The smile stretched forever, spanning everything.
“Read with me, Entiln,” he said in a pleasant voice. “Let’s review.”
Months of pain and terror were cataloged in his skin, carved into flesh and bone in scars that would never heal. Jonathan’s fingers were on his neck, feeling his pulse, tracing the scarlet lines his knife had put there.
“Read with me.”
Enthiln shook his head, trying to flee, but Jonathan was everywhere. He was everything. He was God.
Pain tore through him and he screamed.
Nahldria startled upright, scrambling out of bed before she was even awake.
Enthiln! Enthiln was hurt.
She banged her shin against the stool and the pain brought her to full awareness.
She absently rubbed her shin as she stared around the dim room, confused and exhausted by months of interrupted sleep. Not home. But not there. And that had to be good enough for now.
Enthiln clawed at the wall, still trying to escape his dreams, and feet padded down the hall. Nahldria hurried to the door, tugging on her second-hand nightgown, its hem brushing her shins instead of her ankles. She stumbled into the hall, Enthiln’s struggles still loud in her ears, and then paused beside his door, frowning. It was already open.
“Spruce,” a girl whispered, and Nahldria’s hands curled into fists.
Enthiln jumped, choking on a muffled cry, fumbling against the wall to get away.
“Spruce! Wake up. It is alright. You are okay.”
He paused, panting, and then asked, confused and frightened, “Lady Snowdrop?”
“Are you alright?”
He blew out a long breath of air.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Nahldria bristled silently outside the door.
“No.” He took another deep breath, drinking the air like a man half drowned. “No. Thank you.”
It was the same every night: some kind of ridiculous race to be the first to rescue Enthiln from his dreams. Lady Snowdrop had known Nahldria and Enthiln for just a few months. She didn’t know their real names or where they were from or why they were there. But she still felt the right to barge into Enthiln’s room every time he so much as gasped. Nahldria hated that she went through the same dance a dozen times a fortnight. But she hated more the thought of the ignorant heir lady ministering to her fiance while she slumbered obliviously in the next room. And so she raced, almost every night, sometimes more than once before morning.
“I am alright,” he told her softly. “You should go back to bed.”
“Are you sure? I could stay with you a little while. If you wanted.”
Nahldria fought back to urge to storm the room. If that stupid girl knew who she was addressing-
Enthiln laughed quietly. “Thank you, but no. You should be sleeping.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
Nahldria smirked, edging back toward her own door. Sometimes he let Nahldria stay, but never Snowdrop. She ducked back through her doorway as the lady tiptoed back out into the hall. She waited until Snowdrop had closed Enthiln’s door behind herself and whispered, “Is he alright?”
The lady jolted back with a sharp gasp, and then glanced back at Enthiln’s door. “Well enough to get back to sleep.”
Nahldria sighed, “Good. The sooner he gets better, the sooner he can get back home.” She smiled as Snowdrop stiffened. She hated talk of Enthiln leaving.
“You seem fine,” she said coldly. “When will you be leaving?”
“Oh, I imagine we’ll both be out of your way once the snow melts off a bit more.”
Snowdrop scowled, biting back a retort, but Nahldria could imagine it anyway. They’d had the same conversation often enough.
“Goodnight, Saya Fireweed.”
Nahldria stepped back further into her room. “Goodnight.” She closed the door, listening as Snowdrop crept back to her room. It was infuriating the way she was always hanging off of Enthiln. It was more infuriating the way Enthiln let her.
Nahldria waited until Snowdrop’s door closed and the house was silent again. Then she eased her own back open and crept to Enthiln’s door. She opened it slowly and whispered, “Enthiln?”
“You, too?” he asked wearily.
She stepped in and closed the door behind her, sighing, “Tell me again why we cannot just tell them we are engaged. It would simplify things. Especially with her.”
He sat up gingerly, rolling his shoulders. “I am sorry.” He didn’t bother to tell her the reasons again. She’d heard them a hundred times.
She argued anyway, sitting on the floor beside his bed. “Jonathan is gone. They cannot-”
“Can we not talk about it?” he interrupted, shuddering at the name of the man who had tortured him relentlessly for months.
“Honestly, after we put a few sori between that place and us, we will keep things simpler. I promise. But this is best for now. Anonymity is the strongest defense we have.”
Her jaw clamped shut, she leaned back against the bed. It was absurd. The humans didn’t even know where the village was. And she couldn’t imagine anyone there handing them over to the enemy even if they discovered who they were. If anything, they would probably be more eager to help. But Enthiln’s paranoia knew no bounds.
He hid his face in his hands, planting his elbows on his knees. “I know you think I am being paranoid-”
“I did not say-”
“But I cannot be careless. Not with them so close. Not with you.”
She sighed. Aliases. Fictional histories. Even imaginary ranks and units. All manner of tiny, harmless lies… She hardly knew who she was anymore. Nahldria var Ethperok, High Princess of Alekasyl, was slowly deteriorating into Fireweed of Hwirden, luckless saya of the Alekasylic army who had been captured in her second battle. Whatever series of pretended flukes had brought her together with Spruce, an archer of the Paleithoic ranks, they did not include romance. At least not so far.
She hesitated. She could never ask him to marry her, but since they were already promised… “We could announce an engagement now. They already know I am fond of you.”
He smiled, gently twining an orange curl around a finger. “You are?”
She blushed and batted his hand away. “Stop that.”
He chuckled, swinging his legs out of bed. Unlike her comically short gown, his pants dragged on the floor. She frowned at the cuffs. “You really should let me hem-”
“What if we eloped?”
She looked up at him, startled.
“Just went down to the chapel right now?” He smiled softly, tired, haunted eyes that had seen too much suffering and too little happiness. “Would you?”
Nahldria looked back down, not even sure what to say. “Enthiln…”
“Sorry,” he muttered. “I know you do not-”
“It is not that-”
“I should stop asking.” He puffed out a quick breath. “And you should go back to sleep.”
She reached up, taking his hand. “You had your chance to marry me properly,” she reminded him, trying to be playful. “I have the legitimacy of my father’s line to consider.”
“We could legitimize it later.” He smiled. “No?” She laughed and he shook his head. “I had to ask.”
“I already agreed to marry you. Elopement is hardly an option anymore.”
“Oh, I bet the priestess would disagree.”
“My father would not. Nor your parents.”
He grimaced. “Especially not them.”
She climbed to her feet, still holding his hand. “Poor thing,” she said, resting a hand on his jaw. “No wife for you.”
“I will ask again tomorrow.”
She grinned and stepped away.
Enthiln pulled her close suddenly, hugging her tightly around the middle, his cheek pressed against her belly. She gasped a little, leaning back, and he whispered fiercely, “I love you, Nahldria. I will never let anyone hurt you. Never.”
She stood uneasily in the embrace, arms raised, not sure what to do. She hardly dared to breathe. Eventually, his grip slackened and she stepped back.
His face was turned toward the floor. “Sorry.”
“We will get married the moment we get home,” she promised him. “As soon as you like.”
“Stuffy Alekasylic woman,” he laughed sadly, nudging her toward the door. “Go to bed.”
She hesitated just out of reach. Was she really as cold as he thought she was? Should they just elope and worry about the rest later?
He smiled at her hesitation. “Stop worrying and go to bed. I will still be here in the morning.”
She whispered a good night and slipped out the door, worrying anyway. She had been worrying since they came to this hidden village, worried since she found him in that human prison camp, worried since she realized he was in danger. She could hardly imagine a world in which she didn’t worry about him anymore.
The nightmares weren’t stopping. He was better during the day, when he was awake, but the nights were still dark, and his moods unstable. When the death god had returned her fiance to life, he had healed what had killed him, but nothing more.
Nahldria closed her door and slipped into her narrow bed. She could imagine Enthiln settling back into his own and wondered what it would be like to share one. She closed her eyes and forced the thoughts away. They weren’t married. And now whose fault was that?
Would that help him? If she married him, would he get better? Would the nightmares stop then?
She had caught glimpses of scars on his hands and his feet, saw him rubbing soreness out of joints and bones broken too often. She had once bullied the healer into giving her a summary of what had happened to him, a dizzying catalog of injuries old and new, and she had staggered away sick and angry before the woman even finished.
But Enthiln hadn’t shared a word of his experience with her. Not unless she counted terrified babbling in the night. She still had those little leather notebooks stolen from Jonathan’s office, but she was too afraid to read them. She wondered if she should.
Nahldria turned and buried her face in her pillow, squeezing it tight against her face, suffocating herself in frustration and goose down. How could she have left him to that, abandoned him without even thinking to glance down at how he was faring? How could she? And how could she ever admit it?
She turned, allowing herself to breathe once more, even if she didn’t deserve it.
King Andrew nodded over his glass of apple brandy, glaring into its amber glow with suppressed emotion. “He was a good man.”
Jarom nodded in agreement, his face carefully blank. Even with his closest friends, he couldn’t give his thoughts away for free. Not like he used to.
Andrew sighed and glanced up at him. “His girls’ll be alright. I’ve already arranged marriages for the last two and the others won’t ever have to worry about their husbands’ employment. I just wish he had had a son I could confer title to. Could have ended the ceremony on a happier note.” He leaned his head against his fist, slumping in his chair. “And poor Mary… not sure what to do with her.” He frowned up at his silent friend and asked, “Think she’ll ever marry again?”
Jarom kicked back the last of his drink and shook his head. “I doubt it. Jonathan was everything to her.”
He nodded again. “He was.” He glared across the room with a sharp shake of his head. “How’d it all come to pieces like this? By Dawn, what are we doing here?”
Jarom grinned mirthlessly and crossed the room. He plucked the glass from between his fingers. “You’re getting drunk.”
“Not as drunk as I’d like to be,” he grumbled.
He shifted his weight, setting the glass on the end table thoughtfully. “Andrew. We haven’t seen each other for a while. But if you called me up here just to drink, you’d have sent for the others, too. What’s this really about?”
It was impressive how quickly the man sobered. “Sit down, Jarom.”
Jarom hesitated a moment. There was his childhood friend, Andy. And there was his king, Andrew. It was important to know which was which. Jarom went back to his chair and sat.
“Jonathan was a good man. But he didn’t get the job done.”
Jarom shook his head. “No, he did. He just didn’t-”
“He didn’t report it to me,” Andrew growled, jabbing at his knee with a rigid finger. “Maybe he got the locations, but he didn’t get them to the right people. That was his job and he didn’t get it done. Got half the blasted army trapped on the far side of the mountains with nowhere to go, and my son’s namesake burned to the ground.” Andrew sighed and reached for his glass. “I’m not saying it was his fault. No one knows when the White Witch comes for them. But the fact is that Jonathan left us with a mess.” He glanced up, meeting Jarom’s unreadable eyes. “Isaiah’s too noble for this line of work. And Aaron’d lose a bar fight with a ten year old. I need a soldier and a strategist and the Walker himself.”
Jarom’s face split in a lopsided grin. “Alright. So who gets a knife between the ribs?”
“Anybody who needs one.” He drained his glass and glared at the drops in the bottom. “The thing is, Jonathan broke that man. Just shattered him, from what I hear. If you can find him-”
“Wait,” Jarom interrupted. “The war is over. You’re suing for peace. You just sent an envoy last week.”
“You’ve been talking with Isaiah too much.” Jarom started to protest and Andrew added, “And you’re letting old sentiments cloud your judgment. This is an assignment, Jarom. Not a request.”
He swallowed, glancing away. It was a fine line to walk. Especially when they were drinking.
The king clacked his glass sharply on the side table. “Just think about it for a minute. Don’t you think we’ll get a better bargain if we have the prince back? And better yet, Nahldria herself? What do you think Galandorn would pay to get the pair of them back?”
“You’re depending on their not having reached their own people yet. If we can just snatch them back without anyone realizing your little overlap, then fine. But if Galandorn realized you were begging for peace while kidnapping his only child out from under his arm, he’d fight harder than ever. You’d never get a treaty out of him then.”
“Then gods help that poor girl,” he growled.
Jarom frowned. “Besides, can you imagine trying to pull those two from a town? We’d need an army to pry them out. And there’s no keeping that secret.”
“You’re a clever man. Besides, if they were safely back in an elfin stronghold, we’d have heard by now. More?” He pointed to the decanter and Jarom shook his head. Andrew shrugged. “Even some village in the woods, we’d have heard by now. Anywhere that Galandorn would know, we would know. Our little friend would have told us. So they’re hiding somewhere. Cold as it was, they probably holed up for the winter in some snug little cave or something. They can’t have gotten far from Prince’s Post.”
Jarom shrugged. “Probably still holed up. If they didn’t just freeze to death.”
“The time line is everything. We went out and we found them and we brought them back here. That happens in a war. Maybe we even saved them from starving to death or being eaten by a bear. The point is, we captured them before there was a formal cessation of arms. Then we sued for peace. Then we signed the treaty. Then he gets his stray little lambs back.” Andrew sat back in his seat, glaring across to the window, its frosted panes opening southward. “Elfin calendars are terrible. Enthiln and Nahldria themselves might not even notice the discrepancy if you’re quick enough.”
Jarom sighed. “This is pretty desperate, Andrew.”
“We’re desperate, Jarom,” he said, his eyes hard. “I want you to find them. Bring them back to me. I don’t care how much money it takes, I don’t care about breaking any laws, and I don’t care about collateral damage. Bring them back here, alive. And do it quietly. This can’t back to Galandorn until after I have his word.”
Jarom shook his head. “Prince Enthiln won’t come alive. Not after what Jonathan did to him.”
“Then make him.”
“You bring him here, breathing. Everything else is at your discretion. But you will do this, Jarom.”
Jarom stared at him for a moment. There had been a time, not so long ago, when he might have challenged Andrew, might have refused the assignment and still slept soundly through the night. But not anymore. He nodded, looking down at his laced fingers. “Alright. Who else knows about this?”
“You. Me. And nobody else, not even my councilors. This can’t get to Galandorn.”
“I can’t do it on my own. I’ll need soldiers.”
“That’s fine. Take what you need. But keep them quiet. It’s not enough that you find out later and slid their throats for it; this can’t be leaked, at least not until it’s long over. I’ll smooth any ruffled feathers then, but we need to have something on the table if we want to come out of this intact.” Andrew glanced over at the end table, chewing his lower lip. “And Jarom…” He looked up again, meeting his eyes. “If you get caught at it, I can’t get you out of trouble. I can’t even acknowledge that I know you. You can’t do or say or be anything that could trace back to me.”
That stung a little. He’d been on these sorts of assignments before, and he had known that he was on his own. But Andrew had never felt the need to say it to his face before. “I understand.”
“I’ll have to hang you as a traitor.”
“I understand. These things are sometimes necessary.”
“The passes will be clearing soon,” he muttered, glancing out the window again. “I know that doesn’t give you much time.”
“That’s alright,” he said, standing. “I’ll manage. You take care of yourself.” He started for the door. He’d need soldiers. At least a half dozen, probably more. Weapons. Rations. Reasons. And only a few weeks to supply them all. But burying himself in work was better than losing himself in a world he didn’t know how to navigate anymore. Dawn, he missed Jonathan. He’d lost a compass as well as a friend.
Jarom turned at the door, glancing back at the king who was once his friend, and said without a trace of bitterness, “Thanks for the drinks, Andy.”
The king raised a newly filled glass to him, but his eyes were still turned out the window.