<– Part I
Kiben’s smile stretched while his eyebrows rose. He looked Zain up and down, shocked at his bluntness, and, perhaps a little, impressed. Zain hoped he was impressed.
“I owe you a favor,” Kibens repeated. He shook his head a little, teetering on the edge of a laugh.
“Yeah,” Zain said.
He held Kibens’ eye, purposefully avoiding the others at the table, but let himself blink to turn it into an easy stare. The other three players around the table glanced idly at Zain, then Silas, then Kibens, and continued to play. The one sitting closest with her back to Zain, glanced behind her, raised a quick eyebrow and remained quiet.
Zain knew he’d said it a little loud for Kibens’ taste, but he could see the risk of it threading away as Kibens rolled his shoulders and leaned back in his chair. There was some trouble in saying it in front of these people, but he could see Kibens sorting it out and counting the ways to solve his problem before half a second was past. He was sharp enough, and both of them knew it. He could get out of the questions that would come later, and never explain how Zain had wandered accidentally down a back street that Kibens had found on purpose, or how Zain had gotten him out of deal gone wrong with a little of Fate’s mercy and a well-timed street brawl.
Zain stayed quiet, proving that he was smart enough not to say anything about it either. Kibens finished sinking back in his seat on a breath, relaxed.
“Then what do you need, kid?” Kibens asked.
Five years spent between four block walls, hours and days lived with no activity, and it seemed, now, as if he should walk these familiar rooms like nothing had passed, as if he had been here yesterday. But Vardan didn’t. The twists of halls felt long, the walls felt wide, and the echoes of his footsteps were too clear compared to the rustling and shifting in the dark he was used to. He had been here, a long time ago. He knew which turns to take, looked out windows and saw what he expected, found where he meant to be with little thought, but some lifetimes had passed since the last time he was here.
He took his steps slowly. The windows spilled heat and light along the long hall, and he passed in and out of them. He blinked in the light, and missed the heat when he stepped into the next shadow. High in the palace, each square of glass showed off a tumble of roofs and wash of waves on the far side. He’d spent hours on hours here once, and he considered stopping at a window, leaning against the frame, pretending he could hear water through the glass like echoes in a shell.
He continued on his way.
At the end of the hall, he turned right, looped down a set of back stairs and arrived in the squarer hall below. Two guards stood on either side of Lord Damion’s office door. They stood straight-backed and square, perhaps built into the wooden architecture. Vardan watched them as he came closer, waiting for either of them to move. They let him pass, hardly looked at him, and didn’t move as he knocked firmly on the door.
“I need to talk to you.”
Delanie looked over her shoulder. Her hands kept moving, snapping against the long laces of her boots to pull them tight. Looking back down, she tied a tight knot in three quick pulls. “Do you?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.
“Yes,” Vant said. His tone stayed heavy, his eyebrows bent together as he nodded seriously.
Slowly, Delanie straightened, watching his expression, and begging for it to shift. He held her eye as if there was nothing in existence outside the officers cabins. Shore leave still held, and she thought he might be right. It was possible, from the unhindered creaking beams, and the quiet echo that followed the two of them around the cabin, that they were the only two on the deck. The docks, a few yards away would be rolling with crowds, and maybe there was a fisher or ten somewhere closer, but none of them were close enough to say that they weren’t blessedly alone. So, Delanie looked down, dropped her foot off the chair she’d been propping it on and took a long step away.
“No,” she said. “You don’t.”
The fortress had been just a wide-standing shell of stone wall when they arrived between paling leaves.
The green that had held on through the early autumn chill had faded in a matter of days, not yet the riot of yellow and red that Darien promised Anie would come, but duller and bleached in the sun. Anie was used to watching the trees in the town square for the shifting seasons, and had always imagined that the sudden shift of autumn to winter colors arrived because of the several day’s stretch between her jaunts out to market. But there, walking under the trees from breakfast to dinner, the change still came like a hammer swing. She saw it coming, heard the whistle on the wind, and then it was there with the first too-cold night.
She had been glad to see the walls.
The whole line of them had crossed through the beaten gate where it hung on its hinges, and immediately made a jumble on the aged ground inside. The walls three times the height of a man, wooden staircases slanted up their inside faces with missing steps and railings. A long stone building stretched down the center, most of its eaves intact, and otherwise the fortress had been reduced to a wall here or there, and the old foundations marked out in crooked lines. Carts pulled to a stop where they could, and the people doubled back in all directions, looking at what age and abandonment had done. The knot around the gates choked the space, and the last of them threaded inside at a fish’s pace.
Anie had turned, examined the gray stone on all sides without picking up her feet. She kept her elbows against her sides and tried to be small in the new cramped space.
There was a certain set of codes and etiquettes that snapped into place when one sneak met another unexpectedly.
The least of them was the sudden understanding that neither sneak would screw anything up. Whatever job they were in the middle of springing, if they’d wanted to perform anything less than larcenous perfection, they should have done it on their own time. Now that there were two players, two heads that could be seen, caught, bashed, and imprisoned by the city guard, they would do their thieving duty and get away with everything they had planned. Plus a little more.
The greatest of them was an understanding that one sneak would believe that the other was as invisible as the air, inaudible as hearth tale cats, and absolutely magnificent at their job. They would hold onto that belief until it was absolutely impossible to do so, and then one moment more.
So, when Imalie realized that she was skulking around the same house as a woman twice her age and half as quiet, she ignored her. Of the four items that she had dropped through the window to find, Imalie already had three of them, which made it doubtful that they were there for the same reason, or if they were, that the woman would beat her to the last of it.
I did a few things today:
1. I woke up. Which is not much of an achievement, but seems as good a place as any to start a list.
2. I spent a series of stacked hours learning to sew feathers over felt without drawing blood. I considered finding a thimble, but always found that the next feather in the line was a more interesting target. I looked back and forth between my computer screen and the work in my hands, trying to learn the professional trick from a two dimensional representation of the finished product, so that my amateur and untrained fingers could work their same magic. I sewed feathers. And I sewed more feathers. I cut feathers, and I littered my floor with bits of wing and flight, which dark as the feathers were, looked a little like I’d been messy in giving myself a haircut.
Answers served with a smile
Kate Kearney searched: What would you put inside an emergency happiness kit?
For myself, the kit would look something like:
- One bag of peppermint patties
– The DVD sets of Supernatural season 4 and 5 or the A Knight’s Tale DVD
– face paint (including at least three bright colors and black)
– soft socks
– a book I’ve never read before
– a cuddle blanket (implying that it is both large enough to wrap all the way around me, and heavy enough that I feel it as more than just warmth)
– a water bottle because I’m always losing mine, and the fact that I’m rarely hydrated properly is likely part of the problem
– something that no one will care if I either smash, shred, or otherwise destroy it
If you asked me to make a kit for someone else, it would probably just be a variant of this. The DVDs would be picked more personally for them. The socks might be exchanged for a fun hat or scarf. The face paint might be swapped out for play dough or yarn. The water bottle could be replaced with tea or hot chocolate. The item to destroy might be abandoned all together. I’m not sure how many other people actually feel happier after having become Wreck-It Ralph for thirty seconds.
Brance arrived with a smile, coming down the garden path with his hands in his pockets. His jacket hung open in the warmth of the afternoon and his dark hair curled lazily where he had combed it back with his fingers. He took his steps slowly, as if the air and the greenery and the high sun had earned his calm. Turning, Kadelyn came to a stop to let him catch up, and she smiled back. Behind Kadelyn, Noach, her bodyguard shifted to take up his proper place a few feet away. Her younger sister, Ineli stopped too, with her bodyguard pulling to the same distance, as if both he and Noach were hung on the same tether.
“Hello,” Kadelyn said as Brance came within a few steps. “I’m glad you could join us…” She blinked and trailed off as Brance came closer and did not stop. He turned just to the side, passed them, held up a finger to promise he’d only be a minute, and kept on walking, all with his lazy smile pinned in place. He disappeared behind the next bend in the path and Kadelyn shut her eyes, holding her breath until she opened them again.
“Where is he going?” Ineli asked. She looked to Kadelyn.
Kadelyn shrugged and shook her head. “The south gate? The moon? They’re both equally likely.”
Aithan, Ineli’s guard cleared his throat quietly, and worked to straighten his smile.
“Oikos,” Iben said. “Oikia.” He glanced helplessly around their small circle gathered on the grass. The night’s chill and the fog climbing up from the harbor had already dampened the ground, so they all sat with their knees pulled up to their chests, or their sleeves pulled tight on their arms, or their legs knotted together, warm as they could be without giving up and going indoors.
“They’re different words,” Iben said.
“Not really,” Nara said haltingly.
Iben let out a breath, exasperated, and looked at her pleadingly. “I know, I know. Same root, right? But one is masculine and one is feminine.”
“Right,” Nara said, still hesitant, pulled back a little from the intensity of his eye.
Jasen took a single step into his kitchen and stopped. He had not expected to find Jennika standing by his small square table, but seeing her there, he couldn’t muster any surprise to see her pocketing something off the sideboard. He wasn’t sure what it was, wasn’t even entirely sure that she had picked it up or flicked her fingers into the fold of her jacket. Still, he thought he saw her, so he knew she’d done something.
“If you take that, I will hunt you down,” he said.
She looked at him steadily, blinked once, and let her eyebrows drift upward.
“I will hunt you down,” Jasen repeated. He took another step into the room. “With horses, or hounds, or mountain lions, or crocodiles, or whatever it takes to track a little slithering weasel like you.”
She cocked her head to one side, very careful not to move otherwise. “Do crocodiles have a good sense of smell?”