Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
A/N: Added in a new character! I’m going to introduce her earlier (before the capture) in the next draft, but since you didn’t get that you can check out her character profile here: https://www.youngwriterssociety.com/viewtopic.php?f=464&t=112824#p1518739
Jerica straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin, bracing herself for the hell that was to come. She didn’t like Council Meetings under any circumstance. And now she had to deal with the mess that she’d created before lunch.
Every eye snapped to her the instant that she walked in.
She casually looked around the table as she strode towards it, putting on a big show of looking nonchalant even though her heart felt like it was about to burst. She was careful to be impassive as she met each and every gaze.
Her eyes locked with Biryn’s.
His face twisted into a sneer. “You look like you’ve been crying.”
“You look like you’re stupid,” she quipped back.
It was a weak comeback. But it was the first thing that came to mind.
Her cheeks burned with embarrassment at the knowledge that her shed tears were noticeable. And that he’d chosen to point it out in front of everyone.
“No arguments I see,” he taunted.
Jerica stopped short.
Her chair was gone.
The table was mostly filled already, only one or two Lords yet to return from lunch. Her gaze snapped to the gap between Derik and Rek’s chairs. “Where’s my seat?”
“Over here, love.”
Jerica looked up at Stanton’s voice. He rested his arm on the back of a chair that was crowded between his and Lord Fillmore’s. A bitter taste filled her mouth. “Oh, fuck no.”
A collective gasp.
“Jerica Ainsley!” Levin bellowed. “Apologize! Now.”
“I’ll apologize when I’m sorry.” She turned her glare on Levin. The antics were already starting. “Which I’m not.”
“I’ll make you sorry,” Biryn threatened, standing up.
“Try me,” she snapped, glowering at him.
“You said no arguments,” Levin chided.
“I said I wouldn’t argue about marrying it,” Jerica retorted, hoping Stanton felt as indignant at being called ‘it’ as she intended. “I’m not taking a demotion too.”
“You’ll take what I give you,” Levin growled. “Now sit. With your fiancé. Now.”
“Derik?” She turned to look for him.
He was halfway across the room, striding toward her.
“’Derik’,” Biryn mocked. “Gods, when are you going to stop hiding behind him?”
“When you stop being terrible,” she snarled. “So, I guess never.”
She needed to stop. He was an As’veri. Now that she knew the danger that he posed, she should be more careful not to antagonize him. And yet.
“Jerica, stop being ridiculous,” Levin cut in. “It’s not unreasonable to ask you to sit next to your husband.”
“He’s not my husband,” she hissed.
“Yet,” Biryn corrected.
“Spouses sit next to each other,” Levin said stubbornly.
“Then where are all the Ladies?” Jerica demanded, gesturing around the room but keeping her glare on Levin. “Bring them out. We can all be seated next to our spouses if that’s how this game is working now.”
“Sit down and shut up,” Levin snapped.
“And where’s Nykim’s chair?” Jerica continued, determined to not, in fact, sit down and shut up. “He’ll no doubt take my place next to Rek, if spouses have to sit together?”
Jerica glanced down the table, almost apologetic for dragging poor Nykim into it. Her brow furrowed as she realized that Nykim’s seat was missing. His father, Lord Alevor, was at the table – glowering at her – but Nykim was nowhere in sight.
“Why do you always cause such a scene?” Levin sighed, rubbing his face.
“Where’s Nykim?” Jerica repeated, turning her glare on Levin.
“Choices have consequences,” Levin said. “Nykim’s choice left Lord Alevor with little choice but to answer in turn.”
Then understanding washed across her.
“You slimy bastard.” She took an angry step towards Lord Alevor. “You disowned your own son? For falling in love?”
“Jerica, I’m not going to ask you again,” Levin snapped. “Sit, or I’ll have you seated.”
“Try it,” she snarled.
Jerica glanced towards Derik and Rek. Derik looked concerned, lip worried and brow furrowed. Rek looked wounded, eyes wide and brow drawn as he stared at where Nykim should be. Jerica’s anger diluted. It wasn’t helping Rek.
There was a tense beat of silence.
“Go find Nykim,” Derik said at last, voice soft as he turned his gaze on Rek. “I’ll get you up to speed later on what you miss. Spend some time with your fiancé.”
Jerica smirked as he emphasized the word. Rubbing it in.
“Jerica.” Derik met her gaze, then nodded towards the chair next to Stanton.
Stanton puffed up with pride.
Jerica sobered in an instant. She hesitated. She wasn’t going to argue with Derik. But she also didn’t want to sit next to Stanton.
“Whatever.” Jerica shrugged, carefully avoiding everyone’s gaze as she strode towards the chair. She pulled the chair away from the table and sat down. Stanton’s hand landed on her knee, a hungry smile on his face as he smirked at her. She yanked her leg away and stood up, then started pacing. “I didn’t want to sit anyway.”
“Jerica—” Levin started.
“Do you want to hear about the dragon or not?” she interrupted.
There was another moment of silence.
“When I got to the Forest of Liminality –”
The Council settled as she started her tale.
Jerica spent the next hour weaving the story that she’d constructed for the Council. Parts of it were true. But most of it was heavily modified. She told them about being dumped off in the forest. Claimed that Kaidren had come out and taken her prisoner, though she called him ‘the dragon’ rather than by his name. They’d agreed to reveal that dragons are sentient but not sophisticated.
She talked about being healed and how painful and exhausting it was. Talked about the way Kaidren had disciplined her when she went skulking about in his cave. She rambled about various things she’d learned from Aerik, all the while claiming they’d come from the dragon. She wrapped up the story with the lie of how she’d ‘escaped’ from the dragon. Then she fielded all the questions the Council threw at her. Finally, she retreated to her room, Derik on her heels.
“I want to hear the story of what actually happened sometime,” Derik murmured.
Jerica smirked. “Sure.”
There was a knock on the door.
Jerica tensed. She was so tired. And didn’t want to handle any more nonsense.
“Do you want me to get it?” Derik whispered.
Jerica hesitated, then shook her head. She’d deal with it. Whatever it was. As terrible as Biryn was, he was right. She did hide behind Derik too much.
Jerica walked to the door and pulled it open.
“YOU’RE BACK!” Aashi crashed into Jerica and pulled her into a tight hug. Jerica laughed, returning the embrace. “I’m so glad you’re back! I missed you! I heard you were back but then I wasn’t sure if you were here so I thought I’d just come by to check if you’re here and look! You’re here! This is so—”
Aashi stopped short and pulled away from Jerica.
Jerica looked at her, confused.
Aashi stared over Jerica’s shoulder, eyes wide. She hastily dropped into a curtsy. “I mean! Ma’am!” She curtsied towards Derik. “Sir!”
“Hello, Aashi,” Derik said with a smile, striding forward.
Aashi scuttled backward a step and curtsied again, keeping her head lowered. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to – I just got excited – I’m really sorry.”
“He likes you Aashi,” Jerica reminded, stepping forward to take Aashi’s hand and give it a reassuring squeeze. It was heartbreaking how nervous Aashi – and other staff – were around members of the Royal Family. “Relax.”
“Sorry,” Aashi murmured, dipping her head again. “I meant no disrespect.”
“And I took none,” Derik said. “On the contrary, I’m thrilled that you’re happy Jerica is back home.”
“Yes, sir!” Aashi said, finally looking up. “I very much am, so, sir… am so… sir… am sir? Sir. Sorry. Sir.”
Jerica’s grin grew a bit more with every word that Aashi rambled.
Derik laughed. “I do like you, Aashi. You’re a gem.”
“Thank you, sir!” She flashed an endearing smile.
“I suppose the story can wait for later,” Derik said, patting Jerica’s shoulder as he stepped towards the door. “I’ll leave you girls to it.”
“I’ll catch up with you before dinner?” Jerica asked.
Derik shrugged. “Sure. You know where to find me.”
It was more or less true. She always had guesses to where he might be – usually the barracks, training grounds, his bedroom, or the library. But he was occasionally enigmatic and she couldn’t find him anywhere. For all she knew, he’d been Transporting away throughout her entire life and she’d been none the wiser.
He left and shut the door after him.
“Oh my gosh, okay, I – oh my gosh – you’re back,” Aashi said with a broad grin. “And you saw a dragon? Like, a real-life dragon? Like, for real, for real?”
“For real,” Jerica agreed, smiling.
“What was that like?” she asked, eyes wide. “Did it breathe fire? Can it talk to you? Was it mean? How did you get away? Are you okay? Did it hurt you?”
Jerica laughed a bit. “That’s… a lotta questions.”
“Oh, sorry, yeah, no, I didn’t, um.” Aashi spun her finger in a circle. “Backing it up. Did it hurt you?”
“Not really.” Jerica shrugged. Another half-truth. “There was one time I tried to sneak into his cave and it pissed him off so he hit me and that hurt. But—”
“It hit you?” Aashi interrupted. “You? I’ll fight it.”
Jerica lifted an eyebrow.
“I mean, figuratively. I won’t fight it, of course. But you should,” Aashi said, nodding her head once, decisive. “You’re good at fighting. And it was mean to you.”
“Overall, it was okay,” Jerica answered with a smirk. “And I’m fine. It hurt, but it didn’t hurt me, if that makes sense? Just made me a bit sore, not truly injured. He actually healed me of the wounds I’d acquired in the war.”
“Did it talk to you?” Aashi asked. “Can dragons even talk?”
“They can,” Jerica said, inclining her head. “They speak directly to your brain. It’s a weird feeling. Kind of hard to explain.”
“They can – wait.” Aashi put a finger up. “Have you been practicing your Nykerian?”
“Who would I be practicing my Nykerian with?” Jerica snorted.
“Me,” Aashi said crisply. “You’ve been away for weeks, that’s too long to go without practicing your language skills. You don’t want them to get rusty.”
“I’ve been a prisoner,” Jerica protested.
“Yes, and now you’re here. And you’re going to tell me all about it. In Nykerian.”
“C’mon,” Aashi said, switching to Nykerian. “Tell me about the dragon!”