The new clothes were infinitely warmer, and Amani was immensely glad Rieka and Kai had gotten them. The wool and fur-lined trousers, tunics, and cloaks were situated perfectly for the Styrkish weather, though glancing up at the snowy peaks surrounding them, she doubted their warmth would last.
They were a day away from entering the Kiertsk mountains, according to the prince. Their treacherous hikes would grow only more difficult. Though now that the others were accompanying them, Amani’s unease around Zain abated slightly. While his presence was still a danger, she doubted he was foolish enough to attempt harming her or Shadya with so many witnesses—especially now that Rieka was armed.
Due to this, Amani made sure to never stray far from the others nor to allow Shadya out of her sight. Even in the nights, she lay awake for hours until she was positive Zain was asleep, and she was always the first to rise at dawn. The effects of her sleepless nights were wearing on her, making her vigilance all the more harder to maintain, but she knew it was necessary.
They began planning the theft of the Sword of Strength, though most everyone, Ren included, seemed at a loss without the layouts. Rieka and Kai sparred each morning with their new weapons, often trading so they were well versed with both. Though the idea was a good one, their practices often ended only half an hour later with Rieka sputtering insults and Kai marching off to distance himself. Shadya seemed to find the whole ordeal tremendously entertaining.
The prince seemed unusually quiet, though no one else, Kai included, seemed to notice. Even during their planning, he would instigate the process, then lapse into silence while Rieka, Kai, and Ren bantered with the occasional input of Zain. During their rests and meals, Amani found herself watching him and his tense expressions.
One evening while the others spoke around the fire, Shadya listening with rapt attention, Amani sidled up beside him.
“The loss of the layouts is only a minor setback,” Amani said softly. “We will find a way to recover the sword.”
The prince glanced her way, a crease forming between his brows. “You believe that?”
No, she didn’t. But she still said, “Your gods have assigned you—us—this journey. Why would they do so if it was only meant to end in failure?”
The crease in his brows only deepened despite Amani’s comforting words. “The gods make mistakes,” he responded absently, turning to stare at the fire.
Amani paused, scrutinizing his expression. He didn’t believe in the gods, she realized. The prime focus of his gods’ prophecy and he didn’t believe in it. The revelation was a shocking one but also brought clarity.
“Regardless, preordained or not, with the gold we all have to earn, I doubt anyone here will allow failure,” Amani said, nodding towards Rieka and Ren who were arguing over who was the more skilled criminal. Kai shook his head, lowering his face into his hands.
While she believed her words—Ren’s thirst for gold and Rieka’s thirst for glory were strong enough to deny an early death—their group was broken. Whatever met them in the mountain, dragon or man, they would need to work together to even hope for success. And after their return from the capital, any kind of teamwork had been demolished.
Whatever had happened within the capital had extinguished the small flame of trust that had begun to bloom between them. It was as though the single failure of the cave’s layouts had destroyed any hope of success. They were once again desperate strangers carrying nothing but their pride and anger.
She had her worries for their upcoming theft but had not given them much time, focusing instead on her more present threat of Zain. She now realized if she focused solely on that threat, none of it would matter once they failed to retrieve the Sword of Strength.
Amani wasn’t gifted in the ways of heists and battle. Her input would be useless in regards to their upcoming theft. But she was gifted in words, so she provided the prince what she could. “This plan can’t be made by you alone.”
The prince met her gaze, his jaw tightening.
“You need Ren’s experience and Rieka’s knowledge. You need them just as much as they need you. If you try to do this alone, we will never succeed.” She didn’t wait for him to respond before rising and seating herself beside Shadya on the opposite side of the fire. Shadya held out a small apple and Amani took it with a smile.
After several beats, she shot a glance at the prince to find him staring into his lap, his hands clenched into fists.
Amani awoke in darkness. She immediately reached beside her and breathed in relief to find Shadya asleep.
She sat up slowly, silently stretching out her aching arms. Clouds obscured any signs of the stars and moon, leaving the world an eerie grey.
Amani pushed herself to her feet, glancing around their small camp. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she made out each form deep in slumber. Ren was supposed to be on guard, but he was burrowed beneath blankets, his form rising and falling with each breath.
She needed to move, and while the prospect of leaving Shadya alone and vulnerable was a horrible one, Zain seemed to be fast asleep.
After tying on her boots and cloak, she glided off between trees to a small ledge they had walked past just before setting up camp. The drop wasn’t too steep, but steep enough to warrant concern. Yet, the view was magnificent, showing a valley with a crystal clear river below. She doubted the river would be visible under the shadows of night, but she craved the feeling of the fresh wind billowing from between the cliffs.
She stopped near the edge, keeping a safe distance away. As she had suspected, any sign of the earlier view was hidden, so she only closed her eyes and breathed.
Styrka was more foreign to Amani than any place she had been. When she had first arrived in Arlan, she believed it to be strange and frightening with its differing customs and climate, but Styrka was more so. The air somehow tasted different, like crisp pine and snow. It pierced her lungs in a way that was both bright and uncomfortable. And the sky, though covered by clouds, seemed to be of a different world.
Styrka, unlike Arlan or Bahajad, was so untouched. It was isolated from the rest of the world despite its close proximity to Arlan. She knew that was no coincidence, but there was beauty in the unmarked land and culture.
While Styrka felt foreign to her, it was never a negative thing. In fact, there was much of it that Amani found herself admiring. The peace and gentle breeze rising from the valley was what she admired then. There was no place so tranquil within Reindale.
Amani’s eyes fell upon a smudge of light behind the clouds. The moon. She felt its phantom rays upon her skin despite its concealment. It seemed to be whispering to her in the night; soothing her.
She hadn’t thought of her gods in a long time. So long, she wondered if they would reject her if she decided to pray once more. Shadya was much better at maintaining her relationship with the deities, but Amani had given up the day she had sold her soul.
But what harm would come from praying? From asking for assistance when she was lost?
Shaza, the moon goddess, was the one to provide wisdom. It was the goddess Amani had valued most while in Bahajad. The moon waited expectantly now, listening. She let her eyes drift closed and opened her mouth, her admission of endless guilt and distress clinging to the tip of her tongue.
A crunch of pine jolted her from her serenity, and Amani’s eyes flew open. She turned slowly just as Zain walked into the clearing.
Every muscle in Amani’s body seized. Though the fear was an automatic reaction, a small wave of relief sighed within her. Shadya was safe. If she weren’t, Zain would’ve never bothered following her.
“It’s late,” Amani commented offhandedly. She was too far from the others, so any screaming would be futile. Even if it wasn’t, Zain could kill her long before anyone arrived.
What would happen to Shadya? Amani had dragged her sister all the way to Styrka, and she doubted the others would care for her should she die. Who would protect her from Madame Bastelle? From the king?
“You are up,” Zain responded with the same level of nonchalance. If his goal was to kill her, why hadn’t he done it yet?
Amani waited, watching him warily. She couldn’t overpower him, and if he was truly an assassin, her words would do no good. When he still didn’t move or speak, she said, “I wished to be alone, so if you have something to say, say it.”
Zain’s shoulders stiffened and his scar twitched across his cheek. The shadows on his face made him seem all the more gruesome. Where was his hidden weapon? Beneath his sleeve? Across his torso? He concealed it well.
Zain nodded stiffly and took a step back. “I apologize for interrupting you,” he said, then turned on his heel and marched back into the woods.
As soon as he was gone, she took a deep breath. She wasn’t foolish enough to believe he wasn’t truly an assassin. But then the question of why she still lived arose.
The minute his silhouette vanished among the pines, she trailed after him. She managed to arrive back at camp a second after he did, and perched beside her sister, setting a hand upon Shadya’s sleeping form.
Amani found Zain’s purpose all the more confusing once more. Was he after Shadya, then, if he hadn’t killed Amani? Was he an assassin at all? Perhaps his purpose was different: one like her old profession.
Whatever the case, she didn’t sleep the rest of the night. Or the night after that.