Visiting her father was the only time she dressed down for a public event. She owned silks and brocades that she wore every day, and gowns sewn with glinting twists of beadwork from neckline to hem that would have been perfect for the holidays in her own home. She owned dresses that sang, and hummed, and whispered as she walked, and every one of them would have been too loud in her father’s halls. Even the dresses she had worn as a girl for the celebrations in his home would have drawn too many eyes.
She dressed as plainly as she could get away with on such an exalted day. Her blue dress turned dull silver if it caught the proper shine, though the evening’s yellow lamplight was turning it muddy gray. The neck was embroidered with a line of rolling waves, and the hem echoed the pattern in larger strokes. The skirt bunched stiffly in its gathers where it should have flowed, an expensive fabric made in the wrong pattern.
She looked properly decadent, just shy of real elegance. In the long hall, roiling with party-goers, no one looked at her twice.
Today, I am celebrating Christmas. Whatever you are doing today, these are my wishes for you:
May your day be long enough for the proper number of laughs, smiles, and encouragements, and end far before your limit of their opposites.
May you have good company in whatever your day holds. I especially hope that it is someone who will be able to tell today’s story years from now, and tell it like it was the summer blockbuster that actually deserved all of its accolades. Even better if they have the kinds of sense of humor that can be both meaningful and breath-ripping hilarious at the same time.
Oruasta had been a sweet sight when they first arrived. Even in the shadowy light of almost night that turned the gray stones to an even duller color, it had been beautiful. The hollow echo of the old stone in the middle of the night twisted every voice into something lilting. Even empty, quiet, and plain, it had soothed Tiernan’s skin like warm oil.
But Oruasta did nothing so well as bright colors and lights and wide tables and crowded streets.
The whole city was fitted into the mountain, with the bulk of it nestled into the carved out center under an open sky. The jagged face of the mountain rose around it, pointing always upward, while it housed those with the most money and those with the most responsibility. The entire north side belonged to Tiernan’s father, with rooms appointed to each of his sons, and long halls for diplomacy and storage and enterprise. On the slopes, the streets twisted like sleepy snakes, content to lay over top of each other and kink and bow. Homes and stores and workshops planted one corner into the stone and balanced all others on stilts to hold level. In the basin, the buildings climbed on top of each other, growing as high as they dared, while the streets widened. Paving stones cut straighter lines, though they were more concerned with their sharp-cornered patterns than their even edges.
Jaera and Zain slipped up through the rear hatch, running shoulder-to-the-wall across the back of the officers quarters in the soft light of early evening. The ocean was turning to shards and edges as it gleamed in the setting sun, while shadows faded in the rest of the world. Half the sky grew hazy in shades in blue and gray while the other side rioted orange and purple and pink. Jaera led the way, leaned forward to watch for the rest of the crew while they aimed for Terius, leaning against the rail. He was watching the water, leaned on both elbows, and didn’t see them coming.
He didn’t mind either, when they claimed their places on either side of him, just raised his eyebrows carefully to examine the tilt in Zain’s smile and the quiet light in Jaera’s eye.
“What?” Terius asked quietly. He glanced between them, and they glanced at each other, preparing their answer.
“We need you to go into the city,” Jaera said. “To get paint.”
“Paint,” Terius repeated. He looked at Zain, remeasured his smile, as if he could see the tipping point coming when it would be come a full grin and was trying to calculate how much time he had left before that disaster struck. “Why me?”
“Because,” Zain told him. “All three of us can’t go, or we won’t come back to the ship. We’ll skip the face-painting altogether, get stuck in Festival, and that just wouldn’t be as much fun.”
Lediah’s Name Day passed in all the usual ways.
The night before was almost sleepless, and the first few hours of the morning passed between nervous shakes and stifled yawns. As she ate breakfast, she tapped her foot so quickly against the kitchen floor that her mother reached out and stilled her knee with a heavy hand, then stilled the rest of her with a wordless look. Lediah glanced around the table at the rest of her family, and swallowed her rice and broth as best she could.
The tests started mid-morning, deep inside a square stone building that felt as if had been constructed to hold people down to the earth. The walls were plain. The ceiling was high. The windows and doors were scarce. Lediah felt as if she had walked into a cave, the way her voice and motions echoed in the empty space. Her judges felt twice as tall, the way they spoke in the reverberating air. The sun continued its pace in secret, counting time somewhere she couldn’t see. Everything seemed to stretch and press in on her. When they finally announced that she’d passed, she was sweating, exhausted, and muscles slung loose with relief.
She walked out in the daylight, surprised at the shape of the shadows. Then she saw her parents. She smiled. Her momma beamed. Her father grinned. They both wrapped her in a hug, and walked her out past the front wall. Her teacher, Anxo had passed just before them, but had already disappeared, as he was supposed to. He’d left behind her new name, scrawled across the grey stone in clean white chalk. Lediah read it as she walked, facing it until her neck couldn’t bend any farther. Her mother and father read it, and said nothing aloud. The rest of her family followed after, just as silent.
Galen watched Terius take the seat next to him, surprised to the see the younger man in a plain shirt and breeches under a brown jacket that looked like it was made for use more than style. He had been prepared to stand and bow, but Terius had entered the crowded barroom without his usual force of presence and now slid into his seat as if he appreciated the invisibility. So, Galen sat.
A few months ago, Terius’ partial disguise wouldn’t have been odd, but with Jaera gone…
Galen put his drink quickly to cut off the thought, and folded his hands over the bar top. There was nothing here in the lower parts of the city that he needed to hide anymore.
It was some kind of prank. Galen smiled at the idea and picked up his mug again. “If we’re playing a game here, I’ll need to know the rules,” he said.
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.
Iva watched the evidence of the changing seasons every day as she walked home from shop. The green trees on the corner repainted themselves in orange and red. The buildings seemed to shift their towns to match, square chameleons intent on setting themselves on fire to keep company with the trees.
Out came men and women’s heavy coats in dark colors, covering over skin and white shirts. The breeze changed direction, cut different lines through the city center and through Iva. She changed her route home just to stay out of it. The birds flew away or dropped their feathers and traded their bright summer wings for brown and gray feathers.
The night crept in sooner, and the sun woke later. Iva moved slower in the morning, and faster in the evening, eager to be home in the dark hours. Snow drifted in, silent in the middle of the night. The trees lost their leaves, and the buildings faded to quiet colors.
And one row at a time, little paint pots stacked up the front windows of the market houses. Gold and orange, and purples so deep they were almost black. White and red and blue and green, bright and intense and thick as the coming night. They patterned the windows, each one about the size of Iva’s thumb, climbing toward the ceiling as they counted down the days to festival.
Da was already downstairs by the time Anie pried herself away from the blankets.
He stood by the door, holding the last bites of his breakfast, keeping the quiet of the morning air. Dressed in his heavy leathers, he watched Thea move around the kitchen, while the fire started to press warmth into the room, and glanced over his shoulder at the front door from time to time. Anie thought there was a shadow there that told him when it was time to leave, but she’d never marked it for herself.
She scooted past him, running on her toes to keep the soles of her house shoes off the cold floor as much as possible, and slid in beside the hearth. She waited until she felt heat sink through the thick fabric of her dress before she uncurled her fingers from her sleeves.