Quartz
traders, and other itinerants. Those groups coming from supply centers were obligated to replenish the stores. It was a good system, held together by the glue of strong self-interest and swift justice. Warmth and food were hard to come by in the Barrens.
    Rafe soon inserted himself into the work of setting up and taking down camp. He mended broken wheels, helped get handcarts out of ditches, and caught pale fish from nearby streams. The performers were a gregarious bunch, and soon accepted them into his circle. They regaled him with stories of their travels and a number of embarrassing personal anecdotes, but there was one topic they avoided—Isabella.
    Despite his probing, none of the firedancers gave Rafe any indication of how they knew Isabella, what she did, or how often she traveled with them. In fact, they avoided her person as much as they avoided her name in conversation, and none of them, save Burgess, would even willingly keep her company.
    Five days later, during a rest stop, Burgess glanced up at Selene’s position in the sky and gave orders to move on. Rafe volunteered to fetch Isabella, who had gone off by herself beyond a hillock almost as soon as they stopped. That was not unusual; Isabella required a large amount of privacy. Rafe got the feeling that she was not comfortable with people and that traveling with a large group was wearying on her.
    Rafe paused at the summit, taking a moment to check his bearings from the position of the stars. Oakhaven lay Pointwards and counterclockwise from Blackstone and they were heading in roughly the right direction. Despite his gnawing anxiety, he was not quite ready to leave the firedancers and strike out on his own. They had both more overland travel experience and supplies than he did.
    Plus, he had not satisfied his curiosity about Isabella.
    Rafe considered the silver-and-shadows landscape, and wondered what it would’ve been like under the twin satellites. Had the combined light of Selene and Salerus brought out colors in the landscape and nourished plants on the surface? It was almost beyond his imagination to visualize the Barrens looking anything like the agri-caves.
    Walking softly—the hill was solid rock, but not gravelly—Rafe came down the other side to where Isabella sat cross-legged, turned away from him, focused inward. The bubble of quiet she normally carried around herself had expanded to fill the entire valley.
    Not wanting to disturb the peace, Rafe walked up close behind her and opened his mouth to softy call her name.
    The next instant he was flying. Even his soldier’s instincts hadn’t seen Isabella move until she swept his legs out from under him. Rafe hit the ground with a breath-squeezing thud, saw stars and a glittering blade, and rolled before the next blow landed.
    “Rafe!” Isabella checked.
    He stared up at her. At the way Selene haloed her silvery head, at the slight flush on her cheeks, at the exasperation in her eyes. Her hands were on her hips and there was no sign of the weapon she’d pulled on him. Rafe couldn’t see where she’d concealed it in her clothing.
    He started to laugh.
    “You dolt,” she said. “I could’ve thumped your head with a rock!” She offered him her hand.
    “Or stabbed me. If you wanted to, I’d be dead right now.” Rafe let her help him up to his feet. “I was right about you. You are a fighter, and a conditioned one. What are you fighting against?”
    Isabella made an annoyed noise. “Was all this just you testing out your suppositions? Next time,
ask
before trying out any dangerous experiments.”
    “But you
never
tell me anything about yourself,” Rafe complained. “No, don’t go back to your meditations now. Burgess wants to get moving.”
    Isabella nodded. “We’ll be at Liberty Caves by moonset. Should feel like home to you.”
    “Not likely. I haven’t been back to the Grenfeld caves since I was a child.” He looked directly at her. “I have quartz sickness.”
    “Oh.”

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