These Broken Stars Page 39

“Of course. Eager to provide whatever it is you’re after.”

“We’re after the truth, Major.”

“That’s exactly what I’ve given you. You’re looking for something else.”



THE MORNING DAWNED CLEAR AND PROMISING, and I had let myself hope a little that the ascent wouldn’t be as bad as I had anticipated. Streams of snowmelt run down the mountainside, and though they’re gut-achingly cold, I never lack somewhere to fill the canteen. But the higher we climb, the faster the temperature drops. The sunlight feels pale and cold, but I know it’s the only thing standing between us and a much bigger problem. A problem we’ll face when the sun starts to sink.

Lilac works stubbornly to keep up, and my heart tugs at me to slow down and let her rest. But I press on, up past the boulders and the thinning tufts of grass.

As we climb, my mind circles back to how utterly alien this must be for her—as far from her experience as her life is from mine. What must it have been like to grow up with your face on the cover of every gossip magazine in the galaxy?

I can’t stand to think what the paparazzi would say if they heard her mutter one of my curses under her breath, or saw the way she nestles in close to me at night. What they’d make of her strength.

I can smell the snow coming. We don’t have time to waste in getting to the crash site, and the difference between slowing down and pushing on might be an extra night up here. So we keep climbing.

It’s a few hours after we split a ration bar for lunch that the first flakes start to fall, so tiny at first that they almost look like a mist. Behind me Lilac makes a soft sound, and I realize she’s probably never seen real snow before. She’s had more reality since we crashed than over the rest of her life put together. Part of me wants to stop and appreciate the start of the snowfall with her, but I know it won’t be long until it’s coming thick and fast, so I park her in the lee of one of the huge rocks that litter our path and scramble up over it for a better view. We need a cave, or at least an overhang. The twisted trees up here have bare, spindly branches, and they’re useless for shelter. I’ve never seen trees like this—combined with the thick, pale moss on the rocks, they make this place ghostly, unwelcoming.

I used to do a lot of mountaineering with Alec when I was a kid. Me and my hero. I’ve been thinking about him as we climb, and about my parents. By now they must think they have two dead sons. He’s one of the voices in my head that keep me moving when I want to stop. A line of sergeants and commanding officers comes to life in my head when I get tired—big, wild men from the frontier who screamed at us until their instincts became ours. They keep pushing me on, instructing me on finding the right campsite, making sure I take the extra minute to make the bed as comfortable as I can so I don’t pay for my laziness by tossing and turning all night. But Alec’s voice is quieter, patient, the way he used to sound when he came home on leave and taught me the things he’d learned.

It doesn’t take long to find a cave. The entrance is barely more than a space between two rocks, roofed over with earth and stone, but it extends farther in, and it’ll do.

The cold cuts into my face and the rising wind pulls at my coat as I work my way across the mountainside to fetch Lilac. She’s huddled against the rock, and her hands are freezing as I guide her up the slope toward the place I’ve found.

We make our way in past the first twist of the cave. It’s dark, but we’re sheltered from the wind. When I catch sight of her face in the flashlight, her gaze is dull and hopeless.

I wish she’d come alive and start listing my faults for me. I bundle her in blankets and build a fire with deadwood piled by old snowmelt at the mouth of the cave, then crawl inside the blankets with her. She’s too tired to resist, maybe, because she leans in against me and rests her head on my shoulder. “Don’t drowse,” I say quietly, my voice hoarse from disuse. “Not until you’re warmer.”

“Mmm,” she agrees, drawing the blanket in tighter around us. “Why am I always the problem? Just once I’d like to be the useful one.”

“We happened to get stranded on my turf,” I say. “That’s the way it goes, sometimes.”

“I just wish—” She shifts a little, getting comfortable again and subsiding against me with a sigh. “Well, I suppose I wish a lot of things.”

“Me too,” I say quietly to the girl in my arms. I know exactly what you mean.

“I wish I had a really good cup of tea,” she says, with a sigh. “And some scones, jam, cream.”

“I wish I had a steak.” We both dwell on that for a moment. “Or something to boil. There’s a guy in my unit who can make food out of anything. He boiled up a shirt when we were in a tight spot on Arcadia. But he says it’s got to be a general’s shirt, because they use a better quality dye on those.”

“Major.” She sounds like she doesn’t know whether to giggle, or chastise me.

“Oh, don’t worry, you remove the insignia first. Otherwise it would be disrespectful.”

Talking again after the day’s silence is like a truce after a long campaign. As we settle in to wait to warm up, I’m careful to keep my mind from drifting toward the people she saw by the river. All of them pointing this way, at the mountains, or the wreck, perhaps. But why? I don’t want to talk about it, don’t want to think about it. For now, we’re allies again, and I’m not about to mess that up.

My internal clock tells me I’ve been asleep for hours when something wakes me. The fire’s burned down to embers, and the wind outside is howling in the way only a blizzard in full swing can. But we’re wearing everything we own, including our boots, and I’m warm.

Then I realize what woke me. Lilac’s sitting bolt upright, staring into space. Her eyes are wild and vague—she’s been dreaming. Cold air’s leaking in where she’s pulled the blankets away from me, and I wait to see whether she’ll lie back down, keeping one eye barely cracked open. I really want to sleep. I want her to sleep too.

No such luck. She scrambles out of the blankets and onto her knees, reaching down to shake my shoulder. “Tarver,” she hisses. “Tarver, I know you’re not asleep, get up.”

Dammit. I open my eyes. Flushed and urgent, she stares at me. I see her trembling, a drop of sweat trickling down her temple despite the chill. She looks sick with whatever nightmare woke her.

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