“That’s like, hours wasted,” I seethed.
“Yes, but I-I don’t feel comfortable roaming around now,” Aisha said. “I mean it. There are… strange things that lurk in The Dunes after dark.”
“What strange things?” River whispered, her face paling.
What strange things? I almost laughed. How about giant jinni-scorpion mutants?
“Neither of you need to know,” Aisha snapped, quite flustered all of a sudden. What could be worse than what I’ve already seen? “Because we won’t meet any of them, if we do as I say and stop for the night.”
It so disturbed me to see Aisha nervous like this that I didn’t question her any more. “Okay,” I said. “Where should we rest?”
“We’ll find a cave, somewhere in these mountains,” she said.
“Uh, yeah. You’ll need to smoke out any scorpions before I take River into one of those.”
“Obviously,” Aisha breathed, still irritable.
We drifted around for the next half hour scouting for a suitable cave. Once Aisha had chosen one, she told us to wait outside while she drifted in. She literally did smoke the place out. Smoke billowed out from the entrance, bringing with it a toxic smell. Coughing, River and I moved farther back, waiting for Aisha to emerge.
“All right,” she said, dusting off her hands as she walked out. “There were definitely no giant scorpions in there and…” She pointed to a dozen rats, spiders and other creepy-crawlies scampering out of the cave and into cracks in the walls. “There shouldn’t be anything else left either.”
“That stuff smells strong enough to poison us, too,” River said, still coughing.
Aisha rolled her eyes as I landed with River on the ridge outside the cave. Then she sparked up a fire in the center.
“The Dunes’ nights are harsh,” she said, stoking the flames and raising them higher. “Almost as harsh as the days’ heat.”
I had to be sure to keep my distance from the bonfire. I moved to a wall and sat down. River flopped down next to me. Aisha sat with her back facing us.
River nuzzled her head against me. I kissed the top of it. “Do you want to get some sleep?”
She leaned closer against me. “I’ll try.”
“Then let’s lie flat.” I lay down on my side across the dry ground and gathered River to me as she did the same. Her skin was cold as always. I kissed her lips, tasting them one at a time. She reached for my hand and flattened our palms against each other.
“You still don’t have a ring,” I remembered.
River smiled and planted kisses over my knuckles. “I will soon.” Her turquoise eyes were filled with such conviction. I wished I could believe her without doubt.
As the night progressed, we kissed some more and cuddled, but didn’t talk much. There was not much more that we could say that we weren’t already saying with our eyes. We both shared the same desperate hope, the same blind faith that however crazy this path was that Hortencia was leading us on, it had to work out. I couldn’t bring myself to think about what would happen if it didn’t. I’d spiral into a depression I’d never escape from. It just has to work out.
Once River’s eyes began to droop and she eventually fell asleep, I scooped her up from the ground—realizing it was too cold for her here—and moved a little closer to the fire. I positioned her on my lap and cradled her, one arm beneath her legs and the other around her waist, while her head rested against my chest. I gazed down at her beautiful, peaceful face. Unable to keep my lips off her, I trailed them softly down the bridge of her nose.
Aisha still sat in the same spot, back turned. Was she keeping watch? Or did she just want her own space?
“Hey,” I called to her in a whisper. She twisted to face me, raising a brow. “Come sit with us.”
Heaving a sigh, she ambled over and sank down next to me against the wall. Her eyes returned to the shadowy desert stretched out all around us.
“Are you okay?” I asked her.
“Still feeling nervous?”
She slanted me a glance. “Yes,” she replied, as though it was a stupid question. “But up here… we should be okay. I just need to keep watch.”
“Keep watch for what?”
She shivered. “They say it’s bad luck to talk about monsters at night-time. They say it attracts them.”
“Just stop asking, Benjamin,” Aisha snapped, loud enough to cause River to stir.
I hushed the jinni.
“Don’t ask again,” she said in a low tone.
I joined Aisha in staring out at the dunes. A span of silence fell between us, the only sounds being the crackling fire and the distant chirping of some kind of nocturnal animal.
“At least I have half my family back,” Aisha said, changing the subject. She drew a shuddering breath. “I really thought I’d lost them all.”
“I’m… truly sorry for the loss of your men.”
She nodded, swallowing hard. “Well, I should thank you for helping us… me.” She chewed on her lower lip, her eyes flickering from me to River. Then she looked down at her hands, which were clenched. “I missed you, you know,” she said in a whisper, meeting my eyes again. The look of longing in her eyes took me aback. She’d never hidden the fact that she had a crush on me, but I’d never really thought it was much more than that.