She lit the flare, and fire danced off the carved dome of the temple. She stared, gun still raised, smoke curling off the barrel into the ice-sharp night air. Stone was not supposed to catch fire quite like that.
But it was burning merrily.
It took Traesa a moment to recover. She wasn’t supposed to stay on this roof after she set off the flare. One obvious shot, visible to nearly anyone in the sloping, sprawling city, and she was meant to scurry down, before anyone in a uniform could trace it the shot back to her. Now that the temple was crawling with fire, she feared the priests coming for her as well. And she hated their lectures worst of all.
She tucked the flaregun into her belt. The barrel was still warm, and it seeped through her thin clothes while she dropped from one window sill to the next, and finally into the clean-swept streets. Her bare feet echoed against the walls as she landed, clapped in the near silence. Then she heard the shouting. Traesa took off running.
As she passed the temple yard, she caught motion inside in glimpses. Men and women in bedclothes, forming a staggered line from the well to the doors. Sloshing buckets, drenching the ground all around them. Sharp instructions, carried all up and down the line. And Traesa left them behind as fast as she could.
Some of the houses nearby were waking when they shouldn’t have been. Here, a window clapped open and a man peered out at the reflected red in the sky. There, a door eased open, and a woman slipped out, wrapped in a blanket, and covered her face against the faint smoke. None of them spoke, hushed by the dark.
Traesa threaded her way through the familiar streets. They looped elegantly for a few blocks, then turned to rigid lines as they turned downhill, and finally curved again, knotting up around squat, little buildings, trees that bent over tall fences, and patchy little yards. From time to time, Traesa heard someone else moving, one street over, or somewhere behind her. She listened, and she ran, and her own breaths and heavy steps were always the loudest.
She counted streets – one, two, four, six, nine – and then slowed, just as the streets seemed to wind the tightest. She stopped under the only tall tree she had seen in the last half hour. It cast spotted shadows on the uneven paving stones, and sighed in what little breeze trickled through its leaves. Traesa tucked herself in against the trunk, just another little shadow, and she slowly, carefully, dropped into silence.
Cait appeared a few minutes later.
She followed Traesa’s path to the tree in slower, longer strides. Her hair was hidden under a dark hood, and her clothes were soft and tight so she hardly seemed to make a sound as she moved. Something heavy pulled her belt down on one side. Something unnamed kept spine comfortably straight. Traesa looked up at her as she approached, and carefully stepped away from the tree.
Cait smiled at her. It was a slow thing, and didn’t quite touch her entire face, but Traesa had only ever seen it directed at her, and it thrilled her down to her toes. She always tried to mimic it, but she knew it came out too big, too clumsy.
“You have something for me, I’m guessing?” Cait murmured, when she was close enough to be heard. She bent her head a little too, looking Traesa in the eye. Her voice always came out a little lower than Traesa expected, a little richer.
Traesa fished the note out from the back of her belt, and held it out.
Cait took it gently. Cracked the seal. Held it up past her shoulder to read it in whatever light she could catch. Then she looked down at Traesa, a wrinkle between her eyebrows.
“Was there more than this?”
Traesa shook her head.
“It’s not very important. No rush…” Cait paused. “You weren’t supposed to set the temple on fire were you?”
Traesa shook her head again, fast. “I don’t know how I did it!”
Cait’s smile burst wide, and she chuckled. Still quietly. “You interrupted something, you know. Fires like that catch attention fast, so I was sure you needed me. Fast. Run and tell Ailan that he’ll owe me after this.”
Traesa’s cheeks were hot before she finished, and Traesa hated it. “Stone shouldn’t burn…” she grumbled as Cait began to turn away.
“It’s fake. Wood and clever paint, with a coat of parafin,” Cait said. Her hood hid her face, while she scanned the street behind them. “When they need an angry god, all they have to do is strike a match and impossible things happen. They do love their tricks…” She trailed off, absently.
Traesa waited for her to explain more, doubtful.
“Can’t the gods get angry all by themselves?” Traesa asked.
Cait looked back at her over her shoulder. The crease was back between her eyebrows. “How old are you?” she asked.
Instantly, Traesa squared her shoulders, hoping that would make her look a little taller. “Twelve,” she lied.
Cait’s gaze flicked from her head to her feet. Once. Then she met Traesa’s eye again. “Tell Ailan you’re too young for this,” she said.
Blinking, Traesa hesitated.
Cait smiled, slowly, not unkindly.
Traesa stuck out her tongue.