Zelda hit the ground unsteadily, and for a moment she was certain that she had sprained her ankle—far from an auspicious start to her getaway—but as she put a little weight on it, the joint held.
She stood slowly, taking stock of herself: she thought she might have a bruise or two, and her hands were sticky from cedar resin, but she would live. She settled her backpack on her shoulders and began walking, trying to remember which way the car had come from when it brought her back to the house from the city.
Zelda walked the perimeter of the compound before heading in what she thought was the direction of the city. Outside of the sprawling property, the landscape was much drier. Her feet crunched and whispered through the sand, and the wind picked up, rifling at her hair and clothes. Zelda could feel grit in the air as it hit her face, and suddenly realized that she hadn’t thought of one very important thing that she would need in making her journey through the semi-desert territory between Zayed’s home and the city: water.
“It’ll be okay,” she told herself. “I’ll be a little dusty and parched when I get to the city, but I have some cash. I can get something to drink once I get there.”
She was grateful that Zayed had allowed her to cash her paycheck in the local currency; he’d been amused at her interest in it, pointing out that she could have however much money she wanted at any given time as his wife. Zelda counted her lucky stars that she’d thought to cash the check now that her ability to get away from Murindhi counted on having money—she would have felt badly about taking the Sheikh’s money to make her escape.
Zelda had struck off for what she hoped was the city, but from her vantage point, she couldn’t see any sign of it. Oh God. What if I was totally wrong about the direction to go in?
She shook the question out of her mind; if she was wrong, she would just have to keep going until she got somewhere. Murindhi wasn’t a big country; it was, she recalled, about the size of Singapore. It wasn’t possible for her to keep walking and not eventually find some kind of town or village, was it? If nothing else, she had to at least hit a border if she walked for long enough, and then she could get her bearings, and pay for a ticket somewhere.
Except, Zelda remembered, the reason she’d entered into her agreement with Zayed was that she didn’t have the proper documentation.
“Cross that bridge when you come to it,” she told herself, taking a moment to pause and stretch a little before she continued walking. Her mouth was starting to feel dry; her sweat was evaporating, and that only reminded Zelda of the fact that she had nothing to replace it with. She told herself again and again that she’d get through it, that she would find the main city, or at least a place with people, and figure out what to do with herself from there.
A few minutes later, Zelda paused again to look around her, and realized that she could no longer see even the vaguest shape of the Sheikh’s palace behind her, nor could she discern any sign of the city she’d spend so much of the past week visiting. This is bad, she thought, her heart beating a little faster in her chest, but she had lost so much moisture already that it couldn’t manage more than a trembling quaver.
Zelda swallowed against the dry, gritty feeling in her throat, mentally kicking herself for not thinking of some way to get water to bring with her. “Keep walking,” she croaked to herself, before deciding that talking out loud was a bad idea—she’d just irritate her throat even more. She coughed and pulled the collar of her shirt up over her mouth, half-remembering some advice she’d read once about conserving moisture that way.
It helped that the heat of the day was dying rapidly as the sun finished setting in the west. The arid land between Zayed’s home and her destination was not just cooling, it was almost cold as darkness enveloped it.
She mentally chastised herself again, this time for not thinking to find some kind of light source before she fled the palace. Water, flashlight, some kind of jacket… Zelda discarded the idea no sooner had she thought of it—she had deliberately not taken anything that Zayed had paid for, telling herself that at least she would have some kind of moral or ethical standing that way. Water, she could have justified, but stealing a flashlight, or a jacket, or anything else would have just put her further in the wrong.
As she trudged forward, Zelda wondered how Zayed was handling the engagement party, in light of her absence. Her feet felt so heavy; her face felt as if someone had taken a scouring pad to it, the skin across her cheeks and nose uncomfortably tight from the dry air. Her temples throbbed with a sensation she hadn’t felt since the last time she’d gotten a hangover: a dehydration headache.
She crouched on the ground, closing her eyes for a moment in the darkness. The only reason she hadn’t stopped altogether was that the moon provided just enough light for her to see the ground at her feet; she knew she should have made it to some kind of city by now, and her feet attested to the fact that she’d walked for miles. She tried to cry, but she was so parched, so dehydrated, that all she could manage were a few dry, almost coughing sobs.
“This is what I get for trying to do the right thing,” she croaked to the darkness around her, forgetting her resolution not to speak out loud. She wrapped her arms around her knees, wondering how it was possible for someone to simultaneously be freezing cold and so dehydrated that she couldn’t cry. She buried her face against her legs, feeling hopeless. Even if she could somehow figure out where the city was, she was so dizzy, so exhausted, that it would be impossible for her to finish the trek.
With a burst of clarity, Zelda realized that there was a very real chance that she would die right where she had stopped; that she would become more and more dehydrated until— She wasn’t exactly sure how death by thirst happened, but she was certain that it was unpleasant.
Zelda groaned, coughed and decided once more to be quiet; she shivered and at the same time felt too warm. She wanted desperately to cry but her eyes felt as dry as the sand dusting her arms. The worst part of it is that I’m going to die without my parents having even a single clue of where I am or what happened to me, she thought miserably. I just wish I could tell them I’m sorry.
Her head was pounding; it got worse by the moment, until she could feel her pulse at her temples, throbbing in a steady lub-lub-lub that brought nothing but pain with it. Through the veil of her eyelids, the moon’s light had gotten brighter and brighter. A low, droning sound filled her ears and Zelda thought irritably that if she was going to die, she would vastly prefer it to be somewhere quiet. What had happened to the desert stillness?
Zelda moaned and pulled her face away from her knees, opening her eyes a crack only to wince away from the bright light that filled them. A dark figure advanced towards her and for a terrified instant, she thought that it might be the specter of death itself—only it had a familiar shape.
“Zelda. Zelda, are you awake?”