Chapter 28 can be read below the cut.
Nüwa led Lisel and the others through Nolinui in the late morning. She’d been pointing out all the features of the city that she recognized from hundreds of years ago. Hirúka and Kiyaska were fascinated by absolutely everything. Lisel doubted they’d ever seen a city like it.
“Nolinui has changed greatly since I was last here,” said Nüwa. “So much of it is unfamiliar now.”
“I’ve never seen so many artificial rivers in one place!” said Kiyaska. “What are they called in your language, again?”
“Canals,” answered Sirilrhis.
Nüwa turned to them, smiling. “Indeed! When I was last here, the canals connected the rivers and the markets. They were used in the same way as roads, to transport goods to and from the city. It seems they’ve been expanded a lot.” She looked up at Sirilrhis. “Have you been here recently?”
Sirilrhis chuckled. “What does ‘recently’ look like to an Immortal?”
“Less than eighty years,” said Nüwa. “I used to frequent this place before I became a snake.”
“You did? Is there something you like – um, liked here?” said Sirilrhis.
Nüwa looked wistful. “Lots of things. I’ve always loved the canals and how they’re used to travel in this city. I like the rhythm of city life, how it feels like a pulse. Obviously, there weren’t this many people here eighty years ago, but even back then, it was so easy to disappear and become a person for a while.”
She looked up at Sirilrhis. “Do you understand? I wasn’t Nüwa the immortal, I was just Nüwa.”
Sirilrhis blinked. “I can’t say I identify with that. I’ve never been able to be just a person unless I’m around other dragons.”
“My apologies,” said Nüwa. “Sometimes I forget just who and what I’m talking to.”
“Have you not spoken with very many dragons?” Sirilrhis asked.
Nüwa shook her head. “Your people are an elusive bunch. You Mountain Dragons live solitary lives and the Islander Dragons all live on Mízharos. It’s as if you don’t want people to talk to you.”
“We do prefer to be left alone,” said Sirilrhis.
Nüwa crossed her arms. “I’ve never been to Mízharos.”
“Neither have I,” said Sirilrhis.
“You’ve never felt the urge to meet your Islander cousins?” Nüwa asked.
Sirilrhis crossed his arms. “I met some, once. I could hardly understand what they were saying. Their dialects are too far diverged from ours.” At this point, he realized just how far the two of them had wandered from the rest of the group. “We’ve lost Lisel,” he said as he looked around.
“I think it’s more likely that Lisel lost us,” said Nüwa. “Did she say where she was going?”
Sirilrhis shrugged, still keeping his arms crossed. “If she said anything, I didn’t hear it. Or I wasn’t paying attention.”
The two of them started heading back to the main part of the market. Sirilrhis cut through the crowd easily, as people automatically got out of his way. Nüwa followed closely behind, holding onto his beizi. When they reached the market, she let go. She tried to look around, but she was too short to see anything. “Sirilrhis, do you see them?” she asked.
“No,” Sirilrhis answered.
“Why don’t you change to your dragon form and fly over the city? You would probably find them quickly,” Nüwa suggested.
Sirilrhis looked aghast. “I don’t want to draw attention to myself like that!” he said.
“Do you happen to have a slate that links with Lisel’s?” Nüwa asked.
Sirilrhis shook his head. “No, the one she has is for official military business and it’s linked to someone in Re-someone back home.”
Nüwa sighed. “What a bummer! Do you have any other ways of contacting Lisel?”
“Aside from changing to my dragon form and causing a ruckus, no,” said Sirilrhis.
Sirilrhis and Nüwa stood there, watching people go by. “Nüwa,” Sirilrhis said quietly after a few moments. “Can you use some of your Immortal magic to locate Lisel for us?”
Nüwa bit her lip as she thought. “That will depend on what method we use to find her. Do you have a compass?” Sirilrhis pulled a compass out of his pocket and handed it to Nüwa. “I can use this for dowsing, but I need something of hers first.”
“You do?” asked Sirilrhis.
“Of course. Do you have anything that belongs to Lisel? Anything at all?” Nüwa asked.
Sirilrhis patted his pockets and took off his pack to look through it. He pulled out a hairpin, one of the plain black ones that Lisel used to keep her hair pinned back. “I also have the teacup she uses when we have tea, but I think this is less cumbersome,” he said.
Nüwa held the open compass in her right hand and the hairpin in her left. She muttered a few unintelligible words under her breath. Sirilrhis winced. A few people nearby apparently felt the magic, as they looked around in confusion.
The compass needle spun around and pointed west. Nüwa smiled widely. “There we go! That wasn’t difficult at all.”
The two of them followed the compass through the market. It led them in a roughly northwestern direction, out of the market and into a less busy part of the city. They found the other three next to a building in front of a canal. It was full of water, but there wasn’t anyone in it at the moment; there aren’t even any empty boats. People were few and far between in this area.
Lisel, as usual, was looking at the map in her hands. She looked up at them as they approached, frowning. “About time for you to join us,” she said irritably.
“Did you get lost?” Hirúka asked.
Nüwa handed Sirilrhis’s compass back to him. “We were talking and somehow managed to lose you,” said Sirilrhis. He quickly pocketed the compass.
“He wasn’t paying any attention to his surroundings,” corrected Nüwa. “Lisel, do you happen to have an extra slate?”
Lisel stared at her blankly. “No. Why do you ask?”
Nüwa held up her hand, looked at it, and realized that she just handed the compass back to Sirilrhis. She looked back to Lisel. “We have no way of getting in contact with you if we get split up,” she said.
Lisel continued staring blankly. “So…how did you manage to find me? Did you just walk around all over the place?”
Nüwa held up Lisel’s hairpin. “Why do you have that?” Lisel asked, alarmed.
Nüwa shrugged. “Sirilrhis had it. We used it to find you.”
Lisel took back the hairpin. She looked nervous. “Is this Immortal magic, or…?”
“Yes,” said Nüwa. “What I used is a dowsing spell. The only people capable of using any sort of tracking spells are other Immortals.”
Lisel sighed. “Well, now I feel slightly better knowing that no one in the Imperial military knows where I am.”
Hirúka looked curious. “Are you sure about that? There aren’t any Immortals in the Imperial military? Really?”
“Becoming an Immortal isn’t allowed anywhere in the Empire. That includes the military,” said Lisel.
Hirúka looked surprised. “Really? That seems like something the Imperials would want. Immortal soldiers and such.”
Lisel scoffed. “You know, I did ask about that. And you know what the answer was? That once a soldier became an Immortal, they wouldn’t care about being a soldier anymore. All wars would become petty annoyances and they would no longer care about ‘meddling in the affairs of mortals’, so they’d just get up and leave.”
“Whoever told you that wasn’t wrong,” said Nüwa. “That is the general attitude most Immortals have toward everything, myself included.”
Sirilrhis nodded in agreement. “Anyway,” Lisel continued. “The only Immortals that exist in the present day are the Heavenly Emperors, Nüwa, and probably a few more that are hiding very well. Since we don’t have to worry about being tracked, let’s get going.”
Hirúka looked upset. “We’re leaving already?”
“Yes. Of course,” said Lisel. “Is that a problem for you, Hirúka?”
Hirúka shifted from foot to foot, looking ashamed of himself. “I just…I just wanted to see a bit more of the city. You know, because it’s cool! I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Lisel looked to Kiyaska. “I want to look around, too,” said Kiyaska.
Lisel sighed. “No. I don’t want to get split up again.”
Neither Hirúka nor Kiyaska were pleased to hear this. “Oh, come on!” said Hirúka. “We don’t even have to split up. We can just walk around for a while. As a group!”
“Yeah!” said Kiyaska. “It would totally work!”
“I could lead them around,” said Nüwa. “If Sirilrhis gives me his compass and you let me hold on to your hairpin a little while longer, I’ll be able to find you very easily.”
Lisel looked back to Kiyaska and Hirúka. “You really want to do this, huh?”
“Yes,” said Kiyaska.
“Yeah,” said Hirúka.
Lisel reached into her pocket and handed the hairpin to Nüwa. “Fine, then. Nüwa, you can take the two of them sightseeing. Sirilrhis and I will stay here and…I don’t even know. Figure out our next moves, I guess.”
Nüwa took the hairpin from Lisel. “We won’t take very long,” she said.
“You better be telling the truth,” said Lisel warily.
“I am,” said Nüwa.
Sirilrhis handed Nüwa the compass. She left with Kiyaska and Hirúka, heading toward the main part of the city. Lisel and Sirilrhis watched them until they turned the corner, then looked at each other.
“What are you going to do now?” Sirilrhis asked. “We already know our route.”
“I know that,” said Lisel. “But I’m having second thoughts.”
Sirilrhis raised his eyebrows, looking surprised. “Really? You don’t want to follow the original route anymore?”
Lisel shook her head. “Right now, our route has us going through Tsengtu. It used to be a major town, but it isn’t anymore. A new road was built that doesn’t go through the mountains, and most people use that one now.”
Sirilrhis crossed his arms as Lisel pulled out her map. “I thought you were going to point out that Tsengtu is where those Rebels were captured and executed,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s also a problem,” said Lisel. She folded her map until only the Tengming Capital Region and Shihun Province were visible, and pointed out a few roads. “See, this road bypasses Tsengtu entirely. We’d go west at Yérung and cross the border there instead of going north at Tsengtu and west through South Kelutshélin.”
Sirilrhis leaned forward to look at the map and frowned. “That definitely looks like the better option,” he said. “Why would the original route go through Tsengtu in the first place? It looks like it’d be close to an extra hundred kilometers of travel.”
Lisel shook her head. “No idea. I wish I’d paid more attention to this in the first place. This new road is less traveled. We’ll have a lot less trouble on it than we would going through Tsengtu.”
“How do you plan on getting past the border checkpoints?” Sirilrhis asked.
Lisel started folding up the map. “I was hoping Nüwa could help with that,” she said.
Sirilrhis frowned. “Really? What were you planning on doing before we met Nüwa?”
Lisel finished putting the map away. “Sneaking across. We’ll still do that if Nüwa can’t help us.”