The wicked heroine, p.62
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       The Wicked Heroine, p.62
 

           Jasmine Giacomo

  ~~~

  Geret slouched in a chair across the sleeping chamber from Salvor’s bed and watched as the Kazhak’s medical staff made sure their noble passenger had recovered from his violent encounter. Their patient was sitting up in his bed, clean maroon shirt laced loosely over his chest, letting them listen to his heart with a tube and feel his pulse for minutes at a time.

  Salvor was clearly getting annoyed at their attentions, however, and soon waved them all away. As they bowed their way out of the sleeping chamber, he smoothed his black hair back from his hairline as if pulling worries from his mind. He picked up an extra large mug of tea from his lap table and took a long sip, eyeing Geret over the rim.

  Seconds passed in silence. Finally, Geret spoke. “Runcan confirmed your story last night.” He watched Salvor for nonverbal cues.

  But the young nobleman merely arched a dark eyebrow. “And?” he asked, taking another sip of tea.

  “And he feels it’s impossible that either one of them hired the men to kill me. Personally, I disagree, since you seem so confident it was one of them.”

  “It’s my job to think people are out to get you,” Salvor growled, taking a hot gulp of tea and grimacing. “For which I don’t exactly blame them. Glad to hear you’re listening to me, though.”

  At that, Geret scowled. “I’m not much interested in listening to you. You were acting with me all along.”

  Salvor nodded guardedly. “A bit.”

  “Were you acting with Sanych too?” The prince leaned forward in his chair. “Because she seems pretty attached to you. I’d hate for her to be left in the dark about how things really are.”

  Salvor examined his tea dregs and sighed slowly. He raised his eyes back up to Geret’s, a dark strand of his hair falling nearly over one eye. Geret thought the look in his eyes was guilt.

  The outer door to Salvor’s quarters opened. Salvor darted his eyes toward the door to the foyer and smoothed his hair back again. After a few moments, Meena and Sanych entered the room.

  “Well, I’m glad to see that you didn’t die, after all,” Meena said with a smile. She walked over to Salvor’s bedside and commandeered his forehead with her palm.

  “Yes, mother,” Salvor murmured with a grin as he submitted to her touch. “Is it true I have you to thank for my life?” Salvor asked.

  “Geret was a bit torn as to how he should feel about your death; I figured it was only fair to remove that decision from him until he could be sure.”

  Salvor smirked self-deprecatingly. “Hopefully he won’t have to think about that for a long, long time. And thank you. I admit, I thought most of the rumors and stories about you were so much bone-rattling and word-tapestries. No more.”

  “You’re welcome,” she said with a laugh. “Though you only had to ask, really. Why no one thinks of that until it’s too late always baffles me.”

  Geret gritted his teeth as the conversation moved away from betrayal and lies, and on to other things. Everyone seemed to accept that they were all one big happy team of conspirators, and that the “bad guys” were harmless. Everyone but him.

  The notion burrowed into his mind and festered there. For days, he found himself biting back angry replies, not only to the Counts who had once plotted against his uncle, but to his allies as well. He slept poorly, and the nightly cannon fire as the full moon waxed and then waned did not aid his slumber. In the deepest dark of the night, he sometimes wondered if a sea monster attack might not be the answer to all his problems.

  Salvor maintained his arrogant cover even around Geret, but the prince did catch him acting differently with Sanych, and wondered if that was his true self, or yet another façade. He realized Sanych had already fallen in love with the nobleman, and wondered whether it was any of his business, and why he cared.

  After a week of holding in his feelings, Geret realized what he needed. He lay staring at the ceiling in his quarters, right arm resting on his forehead, and suddenly it came to him. Nostrils flaring, he jerked up from the bed, pulled on his low boots, and stalked out, slamming the door behind him.

  It would feel so good to let his frustration out.

  Geret made his way to the dining hall. Salvor sat with Meena and Sanych, regaling them with some story or another. They laughed for a few moments, then paused and looked over as they caught sight of him.

  Geret stopped in front of the table they occupied and looked Salvor in the eyes.

  “You and me. Right now, on the upper deck. Let’s duel.”

  Salvor raised a lazy eyebrow. “Is that a command, my prince?”

  Geret’s lip curled. “Yes.” He turned and stalked away toward the armory.

  Salvor caught up to him there, and they silently gathered their padded armor and blunted metal swords from the sparring locker of the enormous room. Salvor watched Geret intently, but offered no words to him. As Geret turned to exit the armory and head up to the top deck, Salvor stood aside for him. But Geret wasn’t quite done in the armory yet.

  He stepped toward Salvor and shoved him up against the wall, holding him there. Unhurt but startled, Salvor’s eyes widened briefly, but he held his silence.

  “You’re loyal to me, Salvor?” Geret growled. The older man nodded without hesitation. “I could strike you down and not fear your hand in retribution?”

  A doubt entered Salvor’s hazel eyes, but he nodded again without pause. “Yes, Geret. I’m sworn to protect you, even from my own hand. I thought I’d proved that when I tried to die to save you back in Ha’Lakkon.”

  Geret’s smile was icy. “So you did.” He turned quickly and left the armory, and Salvor eyed the blunt metal blade on his sword for a moment. A feeling of foreboding settled into his stomach.

  A small crowd was already gathering in anticipation of the duel. Most of the passengers left on the Kazhak were with the quest, or had opted for an opportune journey to Hynd when the ship had arrived unannounced in Ha’Lakkon. Several dozen unoccupied sailors had also wandered over, having enjoyed watching the previous duels between Geret and Salvor.

  Geret stalked over to the crowd, feeling the warm tropical air whip the tail of his hair as the Kazhak cut swiftly through the unsettled weather. How appropriate, Geret thought, as he stepped into the hastily chalked circle, whipping his sword left and right in anticipation. A long moment later, Salvor caught up and stepped into the dueling circle opposite him.

  Meena and Sanych had claimed spots right at the edge of the circle. Seeing the strange looks on the duelers’ faces, Meena murmured, “Something’s not right.”

  “What do you mean?” Sanych asked, watching the two men salute each other and assume their respective stances.

  “I think Geret’s here to let off some of his steam. He’s been angry for days. I hope he’s not too hard on Salvor.”

  Geret lunged immediately at Salvor, jabbing repeatedly in Salvor’s favored approach. Salvor leaped past Geret and swatted his arm with the blade of his sword, and the two turned toward each other and regrouped.

  “What?”

  “Sanych, pay attention. Would you want to meet someone with Geret’s expression in a dark alley?” Meena tipped her head toward the Vinten prince, who was currently snarling as he slashed repeatedly at Salvor’s chest. Salvor backed up, parrying deftly, then dropped to the deck and rolled to the side. Geret lunged after him, but Salvor raised his blade just in time to stop the blunted weapon from tagging his chest.

  Sanych swallowed. “He’s not going to hurt Salvor on purpose, is he?”

  Meena shook her head, watching Salvor take a calculated swipe at Geret’s kneecap and connect. “It’ll take effort. Salvor’s as good as I’ve ever seen.”

  At that, Sanych turned to look at Meena. “He’s that good?” she asked, missing entirely the part where Geret and Salvor both lunged at the same time and ripped each other’s right sleeves.

  Geret reacted first, grabbing Salvor’s wrist with his left hand, twisting it around behind Salvor’s back. But as Geret was draggi
ng his sword blade back out of Salvor’s sleeve, the man’s other elbow rocketed into the left side of Geret’s head. The prince staggered, allowing Salvor to break free.

  The crowd oohed and cheered. Sanych found herself gripping Meena’s hand tightly.

  Geret caught Salvor’s next quick thrust on his blade, stepped in close and thrust the narrow steel spike on the hilt of his sword into the thin cloth seam over Salvor’s ribs. His opponent tried to leap back and absorb some of the blow, but it was clear the blow hurt him.

  “Forgive me, my prince,” Salvor coughed, sketching a quick bow, “I hadn’t realized this duel was to the death.” The crowd laughed, thinking it was a joke.

  Geret managed a rictus of a smile and lunged toward Salvor. He changed his angle of attack downward at the last second, but Salvor kicked out and caught Geret’s blade on the sole of his boot, driving its tip into the deck boards. Lunging forward, Salvor caught Geret with a knee to the stomach and toppled him onto his back.

  Geret wasn’t going to let Salvor have his sword so easily though; he landed high on his shoulders, feet still in the air, and snaked them around Salvor’s right leg, pushing him away from the sword that quivered in the wooden deck.

  Salvor stumbled away rather than falling, and Geret rolled to his feet. He jerked the sword from its wooden prison and leaped after him.

  Salvor turned and caught Geret’s blade on his own. He flicked it away, then struck toward Geret’s chest. Geret dodged backward and shoved Salvor’s sword arm off-target. He grabbed Salvor’s sleeve and pulled him to the right until they both toppled to the deck in a heap. Salvor’s head and left shoulder thudded painfully into the deck, and Geret ended up on his knees. He started to bar Salvor’s arm against his thigh.

  But Salvor was having none of that. Being nearly upside down, he braced his feet against the deck and lurched into Geret’s back, knocking him to his hands and knees. Both men scrambled to their feet again. Geret shouted a vile oath, making Salvor grin.

  Sanych covered her eyes. “I’m not sure I can take much more of this,” she murmured.

  “Relax, Sanych. When Salvor dies someday, it won’t be at the hands of an angry princeling. Anything between now and then is mere spice.”

  “How can you–” Sanych began, then turned to look as the crowd flinched, murmuring to themselves. Salvor was staggering away from Geret, a hand to his cheek. When he stopped and lowered his hand, Sanych could see an ugly gash raking his cheek.

  “Not so pretty now, are you?” Geret asked idly, turning the sword in his hand so that he could examine the blood on its blunted edge.

  “I never claimed to be pretty, Geret,” hissed Salvor. “Just arrogant.” He twirled his sword twice in a figure eight.

  “So you did,” Geret said, flicking his blade. Droplets of blood spattered against the deck boards. He raised his left hand and grinned smugly, then gestured for Salvor to attack him.

  He did not wait long. Salvor’s face darkened into an angry mask, and he went on the offensive. His blade flicked toward Geret’s face, and the prince began a high block. Halfway through, Geret remembered his earlier conversation with his opponent and realized Salvor was feinting. He stepped back to the side and blocked low. His blade barely caught Salvor’s as it snaked in toward where his stomach had been. Their hilts locked together, and their eyes met in anger.

  “You don’t trust me, Geret. I understand that. But you should. I meant what I said.” Muscles strained, metal rubbed, as the men pressed themselves at each other.

  “Shut up and duel!” Geret hissed.

  Suddenly Salvor shifted his weight, and Geret pressed his advantage. Salvor’s left hand snaked in over Geret’s right, and he danced away with Geret’s sword in his hand, leaving Geret’s empty hand outstretched in a parody of supplication.

  The crowd began to cheer, but silenced itself quickly. The drama was not over.

  “You wish to hand down punishment, my prince?” Salvor called from across the dueling circle, holding both swords out to his sides. “I am your subject, and that is your given right. None may question you. If you see fit to punish me–to punish me–then far be it from me to stop you!” Salvor let his dueling sword fall to the deck and stepped toward Geret, holding the prince’s sword out before him as an offering, as he had held out the prize sword after their very first duel back in Vint. Salvor dropped to his knees, still panting from the exertion of the duel. A sad smile crossed his features as he looked up at Geret, who had been glowering silently since Salvor had stolen his sword from his hand.

  Geret did not take the sword immediately, though Salvor held it up on his palms. “Why are you doing this?” the prince uttered.

  “I know what you’re doing, Geret,” Salvor said, so quietly that only his prince could hear him. “It’s not only foolish, it’s dangerous. And I don’t mean for me; they are watching. But if you want to finish what you started in that alley, you go ahead. And do it here, for all to see. No secrets. My life is, as always, in your hands.”

  Salvor raised the sword a bit higher. Slowly Geret reached out and took it.

  The crowd murmured its disapproval.

  Salvor remained kneeling at Geret’s feet, holding his arms out to his sides harmlessly. His eyes remained locked on Geret’s. Blood oozed from the wound on his cheek.

  Sanych couldn’t look anymore. She buried her face in Meena’s shoulder and murmured tearfully, “Please, tell me he’s not going to do it! Make him stop, Meena.”

  “Hush,” Meena said, putting an arm around the distressed girl. “Some lessons must be learned this way.”

  “I don’t want him to get hurt!” Sanych said into Meena’s shirt.

  Geret stared down at Salvor. A single calm thought coalesced and quickly expanded through his seething frustration, overwhelming him: no secrets.

  This man before him had already given his life for Geret, and now, incredibly, was willing to let Geret take that life again. To Geret’s shame, he briefly toyed with the idea, but rejected it in disgust. He hadn’t realized how twisted up his thoughts had been getting, these last few days. Here before him, on his knees, was the one man Geret knew he could trust with his life, and this was how he treated him, because his pride had been stung.

  Geret was ashamed.

  He dropped to one knee by Salvor’s side and put his hand on the man’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. You were right. The last person I should be taking my anger out on is you. I haven’t been thinking straight, I guess. But I am now, and I’m done with secrets. I hope you’ll forgive me.” Geret looked over to the edge of the crowd, his eyes searching.

  “For using me, or for what you’re about to do?” Salvor asked with a wince, leaning a hand on his knee to ease the ache in his cracked rib.

  Geret looked back into Salvor’s hazel eyes. “Both,” he said. Then he rose to his feet and stalked off.

  The crowd parted, letting him through, murmuring in confusion.

  “You can look now,” Meena said wryly, and Sanych looked over, seeing only Salvor in the dueling ring. Sanych ran over to him, and Meena followed her. The crowd began to disperse, muttering.

  “Wisdom! Look what he did to you,” gasped Sanych, as she looked closely at Salvor’s right cheek. She reached for the wound hesitantly, but Salvor grasped her hand and held it to his shoulder.

  “You want some help with that?” Meena asked, eyeing the wound herself.

  “You think it’ll scar?”

  “It’s deep enough.”

  “Then no. I really am too pretty.”

  “Arrogant lordling,” Meena chided, though a smile belied her words. “Did you two make up or break up?”

  “I think we made up. When we talked, something seemed to click in his head.” Salvor looked worriedly in the direction Geret had gone. “But I think he’s not done rocking the boat. We should stay with him.”

  Meena helped Salvor up while Sanych retrieved his sword for him, and together they followed after Geret.

 
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