Terius climbed through the window an hour after midnight. In the gray dark, he was just a dim white shirt under his open jacket, just the shine of a leather boot set perfectly on the window sill, the shifting gleam of his close-cut blonde hair, a quiet shuffle as he braced himself on the moldings on the wall outside. There was a thin moon overhead, shying behind the clouds at every opportunity, so the shadows weren’t deep, and the shine wasn’t high. He was not a shadow – too quick, and too tall, and too adept at silently easing the latch out of its seat – but he was something similar. Lyneth watched him from the last step, hands locked loosely around her knees. She tried not to be impressed with how little noise he made.
Terius swung one glass pane free in a easy sort of way, and caught it before it banged at the far reaches of its hinge. Then he pulled himself around the square edge of it, setting one foot on the inside sill, then the other, while his fingers hooked in the top. And he stopped, one foot almost to the floor, head bent to fit through the short opening.
“Mother?” he whispered, too surprised to realize he’d just been caught.
“Good evening,” she said. Polite. Even.
And he didn’t let out his next breath, realizing where he was, where she was, and what was wrong with both.
She smiled at him. Slowly, she gathered her hair – already down for the night – to one side of her head, smoothed it roughly with her fingers. She pulled her night coat a little closer, and settled her hands over her night-gown covered knees again. He watched her. He remembered to breath, but his mouth straightened, and his shoulders fell.
“Did you have a good time?” she asked him.
Terius paused, then nodded.
“How is Jaera?”
“She’s doing well,” he said.
Lyneth smiled. “Did she get home all right?”
Terius nodded. “I walked her all the way there.”
“Good,” Lyneth said. “You should get to bed.”
Terius let out a long breath. Stepping down, he pulled the window shut behind him. He ran his fingers through his hair, looked up at her behind his hand, and started up the stairs beside her. Lyneth paused, then she turned with him, watching him up the first few steps, surprised.
“You can let your cousin in,” Lyneth said, almost laughing in the dark.
Terius stopped again. He rocked back on one foot, looking down at her. “What?” he asked.
“I assume he’s out the window, hanging off something like a parakeet.” She pointed toward the glass. “You can tell him that I don’t look likely to skin anyone tonight.”
Terius glanced at the window, then back at her. His eyebrows had snapped together, and he considered her for a moment, blinking, tired. “Zain’s not with me.”
Lyneth hesitated. “Your lies are improving. I almost believe you.”
“He’s not,” Terius said. “I haven’t seen him since dinner.”
“He’s not here?” Terius asked.
“Well,” Lyneth said slowly. “His bed is empty, and I don’t hear the servants screaming, and nothing seems to be on fire…”
“Do you want me to go back out and look for him?”
“No.” Lyneth put out a hand to stop him as he started back down the stairs. “I want you to go to bed. Zain can take care of himself.” She didn’t bother to look back at him, but she listened as he paused, then started upwards again, the steps creaking under his feet, complaining at the late hour as well. She combed her fingers through her hair again, looked at the window, and watched the faint moonlight strike through the lines of the almost-perfect glass. Terius paused at the top, and the floor creaked a little more than it should have as he wavered.
“If he isn’t home in an hour, wake me,” he said.
She smiled, but didn’t respond, and he disappeared down the hall toward his room.
Lyneth waited. The moonlight shifted a little, and the hall seemed to grow darker. She rested her head in her hand, counting minutes, and didn’t move.
The floors creaked on their own a few times.
The breeze hummed outside, just for a moment, then fell asleep again.
Something moved outside, a cloud probably, or a tree too far away for her to hear the leaves rustling.
And Lyneth waited.
It was half another hour before she saw something move again, too quick to be a shadow. She set her hands around her knees, straightened her back, and watched.
She waited, sure that she would see Zain shimmy up the outside of the frame the same way Terius’ had, and hear the window pane swing outward. But, there was nothing. The moonlight still glowed in every wavering fault in the glass, and the house still murmured to itself in the dark. Lyneth stood slowly, padding in her bare feet across the carpet. Looking out, she checked – down and up – for tips of fingers, or the toe of a boot, or Zain’s curly hair. She didn’t see anything. She considered opening the window for a better look, then slowly, she slunk back to her seat.
The minutes rolled by. She tried not to be so sure that she’d seen something. There had been nothing there, but she thought she might have heard something, too. She smiled at herself, shook her head. Then considered opening the window again. Then told herself she was being silly. She stayed where she was.
Then, almost an hour later, someone whispered from the top of the stairs, “Aunt Lyneth?”
She turned immediately. Zain stood at the top of the stairs. He was stripped down to a thin pair of breeches, his hair mussed as if he’d just crawled out of bed. He yawned after he said her name, wide, with his eyes screwed shut and his hand almost too his mouth, but not quite, as if he was too tired to finish the motion.
“Why are you awake?” he asked.
Lyneth stared. Then she faced forward again. “I was waiting for you.”
He started down the stairs, dropping one foot down a step, then the other, mindlessly. “What?”
“Stop it,” she said. “You weren’t asleep.”
He paused. Then took the next three stairs, almost silent and dropped down beside her, arms resting across his knees.
“You weren’t supposed to notice,” he murmured.
“And you aren’t supposed to get into any trouble you can’t convince Terius to come along on,” she chided.
He rubbed the back of his head, holding in a grin. “He was busy.”
“Yes,” Lyneth said. She shook her head. “I don’t think I was supposed to notice that either.”
“And I could have convinced him,” Zain promised her. “I just didn’t bother.” He shrugged. “I’m not pretty enough to compete with Jaera.”
“I’ve heard that,” Lyneth said.
“Yeah,” Zain said.
Lyneth pointed toward the window in front of her. “I thought this was your favorite way to sneak in.”
“It is,” Zain assured her. “It’s the easiest way to get to the second floor, and it’s close to my room, so I only have to sneak about twenty paces once I’m inside.”
“But you…” Lyneth paused.
“Oh.” Zain straightened a little and pointed back the way he came. “I went through the kitchens. I tried the window, but I saw you and jumped back down, ran around the back. I had a longer way to go on the inside, but I got in all right.”
Lyneth smiled to herself. “You saw me?” she repeated.
Zain nodded. He ran his fingers up the back of his head again.
“And you decided to come talk to me, rather than go to bed and see me in the morning, when I would have been tired enough to actually believe that you’d been here all night?” she asked.
Zain dropped his head, and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
He looked at her sideways, tired, and smiling, and rested his head in one hand. He shrugged a little. “It just seemed mean to leave you here.”