Chapter 3 can be read below the cut.
One week later, everyone was back in the meeting room, crowded around the table. A large map of all the territories of the Meitsung Empire and East Meitsung lay on the table, the possible travel routes marked out in different colors of ink.
“This is the route you’ll be taking,” said Kiyohu. She tapped the city of Resuni and traced the road down to Méngruna. “Resuni to Méngruna. That’ll take you about ten days if you stay on the main road. Assuming, of course, that you manage to travel fifty kilometers per day.”
Kiyohu moved her finger downward. “You’ll be going into Símaqágu next, to Suqhúlnis. That’ll take nineteen days. From there, you’re going to the border. There’s a spot here on the Símaqágu-Shihun border that’s relatively insecure. This is the only place we’ve found – with the exception of some places on the Arquhin-Ménghun border, and I’m sure you don’t want to travel that far – where you’ll be able to get into the Meitsung Empire easily.”
“That’s a rather dangerous area,” Sirilrhis remarked.
“Yes. Imperial forces don’t dare go into that part of the forest,” said Kiyohu. “That’s why you’ll be able to cross undetected.”
“If we don’t die,” said Sirilrhis.
Kiyohu ignored the comment. “From Suqhúlnis to Nolinui will take around twenty-five days. And from Nolinui to the Capital, fifteen days. In total, it should take sixty-nine to seventy days to get there.”
“Should,” echoed Sirilrhis.
“Yes,” said Kiyohu. “Should. I know unexpected things come up. But it should take you two and a half months to get there, and two and a half to get back.”
Sirilrhis frowned. “We could get there in a matter of days. All you have to do is remove this spell on my arm. I could fly Lisel over. We get the book, I kill one man, and then we leave.”
“Not a chance,” said Kiyohu.
Sirilrhis rubbed his arm. He was actually starting to look offended. “Why not?” he demanded. “This is so inconvenient. I can’t switch back to my dragon form! And we can’t even take horses because of me and the tiger.”
Kiyohu continued looking down at the map. “We can’t be sure you won’t just run away the moment we take the spell off. I’ll have someone remove it once you get back here with the book.”
Sirilrhis hissed through his teeth. Hirúka jumped at the sound of it. Lisel wondered if it sounded too similar to a cat hissing.
“So…are we going to be communicating with each other at all?” Hirúka asked. “What if something really important comes up?”
Suli held up the slate in front of her. “We’ll be communicating with these.” She turned it around and pointed to the spell on the back. “Lisel and I have these two-way slates. I write a message on mine and it shows up on hers. It’s really convenient.”
“Wow, I’ve never seen those before,” said Hirúka.
“They’re essential when you have to deal with people who travel a lot,” said Lisel. “We use them in the military so we know what’s going on in other places.”
Kiyohu folded up the map and handed it to Lisel. “Now that your route’s been clarified, it’s time for you four to get going.”
Lisel and her group stand outside the southern wall of Resuni. “I wish you all good luck and a safe and swift trip,” said Kiyohu. “Come back in one piece.”
“I hope that’s the case,” said Lisel.
Suli smiled. “Be safe, Lisel! I’ll talk to you tonight.”
One side of Lisel’s mouth quirked up. “I will, I will,” she said.
Qursin had an anxious look on his face. “Don’t get into any trouble, Hirúka. Okay?” he said.
Hirúka grinned. “I’ll try my best not to.”
Petkal was speaking to Kiyaska in Zarya Heul. Lisel saw Kiyaska huff and cross her arms dramatically. She didn’t understand a single word of the language, but she assumed that Petkal was worried and Kiyaska was brushing off his concerns.
Lisel was the first to start walking down the road. Sirilrhis was quick to follow. Hirúka was next, waving to Qursin before he joined the two of them. Kiyaska spent another minute or two talking to Petkal, but ended up in the front of the group with how fast her pace was.
“Hey,” said Lisel. “Do you even know where you’re going, girl?”
“My name is Nin Tulka Sil Kiyaska,” said Kiyaska. “Not girl.”
“I don’t know how Zarya Tel names work,” said Lisel. “Which one of those do I use to refer to you?”
“All of them,” said Kiyaska. “But if you’re asking about my given name, it’s Kiyaska.”
In an attempt to break the silence that followed, Lisel turned to Hirúka. “Do you want to tell me the real reason you volunteered for this mission?” she asked. “I don’t doubt that you care for your uncle, but I don’t think you’re doing this out of any sense of filial piety, either.”
The look of shock on Hirúka’s face told Lisel that she hit close to home. “Huh?” he said. “Oh, yeah…”
“Yeah what?” said Lisel. “What’s your reason?”
Hirúka rubbed the back of his neck, looking sheepish. “Well…this is really the first time I’ve left Muhánquri – uh, my village. Other than, you know, going to other nearby villages, but I don’t think that counts. I’ve spent my whole life in one place.”
He paused to take a breath. “And then this opportunity came up! My uncle came back to Muhánquri and he had to go to Resuni for important Rebel business, and I wanted to come with him, you know, so I could see the city. I’d never been to a city before, so I thought it would be really exciting.”
“Really?” said Lisel. This already did not sound good.
Hirúka looked more excited now. “Yeah! And then this amazing opportunity to travel across East Meitsung and the Meitsung Empire comes up, and I just knew I’d have to take it. It’s like a dream come true.”
Lisel stared at him in disbelief. “Are you serious?” she said. “Are you taking this seriously? What the fuck? Are you aware that you could die!?”
Hirúka frowned at her like he didn’t understand. “Uh, yeah? Of course? But why would I let that stop me from going on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure?”
Lisel rubbed her face. “I…okay. Great. That’s great. Just what I need.” She turned to Kiyaska. “You’re not going to tell me that you also have some extremely bad reason for coming along, are you?”
Kiyaska shook her head. “Nope! I just wanna kill Imperials and free my homeland. And since this mission is going to accomplish at least one of those things, I intend to take it seriously.”
Lisel smiled. “Good girl.”
“The next major town is Tauruning,” said Lisel. “It’s thirty five kilometers away.”
It was close to five in the afternoon, and they’d been walking constantly since they left Resuni with only a few breaks. Lisel had the map out in front of her, and was glancing from it to the road in front of her to make sure she didn’t stumble on anything.
Hirúka stretched his arms up toward the sky. “Is that where we’ll be staying for the night?”
Lisel folded up the map. “If we even get there in time, which isn’t looking likely. We left too late in the day to get there before dark.” She scanned the landscape in front of them. “We’re going to be camping.”
“Did you really think we’d get to Tauruning today?” Sirilrhis asked. “Or was it that Commander who came up with those numbers? The timeline she gave us seems…well, ridiculous. Perhaps a group of soldiers could make it to the Capital in seventy days, but I doubt we can.”
Lisel sighed. “How negative. We’ll get there in time if we keep up a good pace and don’t get into trouble.”
Sirilrhis glanced back at Kiyaska and Hirúka – both of them lagging behind and talking to each other – before leaning in closer to talk to Lisel more quietly. “Surely you’ve noticed that there are two young people here who are entirely inexperienced when it comes to something such as traveling at a good pace,” he said.
Lisel rolled her eyes and pushed Sirilrhis’s face away. “Look, I’m the one in charge here. You and the other two are going to be following my pace and listening to my orders. Do you understand that?”
“You-” Sirilrhis started.
Lisel pointed right in his face. “Don’t even start.”
Sirilrhis looked annoyed, but shut his mouth. Lisel grinned. “Nothing more to say?” she said.
Sirilrhis pushed her hand back down. “Pointing is rude. Don’t do that.”
Lisel regarded him quizzically for a moment before turning back to yell at Hirúka and Kiyaska. “Hey! You two need to hurry up! Are you getting tired or something?”
Around eight o’clock that night, Lisel decided that they’d traveled far enough. They set up camp for the night in a clearing about ten meters from the road. It was hidden from the view of any late-night travelers by a thicket of trees. The ground was unfortunately still damp from the rain the previous day.
Hirúka set down a bundle of branches. “I don’t know how well these are going to burn,” he said.
Sirilrhis leaned over from the log he was sitting on and put his hand on the topmost branch. “That won’t be a problem,” he said. The branches made a crackling sound, and steam rose from them for a few moments before they caught on fire.
“Whoa!” said Hirúka.
“Wow! How did you do that?” Kiyaska asked.
Sirilrhis smiled. “All dragons have the ability to light things on fire,” he said.
Kiyaska looked fascinated. “Really? I’ve never met a dragon before,” she said.
“Are there no dragons in Zarya Wa?” Sirilrhis asked. “No traveling merchants? No scholars? No one at all?”
Kiyaska shook her head. “No. And I’m from Nin Tulka, the largest city. I never met any dragons there.”
Kiyaska and Sirilrhis continued talking on-and-off for another hour and a half. Hirúka occasionally joined in with a comment or two, but Lisel remained primarily silent. By nine thirty, the fire was low and Kiyaska and Hirúka were asleep. Sirilrhis still sat on the same log, but he was having a hard time keeping his eyes open and kept nodding off.
Lisel put a hand on his shoulder, startling him awake. “Get some sleep,” she said. “I’ll wake you up in a couple of hours so you can keep watch.”
Sirilrhis looked skeptical for a moment, but then he nodded and went over to the other two. Lisel let the fire die down to embers, glancing back at it occasionally to make sure that it didn’t spread. Every now and then, she got up and stretched, taking some time to walk around and observe the surrounding area (and stave off the feelings of sleepiness) before sitting back down again.
She decided it was time for a break halfway through the night. Lisel went to Sirilrhis and shook his shoulder. He started awake immediately and reached for her hand. “Your turn,” she said, brushing his hand away. “We’ll leave when the sun comes up.”
Lisel fell asleep quickly. In what felt like too little time, the sun was rising over the trees. She woke Hirúka and Kiyaska, who initially looked annoyed but changed her expression quickly once she saw Lisel. After a quick breakfast, they started getting the camp packed up.
Sirilrhis stretched his arms skyward. He was still sore from sitting in essentially the same position for four hours. “I need to walk around a little bit,” he said.
“Good. We’ve got a lot of walking to do today,” said Lisel.
“That’s not quite what I meant,” said Sirilrhis. “Before we leave.”
Lisel stares at him intently for almost a minute. “Okay,” she said. “Make it quick, and don’t go that far. I’ll come looking for you if you take too long.
After a couple of minutes, Sirilrhis decided to head back to the campsite. He took three steps forward before he heard a rustling noise off to his right. A small rat snake peeked out of the bushes, flicking its tongue toward him. It raised its head to look at him, rearing back as far as it could. Reptiles tended to be curious about dragons, even when the dragon was in a human form.
Sirilrhis knelt down and gently touched the snake on the head. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “You’re so cute.” He looked around. No one was close enough to hear what he just said.
The camp was all packed up when he got back. Lisel looked at him expectantly, arms crossed. Sirilrhis wondered if he came across as suspicious with his hands in his pockets.
“Are we ready to leave now?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Yep,” said Lisel. “Get your stuff and we’ll get going. It’s day 2 and we’re already behind schedule.”