The baby was coming soon. Not in the next few hours, but Chaela knew it was no longer a matter of weeks, but days. A handful of days and she would hear him for the first time, instead of just feeling him and all the sharp corners of his elbows and knees.
She put her hand on her stomach, fingers spread wide to cover as much of the baby as possible, and tried to remind herself to breathe. It had been nine full months, but just a few days more was still too soon.
Chaela had felt the baby’s company for a long time now. He liked to kick. He nudged her and moved with her, woke her and seemed always curious about the exact number of ribs she owned. She knew him already, had named him so long ago. She wasn’t ready to let any of this go.
And the last time…
Chaela stopped that thought as soon as she found it. She had had it too many times before, and another repetition would solve nothing, support nothing.
The baby kicked. Chaela winced, and then she smiled.
Galen was not home when Tarra came back at the end of her work day. He was supposed to be at the table, bread and cheese and yesterday’s happy find of fresh carrots and zuchinni spread on the table for dinner. Instead, the house was dark as Tarra approached, and she spent ten minutes lighting the lamps and calling his name in every room upstairs and down, looking for him.
She exhausted every cranny that a seven-year-old could stuff himself into. Then she stood at the base of the stairs, listening for him. All she heard was her heart beat.
He was not home.
And the house was too empty.
Wrapping herself back into her coat, she snuffed the lamp, and ran outside. She knocked on one neighbor’s door, then the others. Neither Arri nor Ceddir had seen him. Ceddir who usually sat at his front window all afternoon putting in hems and patches, hadn’t even seen him come home.
The last of the mourners walked quietly out of the house, and the front door closed behind them with an apologetic thud. It was almost too hushed to be a proper closing, except for the way that it sealed in the silence, set the echoes whispering in the corners, and turned the entry hall in a dull, dim little box.
Kynbessne folded her hands in front of her skirt, not knowing what else she was supposed to do with them. It was an easy position to fall into, and it was just that ease that felt so faulty. It would have been right to ball her hands into fists around the soft cloth of her dress, or tear the air with bent fingers, or just to throw everything in sight against the floor. And it would have been wrong.
So, she stood, still, and quiet, her hair braided down her back, her dark dress hanging around her without a sound. She took a shallow breath in. Then pushed a shallow breath out.
Her father stood just as unsteadily, rocking on his heels as if he had suddenly forgotten where each door off the main hall led. He had one hand wrapped around the front of his jacket, like he couldn’t trust buttons to keep it closed any more. There were a great many things – small things – that seemed to be betraying him all at once, and he blinked at them, mute in the face of a treachery that didn’t even make sense.
It had been months since The Zealot sank. The gray starred night and icy water had settled deep enough into Zain’s memory to become knowledge instead of feeling.
It had been the coldest water he’d ever been in. Cold, because it bit, harder than anything had a right to. Colder, because it too quickly soothed itself away and faded into nothing at all. Coldest, for the way it had driven down to his bones, and after he’d been pulled out and the sun had come up and his skin had remembered its color, it still shook him, from the inside out. Cold.
But it was just a thought now. Leaning in a breezy doorway on his cousin’s estate, jacket open over a thin shirt, hands tucked idly in his pockets, he couldn’t drag up the sensation of it. His cousin, leaning over the table in the center of the room with his jacket buttoned close to his chest, still curled his shoulders, like he’d never left the water.
The man was wrapped in a blanket, hugging his own arms, curled over a steaming cup, and still shaking with cold. He had come a long way, too far, too fast. His face was flushed, hands rosy, and each breath was just a little too deep, like his body was gulping in air it had needed for hours. He didn’t look up from the floor as Sabeen approached, though she made enough clatter with a guard at her back and Naven striding down the stairs beside her. He only moved to roll his fingers in the air, dull white smoke sifting through them. The heat of it soothed him, and the breath of it under his skin as he made it kept him awake. Sabeen watched the smoke fade into the air, like a drop of blood into water. He needed sleep, and everything he did to keep his eyes open would only hurt him more.
Pate stood beside the man. He watched Sabeen until she came to a full stop in the small stone hall. Then he spoke slowly. “I’m sorry to call you away, my lady.”
Sabeen barely looked at him, unable to drag her attention away from the huddled man. “So, tell me,” she said. It came out sharply, but maybe too low for anyone to feel the bite but herself.