27-Bruises

We rode until dusk, then made camp again rather than ride through the night. Everyone was completely paranoid about letting the Countess go anywhere alone. Druskin was shaken enough by the experience that he wouldn’t let her out of his sight, and even threw propriety to the dogs when he charged Luza with escorting her should she need to get up while I was sleeping. I caught amusement glittering in Ilya Terr’s eyes, but he said nothing. Indeed, how could he, when Mihalak was shadowing Ilya with just as much conviction. Just…quieter.

The party felt more like a single group than it had before. The experience the night prior had driven home that we were already on the same side, working toward the same goal. Nothing unites like a common foe. The Countess and Ilya Terr conducted themselves a little more shyly, but they fell out of formal tones the way people fall back into their native tongue when they forget themselves.

I sat between Quill and Luza but further from the fire than usual to keep my face away from the heat. My cheeks were stiff. Probably would be for at least another day even with Quill’s salve. Then we’d find out just how good Galo’s salve was at keeping the color down. I wished we’d stopped near a stream. Nothing sounded better than the icy touch of a mountain stream. What we’d found was a trickling rivulet not unlike the one presided over by the cedar tree. I’d wet a handkerchief and patted my cheeks, relying on the dark to hide any blue that bloomed, but there wasn’t much relief to be had. Just one more day and we’d come to the Juni River. Abandoning my dried meat, I leaned back on my elbows, closing my eyes to imagine myself in the cold arms of the river.

“Are you alright?” asked Quill.

“Mm-hmm.”

“I’ve just never known you to leave off food.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a swollen face before.”

“Is it that bad?”

I opened an eye. “Horrendous. Please tell me you have terrible bruises from last night’s adventure.”

Quill spread his hands, “My style involves significantly less getting caught than yours does, Lady Azu Kaban.”

“Because only prisoners take wounds,” I scoffed.

“Are you calling my bluff?”

I snorted. Even as the thought of him providing proof of his unmarred skin made my ears flush. “Maybe I will.”

He gave me a grin. Then, to my surprise, slowly, dramatically, he presented his arms, then began to roll up his sleeves. He showed me first his left arm, then his right. There were deep purple bruises. Finger shaped, here and there on his arms, from where men had struggled against his grasp as he choked them unconscious. A narrow white bandage was wrapped around his right forearm. “One man got to his knife before he passed out,” Quill explained, noticing my eyes snag on the bandage. “Just a scratch.”

Before I could stop myself, I sat up and gently ran my fingers over his forearm until I reached the bandage. He went very still beneath my touch. My stomach flipped, but I didn’t pull away. Neither did he.

“If it’s any comfort,” his voice was soft, “your face doesn’t look terribly swollen.”

“I’m glad to know my beauty is preserved. In stone. As it feels.” I removed my hands, making a conscious effort to move slowly instead of acting scalded, “It’s not that bad.” Reclining on my elbows again, I looked at the fire and breathed deep, “Tomorrow it will be even better.”

“Is that bravado or faith?” Quill peered at me, arching a brow.

“It’s hard to tell the difference, isn’t it?”

He was quiet for long enough that I turned my head to look at him. He looked thoughtful. Perhaps even concerned.

“I’m fine, Quill. This is hardly the first time I’ve taken a cheap shot and it’s not likely to be the last. I could have bashed his face in if I wanted, but I played a longer game.”

Quill shook his head. “I know. That’s not it.”

“Then what?” I demanded, bewildered by his expression.

He rubbed his hand through his hair and turned to look at the fire for a moment before saying. “Nothing, Zephra.”

I stared at him. He’d tripped over “Zephra,” the name stilted like he’d almost said something else. He’d almost used my real name. Here. At the fire. With Luza just on the other side of me. Quill gave me a half smile and turned back to the fire. I sighed and laid back, draping my arm over my eyes. If Quill wasn’t talking, there was no making him talk. Not here. I had to content myself with only imagining dragging answers out of him, but I didn’t even do that very long before I felt sleep tugging at me. My bedroll was over by the Countess’s, so I dragged myself to my feet, and patted Quill on the shoulder before turning in for the night. One good thing about being clobbered in the face, no one expected me to keep watch.

*

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