This whole city left a film on her skin that itched and constricted in turns. Looking at Aled, she gave him a small nod, just to confirm her agreement, then they pressed on behind Macsen.
The crowds kept their progress slow, though the streets didn’t help much. They only stayed straight for a block or two at a time, then jaunted to the side, twisted or narrowed, widened or fell, the way old city streets do. The buildings were patterned in old and new brick, fresh wood and beams that were almost ready to be replaced. As they rode toward the center of the city, the buildings grew older, and the faces of them grew sleeker, like they’d been worn down by love and use. The relief carvings started to line the doors, or spread out under the eaves. Then the carvings stuck our farther, and then they were dropped onto a wide, circular avenue wrapped around a high stone wall.
The crowd thickened. Seryn and Aled rode single file again, but pulled up directly behind each other so that they wound through the shoppers and merchants and wooden stalls like a fat-bodied snake. A few yards ahead, another wooden gate stood wide, complete with another guard sentinel.
There were more of them, and they looked more closely at Seryn’s hands, at her face, even as she kept herself half-turned from them.
Macsen pulled to a stop at the last guard in line. “We’re here for Deaver,” he told the man.
The guard glanced at Seryn, then Aled, then nodded him forward. “Follow me, Sir.”
As soon as they passed the gates, the crowd disappeared. The ground dropped away in front of them, leading into green fields that turned quickly to solid pavement again, and then to the solid stone walls of the castle.
There were no pillars to ring the lawn, no pillars on the wall, no pillars leaning against the castle. Seryn turned her saddle, looking for them. She took a deep breath, but there was no bitter smell of purphagus vines and no chains anywhere she could see. The fortress looked naked without them, but she couldn’t help the relaxation spreading down her shoulders.
They dismounted just outside the castle walls, and the guard took the horse’s heads. A servant came running, a man in high boots and a hat that flapped as he walked, and he walked them inside, then went running for Deaver. Seryn tilted her head back to measure the high ceiling of the entrance hall, then counted the exits. One behind her, one directly ahead, two smaller doors on either side, and two great wrapping staircases that split several times on the left and right walls. She could hear the servant pattering up the staircase, then nothing, and the whole hall seemed disused. She supposed there were grander rooms somewhere that deserved more attention.
Aled whistled in the silence.
Macsen glanced at him, hands crossed over his chest. Seryn would have fallen quiet again at his single raised eyebrow. Aled just changed the tune.
Then there was another clatter on the stairs. Something jangled, and Seryn had heard enough armor to know it was something more precious, looser and more decorative. Deaver appeared at the bottom of the stairs, the gold chain across his chest glinting, and came toward them with a grin.
“You’re early,” Deaver said, clapping Macsen’s arm. They gripped each other’s arms tight, and Deaver rested his hand on Macsen’s shoulder for just a moment.
“We make good time,” Macsen said, nodding to the two behind him.
Seryn straightened, feeling the swell of pride coming off him, and knowing what she was supposed to do. She squared her shoulders and looked at Deaver evenly. He had gained weight since she saw him last, not much, but he wasn’t the lean fighter she’d seen as a child. His hair was gray at the temples, and his fine clothes hung a little too easily on him. Deaver looked her up and down without meeting her eyes, then looked at Aled the same way.
“The King is holding court right now. The room is packed. You could make quite the entrance if you’re ready,” Deaver told Macsen.
Macsen looked to Seryn. She bobbed her head once, just enough for him to see, and otherwise didn’t move.
Macsen smiled at her. “We’re ready,” he told Deaver.
The stairs turned twice at sharp angles, taking them straight down a hall littered with doors. Some of them were small, tucked into odd corners. Others were housed in high arches. Seryn heard voices as soon as they entered the hall, whispers echoing on the stone, but Deaver took them straight to the end. The largest door was carved into the far wall, heavy wood with iron plates holding it together. On the other side, there were louder voices, footsteps, echoes that rumbled instead of ghosting in the silence. Seryn was already counting footsteps and tones, trying to number the crowd inside when Deaver turned sharply to the right and took them through a narrow side door.
There was a short passageway, cool and dark, and they entered the corner of a hall so long the windows at the other side looked no larger than Seryn’s finger. The throne sitting between them looked like a toy, except for the glint coming off it, and the man sitting on it with his coat folded elegantly on the seat around him.
Aled laughed, very quietly. It was enough.
A woman turned first, then took a hasty step back when she saw their uniforms. The man beside her, caught her arm as she bumped into him. Then he looked at Aled too, surprised. The next pair skittered entirely out of their way. Deaver and Macsen swept through the gap. Seryn set her expression and followed.
There were hundreds of people in the hall. Men and women dressed in bright colors, ribbons tied in their hair, and soldiers with armor made of brass plates sewn over leather, spears leaned against their shoulders. There more servants in their loose hats, some with pitchers, some with plates, some with waiting hands. They all split to let Deaver and Macsen pass, waited with their feet tacked to the floor while Seryn and Aled strode by them.
The center of the room was already clear, edged in two rows of wooden pillars. Deaver walked straight down the center of them, straight toward the throne. Macsen only stayed with him for a few steps, then fell back. Seryn and Aled stayed three steps behind him.
“My Great Lord!” Deaver said. The room caught his voice and threw it back and forth between the walls. “With your permission, I’ll present my Lord Commander Macsen of the Rein to the court.”
Macsen snapped the heel of his boot against the floor, a little harder than usual, and on the next step he dropped to one knee. At the same time, Seryn dropped, and Aled beside her, heads bowed. They clapped their hands to their shoulders, and it bounced between the walls too, tailed by a perfect whisper from the edges of the room.
Aled smiled, just at the corners of his mouth.
Seryn filled her lungs in one long, slow breath.