A shadow moved beyond the fire. The stranger had a hood over his face, a quiver of arrows on his back, and an arrow nocked on his bowstring. He didn't seem to know where Jason and Mother Crow were. He must have been distracted somehow after shooting her. The hooded stranger moved around the fire to the place where the carpet had been. The sand didn't leave much to the imagination about what had happened, and he followed the tracks easily to the tent. He was thin and about Jason's height. He set his bow and arrow aside, crouched down, and studied the blood on the carpet. Jason flew from the tent, tackling the stranger. There was a brief skirmish, but a year in the desert had made Jason strong and wiry, and two quick punches—one to the kidneys and a second to the face—took most of the fight out of the man who had tried to kill Mother Crow.
The tent knife appeared at the stranger's throat. Jason wanted to say something about how he was going to kill the guy, but he had taken an oath a long time ago not to tell lies. So instead he said, "Knives are sharp, and people get hurt by them every day. Usually by cutting but also sometimes by stabbing. This is a knife I am holding to your neck right now."
The stranger fell extremely still. "Wu Song," he said. "You are making a terrible mistake."
Jason hesitated. How had this guy known his real name? He tore the stranger's hood away. "No," Jason said. "That's not possible."
"And yet you see me with your own eyes." The man grinned at him. "Surprise."
It started in deep grief.
THE PEASANT KING
"Where do you think you're going?"
Darius paused, his hand on the doorknob. "I'm going out, Mama. Just out."
His mom was slender, a full foot shorter than him, her grey-streaked hair done in a twist out, but when she put her hands on her hips, he knew he was in for it. "Darius. I know you've been through some trouble this last year. But you can't be running around without telling me where you're going. I worry. I need to know what's going on."
"I got my phone, Mama. You need me, you text, you call. You know I'm coming home."
"Is there some reason I can't know where you're going?"
Darius pursed his lips and ran his hand over his hair. "Ma. You wouldn't like it."
"Well, if you know your mama isn't going to like it, Son, why are you going there? You want me to follow you in my car?"
"Ma, no. Can't you just trust me?"
"And you say you'll be coming home if I text. You don't remember when you disappeared for months? You don't remember showing up at home one day crying and saying you can't tell me where you've been?"
Her eyes softened. "You don't remember telling me Madeline was gone, Darius? Gone and no body for her parents? Now her mama is gone too, and no one has seen her in close to a year. The police coming around here asking questions, Mr. Oliver calling and trying to talk to you. Then you want me to be okay when you go out? What am I supposed to do next time you don't come home? Leave a candle in the window?"
Darius couldn't bear to look at her. He stared at his Nikes. He tried to get a full breath but couldn't. "Mama. I can't tell you. I would if I could. I don't want to hurt you, but I got to do what I'm doing. That's all."
His mom took his hand. Her hands were warm. "Darius. Son. There's nothing you got to do. Only what you choose to do."
Darius pulled his hand away, then put both hands on his mom's shoulders. "You and I both know that's not true." Then he was out the front door and halfway to his car.
His mom called, "Dinner's at five o'clock, Darius. If you aren't here, I'm calling your father."
Darius didn't say anything to that, just slung himself into his beat-up Mustang and pulled into the street. He loved his dad, but he hadn't seen him much this year. He only came running when Mom called. Dad was more like the lecture machine, showing up to correct Darius's behavior from time to time, and it had built a hard place in Darius's heart. Made it harder to hear what his dad had to say, even if it was good advice. Not that he had any advice for Darius's actual problems. Not really. My girlfriend died in a fantasy world, and now I'm trying to get back there. What advice you have for that, Pops?