When Sice was young, she lived alone.
Not entirely. Not technically. The manor she lived in was full of servants, and they were always there, at all hours, answering to her every whim. There were teachers, and tutors, and they dragged her to her lessons and kept their eyes on her so she couldn't just sneak away. She was, in reality, never alone in any sense of the word.
But - she was lonely.
So when she was eight years old, and her manor was on fire, and she could hear the servants screaming, and then her door was breaking down - when a girl stumbled through the splinters, axe at the ready and armour smeared with blood, as tall as any adult Sice had ever seen but with a frightened, youthful face, determination burning in her eyes - when she reached out a hand for Sice, palm open, and said that she was her sister -
Sice reached for her.
She didn't want to be lonely anymore.
Sice had never known her mother.
A travelling performer from a foreign land, beyond even Archanea, the servants told her.
(An assassin, sent to kill the chancellor, who seduced the king for access to the palace, they whispered, when they thought Sice wasn't listening.)
Whatever the truth, one thing was clear: when Sice's mother had left Valentia to return to her homeland, she'd had no desire for the sort of trouble fleeing with a royal bastard would bring her - and so, had left her daughter behind.
But Sice didn't mind. Because while she didn't have a mother - had been nothing but lonely for as long as she could remember - she now had something better.
On a cold night, chilly even through the fires that blazed and raged, reducing the only home Sice had ever known to ash, she had Octavia.
The place Octavia took her to was dark, as dark as the night they'd just fled through silently, the only noise Octavia's harsh breathing and the clang of her armour plates moving against each other - but it was warm.
Sice blinked, and cautiously lifted her head from where she'd tucked it into Octavia's shoulder, blocking out the fires and the gaps of shadows that loomed between trees, to see they'd walked into a building - more of a ruin, really, with low burning coals tucked away in a corner, out of sight of the entrance they'd just walked through.
"Tavvy, you're back - " the voice was young, and relieved, and it hitched as the boy it belonged to stepped forward out of the shadows, to rest eyes on her. "Is that - ?"
"This is Sice," Octavia said, her voice grim, but also, somehow...warm.
"You found her," he breathed. "You brought her home."
"I did." Sice could hear the smile in her sister's voice. "Sice? This is Arcturus. He's your older brother."
Sice blinked, and looked back over at the boy with new eyes, examining him from the robes he wore to the red hair that curled about his face. Sice had grown up hearing stories about how all her siblings had inherited her father's hair - every sibling but her. Her hair was ink dark, just like her mother's had apparently been - but she'd inherited her father's eyes, and leaning forward, she could see that Arcturus had them, too.
"Call me Arc," he said, and smiled, holding a hand out for her to take. It was warm. "It's good to properly meet you, Sice."
As it turns out, Octavia - call me Tavvy - has brought Sice into the middle of a war. A quiet war, for sure, hidden from even the whispers of the servants, fought not with armies and on fields, but with grit, guerilla tactics, and poisons. The little town they're staying in is quiet and peaceful, with no hint of the turmoil the kingdom is going through reflected on its people.
It is, Sice reflects, a very civil war.
“People don’t know yet,” Tavvy said. “Not really. That we’re running with a small mecernary company is welcomed, because the country needs it and it’s ‘royals being proactive,’ and us not being at court isn’t weird, because we’ve always been kept out of the public eye.”
“And the rest of you have always been kept scattered,” Arc said. “It still hasn’t escalated to full out battles yet – because we can’t risk it.” He smiled. “Not until we’ve all gotten back together.”
For a moment, Sice hesitated, scared to make them mad at her. But they were both smiling, radiating warmth, so she took a deep breath, and gathered her courage. “Why does it matter if we’re all together?” She asked. “You’ve…you’ve never really seemed to care, before.” She tried hard not to sound resentful. She did. Because she wasn’t! But she was curious, even if the pain that flickered across Tavvy’s face sent pangs of guilt twinging through her.
“That…” Tavvy faltered. “That wasn’t by choice.”
“Then why did you never come earlier?”
Tavvy looked over at Arc, as if pleading for help. He smiled, and looked across at Sice. “You know about Celi – Anthiese, right?”
The name was familiar, and after a second of thought, Sice nodded – her youngest sister.
“Someone tried to kill her,” Arc said. “And our father didn’t even care.”
“We thought you’d been safe, before, for the most part.” Tavvy’s voice was soft. “We missed you all, but we thought you were safer outside of court.” She paused, and reached out a hand to grip Sice’s shoulder. “We were wrong. I’m…I’m so sorry.”
Sice doesn’t say you’re forgiven. She isn’t sure she can, and mean it, though whether that’s because there’s nothing to forgive or she just can’t understand the breadth of what Tavvy is apologizing for, she isn’t sure.
So instead, she leans forward, and hugs her.
“I love you,” she said, and meant it, for all that she’d only known her for a few hours, realistically. “I love you. It’s okay.”
Tavvy was silent in her arms, but there was a hitch to her movement when she buried her face in Sice’s hair, and she thought that maybe – just maybe – she was crying.
Now that they’ve gotten Sice away safely, they told her, they’d have to move fast to secure the rest of their siblings. They knew their locations of now, but if their attack on Sice’s manor prompted the King or Council to move the others, than it could take months more of reconnaissance and info gathering to have enough to make another shot at getting a piece of their family back.
Their younger brother Valen, kept with their brother Endymion, Arc said, was the closest to her – just a few days travel by foot. They’re tiring days, even when Sice doesn’t spend most of them walking under her own power; Arc and Tavvy taking turns hoisting her up on her back.
“She’s only eight,” Arc reminded Tavvy gently, at one point, when her sister was frowning down at her exhausted form like she couldn’t quite figure out what was wrong with her. “And she’s been kept confined indoors for most of her life. Her endurance isn’t the greatest yet.”
Tavvy pursed her lips, as if displeased, but the pinch in her face melted away to a smile when Sice quietly said sorry for being a burden.
“It’s no big issue,” she said. “I guess I’ll just have to carry you some more.”
And, well, Tavvy’s arms are strong and warm, even if her armour can pinch at times, so Sice doesn’t see anything wrong with that.
Arc and Tavvy may have taken her with them to collect their siblings from their manor, tucked away from true civilization on the east coast, but they were clearly leery of letting her actually storm the building with them.
Sice supposed she couldn’t exactly blame them, given that she was, in fact, only eight years old – and that she was smaller than Tavvy’s battleaxe, hefted over her shoulder and ready to be swung down at a moment’s notice.
Her eyes were fixed on the building just in the middle distance from where they were standing, that Arc had disappeared into a little while earlier. Give me, like, an hour, he’d said. Once I’ve got most of the guards down, I’ll set off the signal, and you come marching in.
Tavvy had nodded, grimly, and now the two of them were hiding out amongst the dunes, listening only to the sound of the waves as they strained their ears and eyes waiting for Arc’s signal. Sice was, admittedly, a little tense. After a week of moving through heavily wooded areas, surrounded at all times by cover, being out in what was essentially just the open like this was…disconcerting.
Tavvy didn’t seem nervous, though, so she tried to keep her cool.
She must not have done the best job, though, because Tavvy smiled down at her, radiating reassurance. “You don’t need to worry, Sice,” she said. “Arc and I know what we’re doing – he’ll be fine.”
Sice pouted a little at being figured out so easily, and didn’t argue Tavvy’s words – even as she feared they weren’t true, because to mention that felt like bad luck to her. She also doesn’t mention that she doubts how fine she’ll be, left out here alone in the dunes.
Tavvy tensed as she opened her mouth to speak again, eyes fixed on the manor in the distance. “Hunker down,” she said, and gently pushed Sice down into the sand. “Don’t let them see you – if you have to, run. I’ll find you later, I promise.”
Sice kind of wants to link her pinkie in Tavvy’s to make the promise unbreakable, but her sister is already running off, and instead of calling out to her for something so childish, she does as her sister told her to, and pressed herself flat against the sand – the shadow of the dunes fell over her, cast by the quickly fading sunset.
Not even ten minutes later, the screaming started.
Sice flinched, and curled in on herself, raising her hands to cover her ears as she squeezed her eyes shut, blocking out the memories of the night she herself was rescued. The screams soon faded – into angry yelling, that was then, in turn, covered up by the deafening boom that shattered the atmosphere. Even as far away as she was, Sice could see the orange flicker against a navy sky, and disobeying Tavvy’s direct orders to stay down and hidden, shuffled up to her knees so she was peeking over the dune.
The manor was on fire, that much was clear – one part of the roof caved in and the walls around it sagging; had someone set off an explosion? Since this was meant to be a quick, quiet thing, she can only imagine something has gone very wrong, and that thought makes her scared. She should really hide herself away again, but she can’t look away from the quickly spreading fire – Arc and Tavvy are in there, in danger, while she is stuck out here, and safe.
She wished that she had a weapon; that she knew how to use one. Wished that she wasn’t so small, or that her siblings weren’t so determined to keep her out of the action.
She wanted to help.
And she was thinking on this when she saw a group of people run from the manor. Tavvy and Arc, she could recognize – but the two women with them were unfamiliar, if in a way that tickled in the back of her mind that insisted she should know them.
“Tavvy!” She yelled out, once they were close enough that she felt safe to pop out of her hiding place. “Arc!”
She ran out to meet them, and once she had reached their sooty, sweaty group, Arc reached down to squeeze her shoulder. “Sice,” he said, voice in a soothing tone. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine!” she said. “I’ve just been sitting out here. You guys were the ones fighting!” She pouted up at him. “Next time, you’re taking me!”
He laughed at her, a little breathless, and his smile down at her was indulgent. “Maybe,” he said, in that way Sice had come to learn meant ‘no.’
“Talking while we’re walking, please,” Tavvy barked. “There were more guards then we were expecting in the manor, and that has me nervous for the others. We need to meet up, ASAP.”
Sice blinked at the mention of ‘the others’ – Arc and Tavvy had told her about the small group they’d been travelling with, but she hadn’t met them yet, because they’d been elsewhere when she’d been rescued, and they’d rushed straight from the burning rubble of her manor to Endymion and Valen’s.
Of course, the women – the ones Sice didn’t quite recognise – didn’t know that. “Others?” One asked, slow and deep – the one dressed in dark colours and with a somber expression, arms looped over one of the boys Sice could only presume were her brothers; the older looking one, so he was Endymion, probably.
Suddenly shy, Sice shuffled back to duck behind Arc’s legs. After a minute of staring down at her, Arc huffed out an amused breath, and moved so the folds of his robes covered her.
“You didn’t think we’d run off alone, did you?” Tavvy’s voice was surprised.
“We didn’t ‘think’ anything, Octavia.” The voice belonged to the other woman, lightly scolding. “Since…since the fire, we’ve barely left the manor. We haven’t been allowed to meet up with any of the others – King’s orders.” She rolled her eyes. “We didn’t even know you’d left court at all – I just figured the lack of visits or news meant that the two of you were kept under house arrest as well.”
The other woman inclined her head in agreement, but didn’t speak.
“Aunt Alida…” Tavvy’s voice faltered.
“Oh, don’t give me that look,” the woman – Aunt Alida? – said. The words were scolding but her tone was sad, her voice thick. “I’m the adult here.”
“I’m eighteen,” Tavvy said.
Alida reached out solemnly, and placed a hand on Tavvy’s cheek. “Baby,” she said.
A choked noise of protest, and Tavvy jerked back from Alida’s hand. “I – ” she broke off as her voice squeaked at a high pitch, and cleared her throat. “I am not a baby.”
Alida exchanged a dry look with the other woman, and for the first time since Sice had seen her, the darkly elegant woman’s lips quirked up into a smile. “Baby,” they said in unison.
Tavvy sighed, and rolled his eyes, letting the subject drop. “Regardless,” she said, “we need to leave before the guards that left see the flames here and regroup.” She knelt down. “Valen, here.” She held her arms out to the youngest of their number.
After a cautious look at Alida – his mother, Sice supposed, and stared up at her with fascination; what was it like, to have a mother living with you? – and an encouraging nod and smile, Valen stepped forward, and into Tavvy’s hold. “You’ve got Sice?” She asked as she stood, words addressed towards Arc.
“Always,” Arc said, and then Sice was lifted up, automatically cinching her legs around her brother’s waist.
“Aeschine and I can hold them,” Alida said, voice and eyes concerned as she looked between Arc and Tavvy, and at their slightly burnt clothes and hair. “So you can have your arms free to fight – ”
“Arc is kind of useless in a straight up battle,” Tavvy teased, ignoring Arc’s protests. “And I’m more armoured than either of you are – I’m better equipped to act as a shield, if I have to.”
Alida still looked unhappy. “I’m unarmed, though,” she pointed out. “You’re not.”
“I will guard us all,” Aeschine said. “You said we must go? Then let us go. Quickly.” Her hand hovered over her sons shoulder, her gaze fixed on the manor they had lived in – still mostly intact, unlike Sice’s own; the only clear damage the roof broken on one side, flames licking across the walls.
After that, the night is somewhat of a blur. Sice might have fallen asleep in Arc’s arms, lulled to sleep by the rocking caused by his running. She vaguely recalled being placed down in a soft bed at some point, and feeling another weight settle down beside her, before she drifted off into true sleep.
She dreamed of warmth.
Valen stared at Sice when she woke up – he was curled up on the mattress next to her, and she remembered the weight she’d felt the night before, half asleep as someone was placed down by her side.
“Hi,” she said quietly, smiling a little at the curiosity in his eyes as he watched her – he was younger than her, she remembered, which meant she wasn’t the baby of the group anymore. “I’m Sice!”
The name must have meant something to him, because recognition flickered in his eyes. “Sice?” he said, and then, “big sister.”
Eagerly, she nodded, as Valen grinned. “Never really had a big sister before,” he said, and even though he’d technically had several all his life, Sice got what he meant. “Just End.”
Sice scrunched up her nose as she remembered the somber, silent boy who had stuck to the side of his equally somber mother during their escape to…wherever it was they were now. “Must have been boring,” she sympathized, and Valen blinked at her.
“End is great!” he protested.
“So is Arc,” she said. “But he can still be really boring.”
Valen blinked, like he hadn’t thought of that, and Sice sat up, shuffling to the edge of the bed so she could swing her legs down from the mattress. “C’mon, Valen,” she said. “Let’s go find out where we are, and where everyone else is.”
“It’s Val,” he said, following her. He pronounced it like vale.
“Nice name,” Sice said, and frowned. Tavvy, Arc, End, Val. Seemed like all her siblings got nicknames except for her, and she was very deliberately not pouting over that fact.
“Thanks,” Val said, without irony. “Picked it out myself.”
Sice scrunched up her nose, and wondered just how it was she'd gotten her name - she was like Tavvy, she knew, with a name that was a number, which had made her feel special when she'd realised that none of their other siblings shared that link with eachother. Her mother? Her father? Neither one had ever seemed to care, and she couldn't remember ever meeting either one of them.
She mused on the subject little further as they made their way downstairs, to where Tavvy, Arc, Endymion and the two women were sitting around a table made of the same grey-toned wood the rest of the building was built with. Her time with her siblings so far, however brief, meant that Sice easily recognised just where it was they were - one of the small inns that someone that followed Tavvy owned; not quite a base of operations, Arc had said, but a safe place to take shelter, if need be. Even if it means hiding us all away under the floorboards, the people here won't betray us.
Why would we need to hide? Sice had asked, curious at the way her siblings had winced.
Before now, we wouldn’t have had to, probably, Arc had admitted, rueful. But we just set your manor on fire, Sice. While we were declared missing, it’s always been known pretty much exactly where we are. After Tavvy confronted our father after the attack on Aunt Tori’s estate our absences from court were mostly ignored; the forming of a mercenary troupe the actions of a willful child – but even our father isn’t as stupid as to think your disappearance isn’t connected to ours. They’ll be actively looking for us soon, if they aren’t already. A heavy, long drawn breath. And given what history tells, I doubt they’ll care for the civilians in their way.
She still didn’t quite get it, but she figured it was just another one of those ‘you’ll understand when you’re older’ things. Hearing that had always made her upset and frustrated, back in the manor, like her tutors were talking down to her, but from Arc, it felt… warmer. So it didn’t bother her as much.
“Ah.” Aunt Alida blinked, spotting them coming down the stairs, and smiled softly at her son as he wandered over to where she was sitting, rubbing at one eye with his fist. “Good morning, you two,” she said, and reached down to tug Val’s hand away from his eyes. “You stop that,” she scolded. “You know it’s bad for your eyes.” Val blinked at her blearily in a way that suggested he probably hadn’t really registered what she’d said, but he didn’t raise a hand up again.
“Morning, Sice,” Arc said as she scrambled up onto his lap. “Did you sleep well?”
Sice nodded, then scrunched up her nose. “You smell like smoke,” she said.
Arc looked down at himself, and laughed, a little ruefully. “I haven’t changed out of what I was wearing last night,” he said. “There wasn’t really time…”
The darker woman – Aeschine? – frowned at Arc. “Pass Sice here,” she said, and there was a curl to her lips, as if saying a name only a syllable long felt strange in her mouth. It sure sounded weird coming out of it, in Sice’s opinion. “You and Octavia will go and get cleaned up.”
“Yes, Auntie,” Arc said, radiating patience, and had slid Sice over to her before she could get a word out. Tavvy stood to leave with him, and her obedience with a lack of grumbling led Sice to stare, wide-eyed.
“I know Aunt Aeschine is a mouthful,” Arc said, leaning in close to whisper in her ear. “But she hates nicknames. She’ll scold you if you try to give her one – so just stick to Auntie if you can. Titles are acceptable.”
Understanding, Sice nodded, smiling as Auntie’s hand swatted out to bat Arc away. “Go on, off with you,” she said. “Wash yourselves clean before you come back – if we travel to seek the twins together, it will not be with the two of you smelling of a campfire.”
Once the two of them had gone, Sice tilted back her head to stare up at her aunt – who was already staring down at her. “Where’s End?” She asked.
“Endymion is outside,” Auntie said. “He wished to brood amongst the trees.”
“Come now, Aeschine,” Aunt Alida said. “I wouldn’t call it brooding.”
Auntie squinted at Alida, and it was, Sice thought, the first ‘real’ expression she’d seen on her aunt’s face – she’d come across as somber and serious only. “That is what he told me he was going to do,” she said. “Climb a tree and brood.”
Aunt Alida blinked. “Well,” she said. “I don’t think he should be brooding alone, do you?” She smiled down at Val. “Hey, little man, want to help me get your brother down out of his tree?”
Val blinked at her. “End likes trees,” he said. “And he likes brooding. He probably wants to stay up there.”
A low laugh. “I bet he likes food more,” Alida said. “Come on, let’s go bribe him!” She looked up, at Sice and Auntie. “You two coming?”
Sice was about to say yes – she’d never really been allowed to climb trees before, back in her manor, but she bet that she absolutely could – but Auntie shook her head, no. “I will spend some time in here, with Sice.” She said, and shooed Aunt Alida off. “You have fun with Endymion.”
A small hum of agreement, and Aunt Alida was gone.
“Sice,” Auntie said. “When was the last time you brushed your hair?”
Sice blanked. “Uhh…”
Behind her, Auntie sighed. “I had thought as much,” she murmured. “Your hair is a carpet, with how matted it is. I will have to be having words with your siblings.” She turned Sice around in her lap, so that they were facing eachother. “Would you permit me to cut your hair, Sice?”
Sice thought, for a moment – she had thought that her head and felt itchy and uncomfortable over the past few days, and so she nodded.
“Excellent,” Auntie said. “You sit here, and I shall be back in a second with scissors.”
Sice blinked. “You have scissors, Auntie?” Back in the manor, there had been kitchen scissors, for the chefs to cut poultry and such with, and garden shears, which were basically scissors supersized – but actual scissors, she knew, were fiddly to forge, and so were difficult to have made of high quality. She hadn’t had a pair, though the maids had always told her that, being a princess, once she hit puberty she’d probably be gifted one.
“Just a small pair,” Auntie said. “Meant for nails, more than anything, but they will work just as well for hair.”
She settled behind Sice, and a moment later, Sice felt faint tugs and then a lifting of weight, as the metallic snipping of the blades together told her Auntie had started cutting her hair. “I am going have to cut your hair fairly short, to get rid of the knotting,” Auntie said, and sounded upset about it. “It’s a shame – it was so long. I imagine it was beautiful, when styled correctly.”
Sice had never thought anything like that, especially not after meeting the rest of her siblings. The Rothschild red eyes, she may have had, but her hair was deep and dark, closer to a brown than a red, for all of its russet tones, she thought. Another way she was separate from her family, and she couldn’t help but wonder if that was why she had lived alone.
Auntie’s fingers stilled were they had been working through her hair, and it was with a flash of panic that Sice realised that she had just said that last part aloud.
“I – ” She started, and then Auntie was kneeling down, so their eyes were level, and turning Sice so that their gazes met.
“I raised you, you know,” she said quietly. “After Lucille – after she left, and left her daughter, the King held you all of once. He called you ‘Sice,’ for his sixth child is what you were. Afterwards, you were given into the care of the wives – and I claimed you as my own.”
Sice stared. “What?” That didn’t make any sense –
“I can see that you don’t remember any of it,” Auntie said. “I knew, first laying eyes on you last night. I suppose it isn’t surprising – you were so small when you were taken from me.” A deep sigh, heavy with – loss? Grief? “Looking back at the timeline now, I suppose it must have been sometime after Octavia’s outburst in court. That is what makes the most sense – Knights of the Crown came to the manor grounds, escorting priests of the Mila Faithful. It was then that Alida and I…were ordered to give you over. We fought for you Sice, I swear we did – but the King’s edict is the divine will of Mila, acting through her bloodline, as far as most are concerned. In the end, we had no choice, and the knights and priests were gone as quick as they had come, taking you with them.” She closed her eyes, as if the memory caused her pain. “I told myself they were taking you to Mila, or to some other holy sanctuary – a place you would be raised safe and well; raised as a priestess, perhaps. There’s a precedent for that, among the royal line, when there are too many heirs and discontent erupts over just who will inherit the throne. I – ” She swallowed. “I never imagined they’d take you off to raise you somewhere alone, devoid of family. I didn’t allow myself to, and I am so sorry.”
For a moment, Sice could only stare. If what Auntie was saying was true – she’d only been living on her own for what, two years? If it was true, if it had only been that long…she’d remember, right? At least a little bit? Right?
But the tears didn’t seem fake, and neither did the pain. Her apology was like Tavvy’s apology, all those days ago – Sice didn’t quite understand what, exactly, she was apologizing for, but she understood that it was for something important to her aunt…and maybe something important to her, because her chest hurt, and her eyes burned.
She couldn’t find any words to say, though, so just like with Tavvy, she leant forward to loop her arms around Auntie’s shoulders. After a moment, her hug was returned.
“I would have named you, you know,” Auntie whispered. “Had the King not done so before I could. That is how you got your second name, however – Aurelia.”
“Aurelia,” Sice repeated. She’d never heard it before; hadn’t even known she’d had a second name. “Gold.”
“And precious.” Auntie smiled as she pulled back, and Sice pretended not to see the tears she wiped from under her eyes. “Let’s finish with your hair before your siblings come back, okay?”
Sice nodded, and turned back around.
“Okay,” she said, and as Auntie’s fingers stilled once more in her hair before continuing on with her work, Sice thought she’d understood just what she had said – and all that she hadn’t.
They’d stayed at that inn only long enough to eat a lunch before they were back on the road again – walking for hours still wasn’t an appealing prospect to Sice, but with two adults in the group and End’s solemn eyes watching everything, she felt almost too embarrassed to ask Arc or Tavvy to carry her. Val was walking, after all, and he was younger than her. It didn’t matter that her legs were aching – she was the older sibling, so she had to set an example.
“You okay there, sweetie?” Sice blinked up at Aunt Alida. “You’re looking a bit worn out.”
“No, I’m fine,” Sice said. Arc must have overheard their conversation, because he looked back over his shoulder, and frowned at her, narrowing his eyes.
“If you’re tired, Sice, I can carry you,” he said.
She pouted. “I can walk,” she said. “I’m not a baby!”
“Hmm,” Auntie hummed, sounding serene and composed, even though they’d been walking under heavy sun for several hours now, with her wrapped in layers of dark clothing. “Sounds to me like someone is feeling a little cranky.” She raised a brow at Sice when she whirled around, upset.
“I’m not cranky!”
“That sounds like something a cranky little girl would say.” Aunt Alida winked at her while, clinging to her hand, Val laughed.
She scowled at him.
“Sice,” Arc said. “If you need a break, that’s okay. I can carry you, or Tavvy can carry you, but if you need us to, you have to tell us.”
“I’m not a baby,” she mumbled, but lifted up her arms to be held anyway.
His lips quirked into a smile as he ducked down to pick her up. “Of course you aren’t, Sice.”
She grumbled into his shoulder as she felt them start to move again, but quickly quieted down. She wasn’t quite tired enough to want to sleep, especially since it was so bright, but years of being kept confined and quiet hadn’t given her much endurance for physical activities or long hours outside in the sun.
Somehow, though, travelling with two more of her siblings – plus two of her aunts – felt different to fleeing from the ashes of her own manor to Endymion and Valen’s in a manic hurry. There was still an urgency to their movements, sure, but there was far less of the fear, the frantic worry. The anxiety. There was something calm about it, and it was that something that lulled Sice into a gentle sleep, even as she thought and insisted to herself that she wasn’t tired.
Sice blinked awake to stars shining above her in the sky.
“Oh.” End’s face appeared above hers, hazy in her vision which was still clouded with sleep. “You’re awake.”
She squinted at him. Of course she was.
He leant back out of her personal space, and offered her a hand to help pull her up. She took it, and staggered blearily to her feet. “How late is it?”
End gazed up at the sky. “Moon’s just past its zenith,” he said, words that meant approximately nothing to Sice. “A bit past midnight,” End clarified, after a moment of silence.
Sice nodded to show her understanding, and stared around the campsite – Alida and Aeschine were lying together, curled around Val on the other side of the campfire, Arc sleeping just by them. She looked up to gaze around the clearing and spotted Tavvy standing guard only a few metres away; she waved at the two of them before looking away to refocus her attention on her watch.
“So why are you awake?” Sice asked, blinking at End. She’d fallen asleep a little past lunch – if it really was past midnight, now, she must have been out for almost twelve hours. She could understand what she was doing awake, so what was End’s excuse?
“I like reading the stars,” he said. “And I like the dark.”
“I like the stars, too,” Sice said. “But not the dark, not so much.” She thought about nights spent alone in her big empty room, with barely the banked coals of a fire for light, and shivered.
End stared at her for a minute, before sitting down and tugging her with him. “Here,” he said. “If you don’t think you can sleep anymore, I’ll teach you some stuff about the stars.”
Sice tilted her head. “What kind of stuff?”
“Like, the constellations,” End said. “And how to read the stars – directions and fortunes.”
Sice hummed, and stared up at the sky. “Stars can really tell you all of that?”
“Well, they’ve been up there for a long time,” End said. “And it’ll be a long, long time before they go away. You can always rely on the stars to be there, and to guide you. There’s no better map in the world.”
“Sola and Luna were named after stars, weren’t they?”
“Celestial bodies, yes,” End said.
“So like…the stars are guiding us to them, right?”
End looked at her. “I’d say that the stars have guided us all back together,” he said. “But…I’m pretty sure Sola and Luna are better at reading what may come better than I will ever be. If the stars are truly leading us to them…they probably already know we’re coming.”
Sice smiled, faintly. “They’ll be waiting for us then, won’t they?”
End blinked. “I suppose they will,” he said.
Two days after her conversation with her younger elder brother, and Sice found herself staring up at a burning manor for the third time in as many weeks.
“This time,” Tavvy said. “This time, it was not my fault.”
“No,” Luna agreed, serenely. “It was ours.” Reaching over, she held her hand out to Sola, who slapped her palm into her sister’s.
“I – ” Arc began. “How?”
“We knew you were coming,” Sola said. “The timing was a bit iffy, but it cleared up earlier this afternoon. We knew you’d get here by dusk.”
“And, knowing that, we decided we’d help out a bit!” Luna stood, and stepped aside to show that what she had been sitting on was not a rock, or a log – but a luggage case.
“We’re ready to leave when you are,” Sola said, and grinned, looking deeply amused by how flabbergasted they all were. “We shouldn’t have to worry about pursuers for a while, at least.”
A look crossed Tavvy’s face that said she didn’t want to ask, even though she did want to know.
“I – right,” she said, and cleared her throat. “We should – we should go, then.”
“Lead the way, Your Majesty!” Tavvy snorted at Luna’s words, but a shiver ran down Sice’s spine – she’d been looking right into her sister’s eyes, and couldn’t see anything but sincerity in them.
Your Majesty, she thought, and stared at Tavvy’s back.
She could see that.