(Full Summary: Paladin Series 8: War creates rifts between people. Between friends. Between families. In the struggle between two great nations, the hardest task can be simply finding a way to live with each other and mend those rifts.
Lea Severine, captured and tortured, has sworn herself to the protection of her kingdom and its people. But that doesn't mean she isn't still a woman with a woman's desires and she has her eyes set on a man that, by all rights, should be her mortal enemy. However, her when her love can't be returned fully, how can she choose between him and her vows?
Emilien Cesaire, captured and tortured, has sworn himself to the protection of his kingdom and its people. Even if they turn their back on him. His vows to the crown are binding. When he's offered the love of a woman that both excites and worries him, how can he accept it knowing that to do so would be to be the traitor everyone brands him as?
Secrets are exposed, enemies are redeemed, and the tides begin to turn in a war that threatens to rip them apart, even as it brought them together.)
What Came Before
Despite the pain and exhaustion that was weighing her down, Lea still tried to run. As her enemies cut down the last of the soldiers that struggled to defend her, she desperately struggled to get away. She was hampered by the combined effects of the new weakness weighing her down after surrendering her stolen abilities and strength to another, the numbing fatigue that had been gradually worsening over the long weeks she had been sacrificing sleep, and the dizziness that spun her head from blood loss thanks to the gaping wound on her arm. It was still bleeding and didn't appear to be stopping any time soon.
Though Lea would never hesitate to give her life for her country, a sacrifice here would gain her nothing. As the last of her soldiers fell, there was no one left to save. Her enemies continued to stream in through the broken gate, threatening to overwhelm the inner ring of the city of Jorives, but Lea had already done everything she could to stop them. She would simply have to trust the new paladin prospect, Amorette, to fight them off.
The only thing she could do now was run. Attempt to save herself. Maybe, if she succeeded, she could keep fighting for Jorives. For Vasconia.
Her attempt was short lived.
She only managed to take a few, shambling steps, before she was overrun. Harsh hands grabbed her injured arm, digging into the exposed meat of her flesh. She cried out, the pain of it dropping her to her knees, leaving her helpless as another man grabbed her other arm.
Lea didn't think about using her power. It just happened. As instinctive as blinking when something approached her eye. The man who had grabbed her injured arm – the one of the two not wearing gloves – sucked in a rattling breath as his eyes rolled into the back of his head. A second later, he collapsed to the ground, seizing as foam flecked his lips.
Through the touch of her skin on another, Lea could steal something intangible from them. Skills or abilities or, more terrifyingly, something undefinable and unnamed that, when she took it, made her feel more alive but left her victims a shell.
Even as that man was still seizing, another man took his place, grabbing Lea's arm again. He was wearing gloves, preventing her from doing more than weakly thrashing as they began dragging her away from the battlefield. She heard them yelling to each other, calling out that they had captured a paladin.
She was more valuable alive than dead.
The last Lea saw of Jorives before she was pulled aboard their airship, was a once beautiful city surrounded by burning fields as one of their enemy's ships was pulled from the sky. The sight of which made her smile.
Jorives was in good hands. She would trust Amorette to take care of them.
Her own future was far less certain.
Her captors quickly learned that touching her was practically a death sentence. While the men who seized and fell didn't precisely die, they weren't the same afterwards either and they never recovered. It only took two more men losing themselves for them to realize she couldn't be touched with their bare hands. They gave her gruel and water to keep her alive as they quickly retreated from the battle, from the country.
No one attempted to tend to her arm, forcing her to do so herself. The gaping wound took days to stop bleeding and the loss left her weakened despite what she had taken from the men. The large gash that traveled from the back of her right hand all the way up her forearm would no doubt leave an equally massive scar.
If she ever got a chance to heal from it.
She was under no delusions. She was being captured so she could be tortured for information. Lea was a paladin and therefore highly ranked in her country, a leader in this war. They were going to force as much information from her as possible. Her end was going to be slow and agonizing.
She tried to not eat or drink, intending to kill herself while on the way there before they could do anything else to her. Once they figured out what she was doing however, they began force feeding her, shoving a tube into her throat and directly pouring gruel and water into her gut. If she threw it up, they would do it again.
They wore gloves each time. But one man was careless and left his forearm bare. She brushed her cheek across the exposed skin and he collapsed, seizing, and she was left just a bit more restored. Not healed, but invigorated.
Her captors learned from their mistake and, from that point on, no one came into her cell who wasn't fully covered from head to toe.
When she tried to kill herself by slamming her head into the wall or biting off her tongue, they tied her down and shoved a gag into her mouth. They removed it only when they were ready to force feed her again.
Lea probably made her imprisonment worse than it needed to be, but she would rather die on her own terms than allow them to torture, then kill her.
She lost track of time as her miserable days stretched endlessly onward. At each chance given, she would either try to kill herself or steal from others. Unfortunately, the latter always prolonged her own life, even as it hurt her enemies, but she couldn't stop herself from fighting.
She knew the day that something changed. When they came down to her cell this time, they weren't carrying the feeding tube. Two men, fully clothed, grabbed her under her arms, which were both tied down against her torso and dragged her out of the room. Lea tried to brush her face against their arms, but she couldn't force the fabric protecting them out of the way.
They didn't take her far. After dragging her up on deck – striking her heels against the edge of each step along the way – they dropped her onto her back. Unable to move to try to catch herself, it was all Lea could do to keep her head from hitting the ground.
Groaning from the pain of her captivity, she opened her bleary eyes onto the blinding light of midday, broken only by the shadow of the man who stood over her. A smile without any humor or happiness pulled at her cheeks.
"General Firmin. You came all this way to see me yourself? I'm honored." Her voice was rough from lack of use and the repeated trauma of having the tube shoved down to feed her.
General Firmin Didier, leader of the Gasconite army, had no expression on his face as he looked down at her. His deadened eyes didn't seem to actually focus on her, but past her. It was unnerving. Like being stared at by a lifeless painting.
"What is your name, unnatural?" He asked, his voice even and emotionless. He spoke without tone or inflection. It was eerie.
But Lea only grinned. "Come down. I'll whisper it in your ear."
He didn't take the bait, but she hadn't really expected him to. Instead, he spoke, without turning from her, giving orders to his men.
"Take her to the priests. Find out what she knows."
"Should she not be taken before the queen to be sentenced, sir?" One foolish soldier asked.
Firmin's expression didn't change. His hand moved so quickly that Lea's fogged and abused mind couldn't track it. She knew only one moment that he was standing straight, then his hand was extended, the dagger he had thrown now buried deep into the chest of the young man that had dared to question him.
The young man sputtered in disbelief as blood flecked his lips. When he collapsed to the ground, none of the others attempted to help him.
Firmin didn't repeat himself as he turned on his heel and began walking away. Lea was breathing quickly, already exhausted from her ordeal and knowing it was about to get worse. She began to say her last prayers while she was still cognizant enough to do so.
Lea had not been taken to Ambraude, the capital of Gascony. Instead, she had been brought directly to Isaie. It was the religious capital of Gascony and the place where they sent their native unnatural women such as her. For rehabilitation. For exploitation. Or, in Lea's case, neutralization and torture.
She had heard of this horrid place where Gascony kept their empowered women. Women that were revered in her country but distrusted and condemned here. She had never thought she might one day find herself trapped, locked away within the tiny shack they kept them in, lacking in any basic comforts, and fully separate from everyone else in the city.
She was shackled to the wall, given just enough slack in her chains so that she could lay down and crawl to the corner to relieve herself in a bucket. The latter was a bit of a stretch. The shack had been built within a cleared area in the middle of the city, directly in the shadow of their massive Sacellum, and guarded from all sides.
The priests were warned of her abilities and, when the first priest appeared, he was suitably covered from head to toe. The plain brown robes he wore already covered him from the neck down, with long sleeves to his hands, but he had also worn gloves so that he could immediately shove the feeding tube down her throat and force feed her.
She needed to be kept alive until they could question her.
The second priest who came to her was similarly robed, but he was far more gentle. Instead of shoving the tube back into her throat, he spoke to her gently and tried to convince her to eat. She refused and, the next day, the first priest was back with the tube.
Lea lost track of the days. Though her shack's open windows left her completely exposed to the elements and she could see the sky at any time, she lacked the cognitive ability to actually keep track of the days passing.
The open wound on her arm had begun to fester. She could feel it in the burn that quickly spread, turning into a fever. The priests that came to ask her questions weren't gentle, striking her with fist and foot when she refused to speak. Eventually, her fever worsened to the point that she was no longer capable of understanding them. However, she still felt the pain of their strikes after their incoherent demands for answers her ill mind couldn't supply.
And even if it could, she still refused to speak. She held onto her silence, encircling her will around it, until her silence was the sole reason for her existence. Even as she lost herself, she remembered only that she couldn't speak.
She wouldn't speak.
And eventually, she would finally die.
What should have been a cold comfort brought her nothing but joy. Though she no longer had the strength to try killing herself, she knew that this couldn't last indefinitely. Eventually, even her enhanced and blessed body would give up and perish, especially since she was no longer able to steal the life force from those that accidentally touched her.
The priests, however, were determined to keep her alive. Being unnatural wasn't a death sentence in this country – no matter how much she might wish otherwise. As she fell ill, they began mixing medicines into her food in an attempt to keep her alive. If, for no other reason, than because she hadn't yet spoken to them.
As the days passed, she became familiar with the two priests in charge of her. She heard the mean one called Laurent at one point. He was a small man with beady eyes that sparkled with delight every time he saw her, as though nothing brought him greater pleasure than to see her laid low, in agony. She wasn't sure how she knew the other one's name, but she did recall at one point that he was named Jean and though he wasn't a handsome man, the kindness and regret in his face when he looked at her made him beautiful in her eyes.
He was the one who was gentle to her. The one who fed her slowly, patiently, rather than just grabbing the tube that always waited in a corner of her one-room shack, threatening her with its presence. Though he was careful not to actually touch her, he was still caring.
The two men were complete opposites and, as her will was slowly degraded, Lea actually began to look forward to seeing Jean. She didn't fight him when he attempted to feed her – though she would still refuse to do so for Laurent, forcing him to use the tube. Jean would pray for her while Laurent would question and hurt her.
In either case, she still refused to speak. Neither Jean's kindness nor Laurent's cruelty could force her to give up that singular truth that she had sunk deep into herself.
She became so familiar with the pattern of the two of them appearing in an alternating pattern that when the pattern changed, she didn't really believe what was happening. She thought that she must be having another fever dream.
A priest opened the door to her shack, but it wasn't Jean or Laurent. But she knew it was a priest because of the brown robes he was wearing.
"Lea?" They whispered, approaching quickly.
She didn't recognize the voice. She preemptively sealed her mouth. Her stomach was uncomfortably full and her throat's burn was fresh, telling her that she had quite recently had the tube shoved past her lips. This wasn't Jean, so she wasn't going to eat anything else.
"Hey... you're burning up..." The priest had dropped to his knees and touched her sweaty forehead with a gloved hand before checking her over with a critical eye. "Lea? Can you hear me?"
She said nothing. She was biting her lips inside her mouth hard enough to make them bleed. The priest wasn't even trying to force them apart, but she refused to ease the force.
"Hey, hey... Stop that..." The priest wiped away the blood leaking out of the corner of her mouth. "It's me, Lea. Hey." She leaned closer and whispered into her ear without touching her bare skin. "The might of Iron holds nine..."
It took a long moment for the words to make sense in Lea's mind. But as they did, she finally pulled her teeth out from her cut flesh.
She barely was able to focus onto the priest's face but, unsurprisingly, didn't recognize their features. That was why she had the call sign. Addie was another paladin with the ability to shift her features and body, transforming into other people. The nondescript man she looked like now was completely unfamiliar to Lea.
"Addie..." She whispered, tears pooling in her eyes.
Though she didn't speak the return password, unable to remember what it was at the moment, Addie smiled and nodded, stroking her hand down her arm.
"Are you all right?" She asked.
Lea couldn't answer. She was just staring at her. The relief in her gaze was answer enough.
"I'm glad I found you." Addie smiled, pushing her hair back. "I need you to hold on for just a bit longer, all right? I'm going to get you out. I promise."
"Addie..." Lea croaked again.
"Oh, Lord. Your fever's really bad." Addie grimaced, touching her neck. "It's all right. I've got you. I just needed to confirm that you're here. I need a little time to get everything ready. It won't take long. Just a day or two. All right?"
"Addie..." Lea couldn't really think beyond that. Addie's words didn't really make sense to her, but the comforting cadence of her voice was more than enough.
"It's going to be okay, Lea." Addie promised, speaking slowly and deliberately as though she knew that she wasn't capable of understanding her. "Everything going to be all right. Just stay strong for a bit longer. I'll be back for you. I'll be back."
Lea mumbled something that might have been confirmation of her understanding, but didn't really form complete words. She could only weakly smile as Addie turned and walked quickly from the shack. Even after the door had shut behind her, Lea continued to lay out on the cold, hard ground. Smiling at nothing.
She was still smiling when Jean came around. He convinced her to eat without difficulty although he seemed disturbed by the grin across her face. When he prayed with her that day, he was more focused on healing and strength of will than the salvation of her soul.
Lieutenant General Emilien Cesaire was disgraced.
Disgraced to his country and disgraced to his friends.
He had brought an offer of peace to a people that, though his enemies, were also his friends. In a strange way, even part of his family.
But that peace offering was a trap. A trap that, once sprung, had driven him mad with fury and the burning injustice of seeing so many dead. So much destruction. In the heat of the moment, without thinking of the possible consequences, he had attacked his own people.
Being brought before the royal council that ruled while the queen remained unmarried on charges of treason wasn't a surprise. Emilien couldn't even come up with some defense for himself or his actions as the hard-faced council stared down at him in the low pit surrounded by high seats. His coat and shirt were stripped away, leaving him shamed and half nude, forced to kneel before them, wrists and ankles in heavy chains. Two guards stood at his side, both of their swords at the ready to cut him down if he so much as looked as though he might move.
Though he had no defense, he refused to beg for his life. They might shame him, but he held his head high in pride. He knew his actions weren't wrong no matter what they said to the contrary. He would do it again if given the chance, even knowing it would end like this. The only thing he regretted was that he hadn't been successful in killing Aloys, his former equal, who had planned the trap.
He was ready to be executed. That was the punishment for traitors.
He wasn't ready for Prince Jacques to step up and defend him.
The queen didn't rule. She was a woman and, by Gasconian law, she couldn't rule without either a husband or a royal council. Since her husband died, she had the latter. Usually, she was content to allow them to do whatever they wished without supervision, but for the execution of such a high ranking general, her royal presence was required.
Firmin Didier, general of the entire army, made his incredibly simple argument that Emilien deserved death for his actions. The council all nodded, agreeing with him without a fuss. They informed her majesty that only her permission was needed to go forward with the execution.
That was when Prince Jacques stepped into the council chamber. Seeing the auburn haired young man surprised Emilien. Surprise that was only compounded when Jacques began presenting his argument to his mother as to why Emilien should live.
"General Emilien had no way of knowing that Aloys wasn't acting as the traitor," he had declared, giving the council a beseeching stare. "He wasn't informed of the plan. Our great General Firmin, in his wisdom, decided that he would be a more effective distraction if he didn't know. As far as he knew, it was a real peace mission and Aloys had plunged us back into war against your wishes. Mother... Your majesty, I beg of you, spare his life."
Where she sat in her throne, almost hidden in the shadows, Queen Sabine said nothing.
"What are you doing, boy?" Firmin asked the prince, his voice tight. "This chamber is not for children. Leave."
"I am the crown prince of this country. You do not command me, general," Jacques returned his look with a hard one of his own.
"The general is right," one of the councilmen said. "Emilien deserves to die."
"Well, the prince does make some good points..." another mumbled.
"He killed soldiers of his own country! Death is too good for him. He deserves some punishment!"
"Council," the prince pleaded with them, cutting off the argument before it could devolve into senseless shouting. "Your collective wisdom has decided that I am not ready to be king due to my young age, despite being an adult now. I am grateful for the chance you have given me to learn my duties better before taking on such a large responsibility. However, I will be king one day. I should think that would give me some sway in this matter."
"Boy," Firmin snarled at him. "Get out."
"Mother." Jacques addressed her directly. "Please..."
She moved on her throne, but remained silent.
"I know the queen's will," Firmin stated, addressing the council. "She would want the traitor dead-"
"You do not speak for my mother, general," Jacques snapped.
"Boy, you-" Firmin reached out for him.
But even as the general grabbed his arm, intending to drag him from the chamber, a small smirk crossed the prince's face as he yelled to his mother, "This is not what father would want!"
The entire chamber stilled.
He had done the forbidden. He had mentioned the deceased king.
All of those in the chamber, from Firmin to Emilien, turned quickly to Sabine.
Her reaction was predictable. She became enraged. She screamed. She threw the closest object at hand – a wine goblet – at Jacques' head. He allowed it to strike him, not even attempting to defend himself as Sabine shrieked for them all to get out. Leave! Now!
It was a hasty dismissal, but it was not an execution order. Over the next couple days, nothing could be done to convince the queen to make a decision. She refused to listen to anyone, not even Firmin. And without her approval, Emilien couldn't be executed.
The council had to settle themselves with the next harshest punishment.
Emilien Cesaire was stripped of his rank as general, dishonorably discharged from the military, and would spend the rest of his life doing hard labor as a prisoner of the country. He would never again wear a coat, effectively stripping him of his masculinity. If he had no coat to provide for a woman, he could never have a family. It was determined that he would be forced to do his labor within Isaie, spending the rest of his life in pious contemplation of the crimes he had committed.
When Emilien was being loaded up into the airship that would take him there, the prince came down to see him off.
"I'm sorry," Jacques said, sounding genuinely regretful as he spoke to Emilien through the bars of his cell aboard the ship. "I wish I could have done more for you..."
Emilien frowned at him in confusion. "Why? Why would you try to save me? I am a traitor."
"You are not." Jacques' tone was hard, fists clenched so tight they trembled. "That plan was... disgusting. To use the promise of peace as a veil to attack civilians... Aloys is the one who should be executed. And Firmin should follow him for making the plan in the first place."
Emilien's face softened into a smile for the first time in months. "You will be a good king, your highness."
"Not so long as the council refuses to relinquish their power."
"They will not. Few have the ability to give up the power that elevates them for the good of others. If you want the crown, your highness, you will have to take it from them."
Jacques grinned cockily, crossing his arms over his chest. He had grown up since Emilien had last seen him and was a man at last in every sense of the word. It was a balm to the former general's battered spirit to know that the future of their country was in good hands.
Even if the present was in shambles.
Emilien's smile faded again. "Please, I don't care about me, but I beg of you, look after my family. My sister, my nephew. I am worried that this will reflect onto them. I don't want them to be punished for what I have done."
Jacques' face fell as his arms dropped back to his side and he gave a single, solemn nod. "You have my word, Emilien. And you have my word that when I am king, I will pardon you for this imagined crime. I will bring you back and you will serve me as general in place of Firmin Didier. He is a snake. A monster. Getting rid of him will be my first act. Pardoning you will be my second."
Emilien smiled, resting back onto his cot in his cell. "I believe in you, your highness. When that day should come, if I am still capable, I will be honored to serve you."
The captain of the ship called out that they were about to take off and Jacques was forced to disembark and Emilien was shut up in the darkness.
He had been granted a stay of execution, but that didn't mean he wasn't punished.
Waiting for him in Isaie was a life of hard labor and back breaking tasks. He was exiled, sent to live with a group of other men that were deemed unfit to society. Mostly those that had spoken out against the war and were being punished for their disloyalty to the crown. Few of them were being punished for life as he was.
Emilien was young and strong, and so he was put to work breaking rocks into bricks that would be used in construction. He was forced to do it for hours on hours, in the blazing sun, with only enough water to keep him alive. He was constantly parched, near always hungry, and increasingly sore. It seemed that every time he thought he might finally be strong enough to be equal to his task, they gave him still more work to do.
He knew what they were doing. They were trying to make sure that he was always tired. Always too exhausted to try escaping. Getting bricks out of him was merely a side benefit. Their ploy worked perfectly as he was always too exhausted when he was returned to his cell to do anything more than sink into restless sleep.
He had been taken from Gwenael before he knew what had happened to the friends and family who had once been his enemies. He didn't know if they were hurt. If they were dead. So long as he was a prisoner, he might never know. And that unknowing hurt more than the hard labor that was waiting for him when he was forced awake by the priest that acted as their guard as he banged on their cell bars.
Everyone up. Time to get back to work.
They were never allowed enough food or sleep. There was always too much work. Emilien saw the older prisoners struggling and tried to lessen the burden placed on them. Especially the ones that were actually innocent of a real crime. There was a mill grinder wheel that was turned by hand and the three older men that were told to do it were too frail for the task. While wheel turning wasn't so laborious as rock breaking, it was still work.
This type of punishment wasn't an unusual one, but it shouldn't be for those too weak to do it. Those people especially shouldn't be punished for the physical impossibility of the task. And those who only spoke their minds shouldn't be sent here for opposing the war.
Emilien didn't know if that was Didier's decision or her majesty's, but it was beyond cruel. It crossed into inhumane territory. It certainly worked to silence those who opposed the war, but that opposition wasn't a crime.
When he got out – if he got out – he swore he would see these people pardoned and freed and, more importantly, compensated for this free labor. He was sure that his highness wouldn't be opposed to such a thing.
Knowing that the prince was still a good and honorable man was really the only thing that kept Emilien going despite being starved, sleep deprived, and worked to the bone. He didn't know what happened to his friends or his family – neither the one related to him by blood nor the small, oddball family that he had made in Gwenael. The hope that their future would be better than this was the only thing that he had to cling onto.
After working through the early morning hours, all of the prisoners were required to stop for mandatory prayers. For the sanctity of their souls. It was a daily thing and was considered their break for the morning. Emilien took that time to pray for his friends. His family. His country as a whole. It gave him a modicum of peace before he returned to his labors.
Once making bricks no longer exhausted him, he spent the day breaking stones that were deemed inferior, and therefore not suitable for bricks, into tiny pieces of gravel. It was somehow more exhausting than making bricks and often tiny shards of rocks flew, striking his body. They were mostly caught in his plain trousers and dirty, simple shirt, but a few caught his bare arms or were sharp enough to cut through the fabric and leave little nicks in this flesh.
The tiny cuts weren't particularly painful individually, but they quickly began to worsen as he accumulated more of them. He worried about infection but prisoners wouldn't be denied medicine if they fell ill.
At least, he hoped not. That's not how prisoners were supposed to be treated.
Then again, so many things had changed within his own country that he wouldn't be surprised if that were no longer true.
He returned to his tiny cell that night where there was only enough room to lay out on the hard floor. He was bruised, bleeding from tiny scratches, with muscles burning from being forced to work so hard and so long with a lack of proper nutrition.
He didn't lay onto his makeshift pallet and instead sat down in the corner, using the two walls to keep himself upright. He heard the other prisoners moving around as they got comfortable for the night. As comfortable as any of them could. One of them was humming softly, trying to break up the monotony, but not trying to be too loud about it. They weren't allowed to speak to each other, and singing or humming fell into that category.
Emilien's eyes were closed. He was starting to worry that, even if he did get out one day, he wouldn't be in any position to serve his prince as his general. If the work didn't break his body, the isolation and circumstances would break his mind and spirit.
He didn't think he had fallen asleep, but a hard banging at his bars jerked him back to full wakefulness in an instant. He had only a second to wonder how the night could have passed so quickly, as he looked to the bars of his cell.
But the priest that stood there wasn't moving on to wake the others. He remained standing at his door, holding a tray of food.
"Food for you," he said, lifting it a bit.
Emilien frowned because he had already eaten. The prisoners ate as a group – a silent and exhausted group – at the work site before they were returned to their cells. It was easier for the priests to serve them as a group than to bring them trays to their cells.
The priest must have seen his confusion because he smiled. "You did good work today. This is your reward. Here. Come and get it."
There was a small space at the bottom of the cell bars that could be used to slide things into the prisoners if necessary. It wasn't often used, but it was there as it was safer to use that than to open the door. But the priest wasn't using it. Just looking at him expectantly. The bowl of standard gruel and stale water he held didn't look like a reward of any kind.
Cautious, but unwilling to turn down food, even their sad gruel, Emilien got to his feet and slowly walked to the door. He expected the priest to lean over and slide the tray under the door as he took the two steps necessary to cross the tiny room. However, he did not.
As Emilien came to stand at the bars, looking down at the slightly shorter priest, the young man's features blurred. Then twisted. Then settled, for a brief second, onto a familiar face that he knew from Gwenael.
His breath caught in his throat as her features twisted back into the unknown priest. Emilien grabbed for the bars, whispering in shock-
"Addie? Is that you?"
"Sh..." She put her finger to her lips, winking at him. "Remind me to give you my password later. Here, take this."
She finally ducked and slid the tray under his bars. Emilien had to move his foot so that it could pass through. But he only looked away from her face for a second.
"What are you doing here?" He whispered fiercely, looking up and down the hall. He expected a real priest to come around any minute. The other prisoners were still settling down for the night and it wasn't yet quiet enough for their whispers to be heard.
"Did you really think I'd leave you in here?" Addie asked, leaning her head onto the bar. "Are you okay? You look pretty rough."
Emilien let out a single breath that could have been a cross between a disbelieving laugh and a scoff of amazement.
Addie was one of the paladin women of Vasconia – the most hated enemy of Gascony. She was a woman that could be incredibly dangerous thanks to her ability to shift her face and features to suit whatever situation she found herself in. While she looked like a man now, he knew that only extended so far. She couldn't actually change her gender. But without looking under the robes, no one would ever be able to tell.
Sneaky, dangerous, and stubborn – she was probably one of the most threatening of the lady paladins that fought against them in the war. And she was also one of Emilien's closest friends. He had offered to walk her and her sister down the aisle at their weddings.
But that had been before the fake peace offering. That had been before his imprisonment here. He had never expected to see her again. Especially since the last time they had met had been when the high district plate of Gwenael was coming crashing down onto their heads. He was relieved to see her alive and well, but terrified that it was here.
He had already seen what had happened to her when she had been captured before. And that had been when no one knew she was a paladin. He hated to think what would happen if someone came upon her now and figured it out.
"You ready to get out of here?" Addie asked, her eyes sparkling with joy at finding him.
"I..." He hesitated, unsure. He didn't feel like he deserved to be here, but he still held himself to his vows to his country. And the council he served had sent him here. He may have been branded a traitor, but that didn't mean he wanted to act like one.
"You're hesitating?" She asked, shocked. "You want to stay here?"
"Of course, I don't. It's just..." He hesitated again.
Addie reached her hand into the cell and, although her face was unfamiliar, the touch of her hand against his cheek was not. She was still Addie under her perfect disguise. And she had risked a lot to get here for him.
"You don't deserve this, Emile. Come with me. Let us protect you."
He sighed, dropping his forehead against the bars. "I don't deserve your protection."
"Don't be ridiculous. Nothing that happened was your fault. Check the gruel."
Emilien's expression tightened as he was broken apart inside by the twin desires to do the honorable thing and stay, obeying the vows he had made, and fleeing from those that had twisted those vows for their own benefit. Just because they were dishonorable didn't give him the right to be the same. His honor was the only thing he had left...
"Emile, please," Addie pleaded, her happy smile fading. "I need your help. I... there's another person that I need to save and I can't. Not without you. Please."
"Another?" Emilien's eyes opened again. "Who?"
"One of my sisters," she whispered. She wouldn't say the word while this deep in enemy territory, but he knew what she meant. Another paladin like her.
"Who?" His hands tightened on the bars in fear. Which of the girls was it? He knew more than half of them by this point. He respected all of them. The idea that one of them had been captured by his people, knowing that each one thus far had told him that they would rather die than be tortured for the crime of being born as they are, ate him alive inside.
"Check the gruel." Addie said, stepping back from the bars. "I'll meet you outside."
She had him and they both knew it. She walked away leaving him standing in his cell. He couldn't allow one of the women he respected so to remain here. Regardless of who it was. He knew that whatever was happening to her was worse than what he was going through.
Decision made for him, Emilien kneeled and reached his fingers into the shallow bowl. He immediately touched upon the brass key. As he held it in hand, he quickly downed the gruel, then the water, then licked his fingers clean.
It was disgusting, but he hadn't had this much food at once in months. He imagined that he was going to need his strength for whatever came next.
The key was loud in the lock of his cell. The sound of his door opening silenced the other prisoners. He didn't hesitate to begin rushing down the hall, unlocking the cell of everyone he knew to be innocent of an actual crime. Those he knew to be real criminals, he left behind, but he freed those who did nothing more than protest.
When they left the halls of the prison, rushing into the quiet night streets of Isaie, Emilien could see the guards on the outside door had both been knocked unconscious. Their bodies were slumped down on the ground beside the open door.
"Couldn't help yourself, could you?" The voice Addie had chosen asked as she came to stand next to him. She had to have been waiting in the shadows of the building.
"They don't deserve imprisonment," Emilien insisted, looking out over the quiet streets.
Isaie was a rather simple city and, with only one notable exception, was rather flat. The singular exception was the smooth, rounded, but massive tower of the Sacellum in the very center of the city that served as the center of worship within all of Gascony.
"This way," Addie gestured with her head towards that very tower.
He knew exactly where they were going. He had been there before. The forbidden grounds where unnatural women were imprisoned and forced to work in an attempt to cleanse the taint from their souls that was their power.
The entire city was asleep. There was no one to see them as they ran together, ducking through dark alleys and probably taking the longest route possible to their destination. But they needed to be careful so that they weren't discovered.
"Who was captured?" Emilien asked as they approached. He spoke as quietly as he was able. Though he knew it was smarter to be silent, he had to know which woman had been caught.
Addie came to a slow halt, putting her back to the wall of the alley so she could sneak forward without being seen from one side. Emilien was quick to do the same, still waiting for a response.
She sighed, turning to him for just a moment. "Lea. She was captured at Jorives. She's only been here for a couple weeks but..."
"I know." He didn't need her to describe how bad that place was. Even just a few weeks there could be enough to kill the average man. Since paladins were anything but average, he imagined that it was just an endless torment for her.
Lea was not a paladin that he had met before, but he had heard of her. Back when he was leading armies, he had heard reports of her as she was doing the same. Based on the scouting information he could get, she was a strong military leader and an impressive commander that he had respected even before he had known the paladin women.
"So, what's the plan?" He asked Addie, deferring to her expertise. She clearly had one and this was not the first time she had freed people from this place.
"I'm kind of improvising at the moment," she admitted, grimacing, earning a disbelieving look from him. "Look, I would love to have the time to plan this out properly, but Lea's really sick. I can't leave her there any longer. I have a place for you to lay low after we break her out, but I'll have to work on getting us out of the city after that."
"So, we're just storming in there and taking her out by force?" He grinned sardonically. "Good day to die, I guess."
"You forget who you're working with." She winked at him as she reached into her robes and pulled a pair of manacles from within her robe. "Do you trust me?"
"I do." He didn't hesitate to respond. "What are we doing?"
Addie slapped the manacles around his wrist. Closing them, but not locking them together. The locking mechanism was broken, forcing him to hold them a certain way so that they wouldn't fall open and reveal their uselessness.
Once Addie had him locked up, she took hold of the chain and began leading him forward with only a simple command to follow her lead. He did so, keeping his head down and doing his best to look like a cowed prisoner.
It honestly wasn't that difficult.
They walked like that down a long street then came into view of the guards that were put in place around the empty pit the unnatural women were imprisoned with.
"Hold! Who goes there?" An angry voice asked.
Emilien didn't look up, but he heard the sound of weapons being raised. Addie remained calm and composed, still approaching despite the order.
"Calm down, Theo. It's just me."
"Oh, hey... Who's that with you?" The man – Theo, Emilien assumed – sounded less harsh, but still a bit suspicious. How long had Addie been here that they recognized her on sight? Or did she just manage to find someone who she could mimic perfectly?
"Don't recognize him? Can't really blame you. Doesn't really look like an honorable general anymore, does he?" Her tone was mocking as she jerked on the chain. Emilien pretended to stumble.
Theo scoffed, his tone venomous when he spoke. "The traitor. What's he doing here?"
"Had an idea on how to get the unnatural to talk. The traitor's a friend of hers."
"It's the middle of the night."
"Exactly. She's been having these crazy fever dreams lately. If she wakes up and he's there, she might think she's safe and start talking to him."
"Did Laurent approve this?"
"Jean did. You can ask him if you like. But, er, can you hurry up? This is the last thing I have to do before I can finally go to bed. I'm tired."
"Yeah, I'll talk to him tomorrow. Go ahead and bring him in. Make sure not to let him actually touch her though. That Lord forsaken power of hers is still unstable."
"Hm... Didn't think about that... Don't suppose you have a blanket or something? I'm not giving this traitor a coat to protect him."
Theo told her that they kept a spare blanket for Lea in the supply closet at the perimeter of the pit that she could grab for Emilien before opening the gate and letting them in.
As the two of them detoured to the closet to grab the blanket, Emilien grinned at her back. They were far enough away that he could whisper to her without being overheard.
"How much of that was improvised?"
"Er, pretty much all of it." She grimaced, shutting the supply shed, keeping the blanket tucked to her chest. "If he didn't let us in, we'd have to be moving way faster. As it is, things are about to get really crazy. Come on."
She pulled on his chain, leading him to the center of the lifeless pit. Not even grass was allowed to grow in this place. It was done purposefully. A harsh reminder to the women imprisoned here that they weren't even worthy of fresh, green grass. Their life needed to be one of sacrifice and humility as penance for their dark powers.
The smell that came out of the shack when Addie opened the door made Emilien's nose curl. Under the already foul smell of human waste and filth was the distinct, nauseating scent of festering flesh.
Lea was laid on the ground, one arm forced to be lifted up off of the ground by the chains that kept her to the wall. She was breathing fast, sweating through her old, unwashed and unchanged clothing, and her face was darkened with bruises that extended down her neck and torso. Her lip was split, and though the wound had closed up the trail of blood made from it remained on her chin.
"Oh, Lord..." Emilien moaned in despair at seeing anyone in this kind of situation.
"Here." Addie held out the blanket and he allowed the broken manacles to fall. "Be careful not to touch her skin. She can't control her power when she's like this and there's no telling what she'll steal from you."
Lea, he knew from what he had learned of each paladin, had the ability to take the intangible from people and hold onto it for three days. If she didn't return it after those three days, then it would be gone forever. He didn't know what exactly the limits of her ability were, or what could be defined as 'intangible' but he didn't want to find out like this.
He used the blanket to cover his arms and hands as Addie pulled the sleeves of her stolen robes down to the gloves covering her own hands. Then, from within her robes, she pulled out a set of lock picks. She wasn't able to steal the key to Lea's manacles.
Being careful not to touch her skin, Addie quickly got to work picking the locks. Lea groaned in pain but didn't rouse telling Emilien that she wasn't asleep. She was unconscious.
One manacle broke free, allowing her hand to finally fall to the ground. Addie made quick work of the other then stepped back, allowing Emilien to wrap her up in the blanket. He tucked her body into it completely, covering her head like it was hood, before he finally scooped her up into his arms. She moaned again in pain.
"I'll go out first," Addie said, hiding her lock picks into her robe again. "Give me a minute and, when you hear people start screaming in terror and pain, you run out of here."
"Where are we supposed to go?" He asked, lifting Lea's body to get a better grip on it. She wasn't heavy, and in fact looked sickeningly thin, but his muscles were already tired from a long day of hard labor breaking rocks. He had to hold onto her, but it was not a task completed without effort. He might have been able to run with her indefinitely before, but definitely not now. He needed to know almost exactly where he should be taking her.
Addie paused on her way to the door then turned back. Her eyes lifted and he could see her plotting out a course in her head.
"All right. From here, head left. Pass two alleys, turn at the third. Right. Left. Cross the main street to the alley directly across from it..." She continued, giving him a long list of directions for him to take, finally ending with, "...you'll find a grate there, low on the left wall. Lift it up, and slide inside. It's an old, abandoned gambler's den. Hide out in there."
"A gambler's den?" He repeated, surprised. Gambling was illegal in Isaie. "How did you find a place like that in Isaie of all places?"
"I know a girl. Repeat the directions to me."
He did so, needing her to correct him only twice before he had them down.
"I'll meet up with you as soon as I can, but I'll be their main distraction. If you don't hear from me in three days, you'll need to try making your own way out of Isaie. I have enough supplies down there to last you a couple weeks. Got it?"
Emilien nodded. "Promise me you'll be careful. I don't want to leave this place without you."
She winked, turning to the door again. "Do you know how many times I've snuck in and out of this city? I'm practically a ghost. See you soon, Emile. Take care of her for me."
He nodded and held Lea just a bit closer as Addie walked confidently from the room. He heard her calling out to the guard to open the gate.
In the few seconds he had to wait, he checked on the unconscious woman in his arms. She was still breathing quickly, shivering as though cold even as she was sweating profusely.
"Don't worry, Lea," he whispered to her, wondering if she could hear him as she was. "You're in good hands. I won't let them take you again."
Though he had nothing to do with her imprisonment, he still felt guilty about it. Just a few months ago, he had been one of those that had been part of the system that put her here. A few more months before that, he would have said that she deserved it.
He resolved that, if Prince Jacques ever forgave him for this, he would do everything in his power to remedy this. Even if unnaturals would never be held to the same standard as paladins within Vasconia, he didn't believe that any crime deserved this. Especially since theirs was not a crime at all, merely a result of their own birth.
Emilien had only the time to promise Lea her safety and then wonder what exactly Addie was going to be doing when he heard the promised screams. A moment later, a loud boom was followed by a bright flash of light as a large fire began raging at the gate.
"She had a bomb?" He asked in disbelief. Was that her back up plan if they hadn't managed to lie their way inside?
Shaking his head, lifting Lea closer, he rushed through the door, nearly ripping it from its weakened hinges, and out into the pit. No one even looked his way as the priests were yelling out to capture the rogue priest. They didn't know Addie was a paladin yet.
"Long live King Jacques!" He heard her yelling in a deep, masculine voice, taunting them as she ran through the streets.
"She's a bit more like Felicie than I thought," Emilien chuckled as he approached the gates to the pit that had been knocked open by the explosion. Theo and one other priest set to guard them were both laid out on the ground.
Addie had led them off to the right. Emilien turned to the left and began running.
Her directions were fresh in his mind and he followed them without hesitation, worrying only a couple of times that he might be lost before finding his way again. A few of the alleys she plotted out for him were little more than cracks between buildings – and one was literally a crack in a long wall. But her diversion tactics, along with the one he had inadvertently created by releasing the other prisoners, was working. No one came chasing after the two of them.
The grating that he finally found appeared to be little more than an abandoned coal chute. However, when he pulled on it – needing to tug a bit – it swung out like a door. He fully expected the old appearing hinges to squeak or groan, but they were silent despite their aged appearance. The air that came from below seemed a bit stale, but he trusted Addie.
Bundling Lea close, using his foot to keep the grate open because there was a spring inside that wanted to pull it back closed, he readied himself to slide down with her. The thin chute wasn't meant for two people to go through at a time, but he could hardly drop her in as she was.
Addie had prepared for their arrival, however. After awkwardly sliding through, he landed on a pile of cushions that caught him instead of letting his bottom hit the bare ground. The jarring stop made Lea groan in pain, but, after checking her over, he didn't see any part of her that had been injured or had been hit by the fall.
It was dark within the small antechamber – by necessity so that no light was seen through the grill that lay overhead – but after feeling about for a moment, Emilien found a door and then the latch to it. His arms were shaking from the effort of holding Lea as he pushed it open.
The well-sealed door concealed behind it a dimly lit room that Addie had prepared for them. A single, low burning lantern was sitting in the far corner. A pallet was laid out in the corner and there was a box of ration food that appeared to have been taken from a military ship and a small basket filled with medical supplies beside it on a long, dusty bar. Two jugs of water, one with a ladle on top, were sitting side by side on a table, a single, forgotten card laid out on it. Beside them, a basin of water with a rag and a bar of soap were waiting. There was only the single pallet to lay on and two low stools in the center. Beside the pallet, a pair of leather gloves were waiting.
Emilien quickly crossed the room so he could gently set Lea down onto the pallet. She was shivering, her breath rattling in a disturbing way. Emilien was exhausted and he wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep himself, but he couldn't leave her like this. He hesitated only a moment before grabbing the gloves and pulling them on.
"Forgive me, Lea. I'll make amends to you later, but this must be done."
She gave no indication that she heard him. Even when he peeled the blanket away from her body and began ripping her clothing away, she didn't react. The ripped and dirty fabric was doing little to conceal her already, but it felt wrong for him to peel away an unconscious woman's clothes. But he kept his gaze and touch completely clinical as he set to work.
Once all of her clothes were off and thrown into a corner of the small antechamber, so he didn't have to smell them, he pulled the washing basin close and set to work cleaning her body. She began shivering harder, her teeth clacking together, from the combination of the air and the cold water he was using to clean her off. But her fever was so high that he thought it must be a good thing.
He went through four rags just cleaning off her body, then another two cleaning off the festering wound on her right arm. After that was clean, he fetched the basket of medicine Addie had left and began packing the wound with herbs to fight the infection. The entire area was hot, burning red and swelling. He spread the poultice Addie had left before wrapping it tightly in clean gauze. Lea kept moaning in pain as he worked on the injury, but she didn't rouse from her unconsciousness. There were a few other, minor wounds on her body that he tended to as well, but none so bad as her arm.
As he worked on it, he couldn't help but notice the resemblance to the long scar he bore on his own, slightly misshapen right arm. He regretted that her skin would be similarly marred, but at least the bone wasn't broken as his had been. And if she was lucky, their efforts weren't too late and the arm wouldn't need to be amputated to save her from the infection.
After cleaning her and addressing her wounds, he had to remove the blanket he had carried her in as it was now similarly filthy from having been wrapped around her and he didn't want to cover her with it when she still had some open wounds. But that left him with a dilemma: he now had nothing to cover her with.
Deciding that he would worry about that later – he still wanted her feverish body to cool anyway – he turned his attention to giving her some of the drinking water.
That was considerably more difficult. She wasn't cognizant enough to swallow and trying to gently pour the water into her mouth only resulted in her choking.
After a couple attempts – and slowing the dripping stream he used to trickle the water into her mouth – she finally stirred enough to reflexively swallow. He thought maybe he saw her fingers twitch as though she wanted to take the ladle from him. He was glad when they relaxed back down against the pallet though. His forearms were still bare and he had only the gloves to protect him.
Once he was satisfied that she had drank enough, he drank a couple of ladlesful himself. The clean water was a blessing after so long in prison. Not nearly so good, however, as the rations that Addie had left for them. It wasn't exactly good food, but it was better than the bitter and mushy gruel that he had been living on for months.
In between bites of his food, he would occasionally need to return to Lea and wipe away the sweat that would build on her body. He checked her fever and was worried and tried to find something in the medicines to help bring that down.
The powder that he eventually found was meant to be made into a tea. However, he had no fire to heat water with.
Figuring that Lea wouldn't be able to taste it anyway, he mixed the powder directly into the ladle and spent a great deal of time coaxing her into drinking more. He wanted to give her some of the food, but all the rations were dried, salted, or hard. Things that required a good deal of chewing. She didn't appear starved – though she was thin – so he thought she might be able to go a bit longer without food. If she stayed unconscious for too long, he would consider chewing the food for her and feeding it to her directly, but that was something he would reserve for a more emergent situation. For now, it was good enough for him that he could convince her to drink.
Emilien had no idea how many hours had passed since Addie had broken him from his cell. He could hear nothing in the abandoned gambling den and there was nothing letting in sunlight to tell him if dawn was approaching or not. He was absolutely exhausted, but that wasn't unusual. He had been battling constant fatigue since coming here.
Besides, he didn't really feel comfortable falling asleep with Lea as she was. Still unconscious, still battling her fever, and still very much nude.
As her fever finally began to break, thanks to the medicine he had fed her, she began trembling in earnest, curling around herself and moaning in pain when doing so jostled her injured arm. She was now too cold and he needed to do something for her.
Unfortunately, Addie didn't have a blanket down here for them that he could see and he quickly dismissed the idea of grabbing the one he had dumped on top of her fouled clothes. It might give her warmth, but it would also put her in danger of infection again. Having just spent so long cleaning her wounds, he didn't want to undo all that work.
He cursed as he wished, for the first time since it had been taken from him, for a coat. If he had one to offer for her, he would give it in an instant, as it was...
He looked down at his sweat stained shirt. It was sturdy, if a bit beaten up from his days of constant labor. But it was taken and replaced with a clean once every three days. It was better than what she was wearing before, and better than nothing at all.
Decision made, Emilien pulled the shirt from his body and used it as a particularly small blanket, covering Lea's body as best he could. She had curled into a tight ball, making his job easier. He briefly considered holding onto her, using his body heat to warm her, but was forced to dismiss the idea when he remembered that it would require pressing his bare skin to hers and he had just been warned about her uncontrolled power.
Besides, he didn't want her to waken, nude and pressed against a mostly nude man, and think the worst had happened. He already felt guilty enough about seeing her body against her will. He didn't want to make it worse.
So, instead, he sat as close as he was able and fought the urge to fall asleep as he watched over her, wiping her brow as necessary and making sure that she didn't worsen as she slept.
Now that her body was covered, it was the first time he felt comfortable actually looking her over, seeing her as a person. She was a pretty woman, average in height and body type, but with a gently rounded face that was lovely to look at, capped by a head of dirty blonde hair that looked as though her captors had hacked it short in her time in their care. He couldn't be sure, but the unevenness of the cut certainly didn't seem to be intentional. The body that he had worked so hard to clean was covered in bruises that looked fresher than anything else, telling a sad tale of what had happened in her captivity.
He worried, when she woke, how she would react to him. If she would attack him. If she would accuse him of impropriety. But even if she did, he couldn't say that he regretted his actions. She needed to be taken care of, and he had to do it quickly.
He just hoped that, when she woke, she would understand...
Lea was so cold. Yet, somehow, her throat and arm were burning painfully despite the chills that wracked her body. Her head throbbed fiercely while her stomach twisted and turned, threatening to empty itself of what meager contents it held.
But, despite the myriad of aches and pains that tormented her, she became distantly aware that she was somehow comfortable. Nothing luxurious, but more comfortable than she had been in far too long. There was something soft beneath her battered body and she didn't itch from filth. No one was striking her, demanding answer to questions, or shoving that awful tube down her throat. The manacles around her wrists were gone and-
Her manacles were gone!
That realization brought her back to full wakefulness and her eyes snapped open. She found herself staring at an unfamiliar, dirt and stone wall that was far removed from the dirty wooden shack that she could barely remember through her fever haze.
"Are you awake?"
She quickly turned over on the pallet she was laid out on, regretting the movement almost immediately when her head began to spin. But she was more focused on the man that was kneeled down at her side. The shirtless man that she didn't recognize. A man who quickly averted his gaze when her rapid movement made the shirt that was covering her like a tiny blanket fall down.
Lea cried out, grabbing the garment and quickly covering her breasts.
"Who are you?" She demanded, her face burning from embarrassment. And no small amount of fear at what had happened to her.
"Er, you can call me Emile," he said, still averting his gaze. "I'm looking after you while we wait for Addie to come back."
"Addie?" Lea felt some of the tension in her shoulders ease. "How do you know that name?"
"She's a friend of mine," he promised.
Lea bit her lip, hesitating. "Did you strip me?"
"I'm sorry. I had to tend to your wounds. And your clothes were..." His voice trailed off.
"Turn around for a minute."
He didn't hesitate to obey, putting his back to her. His bare back. He clearly knew what she could do, judging by the gloves on his hands. But he would put his back to her.
While he was turned, Lea pulled the shirt she recognized as his up over her head. It was a simple thing, with shorter sleeves that didn't even reach her elbow. More disconcertingly, the hem of it barely covered her bottom completely, leaving her legs mostly bare. It wasn't ideal, but it was better than nothing, and she could see just from a quick look that there wasn't anything else for either of them to wear in here.
"All right," she said, tugging the shirt down as she sat on with her legs curled around her, trying to conceal as much as possible.
The young man she didn't recognize turned back to her-
-freezing in place when, as he did so, she grabbed hold of his bicep.
He choked before his eyes turned dull and lifeless, half closing as he leaned forward, barely catching himself onto his hands, leaning over her. It was a bit closer than she intended him to fall, but he couldn't really help himself.
While he was helpless, at her will, she quickly looked him over. His dark brown hair was messy, shaggy even, and just a bit too long, as though he hadn't been able to cut it in a while. However, the lengthened strands didn't fully cover the cross shaped scar on his right cheek. Dull brown eyes stared at her lifelessly as she continued to hold onto his bicep.
"Tell me your name," she ordered him softly.
"Emilien Cesaire..." His voice was mumbled. Weak. Helpless.
"The general?" She repeated in surprise. "You are Lieutenant General Emilien Cesaire?"
Biting her lip, now worried again, her fingers tightened on his arm as she asked, "Why did you bring me here? What are you going to do with me? Tell me."
"Addie directed me here. She told me to lay low with you until she found us a way out..."
"You're saving me?"
Lea looked thoughtful for a moment before returning what she stole and taking her hand away. Emilien blinked, nearly choking in surprise as he fell back on his butt, leaning away from her with wide eyes.
"What did you do?" He gasped, shocked, as he grasped for his chest as though checking to make sure that his heart was still here.
"I took your free will. Just for a moment. I needed to make sure you were telling me the truth." Her voice was soft, but unapologetic. She did what she felt was necessary to survive.
He shook his head, a shiver going down his spine. He couldn't adequately describe what had just happened to him. He felt her cold hand on his skin and, in an instant, it was like something had died within his own mind. He couldn't think. He didn't really feel anything. She could have ordered him to break his own neck and he would have obeyed.
"That was... unpleasant," he finished lamely, goose flesh rising on his arm, but struggling to maintain his composure.
"Sorry. I had to be sure."
He shook his head, banishing her apology as unnecessary. He couldn't say he didn't deserve her mistrust, but the experience was haunting. She had only taken his free will for a moment, but it was long enough to be terrifying.
"Are we still in Isaie?" She asked.
"Erm... We, er... We're just..." He let out a breath, shaking his head as she grimaced.
"I'm sorry. Do you need a minute?"
"No. No. I'm fine. Just..." He pushed himself upright, sitting with his legs crossed in front of her. "Just surprised me. That's all."
"Are you scared of me?"
"A bit relieved? Good to know that you're not completely helpless." He forced himself to smile at her, trying to not let on just how disconcerting that had been. The paladins were his friends and, even if he had never met Lea before, he wanted to extend that same friendship to her.
But it was the first time he had met a paladin that had a power that genuinely frightened him. She had stolen his free will with just the touch of a hand. And if she chose not to give it back, she could make him into a mindless slave for the rest of his life. And that was horrifying.
But he forced that thought down and away. He had nothing to fear from the paladins and he couldn't say that she was wrong to try to get answers from the mostly naked man that had stripped her nude while she had been helpless and had been, just recently, at the complete mercy of men that had none.
"Sorry." She murmured again. "Er, I'm Lea. It's nice to meet you. Thank you for looking after me."
He shook his head again. "No. It was my pleasure."
She frowned and he started in dismay.
"No. Wait. That came out wrong. It wasn't a pleasure. Not at all. Not that I wasn't happy to do it! No. That doesn't sound much better... er..."
Lea choked back a laugh, giggling at his discomfort. The smile transformed her entire face, softening the hard lines that had been there since he had first seen her in the shack. He found himself grinning, then laughing along with her at the ridiculousness of everything. It was better than the awkwardness anyway.
"You hungry?" He asked as their laughter faded. "Addie left us plenty of food and water."
"But no clothes." Lea tugged at the hem of the shirt again.
"Yeah. She said she had to get you out before she was ready. You're pretty sick."
Lea nodded, unable to argue with that assessment. She didn't feel much better. Certainly, thinking was easier, but she was still weak and feverish.
She asked for water that Emilien was happy to bring her. He helped her drink then offered her some of the salted meat. The sight of food made her sick, but he insisted that she eat. She needed food to keep her strength up. They compromised and she ate a few bites, but no more. Even just those bites sat heavy in her belly.
After choking down some more medicine with the water, she found herself yawning. She had just been sleeping, but she was tired again.
"How long have we been here?" She asked Emile, fighting against the heaviness of her eyelids. She needed information more than she needed sleep right now.
"Hard to say. At least a day. Maybe more. There's no way to track time down here." He frowned back to the door. "Addie said that if she wasn't back in three days, we should start trying to escape Isaie without her."
"So, we are still in Isaie?"
He nodded, turning to face her again. "Yeah. I know that the holy city isn't exactly the best place for the paladins but don't worry. I'm going to take care of you. Even if Addie doesn't come back for us, I'll keep you safe. I promise."
Lea knew of Emilien Cesaire, though she had never met him in person. People only ever had good things to say about him. His soldiers found him to be a good leader, and his enemies – her allies – knew him as an honorable man. She also knew that the good will he had built with his enemies had been used against him, against them, to attack her people.
She didn't know how he came to be here, but she had heard that he had turned against his own allies after the attack that killed so many within Gwenael, capital of Vasconia. She imagined that he had been branded a traitor - an act usually deserving the death penalty. She didn't know how he was still alive, but the fact that he would rather be labeled a traitor than a dishonorable cur spoke volumes.
Though she had never met him before this moment, she had a good impression of him through his reputation. She had decided he truly must be a good man long before now.
But seeing the sincerity in his gaze when he promised to take care of her while she literally wore the shirt off his back, she felt her heart skip a beat.
A second later, her face flushed bright red and she found herself unable to look him in the eyes any longer.
"Th-Thanks..." She stuttered, her heart pounding against her ribs as her belly twisted up into uncomfortable knots.
"Are you all right?" He asked, concerned, as he reached out to touch her forehead. After having his hands literally all over her body, it probably didn't occur to him that it was the first time that he was touching her while she was conscious.
But Lea was all too acutely aware of it as he checked for her fever.
"You're pretty hot. Maybe you should lay down and sleep."
She mumbled something that could have been an agreement.
"I, er, hope you don't mind if I do the same." He grimaced apologetically. "I haven't slept since we came here."
She paused in the act of laying back down. "You said we've been here for at least a full day. You haven't slept at all in that time?"
"I had to look after you. Oh! But don't worry about it." He gave her a smile. "I was happy to do it. No, wait... Not happy... There has to be a better word for that..."
Lea bit her lip as her heart raced faster. He really was a good man.
"It's okay. You can sleep." She mumbled, quickly passing him her small cushion that she had been using as a pillow without looking at him.
"No. You keep that."
"I insist. Either you can sleep on the floor with this pillow, or I will and you can take the pallet."
He smiled as he took the cushion from her. And the sight of his smile made her face somehow burn brighter.
"Thank you, Lea."
She nodded, turning her face away from him, resting it on her arms, as she stared at the wall and he laid down beside her on the floor. She didn't mind his nearness, which was the problem.
In an instant, simply by being a good man, Emilien had made himself the most attractive man she had ever met. By taking care of her without taking advantage when it would have been so easy. Then smiling at her when she knew that using her power had disturbed him. Considering he had to face that, face her, after having a lifetime of prejudice ingrained in him against women like her, it was a much bigger gesture than it would have been coming from a Vasconian man.
She found herself attracted to him in an instant. Which was a problem as now her heart wouldn't stop fluttering and she couldn't look him in the face.
It was mortifying. Made that much worse when she knew that he was completely oblivious as he quickly fell asleep right behind her. Keeping himself between her and the door. The promise to protect her still in the air between them.
Lea bit her lip, trying to force her feelings under control. It wasn't an easy task. For all that she was a hardened military leader, Lea was still a woman and she found herself much more prone to succumbing to her emotions than even the other women she knew.