Jura didn’t tell anyone how different she felt. The first few days of travel had been a sandstorm of activity with little food or sleep, and she told herself that she only felt strange because she was tired. Except she didn’t feel tired. For the first time in a long time Jura felt alive.
On the fourth night, Jura was bit by a scorpion. The pain was intense. But when she didn’t succumb to its poison, she wouldn’t let Tylak make a thing of it. But how could she not? What kind of person suddenly learned how to fight five men at once? Could survive the sting of a deadly desert scorpion? Her body was changing. Everflame help her, but she was becoming someone or something else.
It seemed her heart would forever be in a state of panic. It beat wildly in her rib cage, as fierce as a dragon trapped in the arena. Jura feared she would never grow accustomed to the panic. It ate at her, clawing at her insides. Now it was nearly three weeks later and they were no closer to Kitoi. The endless desert stretched out around them, and the only sound was the steady breathing of the men beside her.
They traveled during the day. Tylak made them all invisible, pulling light from their portable source of the Everflame and bending it around them. Every morning they set off and trudged across the desert, pushing themselves until Tylak collapsed and the Samur helped Jura make camp for the night. Tylak usually awakened an hour or so later, just in time to eat dinner and provide first watch. It was a tiresome schedule for him. It was a tiresome schedule for them all. He never complained. Jura appreciated that about him. Throughout this entire journey Tylak had done nothing but offer his services as bodyguard, as friend. But everyone wants something in return. It wasn’t that long ago Tylak had needed her help to recover his birthstone. What did he want from her now?
She adjusted the heavy pack on her shoulders and bit back another disgruntled sigh. Tylak had warned her not to make her pack heavy with books. She’d laughed in his face. They needed the books, and if she had had her way, her entire library would have found its way into their packs.
He was right, though. I shouldn’t have brought all these books. She would never admit it out loud, so she bit the inside of her cheek to have a different pain to focus on and readjusted her pack on her aching shoulders.
According to the maps they would be arriving at the road to the Golden City any day now. She hoped the map was accurate. There was no way of telling. The landscape was just as empty now as it had been the week before. Jura frowned at the stretch of barren land, unmarked save for two or three tiny trees struggling for life. They couldn’t afford for the map to be wrong. Over a thousand years ago this land had once been lush with abundant life. That was before the Everflame had walked the earth, destroying everything in its path. A memory nagged at the edge of her subconscious, an old text she’d read from an annotated translation of the Doctrine of the Flame. Something about the Everflame walking the earth once again. She sighed. Yet another subject that required more research. But the Everflame had to wait, she had to focus everything on Amira. Her lost friend had so few people still fighting for her.
It was just the four of them at the moment. She and Tylak and the Samur. Peppik was out there, somewhere. He often scouted ahead or behind. He was an odd man. He had shown up the first night they made camp, simply walked up and sat beside her. She’d screamed and Tylak had to tackle the Samur to the ground to stop them from slicing the old man in half. He’d been a member of the group ever since. Jura didn’t mind, she appreciated the extra help. They needed all they could get.
Once she found Amira, she would find the person responsible for everything. The altta’wam was working with someone in Kitoi, the mastermind behind it all. She only hoped she wasn’t too late. She had to get a message to the Sea King as well. She wanted to fill him in on all she’d discovered. It was clear someone was trying to start a war within the Tri-Alliance, and there was no way of knowing what this faceless enemy would do next. Once she arrived in Kitoi, she would be able to speak with the ambassador for the sea people or at the very least hire a private messenger.
She felt someone’s eye on her and slanted her vision toward Tylak’s steely silver gaze. His stare sent an inexplicable shiver down her spine and she tightened her grip on her pack. It was hard to believe she was thinking of anyone romantically when so much else was at stake, but Jura couldn’t deny the tug of attraction she felt toward the former Shadow Dancer. He seemed to fill the void left in the wake of Markhim’s disappearance and Amira’s capture. He felt something too, didn’t he?
“Are you ready to stop?” The fading sunlight shone on his face, and Jura once again wondered at the origins of his scar.
“Hmm? Stop what?”
“Stop here. For the night.” He raised his eyebrows.
Jura looked around. Here was as good a place as any. She nodded and let her heavy pack fall to the sand beside her, shoulders sagging in silent relief. The Samur men, Ichiro and Jiro, moved off to the side and scanned the horizon. Jura had a difficult time telling the two apart. They were both massive men with oily, shaved heads and dark brown eyes. Jura suspected they were brothers, but when she’d voiced the thought out loud the two men had only smiled as though sharing a secret.
The two liked to recite prayers at dusk and dawn. They seemed to worship the sun, or perhaps the moon. It was difficult to follow and neither man seemed inclined to answer any of her questions. Jura got the impression the Samur didn’t like her and merely tolerated her because they were following the bidding of their true master: Beshar, Ninth of the Thirteen.
Thoughts of Beshar led to thoughts of home, and Jura caught her bottom lip between her teeth, nibbling as she worried. What would her father think now that she was missing? Could he think clearly? She still didn’t quite understand what it meant to be ensnared by a blood chain. Was her father even aware of her actions? Was he forced to watch as someone else controlled his body? Was he worried for her? She shook her head and turned her attention back to setting up camp.
Tylak had begun to prepare a hare for roasting. Good thing too, he’d been traveling with the poor thing for nearly an hour. The frantic hare had run directly into their path and Tylak had stopped it with one quick flick of his dagger. The take down itself had been impressive, but Jura hated watching what came after. She hated the process, despite the fact she was a voracious meat eater.
“Won’t be much longer now,” he muttered. He must have felt her watching him though he didn’t look up from his work.
Jura nodded. He’d removed the head and all its fur and was in the process of shoving a long stick down the length of its body.
She swallowed and began digging in her pack for something to read. She needed the distraction.
Tylak began to hum as he worked. He kept the roasting stick with their pack as well as a single torch lit by the Everflame. Jura recognized the tune but she couldn’t say from where. Knowing Tylak, the song probably contained words that shouldn’t be repeated in polite society anyway.
She watched as he stuck the torch deep into the stand so that only its flames were apparent as he held the hare over the heat. The flames licked at the hare and in moments the intoxicating smell of roasting meat sent her stomach into a fit of rumbling.
“When I was little, we never had our own Everflame.” He still didn’t look up at her, his attention focused on turning the hare over his makeshift spit.
She picked her way through the sand and sat down beside where he squatted. She’d picked a book at random and sat it on her lap.
“How did you pray?” she asked, leaning forward. She skimmed through the book, Lanfer’s A History of Kitoi: The Golden City. Perfect, she needed to finish this one before their arrival.
He snorted. “I was always too busy trying to stay alive. Never had time for prayers. My mother did though. Every morning she went to the flame in the city square and burned a prayer.”
Jura imagined making a daily trek into the city square simply to see the shared flame. The Everflame, pure and whole, was caged in the glass palace, just a stone’s throw from where Jura had grown up. She had never had to leave the palace for anything
Tylak seemed to have taken up the nightly duty of cooking, and Jura wondered if this was a hobby he’d enjoyed back home.
“Did you have a Torch for cooking your meals?” she asked.
Tylak still didn’t take his eyes from the flame. “When we had something to cook we went to the pits.”
When they ate. Jura had never missed a meal in her life. It was a wonder her belly remained so flat. What would it be like to wonder when she would have her next meal? Even here on the road she was never truly hungry. They’d packed plenty of dried fruit, and between Tylak and the Samur she had never wanted for fresh meat.
“I-I’m sorry,” she finished lamely, not quite sure how to respond. She fell back to her safe spot and began reciting recent facts she’d learned about Kitoi. “A recent census reports less than thirty percent of the population follows the Everflame. I don’t expect we’ll see as many pits.”
Tylak didn’t answer, so she continued on. “I’ve heard the city is lighted by the splendor of its stones. In fact, the stones are the basis of the primary religion. The theocracy believe that emotions are what separate us from a true union with the gods. Each emotion is assigned a specific leader and each leader a specific gem that is amplified by that emotion. The people are governed by the cabochon—each leader corresponds to their own emotion.”
Tylak grunted. “Sounds confusing.”
“Not really,” Jura shrugged. “It’s color coded and there are forms.”
“Forms?” Tylak wrinkled his nose.
“Yes. The people of Kitoi like their forms and their rules. It’s all very organized.”
“You got all this from that book?”
Jura blushed. “Well, partly. I suppose there were some generalizations made. I do know to expect things to be different there.” She lifted her chin. “The people of Kitoi have a very forgiving attitude when it comes to slavery. With the right paperwork, citizens can purchase anyone they wish.” Jura shuddered. “That’s why it’s so important to find Amira as quickly as possible.”
If he answered she didn’t hear him, lost in her thoughts about Amira. She watched Tylak’s survey of the roasting hare, watched its slow rotation over the flames and stood up. A wave of dizziness rushed through her, she placed a hand to her temple and reached at her side for her skin of water. She was careful to take only the tiniest of sips, aware of her dwindling supply. They were all running low on water. It shouldn’t be much longer before they arrived in Kitoi. Jura stared at their piece of the Everflame and sent a silent prayer for their safe arrival. Slowly, she sank down to her knees back to the warm sand. She opened her book and began reading at random, her thoughts as wild as her beating heart.
The capital city of Kitoi was quite large, how would they find just one person? Jura wasn’t even entirely sure Amira was still in the Golden City. It was possible her captor had moved her outside the capital to some lesser known city. She nibbled on her lip and worried.
Tylak brought her a portion of the hare and sat beside her while she ate. He was later joined by Peppik and the three sat in companionable silence until Jura unrolled her sleeping mat and succumbed to exhaustion.
Tylak’s body covered her own and jerked her from her dreams. She squirmed beneath him.
He straddled her at the waist, pushing her hips into the soft sand. He’d pulled a cloak up around their heads and it shuddered violently.
“Sandstorm,” he shouted, but his words were unnecessary as the wind howled around them.
Jura was grateful Tylak concentrated on holding the cloak tight and secure around them. She was acutely aware of the fact that his hips pressed into hers, that his face was mere inches from her own. She bit her bottom lip and closed her eyes. It had been years since Jura was caught in a true sandstorm. Even now she felt no true danger, despite the howling wind and sharp bites of sand. Besides, how could she worry over the sands when Tylak’s face was so close to her own?
“It’s just a haboob. Shouldn’t last much longer.” His words were soothing, as though he meant to calm a frightened child. She nodded weakly and tried to keep as still as possible. Minutes later Tylak stood up. He gripped her arm just above her elbow and hauled her to her feet as well. The two Samur stood just off to the side, shaking dust and sand from their robes. There was no sign of Peppik.
“My books!” Jura exclaimed, rushing forward. The heavy wind had torn open one of her packs and the resulting chaos had ripped apart more than one volume. She picked up the remains of the History of Kitoi and let out a dramatic sigh. What pages were left were now torn and ruined.
To his credit, Tylak merely patted her on the arm.
“What a disaster,” she frowned at the misshapen mess.
“We lost a bactrian, either ran off or buried,” he noted, no doubt trying to bring her back to more pressing issues than a damaged book. The loss of the giant camel would hurt. They’d purchased two of the beasts from a caravan traveling to the Republic. At least they’d had the foresight to divide their food and water supply between the two. One of the Samur, Ichiro perhaps, calmed the remaining pack animal. The bactrian had the ability to seal its nostrils during sand storms, but that hadn’t stopped the younger beast from running in search of shelter. With any luck they would find the creature up ahead on the dusty road. And there was a road, Jura realized. Though the city wasn’t apparent, Jura was confident that the appearance of the road meant that it wouldn’t be long before the group found themselves at their destination. Finally. Once in the city Jura could reach out to the Sea King, find Amira, and get information on the politics of the Republic.
Tylak gave the signal and the group huddled tight as he once again made them invisible. The sun hadn’t yet made its appearance over the horizon but there was no sleep after the attack from the wild sands. Today they would reach the Golden City. Today they would find answers.