First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
The door. The door. Nikol slipped out of bed – Aran wasn’t there anymore; of course he wasn’t there anymore, the door had just closed – and peered out the window. There he was, walking down the street. Walking, which was odd. She’d imagined if he was going to run away, he’d take a horse. And one, no, both cats were following him, but he didn’t seem to notice them at all.
She ran down the stairs and slipped out the side door, hurrying to follow him. He was moving deliberately, not slowly, but not running. Where was he going?
The remnants of her nightmare stuck with her, making his movement seem sinister. If he was running away, she was going to feel rather stupid about following him. Hadn’t she more or less said that she’d let him get it out of his system? And then she was trailing him like she didn’t trust him.
But it wasn’t that she didn’t trust him, it was that her dream was still screaming in the back of her mind and something seemed off, wrong.
Well, okay. She snorted out loud. She didn’t trust him; she was pretty sure he would run off at some point. She was just pretty sure that he wouldn’t end up betraying her to the Mountain, because he hated them too.
She shook herself. Her head was still feeling a little cloudy, and the images from her dream kept popping up in her head. The man standing in the room. The way he was talking. She could almost hear his voice, a low drone. She’d had a captain who’d talked like that one time. He’d said everything like it was a lecture on the history of tissue paper, and she’d had to promote one of his juniors to “translator of the boring guy” so that the troops actually listened.
She blinked. She’d lost a block. She was walking, yes, but she didn’t remember how she’d gotten here. Aran was in front of her, not that far away at all, but he hadn’t heard her or, if he had, he hadn’t turned to look at her.
There was a cat sleeping in his path – not one of his cats, just a normal feral cat. He didn’t even stop, just stepped over it.
She tried to hurry up, but her feet seemed to be set on their own cadence. She swallowed down a gulp and tried to call out to Aran, but her voice seemed to be stuck.
This is a nightmare, she told herself. This is a nightmare, nothing more. Wake up. Wake up, Wake-
The cat jumped as if she’d woken it and glared at her in accusation. “Sorry, kitty.” She scooped it up like it could be helpful. Well, maybe it could. “Aran!”
He didn’t move, didn’t turn, didn’t flinch.
Nothing, but the cat hit her on the face with a velveted paw. She looked down at the cat.
The cat’s ears went back and it rumbled at her irritably.
“Okay, okay,” she muttered. “No more shouting, I’ve got the hint.” She hurried up, trying to catch up with Aran. He turned around a corner; she followed and found him missing.
For a heart-wrenching second, she thought he was missing altogether. Then she looked around again – there was a door on either side of the alleyway, one leading into a stone building, the other into a brick one.
The cat squirmed and jumped down from her arms. Nikol closed her eyes and thought about the dream. The way the man had been standing in the front of the room, the concrete block behind him painted an inoffensive and bland yellow-like color, the way his smile had seemed to be broader than his face, the way-
The cat lashed at her ankle with a full set of claws. Nikol yelped and glared down at the beast.
The cat licked its lips and looked pleased with itself.
Nikol reached for the door to the stone building, side-stepping the cat. It purred and wove its way around her legs.
A moment of Working and the door was open; a couple moments later and she was certain that Aran hadn’t come this way. The stairs were dusty; someone’s sunday school plan was still up on the chalkboard and there were some toys lying around.
“Creepy,” she muttered. Most places didn’t feel quite so… so walked out on. Fled, yes, but not just abandoned casually in the middle of building a tower of blocks or playing with a felt board.
Nikol looked down at the cat. The cat seemed content to be here. It was stalking something along the edges — well, mice and other rodents got in everywhere. They’d be here, of course.
She headed back up the stairs, only to have the cat chase after her. The creature tangled in her legs, tripping her. She caught herself on the stairs and looked down at the beast. “Are you lonely enough to kill me to keep me here?” she accused. She’d scraped one palm on the rough carpet on the stairs.
The cat purred.
“Or hungry enough?” Nikol added in a mutter. “Look, I’ve got to find Aran.”
She was arguing with a cat. What had she come to?
The cat walked up her back and sat down on her shoulderblades.
“I have to, you know,” she murmured.
But she wasn’t moving yet, was she?Want more?