Afternoon approaches. We escape the worst of the sun by hanging out near the market vendors in the poorest part of Lake. Tess squints at the stands from under our awning. We’re a good fifty feet away from them. She’s nearsighted, but somehow she’s able to pick out the differences between the fruit vendors and the vegetable vendors, the faces of the various merchants, who has money and who doesn’t. I know this because I can see the subtle movements in her face, her satisfaction at making something out or her frustration at not being able to.
“How do you do that?” I ask her.
Tess glances at me—her eyes refocus. “Hmm? Do what?”
“You’re nearsighted. How can you see so much of what’s around you?”
Tess seems surprised for a moment, then impressed. Beside her, I notice the boy glance at me. “I can tell subtle differences between colors, even though they may look a little blurry,” Tess replies. “I can see silver Notes peeking out of that man’s purse, for example.” She flicks her eyes toward one of the customers at a vendor.
I nod at her. “Very clever of you.”
Tess blushes and glances down at her shoes. For a moment she looks so sweet that I can’t help but laugh. Instantly I feel guilty. How can I laugh so soon after my brother’s death? These two have a strange way of making me lose my composure.
“You’re a perceptive one, Girl,” the boy says quietly. His eyes are locked on mine. “I can see why you’ve survived on the streets.”
I just shrug. “It’s the only way to survive, isn’t it?”
The boy shifts his eyes away. I release a breath. I realize that I’d been holding it in while his eyes kept me frozen in place. “Maybe you should be the one to help us steal some food, not me,” he continues. “Vendors always trust a girl more, especially one like you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“You get right to the point.”
I can’t help smiling. “As do you.” As we settle down to watch the stands, I make some notes to myself. I can afford to linger with these two for one more night, until I heal enough to return to tracking down information about Day. Who knows—maybe they’ll even give me a clue.
When evening finally comes and the sun’s heat begins to fade, we make our way back to the water’s edge and search for a place to camp. All around us I see candlelight flickering to life from window to glassless window, and here and there the locals light small fires along the edges of alleys. New shifts of street police begin making their rounds. Five nights out in the field now. I still can’t get used to the crumbling walls, the lines of worn clothing hanging from balconies, the clusters of young beggars hoping for a bite to eat from passersby . . . but at the very least, my disdain has faded. I think back with some shame on the night of Metias’s funeral, when I’d left a giant steak untouched on my plate, without a second thought.Tess walks ahead of us, completely unperturbed by her surroundings, her stride cheerful and carefree. I can hear her humming some faint tune.
“Elector’s Waltz,” I murmur, recognizing the song.
The boy glances at me from where he’s walking by my side. He grins. “Sounds like you’re a fan of Lincoln, yeah?”
I can’t tell him that I own copies of all of Lincoln’s songs as well as some signed memorabilia, that I’ve seen her perform political anthems live at a city banquet or that she once wrote a song honoring each of the Republic’s warfront generals. Instead, I smile. “Yeah, guess so.”
He returns my smile. His teeth are beautiful, the loveliest I’ve seen so far on these streets. “Tess loves music,” he replies. “She always drags me past the bars around here and makes us wait nearby while she listens to whatever anthems they’re playing inside. I don’t know. Must be a girl thing.”
Half an hour later, the boy starts to notice my fatigue again. He calls Tess back and guides us over to one of the alleys, where a series of large metal trash bins sit wedged between two walls. He pushes one of them forward to give us some room. Then he crouches down behind it, motions for Tess and me to sit down, and begins unbuttoning his vest.
I blush scarlet and thank every god in the world for the darkness surrounding us. “I’m not cold and I’m not bleeding,” I say to him. “Keep your clothes on.”
The boy looks at me. I would’ve expected his bright eyes to look dimmer in the night, but instead they seem to reflect the light coming from the windows above us. He’s amused. “Who said anything about you, sweetheart?” He takes off his vest, folds it neatly, and places it on the ground next to one of the trash bin’s wheels. Tess sits down and unceremoniously rests her head on it, as if it’s an old habit.
I clear my throat. “Of course,” I mutter. I ignore the boy’s low laugh.
Tess stays up and talks with us, but soon her eyelids grow heavy, and she falls asleep with her head on the boy’s vest. The boy and I lapse into silence. I let my eyes linger on Tess.
“She seems very fragile,” I whisper.
“Yeah . . . but she’s tougher than she looks.”
I glance up at him. “You’re lucky to have her with you.” My eyes go to his leg. He sees my gesture and quickly adjusts his posture. “She must’ve come in handy when she fixed up your leg.”
He realizes that I’ve noticed his limp. “Nah. I got this a long time ago.” He hesitates, then decides against saying anything more about it. “How’s your wound healing, by the way?”