Emmic wipes the sweat from his forehead with his cuff and glares at his companion. Jonath never seems to mind the heat. He is Old Blood, of course, born on Loess, and the Old Blood families have acclimated to the desert over the generations. So too will Emmic’s children, should he ever have any.
Jonath leans against his sandskiff. “Shouldn’t be long,” he says. “Sun’ll hit its peak in an hour or so, and that’ll give us about seven hours to reach the bunker before full dark. We made good time from Cinder.”
The rest of the caravan is moored in a crooked line deep in the shadow of a broad mesa: four twin-hulled sandcats, sails lowered and whisker-vanes furled. Some of the crewfolk lounge in the shade, sipping sweetwater from drink pouches or smoking long, narrow pipes. None of them had balked at the chance to rest in the shade during the hottest part of the day.
“The new ‘cats are faster than I expected,” Emmic agrees. “Even laden, they ought to make it back from Lode in five days instead of six. Anna been tinkering with the steering?” He glances sideways at Jonath.
“Didn’t figure you’d mind.” Jonath runs a hand over the hull of his skiff, checking it for scrapes. “She’s a bright girl, your sister. And she likes to feel useful.”
“She’s getting bored.”
“I gathered,” Jonath says dryly. “Didn’t actually expect her to give the ring back. She’s not usually so unpredictable.”
Emmic gives him a long searching look. “You don’t seem worried. She’s quite stubborn, you know.”
Jonath shrugs. “So she changed her mind; she’ll change it back, once she’s had some time to think about it. I can be pretty hard to resist.” He grins, a bright, broad smile.
“I know.” Emmic stoops, picks up a handful of sand-scoured pebbles and starts lobbing them, one by one, out of the shadows into the dunes.
“Hey.” Jonath catches Emmic’s wrist, stopping him mid-toss. “We talked about this. It’ll be fine. This is where it all really begins. Right?” He takes the stone from Emmic’s palm, throws it. It arcs past the broken line of Emmic’s pebbles and smacks into the side of the dune. The sand shifts and a skate skids down the slope, startled by the impact, before burying itself again.
“Of course.” Dropping the last stone, Emmic brushes his hands off and shades his eyes, looking out toward the anchor pylon.
“It would be easier,” Jonath says, “If you’d tell her the whole story. Or let me.”
It’s an old argument. “No. She doesn’t need to know any of it, not until I can paint her the whole picture.”
“It’s just a matter of time before she figures it out. Before someone lets something slip.” A note of entreaty slips into Jonath’s voice. “It should come from you, Emmic. She’ll see that the ends justify the means. That’s something your sister would understand. It’s logical.” He uses one of Anna’s favorite words. “She could be very useful.”
“No. Let this be mine. On me. On us,” Emmic revises, and touches Jonath’s elbow. “My father should not have betrayed the cause. Not with the War still raging out there.” He gestures to the sky, to the invisible worlds beyond it. “And as for our deal with the Prophet…” He grimaces. “What could Anna know of war and means and ends? She is too much of Loess.”
“Look.” Jonath nods at the pylon. A cloud of dust and sand trails behind the ‘cat speeding toward us, its whisker-vanes bristling as they comb electricity from the air. “There’s my ride. You sure you can handle her alone?” He lays a hand affectionately on his skiff.
“Please.” Emmic rolls his eyes. “How many races have I won?”
“None that really matter,” Jonath needles. “And this one does. The Prophet is counting on you to make it to Lode and back to Cinder before we bring the ship in. Tell Anna I’ll be home soon. I’ll bring her something new to tinker with.”
The incoming boat slows. One man is furling the sail, another leans on the brake-lever. Their faces are hidden behind heavy goggles and tightly wrapped neckcloths, but they each bear the Prophet’s insignia on their jackets: a red-leafed olive branch on a field of grey.
The ‘cat halts with a heavy scraping noise. Jonath turns to Emmic. “Wish me luck?”
Emmic nods, embraces him. “Wind to your sails, brother,” he says, and lets go.
A little side trip into the world of the Jade Dragon.