Scars. Paulo was covered in strange scars. A mess of lines and shapes on his cinnamon skin. Then I remembered.
Back when this whole mess began, Syria, along with her control of Lethia, had carved those into his skin using fire.
“Paulo,” I repeated when the boy didn’t speak. I looked over at Lethia and Quincy. Lacertli had excused himself in the usual abrupt manner. The enchantress hadn’t emerged from the safety of Argos’s fur, and the wizard had frozen where she was–half crouched over her husband’s body. Something about her stance, even in the dim light, felt rigid.
I looked back at Paulo, and saw that he had approached a few steps. The blanket he shrouded himself with stirred with the wind, and more of his features were revealed. He looked older, in the way that my brother Thaddeus had looked older when he returned from his first season at war.
“You’re…real?” Paulo croaked. “Nyx? That’s you?”
I blinked, bewildered by the question. My voice was slow in answering. “Yes. Yes, Paulo, I’m real. We all are!”
He looked at the others. “Quincy…? That really you?”
Quincy straightened slowly. “It’s me.” Something was off about her voice.
“Have you–Do you know where Graziano is? Arduino? Where is my family?”
Where her husband’s coma had previously failed to crack her brave face, Quincy suddenly crumpled at Paulo’s question. She looked down at her hands, which started to wring together, then looked up again, shoulders hunched. “I don’t know where Arduino is. I–But Paulo, Graziano… He’s dead.”
The news slid off of Paulo’s skin like rain water.
Pulling the blanket off of his head, the boy ventured closer. I was surprised to see that his hair had grown to his shoulders. How much time had passed for him here? “Quincy, where is my family?”
Quincy hurried forward, fighting her way up through the snow. She had her hands held up. I wasn’t sure if she was trying to reassure Paulo or ward him off. “Paulo. Listen to me. Graziano is dead!”
“Where are my brothers, Quincy?” Paulo asked again, but his voice had gone quieter. Colder.
I took a step back as Quincy stopped near me. Up close, I could see the tears in her eyes now. “Graz et moré, Choi,” shemurmured.
“YOU’RE A FUCKING LIAR!” Paulo bellowed, and he advanced on us, suddenly drawing his rapier.
Without thinking, I leapt in front of Quincy and shouted. “Paulo, stop! Why would we lie to you!?”
Paulo pointed his rapier at Quincy, forcing me to shove the wizard further behind me as I moved to dodge being accidentally slashed in his fury.
“Two years!” He snarled. “Two years I was left to rot in this eternal winter with no way of leaving, and Quincy let it happen! This bitch let me and Graziano walk into a trap, so if he’s dead, it’s her fault!”
“That isn’t true–!” I started to argue, but Quincy grabbed my shoulders and flung me aside.
She was still crying, but her face had started to harden back into what could be called the wizard’s usual expression.
“Don’t go speaking about things you don’t know!” she snapped at me.
I glared at her, scandalized. “I’m trying to defend you!”
Quincy hissed at me through her teeth, seemingly oblivious of Paulo’s sword tip pressed into her throat. “I do not deserve nor want your defense! If you want to help, then take Hakeem and the girl up to that campfire before they die of cold!”
I threw my hands up into the air and shrilled, “Fine! Üle lunam? Yibken! I don’t care! You’re on your own!”
I stormed over to Hakeem’s body, which in the slight wind had already started to cover with snow. As I passed Lethia and Argos, I barked, “Argos! Lethia! Stop blubbering and help me!”
Argos whined, but I heard him follow. As I stooped to heft Hakeem up into a sitting position, I muttered darkly, “I’m cold, numb, tired, hungry, spurned–and of all the people I could be stuck with, I have these cajecks!”
The dog grumbled at my remarks as he came alongside, but I didn’t apologize. I just hefted Hakeem up (no small feat, let me just say) and put him on Argos’s back. In truth, the dog’s strength was probably comparable to my own, but simple physics made his large frame more capable of carrying Hakeem than I.
As it turned out, Lethia had followed us, and with her help, we kept Hakeem’s body steady on Argos as he made the arduous return to Paulo’s camp. The enchantress seemed to shrink the closer we got to Paulo and Quincy. The boy only had eyes for the wizard however as they spoke in tight, quiet tones back and forth. We passed them without a word.
Finally we reached the camp.
The cold was such that despite the fire being so near, I couldn’t feel its effects until I was a foot or two from its warmth. But even its draw didn’t have me like my old belongings did. Sitting at the edge of what seemed to be a giant horde of scavenged things was my modest little bag of trinkets, and next to that, my old clothes.
I nearly cried at the sight.
Rushing to set down Hakeem, I immediately went to my clothes and started to dress–first my trousers, then my boots, then my undershirt, then my gambeson. Certain other little items, like my stockings and my bandages were still missing. I was also so numb by this point that I knew it would take a while longer before I’d feel the full effect of my newly returned clothes. But I didn’t care.
I had my mother’s gambeson back, and that was all that mattered.
Returning to the fire, I sat across from Lethia and Argos, who had returned to huddling close to the fire. Next to them lay Hakeem on a blanket. I scooted close to the flames, letting my feet soak in the warmth. Looking over at Quincy and Paulo still in the shadowy cold, I could see they wouldn’t be returning any time soon. Well that was fine by me. I wasn’t sure I could take any more melodrama. My patience and goodwill was taxed.
I returned my gaze back to Lethia. “Can you sense the way out from here?”
She looked at me from amid Argo’s furry shoulder, and I could see the red in her puffy eyes.
When she didn’t answer, I scowled. “Lethia? Did you hear me?”
“…Yes,” she responded meekly. She gave a wet sniffle and hid her gaze again.
I clenched my jaw. “Then? Do you know how we can get out of here?”
Again, I got silence. Finally Lethia mumbled, “No.”
“Wonderful,” I sighed.
If Paulo’s change in appearance was any indication, we could be there a very long time…
Gods, to be stuck here for that long with these people!
“Maybe I should just let myself freeze to death,” I muttered next.
Quincy swallowed and she could feel Paulo’s rapier tip sink into her skin just enough to bring forth a bead of blood. She found the young man’s eyes, shadowed by his tight brow, and she held them as best she could.
The wizard had been prepared for many things. She had been prepared for another fight, for a timely return home, for her husband to wake from his coma… But somehow, in the hustle that she had found herself swept in since finding Graziano’s body, she hadn’t thought to reunite with Paulo. She had almost taken it for granted that he was also dead. Did she feel sorry for not searching for him harder before? …No. It was clear now that it was meant to be this way. And she hardly had enough reason to strike out searching for the boy on the other shards when they were being accosted by outside forces. He was the last discovery they had to make, the lost thing that had to be found on this path home. Why? She wasn’t sure. But what Quincy did chastise herself for, was not being better prepared for this meeting.
Loathe as she was to admit it, Elmiryn was perhaps better equipped to break the news to Graziano. Quincy, with few to grieve for in her life, didn’t know how to handle such loss. The closest she had to that was when Jack, her father, abandoned her and was never heard from again. But it wasn’t the same. Quincy stared deep into Paulo’s warm eyes and knew it just wasn’t the same.
“I’m sorry you had to hear it from me…of all people,” she said. “But it’s like Nyx told you. What reason would I have to lie?”
Paulo’s mouth curled into a sneer. “Two years gives a person a lot of time to think. I thought about that night, when the others came with Syria. You stayed behind. You knew what was going to happen, and you let us walk right into it!” At these last words, Paulo pressed in deeper with the rapier, forcing Quincy back half a step.
She winced and closed her eyes. “I know. That was wrong of me.”
“Yes! It was! So when you tell me that you have no reason to lie…I don’t believe you! You always have a reason to lie! You are like a snake in the tall grass, waiting to strike!”
Quincy opened her eyes again and felt the tears she had kept at bay slip down her cheeks. “I was a different person then!”
The teenager let out a short caustic laugh, and with his rapier, he flicked at her brown hair. “Yeah. I can see you’ve changed.”
“No, I mean–” Quincy broke off. This wasn’t a time to quibble about the details. Was she really so different just because Tonatiuh’s spirit no longer possessed her? She bowed her head. “I don’t know what else to tell you, except that I’m sorry…”
Paulo didn’t respond, but Quincy could see from her peripherals how the teenager’s sword tip wavered.
When the boy spoke, his voice was choked with emotion. “Do you have his gun?” he asked tightly.
Quincy sighed. “I don’t. Elmiryn does.”
“And where is she?”
“I don’t know. We think she might meet up with us later, once we escape this place.”
Paulo snorted. “Escape? There is no way out!”
Quincy looked at him sharply. “There has to be!”
“If there was, do you think I would’ve stayed here for two years? Alone in the snow?”
The wizard blinked at him. “How did you survive?”
Paulo glared at her before looking away. He sheathed his rapier and the tension melted from Quincy’s shoulders. “At first,” the boy started, but then he broke off, growling.
He turned and looked up the hill to the campfire. He tried again, this time with a stronger voice. “At first I looked. Tried to find any sign of the others. The supplies we had left were all still there, but I had to hide them, because these…these ghost people would come. I think they were scavenging the old prison tower. I tried leaving this place when it became clear that no one was around, but then I found out that there is nothing else beyond this place! It’s just an island floating in nothing.”
Quincy rubbed her arms, trying to fend off the cold. The numbness was creeping up her legs. “Were you always in winter here?”
Paulo swallowed audibly. “Yes.” He pinched his blanket tight around him and glared at her again. “I was alone here, in the cold, with no way out.”
“Paulo, if we could’ve come here sooner, we would have!”
The boy just shook his head. The motion felt weary and resentful. “It doesn’t matter anymore. Now we’re all stuck here.”
“But how did you survive? You still haven’t said,” Quincy pressed. If the boy was right about being stuck out here, then she wanted to know what resources they had to work with.
“I did what I could! I hunted what little game came my way. Scavenged for tools out in the daesce valley. Right now I’m collecting daesce hide to make warmer clothes. The dog…Argos. When he came, my luck really turned. He helped with food and fending off the daesce.” Paulo jerked his head behind him. “He saved my life.”
Quincy pursed her lips. She reached toward him. “Paulo, we’ll find a way–”
“Don’t touch me!” He snapped, swatting away her hand. He pulled his blanket back over his head, shrouding his face in darkness. The whites of his eyes seemed to burn from the shadows and Quincy felt her head ache inexplicably. “Just because I’m not trying to kill you right now doesn’t mean I won’t try later! I haven’t forgiven you for what you’ve done!”
With a sweep, Paulo turned and marched back up the hill.
Quincy gazed after him, her shoulders sagging.
“Fair enough…” she murmured.