Alex did not consider himself a particularly panicky person.
Honestly, he was the kind of person who drove his gas tank down to fumes, and ate pork after the sell-by date on a regular basis. He took police sirens behind him in stride because, yeah, he had been speeding. He woke up late and still ate a full breakfast. He heard strange noises outside his window at night and assumed it was a stray cat before burglars or ghosts even crossed his mind. He understood that when his mother called him three times in the space of an hour, she probably was not calling to tell him about a funeral. He was, he thought, very close to unflappable.
But he still froze when the bathroom door squeaked open while he was in the middle of his shower. The water continued streaming down from the showerhead, noisy, and almost instantly unwelcome as he heard one sharp footstep on the tile, and a few muffled ones on the bathroom rug.
It was getting irritating, listening to well-meaning statements about what was and was not possible. Lowri read it in Braelyn’s face while her little ring of advisor’s alternately offered their advice and slapped it into the dim, echoing hall. She listened to all of it in the same diplomatic silence, hands folded, back elegantly straight. But one corner of her mouth was tilting up, moment by moment, sharpening a crooked smile that Lowri loved and hated.
He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. He cracked a grin at the back of their heads. It always pleased Omri immensely to watch his little magicks work on them. Dressed in a bright yellow coat that caught the sun and made it jealous, in blue and purple pants, in boots almost too white to exist, they were still compelled not to notice. It was freedom in every magnitude, and Omri loved it.
He landed on the ground with a thud that should have halted their work, and they ignored him. He sauntered across the manor’s overgrown lawn, pants and long grass hissing and hushing. He whistled a little. No one cared, but when he passed just behind a boy bent double to rip weeds from the edge of the path, there was a small shudder in the boy’s spine.
Once, when Karleigh was younger, a boy had climbed the elegant façade of her uncle’s house to tap on her bedroom window. It had been a deeply moonlit night, so she had caught his shadow across the glass before he knocked for her, and his hair had a silver sheen like something precious, and her stomach had gotten butterflies just from the storybook timing.
A year later, she realized it wasn’t romance in the stories. It was just practicality. Dashing young men who tried to climb on darker nights, probably fell and broke their backs. Even if the pretty girl was only on the second story.
Sunrise was an acquired taste. A bitter wash of gray on the horizon, scrubbing away the heavy night sky. A light brush of pink, and purple, and yellow, sweet almost to the point of cloying after the weight of the scouring that came before. A following brightness, fading through the last of the stars. Light that sept gently into blood and bone and breath, bright as mint. All of it drawn out, one insistent moment after another, to make it palatable.
Brance blinked into the growing light. He yawned. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and his shoulders ached dully. Every thought was slow and flighty as a breeze, and constantly interrupted by the notion that shutting his eyes would be very comfortable. Laying down would be pleasant as well, but not necessary. He could sleep just where he was. And yet, after drinking in too many dawns, one more was hard to turn down.
There was no hiding from sleep. Hushed, it crept through doors or windows, with all the familiarity of a cat too comfortable in its own domain to announce itself at the door. On padded feet, it might climb the stairs, ease itself into a room. On the space of a blink, it slipped in a shadow, then seated itself boldly in the corner. Not there, and then there all at once, calm and unsurprising. It was always there, prepared.
But Nesha could run from sleep. She drank her hot drinks, kept her hands busy, kept her feet moving. There were always small stacks of things to do and always thoughts to chase around her head. It didn’t matter that sleep was a quick-sand thing, gripping her all the firmer for how hard she kicked against it. Tugging her down more forcefully after each attempt to push it away. She tipped her head back to drag in waking air and ignored the way it pulled at her ankles.
He was not an innocent man. He didn’t have to be. It had been half a decade since he had taken law or morality into consideration. Maybe longer. Maybe much longer. It was hard to remember exactly when those hard edges had stopped eating into him, worrying him out of sleep, hedging him in.
Careful so the guard wouldn’t notice, he tossed his handkerchief over the side of the cart. Someone would find it.
Jasen had not been told who. Not when Kynbessne and Jennika explained the plan to him, all three of them gathered around the expertly drawn, delightedly stolen house map. Not a few minutes later when he had asked. Explicitly. Someone would watch the manse while they were inside, and someone would have a way to signal Jennika if the mistress of the house returned while they were still scouting inside.
Kynbessne had looked resolute and patient when he questioned her, perhaps protecting an associate who she’d rather he didn’t arrest. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Jennika, however, had cocked her head slyly, her constant smile tilting her mouth. Like she might just be enjoying the spectacle of leaving him in the dark.
Her problems faded out of sight in the rear-view mirror and she relished the roar of the highway wind. In a few minutes, maybe, she would turn on the radio, twist the volume up until it rumbled in her floorboards, her seat, her lungs. Until it filled the car and pushed the horizon farther away. She usually did, just as part of ignition, listening to the engine turn over once before she drowned it out with drums and guitar.
A friend had told her once that there was a science to why music sounded better when it was cranked up loud. She didn’t need the excuse, but she used it just the same, turning the dial higher. Turning decent songs good, and good songs great. Forcing everything back.
They tore the bridge down in the middle of the night. Swung their sledgehammers and broke the guardian statues from the stone rails. Faces shattered, heads taken off shoulders, torsos sheared off legs, legs and bases distorted to shards. Then they gathered the rubble, packed it into battered, old carts, and set them into the river upstream. The water crashed the carts through the pillars. The bridge crashed down. Waves and broken stone.
A mile away, the docks burned. Waves and damp, choking charcoal. The walkways fell apart, the pillars stayed, tops like dark, broken teeth. The little boats in their moorings caught fire, broke, sank or drifted free, terrible lanterns reflecting off the canvas of the great ships deeper in the bay. Men and women dragged buckets of water up from the night tide, smothered what they could. The fire didn’t spread, so much as hop from one pier to another, and little shadows scuttled from each new spark.
The southern tangle of the palace burned the same night, and dusted half the city in white ash.
Another fire in the agora blackened the aged paving stones.