He pressed his cheek against mine with a deep breath, like he was trying to pull himself together. “You deserve better,” he continued at last. “I put you in danger just by being near you. You’ve seen what I am, but what you don’t know is that I chose this. I chose to become a monster. I thought I had nothing left to lose, nothing I could put in danger. The day I accepted the symbiont, I thought the only thing left for me in life was my duty, but I was wrong.” He kissed my cheek. “I found you. You’re the bravest, craziest, most extraordinary thing I’ve ever seen. When I look at you, I forget that my soul is sold already, that I have no right to feel the happiness I feel around you, to love you like I do.”
I struggled against him as he spoke, trying to get my stupid body to cooperate long enough to tell him I didn’t care about any of that. That I thought he was plenty deserving, and my opinion was the only one that mattered. But Rupert was already raising his head to look at me with blue eyes so frighteningly intense I lost the little bit of breath I’d managed.
“I will not let him kill you,” Rupert said, each word sending tremors down the fingers that had never left my face. “If he wants you dead for knowing too much, I’ll make you know nothing. If he would kill you because you make me weak, then I’ll make sure you never look at me again. I’ll do whatever I must to keep you safe, and if you hate me for it, all the better. I can bear that. I can bear anything if it means you stay alive.”
I couldn’t, and I started to tell him so, but Rupert was too fast. He leaned down and kissed me again, hard and desperate, and then pulled out of my sight. The bright light hit me as soon as he vanished, forcing me to close my eyes.
When I opened them again, there were two people standing over me. Rupert was there, and Ren stood at his side. The real Ren, not that skeletal shadow that had been with Brenton. This Ren was calm and still as a doll, her blank, dark eyes expressionless as ever.
Rupert reached out one last time, trailing his finger down my cheek. “Good-bye, Deviana,” he whispered.
Rage surged strong enough to push me up. I wanted to yell at him, to ask what he thought he was doing and how the hell he thought he could just say good-bye after telling me all that. I’d barely gotten more than a half inch off the bed before Ren’s hand covered my face. I jerked away in horror, but her fingers were gentle as they followed my movement, and then a soft, female voice whispered in my mind.
And I slept.
I woke to the feeling of something sharp poking my hand, but my eyes stuck shut when I tried to open them. I tried harder, but nothing I did could unglue them. I was starting to get a little panicky when someone wiped a wet cloth over my face, and the gunk vanished. I blinked at the sudden bright light, and as things slowly came into focus, I saw there were words floating in front of my face.
Welcome back to the land of the living.
The words vanished, and I turned my head slightly to see Hyrek standing beside my bed, clicking unhurriedly on his handset.
How do you feel?
I considered the question for a moment. “Not like much of anything, actually,” I answered at last. “Tired, mostly.”
Hyrek shook his head. That’s because you’ve been under the bone knitter twice in less than a month. Your nerves are fried. Didn’t I tell you to stay out of trouble?
“Are they coming back?” Because the idea of fried nerves definitely did not appeal to me.
They should, Hyrek typed. Assuming I don’t have to patch you back together again for at least another forty-eight hours.
“No promises,” I grumbled. “What happened?”
I was hoping you could tell me, Hyrek typed. So far as we’ve been able to gather, pirates hit the ship while we were staying at the not-quite-as-finished-as-advertised governor’s mansion. Caldswell came back when he got the alarm to find you down and Cotter dead.
I sank into the bed. I didn’t remember any of that. The last thing I remembered was lying on the cargo watching old gladiator matches with Cotter. I didn’t remember a fight, and I certainly didn’t remember Cotter dying.
That thought made my chest clamp up. I wasn’t sure how, but I had the feeling his death had been glorious, worthy of memory, but I couldn’t make my brain form any pictures. I was about to ask Hyrek another question when the door opened and Caldswell came in.
“How’s our hero doing?”
The question was genial, but one look at Caldswell’s face told me he was anything but happy. Of course, what captain whose ship had just been hit and crew killed would be?
“I can’t remember anything,” I said, staring up at him.
Caldswell shrugged. “To be expected. You took quite a blow to the head, though why you were out of your armor is anyone’s guess.”
My eyes widened. I could think of no reason why I would ever get out of my armor while on duty.
“You were roughed up pretty bad,” he continued. “We had to keep you under the trauma shell until Hyrek could operate. You’re lucky to be alive.”
I rubbed my forehead, trying to make the memories surface. Hyrek glanced at me and typed. I’m sure it will come back. Your brain is still trying to heal. Even your hard head can’t take everything.
I shook myself and sat up a little. “Is there a video or something I could watch?”
“No.” Caldswell sounded pretty bitter about that. “They blasted the bridge when they came in. You and Cotter took out plenty before you went down, though, so whatever you did, you did it well.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said, more out of habit than anything else. It didn’t feel right accepting praise for something I had no memory of doing.
“Get some rest,” Caldswell said, gently patting my shoulder. “We’re stuck here until Mabel can patch the Fool up enough to make the flight to a real repair shop, so no rush. Just take it easy and try to get some sleep.”
“Yes sir,” I whispered, though I didn’t feel like sleeping anymore. I felt restless and angry. Far more angry than I should be over lost memories that would probably be coming back. As I watched Caldswell leave, I noticed someone was waiting for him in the hall. It was that tall man, the cook. The moment I saw him, a wave of revulsion hit me in the chest.
I looked away in disgust. The feeling had come out of nowhere, washing through my body like a flood. It was so strange that I forced myself to push up a bit and look again.
The wave hit me just as hard the second time, but I was expecting it now and I was able to keep looking. Caldswell was standing in the door, talking softly to the cook. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the raw anger was clear in every line of Caldswell’s body. I had no idea what the cook could have done to make the captain so furious, but Caldswell looked ready to murder him on the spot.
That didn’t seem to bother the cook, though. He just stood there and took it, his face neutral. Finally, Caldswell stomped off, waving for the cook to follow. He did, but as he passed the door, his eyes met mine.
The revulsion hit me so hard I nearly threw up, but the surge of anger that came right after was what knocked me back down on the bed. I sank into the pad, completely confused. What the hell was wrong with me? I didn’t even know that much about the cook, not even his name, actually. I knew I didn’t like him, but surely not liking someone wasn’t enough for a reaction this strong.
Hyrek touched my shoulder, holding his handset out. What’s wrong? Your blood pressure just shot up.
“I have no idea,” I confessed, covering my face with my hands.
Hyrek grabbed my head and turned it, peeling back my hands to examine my eyes and mouth. His nostrils quivered as he did, and he jerked away.
“What?” I asked, tensing. “The smell again?”
Hyrek nodded. Worse than before.
I knew I’d regret asking, but I couldn’t help it. “What do I smell like?”
Hyrek set his jaw stubbornly and didn’t answer. I was beginning to worry he wouldn’t when he reached down and clicked his handset, turning the screen toward me.
I looked away in revulsion. I could hear him typing something else, but I shook my head. “I asked,” I muttered. “Thank you, Hyrek. I’d like to sleep now.”
He tapped my arm gently and left me alone. I lay in the bed for a long time after that, hands pressed against my eyes as I tried to figure out what had happened, how Cotter had died, what Hyrek’s smell meant, and why I was so angry. Mostly, though, my thoughts kept drifting back to the cook’s eyes. I hadn’t realized until now that they were blue, but it was the expression in them I couldn’t shake. I’d never had anyone look at me with such a strange mix of loss and triumph, and it bothered me.
Finally, exhausted, I kicked everything out of my mind and focused on going to sleep. Tomorrow, I would remember. Tomorrow, I would know what the hell was going on with my life. Tomorrow, things would make more sense.
I held that hope like a prayer until sleep took me at last.