All his life, Taavi had been dully aware that the Captain was always the last to leave the ship. It should not have come as a surprise to him that Erya’s promotion would mean that he could no longer meet her on the docks in the morning, as he had when she was a little cabin bird. He could not find her for a late lunch like when she was a full member of the crew, could not even share dinner with her as he had when she was an officer. Erya arrived home only after the sun had set, having registered with the portmaster, inspected the ship, dismissed the crew, contacted the banks to reserve coinage for the payroll, arranged the cargo dispatch, finalized the logs, reported to the ship’s owner, and finally, packed up her own things in the dark.
She came through the doors with her shoulders rounded, but smiling as if she’d caught a falling star in her pocket.
“Hello, Da,” she said.
She had only heard gunshots at a distance. She knew they were loud. Every book she had ever read said that the blasts were louder than smith hammers. Every story she heard tossed around the table or spilled around the hearth said that the blasts were so loud they would shake through her bones. There was a certain Captain who had once told her that all he could do was laugh during his first gun battle, because he was deaf to everything except what sounded like a drunken giant stomping upside down across the sky. And still, to her, they were just thunderclaps in a storm that never quite made it to shore.
She had seen guns. There were two dozen on top of the palace wall, housed on sharp platforms that jutted off the main walk way. From above, she imagined the walls looked like a jeweled necklace, each gun a dull stud on its wooden stand. But they were cold as jewels, silent as stones. None of them had been fired in her memory.
All the salutes were saved for the guns aboard, safer firing out over the water.
Immediately, coming down onto the gun deck, those guns seemed like looser things. They were tied down, lashed to metal rings as if the roll of the ocean might have inspired them to something drastic in the past. They creaked on their stands, echoing the deeper groaning of the hull. Their muzzles gleamed when the light caught them, and their rough barrels were sand-scrubbed, light and dark.
She brushed her finger tips against the metal, and smiled just a little. They were still cold.
As halls went, it was half as grand as the best Jaera had ever seen. She had spent hours waiting just inside doors in the First Lord’s mansion. On infrequent occasions, she had patrolled the edges of great rooms that belonged to the Clan Lord himself. The comfortable house of the First Lord’s younger brother did not impress her.
But she had never stood so long in the center of a room like this. The ceiling seemed a little higher than she was used to. The walls seemed wider. The hall was not particularly full, but she was used to watching the array of rich, heavy fabric and sparkling gem lines from farther away. She kept her elbows close to her sides, and moved her feet a little at a time.
“I hope you won’t take it as an insult if I say you look lost.”
Jaera looked over her shoulder at the tall man who had stopped behind her shoulder. He had her friend Zain’s shaggy blonde hair, though he was a decade older and did a better job of taming the curls. His shoulders were wide, and the muscles in his arms looked a little too large for his green jacket.
Kashel understood exactly two things about the blanket-wrapped bundle of baby that his aunt carried into his house.
First, that that baby glowed brighter than the clear afternoon sunlight to her.
His aunt was bright enough herself, all blonde hair that glowed like kindling in the light, ready to catch fire at a passing breeze. Her green eyes were sharp, quick to shift to Kashel when he thought he was sneaking. Her mouth was always bent, ready to snap into a smile. The last time she’d come to visit, she’d been able to outrun him and lift him almost off his feet with one hand. It was hard to keep his eyes off her when she was in the room, just because she was exciting, just because she glowed.
But she walked in, cradling that thick, awkward bundle and couldn’t take her eyes off the slack weight inside it. She smiled, and made every smile she’d worn before look like a flat painter’s imitation. If for no other reason, he was not allowed to count that baby as a bad thing.
Dorin and Thadd stopped their horses as soon as they saw The Trover and looked at each other.
Tucked into the bottom of a sloping street corner, it still looked down on its neighbors from three easy stories. The outside walls were streaked dark wood like they couldn’t shake the last rainfall, rounded, and studded with support struts. The front door faced a wide street, welcoming customers, and swinging open and shut every few minutes as they came and went. Over the door, a heavy wooden sign declared the tavern’s name, removing any doubt that they were in the wrong place.
But Thadd looked at Dorin with his eyebrows raised, and Dorin looked blankly back. This was not the place they’d imagined.