Chapter 14 can be read below the cut.
Sirilrhis jumped up to his feet, sopping wet and covered in pieces of moss and other plants. “LEECHES!” he screeched. “THERE ARE LEECHES IN THE WATER!”
Lisel and Kiyaska came running immediately; Lisel with her rifle in her hands and Kiyaska brandishing her hunting knife in front of her. The woman put up a hand and planted the base of her staff onto the ground. “Stop! I have no intention of attacking you,” she said.
Sirilrhis glared down at her, still dripping water and moss. “No intention of attacking?” he said. “What do you call what you just did to me, then?”
“I live in this swamp,” said the woman. “When I first saw you, I assumed you were poachers. But now that I see this Rebel soldier, I’m assuming you’re on some sort of important mission.”
Lisel kept her hands on her rifle. “You’re conveniently friendly. Do you live around here?” she asked.
“Yes,” said the woman. “I can show you the location of my house, if you’d like.”
“We’re in a hurry. That won’t be necess-” Lisel started.
“Auntie, do you have clean water at your house?” Sirilrhis interrupted. “I need to wash…everything. Including myself.”
The woman smiled and nodded. “Of course. Let me show you the way.”
“Hold on,” said Lisel. “I’m not willing to trust you so quickly. You’re the one who was watching us last night, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” said the woman without hesitation. “As I said, I live around here. I know this area. I heard and saw something unfamiliar, so I went to see what it was.”
The four of them followed the woman down the wooden bridge for about one hundred meters. She veered sharply to the left and led them down a barely-visible path until they reached a small clearing in the trees. This area was much less marshy, and a small house backed up to a small river on the other side of the clearing. The rest of the clearing was taken up by crops in various stages of growth and an orange tree next to the house.
“You live right next to a river. That’s convenient,” said Lisel.
The woman pointed with her hand toward the river and looked up at Sirilrhis. “I use the river for washing. The water’s clean, but it’s cold-”
Sirilrhis made a beeline for the river. The woman watched him for a moment, then turned to look at the others. “Would you three like to come in for some tea?” she asked.
“You aren’t going to poison us, are you?” Lisel asked.
The woman looked taken aback. “Why would I poison you?” she said.
“Because you’re probably one of those cannibals Lisel was talking about earlier!” said Kiyaska.
“I never should have mentioned that,” said Lisel. “Hold on. What’s your name?”
“Nelunna,” the woman answered.
A couple of minutes later, the four of them sat around a tiny table in Nelunna’s kitchen. Lisel and Nelunna were the only ones who had chairs. Kiyaska and Hirúka sat on some hastily-stacked boxes.
Kiyaska sniffed her tea suspiciously, then carefully licked it. “Wow!” she said, looking surprised. “This is actually good!”
Hirúka took a sip of his tea. “You’re right!” he said.
Lisel stared down at her tea before taking a tentative sip of it. “Well, the both of you are right,” she said. “This tea is leagues better than anything Sirilrhis has ever made. It’s a good thing he isn’t here to hear this conversation.” She turned her attention back to Nelunna. “Nelunna, are you the only one who lives in this area?”
Nelunna set her teacup down. “In this area of the swamp? Yes. But there are also many villages along the road you came from.”
“About that,” said Lisel. She pulled out her map and spread it out on the table. Nelunna leaned forward to look at it. “There isn’t anything like that on this map of mine. I realized as we’ve been traveling that the cartographer left out a lot of details. Do you know this area well?”
Nelunna nodded. “I’ve lived in this district my whole life.”
Lisel looked hopeful. “So you can tell me where the important things are and what we need to avoid?” she asked.
“I’ll mark them on your map for you. Let me find a quill and ink,” said Nelunna.
Nelunna disappeared into the other room. A couple of seconds later, Sirilrhis opened the kitchen door. “I’m sorry that took so long,” he said. He looked at the table, then around the room. “Is there no place for me here?”
“No,” said Lisel.
Nelunna came back out of the other room, holding a quill and inkwell in one hand. As she tried to close the door, two cats ran out – one black, and one orange tabby. “There are – oh, no! You shouldn’t be out here!” said Nelunna.
The black cat jumped up onto the table in front of Hirúka and leaned forward to sniff him. The other cat walked over to Sirilrhis and sniffed his feet. He knelt down to pet it.
“Feel free to push them away if they’re being too nosy,” said Nelunna.
Sirilrhis smiled. The orange cat leaned into his hand and purred. “No, it’s okay. I haven’t had any cats in years,” he said.
The black cat curled up in Hirúka’s lap, also purring. Nelunna returned her attention to the map. “May I ask you a question, Lisel?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Lisel.
“I see that you’ve marked a route and that you’re sticking to it. But why are you traveling into the Empire? You’re the only one who’s a soldier. What sort of military business could this possibly be?” asked Nelunna.
Lisel took a sip of her tea before responding. “It is. I can’t say what we’re doing.”
“Ah,” said Nelunna. “A top secret mission.”
“Yep. Top secret,” said Lisel.
Nelunna went back to marking up the map. “So, did you ever think I was a cannibal? Where did you even manage to come up with the idea?”
“In the military,” said Lisel. “We trade stories and they get exaggerated. A lot. The rural people living in the forests of Shensi and Símaqágu are all said to be inbred, uneducated, and excessively hostile to outsiders unless the goal is to befriend and eventually eat them.”
“Goodness,” said Nelunna. “I knew our reputation was bad, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“I don’t think it actually is,” said Lisel. “People mostly said that sort of thing to bully the soldiers who came from this area.”
“So do you actually eat people?” Kiyaska asked.
“No. I don’t think there are any groups of people who regularly do that,” answered Nelunna.
Kiyaska frowned, looking disappointed. “Oh,” she said.
“Regularly?” questioned Lisel.
Nelunna set down her quill. “I’ve finished marking down everything I know about on your map, Lisel,” she said.
Lisel immediately forgot her minor concern. “Thank you very much,” she said.
Sirilrhis, still playing with the orange cat, looked up at Nelunna. “If you don’t mind, Nelunna, I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“And what would those questions be, Mr. Dragon?” Nelunna asked.
Sirilrhis continued harassing the cat. “I’m Sirilrhis. Now, there are clusters of villages in the swamp, but none around here – is that right?”
“Yes,” said Nelunna.
Sirilrhis scratched his chin. The orange cat sat in his lap with its eyes closed, purring, and he gently patted its head. “How long has this house been here?” he asked.
“About thirty years,” said Nelunna.
“When did you move in?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Thirty years ago. I’m the one who built it,” Nelunna answered.
“You deliberately chose to live in the middle of nowhere thirty years ago?” said Sirilrhis.
Nelunna’s expression darkened. “Yes,” she said. “There’s a long story behind that. I’m not sure you four would like to stick around long enough to let me tell it.” She paused, and then started frowning. “You’re…you’re not accusing me of being a cannibal, are you?”
Sirilrhis looked startled. “What? No, I wasn’t-”
Nelunna laughed. “Then what are you trying to say? Come on, get to the point.”
“I’m not accusing you of anything!” said Sirilrhis. “I’m just curious about your living situation. Most humans are not hermits.”
Nelunna nodded, still smiling. “That is true. But as I said, it’s a long story and I’m sure you four would like to continue on your journey soon. I wouldn’t want to hold you up.”
Lisel stood up, her palms flat against the table. “That’s true. We do need to get going. Don’t you agree, Sirilrhis?” she said.
“No,” Sirilrhis grumbled under his breath.
A couple of minutes later, everyone stood outside the house in the garden area. Lisel held the map in her hands. “This road goes through what passes as a town in this swamp,” said Nelunna. “It’s the largest settlement around, so you’ll be able to buy food and other things there. I don’t think there’s any sort of lodging, so you’ll have to find some other place to sleep if you plan on staying the night. And if you want to get to Súqhúlnis faster, there’s a quicker route than the main road.”
“There is?” asked Lisel.
“It’s one day faster if you’re quick,” said Nelunna.
“We need all the shortcuts we can get,” said Lisel. “We’re definitely taking it.”
“Is there anything else we need to know?” Sirilrhis asked.
Nelunna shook her head. “I don’t think so. Most of my knowledge is limited to this swamp.”
As Nelunna led them back to the wooden bridge, Sirilrhis chatted with her about the local flora and fauna. Lisel saw Nelunna point some things out, but she didn’t bother paying attention. The names of local plants definitely would not stick in her mind.
“I hope you’re successful in your top-secret mission, whatever it is,” said Nelunna once they got to the bridge. She waved at them as they set off.
“Are we going to take that shortcut?” Sirilrhis asked when Nelunna was out of earshot.
“Of course we are!” said Lisel. “What makes you think I want this journey to last longer than it has to?”
Sirilrhis looked uneasy, and that made Lisel immediately suspicious. “What is it? Do you know something about that part of Símaqágu? Is it like the forest in central Shensi? Is it full of monsters? Hostile spirits? Spit it out!” she said.
Sirilrhis scratched his face. “I have no idea,” he admitted. “I’ve spent most of my life in north and central Meitsung. This is unfamiliar territory for me.”
Lisel frowned. “You’re really saying that you’re over six hundred years old and you haven’t managed to travel to every single province in this countr – both countries?”
“Yes,” said Sirilrhis.
“Um,” said Hirúka. “Since we’ll be going into tiger territory, I’ll probably be able to be helpful there.”
Sirilrhis looked dubious. “I thought you said you’d never left your village before.”
“Yeah, but I’m also a tiger!” said Hirúka. “Other tigers aren’t always so welcoming to outsiders and non-tigers. Also, there are tons of spirits here that are different from the ones that live in the human and elf-majority provinces. I know how to deal with them.”
“That sounds troublesome,” said Lisel.
“It’s really not!” said Hirúka in a tone that Lisel assumed was him trying to be reassuring. “I’m happy to help.”
“I hope you’re telling the truth,” Lisel said with a sigh.
“I am!” said Hirúka happily. “This is going to be so great!”