He was not an innocent man. He didn’t have to be. It had been half a decade since he had taken law or morality into consideration. Maybe longer. Maybe much longer. It was hard to remember exactly when those hard edges had stopped eating into him, worrying him out of sleep, hedging him in.
The problem with having scarily brilliant friends was that it made surprises… complicated. Complicated and egregiously unnecessary. Aderon liked nothing better than the puzzle, the steady collection of found things that clicked and snapped together to outline weighted secrets. He was never able to keep his hands still, but worse was the way his eyes picked things up, turned them over, and abandoned them when they had emptied out for him. Cefin never grinned so hard a gift behind a door, as he did at a monster that he had guessed would be waiting. He liked the knowing, the awareness in the midst of an oblivious crowd.
They had never let Esyllt keep a surprise. She had battled the two of them, since they met at the age of six, for every secret. Each loss was a lesson, teaching her the hiding places for secrets thin as paper, and the secrets brittle as pyrite, and secrets bright like sunlight on ice. Each win was a victory that built along her spine.
When she thought about it – and she did, often enough, when she was alone in the dark – she thought it was a little unfair. When she won, really won, they had no idea there had even been a fight. But she had stopped caring a long time ago.
And this secret, the one itching between her shoulder blades and aching in the knuckles of her hands, needed its integrity more than anything else she had held. It was new, a bright thing only a few hours old. That might have been its one grace.
Newness was a hiding place she had learned to love, for all the frustration of it only being temporary. For a small precious while, it was a fortress.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.
Alex thought that it wasn’t really his fault. And the others repeated their conviction that it was.
He had been very small when he first learned about liars, about the half-truths that they could tell and the way they could spread their words into unwary mouths, so that the lie was repeated with real honesty under the syllables. He had been less than ten years old when he stopped believing what he was told and stopped believing in truths that could be easily stated.
He had been only a little bigger when he was taught that liars could be right as well. The sharp twist in that had bitten him so much deeper, and from time to time, he remembered it in better detail than he would have liked.
Vardan shut his eyes when he heard the key in the lock. After years in the dark, he’d earned the kind of vision that turned the shifting black of a windowless room into clear shades of gray, and he wasn’t willing to give it up for a few moments of the torchlight in the hall. Coins clinked a steady rhythm. Someone stepped into the room. The door shut behind him. The man shuffled forward, searching for the opposite wall maybe.
“Vardan?” he asked.
Slowly, Vardan opened his eyes. He didn’t bother moving, seated on the floor, the corner supporting his shoulders. Everard stood like a blind man, one hand to the wall, staring ahead.
“Still here,” Vardan said.
“Don’t make deals with dead men,” his mother might have advised, if he was this same kind of brilliant instigator as a child. He hasn’t listened to motherly advice in years, though. Not since he started to play with bombs and guns and secrets. Not since he started trading explosives and disarming words. Not since he killed a man.
She would have told him not to do that too.
She wasn’t there to see it, or maybe, like me, she would have turned away and winced and tried to convince herself that those weren’t his hands. Maybe, like me, she would have cried and hoped and waited for him to explain how this wasn’t a crime. She would have waited fifteen years to even hear him whisper that he’d done it.