Chapter 18 can be read below the cut.
Hirúka sat at the top of a hill on the outskirts of the town. It overlooked the forested valley that lay alongside the road. I don’t know why I didn’t notice it when we first got to this province. The air smells so familiar, yet there’s some kind of difference I can’t put my finger on. Maybe it’s the trees? They are different from the ones around Muhánquri.
It took him a moment to come back to reality and realize that there was someone yelling his name, and that someone was Lisel. She, Kiyaska, and Sirilrhis were walking toward him. Lisel normally looked displeased, but now she actually looked somewhat angry.
“Uh…yeah? What is it?” Hirúka asked once they were in earshot.
“We were looking all over the place for you. Don’t just leave and tell no one where you’re gong,” said Lisel. “What were you even thinking?”
Hirúka got to his feet. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d get done selling those weapons so quickly.”
“It’s been two hours,” said Lisel. “And I specifically told you to stay with Kiyaska.”
Hirúka looked embarrassed. “It has? I didn’t think it was that long. I really lost track of time that badly?”
“You really did,” said Lisel. “Get your things together. We’re going.”
It didn’t take long for Hirúka to get everything packed up. Once they started walking, he and Kiyaska trailed behind Lisel and Sirilrhis as usual. Kiyaska, jittery, looked up at him with a smile.
“Me and Sirilrhis got banned from that town,” she whispered excitedly.
Hirúka looked bewildered. “What did you do?” he asked.
Kiyaska smiled. “A man robbed me and…well, I taught him a lesson.”
Hirúka frowned. “Did you kill him, Kiyaska?”
“Huh?” said Kiyaska. She now looking confused. “No, I just beat him up and took my purse back. The guard who was watching thought it was pretty bad, I guess.”
“I get the feeling you’re not telling me something,” said Hirúka.
Kiyaska smiled and turned away. “Explaining everything in detail would take way too long. Besides, if I only give you a rough overview, you can fill in the details yourself and make me into whatever kind of super badass you prefer.”
Hirúka frowned. “That’s not really something I want to do,” he said.
Kiyaska continued needling him as they walked. Their conversation eventually turned to Hirúka’s life in Símaqágu. She was fascinated by everything she heard.
“I’m still wondering if we’ll run into someone I know,” said Hirúka.
Lisel turned back to glance at him. “Do you even know anyone in Símaqágu Province? I thought you’d never left your village before.”
“Yeah, but I have family members and friends who travel to other places,” said Hirúka. “Or they live in some other place most of the time and just come back to Muhánquri to visit.”
“Can I ask you a quick question about your name?” Kiyaska asked.
“Yeah?” said Hirúka.
“You know how the first part of my name is Nin Tulka?” said Kiyaska. “That’s the city where I’m from.”
“Is your name the same way?” Kiyaska asked. “Muhánquri is the town you’re from, right?”
“It’s actually my clan,” said Hirúka. “Originally, we were the only ones who lived in that area, so everyone called it ‘Muhánquri’s village’. And then after a while they just started saying ‘Muhánquri’. At least, that’s what my parents told me. So Muhánquri is my clan name and the name of my village.”
“Is that normal for tigers?” Kiyaska asked.
“Clan name or village names?” said Hirúka.
“Um…either, I guess,” said Kiyaska.
“Well!” Hirúka started. “I think…uh…well, I have no idea, actually. I only know the full names of people in my clan. Everyone else…I only know their given names. Nothing else.”
“You don’t pay all that much attention to things, do you,” said Kiyaska. Hirúka could tell that she was trying to mask the disbelief in her voice. It wasn’t working.
“I guess I didn’t,” said Hirúka. “It’s kind of embarrassing, isn’t it?”
Suqhúlnis was the largest and most important city in Símaqágu, and it was populated almost entirely by tigers. There was a significant population of southern elves, but other elves and humans were few and far between. Like most cities, there were only a few people milling about in the early morning, mostly shopkeepers headed to their shops and guards changing their shifts.
Hirúka had managed to sneak out of the inn without waking any of the others. It was nice to walk around by himself at his own pace without Lisel bothering him to hurry up. It was also nice to be surrounded by his own people and hear his own language spoken everywhere.
His happy demeanor was noted as he walked closer to a guard, who angled his staff so that it blocked Hirúka’s path. “I haven’t seen you around here before, son,” said the guard. “What are you doing?”
Confused, Hirúka pointed to his face. “Do I look suspicious?” he asked.
The guard frowned. “Oh, you’re from the south. Is this your first time in a city?”
“Yes!” said Hirúka. “Well, not really. I was in Resuni for a couple of months. But I’ve never been to a city in Símaqágu before. I’ve never seen anything like this.”
The guard retracted his staff and set it between his own feet. “Sure is different, isn’t it? Those humans and elves really do value different styles in their buildings,” he said.
“I know!” said Hirúka excitedly. “I’ve never seen anything like the architecture here, but it’s more similar to what there was in my village than anything in the human and elf-majority provinces.” He took a breath and looked around. “I haven’t been able to talk to people in Mayu Lháni for more than half a year. This is great!”
“Are you a merchant?” the guard asked. “Why did you spend so much time outside of our homeland when it seems like you don’t want to?”
Hirúka opened his mouth and immediately realized that telling the truth would be a very bad idea. “I…uh…my uncle is a merchant. I was accompanying him when he was traveling to the northern provinces,” he said.
“Was?” the guard questioned. “It’s not something you’re still doing?”
“N-no!” said Hirúka. “Right now, I’m traveling with some of my friends. We wanted to go on a tour of East Meitsung before we went on to our careers, so we’re traveling. One last vacation, you know.”
“Huh. I didn’t know country folk did gap years,” said the guard.
“Yeah! It’s not very common, but it happens,” said Hirúka.
The guard chuckled. “That’s not something I expected. Well then! Welcome to Suqhúlnis. I won’t keep you from whatever it is you want to do today.”
The guard stood aside, still smiling. Hirúka walked past and gave a small wave to the guard. Once he passed, he turned away and grimaced. Even though they were still in East Meitsung and everyone here could be safely assumed to be a Rebel or supporting the Rebels, he still didn’t think it would be good to give himself away. At the very least, Lisel wouldn’t be happy about it.
Kiyaska opened the window and looked around. “I guess he went out for a walk,” she said.
Lisel sighed in frustration. “Why would he just leave like that after I’ve repeatedly told him he shouldn’t?”
Sirilrhis shrugged. He seemed to be fairly unconcerned. “Does it matter right now?”
“I was hoping we’d be able to leave in an hour or so,” Lisel grumbled. “That’s not going to happen if we have to look all over Suqhúlnis for him. This city is huge.”
Kiyaska threw her hands up in the air, looking excited. “Yes! That means I have time to eat breakfast and actually relax!” She brought her hands back down, her fists clenched in front of her. “And maybe I’ll have time to get a nice souvenir, too.”
“No, no, no!” said Lisel. “You’re not buying anything we don’t need! I don’t need you getting into any more fights, either. I don’t trust my ability to talk my way out of things if you get us in trouble.”
“But Lisel, I didn’t start that fight. I just ended it,” said Kiyaska. She was doing her best to look innocent.
“That’s a good thing, but it’s not the way everyone else is going to see it,” said Lisel. She pulled out her slate and chalk, and looked at the short stubs of chalk that remained. “Actually, could you two go to the market and get some more chalk? I’m almost out. Bring back Hirúka if you see him, too. Otherwise, I think we’ll just leave without him.”
“Don’t you think that’s the slightest bit cruel?” Sirilrhis questioned.
Lisel scoffed. “Tch! If he’s going to go out and not even have the decency to leave a fucking note, then we don’t need to be nice, either.” She sat down cross-legged on the mattress and looked back up at the two of them. “I’ll get everything packed while you’re gone. But I’m going to try and contact Suli first.”
“You talked to them last night,” said Sirilrhis. “Is something wrong?”
“I think so,” said Lisel. “Something seemed a little strange. Maybe I’ll be able to get some answers out of Suli if I talk to her on her own.”
“What are you suspecting?” Sirilrhis asked.
Lisel shook her head. “I suspect there’s something I’m not being told, but suspicions are worthless if I don’t have any data to back them up.”
Sirilrhis and Kiyaska were just standing in front of the door, looking down at her. Lisel frowned and waved at them. “What are you two waiting for? I need more chalk! Go get it.”
Once Kiyaska shut the door, Lisel sighed and looked down at the slate. The only message that remained was the last one from the previous night – the one she’d sent to Suli.
Contact me tomorrow morning around seven thirty. Do not tell anyone else about this. – Lisel