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‘I’m tall.’
Despite his clear frustration, he smiles just a little. ‘Let’s clean these up. You know we’re going to need to wash this off,’ he says, taking my elbow and helping me to my feet. Apparently I’m not funny. But if I can’t tease Jost, I’m not sure what to do with him.
In the bathroom he turns the tap on full blast. The rushing water echoes off the marble. ‘There,’ he says, and I give him a quizzical look, but he just takes my hands. Instead of pushing them under the rushing tap, he cups some water in his left hand and pours it over my wounds, tenderly wiping away the blood. I’m used to people doing things for me by now – my hair and cosmetics, even dressing me – but Jost caring for me reminds me of my mother watching over me when I was ill. The ache spreading in my chest is anything but homesickness though.
Opening the pouch he brought, he takes out a small pot of salve. ‘This is going to sting.’
‘I’ve managed worse.’ But as he applies it to the open cuts, I regret my bravado. I have to bite down on my lip to keep from yelping.
‘How are you doing?’ he asks kindly.
‘I’ve been better,’ I admit, sucking in a long breath to distract myself. ‘So the Guild has you healing Spinsters in addition to your valet duties? Exactly why are you here?’
He leans closer to me and whispers against my ear, ‘Did you think we could talk in your room? I don’t need the Guild to know why I’m here.’
‘I guess I didn’t expect . . .’ My mind no longer forms full thoughts as his breath hits my neck.
‘A real answer?’ He pulls back, breaking the spell.
‘A controversial one,’ I admit finally. ‘I thought you were a regular working drudge.’
‘Thanks,’ he says. ‘That’s only mildly insulting.’
‘I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be.’
‘I know. I guess I’m better at fitting in than I thought,’ he says, wrapping gauze around my cleaned hands. ‘What’s this?’
He trails a finger along the techprint on my wrist, and I’m not sure what to tell him. ‘A relic from a past life,’ I say with a sigh. ‘My father printed me before . . .’
Jost tips his head ever so slightly to show he knows and I don’t have to say the words, even though they echo and roar in my head: before he died.
‘Why an hourglass?’ he asks, studying the mark.
‘I don’t know,’ I murmur, extremely conscious of his touch. ‘It’s supposed to remind me who I am.’
‘Is it working?’ he breathes, staring into my eyes.
‘I suppose.’ I watch him and weigh my thoughts. ‘Why are you here, Jost? Serving the Coventry, I mean.’
‘I don’t even know how to begin to answer that,’ he says, starting on my other hand.
‘At the beginning?’ I suggest quietly. He looks up and his usually bright eyes are hollow.
‘I had a family once.’ He pauses and turns his attention back to my hands. ‘Now I don’t.’
The space between us is shrinking, but I’m only now seeing the wide gulf that existed before. ‘How did it happen?’ I ask.
‘I was married when I was sixteen to a girl from my town. Our metro doesn’t segregate much in the pretesting years, and we made certain she’d be dismissed from eligibility.’
I blush at his confession but try to laugh off my discomfort. Something twists in my chest at this revelation. I don’t like that he was married. Not one bit. Even if he isn’t any more. ‘Sixteen? I thought eighteen was bad.’ As soon as I say it, I regret it.
‘Yes, sixteen.’ And to my relief, he laughs. ‘I’d known her since we were children. We lived in a small village, Saxun, which straddles the Western and Southern Sectors. I come from a long line of fishermen. It’s such a small town that assignments are dictated by family trade, and since my brother got a border pass out of town, I was the only one who could take over my father’s boat.’
‘So you weren’t given a role?’ The monthly assignment day was a major event in Romen town. Mostly it was for filling any needs in the metro, and occasionally someone might be sent to a neighbouring metrocentre, but once in a while the Guild would fill a position within the Coventry or various sector departments, which meant a border pass. It almost always went to a boy, but the whole town lived for the possibility of it. No one missed assignment day.
‘You know, if you have a lot of money or none at all, it works differently,’ he tells me wryly. ‘The system doesn’t apply to you in quite the same way.’
‘Romen was the third largest town in the Western Sector,’ I say. ‘It was the kind of town where everything was average – houses, assignments, people.’
‘The middle is what the Guild thrives on.’
‘So, you were married before you came here?’ I try to sound casual, but I’m feeling a bit out of my league, and I don’t want him to hear the jealousy in my voice.
He nods and begins to dress my hands. ‘Her name was Rozenn. She lived with her father and her brother. I was working to buy a new boat and . . .’ He pauses as though skipping past something too painful to share, but he continues, his voice barely audible over the water. ‘I should have known something was wrong, but it never occurred to me.’
I lay a bandaged hand on his shoulder and his rigid muscles soften.