In the twilight, Lord Tiernan’s camp moved languidly. The neatness of the tent lines gently hedged in the growing shadows from cook fires and torches. Canvas rustled, flaps opening and closing. Charcoal smoke drifted lazily. Ahead of Anie, one of the soldiers leading them encouraged them to keep moving, but her tone was unhurried. The whole crowd of them leaned lightly into their steps, looking around, talking quietly. Anie watched the men and women drifting between their tents, breathed in deep to catch the warmth of venison and broth boiling for supper.
And Momma leaned over one of the cookpots, long hair tied back with a single string, falling over one shoulder.
Anie stopped just where she was.
Calleigh rested her hand on the bulge of her stomach, pressing heat into the latest ache from the baby’s kicking. It was almost time. She was sure she was stretched almost to her limit. Her skin felt thin to her, and it was her skin under her palm… but it was someone else’s foot, elbow, shoulder, head. Some stranger’s, maybe. She hadn’t seen their face yet.
She rubbed over the spot, feeling the baby turn, maybe press back at her for a moment, and took a breath. Not deep. There wasn’t much space in her for a deep breath these days.
“Did you love me before I was born?” she murmured.
Mom taught Shae to play the piano when she was seven and her short fingers were the only thing that got in her way. Sitting still, she watched the white and black keys and everything she saw on them was painted in the same distinct colors. She heard the way notes fit together, and if her pulse wasn’t her own perfect metronome, she faked it well enough to fool even herself.
She mimicked Mom until she didn’t have to anymore. Then she played as if she had never learned, but always known. One hand pulled out melody, the other harmony, like white rabbits from a hat. When her timing stumbled, she just muttered about wanting to stretch her fingers and kept going.
When I was five, I pulled Mom to the piano, grinning, jumping up and down on the end of her arm because of what I figured I had stolen, spying over Shae’s shoulder. I played for her with one hand, half the right notes with all the wrong timing in between.
“Ta-da!” I shouted at the end, with my hands over my head, and she grinned back at me.
“Did I do it right?” I asked.
Silas was rarely awake in time to see the sun come up, let alone up, dressed, and walking outside in the crisp last moments of darkness. The air was chillier than he thought it should be, but it had been less than half an hour since he had been asleep under a stack of warm blankets as thick as his arm. It could have been the comparison that made him tuck his chin into the collar of his coat, not the actual bite in the fall air.
It was quieter than he expected too. He had never been so aware of the pattern of the pavement on the main streets, but without a crowd, or even a single passerby, the rectangular, cross-hatched bricks were the most interesting thing in sight. All the doors they passed were closed, as were the windows, except for the few that had swung half open in a forgotten way, like they had bounced when someone slammed them shut. The seller’s carts that took up space on certain street corners were now only boarded up boxes, and while the breeze touched his hair idly, there was nothing hanging out for it to toy with. He expected an echo of his heels at least, but even that noise seemed to be missing, dulled into nothing in the city still asleep.
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.
Cerestine’s kitchen was too large for just her. Standing in front of one of the long work tables, she rolled dough into a thin sheet, flour spread in a wide circle around her while three feet of table on either end were still shining clean. Her brown hair was swept back and knotted elegantly at the back of her head. The streaks of silver at her temples ornamented either side of her head and threaded through the twists like ribbons. Her apron covered her dark, embroidered skirt, while she left her bleached white shirt bare. The fine flour didn’t even show against it, though it coated her hands from fingertip to wrist and halfway up her arms. The oven behind her spread heat down the length of the room, the pit large enough to house a dozen large loaves, but she worked alone, rolling only one.
The whole house was too large for her. Fifty rooms spread through three floors, and her every step echoed inside them, alone.
Loris wavered on the doorstep, unsure if the older woman knew she was there, or how she should properly announce herself if she didn’t. Cerestine was cutting her flattened dough into strips, still connected at one end. Her head was bent, and when she was finished with the knife, she threw it carelessly to one side, and didn’t look up as she began to braid the pieces together.
“My lady?” Loris began, hesitantly, sure that Cerestine would look up in shock no matter how gently she spoke.
Terius faltered on the first step inside the open stone hall. “You’re still awake?” he said, seeing his cousin, Zain sitting at the rich redwood piano situated in the far corner. He looked a little disappointed, but not all that surprised, as if he’d hoped that Zain would have had the better sense of the two of them, but knew that he didn’t.
“Too full,” Zain said, patting his stomach, with one hand still idly pressing the ivory keys.
It had been hours since they’d eaten, but his mother’s welcome dinner was nothing short of culinary excellence. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to him. She was a woman who could have paid for someone else’s talent in her kitchen, but chose to complete the hot and time-consuming chore herself. Because she liked it. And anyone who enjoyed themselves in a task like that usually put in enough practice to be very good.
But Zain didn’t remember the food from when he was small, sitting around her table every night. He thought, maybe, it was just that he hadn’t yet been out on the ocean to learn about the rough nutrition of months aboard ship. Or maybe, it just hadn’t left an impression because he had never known anything else. Or because he was just too young. But he had taken a single bite of his juicy, pink-in-the-center, two-fingers-thick steak that night, and decided he was going to stuff himself.
Terius ran a hand over his own stomach, and nodded sympathy. Coming across the hall, he dropped onto the piano bench beside Zain. He sat with his back to the piano, and leaned forward over his knees.
Aymee’s headache had settled in again.
It was not a sharp thing, threatening to crack her skull in two, or one of the fierce rumbling ones that reminded her that her skull had once been a half-dozen joined plates and attempted to shake them apart. It was simply dull. It ached. It sat still behind her ears and quietly convinced her that she was tired.
She sat in her chair, the city’s accounts in front of her, and she wore out her work slowly. Spine straight, she rested the weight of her skull on the tips of her fingers, and quietly tried to counter the headache with the gentle suggestion that it might not exist.
“Are you all right, my lady?” her bodyguard asked, standing at the wall behind her. She shifted at her post, but Aymee didn’t move at all.
Toar’s mother had always said that holding the shield right would feel like sinking into the hot space between stars and finding that the dark bed between was fitted out just for his shoulders. Like standing between mountains and finding he could look their peaks in the eye. Like finally realizing that his body really was made of rolling, unstoppable ocean water, wrapped in delicate, durable skin.
And he’d been waiting for it. Breathing in and out, ignoring aches and pinches in his shoulders, head down, eyes shut, hands spread palm out, he was waiting for it.
Toar was sweating, but he felt like someone had dropped ice down his back, under the skin, dripping down on either side of his spine. It was cold, and he could never figure out why he never shuddered under it. The chill perched in his shoulders, kicking idly off his collarbone before it rolled down his arms, wrapped muscle and bone in ice-cold silk and swept downward to his hands. Under the thin skin of his forearms, it actually began to bite and then, at his palms, it flared to dripping heat.