He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. He cracked a grin at the back of their heads. It always pleased Omri immensely to watch his little magicks work on them. Dressed in a bright yellow coat that caught the sun and made it jealous, in blue and purple pants, in boots almost too white to exist, they were still compelled not to notice. It was freedom in every magnitude, and Omri loved it.
He landed on the ground with a thud that should have halted their work, and they ignored him. He sauntered across the manor’s overgrown lawn, pants and long grass hissing and hushing. He whistled a little. No one cared, but when he passed just behind a boy bent double to rip weeds from the edge of the path, there was a small shudder in the boy’s spine.
They were watching Catia’s fangs again as she spoke. Their gazes drifted down when she opened her mouth, and they met her eyes again on a pause, a little too purposefully. Over and over again. Catia touched one tooth with her tongue and glanced uselessly at the mirror behind their little table. She could guess at how each fang must cut her smile, twist her expression. But she had never seen them.
Before they had sunk in below her other teeth, her reflection had started to smear. In low light, she was nothing but an annoying smudge. The sort of thing that made her want to spit on the glass and scrub it with her cuff. In brighter lights she was a shadow that should not exist. Disconcerting. Stomach-turning, and impossible.
She had avoided daylight for months, just to keep herself believing that she was more than that shade in the glass. And to keep the others from seeing the strange way her skin bent the light even under their eyes.
And yet, the most irritating aspect of coming back from the dead was that no one believed she hadn’t gone evil.
Catia liked breathing. There was something pleasant about the liquid feeling of a breath, pulled gently over her tongue, warmed in her chest, pressed back out. It was soothing, the gentle tug on muscle. It rooted her into the world, with the sweetness, sharpness, spice, sourness hanging in the air.
But she didn’t need to breathe, and just now, it seemed selfish.
The crash and roar of the rockslide had shocked her out of two or three breaths. The sudden darkness and the ringing in her ears made her forget for another long moment. She blinked, and waited, perfectly still. The ringing died down. Her eyes slowly turned the darkness into gray, shifting shadows. Fynn’s breaths began to echo in the newly shortened space.
“Catia?” Fynn called.
She took in air, just to respond. “I’m here.”
“Where is your human?” William asked.
Clarissa shot him a look as she reached the top of the hill, making it clear that she had noticed his lack of greeting, but she said nothing. She let the look linger to further impress upon him that the word he should have used was “friend.” Everyone was trying to shake off the old phrasing and lose the quiet implications that humans were things they could own.
William blinked back at her, expression unchanged as he leaned against the side of a rock twice his height. Unmoving, and as square-shouldered as he was, he managed to make it look like he was supporting it instead of the other way around.
“She’s coming,” Clarissa said. She held in a sigh. She hated it when her best glares didn’t even leave a scratch. “I know there’s no real argument about who is faster – our kind or theirs – but it turns out, when you wake a human up at midnight and ask her to hike a mountain, the answer is quite definitive.”
Kadelyn knocked on the door, but wasn’t sure her polite tapping would be heard over the conversation and motion inside. Her little sister, Ineli was moving through the rooms at a speed that was unusual for her, but still easy-going for most. Cloth rustled, drawers opened and closed, lids creaked open or clicked shut, and Ineli chattered happily with her bodyguard, his deep voice more often dominating the conversation than hers. The door muffled their voices just enough that Kadelyn could amiably decide not to hear what they were saying, and she knocked a second time.
The conversation didn’t stop when Ineli moved to the door, and the girl was laughing when she opened it.
“Hello, Kadie,” she said. She dipped a curtsy out of habit, and held onto an easy, bright smile. Behind her, the room was warm and yellow from the light spilling in through the open windows. The breeze touched a cool hand to everything it could flick or flip, but most of the room and its comfortable circle of padded chairs seemed weighted down with clothing and books. Dresses and scarves and stacks of books striped the couch, the padded chairs, and the floor in deep, rich colors.
Kadelyn smiled back at Ineli without thought, glancing over the disarray. “Are you packing or just redecorating?” she asked.
Ineli’s smile broke into a grin.
“Packing,” she said. “I promise.”
Rell had mixed feelings about the attic.
On the one hand, he was sure there were more interesting things up there than any place beneath it. The lean little house seemed to enjoy the come and go of boarders, seeming always infinitely friendly to strangers, and stand-offish to anyone who had lived under its roof for more than half a year. His father and him had lived there forever, sharing the biggest room on the ground floor, but no one else seemed to last long in the four rooms above them. Every time they left, they left things behind, and his father boxed, bagged, or otherwise packed them up, and shoved them up into the attic, just in case they came back.
On the other hand, the attic was four stories above ground, higher than any other house on the block, and the windows showed it clearly. The trapdoor with the ladder beneath it always seemed like just a giant hole in the floor when he got up above it. On the other side of the attic, there really was a hole, broken in some interesting event that Rell had never gotten the full story on. Standing in the attic, Rell was always aware of the holes. Without meaning to, he would glance at one of them, and suddenly imagine the bone-numbing sensation of falling through one of them. His stomach twisted, and he wondered what kind of brain he was keeping that so easily slipped on that kind of thought.
The first thing that she ever said to him was, “It’s a shame about your face.”
Zain had received worse, as far as greetings went. She hadn’t sworn, she hadn’t included an exacting right hook, and there was something about her tilted smile that slid it more toward sincerity than insult.
So, Zain smiled back.
“Thanks,” he said. He leaned his side against the bar, set his elbow on top, and kicked one foot lazily behind the other. “It was a bad day for me when they outlawed looking this good.” He had to hold his smile back from stretching into a grin when she laughed in surprise.
“Oh?” she said. She finished wiping out a mug and set it on the lower shelf on the other side of the bar. “So, that shiner was just a good friend of yours helping you stay out of jail?”
Lediah’s Name Day passed in all the usual ways.
The night before was almost sleepless, and the first few hours of the morning passed between nervous shakes and stifled yawns. As she ate breakfast, she tapped her foot so quickly against the kitchen floor that her mother reached out and stilled her knee with a heavy hand, then stilled the rest of her with a wordless look. Lediah glanced around the table at the rest of her family, and swallowed her rice and broth as best she could.
The tests started mid-morning, deep inside a square stone building that felt as if had been constructed to hold people down to the earth. The walls were plain. The ceiling was high. The windows and doors were scarce. Lediah felt as if she had walked into a cave, the way her voice and motions echoed in the empty space. Her judges felt twice as tall, the way they spoke in the reverberating air. The sun continued its pace in secret, counting time somewhere she couldn’t see. Everything seemed to stretch and press in on her. When they finally announced that she’d passed, she was sweating, exhausted, and muscles slung loose with relief.
She walked out in the daylight, surprised at the shape of the shadows. Then she saw her parents. She smiled. Her momma beamed. Her father grinned. They both wrapped her in a hug, and walked her out past the front wall. Her teacher, Anxo had passed just before them, but had already disappeared, as he was supposed to. He’d left behind her new name, scrawled across the grey stone in clean white chalk. Lediah read it as she walked, facing it until her neck couldn’t bend any farther. Her mother and father read it, and said nothing aloud. The rest of her family followed after, just as silent.
If it was still in fashion to name blades, Briditte was pretty sure Hanna would have named her sword Lady Sparkle. Or something worse.
It was a good sword, just a little leaner than Briditte liked in her own hand. It had a delicate curve, a sharp edge, and a soft gleam that made it frightening in the dark. When it came down, it gave a sound like a sweet singer reaching for a note almost beyond hearing. It looked like a silver feather that had developed too large an attitude to stay on the bird. Briditte liked a blade that might have been a tree-trunk club in a past life, but there was nothing wrong with Hanna’s.
Until she saw it draped across Hanna’s knees, lying like a river of steel that knew it exactly how pretty it was, glittering in the sunlight.
Elodie’s mark was wrapping up his conversation. He straightened in his chair, pushed himself back from his table, kept his eyes on his partner, but Elodie could see his attention shift. The last few words to tumble out of his partner’s mouth were less important than the rest of the room. The path to the door was suddenly more interesting than the drink in his hand. He drained the mug in one swig, set it down on the table and didn’t touch it again.
Elodie shifted as well. She needed to get outside before him, if the tail was going to start well. It would be best to get half way down the block before he left the building, just to earn the distance she needed to disappear before she started following him.
Glancing around the taproom, Elodie looked for her best excuse to leave.