There was oil on the water, slick, and thin, and adding an unsettling sweetness below the rugged salt that the ocean laid over everything. In the near dark, the oil only showed on the water as a wrongness, a sheen that dripped off the oars, and a shine that came too easily in the last light of day.
Ahead, the oil burned. The current dragged it into long stripes, crackling orange and yellow, cowing the powerful water beneath it which should have been able to smoother it on a moment. Another wrongness, and all of it eclipsed by the unnerving cough and rattle of timber finally giving way.
The baby was coming soon. Not in the next few hours, but Chaela knew it was no longer a matter of weeks, but days. A handful of days and she would hear him for the first time, instead of just feeling him and all the sharp corners of his elbows and knees.
She put her hand on her stomach, fingers spread wide to cover as much of the baby as possible, and tried to remind herself to breathe. It had been nine full months, but just a few days more was still too soon.
Chaela had felt the baby’s company for a long time now. He liked to kick. He nudged her and moved with her, woke her and seemed always curious about the exact number of ribs she owned. She knew him already, had named him so long ago. She wasn’t ready to let any of this go.
And the last time…
Chaela stopped that thought as soon as she found it. She had had it too many times before, and another repetition would solve nothing, support nothing.
The baby kicked. Chaela winced, and then she smiled.
Galen was not home when Tarra came back at the end of her work day. He was supposed to be at the table, bread and cheese and yesterday’s happy find of fresh carrots and zuchinni spread on the table for dinner. Instead, the house was dark as Tarra approached, and she spent ten minutes lighting the lamps and calling his name in every room upstairs and down, looking for him.
She exhausted every cranny that a seven-year-old could stuff himself into. Then she stood at the base of the stairs, listening for him. All she heard was her heart beat.
He was not home.
And the house was too empty.
Wrapping herself back into her coat, she snuffed the lamp, and ran outside. She knocked on one neighbor’s door, then the others. Neither Arri nor Ceddir had seen him. Ceddir who usually sat at his front window all afternoon putting in hems and patches, hadn’t even seen him come home.
Aymee went very still when Vardan entered the hall. There were yards between them, but she went skeleton-stiff, fleshless at the sight of him. Vardan slowed, hovered in the doorway for half a moment. He hadn’t expect any kind of fear when he arrived. He looked down, counting out the floor stones between them. Slowly, he approached.
Her hands knotted in her skirts, and the rich, blue cloth whispered in complaint.
At a respectful distance, Vardan stopped. It felt strange. Once, he would have walked right up beside her, shoulders almost touching. He might have just smiled, and it would have been enough of a greeting for them. Now, he looked down again, bowed low. “My lady,” he said.
Aymee still didn’t move. “Vardan?” she whispered. “How are you here?”
The church was built in three aisles. The wide center stripe was splashed with sunlight from high windows with benches tucked around the edges. People sat or stood, talking quietly in the calm. A row of stone arches marked out aisles on either side, shadowed and cool. The walls were washed white so the lines of black ink were stark even in the dim light, spelling out the names of the dead. The crowd there moved, slow steps in an ever-winding circle around the building as they searched the walls for family and friends. They whispered their conversations. It sounded like a breeze had snuck past the doors, and the people let it tug them around the room, not because it was that strong, but because they were that polite.
Zain leaned his shoulder against the wall just inside the front doors, arms crossed over his chest, and watched. Passing him, one of the priests looked at him reprovingly. He was blocking the door and prayer had never been a spectator sport. He murmured a quick apology and kept scanning the crowd.
It took him a long time to finally spot her, standing at the back corner of the church on the right side. She was alone, reading the wall, while the rest of the crowd moved around her. Dressed in a long dark gown and standing still, she blended into the dim lighting, though he didn’t think that was her intention. Her blonde hair was curled and pinned, falling elegantly down the back of her head. Her gown was rich, embroidered at the edges and the skirt hung in perfect folds around her. She looked like she expected to be seen, even as she quietly ignored everyone around her. It was exactly what Zain imagined from a woman who had been raised at court.
Kynbessne had left so many things behind: A whole house with its stone face and artful fence, canopy bed and pony in the stable yard. Then jewelry traded in for more precious things like bread and roofs. The shoes that had never been much good for walking, and clothes that she outgrew and couldn’t afford. Finally, the things that she’d never believed she could sell: a necklace she’d always worn like silver skin, a book her father had loved and scrawled in, a scarf of her mother’s that had seemed to warm her more than the fabric suggested.
All of them traded in and stacked up as coins in her pocket that Kynbessne also left behind in an uneven trail of crumbs. She could never pick them up again, and if she followed them back, they wouldn’t take her home. That was the first thing she’d lost, without even realizing her last moment inside it.
She was awake. Bran saw her shift at the back of the cave when he entered and wished she’d still been asleep. Immediately, he hated the thought. It had been eighteen hours since he’d brought her in here. If she’d still been flat on the ground, he’d have to worry about a concussion.
But he wouldn’t have had to worry about her escaping.
Bran dropped his pack just inside the mouth of the cave, stripped out of his coat and his sword belt. Then he strode across to her. She pulled as far away from him as she could. Bran just reached down and tugged on the ropes around her hands, testing their knots to make sure they’d hold around the protruding root he’d tied her to.
Straightening up, he paused. “I’m not going to touch you,” he said.
Her dark eyes narrowed, turning her expression from anxious to angry. She turned her head so that the bruise and gash from where he’d knocked her out were visible – maybe on purpose, maybe not.