“Oh, I get it,” I said, folding my arms and glaring at him as he carried me through the engine room. “Charity to the fallen enemy.”
I felt Rupert’s sigh through his chest. “You’re not my enemy, Devi.”
We climbed the spiral stair up from the ship’s lower level to the main hall where the infirmary was. The sound of partying got louder as we got higher. No doubt Caldswell was making good on his promise to spend my combat bonus. With so much noise they couldn’t possibly hear anything we said, but neither of us spoke again until we were through the infirmary door.
Rupert set me gently on the table and went to get an ice pack from the freezer. I watched him the whole time, noting how the “pain” from his bruised ribs had vanished completely, leaving him free to move gracefully as he always did. When he came back, ice pack in hand, I put my hand on his chest, stopping him midstep.
“What?” he said.
I ignored the question, reaching for his shirt buttons instead. I undid them one by one, starting at the middle of his chest and working my way down. He didn’t move a muscle the entire time, but I could feel his breathing picking up under my fingers. Not so long ago, the idea that I was making cool, collected Rupert’s breathing jump would have delighted me, but right now I was more concerned with inspecting the spot where my kick had landed.
I pushed his shirt back to reveal a solid wall of pale, unmarred skin and well-defined muscle. Almost hesitantly, I moved my hand to his side, letting my fingers brush over his ribs and down his waist. It might have been my imagination, but I think his breathing stopped when I touched him. I did smile then, but I didn’t let myself get distracted. I’d risked a great deal to get here, and I wasn’t about to let things slide now.
“I kicked you hard enough to nearly break my foot,” I said, drawing my hand away and folding his shirt back into place. “But you don’t have so much as a mark.” My eyes went up to his. “Why? Who are you?”
Rupert dropped to his knees in front of me and pressed the ice pack against my bruised ankle, holding my foot to keep me still. “I’m a cook,” he said quietly. “And if I am other things, they happened long ago. But you have nothing to fear from me, Devi. I promise I will never hurt you.”
“I’m not worried you’ll hurt me,” I said, confused. Even in the middle of our fight, the idea that Rupert might actually hurt me hadn’t even crossed my mind.
I was still thinking it over when Rupert leaned closer. His head was bowed so I couldn’t see his face, but his hands were gentle as he pressed the ice pack against my skin. Some of his hair had slipped free of its tie during our fight. It hung down in long, black tendrils around his face. A few of them were long enough to brush the skin of my leg. They felt soft as silk, and the urge to wrap one around my finger was overpowering. My hand had actually twitched forward before I realized what was happening, and all at once, I felt very stupid.
What the hell was I doing? My plan had worked, I’d revealed that Rupert was more than human, but though I was the one with the swollen ankle, Rupert was the one who’d gotten hurt. Whatever he was, it was clear he didn’t like it. He’d done his best to keep it hidden, and everything had been fine until I’d gotten curious and started ripping things open.
I closed my eyes, feeling stupid and mean. In hindsight, picking that fight had been a pointless risk. Even if I had discovered some huge secret, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I wasn’t leaving this ship unless Caldswell kicked me off, so what did it matter if his cook was something other than he appeared? Rupert hadn’t done anything with it other than keep his head down and try to stay alive. I was the one throwing her weight around and hurting people in the process.
With a shamed sigh, I opened my eyes. Rupert was still on his knees in front of me, his face turned down as he studied my injured leg. The sight filled me with tenderness, and I leaned down slowly until my forehead bumped against the crown of his head. “I’m sorry,” I said softly.
Rupert stilled. “For what?”
I shrugged. “Everything. I got nosy and made a mess when I should have known better. I’m not afraid of you, Rupert. I never have been and I never will be. Whatever you are, it’s none of my business, and I’m going to keep my nose out of it from now on. I just hope you can forgive me for being such a pushy bitch about things.”
“You’re not a bitch,” Rupert said quietly, stumbling a bit over “bitch” like he didn’t like the sound. “And it was my fault, too. I shouldn’t have taken you up on the fight.”
“I put you on the spot,” I said, shaking my head against his. “I can be pretty pigheaded when I get stuck on something.”
He laughed at that, dipping down to drop a kiss to my knee. It was the tiniest motion, a bare brush over almost before I could feel it, but I was still reeling from the shock it sent through me when Rupert stood up.
“That you certainly can be,” he said, handing me the ice pack. “Hold that down while I get something to tie it with.”
I obeyed, holding the ice against my ankle while he found a roll of gauze. Together, we tied the ice pack to my leg, and then he picked me up again despite my protests and carried me to my cabin.
Everyone was still in the lounge, so we were able to slip in unseen. Rupert hit the light with his elbow and dodged Nova’s fluttery hangings to set me on my bunk. He propped me up gently, using my spare pillow to elevate my leg. I expected him to leave after getting me settled, but he didn’t. Instead, he plopped himself down on the floor beside my bunk.
“What are you doing?” I asked, smacking his shoulder, which was right by my hand.
“Keeping you from getting up,” Rupert said, like this should be obvious. “We’ve got four more hours before we leave hyperspace, and there’s probably going to be a party going in the lounge right up until then. As your bartender, I don’t trust you not to hobble over and join in, so I’m going to sit here and make sure you stay off that leg.”
I fell back into my pillow with a dramatic sigh. “Great,” I said. “I’m paying for a party and I don’t even get to go.”
“It’s not so bad,” Rupert said, folding his arms behind his head as he stretched his long legs out beside my bed.
I stared at him, dumbfounded. If I’d been in his shoes through all this, I’d be fuming, but Rupert looked content as a cat in a sunbeam, and eventually, I relaxed as well. If I was honest with myself, I had to admit it was nice to just spend time with him again. Between my initial ill-fated attempts to sleep with him and all the crap that had happened after, I’d almost forgotten how much I enjoyed his company.
“I guess you’re right,” I said, smiling at him. Then I caught sight of my cards, still sitting where I’d left them, and my smile widened with sudden inspiration. “So Rupert”—I reached over him, grabbing my deck off the dresser—“do you know how to play poker?”
His insulted look told me everything I needed to know.
Rupert turned out to be even more of a card shark than I was, mostly because he was such a good bluffer. If we’d been playing for money, I’d have been in trouble, but we weren’t, so the only damage I suffered was a bruised ego. It was hard for me to see the cards when he was sitting on the floor, so, after our third game, Rupert joined me on the bed, sitting on the far side with my injured leg stretched over his knees.
It couldn’t have been a comfortable position. He was too tall to sit up straight under the bunk, so he had to lean sideways, but he didn’t seem to mind. In fact, his posture was more relaxed than I’d ever seen it, and I relaxed as well, letting myself enjoy having Rupert in my bed at last, even if it wasn’t the way I’d planned.
We talked about stupid, common stuff, mostly how I’d dominated my duchy’s varsity armor league when I’d been in school. He seemed to find the idea of me as a teenage armor jock hilarious. I, however, saw nothing funny about it at all.
“It was serious competition,” I snapped, bidding two even though I knew he had to have a better hand than I did. “The suits are stock for league play, no custom anything. The fights are all skill. They recruit gladiators out of the varsity leagues, you know.”
“So why aren’t you in the arena, then?” Rupert said, matching my bid with a pair of the hair clips we were using for chips. “I can’t imagine a recruiter would pass up someone like you.”
“Who said they did?” I huffed. “I got plenty of offers, but I didn’t want to be a gladiator. They make the girls fight in bikinis, and that’s not the sort of glory I was looking for. Even if I could have gotten a real suit, I wouldn’t have taken a gladiator contract. I’ve never wanted to be anything but a Devastator since I saw the royal squad when I was thirteen, and they don’t recruit out of the arenas.”
“Why?” Rupert asked, glancing at me over his cards.
“Because all gladiators, even the good ones, are more about showing off than fighting,” I said authoritatively.
Rupert laughed. “No, no, I meant why do you want to be a Devastator?”
“Because they’re the top,” I said. “The absolute pinnacle of how far a peasant like me can go. I’d be under the direct command of the Sacred King himself. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
He arched an eyebrow, and I smiled. “You gotta understand, I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t even know what I wanted to be when I was a kid because I never saw anything except fishing and farming. Then my dad took me to Kingston to watch the parades, and when I saw the Devastators, it was like the whole universe suddenly opened up.” I could still remember that day clear as a photograph, the crowded streets, the confetti falling from the sky, and the Devastators in their shining golden armor that screamed power. No matter how many years went by, the memory still made me shiver.
“I found my calling,” I continued with a shrug. “Looking back, it was kind of obvious. Armor was always the only thing I really liked to do, and the Devastators are the best armor users in the galaxy. One look was enough. From that moment on, I knew exactly what I wanted from my life.”
“You seem pretty determined to make it,” Rupert said, rearranging his cards.
“Can’t be a Devastator if you’re not determined,” I said, tossing my losing hand down with a grin. “I’m well on my way, though. All I’ve got to do now is stay alive.”
“You might have chosen the wrong ship for that,” Rupert said quietly. His eyes flicked up from his cards as he spoke, and the look in them was so intense that my hands began to shake.
“Whatever,” I said at last. “It’ll take a bigger monster than Caldswell’s Fool to eat me.”
To my surprise, Rupert’s face broke into a wide smile. “I believe it,” he said, folding his hand neatly as he started gathering the cards for the next game.
My arm shot out to stop him. “Wait. Aren’t you going to collect your winnings?”
He shook his head. “I don’t need clips for my hair, and besides”—he gave me a sly look—“you won that hand.”
I released him with a groan. He’d bluffed me again. I’d thought for sure I’d lost. Should have bid harder. Rupert’s smile grew infuriating at my indignation, and I wrinkled my nose at him. “Are you always like this?”
“Only with you,” Rupert said, shuffling the cards in a neat fold.
I flopped back against my pillow with a huff. “So that’s me,” I said. “But why are you here? Surely there are better places to be a cook.” My voice was almost sleepy it was so casual, but I was holding my breath. I’d promised I wouldn’t pry into his past, but I was just so curious. I also wanted to know more about his relationship with the cursed captain. Back on the bridge, Caldswell had said they were friends, but Rupert always seemed to treat him like an officer, not a friend, and I’d never seen them spend time together as friends would. Actually, I’d never seen Rupert spend time with anyone except myself and Ren.