Connell leaned against the wall, one leg tucked under the table, the other laid out in front of him on the long bench. He had been sitting there – at that table, against that wall – since he was too young to rightfully be in the inn’s taproom after dark. He couldn’t figure out if he had outgrown Lisse’s sharp commands to take his foot down, or if he’d only worn her down after a decade of straightening up on a flinch, and then sneaking his foot back up when her back was turned, but whichever it was, she just swept by as she took orders and delivered plates, and she smiled at him. Even though he took up the same space as a lazy octopus.
But the seat gave him a good scope of the room, and he wasn’t about to suggest that she should order him to give it up. He just stayed there, elbow on the table, mug in his lap, and smiled back at her.
“I’ll be a half-swung son of a sea sponge,” Connell murmured, and took another sip.
Across the table, Jaera sat, knees in front of her as she was supposed to. She looked up, eyes a little wide, but hardly surprised. “All right,” she told him. She turned her cup in her hands, shifting the heat of it against her palms. “But I think I’ve gotten a little old for pretend games.”
He had to look straight at her before he saw the smile curling the corner of her mouth. He’d already started to glare, but it was easy enough to turn back to a grin. He nodded toward the door. “Look who’s wandered in.”
The room was quiet, stuck on the twilight line, too late for dinner, and too early for people looking to get out of the dark but unwilling to turn for home yet. The windows were lit in tones of gray and gold, while a handful of people gathered at the tables. Some of them still had drinks in their hands, giving themselves an excuse to stay. Others just leaned back, as if preparing to leave, and stayed. The emptiness made it easy to spot the newcomer as he stepped through the door, tall, blonde hair pulled back in a rough tail, rich jacket and heavy breeches fitted to him like a second skin. Jaera looked over her shoulder just in time to catch his eye as he scanned the room, and nodded to him.
“I didn’t think he ever came down here,” Connell said, watching as the man started across the room.
“He does,” Jaera said carefully, and somehow managed not to make it sound like she was disagreeing. “Sometimes.”
“Toar ShatterIron,” Connell murmured under his breath. “Looks like he belongs on a couch made of silk and dignity.” He pretended to adjust his collar.
Jaera slid him a dull, warning look just before Toar stopped at the table. Connell looked down at his mug and bit down on another grin.
“Good evening,” Toar said, looking only at Jaera. Connell wasn’t sure he’d bothered to look at anything else once he’d spotted her.
“Good evening,” Jaera echoed. She had barely moved, elbows still on the table, hands still wrapped around her drink, but she leaned back to look at him. “Are you looking for me?”
“No,” Toar said briskly. “Not anymore. I’ve just found you.”
Jaera blinked up at him, just once. Connell bit down harder.
Toar tapped her shoulder. “Come on,” he said. And then he turned as if she would jump at the command.
“Where are we going?” Jaera asked.
“Lessons,” Toar said, so evenly and quickly, he must have thought she already knew.
“Oh,” Jaera said, just as evenly, just as quickly. Connell could have believed that she’d expected it, maybe forgotten for half a moment, but smoothly remembered, if he hadn’t known her to take everything in that steady stride.
“It’s a bit late for lessons, innit?” Connell asked.
Toar stopped. Still turned, ready to stride back out, he looked at Connell. His eyes narrowed for one moment, flickered over him, then returned steadily to his face. He straightened his expression, seamlessly covering over whatever thought had entered his head next. “Maybe,” he allowed. “If our lessons didn’t involve learning to spill fire out of our hands, and the dark didn’t make fire easier to see on days when we can’t manage what we should in daylight.”
Jaera moved one hand off her mug, starting to push herself back from the table. Apparently that was an explanation that made sense.
Toar, however, was turning back, ignoring her. “You’re him, aren’t you?” he asked slowly.
Jaera glanced back across the table. Connell raised his eyebrows a little.
“You’re the unfortunate man who conned my cousin into dragging me out to meet her and take her as an apprentice,” Toar said. He looked Connell over again.
Connell almost laughed. “I am the unfortunate man,” he agreed.
Toar took a seat on the bench. Immediately, Jaera slid back toward the table, back straight, watching him out of the corner of her eye.
Connell leaned farther back. “That was a long time ago,” he said. He glanced at Jaera. How old was she now? Fourteen? Fifteen? “Eight years ago?”
Jaera gave him a shallow nod.
Connell looked back to Toar. “You can’t still be mad.”
“I’m not,” Toar told him evenly.
Connell hesitated. “Then…”
“You’re the other one that knows,” Toar said. He held Connell’s gaze intently, mouth coming up in a smile like he’d just found the key to a treasure chest he’d been waiting to open for some decades. “You know where she was found. When she was a baby.”
Connell didn’t say anything, but he mirrored Toar’s slow smile. He looked at Jaera, and she looked steadily back, almost smiling, in her relaxed, patient way.
“You and Galen found her, didn’t you?” Toar asked.
“Sure,” Connell told him. He lifted his mug, smiled into the lip of it, and took a drink.
“Where?” Toar asked.
“Haven’t you asked Galen?” Connell asked. “Doesn’t he sail with you now?”
“I have,” Toar assured him. Leaning over the table, he folded his arms precisely in front of him. “He won’t tell me. I ask him, and he says he caught her on a silver fishing line at midnight. Or he found her dangling off a star one night on a crow’s watch. Or a flying fish dropped her into his arms along with a cat with nine tails, a dolphin’s shoulder, and a piece of the moon. Even wine-full, coming up on the wrong side of sunrise, he says he picked her out of a rose bush on an enchantress’ hill.”
Connell pulled his eyebrows together. “Galen has enough money to drink until sun-up now?”
“Once in a decade,” Jaera told him. She shook her head. “It was a bad idea.”
“A great bad idea,” Connell returned. He looked at Toar. “Did he ever tell you he cut her out of the stomach of a great white shark?”
Toar blinked, held his eyes closed a little too long. “Yes.”
Connell tapped his chest proudly. “That one’s mine.”
“Galen won’t tell me,” Toar pressed. “Where was she?”
“You know, don’t you?” Connell asked Jaera quietly.
Toar looked at her sideways. “She won’t tell me either.”
“Why do y’wanna know?” Connell asked him. He took another drink, watching Toar over the top, and slowly rested his mug against his thigh again. Then he gave Toar a small shrug. “Why does it matter?”
“It must matter,” Toar said. “Or else Galen would have told me the first time I asked.”
“It matters because you don’t know?” Connell asked.
“It matters because it’s worth hiding,” Toar corrected him.
Turning his head, Connell looked at him out of the corner of his narrowed eyes. “No. If it’s worth hiding, that means it deserves not to be seen, which means you shouldn’t be asking.”
“It means they think it deserves not to be seen,” Toar said.
Jaera shifted in her seat, looked down, then held still, like that would hide the fact that she had moved. Connell watched the top of her head, waiting to see if she would look up at him.
“And you think they’re wrong,” Connell said.
Jaera didn’t move.
Toar tilted his head, as if he could force the statement to slide away. “I think it matters,” he told Connell.
Connell gave him a wide, bright smile. “I’m not disagreein’.”
Toar pulled back, just an inch.
Connell’s smile widened. “It was a great night. We were runnin’. Faster than I’ve ever run. Took a shortcut through the darkest alley I’ve ever seen, covered in shadow, like a nightmare. And we tripped over her.” Connell grinned as he pointed at Jaera. “We tripped over her and her stray dog body-guard. He musta been as tall as my hip, with fangs like dragon claws. And we did battle with that dog, won, picked her up as a prize and kept runnin’. I got some great scars from it. Wanna see?” He started to roll up his sleeves.
Toar pushed back from the table. He stood, hands flat on the tabletop and blinked at his fingers before he looked at Connell again. He shook his head. “Thank you,” he said, voice low. And turning, he moved toward the door.
Jaera watched him go. Connell thought he saw her swallow, waiting for him to move a little farther away, then looked back at him.
“You told him,” she whispered. But she was still almost smiling, eyes a little too wide.
Connell laid a finger over his lips, dragging his sleeve back down to cover the long red gash along his forearm.