She watched the changing of the guard with amused disinterest. From her vantage point on the roof of the Porterhouse, she could see the whole length of the wall and the quiet efficiency of the men and women who slid into the places of their fellows at every post along the line. The last watch only relaxed once they had seen their replacements square themselves against their spears, only let out a breath when their replacements had raised their chins to keep watch. She could almost read their thoughts across the air, and her lips twisted father into a smile, as if their straight spines were the iron guard posts that kept everything behind them whole.
When the trap door behind her creaked open, she tilted her head to listen over her shoulder without taking her eyes off the guard. She heard the heavy breath of someone taking the too-large last step up to the roof, the thud of a second foot, the creak and clack of the latch shutting again. She didn’t turn around as the footsteps thunked closer, reverberating in the tiles beneath her. She didn’t even look up when his shadow crossed her, though she flicked a look down at the shape of it.
Mornings were dawning sharper, the spring sun chasing away the cold instead of merely lighting it. The grey light faded more quickly, the air lost its damp cool between two breaths. Seryn watched it come and go, waiting outside Macsen’s office.
Dressed and relaxed, he stepped out the front door when the sun had climbed all the way over the horizon, and the world was right in its colors. Then he stopped, eyeing her thoughtfully. In long, heavy steps, he descended the stairs, still looking at her. She almost read curiosity in the way his gaze flicked over her.
“Why aren’t you with the children?” he asked.
“They like Drystan well enough,” she said.
Cerestine’s kitchen was too large for just her. Standing in front of one of the long work tables, she rolled dough into a thin sheet, flour spread in a wide circle around her while three feet of table on either end were still shining clean. Her brown hair was swept back and knotted elegantly at the back of her head. The streaks of silver at her temples ornamented either side of her head and threaded through the twists like ribbons. Her apron covered her dark, embroidered skirt, while she left her bleached white shirt bare. The fine flour didn’t even show against it, though it coated her hands from fingertip to wrist and halfway up her arms. The oven behind her spread heat down the length of the room, the pit large enough to house a dozen large loaves, but she worked alone, rolling only one.
The whole house was too large for her. Fifty rooms spread through three floors, and her every step echoed inside them, alone.
Loris wavered on the doorstep, unsure if the older woman knew she was there, or how she should properly announce herself if she didn’t. Cerestine was cutting her flattened dough into strips, still connected at one end. Her head was bent, and when she was finished with the knife, she threw it carelessly to one side, and didn’t look up as she began to braid the pieces together.
“My lady?” Loris began, hesitantly, sure that Cerestine would look up in shock no matter how gently she spoke.
The line of recruits held straight, shoulder-to-shoulder as Hemmark passed in front of them. It wasn’t particularly hard, with their heels backed against their packs behind them, and their packs touching the barracks wall behind that. They looked directly ahead and didn’t waver, but that wasn’t hard either when turning would have meant looking into the sun that was threatening a too-bright day in the middle of the gray dawn. Hemmark, coming to a stop at the end of the line, pretended to be impressed with his handful of men and tangle of fresh sixteen-year-old boys.
“Welcome to the City Watch,” he said. He tipped his voice into a pitch that he knew would carry clearly down the courtyard, but did not raise his tone into anything that could be called a shout. Some of the boys glanced at him sideways, blinking into the light behind him, as if he might have snuck up just beside them. Meeting his eye, they immediately snapped their heads forward again and straightened like he’d kicked them. He reserved a smile for later.
“We will give you a bed. We will feed you. We will hand you uniforms and weapons and pay you besides. We will train you into the sort of men that this city will respect and sometimes fear. We’ll make you into the sort of man that the man next to you can trust. And in return, you will protect this city, from now until the day you are dismissed. You will follow orders. You will put yourself on the line. You will fight when we tell you fight, stand down when we tell you stand down, wake we tell you wake, and keep to your feet when we need you.”
Hemmark glanced down the line for the inevitable shifting that always arrived when he gave his speech. Feet shuffled. Shoulders rolled a little forward or squared defiantly. It was always half and half in these recruits, between those who relaxed into the idea of taking orders and those who disliked the idea entirely. But there was no more shuffling than usual and he nodded them toward the barracks.
Brance moved toward the door Ineli was tucked behind, and she pulled it open to meet him. She didn’t take her eyes off Aithan until Brance was just beside her, then she looked up as her older brother touched her shoulder.
“Go on,” he said. He nodded back toward the other man. “Decide if you can have him wandering around behind you for a hundred days at a time. If you don’t like him, I’ll just tell Father directly that I think he’s a good man, and you’ll never have to see him again.” Brance winked. Nudging her forward, he traded places with her in the doorway and swung the door shut between them.
Ineli looked blankly at the heavy wood in front of her nose. Then she turned to face Aithan. Behind her, Brance strode across the inner room, shut a second door, passed into his bedroom, and out of range of their voices.
Ineli adjusted the blanket settled across her arm, saw him catch the movement but not question it. He simply saw it, noted it, and quietly met her eyes again.
She folded her hands in front of her. “How old are you?” she asked.
Ineli might have held him there for a while longer, and it might have fallen into a staring contest that she would have won, but there was a soft knock on the door.
Brance straightened and looked at it. A soft knock meant it was either a person who was holding hard to the idea that his rank deserved their respect, or just someone who did not often call on his door. He tilted his head, considering it, then looked back to Ineli.
“Do you want to spend the day with me?” he whispered.
Ineli nodded quick.
He bobbed his head over one shoulder, ordering her into the next room. “Better get hidden then,” he said. “Just in case it’s someone come looking for you.”
Ineli smiled. Grabbing up her blanket, she ran on her toes, tucking herself into the next room. She pushed the door shut with both hands, and stopped when there was just a crack left big enough for her to catch a glimpse of who it was.
In the early morning, Ineli could wrap a blanket around her shoulders and sneak through the palace. From behind, the rich drape of the fabric made her look like just another wealthy little girl in a cape whose family held rooms in the massive complex.
If she encountered anyone ahead of her, she needed only to duck her head, giggle and put them behind her as fast as she could. They heard the giggle, saw the flash of cape, and thought nothing of a ten-year-old with brown curls at play. Maybe they saw the brocade of her skirt, and the heavy embroidery on her jacket. They never saw enough of her face to bow, or to politely question why she was out by herself.
Ineli held her blanket in one hand, and bunched her skirts in the other to run down the hallway. The windows on one side slid gray light across the floor as the sun fought to find its way through the maze and tangle of the palace walls. A long carpet under her feet kept the chill of the stone from seeping through her thin slippers. She slid on it as she reached the end of the hall, and let the slide take her around the sharp right turn that ended abruptly at her brother’s door.
Knocking firmly, she bounced on her toes. And waited. The rooms beyond were the usual three-fold living quarters – sitting rooms, guard’s rooms, bedroom. It might take a person a minute to make their way from the back room. It took Brance a while longer.
The door thudded with heavy security, but the boy on the other side of the bars still shivered as he faced me. I rammed my shoulder into the thick wood one more time, more for the satisfaction of the motion and the way the boy jumped and closed his hand around the hilt of his sword, than for any progress it made. I gripped the bars in the little square window, and gave them one last tug as I turned away.
I took three steps and my shoulder brushed the far wall.
“You know,” I called to him. Rocking back on my heels, I looked up at the stone ceiling then glanced at the shadows in the corners. “From the looks of it, you don’t actually have to stand there. These four walls are holding me just fine.” I put my shoulders to the wall and slid down. I intended to sit, but half way, I just stopped, settling into a rough crouch. Rest suddenly didn’t seem appealing when I came that close to it.
Wick knew three people who made better watchmen than him.
Two of them – his mother, and his grandfather – were long dead, more memories than flesh, with lists of valorous stands that might have been made longer and greater by the time that had passed. He suspected at times, that his mother hadn’t actually stood watch over a door for seven days and eight nights without sleep. He suspected his grandfather had never kept watch over a King’s window, even if it was just to make sure no competing thief took what his employer had an eye for. He suspected neither of them had gone two and three months without being seen at all while personally stacking unwanted guests in the alleys behind their watches for their friends to wake and put back together.
But they were his mother and his grandfather. And they were long dead. Wick had no intention of trying to wrestle any medals off their chests.
The third was a blind man who worked the west quarter behind the warehouses with a stick the breadth of Wick’s forearm. There was no accounting for a blind man.
“There are two types of soldiers, you know,” Master Archell said. He had entered the room a minute before and settled halfway into a seat on the barrels against the near wall with one leg propped for his elbow to lean on, and one foot still on the floor. Then he started talking, without any of the common beginnings to conversations, as if he had decided that since Haiden couldn’t speak in the middle of her vow of silence, there was no need for any of it.
Haiden paused in the middle of rolling the heavy barrels of sand across the armory floor. Inside, the chainmail sang quietly as the sand scoured across it, hissed, and sighed. When other initiates cleaned them, the sand and metal sounded like the tide climbing in and out of the beaches, an even, measured whisper over the rumble of the barrels. She had found, that the floor was not quite flat, slanted toward the west corner, so when she did it, it sounded like a heartbeat: two quick sighs, and then a pause before her aching arms convinced the barrel to roll back uphill.
She was sweating, and her own heart was thudding purposefully against the inside of her chest. Haiden swallowed, half grateful for the break, half annoyed that she couldn’t give the growing sarcastic hello to you too that she had been saving up for the last few months, and looked up, eyebrows raised.