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.
Visiting her father was the only time she dressed down for a public event. She owned silks and brocades that she wore every day, and gowns sewn with glinting twists of beadwork from neckline to hem that would have been perfect for the holidays in her own home. She owned dresses that sang, and hummed, and whispered as she walked, and every one of them would have been too loud in her father’s halls. Even the dresses she had worn as a girl for the celebrations in his home would have drawn too many eyes.
She dressed as plainly as she could get away with on such an exalted day. Her blue dress turned dull silver if it caught the proper shine, though the evening’s yellow lamplight was turning it muddy gray. The neck was embroidered with a line of rolling waves, and the hem echoed the pattern in larger strokes. The skirt bunched stiffly in its gathers where it should have flowed, an expensive fabric made in the wrong pattern.
She looked properly decadent, just shy of real elegance. In the long hall, roiling with party-goers, no one looked at her twice.
When Seryn moved again, Rhian turned on the bench, then stood stiffly. Rhian didn’t meet her eye, but Seryn didn’t need her to. Seryn took a slow step and Rhian followed. Her gaze remained unfocused, directed toward the floor, but after a moment, as the girl started to blink too quickly, Seryn doubted she saw anything. Without further hesitation, Seryn turned for the door. A dozen long strides and she pushed outside, Rhian half a moment behind her.
Seryn didn’t stop in the yard. The breeze was cool, and the fortress was rumbling through the day’s chores, but both seemed far away. She aimed for the gate. Glancing to either side, she wondered what she looked like to the others, if she looked any different than she usually did, moving about on her own orders. She slowed just enough to put Rhian at her shoulder – the pair of them might seem less strange than one of them leading the other on an invisible leash – and kept moving. She could deal with questions later after she had gotten a moment to think.
The open ground outside the walls was quieter, but still too exposed. Rhian faltered and Seryn nodded her toward the tree line. Rhian stalled, meeting her eye, then moved forward again. Seryn angled them north and east to avoid the other encampment, and led them deep between the straight-backed trees. The ground turned from trampled dirt to grass and scrub. The air cooled further under the filter of green leaves. The breeze whispered, hummed just enough to cover all other sounds and convince Seryn they had gone far enough.
“Drinking alone?” the man asked, nodding toward the three empty chairs around the rest of the table. His mouth was tilted up in a smile that touched his eyes and made them bright, secretive, and inviting.
Leaned back, and already comfortably warm in the middle of her first glass, Lyda wondered why that had to be a question, why it would have been rude for him to issue it as a statement when they could both so easily supply the answer. She was the only one at the table, and she was certainly drinking.
Meeting his eye, she wondered fuzzily if the question had been rude, too. Or if neither really was.
“No,” she told him.
The man hesitated, his smile hitching a little higher in surprise. “No?”
Lyda smiled back, leaned her head forward and made her eyes a little sharper beneath her brows. “I always bring my devils.”
He paused again and she liked watching the corners of his mouth fall not-quite-flat against his cheeks. When he shuffled off, she leaned into her chair again.
She took another sip from her cup, satisfied that she had not lied, and that she was as alone as she wanted to be.
Brance once told Ineli that it didn’t matter how large a ship was, it was always too small to keep secrets. The masts might have stood far apart, but the lines and canvas tied them neatly together and the decks were stacked neatly together, with just enough space to walk between them. The open sky seemed wide, but the water stayed close to the hull, better walls to echo words back than anything man had built. Her brother smiled down at her as he spoke, rustled her hair, lying in his usual friendly.
There were more doors than Ineli cared to count onboard The Wave Crest, and they had a habit of swinging shut when she walked by.
Ineli paused, sliding her gaze along the straight panels of the Captain’s door. Her father had been locked inside the cabin for hours now. That wasn’t usual, but she would have to have been deaf and blind not to notice the flurry of people that came and went on his orders, and the quick way they open and shut the door.
“Are you ready?” Donnemey asked. He touched her elbow, gently retaking her attention, then let his hand drop. He was almost a foot taller than her, and she rocked back a step to put the sun behind his head so she could meet his eye. His hair was combed back from his face, cheeks freshly shaven. The high collar of his sleeveless keimon’s coat was buttoned tight, while his shirt cuffs had been loosened and rolled back from his hands. Clearly, he was ready to go.
Ineli rubbed her thumb across her palm, slow. “I don’t know how I could be,” she murmured.
Anie tied her scarf the same way Thea did, looped over her head, then elegantly knotted at her chin. The thick fabric closed over her ears and kept the cold off the edge of her cheeks. The knot bunched between her chin and chest, too big, and made her neck feel thick and trapped. It didn’t feel pretty, the way it looked circling Thea’s face.
Thea looked over and shook her head. Quickly, she retied Anie’s scarf, looping it back across her shoulders, rather than knotting it. “Better?” she asked.
Thea straightened a fold in the fabric, tugged at just to play with her sister and smiled. “Let’s go,” she said.
Da was already downstairs by the time Anie pried herself away from the blankets.
He stood by the door, holding the last bites of his breakfast, keeping the quiet of the morning air. Dressed in his heavy leathers, he watched Thea move around the kitchen, while the fire started to press warmth into the room, and glanced over his shoulder at the front door from time to time. Anie thought there was a shadow there that told him when it was time to leave, but she’d never marked it for herself.
She scooted past him, running on her toes to keep the soles of her house shoes off the cold floor as much as possible, and slid in beside the hearth. She waited until she felt heat sink through the thick fabric of her dress before she uncurled her fingers from her sleeves.
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.