Anie grinned at Thea and retrieved the paint pots from the hall, as instructed. She spun back for the candle and set it on the bedpost while Thea gently uncorked the black paint. Anie was surprised when she looked up. Thea was watching her, hands moving carefully and blindly.
“How long have you known she was planning this?” Thea asked.
Anie hesitated. Then she grinned again. “Forever,” she lied, just to see if she could.
Thea tilted her head. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Mel’s secrets have always been good things before,” Anie said slowly.
“You hate Mel’s secrets,” Thea returned. Her eyes narrowed, even as a small smile crept onto her face. “You little sneak. You just found out.”
Anie sat on the bed, letting out a heavy breath. She almost flopped down, but stopped herself before she disturbed the candle.
Thea shook her head. Then she surprised Anie again when she dipped two fingers straight into the paint.
Anie turned to watch her, sitting up straight to stay out of the light. Thea wiped her fingers on the rim of the jar as it rested against her knee, dainty, like she was just holding an oversized brush. Waiting until she was sure that her fingers wouldn’t drip, she held up the mirror and smeared her fingers across her cheekbones. The paint came off thick at first, then smeared and broke into an uneven line. Thea dipped her fingers again, and painted her other cheek without bothering to fill in the gaps on the first side. She filled in around her eyes, and continued those broken lines around her forehead and in curving lines down to her ears. It looked dirty, a little ugly, and immediately unlike Thea. Her brown eyes shone in the middle, more gold in contrast with the darkness of her face, shining in the candlelight.
She looked around for a minute, searching for something to clean her hand, holding her fingers high to make sure she didn’t touch anything. Then she laughed a little, and very deliberately wiped her fingers clean on the edge of her pillow. Anie stared. She had never seen Thea willfully damage something in her life. Thea glanced at her wide eyes and offered a shallow smile.
“We won’t be coming back to it,” she said. Almost, she sounded apologetic.
She uncorked the gold paint and dipped one finger inside. Then she drew two solid lines along her eyebrows. Returning for more paint, she continued each line in a fat curve up to her hairline. More paint, and she dragged each line down the inside of her eye and along her nose. One more time. She traced arcs from the line on her nose, under her eyes.
Thea cleaned her finger on the pillow again. Then she pulled her hair back and tied it in a long tail, still mussed from sleep.
She looked like the carved owls that Anie had seen in warehouses, seated on the windowsills to glare at the sky and drive real birds to ground. It didn’t look dirty or ugly anymore, just dangerous. Sharp, even in its brokenness. Beautiful, without any excuse to be.
Mel returned very soon, with Momma leaning on her shoulder. The two ofthem stopped at the foot of the bed, well inside the circle of candlelight. Momma seemed shorter than Anie had remembered her, but maybe Mel had grown. Maybe she had grown. It had been months since Anie saw Momma on her feet for long. She smiled, not sure why, other than it was good to be looking up at Momma.
Momma smiled back, looking at little stunned as she glanced between Thea and Anie’s faces, but still strangely happy. Mel looked directly at Thea and nodded her approval.
“So, get dressed, already,” Mel whispered. She sat Momma on the end of Thea’s bed and gave Anie a shove.
Anie tumbled off the bed, running to her own and pulling her dress off the chest. She dragged her nightgown over her head, holding the neckline as far away from her face as she could so she wouldn’t catch in the paint. She threw her dress around her as soon as the nightgown was off, not waiting to feel the chill in the dark. Her fingers were shaking a little when she grabbed the strings to tie it shut at her hip. She bounced a little on her toes, forced her hands still, jerked the strings tight and spun back to the rest of the room.
Thea was finishing the knots on her dress. Mel was finishing the black mask across Momma’s face. Thea dragged heavy socks up to her knees. Anie yanked hers on. Mel swept gold stripes over Momma’s eyes, then drew feathers near her hair and down her cheeks.
“Mel says she has everything ready,” Momma told Thea.
Thea had faltered after she finished putting on her clothes, like she wasn’t sure what to do next. She looked at Mel in sharp disbelief.
“Boots are by the fire, coats are at the door, packs are hidden under the stairs with food and extra clothes,” Mel said flatly, as if she could see the look Thea was aiming at her, though she hadn’t looked away from Momma.
Thea hesitated. “Good, then.”
Mel finished quickly. Then she glanced around the room to make sure everyone was ready and blew out the candle. They stayed still in the dark, waiting for their eyes to agree to the loss of light. Slowly, the gold lines of their faces faded into view, like birds sneaking up to the mouth of a cave. Anie looked at Mel, and giggled. Thea let out a breath that might have been a laugh.
The crept down the stairs, Anie running first, while Mel and Thea helped Momma down the stairs. Anie already had her feet shoved down in her boots before they made it to the final step. She wiggled her toes in the soft warmth of them, too excited to keep still, and threw on her coat. When Thea and Mel sat Momma in Da’s chair by the fire, Anie picked up her boots and helped her into them. Mel and Anie pulled the packs from under the stairs.
“These are heavy,” Thea whispered in surprise.
“Yes,” Mel agreed. She sounded like she was more than impressed with them herself.
“Why?” Thea whispered.
“Boys eat a lot of food.” Mel shrugged, smiled and turned for the back door.
There was another pause when she put her hand on the latch, like someone had turned out the lights again, though the fire still crackled and spun light against the walls. Thea looked at Mel. Mel looked to Momma. Anie bounced, hands balled around the straps of her pack. Whatever they were waiting for came, went, and Mel eased the door open.
The street was quiet in the middle of the night. The houses hunkered low, quiet and dark. Small sounds echoed, clear and eerie in the emptiness. Anie went still as soon as she stepped out into it, feeling more than knowing, that she shouldn’t break this silence. She put her hands into her pockets and turned back, waiting for Momma to take her halting steps into the street.
Thea turned to the left, facing the south side of the street and the corner where it met up with the main road. Mel turned to the right.
“I think the gate is this way,” Thea said gently, as if Mel had just forgotten her sense.
“And we’re going this way,” Mel told her brightly.
“Why?” Momma asked.
“Because that’s where I said we’d meet,” Mel said.
“Oh?” Momma said. “You decided to invite friends?” She sounded tired and amused, and so far from argumentative that Anie had to smile.
“Yes,” Mel told her.
“Who?” Anie asked.
“Boys?” Thea demanded.
Mel grinned. “This way!” She came back for Momma, tucked herself beside her for support and led up the street. Somehow, she made her slow steps beside Momma look energetic and inarguable. Though she could have outrun her, Anie felt like she was chasing her, guessing at which turns she would take and how far she would run.
They took the first left, and the next right, and ended up on a long narrow road that ran to one side of the market square. It was still mostly houses, but close enough to the central knot of shops that Anie could spot scattered storefronts and the corners were occupied by large square storage houses. This street was just as empty as the last, but the silence didn’t seem as thick. Somewhere, Anie thought she heard a door slam, then someone walking too quickly. Something creaked. Something else hummed a little.
Mel aimed for the next corner, a dozen yards away, and a building that threw a thick shadow over the alley beside it. They closer they came, the less the silence seemed to cling to the house faces, and a cart slowly hardened in the shadow. Three men gathered around it. One stood by the horse. One leaned against the side. One dangled one foot off the back, with his elbow cocked against his knee. All three had painted their faces in black and red and white, cat faces with exotic spots and slanted eyes.
“Are we early?” Mel called when they were close enough to talk without shouting.
The man leaning against the side laughed a little. His voice was younger than Anie expected, barely above eighteen if he’d made it that far, though he and the others were thick with muscle across chest and shoulders. “You’re late,” he said. He sounded relieved. All three men pushed away from the cart, coming up to meet them in the starlit street. Anie fell back, slipping her hand into Thea’s.
The man who had been standing beside the horse’s head reached them first. He had a square jaw and thick, gray hair, tied back from his face. His shoulders were broad and his hands callused, like Da’s. His tan was darker, and his skin creased, like he’d spent most of his life under a hot sun. Smiling at Mel behind his cat face, he tipped an easy nod to both Momma and Thea.
“I’m Wesson,” he said. His voice was low and strong.
“Meirie,” Momma said, nodding in return.
“My boys,” Wesson said. “Darien and Chas.”
They looked about the same age, both taller than their father with dark hair that stuck up on the backs of their heads. They were dressed in dark breeches, one in a brown coat, one in dark blue, both of them with the sleeves torn off at the shoulder.
“Cold?” Mel asked one of them.
He smiled, and crossed his arms over his chest, showing off the swell of his biceps and the flat, curving white scars that laced over his muscles. “No,” he said.
His father looked at him and rolled his eyes.
“Are you ready?” he asked Mel.
Mel nodded immediately. Wesson took Momma’s hand and started to lead her toward the cart, one arm under hers for support. One of the boys followed a step behind, while the other turned toward the horse and started straightening the reins as he moved along toward the driver’s seat.
Thea glanced at Mel. “Why…”
Mel smiled. “You didn’t really think we were going to get you and Momma out of here on foot, did you?”