Elisa didn’t stop, didn’t even pause in wolfing down the fish, until she’d consumed almost every morsel, picked the bones clean. She then sat back, her eyes briefly widening as a soft little belch slipped out from between her lips.
I laughed. Damn, but I couldn’t help it. It slipped out of me, just like the noise slipped out of her. I laughed, broadly and loudly, and she gave in after a second and laughed with me.
“Okay, Elisa,” I said, once I recovered. “Tell me who you are.”
She looked over at me, and started telling me titles. They meant nothing to me, nonsense. First Daughter of the High Patriarch of Spire Lindica, highborn of the Third Rank, other things that I didn’t even comprehend. It only took a few minutes before my head was spinning, and I had to hold up a hand to stop her.
“None of that means a lick of sense to me,” I groaned. “Look, why are you here?”
At that, Elisa paused, and a note of caution flared in those brilliant eyes. “I can’t tell you,” she said, after a pause.
“Well, what’s your plan? You show up here, come crashing into my house. What are you trying to get done?”
The eyes dropped. “I don’t know.”
I fought the sigh, lost. “Great. And I suppose that I’m not going to get any favors, rewards, for keeping you here, am I?”
“I don’t think that they will follow me,” she said, although her tone didn’t sound as convincing as I would have hoped. “I covered my trail when I left. They shouldn’t be able to trace me through the city, much less out to here. I think.”
“That’s convincing,” I said, hoping that she was more confident than her tone suggested. “So princess-”
“First daughter,” she corrected, as if this meant anything.
I sighed again. “What are you planning?” I asked, hoping that she had an answer to this. “I hope that you had some sort of goal when you ran away.”
“I do,” she answered. “I just need to get to-”
But I didn’t get to hear the answer. Through the cracks in my door, brilliant light, so bright that it burned at my eyes, came radiating in through the slivers. I saw Elisa frown, turning towards me, but I rushed towards her and slapped my hand over her mouth before she could speak.
“Quiet!” I hissed as softly as I could manage, my mouth only inches from her ear. “Don’t move!”
She froze, a rabbit spotted, tensing against me. We both crouched there, listening to the noises from outside. I barely dared to draw breath, hearing the crunch of heavy boots in the dirt outside, occasionally snapping a twig as they marched around.
My brain, stuck in my frozen body, clicked along rapidly. They had to be here for her. It couldn’t be a coincidence; the Peacekeepers’ normal visit to our village wasn’t supposed to happen for several weeks, and they never usually came at night. They usually showed up during the day, making their presence known. I even recognized the ones who usually came, sometimes swapped them a couple wooden carvings for a few plastic tokens.
I crouched there, listening – and then I heard a sound that made my blood turn to ice in my veins, like on top of the river after the first cold snap of the season.
A boot, thudding into a wooden door. Not our door, thankfully; I guessed that they were kicking in the Congars’ house, a few down from mine. A thud, and then another, accompanied by shouting, commands that were too indistinct for me to make out. A querulous reply, probably Hari’s voice. More shouts.
And then, a loud hiss.
That hiss snapped me into action. “Gods above and below,” I cursed, scrambling up. I stared around the interior of my little house, fighting the rising panic, trying to think. We needed to move, get out of here right away.
Otherwise, we’d be dead, just as dead as Hari Congar probably was.
Damn fool man. He always talked back, complained about everything under the sun. The rest of us put up with him, out on the fishing trips. Always complained, but he was a good fisherman, knew how to search out their hiding spots under dead logs and other obstacles. But he never managed to keep his damn fool mouth shut, always grumbling about something.
“What was-” Elisa whispered, as I scrambled up, grabbing my rucksack, stuffing it with things that might be useful. Flint and a piece of treasured steel. Some dried fish, probably enough to keep me – us – going for a few days. Waterskin, only half full, but water wasn’t the real problem. Dagger, short but kept sharp, clean of rust. Extra clothes, much as I could fit in there.
“Dart,” I hissed back. Hissing. I’d seen the weapon in use, once. One of the Peacekeepers showed me, grinning. He’d been a young one, new to the job, still didn’t have that air of detached grumpiness that they all seemed to grow and put on. He’d had me hang up a fish, prop it against a tree a dozen paces away – and then he’d aimed that white weapon in his arms at the fish and pulled the trigger.
I heard the hiss. I saw the needle, shining steel and razor sharp, pierce the fish all the way through, going a good three inches into the tree’s hard bark. The Peacekeeper left it there, laughing, but I went back and dug it out later. Good steel, the kind that was worth a lot to someone who didn’t ask where it came from. Someone who’d take it, even if they recognized that fine, sharp shape.
And now, one of those needles was probably in poor Hari, maybe pinning him somewhere. Damn fool. He should have kept his damn mouth shut.
Elisa looked at me again, wanted to ask something. I shook my head, and thankfully, she kept quiet. “They’re coming,” I whispered to her. “We need to get out of here.” So much for them not finding her.
She nodded. Again, despite her fear, I saw that glint of inner strength in those blue eyes. “How?”
I had the answer. I moved to the back of my little house, brushed aside some of the straw from the floor. My fingers searched the wooden platform beneath, hauling it up, shifting it out of the little hole in the dirt where it had settled, moving it aside. I’d dug the hole out of an old fear, what Hari and the others would probably have called crazy fear.
But Hari wasn’t laughing now. Wouldn’t be laughing again.
The boots were marching again. I heard them approaching my house. We had no time. I pointed down, at the hole, a sliver of the slightly lighter night of outside gleaming through. “Go!” I commanded.
Eliza went. She crawled through, out into the outside behind my house. There were bushes there, enough to hide her from direct sight.
The Peacekeeper’s boot thudded into my door, shook it on its carved wooden hinges. “Open up! This is an official search!” came the voice, harsh and loud.
I threw dirt onto the fire, putting it out. Darkness. It hissed, but they probably knew I was inside already. And then, as the door shook again, about to crack open, I dove into the hole after Eliza.