Night has fallen by the time Ari leaves Radhri’s tent. She passes the pylon and sees a few small groups sitting around small fires. They eat and talk cheerfully, sharing stories. Link and Sten are among one of the larger groups, finally appearing relaxed. Crofton and Guto sit with them, laughing and eating large platefuls of food.
Tempted to join them, Ari still remembers her fight with Crofton and can’t bring herself to walk over. She’s afraid she’ll only dampen the bright mood the group’s in. Instead she walks towards the edges of the camp, closest to the canyon. She stares into the dark canyon, curiously. The light of the fires throughout the camp barely reaches into the gaping opening. The stream reflects the firelight, creating flashes of light reminding Ari of gemstones.
Taking a breath, Ari steps out of the protective light of the camp and into the shadows of the canyon. She follows the same path Tal took them on the horses the day before. She finds the path leading up to the top of the canyon and her feet move faster as she climbs. It reminds her of climbing the towers back in Kellahn.
Her mother’s friends used to talk about the top of the canyons of Kellahn before the city grew. They spoke of how the light of the city couldn’t penetrate the walls and once you reached the top all you could see were the stars.
Reaching the top of the canyon, Ari’s eyes are greeted by thousands of stars and a waning full moon. Soft music plays across the canyon top and Ari spies the musicians from the wedding. They’re sitting in a circle and as one plays, others join in with harmonies or their own melodies to flow with the first musician’s idea. A song forms and a solemn voice adds words to the notes played by the instruments.
Staying far enough away to not disturb them, Ari sits and listens, enjoying the music as it clears her mind. Tomorrow the journey to find her father continues. Until Radhri mentioned what his raiders found, Ari almost forgot the dangerous people following her. Being with the Redland Raiders brought a familiar calm she only found at home. But the illusion of safety, though deceptively pleasant, couldn’t last forever. Ari knew this, yet still she felt herself wishing to stay.
She wonders if her father knew about the Redland Raiders. There hadn’t been any mention of them in his notebook, but she had a feeling her father purposefully left details out. Even the letters he wrote to Meah were vague. Of course, Radhri didn’t mention having any other visitors before Ari’s group, but that didn’t mean anything.
Approaching footsteps behind her make Ari turn. She sees a familiar figure pause as she sees him and a smile forms on her face. “I take it Kemp and Vesna are still occupying your tent?”
Vico’s teeth seem to glow with the light from the moon. He walks to her side and sits. “Yes, and I doubt Crofton would be thrilled to find me alone in your shared tent. I thought to sneak off before he returned and saw you walking alone. What did Radhri speak with you about?”
“We’re leaving at dawn. Somehow, even with the wedding excitement, he prepared everything. The groduns are healthy and ready to pull the one wagon the raiders don’t want. Supplies are already secured to it and the raiders joining us are packed.”
“That’s good. Why aren’t you heading to bed? We have a long way to go to reach the coastal cities and I assume we’ll want to make as few stops as possible. Sleep may become a rare commodity. You should enjoy it while you can.”
Leaning back on her hands, Ari looks at the stars above. “I’ll go soon. I just wanted to have one last moment of relaxation.”
“And privacy?” Vico asks, cautiously.
Sensing a hint of hurt in his voice, Ari looks at him. His eyes scan her face, taking in every detail and she sees something in them she hadn’t noticed before. Her heart beats suddenly louder in her chest.
“If I wanted privacy I wouldn’t be up here with a group of musicians,” she says, motioning her head at the ones in question.
Staring past her at the musicians, Vico nods his head. “You’ve a point there. Though I don’t think they’ve even realized they have an audience.” His eyes gaze up at the stars. “May I be blunt?”
“You’re asking? That’s never stopped you before.”
Vico grabs her and pulls her close. His lips press gently against hers before she can resist. Ari’s eyes widen and as he pulls away, her mouth opens slightly in shock. Seeing her expression makes Vico’s cheeks flush and a smile turns up his lips.
“I can’t tell you how long I’ve wanted to do that. I’ve been a little jealous of Vesna and Kemp easily being able to show their affections. It’s not usually my strong point.” His eyes return to the stars.
Touching her lips, Ari’s heart skips a beat. Her mind races unsure of what to say. It’s the first time someone has kissed her and it’s erased all thoughts from her head. As she calms her heart and finally brings her mind to some semblance of understanding, she realizes she enjoyed it.
Staring at Vico’s smiling face, Ari slowly moves towards him. Her movement catches Vico’s attention and he turns to her. Ari places a hand on the side of his face and leans close. Vico meets her halfway and their lips press together. Ari closes her eyes and feels Vico place a hand on the back of her head.
The memories of the past days fade, diminishing in importance to the current moment. The only thing filling Ari’s thoughts are her and Vico. She presses her body against his, feeling his warmth and heart beating. His free arm snakes around her waist and holds her in place.
As the moment passes, Ari and Vico rest their foreheads against one another. Their eyes meet and small laughs escape them.
“I think I’ll be blunt more often,” Vico says.
The musicians stop playing and pack up their instruments. They talk loudly and laugh as they ready to leave. Vico and Ari separate before the men and women notice them. They head down the path leading to the camp, leaving Ari and Vico alone.
Vico turns to Ari as the last musician disappears below, a little eager to continue where they left off, but when he sees Ari’s face the thought fades. An odd sadness fills Ari’s face and she plays with her silk bracelet.
“What’s wrong, Ariana?”
“I shouldn’t have done that.”
“To be fair, I made the first move. You only reciprocated with like feelings.”
Ari glares at him, but the anger is forced. “I shouldn’t have reciprocated.”
“Ouch, that bad huh?” Vico asks.
“No, no, not that. I liked it and I do like you. I mean I did make the second move…but with everything and the excitement of leaving tomorrow, I don’t think this is a good idea right now,” Ari says, speaking faster than normal. She places her head in her hands and sighs. “I’m sorry. I sound crazy, don’t I?”
“You sound confused and tired. I think sleep is the best option right now. I’ve never been very good with timing. Come on, I’ll walk you back.” He stands and helps Ari to her feet. “And I’ll give you time to figure things out.”
They head down to the camp and pause outside of Ari’s tent.
“I don’t suppose a goodnight kiss is in order?” Vico jokes.
Biting her bottom lip, Ari peeks inside the tent and sees Crofton’s still form in his bed. She quickly kisses Vico on the cheek and smiles. “That’s all you’re getting.”
Vico places a hand over his cheek and bows low. “I shall cherish it until I hear word of your decision.”
Stifling a small laugh, she playfully hits his arm. “Quiet! Crofton’s asleep.”
Smiling, Vico walks away, heading for his tent. Ari watches his walk, only entering her tent once he’s out of sight. She quietly walks to her bed and crawls in, removing her shoes.
She lies down, but before falling asleep, she grabs the silk knot Vico made her and holds it close.