Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Aerik was delighted by Derik’s letter. Jerica only moved to bury her face in her hands as Aerik laughed. Her face burned with embarrassment. Aside from her story about letting the enemy scout live, and the pitiful performance with Kaidren earlier, she’d been doing a more-or-less decent job of conducting herself well. A warrior.
And now. Knave Neville McCroakers.
“That’s adorable,” Aerik said. “And so is Derik’s nickname for you.”
Because he couldn’t have left the humiliation with McCroakers.
“Well, I was only nine,” she answered defensively, forcing herself to look up to meet his amused gaze. She scrubbed her face again, as if that would wipe away the embarrassment.
“Nothing wrong with any of it,” Aerik said with a grin. “Can’t be a hard-ass every moment of the day, can we, Princess?”
He laughed again, then smoothed the paper down against the table, looking it over once more. “We have mentions of Akeno again, and now Kieran…”
She knew what he was asking. And she wasn’t going to tell him. He didn’t need to know a single thing more about Akeno aside from the fact that he was her Lieutenant General. Or that Kieran was anything more than her squire. “Seems so.”
“Well, Akeno is clearly a touchy topic with you,” Aerik said. She eyed him, not quite sure if he was making a play on words, or if she was merely letting him get in her head. He folded his hands. “So, how about Kieran?”
She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly, even more tension falling off her shoulders. She didn’t understand how he could possibly be okay. There was no chance he’d rescued himself, and she’d failed to help him. But Derik wouldn’t lie. “He’s my squire.”
“You mentioned,” Aerik said dryly. “Why wouldn’t he be okay?”
She swallowed hard, staring at the table as she relived those few moments of hell. The glimpse of fear on his face as he was being tossed over the wall. The way her heart stopped as she tried to figure out if he was dead from the fall – and then raced as she tried to protect him from afar. “Because I failed him.”
“Well, clearly not, if he’s still alive,” Aerik answered gently. “What happened?”
She took a deep breath, forcing herself to look up to meet Aerik’s gaze. There was no point in keeping non-important secrets from him, now that she knew he was trustworthy. It didn’t make it any easier. “They breached our gate. I was there, trying to hold the line while my men repaired the hole… and then they brought out a Chijurru.”
Aerik’s eyebrows shot up.
“Yeah,” she agreed, maybe a bit too tersely. “I didn’t even know what it was, in the moment. But I was running down the wall to get in range so I could get a shot. Everyone was gaping at it, and… my squire wasn’t paying attention to the Nykerian on a ladder behind him. He got yanked off the wall.”
Aerik cringed sympathetically. “Ow.”
“Yeah…” Jerica sighed again.
“Sounds like that’s his own fault, though, not yours.”
Jerica shook her head, frustrated. Guilt stabbed through her again. She’d been so stupid. She’d made nothing but a string of mistakes from the moment she first laid eyes on Kieran. And now, those mistakes almost got him killed. She’d never forgive herself for that. For even coming that close to disaster. “No. He’s just a kid. I should have been there for him.”
“I mean… I understand that sentiment,” Aerik answered thoughtfully. “But I do think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself here… especially, since, he apparently survived the fall?”
“Yeah.” Jerica shrugged. “I mean, I was doing my best to keep him safe after it happened, shooting all the soldiers that came near to him, but then…”
She rubbed her face in frustration. It felt like it’d happened ten years ago, even though she knew it’d been less than a week. Good gods, what a week this had been. She’d be glad if she never had to have another week that was even remotely similar to this one.
“The Chijurru complicated things?” Aerik guessed.
Jerica laughed, a short bark that seemed out of place. “You could say that.”
Oh, how it’d complicated things.
“Tell me,” he said encouragingly.
“Well, the Chijurru was coming close, and I couldn’t get down to Kieran to help him get back up to safety, so…” She shrugged. “I jumped off the wall to fight it.”
Aerik’s eyebrows shot up. “You jumped off the City Wall to fight a Chijurru?”
“Yeah.” She shrugged again. When he said it that way, it seemed silly. But there had been very few options available to her in that moment and she’d done the best that she could. She continued defensively, “It was threatening my squire, what was I supposed to do?”
“Find a new squire?”
“Hah!” She smirked at him. “I rather like the one that I have now.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing he survived.”
“It’s a very good thing,” she agreed, steeping in the relief that Derik’s letter had brought. She’d rest much easier without the guilt of Kieran’s death hanging over her. Even though she now needed to figure out what to do with him when she went back.
If this war did nothing else, it had at least clarified that she shouldn’t be keeping Kieran as her squire. Her life was entirely too dangerous to drag someone else into. Especially if that someone else was a child. She’d taken him on as a squire because she thought it was the safest thing for him, but that clearly wasn’t the case.
“But hold up,” Aerik said. “Let’s go back to the Chijurru. What did you do?”
“Heh.” Jerica rubbed the back of her neck. That had been one of her poorer decisions of the day. Of her life. “I mean… I led with my sword, but I guess it didn’t reach any vitals. My men were still dazed – or maybe they were scared of hitting me, I don’t know – but they weren’t shooting it. So, it turned into… some of the longest moments of my life.”
Aerik snorted. “That’s one way to put it.”
“Yeah,” she agreed, cringing as she thought back to how hellish that fight had been. Yet another example of her poor judgment. It was a split-second decision. But she was fairly sure that most people were smart enough that their instincts didn’t tell them to jump off a wall to fight with a terrifying Beast just to save her squire. “The fight didn’t go so well.”
“Well, it’s hardly like you were evenly matched,” Aerik pointed out with another snort. “You took on a Beast the size of a small castle, and really expected it to go well?”
“I still killed it,” she muttered defensively. Just because it hadn’t gone well didn’t mean it hadn’t ended well.
His eyebrows shot up again. “You did?”
“I did.” Jerica nodded, proud of herself, then deflated a bit when she’d remembered just how she’d done it. “I mean, not before it tried to eat me… but then I had the prime spot to stab it in the throat and mouth… got its gods-awful blood all over me.”
Aerik wrinkled his nose in sympathetic disgust. “Is that what that black sludge that was all over you when you got here was?”
“Yes. Absolutely vile.” She nodded, stomach feeling a bit ill as she recalled that memory. “It smelled even worse fresh.”
“I believe that,” he answered, still cringing. “What happened then?”
“It threw me,” she answered sheepishly. “Landed right in the middle of a Nykerian platoon – dozens of them, all around me. And I was dizzy. And all of my weapons were still sticking out of the Chijurru…”
“That’s when you were captured,” he concluded.
She nodded. “I got knocked out before I could get reoriented from my fall. I didn’t even have the satisfaction of watching the bastard die. I just got blamed for killing it when Femola was telling the story, so I knew it was dead.”
Aerik shook his head but was smiling, his expression almost bordering on… admiration? She couldn’t quite tell.
“Well, I’m glad your squire made it through okay,” Aerik said. “And I’m glad you… well… made it here to me.”
Jerica laughed. Claiming that she’d made it through okay would have been an overstatement. She was anything but okay when she’d been… rescued, she supposed, from the Nykerians. “Me too. It’s lucky the idiots managed to find you.”
“Oh, luck had nothing to do with it.” Aerik waved his hand vaguely. “Kaidren’s in complete control of the forest’s magic.”
“What?” Yet another concept that had never even crossed her mind.
“He kept diverting them from here because we didn’t want to have to confirm their suspicions that there’s a dragon here.” Aerik shrugged. “And because we thought they might get frustrated and just abandon you in the woods where we could come get you. But then it was getting late and they were being stubborn, so we led them here.”
Jerica gaped at him. There was so much that she didn’t understand. About Aerik. And Kaidren. And this forest. And all of these magical forces he kept vaguely referencing. “Wait, so you wanted them to dump me off here?”
“We didn’t expect them to push you off the cliff.” Aerik cringed. “Sorry about that.”
She rubbed her abdomen resentfully, still remembering the way the shale had stung as it skinned her belly. But, it’s not like that was Aerik’s fault. Kyrek had been the one to shove her off the cliff, not Aerik. She shrugged. “Not your fault.”
“No,” he agreed thoughtfully. “But I could at least have tried to break your fall, if I’d been anticipating it. Honestly, I just thought they’d get scared and run away.”
Jerica nodded, thinking back to the vague memories she had of showing up here. She’d felt too bad to fully remember anything more than the sheer terror she’d felt. “I think that’s what we all wanted to do.”
“Hah.” Aerik smirked, but then sobered and looked at her sympathetically. “Sorry about that one, too. Couldn’t very well threaten them without scaring you in the process, too.”
Jerica nodded. “So… Kaidren…”
“Kaidren…” Aerik agreed, taking a deep breath. “I met him shortly after I joined Kyrkkyni. My assignment took me to his realm, and I—”
“What do you mean?” Jerica interrupted. “His realm?”
There was only one realm: Beirania.
“Honestly?” Aerik said, looking at her a long moment. “Don’t even worry about that part right now. Just know that I met Kaidren when I was young, late twenties, and he was very, very old. He was over six-hundred when I first met him.”
Jerica’s eyebrows shot up.
“I had the same reaction,” Aerik chuckled. “Don’t know exactly how old he is, honestly. He claims he lost count after two-hundred thirty-seven, and couldn’t really be bothered to keep track of more than a gist after that. We… I honestly still don’t quite know why he chose me. But when dragons choose their keepers, we become bonded for life.”
Jerica looked at him curiously.
“I honestly still don’t fully understand that, either,” Aerik admitted. “There are some things in life you just have to make your peace with not knowing. But our magic was fused, and so were our minds. I mean, obviously, we don’t eavesdrop on each other’s thoughts or anything like that. But we can communicate silently with one another. And anything either of us tries to do is enhanced by the others’ strength – though, I definitely got the better end of that deal.”
Jerica smiled. That much made sense. It wasn’t like the castle-sized dragon she’d seen outside would particularly need a single man’s aid. “What does he get out of it?”
Aerik took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Companionship, mostly. Loyalty. And the chance to do something heroic. Dragons generally aren’t very well received when they try to directly interfere in human politics. I’m basically his spokesman. An inseparable team.”
“That sounds nice,” Jerica admitted. She wasn’t great at letting people help her, but she definitely wouldn’t refuse if someone said she could be bound to Ranofer and benefit from his strength and speed.
“It is.” Aerik looked at the fire, then stood up. “I think the food’s ready.”