“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.
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.
“So, Aunt Lyneth,” Zain said. “Did Terius tell you about the rabbit we found while we were gone?”
Terius paused, his hand on the deck in the middle of the little table to draw a card. Zain was calmly arranging the cards his hand, expression smooth, but Terius could see the small promise of a smile in it. Terius blinked at him.
Lyneth only lowered the cards in her hand and glanced between the two of them, curious at first, then suspicious at Terius’ silence.
“I don’t believe so,” she said.
“Really?” Zain seemed to drop his hands without a thought, but Terius noticed that his cards stayed hidden, close to his chest. He looked at Terius incredulously, then across the table at his uncle, Ryden. Ryden stared back at him warningly, and laid down a card. Immediately, Zain looked back to Lyneth.
“I can’t believe he didn’t tell you about that,” Zain said.
Raising an eyebrow, Lyneth met Terius’ eye as she picked up a card of her own.
“It…” Terius said.
Zain picked a card up from the table and put another down in its place. He waved to Terius expectantly, maybe telling him it was his turn, maybe telling him to continue.
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.
Zain decided to steal across the deck badly that morning. He came out of the hatch and glanced over his shoulder, both ways, before he pulled himself over the last rung of the ladder. Then he skirted behind the officer’s deck and came back with the two water sacks, walking all wrong, toe to heel, to keep quiet. Then he looked over his shoulder again, slow and careful.
He tied the water sacks tight to his back, or as tight as he could with the heavy shifting water rolling with the sway of the ship. Then he toe-heel walked himself to the rigging, and set his foot on the first rung.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Alrein asked.
Zain turned back to him slowly, his eyebrows rising innocently.
Alrein blinked back at him, eyelids falling dully as he did. Zain wanted to applaud him for his excellent look of disgruntled disbelief.
Zain elbowed Terius. It was remarkably gentle for him, a subtle motion that could easy have been missed by anyone watching, but gave a quick, firm nudge against Terius’ ribs. Terius lifted his head immediately, eyebrows almost going into his hair, and looked at him.
Zain almost laughed at the surprise on his cousin’s face, but looked away and just smiled. He took another big bite out of the apple in his hand. Then he nodded across the deck of the ship.
The Clanless girl was out again. Terius wasn’t sure where she had just come from, but her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and the hair that had come loose from her braid was stuck to her neck and forehead. She’d been working hard on something. She wandered to the far rail, stuck her elbows on top and lifted herself onto her toes. Face first in the breeze, she tilted her head back to cool her skin.
Terius watched her for a moment, then he looked back down at the book in his lap.
Zain had a book he was supposed to be reading, but he shut it and pushed it behind him while he leaned back on his hands. He tilted his head, watching the girl. Terius supposed he’d thought schooling would end when they started sailing, and now Zain kicked harder than ever against sticking his nose between the dry pages.
“They found her, right?” Zain asked.
Terius glanced at him uncertainly.
Zain looked at him. “I mean, somebody did?”
Terius nodded slowly. “That why my father said she was Clanless.”