Miranda stared at Jake in perplexity.
“Florida?” she said. “Where’s that?”
“Far to the East, and to the South,” Jake replied. “All the way to the other ocean.”
“Why on earth do you want to go there?”
Jake thought about the question as they walked the empty freeway. The idea of walking to Florida hadn’t crossed his mind until the moment he’d said it. He turned the idea over in his mind a few times as they walked.
He’d filled out in the decade since his twenty-first birthday. Towns were on a more substantial footing these days, and had discovered that travelers were a valuable source of news, and a dangerous source of plagues if you let them die of hunger on your doorstep. Most communities had returned to a staple diet, which could be produced cheaply enough to give away food to wanderers, so long as they were inclined to move on after a night or two.
“I want to see the Blue Lady,” Jake said at last.
Miranda, today’s walking companion along with Brood and Scowl — those were the names he’d given them, since they’d not spoken a word since he’d joined them — looked up at him with wide eyes.
“The Blue Lady? Do you think she’s real?”
“I don’t know,” Jake said. “That’s what I want to find out.”
Miranda shuddered. “If she’s real, then so is Bloody Mary. I sure wouldn’t want to meet her.”
“Maybe so. But if the Blue Lady is real, I think she’s worth the risk.”
“You want to join her army of angels?”
“If she’ll have me.”
Miranda’s eyes glowed. “Tell me the story about the Dungeons of Thoom. Where you met your first Dragonlord.”
Jake smiled. He’d been telling tales about his battles with the Dragonlords to pass the long hours walking with various road-companions, and his stories had been racing in all directions up and down the road, all by themselves. His meeting with Dragonlord Eris in the Dungeons of Thoom was one of the most popular. He spoke in a well-practiced voice, with broad gestures, and he could see that even Brood and Scowl were listening closely.
“I want to come with you to meet the Blue Lady!” Miranda squealed when he had finished. Brood and Scowl grew suddenly more surly.
Brothers. Cousins. Lovers. Trouble, whoever they were.
Jake stopped and looked Miranda straight in the eye. She gazed back, and a light was in her eyes. She was maybe eighteen, and pretty, and he was just over thirty. He’d been with other women, a few times, but in these days of irregular birth control and frequent maternity deaths, sex was complicated and more often than not ended with a lot of angry screaming. In his experience, the pleasure wasn’t worth the painful aftermath. After a decade on the road, he had no desire to settle down anywhere and raise a family. And the road was no place for a child, intended or otherwise.
He put a hand on her shoulder, to keep her from moving in and kissing him.
“Miranda, I wouldn’t dream of stopping you from searching for the Blue Lady. Maybe we’ll meet someday in her Garden. But you can’t come with me. This is a journey I have to make on my own.”
“But why? Why do you have to go alone?” Tears quivered in Miranda’s eyes.
“I have many… amends to make, before I meet the Blue Lady,” Jake said. It sounded pretty good, once he’d said it aloud.
“Oh, Jake!” The tears spilled over, but she was smiling. She shrugged off his hand, threw her arms around him, and held him tight. Brood began to scowl, and Scowl took a step toward him. Jake shook his head slightly, meeting Scowl’s eyes. Scowl stopped.
“Now,” Jake announced, gently disengaging from Miranda’s embrace, “I need to meditate, alone. Please, the three of you continue without me. Be mellow.” He gazed straight at Scowl as he said this, and Scowl nodded almost imperceptibly.
He sat on the hot concrete of the highway, and watched the three of them walk away until they vanished in the distant heat-haze.
No choice now. You don’t want to run into them again, not even by accident. Scowl will slip a knife between your ribs.
He thought about it. Why not give Florida a try? It would be something different.