Day 1: The Men of Kosar
The end of the war is a thing long crafted,
Handed down to each Seventh Counsellor,
Every seventh cycle, in a cycle stretching back
To when the gods were men.
"This can wait another dawning," said Rylan’s Barracks Mother, even as she finished spreading the last of the ash-grey soot through his wings. "Your girls will understand."
I don’t have another dawning, Rylan thought, lifting his head as Vinicia pulled away to check her work. We graduate in three days and if I don’t see them now I may never see them until I come back from war...
Vinicia did have a point, though. The dark clouds they had seen when they had slipped into the small roof-top shelter had looked ready to burst. If it started to rain before he got his chance to slip the Palace Guard, then the disguise they had worked into his wings would wash out faster than he could clear the Palace shelf.
His one saving grace was the fact that Vinicia was such a force in her own right. In a world where women were forbidden from learning the art of war, Vinicia ruled the officer-cadet barracks with an iron fist. As the special assistant to Headmaster Counsellor Aaron, she was the only woman with the authority to punish the tyros. Someone had to keep order in the barracks, and her word was law. After ten solar cycles, even the Guard stayed clear of her, reporting only when they were needed to man a duty desk overnight or assist the veteran professors in taking the boys out over the mountainside for training.
For now, while she might not be able to turn back the rains, she could twist at least the attention of any man who meant to stand in Rylan’s way. That was, as long as the rain cooperated.
Exhaling a rough breath, Rylan pulled his wings in to let Vinicia move back to the pile of rags she had brought with her. From what he could see in the dim light of her candle, her hands were covered with soot, and as she came in front of him to take him by the cheeks, Rylan closed his eyes.
"I don’t care how easy it has been for you to get through these winds unscathed," she said quietly, running her hands over his cheeks and forehead to streak it with ash. "The Guard has raised your bounty to fifty crowns until you graduate; ten for each cycle you’ve been here and ten to restore their honor."
"What honor?" Rylan grumbled, waiting as her hands moved through the short crest of hair along the top of his head. For as platinum as it had been in his youth, he had been dying it black since he had turned three and ten on the Delton streets.
When she was finally done, tousling it for good measure, she reached back and pulled up the oilskin hood and cowl that he would wear as he flew.
"We both know that coin should go to you," Rylan said when she pulled back again. "I couldn’t do this without your help."
"I’m not doing this for you," Vinicia said, even if Rylan knew she didn’t mean it. "You were a terror when they brought you into this system and you had every right to be. That blicing Seventh Counsellor had no business meddling in your conscription and I mean to make certain that man doesn’t ruin another life before he finally leaves on Envoy. If it’s the last thing I do--"
"You trying to convince me or yourself?" Rylan interrupted, stopping the woman before she could launch into a screed that might blow their cover.
Vinicia took a steadying breath as she picked up her bucket. For as long as she had apparently been in these barracks, she didn’t look any older than Rylan himself at three and twenty. She could also trounce him in a fight, a skill she had only had to prove to him once. To see her flushing now, even in the dim candlelight, was quite a surprise. She had let her anger get the better of her, and while she did have a fantastic temper, this was undeniable embarrassment.
"It’s the least I can do," Vinicia finally said. "Every other tyro in this barracks is allowed to see family except you three, and the injustice of it makes my skin crawl. So go, but be careful."
"I always am, Mother," Rylan said, letting himself smile as Vinicia picked up the bucket of rags and her glass-covered candle.
"Now go get into position, tyro," she said, finding her voice of command once again. "You’re only going to have a few beats if you mean to do this right."
"Hoi, Mother," Rylan said, touching his right fist to his left shoulder in salute.
The nod she gave him in return was as much a dismissal as any words she might have said, though she did wait until he had stepped into the deeper shadows of the shelter before opening the door. The roof-top shed wasn’t that big, after all.
Crouching down on his heels, Rylan brought his wings up around him to disguise his shape as Vinicia pushed out into the top of the barracks roof.
"Halt!" came the immediate command. "Who goes there?"
Rylan had just enough time to see Vinicia’s wings flare with indignation. "You know exactly who I am," Vinicia returned, and the light she held swayed. "And unless you mean to help me sift ash for the kitchens, you best return to your actual duty. Guarding me from my own blicing tools, the nerve..."
"Oh! Mother!" the guard yelped, close to saluting as she passed in a huff. "As-as you were."
"As you were?" Vinicia repeated, and Rylan could just see her start to round on the man who had come up to challenge her. "Drop, tyro. Now."
"But I’m not--" the guard stammered, panicking. "Mother, I graduated three cycles ago."
"Drop!" Vinicia barked, and the whip-crack of her voice seem to silence even the storm brewing over the barracks. "NOW!"
"You are on my roof and under my auspice," Vinicia roared. "Now drop or I will make you drop!"
As the light coming in from Vinicia’s candle shifted, Rylan heard the guardsman set his formal polearm to the ground. A moment later, he heard the man’s wings flare as he started into the ’foxdrop’ that all tyros learned to fear from their instructors. Delton military officer candidate or not, everyone in the Kosarans Legions had to be able to backwing off the ground from prone. In order to make certain of that, every tyro in the entire Kiharan range had to be able to leap into the air, pike and land on their hands, drop their feet onto the ground--but not their knees--and then backwing back to standing. The foxdrop was as humiliating as it was hard, and for all her inability to punish them more, the Barracks Mother adored them.
As Vinicia began her count, as irritated with the man as he likely was embarrassed to be doing them, Rylan had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. Vinicia had said she would give him a chance to escape before the rains, but for a heartbeat all he wanted to do was open that door and watch.
Finally getting ahold of himself, Rylan swallowed his laughter and turned to get ready to leave. If this was the chance she could give him, then he had to take it.
Twisting around in his crouch, Rylan put his hands on the worn wooden shelving behind him. This shelter was built flat against the stone embattlements, but that didn’t mean he was trapped here. Instead, with his fingers hooked into the crease he had carved out of the shelter four cycles ago, he jostled the wood and then shifted to brace himself before pulling at the three foot stone with all of his strength. Slowly, very slowly, Rylan dislodged the cube from the wall and with it came in the wind that was whipping around the Palace.
Though it had taken him almost a fortnight to carve this way out of his prison, Rylan thanked his once-noble father for managing to teach him at least some part of their family’s talents. House Northern has been one of the first families to settle the capital city with a lineage that stretched back to Founder Noventrio himself. As legend had it, Rylan’s ancestors were the ones who had assisted in carving the two tiered city-shelf into the side of Mount Delton. Though the sorcerous talents of the God of their Ancestor had now been lost to time, House Northern had leaned on that legend of stonemasonry until recently. Now, instead of being a pillar of the Delton economy, House Northern had collapsed in on itself and as the House slipped into bankruptcy, Rylan had watched his brother Dylan get cast out so that his inheritance could be consolidated into their eldest brother. Rylan had been thrown out after him only a few days later, when his reaction to losing his next-elder brother was to set fire to his room.
Rylan hadn’t known it then, but it was not the first time he had set a fire in anger and though the story had been that a timecandle had overturned, he knew that there had been no timecandle in his room since his fifth name day. They hadn’t wanted him to have access to any kind of fire since, like his great grand-sire before him, it was thought that he might have a gift for fire starting. After his brother Dylan was gone, that gift truly came to life and Rylan was given his wish--he was thrown to the streets as well to follow him.
Rylan had spent the cycle after he had been disowned chasing doggedly after Dylan, only to realize that the brother he loved had reviled him as much as the rest of the family. Eventually, the street crew that Dylan had been running with had told him to back off of be put down and Rylan, only ten and two, was left to fend for himself. Dylan had never looked back and Rylan had never forgiven him, not even after he had met the people who had eventually become his true family: the two men who had been conscripted into the Delton tyro system with him and the two women he was on a mission to see tonight.
Taking a steadying breath, Rylan cinched the ties of his cowl, hood, and flight cloak before maneuvering himself into the space he had created. Turning to push his wings out of his new hole in the embattlement, he grabbed onto the two handles he had carved in the back of the cube and, with painstaking slowness, crawled both himself and the cube back to its original position.
Now clinging to the side of the Palace walls, all he had to do was wait. Apparently in his effort to move the stone, his barracks mother had finished with her punitive education of the guardsman and now it was up to Rylan to slip the rest of the guards before the rain hit. Fortunately, as he took the moment to catch his breath, he heard the unmistakeable, piercing call of a warbard cutting through the winds. Loud as the man was, Rylan’s ears were ringing as the message both boomed just beside his position and whispered inside his scull by some gift of the man’s ancestors.
"Shelter the light! Pull inside your towers! No sane man will fly in this weather."
As the call echoed around the Palace, Rylan shook his head free of the ringing in his ears. With his feet pressed firmly against the wall, he released his grip and pushed straight out with all of his strength. Once he was clear of building, he twisted in the air and had enough lift to glide along the current without much effort.
Gathering his luck about him, Rylan made his way towards the low embattlements that marked the edge of the Palace proper and the two massive torches between them that lit up the sky. Rylan’s ancestors were with him, though, as two small blossoms of light separated from the torches on either side as he approached. When both guards turned to make the trek towards the safety of their respective towers, Rylan powered between the fires. Distracted by the warmth waiting for them, the guards were oblivious as he soared past.
Rylan’s next obstacle was a long stretch of barren white stone that kept the Palace a respectable distance from the rest of the city below. Unlike the other mountain cities, Delton had been carved in two parts: one main shelf for the city and a the vaulted Palace shelf that overlooked it--protected not only by its height, but by the tremendous updraft that had helped Founder Noventrio carve the shelf in the first place.
Before he had been disowned by House Northern, Rylan had taken his warrior’s flight in this wind as a test for admission into the soldier tyro system. The first time he had challenged this particular updraft, it had felt like he hit a wall of force. It had also thrown him nearly a league into the air and when it released him, he had just enough time to come to his senses and cut through it again to land on his hands and knees before what had turned out to be the previous Seventh Counsellor, Hewn su’Greying.
Even today he still remembered the look of pride he had gotten from that man. Though he was the commanding Warlord of the Nine Kosaran Legions, he had offered his hand and pulled Rylan to his feet.
"Well done, son," he had said, waiting for Rylan to find his balance. "It looks like House Northern may finally have what it takes to join us once again."
Rylan had beamed back at the man with unrelenting happiness. After the founding of Kosar, Noventrio had begun the line of Seventh Counsellors and this man could see just how much he wanted to follow in his ancestor’s wake. After one and ten cycles spent studying every man who had come after his ancestor and every book on war that he could get his hands on, Rylan had wanted nothing more than to work towards the famed Seventh Counsellor’s Peace.
It wasn’t until a moonturns later that Rylan’s House had realized what it would actually cost them to send him to the military academy. For all the glory Rylan might bring to the House as the first House Northern boy to become a Legion officer in two generations, his father had all seven of his sons to worry about. Another moonturn later, the rumors of disinheriting had begun, and then two of Rylan’s elder brothers were suddenly marrying off-shelf to guilds. Not a sennite later, Dylan was gone, and the rest was history.
At ten and two Rylan had fallen from a league above Delton to land on his wings in the silted Lower City with nothing to his name but shattered dreams. Eight cycles later he had been dragged kicking and screaming from the life and family that had made and forced into the tyro system by Counsellor Hewn’s successor. A man only a decade older than Rylan himself, Counsellor Kiernan hadn’t cared that Rylan wanted nothing to do with joining the Legions anymore. He had the reports on the kind of soldier Hewn had expected him to become, and the boon that Rylan and his crew-brothers had requested of the Palace Chiurgeons required an extraordinary blood price.
So in exchange for the saving the life of Micah’s twin sister Sera, Rylan, Micah, and Westly had given their own. After four cycles training as officer cadets, they would spend one full cycle on the War Plains, serving the Legions in whatever way the Counsellor or other officers have need. At the same time, Sera and Acadia would be allowed to work as staff to one of the many veteran taverns in the lower city. They would be off the streets. What the Counsellor hadn’t realized, or possibly hadn’t cared to know, was that the girls would never be safe from the other crews no matter where they were ’kept’.
And so tonight Rylan soared towards the updraft yet another time, tightening his wingbeats as he made his approach. Given all the strength he had found in steady meals and a tyro’s education, the gale of his youth now felt like pure, unadulterated freedom. Just a few more dawnings and his time spending every day with the other half of his family just beyond his reach, he could start his cycle at war and be that much closer to getting his life back.
Finally through the updraft, Rylan reveled in the feel of the humid night air and cut a hard left over the twilight expanse of the Lower City. If the rain continued to stall, it would take a good half a candlemark to wing his way to the tavern where his girls were being held. If it did rain, he could push through the weather and hope that it didn’t freeze to his wings or he could check the alleys between the buildings for an entrance into the streets below the stilted Lower City.
As another gale of wind began to drag him off course, Rylan tightened his flight and dropped to skim along the roof decks of the city. Here and there he saw figures still tying down their belongings and making last minute preparations for the ice to come. While the city had long ago been raised so that the lower entrances of the buildings were above the snow levels, the roofs were a different story. Here, the steep angles slid most of the snow away, but the decks and landing mosaics that served for entrances also helped windwalkers like Rylan keep on his course over the massive city.
In daylight the city was simple enough, circular streets spreading out in ripples of commerce and residences for the inhabitants. The overcast night blended them all together, disguising both distance and direction. Fortunately, the great estates of Delton were a blazing ring of lanterns in the night, so he knew where not to fly. By counting the estates on the left side of the dark river, he was able to mark his position and find his way.
Eventually, the long stretch of curving buildings gave way to the taverns district he was looking for and Rylan dropped down into a tight alleyway. Here the winds buffeted him less, but he had a greater chance of being seen. By their very nature, Palace funded taverns were full of Palace paid veterans and it was in Rylan’s best interest to remain discrete.
As the sky above flashed a brilliant white, Rylan was glad he had made it this far. With the clouds opening to release their weight upon the city, he could manage better speed without the strong wind, not that it wouldn’t take everything he had to power through the water. Rain, no matter how soft it fell, hurt like fire when you flew through it at traveling speed.
If he weren’t so exhausted, Rylan would have been happier about touching down on the Live Oak’s back deck. Instead, he just pounded on the door and then tucked his hands inside his cloak to wait. As the driving rain pooled in the folds of oil cloth, he shook off his cowl and let the rain streak through the soot. It was already in his eyes, so what did it matter?
When at last he heard the bolt of the tavern door slide free, his heart leapt into his throat.
"Rylan?" the woman called as her eyes adjusted to the night.
Though she was dressed like many other tavern workers in a long woolen tunic cinched in by a thick waist belt, Sera never did look the part. For one thing, she was short for a Kosaran and for another her olive skin never lost the warm glow of summer. The thing he loved most, though, was how her hair fell in long blue-black waves down to her hips. Like her twin brother Micah, there was a reason that she had plied her looks for coin when they had been on the streets. Both had bright blue eyes that could trap your soul at a glance.
Rylan smirked when she could finally see him. "No, it’s some f-fool come courting ’r-round the backdoor for your h-hand," he chattered and a smile blossomed on her face.
"You might be surprised," Sera countered, though she was ecstatic to see him. "You haven’t been away this long in at least a cycle. People are noticing."
"W-what people?" Rylan said, as she made quick work of unlacing his sodden cloak. "Who else k-knows you’re h-here?"
"Never mind that," Sera said and gestured for him to come all the way in, leaving the wet cloak next to the door. "Come inside before you catch your death."
"I c-could die h-happy here," he said, taking her hand. "Besides, it c-could be w-worse..."
Sera sighed, but there was a fondness behind it.
"What?" Rylan challenged, his tongue unthawing in the warm tavern. "You expect me to fly in this weather and not get wet?"
"I’d think all of your Palace training would be good for something," she said, retrieving a hearth-warmed towel and embracing him with it. "Last I knew, you could fly down below with your eyes closed."
"Sure, when I knew where the streets went," Rylan murmured, soaking in her warmth as he rested his chin against the top of her head. "I still have my edge. I just can’t dodge the rain."
Sera gave him a dubious look and then laughed. Rylan grinned back at her and then turned to see Kadi coming from deeper in the tavern, more towels in hand. Noticing his shifted attention, Sera released him, if reluctantly.
"Someone will notice if I’m gone too long," Sera said, excusing herself. As she passed Kadi, though, they barely acknowledged one another. Rylan almost said something, but Sera was gone so fast that he wasn’t certain he had seen anything at all.
As Kadi began her interrogation, Rylan found himself smiling again. Where Sera was exotic among the streets, Kadi was the embodiment of a true Kosaran: tall and slender with dark eyes, pale skin, and the light brown hair of a bloodline that had mixed so thoroughly between the House and Guild that there was no hope of telling her lineage.
"Are you all right?" she asked, motioning for him to strip out of the rest of his wet clothes. "What kept you so long? Don’t tell me that I have to play healer again?"
"I’m fine, Micah, and he only tried to strangle me this time, so I’m fine," Rylan reassured her. "You know how Micah gets..."
Rylan left his wet mess of clothes by the door and moved in front of the large fire in the room that served as the wall between the kitchen and this back area. As Kadi hung up his clothes to dry beside the fire, Rylan could see Sera moving around in the kitchen and finally, with both of them in sight, he began to relax.
"Well, it’s not like you make an effort to bring him with you," Kadi scolded. "Knowing you’re able to come out here when he can’t. It probably kills him and you know it."
"You know I can’t do that," Rylan countered, but Kadi just rolled her eyes.
"Are you feeling all right?" he asked, ignoring her mood for the red ring of exhaustion around her eyes. "You look..."
Kadi turned from him, tucking her hands into her sleeves. "I’m fine," she insisted. "Some of the veterans came in to the tavern with a travel sickness and I may have caught it. I just need to rest."
If he hadn’t known her better, Rylan might have believed her. But she had been their healer before they had found Westly, and if she said she would be fine, he trusted her judgment. She was one of the very few he did trust.
"Well, you don’t need to worry about me," he said, gesturing to the room where the tavern women kept their nests. "If you need to rest, then go."
Kadi sighed some woman’s lament and moved at his insistence. When she was settled into the floor nest she had obviously been in when he arrived, Rylan squatted down next to her, wings crossed behind his heels to prop him upright.
"So how have you been?" he asked.
"Same as always," Kadi said dismissively. There was exasperation in her tone, but Rylan wasn’t sure if it was stress or sickness until she spoke again. "You know, I thought I was done with tavern life when I met you."
"It won’t be for much longer," Rylan consoled. "When we come back from war, we can make our own way again. Micah swears that Nichi’s family can take us into their House if it comes down to it."
Kadi laughed weakly. "So I’ll move from a tavern to a nursery. What a relief."
They’d had this conversation before. No matter how much Rylan hated being conscripted, her loathing surpassed it. There was no hope anymore, no optimism at all, and it was beyond frustrating.
What more do you want? he asked himself as she closed her eyes. You have a roof over your head, food every night, and security I was never able to ensure on the streets.
"Micah says he has money in on the tyro court’s betting pools, which could mean good coin coming his way," Rylan said, hoping it would impress her. "Add that to an officer’s stipend we three will have and we’ll have enough to set up our own place--"
"Only idiots think that money solves problems," she interrupted, and might as well have slapped him for the venom in her tone. "If you expect me to just sit here and wait until you can provide for us, then I might as well leave now and get it over with."
Something happened while I’ve been gone, Rylan realized. Something neither of them are saying....
"I don’t expect anything from you," he answered, and then turned the question back on her. "But just what do you expect from me? I’m doing the best that I can with what I have. Do you have any idea the kind of trouble I can get into just coming out here? The only reason I’m here is to make sure you can be part of any decision we make. We’re still a crew, Kadi--"
"We haven’t been a crew since you abandoned us here," she accused and matched his angry glare with one of her own.
"And if I had listened to you?" Rylan challenged. "Sera would be dead now and likely Micah."
"If anything Sera says is true, Micah is half-dead already," Kadi threw back. "Do you know that he drinks himself blind when you’re here? I don’t care what Sera says to deny it, but she’s always hung over a basin the next morning when you’re gone. He’s the one doing it; making her sick. Wait, no. You’re the one doing this to him. To them. This is all your fault and I’m sick of dealing with it."
Rylan swallowed down the remark he was about to make as Kadi raged. No matter their arguments in the past, it had never been like this. Kadi had never blamed him for everything.
That silence hung between them until Kadi finally looked away. "I need to rest," she said, shifting away from him in her nest.
Rylan stood slowly and then turned to go, numb as he realized that he had her answer. She would not be waiting when they came back.
Exiting the room, Rylan made his way to the threshold of the tavern proper. Unlike other inns, these Palace funded taverns got most of their traffic from veterans who had business at the Palace during the winter. After the graduation tournament, the nobles in the Sires’ Wing of the Palace would take their families back to the estates on their respective mountain shelves. In turn, the command-level veterans would take up residence to prepare for war, but they had no where to go until the Sires were gone. As they waited, the same men stayed in places like these and spent their time dicing, drinking, and making wagers on which newly-made officers would stay the winter with them, whose unit they would be drafted into, and how long it would take the first of them to break for all the ‘traditions’ they had to pass on. It was pools upon pools upon pools...
From the noise in the tavern, Rylan knew that business was strong, and it was an honest half candlemark before Rylan could get Sera’s attention again. That, he got only because another one of the serving girls came into the back to retrieve food.
"You took time with him earlier," the girl complained as Sera stepped out from behind the tavern’s serving counter. "I’m not taking your whole shift. Get him food and he can sit out here with the rest of them or get back where he’s meant to be."
Sera gave the girl a nasty look before thanking her and slipping past the heavy curtain.
"Come on, soldier boy," Sera said cheerily, handing Rylan a mug of mulled cider. "Let me get you supper."
"I’m not a soldier yet," Rylan corrected and followed her into the empty kitchen.
"Fine, tie-row," she said and then giggled as Rylan rolled his eyes.
"Tyro," he corrected, taking a seat at one of the stools at an out of the way table. "Like the tea Westly makes from all his flowers."
Sera ignored him as she moved around the kitchen, but Rylan forgave her as she gathered a bowl of stew for him from an iron pot. He buried his nose in his drink and when he looked up, Sera had capped the bowl with a thick heel of bread and was approaching him with his prize. His stomach was in knots watching her, wondering what her answer would be, but he supposed he should eat first....
"So, Kadi is in a mood," he said as Sera joined him at the small table.
"To the winds if I know why," Sera said, head resting on her hand, making her cheek that much rounder as she watched him. "She just snapped a few days ago, right when she got sick. I tried talking to her, but she won’t say so much as hello to me any more. Like it’s my fault..."
They way she trailed off was suspicious, so he pressed her. "You fault for what?"
"For living," Sera said, looking down at her other hand. "She acts like nothing would have changed if the Ice Winds had taken me. That you all would still be together if they hadn’t brought me to the chiurgeons."
Rylan stopped, his spoon only halfway to his mouth. "You know that’s not true."
"All she remembers is that it was your idea in the first place," Sera said uneasily.
"I only told them how much of a disaster it would turn out to be," Rylan said, setting his spoon down as his stomach began to knot once again. "How we’d end up conscripted or worse. That was the first fight Micah and I ever had--whether or not to take you. I barely got to the gate by the time the rest of you had made it..."
Sera’s look was soft as matched eyes with him. "I hated you for that, you know," she reminded. "But in the end, you were right. I can’t say that I’m not happy to still be alive, but I’ve consoled myself with the fact that, at least this way, we all lived."
"I..." Rylan started, speechless until she motioned for him to keep eating.
"I forgave you cycles ago, Ry," she said, trying to smile. "But I can understand where she’s coming from. In the streets we were free," she said. "Here we’re nothing but servants with skills that make me a whore and her a wench. She was a healer, Rylan, our healer, until Westly came along. And I was, Micah and I together were, well--"
"Entertainers?" Rylan offered, which made her laugh.
"That’s one way to put it," she admitted, giggling.
"You were more than the streets could handle," Rylan went on, encouraging her. "Even Wenda admitted that."
"Wenda," Sera scoffed, rolling her eyes at the mention of her old crew-leader. "I’m just lucky that Wenda set such a high price on us. I wouldn’t take anything less than what my mother pulled. Micah made sure of that."
"That’s because you’re an actual artist--a dancer, I mean," Rylan said, nearing embarrassment with the misspoken words. "But you’re better than that all of that and you know it."
"I only know it because you dragged us out of that place," Sera smiled and then flushed as Rylan started to drown in the blue of her eyes. "With you and Westly and Kadi, we were better off than any other time in our lives."
"Which is why I want us back together," Rylan said, changing the subject. "But I can’t make that happen overnight. It seems like the whole blicing world is against us, but Micah has a plan. You’d really be proud of him."
Sera nodded, but didn’t engage him. For as much as he loved coming here despite the risks, Sera never wanted to talk about Micah. It hurt her almost physically being so far from her twin, but there was nothing he could do about it. At one point, long ago, she had explained that there was some kind of connection between them, that it felt like she was missing half of her mind without him around. Not a candlemark later, she told him to forget about it. She would manage and she had, but...
"You know this might be the last time I’m able to get out before the Ice Winds come," he said quietly. "After that, there’s no telling what spring will bring. I’ll try and get back, but I can’t say for certain."
"You’ll find a way," she said, watching him clean the bowl with his bread to get the last of his stew. "Maybe you two can stop by the Live Oak during the graduation tournament? I...I’d like that."
"Then that’s what we’ll do," Rylan said and grinned at her. "Though I still want to see if I can get you in the Palace. I mean, if it’s just you coming, we should be able to sneak you in. I’m sure Lord Seventh would be a righteous pain if he found out, but he takes such pleasure from making a misery out of my life that it would be nothing new. I’ve even heard that Headmaster Counsellor Aaron thinks that Lord Seventh just has this fat stick up his--"
"I doubt he said anything of the sort," Sera interrupted, taking a sip of the cider that sat ignored in favor of his food.
"No, but it was along those lines," Rylan amended. "Maybe I can ask Mother about bringing you up. I’m sure she could figure out where you could stay without either of them finding out."
"Mother?" Sera smirked, handing him back the cider. "Have you finally taken your barracks mother to nest to thank her for her help all these cycles?"
Rylan nearly choked.
"Hah!" he said finally, answering her confused look. "Mother is about the last person in the Palace any man could take to nest on a whim, second only to the Consort."
"Ah, well then," Sera chuckled. "I never truly thought you’d turn soft for a woman."
Rylan’s heart skipped a beat as he realized Sera had given him a perfect opening for his question.
"Well, reputations are distracting," he shrugged, trying to stay casual as his heart raced. "But with so many people out for my head, I haven’t have time for anything else."
"I may have noticed," Sera laughed, and the unusual quietness of her tone dared him to hope.
"It’s worse now," he persisted. "So many people want to prove Lord Seventh an idiot and if I fail, so does he. But if I score high in the tyro draft after graduation then Lord Seventh is right that I’m some second-coming of the Founders and worth conscripting off the streets. Meanwhile, I just want to tell everyone to go off themselves. Coming out here is the only space I get to breathe."
"Well, I’m glad to be of service," she smiled, and collected his dishes.
"It’s not a service," Rylan said, setting his hand on his chin as Sera dropped the dishes into the soapy water. "It’s a blessing, believe me."
"Only if you call being covered in soot a blessing," she laughed and Rylan indulged in the sight of her swaying with her task, her wings shifting and flaring as she worked. He came back to himself in a rush when she finally grabbed for a towel and turned to him with a pout.
"What, no witty observations?" she asked, moving back to the table with him. "No wonder you don’t pull people into your nest," she chided and Rylan could barely hear her for the pounding in his ears.
"What can I say?" he finally defended. "I don’t like hard to get."
Sera grinned and he watched as her posture change. Shoulders back, wings fanned ever so slightly, she went from wench to goddess in an instant. "Oh, but there have to be plenty of lonely Court daughters ready to nest with a tyro such as yourself."
"Not my type," he said, leaning away from her just enough to catch her attention. She leaned in, setting her elbow on the tall table with all her casual grace.
"Oh, so you have a type?" she asked. "I would have never known."
"Well, that’s understandable," Rylan said. "You’re one of a kind."
Three heartbeats passed as Sera stared at him, smoldering in her surprise until her olive skin turned a beautiful shade of scarlet and Rylan had his answer. The one thing he had to know before he left for War. She was the only reason he had to come back at all.
"Why in the world didn’t you every say anything!" she accused, embarrassed and flustered at the same time.
"Your wiles are a weapon," he said, defending himself as she swatted at him with her towel. "And it’s not like you’ve ever gave me a chance."
That stopped the towel, even if her scowling continued. He was right and there was no shame in the fact that it was true.
"Fine," she said and made a face as she heard someone calling for her from the bar. "Once you return from War..."
She faltered then and Rylan knew why; her ’once’ was truly an ’if’. There was no telling if any of them would make it back. Torn between him and her duty, Ryan saw just how trapped she felt.
When the sound of her name came through the heavy fabric again, insistent, Sera swore and started to leave. Rylan stood as well, following her back to the threshold.
"I’ll come back," he said, catching her hand before she could move the curtain. "I’ll bring all of us back."
"I know you will," she said, turning back with tears in her eyes. "I just... Rylan, you have to go," she said, her voice shaking. "Some of the other girls have threatened to tell them about you if I’m gone too long. I wouldn’t put it past them to come in looking for me just to see if it is you. Fifty crowns is a lot, Ry, even to a veteran..."
"They know I’m leaving, too," he defended, pressing his luck. For as much as the other women in this tavern found him lacking, this one time they would have to let them be together. How could they not?
When she finally looked back to him, his heart ached for her. In her he had found the silence of his hidden shelter, the strength to power away from the Palace grounds, and the undying affection that kept him flying in the downpour. She was the only reason he still had to keep going. She always had been, no matter how long he had tried to deny it.
Now, seeing the same fear and longing reflecting back at him, he found the courage to close the distance between them.
Rylan was ecstatic when she wrapped her arms around him, dragging him down to kiss her a second time and then a third. He hadn’t been joking when he said she wielded her wiles like a weapon and as she unleashed it on him he could have died happy. But as they came up for air, he caught sight of something he was not expecting. Pushing past the heavy cloth to find where she had gone was not her tavern mistress, but a barrel-chested Alexandrian man with six thick wing-bars to mark the power of his Seat.
The sound of the woman speaking form behind the curtain made Rylan’s blood run cold. "I told you it was him," Kadi complained. "Worthless. Both of them."
"Blood and ice, it is you!" the Counsellor said, grabbing onto Rylan’s forearm before he could react. "Is this where you’ve been all these cycles?"
But as Lord Sixth looked ready to drag Rylan out into the main room, Sera grabbed hold of Rylan’s other arm and twisted herself between them. As soon as the Counsellor’s grip on his arm broke, Rylan threw himself into the back of the tavern. As Lord Sixth realized what had happened, Sera flared her wings to block the entire doorway and Rylan didn’t have to look back to know that she was doing everything she could to give him the head start he would need. There would be a mob of veterans on him just as soon as Lord Sixth gathered his wits.
Only two steps ahead of them, Rylan grabbed his cloak from beside the door and dove into the ice-cold rain. As Lord Sixth screamed behind him, Rylan launched into the alley, the back door slamming shut behind him.
With his meager advance, Rylan powered through the rain to the closest entrance to the Streets he could find. If he could just make it there, he could lose the veterans after the first turn through the maze of canvas walls. Unlike the alleys made from platforms behind their taverns, the Streets down below were a dynamic landscape that changed with the tide of crews gaining and losing territory over the cycle.
Given his time away, he only knew the entrance for this area, but that would have to be enough. While the Guard and their patrol might have been able to follow him, the veterans didn’t have a chance. He could lose his trackers, take his time finding a path to a safe exit, and then resurface. If he got back to the Palace quickly, he could clean his wings and have enough deniability to swear he had been there entire time. Micah was always back at some obscene ’mark when he went to revel with the Tyro Court, so it wouldn’t be overly suspicious. A few ’marks from now, sure, but this close to graduation there were revels on nearly every floor of the barracks. No one would notice one more tyro turning in late, even if that tyro was under direct orders from Lord Seventh to not leave the barracks at all.
Whatever happened, his Barracks Mother would defendant him. Of that much he was sure.
I’m under her protection until after the tournament, Rylan knew. Not even Lord Seventh can do anything to me until at least then.