* * *
Mikaela was tired, for Zake and Nira had set a grueling pace and stuck to it stubbornly. But she did not speak up, lest they should think her as weak. They had already been traveling for a week, and Mikaela had developed calluses on her feet from the long distances they had covered. Exactly where they were going she didn't know, and she was indignant that they did not trust her capable of keeping so huge a secret.
She was actually fairly capable of keeping her mouth shut, and it was Zake who had come close to giving everything away when pestered by a cute girl. His shins must have hurt where Nira had kicked him under tables, but Mikaela did not pity him. It served him right, both girls agreed.
She was actually developing a close relationship with Nira, despite their obvious differences. Nira was two years older than she was, but had much more sense than her older sister Tana. The second night they were traveling, Nira had told her about her past.
"I was thirteen years old," she had whispered in the tent they shared, while Zake had been standing guard outside. "The cloud of dust stirred up by the Empire's army could be seen from miles away. We lived in a small village in the Southern Country, and didn't stand a chance."
"How did you get away?" Mikaela asked, awestruck.
Nira shrugged; her voice bitter. "I ran away like the coward I was. My parents sent me away with the escaping refuges, but they stayed like warriors to defend the village and to die fighting."
"Running is not cowardly," Mikaela murmured, shaking her head. "They wanted to see you live, and you would be no use to anyone dead."
"But the refuge caravan was attacked, you see," Nira added. "And everyone was mercilessly slaughtered except me, because I was at a river fetching water."
"I was fetching water when I first met Zake," Mikaela remembered. "I think I annoyed him with all of my questions."
"He's easily annoyed," Nira had chuckled quietly, and she had spoken no more of her past. But Mikaela could sense the turmoil and guilt of Nira's past burdening her, and was extra sensitive to her the next few days. During that time, they had covered long distances, with miles separating her from her home. But she could not go back right now, and probably could never go back. This thought depressed her, even more than anything Zake and Nira told her about the corruption of the Empire.
"Taxes are soaring ever higher," Zake scowled when they had rejoined each other after passing through a village to restock on supplies. "The people don't know how much more they can stand."
"The Empire prepares for war," Nira replied softly, perhaps remembering how the Empire had attacked her own country. Mikaela wondered briefly if Zake knew what troubled Nira.
"We must hurry," Zake had answered, and so now they were trekking over vast plains at a painful pace, with Mikaela wondering about the odds she'd survive if she lagged behind enough to be left behind.
Finally the sun disappeared behind the tips of the far off mountains, making it dark enough to be dangerous for traveling.