Flash Fiction: Open Windows Part II (1751 words)

Happily, Zain put his hands in his pockets and pretended to scan the room. He turned on his heel, taking a breath that filled his chest and pushed his shoulders back, idle, even from a distance. Terius looked at the ground, to hide a smile.

Then, “This way,” Zain said, and he wandered toward the wall. He let himself glance over his shoulder to make sure Terius was still with him, turn all the way back and pause as if he had interrupted himself with the need to continue the conversation. When he didn’t actually say anything, Terius folded his hands in front of himself and glared at him lightly.

“Right,” Zain said. He turned around again and didn’t stop again until he hit the wall with its row of padded chairs.

“Are we sitting?” Terius asked.

“Oh, no,” Zain said. “We’re using the crowd for cover.” He began threading his way along the outside of the ballroom, slowly, and unevenly. The dancers continued their patterned whirl in the middle of the floor, and knots of people too tired or too bored formed and unformed around the walls. Zain moved when the people nearest him moved, stopped, started, and loitered as he pleased. Terius stayed close, watching him with a growing smile.

“I see now how no one is going to get angry,” he murmured after a few minutes.

Zain glared at him good-naturedly.

When they reached the corner of the ballroom, Zain stopped. He glanced over the crowd one last time, marking Selwyn, the servants, and anyone else who might have been watching. Then he pried open the concealed door, held it open for Terius, and they slipped into the servants’ hall.

“Where are we going?” Terius asked, following him down the dim passage.

Zain sped up now that no one could see them, taking the stepped hall down to the next turn, two stairs at a time. “How good is the tread on those boots?” he asked. He could hear the soft leather skidding against the wooden stairs behind him. “Not good, right?”

“No,” Terius said warily.

They ran down to the next turn and Zain pushed through the next door to the hallway under the ballroom. The lamps on the walls had been lit, the light gleaming on the polished floor. The walls were lacy lattices of cream and brown. And the whole long thing was blessedly empty. He smiled to himself, then took off at a run, and slid to the one of the long tables set along the wall.

He fished the extra pair of boots he had hidden there earlier out from under the linens. “Here,” he told Terius. “Plans A, C, and G require us to climb over a wall, so…”

Terius took them from him slowly. “Do I need to change?”

Zain ran a quick eye over his dress coat, pressed perfectly so that it looked like a second skin, with its shiny silver buttons. “Nah,” he said.

He waited for Terius to bend down to yank his boots off before he stole a rose out of the vase on the table. He hid it inside his sleeve, so that the bloom was protected by his palm.

When Terius was ready again, they turned to the right and pushed through the door at the far end of the hall. Zain flung the window open, and they climbed out, catching toes and fingers on window ledges on the way down to the ground. Zain dropped down first and backed up fast to stay out of Terius’ way. Something moved in the dark out of the corner of his eye. He turned immediately, skimming over the shadows of the hedge that stretched in either direction, but couldn’t find it again.

“Where are we going?” Terius asked.

“This way!” Zain pointed to the left now, and they ran along the hedge until it broke open in an arch. The gardens lay on the other side, cool and gray in the dark. For a moment, Zain wondered if it was worth it to spin Terius through the looping paths, to see what the pretty tangles turned into after sundown, but decided his patience wasn’t that solid. And something had moved at the corner of his eye again.

He took Terius straight down one of the outer paths, ducked under a line of hanging branches and jumped for the wall. He caught himself on the top on the first try, hearing Terius land beside him, and they both tumbled onto the other side. Zain landed carefully on his feet, and nodded in satisfaction when Terius did the same. The grass was still soft here from summer, and it would have been easy enough for them to have muddied themselves up.

“Come on,” Zain said and led him forward again. They rounded the outer corner of the ballroom, the lights spilling out through the windows. They crossed every square of lamplight spilled on the grass and rounded the next corner as well, staying outside the hedge and darting between the trees.

There was a voice somewhere behind them, dim and twisted by the breeze. Zain sighed to himself and stopped as they reached the hedge where it turned out to meet them again.

“Up and over?” Terius asked, half-smiling.

“Of course not, you madman,” Zain said. “You’re going to keep going that way until you get to the arch, then go through to Darven’s Court.”

Terius paused. Zain couldn’t see it in the dark, but he imagined his eyebrows were pulling together. “Where are you going?”

“Well,” Zain said. “Unfortunately, we must have done something wrong, so I can’t go with you. I have to go find something devilish to do.”

“Why?” Terius asked.

“Because someone is following us,” Zain said. “Someone who probably thinks that we are up to no good. So, I have to go get up to no good, so that they’ll leave you alone for a little while.”

Terius was quite for another moment.

Zain clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.” He winked, even though he knew Terius couldn’t see it. Then he started to run back the way they’d come.

“And what exactly am I doing?” Terius asked, a little too loudly.

Zain slipped back to his side. “Darven’s Court,” he told him quietly. “And…” He slipped the rose out of his sleeve. Holding it up, he pushed it into Terius’ hand. “Say hello to her for me.”

He saw Terius’s head tilt down, then back up. “I was supposed to have figured out that this was a joke on me before we left the ballroom, wasn’t I?”

“What?” Zain pretended to be disappointed. “You didn’t?”

Terius sighed.

Grinning, Zain pushed off his shoulder and doubled back along the hedge.

Darven’s Court had never been intended to be any sort of court at all. The wide, smooth stones had been meant as a foundation, preparations for another wing of the palace, but the old lords had stopped after a week’s worth, without leaving any reason why in the history books. A few generations later, someone had decided that the court would look less embarrassing sitting out on the palace lawn if it were ringed by an elegant colonnade. They didn’t enter that in the history books at all. He didn’t know when the carved stone benches appeared, but no one else bothered to do anything with the court, except, throw parties from time to time.

In the dark, it had a strange shine too it. The stones looked lighter than they did in the daylight, worn almost to a gleam by the thousand feet that had crossed it in its lifetime. The ballroom windows poured yellow light over the near side, and the moon painted the rest in cool, calm white.

Terius stepped onto the stones slowly, listening to the delicate echo that bounced between the columns. He should have known who would be waiting there. But then, it would have hurt if he had been wrong. Perhaps her purposefully made no guesses.

Jaera sat on the bench closest to the ballroom, with her hands tucked under her skirts to keep them warm. She was wearing a fuller skirt than usual. The seams of her jacket were embroidered and her hair hung loose over her shoulder. She looked up when she saw Terius, but didn’t move until he stood right in front of her.

“Hello,” he murmured. She stood, smiling.

One of the windows must have been open above them. Terius could hear the violinist drawing out a long note, the cellists backing her up in a warm hum, both of them clear and sweet and distant.

“Am I late?” he asked.

“I think you might be,” she said.

“Well, I just got my invitation,” Terius explained.

“It made good time, then, since I never sent it,” Jaera said.

Terius smiled too, almost laughing. “You might have come up to the ballroom,” he said. “If you wanted to come, all it would have taken was a word to my mother.”

She took a breath, nodding as she did. “I know,” she said. “Believe me, she’s said as much. Zain was the one who said to meet here.”

“Why?” Terius asked.

Jaera glanced over her shoulder at the ballroom windows. When she turned back to him, she moved slowly, carefully. “Would you have been able to dance with me up there?”

Terius stopped himself before he said no. She understood his silence just as well.

“I think that’s why,” she murmured. “Or else… He opened that window an hour ago for some other reason we should be worried about.”

Terius laughed, then stopped to better catch the smile as it grew on her lips. It made her glow a little, too, in the dark. And she was beautiful. Taking one step closer, he held out his hand to her. “Shall we then?”

She laid her palm against his, her skin cool, her fingers light. When she moved closer, ran her other hand up to his shoulder, he caught the sweet smell of her hair, felt the warm of her begin to sink in through his coat. He looked down to meet her eye, timing their first step to the music.

She was wearing boots under her dress, the same ones she wore on deck.

Terius looked at her curiously.

“How did you get here?” he asked.

Laughing, she hid her face against his shoulder rather than answer.

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