Jerica thought about the predicament for a long moment. This wasn’t a decision that was going to be made lightly, or quickly, and she didn’t know what that meant for her now. Or what it would mean for her once the decision was made. She doubted the odds were in her favor in this situation and she didn’t know how to improve them.
She was a greater asset to the Crown than Lyiaza was, no doubt. They’d spent a lifetime grooming her to be King’s Assassin and she was Biryn’s personal science experiment for the past fifteen years. But that was all that she had going for her, and she wasn’t confident that it was going to be enough to get her out of this mess.
Levin and Biryn both despised her on a personal level. She was sure they’d be near the front of the line of people who wanted to behead her, if she wasn’t so useful to them. But they wouldn’t care about her Generalship. Akeno had probably already filled her role well in her absence, and he’d no doubt continue to be an excellent General if she died tonight. And she wasn’t sure if her prowess was enough to tip the balance in her favor.
Derik would have a much harder time with the decision. She knew that he liked her far more than he liked Lyiaza – everyone in the palace knew that. He did his best to be impartial between them, but it was no secret that Lyiaza got more gifts from him while Jerica got the attention and wisdom. Still, he wouldn’t find it ethical to bargain based on his emotions, and it would likely take him a while to even consider trading one of his nieces for the other.
“So, did you only bring me here to gloat?”
She glanced around the table again. Her gaze lingered on the soldier that had dragged her here. She hadn’t seen him at War Councils before. He must have been Lieutenant of one of the newly-appointed Generals. And yet he looked eerily familiar.
“More or less,” Lord Femola agreed. “It’s poetic justice to watch the mighty warrior – the fearsome Sanguis – unable to even hold herself up and need to be dragged across the camp. Every single one of us would like nothing more than for Levin to refuse so we can be the one to separate your head from your body… but I assure you, the honor will be all mine.”
Will it? She eyed the Rangers, still training their arrows on her. All it would take was one slipped string – a single “accident” – and she’d be hurtled into the afterlife. Or the abyss. Or whatever it was that happened after death. She looked back towards Femola’s gaze, refusing to rise to the bait. She couldn’t answer that without insulting him; and in no universe was that a good idea just then.
“Rynyr—” Femola cut himself off. “I mean, Lieutenant Kyrek –” A bitter taste flooded her mouth, eyes snapping back towards the young officer next to her as she realized how she recognized him. “Take the wretch back to its tent… And take the long way. I want to make sure all the men see that we’ve destroyed the prize of Atraya.”
“Sir!” He leapt to his feet and approached her.
Jerica avoided looking at him – she couldn’t stand it. His high-bridged nose. The broad forehead. The strong jaw. He looked just like his father, just twenty years younger. And boy, oh boy, was Dr. Kyrek’s son alive and well. And angry. He yanked her to her feet, making her stumble to the side.
“Actually, wait.” Femola stood and strode around the table. Jerica planted her right foot firmly, trying to look as dignified as possible as he approached. He stood uncomfortably close, looming over her. His brow was dark and dangerous, rage radiating from his body. “Might as well make the humiliation complete, no?”
Femola pulled a dagger from his belt.
She leaned back, but Lieutenant Kyrek was right behind her. Kyrek twisted, grabbing both of her upper arms, breast plate hard against her back. He breathed on her neck as Femola stepped forward with his blade. Her breath caught. She lifted her chin, too proud to cower.
Femola reached his left hand forward and grabbed a fistful of her tunic. He sliced a hole in the fabric above her naval, then grabbed the tunic with both hands and ripped the cloth. It tore up to her collar and down to the fringe of her tunic. He tugged, hurting her shoulders as he ripped the collar open.
The tunic hung from her shoulders. She straightened her back, glaring as venomously as she could manage. Refusing to back down. He moved his dagger towards her again, slicing through the binding on her chest. Her face burned with embarrassment as the cloth covering her chest fell around her ankles. It’s just a body…
He yanked on the tunic again, ripping the shoulders. He cut the strands of cloth that held on. Her tunic fell to the ground as well. She refused to look around as she heard men around the table chortling at her nakedness. She swallowed hard, giving Femola the strongest death glare she’d ever mustered in her life.
He wasn’t even paying attention to see it.
His gaze lingered on her chest for a long moment, then he looked back at Josef. “Is this one pale enough to suit you?”
“Papa!” Josef’s tone was disapproving.
“What?” Femola scoffed, roughly dragging his hand across her chest. Jerica jerked against Kyrek’s grasp, angry. I’ll kill him. Femola smirked at her, patting her face patronizingly as he looked back at his son. “I don’t know that I can condone you screwing a cow like her, but it might be worth it for how badly she’d hate it. How about it?”
“No.” Josef said. Femola raised an eyebrow. Josef dropped his gaze. “Sir.”
“Why not?” Femola challenged.
I’ll kill you both.
“I don’t know where the wretch has been.” Josef shrugged.
“True enough.” Femola nodded. He looked back at her chest, then his gaze drifted to her shoulder. The corners of his mouth twitched up into a vindictive smirk and he looked her in the eyes. “You sure look injured to me, now.”
She kept her glare on his face. She didn’t look down. She didn’t have to. Her shoulder felt like someone had run a fire poker straight through it. She knew the stitches had to have been mangled. It was hardly a secret, now, that she’d taken the arrow he thought she’d taken when she killed Valeren. It was also hardly the biggest problem she had just then.
He planted his right hand on her left shoulder, dangerously close to the wound. Or maybe, it was one of the bigger problems that she had. Jerica swallowed hard, clenching her teeth and refusing to shrink from his grasp. Dread built in the pit of her stomach. She tried to brace herself for what would come next, but she didn’t know what he planned. All she knew was that it was going to hurt. Badly.
“A whimper from Sanguis would be music to my ears,” he said, staring into her eyes. He addressed his men, never taking his gaze from her. “What say you, men?”
“Make her cry!”
“Bleed her out!
“Bet she’ll squeal like a stuck hog!”
I’ll kill every last one of them. Jerica sucked in a deep breath, keeping her glare fixed on Femola’s eyes. He moved his thumb, brushing it across the edges of her wound. His finger might as well have been a dagger for the stabbing pain that radiated across her shoulder and down her arm, his fingernails grating against her skin like a knife.
“How about it?” he asked smugly, pressing his thumb against the exit wound. “You got just a little whimper for us, sweetie?”
She clenched her jaw even harder. I’ll ‘sweetie’ my foot up your—
“Even better.” He smirked, pressing his thumb even harder against the wound. The heat of a thousand fires flared through her shoulder and crept up her neck. Her breath was caught in her chest, unable to exhale. She forced herself not to whimper by sheer force of will alone.
He angled his thumb.
His fingernail scraped the edge of the cut as his thumb buried itself inside her shoulder. It felt like his thumb was clawing the back of her shoulder blade, even though she knew he probably hadn’t even made it to his knuckle. She wanted to scream. Wanted to cry.
She bit it all back, glaring at him instead. He kept his gaze locked on hers. Her vision got splotchy. His thumb slipped further into the wound. He wiggled his hand, deep inside her shoulder, until the pain overwhelmed her.
Jerica was suddenly yanked back from the cliff of unconsciousness. She realized her head was lolling against her chest. Her eyes snapped open and she yanked her chin upward, the world swimming in front of her. Lieutenant Kyrek was supporting her limp body. Lord Femola was still standing in front of her with a gruesome smirk on his face.
“I’ll take passing out instead,” he gloated. “Kyrek, take her on the round.”