“I can smell your bleeding heart from down the hall.”
Vardan looked up at the sound of the other man’s voice, unsurprised at the half smile on Donnemey’s face. His eyebrows were bent together, examining Vardan as he approached in the stone hall. It was such a familiar expression, this false confusion poorly painted over his amusement, that Vardan hardly registered it anymore. There was so much more to dislike about the man than the vaguely insulting lines of his face.
He met Donnemey’s eye dully. “What does it smell like?”
Reed nodded. Taking the last few steps at a gentle run, he passed Eoin and led him back in toward the barracks that leaned against the inside of the mountain face. The interior was lined in slat bunks and weapons racks, and in between tables and chairs were scattered at a will. Some soldiers slept, arms thrown over their eyes to block the light of their comrades who sat at the tables, playing their cards. A few others walked briskly through, adjusting the straps and laces on their leathers, cloaks trailing behind them.
Men and women stopped to clap Eoin on the shoulder, doubling back in their quick strides as they realized who they’d seen. Eoin smiled at them all, traded greetings and jokes and fierce grips, and kept close behind Reed’s back. The older soldier did much the same, calling his hellos, and walking without pause.
At the far end of the barracks Reed’s patrol was waiting. There were six of them, mostly tall and lean like Reed, who seemed to lopped off a little height and applied it to the breadth of his shoulders instead. They were almost in a line as Reed and Eoin approached, hands idly checking their sleeeves and hats and weapons, and they snapped to attention the instant Reed was close enough to issue an order.
“Are we ready?” he asked them.
Tane’s front room was only nine steps across, but tall as he was and with his tendency to rush, he usually crossed it in seven. He had no back room, and no rooms to left or right. From the outside, it looked like he should, the way the rear and right walls tucked against the sheer face of the bounding hill behind it.The straight walls and gabled roof looked more like the entrance hall to something magnificent hidden in the hill than the small mountain shack that it was. If rich glass windows with carved shutters appeared in the back, studding the dirt and grass, no one would have been surprised.
Tane liked it that way. He walked up the steep incline to his front door, ignoring and frequently crossing the snake-spined road that led up the side of the mountain, and he smiled at the idea of returning to his mansion. Inside, he had all the space he needed: one clean room with wide, empty corners and a knee-deep cellar dug under the floorboards.
He had a dog that patrolled all the way around the hill. He’d never trained her that way, just fed the pup too many times and the full-grown animal kept the habit of shoving her triangular head under Tane’s head for a good scratch between the ears, and returned the favor by stretching a deep growl over trespassers too close to his walls. Sometimes she stayed the night, curled over his feet at the foot of the bed, her tail swishing against the wall and her front paws curled over the front edge of the mattress while her nose pointed to the door. Other days he heard her prowling in the dark, and found her curled into his doorstep in the morning.
Tiernan shut the door behind him with a pleasant clack, and started down the hall. For a moment, he wondered if Eoin might follow him, but it seemed even the younger man knew that the time for charm had passed.
Tiernan glanced over his shoulder, just to make sure that his brother wasn’t stealing up beside him. The hall was empty and echoing, and Tiernan let out a long breath as he faced forward again.
He didn’t have to think about his course as he chose his turns. They’d been in the castle long enough for it to start feeling like the halls and walls and sturdy stone belonged to them, though it was a poor cousin to their own mountain home. The stacked stone managed to look more raw than the carved out mountain they’d been born to, resembling the lower town under their protection. They’d brought a large enough company that he seemed to pass his own people in the hallway as often as strangers, and even those strangers now looked familiar. Tiernan had begun to feel as if he was simply at the base of his mountain, and if he chose, he could walk for an hour and talk with his father and eldest brother over a hot meal in the chilly back chambers of his father’s home.
Until he caught the bright red strip of cloth around his friends’ wrists, marking them as keimon with permission to walk free. Until he remembered how long they had argued over how much access to the city those wristbands granted his people. Until he came across afternoon like this.
This whole city left a film on her skin that itched and constricted in turns. Looking at Aled, she gave him a small nod, just to confirm her agreement, then they pressed on behind Macsen.
The crowds kept their progress slow, though the streets didn’t help much. They only stayed straight for a block or two at a time, then jaunted to the side, twisted or narrowed, widened or fell, the way old city streets do. The buildings were patterned in old and new brick, fresh wood and beams that were almost ready to be replaced. As they rode toward the center of the city, the buildings grew older, and the faces of them grew sleeker, like they’d been worn down by love and use. The relief carvings started to line the doors, or spread out under the eaves. Then the carvings stuck our farther, and then they were dropped onto a wide, circular avenue wrapped around a high stone wall.
The crowd thickened. Seryn and Aled rode single file again, but pulled up directly behind each other so that they wound through the shoppers and merchants and wooden stalls like a fat-bodied snake. A few yards ahead, another wooden gate stood wide, complete with another guard sentinel.
There were more of them, and they looked more closely at Seryn’s hands, at her face, even as she kept herself half-turned from them.