Chapter 31: Hatching a Plan
They were safe in Fliska’s house once more before any of them spoke. But they had no idea how long they could stay there.
“Then it was not you who gave me away?” Nkima asked Luqua across the table as Fliska gave them each a mug of ale. Luqua shook his head.
“It could have been anyone, really,” Fliska said, sitting down last with her mug. “We were far too trusting to let you go about openly here. Even though this part of town is largely sympathetic to our cause, that doesn’t mean we could trust everyone.”
“Well I don’t want to be locked up in your father’s house for the rest of my days, either,” Nkima stated. “And besides, I found something out when I was staying with the baron.” All eyes were on Nkima as she took out her book of wisdom. “I may have broken the rules a bit,” she said, cracking the spine and turning to the most recent page, “but I didn’t want to forget any of the important details.” The four of them poured over the pages intensely. They were copied from the baron’s desk, and detailed plans for a surprise naval attack on the unconquered town of Glaski, which was considered the Gateway of the North because the great western rivers flowed through the town and into the Glaaskin Sea, which stood between the original Quesha and Hmm.
“These correspondences are already several days old,” Fliska pointed out.
“Which means that the admiral has already led his ships out from Quesha,” Luqua added.
“So the baron won’t have time to change the plan, even if he thinks he’s been compromised,” Kaariang added, a conspiratorial look on her face.
“Exactly,” Nkima said. “If we can make it to Gulaski before they do, we can warn the town and they might have a chance.”
“Gla-ski,” Fliska pronounced slowly, correcting her friend, “is at least a four days’ journey from here, through the Leskog Forest and over the Ron Pass of the Klinder Mountains. If this correspondence is correct, the ships will already be arriving in five days.”
“But we have to try – Kaariang and I have traveled as far and as fast over the mountains with Nana – it could be done!” Nkima insisted. Kaariang, shifted uncomfortably.
“But I knew those paths. I’ve never been into the Leskog except for the spit of it we crossed coming here. And you wouldn’t want to take any main roads – you don’t know how soon the Quashers will be after you, especially if they know what you know.” Kaariang looked meaningfully at Nkima, who saw the question and realized her mistake at once.
“They do know,” she admitted.
“And they’ll be after you as soon as they figure out that you’re bones aren’t lying in that house’s ashes,” Fliska said, catching on as well.
“We’ll have to make a diversion,” Luqua said. The three women turned to their steely-eyed male companion, who returned their looks with a grave one of his own. “We don’t know how much they know, but we need to assume it’s everything. It’d be best if we separated… Fliska and Kaariang should head west with the merchants, and I can secret Nkima away into the Leskog. I’ve worked that forest enough times to know where not to go.”
“As a raider and a spy,” Fliska said contemptuously.
“As a mercenary,” Luqua responded coolly. “But I daresay that none of you knows the way, and if you two head west it will buy us some valuable time.”
“Then Nana and I would travel with you through the forest,” Nkima said, nodding.
“No. Nana will go with them.”
“No!” Nkima exclaimed. “Nana stays with me – that’s the rule. I don’t expect you to understand the customs of my people, but I cannot separate from my companion.”
“Nkima,” Kaariang pleaded quietly, “Luqua’s right – if we take Nana, they’ll be sure to think you’re with us and go off the wrong way. Besides, she dried up yesterday, she’s no good to you anymore. She’ll just slow you down.” Nkima’s face was flushed.
“It’s not about her milk!” she hollered. “Nana and I are bound as traveling companions, we are supposed to always be together! I chose her, just like I could have chosen any one of a number of different animals.”
“Shh, calm down,” Fliska said, laying a hand on Nkima’s shoulder. “We’ll soot her hide so she’s darker in color, and Kaariang and I can find a cow in the market to take with us. Our wagons can be prepared to go by morning if I get the word out tonight. Most of our trading business is already done anyway. But if you are set on taking Nana with you, Nkima, you’ll have to disguise yourself. Bright green clothes are going to draw a lot of attention to you, and if they put out a reward for you, everyone will be looking. We’re hard-pressed for money these days.” Nkima nodded, accepting the compromise.
They discussed their plan a bit longer, working out the details, and then Luqua departed to his home to collect his things, promising to be back before dawn the next morning for any final preparations. Fliska headed out to pass the word around her merchants. Kaariang and Nkima went to the stable with a bucket of ash from the fireplace, ready to turn her light hide grey.
“I knew you were different from the first day I saw you,” Kaariang said to Nkima as she worked a handful of soot into Nana’s fur. “But I have to say, I never expected you to be capable of spying and foiling tyrannical plots.” Nkima laughed.
“Neither did I,” she allowed. “But wisdom tells me I shouldn’t stand by and watch when I could act. I wouldn’t want to be filled with remorse for the rest of my life.” Nkima smeared a handful of ashes on Nana’s opposite flank.
“No, certainly not,” Kaariang smiled. “I’m sorry that I can’t go with you.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nkima said, smiling. “Besides, you want to get back to Rilan, I’m sure.” Kaariang laughed.
“I wouldn’t have met him if you hadn’t gotten me to Kulaang.” She reached over and grabbed Nkima’s hand. “You’ve been a good friend, Nkima.”
“So have you,” Nkima replied, “and I hope neither of us stops yet.” They shared a smile, then went back to their work in silence. There was much to be done before morning.