I should be with my family.
He’d been silent for an hour now.
His father’s death had come as a surprise to me, and now I guessed it had been unexpected for him too. Even if Karsen Ballenger was the ruthless outlaw who harbored a stable of ruffians as the King of Eislandia had reported, he was still Jase’s father and he’d only been dead for two days.
I doubted that Jase cared whether I liked him or that I called him a thief
—but he did care about his family and he was not there with them to bury his father, or whatever it was they did with the dead in Hell’s Mouth.
In the last months of the Komizar’s reign, I had watched Wren when she grieved her parents’ deaths. I saw her fall on their bloody bodies, slaughtered in the town square, screaming for them to get up, hitting their lifeless chests and begging for them to open their eyes. I had seen Synové days after her parents’ deaths, her eyes wide, unseeing, numb and beyond tears.
It had been odd to envy their grief, but I had. I envied the explosion and finality of it—their sobs and tears. At that point, my mother had been gone for five years and I had never grieved her death, never cried, because I never saw her die. Her passing came slowly, over months and years, in the dull bits, pieces, and mundane hours that I worked to stay alive. Day-by-day she faded, as every stall I searched turned up nothing, and another piece of her drifted away. Every hovel and home I snuck into held no part of her, no
amulet, no scent, no sound of her voice. The memories of her became disconnected blurred images, warm hands cupping my cheeks, a tuneless hum as she worked, words that floated in the air, her finger pressed to my lips. Shhh, Kazi, don’t say a word.
I wondered if Jase had missed his chance to grieve too. A one night drunk was hardly a good-bye.
“I’m sorry about your father,” I said.
His steps faltered, but he kept walking, his only reply a nod. “How did he die?”
His jaw clenched and his reply was quick and clipped, “He was a man, not a monster, as you imagine. He died the way all men die, one breath at a time.”
He was still angry. He still grieved. His pace quickened, and I knew the topic was closed.
* * *
Another hour passed. My legs ached trying to keep pace with him, and my ankle was raw from the shackle. The thin fabric of my trousers was little protection against the heavy metal. I kept my eyes open for some bay fern or wish stalks to make a balm, but this forest seemed to have only trees and nothing else.
“You’re limping,” he said, suddenly breaking the silence. Those weren’t the first words I expected from him, but everything about him was unexpected. It made me wary.
“It’s only the uneven terrain,” I answered, but I noticed his pace slowed. “How’s your head?” he asked.
My head? I reached up, gently pressing the knot and wincing. “I’ll live.” “I watched you in the wagon. Your chest. For a while, I didn’t see it
move at all. I thought you were dead.”
I didn’t quite know how to respond. “You were watching my chest?”
He stopped and looked at me, suddenly looking awkward and young and not like a ruthless killer at all. “I mean—” He began walking again. “What I meant was, I was watching to make sure you were still breathing. You were out cold.”
I smiled—somewhere deep inside so he wouldn’t see. It was refreshing to see him flustered for a change.
“And why would you care if I was breathing?” “I was chained to you.”
The hard reality. “Oh, right,” I answered, feeling slightly deflated. “No fun being attached to a corpse. Dead weight and all.”
“I also knew you might be useful. I’d seen your quick—”
He paused as if he regretted the admission, so I finished his thought for him. “Takedown? When I nailed you against the wall back in Hell’s Mouth?”
At least there was some degree of honesty in him.
* * *
When we came upon a brook in the afternoon, we stopped to rest. The forest was thinning and there was little shade, the sun unforgiving. Jase said he thought we’d soon be out of the forest altogether and crossing the open plateau of Heethe. I looked up, judging the sun’s place in the sky. Only a few hours of daylight left. The cool of night would be welcome, but the prospect of an open plateau, a wide night sky, and sleeping without a tent was already a beast running a warning claw down my back. A tent. It was ludicrous to think of that now. Get a grip on yourself, Kazi, I thought, but it wasn’t that simple and never had been. It was not something I could just talk myself out of no matter how many times I tried.
“Maybe we should stop here for the night?” I suggested.
Jase squinted at the sun. “No. We can get a few more hours of walking in.”
I reluctantly nodded. I knew he was right—the sooner to the settlement, the sooner I got back to Hell’s Mouth so the others would know I was still alive and the whole mission wasn’t abandoned. He was eager to get there too. In spite of dragging a three-foot length of chain between us, his pace had never lagged until he noted my limp. But sleeping out there, utterly exposed … it would be hard enough to sleep under the cover of these skimpy trees as it was. A loose breath skittered through my lungs.
I dipped my hands into the brook, splashing my face, taking a drink and picturing myself a week from now, back in the middle of a crowded city. Jase knelt beside me, and fully dunked his head in the shallow water, scrubbing his face and neck. When he surfaced and smoothed back his hair, I saw the gash over his brow from when the hunters trapped him. The cut was small and the dried blood that had crusted his face was gone now, but it made me wonder why he had wanted me to follow him down that empty street in Hell’s Mouth. What had been his plan for me before he had been intercepted by the hunters? I didn’t think it was to share a cup of tea.
I rinsed my neck and arms with more cool water, wishing the brook was deep enough to take a whole bath, but then I caught the silver flash of something even better. “Minnows!” A few feet away, dozens of shiny minnows darted in a dark pool of water created by a cluster of rocks.
“Dinner?” Jase said, his tone hopeful. We hadn’t come across any berries or fungus or even a squirrel to spear with our walking sticks. Our only prospect for dinner had been water, so the fish, however small, lifted my spirits, and it seemed, his too. But catching the slippery angels was another matter.
“Take off your shirt,” I said. “We can each hold a side of the fabric and corral them. We’ll use it as a net.”
He eagerly pulled his shirt over his head, and my excitement for the minnows was replaced with discomfort, wondering if I should look away, but we were chained in close proximity and a strange curiosity took hold. He held his shirt in his hand and I watched the water dripping from his hair trickle down, traversing his chest, abdomen, and the muscles that defined them. I swallowed. It explained the force of his punch when he killed the hunter, and his grip when he pulled me into his arms in the river and held me against him. A winged tattoo fluttered over his right shoulder, across his chest and down his arm. My mouth suddenly felt dry. Synové would have plenty to say about this if she were here, but my thoughts and words stalled on my tongue. He caught me staring.
“It’s part of the Ballenger crest,” he said.
Now it was me who was flustered, and I felt my cheeks flush warm.
He lifted his hand to the corner of his mouth, trying to stifle a smile, which only made me squirm more. I snatched his shirt from his hand. “Let’s catch some dinner, shall we?”