The Burning City: Chapter 9, entry 2

 

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Word count: 1,645 Total word count: 56,059

Chapter 9 Entry 2

Glittering stars and sand blurred together like the ocean shore. Starr could no longer see where the ground stopped and the night sky began. She felt as if she'd been staring in to the darkness for hours. Her head nodded once and startled her awake. She had to stay alert, and reminded herself to focus. She was trying to keep them alive, after all.

Keeping pace with Kas'andra and keeping herself hidden had taken all of her concentration. She'd give anything to be safe, back aboard the Glass Fleet and sailing home towards the Blood Citadel. She exhaled, blinked to clear the grit from her eyes, and went back to watching the horizon for movement. The truth was, she wasn't going anywhere until they found Tarik—dead or alive—and returned him to Jaq. She had no loyalty to the renegade Transcender, but her loyalty was to the Citadel and to Nox. Nox wanted Jaq, and Jaq wanted Tarik.

So she'd find Tarik and finally take Nox home.

You'd better be in one—non-mangled—piece when I get back, Nox. Her lip curved at the thought. It surprised her; she wasn't one to worry about men. Let alone men like Nox; the life of a Transcender was a solitary one, with months and years between assignments. His journeys to Transcendence had changed him, mentally and emotionally. The darkness of Transcendence took a toll, either by right or by force. Physically, he looked no older than thirty summers, but Starr knew he was much older. He was unstable, and reckless, and--

What am I thinking? That's exactly how I like my men. She rolled her eyes at the realization. She just had to find a way to keep Kas'andra out of his bed.

“What about Ra'ion? Didn't you kiss him?” Starr asked, mostly to herself. If Kas'andra found the question uncustomary, she didn't say. Starr was just trying to find someone else to capture the Jan'caran woman's attentions. Kas'andra grunted, easily the most unattractive noise Starr had ever heard from her mouth. She couldn't decide if it was a good sound or not.

“Yes, I've kissed him.” She turned her smokey silver eyes towards Starr. “Many times. But I have kissed many men. And women.”

Kas'andra's gaze was always unsettling to Starr. She had very little experience with Jan'caran culture, and only what Kas'andra had told her—which she assumed most were pleasantly veiled lies. The silver and golden eyed people of Jan'caro were royalty, the woman had said. Their blood carried magic, manifested by changing their eye color, and caused them to stand out in the oceans of brown and gray-eyed masses.

Kas'andra had been born in to the royal family of Jan'caro and may even be in line for the Sun Throne itself. At least, that's the story she liked to smile and tell over her fifth glass of Isaru wine. Kas'andra certainly didn't act like she was interested in sitting in a throne all day. Unless that throne was also a bed.

Starr didn't need any light to know that Kas'andra was smiling, and probably arching her carefully shaped eyebrow. A Jan'caran tradition that Starr had yet to understand, either when Kas'andra found the time, how she managed it or why. Well, she knew why: it gave the Jan'caran woman a very pronounced expression of—seduction.

It was a custom Starr was just thankful the men hadn't yet adopted. She wasn't sure she could resist. Between the thick ash eye-liner and sharp brows, she'd probably faint. And that was saying a lot: not even the rolling waves of the Shard Sea or the sight of blood made her faint.

“How much longer?” Starr asked as she rolled to her side. Kas'andra laid beside her and peered over a dune of sand. A howling wind blew across the ground and stifled their voices. Far below in a distant valley, a group of torches waited in a large circle.

“I’m getting the final count.”

Starr yawned and pulled herself closer to the edge of the dune. Her skin felt gritty and dry. She needed a bath and a good man. In that order. She felt her hip rub against Kas'andra.

“Now, be still. I can't flirt and count.”

Starr opened her mouth to argue until she finally saw what Kas'andra had been staring at.

“Kas’andra, that’s an army--”

“It's not an army. It's not even impressive. Look, they have more men than torches. They're afraid of the demons.”

“Aren't we afraid of the demons?”

“We can fight them. These fools don't trust blood magic, all they do is kill anyone who might save them.”

Kas'andra was quiet as she watched the torchlight fight against the night wind. The desert was restless tonight. She wondered how long the Onyx Sun would be camped in the open, and if they were as afraid of the demons as Jaq believed. They certainly weren't doing themselves any favors by killing blood mages, the only chance they had to defeat the demons that roamed the Endless Sands.

The only lead they had on Tarik's location was that he was either dead—or had been thrown as a prisoner to the Endless Sands, per Jan'caran custom. If he was alive, the Onyx Sun would have picked him up, so that was the first place they began searching for: the current resting place of the roaming band of thieves and bastards, the Onyx Sun.

Her last encounter with the Onyx Sun had been lucky; to the last man, they were traditional Jan'caran and fearful of blood magic that didn't come from their Sun Queen or Royal Guard. They had gotten lucky that Nox and Starr had been able to bluff their way through the battle. Nox barely convinced himself he could cast magic at that point.

She smiled at the memory. She had only been sent to get Nox captured. Jaq had left the details up to her. And what details she had discovered. Nox may have been out of practice, but he wasn't out of passion—

Kas'andra held up a finger to her lips. Starr froze in place. The curvy Jan'caran woman pressed herself close to the ground and drew a dagger from her belt. How Kas'andra survived in the desert in full dresses, Starr could never guess. The layers of fabric never seemed to slow the woman down.

Cresting over the hill came a torch—and behind it, a dozen figures, men and women armed with the wicked curved blades of Jan'caran soldiers. Starr studied them as quickly as she could. She only saw swords at their belts, no leather bracers or wrapped forearms. No scar tissue marred their golden skin beneath the light. She breathed a small relief: these men and women, at least, weren't blood mages.

“We can't die here,” Starr whispered. “Drop your dagger.”

“You are the worst lookout ever.” Kas'andra groaned. She spoke in Jan'caran, using the brief moment to study her opponents.

“I'm used to watching for ships, not men.”

“What about groups of men as big as ships.”

You were distracting me.”

Kas'andra hesitated, counting the number of muscle-bound, broad-shouldered men that approached her. There were a few women in the group but they looked just as calculating as the men. Starr was right; blood magic or not, they'd overpower the two women. Kas'andra planned on dying on her own terms, not torn apart by a group of desert dogs.

Starr guessed she could kill one or two of them before they got to her, if she was fast enough—but she wouldn't risk it. She sheathed her dagger instead of dropping it in the sand.

One man carried a torch. He wore a black scarf around his head and mouth, presumably to protect from the desert sand and from onlookers. He picked up Kas'andra's dagger.

Starr held her breath: the last thing Kas'andra had told her about the Onyx Sun was that they killed blood mages on sight. She clenched her teeth and hoped Kas'andra had been wrong.

“The Onyx Sun does not take prisoners. Certainly not Citadel spies.” He spoke in broken Tala'rican as he pulled his black scarf from his face. “It does take the company of women, spies or not. We'll have our way first, and then kill you.” The men behind him nodded and laughed.

“Although,” the man moved his torch to get a better view of both women. He did not restrain his gaze from their chests, and seemed to study Kas'andra's hips longer than she would have liked. He licked dried blood from his bottom lip.

“I'll make sure to take my time—“

“We're not spies. We're looking for someone.” Starr raised her chin, trying to look the man in the eyes. He stepped forward and she realized it had been a mistake.

“Did the Desert Demons send you to spy on us—blood mage whore?” He stared at Starr. His eyes were bloodshot. His nose was crooked and recently broken. A scar ran from his upper lip to the middle of his left cheek. The brand that stared back from his raised flesh told Starr exactly what his crime had been: it made her stomach jump to her throat. She could smell the stale beer on his breath and the scent of a woman.

For the first time in a very long time: Starr wished for a quick death.

The man spat on the ground, narrowly missing Starr's boot.

“We lost you once because of your cursed magic. We won't let it happen again.”

He pointed to Kas'andra then to Starr and yelled in High Jan'caran. Starr couldn't translate, and by Kas'andra's expression, she didn't have to.

“Don't fight them!” Kas'andra yelled.

She smelled rotting fish as a damp cloth bag was pulled over her head. This time, once she was blinded, she felt a hard blow to the side of her head. Then: darkness.

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