Chaela burst through the back door wearing her best dress. The full red skirt was embroidered with stars and birds, flying thick at the hem and thinning as they moved upward. Her white shirt was tucked in crisply, and a new black sash gleamed at her waist in the low light. Her dark red jacket hung gracefully open, sleeves widening perfectly so that they fell to her fingers in smooth lines. Her dark hair was braided up to the back of her head, then tumbled down around her shoulders in a mix of braids, twists and curls, white flowers and those ribbons that she loved with the metal threads. She was smiling, and that was almost dazzling enough to distract Aaren from everything else.
Aaren put her sewing down her lap. “What are you up to now?” she asked. She didn’t bother to lower her voice, but Chaela glanced toward the other room as if she was afraid that Aaren’s parents might hear.
“I need you to come with me,” Chaela said. Her eyes were still searching the front rooms, deep in her secrets, though she couldn’t see them. “But get changed first.”
“What for?” Aaren said.
Chaela looked at her. She smiled again, wider by the second like she was remembering a dozen happy things, one after the other, each better than the last. “I’m getting married,” she said.
Aaren stared at her. “Tonight?”
Chaela nodded quickly, trying to keep her smile from growing any larger. “Unless you take too long getting dressed. Then maybe very early tomorrow morning.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But it’s lovely. Come on, we’re waiting.” She whirled back through the door, quick as she’d come.
Aaren blinked. Putting her sewing to the side, she shifted the curtains to glance outside. There was a crowd of eight or nine in the street. A glittering crowd of her friends with ribbons and braids, swinging skirts and soft shoes, uniforms and sailor’s stripes. Chaela ran straight to Leonathan, a tall, dark-haired boy in the center of the mob. She caught his hand and squeezed it tight. His smile was almost as giddy, and one of his friends immediately cuffed him on the back of the head. He didn’t care.
Lyda, Deann, and Jessi waved to Aaren as soon as they noticed her peering through the window. They didn’t stop when she shook her head, only added sad expressions. Then Chaela saw and tilted her head pleadingly. Her boy held her from behind, putting his head beside hers to plead as well.
“Fine!” Aaren said. She didn’t think she was loud enough for them to hear, but the entire group of them laughed. She rushed up the stairs.
Changing as quickly as she could, she ran back downstairs, still pinning her hair up when she joined them in the street. Jessi hugged her excitedly, laced their arms together and dragged her into the group. One of the boys smiled at Aaren. Someone was laughing, and Aaren wasn’t sure who, as it spread and hopped and infected the whole lot of them. Leonathan and Chaela were holding a large scrap of paper between them, heads bent, and Deann poked a finger at it.
“It’s the long way around,” Deann said.
“We have to go past The Red Runner,” Leonathan said.
“Skip it,” Deann said. “It’s a nasty place.”
“His friend–” Chaela looked at Leonathan, mouth open, with the name on the tip of her tongue.
“Ricken,” Leonathan said.
“– is there,” Chaela finished.
Deann glanced between the two of them. “He must be a nasty friend.”
“Let’s just go,” one of his friends said. “It will take us less time than standing here trying to find the faster route.”
“What’s on the paper?” Aaren murmured to Jessi.
“The master plan,” she whispered back. She grinned at Aaren conspiratorially.
Aaren pushed herself onto her toes, craning to see. It was a map, drawn in lines and boxes and X‘s. There were some notes in Chaela’s neat lettering, some in a quicker, slanting hand that she could only assume was Leonathan’s. Aaren could sort out streets, maybe buildings, and the rest of it was lost to her. But she counted the X‘s and slowly realized there was one for each of them people standing there, and half a dozen more, and the one sweeping cross where they would end the night. A church by the look of the bells and ribbons that Chaela had sketched in above it.
Aaren tried not to be excited, tried to hold onto the idea that this was madness. But it was exciting, and it was sweet, and everyone looked spectacular in their finest clothes and widest smiles.
“Come on,” one of the boys said. He tapped his friend on the shoulder and took off running. Aaren looked at Jessi and then they were both running too, then skipping, and she wasn’t sure how they’d changed stride, but she was laughing too hard to question it.
They stopped at Keely’s house, and Nan’s. Keely ran out almost as quick as Chaela ran in. Nan looked too stunned to move her own feet and Aaren helped Jessi and Lyda drag her upstairs to change.
They stopped at The Red Runner and three of Leonathan’s mates joined them, bringing a bottle of spiced cider out with them. They kept running, dancing under street lights, passing the bottle between them.
“I don’t understand,” Aaren told Chaela the next time she found herself next to the other girl. She’d gotten her breath back, finally, though she couldn’t shake the lightness on her feet that kept carrying her forward.
Chaela looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“I didn’t know Leonathan was even in town,” Aaren said.
“His ship came in this morning,” Chaela told her.
Aaren laughed. “And is he leaving tomorrow?”
Chaela shook her head. “He has a whole month before he’ll leave again.”
“Then, why not… wait?” Aaren asked, uncertainly.
Chaela was shaking her head again, smiling, wider and wider. “Because he has a whole month before he’ll leave. And that’s so much better than the few stolen hours of love before morning.”
Aaren could have argued with that reasoning. She didn’t want to. It was too fine.