Kai had taken place at the head of their small procession, although he wished to be anywhere but. The minute they had begun traveling away from the broken cliff and thus away from Rieka and Ambrose, anxiety had been slowly but surely creeping its way through his veins. Initially, he had worried for Ambrose, but soon realized it was the others he needed to carry his concern for. Ambrose knew the maps like the back of his hand. He had studied them plenty to have them completely memorized. Not to mention he was with Rieka, the only one among them who understood the terrain. Which left the least capable in Styrka to brave it alone.
He didn’t voice any of his concerns. Rather, he kept his face set and led them towards some unknown destination. Thick clouds obscured the sun which meant using it for direction was out of the question. They were one horse down so Amani and Shadya were left to share a saddle, slowing the beast down significantly. He attempted to follow the curve of the cliff to find a safer path but lost any bearings he previously had within minutes. Their only hope was in attempting to find Zvezny Pyk and reunite with Ambrose and Rieka there.
There was no doubt the others knew how lost he was, but it was more important to keep them all collectively calm than to begin questioning. So he continued to move forward, the rest following silently behind.
He had yet to find Styrka beautiful and his opinions of the country were only worsening. Each turn resulted in the same view with little to no landmarks that could guide them. It was very possible he was leading them in circles and it would be days before he would ever realize.
“We are heading in the right direction,” a cool, accented voice sounded from his right.
Kai turned. Zain faced forward, leaving only the scarred side of his face visible. From that angle, he appeared just as harsh as the environment around him, yet Kai knew he could be trusted. Zain had always managed to be there at the right time, both at the village in Arlan and on the cliff with Amani.
So instead of brushing his statement off as reassurance, Kai said, “How can you be sure?”
“The vegetation is growing thinner here,” Zain pointed out. “Zvezny Pyk is in the center of the mountain range and will likely lack any forestry.”
Kai raised his brows but nodded. Zain was perceptive, and Kai had no doubt that was attributed to his experience as a blacksmith’s apprentice where attention to detail was needed.
“It looks like it will snow again,” Kai pondered, struggling to keep the worry from his voice. If it snowed, their procession may be delayed by days. The thought of Ambrose alone with Rieka and limited supplies for so long was not a comforting one.
In the years leading up to their journey, Kai had little purpose in the palace beyond following Ambros. Ambrose had gained each blessing; Ambrose had been constantly revered. Kai had never been bothered by it, for he would’ve hated the spotlight just as much as Ambrose did. Not to mention, his relevance in the prophecy hadn’t gone completely unnoticed. He had trained to be a guard, and he had been taught by the best of tutors on how to protect and fight. Not for any purposes within the palace but beyond it.
Ambrose was the star of the prophecy—Kai had accepted that, despite his friend’s questionable faith—and Kai was a pawn. The king had established Kai’s lack of worth, defining him solely by his duties to support and protect his son. Yet, in the dangerous slopes of Styrka, he wasn’t there for Ambrose. His friend could be dead, and he wouldn’t know.
Kai shook the thought from his head. He needed to remain calm and thinking about the possibility of his friend’s death was going to result in the opposite. Kai’s only purpose in life had been dedicated to the gods and to Ambrose, though his friend had always treated him as so much more. While the entire palace kicked him down, Ambrose helped him up. Kai didn’t continue to protect his friend for the promise he had made to both the king and the gods, but rather because Ambrose was his brother in all ways but blood.
“When I begin to think that this gods-forsaken country can’t get any colder, it surprises me,” Ren blurted, his teeth chattering loud enough to cut through the wind.
Silence met his jest. Without Rieka to combat his quips, Ren was left to joke to a silent audience. Kai regretted admitting it, but her absence was noticeable, and not always favorably so.
Kai sent his hundredth prayer to the skies hoping for a safe arrival to Zvezny Pyk—both for his procession and Ambrose’s. If the gods ordained this quest, he had to trust that any obstacles could and would be crossed.
“We should begin searching for a place to camp,” Zain muttered, his eyes darting through the slopes.
“And perhaps we can have a fire this time?” Ren pleaded.
No one responded, but Kai knew they all wished for the same. He was so cold, he almost couldn’t remember what it felt like to be warm. Though searching for firewood in the conditions would be difficult, Kai would volunteer to do the work himself if it meant a chance for heat.
It took them what felt like hours to find a decent cave to settle in. While it was shallow and bordered with thick icicles, it was better than nothing.
They unsaddled their horses and unpacked their bags in silence, the routine well known to them all. After they finished, Kai and Zain glanced at each other in unspoken agreement and ventured back into the snow in search of firewood.
Just a couple days before, Kai had been sweating under the various layers of furs and wool, but now, the wind managed to reach past even the thickest of hides and pierce his skin. His cheeks chapped in the harsh air and his fingers numbed inside his gloves. He hated every part of the cold, but refused to complain. He had no right to when Shadya had shivered non-stop since her near death experience on the cliff and not uttered a peep.
“You were a guard at the palace, right?” Zain asked as they dug through the snow for fallen branches.
“Yeah,” Kai muttered, his lips frozen and stiff.
“Yet your previous blade was of Larabosi steel?”
“How did you—?” Kai stopped himself. Of course Zain had noticed. He was a blacksmith’s apprentice. “Yes. I suppose the king wished to supply me something to remind me of my heritage.” While his words were true, he also knew there was nothing kind in the gesture.
“Foreigners are not well received in Arlan,” Zain said with a nod. “Or Styrka, it seems.”
“How did you end up in Reindale?”
Zain fell silent and turned so his face was no longer visible. He crouched and piled a stick into his arms. “There is poverty and corruption in Bahajad. I suppose my parents hoped Arlan was different.”
“Were they satisfied with what they found?”
“On the contrary.” Zain turned back to Kai, and his scar twitched over his cheek. “Corruption is not the spawn of a country, but of man. There is no place free of it.”
“But you found a job within Arlan. A good, stable one.” Sure, Kai agreed each place had its flaws and corruption, but some more than others. And Arlan, though it struggled with poverty and dissonance, was also ruled by a merciful government and followed merciful gods. Their acceptance of him within the palace despite his foreign blood was proof enough. Styrka never would have allowed him to stay within its borders.
“Everyone works under a master,” Zain said, taking half of his towering pile of wood and setting it upon Kai’s empty arms. “In many cases, that master is man himself, in others its power, religion, or desires. What is the difference between a job in Arlan and a job in Bahajad. Size in salary? But money is no less a master than man.”
Kai furrowed his brows. “Money is necessary for stability and life. Isn’t it better to have a job that provides that need?” Isn’t it better to reside in Arlan where those needs can be met? While Kai knew little about Bahajad, he knew its poverty rates were higher than even Arlan. It had a strict hierarchy impossible of being broken.
Zain nodded towards the cave, and they began making their way back. “I work under a master like everyone else,” he said. “I only mean to say that Arlan is no less corrupt than Bahajad. Solace cannot and will not be found there.”
They arrived at the cave before Kai could voice his true question. If solace couldn’t be found with corruption, could it ever be found?
With the fire starters they had purchased before entering the Kiertsk mountains, they had a fire roaring within minutes. As the heat washed over his skin and warmed his wet clothes, all concerns melted and dripped to the back of Kai’s mind. He tugged off his gloves and reached his hands for the fire.
“It’s so warm, I want to jump in it,” Ren commented, his eyes wide.
“I’d advise against that,” Zain murmured. Even with the bright light of the flames, he still managed to conceal himself in the shadows of the cave.
“Didn’t Rieka warn that a fire might attract predators?” Amani pointed out. Despite what had happened earlier on the cliff, she had been calm ever since her feet were once again firmly on the ground. Although she still seemed stiff, her hands tucked into her coat rather than clutching Shadya to her side.
“If I get eaten by a wolf now, at least I would die warm and happy,” Ren said, scooting closer to the fire.
“I think the reward outweighs the risk,” Kai amended, shooting Ren a look. Death wasn’t a topic he wished to linger on.
“Do you think the others have already made it to the dragon mountain?” Shadya asked, her eyes darting between Ren and Kai.
“I don’t think so,” Kai said, and a chill slithered down his spine at the thought of where they might be. He hoped they had found a warm cave, though with Rieka there, he was sure that wasn’t an issue. “It’s a long journey.”
“We may arrive and they have been crushed by a snow pile. Or fallen from a cliff like Amani and I almost did.”
“Shadya!” Amani hissed.
“What? It’s true.”
“You know the harm of speaking so casually of death.”
“Why is it so bad?” Shadya turned to face her sister fully. Without her hat, her frizzy hair framed her face with crazed chaos. “Death happens to everyone.”
“It’s bad because there are people who care about those who may die. Death happens to everyone but it’s those alive who are affected.”
“Yeah, but who cares about the axe girl or the prince?”
Kai stiffened at Shadya’s words. She was young, and for that he knew her words meant no harm, yet he wanted—needed—to make it clear that his friend’s life had meaning. That aspect of Ambrose had never been questioned before—not when he was the centerpiece of a prophecy.
Amani’s brows lowered, and while her face remained calm, her eyes lit up with an emotion he had yet to see from her. With the fire flickering, her irises looked like flames themselves. “Listen carefully,” Amani said, her voice quiet and low. Her accent grew more pronounced as she set her eyes on Shadya’s. The girl shrunk from her gaze. “Each life has connections to another. Each life carries significance to someone else. You do not have the power to decide what life has meaning. Just because you do not care for someone does not mean no one else does, is that clear?”
“Yes,” Shadya murmured, her cheeks flushing red.
“Now, I’d like you to apologize.”
Shadya’s eyes widened. “What? Why?”
“Because someone here may care for Rieka or the prince, and you just insulted them.”
Shadya’s lip twitched with annoyance, and she murmured something under her breath before mumbling, “I’m sorry.”
Ren shuffled uncomfortably from across the fire and itched at his neck. His obvious display of discomfort was exactly how Kai felt. He knew Amani was close to her sister, but it was as if she were her mother. Not that Kai ever had an official mother figure, but his caretaker in the palace had scolded him just as Amani scolded Shadya.
“Um, dried fruit?” Ren asked, lifting the leather pouch of food. Kai eagerly leaned forward to snag it and shoved a piece in his mouth. Zain refused the bag when Kai passed it to him, his eyes downcast and his hands clenched in fists.
Kai turned to give it to Amani, and she glanced down at her sister, who was sulking against the wall of the cave, before lifting her hand from her pocket and reaching for it.
“Shit!” Ren barked, scrambling towards Amani. She furrowed her brows. “What happened to your hand?”
Shadya lifted her head to peer towards Amani. “It’s nothing serious,” Amani assured, clenching her hands into fists.
“I would’ve passed out with pain by now if those were my hands,” Ren insisted. “Do we have bandages?”
Kai shuffled through a bag and pulled out a small roll of cloth.
Ren snatched it from him and sat before Amani. “Well?”
“A thief and a healer?” she asked, her lip pulling up in a smile.
“A man of many talents,” he agreed with a grin. When she still didn’t unclench her hand, he gave her a look. “Fine. Get an infection. Die. Your choice.”
Amani sighed before shooting Shadya a worried glance. She opened up her hand, revealing the extent of the damage.
Kai scrubbed a hand over his face, stopping over his mouth. Her hands were… completely mauled. The remnants of her gloves clung to her in tatters and the skin beneath it was still bleeding despite her fall having been hours ago. Ren curled a lip in disgust as he pulled the scraps of wool off her skin. Deep gouges streaked her palm and each of her nails hung from their beds, shattered. She pulled her other hand from her pocket and it fared no better.
As Ren pulled each nail from its bed, Amani didn’t even wince but rather watched Shadya with furrowed brows. The young girl stared at her sister’s hands in horror, having been previously oblivious to Amani’s pain.
“Where did you learn basic aid?” Amani asked Ren.
As he began to wrap her hands in the cloth, he said, “I was a street rat in Reindale. I wasn’t about to afford the hospital bills when I got tossed around.” He shot Shadya a grin. “It may come as a surprise, but I had a lot of enemies in those days.”
“In those days?” Amani joked.
“Fine,” Ren huffed. “I suppose I have a lot of enemies these days, too.”
“So, with the money… Do you plan on paying off those enemies?”
Ren chuckled while securing the cloth on one hand. Amani didn’t so much as flinch. “Gods, no. But I will buy a nice estate, preferably on a warm coast. Styrka has assured me that I never want to see snow again.” Ren glanced at Shadya, who watched him attentively. “Where would you like to live?”
Shadya pondered the question, leaning back on her palms. Kai suddenly was struck with a thought he hadn’t yet considered: Where would he go? After the prophecy was said and done, what use was he in the palace? Would the king allow him to stay on as Ambrose’s guard?
Kai couldn’t imagine a life beyond Reindale. The city was his, and the palace was home. He had never desired moving away. He hadn’t even carried much excitement for the journey itself, only seeing it for what it was: the gods’ prophecy.
“Bahajad,” Shadya announced, snapping Kai from his thoughts. “I’d move to Bahajad. The capital. Rasaih.”
Amani turned to stare at her sister. “You would?”
Shadya nodded, her hair bouncing. “It’s where we were born. I’d like to see it.” Kai wondered briefly how young Shadya had been when she arrived in Reindale. Amani had the Bahajadi accent, though it was faint, but Shadya lacked it entirely.
“Rasaih is… An interesting city,” Amani hedged. She shifted as Ren began to secure the bandages on her other hand, though Kai didn’t think it was from pain. “It’s beautiful one minute and dangerous the next.”
“Isn’t Reindale dangerous, too?” Shadya asked.
Kai opened his mouth, but Amani spoke before he could voice his opinion. “It is. But it is predictable. The danger is very easy to spot. In Rasaih, it can hide in the shadows.”
Kai furrowed his brows. Reindale was dangerous just as any city was. It had crime and poverty. But it was controlled. Arlan maintained a stable law enforcement and judicial system that kept crime in check the best it could. Yes, there was danger, but he would never go to say that the danger was clear. In fact, he would argue it had been minimized.
“Sounds like my kind of city,” Ren said, wiping his hands on his pants as he finished his work.
“I do wonder how that would work,” Amani said. “The vipers of Rasaih against the goblin of Reindale.”
“‘Goblin’?” Ren exclaimed, drawing a giggle from Shadya. “That’s the name people gave me?”
A genuine smile tugged at Amani’s lips. “That’s the name I gave you based on the rumors. An ounce of gold and somehow you pocket half of it.”
Ren pursed his lips and shook his head. “Out of all the names… I could’ve been ‘the robber’... No, that’s no good. I could’ve been… ‘quick fingers’.” Ren waggled his eyebrows with a grin.
Amani shot Shadya a glance but the young girl was oblivious to the innuendo. Slowly returning Ren’s smile, she said, “I believe a courtesan has already coined that name.”
Kai couldn’t help but snort, and Ren’s brows rose with shock at Amani’s joke before he clutched his stomach and guffawed. “Where were you in all my years of thieving? We would’ve had fun, you and I,” Ren said, with a dramatic flourish of his hand.
Amani arched her brow. “Fun in the ways a courtesan provides?”
Ren shook his head. “I have no interest in women that way,” he said with a shrug.
Kai’s eyes widened. No, that was just another one of Ren’s jokes. It had to be. Unless…?
Kai had just assumed Ren was dramatic and flirtatious with everyone, but… Did he single out Ambrose not to embarrass him but because…?
Kai thought back to his interactions with Ren. He had joked openly with him, but did it go beyond that?
“You—” Kai started, shuffling awkwardly.
Shadya stared at Kai and he met her eyes. She nodded once before turning back to Ren. “How many men have you exploited?”
“Shadya!” Amani hissed, lightly pushing Shadya’s shoulder. “What are you saying?”
Ren had fallen over with laughter, tears pouring from his eyes. Kai only stiffened, the awkwardness seizing his bones only increasing.
“What? Exploit. It’s a word that means ‘steal’,” Shadya said matter-of-factly.
Amani slumped and closed her eyes, breathing deeply through her nose. As she released the breath, she chuckled softly.
A quiet laugh sounded behind Kai and he jolted, his eyes darting to find Zain. The man’s body shook with barely audible laughter.
“You worded that question beautifully, young Shadya,” Ren assured, patting her hand. Shadya withdrew it and furrowed her brows in confusion. “And to answer your question, I have stolen from too many men to keep count. Although, for the second meaning—”
“Do you have the water pouch?” Kai asked, shuffling through his own bag.
Ren chuckled and tossed him the skein. Kai took a swig, avoiding eye contact.
“It’s snowing again,” Amani pointed out, her voice serious once more.
They all turned to the opening of the cave, a solemn blanket settling upon their shoulders. Sure enough, thick, white flakes were falling rapidly, adding to the already towering piles of snow.
Kai bounced his fists against his knees as he watched the snow. He hoped Ambrose and Rieka had found someplace safe and warm. He hoped they had continued on without waiting. He hoped they had enough supplies to last until they reunited.
Hopes were useless now, stuck in a cave. Shadya was right. For all he knew, they could already be dead. He could pray to the gods only to find out he had been praying for a corpse to persevere.
“Kai,” a gentle voice jolted him from his thoughts. He turned to face Amani. “I’m worried for them, too.”
Kai felt the others' eyes on him, so he set his jaw, stilled his hands, and nodded tightly. He had to keep it together. He couldn’t spend the next few days thinking about death. If it were Ambrose in his shoes, he would tell him to set his worries aside and focus on the issue at hand. All he had to do was heed his own advice.
As the night wore on and sleep never came, he realized that was easier said than done.