The house was quiet when Jaera woke, opening her eyes to the dim yellow light that wriggled its way through the shutters. Outside, she could hear people passing by on the street, her neighbors calling back and forth to each other, and someone pounded with a hammer, already deep in the day’s work. She was the last to wake, but she just yawned and stretched slowly. She had time.
She swung her feet out of bed and sat for a moment, blinking sleepily at the strips of light across her floor. When her thoughts started to lose their fuzzy edges, she stood up, stripped out of her nightshirt and put on the day’s shirt, breeches, and jacket. Then she finger-combed her hair enough to fit it into a braid.
Opening the door, she moved down the hall, then blinked in the brighter light of the main room as she came down the stairs. The windows were all open wide, letting in the breeze and the sunlight, and letting out the summer heat that was slowly building. The front and back doors were open as well. Jaera glanced at them, and pulled her sleeves down over her hands. She was still losing the comfortable, heavy warmth of sleep, and the air felt a little cold.
“Mornin’,” Barrett said behind her.
Ryane rolled onto her side. She pressed her back to the thin wooden wall behind her, and tucked her blanket tight to her chin. The windows here didn’t quite close, but the night breeze only cooled her nose and cheeks, well-trained this far south in the islands so that it knew not to bite. She was plenty warm enough, and had been for hours, though sleep was coming slowly.
Nestled into the corner between wall and floor, she finally felt able to leave her eyes closed. She’d never understand that. Lying on her back felt like being under an open storm sky, even though she was staring straight up at a ceiling. Lying on her side felt like hiding in all the best ways, tucked away from any one and anything that had a mind for finding.
There wasn’t a thought between her ears, or an echo inside the open space of her skull. Air wound in and out of her lungs, but if that draft made any noise, it was hidden under the long pull of the violin’s bow. Her heart was keeping perfect time, a metronome in the dark of her chest, but it was lost somewhere in the hum on the strings. She held her fingers tight against them, and where, once, she felt the throb of her pulse, now she only felt the tones, the weight, the vibration reaching inside to soothe hard bone.
Aymee’s headache had settled in again.
It was not a sharp thing, threatening to crack her skull in two, or one of the fierce rumbling ones that reminded her that her skull had once been a half-dozen joined plates and attempted to shake them apart. It was simply dull. It ached. It sat still behind her ears and quietly convinced her that she was tired.
She sat in her chair, the city’s accounts in front of her, and she wore out her work slowly. Spine straight, she rested the weight of her skull on the tips of her fingers, and quietly tried to counter the headache with the gentle suggestion that it might not exist.
“Are you all right, my lady?” her bodyguard asked, standing at the wall behind her. She shifted at her post, but Aymee didn’t move at all.
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.
“If trouble grew legs, big blue eyes and thick blonde hair, it would be him.” Elea looked at Karleigh over her cup, daring her to disagree.
Karleigh smiled, and set her cup gently against her knee. “Really? I’d think it would be you.” She nodded toward Elea’s gold curls pinned behind her head.
Elea laughed, very softly, so that it didn’t turn into a snort.
At first, silence was easier. Donnemey stood at the other side of the room, or he stood right beside her, breath too hot against her ear and it didn’t matter which. She held her silence, and there was weight to it. It was tangible on her tongue, and in her chest, and thick between her and him.
“What’s your name?” Donnemey asked.
She looked at him, didn’t blink, and didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name?” he asked again, voice raised just a little, working to be heard as if she was shouting back at him.
She didn’t breathe a word.
When Donnemey exhausted his patience and his bravado, he left her alone. The door slammed shut behind him, clapped like thunder against the tight air of the cell, then his boot heels echoed in the hall outside. For hours and days she sat against the stone wall and watched shadows crawl across the floor. She took the six steps needed to cross from the back of the cell to the front on bare feet. Her toes barely made a whisper against the floor. She sat and made no noise at all. Angry, she rammed her fist into the wall. Her knuckles cracked weakly. On impulse, she slapped her open hand against the stone and it sounded like snapping your fingers in an open field. Everything was muted.
She opened her mouth and stopped before she set a word into the silence. Sandwiched alone between the walls, she was nervous it would be too loud, or that it would make no sound at all.
He was sleeping on the floor when Anya came back to the room. Anya stopped in the doorway, looking at him. He was two feet from the bed and its deep mattress, laid out flat on the the hard wood floor with a single, thin blanket. He was curled in on himself, one arm wrapped across his bare chest for warmth. The blankets on the bed were mussed and thrown back. It was hard to tell when he’d abandoned it.
After a moment, Anya stepped into the room, moving toward her rucksack at the side of the bed. Watching him, she rolled her foot against the floor with every step – heel, ball, toe, down then heel, ball, toe up – quiet as she could, so she didn’t wake him. He didn’t shift. His slack expression didn’t shift.
He grabbed her ankle when she passed him. She froze. His fingers shifted, ready to pull her down.
“It’s me,” she said quickly. “It’s Anya.”