My breaths shuddered, still hot in my chest. I knew I had made a big mistake, but it was a glorious one, and I wanted to make it over and over again. But there w
as something in his eyes, something genuine and earnest and true that made me pause. This was more than just making the best of it, this was something taking root, a seed being planted. But it was a seed that couldn’t be planted.
You are Rahtan, Kazi. You have a promise to keep, and you will betray him eventually. Don’t do this.
A fist tightened in my gut. It wasn’t right. This was a line I couldn’t cross. My hands slid around to his chest to push him away, but then I hesitated, my palms burning against his skin, and slowly they slid upward, rising, my fingers raking through his hair, lacing behind his head, and I pulled his mouth back to mine.
I had always heard the ghosts.
Death was no stranger in Venda. He had walked the streets boldly, rubbing his bony elbows against passersby whose cheeks were as gaunt as his own, his wide grin spotting you from afar, whispering, You, you are next. And I would whisper back, Not yet, not today. Everyone in Venda was always just a season away from death, including me, depending on which way death turned, and his frozen grin had long ceased to frighten me.
So when I saw the ghosts in Bone Channel, their bony fingers reaching out, pawing my feet, their rattled voices warning, Turn back, do not pass this way, I ignored them.
Do not pass this way.
But we did.
And now we couldn’t turn back. We had fallen through a hole and come out on the other side in a different world, a temporary world that was upside-down, where everything sounded, felt, and tasted different, and every fleeting flavor of it was dangerously sweet.
Jase leaned close, lifting my chin, his lips meeting mine—the best of it, that’s what we told ourselves, over and over again as one day rolled into the next; we were only making the best of it. It was a story, a riddle, a wish stalk that we wove into every kiss, a sweet powdered sugar that would melt and disappear on the end of our tongues, but for now it was real enough. What was the harm? We were surviving.
But as the miles we walked added up, our steps whispered a different message, each one bringing us closer to the world we had left. Heaviness would crouch in my gut, a hidden animal that wasn’t fooled, no matter the stories we told ourselves. He might be one kind of person out here, but back there, he was the enemy, the lawless head of a lawless family—a family that possibly harbored a murderous war criminal who was a threat to the entire continent, and if they did, he and his family would pay. Here, I might be a girl who had helped him escape from hunters, helped heal his wounds, the girl who loved listening to his stories, but there, in the real world, I was entrusted with a job by the Queen of Venda. I was as loyal to her as he was to his family, and I would betray him when the time came. I would bring his family and dynasty to their knees. His world was about to end.
The best of it.
We were only making the best of it.
It was our story. It didn’t have to have a happy beginning or a happy ending, but the middle was a feast at a banquet, a rich soapy bath, a night’s rest at an inn and a full stomach, a warm chest nestled up against my back, the soft heat of lips at my nape, stories whispered in my ear.
We stopped midmorning to drink at a spring, then rested in the shade of an alder. Foliage was growing thicker now, the plains behind us, the foothills steeper, the mountains topped with forests looming just behind them. I lay on my back and he hovered next to me, propped on one elbow. His finger traced a line along my jaw. He didn’t ask anymore what had been done to me. Now it seemed he only wanted to erase it, wash it from my memory, and for now, I let him.
“Kazi,” he whispered against my cheek. And then his lips slid down my neck, and I forgot once again about the world we were heading into and thought only about this one.
* * *
Another night closed in, a midnight blanket of clouds covering the stars, making our words safer. The darkness mercifully swallowed what might be seen in our eyes.
What is this, Kazi?
I knew what he meant. This. What was this between us? Just what game were we playing?
I had wondered too. Because now our kisses were filled with pauses, our gazes filled with more questions instead of fewer.
I don’t know, Jase.
What do you feel?
Your lips, your hands, your heartbeat.
No, Kazi, in here, what do you feel in here?
His finger stroked a line down the center of my chest.