In the twilight, Lord Tiernan’s camp moved languidly. The neatness of the tent lines gently hedged in the growing shadows from cook fires and torches. Canvas rustled, flaps opening and closing. Charcoal smoke drifted lazily. Ahead of Anie, one of the soldiers leading them encouraged them to keep moving, but her tone was unhurried. The whole crowd of them leaned lightly into their steps, looking around, talking quietly. Anie watched the men and women drifting between their tents, breathed in deep to catch the warmth of venison and broth boiling for supper.
And Momma leaned over one of the cookpots, long hair tied back with a single string, falling over one shoulder.
Anie stopped just where she was.
Kadie has a scar now. A straight line, cutting one eyebrow short on the outside and skipping over her eye. It’s darkest over her cheekbone before it fades to nothing above her jaw. A fine line, nearly invisible, except that the best-trained and best-paid physicks couldn’t make it actually invisible. So it stands out.
All his life, Taavi had been dully aware that the Captain was always the last to leave the ship. It should not have come as a surprise to him that Erya’s promotion would mean that he could no longer meet her on the docks in the morning, as he had when she was a little cabin bird. He could not find her for a late lunch like when she was a full member of the crew, could not even share dinner with her as he had when she was an officer. Erya arrived home only after the sun had set, having registered with the portmaster, inspected the ship, dismissed the crew, contacted the banks to reserve coinage for the payroll, arranged the cargo dispatch, finalized the logs, reported to the ship’s owner, and finally, packed up her own things in the dark.
She came through the doors with her shoulders rounded, but smiling as if she’d caught a falling star in her pocket.
“Hello, Da,” she said.
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.
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.
Mom taught Shae to play the piano when she was seven and her short fingers were the only thing that got in her way. Sitting still, she watched the white and black keys and everything she saw on them was painted in the same distinct colors. She heard the way notes fit together, and if her pulse wasn’t her own perfect metronome, she faked it well enough to fool even herself.
She mimicked Mom until she didn’t have to anymore. Then she played as if she had never learned, but always known. One hand pulled out melody, the other harmony, like white rabbits from a hat. When her timing stumbled, she just muttered about wanting to stretch her fingers and kept going.
When I was five, I pulled Mom to the piano, grinning, jumping up and down on the end of her arm because of what I figured I had stolen, spying over Shae’s shoulder. I played for her with one hand, half the right notes with all the wrong timing in between.
“Ta-da!” I shouted at the end, with my hands over my head, and she grinned back at me.
“Did I do it right?” I asked.
Cerestine’s kitchen was too large for just her. Standing in front of one of the long work tables, she rolled dough into a thin sheet, flour spread in a wide circle around her while three feet of table on either end were still shining clean. Her brown hair was swept back and knotted elegantly at the back of her head. The streaks of silver at her temples ornamented either side of her head and threaded through the twists like ribbons. Her apron covered her dark, embroidered skirt, while she left her bleached white shirt bare. The fine flour didn’t even show against it, though it coated her hands from fingertip to wrist and halfway up her arms. The oven behind her spread heat down the length of the room, the pit large enough to house a dozen large loaves, but she worked alone, rolling only one.
The whole house was too large for her. Fifty rooms spread through three floors, and her every step echoed inside them, alone.
Loris wavered on the doorstep, unsure if the older woman knew she was there, or how she should properly announce herself if she didn’t. Cerestine was cutting her flattened dough into strips, still connected at one end. Her head was bent, and when she was finished with the knife, she threw it carelessly to one side, and didn’t look up as she began to braid the pieces together.
“My lady?” Loris began, hesitantly, sure that Cerestine would look up in shock no matter how gently she spoke.
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.