Jerica watched for a long moment, wondering what all of it meant, then she started forward. As she got nearer, she saw that Levin and Biryn were standing on the platform, speaking to Lord Fillmore. Stanton was in front of her on the same level. She let herself have the briefest moment of hope, seeing that he was in traveling clothes.
“Ah! There she is!” he said brightly, starting towards her.
“Leaving so soon?” She brushed past him. “Pity.”
“Oh, wifey.” His grasp clenched around her left wrist.
She whirled around him, fist clenched and ready to swing, before she caught herself.
His gaze snapped down to her fist, then up to her face, a smirk playing at his lips. Smug. Knowing fully well that she couldn’t do anything at all about him now. “Have you forgotten, where the husband leads, the wife will follow?”
A lead brick dropped in her gut.
“What?” Her gaze snapped towards Levin and Biryn. They both looked at her in smug satisfaction. She shouldn’t have expected rationality from them. She whipped her head back around, wrist still in Stanton’s grasp as she locked eyes with Derik. “Derik?”
Derik met her gaze for the briefest moment, then strode towards the platform, looking at Levin and Biryn. “What’s the meaning of this?”
“I would think that it was clear.” Biryn sniffed.
“It’s not so clear to me,” Derik argued. “So how about you explain it to me?”
Panic surged through Jerica. She hadn’t considered this possibility. Surely, this was all some elaborate joke. It had been less than a week since she’d returned to Atraya, and now she was married – and they were trying to send her away?
Her buzz was gone.
“Wives go with their husbands, Derik,” Levin said stupidly. “I don’t know why you seem so surprised by this.”
“Warriors stay with their commander,” Derik argued. “We’re this fresh out of a war and you want me to do without my best assassin?”
Jerica’s chest was tight. It felt like she was back in the Nykerian camp all over again. Waiting for someone else to negotiate for her safe return. She set her jaw, unwilling to betray her uneasiness, as she forced herself to take a deep breath.
She glanced at Stanton and found him smirking. They locked eyes for the briefest moment, then he looked down at their hands. He had his fingers directly over her pulse, no doubt feeling her fear as her heart raced. Rage cut through the panic, and she yanked her arm away, glowering at him.
“You’ve managed without her for weeks,” Biryn pointed out. “I’m sure you can continue to do so.”
“No, I can’t,” Derik retorted, looking at Levin. “You agreed that my military was my law. She’s part of that military. An integral part. You can’t just schlep her off.”
“I can do whatever I please,” Levin huffed, drawing himself up.
Derik kept him fixed in a warning look.
Levin hesitated a moment, then, “It’s only for two weeks. Master Fillmore would like to show his new bride the manor they’ll be sharing together.”
Jerica felt sick. She could only imagine the nastiness Stanton had thought up for them once he got her onto his own turf. Especially since it sounded like they’d be heading to someplace other than the Fillmore Estate, considering he’d said manor.
“Then we’ll both be coming back,” Stanton said brightly, throwing his arm around Jerica. She tensed, but let Stanton pull her close. He pressed his head against hers, hot breath tickling her neck as he finished, “Isn’t that exciting?”
She swallowed hard.
She didn’t even want to imagine how much nastiness could be crammed into two weeks. She already knew what Biryn could do to her in that amount of time. But she didn’t know what the Fillmores had waiting for her. She’d never been sent away like this before.
“Derik?” she repeated, a bit more desperate.
“Don’t worry,” Stanton said smugly, pulling her around to face the carriage. “I’ll make sure we have lots of fun.”
Jerica’s gaze snapped towards Derik. His eyes were filled with the same panic that filled her chest. She glanced the other way and saw that Rek and Akeno also were looking on in horrified silence. She forced herself to take a breath, looking back at the platform.
Surely, Levin wasn’t actually considering this?
She swallowed hard. She wasn’t so sure about anything at all.
“You have no right to contest this, Derik,” Levin said. “A two-week leave of absence is more than reasonable after a marriage. You’ll no doubt be giving Rekard the same courtesy?”
“I don’t need a—” Rek started forward.
“I don’t care,” Levin interrupted. “Take one or don’t, but Jerica is going home with Stanton. And that’s that.”
The anticipation was terrible. Mind racing for something – anything – Derik could say or do to rescue her from this. But, as he’d said before the wedding even happened, there was nothing he could do to fix it. And, he wouldn’t be able to stop this, either.
“Where’s my horse?” Jerica demanded. “I’m not going on a trip without him.”
Levin scoffed and rolled his eyes.
Stanton smiled wickedly, seeming even more pleased with himself. “I thought you might say that, so here he is.”
Jerica turned around and saw that Ranofer was already brushed and saddled, and was being led towards her. So much for that diversion to buy her more time. She swallowed hard. There was no getting out of this. She glanced back towards Akeno. He seemed as distraught as she was, but was carefully staying silent and out of the way. Smart enough not to get caught up in this argument since he wasn’t of noble birth himself.
“I think that’s it, then?” Stanton said after a moment’s silence. “You have your leave of absence. I already had your attendants pack your trunk. Here’s your horse, so…”
Jerica gave Derik one last desperate look.
She swallowed hard.
“Two weeks,” Derik said crisply. Her stomach fell even further. Derik’s gaze locked on Stanton and his voice was harsh as he finished. “A single day past that, and I’ll be personally coming to see why she’s not back yet. Understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Stanton answered, voice dripping with sarcasm. He turned back towards Jerica, still far too close for comfort. “Ready? Wifey?”
She pulled away from him and looked at him sourly, but one of the stableboys brought Ranofer forward. Jerica swallowed hard and patted Ranofer’s neck, sending one final, desperate look towards Derik. But he only shook his head slightly. There was nothing more that he could do. This was it.
Her stomach churned. Her head felt light. Any sleepiness she’d had before was now replaced with overwhelming dread. If Derik couldn’t get her out of this, then she certainly couldn’t get herself out of it. And there was no point in losing face by arguing against the inevitable. She set her jaw; face drawn.
Jerica turned and hauled herself on top of Ranofer, briefly considering kicking him to a gallop and running until he couldn’t run anymore. But, where would she go? She wished she could go back to the mountain, but who was to say if Aerik would even let her come back now that Guild Master wanted her in Atraya?
Her gaze drifted down to Akeno, who was staring at her in a horrified silence. She glanced towards Rek, who seemed indignant but flustered, not quite sure who he should be arguing with or what he should be saying. Derik seemed angry but resigned to the fact that there was nothing he could do to stop this.
She swallowed hard.
Stanton’s hand landed on her thigh. She looked down at him, resisting every urge in her that screamed to break his fingers, as he smugly looked up at her with an infuriating smirk. “Let’s go home, Missus Fillmore.”