Awareness returned. Somewhat.
Ember opened her eyes, vague memories of needles, a huge tube that went down her throat, and a machine that went hiss-whoosh again and again as it breathed for her, fleeing into the corners of her mind as she did. The room around was mostly dark, and though she was on a bed, it felt different from hers. Narrower, and maybe a little harder, and with a metal railing along the side.
Also, partly occupied.
She felt with her hands and found someone’s head resting on folded arms next to her side. Short hair, long ears. She looked at the face in the gloom.
Ean. Sitting in a chair next to the bed. Asleep.
What kind of bed had a metal railing and sat high enough for someone to put their knees under it?
Where was she?
Medical wing. Right. She was in the Tavarin Research Hospital on the palace grounds.
She looked next to the bed and made out the strange machine they had put her on when she stopped breathing. It looked like a pair of forge bellows run by pistons. What was it called? A ventilator. Right. They had put a tube down her throat and hooked her up to that machine, and then it had breathed for her. Then they had given her something to help her sleep until the poison was gone.
She looked at Ean.
How long had he been there?
She reached toward him again and touched his hair, lightly.
How could someone so small fight so hard for her?
She dropped her hand down, tracing the line of his jaw with her fingertips, then brushed her thumb across the ridge of his cheekbone.
Not just a little manling.
Her little manling.
Who had fought one of his closest friends to keep her safe.
Who would probably fight his whole country in the same way to keep her safe.
Would they all end up broken at his feet as well?
Thank you for such a mighty defender, Kai. I do not deserve this.
She looked around for Nanli. Had she survived as well? And what of Lahnria?
Please. Please, Kai.
The room was large and long, with curtained alcoves running along both sides, some of them with the curtains pulled closed. That probably meant they were occupied. She listened for breathing, and heard the hiss-whoosh of another machine like the one next to her.
She ran her hand over Ean’s hair again, then slipped out of the bed on the opposite side, carefully swinging her… bare… legs out from under the thin blanket and over the railing without contacting it. She dropped her feet to the floor, straightened up, and looked at what she was… or wasn’t… wearing. Some kind of thin, soft, silver-gray gown that only went down to her knees and was open in the back.
It had to be a hospital thing. Well, she had spent most of her life naked anyway. Clothes were important for people who didn’t have scales.
She crossed the smooth warm stone floor to the alcove that held the other ventilator. The curtains were open a small ways and she slipped in through the opening.
There was Nanli, her small limp form making the narrow bed look giant, her chest rising and falling as the paired bellows alternated up and down. Asleep in a chair next to her was a black-haired man Ember had met only a few times. Hendin Tavarin, her father. Usually he was out on a trip to somewhere or other in Salshira making sure all the various resource operations in the nation were running smoothly and keeping an eye on businesses and such.
Tonight he was not.
Ember walked up next to Nanli and lifted one of the girl’s tiny hands. Holding it palm to palm she brushed her thumb over the back of it as she studied Nanli’s face.
Peaceful. Or expressionless. Wherever she was, no pain showed. Despite the mask covering her mouth where the tube went in.
Would she survive?
The doctor had said something about the poison being a kind that the body could take care of given time. Hopefully that was true for Nanli as well.
It had surely been a close thing though.
She thought of Kaim’s attack, and of how many more might be hurt if others followed.
And if the Empire came.
Which it would.
Nanli was still alive. But she might not be then.
Many might not be then.
Ember bent down and kissed the girl on the forehead, then walked out of the alcove and snugged the curtains.
Could she watch Salshira burn?
What should she do?
She knelt as she had seen Bethania do, but it was hard, abasing herself. It felt shameful.
She brought her knees to the floor anyway.
Then she bowed her head.
“Kai…” Something inside her fought. She bent forward further. She needed help. “Yahsaw.” With that name, she remembered all that she had learned of her new god, a god who served his people like Ean served her. The tension relaxed, slightly. “You brought me here to this place. You have made it my home. You gave me all these people to love me. I have no thanks that are sufficient. Now they are threatened. How do I protect them, when I am so weak? I don’t know…” But she did. She bowed lower. She did know how. Tala had told her.
She raised her head and stared at the ceiling, through it at the sky, as a deep crevasse opened inside her.
Even before Tala had spoken, she had known how to protect them.
“I can’t leave. How…” How would she live without Trin to make her laugh? Without Bethania to teach her and make her thoughts into sense? Without Miri and Immilene to cheer her up? Without Ean to… to do things to her that she didn’t even understand?
But Nanli. And maybe Lahnria, too.
“I can’t. I’m too weak.”
Could she think about it? Work up to it? Build the strength up for a few weeks and then…?
Something Kaim had said came back to her as truth. Soon there would be no going back. The Empire would have all its forces in place, and then they wouldn’t go home no matter what she did. Even if there were no more assassination attempts to hurt the people around her, Salshira would…
It had to be now. Or never.
“I will go. Kai, I will go.”
She stood up and looked around the room. She would have to go quickly, or someone would talk to her. Remind her of what this place had become. And then she wouldn’t be able to leave.
A quick check of the other curtained alcoves turned up no Lahnria. Kaim had said he hadn’t meant to kill Nanli, so hopefully he had used something on the Tixerie that wasn’t deadly. If he hadn’t, there was nothing she could do about it now.
Very well. She would leave without answers.
The bed with Ean was next to the doors out of the room. Ember looked at him as she walked past and stopped.
I’m going to throw all your work away. I’m sorry.
Carefully lifted him from the chair and set him on the bed. Laid his head back on the pillow and stretched his legs out flat.
Looked at his face one last time. Ran a hand over his hair again and bent down to kiss him.
Once, on the forehead. Like Nanli. That was all.
Looking at his face from inches away, she felt what she was about to do slam into her heart like the train that had brought her to the city.
She wouldn’t see him again. Perhaps she would never see anything again, but even if she lived somehow, she would never see Ean again.
Something fell away from her eyes and she saw him as if for the first time, lying there so, so strong, so fearless, peaceful, but with a tiny wrinkle in his brows, like the weight of her life and his entire country rested on him even in sleep.
Ember pressed her lips to his without thinking.
“You would have made a glorious husband,” she whispered.
I cannot stay. I cannot stay. He will be the first to die.
She tore herself away and turned to the door.
A tall, graceful figure stood in the shadowed corner next to the door, watching her with still brown eyes framed by silver hair.
Ember jumped just a little, but after all this time Bethania being there didn’t surprise her.
I cannot stay.
She left the bed and walked up to Bethania.
“How long have you been there?” Ember asked.
“Long enough to have an idea what you’re thinking. Long enough to pray that I am wrong.”
Ember held those eyes that looked into hers, that always seemed to look into her.
Was that fear?
Was that pain?
Suddenly she saw Bethania as an old woman. Not weak, not tired, not worn, but one who had watched many others leave and die before.
Who was watching her about to do the same, and wishing for anything else.
“I’m sorry, Bethania. I don’t want to go, but I can’t let any of you die for me.”
A tear rolled down Bethania’s cheek.
She spread her arms and Ember stepped close and hugged her.
Bethania returned the squeeze.
“Call me Tan-tan.”
Ember felt the crevasse inside her tear into a chasm.
I cannot stay. I cannot stay.
“Thank you, Tan-tan.”
They held each other for a time, and then Bethania shook with a quiet sob.
“I thought it would not come. I hoped. I prayed. But I promised you I would see you over the mountains if you chose to leave. Kai rebuke you for bringing my words back to haunt me.”
Bethania pushed her away and stared at her, tears streaming down her cheeks, hands still squeezing Ember’s shoulders. They stood that way for another short time, and Ember knew she was being memorized.
Then Bethania nodded.
“Come. You will need supplies and a horse.”