The scouts returned in the afternoon, after Tiernan had returned to his tent. After the camp had woken and tumbled into motion and slowly clicked into order. After Tiernan had wandered between the tent lines to see where he was needed and lent a shoulder to shove what needed an extra push into place. After Aled had led what was left of Vardeck’s guard around to the other side of the camp and settled them into extra tents. After two of them had stumbled to the physiker’s half awake, with Aled between them.
Tiernan was tired, every ache from the battle sunk deep into him in the quiet.
Doersa lifted the flap of his tent and he lifted his head, pulling in a breath. Putting on something closer to a smile. Jessik followed Deorsa inside. There was dust on her coat and leather oil on her hands from gripping the reins of her horse.
“You’re back sooner than I expected,” Tiernan said carefully. It was possible that she had not gone north to the villages herself. She had a number who answered to her.
Jessik only smiled thinly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “It just doesn’t take that long to bring back bad news.”
She tried to remind herself to walk slowly, but she kept slipping into a happy skip. It was too late at night for anyone else to be up to see her. Too late at night to risk tripping and falling on her nose, but too late to really believe in reasonable strides either. It was too late to be awake, but she was. She might have forgotten how to sleep, forgotten the need for sleep, forgotten how to shut her eyes.
The moon had been too full. The white light falling off it had turned the air cool and crisp and clean. The silence had so much blank space, a promise that every word she spoke into the dark would be caught and held and heard. Everyone else shut up into their houses had made then world so wide. She could have run for miles.
Shai hadn’t of course – or she didn’t think she had. She only ever went into the woods in the dark, and shadows were hard to measure. Still, it never took long to work her way into the clearing and wait for all the others to tumble in after her.
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.
“You are the reason we have been banned from four countries.” Sadie made her accusation with all the seriousness that could be mustered while munching on gummy bears, and still managed to make Dana pause in the middle of picking up the dice. Dana wasn’t sure how one was supposed to get past being given a death glare by a twenty-five year old woman in Cheery Banana pajama pants while she decapitated a cherry red Ursus Major with her teeth.
Sadie chewed and glared. Dana took a deep breath.
“Yes,” Dana said slowly. “And?”
Sadie’s eyebrows rose, making it clear that there was no and. Her statement had been absolutely complete, perfectly succinct in its meaning and it’s demand for repentance.
Marus tried to remember the exact moment they had realized they were lost, and could not. It had been a slow thing, he knew, a staging of one tree after another that had turned out not to be that tree. They pointed at one tree, then a second, then a third and fourth, which did not deliver them back to the road after the correct number of strides between precise turns toward the sun. Somewhere in between Marus had suspected. By the end he had been sure, but it felt as if he had been sure for a long time.
But he tried to recall, because for a little while – for hours really – being lost had not been a bad thing. It had been a joke, and then an adventure, and then just one of those things that happened and was easy to shrug off. Now, it was horrible, and it would have been nice to know the time limit on good-humored dislocation.
Wandering between the trees, tired of picking directions, he shoved his hands into his pockets.
“Have we gone this way before?” Kieda asked behind him. The question narrowly avoided being an accusation, and Marus decided to ignore it.
It was strange how midnight always seemed to make them younger. If they had actually been as young as they felt, they wouldn’t have been allowed to touch such deep hours with a fingertip, and yet they felt like children, seizing them with both hands.
Jas was stealing the sweetbreads out of the cupboard. Stealing them, when he was the one who baked them and stored them away, and no one in that house was old enough to make him feel caught in the act. He still curled his shoulders forward, hiding them with a grin, and jumped over the back of the chair to gain his seat again before he started tossing bits to everyone in the room.
Zain elbowed Terius. It was remarkably gentle for him, a subtle motion that could easy have been missed by anyone watching, but gave a quick, firm nudge against Terius’ ribs. Terius lifted his head immediately, eyebrows almost going into his hair, and looked at him.
Zain almost laughed at the surprise on his cousin’s face, but looked away and just smiled. He took another big bite out of the apple in his hand. Then he nodded across the deck of the ship.
The Clanless girl was out again. Terius wasn’t sure where she had just come from, but her sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and the hair that had come loose from her braid was stuck to her neck and forehead. She’d been working hard on something. She wandered to the far rail, stuck her elbows on top and lifted herself onto her toes. Face first in the breeze, she tilted her head back to cool her skin.
Terius watched her for a moment, then he looked back down at the book in his lap.
Zain had a book he was supposed to be reading, but he shut it and pushed it behind him while he leaned back on his hands. He tilted his head, watching the girl. Terius supposed he’d thought schooling would end when they started sailing, and now Zain kicked harder than ever against sticking his nose between the dry pages.
“They found her, right?” Zain asked.
Terius glanced at him uncertainly.
Zain looked at him. “I mean, somebody did?”
Terius nodded slowly. “That why my father said she was Clanless.”
Today, I am celebrating Christmas. Whatever you are doing today, these are my wishes for you:
May your day be long enough for the proper number of laughs, smiles, and encouragements, and end far before your limit of their opposites.
May you have good company in whatever your day holds. I especially hope that it is someone who will be able to tell today’s story years from now, and tell it like it was the summer blockbuster that actually deserved all of its accolades. Even better if they have the kinds of sense of humor that can be both meaningful and breath-ripping hilarious at the same time.
Eoin’s easy, wandering stride lengthened. He turned his shoulders to thread through the crowd, but he faced directly forward, focused on his destination, or directly backward, checking to make sure that Tiernan had stayed close. The rest of the street held onto its noise and nature. No one looked at the two of them on their sudden direct path more than they had a few moments before. Tiernan nodded toward the men and women who met his eye and stayed behind Eoin’s shoulder.
His brother turned to the right side of the street after a few more yards, and threaded his way there, right under the walls and windows of the buildings for a dozen more strides. Then, he turned and ducked into the hollow between two stone walls, sheltered by a gabled roofing leading up to a thin wooden door. The building behind it, seemed to lean forward over the two on either side in a neighborly way, as if it only wanted a better view of the street. It had a pointed roof, trimmed, and scrubbed bright.
“Are you feeling all right?” Tiernan asked.
The apartment was silent as Dana opened the front door. It was no great surprise. She had worked extra hours, coming back too late to catch Sadie just as barged in with her I-have-escaped-the-office-for-the-day-rush, and too early for the music and running around when her roommate decided to squeeze a few more moments out of the day.
Dana took off her shoes, and meandered down the hall to Sadie’s door. It was cracked open, allowing a yellow shaft of light to cross the carpet. Inside, there was the steady tap of computer keys without any real purpose. Pushing the door open, Dana leaned against the frame and looked in.
Sadie was curled into her padded chair, laptop on her knees, comfortably quiet.
“Hey,” Dana said. “Have you gotten dinner? I was thinking about ordering in.”
It took a moment for Sadie to drag her attention up from the screen. She blinked once at Dana before she finally managed it. Then her mouth started to curve into a low smile. “Dinner?” she asked.