Wednesday Serial: Farther Part XVI

Anie fire_hand

ANIE

Anie was surprised when Mel didn’t say another word about her secret. Not that day, not the next, not the day after. She smiled at Anie in her usual way, chattered and joked and looked at Thea tolerantly when the older girl started to chide her into calm. She worked with Da in the smith, all day, came home and propped her feet in a chair until Thea called for her to help cook, stayed up into the dark, and rolled out of bed late the next morning. As usual.

Anie watched her, waiting to see the hint that Mel was avoiding her, or watching her too, or altered by the weight of what she knew. Mel continued to waltz through her life, like she’d forgotten, like there was no need to remember.

“Does it bother you?” Thea asked, when Anie pointed it out to her.

Anie set the laundry basket she was hauling down on a chair. It was half as big as she was, and the serious tone in Thea’s voice told her this was a conversation that needed attention. She considered it. “I don’t think so,” she said. “It’s just strange.”

“Don’t let it bother you,” Thea advised. She was wringing the water out of one of Da’s shirts, water running down to her elbows. “That’s the way Mel is. She’s good for a joke, an excellent distraction if you have a trick to play…” Thea smiled, like she had a good story to tell later. “…and she’ll help any way she knows how.” Thea hesitated.

Anie tilted her head, waiting to hear what she had to add, but Thea waved it away.

“It’s not in her nature to think on things too long,” Thea said. “She’d rather listen to heart, which gets a new beat every second, and keeps her world exciting.”

“What’s exciting?” Mel asked, swinging in through the back door. “And who left the door open? Should I close it before we get robbed by squirrels?”

“We’re washing your dirty socks,” Thea said without looking up. “We wanted to give them an escape route if the soap got to be too much for them.”

“Ah,” Mel said. She left the door open, kept her coat on and dropped into a chair beside them. “What’s exciting?”

“You,” Thea said smoothly.

Mel blinked. She turned to Anie. “What’s exciting?” she repeated.

Anie tried not to laugh.

“Fine,” Mel said. She gave them both a close-mouthed smile, that still managed to look happy because of the spark in her eyes. She crossed her arms over her chest, as if she were prepared to wait them out. Then, quickly, “Do we have plans for tonight?”

“No,” Thea said.

“Do we have plans for tomorrow?”

“No.”

“Did something burn down?”

“No.”

“Did someone get attacked by that dog again?”

“No.”

Da stepped inside, ducking his head to clear the door frame. He glanced between the girls as they suddenly fell silent. Anie waved. Thea looked up and smiled, wiping her hair out of her face. Mel stayed as she was, arms crossed, and bright-eyed. Slowly, Da set his bag against the wall.

“That’s not unnerving,” he said.

“They’re being mean to me,” Mel said.

Da glanced around the room, wide-eyed. “I’m… not…”

Thea laughed first. She tried to keep it in, but as soon as her mouth twisted, Anie laughed too. Anie looked to Mel, half-expecting her to still be eying them petulantly, but she was doubled over her knees with her hand over her mouth to hide her laughter.

Da shook his head at all of them and swept past them into the kitchen.

“Dinner?” he called.

“Soon,” Thea said around her smile.

“You’re going to tell me,” Mel told Thea.

“I already did!” Thea returned. She leaned against the laundry bucket, twisting to look at her.

“You…” Mel straightened up. “What?”

Thea!

They dropped into silence as soon as they heard the shout from outside. Anie jumped and turned her back to the laundry basket. Mel came to her feet while Thea straightened up. Da’s boot scuffed across the kitchen floor, and he pulled himself to a stop at the door frame. Someone was running down the street, turning for the door.

“Thea!”

Avigail stopped in the doorway, hands braced on the frame on either side.

She hesitated as she saw everyone gathered inside, swallowed when she saw Da, but continued anyway. “They did it,” she said. Then stopped to catch a breath.

Da took a few careful steps back into the main room. “Did what?” he asked.

“They’re opening the gates,” Avigail said.

Thea sucked in a breath, shut her mouth tight, as if that might inspire Avigail to do the same. “Get inside,” she said. Avigail didn’t move. Thea crossed the room instantly, pulled her inside and shut the door behind her.

“They’re opening the gates,” Avigail said again, more slowly. She grasped Thea’s arm with both hands. “The warlords did it.”

Anie looked back at Da. His mouth was shut tight and he was slowly straightening again, shoulders pulling back. Mel glanced at him, then at Thea, like she might move. Like she didn’t know who to go to.

“I don’t understand,” Thea murmured.

“A week from today,” Avigail said. “After sundown, they’re opening the gates. Any keimon that wants to leave, can leave, and no one will stop them. They’re removing the guards altogether. Madden promises our safety. It’s all over the square. We can just walk out.”

Anie watched Thea’s face closely, watched her swallow, and try to remember how to move.

“I wish it was tonight,” Avigail said.

Thea shook her head a little.

“Tell me you’re coming,” Avigail said.

“I…” Thea shook her head again. “I don’t know. You should go home. They could be watching.”

“Why should they?” Avigail asked. “They’re letting us go! They can’t care anymore.”

Da took another step forward. “Go home,” he told her.

Avigail looked at him, surprised, then back at Thea, catching her sad look.

“Go,” Thea whispered.

Avigail turned hesitantly. She put her hand on the knob, took another look around the room, and left. Thea pressed the door shut again. They listened to Avigail’s running steps in the growing silence. Mutely, Thea turned her back to the door, never took her hand away from it, looked Da tentatively.

Da started to turn away.

“Aren’t we going to talk about this?” Thea asked.

Mel shifted on her feet, half moving to Anie. “Come on,” she said, catching her eye. She nodded toward the stairs.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” Da said. He continued toward the kitchen.

Thea took two steps to follow him. “Of course, there is.”

Mel pushed on Anie’s shoulder, leading her toward the stairs.

“It’s not true,” Da said.

“Avigail’s not the sharpest mind in the city, but she’s no liar,” Thea said. “If she says it’s posted in the square, it’s posted in the square.”

Mel pushed Anie up the first step, right behind her, but Anie twisted around. Mel started to catch her hand, but Anie met her eye, silently declaring she wasn’t moving any farther. Mel blinked, dropped her hand, let her be.

“There is no way they’re removing the guards for a whole night,” Da said.

“No,” Thea agreed. “That does sound stupid. But that doesn’t mean they’re not letting us through.”

“It all sounds stupid,” Da said.

“It sounds like our last chance!” Thea shouted.

Da stopped, exactly where he was. Turning, he looked at her carefully, face blank, mouth a flat line.

“How much longer do you think we can stay here?” Thea asked. “Momma hasn’t left her room in eight months. She can barely walk. She’ll never be able to sneak out, she needs an offer like this if she’s ever going to leave this city. If she’s ever going to recover.”

Da’s jaw tightened. “No.”

“Anie’s Shown.” Thea pointed to her younger sister. “She’s keeping the secret, too, and she’s never had the chance to learn control. Do you remember what I was like when I was younger, before Momma trained me? Sooner or later, she’ll get caught.”

“They’re not going to let you out,” Da said. “They’re going to watch you. They’re going to catch you. They’re going to…” He stopped himself, swallowing the next words down, and they looked too sharp, too sour for his throat.

“Let me go to the square,” Thea said. “Let me see what they’ve posted.”

“You’re not leaving, whatever they offer,” Da said.

“Please…” Anie looked at her quickly, surprised by how low her voice had dropped.

“You’re not leaving,” Da said, one more time.

Thea watched him for a long moment, mouth open, maybe to say something more, maybe to catch a fuller breath. Then she nodded.

Da disappeared into the kitchen. Thea took a steadying breath. Turning, she saw Mel and Anie on the stairs. Anie waited, shifting on her feet, uncertain, while she met Thea’s eye. Mel tried to smile when Thea looked to her. Thea turned away.

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