There is no warning rattle at the door. No bell, no chime, not even a footstep, but I know she’s waiting outside.
I wasn’t sleeping anyway, I think, palming the lock and letting the portal slide back on Landfall’s thick air. They tell me it’s lovely here, say it’s a nice break from recycled oxygen, but all I want is the thin sweet air of the steppes, the smell of my pony, room to run, not these twisted streets and the eventual ocean to stop me, “honor” of admission to the Academy notwithstanding.
I flick on a light as the door slides open, dropping one hand to my side, palm up, ready to punch or claw. I’m still caught half in a memory and the floor feels alien beneath my bare feet as I fall into my stance, letting the light strike the visitor first, my hand second if it’s necessary.
The shape outside is both familiar and strange in a way I can’t place immediately. Then my eyes adjust and my hand drops. Moira O’Sonnell. The Administrator’s wife. Mother of Colin the Brat, a year behind me in school and already making a name for himself as the head of Team Razorwolf. Stupid name for a team. Not that First is any better, if I’m the only one who remembers why, the moment of inception more years ago than even I can count. But Moira, who should be home on the mountain with her yaksheep, asleep beside Angus, is still here in my doorway.
“Are you all right?” She looks so lost.
“No.” Her voice is flat, lifeless as the red curls hanging lankly around her face. She isn’t dressed for the chill, just a skirt and thin blouse and a woolen shawl clinging to her shoulders by static and friction. Her hands hang at her sides, fingers fluttering into not-quite-fists and spreading again, twisting in her skirt. She looks down at her bare feet as if unsure how she got here, how she’ll get back.
I open my mouth, stop, choking on questions.
“I should go.” She unfists the fabric of her skirt and starts to turn, ignoring the shawl as it tumbles to the street. She pauses, scoops her hair into a twist, pulling it off freckled shoulders. “I’m leaving.”
But she doesn’t leave, and she doesn’t quite finish turning away, those lost eyes still searching for something in my face. I’m suddenly aware of how exposed I am with my close-cropped hair, my thin night tunic with the lamp at my back. My hand rises again, protectively, and she flinches back from that small motion as though I’ve hurt her already.
“Going.” Moira clenches her jaw, arching her neck arrogantly and turning, stepping out of the forgotten circle of the shawl with a snake-hipped maneuver that is heartstoppingly familiar because it’s not Moira’s, but then neither is Moira, and she never has been, has she? Her August Imperial Majesty Sarah Maelstrom steps out of the circle and pauses, gathering the shreds of Moira around her.
“So that’s where you’ve been hiding,” I tell her softly. “You should come in. It’s cold.” I step back into the light, my hand softening from a fist to an invitation. My heart, which I’d thought I’d successfully turned to iron, flutters birdlike behind the cage of my ribs.
“I…” She doesn’t turn, and I watch the line of her shoulders shift uncertainly in the predawn gloom, Moira to Sarah to Moira.
“You. Yes. Do you need…?” I take another step back, waiting.
“Need.” The word has more meaning in Sarah’s mouth than mine. “I… need?” She sounds like she’s trying it on for size, although I can hear the echoes of a thousand needs and wants, from simple to unspeakable. There is so little of Moira left, just a fading chrysalis, freckles and red hair and green eyes consumed little by little.
“I know.” Kneeling, I pick up the shawl and hang it on the hook inside the door I’ve kept empty these three years. She has been here all along, waiting for me. I know it like I know the presence behind me, as familiar as my own heartbeat, like I know her hair isn’t red, but black, falling thick and straight past unfreckled shoulders.