He nodded again. There was a cake they served in Kerch, thick with cherries and served with sweet cream, and there were Shu candies coated in sesame that he could eat by the handful. But he wasn’t supposed to talk about the places he’d traveled. He was just a boy from the south. “I like everything,” he said.
“What’s your favorite color?” asked Sylvi.
“I don’t have one.”
“How can you not have one?”
Deep blue like the True Sea. Red like the roofs of the Shu temples. The pure, buttery color of sunlight—not really yellow or gold, what would you call it? All the colors you couldn’t see in the dark.
“I never really thought about it.”
“Mine’s rainbow,” said Sylvi.
“That’s not a color.”
When Sylvi turned her attention to bothering the family beside them, Annika said, “You haven’t asked where our mother is.”
“Do you want to tell me?”
“The drüskelle got her, the witchhunters. When we were still living near Overut.”
“Did your father die in battle?”
My father is dust. You all are. “Yes.”
Her eyes darted to a man with fair hair and bright blue eyes seated at the farthest end of the elders’ table. It was not a position of much esteem.
“Is that your father?” he asked.
Annika looked down at her plate. “You and Lev will probably be best friends by tomorrow.”
He frowned. “No we won’t.”
“Your mother is sitting next to the Ulle. You won’t be eating with me in a few days’ time.”
“Yes I will,” he said, then added, “if we stay.”
“You said you would.”
Eryk fiddled with his spoon. He should talk to his mother about what Annika had learned. He knew that.
Annika said, “Do you want to come swimming with me and Sylvi tonight?”
“It’s too cold to swim.”
“There’s a pond fed by hot springs just up from the creek.”
He glanced over to where his mother was speaking to the Ulle, her black eyes flashing. “I don’t think I should.”
Annika gave a stiff shrug. “All right,” she said.
But he could see that it wasn’t. He remembered the feeling of her hand in his. For the next few months, he could be Eryk. He could belong to this place. He could have a home, maybe even friends. And friends went on adventures. They broke rules together.
He gave Annika a nudge under the table. “What time?”
Even after the lamps were long extinguished and Eryk was certain his mother was asleep, he hesitated. His mother distrusted the vulnerability of sleep; she never really seemed to dream deeply and was always ready to leap from her bed at any sound.
But they’d spent three weeks learning to track with the hunters of the southern range. He’d studied how to walk in silence, rolling his heels, bare feet moving soundlessly over the pelt-covered floor.
It was brighter outside than inside the hut, the camp washed pale blue by the silvery light of a full moon. He waited until he was nearly to the woods to put on his boots, then headed into the trees to find his way back to the stream. He followed it for a half mile, hoping he wasn’t too late, and had even started to wonder if he’d somehow gone the wrong direction when he climbed a low knoll and the pond came into view, bigger than he’d expected, moonlight rippling over its surface.
Annika was there, floating on her back in the water, her white-blond hair spread around her head like a halo. As he watched, she turned and began gliding across the pond, silent as a ghost.
He walked down to the shore, and when her head broke the water again, he whispered, “Hello!”
She whirled, sending out little waves that lapped at the sand. “I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I had to wait for my mother to fall asleep,” he said as he kicked off his boots and stripped down to his linen. He didn’t know how he was going to explain soaked underthings to his mother, but he felt too shy to remove everything. As he plunged into the water, a giddy kind of elation rose in his chest. He dunked his head, letting the water fill his ears so that the world went quiet, then he popped back up, feeling the night air cool his damp skin. He could hear the soft rush of the stream and Annika splashing in the water just a few feet away. Until the thaw. He could do this every night if he wanted. Maybe when the pond froze, they could skate.
“Where’s Sylvi?” he asked.
“She fell asleep before my father did. I didn’t want to wake her.”
Annika squirted water from her mouth. “Quieter without her. She’s decided your mother is a princess, by the way.”
Eryk dunked his head again. “Princess of what?”
“Just a princess. She’s really beautiful.”
Eryk shrugged. He was aware of the way men looked at his mother. It was one more weapon in her arsenal.