They tore the bridge down in the middle of the night. Swung their sledgehammers and broke the guardian statues from the stone rails. Faces shattered, heads taken off shoulders, torsos sheared off legs, legs and bases distorted to shards. Then they gathered the rubble, packed it into battered, old carts, and set them into the river upstream. The water crashed the carts through the pillars. The bridge crashed down. Waves and broken stone.
A mile away, the docks burned. Waves and damp, choking charcoal. The walkways fell apart, the pillars stayed, tops like dark, broken teeth. The little boats in their moorings caught fire, broke, sank or drifted free, terrible lanterns reflecting off the canvas of the great ships deeper in the bay. Men and women dragged buckets of water up from the night tide, smothered what they could. The fire didn’t spread, so much as hop from one pier to another, and little shadows scuttled from each new spark.
The southern tangle of the palace burned the same night, and dusted half the city in white ash.
Another fire in the agora blackened the aged paving stones.
The fortress was awake as Seryn slipped back in through the open gate.
It was well after midnight, and the lamps were lit as soldiers crossed and recrossed the yard. The walls crawled with too many shadows, the watch doubled by men and women crowded shoulder to shoulder to oggle the mottled orange sky, the dim fire, and the sharp outline of the trees in front of it. A few of them glanced at Seryn, made a perfunctory check of her person, but didn’t seem to notice that she had come back twice. The yard rumbled with their curiosity. In one corner, someone was loading a wagon with water, the only bright point of hurry.
Some things looked like knives, but were not knives. Imalie had been carrying one for a decade now, a thin piece of steel that someone had sharpened for a clear purpose, though Imalie had confused it with a thousand others just as soon as she could.
The sharpener, no doubt, had been in perfect agreement with the craftsman who had carved and wrapped the hilt so that it fit easily in a hand and would not slip out of sure fingers. Both of them worked in agreement with the forger, who made the steel into something thin enough to barely need a point, and heavy enough to drive itself through a cut, as if it had some small measure of will all its own.
But it was not a knife. Knives were for slicing, cutting, and stabbing. For breaking, if it came to that. For severing. Imalie had tied all its weight into a sheath and strapped it to her arm under her sleeve, and never taken it out. She had never used it to cut a thing, so now, it was a memory, and a threat, and something which rode just on the edge of her curiosity before she dropped into sleep.
She couldn’t leave the river, and she was malevolent. When I was six, I saw her catch something, a horse, maybe, that had ventured too close or never learned to care about the classifications of land and water and shore. She sank her teeth in deep until escape would mean tearing itself into more than one piece, and then she thrashed her head back and forth, rolled, and dragged it deep. The foam on top of the water was red. It was the first time I tried to imagine which had come first: our ancestor’s curse that kept her in the water, or her indifferent fury.
Either way, we won what we had aimed for: a border that nothing on the opposite bank dared to touch. It never seemed important enough to speak out loud how we had trapped ourselves in the dust on our side as well.
It was midnight before Etric arrived, dragging the little boat. It was wide enough to fit him sitting cross-legged, and long enough for me to sit ahead of him, but neither of us even knew if it would hold water. It had been sitting behind his house for an age, the shade we had played under when we were much smaller, and the hideaway for all the things we kept secrets now. I wished, for just a moment, that I had been there a few minutes before, when he had torn the old tarp away and turned it into a boat again.
It was strange to actually see her in the flesh. The rumors were richer than she was, making her stand taller in his memory than she did on her own two feet. She had a habit of looking down. Not at her toes, the floor, or the dirt. Not pretending interest, just eyes idly lowered, always a foot beneath what it would take to match his gaze. Quietest spite. That he remembered perfectly, but not the way her shoulders rounded, or the way she measured each breath as if she needed the count to steady her. He forgot all her smallnesses.
Then he saw her again, almost overlooked her, and marveled that she had survived when he had ordered her dead.
She was a mouse who hadn’t collapsed in the snap of the trap. Glass that hadn’t broken under the swing of the smith’s hammer. Some moments, he would have given the order again, just to prove that she would shatter. But she shrank with every step she took toward him.
Taking a long breath, Damion leaned back in the High Seat. He settled his shoulders comfortably against the padding behind him.
Wynn barely paused before she returned to her bed, just kept her eyes on Seryn as she moved away, settled under the blankets, tucked her head back down into the pillow. Seryn waited a long time before she sat up, as if she had to teach herself how all her bones fit together again before she could. Then she curled forward, silent, resting her forehead in her palm.
For a few long minutes, Anie watched her, waiting for her to lie back down. The rest of the room hummed with sleep, steady breaths in and out, sighs in the dark. Seryn hung on her hand in silence. Anie could see her shoulders rise and fall, but she was still, too quiet, to be resting. Her back was to Anie, and she didn’t see when the girl slipped out of her own bed, padding toward her in the dark.
Hesitantly, Anie touched her on the shoulder. She was so carefully, so light, she almost didn’t feel Seryn’s shirt under her finger tips. Seryn twisted toward her immediately, as if Anie had hit her. Anie froze.
“Can’t sleep?” she whispered.
The ground was still frozen when the war started. Edri thought her mind was still numb as well, when that was the first thought that rose to consciousness after she saw the notices pinned up around town. There were long weeks before the earth would thaw enough for them to drive a spade into. Long weeks before they could start the planting and by then hundreds of able hands would already have left for the borders. Fewer workers, but they would seed as much ground as they could, eager for whatever extra they could get in the coming seasons.
Edri pulled her scarf tighter around her head and kept walking through the main square, as if she hadn’t thought anything at all.
As far as lunatic schemes went, this was the best he had ever conjured, and they both knew it. It was elegant, so simple in its execution, and grandiose in its aim, that the desperation of it almost faded out of notice. It had flair and more than enough opportunities to show off for people who were actually waiting to be impressed. It was even possible that their names might be written down somewhere afterward, in a way that wouldn’t point to them as delinquents. And it would be fun.
“All right,” he said. “You can stop looking like that.” Leaned all the way back in his chair with his heels kicked out under the table, he waved his mug at her.
She turned her head, looked at him sideways. “Like what?” But she couldn’t stop herself from smiling, and smiling wider, as the brilliance of the plan bloomed in front of her.
“Stop,” he insisted, dragging the word out, even though his eyes were bright with it too.
A hand locked around Heydi’s wrist, really locked, with the fingers hooked over her narrow wrist bones and thumb perfectly set in the groove between her hand and her arm. It hurt a little, but the first thing she did was stare at it.
She was very sure that the guards had not seen her, and very sure that this was not any of the five women and four men that she had just robbed of their purses. She didn’t know who it was, or why they cared.
She started to tilt her head back – all the way back – to get a look at his face. Then she realized it didn’t matter who it was, or why he had grabbed her. It hurt, and no one friendly would hurt her.
Heydi let her feet drop out from under her, twisting her whole body around her arm, twisting herself toward his thumb. Jerdan had taught her to do it, to hang all her weight off her arm, and practiced with her until she knew the exact instant that the man’s hold would break. She was too small to break it any other way.
She felt the pop of his thumb losing its hold, and the sharp slide of the rest of his fingers coming free. The man swore. She was already catching herself on her toes and running in the other direction.
Behind him, there was the slow, easing creak of a bowstring dragged back. In the humming afternoon breeze, it was a gentle crack, easing in between one moment and another, almost missed, and so divisive it couldn’t be ignored. One hand on the balcony railing, and one hand wrapped around his mug of coffee, Declan stilled.
The trees threw their shadows on the paving stones beneath his feet, each leaf flicking at its own time, flashing jewel-sharp sunlit gaps between them. The bow’s shadow appeared too, just behind and to the left of his heel, a curving line that refused to come out of the shade. The tip poked up beyond the gray fluttering leaves, and the arrow-head pierced a patch of sunlight.
Declan took a deep breath, and the archer behind him did too, with another slow creak.
“If you’re here to kill me,” Declan said carefully. “You ought to take ten steps back.”
The breeze hummed, and the shadow of the bow turned from steady to stone.