T/W: mention of rape (not explicit)
Jerica lay curled into a ball on the floor of the tent, bare skin pressed against the dirt beneath her. Her hands covered her chest and her eyes were screwed shut as she tried to calm down. They’d wanted to humiliate her – and succeeded. She resolved to pluck the eyeballs from every last Nykerian soldier that had watched her pass and shove them down the throats of the men who had jeered as she passed.
The ground was cold against her burning face. She forced herself to take a deep breath. It was just a body. It wasn’t like she had anything to be ashamed of. She’d seen plenty of naked men throughout the years in the barracks; and plenty of people had seen her nakedness as well. The Physicians, her attendants, Levin and Biryn when they chose to barge in on her baths… Akeno. Her throat constricted. Akie.
War changed things so fast. Too fast. A week ago, she’d been preparing her men for the advancing Nykerian army and meeting with Derik for briefings on the strategy they were going to take once the enemy arrived. A day ago, she’d been wrapped in Akeno’s arms. And now she laid, naked, on a dirt floor, in a tent surrounded by two dozen armed soldiers. She’d seen them when Lieutenant Kyrek threw her into her makeshift prison. There was no hope for escape.
This is how Kieran must have felt. She sighed, guilt stabbing through her chest. She’d tried so hard to save him. And she’d failed. Just like she failed at everything. He must have been so scared, weaponless and surrounded by Nykerians, all by himself. Her eyes teared up as she stared at the canvas straight ahead of her, but whether they were for her or for him she didn’t know. All she knew is that she’d never been so vulnerable in her entire life.
“Let me past.”
Jerica blinked, clearing the dampness from her eyes, as she twisted her head towards the entrance of the tent. She could hear murmuring outside, but it was impossible to tell what was being said or who was saying it. Her breath caught. She was going to break someone’s nose if they paraded her in front of their men again.
A moment later the flap of the tent pushed to the side. Jerica squinted in the darkness as a man walked towards her. She swallowed hard, tensing as he approached. He was too scrawny to be Femola; too short to be Lieutenant Kyrek. She frowned.
“Are you awake?” A voice whispered.
Josef? Her gaze snapped towards his face. Guess it is a Femola after all. She snorted, disdain flooding into her as she drew a deep breath. Josef didn’t have the courage to hurt her. She was surprised he wanted to be in the same tent with her at all. Residual fear still clung to her chest, but she’d never admit it. She snarled. “What do you want?”
“Shh,” Josef whispered. “Not so loud. My father doesn’t know I’m here.”
She peered up at his face. She could barely make out his jawline in the darkness of the tent, but she couldn’t tell his expression. Couldn’t see his eyes to know if he was lying. She was intrigued. Either this was some elaborate scheme by Femola to try to get information, or she was getting to see Royal rebellion in the act.
She’d take the bait. “Is that so?”
“Here, sit up.” He started to reach his hands towards her, then hesitated, hand hovering over her right shoulder. “Is this your undamaged shoulder? I can’t see.”
“My entire body is damaged.” She glared at him suspiciously. “But it’s not the shoulder your father decided to push his finger through, if that’s what you’re asking.”
She could see him cringe in the dim light. Then, “Here.”
He grasped her upper arm with his right hand and pulled her a few inches off the ground. She clenched her jaw, refusing to react as pain throbbed through her body. He slid his left arm under her mid back and lifted her the rest of the way to a sitting position. She swayed. He didn’t pull his arm away. He sat back on his heels. He was only a little taller than her now. She could feel his tension; the fear at being so near to her. “Why are you here?”
Josef felt around on the ground behind him, then he held a canteen in front of her face. “I brought you this.”
“What is it?” She narrowed her eyes, suspicious.
“Water.” He tucked it between his legs and unclasped the cap with his right hand, left arm still supporting her. He held it up to her face. “Drink.”
“What did you put in it?”
She longed for water. Her lips were cracked, mouth and throat drier than the fields in mid-summer. She imagined the life that would flow into her with the contents of a canteen. Then she imagined the cramps in her gut and the taste of blood that would fill her mouth if she guzzled down poison.
“It’s just water.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes!” Josef took a drink of the water then swallowed. “See? It’s just water. Good, potable water. I thought you might want a drink. But if not—”
“I wouldn’t necessarily mind that,” Jerica interrupted.
Josef held the canteen up to her lips and tipped it towards her. Cool water flooded into her mouth and down her throat. She choked, throat clenching at the sudden assault. Josef pulled the canteen away. She coughed, then managed to swallow.
It felt like rubbing ice against a sunburn. It hurt in the moment, but nearly immediately soothed her, once the pressure was relieved from her throat. Josef gave her another sip, being more careful to moderate how much he gave her. He hesitated a moment then gave her a third sip before pulling the canteen away.
Jerica’s shoulders heaved. It was absurd how much better three little sips of water made her feel. She imagined she could feel the cool water trickle all the way down to her belly. It was empty, but at least now there was sweet relief to soothe the acid churning in her stomach. And some of the slime was cleared from her mouth.
“I brought a bit of bread, too,” Josef said, fishing around in his pocket. He brushed it off with his fingers. “Sorry, it might be a bit dirty. I didn’t know how else to get out away from the food tent. It’s still fine, though.”
“Why are you doing this?” Jerica asked.
“You get food or questions, which do you want?”
Jerica hesitated a moment, considering his question. The faint scent of yeast drifted into her nose from the bread he held in front of her lips. She leaned forward and took a bite of the bread. She chewed once – twice – before swallowing it, still mostly-whole. She greedily took another bite and another. He’d only brought half a roll, but he systematically fed her each bite of it, then offered another drink of water.
It felt like he’d filled a massive hollow spot deep within her. She already felt stronger than when he had walked into the tent. At this point, she wouldn’t mind if he had poisoned her. At least she wouldn’t be so miserable as she died. She looked up at Josef as he capped his canteen. He was still tense and uneasy.
“Why are you being nice to me?” she asked. “I know you haven’t forgotten the things I’ve said to, and about, your family.”
“That says more about you than it does me.” He lifted a shoulder in a careless shrug. She felt a prick of indignation, but he continued. “It is not compassion if I’m only gentle with the people I find pleasant. My kindness isn’t dependent on you deserving it.”
Jerica was silent, stunned. That certainly didn’t sound like any Femola that she’d met. Lord Femola was brash and rude; his half-brother, the King of Nykeria, was even worse. It also didn’t sound like anything anyone had ever had the courage to say to her face.
“If you’re so concerned about kindness,” Jerica said. “Why is this the second war that’s been waged over getting you a wife?”
“None of that’s been my choice,” Josef answered. “I don’t even want an arranged—” he cut himself off, thinking a moment before he continued. “Tell me, Princess, does your uncle listen when you ask him to reconsider his decisions? Or is it a mark of kings, universally, to disregard the opinions of everyone around them?”
“Seems to be a common theme amongst the kings I know,” Jerica answered. “Although, you have a chance to change that once you’re crowned… even if your opinions about ‘where people have been’ are trash.”
“What? I—” Josef snorted. “What did you want me to say? I wasn’t too keen on the idea of raping you.”
“You could have tried ‘no’,” she suggested.
“Good luck convincing a War Lord to change his mind. I can and I will change how kings behave, but I’ll never see the day my father listens to my wishes.” He glanced towards the entrance of the tent. “I need to get going before anyone notices my absence… I know it doesn’t mean much coming from me, but for what it’s worth, I think it’s wrong what they did to you.”
She cocked her head to the side, peering up at him curiously.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong.” He pushed himself to his feet. “You’re a terrible human and I won’t mourn if my father decides to execute you. But if the Prince had been captured instead of you, my father wouldn’t have stripped him down to parade around the camp. And he shouldn’t have done that to you, either.”
Josef disappeared through the entrance of the tent before she could respond. How did one even go about answering a statement like that? Thank him for the sentiment? Snarl at him for the insult? She wobbled again. She clenched her teeth and laid back on the ground, grimacing as her shoulders pressed against the dirt again.
She bent her right knee to relieve the pressure on her lower back. Her left knee still hurt too badly to move. The manacles were cold against her skin, now that they rested on her bare abdomen. The metal was digging into her wrists and making her arm ache that much worse from all the added weight. She rested her head on the ground, staring at the roof of the tent.
If they were going to execute her, she wished they’d go ahead and get on with it already. She knew why they hadn’t. She was the best bargaining piece they’d had, maybe ever. They also didn’t know what consequences might follow her death. But forcing her to lay here – tired, and sore, and cold – was bordering on cruelty.
It’s not as if anyone would mourn her death if they did execute her. That’s not true, she chastised herself. You’re such a stupid brain, always jumping to the worst. She took a deep breath, trying to calm her thoughts. There were plenty of people who would miss her. Uncle Derik, Rek, Akie, Kieran – all the people who mattered. Even Uncle Alek.
A fresh pang of homesickness ran through her. Uncle Alek only came around once, maybe twice, per year. But in the few days he was at the palace, he doted on her more than anyone else did the rest of the year combined. The last time he came he’d brought the stupid Nykerian dragon book she was reading through for the second time.
She closed her eyes, exhaustion washing across her.
I can’t do this anymore. She sighed. If I get through this, I need to figure out how to get out of this mess… Maybe Alek will take me with him next time, if I beg… or maybe I could find someone to settle down with. Her mind drifted back to Akeno. She shook the thought away. He deserved a much better wife than she would ever be for him. At this point, the Nykerians deserve to have me more than anyone… I guess I could be the one to marry Josef…
That would be a hellish existence, trying to live in the same home as War Lord Femola and the King. But she was accustomed to living with a terrible king now – and it didn’t seem likely that a War Lord could be that much worse than Biryn was as Head Advisor. Especially since she wouldn’t be in the military anymore.
She felt sleep tugging on the edges of her consciousness. It wasn’t like she’d be able to escape in her current state – especially not with the number of guards they’d assigned to watch her. May as well rest and hope my strength comes back by the time I wake.