Breath of Dragons (A Pandoran Novel) (5 page)

A hand gently touched my arm and the pain immediately muted. "Careful, now."

When I opened my eyes again, Alex was sitting beside me, his eyes sweeping over my body like a physician with his patient. "Move your fingers."

I did as instructed.

"Other hand," he said pointedly.

The fingers of my left hand fought me at first. They were stiff and felt like someone had wrapped them in rubber bands, but I eventually got them to wiggle and move apart. If this pleased Alex, I couldn't tell. He gave me only a sharp nod of acknowledgement and leaned back to grab something from beside the fire.

"Alex, where are we?" I asked.

He turned back around to face me with a steaming mug in his hands. He handed it to me and I took it; the heat from the mug seeped into my palms, and I smelled lemon and chamomile and something else I couldn't identify. "Drink that," he said. "It'll help bring back your dexterity. But careful. That may be too hot even for your tongue."

I raised a challenging brow, bringing the mug—carefully—to my lips. My left hand was still a little unstable. Very slowly, I took a sip. Alex had not been exaggerating; the liquid was scalding. I'd probably get a blister with that one.

Alex noticed and gave me a look that said every bit of
I told you so.

Before my next sip, I blew on the surface of the liquid to cool it down. It tasted like a lemon drop, and its warmth began to thaw something that had frozen deep inside of me.

"Good?" he asked, folding his legs and sitting across from me on the floor.

"
Good
?" I wiped the residue from my lips and held the mug in my lap. "Yes. In fact, I would like to know why I've been stuck drinking ice-cold water every single night when you've had this in your pack all this time."

He looked amused. "I didn't bring very much."

"Well, you should've. It's wonderful." I was starting to reach for my mug again when I realized something. I was no longer wearing my leather top. I was wearing a…a… "Alex, what am I wearing?"

One of his dark brows swept upwards. His brows were always doing the talking for him. "A corset."

A corset. Yes, I was absolutely wearing a corset, and showing an embarrassing amount of cleavage. I hadn't even known I had cleavage. My cheeks warmed, and it wasn't from the lemon-drop tea. "Why?"

"Because I needed easy access to your wound. Vera had it in her pack."

"Vera had a corset…in her pack."

"She
had
been on her way back home before she joined us, you know." He paused, noting my unease. "Don't worry. She's the one who changed your clothes. We would've asked, but you weren't exactly conscious, and I needed to make sure I removed every piece of the arrow."

The arrow. That's right. I had been hit with an arrow.

He twisted around and picked something off the floor, and when he turned back to face me, he held out his hand. In his palm was an arrowhead, black and shining like obsidian. From past experience, I knew those arrowheads contained lethal poison. It should have killed me, just like the one that had killed Steerforth at Hell's Peak during the games. I should not be alive right now.

I looked back at Alex—really looked at him—noting the dark splotches under his eyes and the pallor of his skin. Healing magic drained energy. I had learned this by watching Sonya, and if Alex had been using his own energy to heal me, it had taken a great deal of strength from him. More than he was probably letting on. "Are you all right?" I asked.

He set the arrowhead back on the floor, and then looked up at me. "Yes, but I'd like to check your wound again…if that's all right with you."

"Yeah. Sure." I set the mug down so that it was out of the way.

Alex scooted closer and moved a little behind me, then sat on his heels. He leaned forward and brushed his fingertips over my shoulder, and he tugged at something there. I peered over my shoulder and noticed a perfectly square cloth bandage fastened to my skin. His hands moved lightly around the edges of the cloth, carefully peeling it back, and what I saw beneath was repulsive.

A large and irregular black star marred the place of penetration, and from it streaked a web of black and purple veins. His fingertips grazed the surface and I winced. He laid his palm flat against the skin between my shoulder blades; the warmth from his hand acted like a salve, but it also made my heart beat a little faster. "I managed to restrict the poison to the wound," he said quietly, "but we need to get you to a healer—a
real
healer. The poison needs to be drained or it'll eventually spread."

"How long do I have?" I whispered.

He peeled off the remaining pieces of cloth and tossed them into the glowing embers. "About two days."

I exhaled between tight lips. That wasn't even enough time to go back to the castle, where I knew for certain that there were talented healers. Assuming we didn't encounter any more obstacles like the shadowguard, who were currently on our tail.

Two days. Who could we possibly reach in two days' time?

Even if I wrote to Stefan or Fleck, neither of them could send help fast enough. And I didn't want to worry Stefan. He had enough on his plate.

Alex reached over to where his pack lay on the ground beside me. From it, he pulled a roll of linen, then tore a fresh strip and laid it over the wound. It felt cool against my skin, like aloe on a sunburn. The space between us was small, and Alex seemed to deliberately keep his attention fixed on my shoulder. Still, even in my weary state, every time his fingertips brushed against my skin, little shivers went down my back.

"There is another…option," Alex said.

I eyed him. "You don't sound too thrilled about this other option."

He gently pressed the edges of cloth around my shoulder, careful not to touch the wound itself. "There is a sort of shortcut to Gesh."

"What do you mean a"—I realized I was speaking loudly and dropped my voice to a whisper so as not to wake Vera—"
sort of
shortcut…?"

He moved around to face me, his legs folded before him so that his knees touched my leg. "There's no need to whisper. Vera enchanted herself with a charm that works like earplugs."

"Well, that's convenient," I said. "I guess she doesn't like being screamed awake."

Alex grinned.

"So, why didn't you tell me about this shortcut before?" I asked.

"I didn't know about it before," he replied. "Vera mentioned it to me once she understood the circumstances of your health. Only a handful of people know of its existence, and they're all sworn to secrecy."

"But she told you," I said. "Won't she get in trouble?"

Alex shook his head. "Not for this. Mercedes may not be happy about it, but she'll understand the circumstances." He stared past me at nothing, his features withdrawn.

I remembered Mercedes. Mercedes was the ruler of Gesh. I'd met her briefly at the festival, and she'd been just as tough and severe as Vera, but she had said a few thoughtful things to me about my father at his funeral. "You don't like this shortcut," I said.

He raked a hand through his dark hair. "No. It's in the heart of an underground city I'd rather not take you to, but I see no other choice."

"How far away is this underground city?"

"A few hours from here," he said.

It was close, then. Really close. "And this shortcut would take us straight to Gesh?" I asked.

"More or less," he replied. "It's more of a gateway than an actual shortcut. It's not a hidden pathway we physically walk; it works similarly to our portal system in that this gateway will deliver us to a specified location. According to Vera, that specified location is still about a day's walk to Gesh's capital, but that should be within reason for you."

"And there are healers there, at the capital?"

"Yes. Excellent ones."

Alex obviously had his reticence, but I didn't see what the problem was. "This city…" I continued. "Have you been there before?"

He shook his head. "It's hidden from the general and law-abiding public, so that the people and businesses there can avoid the regency's jurisdiction."

Ah. It harbored
those
types of inhabitants. Of course Alex wouldn't want me there. "Does this city have a name?" I asked.

"It may have had a proper name at one time, but we all just call it Thieves."

How fitting. "And Vera knows how to get there?"

"From a certain point, yes," he replied. "Apparently, there's a man inside the city who guards the shortcut for Mercedes."

"Hm," I said, picking up my mug and thumbing the brim. "Do you know this man? Can we trust him?"

Alex bent his knees and rested his forearms on them, folding his hands together. "His name is Myez Rader. I only know
of
him, but both Vera and Mercedes trust him. It's the getting
to
him I'm concerned about."

I took a sip of the tea, letting it warm my insides. I also had my own doubts about a man who lived in such a city. You didn't dwell in darkness long without absorbing some of its taint. But what other options were there?

"I suppose we really don't have a choice," I sighed, licking my lips. "And I suppose I shouldn't go in a corset."

Alex chuckled. "No, you probably shouldn't go like that." He tilted his head, thoughtful as his eyes slid down my face and neck and rested a little farther than I'd expected. "Though I do have to say…"

I waited for him to finish his sentence, but he didn't. Instead, he leaned forward, eyes glittering in the low light as he tucked a clump of my hair behind my ear. "We're leaving in one hour. Until then, lie down and try to get some more rest."

I was lost in those deep green eyes, the two of us leaning over my mug. "That's not what you were going to say." I smirked.

"You're right; it wasn't." His fingers trailed my neck and swept lightly over my collarbone to the little necklace that hung there: the crimson vitality stone that he had given to me as a birthday present. It was a stone of promise. A promise he had made that he would never leave me again.

"Are you going to tell me what you were going to say?" I raised a brow. My body leaned closer to his on its own accord, as if it were trapped in some sort of invisible force field that surrounded him, pulling me in, closer and closer.

His eyes swallowed me whole. "No." That one word was deep and rich and slipped over me like silk.

And closer.

"Why not?" My words were all breath.

His face was a handbreadth from mine. "Because it's slightly inappropriate." His whisper fell upon my mouth, and then his lips followed. Supple and warm and so…
perfect
. I suddenly didn't care what it was he'd intended to say. I didn't care about anything at all, because every thought instantly reduced to:
Mmmm….Hmmm….Nnnmm
.

Repeat.

I set down the mug beside me and lifted my hand so I could run my hands through his beautiful dark hair, and I immediately regretted the movement.

Oh, my shoulder!

Alex pulled back and placed his hand on my shoulder; energy pulsed from him and the pain muted. His gaze leveled on mine. "Rest."

I didn't want to rest. What I wanted was more
Mmmm…Hmmm…Nnnmm
. "But I'm fine, Alex. It actually helps when you kiss—"

Alex touched his finger to my lips and smiled. "No."

I grumbled and he helped me lie down.

"Be patient," he whispered.

I pursed my lips. "If this wound doesn't kill me, your patience will."

He brushed the hair back from my forehead. "I've been patient for you all my life. A few weeks won't kill you."

"They might." I laughed and then moaned because the movement hurt.

He started to turn from me when I said, "Alex."

He paused.

"I love you. Thank you…for everything."

His smile warmed me from the inside out, more efficiently than any tea ever could, and I curled up and fell back to sleep.

 

 

"I need to rest a moment," I said.

I hated that I had to say it, but the throbbing in my shoulder had grown unbearable and I felt dizzy again. Alex was at my side before I'd even released the reins, with his hands at my waist helping me down. My boots crunched in the snow when I landed, and I winced.

Alex studied me, his expression somewhat austere. Particularly when Vera announced, "At this rate, we won't get there till next year." Alex glared at Vera with a mien that made even her shrink back a little.

Grumbling, she jumped from Nimarra and dusted the snow from her leather pants. "Well, then, I'll be right back."

Alex frowned. "Where are you going?"

Vera folded her arms in a challenging gesture. "To relieve myself." She headed into the winter wonderland of a forest. It had snowed the previous night, though we had been safely tucked away in our stone shroud. The snow wasn't so deep as to make passage impossible, but it had slowed us down a bit.

Alex placed a hand on my shoulder; energy pulsed from him and into the wound, dulling the fire that kindled there. It had been like this ever since we'd left. My body had initially felt better—a little numb, but better. But not long after we'd left the comfort of our rocky shroud, winter had stolen my warmth and made my joints stiff and achy.

"Why don't I join Vera?" I said. "It might help to move my joints a little."

Alex examined my face then nodded.

I followed Vera's footprints in the snow and paused to look around. The forest was beautiful in winter. Even the boughs of these magnificent pines must bend beneath their snowy burden. The white blanket of snow stretched in all directions, untouched and interrupted only by large tree trunks, like a scene from a fairytale. There was an inherent peacefulness to it all, a certain tranquility in the quiet. I inhaled a full breath of winter and cold and pine, clutching my cloak tightly. A soft breeze stirred, dusting a few snowflakes from the branches so that they fell to the ground in a rain of glitter.

The sun hadn't shown itself today, but I didn't mind. I found the dulled light somehow less invasive. A bright sun would have been at odds with my health, and its reflection upon so much snow probably would have given me a migraine.

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