Chapter 29 can be read below the cut.
Yérung was a small town along the main road in Shihun Province. It was entirely unremarkable, with its only notable feature being that it was close to a border checkpoint. The vast majority of the population of five thousand people were farmers who lead relatively simple lives.
They’d arrived in Yérung at sundown the previous night and spent the night in an inn. Lisel hadn’t been recognized at all, much to her relief. Her good mood had evaporated as soon as she woke up the next morning. It didn’t get any better two hours later, when everyone started getting packed up to leave.
“We’re about thirty kilometers from the border. We’ll be crossing today,” said Lisel. She picked up her pack and put it on, then looked at Nüwa. “You’re sure this is going to work, right?”
Nüwa nodded. “Absolutely.”
Lisel adjusted the straps of her pack. “And what are you going to do if it doesn’t?” she asked.
“I suppose we’ll just have to kill them,” said Nüwa cheerily.
Lisel was sure that her unhappiness showed on her face. “I don’t like that.”
Nüwa put her hands on her hips. “Do you have any other ideas?” she asked.
“Not really,” said Lisel.
Sirilrhis picked up his beizi. “What do these border checkpoints look like, anyway?” he asked.
Everyone looked at him. Kiyaska and Lisel were both visibly surprised. “Have you never seen one in your life? Ever?” said Lisel.
“I’m assuming that this particular checkpoint has only existed for the past two years, so no,” Sirilrhis responded.
Kiyaska looked astounded. “Seriously? There’s a whole bunch in Zarya Wa! They’ve been around for as long as I can remember.”
Lisel nodded. “They were put up soon after the invasion. I remember that happening,” she said.
Kiyaska looked at her in surprise. “What? You were there?”
“No, I had nothing to do with the invasion. That happened when I was a junior soldier in the Firearms Division. I read the reports when I was bored,” said Lisel.
“Are you allowed to do that?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Nope! It was definitely not allowed, but I did it anyway,” said Lisel. She turned and looked out the window. “We should get going now. I’d like to get to the border before noon. It could close if we take too long getting there.”
“What? That happens?” Hirúka asked.
“Of course it does,” said Lisel. “The Imperial military doesn’t want sleep-deprived soldiers to let threats into the Capital Region. And their budget definitely does not cover paying people to stay there all day.”
It was relatively quiet for two hours of walking. Nüwa and Sirilrhis were the only ones who had been chatting, and they were lagging a few meters behind the other three. Lisel, as usual, led the group.
Suddenly, Kiyaska looked forward to Lisel and sped up until she matched Lisel’s pace. “Lisel, can I ask you a few questions?” she asked.
Lisel was surprised. She’d never seen Kiyaska look this serious or use that tone of voice before. “Yes, of course,” she said.
“When you said you read the reports about the invasion in Zarya Wa…what did you read in them?” Kiyaska asked.
Lisel rubbed the back of her neck. “Honestly? I skimmed a lot of it. Most of the reports weren’t too interesting, so I didn’t read through them fully.”
“But do you remember what you read?” Kiyaska asked.
Lisel nodded. “Of course. Us elves can only lose memories due to head trauma. I remember everything I bothered to actually read in those reports.”
“So can you tell me what was in them?” asked Kiyaska.
“Most of it was boring stuff, like how many troops were going to be stationed at certain places, and how many horses, supplies, and weapons were going to be needed for the initial occupation. And then there was information about the lasting occupation – how much food would be necessary to ship up there to feed the soldiers? What about other supplies? Things like that.”
Kiyaska blinked. “How much food? I remember lots of Imperials talking about the food they got. They said it wasn’t that good. There were always a lot of them in restaurants and bars on certain nights.”
“What night?” Lisel asked.
“Runo suta,” said Kiyaska. “Uh, day seven. The end of the week. That night.”
Lisel smirked. “That’s the day we get paid. I don’t blame them for spending their money on restaurants and booze. The rations we had were pretty awful for everyone who wasn’t a Commander or higher-ranked soldier.”
“But it was terrible!!” Kiyaska protested. “They caused all sorts of trouble! They broke things and harassed people!”
Lisel nodded. “That sounds right. Once you get some booze into most of them, they turn into a bunch of mannerless, tactless, violent crybabies that do nothing but bring shame to the rest of their division and make their Commander look bad.” She looked back at Kiyaska. “I’m sure that wasn’t all you wanted to know, was it?”
Kiyaska shook her head. “No, it isn’t. I wanted to know…why did the Imperials invade Zarya Wa in the first place?” she asked.
Lisel tilted her head back and let out a breath. She looked up at the sky, away from Kiyaska. “That’s something that bothered me, too,” she said. “Of all the reports I read through, none of them mentioned anything about a reason. I even asked around when the invasion was going on. No one really understood why it had to happen.”
She looked back down at Kiyaska. “Zarya Wa has no rare resources. It has no essential trade routes. It can’t even be used as a buffer state against other countries – the only thing on the other side of Zarya Wa is more nomads. They’re only starting to unite now, for good reason.”
Kiyaska frowned. “So my homeland was invaded for no reason at all?” she asked.
Lisel shook her head. “I have no idea why it happened. It costs a lot of money to invade a country, so it only makes sense to do that if you’re getting a lot of money or resources out of it. But there’s nothing of value in Zarya Wa. Well, nothing that would be of value to the Meitsung Empire.”
“Wasn’t it invaded because the Heavenly Emperors wanted to show everyone how strong they were or something?” said Hirúka suddenly.
Lisel gave him a skeptical look. “Is that what you civvies came up with?” she said.
Hirúka swished his tail from side to side. “Well, there wasn’t any official, real reason for the invasion happening, so we just speculated among ourselves.”
Lisel snorted. “You know, we used to joke about all the nonsense things civvies came up with. Some of them were actually really funny-”
“Lisel, how much does the ‘official’ version of stories differ from what actually happened?” Sirilrhis asked.
“Quite a bit, actually,” said Lisel. “You’d be surprised by how different some events are when you compare them to the information that’s been publicly released.”
“What about when my family was killed?” Sirilrhis asked. “How was that reported?”
Lisel shrugged. “I don’t know. I never even heard about that until I’d been living in Resuni for a couple of months.”
“That’s irritating,” said Sirilrhis.
“Maybe it’ll be in the Imperial Library somewhere,” said Lisel. “Or in someone’s office.”
The four of them were nearing the border checkpoint, and no one had seen any other people. It was abnormal enough that Lisel had been fidgeting with the strap of her rifle as they walked, debating on whether or not she wanted to load it. Gunshots were loud and she wanted to avoid causing an incident that would be reported all over the Empire.
“Nüwa, get ready to put this plan of yours in action,” said Lisel.
“I have been ready for hours, Lisel,” said Nüwa. “There is no reason for you to worry.”
Lisel scowled. “I’m relying on you, Nüwa.”
Nüwa dropped her carefree demeanor for a more serious expression. “Very well, Lisel. I suppose that now is the time for me to tell everyone exactly what I am going to do. I will go up to the checkpoint, alone, and the four of you will stay behind until I come back for you. It should only take a few minutes.”
“Yes, you’ve told us that part,” Lisel interrupted. “But what are you going to do while we’re waiting?”
“I am getting to that,” said Nüwa with a wave of her hand. “I will speak with every single guard at the checkpoint and put spells on them that make them think I am the only one passing through. They will ignore the rest of you.”
Lisel looked skeptical. “You can do all of that with your Immortal magic?”
Nüwa nodded. “It’s very simple. They concentrate on me and ignore the rest of you.”
“On the off chance it doesn’t work, have you come up with an alternate plan?” Lisel asked.
“Absolutely,” said Nüwa. “I’ll kill everyone. I already told you that.”
“And I assume that when that happens, you’ll yell for help or something so we can assist you?” said Lisel.
“I suppose I could do that,” said Nüwa. She held up her hand, her palm facing them. “I want the four of you to stay here starting now. There are no soldiers in earshot. You won’t be noticed unless you do something especially loud.”
“We’ll just stand here and look around until you get back,” said Hirúka.
Lisel pointed at him in acknowledgment. “Yes. That’s absolutely what we’re going to do. No one is going to walk away or walk around or even talk too loudly.”
“I get it,” said Kiyaska with a sigh.
Nüwa smiled. “Good! I’ll be back soon.”
It took her about five minutes to get to the checkpoint. It was a gate entryway in the middle of a stone wall that she assumed extended along the entire border of the Capital Region. There were five soldiers: two on either side of the door, two on top of the wall, and one standing near a tree on the side of the road.
The soldiers noticed her immediately. Nüwa smiled and waved in a friendly manner as she approached. “Hello! I’m Nüwa. I’ll be crossing the border into the Capital Region today,” she said.
The soldiers looked confused. She supposed they weren’t used to being addressed in such a manner. The two soldiers at the door glanced at each other. “Uh, is it just you?” said the one on the right.
The other door soldier stiffened and adjusted his rifle strap. “Do you even have your identification with you?” he asked.
Nüwa pretended to think for a moment. “Hm…nope! And you don’t need to see it.”
There was so little of the spell in her words that the soldiers were merely confused. One of them on the wall knelt down so he could more easily talk to the door soldiers. “What’s going on here?” he asked.
Nüwa raised her voice, making sure that it reached all five of the soldiers. “All of you will forget this conversation. You saw me, a lady, present her papers and cross into the Capital Region. Everything was in order, nothing was suspicious, and no problems occurred.” She paused to take a breath. “Now, what do you have to say?”
“Of course, my lady!” said one of the gate soldiers. “Your identification is fine. You may pass.”
Nüwa clasped her hands together and giggled. “Thank you! Now, I have something I need to do urgently before I cross the border. I will be back in a few minutes.” She gave the soldiers a wave as she walked back to Lisel’s group.
“That was fast,” Lisel commented.
Nüwa gestured at them to follow her. “The effects of the spell won’t last for long.”
“You mean it’s going to wear off and they’ll figure out something weird happened?” Lisel asked. “Because I don’t like the sound of that.”
Nüwa rolled her eyes and sighed. “That will not happen. They won’t remember you crossing, just me. The four of you are essentially invisible right now. Please be quiet and follow me.”