He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. He cracked a grin at the back of their heads. It always pleased Omri immensely to watch his little magicks work on them. Dressed in a bright yellow coat that caught the sun and made it jealous, in blue and purple pants, in boots almost too white to exist, they were still compelled not to notice. It was freedom in every magnitude, and Omri loved it.
He landed on the ground with a thud that should have halted their work, and they ignored him. He sauntered across the manor’s overgrown lawn, pants and long grass hissing and hushing. He whistled a little. No one cared, but when he passed just behind a boy bent double to rip weeds from the edge of the path, there was a small shudder in the boy’s spine.
He was not an innocent man. He didn’t have to be. It had been half a decade since he had taken law or morality into consideration. Maybe longer. Maybe much longer. It was hard to remember exactly when those hard edges had stopped eating into him, worrying him out of sleep, hedging him in.
They were watching Catia’s fangs again as she spoke. Their gazes drifted down when she opened her mouth, and they met her eyes again on a pause, a little too purposefully. Over and over again. Catia touched one tooth with her tongue and glanced uselessly at the mirror behind their little table. She could guess at how each fang must cut her smile, twist her expression. But she had never seen them.
Before they had sunk in below her other teeth, her reflection had started to smear. In low light, she was nothing but an annoying smudge. The sort of thing that made her want to spit on the glass and scrub it with her cuff. In brighter lights she was a shadow that should not exist. Disconcerting. Stomach-turning, and impossible.
She had avoided daylight for months, just to keep herself believing that she was more than that shade in the glass. And to keep the others from seeing the strange way her skin bent the light even under their eyes.
And yet, the most irritating aspect of coming back from the dead was that no one believed she hadn’t gone evil.
Catia liked breathing. There was something pleasant about the liquid feeling of a breath, pulled gently over her tongue, warmed in her chest, pressed back out. It was soothing, the gentle tug on muscle. It rooted her into the world, with the sweetness, sharpness, spice, sourness hanging in the air.
But she didn’t need to breathe, and just now, it seemed selfish.
The crash and roar of the rockslide had shocked her out of two or three breaths. The sudden darkness and the ringing in her ears made her forget for another long moment. She blinked, and waited, perfectly still. The ringing died down. Her eyes slowly turned the darkness into gray, shifting shadows. Fynn’s breaths began to echo in the newly shortened space.
“Catia?” Fynn called.
She took in air, just to respond. “I’m here.”
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.
The mud squelched under her combat boots as she bent to flip over the corpse. She held her breath, pulling on its shoulder, praying that the dead weight would stay dead weight. She didn’t want to have to run from this one. It had been raining all week, and that shouldn’t have mattered, but they had been trained to fight in thirty pounds of combat gear, not forty pounds of combat gear soaked through with rainwater, and she was exhausted.
She missed the days when a ceasefire meant counting up the soldiers who were still standing, carrying the ones who couldn’t walk back to the tents to wait in line for stitches and Novocaine, collecting tags from the ones who had stopped breathing. Missed them like the thunderstorms back home that knocked the lights out back home, and drove everyone together into the candlelight.
Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
Dead girls were not supposed to sit up, open their eyes, or take a breath so suddenly that it sounded like their own gasp of surprise. Supposed to seemed like a silly sort of phrase though, watching her glance around the room they had laid her out in, dressed in her white burial shift. It almost seemed more apt to tell her that young women were not supposed to sit atop tables like that, but no one said anything at all.
She put a hand to her stomach, feeling where Avdi had stitched her closed from belly button to ribs. It had seemed like the thing to do, the best way to fit her cleanly into the burial shift. They’d been big, black ugly stitches though, just enough to put her back into the right shape. Avdi looked at the others. It seemed wrong now.
“Thank you,” the girl said though. Her voice was rough with disuse, dry and cracked in the first word. She just took a deep breath and swallowed to smooth it down.
“Where is your human?” William asked.
Clarissa shot him a look as she reached the top of the hill, making it clear that she had noticed his lack of greeting, but she said nothing. She let the look linger to further impress upon him that the word he should have used was “friend.” Everyone was trying to shake off the old phrasing and lose the quiet implications that humans were things they could own.
William blinked back at her, expression unchanged as he leaned against the side of a rock twice his height. Unmoving, and as square-shouldered as he was, he managed to make it look like he was supporting it instead of the other way around.
“She’s coming,” Clarissa said. She held in a sigh. She hated it when her best glares didn’t even leave a scratch. “I know there’s no real argument about who is faster – our kind or theirs – but it turns out, when you wake a human up at midnight and ask her to hike a mountain, the answer is quite definitive.”
There was oil on the water, slick, and thin, and adding an unsettling sweetness below the rugged salt that the ocean laid over everything. In the near dark, the oil only showed on the water as a wrongness, a sheen that dripped off the oars, and a shine that came too easily in the last light of day.
Ahead, the oil burned. The current dragged it into long stripes, crackling orange and yellow, cowing the powerful water beneath it which should have been able to smoother it on a moment. Another wrongness, and all of it eclipsed by the unnerving cough and rattle of timber finally giving way.