Aidan crept out the door and into the hallway. He had lain on the mattress that she had brought, tossed, and turned but hadn’t slept. He had lain awake and watched Darryn sleep on the pallet beside his. How that boy could sleep after all that they had seen, he didn’t know. Only the night before—
How long would they be running? When they got to where they thought they might be safe, would they be, or would they be outcast again and made to keep running? He leaned back against the shut door, let go of a breath he hadn’t known that he’d been holding onto. The tension in that room had been palpable and oppressive, even while the other two slept. Here in the hallway, the air was a little clearer, was a little lighter.
The stairs were lit by a few squat candles affixed to the wall so that their light was magnified by the sheets of hammered steel in front of which they hung. He unfolded himself from the door and went down the stairs as silently as he could and into the dark dining room. It was empty now, the last embers gleaming in its fireplace. The chairs had been set atop the tables, the floor swept. It looked odd.
The only real light seemed to come from a room off to the side, behind the keep’s bar. Aidan made towards it and stood in the open doorway. The door led to the kitchen and the light came from the hearth. The staff was not all yet asleep. A few boys maybe Aidan’s age sat at a table, each with a hand of cards and a pile between them. They looked away from their game and up at Aidan.
“What do you want?” a dark-haired and burly boy asked him.
“I—” But how did Aidan tell him what he wanted?
“The kitchen’s closed,” a dusty-haired boy said.
“I—” Aidan said again.
“Not too bright, is he?” A girl came out from behind the chimney. “Who’re you looking for?”
“Um.” Aidan swallowed. “She didn’t tell me her name, but she—she smiled at me and— She—she’s redheaded.”
“Ah. Elly. Yeah,” the blond girl sighed. “I don’t think she’s busy. You’ve got coin?”
“Can you pay for her time? ‘Cause there aren’t any of us too happy to see you if your pockets aren’t—”
“I—I don’t want— That’s not what I want.”
“Captivated by her eyes?” the girl japed. “Want to take her away from this life of drudgery and unwanted fondling?”
“No. I mean, yes, but—”
“You harm that girl,” the black-haired boy said, “and you answer to all of us. We’ve kitchen knives, frying pans, and shovels by the stables. Understand?”
The threat sent a wave of fire roiling up from Aidan’s belly. “I thought,” he growled, “that she wanted to see me. Ask her. If she doesn’t, I’ll go.”
The dark-haired boy snorted, but he stood, and he walked away from Aidan past the blond girl, who crossed her arms below her breasts and looked at Aidan with a cocked head. “What is it you’ll be wanting, then?” she asked.
Aidan didn’t honestly know, so he just said, “I’ll leave that up to her.”
The girl snorted too. “He’s right about the knives. Wicked sharp edges we keep on them too. Use a whetstone every Friday.”
“I’m not scared of your knives.” Aidan wasn’t even sure it was a lie. Knives seemed a commonplace, ordinary threat now. It was a threat he could deflect, a threat he could survive, not like—
“You all right?” the blond asked.
“Yeah,” Aidan said. “Fine.”
She frowned at him, and Aidan allowed himself to focus on her face, round—no, heart-shaped. Her blond curls dipped down at the center of her forehead and spilled out from the point to cascade around round, rosy cheeks. Her blue eyes were soft, the blue of a hazy, hot summer day, and—
Aidan shifted his attention to the girl who came up beside the blond, flanked by the dark-haired boy.
“You’re lucky. You’re right. Elly was hoping to see you. But knives. And shovels.”
Elly smiled at him. She held out her hand, and Aidan came forward to take it. Hers was small but warm in his. She towed him past the others, back out into the dark dining room. She pulled him towards the stairs, and he mounted them behind her.