They tore the bridge down in the middle of the night. Swung their sledgehammers and broke the guardian statues from the stone rails. Faces shattered, heads taken off shoulders, torsos sheared off legs, legs and bases distorted to shards. Then they gathered the rubble, packed it into battered, old carts, and set them into the river upstream. The water crashed the carts through the pillars. The bridge crashed down. Waves and broken stone.
A mile away, the docks burned. Waves and damp, choking charcoal. The walkways fell apart, the pillars stayed, tops like dark, broken teeth. The little boats in their moorings caught fire, broke, sank or drifted free, terrible lanterns reflecting off the canvas of the great ships deeper in the bay. Men and women dragged buckets of water up from the night tide, smothered what they could. The fire didn’t spread, so much as hop from one pier to another, and little shadows scuttled from each new spark.
The southern tangle of the palace burned the same night, and dusted half the city in white ash.
Another fire in the agora blackened the aged paving stones.
He knocked against her with his shoulder, moving gently enough, but she pulled out of his way apologetically all the same.
When they had met, his broad shoulders and his bulk had been so welcome. He was built of warm muscle and she had liked to tuck her shoulder into the curve of his, had enjoyed finding the match in their fingers and the right way to fold herself against him. In the last year though, since he had come back for her, she had simply felt as if all her angles intruded. There were always three breaths between them, always a jarring when he accidentally closed the gap.
She hated it, quietly. She didn’t have the words to demand the return of something she had thrown away.
Leonathan let her take her single step back. He didn’t look at her. The city was dark, lit with distant lanterns that pricked through the black, flickering white and yellow. His face was a shadow, while the light from the room behind them spilled over his tan coat, his dark hair. She didn’t allow herself to watch him for more than a moment.
Leaning forward on the rail, she crossed her arms over each other. She traced the lines of the lights below until she was charting familiar streets by the string of them. She breathed slow. And then he leaned against the rail as well, leaned his shoulder into hers, and the purpose in it made her freeze.
Jaxon poured the coffee, listening to the rolling splash fade to silence as he filled both cups. Both he and Aidra watched the steam curl over the tops, as if it were proof of something vital. Then Jaxon blinked and put the pot back on a cooler corner of the stove top.
He sat across from Aidra and they both pulled a cup toward them. She cradled hers an inch from her chest, breathing in the heat and soaking it in through her palms. He just wrapped both hands around his cup and left it on the table. Neither of them drank.
Outside the open apartment gate, a small pack of children threw rocks at passing cars. The rules of the game were simple enough to take in at a glance: choose a stone, hit hard enough to make noise, scatter if the window shatters. One little boy crouched by the wall, guilty of hitting glass earlier in the day, and the others flashed him grins. Because he had gotten them in trouble, made the man with the mustache like a caterpillar chase them around the neighborhood, made them all hide with their lungs bursting from running and laughing. Because he had made the best noise.
Tanya watched them from a bench on the little manicured lawn that belonged to no one in particular and everyone in general. She was too far away for any of the four-foot delinquents to care that she was clearly an adult. One leg crossed over the other, phone propped against her knee, she just sat, invisible, wrapped in the clatter and the sunshine.
Until Kovalsky sat down beside her.
Trad’s grandfather had owned and captained a dozen ships. When Trad was thirteen years old, he took him aboard one, showed him deck and cargo, canvas and lines, wheel and rudder and the dance of the waves which really only earned a tempo once they left somber port behind. The port gates was the midnight line: All respectable folk stayed tucked on the proper side of it, while the rest of them made a revel of the open night on the other side.
The crew had laughed at him as he swayed on his feet, and his cheeks had burned. Clinging to the rail and the lines, he made sure it was the last day they had the opportunity to take their fun at his expense. He walked up and down the deck until dark, until he found the sweet balance of his feet. He learned every lesson his grandfather had to teach.
A decade later, it still wasn’t enough to keep him from gaping as he woke for his watch and found the horizon flattened to a perfect line of blue-green water touching blue-white sky.
Happily, Zain put his hands in his pockets and pretended to scan the room. He turned on his heel, taking a breath that filled his chest and pushed his shoulders back, idle, even from a distance. Terius looked at the ground, to hide a smile.
Then, “This way,” Zain said, and he wandered toward the wall. He let himself glance over his shoulder to make sure Terius was still with him, turn all the way back and pause as if he had interrupted himself with the need to continue the conversation. When he didn’t actually say anything, Terius folded his hands in front of himself and glared at him lightly.
“Right,” Zain said. He turned around again and didn’t stop again until he hit the wall with its row of padded chairs.
“Are we sitting?” Terius asked.
“Oh, no,” Zain said. “We’re using the crowd for cover.” He began threading his way along the outside of the ballroom, slowly, and unevenly. The dancers continued their patterned whirl in the middle of the floor, and knots of people too tired or too bored formed and unformed around the walls. Zain moved when the people nearest him moved, stopped, started, and loitered as he pleased. Terius stayed close, watching him with a growing smile.
“I see now how no one is going to get angry,” he murmured after a few minutes.
The decision to not go crazy seemed all at once the sanest thought that had ever entered her head, and the least reasonable scrap of whim she had ever seen. There wasn’t a human being on the planet – not her, not her brother, not her mother, not even the obstinate mountain of a grandmother they were supposed to have inherited their temperament from – who had the power to tell their mind what shape to be in after wedging its way through one trial and eight tribulations, twelve hassles and forty-five shakedowns. And yet, she appeared to have done just that.
Jaera watched Norei turn the key and settle both hands on the iron bars of the door to yank it open. Even unbolted, the door was weighted to stay shut and she had to lean back to earn her first inch of motion. At the same time, as if pushed by the same wave, Jaera’s cell mates leaned back too, shoulders to the wall, though it looked lazier on them. They didn’t look at the door, and didn’t pause in what idle chatter echoed between the stone walls. Jaera herself stayed as she was, sitting in the corner. She thought Norei was coming for her, but she wasn’t sure what time of day prisoners were released.
“You are the reason we have been banned from four countries.” Sadie made her accusation with all the seriousness that could be mustered while munching on gummy bears, and still managed to make Dana pause in the middle of picking up the dice. Dana wasn’t sure how one was supposed to get past being given a death glare by a twenty-five year old woman in Cheery Banana pajama pants while she decapitated a cherry red Ursus Major with her teeth.
Sadie chewed and glared. Dana took a deep breath.
“Yes,” Dana said slowly. “And?”
Sadie’s eyebrows rose, making it clear that there was no and. Her statement had been absolutely complete, perfectly succinct in its meaning and it’s demand for repentance.
“We’re almost out of time,” Jerdan murmured, holding Danneel’s elbow under the bare cover of the doorway.
She leaned against the wooden frame, hand on the cool paneling, head on her hand, and listened close. She watched the rain come down hard. The heavy drops bounced against the dry ground right now, gathering in brown puddles on the surface. In a few minutes, the puddles would sink into the dirt easier than the driving rain, and turn everything to mud.
Mud held footprints too well. They were almost out of time, if they still wanted to run. She could almost make herself believe that it was a biting truth. She could almost breathe it in deep enough to start a panic in her blood. But a laugh came so much easier.
It had been a good long while since she had been out of time.