34. Cupid's Arrows

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Over the next few days, an atmosphere of tense silence began to descend over Luntberg Castle. The enemy didn't attack. The only sign of their presence was the continued sound of axes from the forest. Now and then, a tree fell. Every piece of dead wood that hit the ground stoked the fires of Ayla's anxiety. What was the enemy up to? This quiet wasn't natural. There was something coming, she was sure of that.

However, only a small part of her mind could be bothered with fears like this. With the defense of the barricade in the hands of the very capable captain of the guard, Linhart, she could, at least for now, concentrate her full attention on the sick and wounded.

Every day, she spent hours doing her best to reduce the ugly swelling at the side of Isenbard's head, and she succeeded. After a couple of days, she thought its color might slowly be beginning to change back from a disturbing black and blue to a more natural color. She would have been relieved and very proud of herself indeed, were it not for one bitter fact: Isenbard did not wake. He did not even stir or mutter a word in his deep, unnatural sleep. After the swelling had begun to retreat, there was nothing Ayla could do, except wait, hope for the best, and look after all the other sick people in the castle. They needed her full attention. Especially one of them.

“Eat,” she said, putting the bowl in front of Reuben and holding out a wooden spoon.

He wrinkled his nose at the smell of the fennel soup. “Do I have to?”

“You do, if you want to get on your feet again. Come on. Do it for me.”

Immediately, he took the spoon and began shoveling the stuff into his mouth. Ayla was so surprised that she just sat there gaping at him.

After a while, Reuben glanced up at her and saw her expression. “What?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“You actually did what I said.”

“Well, I want to get well again.”

“That hasn't stopped you from ignoring my orders before and generally behaving like an egotistical brat.”

“You are too kind, Milady.”

“So what changed your mind?”

He flashed her his trademark devil's grin. Until a few days ago, Ayla would have said everything about the devil was abominable. But that grin... She could see the evil behind it, and still, all she wanted to do was grin foolishly back at him, happy that he was happy.

“It was your gentle persuasion, of course,” he murmured very, very convincingly. “You are simply irresistible.”

She gave him a slap on his arm. This was one of the few ways of touching him she didn't feel too guilty about, and one she frequently indulged in. He certainly gave her plenty of cause. “Be serious, please! I don't want to hear things like that from you, understand?”

Suddenly, the grin had vanished from his face. It was replaced by an unexpected earnestness that left her breathless. “Why not?” he asked.

Ayla blinked. Had she imagined it or was there... hurt in his voice?

“Because you don't mean them,” she whispered.

“What if I do?”

Almost without realizing it, Ayla had moved closer to Reuben, until only a few inches separated her face from his. His face, his wild, hard, handsome face. He looked much stronger now already, his cheeks a healthy color and only a light sheen of sweat on his forehead. Sweat that actually might not come from the fever. Ayla reached up, touching her own face which was flushed and moist with excitement.

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