The hall was wide enough for two fat carriages with drunken drivers to dance past each other comfortably, but the crowd had still slowed to a sluggish crawl as they turned down it. Kadelyn slowed as she arrived behind the knot of people. Her bodyguard, Noach brushed her hand, by accident for once, as he tried to match her pace, and they both came to an uncertain stop. Kadelyn blinked at the backs of the man and woman in front of her, then turned and gave Noach her questioning look as well.
She had never been stopped in this hall before. She considered for a moment, if she had ever walked through this hall for any reason other than to get somewhere else as quickly as possible, and determined that she had not. It was bare stone, windowless, and wide, and no one had even bothered to hang paintings on the walls. It was a thoroughfare, and that was all.
“What is going on?” she murmured, eyebrows high.
Noach shrugged helplessly.
Brance arrived with a smile, coming down the garden path with his hands in his pockets. His jacket hung open in the warmth of the afternoon and his dark hair curled lazily where he had combed it back with his fingers. He took his steps slowly, as if the air and the greenery and the high sun had earned his calm. Turning, Kadelyn came to a stop to let him catch up, and she smiled back. Behind Kadelyn, Noach, her bodyguard shifted to take up his proper place a few feet away. Her younger sister, Ineli stopped too, with her bodyguard pulling to the same distance, as if both he and Noach were hung on the same tether.
“Hello,” Kadelyn said as Brance came within a few steps. “I’m glad you could join us…” She blinked and trailed off as Brance came closer and did not stop. He turned just to the side, passed them, held up a finger to promise he’d only be a minute, and kept on walking, all with his lazy smile pinned in place. He disappeared behind the next bend in the path and Kadelyn shut her eyes, holding her breath until she opened them again.
“Where is he going?” Ineli asked. She looked to Kadelyn.
Kadelyn shrugged and shook her head. “The south gate? The moon? They’re both equally likely.”
Aithan, Ineli’s guard cleared his throat quietly, and worked to straighten his smile.
Kadelyn was tired, and not in any of the easy ways that could be cured with something sweet or bitter. She wasn’t yawning, and her eyes stayed open all on their own, but she moved slow just because she couldn’t find a reason to move quickly. Behind her, her bodyguard, Noach was keeping his same even stride. She could feel him slow to keep his heavy boots off her skirts, and she’d felt him slow a dozen times so far that morning. She considered picking up her feet, lengthening her stride, and decided not to pretend.
“Any further business this morning?” Noach asked gently.
Kadelyn took a breath, and shook her head.
“So, we’re headed home?” he asked, uncertainly.
She smiled a little. They did not always head home when she said they were finished. Sometimes they just kept working on whatever came to her mind, forgetting about the idea of appointments. Not today. “We’re going home,” she confirmed.
Turning away from the door, Kadelyn heard Noach shift as well, and realized he was watching her. It was rare to feel his attention so firmly without asking for it, and today, it was not altogether comforting. She would have liked to turn around and look him in the eye, to assure him everything was fine, but she didn’t have the balance to finish that lie. She would have liked him to return to his usual wariness, monitoring doors and windows and sounds beyond the walls. She would have liked anything that would let this instant stride onward instead of hesitating on the doorstep the way it was.
Noach shifted again. “Is there anything else I can do for you, my lady?” he asked.
“No,” Kadelyn said flatly.
There was a pause, then the jitter of chainmail as he bowed.
Kadelyn whirled around, catching him in his first step toward the door. “Don’t you dare,” she murmured.
Kadelyn paused in the hall as she neared her rooms, listening to an echo from behind her door that didn’t match her footsteps. Noach slowed behind her. She could feel him glance down at her, catch the look on her face and drop into immediate silence. The echoes continued, and the shuffling behind her door sounded clearly in the open hall.
Immediately, Noach stepped in front of her and put a hand to the sword on his hip. He glanced behind them, sighting down the empty hall for anything they might have missed as they walked past. Kadelyn listened closely, trying to still even her own breath. Whoever was inside was slowing as well, as if he’d heard them coming. Silence settled in heavily, like ice, echoing everything that didn’t belong.
Slowly, Noach turned back to the door. “Wait here,” he said, and gently pressed her toward the stone wall. She straightened her spine and pressed her hands to the stones, watching him slide his sword out of its sheath. Holding the blade between him and the door, he eased the latch open. Kadelyn watched his face as the light from the room slid across it. His eyes turned with the door, scanning the room the instant it was revealed. After a moment, he stepped inside.
“Good evening, Lord Brance,” he said evenly.
Kadelyn knocked on the door three times before she determined that Brance wasn’t going to answer. She hadn’t expected him to come to the door, so it was easy to wait, easy to follow the quiet polite rules in the quiet stone hall. Then she slipped the key out of her pocket and unlocked his door.
“Wait here,” she told her bodyguard softly, and stepped into the room.
Paper crackled under her feet. She rocked backward, half to shut the door firmly behind her, and half to escape the heavy map laid out on the floor. There was another map beyond it, and another half propped against the legs of the couch. Maps covered the table at the center of the room, leaned into the seat of every leather chair around it, fell off each of the side tables and continued around the floor on the far side. The windows on the right side of the room were still covered over in heavy curtains from the night before, but the papers glowed dimly yellow in the light of the single lamp on the far wall. The light caught in the long sides of scattered empty bottles, and the whole room smelled like wine. Kadelyn picked up her skirts, stepping carefully across the maps on the balls of her feet to keep the narrow heels of her shoes from tearing them.
Kadelyn had a smile that spoke more firmly than a shout: You don’t know me and you never will. And it was the politest expression Noach had ever seen.
Somehow she slid it into place without anyone around her catching one of its sharp corners. Somehow it reminded him to keep his distance without offering any offense. Perhaps, it said, it is not that you are not allowed to step inside and chart my mind, it is that you are not able to draw those lines. Perhaps, I am unknowable. It was a statement without a challenge. It was a warning without a threat. She wore it as if it were the lightest silk, like one of her morning gowns that floated around her as she strode down the hall, but he understood that there was weight to it. It couldn’t hold that much elegance without something inside it to give it substance.
It was a perfect smile, fitted to the daughter of a Lord, to a woman who would forever be out of reach. So far out of reach, she was almost out of sight, except for that brilliant shine on her that kept her visible.