They say we came first, and for a little while we drank the blood of the stars. I try to imagine the taste of the sun. It’s been acid on my skin since the beginning of my new memory, and swallowing it down seems like it should feel like sipping on molten steel, tearing lips and tongue throat as it slides. But they say it tasted like honey wine.
Every woman in Evanston over the age of twelve owned a red dress.
No one talked about it.
No one talked about the red dye on their mother’s hands either, bought in bricks or beaten out of Bloodroot. The stains clung to fingers and arms for weeks at a time as they dyed and redyed and redyed again.
No one talked about their aunts sneaking off into the woods to hang great sheets of precious cloth off the branches to dry, or their sisters hauling it in again, bright crimson, and whipped to gentleness in the constant island wind.
Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
Seryn saw Tiernan and she marked him, knowing that was where Macsen would expect her to be in this fight.
Commands clattered from the walls of the fortress, and from the lines of soldiers, echoing and rolling, passed from one officer to another. Footsteps thundered. Armor rattled. Seryn stayed where she was until she saw the shape of the vise locking around the walls, turned and saw Aled plunge through the narrowing gate.
She would need to be there too.
For half a moment, Seryn listened to it, and registered it calmly. It was a noise she had expected as soon as she saw the flood of men and women rushing out from between the trees, horrible, but familiar over the rumble of motion, the clank of armor, the measured voices of commanders who were pretending to understand the blood and the steel. And it took her half a moment to hear his voice in the twisted sound.
Seryn whirled back toward them.
When Seryn moved again, Rhian turned on the bench, then stood stiffly. Rhian didn’t meet her eye, but Seryn didn’t need her to. Seryn took a slow step and Rhian followed. Her gaze remained unfocused, directed toward the floor, but after a moment, as the girl started to blink too quickly, Seryn doubted she saw anything. Without further hesitation, Seryn turned for the door. A dozen long strides and she pushed outside, Rhian half a moment behind her.
Seryn didn’t stop in the yard. The breeze was cool, and the fortress was rumbling through the day’s chores, but both seemed far away. She aimed for the gate. Glancing to either side, she wondered what she looked like to the others, if she looked any different than she usually did, moving about on her own orders. She slowed just enough to put Rhian at her shoulder – the pair of them might seem less strange than one of them leading the other on an invisible leash – and kept moving. She could deal with questions later after she had gotten a moment to think.
The open ground outside the walls was quieter, but still too exposed. Rhian faltered and Seryn nodded her toward the tree line. Rhian stalled, meeting her eye, then moved forward again. Seryn angled them north and east to avoid the other encampment, and led them deep between the straight-backed trees. The ground turned from trampled dirt to grass and scrub. The air cooled further under the filter of green leaves. The breeze whispered, hummed just enough to cover all other sounds and convince Seryn they had gone far enough.
The room went quiet as soon as Cidra stopped moving. No one else shifted, or even seemed to breathe, for a full count of fifty. Then slowly, they all pulled their blankets back up around their shoulders and buried themselves in their cots. Sevi climbed back into bed still facing Nessim, folding one foot beneath him and then the other. Nessim waited for a moment in the dark, and then sat on the floor just where he was. He watched the door, the cracks in the frame streaking him with dim yellow light, so that Anie could see the line of his nose, and the edge of one eye as he waited. He blinked too often.
Vetlynn was the last to lay down, her hair fall across her cheek so that Anie wasn’t sure whether she had turned face-down to hide, or not.
Anie didn’t lay down at all. She had thought she might sleep, but now she knew she wouldn’t. Sleep didn’t feel like a real thing any more, the way she could feel all the distinct edges of her thoughts inside her. Her body didn’t feel heavy enough to sleep.
She sat up, awake and alert while the clamor outside continued on, dimmed and dulled by the walls.
“You’re still here,” Jekiah said.
Fingers bunched in her collar, Wynn pulled her coat tight without a mind for the insignias, or the soldier’s stitches in the shoulders. It was just thick wool, bold-faced to the cold wind that tried to cut through her. “I’m still here,” she repeated.
And there was something about the ice bite on the backs of her hands that reminded her what warmth was in her blood. There was something in the black winter sky that carried such undeniable weight, that to stand straight underneath it was proof and testament and promise of what sort of iron she was built from.