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.
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 shoulder 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 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.
Seryn spread her fingers and, after a moment’s hesitation, added blue fire to the pile of bramble and flame. The taste of the smoke changed, cooling on her tongue, icing the inside of her chest. Her muscles tightened with the cold flow of energy running down from her shoulders. Standing very still, she watched, blinking away the ash that landed on her cheeks.
She only felt the heat on her face and her fingers. The rest of her had narrowed to a cool line standing in a breeze that cut through her. The fire bit deeper into the wall, winging out to either side.
Her bones were too light. She forgot their edges until her stillness began to ache and she shifted her heels on the soft ground just to remember she had them.
And she snapped her fingers wider.
An army was easy to track. Hundreds of feet trampled the grass flat. Horses and wagon wheels tore the dirt. Hundreds of hands beat branches aside until they broke. There was no way to avoid it. Seryn, Wynn, Emyr, Gan and Carys rode easy for hours, just to the side of the massive track. When it left the cover of the trees, they hung back under the branches. When the trees dwindled to copses and lonely sentinels, they skirted around the base of the rolling hills, out of sight. Still, they traced the army’s path like a river channel, straight up to the fresh and scattered camp.
It was past noon, the sun high, bleaching and warming the open valley. The tents – eight long lines of them – stood out in glaring white, backed up to a stone face that shadowed the back half and cut the breeze. No flags snapped, but the whole thing simmered with steady motion as people moved between the rows and smoke rolled up from the careful fires.
Seryn dropped off her horse and the others followed her lead, padding another dozen strides forward to get a clear view.
“They moved quick,” Carys murmured over her shoulder.
Emmet and Koen struck as different paths as brothers could. There were ten years between them, making Emmet the dark-haired, bronze-eyed son of a man who had died too young, heir to everything his mother commanded, and Koen the blonde-haired son of a man still alive, captain, conqueror, and blunter weapon. Emmet’s keimon stood in his halls with him, guardians and entertainers under glittering lights. Koen’s stood at ship rails, face into the wind, and learned nothing better than how to burn, how to buy glory with ash.
Bryn had known that long before she chose where to apprentice. As young as they had been, she knew her twin, Riya had understood as well. And neither of them had hesitated to split ways, jump on a ship, train for the halls. Different was something magical to two ten-year-olds who had spent their whole lives as walking mirrors of each other.
Seryn woke. Eyes open, smooth as taking a breath.
The shadows held their place on the ceiling as if they hung by their finger tips, slipping into the dawning light. She blinked once, aware suddenly of sheets and shoulders and heavy blanket and cool air on thin cheeks. Then she sat.
She pulled on breeches, shirt, boots, jacket and tied everything smoothly into place. Bending her head, she fingered her hair into a quick braid, tight against the back of her head, and knotted it at the base of her skull.
Wynn was moving behind her. Breeches, shirt, boots, jacket. Tesni took a too-thick breath and blinked in the morning light.
False starlight cracked through the window. Turning everything to shades of steel or ice, it scattered against the floor, cutting dark shadows from the chair legs and the footboard. Kitra glared at it, without meaning to, just trying not to open her eyes to the full force of it. Then she pushed herself up on one elbow and glanced outside at the too-bright street and it’s shadowed edges.
Slipping out of bed, she pulled the blanket with her, holding it around her shoulders. Her feet seemed silent against the floor, but she might have still be half-deaf from sleep, or the night might have swallowed the sound. The stairs didn’t creak. The front door didn’t squeal.
She stepped out onto the front porch, eyeing Jace with what would have been disbelief, if she had been conscious enough to summon it.
“Again?” she asked him, in not quite a whisper.
The bonfire had been a good idea. The smoke smelled sweet coming off the old wood, and the heat sank through Dayva’s coat, through her boots, through her skin, chasing the brittle chill out of her bones. She took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders forward to catch the warmth. Bouncing on her heels, she smiled to herself, happy with how smooth motion felt.
That, she decided, was the worst part about winter – not the dark that crept in too early in the evening and stayed too late in the morning, not the starkness of the trees and the bare ground and the midnight moon – but the cold ache that worked itself into her, starting at her hands and her feet, seeping down inside her lungs. It made her narrower, it made her thin, and she was never quite sure which motion might break her.
She heard Lin’s footsteps behind her, crunching in the scattered stones that bordered the front stair. Dayva didn’t turn to face her until the last moment. The fire beat into her shoulder and her cheeks burned in the cool air.
Here are some things that have been saved in my Drafts folder with the idea that I will one day expand them into full blog posts (since they have all been hanging around for at least six months, it seems unlikely):
I’m always bad at dealing with the end of vacations. I appreciate the familiarity of my own bed. I like the freedom to cook my own food. I love the people who smile at me on a daily basis. Still, my thoughts on those last few days almost always hover around plots to steal just a little more time. Or how to escape to do it again.
The fact that I come home every time has nothing to do with me not being devious enough.