“Are those tentacles?” Zain leaned toward the glass, but didn’t touch it. He held his hands in his pockets, and tilted his head.
The water in the tank was entirely the wrong color, blue-green as an entire ocean when there was only an arm’s length between the glass sides. The single lamp barely lit the windowless cabin and the water seemed to glow, turning the thing inside into shadow. It swayed, glided from one side of the tank to the other. The glass was rippled, thick, and flawed, distorting it from moment to moment.
Jaera circled the tank, keeping Zain’s same distance. “I think some of them are.”
Leaning one shoulder against the wall by the door, Terius shut his eyes. “I don’t want to think about that.”
“That one definitely has joints,” Jaera said. She almost touched the glass, pointing to a limb tangled with the rest.
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.
Happily, Zain put his hands in his pockets and pretended to scan the room. He turned on his heel, taking a breath that filled his chest and pushed his shoulders back, idle, even from a distance. Terius looked at the ground, to hide a smile.
Then, “This way,” Zain said, and he wandered toward the wall. He let himself glance over his shoulder to make sure Terius was still with him, turn all the way back and pause as if he had interrupted himself with the need to continue the conversation. When he didn’t actually say anything, Terius folded his hands in front of himself and glared at him lightly.
“Right,” Zain said. He turned around again and didn’t stop again until he hit the wall with its row of padded chairs.
“Are we sitting?” Terius asked.
“Oh, no,” Zain said. “We’re using the crowd for cover.” He began threading his way along the outside of the ballroom, slowly, and unevenly. The dancers continued their patterned whirl in the middle of the floor, and knots of people too tired or too bored formed and unformed around the walls. Zain moved when the people nearest him moved, stopped, started, and loitered as he pleased. Terius stayed close, watching him with a growing smile.
“I see now how no one is going to get angry,” he murmured after a few minutes.
The first step in Zain’s master plan for the evening was to open a window.
It was a large window, set just to the left of the musicians, and he knew there was no way to do it without gathering attention. He paused to talk to the girl on the violin in between songs, chatted until the moment she had to put bow to string again, then walked straight to the window as if he were doing her a favor. The hall was warm from the dancing, but not uncomfortably so, and the drifting breeze from the window cooled almost nothing. Still, she flashed him a smile after he swung the window open, probably just pleasantly surprised to realize he was still lingering nearby, but from a distance, he thought it might be mistaken for gratitude.
It didn’t stop one of the servers from narrowing his eyes as he passed, or Selwyn from going suddenly still at the other end of the hall.
Shoving his hands in his pocket, Zain smiled back at the violinist and wandered back into the center of the hall. Because, for once, step two was not climbing out the window.
Jaera watched Norei turn the key and settle both hands on the iron bars of the door to yank it open. Even unbolted, the door was weighted to stay shut and she had to lean back to earn her first inch of motion. At the same time, as if pushed by the same wave, Jaera’s cell mates leaned back too, shoulders to the wall, though it looked lazier on them. They didn’t look at the door, and didn’t pause in what idle chatter echoed between the stone walls. Jaera herself stayed as she was, sitting in the corner. She thought Norei was coming for her, but she wasn’t sure what time of day prisoners were released.
It took an hour to listen to the rest of the cases. The line slowly shortened, and the pile of chains grew until the last of the men and women had been sent back out of the hall. Two of the guards stooped to collect the pile, hefting them over their shoulders as if the mass of them were too heavy to carry any other way. Terius watched and tried not to imagine the weight of a single pair of shackles.
The guards left and the scribe finished packing up her box of pens. Bowing to Lord Ryden, she left without a word, and the room slowly cleared after her. Terius should have stepped down from his place behind the high seat, and moved with them, but he hesitated.
Then he rolled his hands into fists. There was no point in standing there. He desperately needed to move, to run, or hit something very hard. In an instant, it felt very wrong to hold still. Even shaking would have suited, thought he felt steady as stone.
He stepped down immediately, hitting the main floor of the hall in one long stride.
“You don’t have anything you want to say to me?” his father asked behind him.
The double doors opened on the main hall and the first man in line stuttered in his first step. The chain between his feet clattered in his quick stop, and the echo of it lasted longer than his pause. The woman behind him elbowed him forward, the guard beside him nodded for him to continue, and he turned to lead the line along the back wall, glancing furtively at the high seat on the far side of the hall. Clearly, he had not expected to find the First Lord sitting as his judge.
The entire line clanked as it moved, the men and women taking the short steps the chains allowed them. Their hands were free, however, each of them convicted of small crimes that made the guards more wary of them running than the harm they might do to those around them. They glanced up then away, quick, then glanced up again a moment later, and Terius didn’t blame them for being surprised.
It wasn’t unusual for an officer’s briefing to be interrupted by ferrets’ chittering. The furry things were sly and slight enough to work their way into any space they liked, and as a general rule, they had the run of every cabin aboard ship. If the sailors felt it absolutely necessary, they could clear the ferrets out for a few minutes, but it never took for much longer than that. The ferrets liked to be chased.
They scampered through the crew decks unchallenged. They wove between the cargo stacks and the ballast and stole loose treasures for their hidey-holes. They slept halfway off the officer’s bunks as if they had forgotten they had spines and shook themselves awake shamelessly. They hunted and they played and they leapt through their wild circles and they chattered through briefings, and sailors learned to ignore them with a smile.
But they didn’t usually sit so still beneath the officer’s table, two or three or four of them chittering from a particular officer’s chair.
Terius wished he could be surprised. The most he could manage was a dull look in his cousin’s direction.
The house was quiet when Jaera woke, opening her eyes to the dim yellow light that wriggled its way through the shutters. Outside, she could hear people passing by on the street, her neighbors calling back and forth to each other, and someone pounded with a hammer, already deep in the day’s work. She was the last to wake, but she just yawned and stretched slowly. She had time.
She swung her feet out of bed and sat for a moment, blinking sleepily at the strips of light across her floor. When her thoughts started to lose their fuzzy edges, she stood up, stripped out of her nightshirt and put on the day’s shirt, breeches, and jacket. Then she finger-combed her hair enough to fit it into a braid.
Opening the door, she moved down the hall, then blinked in the brighter light of the main room as she came down the stairs. The windows were all open wide, letting in the breeze and the sunlight, and letting out the summer heat that was slowly building. The front and back doors were open as well. Jaera glanced at them, and pulled her sleeves down over her hands. She was still losing the comfortable, heavy warmth of sleep, and the air felt a little cold.
“Mornin’,” Barrett said behind her.
Toar said the best way to test control was to practice in the dark.
A good keimon, he told Jaera, could spread her hands and do her Work in daylight without the glow on her palms even showing in the sunshine. She could thread her energy onto the air like beads on lace, hiding it under the pattern of the light that was already there. It would only show in the shadows, motes on shafts of sunlight that didn’t exist. She could Work quietly, spread her energy thin and have everything she needed ready in the air.
The very best keimon, he said, leaning down to look her in the eye, need never even glimmer in the shadows. She could Work in the dark, and never dispel a shade of it. She could cast energy onto the air as if she was only putting its proper skin on it. With perfect, iron control, she could spread her energy everywhere, and still blink sightlessly into the pitch black.
Toar had held her eye to make sure she understood what he intended her to be. Jaera had nodded.