The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1) (9 page)

BOOK: The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1)
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Suddenly the gem flashed, and I blinked. When I looked back, though, nothing had changed. Huh, must’ve been my imagination.

I lost track of where I was, and curled closer. I took his left cheek in my hand, then softly pressed my lips against his right one. Warmth filled me from the inside, and I sighed. I’d let the Binding have this one moment. Maybe then it wouldn’t bug me so much for another one.

“Good night, sweet prince,” I murmured, before I closed my eyes and let sleep take hold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

‘To leave his tender arms tore her heart, and even the sun could not banish the darkness left behind...’


Tale of the Binding

 

Something tickled my nose, stirring me from sleep. I tried to wriggle back, but whatever it was wouldn’t leave me alone. It was going to make me sneeze. Growling, I reached up to flick it away. My fingers skimmed rough stubble, and I opened my eyes.

My heart almost vaulted out of my chest. I was snuggled against Ryan
’s shoulder. We were burrowed under the cloak and sleeping bag, and my hand rested on his cheek, about to swat the stray hair that had fallen over my face. This wouldn’t have been so bad, if not for one tiny detail.

Ryan was awake.

He was reclining on his side, an amused smile on his lips. He didn’t move, or speak; just lay there, staring. I blushed, mesmerized by his green eyes. Then I realised where my hand was, and with a yelp I snatched it back. How long had he been watching me?

“You
’re not much of a morning person, are you?” Ryan asked. In answer I hastily disentangled myself from him and rolled off the blanket. I squealed. The cavern floor was like ice! I shuffled back to his side, hissing, and turned away so I didn’t have to meet his gaze.

This wasn
’t the start to the day I’d been hoping for.

“Are you always this jumpy when you wake up?” Ryan
’s voice was teasing.

Only when I wake up in your arms,
I thought dryly. Though technically that wasn’t true. He hadn’t held me or anything during the night. I’d just found his shoulder more comfortable than the rocks. Thank the Goddess. I was simply glad I’d fallen asleep before the Binding ran riot.

Something warm grasped my hand, and I looked down. Ryan had wrapped his fingers around mine. His expression turned serious.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “You helped me a lot last night. I should be more grateful. Thank you.”

“Oh, it
’s alright,” I said, trying not to pay attention to his thumb stroking the back of my hand. Or to the urge to squeeze his fingers in kind. “You did the same for me with the bear. I guess we’re even now.”

Ryan smiled. He pulled off the sleeping bag and cloak and sat up. I burrowed into my scarf, the brittle air stealing my warmth, then pushed myself upright as well. Light filtered through the cave entrance, glancing off the ice on the rocks. It had stopped snowing, though the chilliness remained. It was lucky Cielo had brought us here. We would
’ve frozen out there overnight.

I was still holding Ryan
’s hand, but when I tried to tug it away, my fingers didn’t obey. Then right on cue a hot blush forced its way to my face. I silently groaned. The Binding had decided to wake up, too.

“Does it still hurt?” I felt obliged to keep the conversation going. Maybe Ryan wouldn
’t notice I hadn’t—couldn’t—let go. “The wound, I mean.”

“It
’s fine, thanks to you,” Ryan said, rolling back his left shoulder. “You did a great job.” At long last he released my hand, though I couldn’t stop reaching after him. In panic, I snapped my arm back to my chest. Damn, I was getting sloppy.

Ryan stared, but didn
’t comment. Instead, he wrapped his arm around his knee and tilted his head.

“You seem
pretty knowledgeable about the healing arts,” he said. “I’m curious how you managed to learn so much.”

I didn
’t miss the mild accusation in his tone.

“Oh, you know,” I shrugged, clutching my forearm to shield the iasometer, “I picked up a few things here and there, when my Father wasn
’t looking.”

“A few things, hmm?” Ryan watched me for a long moment. I didn
’t look back. Eventually he sighed and clambered to his feet. He unfastened his belt to tuck in his shirt, and I faced the cave wall, pretending to be fascinated by the rock. “You must have quite the memory.”

I picked up the sleeping bag, rubbing the lining between my palms. He was digging for information.

“I like to think I’m fairly observant,” I said at last, not looking up. “I did catch your button after all.”

Ryan ran a finger over his collar. His hand lingered above the silver chain.

“That you did,” he said, lowering his arm. He glanced towards the cave entrance, before he shuffled into his coat. “But for someone so observant you really lost out yesterday.”

“Huh?”

“I mean, that merchant must’ve ripped you off good.” His eyes fell to my scarf. “Didn’t you ask him about that wine stain?”

My heart skipped a beat. I groped at my scarf, but I knew it was too late. He would have seen it clearly when I was lying beside him. I let go of the wool, mulling my answer. Ryan didn
’t take his eyes off me, awaiting a response. A response he already knew the answer to. I frowned.

Well, if that was how he wanted to play…

“Maybe I had other things on my mind at the time,” I said. The Binding crackled, eager to join in, but I forced it out of my thoughts. I had another plan in mind. “But before we get into a game of twenty questions, there’s a few things I’d like to ask first.”

Ryan leant against a stalagmite, folding his arms.

“Go ahead, I’m listening.”

I nodded. It was time for some digging of my own.

“Just some
observations
,” I said, emphasising the word. “Did you know last night you’d been hit with tranquilliser serum?”

Ryan shrugged.

“So what? It still hurt. Those bandits will try anything.”

“Perhaps,” I drawled, “but that
’s a pretty unusual tactic for one of them. Why would they bother knocking you out? Why not shoot you and let you die there and then?”

Ryan went quiet.

“I also noticed,” I continued, “that as nobody could have followed us from Bane, since you took a detour in the woods, whoever shot you must have been waiting at the aqueduct. That was the real reason Cielo turned into a bag of nerves, wasn’t it?”

Silence.

“But I was the front passenger. If a bandit was going to hit anyone, it would’ve been me. Plus, if it
had
been the gang after you, I was wearing your cloak. They had no way to tell it wasn’t you sitting there. And bandits being bandits, they would’ve fired first and asked questions later.”

Still nothing.

“So.” I was in my stride now. “Having established that a bunch of blood-thirsty bandits wouldn’t have wasted the effort to tranquillise you, and that none of them would be clever enough to realise you were sitting behind me, I’ve come to the conclusion that actually, you’re not being chased by a group of thugs.”

Ryan tensed.

“And since whoever’s after you wants you alive,” I said, “that leaves two possibilities. Either you’ve a juicy bounty on your head, or you’re hiding a secret someone is dying to get their hands on.” I ended my speech with a triumphant smirk. “Am I close?”

Ryan said nothing, but his eyes gave away I
’d rattled him. Maybe it was a bit heavy-handed to come straight out with all this, yet I reasoned that if I put him on the defensive, he’d be too distracted to question
me
. Also, I wanted a better idea as to who was after him, and why. Even if they did want him alive, I didn’t fancy getting caught in the cross-fire.

Or being treated as excess baggage.

Ryan picked up the cloak and crouched down beside me. I focused on his chin, knowing that if I met his gaze, the Binding would seize control and I’d do something stupid. I’d been treading thin ice with the curse. One false move, and it’d pay me back, big time.

He ran his hand over my scarf. I swallowed, pleasant tingles racing down my neck. All of a sudden I hated the fabric, and wanted to rip it off so I could feel his touch against my skin.

I knotted my fingers into the sleeping bag. Hey, this wasn’t supposed to happen! I was supposed to have put
him
on the back foot.

So why was I the one shivering in his presence?

“Impressive deduction,” Ryan murmured. “You certainly look deeper than most.” He brushed back a strand of my hair, and I screwed my eyes shut. He was doing this on purpose. “But let me give you some advice.” His lips were right next to my ear. “I wouldn’t peer too far. Even the clearest window can cast back your own reflection.”

“W-What does that mean?” My voice trembled.
Ugh, why did he have to be so close?

“Oh, you know,” Ryan breathed. Damn it, stop touching my scarf like that! “Maybe I
’ve noticed a few things myself. Like how you managed to buy a scarf, firstly from a Guardsmen garrison, and also without any money.”

My chest tightened.

“Not to mention your fascination with my buttons. Or should I say what’s underneath them.” He ran a fingertip over my cheek, and I swallowed, clutching the sleeping bag so tight I thought it would rip. “At first I thought you wanted to ‘borrow’ my necklace, like you did that scarf, but there’s more to it, isn’t there? And I think I might have an idea…”

“Alright!” I cried out. I couldn
’t stand it any longer. Ryan tilted his head, his eyes shining. He had me cornered. Yet before I could continue, he said, “We’re all entitled to our secrets, Eliza. I’ll let you have yours if you’ll let me have mine.”

And with that he stood up and strode to Cielo.

I sagged onto the blanket, my knees turned to mush. So much for digging out answers—I’d almost had to give up my own. I shook my head. I’d sorely misjudged Ryan. His earlier excuses might have had more holes than rotten Wolfdale cheese, but he’d been paying as much attention as I had.

Nonetheless, he still wouldn
’t broach the subject of Binding, and that gave me hope. He might only be bluffing to get me to spill the truth. If that was the case, I needed to tread carefully. No way I’d admit we were under the curse. At least, not until I found out if the Binding was as irreversible as everyone claimed. Not that I’d made much progress on that front, though then again the South Road wasn’t famed for its extensive libraries or research scrolls…

Ryan whistled. I snapped my head up, and he tossed an apple at me. On instinct my hand shot up and I caught it. He laughed.

“Good reflexes,” he said, letting Cielo nibble some oats. “That should come in handy.”

“Come in handy for what?” I asked, tearing into the crunchy fruit. After that grilling, my stomach was more than ready for some nourishment, however meagre.

“You’ll see.” A sly smile spread across Ryan’s lips. “You never know, you might even enjoy it.”

I chewed my bite slowly. That didn
’t sound good, and the day hadn’t even started yet.

* * * * *

Ryan’s ‘surprise’ turned out less dreadful than expected, though it wasn’t exactly something to look forward to. Since he’d wasted his money in Bane, we needed to replenish our funds, and for a pair of travellers with little except the clothes on our backs, only one simple way existed to do that. Simple, that is, if you weren’t an amateur village healer with no experience whatsoever in...

“You
’re holding it wrong again,” Ryan sighed. We were back on Cielo—me sitting at the front—heading across the farmlands to the South Road. He reached over and repositioned the hunting knife in my hand. “Like
this
.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, trying to sound casual, while in actuality my heart was doing overtime. Enmeshed between his arms and pressed against his chest, the Binding was loving every minute of my
‘training’. I concentrated on the glisten of the knife, nuzzling my scarf to hide my now-permanent blush. “Why does it matter so much?”

“Because,” Ryan said, “if I do this…” He jarred my wrist, and the knife dropped into his outstretched hand. I rolled my eyes. Show off. Then again, with the Binding making me so giddy, the lightest touch would
’ve melted me in his arms. “See? Hold it the way I showed you and you won’t lose your grip. You can’t fight if you lose your weapon too early.”

“Of course, oh wise master,” I mumbled. He handed back the knife, and his crossbow caught my eye. “Why can
’t I use that instead? I’m sure I work better long distance.”

“It won
’t fit you, and I doubt you’ve got much of an aim if you’ve never used one before,” Ryan answered. I huffed. “Anyway, if all goes to plan, you shouldn’t have to use the knife today. Just get used to the feel of it for next time.”

Next time? I shook my head. Mixing me with weapons was never a good idea. Adam
had tried to teach me to use a sword before—some notion about ‘getting me to take care of myself’—with near-disastrous results. I wasn’t built to slice and dice, unless it was vegetables in the kitchen. Or Adam’s leg, as it almost ended up. Needless to say, we’d quickly abandoned that exercise.

Having said that, Ryan
’s hunting knife was much easier to control. The shorter blade wasn’t as heavy, and its bone handle sat comfortably in my palm. Ryan said it was more important to strike quickly and lightly; I didn’t need strength to effect devastating blows. In fact, with practice, I could fell even the most brutish Guardsman, though I wasn’t planning to test that theory anytime soon.

BOOK: The Binding (Chronicles of Azaria #1)
11.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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