Warning: This work has been rated 18+ for language.
Time lost all meaning. Whether it had been two hours or twenty minutes, Jerica couldn’t have guessed. It was dark now. Candles were lit all around the room – it had to have been the attendants that did it, but she hadn’t noticed. She sat next to the bed, feeling hollow and vaguely sick to her stomach.
The physicians had re-stitched her wounds that popped open during the battle and also sewed her self-inflicted gash shut. They stabilized Rek and gave him medicine to help him rest, then took their leave; she’d sent Rek’s attendants out of the room as well. And now they sat in a deafening silence.
Her mind wouldn’t link coherent thoughts together. Instead her brain jumped from being angry at the Nykerian ambush; to terrified that Rek wouldn’t ever wake up; to angry at herself for not obeying orders; to wishing she hadn’t attended the meeting in the first place to be able to screw up; to angry at Rek for taking the blade meant for her. Her mind’s eye replayed the scene over and over again, the glint of the blade – the way Rek collapsed.
She took a deep breath, rubbing her face. Now that the fear of the battle had worn off, she could finally feel all the injuries she accumulated that day. She was glad she’d been numb earlier when they needed a blood donation. Her arm hurt now. Her fingers kept trembling and her forearm twitched for no apparent reason.
Rek groaned. Jerica was on her feet in an instant, stepping closer to his side. He sighed and settled. Jerica placed her right hand on his forehead; it was burning hot. She grabbed a rag and dipped it in the basin the physicians left on Rek’s bedside table, awkwardly wringing the excess water out with her right hand.
She pressed the cool rag against his forehead. He groaned again, softer, but didn’t move. She cleaned the blood and dirt splattered across his face, bit by bit, then rubbed as much out of his hair as she could. She set the cloth down and ran her fingers through his now-damp hair, working the tangles out.
I wonder if I could find a sorcerer powerful enough to trade my life for Rek’s. She hooked a strand of hair behind his ear, caressing his cheek. She could count on one hand the number of people who cared about her, and she was about to lose one of them due to her own stupidity. She’d kill anyone who laid a finger on him; and now she was going to be the sole reason he died. She took a shuddering breath.
The physicians had cut Rek’s tunic off. He lay now on top of his blankets, abdomen wrapped in bandages, chest bare and heaving. She could hear his breathing, soft but ragged, as if he was fighting for each one. Sweat beaded on his forehead again. She grabbed the cloth and dabbed his forehead, then rested her hand on top of the cloth, hoping the coolness would soothe his rest.
The door opened.
Jerica locked eyes with Derik. She pulled the cloth away and tossed it into the basin, stepping away from the bedside. She felt cornered, even though he was still across the room. She couldn’t tear her gaze from his face. “Derik—”
“Don’t.” His voice was sharp, unkind. Justified.
Jerica took another step backward, biting her lip. Derik walked around the foot of the bed and stopped where she’d been standing moments before. He rested his hand on Rek’s forehead then sighed.
“What did the physicians say?” Derik asked, keeping his eyes on Rek.
“They gave him pain medicine and something to help him sleep.” Jerica’s mouth was dry. “Now it’s time to watch and wait.”
Derik nodded, eyes flicking across Rek. He was silent for a long moment. Jerica wished she could comfort him. The only person in the world who could love Rek more than she did was Derik. She couldn’t offer comfort for a problem she caused.
“We’re going to talk.” He finally turned towards her, eyes dark and angry. “Wait for me in your room.”
“Sir.” She walked behind the chair next to the back – keeping as much space between her and Derik as possible. She cast one final glance at Rek, then walked into the hall and closed the door behind her. Dread filled her stomach, like a sludge that coated every surface of her insides.
When Derik wanted to change the location of their “talk” it never ended well for her. Never. She hesitated as she reached the staircase. I wonder how many Nykerians I could take out by myself. They wouldn’t be expecting it. Vanir no doubt told Lord Femola that Rek got stabbed, and who knew how many soldiers died during the ambush.
She could go out of the tunnel to the side of the city wall, make a big loop, and sneak in from the back. She’d be able to take out plenty of Nykerians before they could kill her, and then she could go into the afterlife to prepare Rek a welcome fit for a king. And avoid the talk with Derik. It would be win-win.
No. Don’t be a coward. You deserve every word Derik has for you. She sighed and started up the stairs towards her room. It would be wrong to deny him whatever catharsis might come from this “talk” they were about to have. She pushed the door to her room open. Her attendants leapt to their feet. She gestured at the open door behind her. “Out. Now.”
“Ma’am!” They scurried out, shutting the door behind them.
Jerica ran her right hand through her hair, chest feeling as though she’d put on a tunic that was three sizes too small. She glanced in the mirror. She was a disaster. Her make up had smeared across her face, lipstick and eyeliner blending together on her cheek. Dried blood coated her from shoulder to forehead and matted her hair down.
Her left sleeve was hanging next to her side, from where the physicians had finished cutting it up to her shoulder to be able to re-stitch her wounds. They hadn’t bothered dressing them, not that she would have allowed it even if they’d tried. Blood was still caked on her bare left arm.
A rap on the door.
Jerica sucked in a deep breath, preparing herself for the worst as she turned towards the door. The door swung open to reveal Akeno, large binder of files in his arms. He kicked the door shut behind him.
“What are you doing here?” She glared at him. Her emotions completely reversed, from anxious and tense to grateful for the comforting presence; jumbling on top of each other and making her unsure how she felt.
“My gods, Jer, you look terrible.” Akeno tossed his files down on the foot of her bed and stepped towards her. “What happened? I heard there was an ambush.”
“Why are you here?” She pressed. “You need to go. Now.”
“I’m here to check on you,” Akeno said. “I’m worried about you.”
“Well you should be worried about Derik,” she hissed. “You need to leave before—”
She heard someone shuffling down the hall. She cursed and grabbed Akeno’s papers, shoving them into his arms as she pushed him into the anteroom to her bedroom. Akeno scurried into the anteroom, eyes wide, as the door to her bedroom flew open.
Jerica took a step towards the door, intending to meet Derik in the center of the room, but her body froze up as she locked eyes with him. His brow was knit into a single line, eyes dark and angry. He slammed the door closed behind him, sending as shiver through Jerica’s stomach.
She snapped to attention, shoulders back and eyes staring straight ahead. Derik stormed towards her, seeming angrier the closer he got. He stopped his in front of her, uncomfortably close. Fear seized in her chest. Each second that he was silent felt like a thousand years. She swallowed hard.
“What the fuck, Jerica?” He bellowed, rage finally bubbling out into words. “You know better than to act like this! I trained you better than this. Being a General doesn’t give you authority over me, and you sure as hell do not get to disobey my orders!”
She swallowed hard again.
“What were you thinking -- taking out the physician tent?” Derik continued. “How did you think that was going to end? Your reckless, fool-hardy, stupid behavior got us into that War Council, and gave them the opportunity for that ambush, and then! Did you think it was a good idea to stop obeying my orders? Have you forgotten that I’ve been leading men since before you were born and know what I am doing? You got Rek stabbed, Jerica, because you couldn’t take a simple order from me. Rek. My son!”
She focused on keeping her face impassive, gaze focused straight ahead. She couldn’t bear to meet his gaze. Her throat constricted, tears threatening to spring to her eyes. He’s right, you crybaby. Shut up. This is your fault.
“How do you expect me to defend you in the Council meeting tonight, Jerica?” He rubbed his face, taking a deep breath before he went on, forcing himself to stop shouting. His tone was still harsh. “You know I’m not going to hang you out to dry in front of Levin and Biryn, but damn you, Jerica. You had better get your act together. One more misstep this war and I swear to the gods I’ll court martial you. Haider at least knows enough to obey orders, which seems to be more than you’re capable of, and I’ll gladly hand him the title I’ll strip from you if you keep acting like this. Do you understand me?”
A tense silence filled the space between them. Jerica could barely breathe; Derik’s chest was heaving. Derik’s gaze flicked across her. Finally, his anger seemed to lessen a bit; expression softening as he looked at her.
“What happened to your tunic?”
“My stitches popped open,” Jerica answered, finally turning her head to meet his gaze. She glanced away again, keeping her forearm turned away from him so he couldn’t see the new wound on her forearm. “The physicians cut the sleeve to fix them.”
“Alright.” Derik sighed. “Get yourself put together. I won’t have my General showing up to a Council Meeting looking like this. Take care of your troops. You’re not excused from your duties tonight.”
Derik started towards the door. “I had Dentin put your sword in your room in the barracks.”
Her sword. Oh, thank the gods they remembered to grab that. She slumped, flopping down on the chest at the foot of her bed. It’d taken her months to convince Levin to pay for her to get a custom-built sword. The standard stock swords enlistees used were so clunky and heavy and hard to use. Hers was sleek. She’d never convince Levin to buy her a new one, especially while she was still in everyone’s disgraces.
Jerica felt like Derik’s words were daggers that stabbed holes all over her, allowing the little energy she had left to slosh out of her and form a puddle on the floor. He’d managed to take all the guilt she had and wrap it up with a heavy dollop of shame. She sighed. Akeno appeared in the doorway of her anteroom, cringing. “Yikes.”