Noah’s eyelids fluttered and slowly opened. Where was he? What happened? For a moment, he felt disoriented. The light coming through the small, waterproof window blinded him. He was in his own bed in his cabin. Yes, right, he had lost consciousness a little while ago on the deck. His body felt a bit stiff and heavy but, strangely enough, he didn’t feel uncomfortable. The burning pain in his shoulder was gone, and so were the nausea and the skull-splitting headache. Only his throat felt incredibly dry. He tried moving a bit but paused when his hand touched something round and woolly. With surprise, he realized that this was Jessup’s curly head. The boy had been asleep, his body half leaning on the bed, but Noah’s touch woke him up. He yawned and stretched his arms but froze the second his eyes met the man’s amused gaze.
“Good morning, Jess.” Noah’s voice came from between his lips unexpectedly hoarse.
The boy’s eyes widened.
“Master is awake!” he suddenly shouted and sprang up.
Before Noah could say something or stop him, Jess ran out shouting at the top of his lungs:
“Master is awake! The lord has woken up!”
This over-the-top reaction left the young man speechless. What devil had gotten into Jess now? Outside of the cabin came the sound of heavy steps and Duncan flew in. His only eye was bloodshot, his pepper-gray hair was totally disheveled and his face looked haggard. The old knight’s look struck Noah deeply and made him think. Just how long had he been out? Duncan knelt at the bed and grabbed the young man’s hand, pressing it to his brow. Seeing his trembling shoulders, Noah realized that the old knight was about to cry. This made him panic.
“Duncan, my friend, what’s going on? Why are you acting like this?”
“Thank the merciful Gods, thank all the saints, you are finally awake, my boy! We thought that you’ll never open your eyes again!” came the hoarse reply.
“Wait, Duncan, what do you mean? I don’t understand. Just… just how long was I out?”
“It’s been a week since you fainted, boy.” The knight wiped his tears in his shirt, without letting go of his lord’s hand. “We thought we were going to lose you. And if it weren’t for the duchess we might have had.”
So, it had been that long! His body indeed felt weak but as a whole, his condition didn’t seem so bad. Noah struggled a bit to sit and Duncan helped him up.
“How do you feel, boy?” The old knight had finally calmed down.
“Hungry like a bear and dryer than a desert, otherwise there are no problems.”
“Jessup, go and bring him something to eat. A few ship biscuits and a cup of watered wine. Nothing more or his stomach will get upset.”
The young page immediately fulfilled the order and then stood outside the door, ready to run the moment his master wished for something. Looking at Noah wolfing down his food, washing it down with big mouthfuls from his cup, Duncan’s face hardened.
“If you have mercy on us, never ever do such a thing again, boy!” Hearing these words, the young man immediately knew what was coming – ever since his childhood his friend had been worse than a nagging mother. However, he also knew that right now he deserved every bit of it. “Can you imagine how we felt? One minute you were talking, the next – your body was hitting the deck. You looked like a dead man. No one knew what to do. If it weren't for the duchess, you would have died there and then! And even after she did everything possible, we didn’t know whether you are going to make it. You know your men well enough. Can you imagine that godless bunch praying? Well, they did. To every god, saint, totem, or whatever they could think of. For days! Even I prayed! I begged your late mother not to take you away to the afterlife.”
Noah sat there, feeling touched and ashamed at the same time. He could not look Duncan in the eye. The old man continued.
“But even all the prayers in the world would have been in vain if her highness was not here. She took care of you, day and night for the whole week!”
“I understand, my friend. I’m sorry.” Despite his bubbling emotions, Noah didn’t miss the fact that Duncan had called Lorelei ‘duchess’ several times already. She must have gone to great lengths to win the stubborn old knight’s respect. “Where is my wife now?”
“She was here 'till just a while ago, but Jessup forced her to go to sleep. To be honest, there was a point where I feared that we were going to end up with two dead bodies.”
His words made Noah lower his head in contemplation. This girl was indeed strange. Why would she go so far for someone she barely knew? Their lives might be tied together for the time being as husband and wife, but it didn’t mean she had to follow him to the grave like the wives of old. Besides, he had told Duncan about their agreement. Noah was sure the old knight would have taken care of her if anything were to happen to him.
At this moment Jessup coughed and peeked inside.
“I am sorry, master, sir Duncan, the men were asking if they could come in and congratulate the duke on his recovery.”
“There is no need.” Noah brushed away his blanket. “I’ll go out and meet them.”
“No, you are not!” Duncan sprang up angrily. “You can’t be hopping around in your condition.”
“Please, my friend, I have been lying in bed for a week. My body aches for some movement. If you lend me your shoulder, everything will be fine. And I swear to tell you immediately if I start feeling unwell.”
The old knight huffed and puffed but, in the end, reluctantly agreed. Jessup helped Noah put on his boots and threw the jacket over his shoulders. As he was ready to get up, the young man remembered something and his expression darkened.
“Jess, give me my mask.”
“I can’t do that, master,” came the unexpected reply.
Duncan chimed in.
“I threw that wretched thing overboard a good few days ago.”
“You did what!?” Noah couldn’t believe his ears.
“The lady said that it is only rubbing on your burn scars, making them worse,” Jessup hurriedly explained, anticipating the upcoming eruption. “She said that they were inflamed because the mask was too stuffy and tight. While you were unconscious, she put some strange green salve on your face and…”
Instead of finishing, the boy handed his master a small pocket mirror. Pushing down the disgust, Noah forced himself to look. He knew painfully well what he was going to see… or so he thought. Of course, the horrid scar was still there. However, now it looked different – much lighter and less wrinkly. His fingers touched the skin in disbelief. It didn’t feel so tight and leathery anymore. His eyes reddened against his will. Was this really true? His face looked almost human again! This was not a dream, right? He clenched the mirror and had to blink furiously to clear his sight. Jessup and Duncan tactfully averted their gazes, giving the young man a couple of minutes to compose himself.
After a while, Noah carefully left the mirror to the side.
“All right, let’s go.”
The chill wind brushed his cheeks the moment they stepped outside. It felt strange and nice at the same time. For the past six years, only his closest friends and family had seen him without a mask. That is, until the night he was wed to Lorelei. Noah remembered the fear and disgust in everyone’s eyes when they saw him. He remembered Lorelei’s fear. Then what about now? How would his own people react to his deformity? Would they be disgusted? Would they pity or fear him? He steeled himself.
Coming on deck didn’t remain unnoticed for long. There was a loud shout and then all hell went loose – feet stomping, tens of throats roaring, relieved laughter, joyous whistling. Some men were even crying. Noah was left speechless, tightly surrounded by his people. Right now, these tough warriors, the embodiment of fear on the battlefield, were behaving like children!
Duncan, who was supporting him, leaned a bit and whispered in his ear:
“Why so surprised? I am amazed you haven’t realized till now much you mean to these men, oh, Star of the North.”
Suddenly amongst the joyful cheers, a roar echoed.
“All right, crybabies, step aside and let the lord breathe! Do you think he would like to be groped by a bunch of filthy, smelly men?”
Laughter erupted again and the crowd parted. A young knight hopped in, helping himself with a wooden crutch, his silver-white hair swaying in the wind.
“That’s me. Alive and kicking with both legs, if I may add. Right now, you look way worse than me, my lord.” The knight laughed heartily and patted him carefully on the shoulder. Then his voice dropped down so that only Noah and Duncan could hear him. “Thank the Morning Star, the duchess was able to save you, Noah. She said if you were just a bit weaker, you would be with the Mother Above by now.”
Noah nodded and his gaze went around. His heart felt light for the first time in weeks, no, months. The good mood of his men caught to him and his lips curved up slightly. It had been far too long since they had a reason to be happy. Then he suddenly realized something. There were too many people on deck. This ship was sailing with minimal crew so that there would be enough space for the wounded. But here and now, he saw faces, he thought he would never see again in this life. They were haggard and thin. Many wore bandages or were leaning on crutches, but they were alive! Was this her doing again? It had to be. Was she even human, or rather a miracle worker? Noah’s eyes stung but he managed to hide his feelings. He could not allow emotions to overwhelm him in front of his men. Duncan, however, noticed his lord’s struggle.
“The duke shouldn’t strain himself anymore today. We should let him rest. And you, scoundrels, should follow his example, lest the duchess learns you have been hopping around like rabbits, instead of keeping to the bunks.” His words brought down silence and quite a few ashamed coughs.
Supported by the old knight, Noah returned to his cabin. The moment his head touched the pillow, he realized how exhausting his little walk had been. The burden on his heart finally lifted, he slept like a baby till evening under Jessup’s watchful eye.
When he woke up, Noah felt refreshed and again hungry like a wolf. The cabin was empty. The young man sat up and tried calling for his page, but no one answered. Just as he was getting impatient, the door opened and Lorelei entered, carrying some crackers and a jug. She curtsied and went over to the small stool near his bed. After sitting down, she handed him the modest supper and watched silently until he finished eating his fill.
“I am happy your appetite has returned, my lord. This is an excellent sign.” Her tone was genuinely delighted but tired. “May I take your hand for a bit?”
He complied and for some time she was checking his pulse. ‘She’s gotten even thinner,’ thought Noah. This wife of his looked like she was going to topple over by the slightest gust of wind. Around her eyes, black circles were clearly visible. Despite all that, she looked livelier than just a week ago. There was a strange fire burning in her gaze and her face looked determined.
“There is nothing to worry about any longer, my lord. The critical phase is over. Now you just have to regain your strength.”
She was about to let go of his wrist, but Noah surprised her and took her hand in his. In an instant, her whole being reverted back to the frightened helpless girl from their wedding night. Seeing that, Noah regretted his action and hurriedly let go. She grabbed her hand, pressing it against her chest, and trembled.
“I am sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to thank you. You saved my life and the lives of my men.”
“I don’t deserve such praise, my lord,” she whispered weakly and lowered her head.
“This was a ship of the dead,” said Noah with a sad smile. “I didn’t even hope to bring half of these men back alive. You have created a miracle, my wife.”
“Again, I don’t deserve your praise, my lord. Three people died only yesterday. If my master was here, maybe they could have been saved.”
He could see her sad expression, her eyes - red with fatigue and sorrow. And there was also fear. Did she think he would punish her for their deaths? Silly girl! She had done so much already and yet was still so harsh on herself.
“And if you weren’t here, duchess, many more lives would have been lost. Mine included.”
Lorelei looked at him, bewildered by the address he used. Noah laughed quietly.
“It is time to stop underestimating yourself and your abilities, duchess. We all owe you our lives. If nothing else, at least know that from this day on, no matter what happens, you have earned my lifelong gratitude and friendship, my duchess.”
At his words, Lorelei blushed to the tip of her ears. She saw his outstretched hand and hesitated for a second before giving him hers in return. It was awkward. A handshake was supposed to be exchanged only between equals. Still, she could see that his gratitude was genuine. He was really different, compared to the men in her family and the other nobles she had met – straightforward and honest, without the usual well-cultivated false façade. And above all, he was a man of honor. For the first time in many days, a shy smile blossomed on her lips.
“Then I would consider this friendship my life’s greatest honor, my lord.”
Time trickled by. Just as Noah had feared, halfway through their sail they met with strong headwinds. This prolonged their journey by a week, but no one was worried about that anymore. The wounded recovered steadily and there was still some food and plenty of water left in the barrels. For Noah himself, this dreaded trip also suddenly turned into a not so unpleasant endeavor.
His days passed quietly. After he woke up in the mornings, he spent most of the time in his cabin, except for the occasions when Lorelei gave him permission to go on deck, supported and guarded carefully by Duncan. At such times he could enjoy not only the fresh air but also the peculiar interaction between his wife and his men. He knew very well how stubborn and unyielding his people could be, but, strangely enough, these battle-hardened wolves were turning into meek sheep in the presence of Lorelei. Sometimes one of them would joke that, if the lady was not already taken, he would gladly make her his bride. This always brought out hearty laughter and a few good-natured jokes, at the price of Lorelei’s cherry-red face.
Since their last conversation, his wife had started to talk to him more openly and didn’t flinch every time their gazes met. Though she was busy with the sick and wounded, she came to him every day to give an update on their condition and usually chatted with him for a bit. Without any of them noticing, these conversations were getting longer and longer by the day. Noah usually hated small talk and had never expected to enjoy chatting, let alone with his partner being, at least theoretically, a noblewoman. He was pleasantly surprised by that. Her unusual behavior and way of speaking to him were refreshing.
In Noah’s mind, there were only two types of Limerian noblewomen. The first type was the giggly annoying one, that tended to faint at the sight of a mouse and only talked about dresses, poetry, religion, babies, and… well, that was it. The second type was the ice-cold scheming one, which had a warm and gentle mask on her face and a flask of poison in her hand. They thirsted to control everything and everyone, and their cruel games came at the cost of many innocent lives. Well, now he discovered for himself a third type – his wife.
What probably surprised him most, was how literate she was. Of course, in Limeria it was somewhat expected for noble daughters to learn to read, write and do calculations to a certain extent and then use their knowledge for the bookkeeping of their household or for writing poetry. This, however, was a privilege denied to most bastards. Lorelei, on the other hand, was not only highly competent in these basic tasks, but was also flawless in the language of Shareeba. On top of that, she had more than a basic understanding of court etiquette, geography, and politics and was, as he and his men had personally experienced, highly proficient in the medical arts. Such a high level of education was beyond the capabilities of that stupid Count Orten. Even the little he knew about her father was enough to deduce that he definitely wouldn’t allow his bastard daughter to get a proper lady’s upbringing.
When Noah had asked her about it, she had shyly replied that it was all thanks to her teacher. This piqued his curiosity even more. Sefis was not small, but a man of such caliber should not have remained unnoticed. Such a brilliant mind would have been every lord's treasure! Everything considered, that Ser Levi possessed the qualifications to stand on par with the imperial tutors. Yet, he wasn’t part of the count’s court.
He had remarked this to his wife, but she had just shrugged. It turned out that her mentor despised Count Orten and his legitimate offspring deeply and passionately, which elevated him even further in Noah’s eyes. To the young man’s delight, his open appreciation of her teacher, despite the old man’s quirkiness, had finally won him Lorelei’s trust. She could talk to him for hours with shining eyes about the days spent with master Levi. In the end, Noah felt like he almost knew the real person himself. One day she even proudly showed him the wedding gift her teacher had given her. Yet again, he was left awed. No commoner, be it even a renowned physician, could afford to possess so many rare books. Not being an avid reader himself, Noah could only guess how precious the content of these crates was. But he knew someone who could evaluate them. It would be delightful to see how Stone-face William would react upon their arrival.
On her side, Lorelei was also deeply surprised. She was used to being ogled, belittled, and having biting remarks thrown at her, ever since she could remember. And since that night six years ago, when her own brother had almost raped her, she was afraid of men. The only exception had been her teacher. But right now, she was on a ship, far away from any help, surrounded by soldiers, and felt… safe! Was it because she saw them simply as patients? Or was it due to the presence of that one man? Despite everything that had happened, or maybe exactly because of it, she no longer feared her husband. In the short time since they had met, he had treated her with more respect than anyone in her blood-related family had ever done. Despite the ugly rumors, Duke Norden was far from being a monster. How did Jessup call him? A shepherd’s dog. This suited him quite well.
During the past couple of days, she could see the interaction between the master and his people. To her, it was truly bizarre. She had never seen a lord care as much for his subordinates as this man. Every day he asked her about their condition with a calm and stoic face, but Lorelei could see the tension hidden deep in his gaze. When they had first met, she had thought that these gray eyes were cold and distant. Now she knew that they could be warm and comforting like smoldering ash. And his men were the perfect reflection of their master – rough and scary at first glance, but deep down – burning with honor. They all treated her with the same respect he had shown her, throwing an innocent joke from time to time, which made her cheeks blush.
There was also something else that had changed. Her daily reports to the duke had become long conversations, and Lorelei, to her own surprise, started opening more and more to her husband. She unexpectedly enjoyed the time they spent together. He was mostly silent, but a good listener, and skilled enough to keep the conversation going. He was also the first man who treated her as an equal.
His royal upbringing was reflected by his deep and broad knowledge, and, before Lorelei realized it, they were talking about medicine, history, and geography like old acquaintances. It was mesmerizing. Her husband possessed a lot of experience, despite his age, and had visited places she only knew about from books. On the rare occasions when he told her about the far reaches of the North, the deserts in the South, or the glamour of the imperial capital, she could almost see the views he was describing. There were nights when the two would lose track of time, talking about various things, until Jessup or Duncan would show up and usher them to sleep. At those times, lying in her cabin, Lorelei would sense a strange pull in her heart. Her master was her master. This was different. It made her feel so happy, that words could not describe it. So, this is how it felt to have a friend?! Her first and only friend in twenty years.