The next two weeks passed quickly. Aerik spent a considerable amount of time helping her learn about the R’hyk. And Jerica spent even more time practicing it on her own. Aerik did not, however, tell her anything at all useful about the Guild. Still, he let her send letters to Derik often. And they sparred and trained together.
Jerica sat at the kitchen table and held her hands over it. An apple was levitating over each of her palms by several inches. She’d gotten comfortable supporting objects without Aerik’s help. She was also able to get a fair bit of distance between her palm and whatever she was holding. And now, she was practicing two hands.
The tingling of the R’hyk still felt odd – almost like there was an itch she couldn’t scratch. But even that she was learning how to manage. It flowed through both hands now, pressing against the glossy surface of the apples as they hovered over her palms.
A letter materialized in front of Aerik.
She looked up, the apples wobbling.
“I didn’t say you could stop,” he chided. “Focus.”
Jerica looked back at the apples and fixed her attention on keeping them levitating over her palms. It was harder now that her attention was split between her task and the knowledge that Aerik had just gotten a letter.
“Would you look at that,” he said. He was sitting across the room, next to the fireplace. He’d turned one of the stuffed chairs so that they could see each other while they worked. He’d been mending clothes while she practiced the R’hyk. “One guess how the war is going.”
She insisted on asking with each letter how things were going. And the answers were always the same. The war was locked in a stalemate. He and Akeno were fine. Rek had recovered well and was up and about now, though a bit weak. Kieran had broken his arm during the fall, but it was also healing, and he was otherwise safe and well.
And, no, he didn’t want Jerica to come back yet.
A bit more of Jerica’s guilt lessened with each letter. It still felt wrong to be resting and learning from Aerik while her friends and her men were in lockdown. But as long as the war was political instead of physical, there wasn’t anything Jerica could do to be helpful. In fact, it was probably best she was out of the way. Up here, where she couldn’t run her mouth.
“Huh,” Aerik said.
“’Huh’ what?” she asked, focusing on the apples.
“You asked why the stalemate has been going so long,” Aerik said.
Jerica didn’t look up. “And?”
“And it’s because they managed to capture Josef Femola.”
“What?” The apples fell. She caught them as her eyes snapped up to look at Aerik. “They took Josef prisoner?”
“Apparently so,” Aerik said. “In the attempt to rescue you.”
Jerica strode across the room, a strange emotion settling deep in her chest. She wasn’t quite sure how to name it. It wasn’t quite guilt. Or fear. Or even concern. But a vague sense of uneasiness enveloped her as she thought through the implications. “Did they hurt him?”
Aerik looked up at her as she stopped in front of him. “Why do you care?”
“I don’t.” Jerica held her hand out. “Can I see?”
“You do,” Aerik countered, but held the letter out to her.
“Maybe,” she agreed. She wasn’t sure if she did. Or why she did.
Hope things are going well for the three of you up there! Things are fine here.
Tell Jerica things are the same here. We're all fine. The war is fine. It's
best that she stays up there for now. Same as always.
As for the why, that's a bit more complicated. We actually captured Josef
Femola during the raid when we were trying to rescue Jerica. I didn't mention
it since there's nothing the two of you can do about it anyway. But we've been
holding him to make the Femolas pay reparations for this idiotic war.
The official story, of course, is that we want them to trade Jerica back to us.
I'm waiting to see how long it takes Femola to admit that he tried to
feed her to a dragon. But, for now, not much change. I asked an obscene
amount of money for Josef's return since they obviously aren't able to
turn Jerica back over to us. Poor kid is caught in the cross-fire, but
hopefully he takes it as a lesson and governs better than this when
-- or if, I suppose -- we decide send him back to daddy.
Anyhow, that's life here. I'm sure Jerica will ask again, so, same as
always, let her know that it's still safest for her up there. We'll
get through this soon enough, then she can come back. And we'll all
be overjoyed to get to see her again.
This still didn’t answer her question. “Can I reply?”
“Of course.” Aerik gestured at a pencil and some paper laying on the table a few meters away from them. “I still want to know why you care, though.”
“I mean, I don’t…”
“Not really,” Jerica defended. “He just… was kind to me when I got captured.”
“Before or after you got a fingernail ripped off?”
Jerica cringed at the memory, grabbing the paper and settling down on the floor. “Before. And that one wasn’t his fault. None of it was, really.”
She set to work on the letter.
It’s Jerica. We’re all good up here. Aerik is still teaching me how
to use the R’hyk. We’re doing better than it sounds like you’re
doing down there.
Did Josef get hurt during the capture? It might not be a horrible
idea to keep him locked in a room in the palace instead of in
the dungeon, and ensure that he’s getting medical attention.
Jerica hesitated. There was no justification for that request. And, it didn’t seem like her at all. Why did she care? Even she wasn’t sure about that one. It just felt wrong to have Josef rotting in a dungeon when he hadn’t done anything. His only crime was being born as Femola. If either of them deserved to be chained up somewhere, it was her. Not him.
Femola will pay more for his release if you can prove you’re
returning him in the same state as you took him.
And… She hesitated again, still trying to think of some rationale for this odd request that her conscience was demanding she make. She couldn’t very well say that she didn’t think the son of the aggressor of a literal war was blameless. And, yet, it was true.
He was also kind to me when Femola was keeping me prisoner,
for what it’s worth. He snuck me some food and water. A small
gesture, but it meant a lot in the moment. So, it might not
be horrible to show him a bit of kindness in return.
She read the letter. It felt odd, to be the person suggesting this. She was always so careful to dehumanize the enemy. Or, at least, she tried to be mindful of her perception of opponents. She had to slaughter them, whether she liked it or not. So, may as well believe the worst about them, to make it easier.
And yet Josef had somehow snuck past that mental block.
She bit her lip as she realized that she felt bad for him. Her mind flicked back to their conversation in the tent – however brief it had been. They were more alike than she’d like to admit. Both of them were trapped in positions neither of them asked for or wanted, just because of what family they were born into. Both were treated poorly by their King Uncle.
Jerica stood up and carried the letter over to Aerik.
“You don’t think Derik should be holding Josef,” Aerik said. He took the letter and sent it without looking at it.
“It’s not that,” Jerica said, brushing the claim away.
“It’s just… I think… I don’t know,” she sighed.
“You do,” Aerik said gently. “Just think about it.”
Jerica dropped to the ground in front of Aerik’s chair, sitting crisscross. She rested her elbows on her knees and rubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands. Forcing herself to think through things as meticulously as Aerik wanted her to was by far the hardest thing he asked her to do. Not the sparring, not even the R’hyk. Just trying to untangle her own thoughts.
“It’s not fair to lock him away in the dungeon,” she said at last.
“How isn’t that fair?” Aerik challenged, voice soft. “A prince for a princess. Seems fairly even, doesn’t it?”
“Well, imprisoning me wasn’t fair either.” Jerica snorted.
She hesitated. It still felt so foreign to sit and chat with Aerik. She didn’t let her guard all the way down around him. But it was still nice. Kind of. She wasn’t really sure what to say when someone asked why she had an opinion, rather than barking at her to shut up. To really think about what she meant.
“And?” he prompted.
“Well… I guess I did have this one coming.” She sighed and pulled her hands away from her face, looking up at him. “And maybe Josef did too. I don’t know.”
“And maybe he didn’t,” Aerik said. “I don’t know. Walk me through your thoughts.”
“I just—” Jerica scoffed, brain unwilling to actually form thoughts that she could explain to him if she’d wanted to. Which she didn’t. “Can you un-send letters?”
“Hah!” He smirked. “I wouldn’t even if I could. Did you ask him to let Josef go?”
“No.” Jerica shook her head, rubbing her face again. “It’s a good move. The right move.”
“It just…” she sighed. “Capturing me was also the right move. It’s a war. I’m dangerous. But he didn’t need to shove his finger in my wound. Or rip my fingernail off. Or try to feed me to a dragon. You can do the right thing in the wrong way and it stops being a right thing.”
“Mm…” Aerik was silent for a long moment. “That’s a wonderful insight… So, what do you think the right thing is here?”
“I don’t know,” Jerica admitted. That was far more complicated. She hesitated a moment, trying to think through it. “I guess… just treating him better than Femola treated me.”
“Low bar,” Aerik commented.
“Heh. Yeah,” Jerica agreed with a grim smirk. “I just asked that Josef be kept under house arrest than in the dungeon. Seems… less cruel.”
“Pff, not hardly,” Jerica scoffed. “It’s not kind to keep him prisoner. It’s just smart.”
“But the right thing?”
“If it’s done the right way.”
“That’s fair—” A yawn cut him off. “Excuse me. It’s been a long day.”
“It has been.” Jerica pushed herself to her feet, noticing the tension in her shoulders. She adored her lessons with the R’hyk, but they left her fatigued and her muscles sore from tensing them while she focused. “I’m going to bed.”
“Night,” Jerica answered, yawning as she cracked her back and started down the hall. With any luck, she’d fall asleep quickly. And not have to try to work out why it was that she cared so much about how Josef was treated in his imprisonment. She laid down and stretched out, calming her thoughts until she finally drifted off.