The fire blazed and the smell of fat dripping from the meimol into the flames was intoxicating, a sweet perfume finer than any found in the jehendra. I breathed it in, heady with its scent, and my stomach churned in anticipation.
The hot throb of the blisters was gone. More wish stalks were wrapped on my feet. Jase had used his own shredded shirt to make a bandage, then carried me up to the ruins. I told him I could walk, but he had insisted I needed to give the wish stalks a chance to do their magic. We found a snug, dark cubby among the tumbled and leaning walls of the ruins, and between the roasting meimol and the dark cave with a roof I could almost touch, I was sure the gods had finally taken mercy on that poor, miserable wretch, Kazi, or they had just tired of tormenting her.
The storm had passed quickly—gone as fast as it had come. As soon as we reached the foot of the ruins, Jase had spotted several mounds and managed to spear a meimol on his second try.
Once the meimol had sizzled to perfection, we sat and ate, savoring the juicy dark meat, sucking on each bone, licking our fingers noisily with delight, and talking about some of our other favorite foods. He mentioned many that I had never heard of before, braised rabbit with fool’s sauce, huckleberry meringue puffs, and bergoo stew. I was surprised to learn that they had four cooks at Tor’s Watch, but his aunt did most of the cooking. I told him about Berdi’s fish stew that was a staple at Sanctum Hall. “I could
eat it for every meal,” I said. “And then there are sage cakes.” I sighed longingly.
“Never heard of those.”
“Then you’ve missed out. They’re a heavenly vagabond specialty that can bring me to my knees.”
“And oranges.” His mouth pulled in a smirk, the fire casting a warm glow on his cheek. “You like oranges.”
I smiled and conceded. “Yes, probably my favorite of all. I never had one as a child. It wasn’t until I—” I caught myself before I revealed too much.
His brows rose. “Until you what?”
“Until I traveled to Dalbreck that I tasted one. Oranges aren’t available in Venda.”
His eyes drilled into me, knowing I was lying, and I hated that about him, that he was able to read beyond my face and words. He was quiet, and I suspected he mulled over what I said—or didn’t say. He finally asked how my feet were doing.
“Not stinging anymore. I think they’ll be fine by morning.”
It was another one of those awkward moments. Our eyes meeting, lingering, looking away. After all we had been through, it seemed there should be no awkwardness left between us, but this was different. Every pause was full, like an overfilled sack of grain, the seams strained, ready to spill, filled with something we dared not explore.
“Tell me another story,” I said.
He nodded. “First, let me get some more wood for the fire.” He eyed the chain between us. Where one of us went, so did the other. “You up to it?”
“I told you, the pain is gone, and I have these fine shoes you made me.” He stood and reached out, helping me to my feet. My soles were tender, but the discomfort wasn’t unbearable, especially with the cushion of the bandages. We walked to the cave mouth and out onto the long wide ledge that rimmed it. Coming up the hill to the ruin, I had only seen the bank and brush in front of me. Now, looking out in the other direction from the ledge, I saw a dizzying sky of stars meeting an infinite empty plain lit only by a three-quarter moon.
“Look. Up there,” Jase said, pointing into the sky. “That’s Aris’s Heart.
And right next to it is—”
I turned, my head swimming, and I reached for the ruin wall. Jase grabbed and steadied me.
“I just got up too fast,” I said.
He gazed down at me, I knew, not buying it. He had known about my strange uneasiness ever since that first night when he had asked me for a riddle in the forest.
“What did they do to you, Kazi?” His voice was low, earnest. Even in the dim light, I was able to see the worry in his eyes.
I pretended I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Who did what?” “Who made you afraid of an open world? An open sky? Was it Venda?
“No one did anything,” I answered quietly.
“Then hold on to me,” he said. “Let me show you the stars.”
* * *
We stood on the ledge, and he told me stories. He began with the lowest star on the horizon, Thieves’ Gold he called it, because it had a distinct goldish cast. I held on to his arm, only concentrating on the single star and not everything that surrounded it, concentrating on Jase’s voice and the story he wove around the glimmering gold nugget and the thieves who had tucked it into the sky, forgetting where they had buried their treasure.
He moved on to another cluster of stars, Eagle’s Nest, with its three bright eggs, and then another cluster, and another, until soon the whole sky was not a sky at all but a dark parchment of glittering stories, each one connected to the next. And as he spoke, some stars streaked across the sky, alive, leaving burning tails behind them, and for those he had stories too. “They’re the Lost Horses of Hetisha, abandoned when she fell from her chariot to the earth. They race across the heavens now, always circling, always searching for her. It’s said that if she’s ever found, their stars will join with her chariot once again and be the brightest in the night sky.”
I stared where a streaking star had just disappeared, and an ache grew inside me. Maybe the throbbing was for a glittering sky I had never truly seen before, or maybe it was the story he told me about the Lost Horses. Maybe it was the thought of them circling the heavens for millennia that ached beneath my ribs. They will never find her, I thought. She is gone.
“And I think…” He turned toward me. “That’s about it.” Our faces were unexpectedly close, the moonlight cutting across his cheekbone, and suddenly I wasn’t thinking about stars or runaway horses.
I had forgotten that I was still gripping his arm and I loosened my hold, returning my hand to my side.
“I guess I should gather a few branches for the fire,” he said.
“I’ll help you.” I stepped forward, both of us taking quick clumsy steps, and we bumped into each other, then tripped, the ruin wall keeping both of us from stumbling to the ground. Now his face was even closer, my back pressed to the wall, his arm braced against it. There were no more diversions, no more chances to look away. It was as though we had both given in to a moment that had been circling, waiting, trying to pounce on us all along. And now it had.
He swallowed, his face only inches from mine. Long silent seconds passed, and it felt like all the world and stars and sky were closing in on us, pressing us nearer to each other.
“Do you suppose,” he finally whispered, “that this could be part of making … the best of it?”
My breath fluttered faintly in my chest. There were a hundred things I should have said, but instead I answered, “I think it could be.”
His head tilted to the side, his face lowering, and his lips barely brushed mine, tender, slowly, leaving time for me to turn away, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to. His hand slid behind my back, drawing my hips to his. Rivers of heat throbbed inside me, and then his mouth pressed to mine, his tongue parting my lips, warm, sweet, gentle. His breath grew heavy and his arms closed around, drawing me closer, the heat of his touch like a fiery brand against the small of my back. My hands glided over his shoulder blades, his skin searing my fingers, his muscles tense, hard. My head spun, but in a way that I wanted to sink into, to drown in the warmth of it. I was falling into a vast dark sky and I didn’t care. I wanted to disappear into it. I wanted more. Our tongues explored, soft, warm, and then he pulled away, his eyes searching mine, wondering, asking. Should he stop?
No, I thought. No. Don’t stop.
His gaze held, waiting, as if he needed to hear me say it aloud.
My breaths shuddered, still hot in my chest. I knew I had made a big mistake, but it was a glorious one, and I wanted to make it over and over
again. But there was something in his eyes, something genuine and earnest and true that made me pause. This was more than just making the best of it, this was something taking root, a seed being planted. But it was a seed that couldn’t be planted.
You are Rahtan, Kazi. You have a promise to keep, and you will betray him eventually. Don’t do this.
A fist tightened in my gut. It wasn’t right. This was a line I couldn’t cross. My hands slid around to his chest to push him away, but then I hesitated, my palms burning against his skin, and slowly they slid upward, rising, my fingers raking through his hair, lacing behind his head, and I pulled his mouth back to mine.