Sunday, April 19, 2015

Chapter Three: Rivals

The inside of Oleg's carriage was large, pleasant, and fairly warm; more so than any room Sara had ever been in. It was spacious enough for ten, featuring velvet-cushioned couches and beds, small tables, as well as a luxurious armchair that Oleg himself liked to sit in. The familiar Paganian landscape of hills and forests was moving past the large windows, and Sara found it difficult to breathe as she realised she was already farther from home than she'd ever been.
She had slept very poorly last night, thoughts racing through her mind as she lay awake, trying to think of a way out. But she'd promised; ultimately, there was nothing she could do about it. So, barely able to keep her knees from shaking, she had said farewell to her father and brother in the morning and left in the great carriage.
And now she sat here in this chair, sweating all over and feeling somewhat nauseous and extremely out of place. She didn't belong here, she had no idea how to act, she didn't want to leave home, and Cristina and Fyodorovitch, sitting on the sofa, gave her frequent glances that made it obvious she wasn't welcome either. A tense silence hung in the air, and Oleg appeared to be the only one not affected.
“So, miss Zukaite,” Admiral Fyodorovitch said, his little eyes peering at her intensely from under his odd, grey hairdo, “tell me: what skills do you possess?”
Sara almost jumped up. “S-skills? I'm – I'm a farmer, sir. I've got, um, farmer skills.”
“You don't say. Have you never served anyone before? Do you know how to properly wash clothes? How to behave in civilised company? The proper forms of address of boyars of every level?”
“N-no, but-”
“Oleg, I don't think she'll be a very good servant. Let's leave her behind as soon as possible. You've got the right idea, though; I should look for a servant for the journey myself.”
“Servant?” Sara said, finally beginning to understand what Oleg wanted her to do, which was a relief, in a way.
“Yes, servant,” Fyodorovitch said. “But rather you have her than me, Oleg, she'd make a terrible one.”
Oleg chuckled. “Then it's a good thing I do not intend for her to be a servant, isn't it?”
Fyodorovitch gave a smile, but his eyes stayed cold as ice. “If you say so. Why did you bring her along, then?
Oleg shrugged. “Because I didn't just go on this journey so that I and the rest of us can learn things in the South. On its own, that wouldn't be enough to truly help Baikalia. I also want to bring the best and brightest minds of the South back with me.”
Fyodorovitch and Sara were both going to say something, in Sara's case something about Oleg's expectation she'd come back to Baikalia, but Cristina, who had been slouching on the couch, looking bored, suddenly sat on the edge of her seat, her hands gripping Sara's knees as she leaned forward so far she seemed barely able to stop herself from jumping onto Sara's lap. “You're one of the best and brightest minds of the South, Sara Zukaite?!” she asked, her eyes wide and staring into Sara's.
“Wwwell,” Sara said, backing as far away into her chair as she could.
“Are you a scientist as well as a farmer?!” Cristina asked. “Oh, oh, a philosopher maybe?! We had so little time to talk yesterday, I had no idea!”
“I'm no-”
“I know!” Cristina said, managing to come even closer. “You must be a great naturalist! Living out in the open on a dump like that in the middle of the wilderness-”
“What?!”
“-I'll bet Oleg took you along because you know everything about the living world!”
“Stop touching me!” Sara snapped.
Cristina let go of her knees with a start and stopped leaning forward quite so far. “Oh, sorry.”
“It's fine,” Sara said, her heart still racing.
Cristina's large eyes were still wide and full of manic excitement. “So, what are you, Sara Zukaite? Are you really one of Pagania's greatest minds?”
Sara felt herself blush. “I-I don't think so. I'm just Sara. I guess I know a bit about nature, but not that much.”
“Why not?”
“Uh?” Sara asked. “Wwwell, I mean, I've always been busy working, and-”
Cristina gave one of her smug half-smirks. “Yeah, but you just did boring farm work, you can't have kept your mind on that all day. And you lived right in the middle of all that nature! Can't you feel it burn, Sara Zukaite?”
“F-feel what burn?”
That fire inside! Curiosity, passion, intrigue, you name it! Don't you feel it? That desire to know, to find out!”
“Er, not really...” Sara said.
“Oh,” the fire in Cristina's own eyes dimmed as she leaned back into the couch. “I guess you don't. That's... fine too.”
“I... I mean,” Sara said, “I do know a reasonable amount about Zemyna's creations, but-”
“Zemyna?” Cristina interrupted.
Sara jumped at the opportunity to talk about a more interesting subject. “Zemyna is the goddess of the Earth, the mother of mankind and all animals and plants. She is the mightiest and wisest of the five gods, giving us order, traditions, and teaching us to care for one another. She rules over the element earth and its magical-”
Cristina scoffed, and whatever little bit of liking Sara had developed for her evaporated. “What utter nonsense.”
“Nonsense?!” Sara snapped.
“Yeah,” the awful girl said with a roll of her eyes, “you must realise there is absolutely no evidence for such a ridiculous-”
“Ridiculous?!” Sara's hands clutched the armrests of her chair tightly as she tried to resist jumping forward and clutching them around Cristina's fluffily collared neck instead. “If you-”
“Sara, calm down,” Oleg said, “you're shouting like a child.” Cristina smirked. “And Cristina, stop being so rude to her.”
Cristina shrugged. “I'm just telling her the truth. I'm not-”
“Then please stop doing that,” Oleg said. “Sara, tell me: do these other gods rule over the other elements?”
Sara tore her eyes off Cristina's forehead, where they were trying to burn a hole by sheer force of will. “Yes, they do. Dalia is the goddess of water, Perkunas of air, Saule of fire, and Dievas of light and darkness.”
“Interesting,” Oleg said, “we know the same five elements, both in the physical and the magical world, although of course we don't think they're related to any gods.”
“Actually,” Cristina said, “alchemists currently know of twenty-three elements, and-”
This time it was Fyodorovitch's turn to interrupt the horrible know-it-all. “Not now, Cristina. Oleg, all this is very... interesting, but we've got more important matters to discuss. Count Wallenberg, namely.”
Oleg sighed. “Yes, I suppose we do. Ever heard of him?”
“I haven't, but the name sounds Scanian.”
Oleg shrugged. “I suppose it does. That fits with his men, who were far too disciplined and well-kept to be ordinary raiders.”
“The question is,” Fyodorovitch said, “why is a Scanian count hunting for you? And more importantly, is it his own idea to do so, or is he working on the orders of his king? This could even be a precursor to a Scanian invasion.”
“Nonsense,” Oleg said. “It is no more than an attempt to make money by ransoming me.”
“You don't know that. We should consider it at lea-”
“If this does constitute a threat to Baikalia, the tsar will deal with it in due time. Meanwhile, his journey will continue.”
“Oleg, I know how much you've looked forward to this-”
“Then you should also know the tsar is concerned for Baikalia's well-being. He would not place her in danger at a whim.”
“Of course not, Your Majesty.”
Oleg's stony face broke into a grin. “Don't call me 'Your Majesty'.”
“Then don't talk in the third person.”
“Fair enough. But let's talk no more of this. I will keep safety in mind.”
Over the next few days, Sara was introduced to a lot of people, and constantly found herself forgetting their names, being unsure how to act in their presence, and confusing them with one another. Oleg had mainly brought members of the minor nobility on the journey. All of them were male, and most of them acted rather surprised around Sara. They all travelled separately, but carriages would frequently meet each other on the road, at which point Oleg would usually insist on talking to everyone and introducing Sara to them. Sometimes, one of the others would travel in Oleg's carriage for a few hours as well.
They mostly slept at inns along the way. Every night, Sara felt more anxious and alone. She reminded herself to try and see this as a good thing, as the opportunity her father thought it was. Of course, she felt hollow inside whenever she thought of him, or anything else related to home. She had no-one to talk to. Fyodorovitch was smug and cold, and while he'd seemed somewhat decent on their first meeting, something had changed about him. Whenever Sara tried to talk to Oleg, he would interrupt her and begin talking himself, and it felt like he was always around.
Cristina was awful. She was snooty, arrogant, erratic, and far smarter and prettier than Sara liked, and she knew it, with her stupid half-smirk and her fancy, white dress. She loved to show off and make it clear she thought she was better than Sara in every way. It was in her every look, the way she would constantly bring up bits of scientific trivia, as if she had special insider knowledge of the workings of the world. She frequently flaunted her beauty too, in a clear attempt to annoy Sara.
She couldn't really talk to Oleg; when Fyodorovitch wasn't stopping her, it still felt too odd to talk much to him while he and Cristina were around. Besides, he was a virtual stranger to her as well. She felt like everyone was watching her at day and had difficulty falling asleep at night. Sometimes, she felt a state of near-panic arise, and she just wanted to get away, go home. Unfortunately, she had promised...
It took a few days of travel before Sara was finally able to talk to Oleg on her own, when she ran into him outside the inn one morning.
“Sara,” Oleg said, “how are you doing?”
“Me? I-I'm fine. Um, how are you?”
“Quite well,” Oleg said. “So, you have enjoyed the journey so far?”
“Of course!” Sara said, even as she regretted it. “Um, well, I mean, it's alright. I... I'm just not sure if your friends like me much.”
“Nonsense,” Oleg said, “they just need to get used to you. Fyodorovitch sees anyone I meet as a threat to his position, it's just a matter of time before he warms up to you.”
“And what about Cristina? She's...” Sara caught her tongue. “...Not very nice.”
Oleg smiled. “You might find her more likeable if you tried to get along with her.”
“Tried to get along with her? She's the one who doesn't get along with-” she once again remembered she was talking to a tsar. “I mean, maybe you're right...”
“Indeed,” Oleg simply said.
“Oh, another thing,” Sara said, “when we go to Polwa, will you meet the king?”
Oleg nodded. “I suppose I will. I have certain matters to discuss with him.”
“Could you... Could you talk to him about Wallenberg and his raiders?”
Oleg frowned. “I'd rather not. Before you know it, he'll overreact and send an escort along with us when we leave or something.”
“But they killed my mother... Oleg, the raiders have been plaguing Pagania for a long time before you showed up.”
“Then can't you talk to your boyar about them?”
“My boyar?”
“Well, your local noble. The lord of your lands. Surely he can deal with the problem? I hardly think you need to take this up with your king.”
“Oleg, Pagania doesn't have nobles. The king of Polgaria rules us directly, and leaves us mostly to our own devices. Which is fantastic, because it means the aspects of the gods are practically our rulers.”
Oleg smirked. “But not so fantastic when it comes to the kind of thing where an army would come in useful, hmm?”
Sara blushed a bit. “Er, yeah. That's the problem. The king is so far away and has so much to worry about, ruling all of Polgaria and Pagania.”
“Hmm. Well, in that case, maybe you should draw his attention to Wallenberg.”
“Thank y- Wait, 'you'?”
“Yes. You're his subject, after all, not me. If you wish to ask for his help, you will have to do it yourself. I will arrange for him to give you an audience.”
Sara froze. “B-but I can't talk to the king!”
Oleg smirked. “But you can talk to a tsar, hmm?”
“That's different. I didn't know you were a tsar when I met you... and you're not that tsarish. Er, in a good way!”
“Well, maybe King Tiberius won't be that kingly either in a good way?”
“Maybe...” Sara said, wondering what she'd got herself into now.
As they began to leave Pagania, nearing the Polgarian border, everything on the way changed. There were fewer forests and hills, and the roads were in better condition. The towns they visited were less and less familiar, and were often dominated by a tall church tower to the single god of the Polgarians in addition to the temples to the true gods. The people sounded a bit weird to Sara too.
One afternoon, Oleg ordered the carriage to stop in the middle of a forest and told them all to get out and walk to a nearby city called Luskowo. With some grumbling, they did so and followed him over the forest road.
“I don't see why we've got to go walking,” Fyodorovitch said, looking at a tree like it might jump out at him.
Oleg, who was walking ahead of the others at quite a pace, answered. “Because if we ride into town in a huge, fancy carriage, people will know we're no commoners.”
“Uhh,” Sara said, “I don't think people will be fooled long, considering the clothes Cristina and Fyodorovitch wear...”
“What's wrong with my clothes?” Cristina asked, raising her fluffy collar a bit.
Sara rolled her eyes. “Oh, nothing. Commoners were dresses that show off how pampered and snooty they are all the time, especially white ones that would get stained if you ever did any actual work in them.”
Cristina suddenly turned on her, her teeth bared furiously, but then she got a hold of herself and instead gave Sara a long, disgusted look that wandered down to her feet slowly and then back up. “I see what you mean. Commoners prefer to wear awful drab stuff patched together from whatever pieces of ugly brown leather and cloth they could find, and their clothes fit so poorly they need belts and scarves to hold it all together. Topped off, of course, with uncombed, unwashed hair that makes them look like- Waugh!” She suddenly tripped, grabbing a hold of Sara's arm. “Wait up! I'm stuck.”
“Let me go,” Sara said, trying to loosen Cristina's grip on her arm.
“Stop that, you'll make me fall,” Cristina said, balancing on one leg as she tried to dig her high heel out of the soft earth.
“It's your own fault,” Sara said. “Who wears shoes like that in a forest? Who wears shoes like that at all?”
“Got it!” Cristina managed to get her shoe loose and let go of Sara, quickly walking on. “And clearly, you've never heard of elegance before. Not that it comes as much of a surprise.”
“Elegance?! I'm-”
“Will you please stop fighting?!” Oleg bellowed from ahead, stunning them both into silence.
“S-sorry,” Cristina said.
“Please,” he said, calmer. “You are both my friends. You are both good people. Why can't you just get along?”
“Because she-” Sara and Cristina began in unison.
“Stop it. If you're just going to fight all the time, neither of you will continue to travel in my carriage. I want you to stop this now.”
Fine,” they snapped, still in unison. Cristina's big eyes peered furiously from under her shrewd, curved eyebrows, but Sara just matched her expression. They followed Oleg out of the forest and toward the city walls of Luskowo in cold silence, until Cristina suddenly jumped.“Wait, did you hear that?!”
“Hear what?” Fyodorovitch asked.
“Some kind of bird, I think, but it's none that I've ever heard! This might be an entirely new discovery! I'll be back in just a moment!” she ran back into the forest.
“Cristina!” Oleg called after her. “We don't have time to- Blin! Well, I'm not waiting here for her. Sara, go get her back.”
“Fine,” Sara said as she headed back into the forest. Everything was peaceful and as Zemyna intended, nothing to show the passage of something as unpleasant as Cristina. Yet maybe if she-
She turned around when she heard a rustle behind her, but not fast enough. She was hit on the head and darkness took her.
Sara woke up with an aching head and throbbing shoulders. She was sitting on the forest floor, and someone held her arms behind her back. She gave them a strong pull, and to her surprise she succeeded in getting her arms back, the person holding them giving in easily.
“OWW! Stop that, you're breaking my shoulders!” a voice just behind Sara squeaked.
“Cristina?!” Only then did she realise her arms weren't being held by someone; they were bound to Cristina's arms around their wrists and elbows. They were sitting back to back, bound together at the waist, shoulders, and arms. Their feet were bound as well, but thankfully not to each other's. “Sorry,” Sara said, dishonestly, as she let Cristina's arms have a little bit of slack but kept them on her own side.
“That's not much better,” Cristina said, trying to pull her arms back. “C'mon, let me have some room!”
Sara didn't find it that hard to keep their arms on her side, although it wasn't very comfortable with Cristina pulling on their bonds. She took a look around, and found they weren't alone: a man with a black coat sat against a tree a few paces away, his sword drawn. “H-hey, who are you? Release me right-”
Cristina made an annoyed noise. “I already talked to him. He's one of Wallenberg's men, obviously. He won't say what they're planning, but I'll bet they're going to try and extort Oleg using me as a hostage. The plans of such a cretinous beanbrain are all too easy to guess.”
“Shut up,” the man said, without even looking at the girls.
“He also said you're not allowed to talk.”
I'm not allowed to talk? He said it to you.”
“Well, neither of us are, but your voice is a lot more grating than mine, so presumably he chiefly meant you.”
Sara tried to hit Cristina in the back using her shoulder, but they were too tightly bound to make it work. “You're the one doing all the talking!”
“Shut up, both of you,” the raider snapped.
Cristina sighed theatrically. “Believe me, you wretched simpleton, I'll be more than happy to stop talking to your fellow muttonhead here if you could please just tie us up separately.”
“The feeling is mutual,” Sara growled. Taking a deep breath to calm down, she began to mutter a prayer to Zemyna.
“What're you doing?” Cristina asked.
“Praying.”
Oh, like that's going to help. You know, it's quite childish and evidence of an arrogant and delusional personality to assume that supernatural forces will aid you just because you think really hard at them.”
“Both of you, shut your traps.”
Childish?!” Sara snapped. “Arrogant and delusional?! You should talk, you stuck-up, bossy snob! You go into the forest with your show-offy shoes and your stupid dress with its awful collar – which, by the way, is itching my neck terribly!”
Yeah? Well, I have to sit back to back against your gross, uncombed hair. I can just feel your fleas jumping onto me.”
“If you two don't shut up, I'll-”
“You insult the gods, you think you have all the answers, you-”
On the contrary,” Cristina said, “I don't have answers, I have questions, and that's the difference between me and you. I know how to keep an open mind and find out the truth based on evidence and reason, while you're stuck believing ridiculous old fairy tales and claiming I insult their non-existent subjects when I simply point out there is absolutely no evidence-”
“No evidence?! Look around you!”
“Oh yes, it sure is a forest. I'm convinced now.”
“Right, one more word and I'll-”
“Can't you see its beauty, the power of all the life that lives here?! Can't you feel Zemyna's breath around you?”
All I can feel is your bony back. Certainly not a divine creation. In any case, none of your gods actually exist.”
“How can you say that?! You don't have any evidence for that!”
I don't need evidence for a negative position; you need evidence to prove a positive position. As long as you don't have it, the only logical conclusion is there are no gods.”
NOW SHUT UP!” Sara hadn't even noticed the raider was now standing over them, she'd been so busy arguing. “If either of you even thinks of saying anything else, I'll cut off a toe. I'm not supposed to kill you, but you'll survive that.”
Suddenly, Cristina pulled her arms forward hard, and a severe pain shot through Sara's arms and shoulders as they were just about broken behind her back. “OWWW, you horrible hell-kitten, I'll-”
“THAT'S IT!” the raider yelled. “I'm fed up with you! This'll teach you to obey!”
“No!” Sara gasped as the raider started trying to take her boot off, only to find her bonds hindering him. “I-I'm sorry, it was just because she-”
“Don't listen to her,” Cristina said, almost purring, “she deserves it. Cut through her bonds, take off her boot, and cut off all her toes while you're at it.”
The raider rolled his eyes. “You think I'm an idiot, girl? I'm not going to untie her, I can get this off without releasing her bonds.” He stood over Sara's legs to get a better position to pull at her boot. Sara took her chance, lifting her both legs in a double kick to his loins that instantly dropped him to the ground, howling in pain. Before he could do anything else, she brought her feet down on his head, kicking him a few more times for good measure until he was definitely out.
“Did you take care of him?” Cristina asked.
Sara panted. “Yes.”
“Good job!” Cristina said happily. “Now let's cut through our bonds and get out of here.”
“Wait,” Sara said, as she started cutting the bonds on her feet by dragging them over the raider's sword, “you expected that? Were you deliberately angering me so I'd get the chance to take him out?”
“Of course!” Cristina said. “And you did great!”
“Uh, thanks.” The bonds around her feet came loose and she quickly stood up to allow Cristina to cut hers, as well as to stretch her legs. “So what you said were just lies to get a rise out of me?”
“Oh no,” Cristina said, “every word was completely true.”
“Right,” Sara said, balling her fists, “so was every one of mine. And I've got a couple I'd like to add. Self-righteous show-off and arrogant, manipulative idiot among them!”
“Yeah?” Cristina asked, unimpressed.
“Yeah! You just got lucky he was dumb enough to try and pull my boots off like that! That he went for my feet in the first place!” Sara gave the raider a kick to stop him waking up again, as well as to vent some of her anger.
“If he'd gone for your hands, we could've punched the sword out of his hands together.”
“And if he'd gone for my nose?”
Sara could feel Cristina shrug. “He'd probably have to get close enough to you you could've still surprised him.”
“And what if I hadn't managed to knock him out?! What if I wasn't strong or fast enough?!”
“Then you could hardly have blamed me for your troubles, could you?”
“Why don't you put your own toes on the line next time instead of mine?!”
“I should've thought that would be perfectly obvious even to you. I'm not nearly as well-suited to knocking people out as you are. I'm a thinker, not a brute. There, untied my feet. Now help me pick up the sword so I can cut our other bonds.”
“No way!” Sara said, “I can't trust you. I'll be the one who picks up the sword.”
“What do you think I'll do with it, stab you?” Cristina asked, trying to move to grab the sword.
“The thought had crossed my mind, yeah!” Sara shouted, keeping their hands firmly away from it.
“Has anyone ever told you you're a paranoid idiot?! We have to work together to get out of this!”
“Trouble is, you're a snide, evil velnio ispera and probably wouldn't hesitate to cut my throat the moment you liberate your hand.”
“That's ridiculous! You're being ridiculous.”
“Yeah? Then why don't I pick up the blade?”
“After you just revealed the kind of murderous thoughts that go on in your tiny mind? No thanks, I'd rather not get my throat cut.”
“That's ridiculous, I'm not like you!”
“Yeah, that's what I'm saying!”
Sara struggled to grab the sword, overpowering Cristina, but just as she almost reached the hilt, a foot in a white, high-heeled shoe kicked it away from her. “Stop that!”
Cristina scoffed. “Not on your life. I'm getting the sword, not you. Wait – do you hear that?”
Footsteps were approaching, and Sara finally remembered she was in danger of worse enemies than just Cristina. “Quick, grab the sword and cut our bonds.”
“No time,” Cristina said, “we have to get away. Push against my back, we'll just have to stand up.”
Together, they managed to lift themselves, standing, but still tied back to back. “This way,” Sara said, walking into the bushes to her right, but with every step she felt Cristina's weight hanging from her bonds, the ropes digging into her flesh. “Could you maybe not hang on me like that?”
“Could you maybe not be so tall? I can only barely touch the ground with my heels.”
Sara rolled her eyes. “I guess that's why you wear those stupid things. Doesn't explain the-”
“Shh,” Cristina said, as several voices spoke in surprise to each other in the small clearing they'd just escaped from. They managed to make surprising speed, running sideways through the forest, tied to each other. By the time they reached a path, though, both were exhausted and sore, so they rested for a moment, leaning against each other.
“Let's follow this path,” Sara said after a while. “It should lead us to the forest's edge, and from there we can find Oleg again.”
“No no,” Cristina said, “no need to do take the long way round. We just walk straight in this direction.”
“Through the forest?”
“Yeah. Less chance of running into Wallenberg's men that way, and it won't be as far to walk.”
“Maybe,” Sara said, “but forests are dangerous. Besides, how do you know it's that way?”
Cristina made an annoyed noise, and Sara was quite sure she was rolling her eyes. “Thank you for your input, Sara Zukaite, but I noticed forests are dangerous. I got hit on the head in one. All the more reason to get out quickly and not linger. It's this way, I know it. Allons-y.”
Sara stood her ground as Cristina tried to walk off. “That means 'let's go'!”
“I'm not exactly eager to stay tied to you for much longer,” Sara said, “but I'm not going to be an idiot about it. We'll follow the path.”
“No, we won't! Come on, move your stupid feet!”
“Could you maybe stop?” Sara asked. “Pulling on me like a spoilt little brat won't make you any less wrong.”
“Neither will standing there like a block get us anywhere!”
Sara rolled her eyes. “Then I'll start walking.” She bent over a bit, the bonds lifting the smaller girl onto her back automatically.
“Hey!” Cristina shouted, her legs flailing in the air uselessly. “Put me down right now!”
“No,” Sara said, walking down the path.
“I said: put! Me! Down!”
Sara gritted her teeth. “Sorry, didn't catch that. Maybe if you tried shrieking it even louder and closer to my ear?”
“Hmpf,” Cristina said, ceasing her struggles. “Just wait, Oleg will have a thing or two to say about this!”
“'Thank you, Sara, for saving the arrogant harpy who I inexplicably like, even when she was screaming at you to let her kill herself with her own pig-headedness.'?”
“Yeah, you should talk! You're just lucky I'm light as a feather, or you wouldn't be able to do this at all!”
Sara couldn't deny that, although her back was already starting to hurt. “Yeah? Well... Look, if I put you down, will you agree to stop being... you, and just walk along?”
“No,” Cristina said, with malicious glee. “I'd rather let you carry me.”
Sara trembled with anger. “You're really awful, did you know that?”
“So you keep telling me. Meanwhile you try to usurp my place and manipulate Oleg.”
“Your place? I'm not trying to usurp anything, and if you want to court Oleg, I-”
“Yuck, not like that! I'm his friend, we practically grew up together. His mother was raised in the household of my grandfather.”
“So what're you afraid of?”
“Afraid?! I'm not afraid of anything, least of all you! But he's got plenty of irrational, dogmatic reactionaries trying to manipulate him at home, thank you very much.”
Sara's legs trembled, both with exertion and anger. “And I'm not one of them!”
You're more irrational than any of them! Perhaps not surprising, given that you believe in five times as many gods as them. Wait, stop, I lost my shoe!”
“Too bad.”
“No, seriously, I did! Turn around and pick it up!”
Sara grinned. “No. Maybe you'll think twice about your behaviour next time.”
Cristina hissed in anger on her back and wiggled about a bit, but couldn't do much. “Don't think you can lecture me, Sara Zukaite.”
Someone has to. You're nasty and arrogant, and you just basically admitted you don't believe in any god.”
“Of course I don't. That would be entirely irrational.”
Sara's back ached terribly by now, but she wasn't going to put Cristina down or show any sign of weakness. “Who created the Earth, then?”
“Um, well, I don't know.”
“Ha!”
“But neither do you!”
“Of course I do! Zemyna created the Earth, and the other gods added water, air-”
“Nonsense, you don't know that, someone told you. You have absolutely no evidence of it, and are just as ignorant as I am. The only difference is, I admit it and am open for the actual explanation, when it's found, whereas you've decided you already know. Having a good question beats having a million bad answers.”
Sara bared her teeth in a growl. “You're an arrogant villain, no matter what you say.”
“And you're an ignorant savage.”
“Yeah, well-” Sara froze.
“And if you didn't-”
“Shut up,” she hissed.
“Shut up? Shut up?! Shut-
Bear.”
“Oh. Has it s-seen us?”
“Yes.” The great brute stood only a few dozen steps away, staring right at a frozen Sara, its ears sloped down into its thick neck, where hair rose up as it clacked its massive teeth.
“D-don't run,” Cristina whispered. “Walk backward slowly and don't take your eyes off it.”
“I know,” Sara whispered back, already backing down step by step, to no avail as the massive creature followed.
“Hold on,” Cristina whispered, “I have an idea! Turn around.”
“What?”
“I'm on your back. If you turn around, it will still see a face. It won't realise we're running away.”
“Are you su-”
“Of course I'm sure, it's just a dumb animal.”
Swallowing a lump, Sara turned around. The bear growled, and Cristina screamed. “RUN, SARA, RUN!!! Faster!”
Sara sprinted for her life as Cristina screamed on her back. The bear's enormous footfalls came closer and closer at astonishing speed. There was a great whoosh of its claw swooping just over Sara, and Cristina screamed even louder. Right at that moment, several black-coated figures rushed out from the forest. “Aha, got you- Oh no!”
Sara sprinted right through the group of stunned raiders, leaving them and the bear to figure things out together. Cristina finally stopped screaming. “Ha, take that! You know, that worked out pretty well.”
“I take it you weren't harmed, then,” Sara said, still running.
“I wasn't, but... Wait! Help me break the bond around our hands! The bear damaged it, and I'll bet we can break it if we just use a stick or something.”
“A stick,” Sara said.
“Yeah, to hold the rope in place while we pull!”
Sara stopped running, standing up straight and letting Cristina to the ground again, to her back's great relief. “It's worth a shot. Let's try it with that tree over there.”
Cristina didn't walk along with her, but seemed to be hopping and still hung greatly on the bonds. “Can't you let me down further?” she asked.
“Can't you just try to stand on your toes?”
“I'm already wearing high heels. Well, a high heel, since you didn't bother picking up the other one.”
Sara pulled their hands to her side, deciding not to respond to Cristina's complaints. She was right: the rope had a big cut in it that had destroyed several of its strings and weakened it. “Right. We can use this branch here.”
They managed to hook the damaged bit of rope around it, then started pulling on it with their full weight. “Come on,” Sara said, “help me pull!”
“I am helping you- woah!” the rope suddenly came undone, sending both of them falling onto the forest floor. Sara landed face-down, Cristina still on her back, but now one of her hands was free. “We did it! Now just wait while I untie us!”
“If we turn around, I'll untie us instead.”
“Don't be silly, I don't want to get my dress any dirtier.”
“Oh, don't worry, I'll shield you from Zemyna's touch,” Sara muttered.
“Thanks, I have no desire to feel it. There we go, freedom at last!”
Cristina's weight finally lifted off Sara's back, and they both got up. Sara was sore all over by now, but at least she could stand properly and without bonds cutting into her now. “About time,” she said.
Cristina brushed off her dress, which was still surprisingly clean. Sara couldn't blame the dirt for knowing better than to stick to Cristina, who had another stupid half-smirk on her pale, pointy face. “About time indeed. At least now I don't have to let myself be bossed around by you any more.”
I bossed you around?!”
Cristina rolled her eyes. “Yes. And now I shall-”
Sara pulled up her lip and balled her fists. “You know, I've got half a mind to teach you a lesson now that my hands are free!”
Cristina put her hands on her hips. “I see you've recognised your intellectual inferiority and have therefore resorted to physical threats, the only refuge of the mindless. I can hardly say I'm surprised to find you're every bit the boeotian fopdoodle I expected, Sara Zukaite.
“You're not as smart as you think, Cristina Fontana, you're just giving me a voyage around the dictionary!”
“As if I-”
“Cristina, Sara!” Oleg came running up to them over the path. “What are you doing, standing around in the forest screaming at each other? We've been looking for you!”
“Oleg!” Sara said, “no time to explain, we need to get out of here right now.”
The three of them set off over the path as Cristina and Sara explained what had happened to Oleg, while frequently giving each other annoyed cursory glances. Sara had always thought there was some good in every person, but she was beginning to doubt that now.

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