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.
Taryn’s father had scars like constellations, overlapped like tidelines on the beach, washing his arms in curls of red and brown and white. His mother’s arms were the same shade of tan from fingertip to elbow, slowly fading as it reached her shoulders, touched only by the sun. But she didn’t have any fire in her hands, like Taryn and his father. She didn’t have this ice under her skin.
Taryn had known all his life he would have scars, too. He just hadn’t known that before they would lay flush against his skin, they would bleed, and they would throb like fresh bruises deep in the muscle.
He winced, trying to wipe the blood away from his skin. It welled up from a strip two inches wide, as if he had skidded across the rug on his shoulder, not burned himself. A moment ago, he thought it had stopped, but every time he washed it away, red seeped back, gathering into thick drops.
When the door clicked open, he caught the hiss and roar of the training hall outside. His father stepped inside, shut the door, and it faded back to the deep, spaced out thunks and claps.
The last thread of humanity broke and he collapsed into the explosion of power. It swallowed him. Consumed him. Composed him. The ice under his skin sank straight down into his bones until every piece of his insides was stone-steady and water-smooth. The fire on his hands and arms forgot to be small, forgot to be bright, and rushed, blue-black in all directions, holding him in the center.
His eyes were shut, and he could not open them. He was dragging in a breath, and his chest was full, satisfied, but just kept pulling and pulling, unable to find the end of his capacity. The fire was crackling in his ears, and building in his arms, and he was broken on the swell of it, drunk on the swell of it, lost and unwilling to be found.
He was not smiling. His lips were twisted up at both corners, and his mouth was open, trying to finish that breath, trying to laugh it back out, but he was not smiling. That was too tame for this thing he had become.
And he burned.
And he choked on it.
It was a beautiful gift, all smooth corners of blue paper that gleamed like moonrise on the water, and leaping white ribbon. It felt nice in Chaela’s hands as she picked it up off the table, the paper more cousin to cloth than tree. She would have been content to leave it just as it was for a long while if Leonathan hadn’t been standing in the doorway, quietly watching and waiting. She turned it around in her hands once, letting the white light of the lamps catch and dance one more time across the top of the box. She could hear something shift inside, something muffled and nestled, and perfectly content to be held inside.
Chaela wobbled on her new heels as she turned back toward the door, the shoes still stiff around her feet. She let herself slide into it, let her feet slide out and stood on the carpet in her bare toes. Her wide skirt hid the shoes still, but she sank back to her usual height. Looking up at Leonathan – back to the way she was accustomed to looking up at him – she smiled, more to herself than to him. She felt silly for kicking out of her shoes. And she felt better. They only met each other’s eye for a moment while she smiled. He smiled back, but she could feel the weight in it. She looked back to the gift in her hands quickly, and pulled in a breath, pull the next moment along more quickly as well.
Gently, she slid the ribbons out of their knots. Chaela let them fall around her fingers. The seams of the paper were laid in carefully, but with the ties gone, it was easy to slip her fingers between the layers. She peeled the paper back too, careful not to turn the thin-walled wooden box inside upside down. The lid sighed as she lifted it.
“There is nothing under the eight suns, or under the thousand stars, or in the hundred oceans, that would convince me to do that,” Leonathan said. Spine straight, arms crossed, eyebrows high to strengthen the emphatic syllables, he spoke with the assurance and wariness and absolute shock that made Chaela smile, then cover her mouth just to hold in a laugh.
She glanced over at the rope bridge swaying between cliffs. It was old, missing a few boards. The knots anchoring the end were thick, but fraying in age. It looked a little dangerous, a little like it might have the heart and the sense of humor to drop you into the water fifty feet below.
But the bridge had been there for as long as Chaela could remember and she had wanted to cross it for twice as long.
“When will you be back?” Chaela asked. Leonathan walked beside her, close enough that his shoulder brushed hers from time to time. He kept his hands in his pockets, so she held hers in front of her, playing with her fingernails.
Shaking his head, Leonathan looked out at the harbor, dyed gray and red in the sunset. “I don’t know,” he said. “We’re headed farther south before we turn back for home. It’ll be months before we make it that far. Stars only know how long it will be before we sail out again, or which way we’ll be going.”
“Won’t you be coming this way on your way back home?” she asked.
Leonathan shook his head a little more firmly. “That’s not how the wind works.”
Chaela woke up slowly, stuck her head out her door to see if anyone else was awake yet, then sighed and drifted back inside to get dressed. Sunlight invaded the room through the square window above her bed. Squinting against the light, she moved quickly and ducked back out into the hallway.
Quietly, she walked down three flights of stairs and into the inn’s taproom. Everything was cleaned and scrubbed from the night before. All the chairs and tables were neatly in their places. The bar sat empty and her steps echoed against the floor. At night, nothing in the room echoed, too full of music and voices and smoke and drink. It was eerie so early in the morning, so hollowed out by vacancy.
Chaela crossed the room, unlocked the front door, then disappeared into the back room to escape the echo.
A minute later, she elbowed her way back out, arms locked under a wide tray of washed and drip-dried mugs, and he was standing at the bar.