Jerica grudgingly set to work sharpening the weapons as Aerik took his leave. It was an easy job. One that she had enough practice with that she could’ve done it with her eyes closed. Which left her with plenty of time to think through what Aerik had said.
The interaction between Biryn and Derik in Rek’s room finally made sense to her. But what about the rest of her life? Had there been hints scattered through her childhood that she hadn’t picked up on? There had to have been.
She’d known that Derik was angry about Biryn’s treatment of her. He made no secret of that to her, or him, or Levin. But he and Biryn kept their distaste for each other more or less private, a family secret. She and Biryn had no such arrangement. Biryn would provoke her in front of her troops, and she’d answer in turn – leaving Derik to pick up the pieces they left.
It was hard to believe that she’d spent an entire lifetime fighting with an As’veri, and had somehow lived to tell the tale. Sure, she’d never tried to actually hurt him. And every time she fought with him it was in direct response to something he’d done to her first. And he always, always hurt her far worse than she did him. But she still fought him a lot.
Even in the few days before her capture. Threatening to break Biryn’s arm when he embarrassed her on the wall. Throwing her binder at him in the War Council. Shouldering between him and Levin in Rek’s room when they came in to antagonize her. And then there were all the time she’d punched and kicked and bit him throughout her childhood.
He’d deserved every last one. But it was still a wonder she’d gotten away with it with nothing more than a lot of bruises… and some broken bones… and that one time that he sliced her abdomen opened… and the injections. Now that she thought about it, he’d definitely dealt far worse to her than she ever did him.
Her mind wandered back to the injections. He’d always been so aggressive about not telling her what he’d put into them. She tried to get it out of him, but it only ended with her getting hurt. So she’d dropped the matter after he gave her a vague answer about hormones and steroids and other molecules that he claimed she wouldn’t understand. But now she wondered what was actually the serum. What if he was doing some dark arts on her instead of actual science?
So what? She sighed and rubbed her face. It’s not like she could do anything about it even if he was. And, it had had the effect he was hoping for. She was fast and strong and a skilled warrior. The perfect soldier.
Jerica spent the rest of the day sharpening Aerik’s blades, then came out to join him for dinner. Afterwards they sank down in the over-stuffed chairs by the fireplace in the sitting room that adjoined the dining room. Aerik took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then looked over at her. “What?”
She’d been trying so hard not to nag him. But this was her chance. And she’d had plenty of time to think up questions throughout the day. “How large is the Guild?”
Aerik considered her for a moment. “This is getting dangerously close to information I can’t give you until—”
“I’m inducted, yeah, I know,” Jerica interrupted. She was getting sick of that answer.
He smirked a bit but continued as if she hadn’t cut in. “But we have quite a few members. As I mentioned, we have people posted in every country. Some are in prominent positions. Some are less evident. We also have people who travel around various places, to both collect and share information from around the Realm.”
“And you’re the one assigned to Nykeria?”
“One of them, yes.” Aerik inclined his head.
Jerica sighed, rubbing her temples. So many things she’d been ignorant about, despite her best efforts to stay well-informed about the happenings around the Realm. And, so, so many things she still didn’t understand. “So, there are numerous people in each Realm?”
“Yes. We have various responsibilities.”
“And what’s your job?”
Aerik smiled thinly.
Jerica sighed again, rolling her eyes. Of course. Yet another piece of information he wouldn’t tell her. “Fine. So, both my uncles are in the Guild. Derik must be the one assigned to the prominent position in Atraya. Zander doesn’t have a prominent position in any country, so he must be one of the hidden members. Or one who travels.”
She was more rambling to herself at this point, trying to talk out what she knew and what it meant, instead of asking for confirmation.
“But he travels a lot — he’s brought me gifts from many different countries. And he’s hard to contact now, which means he’s not somewhere you can get him letters, like he would be if he had a set station.” Which only left one conclusion. “Which means he’s one of the members who doesn’t have a particular assignment and instead travels with information.”
She finally looked up from where she’d fixed her eyes on the empty fireplace. Aerik was looking at her with a small smile as she worked everything out, bit by bit. “You’re very bright. I see why your uncles speak so highly of you.”
Jerica was caught off guard. Her gaze snapped to his eyes. Her uncles talked about her? And... spoke highly of her? She knew they loved her and treated her well. But, somehow, it hadn’t occurred to her that they might compliment her behind her back.
“They... talk about me?” she asked.
“Of course, they do.” He smiled. “They’re both delighted about the woman you’re becoming. And they absolutely adored you your entire childhood. They talked about you every single time I saw either of them.”
Jerica was stunned. And felt a strange sense of pride bubbling up in her chest, knowing that her admiration of her uncles went both ways. It was flattering. Satisfying.
“I mean, I didn’t hear about McCroakers—"
Jerica narrowed her eyes at him. Of course, it had to come back to the stupid toad.
“But I heard about that iguana you kept in your room until it got out and made that little punk cousin of yours pass out because he was so scared.”
Jerica laughed. “Levin was furious. I got in so much trouble.”
Aerik looked at her with a small smirk. “And I can tell you’re very sorry.”
“It was hysterical,” Jerica defended. “Oh my gosh, Levi’s face.”
Jerica mimicked it and then started cackling.
Aerik laughed too. “Derik was also highly amused by it.”
“Wait!” Jerica’s gaze snapped back to his face, indignant. “He thought it was funny? He made me clean the whole armory for that one.”
Aerik laughed again. “Just because mischief is funny doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be disciplined. Didn’t want you going out and finding another iguana, now did he?”
She nodded. That had been exactly her plan when she discovered it was missing from her room. Sure, she went to find it. She just happened to find it at the exact moment that Levi did. But she’d planned to get another one if she hadn’t found it. “That’s fair I guess.”
“And then the time you took one of each of Levin and Biryn and Derik’s shoes and —”
Jerica started laughing again. She couldn’t have been older than twelve at the time. But her sense of humor remained unchanged. Because it she still thought that prank was hysterical.
“You really mixed up their shoes and split them among all three of their closets?”
“Except for the three — one from a pair from each of them — that I hid in Lyiaza’s closet. And the few of my own shoes I scattered in too.” She was still smirking. “I thought for sure that would make them think I was another victim and Lyiaza her done it.”
Aerik laughed. “But you failed to account for the fact that you caused more mischief than the other three kids combined? Or so I’m told.”
“Hey!” Jerica raised a finger, but was still grinning. “That evidence was damning. And it was beautifully executed. It’s not my fault they didn’t buy it.”
Aerik smiled and shook his head. “I do believe that you are the only person alive who has trolled a King, a War Lord, and an As’veri and somehow lived to tell the tale.”
“Eh, I was their precious little assassin, what were they going to do?” And she hadn’t known at the time that Biryn was As’veri. In retrospect, she shouldn’t have tried her luck. But it was still funny.
Aerik raised an eyebrow.
Jerica hesitated, deflating a bit as she remembered what they’d done. It had been one of her poorer decisions. And was when she learned not to prank Derik. He’d still protected her from Biryn’s proposed punishment. But he was stern. And she wanted him on her side when she got in trouble, as it turned out. “Okay... they could — and did — do a lot. But it was still funny... as a one-time prank.”
Aerik chuckled. “Derik was annoyed by that one, but Zander howled when Derik told us about it… and so did I.”
Jerica smiled a bit, reveling in the fact that Derik and Zander were proud of her and had told Aerik about her. That still made her happy to think about. But then back to why they knew Aerik to begin with. She still had a lot of questions about the Guild. “Wait so the Guild—”
“We have plenty of time for questions, Princess,” Aerik interrupted. “How about we just enjoy the moment?”
Jerica hesitated, then nodded, settling back in the chair. Yet another luxury she didn’t often get. Getting to relax without worrying about Biryn or Levin barging in to yell at her. Having time to sit about chatting instead of having work to do.
Aerik stood up and walked to the corner. Jerica watched him as he picked up a lyre and brought back to his seat. She smiled a bit as he sat down and began plucking a peppy tune.
Rek knew this one too.
She thought back to the Palace and the time she spent with Rek and Akeno. That was another thing she didn’t get enough of. But she relished every moment of it. Her conversations with each of them, actually able to let her guard down and talk about the things that hurt.
She couldn’t do that often. She had to be invincible in front of her men. Strong and indominable in front of Levin and Biryn and in War Councils. Even in the privacy of her own room, she rarely had the courage to face her own feelings.
They were too big and painful to be handled by herself. And she was terrible at emotions anyway. How was she supposed to know why she felt so angry and sad and scared all the time? Or figure out what she was feeling in the first place. All she knew was she felt on edge every moment of the day, and she wasn’t when she was with Rek or Akeno.
Jerica looked up as Aerik changed songs. This one sent a pang through her chest. It was her favorite. She hadn’t heard it since the last time Nykim had visited the Palace.
They’d been in Rek’s room. She and Akie were sitting in the alcove by the window. Akie was sitting behind her with both arms wrapped around her, and she was leaning into his chest. Nykim was sitting next to Rek with his head on Rek’s shoulder. Rek had his head tilted to the side to rest against Nykim’s and was strumming on his lute, playing this song.
She and Nykim sang the first line to their boyfriends. She shook the thought away. Nykim sang it to his boyfriend. She sang it to Akie. Her Lieutenant. A friend. Who happened to also be a boy. Not her boyfriend. It’s just physical, that’s all it is. And that’s all it was ever going to be. I don’t care about him and he doesn’t care about me. It’s just physical.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to listen to the song instead.