Wednesday Serial: Farther Part LXIV

Anie fire_handANIE

The door was unlocked in the morning. Anie heard the latch click just after sunrise and she sat up straight. Most of the others were still asleep, but Cidra shifted at the sound too, and Nessim was out of bed before Anie could throw back her blankets to join him.

Cidra sat up after a moment. Anie met her eye as she crossed the room, but Cidra just crossed her arms over her knees and didn’t move. Nessim glanced sideways when Anie stopped beside him in front of the door. The hall on the other side was getting noisier as they waited. Boots padded back and forth, echoing in the large space, while murmurs hummed dully through the wall. Occasionally something clapped, and it sounded like someone was stacking dishes at the far end.

Nessim swallowed, Anie took a deep breath, and they pushed the door open.

Something was burning. Sweet wood smoke immediately drifted through the door, while the voices and noises crisped and cleared. Men and women were walking back and forth around the two long tables that remained in the center of the hall. The rest of the hall had been covered in rows of cots, the same way their side had been. Each of them stood with an identical blanket, and an identical bag under its foot. The men and women were in brown shirts, and leather boots, and some had already shrugged into their brown coats. A few, gathered into the left corner nearest the door wore white shirts and green coats. King Vardeck’s rearing bear was stitched onto their shoulders, the claws reaching up onto the high collars that stood around their necks.

Anie took another breath, and looked to Nessim. Neither of them let their toes cross the doorway.

The crowd didn’t notice them for a long time. Cidra slipped out of bed behind them, and walked up slowly. Anie looked back at her, quietly waiting to see if she would press farther forward, but the older girl stopped inches back from them. Cidra looked out, quiet and wary.

“If we run straight through,” Nessim whispered. “I bet we could make it.” He nodded toward the door.

Cidra slapped him on the back of the head.

“Ow!” he whispered, just loud enough to make sure she understood he was offended.

Anie her head at him. “It didn’t work last night.”

“Da says nothing good works the first time,” Nessim said. He turned his hand on the doorframe, bracing it to push forward.

Cidra slapped him on the back of the head again.

“Ow!” Nessim stumbled forward.

One of the people in green noticed them then. Anie nearly jumped back behind the doorway when she and the group she was standing in turned their heads, but stopped when the girl smiled.

It was Rhian, though Anie hadn’t recognized her with her hair tied back in a tight braid, and her coat buttoned tight to her waist. She had left the buttons loose around her neck, but Anie could see enough of how the coat was supposed to fit to see the tight lines of it. The long tails swayed around her knees as she walked, but it only made her look sharper, like a blade that knew how to bend to keep from breaking. She walked the way she always had, but suddenly Anie understood her measured steadiness.

Rhian strode toward them, holding onto her smile easily. “Hello,” she said.

Anie leaned away from her, but stopped before she took a full step back. Rhian didn’t seem to notice.

“Are you hungry?” she said. “We have hot breakfast for you, if you want it.”

Nessim didn’t move. His mouth was in a tight line while his eyes darted around the hall. He looked as if he weren’t sure that his anger belonged on the happy girl in front of him. Anie hesitated. Cidra was the one who nodded.

Rhian looked at Nessim and Anie, and nodded back. She pointed her chin back toward the inner room. “Why don’t you wake the others?” she asked Cidra. “Tell them they brought bacon in yesterday. They won’t want to miss it.”

Cidra blinked, then moved back toward the rest of the sleepers.

Rhian pointed toward the hearth, lit orange with a still-bright fire, on the left-hand wall. “Go on,” she told Anie and Nessim. “They’ll give you breakfast if you ask for it, and you can be first in line.”

Anie leaned forward again, looking at the half-dozen people working around the fire. There was a stack of plates on the closest table, and big pans of food beside them along with the heavy metal pot over the fire.

Nessim still didn’t move.

“Did you get much sleep?” Rhian asked. Her voice was a little lower, a little kinder than her jovial tone from before.

Anie looked at her sideways. She’d heard Mel make a switch like that, fast and easy, but when Thea did it, it always meant that one tone had been a mask for the other. For half a moment she wondered which Rhian was pretending, and then she just shook her head.

“Then believe me,” Rhian told her. She looked over her shoulder for a moment, then back to Anie and Nessim. “They’re going to let me take you up into the mountains today. If you haven’t slept, you’re going to need all the energy meat and bread can give you.” She nodded over her shoulder to the hearth. “Go.”

Nessim’s eyes went bright. He and Anie waited one more moment, then half-walked, half-ran out the door toward the breakfast table.

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