He gasped as he woke up, drenched in sweat, and got a disgruntled look from the man in the bunk next to his. The familiar sight of the dim room and the rows upon rows of bunk beds grounded him. The thundering of his own heartbeat quickly dulled and faded away. He lay back down, fully intent on going back to sleep.
And then he realized what day it was.
She could hear herself scream. As final sounds went, she guessed she could have wished for better and did so now, in a distant sort of way. The scene unfolding around her felt disconnected as if she was watching it played out on stage.
A man dressed all in white, his face covered by a mask made of bird bones, walked up to her bed. He pressed a needle into her neck, taking away her scream. It burned, that much she could remember, and suddenly she was vomiting, clawing at her neck and praying for the pain to stop.
Her eyes flew wide open, trading the view of a floor covered in sick for a ceiling spattered with spiderwebs. It took her pulse a good minute to slow back down to normal. Her breathing took a little longer.
And then she realized what day it was.
The docks were crawling with life, though the sun had barely made its away above the horizon. Men and women were bustling from place to place; carrying boxes, yelling orders, unloading cargo and generally making the harbor come alive after a long night of only cats and guards on patrol in the area.
On a brick wall, high enough to overlook most of the crowd, Glaw had just made himself comfortable alongside his sister Dylis. He couldn't help but make a face at her soggy appearance. Her uniform was unbuttoned, her skin sickly pale and her close-cropped hair was darker than its usual shade of mud, dripping water onto her nose and knees. The brown seashell of the Emperor's Sign around her neck glittered wetly. She sat hunched over, looking to be seconds away from toppling over and falling down onto the walkway five meters below, but she didn't start when Glaw playfully elbowed her in the ribs; instead, she glared at him out of the corner of her eye.
Glaw stuck his tongue out, the grimace pulling on the scar tissue that decorated the skin behind his ears and downwards. How far down they went was hard to tell, as they were mostly hidden by the high collar of his shirt. They were old scars, faded in color though impressive in size, as if someone once had decided to cut him open and see what the inside of his neck looked like, then stitched him back up. They matched his sister's almost perfectly.
A loud screech drowned out all other noise from the crowd for a brief moment. Glaw pulled his tongue back in and turned to look at the building the wall had the best view of. It was a large wooden hangar, similar to most other buildings in the harbor at first glance, but a unique sight to an attentive onlooker; it was the only building not directly connect to the sea or the road-channels. The screech started up again, as the doors to the hangar in question were pushed open another meter.
Dylis and Glaw both looked on with great interest, for a moment ignoring the crisp morning air, the shouting from a barge crew who had both one and eight things to say about the maneuvering of their towboat, and the ringing of various bells and whistles.
They sat motionless in absolute silence, just staring. Glaw broke the spell by sneezing. He elbowed Dylis again and signed: 'Sit long?'
Dylis shook her head in a curt no.
'Liar.' Glaw shifted, shrugging a backpack off his left shoulders. He opened it up without really paying attention to what he was doing, his eyes instead fixed on the sky. A few gray clouds were floating past far above, slowly disbursing to leave room for blue sky and sunshine.
There was a short staring match as Glaw produced a blanket out of his bag and held it up to Dylis, waiting for her to take it. She accepted it with a huff, pulling her jacket off with more force than necessary, before wrapping the much drier wool around herself.
"Spoiling your sister, are you?" The voice was faint in the din of the harbor, but Glaw immediately began scanning the groups of soldiers passing by on the walkway below. His eyes jumped from face to face until they settled on one that was nearly hidden by a curly chestnut brown beard.
"What else am I good for?" he shouted back down, waving at the bearded man, who gave a cheerful wave back before continuing on his way. When he turned back to look at Dylis she gave him a questioning look.
'H-U-W,' he spelled out with one hand, as his other was too busy digging through his bag and he needed both to properly make the sign for 'bear'. He got an acknowledging nod in reply before Dylis' eyes once more drifted back to the building on the other side of the channel.
'Do you think they'll fly soon?' Glaw signed, leaning over to hold his hands up in front of his sister's face, before joining her in staring at the half-open hangar doors. Through them, the large shadow of a metal wing could be glimpsed, half hidden by a myriad of gray-clad workers.
Dylis batted his hands away and shrugged, making the cotton of her ancient uniform shirt creak. Her eyes kept wandering over to look at him, then back to the hangar, before they darted off to stare unseeingly at the opening of a floodgate; allowing a smaller boat into town and onto one of the many road-channels.
As the boat sailed past on the channel below them, half-hidden by the walkway, Dylis slammed her hands down onto the wall, the impact scraping the skin off her palms. Glaw winced. A pit of dread that had been occupying his stomach all morning began to blossom into full-fledged nausea.
'Great honor,' he signed, biting back the urge to scream.
Dylis made a complex gesture with one hand that would have made any decent citizen gasp with shock, then added the sign for 'honor', seemingly as an afterthought. Glaw gave a shaky smile.
The opening of another floodgate - a far more exclusive one than the first, with intricate carvings and jewels lining its sides - disturbed a handful of seagulls. The flock of birds rose in a squabbling, screeching cloud as a gilded boat made its way into the less packed road-channel, and brushed past within a hand's breadth of the wall.
Glaw quickly raised his arms to shield his face, gritting his teeth as beaks and wingtips brushed against them. He swayed a little, vertigo unsettling what was left of the calm inside of him, causing his heart to leap up into his mouth. For a few seconds, he felt like he was suffocating.
A steadying hand on his right elbow stopped his swaying. He lowered his arms and turned to look at Dylis, who was wearing an unreadable expression. She was also digging through one of her pockets with her free hand. Glaw let his eyes wander to look at that, carefully avoiding having to meet his sister's gaze. Then he cocked his head to catch sight of the hangar again.
'I bet you'll have them flying next week,' he signed, and if his hands shook he told himself it was just from almost having fallen off the wall. 'You'll forget all about me, you'll see!'
The hand on his elbow went from supportive to painful. Glaw allowed himself to look up and saw that Dylis had paused in her search and was giving him a wide-eyed look that bordered on insanity.
"Nevr!" The word, though mispronounced and poorly articulated, had the impact of a punch in the gut. The air went out of Glaw with a noise he really hoped wasn't a sob and he sagged where he sat, hunching in on himself until he matched Dylis' earlier pose.
'Never!' Dylis said again, this time with her hands. Her back had straightened until she towered over him, illuminated from behind by the almost risen sun. The whites of her eyes were bloodshot and her face shaped into a grimace, not unlike a growling dog. For a second, Glaw imagined that was what an angered demon would look like.
Glaw let his gaze fall, staring at the bricks they were sitting on without seeing them. A rustling noise told him Dylis had gone back to searching her pockets, with more force this time.
Glaw remained motionless until Dylis thrust a hand in front of his face. The thing in the palm of her hand didn't look much for the world; a crumpled brown paper bag, barely the size of a fist, tied together with a piece of string. Even so, a jumbled mess of emotions grabbed a hold of Glaw's heart and squeezed.
'For until you come back,' Dylis signed after he'd taken the bag from her (and his hands were shaking now, there was no denying it.) 'Only until you get back.' She emphasized the 'only' with a forceful flick of her wrist.
Carefully, cradling the brown paper as if it were the wings of an injured bird, Glaw unwrapped his present. Inside were six bars of chocolate. Not the kind you got at the market that was saturated with butter and sugar, but the real kind, almost bitter to the taste and this early in spring about as rare as pearls.
Glaw said nothing as he straightened up, eyes locked on the chocolate. Just as carefully as he'd unwrapped it, he closed the bag and made room for it in one of his own pockets. He hurried to wipe away a few tears he hadn't been able to bite back, while Dylis very pointedly didn't comment on them.
'Guess I own you half a month's pay,' he signed when his hands were wetter than his eyes, his smile steady again. All he got in reply was a curt nod.
This time Glaw came much closer to falling off the wall. He gave a yelp as Dylis grabbed the back of his jacket, nearly getting dragged down with him. Heart racing he grabbed at the wall with both hands, fingers aching from the impact, and began a wide-eyed search of the walkway to find the person responsible for the unexpected shout.
"You going to sit up there like a molting owl all morning or are you ready for some fun?" Owain's grinning face matched his voice perfectly, mischief and excitement wrapped up into one thin, gangly body currently seated on the walkway railing.
"If I fall, I'll make sure to land on your head!" Glaw called back, his voice so cheerful it nearly reached falsetto.
Owain laughed and jumped down from the railing, dodging around a man with a wheelbarrow, before answering: "We've got a gathering waiting for you at the pub by that bakery you're always raving about. Better come join us soon or we'll start without you!"
Glaw winced as if an invisible hand had smacked him upside the head. 'I should go say goodbye!' he signed to Dylis, as Owain disappeared into the crowd.
'Go,' Dylis signed, smiling for the first time in days. It was a small, amused smirk a far cry from her usual grin, but at least it was something. 'You've got privileges I'm sure you can't wait to take advantage of.'
Glaw gave an embarrassed chuckle and ducked his head, before signing, 'See you tonight.' Making sure he got a reply (an absentminded nod) he began to make his way over to the nearest rooftop. He kept on his hands and knees to not risk another close call.
Once back on his feet he threw a last glance back at Dylis and the hangar. The sun was high enough now to color the buildings around her a faint golden tone and for a moment her as well. The trick of the light made the blanket she'd wrapped around herself look like a fine silk cloak. For a second Glaw could picture her soaring through the clouds in an airship, dressed in clothes fit for a noble. Or a war hero.
He hurried over to the nearest walkway and set off after Owain before the image could get stuck in his head. It wouldn't do to cry at his own farewell party.
It took Dylis a full hour to get down from the wall, once her brother had left.
She sat there and stared as if everything around her was draped in thick fog. Unlike what her calm appearance hinted at, her thoughts were rushing by at breakneck speed. She suspected that if she got up before she was ready, she'd throw up what little breakfast she'd managed to eat.
A seagull landed right next to her and regarded her with suspicion, before boldly attacking her jacket that she'd draped across her knee. This finally called her back to reality. She gave the bird a violent thwack with one hand, nearly dropping the blanket and the jacket in the process.
The seagull jumped back a few steps and shook its head, looking far too unconcerned. It crouched down, preparing for another attack. Dylis gritted her teeth in frustration and got up, uncaring of the narrow ground she had to stand on.
The seagull looked up at her, taking in her suddenly much larger form and took a step back. It's beady eyes locked on her jacket, following a few crumbs of uneaten breakfast bread as they tumbled out of a pocket.
With a squawk it spread its wings and threw itself up into the air, making a nose dive for the soon to be lost breadcrumbs. Dylis watched it disappear behind the corner of a nearby storage house before she whirled around and began walking, putting one foot down in front of the other as if the wall was nothing more than a somewhat narrow road.
Once back on steadier ground Dylis allowed herself to think, letting go of the fog of mind-numbing panic that had left her a walking shell all morning. Immediately the litany of Why!? returned, like someone yelling at the top of their lungs from a watchtower. Why Glaw? Why not her? He wouldn't last a day in Outer Camps; it made no sense!
With steps that were far noisier than they needed to be she made her way to the edge of the roof and leaned out over the waist-high wall, uncaring of dried blood on her hands. She let her eyes sweep over the crowd below, who were making their way across the myriad of walkways that crossed the main road-channels.
She needed an idea. A way out. And standing around on a rooftop feeling sorry for herself wasn't going to give her one. But she needed a destination, some form of goal. Mentally she went through her list of friends, of any resources she might have at hand that she hadn't already depleted in the days since the news of Glaw's reassignment. It was nowhere near the length it needed to be for this, but it was better than nothing.
One name popped into her head and shone brighter than the rest: Rhian. Of course. No one in the Imperial Military she knew was influential enough to get anyone reassigned, as proven by her many failures during the past days, but Rhian wasn't part of the military - and she had access to a lot of information. It might be desperate, but it was better than no plan at all.
The library. That would be her goal, for now.
Decision made Dylis set off as fast as the old ladder would allow her to. She landed right in front of a startled old couple to whom she gave an apologetic nod, then rushed off. Around her, the city was brimming with activity. Everyone who could be outside was, either enjoying the sunshine after the stormy night, repairing buildings, or delivering goods.
She even spotted a few foreign sailors, easily detected by their mismatched clothes, unending number of earrings and tattoos, as well as their suspicious expressions. The storm must have been quite something for so many of them to have dared make their way into town. Usually, they stayed on their ships as much as possible, having food delivered to them and only speaking with people they directly traded with.
The first passenger barge she caught was packed to the brim with people. She had to squeeze herself between what looked to be a hatter and a baker, their work clothes already stained by the ingredients of their trade. The hatter gave her a somewhat mad look, but seeing as this was no unusual look for a hatter Dylis let him be.
On the other side of the barge a small child - its sex unidentifiable due to baggy clothes and a hat that had to belong to an adult - had gotten up on its knees on its seat, facing the water. It was doing its best to catch one of the flying fish that were following the barge, glittering green, red and silver in the light reflecting from the water. Dylis couldn't quite see the child's face, but its movements and posture spoke of laughter.
On each side of the child sat two men - perhaps the fathers, brothers or maybe uncles - who kept smiling at each other as only older relatives can when observing the antics of a small child.
Any other day such a domestic scene would have put a smile on Dylis' face. Today, however, all she could see was Glaw, small as he'd once been, kneeling by the side of the channel, short fingers flailing after the tail of an escaping fly fish. The child even had the same hair as him; an unruly mess of mousy gray.
She hurried off at the next stop and took another barge, thankfully free from children.
The library was an old and not too impressive building. It lay in the shadow of the courthouse and at least three different religious sites - Dylis never could tell one from the other - but it had an air of calm and wisdom about it that few other places possessed. Other than the harbor no place in all of Trade could put her so at ease as this.
Ironically her back stiffened as soon as she entered the library as if her spine had a mind of its own. She waited to feel a glare burn her neck. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught sight of Siani Yates, looking as disapproving as ever. Dylis hesitated in the doorway for a moment, weighing her options, before simply stepping inside. Her boots left muddy footprints on the rust red carpet as she walked. Yates' glare intensified, sending a shiver down the back of Dylis' neck.
She stopped by the desk, her back still turned to where Yates was lurking, and gently rang the bell. She counted to three. As if on cue the smiling face of Rhian popped out from behind a faraway bookcase, her brown mop of hair as windblown and tangled as ever. Dylis inhaled slowly, waiting for the warm anticipation the sight of Rhian would bring – and was left wanting as the churning worry that lurked inside her mind refused to budge.
Rhian gave a wave and mouthed something Dylis assumed had to mean: "Be right with you!", before she rushed down the ladder she'd been standing on.
Dylis took a moment to study Rhian as she approached, for a moment losing focus on the here and now. Her fellow soldiers often likened Rhian to a door mouse; quick, nimble, uninteresting and very good at blending into the background of whatever room she happened to be in. Dylis could never get over how wrong an impression that was. If anything Rhian was a cat. Not the graceful, pampered kind the nobles dragged along on soft pillows and fed cream, nor the wild, battered alley cats that scavenged for food in trash cans behind restaurants.
No, Rhian was a house cat. Deceptively kind and social most of the time, hiding a keen mind and sharp claws.
The appearance of a small chalkboard, waved in front of her eyes like an illusionist might use a pocket watch to hypnotize an audience member, started Dylis enough to derail her train of thoughts. Her eyes were faster than her mind, making out the words Are you with me?, scribbled with chalk in Rhian's neat handwriting.
Dylis pressed her lips together tightly and nodded, her cheeks heating. She tore her eyes from the chalkboard and forced herself to look at Rhian's face. It was still adorned with a gentle, almost shy smile, that left Dylis unnaturally cold.
Rhian returned her nod and wrestled a handkerchief from her purse. She began scrubbing at the board until it was free enough of chalk dust for a new message to be written.
Looking for something? The sentence was accompanied by an exaggerated, thoughtful frown from Rhian, who was staring at Dylis hard enough to give the impression that she was attempting thought-reading.
Dylis gave a curt nod and automatically reached out for the board and the chalk, which Rhian gave her with an encouraging nod.
Law books, Dylis wrote under the much daintier sentence. All of them.
Rhian did a double-take and gave what looked to be a laugh. All mirth left her face though as she looked up and caught sight of Dylis stone-faced expression.
For once Dylis couldn't make herself care that she'd been the cause of such a drastic mood change, not even when the victim was Rhian. Instead, she just gave another nod.
As Rhian disappeared among the shelves Dylis took the chance to turn around and return Yates' consistent glare with one of her own. The woman in question, old hag that she was, didn't as much as lift an eyebrow at this change. She only pushed her glasses back to the top of her nose and settled down even further in the chair she was occupying, her hands sorting books onto different portable shelves without her paying them much attention.
Their eyes locked in silent battle for a good while. Yates hands never stopped moving. Dylis crossed her arms over her chest in a demonstration of utter defiance and contempt.
A gentle tap on her shoulder brought Dylis' attention back to Rhian, who gestured at a table on the other side of the room, half-hidden behind rows upon rows of bookshelves. She waved her right hand as if to beckon Dylis to follow her, but suddenly cut herself short and frowned. Without a word, she moved two steps to the left, got up to stand on her tiptoes and tilted her chin up to look over Dylis' shoulder. Dylis followed her gaze to Yates. Yates rolled her eyes and continued to stack books, but also stopped glaring.
With a brusque shake of her head, Dylis decided to ignore whatever mind-game the two of them had chosen to play today and simply stepped across the room. She stopped to glance out the tall windows for a split second, before taking a seat at the table Rhian had indicated. It was already covered with books and texts in all shapes and sizes; some looked so old they might fall apart at a mere touch. The only thing they all had in common were the words 'law' and 'rule', printed here and there across their covers or sides.
What are your plans? Rhian asked by means of the chalkboard, placing it on the table against a stack of leather bound editions of Imperial Laws and Guidelines.
Plans? Dylis scribbled in reply, mind already more focused on the texts before her than the conversation at hand.
Rhian leaned over the table, cleared away some of the letters, and added: Are you moving?
The question struck Dylis' like a bolt of lightning. She froze, memories of the previous week flooding her mind; airplanes and assignments and her brother's excited smile.
None of that was going to happen now and that truth brought with it a wave of anger so strong it made her blood boil. She took the chalk from Rhian's unresisting hand and wrote a curt, No, before returning her attention to the books.
Rhian's hand remained in the air, her fingers curling and uncurling as if unsure of what to occupy themselves with. After a moment's hesitation, she picked up the chalk from the tabletop where Dylis had discarded it and added:
I'll go see what news I can hear. She left the table and returned to the desk without waiting for a reply.
Dylis paused in her search for books that seemed relevant to her case and let her eyes lock onto Rhian's retreating form, taking in her hunched shoulders. Finally some emotion other than cold panic registered - guilt.
Dylis opened her mouth to call Rhian back but snapped her jaw shut just as quickly. The humiliation of speaking out loud to someone other than Glaw wasn't something she'd be able to face, not even now.
Resigned to apologizing later, as well as missing out on watching Rhian weave a spell, she turned her full attention back to the books. This would take some time, but it was the only way. There had to be a way for Glaw to refuse this reassignment without being dishonorably discharged (or worse.) There just had to be!
She turned the first page, signed a short prayer to whatever god might be listening, and began reading.
"Another round over here!" Owain crowed, flagging down a passing barmaid, who gave him an exasperated look. This might have been due to the fact that he was standing on the table. Again.
Glaw couldn't help giggling at the sight of him as the barmaid gently but firmly tugged him back down to the floor. Owain had always been gangly, more bones and tendons than muscles, but at this moment he looked like a pink wading bird; though an unusually graceful one. Despite is awkward built, Owain had never made a clumsy move in his life (or if he had, Glaw had never been there to witness it.)
To prevent Owain's antics from making him snort wine out his nose Glaw took a moment to watch the other people around the table; the ones who were actually sitting down and enjoying drinks. It was quite a good turn-up, all things considered. Most of his squad had shown up, as had Huw and a few of his friends all the way from Search.
They were all laughing, all on the side of drunk that you reached just before people got rowdy or nauseous. Their happy faces were at once comforting and frustrating. Glaw didn't know if he wanted to embrace them or punch them, especially as people were having trouble addressing him directly. It was as if he was attending his own memorial service.
"...that's when Glaw said 'because he's got a face like one'!" Huw said, finishing up a story he'd told hundreds upon hundreds of times. "And that's how his sister started calling me 'bear'." At this point Huw broke down, guffawing at his own tale and getting beer in both his beard and lap.
Around him the others joined in, giggling and wrapping their arms around their bellies; even though most of them knew the story by heart.
<A toast to Glaw!> Owain shouted, having gotten steady on his feet again, switching language as fluidly as he jumped up on a nearby chair. He'd grabbed a glass of ale, which most likely wasn't his, from the myriad of cups and mugs cluttering the table and raised it above his head, spilling foam in the barmaid's hair. <A brave soul, who->
"Stop that!" The command came from the owner of the establishment, a heavyset little man with a balding head and a skinny mustache. He'd been standing behind the bar from the moment their group had entered, watching them like a hawk, but had remained silent until now. "I'll have none of that filthy demon speak in my bar!"
<Ignore him!> Gethin - a soldier girl Glaw barely knew, but who'd tagged along because she was a friend of a friend and there was free alcohol to be had - said and gave the bar owner a wide grin. <He's just worried Glaw will request all his finest wines for the journey to Outer Camps.>
This comment instantly stopped all the laughter and cheer. A somber cloud made its way over the table, killing the happy mood as painfully and inevitably as the bite of a soul-maker snake. Owain got down from the chair and instead curled up on it, like a small child seeking warmth by a fire on a cold winter day.
Gethin quickly got up and hurried over to the bar, where the bar owner too had fallen silent, once more satisfied with just staring at them. She grabbed a few of the bottles lining the counter and returned to the group, not looking at anyone. Glaw accepted a refill of his glass and hurried to empty it, attempting to wash away the lump in his throat. He nearly spat it all out when he glanced over at the wall clock and noticed what time it was.
Outside the sound of dozens of clock towers simultaneously striking noon rang out, drowning all conversation for twelve swings of the bells.
All eyes turned to the door. Glaw held his breath.
For a second it almost looked like nothing was going to happen. The ringing of the bells died away leaving the chatter around the bar's other tables to resume its previous volume. For a few moments, a few torturous moments, Glaw had the time to think: I shouldn't have lied to Dylis.
Then the door opened. The man and woman who stepped inside wore identical, wide smiles and neat uniforms. They looked more like the escorts for a wedding than the drivers of a carriage to Outer Camps, but that was only to be expected.
"Is Private Glaw Nevett here?"
Glaw stood up, only shaking a little. There was no point in delaying any longer; the military always knew where their soldiers were. Always. The question was just a formality.
"Here," he answered, surprised that his voice carried so well. "I'm ready."
"Great!" the woman chirped, "then follow us and we'll get you where you're supposed to be, in comfort and style!" She wasn't shouting, but Glaw got the feeling she would have been, had he taken one moment longer to get moving. Her grin, though by no means hostile, sent a shiver down his spine. It looked dead somehow; like she'd been smiling so long she'd forgotten how to stop.
The entire table followed him out. They carried as many bottles as they could get their hands on, as well as bags with gifts and other trinkets they'd brought with them. They all boarded the same barge, empty of any other passengers, and as it passed down the main road-channel they sat as quiet as a group of mice hiding from a hungry cat.
All other boats made way for their barge without protest. Some even waved to them and wished them good luck, to which the drivers waved back and cheerfully expressed gratitude for their kind words. Glaw had to bite down on his tongue to prevent himself from yelling at them to shut up.
Land came closer at a snail's pace. He had no concept of how much time passed from the moment he spotted the jetty leading up to the marketplace by the city gate to the moment the barged weighed anchored by it, but it felt like forever; one endless moment of anguish and regret and hope that it never would be over.
But it was. The drivers threw a crude weight into the water, secured the barge by the jetty with a simple but firm knot, and disembarked. They didn't as much as look over their shoulders to see if the rest of the passengers would follow them.
The marketplace was as lively as ever; packed to the brim with stalls of fresh foods and fine wines, toys and confectionery, sculptures and knick-knacks from all corners of the world. As usual, no foreign traders were to be seen.
Along the vague border of market and road several carriages stood parked, horses busy eating and drivers either repairing broken wheels or off somewhere on business. One of them stood out more than the others. It was painted a dusty gray, drawn by two horses with pelts to match and it had the symbol of the Imperial Military – a golden sword – painted as a crest on each side.
The drivers came to a halt by it. While the man saw to the horses the woman opened the carriage door and turned her ever-smiling face to the small crowd. The carriage's inside was very impressive to look upon; nothing but silk and finely brocaded drapes, fit for any person of taste and class to travel comfortably in. With enough denial one could even ignore the bars on the windows.
As Glaw stood facing the very last carriage ride he'd ever go on, he felt his knees buckle. He wasn't prepared. Not even close.
A comforting hand landed on his back with a soft thud, unbalancing him momentarily. "Be brave, boy," Huw said, his rumbling growl of a voice strangely gentle, barely above a whisper.
Glaw managed a stiff nod and without looking back he stepped inside, blocking out the smiling woman and the calls of farewell from his friends. Bags and bottles soon followed him in, but he didn't turn around to look at them until the door was closed and bolted behind him.
He lost his footing as the carriage jolted forward and had to brace himself against the only furniture there was; a bed covered in black velvet, with more pillows than there was room for. From the wrong – right? – angle it looked like an open coffin. Fighting back the urge to gag he whirled around and put his hands on the window bars, staring out at the market and the people going about their daily lives.
The carriage grew darker as the city gates drew nearer, casting shadows over his bolstered prison. High up above, where the flags and banners waved slowly in the midday breeze, small silhouettes wandered back and forth, occasionally waving colored rags to signal to each other or to their comrades on the ground.
Glaw closed his eyes and took a deep breath, concentrating on remembering the view from up there in perfect detail. There had never been a more breathtaking sight in his life than to look at the city from the top of the gates at noon. Sunlight would be reflecting on all the copper coated roofs. Everywhere people dressed in all colors imaginable would be making their way from one walkway to another, crossing over the road-channels where boats languidly floated by. Far, far in the distance he'd be able to see the harbor and the endless sea, spread out like a glittering carpet of pure blue.
He bit back a sob and cursed, squeezing his eyes shut even further until his eyelids ached. When he opened them again it was to the sight of grasslands and open sky, and one final glimpse of the great city wall. Then there was only the main road-channel to watch, flowing parallel with the paved road he was traveling on.
As traders yelled orders and nobles enjoyed the sunshine on the decks of their finely decorated boats, Glaw sank down in his far too soft bed and cried until he had no tears left.
The sun was setting. Dylis felt it glare at her on its way down back into the sea, like a disappointed drill sergeant who'd caught a squad of new recruits relaxing in the grass instead of practicing their sword skills.
She glared right back at it before she realized how ridiculous she must look. Biting the inside of her cheek she brushed off the sensation of being watched and returned to her work. Books had piled up on the right side of the table, thrown into a haphazard mess. The ones on the left were more organized and fewer in number, and with far strangers titles; some unintelligible, worn down due to age, and some with titles in dialects no one had spoken in centuries.
Three of the books stood out from both piles, opened as they lay right in front of her, half hidden by a dozen pieces of parchment. Said parchments were covered in jumbled notes in Dylis' not too neat handwriting, arrows connecting some and angry black scribbles covering a few.
Dylis rubbed at her bleary eyes, smearing an ink stain under one of them wider across her cheek. She still had another hour. She only had another hour.
An arm appeared at the edge of her field of vision. She jumped in her seat and twisted enough to the left to get a full view of whoever had interrupted her; and was fairly embarrassed to realize Rhian had been able to sneak up on her. Again.
'Done,' Rhian mouthed as soon as their eyes met. Her forced smile made what little hope Dylis had been fostering die a quick, painful death. Curling her hands into fists she did her best to not say or do anything for the seconds it took to force the panic away. That done she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
A gentle warmth suddenly closing over her left hand made her eyes fly open. The sight of Rhian's hand on hers was both thrilling and frustrating. Why now of all times? Why couldn't this have happened on a day when she had a clearer head? When she wasn't preparing to leave the library empty-handed, to go and tell her poor brother she had absolutely no way of helping him?
Rhian gave the back of Dylis' hand a soft, encouraging pat, and then reached out for a piece of parchment and a quill. My mentor has met several soldiers who've returned from Outer Camps.
Well-meaning as they were the words made Dylis want to smash her head against the table. And what state were they in? she scribbled in the corner of one of the many papers she'd covered with her useless notes.
Some regain the will to eat and walk pretty quickly, Rhian hurried to write, her lips drawn upward into something that lacked far too much joy to be called a smile.
And then they're shipped right back! The words were angry, stilted things with harsh angles and careless stains of superfluous ink surrounding them like an uneven halo. Dylis resisted the urge to tear the paper to tiny pieces and throw it into the fireplace. The effort would have been futile anyway, seeing as she'd never seen a fire lit there, not even on the coldest days of winter.
Rhian hovered by her side for another few seconds, shifting her weight from foot to foot. Dylis looked up at her with what she hoped was an apologetic expression – though she suspected she appeared more impatient than repentant – and then gave her a nod. Rhian nodded back and made another attempt at a smile, before hurrying off back among the bookshelves.
Dylis opened another book and glared at the first page. She swore to hunt down and beat up the authors listed there if it turned out to be yet another dead end. As she turned to the second page Yates passed by the table and liberated some of the books from the right pile. She was probably glaring and muttering about the barbaric handling of her precious texts, but Dylis couldn't find it in herself to look at her to find out.
The last rays of the sun fell through the window. Dylis strained her eyes, trying to make out the words written in a decorative and small hand. Asking for candles would be pointless unless she wanted another fight with Yates – for which she had no time – and try as she might she couldn't work up the courage to ask Rhian for safe light.
A firm pat on the back pulled her out of trying to interpret yet another court-martial hearing. She whirled around, ready to give whoever had disturbed her a piece of her mind, only to come face to face with an unusually somber Huw.
'So this is where you've been hiding,' he signed, a look of pure disapproval on his face. 'Couldn't even come say goodbye. Really Dylis, I hadn't thought you were such a coward.'
Dread began to claw at Dylis' guts with the slow build of a far off tsunami's faintly visible crest. 'What?' she asked, toppling the chair as she got up. 'Say goodbye to who?'
The faint light of anger in Huw's eyes died away, snuffed out like the flame of a candle. He took a step back, eyes darting to fix on a point to the left of her head. 'I thought-'
Her fingers trembled so badly that she nearly couldn't shape them into the sign for bird, no matter how familiar a gesture it was; the closest she'd come to a stutter in all her life. She gave Huw a searching look, clenching her teeth with such force that each one of them ached.
Huw echoed the sign with a steady, careful hand. Pity had taken over his eyes.
For a long moment, they just stared at each other. Dimly, Dylis took note of several curious onlookers peeking out from between shelves and looking over the edge of books. Rhian and Yates were both over by the entrance desk; Yates with her back turned, rearranging a stack of papers; Rhian just staring, her eyes wide. Next to her stood a customer who looked equally shocked.
None of that mattered, of course. Not now.
'He said he'd be called at midnight!' Dylis signed, her gestures jerky and violent. 'Midnight,' she repeated, her whole world tilting and swaying.
Huw's mouth shaped itself into a small "o". 'They came for him at noon.'
An image of Glaw, alone in a dark, locked carriage somewhere on the mainland road, flashed before her mind's eye. It felt like she'd been kicked in the stomach.
'I should have asked for you, but I thought...' Huw signed, trying to catch her eyes with his. 'Never mind what I thought, I'm an idiot. We-'
She didn't wait for him to finish. Grabbing her uniform coat from the floor she bolted for the door, running out on the walkway outside. She elbowed her way through the crowd and jumped onto the nearest passenger barge.
No one looked at her or questioned her, not even the man whose bags her landing knocked over – her uniform took care of that. When she gestured at the driver to steer the barge closer to the other side of the road-channel, he did so without a word.
Dylis leaped into the air as soon as the walkway was within reach and grabbed it, heaving herself over the railing. She landed on her feet and set off at a dead run, unthinking and uncaring of who she was pushing out of her way.
The clock tower was the first part of the barracks to come into view, its rickety scaffolding as permanent a part of the environment as the water in the channels. One of the repair crew made to wave at her as she ran past but stopped halfway when the fellow next to them shook his head in warning.
Dylis made her way over to the men's barracks without greeting anyone. She tore the door open with all the force she could muster. It must have made quite a loud bang when it struck against the wall.
Inside the light was dim. There was a small group of young soldiers gathered by the tables at the far corner of the large room, engaged in some form of card game. Her noisy entrance seemed to have interrupted them if the cards and coins on the floor where anything to go by. Otherwise, the room was empty, beds made and candles unlit.
One of the boys by the tables got up in a domineering fashion, his broad shoulders and confident stride proclaiming him the leader of the new recruits. Hands at his sides he squinted at her and said something that, judging by his expression, was far from kind and friendly.
Dylis grinned at him, baring her teeth, not unlike an angered wolf would, with just enough insanity in her eyes to unsettle him. She took a step further inside, making sure the sparse light fell on her scars and the rank markings on her uniform jacket.
The boy's gaze flickered between the two like a hare cornered by two foxes. He quickly composed himself and saluted, before hurrying back to the table. The other boys didn't look at her; they sat with their shoulders hunched up to their ears and stared at their cards as if they held the secrets to the universe.
With a last ice-cold glare in their direction, Dylis turned her back on the table and began walking further into the room. It was built to house one hundred soldiers at any given time, with fifty bunk beds lined up in five parallel rows. Perhaps it wasn't the cleanest of places – one hundred soldiers with little free time did cause more dirt to get dragged into the building than out of it – or the most luxurious, but it had a lived-in feel to it, a history that made it more of a home than any of the richer houses Dylis had ever visited (though admittedly she hadn't been in many.)
She could have made her way to Glaw's bunk in her sleep; a task made even easier by the decorations it had acquired. There were flower garlands hung at each end, and small but colorful bouquets arranged on the pillow; farewell gifts Glaw would have received in person if he'd been present to do so.
Dylis stood by the bed's foot end for a good minute, just taking in the sight and fighting to keep her breathing steady and calm. She gritted her teeth. She curled her hands into fists until her fingers ached from the pressure. She did everything but scream and cry.
Panic and despair were her enemy. They could never bring victory, never solve a problem. She had to think.
She sank down on the bed, crushing a few stray petals without really noticing. The countless sketches of airplanes and wings that decorated the underside of the top bunk drew her attention. Glaw's most treasured belongings.
Staring into the darkness around her she tried to formulate a plan, any kind of plan. She concentrated on the drumming of her own heartbeat, grounding herself. It wasn't over, not by a long shot. Just because the trouble had gotten a little out of hand it didn't mean she'd lost; hardly any battle was as easy as that.
She picked up one of the dying flowers and twirled it slowly between her fingers. It was a bright yellow thing without any particularly strong scent; loud and cheerful without being invasive, as Owain once had put it. The flower must have come from him, or someone who took his fanciful descriptions of his fellow soldiers far too literally.
But Glaw wasn't a flower, thank the gods. He wouldn't wilt away just because he'd been torn from his roots and put in the dark for a bit. The more she thought about it the more convinced she became. Her brother had never been a forceful person, not one well suited for command, but that didn't have to mean he'd curl up and die because of this. He'd even managed to lie about his time of reassignment without tipping her off, hadn't he?
Dylis found herself smiling down at the flower, unsure of when exactly she'd gone from toying with it to cupping it in her hands. Her brother was strong and there was still time before he reached Outer Camps. Six more days before he'd even have to leave the carriage. She still had time.
Her resolve restored she got up, narrowly avoiding hitting her head on the underside of the top bunk. Glaw would take care of himself, and she would take care of getting him back, and that was that.
Now she only needed to think of a way to apologize to Rhian.