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.
No one else was running. Anie picked up her feet and went through the crowd as quick as she could, but no one was else was moving even. They swayed, maybe, lifted on their toes to see what was happening at the gate, tilted their heads to measure the lines of men and women in their brown jackets. Anie ran, and it was like darting between trees, the world held still while she pushed through it and turned to catch a glimpse of the faces sliding past.
Thea was near the back of the fortress, too far to see what was happening, but she stood still, too. Darien waited just behind her, his shoulder forming a corner against hers. Mel looked like herself, a few feet in front of Thea, and turning, facing her older sister, then facing the gate, and smiling her confusion. Anie grabbed her hand and pulled her back to the other too.
“They’re soldiers,” Anie whispered.
Thea looked down at her, and Mel bent to catch more of her voice, and Anie had to repeat herself before they seemed to understand.
There were worse places to be stuck. Off the top of her head, Agata could list five other prisons, a few run-down homes where she had spent a night or two, and at least six of the circles of hell…
As prisons went, it was clean. Either they had few enough prisoners that any old dirt had faded to dust a long time ago, or they actually bothered to scrub them out. The walls were stone, not wood, and the cell was divided from the hall by a series of sturdy iron bars that bit into both floor and ceiling. Windows spilled yellow-white light across everything but a few corners. The stones gleamed gray-blue in contrast, worn to a shine in twisting pathways where too many people had walked over the years. The bars kept the air sweeping in and out, and the whole thing smelled hollow as an open field, instead of wet and close as a sewer.
It was a little too cold – and Agata couldn’t help feeling the restriction of the locks and steel – but it was actually quite nice. She was moving up in the world.
If it wasn’t haunted, she might actually enjoy her two weeks off in the quiet little room.
The first night they drove as far from Serres as the horse would take them. They piled together and settled into a sleep that matched the rattling cart, wobbling, and drifting into false turns, and, from time to time, jouncing them out of stillness. The first time Anie woke, Wesson still had the reins. The next, he’d traded places with his son, Darien. A few hours later, she turned and found the other boy, Chas guiding the horse.
So, they all caught their uneven chance to sleep, and it was the horse that made them stop an hour past sunrise. The city was so far behind them, it looked like one of the wooden toys Da had made for them when they were small. The sunlight made its shadows into straight dark lines, and its face into a brighter gray that stone should have worn. Nothing about it looked real.
Anie glanced at Thea. The older girl was blinking at the city as well. It was hard to tell if the flatness of her expression was tiredness or disbelief.
Tiernan watched the dark night sky rear back from the earth, afraid to touch the horizon, as if the sun might have turned around and started storming back. Night itself seemed loose, keeping its fingertips on the earth while it pulled its body as far back as it could. Warm daylight seemed just as far away. The light on the horizon was cool blue, a different kind of evening undulating behind the trees and confusing time.
Tiernan, seated on the ground with his back to the campfire, watched it twist, fade and deepen, dull and gleam. Behind him, the tents were spread in straight lines. The wagons were picketed to either side, shielding the thin canvas. The horses were rubbed down and nickering to themselves in sleep. His people moved between the tents in hushed steps.
They’d gone to bed hours ago, then been yanked back out of their blankets by the fire call. They’d discounted all danger a long time ago, but now they stayed. They stood, crossing their arms over their chests to keep the cold air from seeping through their night clothes. Or they sat with their blankets pulled tight against shoulders and elbows, legs crossed, and head tilted back.
Kadelyn paused in the hall as she neared her rooms, listening to an echo from behind her door that didn’t match her footsteps. Noach slowed behind her. She could feel him glance down at her, catch the look on her face and drop into immediate silence. The echoes continued, and the shuffling behind her door sounded clearly in the open hall.
Immediately, Noach stepped in front of her and put a hand to the sword on his hip. He glanced behind them, sighting down the empty hall for anything they might have missed as they walked past. Kadelyn listened closely, trying to still even her own breath. Whoever was inside was slowing as well, as if he’d heard them coming. Silence settled in heavily, like ice, echoing everything that didn’t belong.
Slowly, Noach turned back to the door. “Wait here,” he said, and gently pressed her toward the stone wall. She straightened her spine and pressed her hands to the stones, watching him slide his sword out of its sheath. Holding the blade between him and the door, he eased the latch open. Kadelyn watched his face as the light from the room slid across it. His eyes turned with the door, scanning the room the instant it was revealed. After a moment, he stepped inside.
“Good evening, Lord Brance,” he said evenly.
The campfire was too far away for it to be hers, but the food in her hands was too hot to have come from anywhere else. Arun approached slowly, keeping his feet quiet in desert grass. He could smell it on her from yards away – the sweet meat, the thick spice – and even in the dark, quiet as she was, she didn’t look like she was hiding. There wasn’t another tree for miles and she was perched on a thick, bare branch, knees bent, toes and back braced on the tree, both hands locked around her meal.
Arun tiptoed to the base of the tree. The ground was scuffed around him, the loose dirt shoved in every direction by running boots. The tread pressed deep, the feet too heavy to have been hers. Half of him was happy to not have to watch his own footprints too closely, but his spine tenses, his knees loosened in preparation to run.
“Hey,” he hissed.
The girl didn’t move at the sound, but he was sure she’d heard it. He thought she looked down at him, just an eye flicker as she took another bite.
“Don’t look at me like that,” Jaera told Galen. She pushed hard on the door, to shove it shut after Zain. She could see his back through the window, already halfway to the corner and heading back into the city. Without looking at Galen or Connell where they hovered at the side of the room, she turned back toward the table.
“Sorry,” Connell said, and didn’t sound it. “Still tryin’ to figure out whether I’m supposed to be huggin’ and spinnin’ you, or plannin’ how to skin a boy alive.”
“How about you deal the next game?” she told him. She slid into her chair, gathered the cards, split and shuffled, and kept her eyes on the tabletop.
Connell blinked. Glancing at Galen, he walked to his side of the table as quietly as he could. Jaera slid him the cards, watching him warningly. He split, shuffled, split, shuffled, and slapped out a deal, eyebrows still raised, but absolutely silent. She gave him half an apologetic smile.
When Daeva stopped, her feet were planted on a solid ledge, all the way from toe to heel. With one hand she held herself close to the mountain face. The other she rested on the next hold, just below her shoulder. She shifted her fingers until the grit on the rock slid and her hand caught, solid. She was already breathing hard from the climb, but she forced out another fast breath. She tensed her arm, ready to pull herself up.
And she couldn’t move.
The hold was just too high, by an inch, or a mile. She wasn’t sure. Or her arm was too short. Or her fingers were too thick. She shut her eyes, leaned her head forward, and pushed out another breath. Her feet seemed embedded in the stone now. For a second, she thought she was leaning backward, and her stomach turned a tight circuit until she pulled herself closer to the rock.
Seven months and Jig was back, sitting on Alasdair’s back porch like she had never left. She was a little taller now – her toes brushed the dirt beneath the porch as she swung her feet – but her face was just as round, her dark hair still braided to one side, like she couldn’t figure out how to make it run straight down her back.
Alasdair stepped hesitantly out his back door. The way she’d disappeared, with a mystery and a threat hard on her tail, he’d never expected to see her sitting there again. Sometimes on market street, he looked for her, checked the center of any trouble for her little head zipping through, but he never thought he’d see her so still.
“I’ve been tryin’ to do some math,” she said. No hello, no miss me?, no d’you remember me? Somehow, it made her sitting there seem more normal.