The fortress was awake as Seryn slipped back in through the open gate.
It was well after midnight, and the lamps were lit as soldiers crossed and recrossed the yard. The walls crawled with too many shadows, the watch doubled by men and women crowded shoulder to should to oggle the mottled orange sky, the dim fire, and the sharp outline of the trees in front of it. A few of them glanced at Seryn, made a perfunctory check of her person, but didn’t seem to notice that she had come back twice. The yard rumbled with their curiosity. In one corner, someone was loading a wagon with water, the only bright point of hurry.
The main hall was lit from the inside, light spilling from the front doors.
Seryn glanced at the stables, just to prove to herself that they were still shut up tight. There was no reason why they wouldn’t be. Almost past them, she hesitated. There was no reason why they should be either. She swung to the left, unbarred the doors and wandered down the main aisle. The horses snorted or whickered at her sleepily. She breathed in the warm-oat horse smell, and opened every stall. Then she slipped out the far door.
Macsen’s office was dark. For half a moment, that gave her pause and she stood in the shadow of one of the cabins, thinking.
He would be in the main hall, she realized. That was where Jeyd would be, coordinating whatever response they had allowed themselves, and Macsen would not want to receive any report secondhand.
Seryn considered it a moment longer than she had to. But only a moment.
Stepping into the main hall, she found it no different than the yard, another standing tangle of soldiers, unsure what to do with the distant emergency. They stood in two and threes between the long tables, gathered in larger knots around the open sides, half in and half out of uniform. She wondered how many of the captains had been briefed. She wondered how few of them it had surprised.
Commander Jeyd stood near the back, deep in a circle of runners. Arms crossed, he leaned his head toward them while they delivered their reports. Behind him, Macsen leaned against a table. Silent. Listening, he watched everything except the circle in front of him. When he saw Seryn, he gave her half a smile. He held her eye for a moment, before his attention moved on.
Seryn took a low, even breath and let his approval settle into her. As if she might get to keep it. As if she might make her own report, walk away and wrap herself in sleep. She considered what it would feel like to wake in the morning. Then she threaded her way forward between the tables, between the soldiers.
Steadily, she unbuttoned her coat until it hung loosely around her. She let ice film up her spine and over her shoulders. She flexed her hand, carefully. She stretched her palm until it hurt, then slid her fingers along the tabletop beside her. When Macsen looked her way again, he mouthed a question to her: Is it done?
Seryn nodded. Then she pressed her palm down like striking flint. She scratched a trail of fire into the table and kept walking.
The soldiers skittered away from her. Without looking at them, she lengthened her stride, forced more heat out of her hand.
Macsen stared at her. His eyebrows snapped together and he pushed himself away from the table. She tried to imagine how that could make so much room in her chest, relax her shoulders, crack her smile into something wicked.
The table burned, and her hand sparked, and she strode toward him.
He didn’t back away. Commander Jeyd shouted for his men to pull back and the room clattered with their bootsteps and calls. They pushed through the tables and the benches, forming ranks, losing their surprise. Macsen didn’t move at all. Seryn walked and burned and felt the room quiet before she stopped within arm’s reach of him.
“Seryn,” he murmured, half a warning and half a question.
Seryn held his eye. The fire was warm against her back. It flickered in his eyes.
“Are you afraid of me, Macsen?” she asked, every word a low, steady note. It was so easy to breathe.
He didn’t answer. She watched the muscles of his jaw tighten and release. His chest rose and fell.
“Were you afraid when you found me?” Seryn asked. “Do you remember? I was hiding under my father’s kitchen table. You broke through the door and dragged me out. Would you have rathered leave me there?”
Macsen held up a hand when Commander Jeyd started to move, stopped him without a word. Some of the edge faded from his eyes, and his mouth loosened. “I didn’t know you remembered,” he murmured.
She didn’t remember much. She wasn’t old enough for how distant it felt. Seryn glanced at her hand, still steadied against the table. “I screamed,” she said. That seemed farther away than the rest, a memory she might have invented from other truths.
She pressed her hand down into the wood, for the motion, for the pressure, for the heat.
“Commander,” Macsen said carefully. “Call for the guard.”
“They’re not here,” Seryn said. “I sent them away.” Slowly, she looked up to meet his gaze again. “And do you really think they could hold me back?”
He stared at her again. “Are you sick?” he asked, voice too low for anyone else to hear.
Seryn smiled. “No. But I was. Did you know?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. And waved for Commander Jeyd. Seryn let him run to the center of the room, and didn’t care.
“I was thirteen,” Seryn said. She took another step forward, just to see if Macsen would retreat now. He waited for her second step before he rocked back onto his other foot. “You took me in front of King Vardeck himself. I thought he was covered snakes. I thought they were all over his throne room. Crawling over his lords’ shoes. In his ladies’ hair. I thought it was a test.”
Macsen looked at something over her shoulder. Seryn slammed her hand into the table, set it blazing with her blacked-out handprint carved into the center. She snapped her other hand open and lit it as well, until the air hissed and cracked around her.
“There was one night you woke me up in the dark, and sent me out to train all on my own. On the wall. I didn’t realize it wasn’t really you, until there were two of you, screaming at me. One of you told me to jump. One of you told me to run until you told me to stop. I ran until I passed out. You woke me up in the morning, and I prayed to every star I knew that you were real. But you were just telling me to run again.”
He backed up another step. “Seryn,” he said, all warning now.
“Do you know makes it stop?” Seryn asked. “Sometimes I think you do and sometimes I just swear that you can’t. I swear you can’t understand that this –” She twisted ice-blue flames around her hands, wound it up her arms until it caught yellow in her sleeves. “– brings us back into the world. Some days I think even I must have it wrong, and I actually am tearing myself apart every time I light up, like you say.”
The white fire was drowning the rest, moments after it caught, too hot, too liquid. The chill under her skin bit deep, smoothing muscle and bone until they fit perfectly against each other. The heat sank into her skin, soothed away the bite of the cold beneath. Motion felt easy, smooth as oil. She felt like everything she had always been: exquisite and monstrous.
She flicked her gaze up to meet his again. “But this never feels like anything’s tearing. And I’ve been doing it for years. Whenever you couldn’t see.”
“That’s enough,” Macsen ordered. He was watching the soldiers file in behind her. With one ear, she was listening to them form their ranks on even strides. They were building a ring, shoulder to shoulder, and they could close it around her in a moment. She poured more flame into her palms, until it dripped to the floor.
“Seryn, stand down,” Macsen ordered.
The soldiers stepped in closer. Seryn raised her hands. Fire flashed and ripped at her skin. Too fast. But the man closest to her shoulder screamed, and three soldiers on the other side ducked to cover their heads.
“Too late,” Seryn said. Turning, she looked each soldier in the eye before she returned to Macsen. She tilted her head in an apology, and it was as unnecessary as the words in her mouth.
“Stop, now,” Macsen said.
“And what?” Seryn asked. “What happens after I’ve admitted all this to you? I’ve always wondered.” A heel clapped to her right. Seryn faced the woman who had moved, pushed her back into line with a look.
“Wondered is the wrong word, really,” Seryn continued. Looking back at Macsen, she might have laughed, if she didn’t suspect that she could crack her chest doing it. “It eats me. Inside out. And there’s no feeling like teeth on your bones. It makes me…” She didn’t know a word, but her stomach twisted, supplying its own phrase. “And all I ever do – all I have ever done for you – was just to try to find a way to buy a second chance once you knew.”
She shrugged another apology that didn’t matter. “I’m done.”
He looked to Jeyd. The soldiers didn’t move.
Seryn shook her head. “Just tell me this: did you know you were killing us?”
Macsen met her eye. In an instant, she knew he had no intention of saying anything out loud.
“Fine,” Seryn said. “When you built our barracks – when you built the other compounds in the chain – who did you ask to burn them down?”
Macsen’s eyes sharpened. Seryn’s smile cracked.
“Was it you?” she asked.
He shouted. For someone who wasn’t her. Pointed at them, and at her.
“Did you lock my parents in and burn them down?” Seryn asked.
“My turn,” Seryn said.
She pushed her hands open, shut her eyes. She turned every muscle in her back and her chest and her neck into ice, until she didn’t even exist inside her skin.
And she burned.