Weekly Illustrated Fiction Series:
No Dragons Press: A HIGH FANTASY Adventure
by Maggie Gibbs
Illustrations by Emily Ruf
Chapter Twenty-Two: Watching and Waiting
“Are you sure we can trust her?” I ask Nate for approximately the thousandth time.
Nate smiles in that infinitely patient way he uses with Tristan, but he doesn’t stop what he’s doing, which is sharpening one end of a stick with his tiny knife. He tests the tip with the pad of his thumb and, apparently satisfied with his work, places it carefully on top of a small pile of identical sticks. “They took her sister too, Ads. We’re all in the same boat.”
“According to her,” I say pointedly, refusing to be distracted by this adorable new diminutive, but he doesn’t respond. He simply smiles at me again and picks up another stick.
I throw my arms up in exasperation, but the effect is wasted on Nate, who is completely absorbed in sharpening his stick. I try a different approach. “What if she’s just trying to get you alone?” But at the amused look Nate gives me, I scowl and clarify, “You know, because it would be easier to get rid of one person than three?”
He makes a distracted noise of dismissal, then grabs another unsharpened stick from the pile Duc and I have collected and begins his curiously particular process of converting stick to arrow.
I realize, of course, that my statement is ridiculous—she’d trapped the three of us easily enough the day before, and she hadn’t exactly needed to divide in order to conquer. But despite the lazy peacefulness of the forest, I can’t help the growing knot in my stomach.
Xenia’s story had, apparently, cast such a spell on him that in his new version of reality it is somehow a good idea to abandon Duc and me to the wilderness and tromp off in the direction of danger with a complete (and quite adequately armed) stranger.
I admit, Xenia’s story had seemed pretty convincing when she told it the night before, her hair coiling around her body like a floating cocoon, eyes haunted in the firelight. I was entranced by it myself. How could I not be—the panic and frustration simmering somewhere in those complex notes of Xenia’s husky voice were a reflection of my own, if a little more successfully restrained. It was the same helpless feeling Tristan and Bradley’s sudden disappearance had inspired in all of us.
But that was last night, with the firelight casting a spell over our little group, making us stupid and docile. Many a beautiful woman had spun a story of heartbreak in order to get what she wanted, and I have the distinct feeling that it isn’t just a familiar tale of woe that’s working its magic on Nate.
In fact, now that I think about it, Xenia’s story of how she’d lost her sister was more than eerily familiar—it was downright uncanny. Missing without a trace, right from under her nose—this was exactly what had happened to Tristan. To Bradley. Exactly.
Which anyone watching our camp would have known. And even if she hadn’t been spying on us, we’d pretty much spilled the whole story to her anyway, at least enough of it to give any self-respecting con artist way more than sufficient material to hook us line and sinker.
But there’s another possibility, another way she might have known what had happened to Tristan and Bradley. The back of my neck begins to tingle.
When Nate bends to gather the pile of sharpened sticks, I stand along with him and plow ahead.
“What if she had something to do with it?” I ask, falling into step next to him as he crosses the clearing. “Or maybe she’s working with them, and she figures it’s easier to get you to go along with her willingly than it is to kidnap you.”
This time his smile is genuine, and there’s a decidedly amused twinkle in his eye. “Thank you, I think.”
But I don’t return his smile. I don’t smile at people when they’re being complete ass-hats. Is bronzed beauty, feline grace, and a good story really all it takes to make grown men lose all common sense?
“Nate, I’m fucking serious,” I tell him, no longer bothering to hide my irritation. “These are real possibilities. Why aren’t you listening to me?”
Now he stops mid-stride, drops the stick he’s holding, and turns toward me, taking me aback. I look up at him, breath catching in my throat as he takes me by the shoulders, one in each of his gigantic hands.
“I’ve been listening to you, Addie. But I’m serious too—we’ve all lost people we love.” He locks eyes with me, and I wonder if I’ve ever noticed before that his eyes are a kind of hazel-green. “We have to work together to get them all back. And to do that, we have to know what we’re dealing with, or we could all be walking into a trap.”
People we love. Does Nate love Tristan, in some brotherly way? Does he think I love Bradley? My eyes begin to sting. Bradley is strong-willed and capable—the fact that he’d managed to avoid being broken up with for so long was proof of that—but Tristan is so sensitive . . . I kick at a dead branch at my feet, trying not to think of all the horrible things that might be happening to them both right now. Trying not to imagine Nate stumbling backwards directly into that trap he mentioned. Trying not to scream.
Nate glances across the clearing, and I follow his gaze. Xenia is helping Duc pack up the rest of the food, which is to say she’s showing him how to do it a better way and he’s lapping it up like a puppy.
“Am I positive that I can trust her?” Nate continues, drawing my attention back to his hazel-greenish eyes. I’ve never even so close to them. “No. I’m not positive that I can trust anyone,” he says. “No one ever is. But this is our best chance. I’m not saying the situation is ideal, but I mean…look around, Addie. It’s just us out here. And she’s the only one who—” He looks around again, then lowers his pitch: “—who can lead us to anyone who might know how to help us get home.”
We hadn’t exactly gotten around to telling Xenia that part of our story. As far as she knows, we’re just three slightly wacky lost travelers looking for their two companions, wrapped up in the same intrigue she’s allegedly caught in herself; the idea that we came from another world would have sounded so completely unbelievable it wasn’t worth mentioning, and the idea that we actually want to go to the same place they might be stealing people away just happens to hinge a bit crucially on her accepting our backstory.
And he’s right—while my quick bit of thinking with the compass had given us a clear direction to start with, the logic behind that particular brainwave had relied on Tristan telling us how far to go and directing us once we got closer. We hadn’t counted on the fact that Tristan would lose the pull entirely.
Or that we would lose Tristan and Bradley.
Or that we’d meet Xenia.
“She could have killed us all in our sleep if she wanted to,” Nate is saying. “Or the night before that, or the morning after. She could probably kill all of us right now before any of us could even blink. She hasn’t. We’re on the same side, and we have the same goals.”
I nod, not because I agree with him, but because I’m starting to sound like a clingy girlfriend. The truth is, I’d slept fitfully last night, not entirely comfortable even then with this newcomer in our midst, despite her fireside bewitchery. While Nate and Duc had snored softly, I’d kept an eye on her. Good luck catching me asleep. And she knew it, too: once, her eyes had glittered at me in the starlight. I held her gaze. I’m watching you, I told her with my eyes, but she only glittered at me a moment longer before closing them again. Making sure I knew how unconcerned she was by my watchfulness.
“Xenia says there’s no one else in this section of the forest, so you’ll be perfectly safe here with Duc,” Nate says. “We want Tristan and Bradley back, don’t we?”
He means this rhetorically, of course, but I’m suddenly thinking way too hard about the answer. Do I want Tristan back? Dear Tristan? Absolutely. Unequivocally. The kid knew how to drive me up the wall, but he was so genuinely brilliant and so brilliantly genuine that it was hard to stay annoyed with him for long, and I missed his unique outlook on the world more than I would have thought possible. But Bradley?
I don’t want him kidnapped, or even killed. He’s arrogant, condescending, judgy, and so clingy he’d literally chased me into another universe, but I don’t want him hurt.
But do I want Bradley back?
“So we have to know what we’re dealing with,” Nate finishes. He gives me a look of assessment, as if checking that I’m following his logic, then gives my shoulders a final squeeze before bending down to pick up his arrows. Dismissing me.
I watch as he approaches Xenia across the clearing and smiles approvingly at the meat she’s cooked and wrapped in some sort of oiled cloth. He claps her on the shoulder approvingly. Then she takes an arrow from his quiver, touches her fingertip to the sharpened end of one of them experimentally, then nods approvingly. And because the overall amount of mutual approval around here is starting to make me sick to my stomach, I turn away from the scene and beeline toward Duc to help him with whatever he’s doing.
I don’t want Bradley back. That isn’t what I want at all.