The funeral procession wound through the city like a sea of black cloth flowing between the broken and scorched towers, some of which still trickled smoke after two whole weeks. At its head the flood bore a green and gold coffin on a pure white bier and it followed behind a King wearing pure black armor and riding a coal black horse as he lead the way to the mausoleum of his ancestors with his head hung low.
No trumpets played when the coffin reached the sharp-edged slot carved out beneath the great white-barked bulk of the family tree. No drums beat as it was lowered into the ground and the dirt shoveled in. The whole city was silent as the family gathered around and bowed their heads and the palace chaplain said a few words declaring that death was not the end.
Then the weeping began, sobs that spread through the vast black crowd like waves, growing into sobs and then wails.
The King was the first to give up his wailing, turning it into a chant instead.
“Yahsaw, come and end this brokenness and pain!”
The chant grew and grew, taken up by everyone in the river of black, until anyone who knew Hahkaht could have recognized it from miles away.
Hours after the chanted plea had stopped, Ean stared at the blue-papered ceiling of his hospital room and remembered the image of his sister’s empty coffin going into the ground. The wood-bodied telescope the staff had given him to watch through still pointed at the family tree, its aluminum tripod loaded with the steadying mechanisms normally used for tracking planets. Ean ignored it, longing for a sight no telescope would ever show him. Trin coming home.
A soft knock at the door interrupted his sorrow.
“Come in,” he rasped.
The door opened and a woman stepped in and immediately turned to close the door behind herself. Ean glanced at her and saw a Liltan woman in a black formal dress.
No, not Liltan. The ears were long, but more catlike, like a Tufor. But not fur. Fine… feathers?
She turned around.
She smiled with a face that had no scales on the forehead or down the bridge of the nose. Eyes the color of molten gold focused on him and burned as they took in his face. Eyes that were puffy and red around the edges from crying.
It was her. Different ears, eyes gold instead of yellow, no scales.
The nurses had told him that morning, but it was different actually seeing the changes. He struggled to sit up in bed and felt the stitches pull along his side and across the stump where his right arm had been.
“Gaahhh,” he hissed.
She rushed over and slid her arms around him, pulling him into a sitting position.
That pulled at the stitches even worse. The pain shot deep through his side, reminding him just how much of him the surgeons had needed to piece back together.
“Nngh! Let go!”
She let go and backed away, ears back and eyes wide as she studied his face.
“The bed… should adjust…” he panted. “Look at the side.”
She studied the side for a moment before finding the lever and tilting the back all the way up. This time Ean made it to a sitting position without any pain.
As soon as she had adjusted the bed she stepped back, just out of reach.
He met her eyes but she looked away after a moment.
“The staff told me you woke up this morning,” she said.
“Not in time for the funeral,” he said. “I’m told I was in a coma for a fortnight.”
He watched her as she continued to avoid his gaze. She was… she was so beautiful. He wanted to look at her forever. After a moment he noticed the color changing on the feathers that ran along the edges of her ears.
Yellow with flickers of orange?
Once yellow would have meant she was scared.
Why wouldn’t she meet his eyes?
Why was she standing just out of reach?
“You stayed,” she whispered.
He tried to place the comment in context. He had a faint memory of a conversation inside a hospital tent. Her face pressed against his neck.
“I… suppose I did.”
She met his gaze for a moment, then looked away again.
Bit her lip.
“It’s Orilei now.”
She looked out the window.
“It’s… confusing. It… I… they burned me. Ember. What was left.” Another glance at his face, then away. “I suppose I’ve been Orilei for a while now, but… now I know it. It means…”
She looked at him straight on, eyes wide.
“I know the speech of the Heartlands,” he said.
“Oh. I suppose… you would.”
He held out his left hand, open, with the palm up, ignoring the rubber IV tube that was attached to his wrist.
She stared at it, her eyebrows drawing together in pain as she did. Then twisted her hands together. The feathers on her ears flickered in waves of green and yellow.
“Ember… Orilei…” Danya. What was her name? Would it change again?
And what was wrong? Why was she panicking?
“I’m sorry Trin’s not coming back. She came to get me, and now she’s gone.”
Was that what was making her so afraid?
“Em… Ori. Ori, I love you.”
She winced and her ears folded down.
“I want Trin back,” he said. “But I wouldn’t trade.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Closed her eyes as well.
He tried to get up, but it wasn’t happening. Curse this wound!
A shudder passed through her and she stilled.
“I betrayed you.”
What? He opened his mouth to speak.
She shook her head.
“Please. Listen.” She didn’t open her eyes, just waited.
“I… I lay with another. One of the Emperor’s sons.”
She had been kidnapped. It hadn’t been her choice. He opened his mouth again.
“It wasn’t rape,” she said. “I had a choice. What he might have done if I’d said no… but I didn’t. I…” She stopped twisting her hands together and wrapped her arms around her middle. “I wanted it, Ean. I gave in because I wanted it. I… betrayed you. And broke my promise. And now I’m pregnant.”
The cannon ball had hurt less.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He stared at the floor and dropped his hand.
He barely noticed when she glanced at him again.
“I’m… I’ll let you rest.”
She went to the door, opened it, glanced at him again, then went out, shutting the door softly behind herself.
Ean leaned back against the cushions and stared at the ceiling.
Pregnant. Sweet merciful Kai.
An image of Trin staring at him with her arms crossed and her ears out to the side in disapproval flashed through his mind.
He sat up and looked around the room.
Trin was dead. She wasn’t coming back.
I am the Resurrection and the Life, someone else whispered.
Ean had a sudden sense of stillness. He knew that voice. He was certain.
How many times did I say to forgive?
Ean looked at the closed door.
“As many as necessary.”
Trin wasn’t there to slap him in the head, but he suddenly knew, without a doubt, that she would have if she had been. For a moment he was grateful that Kai wasn’t quite as direct as his sister.
He swung his legs out of the bed, then pushed on the brass edge-rail with his right…
That arm wasn’t there anymore.
Pushed with his left arm as he lowered his feet to the heated tile floor. His side threatened to tear open. Ean eased his way around it, then discovered he was still attached by a rubber tube to an IV rack.
The rack had wheels. It could make itself useful.
He made it out into the hall by using the IV rack as a prop.
“Ember! Em…” No. What was her new name?
It had fallen right out of his head. He still wasn’t all there.
Thek and natat and…
Kai. I’m an idiot.
A silver-furred Narimirin nurse ran up to him, concern obvious in her face, ears, and lashing tail.
“Where is Princess Rehkskarri?” he asked.
“Where is my betrothed?”
The nurse glanced at his side, covered by the hospital gown, then his face, then pointed at the South-Eastern hallway.
He found her a hundred paces along, curled up in one of the sitting alcoves that faced out over the cliffs. She had her feet up on the wide seat, knees up tight to her body and face pressed against them. And she was sobbing. With her ears locked down tight against her head and so blue with sadness they were almost black.
Yahsaw. She DID this. It’s HER FAULT.
And yet… All he wanted was to make her stop crying. He let go of the IV stand and reached out to touch her.
There was another man’s child in her.
A child she had… invited.
She had… given herself to someone else. Just…
Even after everything she had said. Had promised.
How could he trust her?
Yahsaw… how do you love someone who has already hurt you? In the worst way possible? When you don’t know if they’ll do it again?
Nails. Nails pounding into wrists, pinning Kai himself to a cross.
I don’t know how you did it. Help me! It hurts so much.
He stared at her. Reached out again.
All he could think of was her in bed with another man. Spreading her legs. Crying out in joy as he put his child in her.
How? How could he ever touch her again?
Ean watched the woman he had sworn to marry and support, the woman he had assured that he wanted even on her worst days, cry so hard that she didn’t even notice him standing there, and couldn’t touch her to give even the least comfort. He hated himself for it.
And yet, how could he ignore what she had done? Excuse it?
Bear it if he let it go and she did it again.
Yahsaw… I’m not strong enough.
Ean cried out inside, unable to see anything but filth and pain in front of him, but unable to turn around and abandon his betrothed, either.
Her weeping and his own powerlessness stretched on until Ean was certain that the pain of watching her cry would kill him before any reopened wound in his side could. He continued his unspoken cry for help until he realized there were tears running down his face, too.
And then he felt the impression of a hand on his shoulder and a voice deeper than the seas said,
BELOVED, HOW HAVE I LOVED YOU?
Ean knew the answer. And from that, he knew the way forward.
But… he was still so weak…
NO LONGER YOU, BUT ME LIVING WITHIN YOU.
It almost killed him lowering himself onto the seat with just one arm, an IV stand, and a torn side that still wasn’t certain it wanted to keep his insides inside, but he did it.
Ori jumped as he put his arm around her and pulled her close. Started to pull away.
Stopped when she saw his face.
Her eyes were even redder now. Her face drawn and twisted with pain. She looked like she had a monster with a thousand claws and no compassion loose inside her chest devouring her soul.
“It’s paid for,” he whispered. “It’s all paid for. And I still love you. I’ll stay with you as long as you want me to.”
For a moment it seemed that she didn’t even even understand what he had said.
Then she shook her head.
“Natat. Of course I can.”
She met his eyes again.
“But… I don’t… deserve…”
“I don’t either.” He reached up and brushed some strands of black that had stuck to her face back into the silky fall running down next to her cheeks. “Broken people like us don’t deserve love.” He rested his hand on her cheek and looked into her eyes again. “But we can still give it.”
She brought a hand up and pressed it over his, holding his gaze.
“What if I fall again, Ean? I could… I’m so scared. I’ve had dreams where I walked all the way back to Whestruhl and…” She looked away, then back to his face, her own twisting with fear and pain again.
“If you fall, I’ll help you up. As many times as you need it.”
She looked deep into his eyes, switching from one to the other.
“I hurt you. I betrayed you!”
“And saved my country.”
“I had to do that. You… you don’t have to marry me!”
He leaned toward her.
“I don’t. I just want to.”
Her eyes went wide. She looked even more like she was being torn apart inside.
“Ean! I’m not… I’m a mon…”
He slid his thumb over her mouth and stopped her lips with it.
She stopped talking and stared at him.
“Don’t ever listen to any voice that says that, ever again,” he said. “You aren’t that person anymore.” When he actually looked at her, thought of all that she’d done… there was no comparison between the selfish creature that had snuck into Salshira so many months before and the caring, sacrificing, vulnerable woman in front of him now. She was someone new. She was… what was the name? Firesong. Ori… Orilei. Not Ember. He willed her to believe it.
She caught his thumb with her fingers and squeezed his hand tight.
“How do you know?”
“I promise, Orilei, I’ll spend the rest of my life telling you. If you’ll give me the chance.”
She blushed slightly and dropped her gaze to his chin.
“Of course I will…”
“Really? Are you still sure you want a weak, tiny little manling like me? You’re Princess Orilei Rehkskarri, the Alleji who killed a score of Garagrans by herself. Who laid out a path of fire halfway across Salshira and lead our army to victory against the Imperials. Who put out the fires in the capital and carried the wounded off building tops…”
She looked back up, her face shadowed with pain once more.
“Stop. There’s no one else, Ean. But I’ve… I’ve made you think… I’ll never be able to take back what I did. I don’t think I’ll ever stop regretting it, because I’ve hurt you so much, and you’re the only one I want.”
The way she said that, the pain that put a hitch in her voice when she mentioned hurting him, the harsh anguish that rode the top of each word like a whispered scream… He wanted to kiss her right there, to drive away any memory of other men, or anger, or betrayal, or thoughts of unforgiveness. This was all he wanted in the world, to be right here with her again and know she was his. And he had it.
“Tell me it’s not because you think… you have to,” she said. “Maybe Kai demands that you forgive me… but he doesn’t… you don’t have to…”
“It’s because I want you. And if I don’t grab you up now, someone else will realize you’re the most beautiful, vibrant, strong, witty, reliable and godly woman in the whole country and make a better offer. I’ve already lost two priceless women from my life from causes I couldn’t do anything about. I’m not going to lose a third because I was too much of a coward to forgive you and keep my own promise to you.”
“You hurt me. More than anyone else ever has in my entire life. I forgive you, and we’ll work through whatever’s left. Will you still marry me?”
She shook her head without looking away.
“Thek. You’re crazy Ean. You’re a stupid, idiotic, fool.”
“Will you marry me?”
She shook her head again, studying his face as if trying to find the source of his madness, then leaned forward and pressed her forehead against his. Let go of his hand and wrapped both arms around him and moved across the bench to be close.
Suddenly Ean couldn’t think at all straight for the blood pounding in his head. He almost missed her reply.
They sat together like that, foreheads together, reveling in simple closeness, for a mark. Or maybe two. Or ten.
At some point Ori twitched and pulled away slightly one more time.
“What about the baby?” she asked.
He looked into her eyes. Sweet Kai they were beautiful. So incredibly gold.
He forced his thoughts to move.
“Are you sure you’re…?
“I went to your doctors. They have a test. They said yes.”
Ean had forgotten all about the pregnancy once she was pressed close against his side. But now… there was only one answer.
“I’ll adopt her as my own.”
Ori looked at him, reading his face like a particularly confusing paradox again.
“Of course. She’s yours. You’ll be my wife. Everything that’s yours, I’ll take care of as my…”
He didn’t finish, because suddenly she was kissing him.
And she didn’t stop.
After that, only two thoughts occurred to Ean.
First, that he was glad they were in a public place where they wouldn’t forget themselves completely.
And second, that he would pull every string available to him to make sure the real betrothal was a very short one.
Definitely a winter wedding.
At the latest.