Tanna had been awake so long, exhaustion no longer weighed on her. A few hours ago, she had been made of lead, tripping over stones that barely poked above the dirt road, shoulders aching, skull pressing down too hard on the column of her neck. Now, she wasn’t sure she owned bones, or if something had hollowed her out. She too light. Unsteady. Her hands shook in the breeze of her own pulse.
The wagons rumble behind her. The horses beat the ground in front of her. The rest of them walked the wide road, safe between them. Tanna glanced at the boy beside her, a little older and a little thinner. She listened to the others’ trudging footsteps, and considered looking at them as well.
Yesterday, they had all been strangers. Today, they were still strangers, and most of them were lost, following the two or three riders who had taken this road before. But the dirt taste in her mouth was growing familiar.
The ride to the other encampment was short. Seryn made it at a gallop, racing ahead of the bright crackle of the fire. As quick as she could, she put it behind her and aimed straight for the gate. The smoke would climb into the midnight sky, and the fire would light the spaces between the trees, and she needed the precious time before it was seen. Her skin felt stone-cold in the dark.
There were guards on the walls, behind a gate locked from the outside. She had chosen them herself, letting Ern believe it was a suggestion. She had cast them, and let them play-act in their leathers, with their bows and arrows.
“Hold!” she called up to them. “It’s Seryn.”
She heard the distinctive creak of bowstrings relaxing as she shoved the lock bar off the door with her shoulder.
Under starlight, everything turned to ice. Hills and stones and flower petals, none of them sharp enough to hold a shine, gleamed like water on the edge of melting. The air cooled and calmed, only numbing fingers and cheeks after they had stood in it for a while. Small sounds carried, clinks and clatters, all of them too hard in the silence, and ringing smoothly back into the nothingness.
It was too early in the year for the cold to bite deep. Still, Loena could feel the heat of Ami’s hand in hers as if there were an old coal between their palms. The air sliding into her lungs felt like weak peppermint, unable to hold onto the chill all the way down her throat. She sucked it in, grateful for the feeling, for the proof that she was not turning to ice herself.
At the corner, they waited, and finally, Ami squeezed her fingers.
Happily, Zain put his hands in his pockets and pretended to scan the room. He turned on his heel, taking a breath that filled his chest and pushed his shoulders back, idle, even from a distance. Terius looked at the ground, to hide a smile.
Then, “This way,” Zain said, and he wandered toward the wall. He let himself glance over his shoulder to make sure Terius was still with him, turn all the way back and pause as if he had interrupted himself with the need to continue the conversation. When he didn’t actually say anything, Terius folded his hands in front of himself and glared at him lightly.
“Right,” Zain said. He turned around again and didn’t stop again until he hit the wall with its row of padded chairs.
“Are we sitting?” Terius asked.
“Oh, no,” Zain said. “We’re using the crowd for cover.” He began threading his way along the outside of the ballroom, slowly, and unevenly. The dancers continued their patterned whirl in the middle of the floor, and knots of people too tired or too bored formed and unformed around the walls. Zain moved when the people nearest him moved, stopped, started, and loitered as he pleased. Terius stayed close, watching him with a growing smile.
“I see now how no one is going to get angry,” he murmured after a few minutes.
There had to be an easier way to get around Hackner Row.
The houses had grown together over the years, new additions bulging out until each home leaned against its neighbor, or pulled back an inch, courteously refusing to actually touch. On a storm day, the wind hummed and whistled in the gaps, but there wasn’t space for anything else.
There were nine houses in the line. None of them were large, but it took time to sprint two hundred feet.
Hanging off the window sill of the second story, the dogs barking and scrabbling below her, Tana really couldn’t fault her decision to haul herself up and over.
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.
There were stories about her kind, stories old as islands and only slightly younger than the names of the stars. When she was small, Cerena heard them all: stories of men and women who could raise walls of white fire that hissed and spat and roared like waterfalls, but could hold back oceans; of people who could fly because of the force of the heat coming off their hands and others who could build shields in the air thick enough to walk on; folk who could turn night into day and day into a place without shadows; men and women who could melt stone beneath their bare hands and let the molten streams run between their fingers like water.
Cerena begged for new stories. When every friend and stranger she had ran out of myths to tell, she begged for them to repeat every one they had told before. Every evening, she listened, and every night she wished they were real until she fell asleep.
She hadn’t thought about those wishes for a long time. They had seemed like small things when she was ten. They seemed even smaller now. But she was making them again.
It took Chas a moment to turn away. He spent the time giving her one slow blink which dragged his eyebrows down as he turned on one foot. He clearly wasn’t sure whether that smile was a kind thing or not, agreement or condescension. Anie thought she saw him finally decide to glare at the last moment before he had swung his back to them.
Anie coughed against a laugh. It wasn’t really funny. But it was Chas.
He turned back to a group gathered nearby, touched a tall woman on the shoulder, and pointed back at Rhian. She asked him something, he answered, and they talked for a few more moments before she motioned for the whole group to follow her. By then, Rhian was calling all the kids back together as well.
“Come on!” she was shouting. “We’ve got a mountain to climb. First one to the top gets an extra slice of cake when we get back.”
Every head whipped toward her. The salty, sweet bacon had been surprise enough. Anie couldn’t imagine the wealth of a slice of cake. Or two.
Sam and Robert watched attentively as Haley and Grant leaned together to talk over the party noise. The music’s volume was just teetering on the edge between being heard and felt, while close to eighty people milled elbow-to-ribs between the fold-up tables with their lines of food bowls and the haphazard placement of padded chairs and couches. The potted plants that usually decorated the room were still there, filling in some of the corners where Sam and Robert might otherwise retreated to, now decorated with colored plastic cups and the odd used fork. No one had bothered to turn down the lights, and it made the room feel tighter and messier, with all the chaos glaring in clear view.
“They are planning an escape, right?” Sam asked Robert.
Robert shrugged and shook his head, both without looking at her. It was a miracle that he’d heard Sam. He had no way of knowing what Haley and Grant might be saying from all the way across the room.
Ineli wore yellow on all her best and worst days. She had since she was small.
Kadelyn was never sure who first dressed her that way, whether their mother looked at Ineli’s light brown curls and knew that the color would suit her when it sat so neutrally against her older children, or whether Ineli picked it for herself with small fingers that artlessly loved everything that loved her. The sunlight liked to turn her hair a shade of gold at its edges. It gilded her when she stood in it, and her yellow jackets and skirts turned her into a fresh cast statue, too quickly pulled from the mold, still gleaming with slick heat and beautiful for the way that it might at any moment to run away into a different shape. It matched her smile, fast and warm, and beautiful because it could so easily be something else but chose to be the bright curve that it was.