Chapter 11 can be read below the cut.
The past few days had gone surprisingly well. No one had run into any issues or caused any problems, and they’d managed to keep up a good walking pace. Of course, it helped that they hadn’t run into any people outside of the towns they’d briefly stopped in.
Lisel’s group sat in a lightly forested area south of the town of Yiling, in central Shensi province. The sun was shining and there were only a few clouds in the sky. There was a slight breeze, enough to keep the air from being still but not enough to annoy her.
“You’re in a surprisingly good mood today,” said Sirilrhis.
Lisel grinned. “Of course! We’re still behind schedule, but we haven’t run into any more weird monsters. That’s a good reason for a good mood in my book.”
Sirilrhis grimaced. “Now that you’ve said that, I’m afraid that something bad will happen today.”
Lisel raised an eyebrow. She was sure that her surprise showed on her face. “You’re a lot more superstitious than I thought you’d be, Sirilrhis,” she said.
“Has it taken you this long to notice?” said Sirilrhis.
“It’s not something I expected from a dragon,” said Lisel. “I thought a species that lives to be so old would know better than to believe in such things.”
“It’s because of my age that I know better than to dismiss superstitions,” Sirilrhis replied.
They left the spot a couple of minutes later. Absolutely nothing about this forest was threatening. There were plenty of birds singing in the trees and small animals running around on the ground. Occasionally they walked past a house or a farm, or even another person. Around noon, they stopped at a small clearing with a lake – or perhaps a very large pond – next to the road. Lisel normally wouldn’t have been happy about stopping too long for lunch, but the weather and situation were so nice that she agreed to it without a second thought.
As she ate her lunch, Lisel watched Kiyaska drag a large flat piece of wood – where did she even find it? – and set it up against a large rock in front of the trees. She spent some time drawing a bulls-eye on it – with some of Lisel’s chalk – then hiked back up the large hill to get her bow and arrows.
Hirúka, again in his tiger form, sat on a rock outcropping by the pond. When Lisel asked him what he was doing, he didn’t respond. He just kept staring into the water. Lisel assumed he was looking for fish, like cats often did.
Kiyaska’s arrow hit the bulls-eye. “Good job!” Lisel called.
Kiyaska turned back and smiled widely. “Thanks! But it’s not like it’s hard. I’m not that far away,” she said.
“Not hard?” said Lisel. “That’s easy to say when you’re experienced. It’s pretty hard for me.”
Sirilrhis looked over at her. “Oh? Doesn’t the military require you to learn how to use a bow?” he asked.
“Of course, but I didn’t specialize in it,” said Lisel. “Other people did. There’s an entire Archery Division. All I know are the basics.”
Sirilrhis leaned back on his elbows. “Now I’m interested. I want to see just how bad you are,” he said.
Lisel scowled, then sighed and got to her feet. “If you want to see that, I’ll show you,” he said. “Will you let me borrow your bow and arrows for a bit, Kiyaska?”
Kiyaska somehow managed to look confused, and Lisel briefly wondered if the girl had translated a word incorrectly in her head. “Okay,” she said.
A few minutes later, Lisel stood in Kiyaska’s spot, holding her compound bow. Sirilrhis stood next to her, stringing his own bow. “Is there any particular reason you’re using Kiyaska’s bow and not mine?” he asked.
Lisel eyed Sirilrhis’s longbow. “That thing is taller than I am,” she said. “There’s no way I can even draw that.”
Sirilrhis smirked and turned to face the target. “Alright then,” he said. “Shoot first.”
Lisel nocked an arrow to Kiyaska’s bow and fired. The arrow landed in the ground several feet in front of the target.
“You use a rifle,” said Sirilrhis. “You know you have to correct for the arrow dropping, just like with bullets.”
Lisel nocked another arrow. “It’s a little different with a rifle,” she said. “Bullets travel a lot faster.”
The next arrow flew into the trees. Lisel didn’t see it hit the tree, but heard the sound.
“Are you going to get that?” Kiyaska asked. “I didn’t buy that many arrows in Yiling.”
“I know,” said Lisel. She hoped her embarrassment wasn’t visible. “I’ll get it when I’m done.”
“You better!” said Kiyaska.
Lisel nocked a third arrow. This one hit the top of the target and fell into the grass on the other side of it.
“You almost had it!” Sirilrhis commented.
The fourth arrow actually hit the target – close to the edge, but it still hit the wood and didn’t fall out. Lisel turned to Sirilrhis and Kiyaska excitedly, forgetting for a moment to keep her cool. “See!” she said. “I’m not entirely incompetent.”
Kiyaska didn’t look impressed with her arms crossed and one side of her cheek sucked in. “Are you going to get my arrows now?” she asked.
“Um, yes,” said Lisel. As she walked to the edge of the forest, Kiyaska’s attention (and person) wandered over to the pond where Hirúka was. He was watching the fish intently, waving his tail back and forth like Kiyaska had seen housecats and some spirit souls do. In fact, he was so intently watching the fish that he jumped and let out a startled squeak when Kiyaska put her hand on his shoulder.
“What’re you dooooing?” she asked.
“Deciding whether or not fishing is a good idea,” said Hirúka.
Kiyaska looked down into the water. There were a couple of fish in the shadows cast by her and Hirúka. “Do you really want to go through the hassle of gutting and cleaning them? I sure don’t,” she said. “Though you are a tiger. I guess you could just eat them whole. And raw.”
Hirúka managed to look like he was frowning. “No, that’s gross,” he said.
He went back to staring at the fish. “You’re just like a housecat,” said Kiyaska.
“Kiyaska! Hirúka!” Lisel called. “Get over here and get your things packed! We’re leaving in a few minutes.”
“We’ll be right there!” Kiyaska yelled back. She slid down the rock outcropping to the ground and ran over to Lisel. Fortunately, Lisel had found all of her arrows, and she handed them and the compound bow back to Kiyaska.
Their conversations started out meaningless. Eventually, Sirilrhis mentioned his fire magic, and Lisel began to talk about her own elemental magic. That got Kiyaska’s attention.
“What’s elemental magic?” she asked.
“You haven’t heard of elemental magic?” said Sirilrhis.
“My people don’t even use regular magic, so no,” said Kiyaska.
Sirilrhis summoned a small fireball into his hand. “This is elemental magic,” he said. “It’s what all magic used to be and all that people could use, but that was back in the time of the gods. There are no people today who can properly control elemental magic.”
Kiyaska looked confused. “But you just…?”
Sirilrhis smiled and waved the fire into nonexistence. “Small fires like this are easy to control when you’re a dragon. But real elemental magic is mastery over an element. Only the gods possess that.”
Kiyaska frowned. “You mean one of your gods,” she said. “I thought they were all dead.”
“They are!” said Sirilrhis.
Kiyaska was silent for a moment. “So…there’s no one who can use elemental magic?” she asked.
“The Heavenly Emperors can,” said Lisel.
Kiyaska looked more confused. “But why? They’re Immortals, not gods.”
“Those are essentially the same thing,” said Sirilrhis.
Kiyaska put her hands to her temples. “So no one can use elemental magic unless they’re a god, which is also an Immortal, which is what the Heavenly Emperors are?”
“You have it,” said Sirilrhis.
“No, I don’t!” said Kiyaska. “I don’t understand why your language has such different words for the same thing.”
“There’s one major difference between an Immortal and a god,” said Sirilrhis. “Anyone can become an Immortal, but no one can just become a god.” He sighed upon seeing Kiyaska’s baffled expression. “You don’t understand, do you?”
“Of course not!” said Kiyaska indignantly. “You aren’t explaining everything!”
Sirilrhis started to speak, but Lisel cut him off. “All of us here in Meitsung grew up hearing stories about gods and Immortals and the elemental magic of the old days,” she said. “I’m pretty sure Kiyaska didn’t.”
Sirilrhis looked back at Kiyaska. “I actually don’t know much about your people,” he said.
“I don’t know much about yours, either,” said Kiyaska. “Imperials, I mean. Well, I don’t know much about dragons, either.”
“Kiyaska, how familiar are you with the myths and legends of Meitsung?” Sirilrhis asked in Zarya heul. “Not at all, I assume?”
Kiyaska stared at him, shocked, before bursting into laughter. “What?” Sirilrhis asked. “What is it?”
“You sound so old!” said Kiyaska between giggles. “Like one of our elders.”
Sirilrhis grinned. “I did learn Zarya heul close to one hundred years ago.”
Kiyaska frowned. “I don’t think we have any elders that old anymore, but…wait, what was I talking about…” she trailed off. “Your legends and stuff! Yeah, I don’t really know anything about any of your peoples’ cultures.”
“I suppose that means the Empire wasn’t able to impose much other than a curfew and military rule,” said Sirilrhis. “And the travel ban.”
“Yeah!” said Kiyaska. “They didn’t do anything to stop us from practicing our religion or culture or anything like that. I mean, the curfew is really annoying since there’s some things we can only do at night, and the travel ban is really bad because some of our homeland is outside the border the Imperials made up.”
“That’s surprising,” said Lisel. “I thought that the Empire annexing Zarya Wa resulted in more changes.”
“What does ‘annex’ mean?” Kiyaska asked.
“It’s a politically acceptable way of saying ‘invaded and occupied by a foreign country’,” Sirilrhis responded. “Historically, the Empire has exercised a lot more control over their occupied territories.”
Lisel narrowed her eyes at Sirilrhis. “What do you mean by ‘historically’?”
“When I was very young, the Meitsung Empire annexed parts of the lands that are now known as Ménghun and Méngwing Nang,” said Sirilrhis. “The peoples living there had their own unique cultures, religions, and languages. After annexation, they were entirely assimilated into Rénghan culture. There isn’t much of them left.”
“I didn’t realize that happened in your lifetime,” said Lisel. “I thought it was…I dunno, hundreds of years prior.”
Hirúka frowned. “That’s not what I learned,” he said. “That timeframe doesn’t seem right.”
“That’s what the Empire does,” said Sirilrhis. “They write down the version of history that they want to promote and destroy all evidence that says otherwise. And small, rural towns and villages get their news much later than the large cities, Hirúka, so that’s the only version of the story you’re familiar with.”
“That must be why they destroyed your library,” said Lisel.
Sirilrhis sighed. “Yep.”
After a few moments of silence, Lisel pulled out her map and scanned it. “There’s a town about twenty-five kilometers away,” she said. “We’ll get there at sunset.”
“That’s great!” said Hirúka. His enthusiasm sounded fake. “We can buy more food.”
Lisel realized that she didn’t know if they had enough money for that. She was about to say it out loud, but Sirilrhis was looking over her shoulder and Kiyaska was looking over her arm. It was something that could be said later.
“When will we get to Símaqágu?” Sirilrhis asked.
“It’ll take another couple of days,” replied Lisel.
“Be specific, please,” said Sirilrhis.
“Five at most,” said Lisel.
“Ah! We’re still behind your schedule,” said Sirilrhis in the annoying tone he hadn’t used for a while.
“Yeah, I know,” said Lisel, trying and failing to keep most of the irritation out of her voice. “We aren’t going to get caught up unless we walk a couple extra hours every day. You’re not suggesting we do that, are you?”
Sirilrhis pressed his lips together. “Our current pace is fine,” he said quickly. “There’s no need to hurry.” He paused. “By the way, have you heard from your Commander recently?”
Lisel folded up the map and shook her head. “No. Suli said there hasn’t been any important news to pass on.”
Sirilrhis raised an eyebrow. “And you believe her?”
“Of course!” said Lisel, outraged. “Why wouldn’t I?”
Sirilrhis shrugged. “It just seems odd that there’s nothing we need to know.”
“It’s a good thing,” said Lisel. “We don’t want to be finding things out last minute. That would make our lives much more difficult.”