The problem with having scarily brilliant friends was that it made surprises… complicated. Complicated and egregiously unnecessary. Aderon liked nothing better than the puzzle, the steady collection of found things that clicked and snapped together to outline weighted secrets. He was never able to keep his hands still, but worse was the way his eyes picked things up, turned them over, and abandoned them when they had emptied out for him. Cefin never grinned so hard a gift behind a door, as he did at a monster that he had guessed would be waiting. He liked the knowing, the awareness in the midst of an oblivious crowd.
They had never let Esyllt keep a surprise. She had battled the two of them, since they met at the age of six, for every secret. Each loss was a lesson, teaching her the hiding places for secrets thin as paper, and the secrets brittle as pyrite, and secrets bright like sunlight on ice. Each win was a victory that built along her spine.
When she thought about it – and she did, often enough, when she was alone in the dark – she thought it was a little unfair. When she won, really won, they had no idea there had even been a fight. But she had stopped caring a long time ago.
And this secret, the one itching between her shoulder blades and aching in the knuckles of her hands, needed its integrity more than anything else she had held. It was new, a bright thing only a few hours old. That might have been its one grace.
Newness was a hiding place she had learned to love, for all the frustration of it only being temporary. For a small precious while, it was a fortress.
The door cracked open.
The light from the hall shot into the room. Aderon’s shadow shaped one side of the shaft of yellow light. The flat edge missed Esyllt’s toe by an inch.
She could hear Cefin in the hall, hanging around as he always did, afraid to say goodnight and miss something that would have been better than sleep. He was speaking lowly now, finishing a story while Aderon hovered with his hand on the latch. When Aderon turned and lit the lamp, he would invite himself inside.
Patiently, Esyllt waited in the high-backed chair. She traced the whorls of the floorboards in the narrow strip of light.
Aderon was tired. Esyllt knew that the top of her head was just visible over the chair, and her heels were too dark beside the carved feet. But he lit the lamp and came farther inside without noticing her.
Esyllt didn’t move an inch. She listened to Cefin’s footsteps change their tone from the hall’s worn floor to the polished boards of the room.
The door swung shut. She shut her eyes for the thud and screech that she knew were coming, as the bar she had rigged swung down. Under its own weight, it buried jagged metal pins in the carved wood, locking them inside.
Aderon swore. Cefin said something in a language he had pick-pocketed, which was probably worse. Esyllt let them try the latch, shove hard against the door. She let them prove that they were trapped before she stood up, slowly turning on her heel to look at them.
“Getting home late, boys,” she said. She leaned one arm against the chair, tilted her head and gave them a smile that was all soft moonlight. It was wrong for flickering shadow of the room, and she knew it, and she loved it. The wrongness made it sharp. “But I hear you’ve had a full day.”
Aderon let go of the latch as if his fingers had suddenly stopped answering to him. His eyes flickered down to her hand, catching the just-wrong slant of her wrist as well.
Turning toward her, Cefin frowned.
“Sorry to intrude,” she said. She owed them some apology, and that was the best she could conjure.
Aderon took one halting step toward her. Glancing back at Cefin, he seemed to realize that she was the only one who had anything worth knowing. He looked back to her quickly, eyebrows folded together. “What are you doing here?”
“As long as we’ve known each other, I owed it to you to come myself,” Esyllt said. She met Cefin’s eye and then Aderon’s. “And someone had to come. You’ve been getting in my way over the last few weeks, and you’ve meant to be.”
“Esyllt…” Aderon said carefully.
She smiled wider, so quickly it could have been a laugh with just a little more force. “All right, maybe you didn’t intend to be in my way.” Pausing, she let her face relax, just enough. He felt the edge in her glance, and sucked in a breath as she explained why she held it there. “But you definitely went to a magistrate spilling secrets that weren’t yours.”
He blinked at her. His hands stayed loose at his side, at a loss. This was what it looked like when he was wounded. She blinked back, firmer, if not any more whole.
Cefin, it seemed, had all the anger. “So, what?” he demanded. “You’re here to convince us to shut up and sit still for you?”
It was a pretty idea. She met his eye, twisting a new smile for him to show she appreciated it.
“Are you here to kill us?” Aderon asked.
When she turned back to him, she didn’t have a new smile to give. She straightened her wrist and let the long knife fall out of her sleeve, into her palm, the clean steel glinting. Then she waited, for one breath, and then another. She let him click together the heavy answer.
It was a small kindness, but it was easy to give.
And it was only fair that they see her win, at least once.