Styophan nodded, ignoring the pain the simple motion brought.
“Then pray to them today, Styophan of Anuskaya”—he glanced up toward the sky—“for one of your ships made it safely away.”
Nikandr rode at the head of the line, guiding them across a landscape dotted with bushes and the occasional cacti that with the spring rains were blooming with bright yellow flowers. They’d been riding since dawn and were just now, with the sun already past midday, nearing the outskirts of Andakhara. He glanced back to Atiana, who rode stoically behind him on her own mount—an ab-sair of the Gaji. Ashan and Sukharam brought up the rear. Ashan smiled and nodded, but Sukharam merely turned his gaze elsewhere. He returned to the land ahead, staring at the collection of homes in the distance that occupied the center of the wide horizon.
He and Atiana had woken before dawn, the two of them tearing down their tent and preparing for the day’s ride silently. He’d apologized to her, the two of them holding each other for a time, but it had felt insufficient. And if it felt that way to him, he was sure the it would be trebly so for Atiana.
As he reined his ab-sair over, the beast lifted its head and wailed—a sad sound that reminded Nikandr of the elk herds that ran through the Empire’s eastern mountains. The others in the train all did the same. They were strangely docile that way. The beasts were equine, but their shoulders and withers and neck were massive, storing water for their long journeys across the wastelands of the desert and the great, arid plains to the west. They were not fleet, but they were perfect for treks across the Gaji.
He guided his ab-sair until he was riding alongside Atiana. “Good day to you, m’lady.”
Atiana remained silent, her eyes fixed on the road ahead.
“Ah, you’re upset. I’ve come without a gift.” He kicked his ab-sair forward, riding into the scrub.
“Don’t, Nischka,” he heard Atiana call behind him.
He continued on, riding toward one of the tall cacti with the thousand arms. He urged the ab-sair forward and stood up on the saddle.
It was a thing easy enough to do on the beast’s wide shoulders. He rode forward, feeling the rhythm of the ab-sair’s powerful gait, and snatched one of the yellow flowers from an arm that hung well wide of the body of the plant. He guided the ab-sair back toward the group, still holding the flower high, and only then, when he was back by Atiana’s side, did he drop down and hold the flower out to her with a flourish.
She made no move to take it. She simply stared at him as if that were the most idiotic thing she’d ever seen.
“They smell like home,” he said, shaking it.
“They smell nothing of the sort.”
He shook it gently, and waited.
With an annoyed look, she accepted the flower and held it to her nose. Nikandr could still smell it: the scent of jasmine, which grew thick and strong in the gardens of Palotza Galostina, Atiana’s childhood home and the seat of her family’s power.
“You’re little more than a fool child, Nikandr Iaroslov.” She spoke the words, but there was a reluctant smile on her lips. She hid it with the flower, taking in the scent again. By the time she lowered it, the look was gone.
“I’ve been thinking,” Nikandr said.
“I haven’t been truthful about the hezhan.”
“Atiana, please, let me get this out.”
She took a deep breath. “You’re right. Go on.”
“I miss the bond. You’ve known that for as long as I have, perhaps longer. But I think I didn’t realize just how much I missed Nasim. I knew him for only a short time before he took to the winds with Fahroz. We were separated by such great distances, and still I felt him. I didn’t know it, but he was there with me, all that time. I felt him growing.” Atiana made to speak, but he talked over her. “I know it sounds foolish, but I didn’t