“Heads, I win. Tails, you lose. Your choice.” And the girl smiled as she said it, her mouth a charming, crooked line.
In her chair, she relaxed without leaning either forward or back, her spine carelessly straight. Her dark hair was braided loosely down her back and a too-bright scarf held it back from her face. With one elbow propped lazily against the table, she let the silence stretch. And she waited for the unnecessary reply.
The problem with having scarily brilliant friends was that it made surprises… complicated. Complicated and egregiously unnecessary. Aderon liked nothing better than the puzzle, the steady collection of found things that clicked and snapped together to outline weighted secrets. He was never able to keep his hands still, but worse was the way his eyes picked things up, turned them over, and abandoned them when they had emptied out for him. Cefin never grinned so hard a gift behind a door, as he did at a monster that he had guessed would be waiting. He liked the knowing, the awareness in the midst of an oblivious crowd.
They had never let Esyllt keep a surprise. She had battled the two of them, since they met at the age of six, for every secret. Each loss was a lesson, teaching her the hiding places for secrets thin as paper, and the secrets brittle as pyrite, and secrets bright like sunlight on ice. Each win was a victory that built along her spine.
When she thought about it – and she did, often enough, when she was alone in the dark – she thought it was a little unfair. When she won, really won, they had no idea there had even been a fight. But she had stopped caring a long time ago.
And this secret, the one itching between her shoulder blades and aching in the knuckles of her hands, needed its integrity more than anything else she had held. It was new, a bright thing only a few hours old. That might have been its one grace.
Newness was a hiding place she had learned to love, for all the frustration of it only being temporary. For a small precious while, it was a fortress.
Marnie found me in a corner where I’d begun to collect attention. Her boots were road-scuffed, the shoulders of her coat were rain stained, and her shirt and breeches were an average assemblage of homespuns and old clothes. In all her muted tones of beige and brown, she slipped across the room, tapping shoulders and elbows so they could make room for her to pass between the scattered tables and chairs, and no one even glanced up at her. When she was six steps from my table, they started to stare. She slipped into the seat across from me, unaware that any of them existed.
I tried not to hunch my shoulders farther around my ears.
Under starlight, everything turned to ice. Hills and stones and flower petals, none of them sharp enough to hold a shine, gleamed like water on the edge of melting. The air cooled and calmed, only numbing fingers and cheeks after they had stood in it for a while. Small sounds carried, clinks and clatters, all of them too hard in the silence, and ringing smoothly back into the nothingness.
It was too early in the year for the cold to bite deep. Still, Loena could feel the heat of Ami’s hand in hers as if there were an old coal between their palms. The air sliding into her lungs felt like weak peppermint, unable to hold onto the chill all the way down her throat. She sucked it in, grateful for the feeling, for the proof that she was not turning to ice herself.
At the corner, they waited, and finally, Ami squeezed her fingers.
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.
Tavea knew she should be peeling herself up on the ground, finding the road again, heading toward home. The grass around her was no longer just cool, but growing cold and a little damp as night deepened. She had a bed waiting for her, and a sunrise that would drag her out of it soon enough, but the city lamps had all been doused at midnight and in the darkness, the sky was star-scattered and just on the edge of remembering to be blue. It was a thousand times brighter than the black of shut eyes.
Her first thought when she woke up was that she hated him. Her mouth was sticky and thick, stubbornly informing her that she had slept through too many warm hours of daylight. The floor wobbled, and mixed with the wet feel of the air against her skin, she knew she was on the river before she sorted through the sound of the water whispering under the wood beneath her. Lia opened her eyes slowly, blinking against the light that shot through the hatch a few feet to her right. Her head hurt – just blinking to let her eyes adjust felt as if she were tapping her skull with a brick – and she hated him.
The least he could have done was drug her, so she could throw up and be done with it rather than sit around through a day waiting to see if he’d done her skull any real damage. She already knew the strength behind his right hook. He didn’t need to keep proving it to her.
Lia crawled through the narrow space below deck and shut her eyes against the direct sunlight before she pushed herself upright. She swayed on her feet, but braced her ribs in the corner of the hatch and folded her elbows over the edge.
Raes was steering the boat with a pole in his usual way, his back toward her as he scanned the river ahead. Trees leaned over the water from either side and large rocks tumbled out from the left side to spin the water between them. Lia glanced backward, hoping to see at least one of the city’s towers, but they had left it far behind. The water muttered and the breeze hissed in the trees, but all her familiar thunkings and clankings and grumblings had disappeared into something that felt very like silence.
“So,” she said, to break it cleanly in two. “This is how you win arguments?”
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.
When charging into dangerous situations you can either be fast and silent or fast and prepared. It was a simple truth, with a single, large exception which Jasen wasn’t sure why he had never noticed before: if you caused the dangerous situation, you had the foreknowledge to be all three.
He didn’t figure it out until he felt the cool line of a knife leaned against his spine and angled against the muscle of his neck while his sword was still padded in his sheath. He had moved quiet and quick into his hiding place in the far corner of the dim warehouse, but she had been ready for him.
“We told you to stay home,” she murmured, leaning close behind him with one hand firmly on his shoulder so that she could speak into his ear. She didn’t lose the angle on her knife, placed perfectly to slide in and twist so that nothing below his chin ever answered his mind again. It was chilling, even knowing who the voice belonged to.