Seryn was one of the lucky ones.
Entering Serres’ city gates, sitting on her horse above the guards to either side, with Aled behind her and Macsen leading the way, she felt it more than she had in a long time. Macsen rode through easily, already sighting down the busy streets to find the path he wanted. The guards flicked a look at him, and his uniform, and let him go with as little care as he gave them. Macsen only slowed his horse to match the crowd suddenly milling at his horse’s shoulder.
Seryn passed the guards and felt them watch her from the moment she turned inside the open gate and long past her first step onto the heavy paved street leading down into the city. She was wearing the same uniform – brown breeches and dark polished boots laced to the knee, white shirt, brown jacket with its green and gold edging wrapped tight to her waist and tied at the hip, heavy coat with the its collar pulled up around her chin to keep out the cold. She had never fooled herself, thinking it made her the same, but she had never seen what made the difference so easily seen. The scars on the backs of her hands were so subtle, bare white lines traced across her skin, so old they should have faded to nothing by now, but still clinging like ghosts. The guards shouldn’t have been able to see them from where they stood.
They did see them, on Seryn and on Aled, and the guards straightened at their posts and forgot everyone else walking past.
Without slowing or speeding, Seryn nodded to them. She caught Aled smile at them, too broadly, behind her.
And the only thing that kept the guards from stopping them was that uniform, the green and gold they owned, and the royal bear thick-stitched up their shoulders.
Seryn caught some of the citizens casting hasty looks in their direction, and she did her best to keep her eyes ahead. One man passed just in front of her horse’s nose, head tilted back to look at her too long, arms wrapped too tight. Without looking twice, Seryn knew he was hiding scars of his own. She passed him by before she could memorize his face, or break his hiding place. She passed him by before she could read his expression.
It was just luck that she was in that uniform. Luck that bit her young, sank teeth all the way down to the bones and wouldn’t come loose.
Aled came alongside her after a moment, maybe to keep from losing her as they waded through the crowd, maybe just to put her beside him for a few minutes. The crowd split for them, the two horses clopping by shoulder to shoulder too imposing to be ignored. Seryn relaxed, no longer feeling the jostle of the crowd. They passed quietly, both of them looking up at square buildings, and the blank patches of earth wrapped around them. Bare trees skittered in the breeze. In the summer, Seryn could imagine the city green and clean and breathing. Now, it just seemed asleep, huddled and holding its breath.
“I miss home already,” Aled murmured.
Seryn looked over at him, not really curious, but encouraging. His voice felt better than the uneasy feeling drifting off the people around her.
“I’m serious,” he said. “If you gave the order, I would turn back and gallop straight for the gate.”
Seryn shook her head. “Why?”
Aled glanced ahead long enough to make sure he could let his horse have its head for a moment, then fixed her with a long look, eyebrows raised. “Because this place is already turning my stomach.”
Seryn glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah. Mine too,” she said.
Aled seemed surprised. Maybe he’d expected her to argue, or just to ask for clarification like she usually did, letting him take the conversation in leaps and bounds wherever he liked. She didn’t need this explained though.
This city was too clean. Every street was paved, every shop and roof set at the right angle. The crowd milled, friendly, smiling, walking, running, meandering, every person in it lightly glossing over the same well-known secrets.
Back home, the edges were more stark. And, she thought, they were easier to ignore.