She should have returned to the main hall immediately. She should have stepped back inside, slid into her cot, and slept. She could have made herself, and shutting her eyes would have felt like following orders. Easy. But, she turned right from Jeyd’s office instead of left, and climbed to the top of the fortress wall. The breeze was stronger there, and she lifted her chin to let it drag over her.
She stared at the horizon, waiting until her eyes could sort out the difference between the black earth and the black sky, and counted stars until the numbers faded into their repeating patterns and the stars themselves were just scattered dust.
Her fingers numbed. Her cheeks felt stiff in the cold.
She told herself she would go inside soon. Then, she still didn’t move.
“You’re not on watch tonight,” Aled said. He stepped in beside her, close enough she could feel the warm coming off his shoulder. She looked down at herself. She wasn’t in uniform, wasn’t even wearing her coat. Of course she wasn’t on watch.
“No,” she murmured. And she wouldn’t be again, she realized.
She blinked, realizing that Aled had been on patrol all afternoon. He wasn’t on watch either. She glanced over at him.
“Why are you awake?” she asked.
He fixed her with an amused look. “Said the owl to the cricket. Why are you awake?”
For a moment, she considered ignoring him. There were more stars for her to count, after all. Or, she could simply walk back down the stairs, into the main hall, and not be awake any more. But he tilted his head, leaned forward a little, innocently questioning.
“Macsen is sending you home,” she said, voice low.
He raised his eyebrows. “Just me?” And he sounded a little impressed with himself.
“No,” she said.
He clicked his tongue, smiling as if he had known it was too good to be true.
“Everyone,” she told him. “Except me. And Tesni. Wynn. Rhian.”
“When?” he asked.
“Three days,” she said.
“So…” He thought for a moment, his eyes scanning the horizon. “We’ll be back on the borders in two months.”
“And you’re not happy about this.”
She didn’t answer that.
His eyes were narrowed slightly when he looked at her again, his mouth pressed into a straight line. “What did you think was going to happen?”
She didn’t answer that either. There was nothing that could matter less. She settled her hands in her pockets, pressed them against the length of her thigh to warm them and keep them still. It was a little harder to keep her eyes open all of a sudden. Rocking back on her heels, she knew she shouldn’t have come up here. There was nothing to gather or gain, that sleep wouldn’t bring her faster. She would wake in the morning, knowing that this had always been written in stone.
“You shouldn’t stay,” Aled said.
She turned to look at him again before she registered his meaning. Then she shook her head, because it didn’t make any sense.
“I have to stay,” Seryn said. “And they’re just going to split you all up when you get back anywhere. Here or there, doesn’t matter.”
Aled paused. Very slowly, he said, “There are more than two places in the world.”
Seryn looked at him, her gaze hardening, and waited for him to have the good sense to look away, or look ashamed. Aled held her eye, and she waited longer and longer, before she finally shook her head and focused on the horizon again.
“Some day, someone’s going to believe that you mean that crap,” she said.
“Any chance it’s going to be you?” he asked.
She snapped back around to look at him. “Shut your mouth.”
He did, and somehow, following her command looked like gentle defiance on him. Like choice.
“We wouldn’t survive anywhere else,” she said.
“You could,” he said.
Firmly, Seryn shook her head. She held his eye as she did, as if she could force him to believe it.
“Exactly what have you ever met that you think could kill you in a fair fight?” he asked. “Because I’m pretty sure you’ve been invulnerable since the day I met you. And you’ve only gotten worse.” From the way he looked at her, mouth slanted, eyes set earnestly wide, she thought he meant it as a compliment.
“Tell me you think that Macsen fights fair,” Aled said.
“What?” She was trying to laugh. She was trying to find his joke in all this.
“Tell me that you think King Vardeck fights fair,” Aled said. There was no glint in his eye. He was too calm to be telling jokes.
“Have you ever, just once, thought about leaving?” Aled asked her.
She was surprised by the calm that was settling in her bones as she watched him try to read her. There was something urgent in the way he leaned toward her, not quite desperation, but some more attractive cousin. She didn’t understand it, but it was easy to breathe in the face of it. And it was easy to read him in the same instant.
“You’ve thought about it every day, haven’t you?” she asked.
He came one step closer, mouth open to say something more.
She raised her hand between them.
And laid it against his ribs.
When he stopped, it wasn’t a sharp motion, like he expected. He sank into stillness. Looking down, he looked at the spread of her fingers and took a deep breath, as if he needed to drag air in and out to know for sure that she was as close as she could get to his lungs. Carefully, he met her eye, and she expected to see him wary and careful. Instead, he looked as if he had finally deciphered her.
“You really haven’t, have you?” he whispered.
She waited, knowing he didn’t need an answer.
Considering her for a long moment, Aled stayed just as he was, and finally, leaned in a little closer.
“You’re going to die,” he whispered. “If you stay here.”
Seryn stared at him.
“You, and Wynn, and Tesni, and Rhian,” he said.
“Are you going to burn us down when you go?” she asked.
For a moment, that did stun him. Then he only shook his head. “I don’t know how it’s going to come for you. Maybe quiet the way it snuck up on Harun. Or maybe it’s going to shake you by the neck like it did with Bethan. Or you’re going to get a death all your own, from someone who means to give it to you.” He shook his head. “I don’t know.”
Seryn took a breath, but she didn’t feel it. “We’re soldiers,” she said. “You could say that about any of us. No matter where we are.”
“No,” Aled said. “Not like this.” He looked down at her hand, still pushed up against this ribs, as if the tips of her fingers had threatening edges. And he looked back at her and she felt that she was meant to understand him, but she didn’t. She didn’t care to.
“I’m leaving in three days,” Aled told her.
“All right,” she said. She let her hand slide back to her side.
“If you stay here, it’s going to be the last time I ever see you,” Aled said.
“Maybe,” she said.
He tilted his head, questioning her.
She took a breath and pushed it back out. “I guess you had better find a good way to say good-bye.”
He took one step back, still watching her. After a long moment, he nodded. She traced his shadow as he worked his way toward the stairs and down into the yard.
Jessik dropped a rolled piece of paper in Tiernan’s hand after breakfast. The sun had come up, bright and focused, and she cut a sharp shadow beside him.
“What’s this?” he asked, looking up at her curiously.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “I found it this morning. I think one of the patrols from the fortress dropped it for you.”
Unrolling the paper, he found his name and a single line of text: I only have three days left to help you. If I open the gates, what will you do?