Ean was sure he had hurt less when his mother died.
It couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t.
He leaned his forehead on the door of Ember’s room, just an empty guest room now, and tried to believe that. He knew that if he opened the door and looked, it would be empty. He knew because he had looked several times every day for the past week.
She was not there.
But something in him kept hoping. Hoping that she would be there again, as she had every day for the past seven months. Just be there, where he could protect her. Or talk to her.
Or listen to her laugh. Or hear her tell him he was being an idiot.
Her. Instead of this howling vacuum in his life where she had been.
Oh Kai, why does it hurt so much?
Ean turned around and slid down the door with his back to it. He would not look again. He pressed his face against his knees.
Oh Ahttah. Please bring her back.
He heard the thump of boots and a harumph.
He knew that harumph.
Ean looked up and saw Trin, standing in the hall in full armor, backpack slung over one shoulder. Brown hair rumpled and green camouflage cloak covered in bits of leaves and loam.
She smirked at him.
“So, I leave for a few weeks to scout the borders and you scare off my new best friend. Not sure I’m supporting your inheritance right now.”
Ean said nothing. Just stared.
Trin sighed and let her expression fade to sorrow.
“I heard about Kaim and Nanli.”
“You didn’t kill him?”
“He didn’t die.” And Ean hadn’t gone back to finish the job.
Trin set her bag down against the wall and slide down next to him.
“So, why did she leave? To keep us safe?”
Ean pulled out Ember’s letter, slightly crumpled, and handed it to his sister. She unfolded it and read silently. He was glad. He had already been through it countless times.
Why had she stopped thinking about herself now? It was good to think about others, but this… he couldn’t find the flaw in her decision, but he knew it was there. This wasn’t right.
Maybe he was just biased. Or maybe he was just hurting too much to think.
“Someone actually told her to go out and die? Someone in this palace?”
Ean nodded, then put his face against his knees again.
“Thek,” Trin whispered.
Ean put his face against his knees again.
“Do you know who?”
“Have you heard of anyone being banished to the wilderness?”
“Okay. You don’t.”
He had a good idea, though. Once Lahnria had woken up, he’d quizzed her and the other Tixeries about people who might have had such a conversation with Ember.
One stood out.
“What would you call someone who told another person to go die an unjust death on their behalf, alone, without any help or care?” Ean asked.
“A selfish coward.”
“And what would you call someone who actually said yes?”
“A better savior than we deserve.”
“I guess Ember learned pretty quickly what Yahsaw is all about.” But why, Yahsaw? Why her? Please. Please bring her back.
Ean wrapped his arms around his knees and pulled them in against his chest. He felt an arm go around his shoulders and then Trin slammed him in against her armored side.
He sighed and uncurled a little.
“She shouldn’t be dying out there.”
Trin said nothing.
“I asked her to marry me, you know. Hoping it would keep her safe.”
Trin snorted, then laughed.
“What did she say?”
“She said I was insulting her and she wouldn’t take my future from me.”
“Of course she did.” Trin shook for one moment. It felt like another laugh, but it sounded like a sob.
Ean looked at her.
“I want her back too.” Trin said, staring straight ahead, her face lined with pain.
“Maybe I should have pressed harder.”
Trin looked at him.
“You know why she said no, don’t you?”
Ean leaned back. Of course he did. She didn’t want him giving her something so important just to keep her safe. Perhaps she had been right. But now…
“I don’t… She didn’t want me to give up marrying for love.”
Ean listened to the words, turned them over in his mind, and held them next to the pain he was feeling. The giant empty hole where Ember had been.
Then he started to laugh. Giant, hysterical, gasping laughs that tore at his sides.
And dissolved into sobs.
Ahttah… Ahttah… oh dear sweet Kai… WHY!?
Trin held him until he was able to be quiet again.
In the silence he imagined Ember’s face and thought of what he might say now when she told him she wouldn’t take a place that he didn’t want her to have.
“Do you think she would have said yes if I told her I wanted to marry her?”
“I don’t know.
“I’ve never felt this way about anyone. Not like this. Not this deep. I… it feels like part of me is missing. Like she should be there, holding my arm, pushing me to be better, speaking into me. I haven’t felt like this since mother died.”
“I remember what that was like.”
Please Ahttah. Please bring her back. Please protect her, save her, and bring her back.
Other footsteps sounded in the hall. Boots, but not as solid as Trin’s.
Ean looked up. One of the couriers from the signal station was approaching.
Ean started to stand. Trin stood up with him and they helped each other up.
“Your highness,” the man said. “We got news from the watchtower at the Northwest highpass. Someone left a horse with a Tavarin brand tied up to a tree in their patrol zone last night. The saddle has palace markings on it. We checked and the color matches the horse that went missing when Princess Rehkskarri left.”
She was still within reach!
“A train could drop us within a day’s ride of that pass,” Trin said. “We could be through it by tomorrow afternoon.”
Ean didn’t hesitate.
“Run down and tell the engineers to get the Royal engine warmed up and loaded for a full scouting team. Capacity for at least five mounted ten-squads. Tell them I want two ballistae as well. Then send a message to the guards at the highpass that I want them to find the Princess if they can. Just find her. They’re not to do anything until I get there.”
“Is that all, your highness?”
Ean nodded and sent the man off.
“What are you going to say to her, Ean? She left for a reason.”
“I don’t know. Something. I’ll beg if I have to.”
“A good reason, Ean.”
He stared at her, then snapped his head forward again.
“I’ll pray for the answer on the way there. Now go get ready. We leave as soon as the horses are loaded.”