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 should 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 gravel crunched, echoing back into the cave. Counting footsteps, Eytan stared into the dark. When the four of them appeared in a loose line, he wasn’t surprised. The first man had a heavy sword at her hip, and passed Eytan without realizing. The woman behind him, a shadow in her dark leathers, caught the glint of bare steel in Eytan’s hand and murmured one word to pull them all to a stop. The other two stopped immediately, glints and echoes ten feet back and Eytan stayed where he was, borrowing some of the bulk of the stone wall while he stared at them.
“Lost, sister?” Eytan asked, and kept his voice low so that it was mostly echo as well.
The woman didn’t answer, tilting her head to get a better look at him.
The crackle of the fire didn’t wake Kennet. Eytan built it small and hot, the wood still too green to burn without smoke. He skinned the rabbit before he lit it, and doused the flames as soon as it was cooked through.
The smell, brightened by rosemary and coriander from Eytan’s pack, didn’t wake Kennet either, and Eytan bit into the soft meat on his own. The smoke clung to his clothes and hands. He breathed it in deep and looked at the open sky above them, nervous suddenly, for having cooked inside the cave. If they stayed another day, he would light the next fire outside, let the smoke mark the middle of nowhere instead.
When he had taken his share, he took a place in the shadow of the closed ceiling, watched Riva and listened hard for anyone coming up through the dark.
Kennet rolled over late in the afternoon. He glared at the sun as if it had insulted him. Rolling to his other side, he paused, blinking at the rabbit meat Eytan had left for him as it appeared in front of his nose. He took two thick bites and chewed them through before he dragged himself up.
Sitting, he found Eytan, and rolled to his feet to join him in the shade. He took another bite. “What do you think happened?” he asked, sucked the juice off his bottom lip, and swallowed.
“She died,” Eytan said.
“Dek,” Kennet swore dryly. “Do you think she took him down with her?”
The night crawled past in fits and starts. Eytan closed his eyes and opened them, felt an hour slid past as the shadows made their turns and the silence deepened into an older thing, but didn’t remember sleeping. The breeze kicked higher, and then died in the deep chill before dawn. The cave hummed, and then creaked. Gravel skittered haphazardly, abruptly, and Eytan lifted his head to listen, assuring himself there was no even human stride behind it.
Riva remained just as he had arranged her, the only thing in sight that didn’t shift while he slept. Sometimes he glanced at her from the side of his eye, and sometimes he stared. The shape of her was utterly familiar, while it seemed somehow she had been carved out of something heavier than flesh. Iron. Or something older.
In the numbing gray light after sunset, Eytan chose their hiding place. The shadows of the trees lay long and black on the ground as he trudged between them, then faded into nothing within a few minutes. The sky, visible as a winding path between the leaves above him, lost its color more gradually. The dark crept in from one horizon while the other was still washed in gleaming ivory. The chill crept in just as slowly. The breeze, made bold by the sun’s disappearing, combed cool air in behind him.
For a few minutes, he rested in a copse of trees. He buttoned his coat and pulled the back of his collar up against his neck. He retied every knot that held his pack tight to his back. He took his sword off his hip and tied it to the underside of the bundle to center the weight along his spine. Glancing around, he considered the bread of the trees and the space between their trunks. He calculated the value of sleeping somewhere like this, where every sound around him cut clearly and there was room to run in every direction.
Then he picked Riva up and continued on.
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.