41 - Senseless Men

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Reuben was fond of Fye. She was vicious when she needed to be, humorous, and generally a solid individual. She was the sort of person Reuben would want next to him on a battlefield and the sort of person he would trust to do whatever was necessary.

But sometimes he wanted to strangle her.

"What is it now?" he asked her when she barged into his room at the inn. Okay, so maybe she hadn't barged. Maybe she had knocked politely, and maybe Reuben had decided to open the door. But it felt like she was barging.

"Sir, are you all right?"

"Fine," he snapped. "Thanks for checking on me. Now get out of here, you liver-brained fussbugger."

She didn't budge. She just stood there, looking decidedly feminine. Reuben accredited that devastating development to Xander. Worthless little brat.

"Sir... the duke seemed slightly afraid of you when he saw you fighting today."

He glared at her. "Fye, are you here to take care of my ego like I'm some novice squire?"

"Uh... maybe?"

Reuben considered his options. He could yell at her and chase her out of the room for being such a presumptuous little snot. He was Sir Reuben Rachwild, after all, and he didn't need little girls to remind him of how amazing he was. He knew perfectly well that his mere presence struck awe into the hearts of passersby. Yes, Reuben would throw a few well-prepared insults at her and tell her to spend her time doing more useful things, like unraveling all the duke's plans to unfairly win the tournament.

Then again...

Reuben crossed his arms over his chest and considered her. He had poured years into turning her into the perfect knight. She was brave, intelligent, creative, handy with a range of weapons, and not discouraged one iota by the fact that she was a woman. But she had betrayed him, and she probably didn't even know it. Reuben hadn't even realized it himself until he got to Palermo.

"I don't know if I can win the tournament," Reuben confessed.

"But, sir, the way you were fighting today—"

"I know I'm very good. But I'm not the best anymore. And it nearly kills me to say it, but..." He tore off his tunic so she could see the scars and burn marks. All of that was only what showed on the surface. "You live a life like mine, and you pay the consequences. I looked for danger, and I found it. I did a lot of damage to my body over the years while I was busy laughing at the cowards who wouldn't stand up to me. Now my bones hurt. I'm tired."

Fye's face fell, and her eyes went to the floor as she took in a deep breath. Maybe Reuben never should have let her idolize him like she did, but he had liked being her hero. She had once told him that he must have been an angel in disguise sent by God to protect her. Crazy girl.

"I never should have come back here," Reuben said. "Fye, do you know what happens if I lose the tournament?"

She looked at him again, uncertainty in her gaze. "Other than the obvious?" she asked. "You get humiliated, and then I have to go kill the duke in his sleep so he doesn't have too much time to gloat over it."

He almost smiled. Damn, but this was too serious for him! "No. Luntberg has been safe these past twelve years because of my reputation. I established myself as the meanest, cruelest, most frightening warrior in the Empire. No one thought they could defeat me, so they didn't even try. But if I lose here..."

"You think people will start to come after Lady Ayla's lands."

"I know they will."

"But that's silly, isn't it, sir? Luntberg has a strong army, and Xander and I—"

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