Kadie has a scar now. A straight line, cutting one eyebrow short on the outside and skipping over her eye. It’s darkest over her cheekbone before it fades to nothing above her jaw. A fine line, nearly invisible, except that the best-trained and best-paid physicks couldn’t make it actually invisible. So it stands out.
The invitation arrived by ship, hand-delivered by the captain of The Halstarr. The paper was heavy, honey-yellow as if it had tanned in the sun. Inked in rich blue, the script spilled across the page, purposed and beautiful. Every corner was sharp as the day it was folded.
Kariel accepted it carefully.
Motioning the captain back out of the room, she shut the heavy doors with a thud that barely shook the silence. The couches behind her were empty and still covered in shadow. Threading back through them, she returned to the shallow pool of morning light around the windows. It turned the curtains brilliant red and shadow gray, and warmed the air around the wing-back chairs.
Dropping the invitation into her brother’s hand, she sat back down in her chair. Out the window, the city streets were already full, wound up and ready for the day, while the light sifted through the buildings. She rested her chin on her fist and watched.
“This is for me,” Leonathan said.
Kariel didn’t look at him. She understood the question in his tone, but knew she couldn’t give him a better answer than he would find in a moment.
It was strange to actually see her in the flesh. The rumors were richer than she was, making her stand taller in his memory than she did on her own two feet. She had a habit of looking down. Not at her toes, the floor, or the dirt. Not pretending interest, just eyes idly lowered, always a foot beneath what it would take to match his gaze. Quietest spite. That he remembered perfectly, but not the way her shoulders rounded, or the way she measured each breath as if she needed the count to steady her. He forgot all her smallnesses.
Then he saw her again, almost overlooked her, and marveled that she had survived when he had ordered her dead.
She was a mouse who hadn’t collapsed in the snap of the trap. Glass that hadn’t broken under the swing of the smith’s hammer. Some moments, he would have given the order again, just to prove that she would shatter. But she shrank with every step she took toward him.
Taking a long breath, Damion leaned back in the High Seat. He settled his shoulders comfortably against the padding behind him.
Cerestine’s kitchen was too large for just her. Standing in front of one of the long work tables, she rolled dough into a thin sheet, flour spread in a wide circle around her while three feet of table on either end were still shining clean. Her brown hair was swept back and knotted elegantly at the back of her head. The streaks of silver at her temples ornamented either side of her head and threaded through the twists like ribbons. Her apron covered her dark, embroidered skirt, while she left her bleached white shirt bare. The fine flour didn’t even show against it, though it coated her hands from fingertip to wrist and halfway up her arms. The oven behind her spread heat down the length of the room, the pit large enough to house a dozen large loaves, but she worked alone, rolling only one.
The whole house was too large for her. Fifty rooms spread through three floors, and her every step echoed inside them, alone.
Loris wavered on the doorstep, unsure if the older woman knew she was there, or how she should properly announce herself if she didn’t. Cerestine was cutting her flattened dough into strips, still connected at one end. Her head was bent, and when she was finished with the knife, she threw it carelessly to one side, and didn’t look up as she began to braid the pieces together.
“My lady?” Loris began, hesitantly, sure that Cerestine would look up in shock no matter how gently she spoke.
Five years spent between four block walls, hours and days lived with no activity, and it seemed, now, as if he should walk these familiar rooms like nothing had passed, as if he had been here yesterday. But Vardan didn’t. The twists of halls felt long, the walls felt wide, and the echoes of his footsteps were too clear compared to the rustling and shifting in the dark he was used to. He had been here, a long time ago. He knew which turns to take, looked out windows and saw what he expected, found where he meant to be with little thought, but some lifetimes had passed since the last time he was here.
He took his steps slowly. The windows spilled heat and light along the long hall, and he passed in and out of them. He blinked in the light, and missed the heat when he stepped into the next shadow. High in the palace, each square of glass showed off a tumble of roofs and wash of waves on the far side. He’d spent hours on hours here once, and he considered stopping at a window, leaning against the frame, pretending he could hear water through the glass like echoes in a shell.
He continued on his way.
At the end of the hall, he turned right, looped down a set of back stairs and arrived in the squarer hall below. Two guards stood on either side of Lord Damion’s office door. They stood straight-backed and square, perhaps built into the wooden architecture. Vardan watched them as he came closer, waiting for either of them to move. They let him pass, hardly looked at him, and didn’t move as he knocked firmly on the door.
Kadelyn allowed her bodyguard to step through the door ahead of her, let him sweep the hall for all the usual dangers, then gently dismissed him. He looked at her questioningly and glanced over his shoulder as he went. She left the door open, and stepped farther inside.
“I called for your brother, not you,” Damion said, sitting at the long redwood table under the windows. He was leaning his chin against his bent fingers, one eye lit by the afternoon sunlight and the rest of his face cut by shadow.
“I know,” she said, without looking at him.
She stopped in front of the servant standing at the ready near the door. “You can go,” she said. The girl bent in a quick bow, and hurried out.
Kadelyn turned, eying her father over her shoulder. “But I know what’s coming.”
The cliff edge was barely wide enough to fit them all shoulder to shoulder. Cerena tucked herself against Vardan’s side, her arm tucked in front of his, and Taben and Leonne held hands, just for space. Damion turned sideways, one foot braced against a large stone, and he leaned out, looking at the dark blue water beneath them. Aymee was just behind him, catching herself on his hand, and looking down too. Behind them, they had each left a bundle of their jackets and boots and socks and jewelry, and left them weighted down with a stone. They stood on the edge in breeches and shirts, bare toes rattling in the loose stone.
“We’re not doing this,” Leonne said, as if she couldn’t believe the last mile she’d hiked to reach here.
Cerena gave her a too-wide, nervous smile.
Aymee just looked at her over Damion’s shoulder and nodded. “Oh, yes, we are,” she said.
The main hall was full, edged with the gauze and frill of the vendor’s canopies. They hung out their wares, the best of glitter and gleam, while men and women wove through the center, shining in their silk and leather, draped in their long jackets or thick skirts, tapping rich heels against the flagstones. The windows had been flung wide, letting the breeze run its cool fingers over everything. At one end, the great double doors had been flung wide as well, along with the smaller doors to either side, and people passed in and out as they pleased, escaping to quieter air, or running in for the festivities. At the other end, the court thrones and podiums and judges seats had been cleared away. A band of seven played just beneath the dais, and unlike in the city markets, not a single vendor shouted to be heard above them.
No one shouted, though here and there, someone laughed a little too loudly. Coins clinked, but no one haggled. Children ran around the room, and their parents called for them slow down, but never to stay close. Everywhere, the party whirled on, under its thin market skin.
Leonne watched it all out of the corner of her eye, most of her attention focused on Kadelyn sitting on the floor a few feet away.
The little girl had plopped herself down after she took a few teetering steps, bored with the attempt to walk. Her father, Damion had laughed, scooped her up, kissed her. She giggled at the feel of his beard, at the way he swung her almost upside down, then grinned at him when he pulled her upright and smoothed her skirt back down. He set her on a blanket on top of the dais after a moment, and she stayed just there. Wide eyed, she looked around at every shifting color, every passing person, and the gleam off the belled brass instrument straight below her.
When her twin, Brance tottered past her, back and forth, back and forth, running between his mother’s knees and his father’s, Kadelyn spared him the closest thing to a glare that a one-year-old could gather. There were very few things she knew yet, but she knew he was a show-off.
“I think he’s waiting for you.” Looking out the window, Aymee leaned her head to one side to see around the lead lattice and catch Damion’s slow pace beside the green square. Rising behind him, the interlocking stairs and porches and porticos were sprinkled with lazy walkers. But they came and went, or relaxed in the benches around the square. He had stayed on his feet, and stayed in the square for the last half hour.
Leonne didn’t lift her head from the short stack of reports in front of her. “He can do what he likes,” she said. “We have other things that need our attention.”
Aymee looked back, to see her, eyebrows raised, nodding pointedly toward the chair opposite her. Sighing, and smiling, she set her back against the window ledge and crossed her arms. “You work too much,” she said.
“You work too much,” Leonne said, reflecting the smile right back to her. “I think this is all fun. I play too much.”
Aymee laughed at her.
Kadelyn’s father worked in the largest rooms, in the oldest parts of the palace. It had been a castle once. The outer walls had been torn down a long time ago. Only one tower was left. Porches and paths and stairs had been stuck around the outsides. Other buildings had sprung up, leaned in, and towered over. But here, in these halls, it still felt like the bastion of defense.
They echoed. Too large for the simple sounds, she could heard shouts and claps and thundercracks come crisply back to her ears, but every voice resonated a little more. High voices like her mothers almost sang between these walls. Low ones like her father’s tapped skin on their way to the ear. The day she first spoke in those halls, and felt her voice spin as a mix of the two, was the first time she thought she’d ever heard herself.
Her brother, Brance used to run the length of them, after dark, after they should have both been asleep behind their locked doors. But he crept out of his bed, dragged her from hers, and ran from one end to the other, faster, faster, until his lungs forced him to slow enough to pull in a full breath. She always hung back, shoulder pressed to a door frame, whispering for him to come back. But when he put his hand in hers and grinned and demanded she come in, she couldn’t argue: these halls were built for motion. In daylight, the feeling stayed, and even walking felt like winning a race.