The birds started singing in the trees about the time that Anie had to start watching her feet while she walked. She lost her energy in the space of a yawn, and the growing light spreading through the sky on her right seemed wrong. She blinked heavily. Thea slowed, holding steadier, as Anie started to stumble. The others all pulled in a little closer, as if they might lean against each other.
The sun climbed heedlessly into the sky.
“When do we sleep?” Anie murmured.
“It’s not safe yet,” Chas said. But he was slowing too. The whole crowd ahead of them seemed to be stuttering in their steps. The trees were thinning, the ground evening out, but their feet seemed more and more hesitant to leave the ground.
The fortress had once had five wooden staircases that led up to the top of the wall. The two at the front of the fortress formed twisting, square towers, tucked into the corners. A lot of the beams had held, reinforced on two sides by the stone walls, and the camp had rebuilt them quickly. The stairs at the back criss-crossed the stones more lazily, seated in the center of the rear wall. They’d been rebuilt as well, though they had only been able to rescue half of the old lumber. Two more staircases leaned against the sides of the fortress, and while the one on the right had held as well as the rear staircase, the one on the left was almost gone, scoured away by the wind and rain and snow in the years it had been abandoned. The camp never rebuilt it, but it was still Anie’s favorite way to reach the top of the wall.
The beams had been sunk into the stones once, and now each place they had been, was a square notch large enough for Anie to hold tight to with both hands. Her feet fit all the way to the heels, and she could pull herself up them in their slanted lines without feeling the gap between her and the ground. Forty feet high, and she still felt like she was stepping on solid ground. The first time she’d done it, she might have shaken, but looking down from the top, she’d decided that stairs were for cowards.
Unless Thea was watching. Then stairs were for the very smart ones who knew how to keep themselves out of trouble with their powerful older sisters.
When Anie and Darien returned to the fortress, the crowd inside was thick, but organized. The carts were all backed against the far walls, leaving the center clear for cook fires and canvas tents. The long center hall had been cleaned out and supplies stacked inside. The uneven lines of the caravan camping had been erased by the square edges of the fortress, and everyone walked a little faster.
They found Thea and Mel beside one of the fires. Someone had rolled gray stones about the size of Anie’s head into a circle to hold it in, each one a little too straight edged after the tumble rocks they’d used for the last few weeks. It was easy to see that they were broken pieces of the fortress, long used to lying on the ground.
Mel smiled at Anie while she handed Thea a bucket of water. Thea smiled without even noticing that Darien and Anie were there, then almost grinned when she saw them, took a deep breath, and wiped her hands down the cloth she had pinned to her dress as an apron.
They ate when it was almost dark, just after woodmen returned from their chopping and a few others rolled the sturdiest carts into the gateway. Leaning their heads back, they looked up at the white stars framed by the gray walls.
And Anie slept easy.
“Easy,” Mel said. She caught Thea’s arm as Thea handed the last of the bedding to Darien. Immediately, he tucked it tight between the larger sacks in the back.
Thea looked at Mel, stopped just where she was, arms and spine rigid.
“We can’t,” Mel said.
Pausing, Darien rested his hands on the wall of the cart. “Mel…” he said. “It’s all right.”
Mel didn’t look at him, holding Thea’s gaze, steady and insistent. She lowered her voice, to keep him out of it. “We left home for Momma,” she murmured. “We are not running anywhere without her.”
“We left for all of us,” Thea said.
Mel tilted her head, the question so obvious, Thea took a step back from it.
The sun was climbing higher. The chill that had hovered in the camp was slowly bleeding away, replaced with a light heat whenever bare skin faced the sky. Tiernan rubbed absently at his cheek, tracing the line of his beard.
It was a familiar feeling, the heat. The fires had been hotter, hit his skin more like a red-edged hammer, but this was close enough. He felt awake again. Partly, it was the sunlight, and partly, it was the memory of necessary motion.
Few of the others were sleeping. Tiernan wasn’t sure whether it was the sunlight or Aled.
They were gathering in knots. They talked for a few minutes, heads bent together, and then didn’t talk. They stood up, moved around, rooted through the few things they’d brought with them. It wasn’t much. But some of them had knives. Some of them had something longer. Most of them just spread out enough to open and close their hands. And then they knotted together again, none of that motion sufficient to calm a heartbeat.
“What did we do?” Danta asked, standing next to him.
Tiernan worked his tongue around the inside of his teeth for a moment, watching the crowd. “We started a fight,” he said. “What did you think we’d done?”
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.
If he turned the paper sideways, he could make out a school of tiny fish swimming out of some seaweed. Turned the other way, it was the rough tentacles of a jelly fish. Turned right side up, the stark and ocean-grown masts of a sunken ship. Not that any of that helped Galen read it.
He’d been standing in front of the posting too long, he realized, hearing a stifled snort behind him. He tried to make his eyes scan the page like it was words instead of artwork, like it was just taking him a long time to decipher. Like he wasn’t some empty-skulled deckhand trying to con men better and smarter than him into believing he could read. Then he turned to go, leaving his eyes on the paper until his first step tore him away. He didn’t look at the other sailors over his shoulder. Sticking his hands in his pockets, he walked down the docks until he couldn’t hear them anymore, then finally looked up.
He was almost to the ship. His ship, he tried to correct himself, but he hadn’t sailed with her yet, hadn’t learned her moods and her turns, so she just seemed another ship bobbing at anchor. Taller than most. Belled and beautiful polished wood with a wide flat deck and an elegant lady carved into the bow. He looked at her like artwork too, a little too long, and he glanced over his shoulder.
There was no one there to snicker this time. Galen let out a long breath and started down the docks again.
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.
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.
Vardan heard Kadelyn catching up to him in the hall, and didn’t even have to turn to know it was her. He could hear her long skirts, whispering along the floor stones. She had a way of moving that always made it settle into that polite hum rather than hissing as the cloth met the floor. When she hurried, her stride lengthened just enough to match her bodyguard’s. Each tap of her heel carried the echo of his heavy boots. Each swish of her soft silks mixed with the ching of his chain mail.
Vardan slowed, and bent into a shallow bow as soon as she came alongside him. “Milady,” he said.
She looked pleased at how quickly he’d recognized her. She dipped an inch into a curtsey mid-step and continued on with him. Her bodyguard, Noach fell back a foot or so, allowing them to pretend to some privacy.
“I heard you convinced my father to give Brance a ship,” Kadelyn said.