“Gibran, Izzi,” Afya calls across the camp. “Get a fire going. Keenan”—the redhead drops down from Riz’s wagon—“help Riz and Vana with the animals.”
Riz calls out something in Sadhese to his daughter, Vana. She is whip-thin with deep brown skin, like her father, and braid tattoos that mark her as a young widow. The last member of Afya’s Tribe is Zehr, a young man about Darin’s age. Afya barks an order at him in Sadhese, and he gets to it without hesitation.
“Girl.” Afya is, I realize, speaking to me. “Ask Riz for a goat, and tell Elias to slaughter it. I’ll trade the meat tomorrow. And talk to him. Get him out of this funk he’s in.”
“We should leave him be.”
“If you’re going to drag Tribe Nur into this ill-advised attempt to save your brother, then Elias needs to come up with a foolproof plan to do so. We have two months before we reach Kauf—that should be enough time. But he can’t do it if he’s moping. So fix it.”
As if it’s that easy.
A few minutes later, Riz points me to a goat with an injured leg, and I lead it to Elias. He guides the limping animal to the trees, out of sight of the rest of the caravan.
He doesn’t need help, but I follow anyway with a lantern. The goat bleats at me mournfully.
“Always hated butchering animals.” Elias sharpens a knife on a whetstone. “It’s like they know what’s coming.”
“Nan used to do the butchering in our house,” I say. “Some of Pop’s patients paid in chickens. She had this saying: Thank you for giving your life, that I may continue mine.”
“Nice sentiment,” Elias kneels. “Doesn’t make it any easier to watch it die.”
“But it’s lame—see?” I shine the lantern upon the goat’s wounded hind leg. “Riz said we’d have to leave it behind and it would die of thirst.” I shrug. “If it’s going to die anyway, it might as well be useful.”
Elias draws the blade across the animal’s neck and it kicks. Blood pours onto the sand. I look away, thinking of the Tribesman Shikaat, of the hot stickiness of his blood. Of how it smelled—sharp, like the forges of Serra.
“You can go.” Elias uses a Mask’s voice on me. It is colder than the wind at our backs.
I retreat quickly, mulling over what he said. Doesn’t make it any easier to watch it die. Guilt sweeps through me again. He wasn’t talking about the goat, I think.
I try to distract myself by finding Keenan, who has volunteered to make dinner.
“All right?” he asks when I appear beside him. He looks briefly toward Elias.
I nod, and Keenan opens his mouth as if to say something. But perhaps sensing I’d rather not talk, he just hands me a bowl of dough. “Knead it, please?” he says. “I’m terrible at making flatbread.”
Grateful to have a task, I get to it, taking comfort from its simplicity, from the ease of having only to roll out disks and cook them on a cast iron pan. Keenan hums as he adds red chilies and lentils to a pot, a sound so unexpected that I smile when I first hear it. It is as soothing as one of Pop’s tonics, and after a time, he speaks of Adisa’s Great Library, which I’ve always wanted to visit, and of the kite markets in Ayo that stretch for blocks. The time passes quickly, and I feel as if a bit of the weight on my heart has been lifted.
By the time Elias has finished butchering the goat, I flip the last pieces of charred, fluffy flatbread into a basket. Keenan ladles out bowls of spiced lentil stew. The first bite makes me sigh. Nan always made stew and flatbread on cold fall nights. Just the smell of it makes my sadness seem further away.
“This is incredible, Keenan.” Izzi holds out her bowl for a second helping before turning to me. “Cook used to make it all the time. I wonder—” She shakes her head and for a time, she is quiet. “I wish she had come,” my friend finally says. “I miss her. I know it must sound strange to you, considering how she acted.”
“Not really,” I say. “You loved each other. You were with her for years. She took care of you.”
“She did,” Izzi says softly. “Her voice was the only sound in the ghost wagon that took us from Antium to Serra after the Commandant bought us. Cook gave me her rations. Held me in the freezing nights.” Izzi sighs. “I hope I see her again. I left in such a hurry, Laia. I never told her …”
“We’ll see her again,” I say. It’s what Izzi needs to hear. And who knows, maybe we will. “And Izzi”—I squeeze her hand—“Cook knows whatever you didn’t tell her. In her bones, I’m sure she knows.”
Keenan brings us mugs of tea, and I take a sip, closing my eyes at the sweetness, inhaling the aroma of cardamom. Across the fire, Afya lifts her mug to her lips and promptly spews out the tea.
“Bleeding, burning skies, Scholar. Did you waste my entire honey pot on this?” She tosses the liquid onto the ground in disgust, but I curl my fingers around the mug and take a deep sip.
“Good tea is sweet enough to choke a bear,” Keenan says. “Everyone knows that.”
I chuckle and smile at him. “My brother used to say that when he made it for me.” As I think of Darin—the old Darin—my smile fades. Who is my brother now? When did he transform from the boy who made me too-sweet tea to a man with secrets too heavy to share with his little sister?
Keenan settles in beside me. A wind howls out of the north, battling the flames of our fire. I lean close to the fighter, savoring his warmth.