Five years spent between four block walls, hours and days lived with no activity, and it seemed, now, as if he should walk these familiar rooms like nothing had passed, as if he had been here yesterday. But Vardan didn’t. The twists of halls felt long, the walls felt wide, and the echoes of his footsteps were too clear compared to the rustling and shifting in the dark he was used to. He had been here, a long time ago. He knew which turns to take, looked out windows and saw what he expected, found where he meant to be with little thought, but some lifetimes had passed since the last time he was here.
He took his steps slowly. The windows spilled heat and light along the long hall, and he passed in and out of them. He blinked in the light, and missed the heat when he stepped into the next shadow. High in the palace, each square of glass showed off a tumble of roofs and wash of waves on the far side. He’d spent hours on hours here once, and he considered stopping at a window, leaning against the frame, pretending he could hear water through the glass like echoes in a shell.
He continued on his way.
At the end of the hall, he turned right, looped down a set of back stairs and arrived in the squarer hall below. Two guards stood on either side of Lord Damion’s office door. They stood straight-backed and square, perhaps built into the wooden architecture. Vardan watched them as he came closer, waiting for either of them to move. They let him pass, hardly looked at him, and didn’t move as he knocked firmly on the door.
“Come in,” Lord Damion called through the heavy, carved doors.
Vardan glanced sideways at either guard once more, then let himself inside.
The room was as bright as the hall, windows spaced along two sides, with the curtains only half closed against the heat. The walls were washed with white, with rich brown wood supports that lanced straight up and met overhead. Damion’s desk rested on the far side of the room, padded chairs seated in the carpet, while a long, rounded table stretched beneath the incoming sunlight. Damion leaned over one end of his desk, chair forgotten. His hands gripped the scroll work on either side, and his dark hair was perfectly oiled back from his face in friendly curls. He glanced at Vardan, then back down to the papers on his desk, a small smile tilting one side of his face.
“I didn’t call for you,” he said.
Vardan came to a gentle stop a few steps inside the door, staying a few inches back from the first square of yellow light cut on the floor. “I know,” he said. He glanced around the room, settling in the distant familiarity that extended here as well. “That’s what it means when you tell me I’m a free man again. I can come and go as I please.”
Damion laughed, nearly silently, looked up at Vardan with a clearer smile. “Congratulations. I hope you’re using it for something more than dropping in on me unexpectedly.”
Vardan looked back at him for a long moment before it occurred to him he should have been smiling back. Then, it was just too late, and he just didn’t care. “What more could I ask, than to take unannounced audiences with the Clan Lord?”
Pausing, Damion held his eye a little more firmly, but didn’t lose his smile. He straightened and let out a breath with one last absent look at his papers. “What do you need, Vardan?”
“Where is she?” Vardan asked.
Damion raised his eyebrows, curiously. After a moment, he shook his head a little. “Who?”
“Cerena,” Vardan said. “Where did you put her?”
Damion looked down, softening the sudden silent laugh that curved across his lips.
“I’ve been through the prisons,” Vardan told him quietly. “All of them. Myself. And I understand hiding her away somewhere like you did me. So where is she?”
“So,” Damion said, pleased, and he crossed his arms over his chest. ‘That’s what your first choice of what to do with your freedom was? Looking for old rebels…”
“You know exactly how you bought my loyalty,” Vardan returned, quickly, but his voice still low and benign. “Don’t pretend that it’s any secret or betrayal that I would look for her.”
Damion nodded at that, his gaze dropping to the floor while he did. Then he looked up to watch Vardan while he answered. “I only had a hold on her for eight weeks.”
Vardan blinked. “She escaped you?”
Damion nodded again. His smile deepened, and he raised an eyebrow at Vardan. “In one of the early breaks.” Turning back to his desk, he strolled around the corner, stopped and rested his hands on the top, looking over his papers at a new angle. “From what I understand she stayed another week on the island. Then she left while she could.”
It felt like a lie, wrong, running against his skin like a knife blade too blunt to do anything more than catch and pinch awkwardly. Cerena was not the kind to run. She was stubborn as the sky, and more likely to be run over by a bull that admit that she should take two steps out of her path. Until she felt his hand on her arm.
But it was heavy too, and truths had developed iron weight in his stomach lately. And he had never been the kind to give in. And Damion…
Vardan looked at the top of the Clan Lord’s head, and bit back the thought before it formed any weight of its own.
“Where did she go?” Vardan asked.
“The mainland, last I heard,” Damion said. He slid one paper to the side with all five fingers and didn’t look up. “She hasn’t moved much in the last five years.”
Slowly, Vardan nodded. “You’re keeping an eye on her?”
“Of course,” Damion said. “She could cause me as much trouble as you.”
Vardan took a breath. He turned slowly for the door, giving Damion time to stop him if he wanted to. The other man did nothing while Vardan lifted the latch, stepped outside, and pulled the door shut behind him. Glancing to either side, Vardan considered the guards and took his first even steps back down the hall.
It had been lifetimes since this had been home.