Chapter 37

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            Rika reached up to scratch her head, only to get a light slap on the offending arm from Damek. His look was stern as he said “I told you to stop touching it. People will notice. And you might knock it off.”

            “I can’t help it. It’s really itchy,” Rika said, already regretting her agreement to wear the hat. Using one of the shirts out of her bag, and after shortening one of the horse’s tail, Rika now had a hat with bits of black hair sticking out the bottom of it. Her own hair was piled on top of her head. But that did nothing to stop the horsehair from itching both her scalp and the back of her neck where it touched her.

            “You’re the one who suggested the disguises,” Damek said, lifting both eyebrows that lay just underneath the makeshift turban they’d fashioned for him. Rika wished they’d had some dye. She still felt blue hair stood out too much, even having seen people with hair in every shade of the rainbow.

            Rika still felt that Elthia had gotten off the easiest, except for Ahisu, who’d refused to participate. Wearing an elaborate set of robes, with her hair swept up and held in place with several elaborately painted pins, she looked beautiful. Elthia had offered Rika first choice of her robes, but with their height difference, she’d been forced to stick to what she’d gotten out of Ahisu’s tower.

            Damek cleared his throat. “Right, so remember, if anyone asks-”

            Rika cut him off. “You and Elthia are a newly married couple, here to sell the horses that were part of her dowry. I’m Ahisu’s apprentice. We’re here looking for work. I think we’ve all got it.”

            He grunted. “We meet at the first square’s fountain. You just go straight down the street from the eastern gate. The fountain has a statue of a man on a rearing horse with a sword in it. We meet in front of there as soon as we can.”

            She rolled her eyes. “Yeah. We’ve got it. I don’t get why you’re so nervous about it. It’s not like any of us will be alone before we regroup.”

            “Because, stranger-girl, we’re heading into Cahnmur.” Seeing the look of confusion of her face, Damek elaborated. “Cahnmur is the capital of the Ojik province, the traditional domain of the Crown Prince. To put it another way, this is one of the areas that both Atelic and Zobah want most. Guess how many of their soldiers are likely to be here because of that.”

            Rika winced. “Sorry. I didn’t know and didn’t think...”

            He nodded. “That’s why I’m on edge. But you’re right. We’ve all got the story as good as we’re going to get it. We’ll head out first. You two follow afterwards. If we get through quick enough, we’ll probably check some ideas I have for where we can stay before meeting you. Don’t leave the fountain area, okay?”

            “Alright.”

            Damek smiled before glancing briefly at Ahisu. The mage was standing in the same spot he’d moved to when they’d turned down this narrow side trail: leaning against a boulder, eyes on the trees and rocks behind them.

            Without another word, Damek gathered the reins of one of the horses while Elthia did the same with several nervous glances at the animal. The pair of them walked down the overgrown path, disappearing in moments. Rika began the promised count to a hundred. They didn’t want whoever it was who was following them to notice them coming out of the side trail. Especially not after all the trouble they’d gone to disguise themselves.

            She waited a few moments after reaching the required number before turning to Ahisu. “Ready to go?”

            He shifted his staff into the spot he always kept it while walking then moved towards her. Shetton was nowhere to be seen, but she’d gotten used to the way he popped in and out of the area. She had the feeling that the demon bored easily, especially when they were only talking. As she led the way down the path, she idly wondered if demons could be considered as having ADD…

            By the time they’d reached the road, Rika’s mind had turned back to more important things. Like how they were going to find the mage to send her home without getting picked up by soldiers again. She’d gotten the feeling that unless things changed, Zobah was fine with leaving her relatively alone, tail notwithstanding. Atelic on the other hand… The one meeting she’d had with him was enough to convince her that she wanted to have as little to do with him as possible. Everything about him had been fake and just off.

            Their walk was done in silence, Rika lost in her thoughts so much that she didn’t start her usual chatter, and Ahisu because…well he was always quiet. Rika didn’t even realize that they hadn’t been talking to each other until she caught sight of the city, rising out of a hilltop just ahead of them.

            She stared for a moment, then grinned. Like the capital, it was surrounded by a thick wall, this time one of a light brown stone. It too had buildings spilling out of the walls, and what she guessed was a castle by the towers and extra wall at the heart of it. But even from the distance they were from it, she could tell it was smaller, with far more farm land surrounding it.

            The soldiers manning the gate they passed through were in red uniforms, relaxing Rika slightly. She was sure there were soldiers in or out of blue and yellow uniform waiting just inside the city to see who entered, but at least they weren’t in charge of granting entry. As she was getting used to, the men waved them through, their eyes already on the cart laden with barrels that was rumbling up behind them.

            She took a deep breath and walked under the archway. From here on out, they couldn’t afford to slip up.

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