Chapter 44

"We'll need to leave in the morning."

The group was sitting in the guys' room after dinner two nights later. The shed was finished, every bit of mending was completed, and there was enough firewood to keep the innkeeper couple supplied for the entire winter and possibly some of the next.

Lien glanced over at Yoon, who was studying the map of the territory. He was probably right. If they waited too much longer and it snowed more, they might not be able to get through the mountains until spring. While the inn was nice and couple was kind (though a little demanding), the plan had been to get to Kai and then back into Kouka sometime during the spring so they could give crop seeds to the people of the Fire Tribe.

The couple had told them about a few crops that people on the other side of the mountains grew that would be sustainable in the Fire Tribe's arid countryside. Hopefully it would be possible for them to carry back a variety of crops for the people, especially ones that could be grown at different times of the year. Yoon had also been told about a few irrigation systems that the people used that could possibly be useful as well.

"The afternoon would be warmer," Jae-Ha countered. He was lounging on a bedroll, looking rather like a contented cat. "I know you're going to say we'll have more time to travel during the daylight, but warmth is an important thing, Yoon."

"I've thought of that, but if we warm up some rice or small stones in bags and put them in our clothes, they should help keep in the heat until the afternoon." He raised his chin. "We have to factor in the time it'll take us to make camp, which includes finding a place for said camp and making a fire and cooking dinner—"

"All right, all right," Jae-Ha said, waving a hand in the air as if to brush away Yoon's explanation. "I'm sorry I attempted to argue."

Yoon frowned, but a tiny smirk quirked up the corner of his mouth. He pointed at the map again. "We should be able to make it to the border after another week of travel."

With the snow the way it was and the time of year in mind, that sounded right to Lien. Then again, in her family, they usually took more established, well-kept roads instead of rough mountain paths, so maybe her judgment was a little flawed. In any case, she was happy enough to trust Yoon's choice.

"Our Kai clothes should help keep us warm, too," Yona said, running her hand over the dress she had been given by Da-som and Ji-hoon. It was deep blue with pale yellow highlights and stitching. It made multiple folds and ties, which Lien had helped her figure out. Lien had worn Kai-style clothing before on her travels. Jae-Ha, who usually wore clothing from that country and had some experience with their outfits, had offered to help as well, but Lien had stepped in before Hak could attempt to murder the eldest dragon.

"Zeno likes his," Zeno said. He had wrapped part of his new outfit his head like a turban. "It's toasty."

"I'm not even going to bother to tell you how wrong you're wearing that," Yoon said, looking perturbed. He poked at the map. "In any case, we should get some sleep. It'll be a long day tomorrow, and we'll have to get up early to pack."

"We should tell the innkeepers that we're leaving," Yona said.

"Yeah, they'll be sorry to see their labor force walking out the door," Hak mumbled. Yona shot a glare at him.

"It would be courteous," Kija said, siding with Yona. "They've been kind to us."

"And worked us to the bone," Hak added.

"They did feed us good food," Yona said.

Yoon snorted. "The food that they made us help cook. Shin-Ah has had to stir so many pots of stew, I'm surprised he can lift that sword of his."

Lien glanced over at Shin-Ah, who didn't look eager to jump into the conversation. Instead, he was feeding Ao bits of food taken from his plate during dinner. She had eaten then, too, but the squirrel did often seem like a bottomless pit. He held out a piece of sweet bun to Lien, who took it.

Ao immediately jumped over to her knee and stared intently at the nugget of bun. Lien bit back a laugh and let Ao have it. She stuffed it into her cheek and settled on Lien's knee, though now her serious look was turned on Shin-Ah. He leaned over and gave her a chunk of carrot, which she gnawed on with gusto.

"So we'll need to keep an eye out for predators and any marauders," Yoon was saying, still inspecting the map. "Ji-hoon says that the bandits who sometimes come around here don't normally bother in the winter months, but with the, um, recent changes in the country, they might decide to try it. I'd save bears or mountain lions are our greater worries, but we have so many beasts among us, it won't be that big of a concern."

"Could you wrestle a bear, Hak?" Jae-Ha asked with a grin, "I think that'd be most amusing."

"Better than you could kick it," Hak said, smirking back.

Jae-Ha's eyebrow ticked. "Oh? Now that sounds somewhat like a challenge."

"We're not going into the mountains to have a bear wrestling contest," Yoon snapped. He glared at both of them before looking imploringly at Yona. "Make them behave."

"I feel like you're better at that," she said with a small shrug. "So I'll leave it to you."

Lien grinned as Yoon gave Yona a deadpan look before he went back to scouring his map. "Pity the bears."

Honestly, Lien felt that Yoon had the right of it. Yona had more sway over all of them than anyone else in the group, though Yoon was probably a close second. It was difficult to say no to him, seeing how he often seemed to be the most intelligent and clever out of the lot of them.

Yoon's logic won out, and the group left in the morning, wearing their winter clothes over their new Kai empire outfits. The innkeepers had given them extra food for their journey, which was an unexpected kindness.

Lien crunched through the snow behind Zeno, following in his footsteps rather than making her own path. They had chosen their marching order very carefully. Hak and Kija were at the front, with Yona, Yoon, Zeno and Lien in the middle while Jae-Ha and Shin-Ah were following behind.

Zeno whistled as he walked, both of his arms behind his head. "Zeno's going to walk with his eyes closed. Kirin, say something if there's anything in the way, okay?"

"Zeno, I think you should keep your eyes open," she said with a small smile. "I might not notice something…"

"It's too bright. The sun is strong," Zeno said, "So be Zeno's eyes, please!"

"I'll try, I guess?"

Zeno turned around and gave her an enormous eyes-closed grin before whipping back to face forward, nearly tripping over his long scarf. Lien winced, thinking that perhaps she shouldn't have agreed in the first place. Slowing for a moment, she let Jae-Ha and Shin-Ah catch up to her.

"Shin-Ah, help me keep an eye on Zeno's feet and I'll help you keep a look out on everything else," she said.

Shin-Ah nodded instantly.

"Why, exactly, are two people watching where Zeno's going when he could do that himself?" Jae-Ha asked, amused.

"The sun's too bright, and he's being silly," she said.

"Ah, of course."

They all kept moving forward, following along in Hak and Kija's footsteps, at least until Shin-Ah lifted a hand.

"Zeno…" Shin-Ah started, but a second later, Zeno bumped into Yona and Yoon, who had stopped suddenly to look at something in the forest. All three tried to catch their balance, and while Zeno managed it with ease, both Yoon and Yona went down into a snow drift.

"Whoops," Zeno said, reaching a hand out to his fallen friends even as Hak stomped toward him, looking murderous. "Lien was my eyes!"

"Reluctantly," Lien said, biting her lip to hold back as smile. Hopefully this wasn't some kind of omen for the rest of their journey.