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First Snow, Frozen Toes

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Four days into our journey through the Taymets, we saw snow for the first time. 

It was late in the afternoon, not yet starting to grow dark but approaching the time when we would start looking for a place to camp. We had been lucky: a sheltered hollow out of the wind one night, a dry cave the next—and somehow, always enough dead wood that we could have a respectable fire. I wasn’t certain we’d be so fortunate tonight. The path ahead of us was a long, narrow stretch, nothing in sight but sheer rock walls with a scattering of shrubs too low to provide cover. 

The attolian was in good spirits though, so I did my best to follow behind him without complaint. The way was steep in places; better to save my breath. I watched where he put his feet, careful to avoid any rough ground, and so I was not prepared when he came to an abrupt halt. Which is to say—I walked face-first into him. His back, I discovered, was every bit as solid as it looked. 

“What is it?” I asked, after I had recovered a small portion of my dignity. I stepped to the side so I could see around him, but there was nothing on the path. So I looked up at his face instead, and he was looking up too, smiling.

“Look, Kamet. It’s starting to snow.”

I blinked and looked around. I had been aware of the chill in the air for some time; I felt it even more now that we were no longer moving. It was damp, too, tiny pricks of cold touching down softly on my face. And then I looked past my companion, at the dark stone cliff, and saw them. They were small at first, nearly indistinguishable from raindrops, but the longer I watched the easier it was to see. I held out my hand, and a flake landed there, melting nearly as soon as it arrived. It was a shame; I’d read of the unique structure of snowflakes in a Braelish text once and wanted to see if it was true. But this ephemeral stuff was far too fleeting for any kind of study.

“Is that all? I was given to understand it was more...impressive.” The Brael had certainly thought so, but then again who can tell what is fact or fiction, with the Braels? 

Costis’s eyes widened. “Is this the first time you’ve seen it?”

I folded my arms, tucking my fingers into my palms to ward off the chill. “It hasn’t snowed in Ianna-ir as far back as the poets can remember. When would I have seen it?”

“You were in Attolia,” Costis pointed out. 

“The lowlands,” I reminded him, “which are also quite temperate. I don’t seem to have missed much.” The snow swirled in the air like motes of dust: beautiful, but of no use to anyone. 

Costis laughed. “It’s not always like this. It’s true the capital doesn’t get much snow, but up the mountains in Eddis they get snowed in every winter. It piles up; I’ve met men who lost toes.”

“Toes?” I didn’t bother to hide my disgust. “That’s barbaric, how would that even—no, don’t tell me.” I shivered again, only in part from the cold. “I suspect I’ll find out soon enough.”

By the time the sun set, the snow was falling faster. I was grateful for Costis’s broad shoulders, which blocked the worst of the wind from my face. The ground grew slick in places; once, I slipped and would have had a painful fall if I had not caught myself on Costis’s arm. He reached back to steady me, and from then on we walked abreast, arm in arm. 

“We must stop,” I said, after another stumble knocked me into Costis and Costis into the rock wall. “There must be shelter somewhere. I refuse to arrive in Attolia with fewer toes than I had when we started.” By then I was beginning to understand by what strange circumstance that might happen; my feet were soaked and so cold I could barely feel them anymore. 

Costis righted himself. “Soon. There’s something up ahead, I think.” He brushed some mud from his hands, then rubbed them briskly up and down my arms. “Just a little farther.”

The motion did little to dispel the cold and damp, but I felt warmer even so. I let him take my arm and lead me on.

To my great surprise, Costis was right: there was a place up ahead, so well hidden that I could not see it at all until we were right on top of it. He must have had eyes like a cat’s, or at least far better than my poor specimens. I did catch a glimpse of his smile as he emerged from the cave, having checked for any unwelcome occupants. “It’s perfect. Come and see.”

There was precious little light to see by, but Costis fashioned a torch and had soon collected enough wood to build a proper fire. I squinted into the dark corners, puzzled. Why was there firewood? The cave entrance was so narrow it must have been easy to miss even in daylight, and I could see no signs of previous fire pits. I was about to say something about it when Costis stretched and pulled his shirt off. That knocked every other thought clean out of my head.

“What are you doing?” I demanded. We had been on the road for long enough that we were not exactly shy of each other, but typically I had more warning than this. “It’s freezing!”

“Right, and I’m soaked through. This isn’t going to do anything for me now that it’s wet.” Costis spread his shirt beside the fire and reached for his belt. “You’re all wet too, you should do the same.”

“I will do no such thing!” Cold as I was, I couldn’t imagine that taking my clothes off and sitting on bare rock was going to improve the situation. “They will dry.”

Costis sighed and reached for our pack. “They’ll dry faster if you’re not wearing them.” He pulled our blankets out and smiled. “Looks like these were spared the worst, we can wrap up in them.” A drop of melted snow fell from his hair, catching the firelight on its way down. “Kamet. We’ve trusted each other this far, haven’t we? Trust me in this.” This time when he held out a blanket, I took it. I turned my back and began to remove my clothes. 

“Ooof.” At his pained exclamation, I forgot all my resolve and turned to see what had happened. But Costis wasn’t clutching at an injury somewhere on his expanse of exposed skin. He was staring at me, and turned his eyes away when he realized I’d caught him.

“What?”

“Sorry,” Costis said. “I just...I’d forgotten about the scars, that’s all.”

I grimaced. I forgot them myself, most of the time. It served no purpose to dwell on old mistakes. “I’m surprised you noticed; they are not very impressive compared to that one on your leg.” It stood out dark against the skin of his thigh. I knew I should not really be looking at it, but I could not seem to tear my eyes away.

Costis looked up. “Oh, that. Got it in the war with Eddis, before we were allies. It looks worse than it was.” He hesitated, then approached me. “Let me lay your shirt out to dry.” 

I didn’t want him to take my shirt. He was close enough that I could feel the heat radiating from his body; what I wanted from him was something altogether different. But the parts of me having that thought were still encased in soggy fabric, so I gave him the shirt and went back to my task, willing the cold air to do its work on my poorly-timed thoughts. We would do well to survive the frigid night. Anything else could wait.

By the time I wrapped myself in the blanket and turned around, Costis had finished with my shirt and was sitting by the fire. The blanket wasn’t quite enough to cover him; it wrapped around his shoulders, but his legs protruded from the corners he’d tucked across his lap. I tried not to look at his bare knees as I sat a short distance from him and awkwardly tried to arrange my own covering into an acceptable state. I propped my feet by the fire as Costis was doing, but hissed in pain and withdrew them. “Ahh!”

In an instant Costis was at my side, cradling my foot in his hands. “What happened?”

“It burned,” I said, “Everywhere at once—does it look bad?” A minor burn would make for a miserable journey. A more severe burn would make it impossible to walk.

Costis frowned. “It looks fine, but your foot is freezing cold.” He massaged it gently; the sharp prickling sensation returned, but less painful this time. “So much heat all at once can hurt, you have to work up to it.”

I wanted to protest, but he was right; under his hands, the pain faded and my foot returned to some semblance of warmth. I held my tongue and allowed him to apply the same treatment to my other foot. It was doing all manner of uncomfortable things to the rest of me; not least my heart, which had been sorely tested by each small act of his kindness. 

“Thank you,” I whispered. I hoped he would blame my shivering on the weather. 

Costis set my foot down carefully. His blanket had slipped during the process, and must have been doing very little to keep him warm, but he made no move to fix it. “Kamet,” he said, with the same gentle care, “can I make a suggestion? You are free to refuse.”

How strange it still was, to be free to do anything. “What is it?”

He cleared his throat and looked at the fire instead of at me. “It will be warmest if we share the blankets. One on the ground, one on top of us. I know they’re not very big, but...you’re shivering. I could warm you up.” 

My breath hitched. “Costis,” I said, “What...what exactly are you suggesting?” I left the question hanging. I couldn’t tell the extent of his offer. I scarcely knew what answer I hoped for.

It may have been the firelight, but his face and neck were red. He did meet my eyes then, face serious but not without hope. “I am suggesting...only as much as you wish. And offering as much as you wish. Only let’s sleep warm tonight, please.”

That was the answer I’d hoped for, without knowing I hoped. “Oh, my Costis,” I said, and reached over to cup his chin in my hand. “Let’s sleep warm every night.” I kissed him then, brief but unmistakable. He smiled against my mouth, and pulled me closer when I thought to give him space. 

Between one thing and another, it was some time before we laid the blankets out to sleep. I drifted off in Costis’s arms, warm and safe and in no immediate danger of losing my toes. That night, I dreamed of snow.