Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
Jerica did feel betrayed. If all of this was true, then it was too much to process. And if it wasn’t, then it was sheer cruelty. But neither of them seemed eager to tell her, so she doubted they were lying. And if they were telling the truth now, then –
“My entire life is a lie.”
“It…” Derik cringed. “Was a necessary lie. To keep you away from the Council.”
“How…?” Jerica sighed and rubbed her face. “How do they not know who I am? Everyone knows who I am.”
“Everyone knows who Jerica Ainsley is,” Derik said gently, giving her a sympathetic look. “The Council is looking for Katima Medeiros.”
“Katima…” Jerica trailed off, putting the pieces together. “That’s my real name.”
“It’s your birth name, yes,” Derik agreed.
“Then… who is…?” Jerica pressed her palms against her eyes. It felt like she was a cat flailing on a sheet of ice. And every question she asked made the ice that much slipperier. “Where did… why do you call me Jerica?”
“We had to get you out of Lirtira,” Zander said gently. “We had to, Jer. In Lirtira, the Council controls the Ranger Corp, not the Royal Family. And the Council sent Rangers to execute you.”
More pieces fell into place.
Aerik’s story about how he came to be in Kyrkkyni.
Refusing to murder infant princesses.
Refusing to murder her.
“Aerik,” she gasped.
“They sent Aerik,” Zander confirmed, inclining his head. “And he told me. And then he helped me get you all to safety… well… relative safety. Away from Lirtira.”
“And you…” Jerica took a shaky breath, wishing this was easier to process. “Convinced Levin to let me stay in the Palace? Even though he hates me?”
Zander and Derik exchanged a look.
“Levin… doesn’t know.” Derik wet his lips. “It was…”
“We had to…” Zander hesitated. “I’m not proud of what I had to do.”
Jerica narrowed her eyes. At this point, nothing felt off the table. “What did you do?”
“An As’veri attacked the Royal Picnic,” Derik said carefully. “Just before all this happened. Murdered most of the Ainsley family, as you know.”
“Including the youngest princess,” he said softly. “Jerica.”
Jerica felt sick. “I stole the identity of a dead baby?”
“When you put it that way…” Derik cringed. “But it was… necessary.”
“Why?” She felt her throat starting to constrict. “Why not just go on the run?”
“Because we needed a place to stash you, away from us. At least for a while,” Zander said. “Like I said, I’m not proud of it. But I was desperate. I needed some place to leave you where the Council wouldn’t find you… and the attack on the picnic had just happened… so there was a spot for an infant princess… and I had an infant princess I needed to protect.”
“But Derik was there?” Jerica was still so bewildered. “Didn’t they know?”
“They know Derik is in Atraya,” Zander said. “They don’t know you are. There was a several month gap between when I left you there and when Derik showed up.”
“So that they wouldn’t put two and two together,” Derik answered. “The Council was livid. So was Father. The Council isn’t allowed to touch members of the Royal Family, but they were getting cheeky and tried it anyway. Zander and Aerik both had to go on the run to avoid retaliation from The Council, despite Father’s efforts to control their vitriol.”
“Which I don’t mind,” Zander cut in. “Good riddance I say.”
Derik eyed Zander.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Zander said defensively, glaring at him. “The Council can get fucked. It was the right thing to do.”
“It was,” Derik agreed, then looked back at Jerica. “It is. But the Council doesn’t see it that way. I renounced my Rangership in the midst of it all. Then once things calmed down a bit, I came to Atraya… and neither of us have been home since then.”
Jerica stared at him for a long moment. Then she pulled her knees up to her chest and pressed her forehead against them, trying to ground herself. She took a deep breath and focused on the feeling of her diaphragm expanding. The way that her lungs pressed against her chest as she drew a breath.
The anger was starting to recede again. Which left her with nothing but sheer exhaustion. With a healthy dose of confusion on top. They weren’t from Atraya. None of them had been to Lirtira since she was born. Because of the Council. Because of her.
She felt oddly guilty.
They’d both had to uproot their entire lives to keep her safe. And for what? So, she could become King’s Assassin and put herself in danger most of the time anyway? So that she could get bullied by an As’veri and threatened when she ran her mouth?
“Why couldn’t we just go on the run? Together? “She asked. “All three of us? Just leave Lirtira and the Council and everything else behind?”
“Because the Council knows us, Jer. The only reason I have made it as long as I have is that they can’t catch up with me,” Zander answered, giving her a sympathetic look. “And Derik’s made it this long because he didn’t blatantly disobey the Council so they don’t have a hit out on him. But they are watching him. They just don’t know that you’re Katima. He showed up at a different time than you. And no one knew any better about Jerica having been killed.”
It still felt so weird to hear her name being talked about like that.
Though it wasn’t her name at all.
It was the name of a dead princess. She just stole it.
“Well, almost no one anyway,” Zander muttered.
A tense silence followed.
Jerica picked up her head. Derik and Zander were staring at each other. Derik’s eyes were sharp and disapproving. She looked between them. It was clear Zander had said something he wasn’t supposed to.
She wanted to know more.
“Who knew?” she questioned.
They both inhaled like they were about to speak, but, instead, they both sighed.
“Who knew?” she pressed.
“Biryn,” Derik said, defeated. “He’s… well, ah, he’s…”
“As’veri?” Jerica offered.
Derik’s eyes went wide with surprise. “You know.”
She inclined her head. “But how does he know…?”
She still wasn’t quite clear on that. Derik knew Biryn was As’veri. Biryn apparently knew that she wasn’t Princess Jerica. But how those secrets tied together – how the fates intertwined – was still anyone’s guess.
“Because he…” Derik sighed again.
“Is the one who murdered her,” Zander finished.
Her brain came to a screeching halt.
“Biryn attacked the Royal Picnic,” Derik said.
“But he’s… how did… why is he head advisor?” She was so perplexed. “If he killed the rest of the Ainsleys, why is Levin friends with him? Did Levin have him murder his family?”
“No.” Derik shook his head, brushing the question aside. “As far as we’re aware, Biryn did that on his own. We’re not sure why – it seems to have something to do with a grudge, but we haven’t figured out against who. But Levin was a teenage boy – a younger son. Thrust onto the throne with no grooming for what to do. So Biryn saw his opportunity and slid in as an advisor, to ensure he had a comfy life.”
Jerica rubbed her face, then let her hand fall until her fingertips were in the pool. The water was crisp and cold against her flesh. It drew her focus there, rather than on how tight her chest felt. “So, he killed Jerica?”
“He did,” Zander confirmed. “And then he showed up at the Palace and discovered you were there. And then a few weeks later Derik showed up. So, I suppose Biryn started doing his research. I don’t know. All I know is that he figured out who you are, somehow, and threatened that he’d tell the Council if we tried to take you away from the Palace.”
“But why?” The frustration was coming back.
“We don’t know, Jer,” Derik said. “Best guess is that he wanted you as a guinea pig. It took us a few years to realize he’s As’veri. He didn’t confront me about you right away. I thought we’d gotten away with it. And then he started his injections on you, and I tried to get you away from the Palace, and that is when he revealed that he knew who you are. And threatened that if I left with you then he’d make it public.”
“And stashing a four-year-old is much harder than a baby,” Zander commented. “And you couldn’t have stayed with Derik if the Council knew who you were, otherwise they’d have come for you both. We needed Biryn to keep his mouth shut.”
“So you let him experiment on me?” she asked incredulously.
They both cringed.
“I tried to put a stop to that,” Derik said. “I swapped out whatever his nastiness was for simple saline so it wouldn’t hurt you any more than the needle prick for years until… the incident.”
Jerica eyed him for a moment, yet another piece falling into place. “The physician gave me the real dose for the first time.”
“Then I killed him,” she finished, feeling sick.
“That wasn’t your fault.” Derik cringed again. “But was when Biryn realized I’d been switching out the needles. And made sure that I couldn’t. And…”
Jerica looked at him.
“I’m sorry, Jer,” Derik said, looking her deep in the eyes. “I truly am. He did horrible things to you and I didn’t know how to stop him. And it’s not okay. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t protect you better. That I can’t protect you better.”
“It’s not your fault.” She shrugged, pulling her hand away from the water and flicking the droplets away from her fingers.
There was still so much that she didn’t understand. But, despite the confusion, it was clear that Derik and Zander cared about her as much as she’d always known that they did. Their methods were questionable. But the thought was there.
Jerica looked between them.
Zander was subdued. His usual loud, boisterous personality was replaced with a quiet, somber demeanor. He stared at the rocks next to the pool of water, eyes distant like he was lost in thought. He clenched and unclenched his jaw as he stood unmoving.
Derik seemed like he felt guilty. He watched her in a patient silence, holding her gaze for as long as she offered it. It was clear he felt bad. Even though it wasn’t his fault. It’s not like the injections were his idea. And he had tried to escape with her.
But Biryn ruined that. Like he ruined everything.
“I’m sorry,” Derik said earnestly.
“I am, too.” Zander looked up, meeting her gaze when she looked at him.
“It’s not your fault,” she repeated, then looked back at Derik. “Either of your faults… you’re the reason I’m still alive.”
A tense silence passed.
Derik still looked vulnerable. He was so much like Rek. Or, she supposed, Rek was like Derik. She and Zander were brash and opinionated and loud. Derik and Rek were introspective and sensitive. And she didn’t want him to feel bad for something that wasn’t his fault.
“I love you…both.” The words felt odd as they tumbled from her mouth. She didn’t say them often. But they seemed appropriate in that moment. And they were true. She stood up and wrapped Derik in a hug, hoping it would make him feel better.
Derik’s arms wrapped around her. A moment later they tightened a bit more and she felt him take a shaky breath. He held her close and murmured, “I love you too, Jer Bear.”