The palace relaxed between the outer walls. Every line was effortlessly straight, as if the square corners and level stones were just the easiest way to sit against the manicured grounds. The buildings face was a gentle bronze, like it had gotten a gentle tan from the sun, while the brim of its tiled roof kept the heat away. Jaera stood outside the wall, watching it through the iron lines of the half-open gate. The morning crowd slid around, interrupting her view from time to time. She glanced at the guards stationed at the base of the wall, their heavy blue overshirts barely covering their chainmail.
Slowly, Jaera left the crowd, stepping toward the gate. She hesitated just before she passed through, eyes cutting to the soldier closest to her. He stopped her halfway into her next step.
“Can I help you, miss?” he asked.
“I’m here to see Lord Terius,” she told him.
“And your name?”
“Jaera,” she said.
He faltered at the short answer, expecting a last name, but she just looked back at him evenly. For a moment, he teetered between aggravation and amusement. Then his eyes fell to her blank wristband, and his expression cleared a little.
“You’re Toar ShatterIron’s apprentice?” he asked.
“You’re here on his business?”
She gave her usual lie. “Yes.”
“Go on, then.” The guard nodded her forward and stepped back to his post without looking at her again.
Jaera stayed still a second longer, then turned toward the palace. The paved loop between the gate and the front hall was wide enough for carriages to easily pass each other as they went around. Her heels clapped against it hollowly at first, then echoed off the high face of the palace as she approached. There were a few servants outside, working the lawns, or carrying bundles and baskets between buildings. They glanced at her, smiled in a disinterested way and glanced away. She smiled back, ignored them and slipped through the heavy front doors.
The entrance hall was all bronze as well, gleaming chandeliers hanging over her head, and gilt paintings climbing toward the ceilings. Between the images of ships and landscapes and angels, the walls were hung with folded draperies as if someone expected the room to grow one day and need the extra material.
Across the hall, Selwyn was already coming toward her in his even stride. He held a stack of letters in his hand, most of them tied with ribbons, or stacked unevenly because of their wax seals. He was always here, though she’d never seen him waiting. He only passed through on amiable errands, but she was almost certain it was his job to guard the hall against wayward souls.
“Jaera,” he said, stopping just in front of her. “Can I help you?” He smiled down at her. For a long time, that had seemed strange. Ryden, Terius, or Toar received a bow. Anyone else received a deep, courteous nod, but Selwyn never bent an inch for Jaera. After she realized he never expected her to bend either, she liked it.
“I’m here to see Lord Terius,” she said.
He hesitated. “And Lord Zain?”
“Just Terius,” she murmured.
Usually, Selwyn would have called over his shoulder for a runner already, but he stood still, looking at her with vague concern.
“Please,” Jaera said.
Selwyn blinked once, looked down quickly, then back to her face. “Of course.” He turned, calling one of the runners from his place at the entrance to the neighboring wings. The boy came close enough to hear his instructions, then darted off, fast as his feet could carry him. Selwyn lightly touched Jaera’s arm and pointed her in the other direction. He walked with her as far as the first doorway leading off the entrance hall, then nodded her forward and went back his own way.
Jaera walked down a narrower hall decorated much like the entrance way, and then passed into a long sitting room. She imagined it had once been a hall as well, but now it was split into small groups of chairs and couches and tables, all clustered near the windows on the right side. The left side was cleared for walking, with a woven rug running from the archway she’d come through to its twin on the far side of the long room. Most of the curtains were drawn, leaving the space dull gray, with a few stripes of fiercely golden afternoon sunlight. Jaera entered slowly at first, looking to see what company she would have while she waited. Realizing she was alone, she relaxed and moved forward, stopping in the shadow of one curtain, while the next window spilled light over her toes.
This room was usually empty when she found it. She’d never figured out whether this was just where they put visitors they wanted to keep out of sight, or if she’d just always been successful at choosing an unfashionable hour to be there. She liked the room and the privacy too much to ask.
It was twenty minutes before Terius appeared, walking sedately through the far archway. He looked surprised when he saw Jaera, smiled, and walked a little faster.
“They didn’t tell me it was you,” he said. “Zain’s upstairs, and he could use a rescue. Let me call him down.”
“I came to talk to you,” Jaera said.
Terius stopped. His smiled faded hesitantly to something more polite, more guarded. He watched her for a moment. “Do you want to sit down?” He gestured toward the padded couch behind her, with its carved arms and delicate back that was never meant to be leaned on.
“Not really,” Jaera told him. “We’ve never been the proper lord and lady. I don’t want to start that now.”
“All right,” Terius said and it sounded like surrender. He touched her arm, moved just to move, walked past her just to not look at her for a moment.
“I need you,” she said. She turned with him, keeping him in sight.
“I know,” he murmured.
“I don’t know how you could,” Jaera said. She smiled ruefully. “I don’t think I’ve ever said it out loud.”
“I need you, too,” he said.
“Yeah.” Jaera nodded. “You do. We make each other better.”
Blinking, Terius looked at her sideways.
“Don’t we?” she asked.
“Yes.” Terius smiled uncertainly. He nodded.
Jaera turned away then, accidentally met the sunlight pouring in and had to turn back. She shrugged, helplessly. “I haven’t seen you in a week. I’ve never felt less like myself. Less like who I want to be.”
“I’ve missed you, too.”
“I mean, you and I, when we decide something will happen, it happens.” Jaera paused to take a breath. “And not stupid things, like Zain and I do. Not dying dogs green, or making flying balloons, or tipping Lainan’s longboat. Things that matter.”
“Well, Lainan’s ego did need to come down a few rungs,” Terius said.
“I know, I know.” Terius grabbed her hand before she turn away again. “We make each other steady. Strong. Idiots. We can’t even come up with the word impossible.”
“I don’t like the word impossible,” she said.
“Me neither,” he said. He laughed, just a little, and risked pulling her toward him.
Jaera let him, just enough so that her hands were resting on his chest and he was holding her with both hands. He was looking down at her, trying to catch his eye, but she kept her head bent for just one more moment.
“Some things are impossible,” she murmured. “I know it.”
“But it’s not in us to decide that before it’s proven,” Terius insisted.
“No.” Jaera shook her head. She smiled, then couldn’t stop, and met his eye. “And I don’t want it to be. I really don’t. I would rather…” She took a breath, laughed it back out, lost. “I want to fight for this. I need you to know that…” She shook her head. “I would risk everything…”
Terius looked at her, stunned, halfway into a smile. “Are you accepting?”
“Please say the offer’s still there,” she whispered.
Terius kissed her so quickly, she didn’t have time to shut her eyes. Jaera held him tight.