Seryn followed him down to the barracks after a moment. She kept enough distance between the two of them to make it difficult for him continue the conversation, then wordlessly tucked herself into her bunk. He kept looking her way. She kept ignoring him until just before she slipped under her blanket. Then she met his gaze evenly, silently, and he turned toward the wall.
The night passed easily.
Seryn woke in the gray moment before true daylight gripped the world, sitting immediately, and shoving her feet down into her boots. Then she sat, resting her elbows on her knees. She could hear the quiet measure of Aled’s breathing, no longer asleep, just evenly muted as they’d been trained. He wasn’t moving, but she didn’t blame him. On assignments like this, they could steal an extra fifteen minutes, and the light theft was a sweet way to begin a day.
She glanced at her pillow, and considered what fifteen more minutes might do for her. It should have been appealing, but it wasn’t.
They’d marked dawn as the deadline. The last moment that keimon could walk out freely.
And she was about to shed her uniform and try to walk through in daylight.
Even if she left now, she couldn’t reach the gate before the sun. She was under orders to wait, to let the last of them make their escape, to let them breathe, let them disappear before she left. Still, she couldn’t ignore the small part of her that would have liked to go now, while the edict still lasted. It had been a long time since she’d walked through a city without the royal bear on her shoulder.
After another moment, she pushed off her cot, and moved quietly through the barracks. There was a string of soldiers coming in and out of the main room, tired faces turned inward, too alert faces turned outward, but she passed them and moved toward the fenced yard beside the building. The dirt floor was hard from the cold night hours, and the air was chilled enough to hold her breath in front of her in gray smoke. She rolled her shoulders, bent her neck from one side to the other, held one foot up behind her, then the other. Then she started running. The yard was smaller than the one at home, but still large enough for the laps to feel easy rather than tedious. The air burned her lungs at first, and her feet jolted against the ground for the first dozen steps. Then she just ran.
When she started to notice her own shadow running ahead of her, she slowed, then stopped. Sweat pulled her shirt tight across her shoulders. Her hair stuck to the back of her neck. Slowly, she wrapped it up behind her head and held it with both hands, letting the breeze cool her, letting her lungs empty and fill with as much air as they would take.
When she went inside, Aled was sitting up, boots on, shirt and breeches exchanged for others in dull blues and browns. The colors looked strange on him, and she looked at him a moment longer than she had to as she pulled clothes out of her own bags.
“Ready?” she asked.
He looked at her curiously, maybe wondering where she’d been. “Yes,” he said.
“You can get the horses, then,” she said.
Aled clapped both hands on the edge of the bed. Standing, he gathered his bag, saluted and left.
Seryn changed her clothes quickly. She shrugged out of her shirt, yanked off her boots and breeches and tied her wet clothes around the outside of her pack to let them air. Barely looking at it, she pulled a plain brown shirt over her head, tied it at her neck and at her side, then pulled on rough breeches. They were looser than she was used to, but she ignored that too. She pulled her belt out of her uniform and cinched it tight at her waist, pushed her feet back into her boots. She threw a jacket over her shoulders, grabbed her bag and headed straight for the stable.
Macsen was waiting for her, leaning against the post between her horse’s stall and Aled’s. Aled had his horse out, tethered and saddled, and was just coaxing her own out of the stall.
“In a hurry?” Macsen asked, like her quick step amused him.
She dropped her bag against the wall, and added her hand to her horse’s bridle to steady him as Aled pulled him into the hall.
“We have orders,” she told Macsen. “They don’t give you commendations for meandering through them.” She ran a hand down her horse’s broad nose, watching Macsen carefully.
“Well, you can try it out today,” he said. He pushed off the wall, coming a few steps toward her. “The keimon are taking a long time to clear away from the city. Wagons are slow. So are kids and old men. Let them have their time. I don’t want them seeing you and thinking you’re coming after them.”
Seryn blinked at him, wondering if he realized what he just said.
“Just an extra hour or two,” he said. “Take the long way through the city. Enjoy breakfast.” He smiled, then passed her on the way to the door.
Seryn took a deep breath, reminding herself that wasn’t a heavy order. There was nothing but good in being told to take it easy.
Aled slowed as he brought out her saddle, gleefully making his steps as lazy as possible.
“Did he say breakfast?” Aled asked.
Seryn just shook her head.
They left the palace within a few minutes, then immediately turned away from the gate. The main road would have led them almost straight out of the city, quickly, but they turned off it, wandering aimlessly through a few turns, before Seryn nodded Aled into the lead. He began to follow his nose, chasing the warm smell of bread and sweets.
Seryn watched the morning crowd. Men and women split around them, as anyone would for two horses of their bulk pressing down the street, but there was a quickness to the way they moved. Some of them looked nervous. Most of them looked happy, like the sun was spilling happiness instead of light. They met her eye easier than they the day she arrived, nodded and waved, like they had suddenly discovered that their city was full of friends. She tightened her grip on her reins and stayed close to Aled.
They ate breakfast on horseback, the small son of a baker passing them rolls and stuffed pastries through a side window. Aled flicked a handful of coins at him. The boy caught them against his chest, grinned at the number of them, and ran back for a few more. They stuffed the extras into their packs for later and chewed contentedly, watching traffic thicken to a happy crawl.
Seryn kept one eye on the shadows, watching them shorten as the sun climbed and finally nudged her horse forward again. They still took the roundabout roads, turned too often, wandered in a way that seemed foolish to her, and finally arrived at the open common in front of the gate.
The guards were back, flanking the gate in armor the gleamed under their shirts, swords hanging from their hips. Like everyone else, they seemed pleased with the daylight, sharp and alert after the night off. Their eyes moved back and forth, following the crowd at a distance. They stood straight, resting back on their heels, hands easy on their hilts.
One of them caught Seryn’s eye. Too long. Seryn’s stomach tightened in an instant, and she ignored it.
The gate was open, the open field outside bowing in the breeze. It seemed peacefully silent compared to the rumble inside the walls, and she waited for it to break over her as she left the city.
“Stop!” the guard called.
Seryn shut her eyes. She pulled back on her reins, almost on reflex, and Aled stopped beside her.
Slowly, she looked over. The guard was tapping one of his mates on the arm, drawing him and two others in behind him to flank Seryn and Aled.
“Leaving?” he demanded, stopping at her horse’s shoulder.
“Yes,” she said. “We’re headed home.”
“Where’s home?” he asked.
“Rendren,” she said.
He paused, like he almost recognized the name.
“Lift your sleeve,” he said.
Seryn held his gaze and didn’t move.
“I said lift it,” he said. He reached for her arm. She pulled her arm to her chest, but not before he’d caught the cuff and pulled it high enough to see the scars lacing her forearm.
“Do you have any idea who we are?” Aled demanded, sharper even than the guard.
“I have an inkling,” the man returned. He hand was on his sword, and it was a miracle he hadn’t drawn it already. Seryn glanced over his fellow guards, watching for who was likely to draw before him, who was waiting for orders. A quick glance, and she was assured she had good soldiers around her, steady until a command was given. It was only a momentary comfort.
“I’m Aled,” Aled said. “This is Seryn. We’re soldiers in King Vardeck’s army, here at the invitation of King Madden, and granted to passage by the same kings. You can either let us through, or start thinking about how you’re going to explain yourself to men who can take your hands off your wrists with one word.”
The guard almost hesitated. Almost. Seryn saw the order to draw form on his lips before she heard it. Immediately, she kicked her heels into her horse’s sides. He reared, front legs wheeling and driving them out of her way. Aled ducked low on his horse and when she bolted forward, he was pressed right behind her, thundering outside with her same vigor.