the one Avedis had become.

No, he thought, I must tell him. He deserves to know.

When they stopped moving, they were in a dense crowd, hips and elbows of grown men and women, mostly men, blocking the view of the stage.

“What’s happening?” Avedis asked, and Virendra stood on his tip-toes.

“Um… there’s a lady up there. I think I see fire.” He reached for Avedis’ arm again. “Let’s get up front, I want to see what she’s doing.” The boys elbowed their way to the front, ignoring the frowns of disapproval. They found a spot with just enough room for a clear view of the stage. Virendra gasped when he saw the woman, and Avedis felt his blood run cold, his throat tighten.

She was a vision, dancing, her skirts spinning out in different colors as she was engulfed in bright red fire that singed neither cloth nor skin. The fire originated from her palms, bursting forth in flickering twirls. When the sorceress came to a sudden halt, the flames swirled upwards in strands, twisting together before dissipating over her head. The crowd, mostly men, cheered and clapped as she bowed low, curls of hair touching the stage. The Equinox Festival was a place free from prejudice; performers of all talents, sizes, shapes, colors, and calibers were allowed, and encouraged. When she stood, her copper eyes trailed over the faces looking up at her, and came to rest upon those of the princelings.

“Thank you everyone,” she said in a voice smooth as smoke, “thank you.”

Virendra let go of the breath he’d been holding when she finally looked away. “A sorceress,” he mumbled, “Da would be so mad.” Even so, Avedis could see the hint of reservation in his eyes, knowing he was doing bad just by being in the presence of a mage.

“I am thinking I would very much like to bring someone up here with me, a volunteer, if you will,” she said, striding a few steps to one side of the stage. She then came back, towards Avedis and Virendra, and the latter began to jostle his brother.

“Come on Avedis,” he said, “this is what I was talking about.”

“I’m not going up there,” Avedis hissed, his insides turning from ice to fire.

“Someone, anyone?” Several of the men in the crowd raised their hands, waving desperately. The woman slowed, stopped. One finger was to her chin, tapping as she surveyed the crowd. “Ah, what about you, Prince Avedis?”

The crowd hushed as faces started turning, searching among them for royalty. Avedis grabbed his brother’s arm roughly, “We need to go, now.”

But in the next moment he was being hurried away, led to the platform where the sorceress awaited. The boy went to her with his back stiff, eyes alert, panic steadily rising, hands trembling.

The sorceress leaned down and said something to him that was too quiet for the crowd’s ears. Avedis trembled, and when he found Virendra’s gaze, he knew his brother now understood, that he could feel the all consuming terror.

“As you all know, in humans, fire is the most common manifestation of the Vitesta, our Life Force, the Energy Within All Things. It burns from the fingertips of those powerful enough to harness and control its strength; every great mage of our time has mastered the flame. I am no master myself, only a humble performer that loves magic, and a seer of things to come. There is someone among us, though, who will someday be not just master of the flame, but the king.” She turned to the boy at her side, a knowing smile on her brown face.

Virendra’s heart raced along with Avedis’. They found each other’s eyes again and again, black and grey, two halves of a shivering, confused, and terrified whole.

“Make fire, Prince,” said the sorceress.

“I can’t,” Avedis lied, “I don’t know how.”

She smiled, “you do.” The woman pressed her thumb to Avedis’ forehead, between his eyes, a fleeting touch as her lips moved to form ancient, silent words.

It was as if something had been kickstarted inside him, a surge of energy like he’d never felt, and violet flame surged forth, covering his hands, fingers, and forearms. His mouth went dry, and instead of his heart racing, it seemed to stop when he saw his brother, looking up at him with his mouth hanging open, eyes glazed with fear. As quickly as he had conjured the fire, Avedis doused it. Virendra was already running when he looked again, buffeting through the crowd that now shouted at him, honoring him, some grabbing for his black robes to beg favor.

He looked up at the sorceress, who was smiling, her arms crossed over her chest. He did all he could to hold back the tears, fighting the feeling of emptiness, loneliness like acid in his stomach.

 

Avedis jumped down from the platform to chase after him, but the crowd was too thick. It was early afternoon by the time he found Virendra, sitting underneath a tree outside of the festival grounds, in a spot clearly visible along the path home. Avedis carefully approached, feeling brittle as fallen autumn twigs. The one person he’d always been able to go to, to love without fear of rejection, to confide his every thought, feeling, and secret, now could not even look at him. He knew it was over. They might walk home together, act as if things are fine in front of their parents…but on the inside, everything would be changed.

Virendra did not meet his eye when Avedis sat cross-legged in front of him. For a while they were silent. An orange leaf lost hold of its branch and floated down, swinging side to side before landing silently between them.

“You’re a sorcerer,” Virendra said, his voice hoarse.

“I’m sorry. I meant to tell you today. I was waiting for the right moment.”

Virendra shook his head. “Well, you got it. Happy now?”

“No.”

They fell silent again. The chasm opened in Avedis’ chest. He may as well have been sitting alone there, crushing leaves in his hand. A biting breeze was testament to how he felt, and he stood, ready to go home and accept the crushing weight of what was to come. Word would spread now, through the nation, of what he was, who he was. His parents would be among the first to know.

His foot was heavy as stone when he took his first step.

“Avedis.” Virendra stood as well, brushing off his breeches. “It’s going to be bad, you know; Mah, Da, the whole country.”

“I know.”

“It’s going to be okay, though. I’ll be here with you, now matter how horrible it is. I promise.”

 

Ariel Durkee

A.J. Dodge is an interdisciplinary artist currently finishing her fourth and final year at Montserrat College of Art. Although she dabbles in painting, drawing, and sculpture, writing is her true passion, and for the past two years she has been working on a set of fantasy novels known as the Ismenara series. She hopes her writing can help those that read it rediscover the fire they have inside.

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