Night had fallen, the electrical lights of the utilitarian cabin flickering with the creak and groan of the ship as it sliced through the waves toward Queenstor. The dual berths did not move, fixed to the wall on one side and constrained by a rail to prevent an occupant to fall on the other. The room was completed with a table bolted to the wall and two stools rooted into place.

Arm flung over her forehead, Bharia absorbed the roll as she lay in one of the two berths, grabbing the rail affixed to its side for that purpose to prevent her fall. The artificial light hurt her eyes, and her stomach had yet to accustom itself to the roll of the ship, though they’d been mired in this voyage for over a week. Galling that Stahg was unaffected, his colour the same as always and his movement free of stumble and lurch.

Worse still, though, was the feeling of being trapped. Though the ship was large, they were still contained within it, and nothing Bharia did would lessen the moments between finding Thalia and this. She could not purchase a faster horse, or arrange for transport in a mechanical conveyance. She had merely to wait, confined to this cabin and the ship around it.

The knowledge gnawed at her.

Squeezing her eyes shut, she battled the wicked ache in her head. For a day this ache had held her, her stomach lurching as particularly vicious wave took hold of the boat and threw it to the next. “How long until we reach Queenstor?”

“Another night and day.”

Turning her head, she cracked an eye only to wince at the light. Stahg sat on the hardwood floor, arms draped over his up-drawn knees.

He leant his head against the wall, regarding her through his lashes. “The captain said the weather will continue to be fair and we will make good time. We should make landfall not long after the princess’s ship docks.”

“He is certain?”

“He is as certain as he can be.”

She directed a sour look at the roof. Stahg was ever pragmatic and, at times, completely without imagination. Pushing herself up, she sat with her back against the wall of the ship, her leg threaded under her up-drawn knee.

The move was a mistake. Pain blossomed in her head, such that she winced.

Blue eyes narrowed. “Your head pains you.”

“I am fine.”

“You always say that, and it is always false. Come here.”

Lowering her arm, she raised a brow at the command in his tone.

He regarded her steadily, his hand unwavering as he held it out for hers.

Moments passed as they regarded each other. Finally, she hauled herself off the bed, gingerly moving across the rolling floor before taking his hand. She wasn’t certain if the shiver was because of the pain or because of his touch.

He tugged her to him and she did as he bade, seating herself. He turned her shoulders so her back was to him, long legs drawing either side of hers as he pulled her against him, his chest brushing against her back with every breath. The pain in her head became a distant thing as she concentrated on her breathing. On concealing her reaction to him.

A tug and the tie of her braid became undone. Her breath hitched. “What do you—” she managed.

“Hush.” Gentle fingers picked at the strands, loosening the tension in her head.

Closing her eyes, she leaned into his touch. The tips of his fingers wove the strands of her hair, making small circles on her skull.

“You should have said your head pained you,” he murmured. “This could have been done that much sooner.”

“I thought it would abate.” Tilting her head, she stifled a moan as his thumbs caressed he neck.

Stahg exhaled.

Her eyes snapped open. In his breath was censure and disappointment.

He remained silent.

Irritation filled her. He always did this, he always sat in judgement and then refused to comment.

Twisting to face him, slow in deference to her head, she demanded, “What have you to say?”

Pale blue eyes regarded her steadily as his hands dropped to his sides. She stared back, ignoring the pain in her scowl, the stretch of her muscles.
Expression neutral, he finally said, “You never ask.”

Brow creasing, she said, “I ask. All the time.”

“For help. You never ask for help.”

Anger, sudden and intense, blinded her. She was not as others, bleating for aid at the slightest provocation. “I am not helpless.”

“I know this.” A hint of frustration crossed his face. “But neither are you invulnerable.”

“We are none of us invulnerable.”

“Don’t be obtuse.”

“Do not,” she said evenly, “call me obtuse.”

Against his hips, his hands tightened to fists. “I only wish you would ask, when you have need.”

If this is a trouble, I will remove myself.” Putting her hand to the floor, she shoved herself up. Her stomach protested, and her head also, but she ignored both.

He caught her arm. “That’s not what I meant.”

She hovered there, halfway between rising and sitting. “Then what did you mean?”

He definitely wore frustration now. He let her go, running his hand over his jaw. She sank to sit before him, legs crossed.

Hands resting on his knees, he leaned forward slightly. “You were in pain, Bharia, and you did not tell me. How can we partner, if you will not trust me when you have need?”

“Why do you ask me these things? We have been partnered for over eight years. You know I trust you. You know this.”

“I know this.” His index finger ticked against his knee. “I know you keep your pain to yourself. I know you suffer aches that you tell me nothing of. I know you worry about Thalia, and if we will find her, but you do not share these things.”

“And what of you? I never know what you think. You hide behind passivity and unemotion, and I am to discern from this you wish me to speak?”

“I have not sought to push—”

“But you seek now?”

“Now we are alone!” The words exploded from him.

Her eyes widened. She’d never seen Stahg in such a passion, not in all the years she’d known him.

His hands tightened on his knees. “Now we are only two, without the princess between us. I would speak of this, Bharia, and have it remedied.”

“Do you believe such issues will be solved by a few minutes of talk?”

“Of course not. If we begin discussion, I would count myself well satisfied.”

His gaze was too intense. She averted her eyes, focussing on the strong column of his throat. “What do you want of me, Stahg?”

Silence fell. It weighed heavy upon her, as if loaded with things left unsaid.

“For you to tell me when you have need,” he finally said. “Will you at least attempt to tell me when you need help?”

“I will.”

“Good.” He swallowed, the movement drawing her gaze like a lodestone.

His skin was golden in the artificial light, lightly stubbled with blond. She wanted to run her lips over him, feel his texture, taste the salt on his skin. Her own skin heated, a shiver racing through her flesh and, of a sudden, she realized her position. She was positioned between his legs, his long limbs drawn up either side of her, his fisted hands resting lightly on his bent knees, his face a breath from hers.

Slowly, she raised her eyes. Blue held her gaze, clear and steady. As if in a trance, she raised her hand to his face, and his skin was smooth beneath her fingers, warm beneath her touch. She traced the line of his cheekbone. The underside of his jaw. His mouth.

“Bharia.” Her name was a whisper over her fingers. Soft lips had formed her name and he let her learn them, his gaze never straying from hers.

By the Maiden, what was she doing?

Dropping her hand to her lap, she attempted a smile. She was fairly sure she failed. “I am tired, Stahg, and my head pains me. I shall dim the lights, if you have no objection.”

He said nothing for the longest time. She held on to her poor attempt at a smile, pretending nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. As if she had not had his flesh beneath her skin. “I have none,” he finally said.

She nodded and rose, dimming the lights before settling again in her berth.

She did not sleep, but she gave the appearance she did, and she failed not to remember the touch of his flesh against hers.

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