They’d been walking for three days when their water ran out. At the start of their venture, Shay had boldly assumed that everywhere in the desert would be within walking distance of its surrounding. Villages would never be so spread apart that water hoarding would be necessary to reach it alive. And in their foolishness, neither Rin nor Aoife had thought to question just how Shay could so sure of this. It did seem like common sense, after all, that man would build settlements close together in such a climate, but Shay was basing his false assumptions on the layout of Olmaea. There were numerous towns and villages surrounding the capital city, and those that weren’t within the immediate vicinity were usually at the other end of one of the South’s many old battlefields.
The East, however, had proven a harder mistress to tame. In the days of old, when man had sought to claim her for his own, the desert had put up its own resistance in the form of sandstorms and earthquakes. A man with common sense would have built his settlements in close proximity to each other, but a man with longevity in mind could build only where the desert would allow. Owing to her being such a temperamental stretch of land, as the rest of the world had entered an industrial revolution, the East and her people had fallen remarkably short.
It was that oppression—and it was oppression, despite what the King’s officials liked to argue—that left the trio in such turmoil now. Had the East advanced with the rest of the world, as was likely intended by its Lords and Ladies, it would have been laden with paved roads, street signs and mile markers. But instead, the routes were written on maps kept safe in the Eastern cities, and ingrained into the brain of every traveling merchant. For all it belonged to the crown, the East may as well have been its own country.
The fifth day of the trio’s journey, if it could even be called a journey anymore, was the breaking point. Thirsty, hungry and tired, the ever sour mood between Rin and Shay that had been simmering away in the desert heat had finally come to a boil. It was Rin’s passing comment regarding his thirst that caused the Olmaean to snap.
“Forgive me if I’m wrong, Rinian, but didn’t you waste a whole bottle back in Ankora?” he asked, voice laced with venom.
“That was far from my fault,” Rin protested, though deep down he knew he was to blame.
He had always prided himself on his honesty, and yet here he was lying. Shay, it seemed, brought out the worst in everyone around him.
“I’m pretty sure it was your fuckin’ fault. If you hadn’t been swingin’ your arms around like a madman—”
“Perhaps if you and Aoife had believed me in the first place!” Rin yelled, incredulous.
He knew that yes, it was technically his fault, but there was no way he was letting Shay pin this on him. He had told them they were going in circles, and lo and behold with his intervention they were set on the right path, but Maker preserve him, it had taken an age to get them to believe him. Had they given him the benefit of the doubt, instead of assuming he was confused and overheating, he would never have responded so animatedly. Besides, he’d told them how to get back to the water merchant. If Shay had been so concerned about their water supply, why hadn’t he gone back and stolen more?
“Y’know what, I’m still not sure I fuckin’ believe you about it,” Shay said, stomping over to the Western boy, staring him down despite the numerous inch height difference between them.
“Can you two not go one day without yelling at each other?” Aoife asked tiredly. More often than not, she left the two of them to their own devices, but keeping them at least tolerant of each other was becoming an all too tiring challenge. “It’s like traveling with two stroppy children.”
“Would you rather I left, then?” Rin asked her sourly. “I’d say I’m only getting in the way of your love affair, but frankly my being here hasn’t interrupted anything, has it?”
“That’s none of your business, Rin,” Aoife said, eyes widening. She’d had no idea that Rin knew anything about her and Shay, but she hadn’t thought he would take it that badly when he found out. After all, they were just friends.
“I think it’s entirely my business when I have to hear it.”
The information was news to Aoife’s ears, and and the revelation left her in a stunned, and ever so slightly mortified, silence. Shay, however, was not so easily quieted. He grew up in a place where talking about sex was commonplace. Having it, hearing it, seeing it, talking about it, everything was to be expected in the slums. His people—he hated it whenever someone referred to groups equal to themselves as ‘their people’ even though he was guilty of having used it himself—were not the sort who had money to waste on hobbies and frivolities. More often than not, his people didn’t have enough money to pay for food, or clothes, or even candles and matches to keep their homes lit and warm at night. So to seek a small modicum of pleasure in their otherwise shitty lives, they most often turned to something more enjoyable than a hobby and less expensive than a pint of ale at the pub. As such, the slumfolk of Olmaea had a carelessness towards sex that was unfitting of the rest of the world.
“Bullshit is it any of your business,” Shay said, not exactly coming to Aoife’s defense but something of equal measure in the orphan’s eyes. “If you’re fucking her then fine, it’s your business. So, are you?”
“Then keep that middle class fuckin’ noise of yours out of it.”
Shay had thought that would put an end to their argument, or at least give him a valid reason to kill the guy, but his insult had struck a different nerve in the Western boy. Ever since they had first met him, Rin had put up with Shay’s endless torrent of jokes, sneers and insults regarding his class and his upbringing. While the Western boy, with working class roots, tried to take it in his stride, there was only so much he could put up with.
“I’m sorry, Shay,” he said, sarcasm thick in his voice. “I’m sorry that I’m so middle class. I’m sorry that I managed to find a way off the bottom of the pile and you didn’t.”
“Found a way? I’m sure I can guess how. How many cocks did you have to suck?” Shay asked, eyes narrowed in an unspoken challenge.
“Don’t be obscene, you horrible, beast of a man. I got here through my own hard work, and don’t you dare presume otherwise. You are a vile, immoral little man, and I would sooner sever all ties with you, but I’ve tolerated you this far for Aoife’s sake.”
“By all means, you’re welcome to turn around and fuck off back to Eturia. It’s not like you’re on the run or anything,” Shay said through gritted teeth. He would rather have settled this with his fists, but Rin was set on talking his way into oblivion.
“Why can’t you see what a vile creature he is?” Rin asked, turning his frustrations to Aoife again.
“He isn’t vile, Rin, he’s done nothing but help us ever since we met him,” Aoife insisted, her own annoyance beginning to swell.
“Helpful? Aoife, he’s been been using us. He is still using you.”
How blinded by him was she that she couldn’t see that? What was it about him that had her so captivated? He was everything she claimed to hate, and yet she adored the man as if he were the Maker incarnate.
“Please stop talking, Rin, before either of us says something we shouldn’t,” Aoife said tersely, trying as per usual to take the moral high ground.
“No, Aoife, it needs to be said.”
Rin was the image of a Western warlord of old, if only by his temper. He had been known to argue, but he had never worked himself into a frenzy like this before. The days in the sun had turned his alabaster skin a deep pink colour, but his new anger had called the blood in his face to the surface, colouring it a vibrant red not unlike that of a tomato.
“He is using you, and you are too blinded by him to see it. He slept with you, and if you stay near him that is all he will ever do. Men like him will bed anything with a pulse and a full set of teeth. That’s why we left Honeywell in such a hurry, and I don’t doubt that he likely slept with the Oracle, too. You are just another in a long line of women, Aoife, and the sooner you realise that, the sooner we can be rid of him.”
The crack that rang out as Aoife’s palm collided with Rin’s cheek echoed around the empty sands that surrounded them, as if it were a clap of thunder rather than a well deserved slap. The three of them stood frozen in the sand like painted statues. The wind, that had otherwise been absent the rest of their journey and served as a welcome breath of fresh air in the stifling heat, picked up if only a little. Had the three of them known the East and her ways, they would have known the lull was the sign of an oncoming sandstorm. But they weren’t to know, and so they stood there, cemented to the spot. Rin’s cheek erupted into its usual shade of red, though the sting that came with it was not a welcome change to his usual predicament.
But while Aoife and Shay recovered from their shared surprise—Shay being surprised at how well Rin had taken it, and Aoife at the fact that she had actually struck another human being—Rin stayed in his statuesque state. His shoulders seemed to slump forward, leaving the boy hunched in on himself. His features were fixed in an expression somewhere between shock and betrayal, though he wouldn’t use such a grandiose word himself. Rin knew the sting that followed the collision of fist and flesh all too well. He knew the ache that would reside for days once the inflammation died down. Most of all, he knew the pain that cut through him like a knife at the thought of someone he trusted treating him like that. Whether or not he deserved it, the pain was all too real, and in that moment he was a scared little boy again. In that moment he was a version of himself that he had not been for a long time.
“Rin, I’m so—” Aoife started, but Rin cut her off.
“Don’t, Aoife. Just don’t.”
The damage was already done, and for all his hurt and anger at the turn of events, Rin couldn’t bring himself to look her in the eye. He could have voiced it all. He could have screamed at her that what she had done was wrong. But he didn’t. He stayed silent. They were all silent, save for the wind that was starting to howl around them. Sand whistled through the air, brushing against their skin like sandpaper. There wasn’t enough force behind it yet to hurt, but they were still conscious of it. Still aware of the grains rubbing against their skin, and their clothes, and their hair.
There were no words exchanged between them as they set off again. They were thirsty, on the verge of collapse, but still they walked. Where the sun had beat down on them, now the wind was their enemy, and for all the warmth the sun granted them, the wind chilled them instead. They had gone from overwhelming heat to intolerable cold, and to all intents and purposes they began to imagine this must be what the Trickster’s domain felt like. The constant changing of one extreme to another, infinite sources of minor annoyances—abrasive sand, the howling gale, stolen memories of cries of bliss in the night, the slow realisation that perhaps an unwelcome thought was in fact truth—and most of all the sinking feeling that this was the end, yet with no definitive end in sight.
Maybe they had died. Maybe they hadn’t made their lucky escape in Karasti. Maybe the locals had grown tired of them, or agitated, or maybe they were simply out for blood, and now the three of them were left to wander the desert for all eternity. Or maybe they were still in Ankora, stuck in some deep trance onset by the Oracles.
They would find Tarşehir, or they would die trying. When they looked at it realistically, there wasn’t really much choice in the matter. So they set off once more, all three of them trudging through the dunes in silence, save for the wind.
And of course, it was the wind that got them. Storms out in the Sands were notorious for how quickly they sprung up. Rin had stressed they had a few days before it hit, but he was basing his estimations on the electrical storms in both Eturia and the Aur Valley. They would sit in the sky and brew for days, sometimes even weeks, and the assault would all be over in a few hours. But out in the Sands, they brewed in hours and lasted days.
The trio were in the middle of nowhere, as they had been for days, when the sandstorm hit full force. The sand became a brick wall, the ground beneath them thick as treacle. They were stuck. And still they were hungry and thirsty. The sand in the air grated against their skin, and what had been a minor annoyance just a few hours prior was suddenly a real dangers. Layers of skin were torn away like a knife gliding through half melted butter. Crimson blood stained their skin and clothes alike, and in that moment the very real thought that they might die crossed their minds. They tried, in vain, to move but the storm buffeted them from every direction and they had even less of an idea which way they were heading.
It didn’t take long to claim them. Sandstorms were always quick and efficient. It was only a matter of hours until they succumbed to the desert, all of them drifting into a blackness they didn’t expect to ever wake from.