23. The Sweetness of Water

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Through a crack in the door, Ayla peeked into the room. Dilli had told her that, finally, Reuben was awake, and so he was, lying on his back, staring at the ceiling. The door squeaked as she pushed it farther open, and his eyes snapped to her. Suddenly, their expression changed dramatically.

“Reuben!” Ayla rushed forward as she saw the flash of pain in his eyes—something which, she realized, she had never seen before. “What is it? What is hurting?”

“Nothing,” he said, gruffly. “Don't concern yourself.”

“Don't be ridiculous,” she chided. “I'm responsible for your welfare. If you are hurting and there's anything I can do to make it better, you must tell me.”

For a moment he looked up at her with a curious expression on his sweaty face—and then he started laughing. He laughed so hard; she would hardly have thought anyone capable of laughing this hard in the state he was in at the moment.

“Reuben?” Ayla's brow creased. “Did I say something funny?”

“No, I...” The laughter changed into a cough that wracked Reuben's body under the blankets and furs that were heaped over him to keep him warm.

When the fit finally subsided, he smiled up at her weakly and murmured: “It's not funny, really, when you think about it. But it sort of seemed humorous for a moment.”

“And are you going to tell me what you are talking about?”

There was that flash of pain in his eyes again. He hid it well, but it was there. “Maybe later, Lady Ayla.”

She didn't want to let it go, but then he was sick, so now probably wasn't the best moment for an argument. Instead, she said: “You can forget about the 'lady' part. I'm going to have to nurse you back to health after all, and I'd feel funny if you called me 'Milady' all the time. The patients at the cloister where I learned never did, either.”

*~*~**~*~*

He almost replied, “Well then, you must call me Reuben, not Sir Reuben,” when he remembered that she already did. He wasn't a sir here. Damned ruse!

“Err... thank you, Milady.” He made a little bow of his head. “But I think I owe you the respect of your noble blood.”

Plus, I'm already too interested in you. No need to make it worse by becoming more familiar.

With effort, he looked around. Still the same room, in the same castle. It was undoubtedly morning, with the sunlight streaming in from the east. But which morning?

“How long have I been out? What has happened?”

“Well, as to your first question—not too long, considering your condition, thank the Lord. It felt long enough to me, though. You were unconscious the entire night.”

Reuben studied the rings under her eyes. It looked like she had been up most of that night. So he hadn't been wrong. She had been watching over him.

“Would you like something to drink?” she asked, a tender look in her eyes. “You sweated out gallons last night.”

Only when she said it did Reuben realize that his throat was parched. “Yes please.” He grinned. “Do you have beer? Or better yet, wine? With a lot of honey please—I like my drink sweet.”

She scowled at him. “I bet you do. But water is much healthier.”

His grin didn't waver. “Somehow I knew you were going to say that.”

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