The ride to the other encampment was short. Seryn made it at a gallop, racing ahead of the bright crackle of the fire. As quick as she could, she put it behind her and aimed straight for the gate. The smoke would climb into the midnight sky, and the fire would light the spaces between the trees, and she needed the precious time before it was seen. Her skin felt stone-cold in the dark.
There were guards on the walls, behind a gate locked from the outside. She had chosen them herself, letting Ern believe it was a suggestion. She had cast them, and let them play-act in their leathers, with their bows and arrows.
“Hold!” she called up to them. “It’s Seryn.”
She heard the distinctive creak of bowstrings relaxing as she shoved the lock bar off the door with her shoulder.
Cambria must have seen Captain Bridger arrive from her bedroom window. She met him at the door while he was still knocking mud off his boots on the bottom step and stepped out onto the porch with a salute so sharp an unwary man could have cut himself on it. He shouldn’t have expected less from the daughter of a First Officer.
He paused, and then he smiled.
She held her pose perfectly, her small, round face resolute. “Sir!” she said. Standing three steps above him, her gaze was almost level as she looked at him. Her shoulders were square as ever, her chin held high, though her embroidered shirt was horribly out of uniform.
Bridger saluted in return, sharply, the same as he would have granted to a member of his crew. “At ease, sailor. How do the waters look today?”
Rhian woke up late in the afternoon. Seryn was not there to see it. She was told that Rhian woke quietly, that she opened her eyes, blinking as if the brightness of the sun coming through the window had suddenly reached her. She took a breath. She sat up. And she winced, but forced herself to twist her shoulders and stretch her spine before she allowed herself to settle back down.
Seryn wasn’t sure whether she would have wanted to be there or not. There was relief in hearing that she was conscious, but when she came back to the main hall for dinner, and met the girl’s eye, it only felt cold.
Rhian would survive. All the secrets between them would hold. No one would know that Rhian had been sick, and not even Rhian would know what Seryn herself did to keep the ghosts away. The hard edges of their shoulders would dull in time, and they would be able to work smoothly side-by-side again. Eventually.
Seryn ate her dinner, watching the hall as she usually did, and ignored the weight of the evening.
It was strangely easy.
It had been a cold night, one of those nights that bit at fingers and ears and made Brance happy to walk slow so that the chill didn’t cut into his chest. He had been happier still to duck into his favorite tap-house, where the music was a little too loud and the dancers a little too drunk for real grace, but the room was warm and spiced and everyone was smiling.
He played cards for most the night, happily losing money. He emptied his purse on the table, bought himself a few more friends than he’d had before, and laughed with them, though very few things were funny. Then he danced – two or three wild songs – before he ordered his first round of strong drink, then sat down near the band and traded jokes with folk deeper in their cups than he was.
Someone insulted him. Taking a long drag from his mug, Brance considered punching the man for it. It had been a while since he had been in a good brawl, but it was too cold outside to be thrown out tonight. He settled for draining his mug to the last drop, smacking it down on the table, and giving the man a dirty, seventeen-adjectives-in-a-string insult in return. Brance was impressed when the man understood him and amused when he attempted to retaliate.
Da called up the stairs. His voice was a little muffled coming up through the wooden floor beside Anie’s bed. Her room seemed a little large. Thea was sleeping in a dozen beds at once. But it was good to hear his voice.
Anie shifted onto her side, reburying her head in the pillow. She was going to steal her few more minutes of sleep. Da would understand. She thought he was probably proud of her too, now that she wasn’t really running away after all. They hadn’t gone so far from the city.
Her thoughts seemed to stutter against each other, matching what she knew had happened to the room around her. She realized her eyes were shut. She realized she was dreaming. The floor should not be standing upright and there were too many Thea’s in the room. Da’s voice was too high, too much like Drystan’s.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Drystan called, a sing-song too bright for the early morning. “Roll out of bed. Put your feet on the floor. Walk yourselves to breakfast. If you’re still dreaming, I suppose you can swim there, but move, move, move!”
Calleigh rested her hand on the bulge of her stomach, pressing heat into the latest ache from the baby’s kicking. It was almost time. She was sure she was stretched almost to her limit. Her skin felt thin to her, and it was her skin under her palm… but it was someone else’s foot, elbow, shoulder, head. Some stranger’s, maybe. She hadn’t seen their face yet.
She rubbed over the spot, feeling the baby turn, maybe press back at her for a moment, and took a breath. Not deep. There wasn’t much space in her for a deep breath these days.
“Did you love me before I was born?” she murmured.
Tomi waited a long second before she pulled her staff back, letting Rhian relax into a steadier stance. They both spun their weapons on one hand, first one way than the other, and Tomi watched the ground while she stepped a quarter circle around Rhian. She scuffed her toes into the dirt, turned and settled her heels as she faced Rhian, then finally looked up again.
Anie glanced at Cidra. She felt like she should take a step back and drag the others back too, to give them space. When she moved her feet though, both she and Cidra were stepping forward. Anie brushed her hand over her hair, held the warmth of her palm against her skull for half a moment, and dropped her hand to her side again.
Tomi nodded to Rhian. Rhian nodded in return, and set both hands on her staff. Another breath and Tomi swung. Their staffs cracked together as if they were trying to break them, loud as lightning touching down. Anie flinched at the sound, blinked, but didn’t miss the way Rhian pushed her staff just over her head, or straightness of Tomi’s arm.
Anie passed Chas most mornings. One of them was always coming in for breakfast when the other was leaving, and he ran around the walls just like the rest of them. He and a whole company followed Ern through the laps, with Wynn or Leolin or Gan calling instructions for them the same why Rhian called them for Anie and the others. She heard him talking with whoever stood next to him, always just a little loud, as if he was helping her keep track of where he was. They nodded at each other when they walked by the other, or just met the other’s eye across the yard. Occasionally, they were close enough to trade a few words. He always smiled at her. She always reached out and squeezed his hand.
She looked for him in the afternoons, but he was never there. She meant, always, to ask him where he could find to disappear, but never did.
She just passed him, coming and going.
Anie had never been so sore.
The first few weeks that Mel had worked with Da in the smith, she had complained about muscle ache, with all the bright energy that she did all of her talking. Anie almost didn’t believe her, for the first few days, but then Mel’s feet scuffed the floor more often than they should, and when she sat down, it took a lot more than her usual whims to drag her out of the comfort of a seat. It was the only time that Anie could remember knowing that she could walk out of a room, come back, and still find Mel just as she left her. Mel stayed up later than usual those two weeks, as late as Momma and Da would allow, just to avoid climbing the stairs to her room.
Galen moved slow as a regular habit, like he understood the world needed a little warning before he met it face to face. Meeting him on the street, Barrett caught sight of him yards ahead. When the kid came to visit, Barrett somehow always noticed him when he turned the corner at the end of the row, then watched him take those slow, considerate strides up the hill to the house. It seemed stupid when he was ten and round and as threatening as unbaked dough, but it was starting to make sense now. He was taller than most. Twelve years on a ship had hardened most of his old softness. Worst of all, he had kept that quiet that always made it hard to tell what he was thinking, and now it rested confidently behind a square jaw and steady gaze.
He was carrying his ruck with him now, and it made him look even bigger, adding its long evening shadow to his as he stopped in front of the house. Barrett leaned back in his chair under the short porch roof and shook his head at him.
“Evenin’, sir,” Galen said. His voice had gotten deep too. He tapped his forehead in a sailor’s salute.
“What are you doin’ here, boy?” Barrett asked. “Connell’s not due into port for weeks.”