Elida knew every creak in the expansive apartments. She had watched Ness invent them eight months before when they moved in.
It had been pure entertainment, watching him on his hands and knees, teasing floorboards and stair railings and cupboard hinges into making their little noises. He tested them and he memorized the distinctions at the same time. Each was a little warning bell when anyone moved inside his apartment. When Elida stepped forward to help him, he gave her a look the equivalent of slapping her hands away, and laughed at himself after. He trusted her. But he trusted himself more.
So, she just watched him engineer squeaks and groans and creaks out of polished elegance. She hadn’t purposefully memorized them, too, but she liked the look on his face when she arrived in all her usual silence even while he rattled in the spaces he created.
Creeping down the stairs now, Elida had no need to see his surprise. She wished it very far away. Keeping her hands off the railing, she skipped the last step, and slid immediately to the right. A brush of air instead of a body, she imagined. A ghost. A thing already moved on.
Some things looked like knives, but were not knives. Imalie had been carrying one for a decade now, a thin piece of steel that someone had sharpened for a clear purpose, though Imalie had confused it with a thousand others just as soon as she could.
The sharpener, no doubt, had been in perfect agreement with the craftsman who had carved and wrapped the hilt so that it fit easily in a hand and would not slip out of sure fingers. Both of them worked in agreement with the forger, who made the steel into something thin enough to barely need a point, and heavy enough to drive itself through a cut, as if it had some small measure of will all its own.
But it was not a knife. Knives were for slicing, cutting, and stabbing. For breaking, if it came to that. For severing. Imalie had tied all its weight into a sheath and strapped it to her arm under her sleeve, and never taken it out. She had never used it to cut a thing, so now, it was a memory, and a threat, and something which rode just on the edge of her curiosity before she dropped into sleep.
She watched the changing of the guard with amused disinterest. From her vantage point on the roof of the Porterhouse, she could see the whole length of the wall and the quiet efficiency of the men and women who slid into the places of their fellows at every post along the line. The last watch only relaxed once they had seen their replacements square themselves against their spears, only let out a breath when their replacements had raised their chins to keep watch. She could almost read their thoughts across the air, and her lips twisted father into a smile, as if their straight spines were the iron guard posts that kept everything behind them whole.
When the trap door behind her creaked open, she tilted her head to listen over her shoulder without taking her eyes off the guard. She heard the heavy breath of someone taking the too-large last step up to the roof, the thud of a second foot, the creak and clack of the latch shutting again. She didn’t turn around as the footsteps thunked closer, reverberating in the tiles beneath her. She didn’t even look up when his shadow crossed her, though she flicked a look down at the shape of it.
The most dangerous place in Jaon was the open stone court where the philosophers claimed their favorite seats between the pillars.
Fallon thought that it had once been outside the city limits from the way the streets twisted and knotted to avoid the court. A long time ago, maybe, it had been quiet and inviting for anyone who wanted the space to throw ideas around with hitting passersby. Now, it fought for elbow space with the morning market, while tall buildings leaned as close as they dared from either side. Men and women used the wide, flat paving stones as shortcuts and they were the only things in the city that seemed unaware that this was a place better left alone.
There was a bloody sword under the bed, kicked there as if a person’s instinct to hide it had only briefly overwhelmed their apathy for getting caught. The mis-matched blankets on the bed fell far enough over the sides to hide it, but the breeze from the window threaded the smell of it out into the open.
Dovev had walked into the room, and felt the wrongness of it before she had settled the door shut again. Inside three shallow breaths, she had found it and pulled it out. Then she sat back on her knees and stared at it, trying to understand who had put it in her room.
It was not her sort of weapon. It was too long, too hard to hide, impossible to slip up a sleeve. She had a knife she always carried with her, long and thin in its own right, but it had always fit in a sheath beneath her knee, and now that she was taller, it lay well between her wrist and elbow. She picked up others as she found them, and threw them away as she needed, but they were rarely bloody, and she would never let them grow a stink like this.
The sheath relinquished the sword with a soft click like a key turned in a lock. Jennika paused with her hand wrapped around the hilt, and tried to decide if that was a bad sound echoing in her clever little silence.
Going still, she cocked her head, and listened just to make sure that her silence was still clever, and not the thing that fell when heads suddenly came up and breaths were held to hear what was not there.
Below her, the first floor of the house laid as quietly as before. Before she came, there had been a light hum through a cracked window, but she’d shut that up tight before it could wake anyone who might be willing to get out of bed to investigate. The second floor ached and cracked with its usual nighttime shufflings. A man snored. A sideboard creaked in the breeze outside. Some timber in the wall decided to shrink in the cold and groan about it. But none of them were loud enough to break the silence that Jennika had brought with her through the second floor window she’d shimmied into.
She slid the sword a little farther out.
Caled liked Heydi, the same way he liked any of the kids that turned up under his roof. She was young, maybe six and short for that, but she’d already lost the uncertain weight that most kids carried in their hands and feet. Her hair was dark, her skin was a sun-turned bronze, and she looked as if she had been shaved out of a shadow.
Jerdan brought her in, took her straight into Caled’s office. Her head stopped a little higher than the boy’s elbow, and she stayed behind him, not to hide, just following him smoothly, turning when he turned, stopping when he stopped.
Jerdan glanced back at her, nodding when he found her waiting just inside the door. Looking to Caled behind the desk, he met his eye questioningly. The fact that she was with him was the most eloquent recommendation Jerdan could offer. He knew he couldn’t say anything more.
“What is she?” Caled asked.
Jerdan shrugged. “Nothing. Yet.” His mouth tilted into a smile. “But she could be a sneak.”
Wick knew three people who made better watchmen than him.
Two of them – his mother, and his grandfather – were long dead, more memories than flesh, with lists of valorous stands that might have been made longer and greater by the time that had passed. He suspected at times, that his mother hadn’t actually stood watch over a door for seven days and eight nights without sleep. He suspected his grandfather had never kept watch over a King’s window, even if it was just to make sure no competing thief took what his employer had an eye for. He suspected neither of them had gone two and three months without being seen at all while personally stacking unwanted guests in the alleys behind their watches for their friends to wake and put back together.
But they were his mother and his grandfather. And they were long dead. Wick had no intention of trying to wrestle any medals off their chests.
The third was a blind man who worked the west quarter behind the warehouses with a stick the breadth of Wick’s forearm. There was no accounting for a blind man.
Holy Mother was just coming in from the practice yard, leather armor half removed and its straps clanking freely, when Garard found her. He smiled, a little wearily, and she paused, sticking her wooden sword point down into the dirt to lean on.
“Good morning, Mother,” he said.
She glanced over her shoulder at the yard, and the handful of children clearing the fence and stripping out of their armor as fast as they could. None of them were much taller than the fence, but every one of them managed to throw themselves over, with only a hand hooked on the top. In the other hand, they held their practice swords high to keep them from banging against the slats.
“It is a good morning,” she said. “Though the young ones get wilder the longer I live.”
Garard spared her another smile, then she faced him squarely again, and nodded for him to go on.
Warren eased the door open and poked his head between the jambs. The room was dark and silent, shifting in deep shades of gray. He could smell fresh air drifting in from the windows at the far side of the room. The low sigh of the wind and the cheering crickets covered over any other sighing sound in the room. Warren paused, blinking to ease his eyes into the darkness, listening hard for another breath or footstep. There were so many people itching to sneak in here. The only time he’d come close to getting caught was when he nearly tripped over another boy in the dark, and he never wanted to repeat that lung-squeezing scramble back to safe halls.
Warren listened until his eyes sorted out the blurred lines of the straight-backed chairs and square tables and lines of cabinets that turned the long room into a maze. He could make out the shelves around the outside of the room, but only at the corners of his eyes. Looking at them directly, they stayed heavily in shadow. It was an old trick of the eyes which he didn’t understand, but he’d grown used to. He looked straight ahead and waited for someone to move.