Chapter 40

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            Rika checked to make sure the hood of her robes was up for the umpteenth time as she carefully looked at the fork in the streets ahead of her. None of the directions looked familiar. Or rather, they looked like every other street she’d been on for the last hour. Nearly all the houses were the same, all made of wood or stone or a combination of the two, all of them being tall and narrow, with only the occasional bit of paint to differentiate them. That along with the twisting nature of the streets was how Rika had gotten lost in the first place.

            She bit her lip and decided to try going right this time. She felt the sweat on her back prickle and itch, something she hadn’t noticed until the greater itch of her hat was removed. She’d been in one of the larger squares, trapped in a crush of people when she’d been hit from behind, her hat flying off her head. Rika had pulled her hood up and had searched for the hat, but hadn’t been able to find it anywhere.

            To make matters worse, she’d seen groups of soldiers wandering around. Already she’d changed directions twice to avoid them. And she knew, if she didn’t get back soon, it was only a matter of time before one of them recognized her.

The street she was on joined three others, forming a small square that had another of the cobbled areas surrounding a statue of some guy with a crown. This one, like all the others she’d seen so far, was filled with vendors selling a variety of goods. Rika ignored them, studying the statue. She nearly cried when she realized this was the second time she’d seen it. She was well and truly lost now and she-

Rika’s thought was cut off by a hand closing around her wrist from behind. She spun, her free hand coming up, her legs shifting back into a fighting stance, readying herself to fight. Her eyes met those of her captor’s and she froze, her muscles going slack. Black eyes regarded her for several seconds, before Ahisu’s face shifted into an expression that was both questioning and annoyed.

She dropped her gaze to the ground, feeling a mixture of relief and shame that caused her face to burn red. “I’m sorry. I wanted to surprise everyone by making lunch but I…I got lost on the way to the market.”

When she risked a glance at him, she saw that Ahisu didn’t look pleased in the least and thought she heard a quiet sigh come from him. Without a word to her, he strode off, the hand he still had wrapped around her wrist meaning she had to hurry after him to keep from being dragged.

            “I’m really sorry. I was going to be back before any of you but…” A thought occurred to Rika that had her paling. “Are the others back too? Please tell me I that I haven’t gotten everyone all worried!”

            She thought she heard a snort from him, but since he was dragging her through where the crowds were thickest, she couldn’t be sure. They passed straight through the centre, dodging around shoppers and hawkers alike until they were along the houses on the other side of the street. Rika kept her eyes on the ground, feeling like eight kinds of idiot, which is how she nearly ran straight into Ahisu when he stopped dead.

            Rika followed his gaze and felt what little colour that remained in her face drain away. Coming up from the street just ahead of them was an entire group of soldiers dressed in Atelic’s dark yellow. Movement from the side showed her a squad wearing blue. She froze, feeling her heart begin thudding in her ears as she looked from one group to the other, wondering what they should do.

            Ahisu made the decision for her, turning around and heading back the way they’d come. They hadn’t taken more than a few steps when they both saw the same thing. Another bunch of soldiers, these ones also in yellow. With groups of armed men closing in on three sides and only the nearly solid wall of buildings at their back, Rika could feel panic begin bubbling inside her stomach, making her want to throw up and run at the same time.

            Again, she felt herself being tugged along by Ahisu. He hurried them along the row of homes, not slowing until he reached a narrow alcove that was just a bit of space between two stone houses. He wedged himself in, back to the wall, before pulling her in after himself. Staring up at him, Rika saw that his eyes were locked onto the street, and she presumed, the approaching soldiers.

            She couldn’t see that the blue squad, which had been staring at them, had switched direction so they were coming directly their way, one of the men holding a piece of paper. She did feel Ahisu tense as he watched them close in, his hand tightening its grip on his staff. Rika tried to keep her breathing even in an effort to calm her racing heart. But she couldn’t. Not when they were trapped.

            Rika was about to suggest they try and run, when she heard a chuckle. She’d been around him long enough to know Shetton’s voice when she heard it, even without it being hard to mistake for a human’s, but she didn’t understand why he was laughing. This was hardly a situation anyone would call amusing!

            Rustling cloth was the only warning she had before she felt Ahisu’s arms around her, pulling her closer to him. Rika looked up at him She was surprised to find him looking down at her, his face even more unreadable than ever. He brought his face closer to her and she wondered what plan he was going to whisper to her.

            But there was no plan and no whispering. Before Rika even knew what was happening, Ahisu had his lips pressed against hers in what was undeniably a kiss.

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