Why are you looking for my brother?
YURIEL’S QUESTION ECHOED in my head as I looked around me, trying to wrap my mind around what had happened.
This brother, who was not Khan, no matter how much I had wanted him to be, had moved back away from us, mumbling to himself something unintelligible. From the look of him, he didn’t interact much with other humans, and we were upsetting him pretty badly. I turned to face my friends, who were still watching me, confused looks on all their faces.
Tres was the first one to speak. “Reka, he asked about his brother. Is Khan his…?” he trailed off, dragging a big hand through his dark hair.
“His brother?” I finished, unhelpfully.
“So neither prince was killed?” This came from Ziara, who sat uncomfortably on the ground, her injured knee stretched out in front of her. Taariv knelt beside her, checking the bandage around her knee. I absently noticed how gentle his touch was.
Peatle and Goreg sank down to the ground as well, pulling out waterskins and slaking their thirst. We had been walking for days as we tracked Khan and everyone was exhausted.
Ilari sidled up next to me, her dark eyes troubled. “How did we find this... Yuriel, if you were tracking Khan, Reka?”
“I don’t know,” I answered, bewilderment coloring my words.
“Is he even still alive?” Goreg swiped at his mouth, catching a few stray drops of water.
“I don’t know.” Frustration laced my every word. And the sight of those water droplets made my heart twist in sadness. Where was he? I hadn’t been able to even consider the idea that Khan was dead. And when I had felt him, or thought I felt him, I had been thrilled, and I had pushed us all to our limits to get here as quickly as possible.
“You all need to leave!” Yuriel shouted this at us suddenly, his voice fierce and gruff. I thought he might throw us out right then and there. Corson intercepted him, a meaty hand held up to block him. Yuriel glanced down at the hand, and then back up at Corson’s bushy face.
“Move out of my way, you overgrown mountain.”
“I will not,” Corson rumbled. “And we’re not going anywhere. Not until you tell us where Khan is.” Corson’s deep voice held a menacing undertone to it I had never heard before.
The hermit’s icy gray eyes narrowed. “How should I know where Khan is? I haven’t seen him in three hundred years.” He surveyed us all, his eyes piercing. “What’s he doing with a lot like you, anyways?”
“Three hundred years,” Ziara whispered in amazement, and we exchanged a glance.
“Khan is our prince,” Tres answered simply.
Yuriel laughed in his face, and a frigid wind tore through the meadow, making me shiver. “That’s impossible. Khan left all that behind. He was a coward. He couldn’t do what needed to be done.” There was such a coldness about him, an unending icy wrath. I couldn’t feel anything from him, not a glimmer of warmth or kindness or even concern about Khan’s welfare.
I snorted, unable to hide my disdain. “Some brother you are. No wonder you haven’t seen each other in centuries.”
Yuriel took a step towards me, but stilled when Tres and Corson reached for their swords. His cold eyes flicked between all of us. “Watch your tongue, intruder,” he blasted. “You still haven’t explained your presence here.”
I looked at him, evaluating our next steps. I didn’t see any other options besides telling him. “We were searching for Khan. He was taken by Camazotz—they ambushed us six days ago. We tracked him until the tracks disappeared and then we followed him here.”
“You followed him here.” Yuriel glared at me. “Without any tracks.”
I chewed on my lip, not sure how much I should say and glanced at Tres. He shrugged as if to indicate that it was my call.
“I...could sense him. Or rather, feel him.” I tipped my head to the side. “At least I thought it was him. But apparently it was you.” We had ended up tracking Yuriel instead of Khan. Which meant that I had no idea how to find Khan. That thought—I had no idea how to face that thought. I shoved it aside for now.
I watched Yuriel as his mind worked. His face revealed nothing, and I longed for the simplicity of being with Khan, of feeling Khan. Of the man I could read like an open book.
“You’re an Empathetic. That’s how you were tracking him.” Yuriel watched me closely, and I could feel my skin heating.
I lifted my chin and met his gaze. “I am.”
“Well you must be a terrible one, since you tracked the wrong person.”
“No,” I cried out. “It was the same! It was what I felt from Khan. The same anger, the same self-hatred, the same guilt and despair and loneliness.”
Yuriel’s face, what little I could see besides the icy eyes and wild beard, drained of color. He stepped back a few steps, his movements unsteady and jerky. It was as if I had yanked back a curtain and looked straight into his soul. Then he blinked, and that frozen mask settled over his features once again. But I wasn’t fooled. I had hit a nerve.
“Leave,” he said again, and there was steel in his voice.
But I stepped forward, until I stood nearly toe to toe with him, and looked him in the eye. “We’re not going anywhere. We came to find Khan, and we found you instead. There must be a reason for that. So we are not leaving until we know the answer.” I glared at him. “We will not leave.”
Yuriel stared at me, his face impassive, and the silence stretched between us.
“Suit yourself,” he ground out, whirling around. Moments later, he had crossed the meadow and re-entered his cottage, slamming the door behind him. He didn’t emerge again.
I turned back to my friends. “Hmmph. That went well.”
I sank down beside them and rubbed my temples. “I don’t know what to do now.”
“Let’s start with some food,” Tres said practically. “And then we’ll figure out the rest.”
Ziara roused herself enough to pull out food for everyone from our packs. She passed around strips of dried meat and cheese, and I slowly sank down to rest on my heels, accepting the food gratefully.
We all ate quietly, tiredness lacing our every movement. Taariv finally broke the silence as Goreg fit together the pieces of our fire ring. The flames glowed a few moments later as he spoke. “If tracking Khan brought us to Yuriel, then, like Reka said, there must be a reason.”
Tres nodded in agreement. “We didn’t find Khan amongst all those bodies. And the Camazotz were obviously trying to take him alive when they ambushed us in the riverbed. So is it possible they’re holding him prisoner somewhere?”
I winced at the idea of Khan chained to some dark dungeon wall, being tortured by a bunch of monsters. “Yuriel is his brother. They once ruled over this entire land together, and defended Orosea from the Camazotz. He must have some idea of where they might have taken Khan.”
Corson nodded. “I agree. Let’s get some rest tonight, and in the morning we’ll talk to the hermit. See what he will share with us.”
The others nodded, relief flickering on their faces. They all wanted to find Khan, but we were all at our breaking point. Rest would be good for all of us. I moved over next to Tres, pulling clean bandages from my pack. With practiced movements I unwrapped the bandages around his shoulder, and examined the wound. Taariv had removed the Camazot arrowhead days before, and it was healing nicely. I applied an herb poultice and rewrapped the shoulder, and Tres gave me an appreciative smile. After checking on Ziara’s sprained knee, I finally found my own semi-comfy spot by the fire and sank down gratefully.
I curled up on my blanket, wrapping it tightly around me. Exhaustion pressed down on me, but I couldn’t sleep. It had been this way every night since we had lost Khan. I briefly considered the idea that I might be going crazy from fatigue.
Every time I closed my eyes, I was back on that bank, held in place by the water prince Khan had created, forced to do nothing but watch as he let himself be swept away by the river. The magnitude of his sacrifice, and his willingness to do it, made me want to weep. I had been so proud of him I thought my heart would burst. And his actions had been those of a prince, not of someone whose only approach to life was drinking, fighting and screwing.
I was still awake hours later when dawn was just peeking over the tops of the trees. The absence of normal sounds—birds chirping quietly, the wind rushing through the treetops, it was disquieting and isolating. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t feel anything beyond this little space carved into the mountainside. It was like we had slipped into a pocket between worlds.
As I sat there contemplating all of this, the door to the cottage opened, and the hermit emerged. He trudged across the clearing, his shoulders hunched and his hood drawn up to hide his face.
I was on my feet a moment later, and trailed after him, moving as quietly as I could. I followed him from a distance until he stopped at a stream and slipped a basket down off of his shoulder.
“You’re as silent as a behemoth.” Yuriel spoke dryly, his back still turned. I snorted and stepped out from the trees. “Why is it so quiet here?”
“Because I don’t want it to be loud,” he said matter of factly. I suppressed the urge to roll my eyes, even though his back was to me.
“I have questions,” I said, my tone matching his own in frostiness.
“I’m sure you do. I don’t see how that’s my problem.” Yuriel knelt by the stream and pulled a fish trap out of the gurgling water. Three fat, silvery fish wriggled inside. I watched their gaping mouths in amazement.
“How is this possible? How is there water here?” I asked, my curiosity slipping its leash.
“Why wouldn’t there be water here?” Yuriel shrugged. “I’ve been fishing from this stream for centuries.” He transferred the fish to the basket, and replaced the trap in the water, reaching for the next. He had flipped his sleeves up above his elbows, and I watched as he plunged surprisingly strong and powerful forearms into the clear water.
I crossed my arms over my chest. “Most streams don’t have enough water left in them for fish to swim. The drought has seen to that.”
Yuriel’s deft movements hesitated briefly. “What drought?”
I laughed, the sound harsh in the silence around us. “Denial is an interesting approach.”
Yuriel seemed to consider a response, and then shrugged slightly and turned back to the stream.
I gnawed on the inside of my cheek. “So… about Khan...”
Yuriel let out a sigh and pushed back to his heels, irritation plainly visible on his face. I paused for a moment, scrutinizing that look.
“I just don’t understand,” I said, with a shake of my head. “If someone showed up and told me that my brother had been taken captive, I wouldn’t be placidly fishing by a riverbank.”
Yuriel’s eyes didn’t thaw a bit. “What would you be doing?”
“I’d walk through the gates of Fernua to get him out, if I had to.” Even I was surprised by the fervor underscoring my words.
Yuriel clucked his tongue in mock sympathy. “So dramatic.” He tossed the rest of the flopping fish in the basket. “Khan made his own choices.”
He stood up as if that was the end of the discussion and turned towards the cottage.
Frustration stirred inside me. “Khan would have tried to help you.”
The wind howled around us as he whirled back to face me. “Don’t fancy yourself an expert on my brother, intruder.”
“My name is Reka,” I spat back, straightening up to my full height and glaring back at him. “And I’m apparently more of an expert when it comes to Khan than you are. At least, wherever Khan is right now, he knows that I care about him. The same can’t be said of you.”
Yuriel waved a hand dismissively. “Khan has survived this long by looking out for himself. His selfishness has ensured his survival. He’ll be fine.” And yet, there was something in that statement, a crack in that icy tower Yuriel kept wrapped around himself.
I wanted to blast more words at Yuriel, to keep lambasting him while I found an outlet for all of my pent up anger and frustration. He was certainly arrogant and irritating enough to deserve it. But something held me back. Khan had loved Yuriel. I had heard it in his voice, seen it on his face when he spoke of his brother. Losing his brother had destroyed him.
“Get your group together and clear out,” Yuriel’s cold voice invaded my thoughts. “You’re overstaying your welcome.”
“You’ve made it very clear that we aren’t welcome here.”
“Exactly. It’s time for you all to go.”
Yuriel shrugged the basket full of fish onto his shoulder and strode back in the direction of the cottage. I watched him go, my hands on my hips and my heart pounding in my ears. He was infuriating. To my surprise, a little chuckle rose up in me. Apparently both princes of Orosea were capable of easily provoking the exact same reaction in me—irritation.