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.
Karleigh liked the ocean well enough. She liked the sigh and shuffle of it, the huff as it heaved itself up into a wave, as if it the wind were encouraging it to put on a show and it gave in from time to time. She liked the salt that worked its way into everything – air, hair, skin, and clothes – and the constant rocking that made sleeping easy and waking careful. Her hair always had a curl in it on the ocean, and there was always someone nearby to talk to.
But there was nothing like coming home.
She followed her things on their trundling wagon up through the city streets, and slowly left the salt behind, though her feet remembered the deck’s sway all the way up to her palace housing. She stepped through the old familiar door, and looked at old familiar walls, and liked them just for the fact that they had stayed the same while she had gone and left them.
The breeze sank to the floor as soon as it came through the windows, rolling stubbornly across the length of the room. Its persistence chilled the wooden floor while most of the room held onto the day’s summer warmth. The sun had gone down hours ago, and the stars glittered through the wavering glass. Karleigh leaned her shoulder against the door frame and looked at the white light stretching across the room.
Her door was barely open far enough to let her through, but she had slid her shoulders into the gap, and then waited.
It was so strange to hear nothing in the middle of the night.
There was a sharp knock at the door to Karleigh’s rooms. She folded her book shut, left it on the table, and answered it with a slow step back to keep her skirts out of the way as it brushed against the thick carpet.
When she saw her uncle, she smiled. “Back so soon?” she asked. It had only been two years since she’d last seen him.
Toar looked tired, as he always did, with a smile hovering one good breath under the surface. It took him that breath to catch the full weight of her joke, and then he did smile, his usual slanted twist of the lips. Shaking his head, he stepped inside.
“Good to see you, too,” he said, and gave her a sharp little bow.
She dipped a shallow curtsey and motioned him farther into her sitting room. He followed her hand, and his apprentice, Jaera followed him, one and a half steps behind him in her proper place.
Karleigh found her uncle, Toar packing in the rooms next door to hers, slowly pulling the few bits of his personality out of the furnished space. He had his bag open on the bed, and while he folded every piece of clothing as he worked, it didn’t much matter after he threw it inside.
Karleigh pushed the door a little farther open, letting it creak to alert him she was there.
He looked up, smiled, and kept moving.
“Do you need any help?” she asked.
His smile widened at the question, but he shook his head. He tossed another shirt into the canvas bound pile. “It’s not a lot of work,” he said.
Elea curled against the arm of Karleigh’s couch, shoes forgotten on the floor, her feet tucked up under her heavy skirts. Her blonde hair was pinned and combed into perfect waves down the back of her neck, but pieces around her face fell into her eyes as she looked over her cup at Karleigh. Holding the cup with both hands, eyes caught in the sharpness of a smile, she looked like she knew something, and all her small talk was angled to achieve perfect timing in the reveal that she was counting down to inside her own head.
Karleigh, both feet set against the floor as she leaned back in her padded chair, sipped her tea and waited.
“So,” Elea finally said. “You’ve met her.” She took an immediate drink, forcing Karleigh to fill the sudden silence. Her eyes brightened.
It had been months since Karleigh last saw her uncle, Toar. There had been a creeping thought in the back of her mind that at this length in his silence, she would hear from him soon. She had started looking into his favorite lodgings, sorting out the servants’ work loads so they would be ready to split when he arrived, and giving her own rooms their needed deep spring cleaning.
Still, she had expected a letter before she turned a corner and found him standing in the wide shining entrance hall of the Clan Lord’s palace.
He smiled when he saw her, and she realized that she was smiling too, just a little too wide. She tamed her expression slightly, and turned toward him.
He stepped into the room quietly, and wavered by the doorway as if he wasn’t sure she had heard him. He didn’t say anything, and Karleigh didn’t turn, surprised at his appearance so early in the morning.
She could see his apprentice, Jaera through her window. The younger girl sat on the back steps, arms crossed over her knees, waiting for him. The breeze was just cold enough to make her fold her limbs together to ward it off, but she kept her head up, letting the air play with the loose pieces of her hair.
Karleigh hesitated a moment, wondering why her uncle wasn’t on his way down to her, then continued folding the dress in her hands and fitting it into the case on the bed.
“Do you need any help?” Toar asked, behind her.
Karleigh smiled over shoulder. “I have plenty of time,” she told him. “My ship doesn’t leave for hours.”
“Do you want any help?” he asked.
The halls in Lord Ryden’s estate were quieter than the ones in the Clan Lord’s court. There, Karleigh always shared the wide halls with faces she knew. Friends and acquaintances would pass her in both directions, chatting in small knots, or they lounged on the couches to read and play cards. Sometimes, they just stood at the windows waiting for their friends to arrive. Silence only slipped in late at night.
Here, at the right time of day, Karleigh could walk alone with her echoes. She had never expected that at the home of the First Lord. He was second only to the Clan Lord, and she assumed that his halls would be almost as full, situated in the center of his own busy island.
Surprising as it was, she couldn’t decide if the quiet suited her or not.
Karleigh had been wandering for a little under half an hour when she saw Jaera standing in the hall. The younger girl had her back to the wall, her shoulder inches from the frame of a large double door. She glanced up when she heard footsteps, and offered an easy smile.
Her uncle’s house was quiet as Karleigh made her way down the sweeping stairs from her bedroom to the main hall. Her hand whispered against the railing, while her soft shoes tread silently against the padded steps. Somewhere on the other side of the back door, two birds were competing for sweetest call. The house echoed with its own hums and creaks. Karleigh stood still for a moment, waiting for something else to appear, then to turned down the hall.
The door to the back rooms was tucked underneath the stairs, almost seamless in the wall. She had to run her fingers down the plaster to find the narrow latch. Slipping inside, she moved carefully along the narrow, dim hallway and pushed through the door on the far end to reach the kitchen. Sunlight lanced in through stout windows set high in the ceiling. Herbs hung off the rafters in one corner settled a blend of sweet and sharp over the whole room, while the walls stood in warm yellow light with their baskets and shelves cluttering the space in a friendly way.
Her uncle’s housekeeper must have been sitting at the square table at the center of the room, but she was already standing when Karleigh swung the door open enough to see her. Her tea steamed from the tabletop, and there was a thin stack of playing cards in front of her, spread a little in her haste to put them down.