3-The Glass Tree
I found Olena and Balleck waiting by the gap; Balleck saw me first and waved.
“Zare, over here!” His broad smile warmed my cheeks, his broad shoulders were nice, too, and I started to jog so I could blame their color on exertion. Remko and Ayglos were there, also. They were cloaked, now, and Remko had found a long eared cap to cover his shaved head. I frowned at Remko, he frowned back, unmoved by my unvoiced objection. Always our protector, he tried to keep us royal children reasonably out of trouble, which is why he’d apparently attached himself to this little outing.
Olena hooked her arm through mine. Her tight athletic build was swallowed in a thick, loose sweater to ward off the cool autumn night. She and Balleck both had blonde hair that caught the torchlight and gleamed red. Fitting, I thought, for fire spinners. She and Balleck had started teaching Ayglos and me how to work with fire, and there were sparks aplenty. “Are we ready to go?”
“I think so,” Ayglos handed me a brimmed hat and a cloak.
I slipped into the cloak—happy enough for its warmth in the growing night, and settled the hat onto my head. Hardly the height of fashion, but it would do. I tweaked the brim as we started to move with the crowd. Olena kept hold of me and steered me through the stream of wobbling people. Balleck and Ayglos fell in right behind us, and I knew Remko was bringing up the rear. The circus was just a bowshot from Gillenwater’s walls, and soon we were pressing through the open gates with revelers singing something about flowers, trees, and fruit.
Olena was talking, “If we hurry, we might be able to get to the square and see the glass tree before the crowds make it impossible,” she talked in my ear to be heard over all the people, “It’s filled with oil from the olive trees in Gillenwater’s orchards. It’s really a giant lamp, there are wicks along the glass branches, and on the last night of the festival they light them all—it’s really quite a sight.” She tugged me along faster. “We performed here last year, and Balleck and I saw it then. We went with the acrobats and had to climb the church to see because we got there too late to fit in the square.” She laughed like an imp. There was no keeping an acrobat out of a place they wanted to be.
I had never seen the glass tree. But I knew that it had been given to Queen Quindalee of Gillenwater by King Drennan of Sands when he was trying to woo both her hand and her trade. He only succeeded in the latter, their cities hardly being close enough for the rulers to easily rule both without being tempted to claim all the land in between. The other cities looked askance at even the idea of that union, and the Queen wisely chose to marry one of her own nobles. Though, certain historians swear that her firstborn was, in fact, a dead ringer for King Drennan. I said none of this to Olena, I held her hand and tried not to get swept away as she ducked and wove her way through the crowd like a professional.
I caught glimpses of street hawkers, bakeries, wine sellers, and sheaves of wheat standing like sentries on every corner. It was a show of plenty that belied the yoke of the Nether Queen’s regime. We even crossed an arching bridge over the Tryber River. The Tryber ran from the mountains through the city, and eventually down into the Bay.
Then, abruptly we were in the square. It was already half full, and dancing was taking up a good portion of the free space. In the center of the square, on a dais surrounded by torches, was the glass tree. It was green, which surprised me, and even unlit it was resplendent. Eight branches, presumably for the eight Bay Area Cities, spread and reached for the sky. I grimaced. There were only seven cities now—or six and a half, if you factored in the amount of destruction visited on Galhara. Olena led the way right to the foot of the dais and we gazed up at it open mouthed.
“Despite your best efforts, Olena, we’ve caught up with you,” Balleck’s voice came at our elbows and we both started.
We spun around to face the circus’s other fire spinner. “Don’t be silly, Balleck, if we’d been trying to lose you, we would have,” Olena put her hands on her hips in mock anger.
“I think you underestimated us,” countered Ayglos, stepping close and matching her pose. “It’s all talk,” he winked, “and you’re really disappointed we kept up.”
I was certain I saw her blush.
“We should dance!” she exclaimed, changing the topic nimbly. She caught Ayglos by the hand and spun him into the dancing Gillenfolk.
I watched them go with a smile. It was good to see Ayglos enjoying himself again. Balleck cleared his throat. I looked at him: He reminded me of the royal guards in my grandfather’s court—smallish in build, but tight with muscle. Though, he smiled a lot more.
The fire-spinner bowed and offered me his hand. “Care to dance?” His eyes twinkled, he was well aware of my cheeks.
I curtsied dramatically and accepted his hand. “Delighted.”
Balleck whipped me into the dance so fast I gasped, and then I laughed. We swirled in with the revelers; spinning, weaving and stomping our way through the square to the vital music of the harvest. We clasped hands and linked arms with stranger after stranger, and then his arms would pull me close for a breathless twirl. I realized I was smiling so big I thought my face might split—and for a moment I was astonished that I could feel so well.