Normally swallowing was an unconscious act, done dozens of times a day, if not hundreds, without the slightest notice. But now, this simple act was torture for Kalion.
There wasn’t a single wound in his mouth, yet he felt pain. Whenever he moved his mouth or tongue, it felt as though he were chewing on a freshly sharpened razor. And when he tried to swallow, when even water tried to pass down his throat, the pain was so torturous he thought he might go insane.
So, he buried himself in Erna’s embrace. He let her kiss crush the words that tried to escape from his lips.
Erna tried to chide him playfully into swallowing. And the simple instinct to live pushed him as well. But in Hessenguard, where he had felt safe for a decade, he’d been poisoned once again, and in the knights’ building which he held as his own domain. All feeling of safety, of trust, was lost to him.
He knew Cedric was his diligent assistant, knew that the knights obeyed him without question. Yet, if they were to give him a cup at this moment, he couldn’t bring himself to drink from it.
So, he held onto Erna, and she passed him water in a kiss as she had passed the medicine before. Then she took the glass from the nightstand, sipped more, and did it again.
It was still cold. Goosebumps raised on his skin as he drank. And with the cold came a clean, fresh sensation that spread from his throat to his chest and all the way down to his fingertips. And with each swallow of water, he felt himself climbing up further out of his semiconscious daze.
He held onto her desperately, swallowing each sip she passed to him. She no longer teased him, just passed one sip after another through their parted lips, then wiped his mouth each time with her sleeve.
“I’ve become a fool who can’t even drink water alone,” he said with a twisted smile.
“Don’t say things like that,” she said, wiping his face again. Looking at her, Kalion was thankful his vision was clearing more and more as well.
Erna got up to pour more water into the glass, then stopped suddenly and pressed her fingers against her lips. She frowned.
“What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly.
“My mouth is numb,” she replied.
“Shit,” Kalion said. Heaving himself up, he wriggled his way over to her, taking up the cup of medicine and raising it to her mouth.
“Drink it quickly,” he said. “Drink whatever counteragent is left over.”
Erna was surprised. She knew that the numb feeling must be from whatever poison remained in Kalion, but she had all but eliminated it with magic. How could whatever trace remained bring such numbness. But she shook her head, moved her tongue around inside her mouth, and there was no question it was affecting her. Still…
“I don’t want to,” she said.
“Why?” Kalion asked in surprise.
“I won’t die from this much, and the pain will be minimal” she said. “It’s just … perhaps it will help me understand how you’re being affected, what more we can do?”
In other words, she would rather stay like this because she thought it would help him. Kalion sighed heavily, sank back down onto the bed with his face in his hands.
“You’re really…,” he said in a voice thick with lamentation. Did she really think his pain was something she needed to feel? He reached out for her, pulled her in close.
“I told you not to do anything silly,” he said. Normally, Erna would respond to a joke from him playfully, maybe push him away, but not now. Now, he was holding her tightly, shaking, and all she could do was hold him tightly as well.
* * *
When Kalion was lucid and calm, Erna told him about all that had transpired while he was unconscious.
“Adelaide is still in custody,” she said. “I can’t work properly because the servants have changed everything around the Grand Castle. The delegates from Haband contacted their home country, but communication is difficult right now.”
As she spoke, thoughts of Adelaide weighed heavily on her. She had wept and wailed the first day Erna had her held. The servants tending to her had scolded her and threatened to stop all contact with Haband. They’d tended to her with sufficient deference and ignored her threats and pleas.
She had insisted on not eating in protest, and Erna had ordered them to respect that. And sure enough, her stubbornness could only carry her a day. Having never starved, and seldom left hunger unsated, she’d gritted her teeth and asked for food again. Erna had ordered that she not be fed for half a day more. Since then, she had been staying quiet and causing no trouble.
What of Kalion, she thought. He’s suffering from not being able to swallow, but is he also using not drinking as a weapon? Her jaw clenched involuntarily as she watched him, still rejecting all foods, still not quite whole mentally. She gently massaged his neck as she continued.
“The mess with Adelaide will take some time to untangle, even if someone comes,” she said. “But the situation with Ruben is more of a problem.”
Unlike Adelaide, Ruben Aether was very cooperative. He had no particular complaints while being held in the basement of the knights’ building. Indeed, he still seemed rather relaxed.