Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
There were so many things to think about. Jerica ate her meal in silence, trying to think through them all. So, Aerik could be beaten by someone she knew, but not Derik or Aldik or Pratik. And, anyone could learn to use the R’hyk, but few people even knew it existed. And then there was Biryn, who might or might not be As’veri.
“How do you kill an As’veri?” she asked finally, breaking the silence.
“You don’t,” Aerik answered, meeting her gaze. “Almost everyone who fights an As’veri ends up dead.”
“Same could be said of a Chijurru, too,” she pointed out.
“Getting lucky once doesn’t mean you will again,” Aerik said, frowning. “You need to get that foolish thought out of your head.”
Jerica was silent for a moment. His insistence was making her even more certain that Biryn was an As’veri. Why else would he be so adamant that she shouldn’t try? He had to think there was an As’veri that she might be near enough to fight. “He is one, isn’t he?”
“I never said that,” Aerik answered.
“No,” she agreed, meeting his gaze. “Which is why I’m asking.”
“Princess.” He sighed. “You are on the brink of uncovering a bunch of secrets that you aren’t meant to know.”
“Good.” She turned towards him, determined to make him answer some of these questions that she had. “I’m not a child. You don’t need to shelter me.”
“Secrets are dangerous.”
“Which is why I should know them,” she retorted. “I’m far more likely to get hurt by something I can’t see coming than I am by something I know about.”
“Unless you decide to be stubborn.” He gave her a pointed look. “Which, based on everything I’ve heard about you – and seen about you – is exactly what you’re likely to do. I’m not going to give you the fodder to get yourself killed.”
There was a moment of silence between them. Aerik had a point. Jerica did have a habit of going off half-cocked. She was starting to get better about it. But she still did it. Like with Valeren. And the Chijurru. And Kaidren.
But, then, what did it matter? She was going to get killed one way or another anyway. In the past week alone, she’d killed a powerful sorcerer and a Chijurru. And become a prisoner of war. And got tortured. And come toe-to-toe with a dragon and his keeper. Not to mention all the arrows and swords she’d dodged in the week leading up to that point.
“I’m going to get myself killed anyway,” she retorted. “So what does it matter? We both know how this game works. And how it ends.”
Aerik looked at her for a long moment, expression sympathetic. “I don’t think you’re destined to an early death, Princess. Despite all the hell you’ve already been through in your short lifetime.”
“It’s just a matter of time.”
She wasn’t sure why she was being honest with him. Maybe because he was easy to talk to. And because she didn’t feel the need to shield him from her feelings. It only hurt Rek and Derik and Akeno when she talked about her inevitable death. But it was inevitable. Everything broke eventually. And there were only so many battles you could send your assassin into before she got to the one that she couldn’t win.
“Almost every single person in every single country about wants me dead,” she said. “And apparently there’s a whole score of secrets and guilds and puzzles that I don’t even know about. And they probably also want me dead.”
“Kyrkkyni doesn’t want you dead,” Aerik said firmly. “Quite the opposite. We’ve invested a lot of time and effort and resources to ensure you’ve survived this long.”
“And how long do you think that’s going to be enough?” She was getting frustrated. “What if the Nykerians had slit my throat instead of sending me here? Or if the Chijurru would have managed to get me down its throat? Or Valeren? Or the hundreds of soldiers on my doorstep? I flirt with death almost every single day. I’m not a fucking child. I deserve answers.”
Aerik looked at her for a long moment, then took a deep breath. He let it out in a slow sigh, brow worried as he looked at her. “You’re right.”
She’d sucked in a deep breath, ready to argue with whatever he answered. Instead, she let it out and looked at him, curious. That had been easier than she expected. She forced herself not to inflect her answer as a question. “I am.”
“You are,” Aerik agreed. “All these secrets are intimately intertwined with your life and you deserve to know about them. But not until you’re a member of the Guild. Like it or not, some secrets are too big to bear alone. You need the protection and training and guidance of the Guild to be ready to shoulder these secrets.”
She felt a strange desire pulsing through her to be part of this all-knowing Guild he kept referencing. To finally share in the secrets that had been following her since birth that she hadn’t known existed. “So, take me to the Guild.”
“That is not my place,” Aerik said.
“Godsdamnit!” Jerica slammed her fist down on the table. “Whose fucking place is it then? Or is it no one’s place and I’m supposed to pretend to be okay with all this?”
Aerik looked at her evenly, unfazed by her outburst.
Jerica forced herself to take a deep breath. Anger wasn’t going to get her the answers she so desperately wanted. She swallowed hard. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Aerik answered. “I would also be angry if I were in your position.”
She sighed. “But…?”
“Secrets don’t become mine to share, just because withholding them upsets you,” Aerik answered. “In fact, if you’re going to become a member of the Guild, then you need to get used to that, Princess. It is very important for Guild members to know when to keep silent.”
That much made sense. But she didn’t have a problem with keeping secrets. It was just infuriating when secrets were kept from her. She rubbed her thumb, remembering how badly it’d hurt when Femola ripped the nail off. But even then, she hadn’t shared a single military secret with him. “I can keep my mouth shut.”
Aerik looked at her hands, then up towards her face. “I know you can. That’s why I’ve told you as much as I have. But I’m not sharing secrets that belong to the Guild. And I’m not taking you there until both of your uncles agree it’s time.”
She sighed, rubbing her face. Levin was never going to agree to her learning anything that she couldn’t immediately share with him. And she didn’t want Levin and Biryn knowing that she knew something she wouldn’t tell them. That always ended painfully. “So, you’re telling me that even Levin knows about the Guild, but you won’t tell me?”
“Levin isn’t your uncle,” Aerik said.
She squinted at him.
Aerik cleared his throat. “Uncles actually love you.”
Jerica was silent for a moment, putting the pieces together. “You mean Zander.”
Aerik inclined his head.
That seemed almost as impossible. She didn’t even know where Zander was. She rarely knew where Zander was, unless he was with her. She sighed. “And you’re not going to tell me any Guild secrets until he turns up?”
Aerik shook his head. “Sorry.”
Jerica groaned and rubbed her face. She was so frustrated by all this, yet knew that she wasn’t going to provoke an answer out of him. She already knew enough about Aerik to see he wasn’t the type to get flustered. “And I suppose that whether Biryn is or isn’t As’veri is one of the Guild’s secrets?”
Aerik was silent for a moment, then, “No.”
Jerica looked at him, curious. “So, you can tell me.”
“I can.” He sighed.
“And…?” she prodded.
“He is As’veri,” Aerik answered. “And if you go after him, you will die. The R’hyk I showed you up in the gardens – the force that completely immobilized you – is nothing compared to his magic. He will kill you if you try something stupid.”
Jerica’s mind reeled again with the confirmation, instead of just her assumption. Before today, she hadn’t even considered the possibility of Biryn being As’veri. She’d been under the impression that As’veri were vile enough that you could spot them immediately. And, that they made no effort to conceal who they were. What they were. Had she really been living with one her life and had no idea?
“Derik knows,” she said. He had to. What else could he know about Biryn that would make Biryn back down? And, what could Biryn know about Derik that would convince him to live with an As’veri? Derik wouldn’t let an As’veri live in the Palace unless there was a good reason for it. Something Derik didn’t want Biryn sharing with anyone else. “And Biryn knows he’s in Kyrkkyni.”
“Biryn doesn’t know about Kyrkkyni,” Aerik answered. “But he did figure out one of those secrets that Kyrkkyni guards. And it’ll get you killed if he tells anyone.”
This all felt so jumbled up. So, Derik knew they were living with a dangerous evil spirit. But let him stay because Biryn could hurt her if Derik told anyone. And yet neither of them had told her they knew the others’ secret. And she still didn’t know what Derik’s secret was. Or why it was somehow big enough that she’d get killed if anyone found out.
“So, it’s safer for me to get bullied by an As’veri than for whatever that secret is to be revealed?”
Aerik cringed. “If Derik could stop Biryn he would. I hope you know that. But yes. The secret is that important. It is much safer for you to be abused by an As’veri than it would be for that secret to become public knowledge. As much as it hurts all of us to know what Biryn does to you. There’s no other way around it.”
Jerica took a shaky breath, trying – and failing – to wrap her head around all this. Her mind felt like it was running into a brick wall. Unable to grasp the fact that she’d somehow grown up under the scrutiny of an As’veri and somehow lived to tell the tale. Or, he’d become an As’veri after already knew the secret. “When did he become an As’veri?”
“I don’t know,” Aerik answered. “I know that Biryn is the name of the spirit possessing that body. I have no idea what the sorcerer’s name was, before Biryn killed him. All I know is that Biryn is an incredibly strong spirit, and whoever tried to summon him was a complete fool. But it was before you were born, if that’s what you’re actually asking.”
She didn’t think she was ever going to comprehend how As’veri worked. The fact that there was an evil spirit controlling the body of a dead sorcerer, lounging about in the Palace and hitting her whenever he liked. “Is that why he’s so mean to me?”
“What do you mean?”
“The secret,” Jerica said, looking up to meet Aerik’s gaze. “Is that why Biryn chose me instead of Lyiaza? Because he knows that Derik can’t stop him from hurting me, without risking me getting killed if Biryn exposes the secret?”
Aerik took a deep breath then sighed. “We think so. But I don’t know. It’s not like it’s something we can ask him.”
“What’s the secret?” Jerica asked. It had to huge to be worth all the abuse that she’d endured at Biryn’s hand her entire life. And which Derik had had to let her endure, even though he knew what Biryn was.
Aerik looked at her passively.
Right. Of course. That was one of the Guild’s secrets that he wasn’t going to tell her until Zander showed up again. “I don’t understand. What secret could be that dangerous? Everyone already wants me dead.”
“No one truly dangerous wants you dead,” Aerik answered. “Well, at least, they haven’t figured out who you are. Yet.”
“What?” she asked tiredly. It seemed like the more Aerik talked, the less she understood. Her head was starting to hurt.
“It’s time we stop talking and start working.” Aerik stood up.
“Aerik.” She stood up too, but frowned at him. He couldn’t expect her to accept all of this without getting her questions answered.
“I know it’s a lot, Princess,” Aerik answered, giving her a sympathetic look. “Which is exactly why this is enough, for now. You have a lot to think about. To process. You’re going to get overwhelmed if we keep talking. Let’s revisit this later.”