Virden wrapped both hands around his cup, twisting the cool clay between his palms. The wine inside teetered, sliding up the sides and he moved slowly enough to keep it off his fingers. Kenze watched him watch the thin shadow of his cup on the table in the dim room. She had only taken a sip of her own. Alidon had downed his in a gulp, and poured himself two more without a word.
From one moment to another, they glanced at the door.
“It might just be us,” Virden murmured.
Seryn saw Tiernan and she marked him, knowing that was where Macsen would expect her to be in this fight.
Commands clattered from the walls of the fortress, and from the lines of soldiers, echoing and rolling, passed from one officer to another. Footsteps thundered. Armor rattled. Seryn stayed where she was until she saw the shape of the vise locking around the walls, turned and saw Aled plunge through the narrowing gate.
She would need to be there too.
For half a moment, Seryn listened to it, and registered it calmly. It was a noise she had expected as soon as she saw the flood of men and women rushing out from between the trees, horrible, but familiar over the rumble of motion, the clank of armor, the measured voices of commanders who were pretending to understand the blood and the steel. And it took her half a moment to hear his voice in the twisted sound.
Seryn whirled back toward them.
The doors to the great hall were off their hinges, one of them cracked into three pieces, the other kicked in and only hanging onto the frame at the top. Walking between them, Oren tilted his head back to keep an eye on the upper pieces, seemingly balanced against nothing, and tried not to imagine them falling in on his head.
The hall itself was almost empty. He was unused to the echo of his own steps in a room that was usually full with conversation and humming motion, so he moved slowly. The lamps had not been lit, and the window light stretched between shadows. The pillars were stripped bare. The high seat was still upright on the dais, but it stood forgotten behind the table that had been dragged in front of it. No chairs, just a handful of men and women leaned over it, murmuring and marking.
Oren slowed even further, trying to sort between the strangers. One of them must have been Lady Dareya. He felt stupid, realizing that he wouldn’t know her even if she looked straight at him. He should have asked someone what she looked like.
He was going to marry her. There was nothing stranger than knowing that before knowing the color of her hair.
She could see that he was angry at her in the set of his jaw and the way he gripped the wheel. He didn’t say anything, but he never did. The car slid silently down the highway, alternately flooding with light, and then with shadow, wheels whispering somewhere beneath them. She glanced at him, and then out the window. She would have liked to say something, but didn’t have anything to say.
She might have said she was sorry, but she already had. She might have asked him what she could do, but she knew he would find an answer, just snap at her and make the air in the car feel heavier. She didn’t have an adequate explanation for whatever thoughtlessness she had performed, nor even know what she was meant to explain, and asking why he was angry would be stupid as praying for a hurricane. He would only tell her that she already knew or should already know, and work himself up to shouting.
Without wanting to, she stayed silent, convincing herself from one moment to the next to stop up every word on her tongue.
They didn’t lock the door to the back quarter of the main hall that night. Anie waited for the click of the latch, the groan of the slider bar, when the door shut behind their ragged line, but it never came. The kids were spreading around the room, finding their cots from the night before, and one by one, they all came to a stop. Some of them made it to their cots, sat down. Some of them just stopped in the middle of the room. Anie and Nessim stopped very close to the door. And they all looked at each other.
But no one moved.
It got dark that night. Anie laid on her wooden cot with the blanket tight to her chest, and wasn’t sure why it seemed so much darker than it had the night before in the small space of the cabin she shared with her sisters. It was cold, but she kept her arms outside the blanket, elbows tight to her sides, hands on her chest. It felt safer than trapping her hands underneath.
She blinked up at the ceiling, high above her, lost in the crawling black that had settled over her eyes as soon as the lamps were blown out. They had spent hours filling in the spaces between the planks of the cabin with mud and clay and straw. She knew that there was no way any light came through the walls or roof, as tight as they’d been made to hold in heat. This hall was just larger. And still, she knew last night had been more grey.
She tried not to listen to the footsteps and voices outside. They should have died down a long time ago, and she couldn’t hear any of them clearly in the huge, echoing space. And there were too many thuds and cracks.
The best sort of cats were the sleek, sly ones. The long ones, with their fur a velvet sheen over bones made of something perfect as blade metal. The quiet ones, that remembered how to stalk, and stood in shadowed corners as nothing more than a pair of green eyes. They were easiest to get along with, all intent and perfect in their hunt. They never bothered with a person, until that person put their clumsy feet between them and what they had marked for prey.
The others, the fluffed ones with short steps and gregarious yowls, padded into a room and seemed to invite the walls to step back to make more room for them. They seemed to remember, very vividly, this one time, when someone with thin amounts of brains between their ears mistook them for a lion, and hold to the opinion that the only reason no one else had remarked on the likeness was because they were better at hiding their jealousies. Their hunts ran wide. They wanted nothing, until it crossed their path, and then they wanted everything.
The wide colonnaded yard of the practice court was filled with the reckless crackle and hiss of energy on the air, running heels on the paving stones, and shifting voices. Shouts echoed. Some clouds of twisted glowing smoke came off the hand and cracked like thunder deep in the chest. Light shifted and shadows jumped with just a sigh and a crack. The keimon paired off in their practice matches, throwing heat and liquid smoke across the space between them, and any given match played out as if it were silent, for all the sounds that mashed and layered and could not be sorted out. And still the echoes built and ran rounds between the columns until they were all the thunder that filled the yard.
Taryn sat on one of the benches at the edge of it, jacket balled in his hands while he bent forward over his knees, stretching his back and shoulders. He’d unrolled his sleeves, buttoned them back around his wrists, but couldn’t bring himself to put the jacket back over his shoulders. Sweat still held his shirt tight to his skin, and heat had coiled under his skin as soon as he ended his bout. It was taking a long time to cool again, and all he wanted to do was drop his head, and let it peel off him into the open air.
His little brother was stooped beside him, tightening the laces of his boots. Caden had always been the runner of the two of them, enjoying the dodge of a fight as much as the slam and strike. He always took a little longer to set his clothes back in place and ready himself to leave the hall. He had one foot up on the bench, his jacket still neatly folded beside him.
“I need to talk to you.”
Delanie looked over her shoulder. Her hands kept moving, snapping against the long laces of her boots to pull them tight. Looking back down, she tied a tight knot in three quick pulls. “Do you?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.
“Yes,” Vant said. His tone stayed heavy, his eyebrows bent together as he nodded seriously.
Slowly, Delanie straightened, watching his expression, and begging for it to shift. He held her eye as if there was nothing in existence outside the officers cabins. Shore leave still held, and she thought he might be right. It was possible, from the unhindered creaking beams, and the quiet echo that followed the two of them around the cabin, that they were the only two on the deck. The docks, a few yards away would be rolling with crowds, and maybe there was a fisher or ten somewhere closer, but none of them were close enough to say that they weren’t blessedly alone. So, Delanie looked down, dropped her foot off the chair she’d been propping it on and took a long step away.
“No,” she said. “You don’t.”
The Night Fire was a strange sort of ship, prone to prowling the darkened oceans with its lanterns unlit and bound to their hooks to keep from creaking. The glass was kept under light wax paper to erase their glinting. All the other creakings and moanings of the ship were bundled and padded and greased until the ship moved like a stone on water, the waves whispering rumors against the hull while it stayed silent.
Almost, Vardan could imagine himself on a rock on the middle of the ocean. The sleek body of the dark ship tossed like any other, built for speed and sharp turns, not steadiness, but the quietness of the timbers left him stranded somewhere else. He listened to waves with their thick voices that overlapped each other on the wider waters, and when he looked up, the sky glittered with stars kept only in the light of their own company.
Without lanterns, without the dull yellow light of flame that touched the world with young, clumsy fingers, the sky didn’t draw back so far. Every star in its face peered down into the world, flaring and primping themselves to be admired.