Jerica was silent for a moment. This man wasn’t just a step ahead of her – he was nearly out of sight, dancing in front of her, mocking how slow her brain was. May as well… She took a deep breath and then huffed a sigh. “I was behind the Nykerians’ front line, by myself, to kill Valeren. He’s a—”
“I know who he is,” the man interrupted. “Was? Did you actually manage to kill him all by yourself?”
The man’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Impressive.”
“Yeah.” She wasn’t going to be distracted by compliments. “I had the entirety of the Nykerian army after me. And one of them managed to get an arrow jabbed into my shoulder before I got to safety.”
“And this one?” he asked, gesturing at her upper arm.
“A traitor was emboldened by the arrow sticking out of me,” she answered dismissively. “Managed to nick my arm before I killed him, too.”
The man nodded. “And the knee?”
“I… actually don’t remember what happened there.”
“Which means it happened during your capture, then?”
Jerica hesitated, then nodded.
“I’d quite like to hear about that.”
“I’d quite like to know who you are,” she countered. “I answered all the questions you already asked me. Those were the terms, no?”
He smirked. “Fair enough. The name’s Aerik Munen.”
Jerica frowned. The name seemed as familiar as his face did, and yet she couldn’t have placed him even if her life depended on it. She racked her brain for anything that might even hint to how she should know him, but came up blank.
“Don’t hurt yourself.” His smirk widened. “You’ll know me by my baby brother, I believe. Aldik Munen?”
Jerica gasped. Aldik Munen, the War Lord of Alheren. It made perfect sense. They shared many of the same mannerisms. Aldik was also enigmatic and maybe a bit too-mischievous for his own good. And now that she knew, she could see the similarities in their features. He nodded at her recognition.
“He never mentioned you.”
“Good,” Aerik said. “He’s not supposed to mention me.”
“Because I don’t want to be recognized the instant someone lays eyes on me.” He gave her a pointed look. “Eliana.”
She scowled. “That’s hardly my fault.”
“How do you figure?” he asked. “You’ve got the wound to prove you’re the one that killed Valeren, do you not?”
“I—” Jerica snorted. “The only reason you knew who I am is because the Nykerians hate me enough to take the time to dump me here. The only other woman they loathe this much is Darrana Elstan, and I’m not…” She hesitated. “Blonde.”
There were so many ways she could contrast herself with Darrana but none of them were kind. And if Aerik’s brother was the War Lord of Alheren, she probably shouldn’t insult any Alherians either, no matter how tempting it was. Jerica wasn’t stupid. Or fat. Or shallow. Or pampered. Or cowardly. Unlike Darrana Elstan.
For how incredible women were, Jerica could never understand why so many of them were so terrible to other women. You’d think they’d all band together – give each other the love and respect and support that men denied them. And yet, Darrana ran away from her when Jerica tried to be her friend when they were children. Just like everyone else.
“Blonde,” he repeated with a snort. “No other differences, of course.”
That’s not fair, Jerica thought. You just don’t like her. Darrana wasn’t as pampered and cowardly as most well-bred ladies were. Her father rivaled Levin’s abuse in how poorly he treated Darrana. And she must have some amount of courage to escape the clutches of the Nykerians, when they’d been latched on to her rather than Lyiaza. She still didn’t like her.
“How’d you manage to take up residence in Nykeria, if you’re Alherian?” she asked.
“I’m not Alherian, either,” Aerik answered. “And, dragon. We don’t exactly have to ask for permission. The Nykerians were happy enough to leave us alone after we made it clear we weren’t leaving.”
“But, Aldik –”
“Come now, Princess,” he interrupted. “You’ve seen enough of the world by now to know that things are rarely as they seem. You can’t believe everything you’re told.”
Jerica was silent for a moment.
She’d never considered that Aldik might not be Alherian. Some countries appointed a member of the Royal Family to the post of War Lord; others appointed the best option from their ranks. But she’d never heard of a man becoming a War Lord of a country he wasn’t a native of. Unless, Aerik was implying something else. “Are you accusing Aldik of a falsehood, or admitting to telling me one yourself?”
Aerik smirked. “You’re clever, Princess.”
Well, that’s a non-answer. A wave of exhaustion hit Jerica out of nowhere. She knew she was well past her second-wind, and it was anyone’s guess which wind she was on, but it was clear she’d reached the end of it. She rubbed her eyes. Her shoulder throbbed.
Aerik watched her, a knowing look in his eyes. “Tell me, Princess. Did you eat some of the berries that grow amongst the moss?”
She narrowed her eyes, equal parts suspicious as to why he was asking, and also afraid. She knew better than to eat random berries she found in the woods, and yet, that was the choice she’d made. Maybe these were the consequences of that choice. “Why?”
“Because your entire demeanor just sank,” he answered, gesturing at her. “And the berries tend to have that effect. They are a stimulant and pain repressor. But when their effects wear off, it’s sudden.”
“Is that a yes?” he pressed.
She nodded, rubbing her face tiredly.
“How did they taste?”
“You’re toying with me,” she grumbled. If he knew their effect, he certainly knew their taste. There was no reason to ask aside from making her feel foolish.
“I’m not,” he answered. “Humor me.”
She saw no hint of deception. “They were sweet.”
“Fascinating.” He bent to dig in his medical bag.
He straightened his back, holding up a vial and ignoring her question. “I assume you’re familiar with 285?” Jerica nodded. “This is 285 mixed with an anti-inflammatory herb and a sleep aid. Would you like to take it?”
Jerica considered for a moment. It wasn’t wise to take medicine from strangers. He could be giving her a poison for all she knew. And even if he was telling the truth about what was in the vial, she probably shouldn’t accept a sleeping aide. She should be alert so she could slip away when he fell asleep. She glanced at her knee. That wasn’t going to happen tonight, regardless. She looked back at Aerik. “Yes.”
He popped the cork out of the end and handed it to her. Jerica took it and sniffed. There was the vague scent of mint that accompanied the sleeping medicine the Physicians would sometimes give her. She hesitated. This is such a stupid idea. You should be alert if he tries to hurt you during the night.
“I’ll ask again,” Aerik said, watching her hesitation. “What would my motivation be to bring you inside for a bath, food, and bandages, if I intended to hurt you?”
“How am I to know?” She looked up to meet his gaze. Her eyelids felt so heavy. She resisted the urge to rub them again. “Maybe it’s a power move for you.”
“Where is the power in a move that stupid?”
Jerica swirled the medicine in the vial, considering it. At this point, the risk seemed worth it. She could gamble taking a knife for the possibility of sweet relief from the pain that clung to her as tightly as her skin.
“Stop being Derik’s replica for one minute and let someone help you for once.”
Her gaze snapped up to meet his eyes. “I’m no one’s replica.”
Aerik laughed. “You are identical to Derik.”
“You are,” Aerik argued. “You look like him. You talk like him. You act like him. Down to the mannerisms.”
Jerica snorted. That was absurd. Of all the people she could be compared to, Derik was the best one. It was flattering, really. But not true. Derik was calm and collected and soothed tensions and made things better. She yelled a lot and punched things. She looked back at the vial, conflicted. What would Derik do in this situation? That’d be the best option.
“Do you fancy yourself as being good at reading people, Princess?” Aerik asked. “Can you tell when people are lying to you?”
Jerica hesitated. Her chest felt like it took all her energy just drawing a simple breath. She wanted nothing more than to take the medicine and lay down for a nice sleep. She bit back a yawn, then nodded. “Yes.”
“Then look me in the eyes,” Aerik said, hesitating until she did. There was no lie in his expression. He looked at her deadly seriously. “And hear me when I say this: I will not kill you sneakily. I don’t intend to kill you at all, unless you force me to, but I swear on my own life that you’ll see it coming if I do decide to kill you. It won’t be by poison. It won’t be while you’re drugged. It won’t be by a sword in your back. I don’t fear you, Princess. I’ve got no reason to be cowardly in the way I kill you.”
Jerica drank the medicine.
“There’s a good girl,” he said approvingly, taking the vial from her. She cringed as the syrupy liquid coated her throat. “Now sleep well, Princess. I’ll see you tomorrow.”