Chapter 1

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Zana couldn't say if she was getting slower with each day, or if the men were in an ever greater hurry, but the result was the same: she had trouble keeping up. Since Urko had attacked them in the ruined city, his lieutenant's promise hung over their heads like the storm clouds rolling over the horizon, a towering, black menace threatening to bear down on them at any moment. And like the silence before the storm, the tension had choked their usual banter; they were taking abandoned roads outside the Zone now, heads down, hearts pounding, but never making much headway from dusk to dawn, or at least that was how it seemed to her. Zana would have felt as if caught in a bad dream, if her body hadn't reminded her with constant aches and pains that this was all too real.

Like her feet. They weren't covered with blisters anymore, like in the beginning, but they felt swollen and tender all the time now. Everything felt swollen and tender, and she was always tired. And hungry, but mostly for things they neither had in their backpacks, nor were able to procure.

She could no longer hide from the fact that her body was changing to accommodate a baby. Even now, limping after her friends, Zana had to close her eyes for a moment at that thought. It was too early for her to show any outward signs yet, her belly flat as ever, and the presence of the humans kept Galen from getting close enough to her to notice the subtler changes, but she knew - and she had no idea how to break the news to the others.

She stopped to catch her breath. „Peet!"

The human turned around, saw how much she had fallen behind - again - and jogged back to her. Farther ahead, Galen and Alan turned, too, their postures indicating impatience.

Or perhaps that was just her imagination, fueled by her guilty conscience.

Peet's face didn't show impatience, at least, only worry. „You okay, Zana? I'm sorry - it's hard to keep up with those race horses."

She smiled weakly at his joke - of all of them, Peet was closest to a race horse; this had to be like an evening stroll to him. „I just..." her eyes fell on the little shrine at the side of the road.

„I haven't had an opportunity to make an offering to my parents ever since we had to run from the city." She gestured towards the stone column. Peet's gaze wandered to the shrine, then flicked back to her; his expression told her that he didn't believe for a moment that she had suddenly been overcome by filial piety, but the worry in his eyes only deepened.

„Yeah, sure, you do your thing." He waved in the shrine's general direction. „I'll wait." He retreated a few steps to give her privacy.

Zana shrugged off her backpack and bent down to retrieve the smudge sticks she had carried around the whole time - a farewell present from Lora; then she kept rummaging a bit longer than necessary, until the tears of shame were no longer pricking in the corners of her eyes. She selected three sticks, lit them, extinguished the flames, and waited a moment for the smoke to gather around her. The sweet, balsamic scent engulfed her like a soothing breeze; her shoulders relaxed in response to the familiar fragrance. Her breathing eased.

She would get through this.

Behind her, she heard Peet shifting on his feet, but when she glanced at him, she only saw curiosity in his eyes. She sent him a quick, apologetic smile. „I'll be finished in a moment."

Encouraged by her reaction, Peet came to her side. „So you have..." he made a show out of counting, „three parents?"

Zana's smile softened. „Some people also burn offerings for beloved mentors, or great teachers of their professional line. I like to burn one for the human that carried me out of our burning house when I was a baby. I wouldn't be here without him or her." She didn't add that most apes would have seen this as blasphemy; maybe Peet suspected as much, anyway.

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