“What do you mean you ‘don’t know’!?”
Ean crumpled the newspaper in his hands, saw the words, “perhaps hundreds of thousands” again, and smashed it completely into a ball.
“Do you want the Council to throw you out? Because this isn’t helping.”
He shook the ball of paper at Ember, then spiked it into the polished brass trashcan next to his desk.
“I’m sorry,” she said, hunching lower on the chair against the wall.
“‘Sorry,’ doesn’t fix this, Ember. ‘Sorry,’ doesn’t convince the people of Salshira to let you stay here. ‘Sorry,’ doesn’t keep you safe!”
What in Kai’s name had convinced her to take an interview? And with Hemel, of all people? Yes, Hemel was one of the more even-handed reporters out there, and his article showed it, but he also had one of the largest personal followings of any reporter. The article had run just that morning, but had probably already been read by over half the country. Those who hadn’t read it yet would most likely receive a copy from a friend before the evening. And then everyone would be thinking about the possibility of hundreds of thousands of dead for the sake of one princess.
It was a disaster.
“I told you not to talk to reporters, Ember.”
“He sat down next to me? What was I supposed to do?”
“Not talk to him.”
Ember growled. Ean thought he made out the muttered words, “always thinks he’s right.” He looked back and met her eyes. They were burning hot, though she was still sitting down with her hands on her knees. Clenched on her knees.
They stared at each other for possibly half a kella before Ean heard the hiss of a long breath between her teeth and she looked away.
“Say it,” Ean said.
Ember opened her mouth. Then closed it with a click. Then closed her eyes and took several deep breaths.
“He came and found me, Ean,’ she said with her eyes closed. “He found me, in the middle of his city. And I thought, maybe, I should be open, and honest, like you all tell me. Like maybe Kai tells me. Maybe I should be approachable, and not snap at the nice reporter. I thought it would be better if I was willing to answer questions, instead of acting like I don’t care about what happens to this entire country.”
“And that’s what came of it.” Ean pointed at the balled up newspaper in the trashcan. “That’s why I told you not to talk to reporters. Because it won’t do any good for you.”
Ember opened her eyes and glared at him.
“Maybe I thought you were wrong.”
Ean turned to face her full on and glared back.
“Do you know what question people have been asking me?”
“No, Ean. Why don’t you tell me?”
Sarcasm. Of course she knew. He decided to ignore it and answer anyway.
“‘One person or one-hundred-thousand?’ That’s what they’re asking.”
She gave him a dark smile.
“It’s a good question.”
Ean twitched and clenched his hands.
“No, it’s not. Not when the entire country is asking it about you.”
“It’s still a good question.”
Kai! Is she insane?
“Do you realize just how serious this is?”
She narrowed her eyes at him.
“I’m not an idiot, Ean. I know that your country is ruled by a mob and that your father’s reins will snap if he uses too firm a hand. I know that the council is owned by that mob. And I know that that mob may decide the answer to that question is ‘no’.”
“And do you care?”
She glared at him for several more tikkits, then dropped her gaze and slumped in the chair.
“Of course I care. But they’ll ask the question whether I answer or not.” She smiled again, a weak, dead smile void of amusement. “I can’t set them on fire anymore, so I might as well talk.”
Ean watched her for a moment, then pulled another chair over, sat down next to her, and stared at the trashcan.
“You could work with me, Ember. I was hoping to sneak you in under their noses.”
She looked over at him.
“You can’t hide me, Ean. I’m too big.”
“I know.” He looked down at his hands, then met her gaze. “I know. The Empire has brought in ten more legions since last week, some to each pass. The major reporters have been throwing interview requests at all of our generals and commanders, looking for firsthand updates. I know it’s silly, and stupid of me to think I could keep this from going everywhere, but…”
Ember’s eyes went round again, then sparkled.
“Still fighting for me. I’m still not worth it, Ean. Are you sure you want to push your people this hard? They’ll probably turn on you this time.”
“I think I know they will.”
“If I was them, I might too.”
“Oh, I know you would.”
Ember’s eyes went cold.
Thek. I’m an idiot. She’s still worried about that.
“Ember, you’re different. Everyone who knows you who actually pays attention knows it.”
Ember reached up to touch the scales on her forehead.
Ean reached out and caught her hand.
“You are different. New. Believe it, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
Ember reversed the grip so that her palm rested against his.
“You’re an idiot.” She gave his hand a squeeze. “But thank you.”
His heart began to hammer suddenly. She held his gaze, then started to smile.
Her eyes were sparkling again.
He let go.
“Well,” he said, “I… think we should probably plan a response to Hemel’s article. He didn’t actually answer the question himself, so the best thing to start with is…”