The girl had gone into her tent, fighting against the fear she thought I couldn’t see. For such a small thing, she had some kind of strength in her that I certainly hadn’t expected. Half of the men in the camp would have lost their sanity if they’d been through what she had that day. Most people were barely able to deal with the world they could see, but she’d just been thrown out of the only life she’d ever known, and she took it like nothing could surprise her. Even our forced march across the desert hadn’t earned me a single complaint, and I had done nothing to spare her.
I waited a few moments outside the tent, long enough that I hoped she had been able to fall asleep, then I made my way back to the General’s tent to give him the rest of my report. The two guards posted outside the entry stepped aside as I approached. They stared past each other’s shoulders, never once looking at me, but it didn’t matter. I could feel the burn of their curiosity as sharply as if they had shouted it at me.
Syarat had barely moved from the place where I had left him. His hands folded in his robes, he stood gazing at the low embers of his fire, the glow reflecting like amber in his eyes. He didn’t stir when I entered, not until I stopped beside him and offered him a formal salute, touching the ridge of my hand to my heart and inclining my head sharply.
He held up a hand then, and after a moment, dropped it on my shoulder. “You are not one of my soldiers, Yatol. No need to report with a salute.” I said nothing, and he turned to face me. “She is resting?”
He studied me, thoughtful. “She is very young.”
I knew what he meant—it had nothing to do with her age. It was the same impression I had gotten the first moment I had seen her. Young not in years, but in spirit. There was a kind of breathless innocence about her, and it intrigued me altogether more than I cared to admit.
“I doubt she has ever known evil in her life,” I said, quietly. “Not really. Not face-to-face, staring into its eyes.”
He nodded and folded his arms. “If she stays here, you know that will change. Are you willing to let that happen?”
“Is there a choice?” I asked blandly.
“No.” He paced a few steps away, then back. “And you’re sure? She really has it?”
I glanced instinctively over my shoulder. The two guards were still posted just outside the entry, and I knew the leather walls of the tent were useless for muffling conversations.
“Well?” Syarat asked. If he noticed my discomfort, he was remarkably adept at hiding it.
“I don’t trust your guards,” I said. “I don’t know them.”
“I know them,” Syarat said, anger flashing in his eyes. “And you will answer my question.”
“You can vouch for them?” I pressed. “You are absolutely certain, beyond any shadow of doubt, that they have no sympathies for—”
“For whom, Yatol? The insurgency? Or that fringe group of madmen who think we ought to barter with the Ungulion fiends, as if Ungulion know the meaning of diplomacy?”
I lifted a hand and held my peace.
The silence carried, then, “I trust them.”
“She has it,” I said.
Syarat let out a breath. “After all these years,” he murmured. “There were days even I doubted the story.”
“Many did,” I said.
“But not you.”
I shrugged. Syarat did not know the full extent of my history with Pyelthan, and I had no intention of changing that.
When he realized I wouldn’t answer, he said, “And what will you do with it, now that you have it here in Arah Byen? Do the Guardians have some plan for it?”
“They don’t know,” I said, and didn’t add what I was thinking, They wouldn’t believe it even if I showed it to them.
“Enhyla should know. I’ll send a bird to tell him to watch for your coming. ”
I clenched my teeth and stared fixedly across the tent, at the vellum map hanging over Syarat’s small carved-wood desk. “Enhyla,” I said, “is on the other side of the Perstaun.” I strode over and placed a finger on the map, drawing a line across the desert where the girl had first arrived, to the forest region to its east. “He is at the very edge of the outlands, General. And God knows how many Ungulion devils are between us and him.”
“On that subject,” Syarat said, unimpressed by my protest, “were you followed here?”
I laughed; I couldn’t help it. Syarat lifted a brow. “I am always followed,” I said, thin. “And I have no doubt that she was followed too.”
“Then you have put my camp in danger.”
“And you have always been in danger,” I said. “Your men have been in danger since you marched out from Alcalon. You were just never willing to admit it.”
“You will show respect!”
One of the guards outside the tent shifted around at the General’s raised voice, but at my glare he turned purposefully away again.
“Why?” I asked Syarat. “You said it, I’m not one of your soldiers.”
He stalked over to join me, standing almost too close for comfort. Eyes narrowed, he just stared at me as if that could intimidate me.
He hadn’t seen the things I had seen. His anger only made me smile.
“You Guardians,” he spat. “You are all the same. Arrogant, over-confident. And you think this girl, and that thing she carries, are truly safe with you?” His hand flashed out, gripping my shoulder painfully tight. “Does she know, I wonder?”
I knocked his hand away, backing a step. “Enough,” I said.
“Protecting her won’t absolve you of that guilt you carry, you know,” he said.
“You don’t know that.” I turned to leave, feeling suddenly, strangely, weary. “It may.” I stopped at the entry, but I couldn’t glance back at him as I said, “I made a promise.”
I left the tent without his dismissal, and had almost made it past the two guards when one of them suddenly snatched my arm.
“A moment, Yatol,” he said.
He nodded briefly at his comrade, then pulled me a little way from the tent. I went warily, my hand never straying far from the hilt of the knife I wore behind my back.
“We heard,” the guard said. He must have sensed my suspicion, because he held up a hand, placating. “You can trust us, Yatol. I know who you are. And I know…” He studied me a long while, quiet, measuring me with a look verging uncomfortably close to awe. “I just wanted to warn you. There are people here…in this camp…if they find out who she is, and what she carries, the Ungulion won’t be the only danger you’ll need to protect her from. Her secret is safe with us, but you need to leave, as soon as you can. Make for the Perstaun. Nobody is mad enough to follow you out there. And Enhyla can give you guidance that the General can’t.”
I nodded, caging back a sigh. “I had meant to take her to Emeya, to the Academy. But I always knew that would be going the wrong direction.”
“To Emeya?” he echoed, sounding surprised. “Not Alcalon? You wouldn’t have taken her to King Zhabyr?”
I hesitated, wondering how far I could express my doubts without sounding treasonous. My silence was enough for the guard; he smiled faintly and nodded.
“Take her to Master Enhyla,” he said. “That is, if you wanted my advice. After all, that is essentially no different than taking her to Emeya, is it?”
“Thank you,” I said. I held out my hand, and he stared at it just a moment before clasping it at the wrist. “You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”
“Arleyo,” he said. “I am honored.”
My mouth twitched, fighting a grimace or a smile, and I inclined my head. “Stay safe, Arleyo,” I said. My gaze drifted back over the forest, searching for any sign of danger that would explain the prickling in the back of my mind. “This night will end in blood.”