Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
“Must have been intense,” the man said. “To get injured this severely and not even remember what it is that did the injuring.”
Jerica was silent.
The man smeared some salve across the wound. She cringed, looking down at her leg. The knee was severely swollen, nearly double the size it usually was. The man tied several bandages around it. It ached terribly and she doubted she’d be able to bend it if she tried, but the extra support made it feel stronger.
The man moved his stool to the head of the bed. Jerica looked up into his face, noticing more of his features. He was strong-jawed and had stubble growing on his face. There were wrinkles etched deep into his face. He looked like he was somewhere in his mid-forties. His eyes were focused on her shoulder, then moved towards her face. He looked at her for a long moment with an intense gaze. She swallowed hard and glanced away.
“And your shoulder?”
“I took an—” she trailed off, thinking better of it. Maybe if he wasn’t scared of her, then that meant he didn’t actually know who she was. And maybe if he didn’t realize she was an Ainsley, then she could pretend to be a lost, injured girl and play on his sympathies… if she figured out how to be likeable.
“Looks like an arrow wound,” he said. She glanced towards him again. He met her gaze again, lifting an eyebrow. “How’d you manage that?”
She took a deep breath. He clearly recognized the triangular pattern in the edges of the wound. She locked eyes with him, never looking away as she formulated her story. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Papa warned me not to go out in the street, but I thought it’d be safe enough. Turned out he was right. A fly-away arrow found its way to me.”
“I see…” He gestured at the cut on her upper arm. “And what happened here?”
“The arrow knocked me over, and I cut my shoulder on a metal crate as I fell,” she answered, never breaking eye contact.
“Wow, what a coincidence.”
Jerica hesitated, unsure whether he was buying her story or not. His tone was as devoid of emotion as her facial expressions were. Like two stone walls speaking to one another. Only her stone was crumbly and hurt. “Truly.”
“And here?” he asked, gesturing at her forearm.
Jerica looked down. She’d almost forgotten about her forearm. The scar was pink and puffy, but the stitches were in place and the skin was sealed. It was the least concerning part of her body just then. But she didn’t have a good explanation for that one.
“Mm?” he prompted.
“I heard a rumor that Physicians are able to take blood from one person to help another person that lost a lot of blood,” she answered, looking back to his eyes once again. Most people looked away when they lied. She was careful to meet his gaze. “My brother got injured so I cut my arm to try to help him.”
His eyebrows shot up in surprise. “And did it work?”
“Yeah, actually.” She’d been surprised when it worked, too.
“I’m sure he appreciates it,” the man said.
Jerica nodded slowly. With any luck, Rek still hadn’t figured out that she’d been the one who gave him blood. She didn’t want him to ever know what she’d done. And yet, he probably already knew, with how loose-tongued the servants were in the palace.
The man bandaged up her shoulder and upper arm, but left her forearm to air. He rifled through another bag then produced a canteen and a roll. He helped her sit up then handed her the food. She carefully took several sips of water, then ate the bread, sipping water between each bite. Her throat felt like it was raw flesh and the simple act of swallowing hurt, but she felt like life dumped into her with each bite she took.
The man took her right hand in his own and whistled again. “Your poor thumb.”
She looked down at her hand and cringed. Her poor thumb indeed. It looked nearly as bad as it felt. She gritted her teeth, forcing herself not to whimper as he put a bit of salve on the nailbed and ever so carefully wrapped it in a bandage. She cradled her hand in her lap as he pulled his own hands away.
“These are for you,” the man said, gesturing at the trousers and tunic laying on the foot of the bed. He walked to the end of the bed and opened the wooden chest, pulling out sleeping clothes and moving the day clothes to sit on top of the chest. He tossed the sleeping clothes down on the bed next to her. “These are also for you.”
She took them silently. The trousers went on well-enough, just a bit awkward without being able to bend her knee or pull them up with her left hand. The tunic was worse. The sleeves were too long and got knotted up. She couldn’t figure out how to move her left shoulder enough to get her arm in the sleeve.
“Here.” The man gently helped her.
The clothes were much too big for her. The sleeves of the shirt were longer than her fingers were long, and the legs of the night pants hung past her toes. The main part of the tunic was baggy around her thin waist. The night pants gaped at her waist, also too large. It still felt heavenly to be in clean, intact clothing.
“So…” the man said, leaning back on his stool. “Who are you, anyway?”
This was her chance. If he didn’t know who she was, maybe she could set herself up as the victim here. Earn his sympathies that the Nykerians had dragged her into the midst of these abandoned wood. Get him to help her get home. “My name is Eliana.”
“Is it?” He looked at her skeptically for a long moment. She nodded, swallowing hard. He crossed his arms. “Well, then, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Derik Ainsley.”
She frowned at him.
“What?” he asked. “I thought we were just making up random names for ourselves, if you’re going to call yourself Eliana, Princess.”
Fuck. She looked at him uneasily.
“Let’s try these questions again, shall we?” he said. “Maybe this time, without the lies?”
Jerica was silent as she looked at the man. He didn’t break gazes with her, even when she knit her eyebrows together into a scowl. Her heart fluttered. This was bad, if he knew who she actually was. But that was still a big ‘if’ at the moment. For all she knew he was bluffing in hopes that she’d show her hand. “I don’t know who you think I am—”
“I know exactly who you are,” he interrupted, switching to Traditional Atraian. “Jerica Ainsley, the child-Princess turned assassin turned General turned… prisoner of war, I’m guessing, since some Nykerians dropped you on my doorstep… turned captive of the Dragon of Nykeria.”
Her head felt light. Dragon. He certainly didn’t seem capable of the growling and earthquakes she’d experienced earlier. If he claimed to be the Dragon of Nykeria holding her captive, then he was clearly a shapeshifter. There was no other explanation. I wonder if he murders people while in his human form?
“I’ve got no qualms with you, Sir Dragon,” she said at last, switching back to the Trade Language. His comfort with her native tongue felt vaguely invasive. She didn’t like it.
“Sir Dragon, eh?” He laughed, running a hand through his mop of tangled hair, as he also switched back to the Trade Language. “You think I can change forms?” He was still grinning, but shook his head. “No, I am the Dragon Keeper. You’ll know it if you meet the dragon himself. I promise.”
She felt foolish. Her face flushed with embarrassment. “What do you want from me?”
“The truth,” he said, shrugging a shoulder. “For starters.”
“Why ask me all these questions if you already know the answer to them?” Jerica challenged. “You’re toying with me.”
“Not at all,” he said. “I simply knew you were going to lie, and I wanted to see what your tell is when you’re lying.”
“I don’t have a tell,” she snapped. Derik had seen to that. He always said that the greatest asset a warrior could have was complete mastery of themselves. She didn’t hesitate when she lied; didn’t look away; didn’t bite her lip or wring her hands. Falsehoods were as easy to spout as any truth.
“Everyone has a tell.”
Jerica hesitated for a moment. It was absurd. She knew that she didn’t. It’d been a substantial part of her training when she first became King’s Assassin, learning how to lie without betraying herself in the process. Even Lord Biryn couldn’t tell her fibs from the truth at this point, and he was good at seeing through people. And yet. “What’s mine, then?”
The man smirked.
“Who are you?” she demanded, glowering at him.
“Ooh, we getting spicy,” he taunted. “I’ll tell you who I am, as soon as you tell me the truth to the questions I already asked.”
“You already know who I am,” Jerica spat.
“And what happened to your shoulder?” he asked, gesturing at the arrow wound without breaking eye contact.
“I took an arrow.”
“Obviously,” he answered. “But I doubt your Papa was telling you anything when it happened. An arrow wound taking seventeen years to heal seems a little farfetched even for you, don’t you think?”
Jerica flushed, finally breaking eye contact. She hated that her parents’ deaths were a matter of public spectacle. Most children were afforded privacy when they lost their parents. She was known as the orphan from the instant anyone met her. The freak that had survived the attack on the Royal Picnic. The accident.
“From the looks of your wound,” the man said. “You took it from the back. Why were you running from an enemy?”
“I wasn’t running,” she snarled, gaze snapping back towards his face. He lifted an eyebrow. “At least, not how you seem to think.”
“So, tell me how it was,” he said. “Set the record straight.”
Jerica thought for a moment, then shook her head. “No.”
“No?” he challenged.
“You’re not going to believe me, no matter what I say,” she answered. “And I’m not stupid enough to gloat about killing your compatriots, while you’re armed and I’m not.”
“I’m not Nykerian,” the man answered. “And I’m a neutral with this absurd war. I’d be just as happy if both Nykeria and Atraya lost this war, just as I wouldn’t mind if both of them won, or one won over the other. I’ve got better things to do than concern myself with petty politics. You’re much more interesting. Who’d you kill?”