Sunrise was an acquired taste. A bitter wash of gray on the horizon, scrubbing away the heavy night sky. A light brush of pink, and purple, and yellow, sweet almost to the point of cloying after the weight of the scouring that came before. A following brightness, fading through the last of the stars. Light that sept gently into blood and bone and breath, bright as mint. All of it drawn out, one insistent moment after another, to make it palatable.
Brance blinked into the growing light. He yawned. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and his shoulders ached dully. Every thought was slow and flighty as a breeze, and constantly interrupted by the notion that shutting his eyes would be very comfortable. Laying down would be pleasant as well, but not necessary. He could sleep just where he was. And yet, after drinking in too many dawns, one more was hard to turn down.
After midnight, Tashel lost some of his stillness. His gaze, usually so steady a thing that Jule could balance her earth on it, drifted toward the floor or flicked to the ceiling in the middle of a thought. As broad and muscled as he was in daylight, he suddenly leaned his elbows against tabletops, and chair backs, and his knees. Then, in some silences that seemed to wrap him tighter than the others, he would walk a coin across his knuckles – roll it, tumble it – showing quick fingers that he would never display otherwise.
Jule watched the flash of metal out of the corner of her eye, holding her own quiet.
She was never sure what she was watching until he caught her eye sharply, hands suddenly still again, pinning her with the knowledge that she had struck one of his secrets.
Midnight struck and her voices would not stop screaming. Unruly things. They were mostly just complaining that the sun was missing, ignorant of, or perhaps just ignoring the fact that if they quieted down and slept through the hours the sun would come back, big and brilliant as ever. Jevva was getting better at numbing herself toward them, but there was still an ache in the base of her bones from the pitch of them. She didn’t think anyone could completely disregard their voices. Not without ghosting, becoming a bit of the dark.
Jevva kept her head down, and her hands deep in her pockets as she worked her way around the last bend in the road before the bridge. The moon had slipped out of the sky last night, its last ice-white sliver winking out into complete blackness, so there was no reason for her to look ahead. She couldn’t see anything but the gray edges of the road a few feet in front of her toes. The river gossiped in its bed as she approached, not caring that she could hear it, or that her ears were burning, safe in its solitude in the middle of the night.
False starlight cracked through the window. Turning everything to shades of steel or ice, it scattered against the floor, cutting dark shadows from the chair legs and the footboard. Kitra glared at it, without meaning to, just trying not to open her eyes to the full force of it. Then she pushed herself up on one elbow and glanced outside at the too-bright street and it’s shadowed edges.
Slipping out of bed, she pulled the blanket with her, holding it around her shoulders. Her feet seemed silent against the floor, but she might have still be half-deaf from sleep, or the night might have swallowed the sound. The stairs didn’t creak. The front door didn’t squeal.
She stepped out onto the front porch, eyeing Jace with what would have been disbelief, if she had been conscious enough to summon it.
“Again?” she asked him, in not quite a whisper.
I was fumbling with the matches when he put a hand on my arm. In the dark, hearing the breeze search through the dry grass, and hiss when it didn’t find what it was looking for, I jumped. The house was two dozen strides behind us, too far away, and the sky felt like it was a thousand miles above my head. I was standing on the soft summer ground, and might as well have been floating between stars for all the security it gave.
“Don’t,” he whispered, pleading, though he obviously didn’t have any of my jitters.
I stared at him. It took me a long time to realize that he couldn’t see my face and gather a readable response. “Why not?” I asked.
“If you light that lamp, the dark…” He hesitated. “… turns into something.”
The four horsemen ride tonight. The bell clanged the call pattern a quarter-hour ago.
Each of the riders was a perfect, still line in their beds, counting, but ready to fall asleep when the clanging was done, until the end of the sequence. Then, they were upright within a breath, shirts pulled over their heads in two, boots on in three. They moved out the door, silent, focused in a way that still felt a little like sleep if dreams could have ever been that sharp.
The night air is crisp, clinging coldly to cheeks and knuckles. The horses are restless when they wake. They shy away from the flash of the bit in the dark, and throw their heads at the feel of the chilled leather saddles. Waiting in the stable feels wrong, but the riders can’t leave until the scribe’s apprentice runs down with the four identical slips of paper. They won’t be ready to go until the messages are hidden, two in coat linings, one in the brim of a hat, one wrapped tight inside a hair stick. Then, they will ride.
There had not been twenty-four hours in her day. Oliane swore it as she stamped her way through the chilling winter night on the way home. She passed in and out of the yellow street lights, the oil already visibly low. From the time she woke up and rushed down to the workshop, she felt as if time were thinner than it should have been. Hour by hour, she tried to stretch it, ignoring noon when it came and went; forgetting lunch, only to gobble toast and cheese down late in the afternoon; letting the sun set and keeping her hands on her tools.
It was nearly midnight now and, exhausted, she had forced herself to close up her kit and turn for home. She would have paid any currency for another half hour of good light and steady eyes.
Coming through the front door, she scrubbed the bottom of her boots against the mat and shut the door on a long breath.
Levin came from the kitchen, leaned his shoulder against the wall while he dried his hands on a towel. “You’re late,” he murmured, kindly.
She tried to remind herself to walk slowly, but she kept slipping into a happy skip. It was too late at night for anyone else to be up to see her. Too late at night to risk tripping and falling on her nose, but too late to really believe in reasonable strides either. It was too late to be awake, but she was. She might have forgotten how to sleep, forgotten the need for sleep, forgotten how to shut her eyes.
The moon had been too full. The white light falling off it had turned the air cool and crisp and clean. The silence had so much blank space, a promise that every word she spoke into the dark would be caught and held and heard. Everyone else shut up into their houses had made then world so wide. She could have run for miles.
Shai hadn’t of course – or she didn’t think she had. She only ever went into the woods in the dark, and shadows were hard to measure. Still, it never took long to work her way into the clearing and wait for all the others to tumble in after her.
From a distance, no one would be able to tell that the towel tied over her skirt was not part of the dress. Kindey assumed that that also meant that a quick look as she wove her way through the morning crowd on Deaver Street would also keep it hidden, and she pushed through on a long stride. If she kept her head high, even she didn’t see the towel, and she pretended she didn’t feel the rough fabric through the long tear.
Besides that, but it was only twenty minutes more until home, and after six hours, that hardly seemed like a stretch.
When Kindey turned off Deaver, she left most of the crowd behind, and hurried a little faster now that there was more space to see her. When she turned onto her own street, she left everyone behind, and she let out a happy breath, before gathering the edges of the towel in either hand with her skirt balled up underneath. Bolting for her front door, Kindey slammed through. She knew there was no hope of sneaking inside.
The sun went down hours before the chill sank in. Summer didn’t let go easily and the grass stayed warm while black spread across the sky like ink in the tide.
The stars came out, glittering, but made of willow wisp, made of frayed cotton, made of torn silk roses… They didn’t turn to crystal until the breeze had chilled and pressed itself into Neera’s cheeks.
“Want to go inside?” Kuri asked. He didn’t move, head still tilted back, but he had balled himself up, arms crossed around his knees.
“Five more minutes,” Neera murmured. She knew the night would slide on silently, but bits of her wondered what cotton turned crystal might become next.