Chapter 38

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            Standing in front of the fountain wasn’t a bad spot to meet, Rika decided. The day was already heating up, enough that the spray of the water was a relief. The cobbled area surrounding the fountain was covered in dozens of vendors’ awnings, carts, and tents. She’d seen everything from apples to woven leather bracelets being hawked to the crowds that filled the area.

            Rika turned back to look at Ahisu, who was still scanning the area, his expression blank. Thinking about it, she decided that standing silently there was going to be far stranger and more obvious than if they were relaxed and chatting. So she reached out and poked the mage’s arm.

            He jerked around to stare at her. She flashed him a smile. “So what spell are you going to teach me next? I’m already good at the messenger one, especially since I figured out how to fold the paper.”

            The look he gave her was a question on what she was doing. Trying to imitate him, she gave him a severe look, glanced around at the people passing them by, then held his gaze again. He followed her eyes, taking in the crowds. He frowned momentarily then said “Defensive.”

            That got Rika’s attention. “Really?” she said, all thoughts about blending in blowing out of her head under the force of her excitement. “Like how to make shields so I can deflect blows and stuff?”

            He nodded.

            She grinned. “Does that mean you’ll teach me offensive magic soon too? I really want to learn how to fight properly. I mean, it’s only a matter of time before I get attacked by a mage, so I’d better know how to defend myself.”

            “I’d ask against what, but I already know, you terrible woman,” said a familiar voice from behind her.

            Rika turned and flashed her smile at Elthia and Damek. It faded slightly when she saw the expressions on their faces. “What-”

            The faint headshake Damek gave her killed the rest of her words. “It’s been a while you two. Why don’t you come home with us? We’ll have dinner together and catch up.”

            Taking her cue from him, Rika forced her lips to curve upwards and nodded. “That sounds wonderful. We just arrived and were wondering where we should stay. We don’t know the city at all well.”

            Damek’s laugh sounded fake, making Rika hope no one else noticed. “Follow us. We have room enough for both of you and we’ll be happy to put you up as long as you’re here for. But let’s not start talking here, or we won’t get back until dark. We’ll sit, eat, drink, and talk like proper, civilized folk.”

            “Thank you!” Rika said as she followed Damek, glancing behind her once to make sure Ahisu was coming as well. Through the crowds they shoved, until they came to a street going right. They followed that for a few minutes, none of them saying anything, before taking another right turn.

            The area they were in was mostly houses, only a handful of small shops thrown in every few buildings. Rika had to wonder where they were going. She hoped that wherever it was, it’d be safe to stop their respective acts. And even take off their disguises. The sweat caused by the hot sun was making her itch worse than ever, making her wish she could just scalp herself. That had to be better than the constant prickly feeling.

            Another couple of rapid turns later, and Damek was leading them up the steps to a small wooden house, its shutters closed tight. Unlocking the door, he ushered them in with another false smile, waiting until everyone was inside the dim building before closing the door and locking it.

            Waving them into the next room, one that held a worn and slightly stained couch and chairs, he collapsed into the nearest seat with a sigh, a hand over his face. Elthia perched herself on the seat nearest Damek, watching him with a tight face, eyes bright and twitchy. Rika and Ahisu both took the couch, the mage looking around the room while Rika locked her eyes onto Damek. “What’s happened? What is this place?”

            He dropped his arm away and met her eyes. “Things are bad, stranger-girl. Worse than we thought. This place…we rented it for the next week. We figured we should use that time to resupply and try and get our trail to run cold. Because they know. Both groups of soldiers know we’re heading in this direction. That’s bad enough. What’s worse is the picture.”

            Rika frowned. “What picture?”

            Damek looked to Elthia. Her hands fluttered in her lap as she spoke. “We were searched as we entered because we came in by horse. The gate guards brought in a man without a uniform, but by his bearing, I could see he too, was a soldier. No one else would stand that straight, like he was at attention. He searched us as well, but he checked a piece of paper while he did it. I…I explained that I had to use the…necessary, and was able to walk behind him while he still had it out. Rika…they have a picture of you. A drawing that’s quite a close resemblance.”

            “How did they get it? I never posed for any picture!”

            “I bet it was Zobah,” Damek said, straightening himself. “That dinner would have given someone plenty of time to draw a decent likeness of you. But where it came from isn’t important. From here on out, you can’t go anywhere without a disguise. Especially now. They’re all on high alert. Thankfully, you did think of wearing them on the way in. And that we separated. I saw them stopping any group of four. They know about all of us. We need to be more careful than ever.”

            Rika looked at the other then bowed her head. “I’m sorry for getting you involved in all of this.”

            Damek waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. We like you and we want to help. Besides, we’re nearly there. Harniche is only a four or five days’ journey from here. Once we get the soldiers off our trail, we’ll be able to get you home. For now, we need to perfect our stories and disguises. At least now that we’re in the city we can pick up some stuff to do a better job of them. And yes,” he said, smiling at Rika. “I’ll try and make your wig less itchy.”

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