Emilie slumped over the balcony railing with a yawn. The telescope slipped from her grasp, but she caught it at the last moment. She’d barely gotten any sleep since the night Igor decided to march his way into the city. From the looks of things, it had been somewhat of a disaster. The sandstorm had dissipated about an hour ago, which afforded her a better view of the west gate. At least four bodies were dragged out and incinerated by Dispatchers that morning. Six more came out once the sands let up. She worried, too, about Severo and his team. He seemed bold, confident, exactly the sort of leader they needed. Had he been among the fallen? She turned back inside and tried not to think about their food situation. If no one returned from the city, they could surely starve.
She turned back to the stairway, surveying the second floor before making her way down to the underground level they’d dubbed ‘The Pit’. It was hard to believe that just days ago, they’d staged a standoff with a squad of Dispatchers using the Barreau boys as bait. She missed Quentin, double-agent though he was. Most of her friends were now gone, save for Devonne, Leo, and a handful of others. Eerie to face such an empty house. But for what it was worth, she did her best to keep her promise to Severo and look after the others. Sooner or later, they would hear word of what happened. Even if she had to march into the city herself.
As Emilie rounded the last corner and proceeded to the basement level, Leo, the only twelve year-old among them, came rushing out to alert her.
“We’ve got a visitor!” he exclaimed. She readied her rifle and followed him down the dark, sand-covered corridor to meet Devonne at the end, who was already guarding the hatch that led back to the caverns. They kept it locked at all times for security. The bulb above it was flashing red, which meant the sensors detected someone on the other side. Whoever it was, Emilie hoped for good news. She took a deep breath as she pointed her rifle at the door and nodded to give Devonne the go-ahead. Her friend hit the button. The door slid open.
“Severo…” the girl breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank the Salt God!” The young Dalishkova Knight smiled as she embraced him. He did not hug her back. What a strange boy.
“Emilie. Good to see you again. I see the fighter’s spirit hasn’t left you yet.”
“It’s waning,” she admitted. “We need to talk.”
“Yes, we do. How’s a walk through the caverns sound?”
“I could use it.”
The two proceeded through the underground system of caves for privacy once Devonne closed the hatch behind them. In many ways, Severo seemed anxious, which was not like him. The boy had shown nothing but poise ever since joining the Outlanders some months ago. They’d found him wandering around the tunnels. He looked as if he hadn’t eaten in weeks, and yet something deep down was holding him together. It wasn’t up until a month ago that Emilie at last learned what that something was—his Dalishkova prayer book. But now as they paced the caverns together, he appeared to be without his amulet, and perhaps more gaunt than when he’d left.
“How have things been on the home front?” Severo asked.
“Lonely,” Emilie admitted. “But we’re holding things together. We’ll need more food stores within the next week.”
“I’ll send for them.”
“How many survived the wall?”
“Not enough, I’m afraid,” Severo sighed. “Only a handful of Igor’s team made it, but we’ve since amassed more recruits. I haven’t asked where he found them.”
“Probably that shit-stain Mordecai. Igor’s been squawking for years about getting revenge on the man for abusing him and stealing his girlfriend Abigail. Good on him if he slit that boy’s throat. I’d probably have done it myself.”
“My own methods aren’t nearly as straightforward,” the knight smirked. “What can you tell me about Abigail?”
“Not much, I’m afraid. Just that she’s a Japanese girl, and Abigail was a nickname they gave her because they couldn’t pronounce her real one. I doubt you’d be able to uncover much from the city records about her. Then again, you don’t see too many people of Asian descent in Cavarice. Chinese migrants, mostly. Why the curiosity? Or is that classified?”
“Just wondering,” Severo assured her. “Well, yes, I suppose it’s classified.”
“Look, I don’t mean to pry, but if you need someone to talk to-”
“I know,” the knight cut her off.
“It’s not that I don’t trust you, but it is not your burden to bear. On another matter…you should know that Igor’s getting sick.”
Emilie stopped as they reached the subway tunnel. Much as she couldn’t stand the leader of their Outlanders gang, it wasn’t for lack of caring. She noticed, too, the despair in Severo’s voice as he spoke about the boy, almost like he was some sort of unsolvable riddle that would expire before he had the chance to figure it out. For better or worse, he had been their backbone. Emilie also feared the added responsibility of looking after the others, should anything happen to Igor. He was an insane mess, but he was a brother to them all the same.
“Sick in what way?” she sighed.
“I’m not quite sure yet.”
“Look at me,” Emilie insisted. “You always turn away when you’re lying.”
“Classified,” Severo uttered.
The girl rolled her eyes. “Well what the bloody hell do you want me to-”
“I don’t know!” the knight snapped. “But I’ll bring him back here when the time comes…sorry.”
“It’s fine…any idea how much time he has?”
“The way things are going, I’d wager a month or two. He’s fainted a couple times, and his nose bleeds. Good bet it’s something with his brain.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised, what with the way he thinks,” Emilie said. Severo remained silent. She wished so bad to chip away at his brain, but knew it would lead nowhere.
“Anything else to report?” His annoyed tone bothered her. Emilie brushed it off.
“Devonne and I have been watching the west gate. Dispatchers incinerated three corpses yesterday morning and at least ten this afternoon. I was going to ask if I should be worried, but it seems you’ve got things under control.”
“For the time being,” the knight sighed. “Look, Emilie…you should know that I’ve never been very good at articulating my emotions. The Dalishkova discourage it unless absolutely necessary. Some things are better left unsaid, because there’s nothing to be resolved by saying them. This is one such situation.”
“I understand,” Emilie replied. “We’ve all got our own shit to handle, yeah?”
“Just out of curiosity though, aside from telling me about Igor and asking for a report…why the hell did you bother coming back here?”
The knight hesitated. “I suppose because I view you as family, and as someone a bit more compassionate than my father. And because I just wanted to let you know…I’m all right.”
Emilie smiled and put a hand to his cheek. It was warm for once despite his pale, almost alien-like complexion. Funny. She always assumed he would be cold as death.
“It’s good to see you too, Severo.”
He grinned sheepishly and put a hand over hers to peel it away. “I must return now. Igor and Lucien need a fair amount of babysitting so they don’t kill one another. I’ll have Olivier bring you food rations in two days time.”
“Sounds good. Do take care of yourself.”
“You as well.”
“And may the Salt God’s tears keep you afloat.”
Emilie watched him depart back into the darkness of the tunnel from whence he’d come. At least the brief visit had given her hope, and perhaps a renewed sense of strength she desperately needed to continue. The Outlanders had made it to the other side after all. She only hoped her group could do the same before anything went south. But for now, they would keep a watchful eye on shipments of Dispatcher parts crossing the desert from the Falvarre province in the west. They’d need items to trade on the black market once it came time to leave that horrid villa. Perhaps with Severo’s help—or with whatever leader they saw fit to appoint next—they could build a new legitimate life for themselves in Cavarice.
Emilie returned to her spot on the balcony above to keep watch as Leo and Devonne joined her. She dug out the scrap of paper from her pocket that Olivier had copied down from Severo’s book of Dalishkova prayers. Together, they began to recite the Pinnacle. Her heartbeat quickened at the thought of the young knight. She hoped he would come back safe and sound. The more verses she spoke, the more she had undeniable faith.
My dearest, sweet Severo. I love you.