“Izzi and I heard the rumors while we were traveling,” he says after I finish explaining. “But I’m glad you told me. I’m—I’m glad you trust me.”
When he meets my eyes, a spark jumps between us, heady and powerful. In the mist, his eyes are dark, so dark. I could disappear there. The thought pops unbidden into my mind. And not mind if I never found my way out.
“You must be exhausted.” He lifts a palm to my face, hesitant. His touch is warm, and when his fingers fall away, I feel empty. I think of how he kissed me in Serra. “I’ll be there soon.”
In the clearing, Izzi sleeps. Elias ignores me, his hand laid casually across the scim in his lap. If he’s heard Keenan and me talking, he gives no indication of it.
My bedroll is cold, and I huddle within, shivering. For a long time, I lay awake, waiting for Keenan to return. But the minutes pass, and he stays away.
We reach the border of the Serran Mountain Range mid-morning, with the sun high in the east. Elias takes point as we zigzag out of the mountains and down a switchbacking trail to the foothills. The dunes of the Tribal desert roll away beyond those foothills, a sea of molten gold with an island of green a dozen or so miles away: Nur.
Long wagon trains snake their way toward the city for the Fall Gathering. Miles of desert stretch past the oasis, littered with striated plateaus that rise into the sky like enormous rock sentinels. A wind races along the desert floor and up through the foothills, bringing with it the scents of oil and horse and roasting meat.
The air nips at us—autumn has come early to the mountains. But it might as well be the depths of a Serran summer, the way Elias sweats. This morning, he quietly told me that the Tellis extract ran out yesterday. His gold skin, so hale before, is worryingly pale.
Keenan, who has been frowning at Elias since the moment we set out, falls into stride with him now.
“Are you going to tell us how we’re going to find a caravan that will take us to Kauf?”
Elias looks at the rebel askance but doesn’t respond.
“Tribesmen aren’t exactly known for being accepting to outsiders,” Keenan presses. “Though your adopted family is Tribal, right? I hope you’re not planning to seek their aid. The Martials will be watching them.”
Elias’s expression transforms from what do you want to go away.
“No, I don’t plan on seeing my family while I’m in Nur. As for getting north, I have a … friend who owes me a favor.”
“A friend,” Keenan says. “Who—”
“Don’t take offense, Red,” Elias says, “but I don’t know you. So you’ll forgive me if I don’t trust you.”
“I know the feeling.” Keenan clenches his jaw. “I only wanted to suggest that instead of using Nur, we use Resistance safe houses. We could bypass Nur and the Martial soldiers who no doubt patrol it.”
“With the Scholar revolt, rebels are probably being rounded up and interrogated. Unless you’re the only fighter who knew about the safe houses, they’re compromised.”
Elias speeds his gait, and Keenan drops back, taking a position far enough behind me that I think it best to leave him be. I catch up with Izzi, and she leans toward me.
“They’ve avoided ripping each other’s faces off,” she says. “That’s a start, right?”
I choke back a laugh. “How long until they kill each other, d’you think? And who strikes first?”
“Two days before all-out war,” Izzi says. “My money’s on Keenan striking first. He’s got a temper, that one. But Elias will win, being a Mask and all. Though”—she tilts her head—“he doesn’t look so good, Laia.”
Izzi always sees more than anyone gives her credit for. I’m certain she’ll notice me dancing around the question, so I try to keep my response simple.
“We should reach Nur tonight,” I say. “Once he rests, he’ll be fine.”
But by late afternoon, a powerful wind blows in from the east, and our progress slows as we enter the foothills. By the time we reach the stretch of dunes that lead to Nur, the moon is high, the galaxy a blaze of silver above. But we are all exhausted from fighting the wind. Izzi’s walk has deteriorated to a stumble, and both Keenan and I pant in tiredness. Even Elias struggles, stopping short enough times that I begin to worry for him.
“I don’t like this wind,” he says. “The desert sandstorms don’t start until late fall. But the weather since Serra has been odd—rain instead of sun, fog instead of clear skies.” We exchange a glance. I wonder if he’s thinking what I am: that it feels as if something doesn’t want us to reach Nur … or Kauf or Darin.
The oil lamps of Nur glow like a beacon only a few miles to the east, and we head straight for them. But a mile or so into the dunes, a deep hum thrums out across the sands, echoing in our bones.
“What in the skies is that?” I ask.
“The sand is shifting,” Elias says. “A lot of it. A sandstorm is coming. Quickly now!”
The sands swirl restlessly, rising in taunting clouds before gusting away. After another half mile, the wind grows so frenzied that we can hardly make out the lights of Nur.
“This is insane!” Keenan shouts. “We should turn back for the foothills. Find shelter for the night.”
“Elias.” I raise my voice over the wind. “How much would that delay us?”