Toikem woke up to the cold that came before dawn. The soft blue light of the morning eased his way back to consciousness. The pallet was warm and cozy. The linen sheets brushed gently against his skin, beneath the large woolen cover. Even footmen were entitled to comfort in the palace town apparently. He wondered if it was pure generosity. If people lived happier around here, they would be less susceptible to give away the Court’s location. Stone walls and linen sheets might have kept the Emperor safer than his elite guard did.
Once his woolen night shift removed, Toikem put on a padded shirt and breeches before he donned his armor. Sharp edges extended from his forearms almost touching the metallic scales that protected his elbows. The greaves on his shins did the same, protecting his knees when his legs were straight, offering to stab someone when they were bent. When he first received the armor, he wore a helm as well. Since then, he had almost fainted from exposition to the sun and had decided he simply couldn’t wear it at all times. Wearing armor from dawn till dusk was not an easy thing to do, even without a helm. It kept you hot or cold, depending on weather. Most people found the weight alone to be unbearable, especially in full harness. Toikem’s heavy armor didn’t hinder his movements as much as other suits of steel might have. The barbarian blacksmiths made sure that those strong enough to wear them could move around almost naturally.
The dark steel lames clinked multiple times, but Toikem knew his sister had woken as soon as he did. Kayla had senses like a wild beast. Though a light sleeper, she rarely had a problem staying in bed. She usually fell back asleep as soon as he left the room.
During roughly two years, they had travelled the country together. He still didn’t know everything about her. She surely didn’t either. They both thought they knew the most important things about each other. Toikem came to reconsider that thought.
She was awake. He could have told her at that instant. He could have opened his mouth and been honest.
Suddenly memories came rushing in. He considered what these two years had taught him, not as an apprentice, but as a human being. Secrets were sometimes necessary, but they destroyed families more often than they kept them together.
Kayla is strong, stronger than me, he thought.
She had showed him too many times. She was his little sister, but her strength wasn’t a façade, and it wasn’t a family trait either. She had been raised tough.
Kayla turned over in her makeshift bed. She opened an eye and frowned when she saw him staring at her. “What?” she asked, a bit gruff.
It was because they had come so close to the end of their journey that he thought he’d rather keep it to himself. They had almost reached their goal and he did not want to distract her from it. But keeping things from her would only make him more distracted?
“What’s wrong?” she inquired again, worried this time. Kay sat on her bed, wide awake, holding her sheet against her chest – a consideration she didn’t have two years ago.
“I didn’t tell you everything,” Toikem replied. His throat felt dry, whereas his hands. He didn’t feel comfortable.
Kayla smiled. It was a simple smile. It didn’t seem contrived or out of place. It was the same smile she had when she was a child. Kayla killed, hungered, witnessed savagery, and injustice, and despair. She lost loved ones. Toikem couldn’t understand how she managed to remain cheerful at her core when he had been so deeply cut and had so badly scarred, himself. He felt proud of her and ashamed of himself.
“I was afraid to ask,” she said.
Of course she had seen it. She was his sister. Kayla patted a spot next to her. Toikem nodded and sat there, crossing his legs. The pallet was barely higher than the ground.
“This is difficult,” she continued. “This life – it’s hard for me too. Now that we are here, that we might find him and be done with all of this, it seems even harder.” Kayla lowered her head and her black curls hid her face. Her free hand fidgeted with a piece of carved bone she wore as a pendent. “I miss the Wildlands, but I want to do this. You… You are doing this for me.” She looked up to meet his eyes and smiled again.
He nodded slowly. There was no sense in denying it.