Kayden sank down against the wall, staring up at the ceiling and blinking back tears. She'd looked through every drawer in her father's office, every shelf, every box. There was nothing. She should have expected it, but the disappointment still hurt.
Ari was standing in the middle of the office, turning slowly, his mind working. "There's something off about this room."
"Oh, just give up, Ari. There's nothing here," Kayden despaired. Last night was forgotten for the moment. They were searching for some trace of Adrian's past, and they were so absorbed in the task that the few times Helen had come up to check on them, they hadn't even noticed.
"No, really. Kayden, look. There's something weird about the ways things are set up," Ari said, frowning. Kayden stood up slowly and looked around. Her eyes fell on her father's sideboard. It was pushed up against the far wall to the right of her father's desk and bolted to the floor. When they'd opened it up earlier, the sideboard had been empty except for a few untouched bottles of wine and an assortment of glasses.
Kayden knelt down and opened the cabinet again. Ari crouched beside her, and they stared at the contents, trying to work out what it was that bothered them about it so much.
"Wasn't Adrian right-handed?" Ari asked suddenly.
"Yes, why? Wait, oh," Kayden said as she realized what Ari saw.
All the glasses and bottles were on the same side of the shelf. The left. Ari shone a crystal torch into the cabinet. Leaning forward, he rapped his knuckles on the back. A hollow thunk greeted him. Kayden ran her hands along the shelf, around the sides and against the back. Her fingertips passed over faint ridge in the cabinet's top. The line formed a circle in the wood. Kayden pressed it, and a faint click sounded. Nothing else happened.
"The has two parts," Ari said. He turned off the torch and set it down. He only had to pull lightly to slide out the right half of the shelf. The bottom half of the back folded down, so cleverly hinged that Kayden never would have known. She hooked her fingers beneath the edge of the top and tugged. The wood panel came loose and Kayden pulled it away. Ari raised the light again, and they both inhaled sharply, stunned.
A neat rectangle had been cut out of the plaster, revealing the hollow wallspace. Hollow, but not empty. Brushing aside glimmering cobwebs, Kayden reached into the cavity and pulled out box after box, each one heavy as bricks. They were about the size and shape of a large shoebox, each one neatly labeled in a way that neither of them could fathom.
Kayden lifted the lid off one of the boxes and sat still. Ari put away the torch. He didn't need it to see that the box was full of leather-bound books, their black spines cracked and supple from use. They were journals.
The contents of the second box were less obvious, but just a neat. Thick stacks of papers were tied together in sheafs, each one with a tag labeled in that same indecipherable code. The other boxes were more of the same: letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, posters. There was some sort of system to how everything was filed, but Kayden couldn't make sense of it.
"It's not chronological, as far as I can tell," Ari said, trying to puzzle out the same thing. "The papers are in order I think, but the bundles are from all different dates. And they're about all different things."
Kayden took one of the bundles and carefully untied the twine holding it together. She spread the papers out on the floor, careful to keep them in the order they had been stacked in. It was a stack of letters. They proceeded chronologically, for the most part. Some were typed out, but most were handwritten. Kayden realized that there were two different weights of paper, two different hands. And as she started to read, two different voices. It was a conversation on paper.
Most of the letters were written on a strange, heavy stock, the surface smooth and creamy. The others were on more familiar, thinner stationary. It was the same kind Kayden used for her own letters, taken from the bottom drawer of her father's desk.
"This is weird," Ari said, picking up the first letter carefully. "Look at how it's signed."
A row of seven small diamonds was carefully drawn in a line beneath the letter. Kayden looked at the others. Some were signed the same way, others with the number seven and a diamond after, and some with the number inside the shape. There was even one with the seven diamonds arranged in the shape of the number.
"That's bizarre," Kayden agreed. "And these ones are the same, but with a two and hearts. Sevens and twos, diamonds and hearts..."
Understanding lit up Ari's eyes. "They're cards," he said, jumping to his feet. He searched through Adrian's desk, grabbing something and coming back over to Kayden hurriedly. "I thought it was strange that a deck in Adrian's care would be missing cards. But I bet he took them out on purpose."
In his hand Ari had a small tin. He opened it carefully and laid out the suites in careful rows. Seven of diamonds and two of hearts they had both anticipated, but the ace and queen of clubs were gone too. And then there was the jack of spades missing. They stared at the five empty space, eyebrows furrowed.
"Right. The handwriting on these letters suggests that Adrian's card is the missing two of hearts. I haven't got a clue who the others are, but we should have some idea once we read through everything," Kayden said as she took in the enormity of the task. "I guess we should start with the journals."
Ari checked all of the boxes and found another one full of thin black volumes. "Gods, this is going to take a bloody long time." He took out the first journal in the box and flipped it open. The first page was dated to just a few years ago. He checked the other box. The first journal's first entry was dated to five years before the start of the war.
"Looks like this is where we start." He moved to sit with his back against Adrian's desk. Kayden sat next to him, their shoulders touching, and together they started to read.
Helen Robbins, despite what Kayden believed, wasn't nearly as traditional as she appeared. She'd had her fair share of adventures, her share of romance and excitement. Sure, being a maid wasn't the most revolutionary of careers for a young woman, but Helen had liked working for Adrian, and she liked taking care of Kayden, as much as that was humanly possible.
It didn't surprise Helen that the two young people had been drawn to each other. She could still remember the day the Renner boy's little brother had come to the door, terrified and panicked. Adrian should have let them meet that day. Helen couldn't understand what the man had been waiting for.
Neither of the children - Helen wasn't sure what else to call them - had come down yet. Glancing at the clock, Helen went up to check on them. It was growing late, and surely the boy didn't mean to sleep over.
Helen entered the office and saw the stacks of boxes by the sideboard. The cabinet itself was closed, and she did not recognize the boxes. As she moved towards them, Helen saw first that one was open, full of the leather notebooks that Adrian had liked so much. Then, turning, she saw Kayden and Ari asleep on the floor.
The boy was stretched out by the desk, one of the journals open and facedown beside him. Kayden lay next him, his arm wrapped around her shoulders protectively. Perhaps he could feel Helen's presence because his eyes fluttered open, fixing her with a pale, steady gaze. He didn't move away from Kayden, and if anything he seemed to pull the girl closer.
"It's nearly nightfall. Your sister will be worried if you don't show," Helen said in whisper. She was loath to wake Kayden. There was a soft smile on the girl's face, the kind of smile Helen never thought she'd see from her.
Ari glanced at Kayden and sat up slowly, his arm still draped over her. He stood silently and lifted Kayden easily, gently, carrying her past Helen. The woman went to the doorway and watched the boy heading down the hallway to Kayden's room. A few moments later he appeared again, eyes turned down, fixed on something in his hand. He fiddled with it and it opened with a faint click. It was Adrian's watch.
"Can I speak with you before you go?" Helen said. It wasn't really a request. She only phrased it as a question out of habit.
The boy looked up, those startlingly pale eyes meeting hers again. "Of course," he said, closing the watch and slipping it into his pocket. "Shall we go downstairs? I don't want to wake Kayden."
Helen had been about to suggest that herself, and she nodded wordlessly. The boy followed her down into the kitchen, standing by the doorway. He'd been nervous earlier in the day, and the few times before that Kayden had invited him inside. Now, he was still and calm.
"Would you like some tea?" Helen asked, putting on a kettle of water to boil. The boy shook his head. "Sit down, this might take awhile."
"What did you want to say to me?" Ari asked. Adrian's eyes had been dark, but they both had the same unnerving gaze.
"How old are you, Ari?"
The boy answer calmly, "Nineteen as of early this past summer."
Helen put a hand on her hip and regarded the boy carefully. He had sharp cheekbones accentuated by tawny skin and a constellation of freckles. Everything about him was too intense, too extreme to be called handsome. The only word that came to mind was striking.
"And you know how old Kayden is," Helen said.
"She turned seventeen a little over a week ago, on Solstice morning. Is this going somewhere?" Ari asked, and edge to his voice. "I haven't got any designs on her, if that's what you think."
That was exactly what Helen had thought the first time she saw Ari, but she'd seen the two of them enough times now to know better. Frankly, there probably wasn't anyone Helen trusted Kayden with more than this boy. She wasn't going to tell him that, of course. Better to let him stay on his guard.
"She's beautiful. I wouldn't blame you if you did," Helen said. The kettle started whistling, and she moved to turn off the flame. She scooped dried tea leaves into an infuser and put it in a cup to steep.
"Kayden," Ari said slowly, his eyes turned downward, "is not beautiful. There aren't words for what she is. There aren't words for what she means to me, for how much I care about her." He glanced up for a moment, and Helen realized he'd kept his gaze down for her sake. The fierceness in his eyes stole her breath away. "She is my friend, and if I ever did something to hurt her, I'd never forgive myself. Goodnight, Miss Robbins."
He got up without another word and saw himself out, stopping just short of slamming the door behind himself. Helen suspected he only held himself in check for Kayden's sake.
Helen went back to her tea with a sigh and found her cup had cooled.
It angered Ari that Helen had tried to warn him off, that she'd even felt the need to say anything. Hadn't she shoved Kayden at aristocrat asses all summer? That's just it though, Ari thought bitterly. They were aristocrats. He was just a traveler.
Ari shook his head. It didn't matter. They were only friends anyway, and he didn't give a damn if Helen didn't want him hanging around Kayden. The woman was delusional if she thought she actually keep Kayden from doing something if the girl put her mind to it.
All those years ago, Noct and Garret and Ciel had joined the caravan so they could run away. Nick had met Ciel when the caravan stopped in Branore, just after the war ended and it was still at peace with Tyre. He'd joined because he knew the peace wouldn't last. Rena had come on in Tyre a month later for the same reason. Then the caravan swung around to Carnat and Ari met Nick, joining because as much as Adrian had cared for and taught him, Phillip understood Ari better. And now, Kayden was coming to run away from a world that had become a cage.
They were runaways, strays, outsiders. The caravan wasn't just a place where they fit in, it was where they belonged. It was safety and family and home.
Ari burrowed under his blankets and squeezed his eyes shut. He felt like screaming and he didn't know why. All he knew was that something in him was broken and it hurt. Oh gods, it hurt.
Finding Ari in the labyrinth of tents would have been impossible if Kayden were to look for him with her eyes. Instead, she summoned the image of her father's pocket watch, the watch she'd given Ari last winter. Holding the image in her mind, she touched the fine chain around her neck and felt it humming under her fingers. With a grin, Kayden set off down one of the twisting paths.
Two was showing Fire how to read a clock with his pocket watch. It had been a gift from Seven, a sort of joke between the two of them. Seven was always late, and he never carried a watch. So he gave Two the watch instead, even though the man already had one.
The little girl was uncommonly bright, but this was still slightly beyond her. It seemed she was more interested in the watch's aesthetics anyway. She was turning it over in her chubby hands, tracing the beautiful lines on its cover. Seven had drawn the design for the cover himself. In fact, he'd controlled every last detail, from the exact shade of the metal, to the design on the frosted glass face, to the shape of the hands, to the font of the numbers on the dial.
"Do you like it?" Seven had asked when Two opened the gift on his nineteenth birthday. They had just been posted in Sylvamaera and hadn't seen any action yet. "The watchmaker had a bit of a row with me because I wouldn't let him have any leeway."
"Of course I like it," Two told him, hugging his partner. "But you're the one who needs it."
Seven shrugged and grinned sheepishly. "That's why I got it for you. Because we're one person, aren't we? One person in two bodies." He dipped his head and kissed Two quickly before pulling back with a grin.
"What the hell was that?" Two said, nearly dropping the watch.
The hazel-eyed boy had just tipped his head back and laughed. "It was just a kiss."
Kayden walked into the tent and found Ari lying on his bed, a knife in his hand. A knife in his hand and the blade pressed to his wrist.
"Ari?" she asked, frozen. Her voice shook and she couldn't tear her eyes away from that wicked edge. "Ari, what are you doing?"
The boy didn't open his eyes. "I don't know. I just want it to be over. Will you come here?" Kayden found that she could move again, and she rushed over to him, taking the dagger from him and setting it on his nightstand. She lay down beside him and swallowed a wave of panic.
"Please don't, Ari. Please don't." Her eyes burned and she buried her face in his shoulder.
"Are you crying? Kayden, don't," Ari said in a pained voice. He kissed her hair and held her as if he was scared she would disappear.
Kayden reached for his hand and wrapped her fingers over his wrist. "If I hadn't come in just now, would you have done it?" she asked, struggling to keep her voice steady.
"No, of course not," Ari said hoarsely. "I wouldn't do that to you. I wouldn't." He pulled his hand free and touched her face. Kayden closed her eyes and let him brush away her tears, his fingertips callused and gentle.
The image of the knife wouldn't leave her. She could still see it, poised to cut the thread of Ari's life. It made her want to take the dagger and destroy it, melt it down to nothing. Instead, she pulled away from Ari slowly and ran her thumb over his cheekbone.
"Don't leave, Ari," she whispered. "Don't."
It was five minutes from the start of the performance and Ari was nowhere to be seen. Terra suppressed a growl of frustration. Why was the bastard always on time for all the wrong things?
"Sorry I'm late."
Terra whirled around and smacked the back of her brother's head. He winced and swept her into a tight hug. "Let me go, you stupid, lazy, irresponsible good-for-nothing!" Ari only pulled her tighter, and Terra realized after a moment that there was something desperate about it. She hugged him back quickly, suddenly afraid.
"I love you, little sister," Ari mumbled into her hair. "Don't ever forget that."
He held her for a moment longer and then released her with a sigh. Taking a deep breath, he put on a grin. "Ready?"
Terra nodded, composing herself. "Ready."
The lights darkened and there was no time to dwell. Terra took her place and closed her eyes. The lights came on again, the brightness pulsing behind her eyelids. From hidden corners drums pounded out a slow rhythm. Something in Terra stirred. It was a memory of Trent flashing her that same grin before they burst into motion, ribbons and hoops and flames spiralling as they flipped and tumbled. A memory of starlight on her skin and the wind in her hair.
A slow smile tugged at her mouth. Trent was dead and nothing would bring him back, but Terra still had her twin. This was the why Terra had no fear of falling. How could she fall with two hearts keeping her steady?
Kayden held her breath and watched as the acrobats lit the lanterns. She'd seen the spectacle countless times before, but it never seized to amaze her. They were only shadows at first, barely visible in the twilight. Dancing overhead, they blew life into the cold iron lanterns.
Watching them, Kayden understood why some people thought the caravan was a place of spirits. There was something ethereal and ghostly about the acrobats in their fluttering rags, moving so lightly that they seemed to be flying. The lines dipped just nearly imperceptably as the acrobats landed, springing up again as they flitted like butterflies from perch to perch.
One of the acrobats dropped down in front of Kayden, his face obscured by a low, pointed hood. He held out an empty lantern to her, and Kayden saw the braided leather tied around his wrist.
Smiling, Kayden bent down and blew into the open lantern. A tiny flame appeared, flaring to life and casting a circle of light around them. She looked up into the acrobat's face, visible now with the lantern between them. Ari looked back at her, a quiet smile on his face.
"This one is for you. Keep it," he said. He handed it to her, their fingers brushing for a moment. "I'll see you later tonight."
He turned away and took a running jump, catching the wire above his head and swinging himself up into the darkness.
Noct retrieved his knives and slid them into his belt with a flourish. The spectators clapped and cheered as the volunteer stepped away from the target intact. Her cheeks grew rosy as Noct took her hand and did a theatrical bow.
"Thank you, love," he said, a dark grin pulling at his mouth.
He turned to collect his things, but the girl stopped him. "Wait, would you, um, like to get some cocoa or something?"
Noct flashed her an annoyed look. If this were any other day, he might have paused to flirt, possibly even taken her up on her offer. But he wasn't in the mood, and he didn't want to keep Garret waiting. "Run off, love. You're not my type."
The girl had gathered her courage and wasn't immediately deterred. "How would you know I'm not?"
"Trust me, I know."
"So what's your type then?" the girl asked.
"Boys. Men," Noct said bluntly, wiping the blades of his knives with an oiled cloth. "You're not even in the running, dear." He didn't turn around to see her flustered and speechless. He could care less what the girl thought of him now that the show was over. The crowd had dissolved, and each patron would take away their own impressions of him, and none of them would have it right. So what if one girl was horrified by the truth? It didn't matter.
Noct snatched up his coat and brushed past the girl, leaving her in the tent. The flap fell closed behind him with a soft swish. Delicate flakes of snow started to fall around him, riding on invisible eddies of wind.
The Aquarium was a strange tent. There were no fish to be seen, just reflective walls made of blue-green glass. The reflections grouped in patches on the walls, scattering and shifting and vanishing like schools of strange fish. A patron only had to venture through once to realize that they were the fish, their own eyes staring back at them from countless facets.
The light seemed to come from all sides at once, pulsing gently, and yet somehow the passages swarmed with shadows. You could get lost in the twisting tunnels in moments, or at least, you could get lost if the Aquarium allowed it. No matter which way you turned there was always a way out of the labyrinth.
It defied the laws of nature, the inside inexplicably larger than the outside. Ari had tried to explain it to Noct once, saying something about everything being mostly empty space, but it hadn't stuck.
Noct wove his way through the fascinated patrons, ignoring the swarm of anxious green-eyed fish trailing him. All around him people chased their reflections, darting from corner to corner through the tunnels like fish themselves.
The paths were always rearranging themselves, but the Aquarium could sense his mood and it shuttled him toward his destination. Noct finally stepped into a vaguely round room. There was a pool in the center of the floor, containing the only real fish in the whole Aquarium. Few ever laid eyes on them.
At first glance, the fish were ordinary koi, imported from Yxam. But after a moment, it would suddenly become apparent that where ordinary koi would have red patches or orange-gold scales, these fish were blue. All shades of blue, ice-pale to midnight-dark, so that they seemed to be part of the water itself.
Garret was already waiting there with two cups of steaming chocolate. His face brightened when he saw Noct, and he held out a cup. Noct accepted the drink gratefully, letting the steam warm his face. The chocolate was still too hot to comfortably sip, and Noct set it down in one of the niches that lined the walls. Garret watched him hesitantly.
They were alone except for the circling fish. Noct sifted through the words in his head and chose the ones he'd been wanting to say for so long.
"Do you remember how, when we were kids, I said that you matter more to me than anyone in the world?" he asked slowly. He wasn't used to being careful about his words and it made him uncertain.
Stepping closer to his best friend, Noct took the cup of hot chocolate from Garret and set it down beside his own. He took the boy's hands in his and stared down at them.
"You matter more to me than the whole damn universe," Noct said quietly, placing Garret's hands over his heart. "I guess, what I'm trying to say is that I love you. I always have, and you probably already knew, but I know you like to hear this kind of stuff out loud, so there it is. I love you."
Garret kissed him, placing his hands behind Noct's neck. They were smiling too much, and Garret kept pulling back to look at Noct with sparkling eyes.
"I love you too."