“I think we’re lost,” Arturo Menchú said.
Mist gathered close, and the dirt road wound higher into the hills. The car had been a slick and shining black when it picked them up at the airport in Chengdu, but a long climb on the dusty road had glazed it a faint yellow. Menchú was speaking French; their driver spoke English, and the new language offered at least an impression of privacy.
Grace, beside him, did not look up from chapter four of Bleak House. “We’re not lost. We have a driver.”
“He might be lost.”
She turned a page. “He is not lost.”
Menchú crossed his arms, and looked out the window into the mist. “Do you know where we’re going?”
“Then how do you know he isn’t lost?”
“You just want to drive.”
“If I were driving, they would have to tell me where we were going.”
“You’ve never been to China before,” she observed. “Even if you knew where to go, would you know what it meant?”
“It would be better than not knowing.”
Grace declined to comment. The car jerked over rough earth—trenches left by larger tires. Menchú pondered time and distance. He wished they could have brought Sal or Liam—for expertise, but also to fill the silence. He even missed Asanti, in spite of everything. Grace kept to herself, she always did, ever since they’d first met in that rusted shipping container in Guatemala, back when Menchú was a young priest and a recent Society recruit, and Grace was, more or less, the same woman she was today. Grace felt the world deeply, in both senses of the word: She felt the world profoundly, and she felt it in subterranean chambers of her heart where no light fell, and invited others inside reluctantly, if at all. Grace came to you when she was ready. They trusted one another.
Or, they had. Before Grace left the team. He hadn’t told her about Hannah, about the monsters of his past rising up again; he hadn’t told any of them, but he should have told her. And she should have told him about her reasons for leaving. He knew better than to force the conversation. Grace felt hurt by the Society’s failure to cure her curse, and by Menchú himself, who had been a part of that, and who had betrayed Asanti. Healing those wounds required time, and prayer, and loving human effort—and there was only so much one could accomplish on a shuddering drive up a dirt road in China.
He prayed in silence.
“I miss the others,” he said, “but being on the road again, together, reminds me of old times. You remember Berlin? Córdoba? Delhi?” Car wheels. “Not that I could outrun that snake these days. Then again, at this age, I would know better than to touch that idol in the first place.”
Her lips approached a smile, but backed away as they neared it—that momentary amusement more likely a product of her reading than of his words. Then again, though he had never read Bleak House—he’d tried Dickens in translation as a young man and found him infuriating and counterrevolutionary—the title didn’t promise much humor.
Dickens didn’t matter. The smile might. If he had not imagined it.
Asanti, in a rare unguarded moment, once described to him the experience of growing old with a lover, how time chiseled and wore so slowly one could not hope to spot the difference between one day and the next, until a familiar look in an old eye, the angle at which she held her head gazing at a flower rolled back years to the blush of youth, and crushed you with the weight of intervening time. Menchú and Grace were friends, always, but her smile felt crueler even than that—thirty years together, and she looked so much the same.
The driver rounded a sharp bend in the hillside, and stopped.
The mist had closed in as they climbed, and through the gloom Menchú could only see the trucks parked beside them, their canvas-covered beds painted military drab. Those thick tires matched the grooves in the road. Beyond and ahead, vague shapes moved over gravel and scrub grass: round human figures, the jut of guns. A small army waited on the slope.
Grace closed her book, and slid it into her jacket pocket. “I told you we weren’t lost.”
“No chance to turn back now,” he said, eyeing the guns. “I suppose.”
“We shouldn’t be here in the first place.”
The driver opened Menchú’s door, then circled around to open Grace’s, only to find she had opened it herself already and stood in the mist, arms crossed, watching for the world’s next betrayal. “Wait here,” the driver said, and jogged off into the camp.
“What do you mean?” Menchú asked when he was out of earshot. “We shouldn’t be in China? I know we don’t usually get our jobs from the Chinese ambassador, but you seemed to think this was a good idea back in Rome.”
Grace brooded on the front of the car, feet on the bumper, like a gargoyle or an impractical hood ornament. “We need to be in China,” she said. “They don’t know what they’re doing. But we shouldn’t be here.”
Before he could ask her to clarify, three shapes emerged from the haze.
The man and the...