Tiernan shook his head, trying not to imagine that the leaves’ whisperings around them were hushed laughter as well. Aled had an easy smile, a friendliness that a soldier had no right to slip into as if it were no more than a nice coat. Apparently, he knew it, and he thought it made him silver-tongued as well, some trickster that could meet one of Oruasta’s lords in the woods and spin a trap for him.
Tiernan was almost in the mood to let him keep believing it and see how long it took the boy to read his smile properly.
“What?” Tiernan asked. “You can’t deliver me her head as well?”
Aled hesitated. “No,” he said.
“She suspects you already?” Tiernan asked. “Does she watch her back in the dark?”
“I’ve never been a match for her,” Aled murmured. His gaze had sunk to the grass between them, slowly. His eyes moved back and forth lightly, looking at nothing.
“They gleefully threw him, head first and screaming, into the heart of the volcano,” Alec finished, his voice low and dramatic. He glanced across the small circle around the fire, fixing first Zain, then Terius, Jaera, and Lainan with a steady, ominous look. The shadows skittered, shook the lines of his face and his skin was flushed raw orange in the light. Lainan ran his knuckles down his jaw as if to rub away something uncomfortable. Terius gave a slow blink and beside him, Jaera tightened her arms around her knees. The coals popped in the silence, and they all looked carefully at nothing. A satisfied smile spread slowly across Alec’s mouth.
“Liar,” Zain said.
Alec groaned. “What?”
Lainan chuckled quietly and Terius gave another longer, slower blink.
Zain just stared back at him, mouth open in amused incredulity. “Liar,” he repeated.
“How the bleeding stars do you know that?” Alec demanded.
Alex thought that it wasn’t really his fault. And the others repeated their conviction that it was.
He had been very small when he first learned about liars, about the half-truths that they could tell and the way they could spread their words into unwary mouths, so that the lie was repeated with real honesty under the syllables. He had been less than ten years old when he stopped believing what he was told and stopped believing in truths that could be easily stated.
He had been only a little bigger when he was taught that liars could be right as well. The sharp twist in that had bitten him so much deeper, and from time to time, he remembered it in better detail than he would have liked.
Answers served with a greater emphasis on my childhood than usual
Kate Kearney searched: Why is this chocolate cake so delicious?
That cake? Which cake? Did you take the cake out of my pantry?
Oh my, that cake was actually a triple chocolate cake, made with the secret recipe handed down through my family for exactly no generations, invented from the secret knowledge off the back of the chocolate chip bag. I’m afraid you might never recover.
Did you save a piece for me?
Connell leaned against the wall, one leg tucked under the table, the other laid out in front of him on the long bench. He had been sitting there – at that table, against that wall – since he was too young to rightfully be in the inn’s taproom after dark. He couldn’t figure out if he had outgrown Lisse’s sharp commands to take his foot down, or if he’d only worn her down after a decade of straightening up on a flinch, and then sneaking his foot back up when her back was turned, but whichever it was, she just swept by as she took orders and delivered plates, and she smiled at him. Even though he took up the same space as a lazy octopus.
But the seat gave him a good scope of the room, and he wasn’t about to suggest that she should order him to give it up. He just stayed there, elbow on the table, mug in his lap, and smiled back at her.
“I’ll be a half-swung son of a sea sponge,” Connell murmured, and took another sip.
Across the table, Jaera sat, knees in front of her as she was supposed to. She looked up, eyes a little wide, but hardly surprised. “All right,” she told him. She turned her cup in her hands, shifting the heat of it against her palms. “But I think I’ve gotten a little old for pretend games.”
He had to look straight at her before he saw the smile curling the corner of her mouth. He’d already started to glare, but it was easy enough to turn back to a grin. He nodded toward the door. “Look who’s wandered in.”
“Do you know what your problem is?”
Kore, curled into a large padded chair in front of the fire, turned toward Zeld immediately. There was nothing else to do when your best friend came up with a sentence like that.
Zeld was sitting in the middle of the rug, feet kicked out in front of her, ankles crossed. She leaned back on her hands, the sleeves of her sweater pulled all the way down to her finger tips. The firelight turned half of her brilliant orange, and draped the other in gray, but her face was turned into the light and there wasn’t any shadow in her features.
“What?” Kore asked, curious.
Zar leaned heavily on the bar and let an edge creep into his smile. The innkeeper hesitated on the other side, almost pulled back.
“I said, my friend forgot to leave me a key,” Zar said. He liked to play with mixing boredom and threat in his tone, and he thought he’d found a potent balance today. “And I need to get into my rooms. Do I look like the kind of man who needs to ask twice?”
He waited while the innkeeper looked over his finely stitched coat, the rings on his fingers, the sheen on his shirt where it was dragged out through the intricate cuts on his sleeves. They fit like a second skin, despite being stolen. Zar did his job well.
Anie woke to the tramp of the patrol as it passed beneath her window. Snuggled against the back wall of her room, deep under the roof, the sunlight never had a chance to reach her. It was only a dim glow behind the shifting curtain, just a glint on the use-polished corners of the furniture. The room was cold after the long night, the point of her noise numbed, but she was warm enough under the blankets to keep her asleep a while longer. Except for the tramp of boots, the ringing slide of chain mail, the abrupt click of metal at the end of every step.
Anie opened her eyes, but didn’t move. It wasn’t even bright enough to blink against, just a lighter shade of night. She watched the glow behind the window, listening to the soldiers march down the street.
Her sister, Thea always sat up straight at the first sound. Her breathing stayed slow, deep and quiet, and Anie wondered sometimes if she was just moving in her sleep. After she sat up, she stayed still for the entire time the patrol was within earshot. Sometimes Anie expected her to lay slowly back down, wake again when the sun crept in. Every morning, Thea waited, then slid right out of bed as soon as she heard the last dim echo of a boot heel. She ran to the window, pulled the curtain back with two fingers and tucked her head close to the wall to glance out.
It took Alasdair a long time to realize Jig wasn’t her real name. Parents had handed out stranger names, and she answered to it every time, without hesitation. Sometimes she even turned at similar words – jib, jug, jog – the way people do when they’ve answered to the sound all their lives.
But overhearing the men at early market describe her – the little girl, only so tall, with the dark hair, who moved too fast, settled too fast, and smiled too fast – he knew they were looking for her. They avoided giving her name. They knew her, but they didn’t know what she was calling herself now. Alasdair finished his business, and left market quickly, before they could stop him to ask if he’d seen her.
That night, Jig was at Alasdair’s back porch, perched on the edge of it, with her feet dangling into the air, eating her dinner clasped in both hands. She had some sort of bread, stuffed up with meat and sauce that ran down her fingers. It was still warm. He could smell the sweetness of it as he sat down next to her.
If you majored in English, you spent about half your college career laughing (and crying) over And What Are You Going to Do with THAT? jokes.You gathered around the lunch table with other English majors, making up careers that you would be suited to (Official Metaphor Investigator, for instance, Infinitive De-Splitter, or Plot Arc Structural Integrity Safety Officer). At three a.m., you took a break from writing a ten page essay on the significance of the color blue in The Great Gatsby and cried to your roommate about how you useless you were.
The other half you spent fielding the polite versions of the question with as much grace and as little embarrassment as possible. If you were lucky, you could say you were going pre-law, or into the library sciences. Maybe you told them you were going to be a literary critic, or a literature professor. Maybe you told them that you were going to graduate school for your MALS or your MFA or your PhD, and hoped that they wouldn’t ask for plans after that, because you didn’t have any.
And then you met that one person who was rude enough to ask you flat out, “What are you going to do with that?”