Tiernan watched the dark night sky rear back from the earth, afraid to touch the horizon, as if the sun might have turned around and started storming back. Night itself seemed loose, keeping its fingertips on the earth while it pulled its body as far back as it could. Warm daylight seemed just as far away. The light on the horizon was cool blue, a different kind of evening undulating behind the trees and confusing time.
Tiernan, seated on the ground with his back to the campfire, watched it twist, fade and deepen, dull and gleam. Behind him, the tents were spread in straight lines. The wagons were picketed to either side, shielding the thin canvas. The horses were rubbed down and nickering to themselves in sleep. His people moved between the tents in hushed steps.
They’d gone to bed hours ago, then been yanked back out of their blankets by the fire call. They’d discounted all danger a long time ago, but now they stayed. They stood, crossing their arms over their chests to keep the cold air from seeping through their night clothes. Or they sat with their blankets pulled tight against shoulders and elbows, legs crossed, and head tilted back.
It was hard to pull their eyes away. Three days out from Serres, and they could still see the keimon painting the sky. Distant as heat lightning, liquid as shadow, it was mesmerizing to watch it pool beneath the clouds. Tiernan tried not to blink, and so he barely moved at all.
Eoin settled in the grass beside him, draping long arms across his knees, locking his fingers together. He was watching the sky as well, then looking down to trace the open ground, eye the trees in the distance, measure the miles.
He didn’t say anything.
Tiernan ran a hand down his jaw, slow. “I can’t believe they did it,” he murmured.
Eoin blinked and didn’t bother asking who he meant.
“I have three volunteers,” he said instead. Then he looked at his older brother to make sure he understood. “Give us permission and we can run back, take a look, come back.”
Tiernan didn’t move. His hand had paused at his chin. “Maybe,” he said.
Eoin blinked at him. Then he dropped his head and nodded. “Right,” he said. “Because you have no inclination to know the details of what is going on.” He looked pointedly at Tiernan.
Tiernan almost laughed. Twisting, he looked over his shoulder at the breadth of the camp. “There’s only twenty-five of us,” he said.
Eoin raised an eyebrow and waited.
“It’s not a huge company,” Tiernan continued. “I don’t see any reason to split us up. Or why we couldn’t all skulk around for a few days.”
“We’re supposed to be leaving,” Eoin said, but Tiernan could hear the smile in his voice.
“We are,” Tiernan told us. “We can’t be blamed if we had to slow for a broken axle or two. Besides…” He slid the red strip of cloth at his wrist in a halting circle. “As far as I know, the orders are still out to the local towns not to stop anyone with a red band. It would be a shame to spend so much time arranging that, and not put our visit to good use.”
Eoin nodded. “We turn around in the morning?”
“First thing,” Teirnan said. “Spread the word.”
The cold stone of the parapet was cold against Seryn’s palms, but the way the light reflected over the upper city, she expected the whole thing to be coal-warm and hissing against her skin. Aled’s face was pale in the light, painted a faint shade of blue, but his shadow was still indistinct, as if he was only facing the moon, not the dancing light of hundreds of hands. His eyes were sharp, tracing the line of it on the horizon, and his head was tilted to one side, as if he could hear the people shouting on the open field outside the walls. From time to time, Seryn thought she heard it too, but it was more likely an echo from somewhere inside the castle beneath them. The city rolled out in front of them, expansive and silent, most of it blanketed in the black shadow of the outer wall.
“What do you think it’s like?” Aled asked suddenly. His tone was full of easy curiosity.
“What?” Seryn asked.
“Setting yourself on fire like that?” he asked.
Seryn didn’t answer, her mouth just as easily shut.
Aled glanced at her, mouth tilted in a smile. He shook his head and faced front again. “Never mind,” he said.
Seryn smiled, too, then spoke evenly, “I think it’s like losing control,” she said.
Aled looked over quickly, eyebrows raised.
“I think it’s like forgetting everything – what you know, what you are, what you owe – and turning wild,” Seryn said. “I think it’s blinding.”
“Right,” Aled said. He looked back at the horizon, and it felt more permanent than before. There was no satisfaction in his silence, not an ounce of belief in what she said, but the conversation was over, sealed and sorted.
Seryn leaned closer to the wall. “We should hit bunk,” she said.
Aled didn’t move.
“It’ll be an early morning. We’re supposed to ride out after second watch.”
Sharply, he met her eye. She stopped exactly where she was, brow tightening, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Did Macsen tell you we’re supposed to go out in plain clothes?” Aled asked. He was searching her expression, but obviously didn’t care about the guarded lines of it.
“Yes,” she told him.
It didn’t look like it surprised him. She was a little surprised that Macsen had bothered to tell both of them. She could have passed the order down.
“It doesn’t seem odd to you?” Aled asked.
“It makes sense,” Seryn told him.
“Are you ever going to argue with him?” Aled asked.
Seryn blinked. “Hit the bunk,” she said.
Aled laughed, so quiet it lost any sharpness it might have carried. Pushing off the wall, he raised his hand in a sharp salute, then let it drop as if he’d just waved a loose good-bye. “It’ll be good to be back in ranks,” he said over his shoulder. “I’m getting tired of knowing what’s going on all the time.”