Taryn hesitated on the balls of his feet, wondering how there could be so much hazard in the cut of a smile. Blinking across at Lord Brance, he tried to decide if the twenty feet between them had played with the lines of his face. There was smoke enough in the Practice Court to twist things, but the look in the older boy’s eye was sharp as anything.
He had heard some stories about Lord Brance, of course. He’d had his ears covered or been sent out of the room for others. Not even the things he’d eavesdropped for had prepared him for the challenge that felt like a command rolling off him as easy as a whisper. The smile felt like a promise. It sank into Taryn’s stomach like a threat.
Not that he would back down. The Practice Court clattered on around him, hissed and cracked with fire and speech. No one else in the wide hall had bothered to be alarmed, so he rolled into his next step, taking his place on the sparring line. As soon as he moved, it became absurd that he had stopped.
He had been a conqueror between these pillars for the last two years, an untouchable and, sometimes, bored devil.
“Ready?” Lord Brance asked, just loud enough to be heard over the clamor.
Seryn dreamed something, and didn’t like it. There was a road. Some strange sound in the trees. Waking as sharply as usual, she forgot all of it.
Macsen was in the hall, up early. Seryn nodded to him. He nodded back. Then she turned her attention to the business of the day.
Aled woke just minutes after her, as she was wrapping herself into her uniform. The others weren’t far behind. Seryn started toward breakfast, stopped, turned around, and tapped Drystan on the shoulder.
He looked at her, curious.
She jerked her head toward the meal line. “Go,” she said. “I’ll wake them.”
“Something’s happening,” Nessim said. Suspicious, he twisted in his seat across from Anie, looking over his shoulder at Aled and Drystan. His breakfast plate was empty in front of him, but he was waiting for Sevi like always, and had nothing better to do than watch the soldiers in their comings and going.
Anie chewed through her next bite and watched too. Aled was giving an order. There was nothing strange about that, but it was interesting how Drystan’s eyes had widened just a little as he heard it.
“What do you think it is?” Anie murmured, quieter than Nessim.
“You think it’s about us?” Vetlynn asked.
Rhian woke up late in the afternoon. Seryn was not there to see it. She was told that Rhian woke quietly, that she opened her eyes, blinking as if the brightness of the sun coming through the window had suddenly reached her. She took a breath. She sat up. And she winced, but forced herself to twist her shoulders and stretch her spine before she allowed herself to settle back down.
Seryn wasn’t sure whether she would have wanted to be there or not. There was relief in hearing that she was conscious, but when she came back to the main hall for dinner, and met the girl’s eye, it only felt cold.
Rhian would survive. All the secrets between them would hold. No one would know that Rhian had been sick, and not even Rhian would know what Seryn herself did to keep the ghosts away. The hard edges of their shoulders would dull in time, and they would be able to work smoothly side-by-side again. Eventually.
Seryn ate her dinner, watching the hall as she usually did, and ignored the weight of the evening.
It was strangely easy.
The morning run passed in the same long strides it always had. Content in their silence, they filled their lungs and worked out the tight strings of their muscles with the sounds of each other’s footfalls reinforcing their own. Thirty rounds of the fortress and most of them turned inside to catch a breath on the way to the training yard. Seryn ran her five extra rounds, and joined them, just in time matched padded swords with Aled.
The hours did not slide by – she hauled them past and was pleased at the weight she carried – but one by one wound down.
She ate lunch with the others before walked her rounds again. Satisfied with the state of the main fortress, she checked that the others were holding their posts as ordered, and moved on to the two outer compounds. Another quiet walk around each of them, and she returned to meet with Jeyd and finish preparations for their new arrivals.
She ate dinner with the others.
The sun was almost down before she saw the horses coming. She had been on the wall for the last half-hour, waiting idly, keep watching because it was a calm way to pass time. Drystan was below, tucked behind one corner of the main hall, playing with the children. They were running, tagging each other, laughing while they wore themselves out before they would be shooed off to bed. She could hear them getting tired. The light faded, the horses came into sight, shifting between the far trees, and Seryn knew Drystan would take the children inside within a count of thirty.
They were locked inside before the horses were close enough for Seryn to see that Tomi and Wynn were leading them. And Macsen was close behind them, riding at the head of the column with the flags just behind him.
She had only heard gunshots at a distance. She knew they were loud. Every book she had ever read said that the blasts were louder than smith hammers. Every story she heard tossed around the table or spilled around the hearth said that the blasts were so loud they would shake through her bones. There was a certain Captain who had once told her that all he could do was laugh during his first gun battle, because he was deaf to everything except what sounded like a drunken giant stomping upside down across the sky. And still, to her, they were just thunderclaps in a storm that never quite made it to shore.
She had seen guns. There were two dozen on top of the palace wall, housed on sharp platforms that jutted off the main walk way. From above, she imagined the walls looked like a jeweled necklace, each gun a dull stud on its wooden stand. But they were cold as jewels, silent as stones. None of them had been fired in her memory.
All the salutes were saved for the guns aboard, safer firing out over the water.
Immediately, coming down onto the gun deck, those guns seemed like looser things. They were tied down, lashed to metal rings as if the roll of the ocean might have inspired them to something drastic in the past. They creaked on their stands, echoing the deeper groaning of the hull. Their muzzles gleamed when the light caught them, and their rough barrels were sand-scrubbed, light and dark.
She brushed her finger tips against the metal, and smiled just a little. They were still cold.
Da called up the stairs. His voice was a little muffled coming up through the wooden floor beside Anie’s bed. Her room seemed a little large. Thea was sleeping in a dozen beds at once. But it was good to hear his voice.
Anie shifted onto her side, reburying her head in the pillow. She was going to steal her few more minutes of sleep. Da would understand. She thought he was probably proud of her too, now that she wasn’t really running away after all. They hadn’t gone so far from the city.
Her thoughts seemed to stutter against each other, matching what she knew had happened to the room around her. She realized her eyes were shut. She realized she was dreaming. The floor should not be standing upright and there were too many Thea’s in the room. Da’s voice was too high, too much like Drystan’s.
“Come on, come on, come on!” Drystan called, a sing-song too bright for the early morning. “Roll out of bed. Put your feet on the floor. Walk yourselves to breakfast. If you’re still dreaming, I suppose you can swim there, but move, move, move!”
Tomi waited a long second before she pulled her staff back, letting Rhian relax into a steadier stance. They both spun their weapons on one hand, first one way than the other, and Tomi watched the ground while she stepped a quarter circle around Rhian. She scuffed her toes into the dirt, turned and settled her heels as she faced Rhian, then finally looked up again.
Anie glanced at Cidra. She felt like she should take a step back and drag the others back too, to give them space. When she moved her feet though, both she and Cidra were stepping forward. Anie brushed her hand over her hair, held the warmth of her palm against her skull for half a moment, and dropped her hand to her side again.
Tomi nodded to Rhian. Rhian nodded in return, and set both hands on her staff. Another breath and Tomi swung. Their staffs cracked together as if they were trying to break them, loud as lightning touching down. Anie flinched at the sound, blinked, but didn’t miss the way Rhian pushed her staff just over her head, or straightness of Tomi’s arm.
It took Anie longer than she thought it would. Running with the others, she knew it took a while to work all the way around the top of the well. By herself, it suddenly felt too wide, and each time her foot hit the planks beneath her, they seemed to swallow seconds. Her stride was too slow, and the wall went on and on. She was breathing hard when she stopped – too hard, it seemed – and she had to remind herself that she had been tired before she took that last round.
As she came around the back of the fort, she had seen Rhian beckoning the others over with the staves. They formed up their circle without her while she ran. Now, the fort echoed with the slap of wood on wood. The kids kept perfect time with each other, with Rhian shouting over them. Chas and a dozen others struck a counter point from the far wall, while Aled gave instructions and there were other circles beyond them, too many of Ern’s folk to fit into one practice group. Each of them clattered through their calls. Seryn’s friends, stripped out of their uniforms, moved in the combat ring by the main hall, just one pair at a time, and Anie thought their noise would have been lost under the rest, but it cracked the loudest in the open air.
Anie leaned over her knees, listening while she tried to catch her breath. Knowing she should straighten up to let air in, but not really caring, she squinted at Rhian as the older girl waved her over. Denna was on her shoulders, and she could move her arm very high, but Denna waved too, excited. Anie dragged herself upright.
Anie passed Chas most mornings. One of them was always coming in for breakfast when the other was leaving, and he ran around the walls just like the rest of them. He and a whole company followed Ern through the laps, with Wynn or Leolin or Gan calling instructions for them the same why Rhian called them for Anie and the others. She heard him talking with whoever stood next to him, always just a little loud, as if he was helping her keep track of where he was. They nodded at each other when they walked by the other, or just met the other’s eye across the yard. Occasionally, they were close enough to trade a few words. He always smiled at her. She always reached out and squeezed his hand.
She looked for him in the afternoons, but he was never there. She meant, always, to ask him where he could find to disappear, but never did.
She just passed him, coming and going.