The breeze sank to the floor as soon as it came through the windows, rolling stubbornly across the length of the room. Its persistence chilled the wooden floor while most of the room held onto the day’s summer warmth. The sun had gone down hours ago, and the stars glittered through the wavering glass. Karleigh leaned her shoulder against the door frame and looked at the white light stretching across the room.
Her door was barely open far enough to let her through, but she had slid her shoulders into the gap, and then waited.
It was so strange to hear nothing in the middle of the night.
There was something strange and magical about being in school after all the other students went home. The halls always echoed – made a few dozen kids sound like a rhinoceros riot – but the echoes hollowed and hallowed with only one set of feet tapping along the floor.
The halls seemed a lot wider than they did a week ago. Thalia stretched out her arm and brushed her fingertips along the wall. Because she could. Because no one would be running up behind her to make her tuck her elbows against her sides and let them pass. She put her foot down lazily, purposefully walked a wavering line. Because she could do that too. No one would complain about her getting in their way.
And then, on a moment, being out of the way didn’t seem so sweet.
Thalia dropped her arm.
Home was a strange word, Zain realized – a stranger place – and he couldn’t mark it on a map.
He had lived in two houses. Standing in one, he stuffed clothes carelessly into his bag, smiled, said, “I’m going home for a few weeks.” No one misunderstood and, bag strung on his shoulder, he sauntered out.
Standing in the other, the word came just as easily: “I’ll be going home soon.” And he was the only one who blinked at it.
Home, he realized, was always the other place. Too many years of running between them and home was wherever he was not.
His arm ached. And – ash – it hurt.
It felt like someone slid an iron pin into the socket of his shoulder, spreading the bones just too far apart. There was another pin pressed up through the back of his elbow, and another along side the knobbed bone on the outside of his wrist. Then they’d linked a chain between each pin, under the skin and over the flesh. Sometimes it jangled as he moved and sometimes it just pulled and shook, too long, reaching for his neck and tangling in his fingers. His joints were too large. His muscles too slack. His arm was too heavy.
He rolled his shoulder back, the bones popping along his back, idly searching for the pop that would slip everything back into place. He’d never found it before, but it was there somewhere, to beyond that last shift.
“Hurting again?” Tiria asked.
Kadelyn paused in the hall as she neared her rooms, listening to an echo from behind her door that didn’t match her footsteps. Noach slowed behind her. She could feel him glance down at her, catch the look on her face and drop into immediate silence. The echoes continued, and the shuffling behind her door sounded clearly in the open hall.
Immediately, Noach stepped in front of her and put a hand to the sword on his hip. He glanced behind them, sighting down the empty hall for anything they might have missed as they walked past. Kadelyn listened closely, trying to still even her own breath. Whoever was inside was slowing as well, as if he’d heard them coming. Silence settled in heavily, like ice, echoing everything that didn’t belong.
Slowly, Noach turned back to the door. “Wait here,” he said, and gently pressed her toward the stone wall. She straightened her spine and pressed her hands to the stones, watching him slide his sword out of its sheath. Holding the blade between him and the door, he eased the latch open. Kadelyn watched his face as the light from the room slid across it. His eyes turned with the door, scanning the room the instant it was revealed. After a moment, he stepped inside.
“Good evening, Lord Brance,” he said evenly.
Sleep was a strange concept.
Lay down. Numb yourself in comfort, soft mattress, deep pillow, blanket, warmth. Shut your eyes. Somehow shut up your ears and your nose and your skin as well, until the space around you is missing, and all you have is the breadth of your skull. Numb that too, and lose every cognition, until you are nowhere, and nothing, but a body pulling in air and pushing it out, a heart beating to a clock instead of a thought.
Lidie hadn’t been walking long, but the way the ground rolled and the trees closed in, it felt like she’d left a whole world behind and opened a new one. The trees crowded her for a few minutes, then broke open again to scattered grassland and a the clear blue plate of the lake. The water carried a gentle breeze, tossing it up to the tree tops where it rattled and rustled and only played at breaking free. Looking up at the shifting leaves, Lidie pushed on, left the trees behind entirely.
There was a rock cliff, hanging over the water, every boulder worn smooth. She considered it for a moment – its gaps and slants – then started down it. She placed her feet carefully, but not because she needed to. The stone was solid beneath her, each ledge flat and easy to work her way along. But she couldn’t shake the knowledge that she was working her way out over the water, that the soft wind had bad days and could change its mind to push her in. At the end of the cliff, she sat, knees to her chest, face up, hair brushed back by the air.
And she pulled in a deep breath, listening.
I don’t like going to my grandparent’s church. I don’t like stepping toward it and catching that first cool breath under the steeple shadow. It towers over the street, a long stone-faced hall with a tower at the front. The windows are dull from the outside, muted stained colors inside stark lead lines that always give the impression of holding something in rather than giving the building room to breathe. It looks like a fortress. Stepping through the doors, though, I’ve always felt exposed.
The ceiling is too high. The walls are too far apart, and painted into fragile pieces of art that can’t be touched, so can’t hold anything out. Every line of the building is gilt and polished and carved and glorified. I walk down the aisles and feel like I’ve slipped inside a faberge egg. Every surface is painted, then hung in gold. I sit in a pew, and there is an odd impression that I have to stay still. My usual easy seat would be too rough on the redwood bench.
And I feel small.
Tamir didn’t have a green thumb, but she could follow instructions. Leave the plants with the tall blue blooms and the plants with the wide silky leaves. Don’t touch the plants with the straight stalks, because they hurt. Tear out anything with little yellow flowers, any low tiny-leaved ramblers, or anything vining on the ground. Water the low plants every day, or they’ll die. Never water the tall wide-faced flowers, or they’ll die. It wasn’t rough work, it paid enough to fill her stomach and touch her pocket, and most of it made sense.
Except for the careful instructions about the vines along the south wall of the garden. All Tamir wanted to do was rip them out by the roots, but they had to be watered each morning, then checked to be sure no insect or animal had burrowed inside. They were woven so tightly they hid the stones behind them and choked out any interloping vegetation, so at least she didn’t need to pay them that attention, but she didn’t want to touch them at all. They were too rich a green, and they twisted together like they were teaching themselves to braid. The leaves were pretty, heart-shaped and thick. White flowers tumbled down in lines, like only a few vines bothered to decorate themselves, but it made them look like art. But the smell of them was like her least favorite spice.
The symbol was tattooed starkly against the back of her wrist, and it looked like it still hurt her. It was fully healed, flat black on flat tanned skin, no angry red from fresh art, and the other girl still held her arm stiffly. Like she was aware of it. Like she was resisting looking at it. Like she hated it.
Ryane looked down at the piece of leather wrapped around her own wrist. That was the piece of skin that the symbol was supposed to be set in. That was how the Clans sorted out their own from the land-dwellers and each Clan from another. A snake on the band here; he belongs to the Kuros. A hawk there; she belongs to the Isander. An open-face moon; he’s Demei. A jumping fish; he’s on the wrong side of an ocean, but he belongs to the Redniers.
A blank wristband, no symbol at all, she belonged with the Clans, but not to them. Ryane looked at the blank leather on her arm, suddenly aware of the stiff way she was holding her arm. Like she hated it.