In a Circle of Friends
Warm in a circle of friends
How have you all been?
We'd never die
Just go through hell
And regroup again.
- Shawn Mullins - Patrick
Solaris--when it had still been a mighty, shadowy nation and not a crumpled and forsaken ruin on the planet's surface--had been famous for many things among those who knew it. Technology first and foremost, certainly, but more than that. Order and civilization above the chaos of surface life. Vast scientific knowledge. A suffocating class system, a ruthless totalitarian government, a pretty good music scene, and dubious foodstuffs.
Holidays, not so much.
In fact, apart from the scheduled two days of leave permitted to all but third-class citizens every period of seven days, there were few annual occasions of note. The ministry oversaw one public holiday a month, even for the Lambs slaving away in the hives. (The upper class citizens believed that the Lambs were made for hard labor, and too many days of rest would make them idle. But that was no reason to forbid them from a small interlude of celebration now and then, provided they did not gather in groups of more than ten and all activities were concluded well before curfew.)
Solaris was not a place for celebration, it was an inarguable fact. The Emperor's birthday was celebrated with a dutiful parade and (if you knew what was good for you) a convincing display of affection. Rumors persisted that it really wasn't the Emperor's birthday at all, but a sacred date from sometime long ago. Even the Lambs brought up from the surface a day before knew the day was special. On pretense of celebrating another stale year of Cain's interminable life, gatherings were held, gifts were exchanged, old songs dredged up from distant memories.
But after Solaris fell, it was a long time before anyone thought of it again.
Jessie B. Black certainly wasn't thinking of it when he opened the door of the tavern in Nisan, his stubble dusted with frost and his boots caked in ice. He was thinking that it was goddamn cold, and Billy's supposed urgent meeting with Margie just sounded like a reason to get Jessie out of his comfortable hibernation in the hills.
But no way in hell was he going to stand around in a drafty, cold cathedral while those two got all hot and bothered about God and charity or whatever. He secured a bottle of beer, an open tab, a corner table by the wood stove, and sat down to do fuck all for the next three hours, at least.
Night came on quickly in Nisan in the winter, and though the light had died from the sky hours ago, it was still early evening. Still, the bar was mostly empty, as though everybody in town had somewhere better to be. Jessie put his boots on the chair opposite, tilted back his bottle, and stared into the fire, trying to remember the green warmth of summer, or even the tawny heat of the desert a few hundred miles south. There was a strange, lonely kind of ache under his breastbone, and he couldn't quite remember what it was for until the door opened again and Sigurd Harcourt walked in.
For a minute they stared at each other in surprise, and then Sigurd smiled, walked over to Jessie's table, and kicked the chair Jessie's boots were on. "Were you born in a barn, Jesiah? A bearcow has better manners."
"Hey," Jessie said, moving his feet and making a vain swipe at the seat with one leg, in a useless attempt to dust it off, "I was just holding a spot for you."
Sigurd arched one white eyebrow, and shook the snow from his coat. "Of course you were." But he took the seat all the same, as the barkeeper brought over a silver teapot of spiced chai for Sigurd, without being asked. He had been a familiar face in Nisan long before he was known as the king's advisor, or (as it had now been made public) his brother.
"The hell are you doing out here on a night like this?" Jessie asked, as Sigurd made a careful ritual of teacup and sugar-cube and milk.
"Bart had some urgent matter he wished to discuss with Margie." Sigurd put his cup to his lips, closed his eye at the first warm swallow, and sank back into his chair with an air of contentment.
"Billy pulled the same shit on me," Jessie said, but without any real annoyance. The presence of an old friend was all that was needed to improve his mood. "The hell are they up to?"
Sigurd shrugged, more interested in his tea. "Bart said Margie had requested he come, and that the issue was one of the utmost secrecy. To be honest, I suspect he only wanted to get out of the palace. He's been climbing the walls for days now."
"Well, I don't care as much now that I've got some better company." Jessie waved for another beer, and he had just gotten the top off and clinked it against Sigurd's teacup when the door opened again.
The figure this time was not as easily identified, being swathed up in a long coat and several scarves, but with a pair of distinctive gold spectacles flashing from deep inside the folds. He said something that might have been a greeting to Sigurd and Jessie, but it was entirely muffled by a large green scarf.
"Izzat Hyuga in there?" Jessie squinted. "Or some kind of walking laundry basket?"
"I said," Citan repeated, emerging from the mass of fabric and shaking melted snow out of his hair, "that seeing the two of you here was a delightful surprise. I suppose Billy and Bart have been called to see Margie as well? I just left Fei at the cathedral. Ah," he went on to the barkeeper, without pausing, "a bottle of claret, or whatever you have that's red, much obliged."
"Siddown, god," Jessie kicked out one of the chairs for Citan, and waved his bottle at it. "You keep standing there yammering and it's gonna sober me up. Barkeep, just put this idiot on my tab. Sigurd too."
"Well," Citan said, flushed with gratitude and the cold, "That's very generous of you, Jesiah."
"I ain't generous," Jessie said. "But I guess it's old Cain's birthday down in hell, and that's reason enough to buy a drink."
"The Emperor's birthday?" Sigurd looked startled, then troubled. "How many years has it been since I thought of midwinter by that name?"
"Not long enough," Jessie answered. "Goddamn, Hyuga, how many coats you wearing?"
"It was a long and cold journey from Lahan, even by skiff," Citan answered, primly removing his last wrap and hanging it up next to three others. He sat down at last and held his wine-glass to the firelight. "Now then, what shall we toast to? Not Emperor Cain, I expect."
"It's cold, Hyuga," Jessie said, giving him a sideways glance, "but Hell ain't froze over yet."
"Absent friends," Sigurd suggested, and the silence between them was heavy and telling as their glasses touched, and they drank, and avoided looking at the empty fourth chair.
"Remember the last one we had all together?" Jessie said at last, quietly. "Hyuga, you made a little model of our element gears for Billy, and Sigurd, Raquel made that punch that got you so hammered you started singing in Avehli."
"I remember," Sigurd answered, his voice equally low. "I defected two weeks later."
"Rather a stupid holiday," Citan mused. "Cain hated it. He hated his age, he hated himself, he hated the memory of his lost home world, even as he made sure everyone would celebrate it."
"It wasn't his day to begin with," Sigurd said. "It's older than him, older than anything on this planet. And I for one will not give it away so lightly again."
"In that case," someone said above them, "I will wish you only a Happy Solstice, and not Til nathus Cain hanavath."
The effect of the familiar voice and the Solarian greeting was electrifying on all three of them, their expressions ranging from pained recollection to faint longing at the sound of those long-unheard syllables. Lost in memories of the past, they had not heard the door open, nor had they noticed the pale man who entered. Kahran Ramsus wore a uniform of Shevat now, the gold buttons of Queen Zephr's personal guard gleaming beneath his cloak, and he rested one gloved hand on the back of the empty chair as though he expected to have to fight for it. "...is this seat taken?"
Jessie looked up at him a long minute, eyes narrow, lips tense, every inch the Gebler High Commander that he once had been. And then he shoved the chair seat with his boot, and his smile made his old scars buckle on his face. "It sure as hell is," he said. "By you."
The wariness in Ramsus' face evaporated into relief, he unbuckled his sword belt and hung it on the back of the chair before sitting down, as a man would in the company of trusted allies. "I suspect," he said, "with all of you being here, that means the Holy Mother's council tonight is about war and world's ending, or we've all been rather neatly manipulated by our loved ones."
"If you're saying we've been had," Citan said, refilling his wine glass, "Then yes. We have. I'm sure they're having quite the laugh about their cleverness right now."
"And just as well for us it's well-intentioned," Sigurd added. "I shudder to think what mischief they could make for us if they set their minds to it."
"Not as much mischief as I plan to make tonight," Jessie said, putting his hand over Citan's glass before he could lift it. "And not with that plonk, Hyuga. Get over there and tell that bartender to serve up something fitting for a reunion of old friends, and it better have a shitload of bubbles in it. This is a holiday, and we're making it over starting now."
"It will be my absolute pleasure," Citan said, rising.
"I have a bad feeling Bart's not going to get back to Bledevik anytime soon," Sigurd said, as the bartender went in the back room for a suitable vintage.
"Serves him right," Jessie retorted, and made a noise of approval as Citan brought back a dusty green bottle and four glasses. "Now then. What are we drinking to?"
"Anything," Ramsus said. "But not to the past."
"Well." Jessie uncorked the bottle with a deft twist and a loud pop, and sloshed the glasses brim-full. "Then here's to those busybody brats for getting us all here tonight. May we get so goddamn drunk that they're sorry they did!"
And with glasses raised they drank to that, and to good cheer, and to each other, but never to the past, and always to the future.
So button it down
So the wind won't blow it all away
And pass it around
Like champagne on a holiday