Chapter Three

Leta found herself being scrutinized by Nidawi's cold green eyes. Suddenly embarrassed, Leta studied the nicks in the wooden floor. One of them looked like it was made by a knife. Momentarily, Leta wondered why it was there, but decided quickly that she didn't want to know what kinds of people came through here.

"All right," Nidawi said, leaning against the window sill. "Why do you want to know why I have a ribbon?"

Flustered, Leta shook her head. She didn't want to spill her heart out to the world, didn't want everyone to know that she was chasing a false dream. "Well . . ." she began. "I wanted to know . . . um . . ." She paused, unsure of whether Nidawi was a spy.

Nidawi laughed. Her laugh had an almost metallic quality about it, vaguely reminding Leta of the warm, bitter taste of blood. But she couldn't figure out why. Nidawi shook her head, looking out the window at the trees. "Right," she said, as if she knew what Leta was trying to say and found it funny. "You want to know where I got mine because you have one, but you don't know if I got mine honestly. Well, honestly," she looked at Leta. "Either of us having a ribbon at all is dishonest. You know that, right?"

Leta narrowed her eyes. She wasn't a fool, and she didn't appreciate being treated as one. "Of course," she snapped.

"Good." Nidawi turned abruptly away from the window and threw herself restlessly onto the bed. "Now, I'm going to tell you something. But first, I need to know from whom you got your ribbon. It's more important than anything else."

Leta sighed. "Ace Omicron." Her chest tightened with fear. Fear that she had just betrayed them. She had no idea who this woman was . . . And she told her the name of a member of the retaliation movement.

In thought, Nidawi cocked her head. "Ace . . . Omicron? . . . Hmm . . . No, him I have never met." She looked at the ceiling and squinted, remembering. "I was given my ribbon by a man named Aidan von Holmes." She sighed, a low, long sigh, and squinted harder. "You've heard of him, of course. He was one of the main members of the movement."

"Was?" Leta sat down, leaning her back against the wall. "What do you mean, 'was'?"

"Aidan," Nidawi said, her voice again with an edge, "died two week. In a fire," she snorted. "His home was raided by the King's men . . . " her voice sounded thick. Nidawi rolled over and pressed her face into the pillow.

"D . . . Dead?" Leta lowered her head and closed her eyes. Then she was chasing a false dream. The two young men that came through here last week couldn't have been Ace and Aidan. Ace had been with him. What if they were both dead? Leta realized that she had forgotten to breathe, and sucked in air. Too hard. She choked, and felt the tears streaming down her face before she realized she was crying.

"Well," Nidawi's indifferent voice startled her. "Why are you so upset?"

"Why do you want to know?" Leta snapped, standing up. She sighed, dropping her shoulders and lowering her eyes. "Was anyone else killed that day?"

"No. Just Aidan. I think he wanted it that way. Not even the King's soldiers." Nidawi surveyed Leta with an expression of what appeared to be pity. Shaking her head, Nidawi clucked her tongue. "Do you know what he was planning to do?"

"No. I followed somebody here. A week behind. I guess I was chasing the wrong people." She cursed herself silently. Maybe I am a fool, she thought. Chasing shadows.

"Hmm. So, this Ace guy? Where do you think he was headed?"

"Riendorn, I believe." Leta remembered a stinging memory of the last time she had seen him.

Leta sat on the torn rug, groggy and miserable, but determined to hear what was going on. Aidan's voice was impossible to ignore. It had a deep, growling tone, and he knew how to use it to get his way. But Ace was different. He sat calmly with one foot on the coffee table and the other resting on his knee. He looked as groggy as Leta felt.

"Damn it, Aleron," Aidan snarled.. "We can't wait any longer for action. Either you get your people to help, or we're screwed. People fear for their lives more than they care about their rights. We don't have a force large enough to challenge Anthracite."

Ace yawned. "Yeah, I know. People aren't going to fight unless they're sure they'll win. Right now, they won't. So there's no point in rushing to our own deaths. You just keep getting your weapons, and I'll find people who will give them good homes." He smirked, sinking lower on the couch. "We have enough minute men to fend off the army for a while if they do attack. Which they won't. It's not Harvest Season yet, and Anthracite needs to feed his soldiers. They'll wait till spring." His eyelids fell over his beautiful cinnamon eyes. "Let's just get sleep, Aidan. We can talk about it later."

Aidan jumped to his feet. "I tell you, he means to attack! We can't keep putting things off!"

"Not without cause. He can't justify that to the pitchfork-wielding peasants. We're not putting anything off because we don't have anything planned. Let's just keep spreading the word and getting support. We can't do shit without help."

"We're going to Riendorn, then, to distribute weapons there." Aidan yanked his cloak and hat off the wall. In frustration, he stalked loudly out of the small house, slamming the door duly behind him.

Ace stretched himself full-length on the couch and smiled. "Talking to him is as useful as negotiating with a starving coyote. Except the coyote's a lot smaller."

"Riendorn, huh?" Nidawi's voice pulled Leta from her thoughts. "Damn. That's about a month's worth of travel from here." She gazed at Leta. "You're way behind."

"Yes, I know." Leta had no money, no horse, no way at all to get there except her own two feet. It was a miracle that Madam Dae needed help, an odd twist of fate that probably kept Leta from dying on the side of the road. As it was, twice before, she'd barely escaped murderous highwaymen.

"Ace. . . Ace . . ." Repeating the name as if trying to stir up some non-existent memory, Nidawi fiddled with the window latch. "I wonder." She sighed. "Somebody betrayed the cause. Somebody betrayed Aidan." Her otherwise indifferent look melted into a glare. Her hand yanked at the unmoving latch. "Where'd you meet him?"

"Ace or Aidan?"

"You knew Aidan?" Nidawi jerked her head up to look at Leta.

"Yea. . . He and Ace were close. They saved my life." Leta forced her eyes to be as indifferent as Nidawi's, but not before the other woman noticed the anger that flashed through them. Ace would never betray Aidan, would he? "Ace helped him distribute the weapons he smuggled in. Sometimes, he even helped smuggle them."

"It would make sense, though, if this guy - Ace - betrayed him. Probably got caught himself or something and bargained his way out. Hmm. . ." Not really addressing Leta, Nidawi pulled the ribbon from her hair and studied it. "Riendorn." She looked casually back at Leta, who squirmed under her glare. "Well," her voice had all the passion of a dead tree on a burning summer day. It was dry and unfeeling. "We shall see. I'll go with you to Riendorn. There's something I need to do there, anyway."

Unsure of how to reply or how to feel about the situation, Leta opened her mouth and managed to say, "Eh?" This woman. . . Could she be trusted? Did Leta really want to go anywhere with her? Why is she so eager to join her? She's already blamed Aidan's death on Aleron. Who does she think she is? She's never even met him!

Nidawi looked at her with an expression of unabashed sincerity. "What did you say your name was?"

"I. . . didn't." That's right, Leta hadn't even introduced herself properly. "It's Leta." Really, her given name was Alethea, but for safety's sake, she started giving out her nickname - first to that man on the street, then to Madam Dae, and again to this woman.

"All right, Leta," Tying her hair back in place, Nidawi smiled. Again, the smile reminded Leta of blood. "I'll help you get to Riendorn, and we'll leave tomorrow morning. Be ready." She snapped the last two words as if warning Leta of what would happen if she wasn't.

Leta groaned. The sun. . . The damn sunlight poured in through the small, dusty window in her room. She rolled over, trying to hide from the light. Wait, she thought. I know those curtains are ratty, but . .. unless they desintigrated while I was sleeping, they should block out most of that. . . Leta sat up and frowned.

Rumaging through what little Leta owned, Nidawi threw a dress at her. "Wear that. I've got a bag for your other stuff. Sani will let you ride him until I can get you a horse. Well? Get up. We should have already left." She walked out, grumbling.

It's gonna be a long day. Leta stretched, frowning. Of course, she needed help getting to Riendorn. It's a long journey to make alone. But how would she survive with a woman whose attitude strongly resembled that of a spoiled princess bent on world destruction? She pulled her dress on, and tied the strings of the bodice loosely.

She wished she had stayed with Ace, that she hadn't faltered and waited until they were already gone to decide that she wanted to help. She wished she wasn't such a coward. And she wished that someone else had offered to help her. Someone other than this woman.