When Seryn moved again, Rhian turned on the bench, then stood stiffly. Rhian didn’t meet her eye, but Seryn didn’t need her to. Seryn took a slow step and Rhian followed. Her gaze remained unfocused, directed toward the floor, but after a moment, as the girl started to blink too quickly, Seryn doubted she saw anything. Without further hesitation, Seryn turned for the door. A dozen long strides and she pushed outside, Rhian half a moment behind her.
Seryn didn’t stop in the yard. The breeze was cool, and the fortress was rumbling through the day’s chores, but both seemed far away. She aimed for the gate. Glancing to either side, she wondered what she looked like to the others, if she looked any different than she usually did, moving about on her own orders. She slowed just enough to put Rhian at her shoulder – the pair of them might seem less strange than one of them leading the other on an invisible leash – and kept moving. She could deal with questions later after she had gotten a moment to think.
The open ground outside the walls was quieter, but still too exposed. Rhian faltered and Seryn nodded her toward the tree line. Rhian stalled, meeting her eye, then moved forward again. Seryn angled them north and east to avoid the other encampment, and led them deep between the straight-backed trees. The ground turned from trampled dirt to grass and scrub. The air cooled further under the filter of green leaves. The breeze whispered, hummed just enough to cover all other sounds and convince Seryn they had gone far enough.
She stopped and Rhian halted with her. The uneven ground had put a little distance between them as they walked, and Rhian’s gaze had returned to the floor.
Seryn took a moment to dull her tone from the sharpness it had carried before. “How long?” she asked.
Rhian braced herself with a breath. Then she shrugged and tried to make it look easy. “Not long.”
“How many days?” Seryn asked.
Rhian had to brace herself again at her quick demand, but she made that slow and easy too. She shook her head a little. “Five,” she said, too light.
“You’re lying,” Seryn said.
Rhian looked at her. The forced brightness she had summoned for a moment, faded and hardened. Her eyes turned sharp and her jaw tightened. “Sixteen,” she said tightly.
Seryn pulled in a long breath and otherwise, didn’t move. “You didn’t tell anyone?”
“Tell them what?” Rhian asked. “That I’ve been seeing ghosts? It hasn’t mattered. It’s easy enough to know that the dead aren’t really there. I know what’s real and what isn’t.”
“Were you just talking to the dead?” Seryn asked.
Pausing, Rhian shook her head. The hardness of her turned brittle for a moment, and she seemed to consider breaking. “I thought Drystan had come with you.”
“Drystan is taking his shift with the others today,” Seryn said.
“I know that,” Rhian said. She collected herself again in a moment. Her spine straightened and her hands clenched at her sides.
“You knew he had to be elsewhere, but you still believed I had brought him with me,” Seryn said. “And you think you know what’s real?”
“I do,” Rhian snapped.
“You don’t,” Seryn returned, slower, firmer. She fixed Rhian with a cutting look, stopping her before she could protest again. “Or at least you won’t for much longer.”
Rhian looked down again.
Realizing how far forward she had leaned, Seryn pulled herself back, held her head up and straightened her spine. She took a slow, steadying breath. Rubbing her fingers across her palm, she swept a long considering look from Rhian’s shoulders down to her hands, and her feet. She was shaking. It had too come easily with the ache that would have worked its way deep into her by now. Seryn watched it long enough to convince herself that it would pass, and then turned carefully away.
Seryn shut her eyes, and listened to the leaves hiss. They were still a long way from her usual hiding place. In the winter, when the trees had pointed thin black fingers at the sky and each other, it had taken a lot more of them to bury her away from the rest of the world. She knew when she left the fortress, she had intended to go that far. And then she had stopped.
She had gotten very good at hiding. And at doing what had to be done to keep her skin on her bones. It was too easy to see what she had thought she would do here unknitting all her work on both counts.
Her bunkmates had never carried secrets for her. There had never been any expectation that she might have any, and now she had no idea how delicately they might hold such a thing in quick, rough hands.
Her bunkmates had no reason to carry her secrets for her. She was breaking rules so old as to be assumed laws. She could turn even her own stomach, if she thought to hard on what she was doing. Her mouth tasted like ash.
But she was still standing.
Seryn pushed her justification to the side. It didn’t matter anymore. She had forced herself to stop making that decision over and over, every time she needed the release of spreading her fingers and letting heat and flame pour off of her. It had been exhausting to keep twisting around the question of need. She always broke, always toppled, always fell apart, needing it like good sleep or sweet water or the heartbeat that kept her blood from stagnating inside her. It was better to accept that the decision had been made. It was better not to rob herself of the easy days that came between sneakings, when there were no bruises between her shoulders.
Seryn breathed in deep, eyes still shut. There were no bruises today, no ache, no itch. It was recklessly wonderful.
And still, shifting back toward Rhian, she wondered if this wasn’t the end of it. If it shouldn’t be the end of it. She could tell Rhian, spin it enticingly, and only explain why she had fallen. Rhian’s stomach could twist. Rhian could tell the others. Seryn might have no more decisions to make by nightfall.
Or Rhian could fall apart too. Seryn tried not to think that too loudly.
Opening her eyes slowly, she came to a firm stop.
Rhian was holding her knife in her hand, head up and shoulders back. The blade was pointed back toward her elbow, ready for a fight the way they had been trained with it. Seryn thought of her own knife, tucked neatly away at the small of her back and decided not to reach for it.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Seryn asked.