Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language and violence.
There was nothing in the entire universe that Jerica hated more than Transports. Not the injections. Not taking the arrow. Not even dealing with Lord Biryn… although the beast had come close. She would be hard pressed to decide whether fighting the beast or being Transported was worse. All she knew was she’d be happy to never experience either ever again.
She felt like she was being ripped apart. She could imagine she could feel her cells separating from one another, the chromosomes unraveling and flying apart as her molecules hurdled through space at the speed of light. And then being thrown back together felt even worse, with her cells somehow finding a way to knit themselves back into tissues.
Derik said she was melodramatic.
Maybe she was. She still hated it.
Jerica felt wind passing through her for a brief moment as her partially-formed body rushed towards the ground. And then she landed. Hard. Her weight slammed down equally on both legs. Her left leg gave out, sending her tumbling down to the ground face-first. Her stomach felt like it’d landed back in her body upside down. She managed to push herself up just in time to avoid the vomit that sprang from her mouth.
“The mighty warrior,” Femola sneered. “Can’t even handle a little Transport.”
She spat. Her throat burned and her arms trembled.
“Kyrek, go get an audience with the king.”
Jerica was vaguely aware that the Lieutenant obediently rushed off. The Rangers hauled her to her feet. She wobbled. It felt like she was on a ship that was sailing through a cyclone. The world tossed around her and her mind struggled to find stability. She could see red stones beneath her feet. The palace? Or, a courtyard?
It was brighter here. It’d only been mere moments from when she’d stood in Atraya, but Nykeria was a few hours closer to the sun than her country was, and always got the daylight before they did. Not that they deserved it.
The Rangers dragged her up a flight of steps.
Jerica blinked, hard, clearing her vision. Lord Femola marched ahead of them. Palace Guards jerked the doors open, gawking as they passed. The Rangers on either side of her were roughly jostling her after Femola. She could feel the presence of the third Ranger behind her. And yet, she still couldn’t be bothered to care.
They dragged her up an additional flight of stairs. Lord Femola huffed impatiently at how long it was taking the Rangers to carry her dead weight without her making any attempt to walk. Lieutenant Kyrek stood in front of two massive mahogany doors. Lord Femola stomped along until he stood in front of his officer.
“The king knows we’re here, sir!”
The Rangers set her down. Jerica balanced on her right leg, shoulder resting against the stone wall to keep her from wobbling. It was cold against her bare flesh. She twisted a bit so that the cool could soothe her injured shoulder. Her eyes flicked around the space around them. The Nykerian palace was so much different from the Atraian palace.
In Atraya, their palace and houses and the city wall were built from gray stone. This palace was made out of red stone. On the walls hung brightly colored tapestries. Instead of the dull embroidery of realistic scenes that decorated the Atraian palace, these were brilliant reds and yellows and blues braided together in beautiful abstractions.
A palace guard opened one of the doors and looked at Lord Femola. “The king requested you enter first, sire.”
Jerica watched him go into the Throne Room, feeling a little sick to her stomach. Her mind wandered back to the last time she’d seen Lesaf Femola. Biryn had tasked her with killing Femola’s Head Advisor, since he was the one pushing for Lesaf to insist on the marriage between Lyiaza and Josef. Femola hadn’t taken it well.
“The next time I see your ugly face, I want it to be on a platter.”
Jerica sighed. This was going to end badly. And she was starting to care.
She glanced around again, her gaze landing on Lieutenant Kyrek standing to her right. He had murder in his eyes as he glared at her. She forced herself not to linger on him. He’s just an idiot grieving his father. Leave him alone. The Rangers were a much bigger problem. One stood on either side of her, with the third Ranger off to the left.
“I’m going to piss on your grave, apolvosgua,” Kyrek snarled, stepping forward.
Or not. She snapped her head towards him, returning the glare as rage flooded into her. He was well-justified in his hatred, but the insult still offended her. She drew herself up as best she could as he neared. His palms struck her shoulders, shoving her until her back was pressed firmly against the wall. He towered over her, pinning her against the wall with his body, hands still on her shoulders. She gritted her teeth as pain stabbed through her again.
“You murdered my father,” he hissed.
The Physician’s face flashed across her mind’s eye. A pang of guilt twisted her stomach. She shouldn’t have killed him. Physicians dedicated their lives to helping people – it was hardly Doctor Kyrek’s fault that he’d been drafted into a stupid war. Her eyes flicked across Kyrek’s face. She could see his father’s featured glaring back at her. I’m sorry.
Go away, Jerica. Send the assassin back. You’ve got no business here. She tried to shake the guilt from her mind. She couldn’t hardly admit to Kyrek that she’d made a mistake. Besides, it’s what needed to happen. She couldn’t afford to start second-guessing herself. If she started apologizing now, she’d have to apologize to all the other people she’d wronged, and that would take the rest of her life to catch up on.
Kyrek jabbed his finger into Jerica’s shoulder.
Rage drowned the guilt.
“Oh, I remember him clearly,” she spat. The pressure stopped. Kyrek’s gaze landed on her eyes, suddenly vulnerable. Let’s see how you like having someone jab at your wound. “He died badly, blubbering about what a disappointment his son is.”
Kyrek’s featured twisted in anger and he drove his fist into her face in an instant. Her head slammed against the wall behind her, making her ears ring. She wobbled for a moment as her balance was thrown off. His fist landed on her face again. The world slid from beneath her and she landed flat on her back, vision blurred.
Her eyes fluttered open just in time to see Kyrek landing on top of her. He straddled her abdomen and grabbed at the chain around her neck to haul her a few inches off the ground. His fist slammed into her face again, driving her downward so that her head slammed against the floor. Her skull felt like it split wide open.
Jerica tried to raise her hands to protect herself as he punched her again, but the manacles were still chained to the iron belt around her waist and she couldn’t get her arms any higher than her chest. His fist slammed into her face again and again and again and—
“What the—?” Femola yanked Kyrek off her. “Stop it!”
Jerica coughed, blood mixing with her saliva until it was a bitter slime that coated her entire mouth. She turned her head and spat. The blood dribbled down her cheek. She took a shallow breath, gagging as the blood dripped from her nasal cavity into the back of her throat. She spat again.
“As much fun as this is to watch,” Lord Femola said. “We are on a time constraint. Rangers, get her up.”
Her body ached even worse as the Rangers yanked her to her feet. It felt like someone had wrapped her entire body – from her head all the way down to her toes – in barbed wire and now were pulling the strands tight. Her sternum ached with the force it put on her body to breathe. Her ribcage felt like it was full of bees that stung her with each breath.
The Rangers hauled her into the Throne Room.
Jerica stared at the brilliant red carpet beneath her. It took too much effort to lift her head. She gasped, breaking past the block in her chest to pant for air. Her toes dragged along the carpet. Her stomach churned with the choppy stride of the Rangers on either side of her. She could see Femola’s boots ahead of them, leading the way.
She weakly forced her head upward.
There was a man sitting on the throne directly in front of her. He was middle-aged with graying hair and sandy brown skin. And glowering at her with all the intensity that she remembered from the last time she’d seen him. Five minutes. Five minutes without something going wrong for me. Is that too much to ask?
The Rangers stopped walking.
Jerica took a deep breath and deliberately forced herself to raise her chin. Maybe if I make him angry enough, he’ll just kill me and put me out of this misery. She swallowed hard, cringing as bloody saliva slid down her throat. She coughed, then took a deep breath and met the king’s angry glower. Oh, come on, it was just one advisor.
He stood from his throne and jauntily strode down the few stairs towards her, stopping uncomfortably close to her. She could see the bright yellow sash he always wore over his crimson robes. The only difference was her sorry state. This wasn’t like her. Wasn’t like them. She always had the upper hand when Levin sent her to Nykeria. Always.
“I thought I told you—” He grabbed a fistful of her hair and yanked her head backward, exposing her neck. His eyebrows were knit together as he scowled at her. He reached his right hand up to grasp her throat, firm but not tight. Just threatening in the reality that could change in an instant. “That I didn’t want your head connected to your body the next time I saw you?”
“In case it wasn’t clear.” Her voice was hoarse, barely loud enough to be heard. She rattled her chains. “I don’t want to see you, either.”
“Think we could just pop this head off now?” His grasp tightened around her neck for the briefest of moments before loosening again. “Quell some of the vitriol?”
She swallowed hard. His scowl turned into a cruel smirk; palm still pressed against her throat. His gaze flicked towards the Rangers on either side of her. “Leave us.”
“Sir!” They both released their grasps and stepped away.
It felt like a lead weight dropped onto her shoulders as she suddenly had to support her own body. She extended her right leg to catch her weight as she fell. The angle was all wrong. Her weight landed on the right side of the ball of her foot and her ankle rolled.
She landed on her face at the King’s feet.
He put his foot on her side and kicked her onto her back. She blinked, hard, trying to think past the throbbing of her head. It was louder than her all thoughts. All words. All sights. She opened her eyes. He was standing over her, smirking. “At my feet, just where you belong.”