When mountain ranges cut across the horizon before and behind her, and the blue Toyota still hovered in her rearview mirror, Terrin’s better judgement gave way to curiosity. She tapped the break lightly. The car seemed to hesitate, just a moment, as cruise control disengaged, and then she eased the car into a speed that might be described as grandmotherly. At least to other people. Her own grandmother collected speeding tickets like fine china and had recently begun wall-papering the dining room with them.
Dalia looked up as the car decelerated, glanced at Terrin, then the side mirror, and shook her head. “Don’t do it,” she said.
Terrin took her eyes off the road for half a second to purposefully give her an innocent look. “It’s not illegal to go under the speed limit.”
“You know hiding in plain sight is actually a dumb idea, right?” Kayda asked.
She tapped a copper coin against the the table cloth and absently narrowed her eyes at it. The server had dropped their change back onto the table in a careful stack, but she had taken it apart, scattered it between her napkin and the silver service in the center of the table. She slid her fingers along the edges, an old habit to check for clippings, then didn’t let them go.
Brais sat across the table from her and sipped his tea.
The tooled leather was a beautiful piece of work. Cut straight. Molded into just enough of an arc to make it easy to wrap around a wrist. The twin fish stamped into the center, swirled around each other in dark, greased lines. The lines of their bodies were thick, their fins thin. Every curve managed a certain grace and bluntness, hinting at the preciousness of the object, and the repetition of having created thousands of them in a lifetime. The maker’s mark on the back was simple in comparison: three hash-marks wrapped in a ring with a line slashed through it all.
Marus flipped it over to examine the fish again. Somewhere in the lines of their fins was a mistake, an error registered with the local lord. Matched against the mark, it verified the authenticity of the wristband, though he couldn’t see it. It looked exactly the same as every wristband he had ever worn in his life.
As far as he could tell, a perfect forgery.
The problem with having scarily brilliant friends was that it made surprises… complicated. Complicated and egregiously unnecessary. Aderon liked nothing better than the puzzle, the steady collection of found things that clicked and snapped together to outline weighted secrets. He was never able to keep his hands still, but worse was the way his eyes picked things up, turned them over, and abandoned them when they had emptied out for him. Cefin never grinned so hard a gift behind a door, as he did at a monster that he had guessed would be waiting. He liked the knowing, the awareness in the midst of an oblivious crowd.
They had never let Esyllt keep a surprise. She had battled the two of them, since they met at the age of six, for every secret. Each loss was a lesson, teaching her the hiding places for secrets thin as paper, and the secrets brittle as pyrite, and secrets bright like sunlight on ice. Each win was a victory that built along her spine.
When she thought about it – and she did, often enough, when she was alone in the dark – she thought it was a little unfair. When she won, really won, they had no idea there had even been a fight. But she had stopped caring a long time ago.
And this secret, the one itching between her shoulder blades and aching in the knuckles of her hands, needed its integrity more than anything else she had held. It was new, a bright thing only a few hours old. That might have been its one grace.
Newness was a hiding place she had learned to love, for all the frustration of it only being temporary. For a small precious while, it was a fortress.
“Bring her to me!” Lady Cintia yelled. Three guards scurried from the hall as if she had struck them, and every one else fell into brittle silence. The echo behind her voice had seemed too loud. Their breathing wasn’t even quiet enough. A few people shifted toward the walls. Others stayed exactly as they were.
Cintia shoved herself away from the long table, stood, and whirled away from it. The table rocked on its legs. Glancing around the room, she seemed to realize how many were still gathered after the morning court. She looked at the wall rather than glare at them directly.
“Clear the room!” she shouted.
Everyone moved toward the door in an instant. Teo, her husband stayed in his seat. The two guards at the wall stayed. The Captain of her guard, Maurei stayed, standing on the other side of the table. The rest of the crowd clattered out, and left a greater echo in their wake.
“I like living,” Cayley said. Glancing between the trees, she nodded to herself as if this was a new opinion she had arrived at. She was satisfied with this dirt road and its pleasant shade, so she could approve of existence.
“You wouldn’t know it,” Mir murmured. “The way you keep acting like it’s a bad habit you’re trying to break.”
“Oh, everyone likes their bad habits,” Cayley said. She slipped Mir the friendliest glare in her wide repertoire and dared her to say something more.
Not for the first time that day, Mir wished that she had a bag on her back. Hitching the strap a little higher on her shoulder and flicking her gaze forward again would have made the perfect non-response. Instead, all she had was a shirt, breeches, boots, and pockets, nothing to lend enough weight to this stroll down the King’s Road to make it feel like anything more than an afternoon’s pleasure. It had stopped seeming like a skin-of-their-teeth escape the moment they were out of sight of the city gates. The feeling that they were just walking off a heavy lunch settled in, and then started to press a nerve.
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.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.