The music in the back of the tavern was the kind that dragged in people and motion and sound. It held them tight, wove them into a knot that filled the room and pushed against the walls, slipping and growing and always trying to come undone. Dancing pairs spun out from the center, close enough together to trade partners just by turning around. Conversations layered one on top of the other, so that listeners turned their ears toward the speaker to catch an uninterrupted sentence. Terius held a chair in the back corner, shielded by a half table on one side, and he still couldn’t escape the heat and jostle of the crowd.
He could have, if he’d wanted to. The taproom at the front of the tavern, up a half dozen steps from the dance floor, was open, populated by more serious drinkers and thinkers. He would have fit in just fine there, trading stories with strangers and pulling slow sips from his mug, but he didn’t feel out 0f place here. He tapped his heel with the music and drank deep. He smiled away the apologies of the people who tripped over his foot and gave a hand to anyone who looked unsteady enough to need it as they scooted around the edge of the room.
And his friends were there, somewhere, whirling in the middle of the crowd. Terius was content to stay where he was. He drained his mug and set it back down, leaning his head against the wall behind him, smiling.
His cousin, Zain ducked out of the crowd after a few minutes. He had taken off his jacket, and he dropped it over the back of the chair on the other side of the table before he sank into the seat himself. There was a sheen of sweat under the collar of his shirt, from the dancing and the closeness of the room.
“Hey,” he said, flashing at grin at Terius. He snatched up the second mug waiting for him on the table and tilted it back.
Terius glanced away, scanning the room for Jaera. The crowd split at the right moment for him to catch her, spinning under the arm of one of the locals. She was smiling – not the wide, wild smile she had given Zain as they danced earlier, but a comfortable one. She laughed when she missed a step, unused to the stranger’s frills on the dance, and then disappeared again behind the whirling wall of dancers.
“So what’s it going to take to pry you out of this corner?” Zain asked. He set his mug back down with a thunk.
Terius looked at him. He settled back against the wall. “I’m always open to bribes.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of a pitchfork,” Zain said and mimed sticking the tool into Terius’ chest and throwing him into the center of the room.
Zain flicked the handle of his empty mug. “You want another?”
Zain picked up both cups and started the slow trip through the crowd, up the stairs and over to the bar. Terius waited, watching the dancers come to a halt at the end of the song, mill on the hum of voices for a moment, then sink into a new rhythm when the fiddler broke the next song open. He caught sight of Jaera again, lifted into the air on the first skirl of the song. She had a new partner, and her hands were taut on his shoulders, surprised at the sudden air. But she laughed on the way down.
Zain elbowed his way back to Terius, the crowd giving him a wider path now that he had a full drink in each hand. He handed one off to Terius, licked the foam off his finger where it had run over the side, and sat again. He spun in his seat, turning his back to the room to face Terius earnestly.
“So, I say, we drink,” Zain said. “If I finish mine first, you get up and dance. If you finish yours first, you get to stay here like a sad nuck. And to make it fair, I already drained one at the bar. Ready?” He raised his mug to his lips.
Terius blinked. “I’m going to be carrying you home tonight, aren’t I?”
Zain snorted against the rim of his mug and put it down hurriedly. Wiping his mouth on the back of his wrist, he nodded toward Terius’ cup. “You’re losing, mate.”
“I’m fine here.”
“Get back to your girl.”
Zain paused, tilting his head slowly. He opened his mouth to say something, then looked down, then twisted to look over his shoulder. It took him half a minute to find Jaera and he watched her for another long moment before he finally looked back. Terius smiled to himself and took a drink.
“She’s pretty,” Zain murmured.
Terius nodded. “She is.”
“Smarter than me,” Zain said.
“And that smile…” Zain took a deep breath.
“Makes the sun look like a poor man’s lantern,” Terius said.
“Wow.” Zain shook his head. Terius caught the grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, though he tried to cover it by bringing his mug back to his mouth. “I thought you were sweet on her, but that’s darn near poetry.”
“Sounded like one of your compliments to me,” Terius said.
“Shut up,” Zain said. “Stop trying to be the bigger man, and listen. I know you like her. And her and me… She doesn’t want me, and I don’t want her.”
Terius smiled wryly. “I’ve seen the two of you together…”
“Well, good. At least you’re not denying that you like her.” Zain took a drink and set his mug down between them purposefully. “Jaera and I are friends.”
“Right.” Terius crossed his arms over the table top.
Zain leaned forward, crossing his arms as well. “Friends.”
“You said that already,” Terius said.
“Yeah, well, you’ve told me before that sometimes my explanations make you believe me less, so I’m just sticking with the flat truth,” Zain said. “And, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve had a little to drink.”
“Right,” Terius murmured. “So, when you two stay up all night with your heads glued together, planning how to dye your brother’s favorite hound pink, that’s called…”
“A prank?” Zain said. “Don’t tell me I haven’t given you enough examples for you to know what they look like.” He paused. “Or do. Please tell me you need me to pull more.”
Terius shook his head. “And when the two of you disappear for the whole day to get it done?”
“That’s a prank gone horribly, horribly wrong,” Zain told him with wide eyes.
“And coming back, laughing every time you look at each other?”
“And then miraculously working out in the end,” Zain told him earnestly. “That dog dyed itself, I swear.”
Terius continued quickly. “And hiding my boots over the side of the ship? Changing the covers on all of the Rev’s books so he started reading instructions for starving out a siege in morning service? Ripping out the seams in Lainan’s trousers so that he walks around all day showing everyone the color of his long johns?”
“That was his fault for not noticing when he put them on,” Zain said.
“How about we count the number of times you two have snuck off ship for the night,” Terius said. “Or the number of street fights you’ve accidentally gotten caught in, or the number of punishment shifts you’ve shared?”
Zain shook his head. “If that’s your idea of romance, we’ve got to talk.”
“The two of you fit,” Terius said. Zain paused at the tone of his voice, watched him, leaned in close to catch what he had to say next. “I don’t. I’m not as wild as either of you, and when you’re together…” Terius shook his head and let out a breath. “You walk into a room and it’s yours, doesn’t matter what else is in it. You put your minds to a plan, and it’s done. You decide to light the entire world on fire, and there’s nothing that can stop you two.” He paused before he continued, unsure if he could say the rest loud enough to be heard in a room this noisy. “And the way she smiles at you, when it’s all over… I would give everything I had for one of those smiles.”
Zain nodded slowly without looking at Terius, thinking something, and it was impossible to say what. Terius glanced at the crowd, letting the moment pass, letting it slide away so that something else could be said.
“Here’s the thing…” Zain said, almost too low for him to hear. Terius leaned toward him again. “She doesn’t want me. That makes it easy to smile at me. It doesn’t mean a thing. But she wants you.”
Terius shook his head immediately. “No,” he told him. “She doesn’t even look at me most of the time. She–”
“Because looking would be asking,” Zain said. He looked at Terius, shaking his head, as if he couldn’t believe he had to explain this. “When was the last time Jaera asked for something she wanted? For something she wanted badly? It’s easier to deal with not getting something if you don’t ask for it. And if you loved her – really loved her – you’d be the wildest man she’s ever known.”