The encampments were on fire, Thea told Anie. Before long, Anie could smell the smoke, rich as a hearth fire and sharper in the wide night air. There was something else in it, something choked and choking, and Anie breathed in deep trying to decide what it was. Sharp. Acidic. When she started coughing, she stopped, and pulled her shirt up over her mouth.
The smoke stayed with them longer than Anie thought it would have. Thea slowed to a walk and called for the others to stay close. Chas caught Nessim by the shirt, forcing him to walk as well. Darien swung wide, disappeared and appeared again at the front of their little pack. His short strides forced them all together, and Anie glanced around at the haze that brightened and obscured the dark.
They walked for hours. Anie’s eyes stung. She blinked them shut over and over.
Then, finally, the air cleared. The trees gleamed under the starlight, and the breeze cut deeper between them. Anie pulled her shirt closer around her, and shuddered a little.
Vetlynn pressed in close to her shoulder.
The invitation arrived by ship, hand-delivered by the captain of The Halstarr. The paper was heavy, honey-yellow as if it had tanned in the sun. Inked in rich blue, the script spilled across the page, purposed and beautiful. Every corner was sharp as the day it was folded.
Kariel accepted it carefully.
Motioning the captain back out of the room, she shut the heavy doors with a thud that barely shook the silence. The couches behind her were empty and still covered in shadow. Threading back through them, she returned to the shallow pool of morning light around the windows. It turned the curtains brilliant red and shadow gray, and warmed the air around the wing-back chairs.
Dropping the invitation into her brother’s hand, she sat back down in her chair. Out the window, the city streets were already full, wound up and ready for the day, while the light sifted through the buildings. She rested her chin on her fist and watched.
“This is for me,” Leonathan said.
Kariel didn’t look at him. She understood the question in his tone, but knew she couldn’t give him a better answer than he would find in a moment.
Ryan and I had a pretty good childhood, all things considered.
We had mutually agreed a long time ago not to mention the hand-me-down fiascos. Not the embarrassments or the petty revenges we had dealt in with the knowledge that anything I talked Mom and Dad into buying for me would one day get passed down to him. There was a pink and blue and yellow tye-dye t-shirt that had gotten burned, though the only thing that was really odd about that was that it had happened on purpose.
We had mostly agreed not to tally up who gave who more scars too. I’d gifted him a chipped tooth. He’d thrown an elbow that put a permanent line through my right eyebrow. Neither of us was afraid to use the obvious – minor – injuries to win an argument from time to time. We never talked about the white line just beneath my ribs that once needed thirteen stitches to keep my insides where they belonged. We definitely never talked about the jagged thing on his calf where bone had torn skin. We’d both covered them with tattoos of things we wanted to remember more.
After a half-drunk midnight where we both broke down the fine points of all the ways our parents had wound us just too tight and broken us for better things, we agreed that there was no need to confess sins twice. Especially when they weren’t our own.
We had survived. To the brilliant ages of twenty-seven and twenty-four, even if there were days we felt ninety, and days we felt five. We had gotten our smiles and forged our precious silences.
Sitting across from him now, though, I knew he was going to break one of them.
It was dark. Bretnie blinked up at the ceiling, certain that there was something else she was supposed to be doing besides staring at simple shadows. She should have been sleeping, or she should have been moving, but she had no idea which.
It had been dark for hours, though she couldn’t begin to calculate how many. She thought she had dozed through some of them, shut her eyes and let some of them slide by uncounted. She wasn’t sure. She couldn’t remember falling asleep, and she couldn’t remember waking. The longer she thought about it, the easier it was to believe she might have been in the middle of a dream, watching time twist.
Then she shifted. The sheets hissed. The bed creaked. Her ribs moved properly in a sigh, and the whole world cracked back into firm reality. She just couldn’t count the hours.
Alea stands perfectly still in the middle of the yard. I watched her measure it out a moment ago, looking forward and back, over each shoulder, and shuffling in the grass to place as much distance between herself and each of the stone walls. Then she shuffled a little farther from the house, a little farther from me sitting on the back steps, to give herself all the space she needed.
Now, she’s perfectly still, and I’m shuffling in my seat. Arms crossed over my knees, I shift my fingers, turn my heel until my ankle stops complaining about this silence, scuff my toes in the dirt, bury my chin and watch her over my wrists.
When she raises her hand into the air, palm out in front of her chest, I hold my breath. But she goes still again.
This is the restraint that Momma keeps telling me to mimic. This is patience. This is careful. But all I feel is wait for it.
“Lower your voice,” Kadelyn said. “I promise, Luck and Fate will still hear you, they just won’t have to cover their ears at the noise.”
Standing at the porch rail, Brance looked over his shoulder at her, slowly. His smile crept in, sneaking up on her, and maybe even on him, as he met her eye. He looked surprised at her sharpness. He looked pleased with her.
She tried not to be the one to drop his gaze.
At the end, his smile tilted up at one side, turned into something edged and honed. “I don’t have to,” he said, even as he dropped his voice to a murmur. He pushed off from the rail and took four easy strides toward the wall where she sat. With a lazy thud, he spun and leaned his shoulders back against it, hands shoved down into his pockets.
Then Kadelyn did look down, and she took a silent breath. She had won that time. She couldn’t help feeling that she didn’t know what sort of weapon she had just used on him. Or if she should have. Or if it would work the next time.
Lea’s little sister had spent nine tenths of her life with her head tilted back, sedately keeping a watch on the stars.
When Lea was small, and Vecca was very small, Lea had thought her head was just too heavy to hold up. Vecca would push herself up, sit up straight, try to look ahead, and her too-round, too-big head would roll too-far. She looked at blank ceilings. She looked at the skittering leaves in the trees and empty blue skies. She looked at the star-spattered black. Her eyes were always wide as they would go. She was lost and thunderstruck about it, as only babies could be.
Vecca learned to crawl, learned to stand, learned to totter around and her head stopped being the heaviest bit of her. She lost her wide-eyed look. Oddly earnest, oddly serious, she still looked up at the stars, and from time to time, scrunched her eyebrows together suspiciously. Lea laughed about it.
Tomorrow, I will be helping my little sister, Neekers move into her dorm room. It seemed like it would be a long time in coming. In some ways, it has been. In other ways, it’s been like sleeping and finding that someone ran off with the clock and the calendar.
But before I let the thieves run too far, there are a few things that need to be said. Really, they need to be written down, so that they don’t disappear somewhere.
1. I’m the one who carried you into the house the day that we brought you home from the hospital. I don’t know why Mom and Dad let me. I was seven-almost-eight and I had already skinned every elbow and knee I owned walking down that same sidewalk. They had a perfectly good eleven-year-old and a perfectly good fourteen-year-old, either one of which could have done the job. I sort of imagine myself grabbing you and bolting, like I’d gotten the last cookie from the cookie jar.
From a distance, no one would be able to tell that the towel tied over her skirt was not part of the dress. Kindey assumed that that also meant that a quick look as she wove her way through the morning crowd on Deaver Street would also keep it hidden, and she pushed through on a long stride. If she kept her head high, even she didn’t see the towel, and she pretended she didn’t feel the rough fabric through the long tear.
Besides that, but it was only twenty minutes more until home, and after six hours, that hardly seemed like a stretch.
When Kindey turned off Deaver, she left most of the crowd behind, and hurried a little faster now that there was more space to see her. When she turned onto her own street, she left everyone behind, and she let out a happy breath, before gathering the edges of the towel in either hand with her skirt balled up underneath. Bolting for her front door, Kindey slammed through. She knew there was no hope of sneaking inside.
Anie tripped her way between the tables, ducking under elbows, and generally trying to keep behind people’s backs as she slipped through. She knew she hardly succeeded, but Aled, at least, didn’t seem to notice her until she was almost leaning over his shoulder.
Rhian was sweating. Pieces of her hair stuck to her forehead, but she was still pulling the blankets closer while she slept, as if she wanted them knit into her skin. She was shivering to. Anie’s smile slipped away as she watched her. She had never seen anyone after a bear attack before, but she knew what people looked like when they were sick. Rhian wasn’t really sleeping, wasn’t resting, she was aching with her eyes closed to pray thought away.
“You’re supposed to be getting lunch,” Aled said. He gave Anie a slow look and a small smile.
Anie returned the look, eyebrows bent together. “You’re supposed to be asleep,” she told him.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I know you were on watch last night,” Anie said. “And you’re on watch again tonight.”
“You’re very observant,” he said. If he hadn’t been so quiet, she would have said he was impressed. “Now tell me what I’ve been watching…” Aled turned back to Rhian before he had finished speaking. Anie wasn’t sure she was supposed to guess.