Red dunes. Blue sky. Always a blue sky. The Iabba Desert. A waterless sea, but a sea once. The massive skeletons of flippered and finned creatures jutting out of the dunes proved it. Surveyors recorded each one along their route, creating new landmarks to replace those swallowed by the sandstorm that wiped the desert clean.
Is there anything else so vast in all the world?
Putting her hands in her pocket, feeling-phantom for her keys, Zihariel breathed in the chilly air. Evenings were not quite as cold this close to the mountains; the land not quite as sparse. Looking back over the way they came, she could make out tufts of the spiky plants that had sprouted along with the purple smudge of the Dragonbacks on the horizon. More and more of these scrubby copses appeared as the days passed into seasons, even as the mountains seemed to get no bigger.
“Nah-nah! We’re getting closer,” Farkis had assured her, his dark, round face beaming. Few markings etched his cheekbones; only enough to prove he had been used as a surveyor before being bought and freed in exchange for his services on expedition. All of the bearers, hunters, cooks and camel-tenders had been likewise hired. Ethen claimed it was less expensive that way.
“What are you doing up here all by yourself?”
Zihariel turned away from the expanse of desert to see Ethen coming towards her. Behind him, the mountains rose like broken bones through skin. Voha bihn Napoon. Dragon bones, or so her ma-mahti’s book told her. She shuddered, rubbing her arms as if she were cold.
“We leave the desert behind tomorrow,” she told him. “After all this time, it feels like leaving home all over again.”
Turning her to face the mountains, Ethen rested his chin to her shoulder. “Those are home for you, Zee.”
She sighed dreamily, as if she agreed. Pashni’it, Bosbana, the Dragonback Mountains, even Calaira, for Zihariel Finder, home was not a where but a who; and he was standing behind her now, his arms wrapped tenderly around her.
“What do you think he’s doing right now?”
Zihariel startled, covered it with another feigned shiver. His thoughts had been traveling similar paths; she did not have to ask who he meant. “It’s late summer in Bosbana,” she answered. “Maybe he and Cesilee are attending a concert.”
“Cesilee?” Ethen snorted. “I don’t think so. More likely, they’re drinking down at the Scarlet Litch on Actor’s Row.”
“Vic’s not much of a drinker.”
“Cesilee is. Maybe he is too, by now. He is my son.”
Zihariel turned in his arms, once again facing the desert now only a slightly darker black than the sky. She kissed his chin, his lips, the familiar thrill chasing henhairs along her skin. “Did you think you’d miss him enough to wish you’d never left Bosbana?”
“No.” Ethen chuckled softly. “I really didn’t. I’ve always been a fool.”
“Then you wish we hadn’t joined the expedition?”
“I wish he had.”
Ethen lowered his still-blond, still-curly head. Only in daylight could she pick out the white strands among the gold, and only when kissing-close. Zihariel chucked his chin gently. “I don’t think Vic is the adventuring type.”
He shrugged, smiling a little sadly. “His mother was a homebody. I think. At least, she seemed to be. Or maybe…”
“Maybe?” she prompted when he fell silent. In the camp, Dane was laughing. She could pick his guffaw out of all the others.
“I don’t know, Zee. I keep thinking about how I hated my father until Vic showed up. I hated him for abandoning me and mahti. I hated him for the childhood he left me to. So maybe—”
“No.” Zihariel shook him gently. “No, Ethen. Vic doesn’t hate you. Your son loves you.”
“Then why did he choose to stay behind? We were only just starting to get used to one another.”
Resting her head to his chest, Zihariel listened to his beating heart. She fell asleep to that sound each night, woke up to it each morning. It beats. For you. It beats. For you. She never doubted the secrets it told her, not once since those first nights spent in his arms. She could not desecrate those secrets with lies; and yet she could not hurt him with the truth either.
“He wanted to make you proud.” She offered half the truth instead. “He wanted to become a great Finder in his own right. He couldn’t do that in the desert.”
“I suppose,” Ethen said after a moment. He lifted his head, held her tighter. “You hungry?”
“Very. It’ll be good to have fresh meat tonight.”
Ethen nodded. “The hunters were glad to finally be useful. Nyael said something about one of the cooks finding wild moomium growing in the scrub.”
“How can he be sure? No one has seen moomium in decades.”
“Rury has.” Ethen laughed. “And Dane. Tonight, my beautiful dashi, we feast. Maybe a certain musician will grace us with a song.”
“I’ve already told Augnesse I’ll play for her.” Zihariel nudged him. “She says the baby kicks more when I play. She swears it will be a dancer.”
Ethen shook his head. “All these months and I still can’t believe she kept it quiet so long. Even Nyael was surprised, though I don’t see how.”
“She didn’t want anyone to worry.”
“She didn’t want to be sent home is more like it. It happened early enough in the journey that she could have been.”
Zihariel laughed softly, fondly. “She becomes more like her mother daily.”
The clang that meant food broke the night air. Letting her go, Ethen held out his hand. She took it. They walked slowly back towards camp. She’d come further than she thought. The fire was only an orange speck in the distance.
“Quin came around in the end too,” she said. “Angry as he was.”
“He’s got a heart in him,” Ethen told her. He cocked his head, squinted. “Somewhere. Hey, did you see that?”
“See what?” Zihariel followed his line of vision. Ethen halted, held her slightly behind him. She gripped his hand with both of hers. Something like energy crackled up her back. She’d felt it many times out in the desert, during those rainless lightning storms when bolts lifted up from the ground to crack into the sky with a boom. “Ethen?”
And then she saw it, a dark shadow descending. Fast. Silent.
“By all the ornery desert gods.” Ethen gasped. He pulled her down into a squat, shielded her with his body. His arm was an iron band about her shoulders.
“What? Ethen! What is it?”
The sky lit up. Not lightning at all. A blast of flame streaked down from the sky.