Aymee went very still when Vardan entered the hall. There were yards between them, but she went skeleton-stiff, fleshless at the sight of him. Vardan slowed, hovered in the doorway for half a moment. He hadn’t expect any kind of fear when he arrived. He looked down, counting out the floor stones between them. Slowly, he approached.
Her hands knotted in her skirts, and the rich, blue cloth whispered in complaint.
At a respectful distance, Vardan stopped. It felt strange. Once, he would have walked right up beside her, shoulders almost touching. He might have just smiled, and it would have been enough of a greeting for them. Now, he looked down again, bowed low. “My lady,” he said.
Aymee still didn’t move. “Vardan?” she whispered. “How are you here?”
“I don’t want to go,” Kashel said idly, just to buy another moment as he took his last look around the house. It wasn’t his last look, he reminded himself. Just the last one this year. Just the last one before he crossed an ocean twice and spun back, older, taller, different. Maybe it was his last look.
His father, Cade shook his head at him, leaning in the hall doorway. “No,” he said. “You just want to go.”
Anie was surprised by how quickly travel felt like her usual days.
Mornings were still hard, like prying herself out of a webbing bramble into the waking air. Except that the cart bed could never be so comfortable as her bed, and the cold breeze cut across her as soon as she was out of her blankets without four walls to stop them. But her padded boots felt just as easy to slip into as her soft house slippers, and she pulled her coat up around her neck the way she used to hold one of the blankets as she tripped down to the kitchen for breakfast.
They walked into the sun until noon, and Anie felt half asleep, blinking into the light. Then it moved behind them and they followed their straight shadows until they faded and they settled onto the ground for the night.
Thea still did the cooking, now with Wesson constantly across the fire from her. He helped her stoke the flames, or tamp them down, or chop, or clean, or move, with the kind of quiet conversation that fit so easily between their motions.
Mel was last to wake, denying the sunlight until Anie started yanking the blankets away from her head, and then she disappeared with Darien and Chas. They returned at odd times during the day with water, or bread or cheese they traded one of the other travelers for, or just wandered back chatting with a new friend. The fourth day out, they came back with a thick-furred rabbit slung over Darien’s shoulder and broad grins all around. Thea skinned it, Wesson carved it into pieces and they had the sweetest dinner they could have hoped for in an open field under a gray winter night sky.
After his first year aboard the Faithful, Zev saw the house differently. Beams were cracked between the grain. Carpets in every room had been worn thin, hard as the floors beneath them. Doors were swollen with age and squeaking in their frames. Even the walls seemed to have thinned out and leaned forward into smaller rooms, aged more than the last year could account for. Following Iliana to the room he’d always lived in, he tried not to stare. Gaunt stairs groaned under his feet. He moved slow, easing onto each one, knowing there was nothing alien in this house, wondering how he’d overlooked it for so long.
Iliana pushed open the door to his room and it stopped after half a foot. Just inside the door, something heavy had fallen over. Keeping in an irritated breath, she grimaced. “Lovely,” she muttered.
Moving aside, Iliana pointed him toward the door with a resigned expression that could only be interpreted as, You deal with the troublesome idiot.
Basia worked through her darks in quick motions, each one twisting into the next without a pause in between. She carried with her all the frenetic diligence of a woman who needed to accomplish an unaccomplishable thing. Rayen watched Basia take the washing out at dawn, toss the rugs out for beating, carry the refuse to the corner, disappear to the market, come back with groceries, take the washing down again by noon and come out with another heavy wet basketful before she crossed her arms over the fence between their yards and said hello.
Basia looked surprised, and shook out the next shirt before she gathered a hello in return.
“You look busy,” Rayen said.
“Oh,” Basia laughed to herself. She paused to brush her long hair out of her face and twist it over her shoulder. When she returned to her work, her hands moved deliberately slower. “No more than usual,” she said.
Sitting on top of the elephant, Senka’s pointed toes didn’t even reach its shoulders. It was too big. From the ground, it had looked tall enough, large enough, gargantuan enough. Trying to hold the width of its back between her heels, she finally understood why someone had known words like colossal, and enormous, and immense, and still felt the need to invent elephantine.
Senka had thought riding an elephant would be climbing on a horse: fright in the pit of her stomach when she looked down, but really just an adjustment in the roll of her hips to a four point tempo instead of her own walking two. Instead it was like riding a timid rowboat which sometimes hesitated at the base of a wave, and sometimes threw itself into it just to get things over with. Senka leaned forward, hands on the rough grey skin at the elephant’s neck. She pushed her knees forward for better balance. While she was there, she glared at the back of the elephant’s head.
The truth of the matter was he had absolutely never expected to see her again. After eight months, he had gotten used to opening the front door to a dark hallway and his own echoes. He had gotten used to eating dinner alone, using one corner of the kitchen, one set of dishes. He had slept on the couch for a few weeks, too restless in an empty bed, but even walking into the silent bedroom had become familiar.
He’d never expected walk in and find her standing beside the bed, the closet open behind her.
She was quiet for a long moment. “Hello,” she said finally.
He remembered his feet, stepped to the dresser to empty his pockets and turned his back to her.