Her skin was hot. Pressed against her, his mouth seeking hers, he thought they could stay warm enough to survive the night.

In the morning, there was only a fading blush of heat in the base of his throat. A lingering memento of Vera’s kiss.

“This emptiness does not go on forever,” Cnán said. “We have ridden off your maps, but we are barely at the edge of ones I have seen that show the boundaries of the Mongolian Empire.”

“No wonder it is so huge,” Yasper complained. “Do you really control the land if there is nothing there?”

The lithe alchemist slouched in his saddle, his jaw working absently on a piece of salted meat. In the days since they had crossed the river—since they had left Finn behind— Yasper was typically one of the first to break camp, and more often than not, volunteered to take point. At first, Cnán had found it odd that Feronantus usually acquiesced to the Dutchman’s request. While Yasper was not his to command, typically Feronantus would set one of the more proficient scouts riding before the company. Cnán soon realized Feronantus’s strategy: the alchemist was looking for something— a natural deposit of some alchemical treasure. As long as Yasper was keeping an eye out for anything unusual, then he would be a satisfactory scout and Feronantus could allow the other riders some rest.

Though, recently, he had been afflicted with the same malaise as the more experienced Shield-Brethren.

Graymane’s trail had led them toward Saray-Jük—not surprising, given the presence of more Mongol troops there—and with some caution they had found the place where Benjamin had instructed them to meet him. The caravanserai was deserted—nothing more than a scattering of fire pits near a stand of scrawny trees and a tiny trickle of a stream. The ashes were cold and there were too many tracks of Mongol ponies—it was dangerous for them to stay in the area. Before they left, Cnán found the cryptic message left by the trader, a series of marks carved into the bark of one of the trees—almost as if she had known to look for them. South and east for six days, the message had read, look for the rock.

Which rock? Feronantus had asked.

It will probably be the only rock, Raphael had pointed out.

Given how Yasper tended to focus so tightly on his own little projects, Cnán suspected he might ride right into the rock before he noticed it.

While Raphael’s comment was all too accurate and would likely be the only guidance the company needed, she knew the rock. It was one of the landmarks the Binders used as they passed from the east to the west. A station in the wilderness where messages could be coded and left for others to pick up.

Some Binders, like her, traveled widely, but others stayed within a few days’ travel of where they had been born and raised. At the verge of their domain, they would receive messages and instructions from other kin-sisters, and being more qualified to navigate the dense locality, they would complete the assignment for the foreign Binder. In this way, messages could be carried across the known world and delivery could be readily assured, because the kin-sisters were never dependent upon one messenger.

Such a landmark was used by the Silk Road traders as well.

Cnán glanced over her shoulder at the string of horses and riders behind her. While she was accustomed to traveling across wastelands such as this, she could tell the tedium of riding from daybreak to sunset was beginning to wear on the rest of the company.

And they have no idea how many more days await them, she thought.

“What are you smiling about?” Yasper inquired.

“Nothing,” she replied, setting her face aright. “What could I possibly see that would provoke some humor in me?”

“That’s why I asked,” Yasper said. He sat up and tapped his horse lightly with his stick, edging closer to her. “You’ve been this way before,” he noted. “Tell me, have you seen deposits of salt?”

“Salt?”