Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
They had been walking for what felt like hours. The sun was nowhere in sight and Rieka found herself anxiously searching the sky, waiting for dawn to break. The light would demolish the shadows that hid them, leaving them truly vulnerable.
The prince led the way, though his knowledge of the landscape was no better than the rest of them. His trusted map was burned to ashes in the inn along with the rest of his documents. He kept claiming they weren’t far from the meeting zone they had designated Zain, Shadya, and Amani to go to, but Rieka knew it was a lie.
Other than his occasional affirmations that they weren’t lost, a blanket of silence settled over them. Ren still seemed pissed about the entire heist—likely moping over some idea that the could’ve done better. Kai was no doubt replaying the guard’s death hours before. And Rieka… She tried not to think about Tanya.
“Hey,” Rieka said, sidling beside Kai. She didn’t truly wish to talk to him, but it was better than being trapped with her thoughts.
Kai shot her a look, his brows drawn low.
“Thank you,” she said, turning to stare at the prince’s back. She didn’t bother laughing as he stumbled over a pile of fallen pine needles. “For helping me with that guard.”
“I killed him,” Kai growled. “That’s hardly something to be thanked for.”
“He was going to kill me. After me, he would’ve killed you, Ren, and the prince.”
“So you are saying he deserved to die?”
“I’m saying you had no other choice.” Rieka’s hissed whisper began to rise. Why couldn’t he just accept her gratitude? For once she was trying to be nice, and he returned it by being an ideological ass.
“There is always another choice! Violence isn’t the only option!”
Rieka rolled her eyes. “Spoken like a true saint,” she mocked.
“Says the one who punches her way out of any mess.”
Rieka shrugged. “It works.”
“No, it’s easy. And amoralistic. Although, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised you lack morals given your history.”
Anger flared in the pit of her stomach and she stopped. She didn’t bother to see if Ren and the prince continued as she grabbed Kai’s arm, halting him. “Don’t presume to know anything about me. I’m sorry you had to kill that man. I really am. But it wasn’t my fault you did it and it isn’t me you should be taking your guilt out on. You chose to kill him, so whose morals are really at stake here?”
Kai glared, his jaw clenching and unclenching. The wind was the only sound, blustering between them as Rieka glared back.
A sharp whistle cut through the tension, and Rieka and Kai both jolted and stared at Ren. “While this tension is hot and steamy, I think we should keep moving. If you are opposed, then just kiss already and be done with it so we can quit waiting around for the inevitable.”
Rieka’s eyes narrowed and Kai sputtered angrily. “I have no desire to kiss him,” Rieka spat, shoving past Ren and marching off into the shadows. It took all of a second until Ren caught up.
“Oh? But you do have a desire to kiss that Styrkish girl?”
“What?” Rieka barked, slamming to a stop.
“I mean, you looked at her like I look at chocolate tarts locked behind a glass window. I want them, but I can’t have them. Although, with my extensive thieving skills, I suppose—”
“I didn’t look at her like that,” Rieka said, blood flooding to her cheeks.
Ren shrugged. “Makes no difference to me.” He turned to wink at the prince, and even in the dark, the man’s blush was visible.
“Tanya was a close friend of mine,” Rieka grumbled. “It wasn’t like that.”
“I had a close friend once,” Ren mused, glancing up at the sky.
Rieka shot him a look. “We were raised together. She was my blood in all ways that counted.”
“Trust is a fickle thing, wouldn’t you say, Rieka darling?” Ren said with a dramatic flourish of his hand. Rieka narrowed her eyes in his direction and he shrugged. “Even our most beloved can betray us.”
“Tanya never betrayed me,” Rieka snapped. “She was loyal to Styrka as any proper citizen should be.”
Ren scoffed. “What is it with you Styrkish? You act like loyalty to your country is your sole personality trait.”
“What loyalty do you have?” Rieka retorted. “Other than your devotion to gold?”
Ren chuckled, reaching out to clap Rieka on the back. She shrugged off his hand. “Gold doesn’t betray you.”
Rieka crossed her arms over her chest as she trudged through the bramble. Ren was wrong. She couldn’t find the words to prove it so, but she knew. Her nails bit though the furs covering her arms, pinching at her skin. The slight pain was a relief and she only clenched her biceps tighter. But even that pain did little to keep the memories at bay.
Rieka stalked ahead of the others, her head low and shadowed. Even in the night with darkness enshrouding all signs of beauty in the forest, everything was familiar. The crunch of pine underfoot. The fresh scent of snow. The crisp breeze biting her cheeks.
Those aspects of Styrka were nothing new. One could find a crisp breeze in Arlan any day of the winter. Yet it felt so originally Styrkish. It was her home.
Tanya’s face appeared in her mind again, though this time, it wasn’t the grown woman she had seen in the fortress. It was the face of a child—cheeks rounded in youth, eyes wide with endless dreams.
Tanya had her dreams decided at the age of ten. Rieka remembered because she herself had been clueless. She wasn’t talented in anything while Tanya succeeded. It had never bothered her—not when Tanya still chose to be her friend. But when Tanya announced her dream of joining the Chief’s council, it was the first time Rieka truly wished against her friend’s happiness.
They had blood-sworn to each other to stick together long before Tanya’s dreams. They had joined blood and soul to never be apart. But Tanya’s ambitions went further than their measly childhood friendship.
Now that she was grown, Rieka could hardly blame her. They were children. A blood-swear at the age of six was hardly credible. Tanya had been the one to take charge in her life while Rieka had based her dreams on the hopes of staying close to her. The relationship was one-sided long before her banishment. Rieka had just been blind to seeing it.
A crack resounded in the dark and Rieka stopped, palming her axe. Her eyes searched the darkness, narrowing as though that would help her see through the shadows. Another twig snapped, closer this time. Kai sidled up beside her, his new dagger in hand. Whatever qualms he had against killing were forgotten now.
The snort of a horse broke through the tense silence, then the uttered cursing of a child followed by a gentle scolding. Rieka relaxed, rolling her eyes. “Stars, I about started swinging,” she growled as the moon cast light upon Amani, Zain, and Shadya.
Zain eyed her axe, not bothering to ask where she had gotten it. Instead, he said, “You’re late.”
“Got a little backed up is all,” Ren said with a grin. “Traffic, you know how it is.”
No one bothered to respond.
“Did you get the layout?” Amani asked, her arm wound protectively around her sister. Rieka stifled an eye roll. The woman was no doubt suffocating Shadya with her hovering presence. The girl was old enough to walk on her own.
“Yes,” the prince said, nodding to Ren who pulled the papers from his pocket with a triumphant grin.
“Only about killed ourselves to retrieve it, but here we are!” His words twisted sardonically, his smile remaining.
Amani glanced between them all as though seeing the unspoken words as clear as day. Rieka shoved past her and to her horse. “Well, let’s get moving. We should put as much distance from the city before the sun rises.”
The rest agreed and began packing up their horses. Despite exhaustion weighing upon her shoulders, Rieka was glad for the ride ahead of them. She wasn’t ready for sleep. She wasn’t ready to be stuck with her mind just yet.
As they spurred their horses into action, Rieka glanced up to the skies. The stars were beginning to fade as the dark blue lightened. Dawn was coming. But before the stars could disappear entirely, Rieka whispered her favorite prayer. The poetic Styrkish words rolled smoothly off her tongue.
“Vistret na zvezny, ya osvech tamu somyavasta.” Look to the stars, for they light the darkness of doubt.
Rieka repeated the prayer once, twice, and then again until the words began to run into another. When she felt her throat clogging and her chest growing tight, she fell silent, her soul spent. With a sigh, she turned back to the road. Eyes prodded at her back and she glanced to the side to find Kai’s attention on her. She met his gaze, but he remained silent.
Despite herself, Rieka felt her cheeks warming. Styrkish prayer was vulnerable. Intimate. For an Arlanian man who was devout in his beliefs to have witnessed it felt wrong. Yet he did not protest her obviously different customs. He didn’t even seem angry or disturbed. Instead, his face was contemplative.
Rieka cast her eyes to her lap where the reins were resting in her palms. “I got sick the first time I killed,” she said softly, so quiet only Kai could hear. She couldn’t see him, but she felt his eyes on her. “It’s natural. To feel guilty and horrified like you do.”
“Do you wish you had done it differently? That you hadn’t killed them?”
Rieka paused. She didn’t need to consider her answer because she already knew, but it would only reaffirm Kai’s suspicions about her. She shouldn’t care, she told herself. His opinion hardly mattered. Yet, she didn’t want to be seen as an amoral barbarian. Despite that, she spoke the truth.
“No. I have nightmares about it, but I do not regret it.”
Kai was silent for a beat and she waited for the personal attack he would no doubt volley, but instead, he said, “Nor do I. I just wish there could’ve been another way.”
Rieka glanced up and met his eyes. His face was solemn, but open. She offered him a small smile. After a beat of hesitation, he returned it.