Aled slid back into camp. It was a good slide, Seryn thought. He took a meandering route that looped around and in and around the camp’s edge, a sewing needle working stitches into the frayed edges of the sleeping men and women. It was much the same path she might have taken a few days ago, trying to mask her patrol around the edges. His problem was that there were so few people still wandering awake to hide between, he was meant to be asleep himself, and he was coming from the wrong direction. She could watch him from a hundred yards away, and every step he took was in trained sneak.
He was covering something, and she had an absurd, sickening idea what it was.
But she smiled when he came close. “You’re still on your feet?” she asked lightly.
She was starting to feel a little hazy herself and the others had all laid out behind her on top of their bedrolls in their clothes. Even Tomi and Rhian, who had worn smiles wide enough to make the moon jealous, moved like the morning had made them lighter while it weighted the rest of them, and had chattered with each other for almost an hour, had finally shut their eyes and started to breathe in and out, clean and even.
Aled shrugged. “Still on adrenaline, I guess.”
Seryn felt the lie like a cat flicking its tail at her on a walk-by, familiar, but still enough to make her flinch. She’d told the same lie earlier, though she knew they weren’t covering the same thing. He was yawning, shuffling on his feet, more than just hazy.
“Yeah,” she said. She looked down for a minute, like she was tired too, but it let her resettle her smile before she looked at him again. “Me too.”
Aled rolled his shoulders. “Just kind of felt an itch, you know? Made it hard to lie down.”
Seryn nodded. “I know. Where’d you go?”
He sat down beside her, and sucked in a deep breath like he hadn’t had the strength on his feet. He yawned again, and covered it with one hand that he then quickly swiped through his hair. “Nowhere really,” he said. “I took a good loop of the place, came back.”
“See anyone interesting?” she asked, and this time purposely put a clean clip on every syllable so that her voice suddenly set itself against his sleepy drawl.
He looked up, too quickly, and just as quickly stopped himself from saying anything. He might have gathered an answer, a denial, after a second or two, but she didn’t give him the time.
“Do you know who paid us a visit last night?” she asked. “Did you go to see them? By yourself?” She looked him over harshly. “Asleep on your feet?”
Aled looked over his shoulder, quick, maybe seeing if anyone else was awake, maybe seeing who was closest. Harun was lying on his side a few feet behind her, Leolin and Reese a little beyond him. No one in the crowd of them moved.
Aled sat up slowly, draped his arms over his knees and met her eye, concerned. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Seryn blinked, just once. “Am I all right?” she repeated.
“I just took a walk, Ser. But you seem strung,” he said. His voice was gentled, maybe by sleep, but it seemed purposeful. “Are you all right?”
Pulling back, Seryn watched him. He was still lying. She knew it, but he sat easy, his voice laid steady, and he looked at her earnestly under the question. He was lying well, and his recovery bothered her more than anything else. Almost, she doubted what she’d seen before. He had jumped when she asked who he had seen. He hadn’t been sneaking back, just walking along his habits.
And then she didn’t doubt at all.
Seryn ran her hands over her face, and took a deep breath, letting go of the one she’d been holding. “I’m fine,” she said on an exhale, and let it sound like mixed relief and resignation.
Beside her, Aled leaned into his knees a little more. “This was all a lot easier when we were kids,” he said. “In the barracks. With those tiny little bunks they built for us. You know I went back a year ago? I don’t think I could get my leg on one of those. But they fit us fine then. And all we had to do was go for a run when they told us to, and we could come back to those bunks every night and play after they’d done the night check.”
Seryn smiled. They’d played a lot. Silent tag in the dark, that turned halfway to hide and seek as they all learned how to be quiet on their feet. At first it had only been to keep the wardens from hearing and storming in to send them back to their beds. Then it had been just the thrill of it, being able to sneak up on their friends, all of them shadows in the dark.
Seryn swallowed hard, and stopped herself. She let him keep talking, and didn’t listen. Slowly, she set down the facts from the night before, then from the days before that.
The men last night had looked enough like bandits, but they hadn’t taken much. They could have been folk from the area. There were enough towns with a few days of them that could have heard what Madden was letting loose into the countryside and gotten angry enough about it to come after them. The timing was about right for that, for a herd of young whips riding hard from their front doors to take care of the problem passing through their backyards. But they hadn’t hurt anyone. She hadn’t seen a single one target a person. They’d just rolled fire into the midst of everything and dashed around to keep people running.
And the Warlords were somewhere around here.
Aled himself had met them in the hills.
“Sometimes I think they’re right,” Aled was saying. “For not letting us be commanders. We’re still too young for it, really. I mean, aren’t you going to be glad when they’re back and we can stop all this mess? Wear our uniforms, talk the way we’re used to, be who we’ve always been?”
Seryn put her face into her hand again, curled her fingers in front of her mouth. “Probably,” she murmured.
“Definitely,” he corrected, holding her same hush.
Seryn waited a breath, then another, letting the silence hang amiably. Then, on another small breath, “Who were they, Aled?”
He shook his head, shrugged, smiled tiredly.
“It was the Warlords, wasn’t it?” she asked, just as slow. “And you did go to see them.”
He turned, looked at her. He held his mouth closed, then licked his lips to start a word. “Why are you asking again?”
“Just tell me you’re not lying to me,” she told him. She hesitated. “Tell me this isn’t a game, and you’re not sneaking up on me in the dark.”
Aled didn’t say anything. And the quiet, the way he held her eyes and shut his mouth again, told her more.
Aled didn’t answer.
“Please,” she said.
“If I had seen them, if I had talked to them,” Aled said quickly. “You know exactly what I would say.” He paused, turned and met her eye, and held it more fiercely that she expected. “I would tell them to run. From us. Because those barracks were too small, and the world they gave us is built to crush us too.”
Seryn shook her head. “You talked to them,” she said.
“What are you doing, Seryn?” Aled asked. And she tried not to hear the disappointment stamped into his tone. “You can ignore this. Macsen’s not here.”
She said nothing. She set her teeth together, looked ahead, did not look at him.
“What could you even do, if you wanted to?” Aled asked. “They’re gone. They’re protected by the Warlords. And whatever you think of me for telling them to run, you can’t do anything about it. Putting me in shackles for disobeying orders would be a pretty clear sign to these people that we aren’t just refugees like the rest of them.”
She slid one hand out, close to the ground, below his vision. He didn’t notice until she’d pressed already warm fingers against his side, spread to cradle the thick ribs just under his arm. Then he froze.
“I can’t put you in shackles,” she whispered. She knew the lowness of her voice didn’t soften a single word she said. She liked the way it pinned him where he was, leaning toward her, leaning into her hand, so that he heard every word. “And I won’t kill you. But who saw you this morning, while you were sneaking around? Who could say that you weren’t burned in the middle of the night?” She pooled a little more heat into her palm. “I’ve seen men live with only one lung. They say losing it is like drowning. Then, the next few weeks, they just can’t catch their breath, and they try not to move. And then, one day, they wake up fine. But I don’t imagine they ever forget.”
Aled held very still. He didn’t look away from her, just breathed in and out, as if he was memorizing what the last few real breaths of his life would feel like. “Were you the ones who took their lungs?” he asked.
Seryn let the question slide past her. She didn’t have any need to answer it, nor did she want to. “I don’t want to do it to you,” she said. “And you’re right, I can ignore this.”
Another set of breaths, and she felt them push and pull on the ribs beneath her hand.
“But do not do it again,” she told him.
Seryn pulled her hand back. She faced forward and took a breath herself. In and out.
“I need your help,” she said.
If Aled was surprised by her easy tone, he didn’t say anything.
“All right,” he said, mechanically.
“There’s a man here, named Ern.” She glanced around the camp again, as she had been before he arrived. “He and I got into a fight this morning. He knows a little too much for his good, and from the sounds of it, there are few things I should know about him. I want to know who he is, where he came from, and what he’s doing here.”
Aled rolled forward onto his feet, stretched, and twisted back to look at her. “People are plenty tired just now. I imagine they’ll say all sorts of things they shouldn’t. And lucky for you, I’m not tired any more.”
Seryn blinked, turned, and looked up at him. “Good then,” she said.