Kalion studied the room as much as he could. Everything was silent. All he could hear was the sound of the fire burning in the hearth. And …
He looked over at Erna, leaning over him and holding his hand. She was still not clear in his vision, even this close. He blinked, trying to clear his eyes.
“Kalion?” she asked in a quivering voice. She had been crying. He could tell by the sound of her voice. It bore the sound of weeping. There was a softness, a vulnerability to it that Kalion strangely liked.
It was the same voice she used when he teased her at night. A pleasant voice then, but not now. Now when she said his name it was smeared with grief.
“Are you alright?” she asked. He knew he was supposed to reply that he was, but he hurt too much to say it convincingly.
“Why…,” he asked instead, “why aren’t you with the knights and …”
Even dazed as he’d been, he had memories of Cedric’s voice calling out his name, of knights carrying him. They had been headed to the knights’ building. How did he get here?
“You were brought here after getting treatment at the knights’ building,” Erna said as though hearing his thoughts.
She set a hand on his lips.
“If you’re trying to ask how long it’s been,” she answered. “It’s been two days.”
That’s why he felt so dizzy. He’d been bedridden for two days, not eating, not drinking, so very weak…
“You should drink this,” she said, taking the cup from the nightstand. “It’s a counteractive agent. I’ve magically neutralized most of the poison, but you should still dilute the rest with medicine.”
Seeing the trembling hand he raised to take the cup, she moved to place it against his lips herself. With a surge of effort, he smacked the cup away, sending it flying out of her hand and onto the blanket.
She looked at him in shock, then turned away.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I will get it. There is more medicine…”
“I don’t need it,” he said hoarsely. The words gave way to a coughing fit.
He couldn’t drink it. The instant the cup had touched his lips, fear overcame him like a violent impulse had overtaken him, driving him to smack it away with all his might.
I escaped this fear before, he thought. When he had left Aether and come to Hessenguard, he still hadn’t been able to eat properly, afraid that someone from Aether would poison him. The same thing had happened after Aether delegates had left to escape the plague. Hessenguard, like Aether, was a place he could not trust.
But the lust to live had still remained in him. So, he had left his room in the middle of the night and, half crawling, had gone to the basement kitchen of the Grand Castle. There, he’d nibbled on half-eaten food left behind by strangers, believing it safe from poison. He’d continued sneaking like that until the day Vanessa discovered him.
But how had he been poisoned in Hessenguard now? He could guess, and now he wouldn’t be able to bring himself to eat or drink anything in the Grand Castle.
Yet it wasn’t thirst or hunger that he feared. He turned to Erna, staring at him teary-eyed. The look on her face disturbed him.
He was the head of the knights of Hessenguard, the strongest of the knights. He couldn’t display the slightest weakness in front of her. He couldn’t show that side of himself to her, couldn’t show himself giving in to fear.
Whatever bluff he had to make, it was better to die than be pathetic in her eyes.
“Is it because you’re afraid I will think you’re weak, seeing you like this?” she asked, again as though she could read his thoughts. She lay beside him on the bed and held him.
“You don’t know what you said while you were unconscious,” she said. “You grabbed my hand and told me you were afraid. Told me to save you.
Kalion couldn’t speak. He thought he would curse himself if his mouth ever loosed such vulnerable words.
Erna recovered the glass from the blanket. Somehow, a bit of the medicine still swirled inside.
“I have already seen your weak side,” she said, wiping away tears. “Your mouth and throat have improved. It’s not pain stopping you from drinking. It’s memories of fear.”
“Yes,” he breathed. His head dropped. He felt pathetic, that something from his childhood should make him tremble, but time hadn’t diminished that fear. He raised his hand to his neck.
“I don’t trust anyone,” he said. “Someone might …”
Quickly, Erna brought the cup to her lips and swallowed the remaining medicine. Then she leaned in close to Kalion and rubbed his lips. Unconsciously, he parted his lips at her touch.
Erna kissed him, transferring the medicine to his mouth. He swallowed it without hesitation.
It had been given by the one person he knew would never hurt him.