We had made it around halfway down the hill before Marlee finally said something.
“So…” she said uncomfortably, almost prompting me to say something.
“So…” I replied in kind, not quite sure what she wanted to know.
Kase was bounding ahead of us, but I was watching him carefully. For some reason, I felt some sort of maternal feelings when it came to him. It was weird, but every time I let myself think about how one of my cuts hurt, I ended up remembering how relieved I had been to find out that he was relatively untouched.
At this point, I wasn’t even trying to pretend it was just because of Kai. Although, I was already bracing myself for a good yank of the shoulders. I deserved it after letting Kase get hurt like he did.
If only I’d paid attention.
“You and Kase are cute,” Marlee said finally, not looking at me.
I nodded, still watching Kase. “It started because I told Kai he could inflict any injuries on me that he saw on Kase, but he’s a good kid.”
“You sound wistful,” she observed.
“Well,” I sighed, “I’m noticing how cruel the world is to some children.”
Marlee nodded and was silent for a moment. “It is cruel, but those children handle it well, for the most part.”
“I didn’t,” I said, smirking mirthlessly. “Look who I am now.”
Marlee cut a glance at me. “Don’t think like that. You saved Kase.”
I shook my head. “I basically sacrificed myself for Kase and I used you in order to do it—sorry about that, by the way. I’m in no way a hero.”
Marlee shook her head. “I can’t convince you, but you were, whether you think so or not.”
She kept looking in front of us at Kase and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to make a comment on how he thought I was his ‘hero,’ too.
Instead, she turned to me with a furrowed brow and shadowed eyes. “The man back there…”
Suddenly, I understood. “You killed him,” I said before thinking.
Marlee’s eyes shadowed even more. “Oh.” She looked away. After a moment, she said, “I didn’t mean to. Kill him, I mean. I only wanted to hurt him to get him to get off of you.”
I nodded. “Like most people would.” I cast a sideways glance at her. “Did you use my dagger?”
She nodded silently.
I winced in sympathy. “Those daggers…” I trailed off, trying to figure out what I was going to say. “My father got them for me once I had proven that I knew how to fight decently. He wasn’t the kind of man who would give someone training knives. He would wait until you had trained with someone else’s for a while and they deemed you worthy to have your own. Once I got mine…” I bit my lip.
After a moment, I took a breath and glanced at Marlee again to see that she was waiting. I looked back to Kase, who was very close to the water.
“You have to understand that I was his only daughter and I was the youngest. With so many older brothers, it was hard for me to prove myself. I was fierce, but I wasn’t fierce enough to them. They always saw me as their baby sister, even though they hadn’t even known me when I was that small. Once my brother—his name was Alanis, I don’t know what his mother was thinking when she named him—once he thought I was good enough, he told my father in this big rush.”
I shook my head at the memory. “He was so excited. Only the best for his ‘baby girl,’ you know? He went to his dealer or something that exact night—I’d always wondered why he didn’t get us guns, but he liked knives—and her ordered the best knife he could get, or in this case, knives.”
As I was speaking, I was very conscious of the weight of my daggers being back in my belt, blood and all. “I’m not sure how to break them, frankly. I never was as diligent in taking care of them when I was younger, but they never showed so much wear that I got in trouble. At this point, I’m not getting rid of them because they’re all I have left of my father, but they’re so sharp that even I get surprised by how well they cut things.”
I shook my head again, this time in disappointment in myself. “Sometimes, I trick myself into thinking it’s okay to cut people.”
“I mean for self-defense–”
“It’s not for self defense!” I told her in frustration. “I’m just a horrible person!
I nearly took her silence as a song that she agreed, but then she spoke.
“I don’t think you can be a horrible person of you have a conscience,” Marlee said finally, looking over at me with a slight smile. “After all, you’re talking to a murderer.”
“You’re not a murderer,” I told her firmly.
She shook her head at me. “But I should regret it, right? If I killed a man, I should regret doing so!”
I shrugged. “You’re talking to me, so remember that. I’m not going to have some amazing answer that’s going to save you from guilt. Also, you had good reasons to kill him. You were defending me. In my eyes, it was an honorable move.”
“It’s never honorable to kill someone,” Marlee said gravely.
I shrugged, “We’ll agree to disagree, but you can’t let it get into your head. The royals waged this war by treating you—us—commoners like scum. For all I care, this could be war.”
“I wish it was,” Marlee said. She glanced at me. “War, I mean. If it was, we would be able to have a say in what happened. As it is, I’m not sure that it’ll happen.”
I felt a small smile grace my lips. “Well, I’ve got a proposition for you. All you need to do is don’t judge me until I get to the end.”
Marlee raised an eyebrow at me, smiling back. “I think I can handle that.”
“Okay, then.” I grinned. “I’ll tell you all about it as we catch up to Kase.”
“Catch up?” Marlee looked back at Kase, who was already waiting for us impatiently by the river. “Oh, that—”
“If you finish that, I’ll have to hit you or something and I don’t want to do that right now,” I said seriously.
Marlee laughed, but there was still some sadness in her eyes. “Fair enough,” she said, “let’s catch up to your little boy.”
With that last wonderful comment, she began quickly making her way down the hill, leaving me gaping in her wake.
“He is not my ‘little boy!’” I called after her.
“You keep telling yourself that, Sweetheart!” she called back, laughing more.
I shook my head as I followed her because I didn’t care what she said. He wasn’t my ‘little boy.’
He might as well have been my little brother.