A Matter of Honor
By Laura Schiller
Based on: The Faerie Path series
Connor's head spun with weariness and confusion as he leaned against the wall, fighting to keep his eyes open. His legs had gone numb from being crossed too long, not to mention the sleeping weight of Anita's – Tania's head in his lap.
It was mind-boggling. To think his old family friend and childhood playmate should turn out to be a Faerie Princess, and turn to him for help to save her race from a deadly epidemic. He was only a medical student, not a miracle-worker...and the antibiotics didn't seem to be working.
Slowly, he eased himself out from under Tania, trying not to exclaim aloud at the excruciating pins and needles in his legs. He gently laid her head on the floor, covered her up with his denim jacket, staggered slowly to his feet and made his way to Cordelia's sickbed.
The birds perched on the blankets and headboard watched him with beady-eyed mistrust; a few of them flew away silently through the open window. He placed his hand on her forehead – still too hot; he checked her pulse – still shallow and erratic. She looked so pale and fragile in her sleep, like a little girl, although she had to be older than Tania.
The voice, hushed in consideration for the two sleeping girls, still managed to be sharp with hope, anxiety and impatience.
He turned around to face Rathina, who leaned against the wall with her arms tightly wrapped around her middle. In the shadow, candle-lit room, her white face and long black hair stood out sharply; she reminded him of a tougher, older Snow White.
"I don't get it," he whispered. worry forming a tight knot in his stomach. "The antibiotics should have kicked in ages ago."
"Speak plainly, Master Healer," she ordered crisply. "What is it you do not 'get'?"
"I don't understand...her condition still hasn't changed."
Rathina drew a deep breath, then let it out in an irritated whoosh, rubbing her eyes fiercely with her knuckles as if to ward off sleep.
"Don't do that," said Connor, his medical training taking over. "It'll just irritate your eyes even more."
She dropped her hands with a sulky toss of her long black hair; as soon as she removed them from her face, the candlelight showed quite clearly how exhausted she looked.
"When was the last time you slept?" he couldn't help asking.
"I...do not remember." Some of the fierceness bled out of her as she pushed a strand of hair back from her bloodshot eyes, a gesture any human girl might make. "Even before the plague, I..." She frowned and drew herself up, her bloodshot eyes flashing, looking every inch the princess. "That is none of your concern," she said haughtily. "Your business is with Cordelia and, if fortune favors us, the other plague patients."
"Yeah well, after this is over, I'll remind you to have yourself a good long snooze in your royal four-poster bed or wherever you Faerie Princesses sleep."
To his surprise, she replied with a wry, crooked smile. "You seem quite dedicated to your calling, Master Connor."
His calling? If a mortal had used that word, Connor would have found it silly – but when Rathina said it, watching him approvingly with those sharp hazel eyes, he felt she had hit the nail on the head.
"It's more than that, though," he said. "I mean...I'd say that even if I weren't a med student. Rathina...er...can I call you Rathina?"
"It is my name."
"Okay. Thought you might prefer 'Your Highness' or 'my lady' or something."
"No!" At the mention of 'my lady', Gabriel Drake's title for her and Tania, Rathina scorched Connor with such a glare that he tried to scoot back and bumped his head against the wall.
"Anyway," he resumed, "Rathina – you seem like a really cool person, actually. That's why I'm...concerned about you."
She frowned. "Cool...indeed, I recall that mortal term from Tania's speech. A compliment, is it not? In this case, I also find you...cool."
When she smiled, he suddenly caught the resemblance to Tania – they had the same bone structure and the same dimples in their cheeks. Rathina's smile made her look years younger and seemed to light up the entire room.
"Uh...thanks," he said.
"For a mortal, that is."
She was teasing him; he recognized that wicked glint in her eye from years of playing with Tania.
Suddenly, however, the light went out of her face like a blown-out candle flame.
"The sun is rising," she hissed. "See to Cordelia. If she fares no better, we must waken Tania and send you home."
Connor checked his patient one more time. "No change," he reported, with a sad shrug.
"Very well. Tania – "
Rathina raised her voice, but Connor stopped her by snapping out his hand with the palm toward her.
"Shush!" he hissed. "Please. I'm not leaving until I make sure she'll be okay."
"You will return to your own world immediately, mortal!" Rathina retorted, hands on hips. "You are of no further use here."
"Hey, watch it" Connor's temper flared. "I don't care if you're a princess – you can't order me around like that."
"Fool!" She took a step closer; they locked eyes across Cordelia's sleeping body. "Do you not understand? Once our father closes the portal, you cannot return. You will be stranded here for all time!"
"I know." He took a deep breath and, thinking of a phrase she might understand, tried not to feel too silly as he used it. "It's...a matter of honor. Cordelia's my patient – I can't just abandon her. I have to do everything in my power to help. If not the antibiotics, we might find something else. Besides, Tania's like family to me – and, by extension, so are you."
The air was growing perceptibly lighter around them; he could see the horizon turning pink in the window just behind Rathina.
Respect and admiration dawned in her face even as she frowned and shook her head. "Your motive is worthy, Master Connor," she said. "And speaks well of your heart – but – "
Suddenly they were interrupted by something like an earthquake, except that it was not the earth that trembled; it was time and space. Rathina made a face as if tasting something disgusting and clung to Cordelia's bedpost. Connor leaned against the wall, feeling dizzy. He could hear, or feel, a great echoing clang – like a door being closed.
The ways are shut, boomed an impossibly deep voice in his mind.
Rathina's eyes met his, brim-full of mingled sympathy and reproach. You've brought this on yourself, she seemed to say. I wish I could help you now, but I cannot.