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.
There was no hiding from sleep. Hushed, it crept through doors or windows, with all the familiarity of a cat too comfortable in its own domain to announce itself at the door. On padded feet, it might climb the stairs, ease itself into a room. On the space of a blink, it slipped in a shadow, then seated itself boldly in the corner. Not there, and then there all at once, calm and unsurprising. It was always there, prepared.
But Nesha could run from sleep. She drank her hot drinks, kept her hands busy, kept her feet moving. There were always small stacks of things to do and always thoughts to chase around her head. It didn’t matter that sleep was a quick-sand thing, gripping her all the firmer for how hard she kicked against it. Tugging her down more forcefully after each attempt to push it away. She tipped her head back to drag in waking air and ignored the way it pulled at her ankles.
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.
It was still dark when Anie started to hear heavy feet ahead of them, though the sky was turning promisingly gray. The trees were spreading apart, and their little band moved more easily. Mel kept up with her better, and Thea wasn’t far behind while Chas and Darien stayed to either side to keep them all together. When the voices petered back through the air, they drew in closer. Anie listened hard for armor, for the clink of metal that she had heard around the soldiers at the fortress. They only sounded dull, thudding along under the thin tones of their speech.
Chas slipped ahead. Anie watched him go, and almost moved in next to him. Long-legged as he was, she would have bet half the moon that she could keep up with him. But glancing at Mel, she stayed close, dropped back and threaded her finger’s through Thea’s.
“Hey!” someone shouted ahead of them. Not Chas, and not as far ahead as Anie would have expected from the rest of the rumble. There was a following thud, and a gasp, like someone forgot how to breathe.
“Hey, hey, stop,” Chas said. Quick, sharp. Not quite as loud as he usually was, as if he didn’t have the lungs for it.
Anie peered forward in the dark. Thea kept her close with tight fingers. Darien padded forward into grayer shadow.
“Where did you come from?” the woman asked.
The invitation arrived by ship, hand-delivered by the captain of The Halstarr. The paper was heavy, honey-yellow as if it had tanned in the sun. Inked in rich blue, the script spilled across the page, purposed and beautiful. Every corner was sharp as the day it was folded.
Kariel accepted it carefully.
Motioning the captain back out of the room, she shut the heavy doors with a thud that barely shook the silence. The couches behind her were empty and still covered in shadow. Threading back through them, she returned to the shallow pool of morning light around the windows. It turned the curtains brilliant red and shadow gray, and warmed the air around the wing-back chairs.
Dropping the invitation into her brother’s hand, she sat back down in her chair. Out the window, the city streets were already full, wound up and ready for the day, while the light sifted through the buildings. She rested her chin on her fist and watched.
“This is for me,” Leonathan said.
Kariel didn’t look at him. She understood the question in his tone, but knew she couldn’t give him a better answer than he would find in a moment.
Kath made his decision the same way he always did: slowly, quietly.
For some uncounted number of days, he rolled his reasons over, tucking them under every other thought of the day until they disappeared behind oatmeal breakfasts and afternoons hauling lines and shoving the wind to the proper side of the ship with the crack of supple canvas. Under afternoons trading coins over a barrel top with the gentle direction of hands won and lost. Under the taste of salt always on the back of his teeth. Under the roll and rush of waves that roared and shouldered their way beneath the hull. Under the creak and whisper at midnight, lulling him to sleep after his watch.
And then it was there, a conclusion heavy as iron, enduring as stone.
The dinner bell clanged and kept clanging, mixing with its own echo until Dara was sure that everyone in the house had heard. She swung the handle until she heard the first thudding footsteps overhead. Then she yanked it hard, one more time, encouraging Tadd to climb out of whatever book he had picked up.
Doors squeaked open and clapped shut. Lenor arrived with something less formal than promptness. Janni raced absolutely no one down the stairs, same as always, clattering on the wooden steps. Kal followed a few moments later, leisurely and they caught up with each other at the bottom with a smile.
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.
At the age of ten, my father knew exactly what he would be. Like his mother and his grandmother, he woke one night to an over-warm room, the walls glowing in cascading white-blue-black from the liquid flames pooled around his hands. Like his mother and his grandmother – all keimon born from keimon – he had known it was coming, and did what any ten-year-old should have done in the quiet confidence of midnight: he raised his hands and let the light chase the shadows for hours.
By the time he woke up, he had figured out how to shape the fire, so rather than tell his mother the precious good news, he walked a delightfully clumsy starburst of an animal across her path. He said it was a fox. She said it was a little monster with three legs and a second head where its tail should have been. They both grinned at each other.
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.