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.
Royse’s hands shook. He kept closing them tight, forcing her fingers to stillness next to each other, and they still rattled like they couldn’t even stand up to the breeze. He tried to remember if he had started out steady today.
He knew what steady was supposed to feel like. He triggered the flow of the chill under his skin, spilling off the edges of the plates of his shoulder blades, and the cold was supposed to drip down either side of his spine and straighten it. It was supposed to turn his bones to river stones, his muscles to silk, his blood to hot iron, all smoothness and strength. Each breath was meant to hollow him and hallow him and make him into something whole.
Voss watched Steph work for a moment before rapping on the door frame. He figured it was time for a little interruption. The other boy had been bent over his books every time Voss walked down the hall in the last four hours. Voss might have even believed that he had fallen asleep on them, head on fist, other hand wrapped instinctively around his pencil like a child’s comfort, except that Steph had the constitution of a mountain. He was the only one Voss knew who had never fallen asleep in Master Kiddel’s first-thing-after-lunch history-of-stone-and-sand-and-other-earth-old-mindless-subjects lectures. Still as he was, long as he’d been sitting there, there wasn’t a book on earth that could send him to sleep.
Steph didn’t move when Voss knocked.
Voss glanced at the wooden door frame, then at his knuckles still poised beside them. He was sure he had knocked, but the longer that it rested in memory, the less he remembered the sound, and he began to doubt it.
Steph turned a page. The paper crinkled, loud, or maybe just loud in the silence that stretched as Voss tried to remember if he’d already announced himself.
Toar strode in through the gate and sank onto the steps behind the house, falling back on his elbows immediately. He pressed himself into the cold stone, sweating, his rough shirt stuck to the sharp edges of his shoulders. Stretching his spine, he tilted his face up to catch the warmth off the sun, bent his back over the straight line of the step behind him and held it, too long, as if the ache of pulling himself back to comfort was too much to consider. Sitting there, he took four full breaths, and didn’t move.
Across from him, Alek sat under the shade of one of their father’s several wide-leafed trees. The garden continued lazily behind him, pretty and green this late in the spring. The flowers were holding out for warmer weather, but there was still something sweet coming out of the leaves. It wandered on the wind, lightly filling the space between the house and the yard’s back wall. The breeze chattering in the greenery hushed the sounds of the street on the other side, secluding the place, and making the air all the sweeter.
Holding his book against his knee, Alek watched his brother over the top of the page. “Long day?” Alek asked.
Late afternoon sunlight held a rough weight which always woke Toar better than a sand-slap to the face. He threw his arm over his eyes, to keep the light out, but it wasn’t enough. The heat still clung to his skin, and stuck his bedshirt to his shoulders with a thin layer of sweat. Another moment, and Toar threw back the covers with a snap.
Sliding his feet to the floor, he waited for his bones to settle back into their proper order, then stood. He felt too tall, his feet too far away from his head. But, he reminded himself, he was tall. He must have been mostly all right.
He pulled off his bedshirt, and slipped into a clean shirt and breeches, before stumbling out of his room. He let gravity drag his feet down the long staircase to his white main hall. Then he hung on the railing to turn himself toward the narrow door beneath the stairs that led into the kitchen.
Inside, Jaera was sitting at the square table in the center of the room. Her head was bent over a book laid flat in front of her. Resting on one elbow, she had one hand buried in her long, dark hair to hold it out of her eyes. Toar stopped just inside the door and looked at her.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Jaera finished the line she was on, then tilted her head up toward him, still resting on her hand. She didn’t say anything, but she smiled.
Sleep clung to his body like a caking of dirt from the grave. He shoved his blankets back, before he even really woke, because they clung to him too, a too-heavy, too-thick, too-warm, too-close skin that he threw to the floor. He was sweating, and the cool air of the room was the sweetest relief. He sat, cooled his back, set his feet on the floor to stand, and then didn’t. He was too heavy still, all legs and arms, and solid bones. He thought there should have been hollow places in him somewhere – in his chest where he filled his lungs with air at least – but every inch of him was filled in with iron. He hung his head, held it in his hands and braced his elbows on his knees. And he sat.
He waited until his skin no longer felt like it had been left in the coals overnight. Then he himself on the headboard and pushed himself to his feet.
The door to his room creaked when he opened it. He had never noticed before how thick the wood was, or how hard it leaned on its hinges. He hadn’t counted the stairs before either, but now he did. Thirty-two steps, each one of them feeling like he was falling off a short cliff between him and the kitchens. He stopped at the doorway, because they were too warm too, and he leaned his shoulder against the outside wall, poking his head inside.
Ave must have known the constant motion of a heartbeat since infancy, all the pieces of that knotted muscle refusing to drop into stillness. She must have known the race of her own blood, felt it tumble, twist, and turn, without ever sinking to sit, stay, or stop. She must have known how her lungs refused to rest, empty or full, but continually pushed and pulled.
All those things that babes felt and feared and figured in the raw air, she must have understood – that these bodies they’d been granted were meant to move – and she ran.
Kessa fell in the water once, when she was small. She was walking the coast on the east side of the city, half the size of the rocks she was climbing, and she slipped. The water was deep, catching her with kindness and slowing her before she could strike anything. She never touched bottom, spread her hands to either side and couldn’t feel the boulder she thought she’d seen from above. Her hands slipped in cool water that hugged her like air, pulled on her arms and legs like gravity. She kicked out, spun in slow motion, and touched nothing.
The water was muddy, too muddy to show the daylight above her. She thrashed, the air in her lungs seeming to shrink. She turned, twisted, spun, and for long, long seconds there was no up, there was no down, there was no left or right or in or out. She kicked and moved and did not move, lost somewhere in the dull nothing of water creeping in against her skin.
Panic snaked into her lungs, crowding out the air and tightening her chest, while her head stayed somewhere above it, calmly swearing that there had to be a way to know which way to go. And she spun.
Kessa spun the same way inside Zackery’s instructions.
The hour glass sat on the other end of the table, dropping sand with the kind of arrogant indifference that only inanimate objects can achieve. The world spun gently around it, unable to change the hour glass’s attitude, except maybe, with a sudden violence, to make the sand fall a little faster, and shorten the leash on its own activities. Teiden sat at the other end of the table and tried to cultivate the same nonchalance. he read his book, turning each page carefully, as if the slowness of his movements could convince the time piece that he didn’t care and make it abandon its rush.
The hour glass continued to drop sand. Teiden glanced at it, and thought he saw the sand sputter on a scoff.
If he turned the paper sideways, he could make out a school of tiny fish swimming out of some seaweed. Turned the other way, it was the rough tentacles of a jelly fish. Turned right side up, the stark and ocean-grown masts of a sunken ship. Not that any of that helped Galen read it.
He’d been standing in front of the posting too long, he realized, hearing a stifled snort behind him. He tried to make his eyes scan the page like it was words instead of artwork, like it was just taking him a long time to decipher. Like he wasn’t some empty-skulled deckhand trying to con men better and smarter than him into believing he could read. Then he turned to go, leaving his eyes on the paper until his first step tore him away. He didn’t look at the other sailors over his shoulder. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he walked down the docks until he couldn’t hear them anymore, then finally looked up.
He was almost to the ship. His ship, he tried to correct himself, but he hadn’t sailed with her yet, hadn’t learned her moods and her turns, so she just seemed another ship bobbing at anchor. Taller than most. Belled and beautiful polished wood with a wide flat deck and an elegant lady carved into the bow. He looked at her like artwork too, a little too long, and he glanced over his shoulder.
There was no one there to snicker this time. Galen let out a long breath and started down the docks again.