In the twilight, Lord Tiernan’s camp moved languidly. The neatness of the tent lines gently hedged in the growing shadows from cook fires and torches. Canvas rustled, flaps opening and closing. Charcoal smoke drifted lazily. Ahead of Anie, one of the soldiers leading them encouraged them to keep moving, but her tone was unhurried. The whole crowd of them leaned lightly into their steps, looking around, talking quietly. Anie watched the men and women drifting between their tents, breathed in deep to catch the warmth of venison and broth boiling for supper.
And Momma leaned over one of the cookpots, long hair tied back with a single string, falling over one shoulder.
Anie stopped just where she was.
The birds started singing in the trees about the time that Anie had to start watching her feet while she walked. She lost her energy in the space of a yawn, and the growing light spreading through the sky on her right seemed wrong. She blinked heavily. Thea slowed, holding steadier, as Anie started to stumble. The others all pulled in a little closer, as if they might lean against each other.
The sun climbed heedlessly into the sky.
“When do we sleep?” Anie murmured.
“It’s not safe yet,” Chas said. But he was slowing too. The whole crowd ahead of them seemed to be stuttering in their steps. The trees were thinning, the ground evening out, but their feet seemed more and more hesitant to leave the ground.
Rain drowned the world in white noise. Sarah would have preferred snow, to muffle the world into a tensionless silence, but it didn’t snow here. Rain was rare enough. She listened to it tap against the window, hum on the roof, and decided to be grateful for the way it barred her from everything outside her living room walls.
She didn’t have an easy time keeping herself away from others; she invited them into every moment. Her phone was always in her hands. Her car was always gassed up. She left work, exhausted, and took her rest in a shared drink and a long, loud conversation. Alone was never a state she wanted to settle into, but she knew she needed it just now. It didn’t matter how quick she had trained herself to be, how easy she had made it to keep her own mind sitting right next to another opinion.
She was uncertain now, and she needed the quiet.
When mountain ranges cut across the horizon before and behind her, and the blue Toyota still hovered in her rearview mirror, Terrin’s better judgement gave way to curiosity. She tapped the break lightly. The car seemed to hesitate, just a moment, as cruise control disengaged, and then she eased the car into a speed that might be described as grandmotherly. At least to other people. Her own grandmother collected speeding tickets like fine china and had recently begun wall-papering the dining room with them.
Dalia looked up as the car decelerated, glanced at Terrin, then the side mirror, and shook her head. “Don’t do it,” she said.
Terrin took her eyes off the road for half a second to purposefully give her an innocent look. “It’s not illegal to go under the speed limit.”
It was getting irritating, listening to well-meaning statements about what was and was not possible. Lowri read it in Braelyn’s face while her little ring of advisor’s alternately offered their advice and slapped it into the dim, echoing hall. She listened to all of it in the same diplomatic silence, hands folded, back elegantly straight. But one corner of her mouth was tilting up, moment by moment, sharpening a crooked smile that Lowri loved and hated.
He capered across the wall, and those rising to start their tasks looked away from him. He cracked a grin at the back of their heads. It always pleased Omri immensely to watch his little magicks work on them. Dressed in a bright yellow coat that caught the sun and made it jealous, in blue and purple pants, in boots almost too white to exist, they were still compelled not to notice. It was freedom in every magnitude, and Omri loved it.
He landed on the ground with a thud that should have halted their work, and they ignored him. He sauntered across the manor’s overgrown lawn, pants and long grass hissing and hushing. He whistled a little. No one cared, but when he passed just behind a boy bent double to rip weeds from the edge of the path, there was a small shudder in the boy’s spine.
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.
Sunrise was an acquired taste. A bitter wash of gray on the horizon, scrubbing away the heavy night sky. A light brush of pink, and purple, and yellow, sweet almost to the point of cloying after the weight of the scouring that came before. A following brightness, fading through the last of the stars. Light that sept gently into blood and bone and breath, bright as mint. All of it drawn out, one insistent moment after another, to make it palatable.
Brance blinked into the growing light. He yawned. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, and his shoulders ached dully. Every thought was slow and flighty as a breeze, and constantly interrupted by the notion that shutting his eyes would be very comfortable. Laying down would be pleasant as well, but not necessary. He could sleep just where he was. And yet, after drinking in too many dawns, one more was hard to turn down.
There was no hiding from sleep. Hushed, it crept through doors or windows, with all the familiarity of a cat too comfortable in its own domain to announce itself at the door. On padded feet, it might climb the stairs, ease itself into a room. On the space of a blink, it slipped in a shadow, then seated itself boldly in the corner. Not there, and then there all at once, calm and unsurprising. It was always there, prepared.
But Nesha could run from sleep. She drank her hot drinks, kept her hands busy, kept her feet moving. There were always small stacks of things to do and always thoughts to chase around her head. It didn’t matter that sleep was a quick-sand thing, gripping her all the firmer for how hard she kicked against it. Tugging her down more forcefully after each attempt to push it away. She tipped her head back to drag in waking air and ignored the way it pulled at her ankles.