They didn’t lock the door to the back quarter of the main hall that night. Anie waited for the click of the latch, the groan of the slider bar, when the door shut behind their ragged line, but it never came. The kids were spreading around the room, finding their cots from the night before, and one by one, they all came to a stop. Some of them made it to their cots, sat down. Some of them just stopped in the middle of the room. Anie and Nessim stopped very close to the door. And they all looked at each other.
But no one moved.
Anie wondered why not. Nessim looked at the wooden wall for a long minute, and she thought for sure that he was planning something. But then he looked down at his feet. Slowly, he shuffled to a bed that no one else had claimed. He looked tired.
She considered opening the door herself. Not now, but later, when the clatter of the rest of the hall died down and she could imagine everyone on the other side rolled into their own blankets to close out the dark night. She wasn’t sure if she could open the main door by herself. Or if she could find Thea and Mel. Or even if she could find Chas.
She looked at the others one more time, and then, uncertainly, she found her cot as well. Her legs were a little sore, and she curled up on her side.
Sevi motioned his little sister over to his cot, then waved over a few more of the littler ones. Then he pulled a handful of paper out from under his jacket and spilled it open on his blanket. He had gotten another piece of cake somehow. He had gotten two at dinner, but here was a third, and it looked bigger than either of the others. He grinned when his little sister grabbed a piece with her fingers. She giggled at him and the little crowd around him pressed closer. Anie smiled too when they all started to titter, and bend forward to hide their secret.
“Lights out?” Cidra asked, standing at the lamp at the back of the room.
Sevi looked up at her, eyes wide, and waved his hand in front of his neck as he shook his head. Then he pointed down at the cake in front of him, and held a finger in front of his lips.
Cidra rolled her eyes. And she waited.
It didn’t take long for the cake to disappear. Scattering to their beds, the littler kids wiped their mouths and licked their fingers. Then they hid under the blankets, as if that would cover the rest of their giggles. Anie covered her mouth to keep from laughing at them.
Cidra turned down the lamp so that the room dimmed before it finally went black.
For a long time, there was a rustling and shuffling. Someone was always trying to get comfortable on the wooden frames and the thick blankets. Then, finally, it stopped, and Anie wasn’t sure if they had all gone to sleep, or if they had just finally found the sweet spot where they fit into the cot.
She should have dropped into sleep immediately. She had slept so little the night before, and the mountain had been a long climb. Instead, she lay in the dark, thoughts slow and easy, but returning over and over to the door.
It wasn’t locked.
If she wanted to, she could slip out. If she needed to.
She kept thinking that she would drift into sleep in the next moment, but she didn’t. Alert and awake, she listened to people walk by on the other side of the wall, or speak quietly, or turn in their beds, and no noise surprised her or dragged her back into the waking world. They simply continued around her while she laid on her back and breathed.
She should have been asleep, she knew, and she wasn’t sure what was holding her from it, but she was too tired, too warm to care.
“You’ve been moved,” someone said on the other side of the wall. Anie wasn’t sure why her voice came through so clearly, except that it was close. Anie and turned toward it, folding her hands under her cheek, and listened for no reason except that she wasn’t sleeping anyway.
“Why?” a man returned. Aled, Anie thought, but it was hard to tell through the wall.
There was a pause, and from turn in the woman’s tone, it might have been a shrug. “I just got the order.”
“Just me?” Aled asked. He sounded as if he was ready to laugh, but he stopped quickly. There were more footsteps wandering toward the wall. “Or… all of us?”
“Sort of looks like it,” the woman replied.
Anie sat up slowly. She was trying to place the woman’s voice, but it was hard. There were so many unfamiliar voices in the camp now.
“Who ordered it?” Aled asked.
“The commander,” the woman said.
“Your commander or my commander?” Aled demanded.
There was another pause. “The commander,” the woman said flatly.
“Please, then, wait here,” Aled said. He kicked something as he moved off. “Hey, Rhian. Wynn. Want to keep our new friend company?”
“Our pleasure,” Wynn said.
Anie glanced around. None of the others were moving in the dark, even as she turned. Carefully, she put her toes on the floor, and still no one turned to see what she was doing, so she crept to the door. Leaning her hands against it, she put her eye to the crack. It wasn’t wide enough for her to see much more than a line of light.
Putting her hand to the latch, she stopped. She wasn’t sure how much noise it would make if she pulled it open.
“This would go a lot more smoothly if–” the woman began calmly.
“If you would remember that we don’t answer to you and yours,” Wynn finished for her, matching her calm. “Vardeck does not answer to Madden.”
“Let kings do what kings do,” the woman returned. She held her tone admirably. “We’re just soldiers, and you’re on our land. Remember that.” She must have turned someone else next. “Find Commander Jeyd,” she said.
Anie listened to them move away, and held her breath. She didn’t know what they would do if they knew she was there. She pushed her thumb down on the latch, then stopped.
“What’s going on?” Seryn asked, as she arrived. Anie could hear her footsteps, faster and firmer than anyone’s around her, though her voice was low and even.
Anie pushed the latch free in an instant, and cracked the door open. Seryn was in her full uniform, coat fit tight her her shoulders, hem swirling around her knees. Aled kept pace behind her shoulder, coat hanging open, as if he’d just thrown it back on. Wynn and Rhian stood between the two of their cots at the wall, arms crossed over their chest, and a line of brown coated soldiers stood in front of them with their sacks strung over their shoulders. The first, a woman taller than Seryn by a handwidth, turned toward her slowly.
“We have orders to take your places here,” the woman told her carefully.
“Who gave them?” Seryn asked.
The woman shifted as most of Seryn’s men and women gathered closer. “Commander Jeyd.”
“He didn’t say anything to me,” Seryn said.
The woman raised her chin, and smiled a little, apologetically. “Begging your pardon, but I don’t think he has to.”
Seryn stilled. There was no stiffness in it, she just didn’t move, suddenly elegant stone. Anie leaned her head against the wall, but didn’t dare open the door any farther.
“He does, actually,” Seryn told her. “This is your fortress, and you have command of it in almost every way. But these are my people. We are not your guests and we are not your servants. They’re only obligated to move when I tell them. As I’ve already told Jeyd.”
“And tell me,” the woman said. “Where exactly do you get that right?”
The main door of the hall clapped open and shut, echoing in the hall. The woman leaned back as soon as she heard, inhaling as if she knew she was about to be relieved from this conversation. Still not moving, Seryn waited until Jeyd arrived and stepped in beside his soldier before she turned her head.
“I can see this is going well,” Jeyd murmured.
“Perfectly,” Seryn agreed.
“I told them to take your places,” Jeyd told her. His voice was low, and he leaned his head toward her, gently signalling that this conversation didn’t need to be public. “It makes more sense for your people to be closer to the door. You’re out earliest, and as you say, have your own freedoms. You shouldn’t have to alert the entire hall on your way out.”
“If you feel like we’re making you look lazy, you should just start waking up on time,” Seryn replied, without lowering her voice. She seemed fine with their audience.
Jeyd took a quick breath, smiling as if he might laugh. “Maybe we should,” he said dismissively.
Seryn just raised her eyebrows inviting him to go on.
“You know what this is really about,” Jeyd murmured.
“Yes, I do,” Seryn replied. “And you know we’re better equipped to train and care for them.”
“They’re our children,” Jeyd said. “You can understand where some of us aren’t sitting comfortably on the idea of just letting you take them.”
Anie took a quick breath, then held it, hoping no one had heard.
“You took quite a long time to claim them,” Seryn replied. “Not that we’re taking them anywhere.”
“Seryn,” Jeyd said.
“We’re not moving,” she said. Anie expected her to cross her arms, turn to face him more directly, or square her heels against the floor. She just stayed as she was, and it was a firmer motion than if she had stomped her heel against the floor. “Until you can call in someone who outranks me to tell me otherwise.”
“Please,” Jeyd said. “Don’t turn this into a contest.”
“Why not?” Seryn said.
He paused. Then he did laugh, low and without much humor. “What should we do? Winner take all?”
“I’ve beaten you in a sword fight before,” Seryn said.
He pulled his eyebrows together. “You almost did,” he said.
She shook her head slowly. “We wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.”
Someone was moving behind her, and she took a step away from him, popping open each button on her coat. He watched her move away without moving, but the rest of the crowd was shoving each other back to give them room. She took her coat down off her shoulders, and tossed it to Aled, before turning to catch the sword that Drystan threw to her out of the crowd. Then she turned back to Jeyd.
Still shaking his head, Jeyd peeled out of his coat as well and dropped it behind him. His sword belt was already buckled around his waist. Drawing the blade, he spun it once over the back of his hand, adjusting his grip to its familiar weight.
Anie covered her mouth.
“First blood?” Jeyd asked.
Seryn shook her head. She was loosening the ties on her jacket, slipping it down off her shoulders. “First yield.”
The muscles of his jaw tightened. “All right.”
Seryn tossed her jacket to Aled as well. Then she loosened the neck of her shirt, and started lifting that up over her head as well, to strip down to her sleeveless undershirt.
Jeyd blinked then slipped out of his jacket too, and pulled his shirt up over his head. His back and arms held a smattering of pale scars, some thin sweeps across his ribs, and some thick gashes to his arms or chest. Anie winced, looking at some that had lay too close to his neck, or dangerously near his stomach. Fresh and pink, there was a burn against his ribs, almost in the shape of a hand, fingers and thumb spread wide. Anie knew he had been to war, but she had never imagined…
She glanced at Seryn, and winced again. Her skin was pale and smooth, unmarked from finger tip to shoulder, or anywhere in the deep, open neck of her undershirt. If she was hiding some wound, there was no sign of it anywhere else. She just looked small next to him, young, and suddenly stupid for the calm way she was looking up at him.
And yet, Jeyd had gone very still.
The whole room was quiet, and Anie resisted the urge to shift her own feet, lest it echo in the sudden silence. She glanced between them, from Jeyd’s wary expression, to Seryn’s cool calm. She couldn’t imagine what they were looking at.
“I cut you,” Jeyd said after a long moment.
Seryn raised her eyebrows. She motioned to the space between them. “Not yet, you haven’t.”
“When we met,” Jeyd said. “When we fought for the King. I cut you.” He mimed a long stripe across his own chest. “Deep.”
“Oh,” Seryn said. She nodded as if she had forgotten. “You did. You know, it was a real pain for a few days.”
He hesitated. “You’ve been to war.” It sounded like an accusation.
Anie looked at Seryn again, not sure how he could sound so sure. But Seryn was nodding.
“Seryn Two-Hands didn’t sound like the kind of person to stay back from the fight,” Jeyd said, his voice growing colder.
Seryn shook her head.
“You don’t take that much blood without giving some,” Jeyd said.
She nodded. “I’ve given plenty.”
“You don’t look like it,” Jeyd said.
“One of the great joys of being what I am,” Seryn returned.
He stood, staring at her, and she waited. Long seconds skipped past. The silence stretched until it echoed with a breath, and finally, Seryn let out a low breath.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” she murmured.
“What?” he asked.
“What I am?” she asked. She nodded toward his ribs. “Most people don’t forget after something like that.”
He touched the handprint as if it hurt.
She smiled, and it was a prettier thing than it had been before, kinder in all its corners. “You’re a walking parade, sir,” she murmured. “The story they tell at the celebration dinners. The lion that takes a field and wins a war.” She paused, glancing down for half a moment as she lost her smile, before she looked back up. Anie thought she looked sad, or angry, a hot ash twist of emotion that came so naturally, it might have been waiting under that smile the whole time. “I’m the story they tell in the dark. The ghost they can’t believe in, and hope they never have to.”
Jeyd blinked slowly.
“Let’s agree to remember what we both are,” Seryn said. “And work beside each other better.”
When he nodded, she motioned for Aled to step closer. She traded her sword for shirt and jacket and coat while the crowd broke out of its tense circle. The hall rumbled with voices after another breath, and footsteps echoed on the stones.
Jeyd stepped up beside Seryn slowly after she had pulled her shirt over her head, and waited for her to finish tucking it in.
“You might be off closer to the door,” he said, his voice nearly hidden by the other voices. Anie opened the door just a little wider to hear and watch at the same time.
Seryn looked up at him slowly. Then she nodded toward the wooden wall. “Let me take care of my own.”
Pausing, he nodded. Over his shoulder, Seryn looked at the door and met Anie’s eye.
Anie shut the door before she could be sure if the woman had really seen her.