I would have shut up, but he gave me the “If you do that one more time I’m gonna murder you” look and I adore dodging homicide. I flashed him a smile over my shoulder, just to let him know we were on the same page.
Then, I faced forward and jabbed my finger into the man’s chest again. “My cousin could hand you your ass. Sir.” Even with just one finger on him, I could tell he was solid under his jacket, twice as wide as I was, and more muscle than loose bulk. He looked down, as all the audacity was my hand’s, and it confused him.
Behind me, Tevan made a sound like a bear being robbed, and I knew he was dropping his head into his hand as he leaned against the bar.
“Look,” the big man said, voice rough, but too low for the challenge I had just delivered. It was fun watching him confine himself. He gestured to my wrist and the fish stamped into the leather there. “I don’t know what island you came from, but–”
“Ederring,” I said helpfully.
Dardo flicked an ear back again, picking out a new echo in the little garden square. Over the last hour, she had swung her head a dozen times to investigate, and had to shift on her hooves to keep turning as she found the gentle end of her lead line. Snorting to herself, she looked back at Vardan where he sat on the stone bench, as if to ask why he wasn’t concerned by the wolves lurking in the high windowed walls around them. He only held her line loosely, and smiled. He knew they were being watched.
It was a strange place to have brought a horse. The garden was thirty feet to a side, a tangled spiral of stepping stones and the winter dark branches of low trees. The paved walkway that wrapped around it was hardly long enough to ride around without getting dizzy. He might have attracted some curiosity just for bringing Dardo here, when there were fit fields and trails closer to the stables.
But this square was also where the Clan Lord’s twins liked to run wild. And Vardan was confident that he had been watched every day of the last ten months, every day since he had left his prison cell.
Leaning over his knees, he smiled at Dardo, slowly drawing her close enough to rub her nose. He had stopped caring a while ago.
Jaera and Zain slipped up through the rear hatch, running shoulder-to-the-wall across the back of the officers quarters in the soft light of early evening. The ocean was turning to shards and edges as it gleamed in the setting sun, while shadows faded in the rest of the world. Half the sky grew hazy in shades in blue and gray while the other side rioted orange and purple and pink. Jaera led the way, leaned forward to watch for the rest of the crew while they aimed for Terius, leaning against the rail. He was watching the water, leaned on both elbows, and didn’t see them coming.
He didn’t mind either, when they claimed their places on either side of him, just raised his eyebrows carefully to examine the tilt in Zain’s smile and the quiet light in Jaera’s eye.
“What?” Terius asked quietly. He glanced between them, and they glanced at each other, preparing their answer.
“We need you to go into the city,” Jaera said. “To get paint.”
“Paint,” Terius repeated. He looked at Zain, remeasured his smile, as if he could see the tipping point coming when it would be come a full grin and was trying to calculate how much time he had left before that disaster struck. “Why me?”
“Because,” Zain told him. “All three of us can’t go, or we won’t come back to the ship. We’ll skip the face-painting altogether, get stuck in Festival, and that just wouldn’t be as much fun.”
The house looked about the way it always did: plain, weathered wood, with windows that were the only square thing in the whole face. It was still too tall, seeming to lean back against the hill, like a man too large for the chair he’d been given. The other homes on the row hunkered low enough on their two stories, and looked sideways at the leaning thing, a stranger wandered in from a strange land that they couldn’t quite get used to.
Giada craned her head back too, measuring it. The neighbors had always said that Home would look smaller as she grew up. But she’d gotten plenty tall in the last few years, and the house still looked like a gangly giant.
Stepping up to the door, she knocked and flipped her bag down to the ground to wait.
Elain opened the door, blonde hair pulled into a loose braid. She looked the way she always did, calm, and happy, and carelessly put into perfect order. Her eyes widened a little, and she paused in the doorway.
“Surprise,” Giada said, and shrugged.
Iva watched the evidence of the changing seasons every day as she walked home from shop. The green trees on the corner repainted themselves in orange and red. The buildings seemed to shift their towns to match, square chameleons intent on setting themselves on fire to keep company with the trees.
Out came men and women’s heavy coats in dark colors, covering over skin and white shirts. The breeze changed direction, cut different lines through the city center and through Iva. She changed her route home just to stay out of it. The birds flew away or dropped their feathers and traded their bright summer wings for brown and gray feathers.
The night crept in sooner, and the sun woke later. Iva moved slower in the morning, and faster in the evening, eager to be home in the dark hours. Snow drifted in, silent in the middle of the night. The trees lost their leaves, and the buildings faded to quiet colors.
And one row at a time, little paint pots stacked up the front windows of the market houses. Gold and orange, and purples so deep they were almost black. White and red and blue and green, bright and intense and thick as the coming night. They patterned the windows, each one about the size of Iva’s thumb, climbing toward the ceiling as they counted down the days to festival.