“Heads, I win. Tails, you lose. Your choice.” And the girl smiled as she said it, her mouth a charming, crooked line.
In her chair, she relaxed without leaning either forward or back, her spine carelessly straight. Her dark hair was braided loosely down her back and a too-bright scarf held it back from her face. With one elbow propped lazily against the table, she let the silence stretch. And she waited for the unnecessary reply.
When charging into dangerous situations you can either be fast and silent or fast and prepared. It was a simple truth, with a single, large exception which Jasen wasn’t sure why he had never noticed before: if you caused the dangerous situation, you had the foreknowledge to be all three.
He didn’t figure it out until he felt the cool line of a knife leaned against his spine and angled against the muscle of his neck while his sword was still padded in his sheath. He had moved quiet and quick into his hiding place in the far corner of the dim warehouse, but she had been ready for him.
“We told you to stay home,” she murmured, leaning close behind him with one hand firmly on his shoulder so that she could speak into his ear. She didn’t lose the angle on her knife, placed perfectly to slide in and twist so that nothing below his chin ever answered his mind again. It was chilling, even knowing who the voice belonged to.
It had been light when Jennika fell asleep, and it was dark when she woke up. It didn’t seem like enough time had passed, but her mouth was sticky from deep sleep, and her chest and arms were over-warm, like she’d been knocked out of it before her body was ready to come back up for consciousness. She blinked, and swallowed, and took a deep breath. Then she pulled herself up straight.
“Whoa,” Kynbessne said, sitting beside her in the cart bed. She put her hand on Jennika’s shoulder and the cart lurched at just the right moment to turn the gentle nudge to an insistent push back down to the blankets.
Jennika fell back on one elbow, but took another quick breath, trying to wake up. It hurt. Her throat was rough, and her head felt thick.
In the warm light of the open taproom, Jenny leaned forward over the table, arms crossed, shoulders hunched forward to protect the smile twisting her lips. Across from her, Jasen leaned as far back as he could, shoulder blades pressed into his chair back, but his long legs were kicked lazily under the table.
“You can’t,” he said flatly.
Jenny’s smile twisted higher. “Sure, I can,” she said.
“You can’t,” he repeated, quick, as if he were playing the last seconds over, giving her the chance to take back her ridiculous argument.
Between them, Bess rested her elbows gently on the edge of the table, and held a full cider mug under her chin. She glanced at Jenny as Jasen spoke, then quick to Jasen to catch his reaction to her response, back and forth, back and forth. She didn’t laugh, because it would have ruined the flow of it, but she wanted to. At the glint in Jenny’s eye. At the smile that was creeping onto Jasen’s face despite the helpless and disbelieving look that was growing in his eyes.
The last of the mourners walked quietly out of the house, and the front door closed behind them with an apologetic thud. It was almost too hushed to be a proper closing, except for the way that it sealed in the silence, set the echoes whispering in the corners, and turned the entry hall in a dull, dim little box.
Kynbessne folded her hands in front of her skirt, not knowing what else she was supposed to do with them. It was an easy position to fall into, and it was just that ease that felt so faulty. It would have been right to ball her hands into fists around the soft cloth of her dress, or tear the air with bent fingers, or just to throw everything in sight against the floor. And it would have been wrong.
So, she stood, still, and quiet, her hair braided down her back, her dark dress hanging around her without a sound. She took a shallow breath in. Then pushed a shallow breath out.
Her father stood just as unsteadily, rocking on his heels as if he had suddenly forgotten where each door off the main hall led. He had one hand wrapped around the front of his jacket, like he couldn’t trust buttons to keep it closed any more. There were a great many things – small things – that seemed to be betraying him all at once, and he blinked at them, mute in the face of a treachery that didn’t even make sense.
It was cold.
Not the kind of cold that strikes at the first crack in the opening door. Not the cold that shoves back, so forcefully cold, that it argues against the necessity of going outside. Not the cold that holds the house together and locks everyone inside with the fire, the blankets, the hot drinks in clay cups.
This cold seeped. It slid, and skittered and hid. It touched lungs first, hurting before it chilled. It touched teeth before lips. It touched bones before fingertips, sneaking in deep before the wind picked up to drive it in sharp and demand attention.
It was cold and the sun barely noticed it, slipping idly under the horizon, leaving the air to the mercy of the night without any last attempt to keep the world safe until its return.
The knock on the cabin door was both polite and forcible. Jenny pulled her face out of her pillow, eyes flashing open. She hadn’t heard a knock quite that interesting in a long time. Bess must have something fun to go along with breakfast. Swinging down from her hammock, she ran barefoot across the decking and pulled her cabin door open.
Bess wasn’t there. There was no one in the long room, though sunlight was already lancing through the windows at the rear of the ship. Blinking against it, Jenny moved toward the outer door a little more slowly.
The knock came again, three hard knocks that made the door rattle in its frame. Jenny looked for a shadow under the door, but the morning light laid in the wrong direction, and the shifting line of light and dark under the door could have been anything.
“Come on,” Jasen called through the door, just as Jenny pulled on the handle. “I know someone’s home.”
She slammed the door shut again at the sharp sound of his voice, whirled, and put her back to the door.
Jasen answered the door at the fourth knock. Seeing who it was, he stepped back and pulled the door as far as it would go, gesturing the two women inside. “You’re late,” he said.
Bess stepped inside, shooting him a glance that might have scratched the skin from his face, except that it didn’t seem to be aimed at him. Her red hair was tied back in a sloppy tail, the way it usually was when she was tired, or busy, or both. Jasen watched her for a half second longer, trying to sort out if there was trouble on her tail. Her shoulders were relaxed, her hands easily slung along the strap of the travel sack tied across her chest. She was annoyed, but not in any rush, so he let himself relax as well.
Jenny came in on Bess’ heels, grinning like a bobcat. Her dark hair curled around her face, coming loose from the scarf tied around her head. “The Duke was late,” she explained. Then she shrugged, like there was nothing to be done about dukes.
Kessa always looked impossibly clean, her jacket and breeches all in their natural browns, but looking like they’d been blown fresh off the drying line. Her ash-blonde hair always hung straight down her back, like newly-woven cloth. Her skin stayed pale, even in the summer sun, and her blue eyes always looked like they’d just been painted on in sharp strokes, still shining wet.
Kynbessne figured it was because Kessa spent most of her hours invisible. Even dirt couldn’t find her.
That seemed to be the way Kessa liked it. Kynbessne had gotten used to the weird conversations with no eyes to meet, startling beginnings, and abrupt endings. She had almost managed to keep her heart from turning her veins into a race track whenever the other woman spoke. She could tell that it took some energy to keep hidden, but there was always a smile in Kessa’s tone when she surprised her with a statement from open air. She seemed to enjoy keeping Kynbessne on her heels, loved even more listening to her search when she needed her, and Kynbessne resigned herself to the fact that Kessa just liked playing these games.
Except when it came time to argue with Jennika.
Kynbessne had left so many things behind: A whole house with its stone face and artful fence, canopy bed and pony in the stable yard. Then jewelry traded in for more precious things like bread and roofs. The shoes that had never been much good for walking, and clothes that she outgrew and couldn’t afford. Finally, the things that she’d never believed she could sell: a necklace she’d always worn like silver skin, a book her father had loved and scrawled in, a scarf of her mother’s that had seemed to warm her more than the fabric suggested.
All of them traded in and stacked up as coins in her pocket that Kynbessne also left behind in an uneven trail of crumbs. She could never pick them up again, and if she followed them back, they wouldn’t take her home. That was the first thing she’d lost, without even realizing her last moment inside it.