Jeyd had been on the walls when the fight began. He watched the Guard ride out, trip on each other, and unlike Seryn, did not race out to catch the ones who fell. Seeing the enemy flood out from between the trees, he called down for them to shut the gate moments before she did.
Aled had slipped through.
The gates had thudded shut. The soldiers braced it and tumbled into defensive positions.
Seryn knew that there, behind thick walls, with a stocked armory and full larders, the fortress would have held. She and what was left of the Guard would have been lost, but the rest would have been safe behind the walls for days. For weeks. For months. Because that was the glory of a fortress.
But while she was down in the clash and clatter, obscured in the rush of her own heartbeat, waiting for the end she had always expected to come, Jeyd saw the vise of the encroaching army tighten. And press. And quietly, almost invisibly, brace to defend as if they had already laid claim to the ground to the south.
She could see that he was angry at her in the set of his jaw and the way he gripped the wheel. He didn’t say anything, but he never did. The car slid silently down the highway, alternately flooding with light, and then with shadow, wheels whispering somewhere beneath them. She glanced at him, and then out the window. She would have liked to say something, but didn’t have anything to say.
She might have said she was sorry, but she already had. She might have asked him what she could do, but she knew he would find an answer, just snap at her and make the air in the car feel heavier. She didn’t have an adequate explanation for whatever thoughtlessness she had performed, nor even know what she was meant to explain, and asking why he was angry would be stupid as praying for a hurricane. He would only tell her that she already knew or should already know, and work himself up to shouting.
Without wanting to, she stayed silent, convincing herself from one moment to the next to stop up every word on her tongue.
There was oil on the water, slick, and thin, and adding an unsettling sweetness below the rugged salt that the ocean laid over everything. In the near dark, the oil only showed on the water as a wrongness, a sheen that dripped off the oars, and a shine that came too easily in the last light of day.
Ahead, the oil burned. The current dragged it into long stripes, crackling orange and yellow, cowing the powerful water beneath it which should have been able to smoother it on a moment. Another wrongness, and all of it eclipsed by the unnerving cough and rattle of timber finally giving way.
The room went quiet as soon as Cidra stopped moving. No one else shifted, or even seemed to breathe, for a full count of fifty. Then slowly, they all pulled their blankets back up around their shoulders and buried themselves in their cots. Sevi climbed back into bed still facing Nessim, folding one foot beneath him and then the other. Nessim waited for a moment in the dark, and then sat on the floor just where he was. He watched the door, the cracks in the frame streaking him with dim yellow light, so that Anie could see the line of his nose, and the edge of one eye as he waited. He blinked too often.
Vetlynn was the last to lay down, her hair fall across her cheek so that Anie wasn’t sure whether she had turned face-down to hide, or not.
Anie didn’t lay down at all. She had thought she might sleep, but now she knew she wouldn’t. Sleep didn’t feel like a real thing any more, the way she could feel all the distinct edges of her thoughts inside her. Her body didn’t feel heavy enough to sleep.
She sat up, awake and alert while the clamor outside continued on, dimmed and dulled by the walls.
“I need to talk to you.”
Delanie looked over her shoulder. Her hands kept moving, snapping against the long laces of her boots to pull them tight. Looking back down, she tied a tight knot in three quick pulls. “Do you?” she asked, trying to keep her voice light.
“Yes,” Vant said. His tone stayed heavy, his eyebrows bent together as he nodded seriously.
Slowly, Delanie straightened, watching his expression, and begging for it to shift. He held her eye as if there was nothing in existence outside the officers cabins. Shore leave still held, and she thought he might be right. It was possible, from the unhindered creaking beams, and the quiet echo that followed the two of them around the cabin, that they were the only two on the deck. The docks, a few yards away would be rolling with crowds, and maybe there was a fisher or ten somewhere closer, but none of them were close enough to say that they weren’t blessedly alone. So, Delanie looked down, dropped her foot off the chair she’d been propping it on and took a long step away.
“No,” she said. “You don’t.”
Aymee went very still when Vardan entered the hall. There were yards between them, but she went skeleton-stiff, fleshless at the sight of him. Vardan slowed, hovered in the doorway for half a moment. He hadn’t expect any kind of fear when he arrived. He looked down, counting out the floor stones between them. Slowly, he approached.
Her hands knotted in her skirts, and the rich, blue cloth whispered in complaint.
At a respectful distance, Vardan stopped. It felt strange. Once, he would have walked right up beside her, shoulders almost touching. He might have just smiled, and it would have been enough of a greeting for them. Now, he looked down again, bowed low. “My lady,” he said.
Aymee still didn’t move. “Vardan?” she whispered. “How are you here?”
Aled moved off, one easy stride after another. Seryn watched him, a little longer than she had to, but stayed where she was. Her head was still a little hazy, her thoughts a little too soft around the edges. Slowly, she leaned her head into her hand, but didn’t rest it there. She rubbed her fingers gently into her hairline, and didn’t move.
She wouldn’t have done it. There was no need.
But she could have.
Seryn pressed the fingers of her other hand, down into her palm. She could still feel his ribs, the lift of them as he breathed, hard bone just beneath warm skin. The air was cold, but her hand was still warm. She could have flashed out a bit of heat of her own. It would have been as easy as bleeding. Not difficult to do, just a quick slash of will, but it would hurt afterward.
Seryn rolled her fist shut.
Dropping her head to her chest, she stretched her shoulders, arced her spine until all its pieces slid back into their places, then stacked herself back up straight. She pushed her shoulders back, resettled her arms across her knees. She dug her heels farther into the ground, just for comfort. Her eyes shut after a moment. Her head leaned back, catching the warmth off the sun, while the rest of her bones settled into each other.
She almost slept. Or maybe she did sleep, lightly, easily, drifting out of the world with her fingertips still hooked over the edge to drag herself back in an instant.
You and I, we enjoy one another’s company, I don’t think there’s any denying that on either side, but when it comes to the big things in life, while I hope that we can have a rational discussion, I fear that there won’t be understanding without an alteration of the heart, and I know the ground I stand on, and I won’t move.
Toar read the last reckless paragraph and calmly folded the letter, wondering if there wasn’t an easier way to say good-bye.
It should have hurt, he knew, listening to someone call him stubborn, hard-headed, hard-hearted, and blind. It had hurt Dagny to write it. He could see that in every word, in every way she avoided saying the exact syllables she meant. He could imagine her, sitting, then not sitting, pacing, putting each word into the world as a shout before she managed to pin it to a page. That was her way, to yell as loud as she laughed, and line every decision with iron. He’d never decided if he loved her for that or not, but he liked her for it, and he wouldn’t have chosen to give her this kind of ache himself.
It should have hurt.
“If trouble grew legs, big blue eyes and thick blonde hair, it would be him.” Elea looked at Karleigh over her cup, daring her to disagree.
Karleigh smiled, and set her cup gently against her knee. “Really? I’d think it would be you.” She nodded toward Elea’s gold curls pinned behind her head.
Elea laughed, very softly, so that it didn’t turn into a snort.
This was not an alley. Alleys were designed to be walked, to draw shortcuts between streets. This was a gap between buildings, corners stacked with garbage the wind dragged inside. This was where you laid things better forgotten.
Jaera looked over her shoulder. Galen had stopped at the main street, hands in his pockets. He didn’t avoid the cracked walls, just seemed too familiar already to consider them. He met her eye carefully.
“This is where you found me?” she asked.
Galen nodded, slow. “They made a mistake,” he said.
Pulling in a breath, Jaera tried to believe him.