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.
Treas could only assume that the Clan Lord had imprisoned a player. This was a prestigious wing of the prison. She had no doubt any number of the high-born residents had the talent for the piano, harp, or guitar. She just didn’t believe any one but a professional player would bother to turn her half-hearted kicks at the iron-striped door into the drum beat of Lord Tiern’s Hope and Threat.
Treas hadn’t even intended to give a rhythm to her kicks. It was an empty room, and her only options were to bang on the door and annoy the guards that brought her meals, or sit meekly in the corner until she became one of the stones in the wall. It wasn’t much of a choice. Not that she did a good job of annoying anyone but herself.
Boredom must have made it a rhythm, steady as the breath coming in and out of her lungs. Or nothing had, and the player in the next cell over decided to fit the melody around it as best he could and she made the rhythm fit afterward.
She couldn’t decide if that mattered. The song was a gift from somewhere either way.
There were stories about her kind, stories old as islands and only slightly younger than the names of the stars. When she was small, Cerena heard them all: stories of men and women who could raise walls of white fire that hissed and spat and roared like waterfalls, but could hold back oceans; of people who could fly because of the force of the heat coming off their hands and others who could build shields in the air thick enough to walk on; folk who could turn night into day and day into a place without shadows; men and women who could melt stone beneath their bare hands and let the molten streams run between their fingers like water.
Cerena begged for new stories. When every friend and stranger she had ran out of myths to tell, she begged for them to repeat every one they had told before. Every evening, she listened, and every night she wished they were real until she fell asleep.
She hadn’t thought about those wishes for a long time. They had seemed like small things when she was ten. They seemed even smaller now. But she was making them again.
“I can smell your bleeding heart from down the hall.”
Vardan looked up at the sound of the other man’s voice, unsurprised at the half smile on Donnemey’s face. His eyebrows were bent together, examining Vardan as he approached in the stone hall. It was such a familiar expression, this false confusion poorly painted over his amusement, that Vardan hardly registered it anymore. There was so much more to dislike about the man than the vaguely insulting lines of his face.
He met Donnemey’s eye dully. “What does it smell like?”
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.
Five years spent between four block walls, hours and days lived with no activity, and it seemed, now, as if he should walk these familiar rooms like nothing had passed, as if he had been here yesterday. But Vardan didn’t. The twists of halls felt long, the walls felt wide, and the echoes of his footsteps were too clear compared to the rustling and shifting in the dark he was used to. He had been here, a long time ago. He knew which turns to take, looked out windows and saw what he expected, found where he meant to be with little thought, but some lifetimes had passed since the last time he was here.
He took his steps slowly. The windows spilled heat and light along the long hall, and he passed in and out of them. He blinked in the light, and missed the heat when he stepped into the next shadow. High in the palace, each square of glass showed off a tumble of roofs and wash of waves on the far side. He’d spent hours on hours here once, and he considered stopping at a window, leaning against the frame, pretending he could hear water through the glass like echoes in a shell.
He continued on his way.
At the end of the hall, he turned right, looped down a set of back stairs and arrived in the squarer hall below. Two guards stood on either side of Lord Damion’s office door. They stood straight-backed and square, perhaps built into the wooden architecture. Vardan watched them as he came closer, waiting for either of them to move. They let him pass, hardly looked at him, and didn’t move as he knocked firmly on the door.
The door thudded with heavy security, but the boy on the other side of the bars still shivered as he faced me. I rammed my shoulder into the thick wood one more time, more for the satisfaction of the motion and the way the boy jumped and closed his hand around the hilt of his sword, than for any progress it made. I gripped the bars in the little square window, and gave them one last tug as I turned away.
I took three steps and my shoulder brushed the far wall.
“You know,” I called to him. Rocking back on my heels, I looked up at the stone ceiling then glanced at the shadows in the corners. “From the looks of it, you don’t actually have to stand there. These four walls are holding me just fine.” I put my shoulders to the wall and slid down. I intended to sit, but half way, I just stopped, settling into a rough crouch. Rest suddenly didn’t seem appealing when I came that close to it.
There were worse places to be stuck. Off the top of her head, Agata could list five other prisons, a few run-down homes where she had spent a night or two, and at least six of the circles of hell…
As prisons went, it was clean. Either they had few enough prisoners that any old dirt had faded to dust a long time ago, or they actually bothered to scrub them out. The walls were stone, not wood, and the cell was divided from the hall by a series of sturdy iron bars that bit into both floor and ceiling. Windows spilled yellow-white light across everything but a few corners. The stones gleamed gray-blue in contrast, worn to a shine in twisting pathways where too many people had walked over the years. The bars kept the air sweeping in and out, and the whole thing smelled hollow as an open field, instead of wet and close as a sewer.
It was a little too cold – and Agata couldn’t help feeling the restriction of the locks and steel – but it was actually quite nice. She was moving up in the world.
If it wasn’t haunted, she might actually enjoy her two weeks off in the quiet little room.
He was sleeping on the floor when Anya came back to the room. Anya stopped in the doorway, looking at him. He was two feet from the bed and its deep mattress, laid out flat on the the hard wood floor with a single, thin blanket. He was curled in on himself, one arm wrapped across his bare chest for warmth. The blankets on the bed were mussed and thrown back. It was hard to tell when he’d abandoned it.
After a moment, Anya stepped into the room, moving toward her rucksack at the side of the bed. Watching him, she rolled her foot against the floor with every step – heel, ball, toe, down then heel, ball, toe up – quiet as she could, so she didn’t wake him. He didn’t shift. His slack expression didn’t shift.
He grabbed her ankle when she passed him. She froze. His fingers shifted, ready to pull her down.
“It’s me,” she said quickly. “It’s Anya.”