Once, when Karleigh was younger, a boy had climbed the elegant façade of her uncle’s house to tap on her bedroom window. It had been a deeply moonlit night, so she had caught his shadow across the glass before he knocked for her, and his hair had a silver sheen like something precious, and her stomach had gotten butterflies just from the storybook timing.
A year later, she realized it wasn’t romance in the stories. It was just practicality. Dashing young men who tried to climb on darker nights, probably fell and broke their backs. Even if the pretty girl was only on the second story.
“There is nothing under the eight suns, or under the thousand stars, or in the hundred oceans, that would convince me to do that,” Leonathan said. Spine straight, arms crossed, eyebrows high to strengthen the emphatic syllables, he spoke with the assurance and wariness and absolute shock that made Chaela smile, then cover her mouth just to hold in a laugh.
She glanced over at the rope bridge swaying between cliffs. It was old, missing a few boards. The knots anchoring the end were thick, but fraying in age. It looked a little dangerous, a little like it might have the heart and the sense of humor to drop you into the water fifty feet below.
But the bridge had been there for as long as Chaela could remember and she had wanted to cross it for twice as long.
“I think he’s waiting for you.” Looking out the window, Aymee leaned her head to one side to see around the lead lattice and catch Damion’s slow pace beside the green square. Rising behind him, the interlocking stairs and porches and porticos were sprinkled with lazy walkers. But they came and went, or relaxed in the benches around the square. He had stayed on his feet, and stayed in the square for the last half hour.
Leonne didn’t lift her head from the short stack of reports in front of her. “He can do what he likes,” she said. “We have other things that need our attention.”
Aymee looked back, to see her, eyebrows raised, nodding pointedly toward the chair opposite her. Sighing, and smiling, she set her back against the window ledge and crossed her arms. “You work too much,” she said.
“You work too much,” Leonne said, reflecting the smile right back to her. “I think this is all fun. I play too much.”
Aymee laughed at her.
Lord Brance was singing. Loudly.
It was close to midnight, but other than the time, there was nothing unpleasant about it. Each note was hit in his clear baritone. Each chord he struck on the guitar was simple, light-fingered and quick. He sat easy, with his broad shoulders curled over the body of the instrument and his dark hair dropped carelessly into his eyes. The open square echoed his voice, carrying it high through the balconies, stairways and open windows of the layers of rooms. He might have picked the night and the square and the song for his own pleasure, except for the way he tilted his head up to face the windows, and the smile on his face which could only belong to a madman or a lover.
Aline crossed her arms as she leaned against the rail of her balcony, half to keep her dressing gown closed, half to tuck her hands into the crook of her elbows for warmth. The night air combed cold, tentative fingers through the pillars and rustled her hair around her ears. She smiled down at Brance, too confused to do anything else.
Jaera stood just inside the door, hands at her sides, back straight, a perfect piece in the set of guards spread around the outside of the hall.
A long table split the hall down the center. Cups and pitchers still littered its surface, but the plates had been cleared away long ago and the guests roved the room. Some of them had settled to either side in cushioned chairs, others gathered around game tables, and the rest stood and walked and talked as they pleased. Jaera watched them, almost bored, but a little too captivated by the shifting colors and voices.
Zain slid in beside her, resting a shoulder against the wall.
“I need your help,” he said.