Aoife had remained silent on her encounter with the Oracles, simply telling Shay and Rin which way they had to go—and waiting for the two men to figure out which way was northeast—and trying to get them as far from Ankora as possible. It was almost dark by the time they stopped, and their journey into the desert had left firewood sparse. The trio managed to pull together, though, but once again Shay and Rin had to be separated. As Aoife had discovered, during her time in the Order’s home, their brief period of amicability had come to its end. Neither was quite sure what had sparked the argument this time, but needless to say their constant warring was beginning to grate on everyone’s nerves.

The orphan knew she should tell Rin of the Order’s interest in him, but she didn’t dare sully his mood further that night. They had all been through enough that day, and her bad news—was it bad? She wasn’t entirely sure—could wait until morning. Much as she wished she could ignore it, she had more pressing matters to attend to with Shay who, as per usual, lay half asleep in their shared tent, feet angled towards the fire. He’d told her before that, the way he saw it, he had hair to keep his head warm, clothes and blankets to keep his body warm, but nothing for his feet. As good a job as shoes did, they weren’t comfortable to sleep in, so the fire would have to do instead. When faced with the choice of lying beside him, or lining herself up with his feet, it came as no surprise that she slept with her feet to the fire too.

“Shay, can I ask you something?” she asked, resting on one elbow, head propped up on her wrist.

“Mm,” was all he gave in response, but the orphan took it as a sign she should continue. She was used to Shay being a man of few words by then, and it didn’t take much practice to understand him.

“What’s the one thing in life you want to do before you die?”

She knew the topic was a morbid one but it was something that had been plaguing her mind for a while. Once upon a time, she had thought reading from the oldest book in the Great Library was her purpose in life, but now she wasn’t so sure. It wasn’t the words of the Oracle that had changed her mind, nor those of the matron demons in Ankora, but she wondered all the same. Call them the daydreams of a silly girl, but she couldn’t help but wonder if she had some greater purpose in life beyond a golden city and a rich man.

“I don’t know, Aoife,” Shay said tiredly, eyes still firmly shut. “Marry a nice girl, make a shit ton of money and move to the Kaíri Islands.”

It took a lot for the Olmaean not to laugh at his poor joke. Marriage was far from the top of his interests, and as for money it wasn’t great amounts that intrigued him, just enough to live comfortably. As for the Kaíri Islands? He could but dream, though given his experience in the East so far, he wasn’t so sure he’d take to them. If he could ever go back, he knew he’d most likely live out the rest of his days in Olmaea, in the slums, and frankly as long as he had enough to feed and clothe himself, he would be content.

“You, married? I’d like to meet the woman that can tame you,” Aoife said with a smile, though it faded sooner than she would have hoped at the idea of Shay with another woman. “Be serious, though. What could you die happy having done?”

“I said I don’t know, Aoifs. Talk like that’s for people that live long, happy lives. People like me don’t get that.”

“People like you?” Aoife asked, not sure what he meant.

“Folks from the slums.”

Aoife didn’t comment on it, for fear of never finding anything else out, but that single comment was the most Shay had ever revealed about himself. So he was from the slums. That explained his attitude and poor manners. The idea of there being slums in Olmaea was a strange one to the orphan. There was nothing of the sort in Eturia, as far as she was aware, and she simply couldn’t fathom living conditions in a city being worse off than Karasti or something of equal measure.

“Is that why you never take anything seriously?” the orphan asked, though there was nothing chastising in her question.

“No one from the slums takes anything seriously. We don’t live long enough to do that.”

“What do you mean?”

It wasn’t the first time Aoife had heard Shay talk about things like this. He’d frequently spoken of his life being half over, but the men and women in Eturia had lived to as old as seventy, sometimes even eighty. Shay had a long way to before his life was half over.

“People don’t live long in the slums, Aoife. I mean, look at me, I’m twenty three, I’ve got maybe another twenty years in me? And my mother? She’s thirty eight now. If I ever go back, I don’t know if she’ll be alive or dead.”

Thirty eight? That meant she’d only been fifteen when she’d had Shay. How scandalously young. Aoife could only assume Shay’s mother hadn’t been married when Shay was born either. Perhaps that was why people in the slums had such short lives, according to Shay anyway—they were in such a hurry to grow up that they sped up the aging process and halved their lifespan.

“You must spend a lot of time doing things you enjoy, then,” Aoife said rather naively.

Shay snorted out a laugh. “Hobbies are for the rich, Aoife. You either spend your time begging, or you spend your time working. Why are you so interested all of a sudden?”

Shay had opened his eyes then. Just like usual, it always took him a while to fully awaken, and until then his eyes would remain firmly shut. It was almost like watching a machine starting up, with those first few seconds of half life extended to a few minutes in the Olmaean’s case. Unlike a machine, however, which ran on full steam at all times, Shay would remain lifeless in action for a few minutes more, as if he still needed time to charge.

“Because being in that pyramid made me realise something,” Aoife said, her free hand moving from its resting place at her side to somewhat absently fiddle with Shay’s hair, hoping he would get the message.

“Aoife, you’re a very beautiful girl—”

“That won’t save my life if I’m in danger, Shay,” she protested. “In that pyramid, I thought I was going to die. But do you know, it wasn’t Niamh or Sister Ciara I was thinking of, it was you.”

Shay was interested in the girl, there was no denying that, and he’d certainly bedded younger than her before, but he knew her type too well. The pious girls always wanted a husband at the end of it. They wanted a quick fumble in the sheets that would lead to a roof over their head and someone to share a bed with at night. They wanted a man that could father their children, and be a father to their children. But that wasn’t Shay. He wasn’t husband material, and he certainly wasn’t father material. He was just Shay Tanner, infamous in his district for fucking and fighting. And frankly that was all he would ever be. His home may change, but he never would, and he had grown tired of the look of disappointment in his paramours’ eyes when they realised that.

“I know what you must think of me, but I’ve thought very hard about this,” Aoife continued. “Believe me, I’ve thought very hard about this. It compromises all my morals, and all my beliefs but… I’ve come to the very harsh realisation that we might not survive this, and if I am to die… I wish to die a woman.”

“Last I checked, Aoifs, you are a woman,” Shay joked, earning himself a playful slap on the arm.

“Be serious, Shay,” Aoife scolded, though her smile betrayed her. “The Sisters told me that from the moment a girl first flowers, she is a woman in the eyes of the Maker, but… I don’t feel much like a woman for it.”

Much as Shay wanted to pretend he understood, he had no idea what she was talking about. He’d heard finer society had laid out certain expectations of its people that defined when girls were women and when boys were men, but it all sounded absurd to him. The way he saw it, if it looked like a woman and it sounded like a woman, then it was a woman. The same applied to men. Would high society still call a thirty year old a boy if he had not met their requirements?

“Women get married and have children, women look after homes or they become scholars or cooks or maids or anything. Women… Women lay with their husbands, but… I don’t have a husband.” She paused a moment, trying desperately to hold Shay’s gaze despite the fact he wouldn’t look at her. She could only imagine what he must think of her. “I don’t have a husband, but I do have you. If you’d let me, I mean.”

Shay let out a sigh. He never thought he’d see the day that he didn’t want to sleep with a pretty girl—and Maker, did he want to sleep with Aoife—but there was too much at stake here. He might not have understood it himself, but he knew women like Aoife, and bedding them only led to things getting messy. They were stuck together until they found this ‘golden city’ and he already had Rin angry at him. He didn’t need two people sour with him when they were stuck together for Maker knows how long.

And yet, somehow he knew she would get her way regardless. She had gotten this far on willpower alone, and women like that were deadly. He had known women like that in the slums, who had risen from surviving on table scraps to dining in the lap of luxury through willpower alone. They had willed it, and had not stopped until it had been so. Of course, what lay between their legs had been tied to their will, but they had still gone to any means to see their intentions through to the end. If he would not grant Aoife her wish, she would go to Rin, and the Olmaean knew he would never refuse. If there was any pair they could not afford to have warring with each other, it was those two. In that respect, he would act as the lesser of two evils. Better to further aggravate Rin against himself, than to have the Westerner fighting with both of them.

There were no words exchanged between the two of them to voice Shay’s consent as he slipped into a routine that was becoming all too common on this journey. He wouldn’t complain—he would never complain about sex—but this pattern of bedding virgins was beginning to bore him. Most virgins, as Aoife was proving, were too timid and too nervous, and for all her looks and that oh so satisfying body of hers, Shay still found himself thinking of the Oracle. The way she had moved, the eagerness with which she had thrown herself into things. She and Aoife were polar opposites, and what he would have given to trade their places and have the Oracle beneath him instead.

Sex was sex at the end of the day, though, and the Olmaean enjoyed it all the same. Judging by the quiet moans trickling from Aoife, she had enjoyed it too, and by morning the two were sated and filled with a new sense of fulfillment. Rin, however, was not in such high spirits.

Had Aoife thought to check on him before she made her intentions known to Shay, she would have seen that her friend was still awake, and while his tent was far enough away that he and Shay couldn’t cause trouble for each other, it was not so far removed that he could not hear them. He knew Shay was interested in her, and he knew he’d had ample opportunity to do as Shay had said and make his feelings known, but for the brute to do something like that? To take Aoife’s virtue when they both knew damn well he was going to discard her like a piece of rubbish the first chance he got? It wasn’t gentlemanly, but more importantly it was immoral.

And perhaps what made it worse was the fact that Aoife couldn’t see that. The next morning, as they had headed further into the desert, she had fawned over him like some lovesick maid, and Shay had simply allowed her to continue. He hadn’t set her right, told her it was all a ploy and to stop simpering like some common whore, but instead had simply gone along with her games. He never responded much, and Rin supposed he could thank him for that, but a lack of response was worse than a truthful one.

The heat in the desert only seemed to increase with each step they took. On the very edges of the River Aur, as Ankora and Medara were, the heat was stifling and it was a miracle that anyone survived it, but the towns were offered a brief respite in the form of the breeze that rolled out from the river. The closer they wandered to the heart of the desert, to Tarşehir, the more still the air became and the higher the temperature soared. With Ankora behind them, and Tarşehir ahead of them, the signs of civilisation dwindled until nothing surrounded them but sand dunes that seemed to go on for miles. No matter which way they looked, all there was was mountains of baking, golden sand, and that ever present sun soaring high in the sky. What had once served as a beacon of hope was now a giant torment floating in the sky like a great fiery balloon. If he could, Shay would have very much liked to burst it and be done with it.

As the dunes began to further envelop the trio, it was becoming all too apparent how difficult it was to discern one’s direction of travel without any landmarks. Since he was the only one with any proficiency in the skill—a proficiency that was rather lacking and was only considered the greatest when compared with the other two’s lack entirely—it was up to Rin to ensure they stayed true to their course. Whenever asked, he would enthusiastically assure the asked that they were firmly set on their course for Tarşehir, but in the quiet of his own mind he wasn’t so sure. Without any landmarks he had nothing to work with, save for the sun and shadows, and even then he wasn’t sure what meant what. For all he knew, they were drifting in circles like they had in Ankora, and this time he wasn’t so sure he could bring things around.

The End

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