Flames erupted on the far end of the throne room. Caelis shot to her feet, and her vassals all turned to watch as a fire priest emerged from the magical portal, a well-dressed man in tow. As quickly as the portal had roared into existence, it vanished.
“Ankit?” Caelis said.
“Highprincess,” replied Ankit Almad, prince of the Empire and brother to the emperor. The fire priest who’d brought him from Arramas, capital of Iotorath, waited beside him with his arms crossed.
“I’m certain I’m interrupting,” Ankit said, “but I need to speak with you as a matter of urgency.”
Caelis had been in the middle of a meeting with some of her more … unruly vassals. She waved them out of the throne room, unable to believe her luck. Once her steward had cleared the last of the nobility from the room and closed the doors, Ankit approached, looking drawn.
“What’s wrong?” Caelis asked, closing the gap between them. “I haven’t heard from you in ages.”
“It’s Ishan,” he said. “Caelis, he’s terribly ill. I think he might be dying.”
“What—really?” She met the eyes of the fire priest behind Ankit, her heart racing. “You can’t heal him?”
“It’s not a sickness I’ve seen before,” the fire priest said. He had ivory skin and onyx hair—eastern traits. “It’s not responding to my spells or potions.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Ankit said weakly. “Only that I know he’d want to see you.”
“Is he still conscious?”
“He comes and goes. I’m not sure how much time we have left.”
“I’ll come,” Caelis said.
Ankit sighed in relief. “Now? Is it possible?”
“Of course. I’ll tell the steward.”
Flames carried Caelis and Ankit to the emperor’s palace in Arramas. They appeared in the center of the emperor’s apartments just as the largest of the three moons set, the portal conjured by the fire priest acting as a door between two points thousands of kilometers apart.
“Good, you’re back,” a man said, standing from a chair at Ishan’s bedside.
The emperor appeared to be asleep, his face dimly illuminated by the fireplace set in the western wall. Along the eastern wall, only sheer curtains separated a balcony from the rest of the room. A cool breeze threatened to extinguish the fire.
“You’re excused, High Commander,” Ankit said. “Thank you for looking after him.”
“Send for me at any time, Prince Ankit. Goodnight.”
The high commander of the emperor’s personal guard departed, leaving only Ankit, Caelis, and the fire priest.
“I’ll return midmorning tomorrow, unless you call for me,” the fire priest told Ankit.
Caelis found herself resenting how disconnected he sounded—but she supposed that was the nature of an immortal magical being. No one really knew how long the emperor’s fire priest had been alive. What he had seen. What he could do.
“Indeed,” Ankit said. “You’re dismissed, Remy.”
The gold-plated doors closed ominously behind him. Ankit turned his attention to his brother, his brow furrowed.
“It happened quickly,” he said.
Caelis approached the bed—and the emperor—her throat tight.
“I had dinner with him, and then a few hours later, he was barely responding,” Ankit said.
“How long has he been sick?”
“Over two weeks. Remy kept saying his next idea would work, but … ”
“I’ve heard restoration magic isn’t a perfect art.”
“I wonder about the druids. Healing is their specialty … maybe I should send for one?”
Caelis glanced back at him, alarmed. “You can’t do that. Remy will tell the fire priest council. Do you want to get that druid killed?”
Ankit shoved his hands in his pockets, his gaze drifting to the brightly colored, intricately painted tiles of Ishan’s bedroom floor. Caelis perched herself on the side of the bed, her hand going to Ishan’s forehead. His brow was moist, and his dark hair greasy. In comparison to Ankit, he looked frighteningly pale, his skin yellowed where it had once been a warm copper.
“I’ve been with him every night in case he wakes up,” Ankit said. “He’s usually disoriented.”
“I can stay with him tonight.”
“Are you sure?”
“If it means I don’t have to deal with my vassals.” She brushed Ishan’s hair back from his brow. “My father never warned me how odious it is to be highprincess.”
“Your father spent more time here than he did at home,” Ankit said. “I’m sure that’s part of it.”
“And precisely why I now spend all my time cleaning up his messes.”
Ankit shuffled his feet. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind getting a bit of sleep, if you’re offering.”
“Go, Ankit. I’ll stay with him. Don’t come back until tomorrow.”
“One of the guards will send for Remy if you need him.”
“I’ve got it. Go.”
Without another word, Ankit retreated.
Caelis turned back to Ishan, who slept with his mouth slightly agape. His skin burned with fever.
“Uyapiir,” she murmured in Iotorathi. “You’d better wake up.”
Dawn came and went, but Ishan continued to sleep. Ankit checked in before breakfast, but he didn’t stay long—the Empire still needed someone to run it, after all, and as Ishan was childless, the task fell to his younger brother.
Remy joined Caelis shortly before midday.
“If he wakes up, make sure he drinks some water,” Remy said, standing at the end of the bed, arms crossed.
“You say ‘if’ he wakes up,” Caelis said.
“I meant when, I’m sure.” Remy rounded the bed and waved his hand over Ishan’s torso to evaluate his condition. “No change from yesterday. You’ll stay a bit longer?”
“I can,” she said. “Shouldn’t you be with him in case something happens, though?”
“You can call for me.”
“It might be too late by then.”
“Doubtful. He’s lingered on this long.”
Caelis stared at him. “I don’t really like your tone.”
“I don’t really care,” he said. “Call for me if you need me.”
And he left.
By afternoon, Caelis had transferred from the edge of the bed to the chair abandoned by the high commander the night before. Ishan’s room had grown warm, much warmer than Caelis was used to. The castle in Sorocova rarely reached such a stifling temperature.
Perhaps that was why she’d never grown accustomed to living in Arramas.
Caelis folded her arms on the bed and rested her temple against her hands. Beside her, Ishan breathed deeply, his skin still wan and clammy. Eyelids fluttering closed, Caelis told herself that she would rest for a few minutes before she sat up and called for a hot meal.
She jerked awake to the sound of her name.
Night had fallen. Stars glimmered through the sheer curtains of the balcony; the two smaller moons bathed the bed with soft, silvery light uncut by the harshness of fire. Caelis sat up, rubbing her eyes.
“What are you doing here?” Ishan asked, his voice frail.
Caelis’s hand darted to his forehead, but he batted it away—always quick to react.
“Mihri,” he swore. “You almost took my eye out.”
“Ishan,” Caelis said, her heart pattering. “Ankit showed up in my throne room last night to tell me you were dying.”
“And you came?” He smiled wolfishly. “So you’ve still got it for me.”
She couldn’t help her laugh. “Moons. You haven’t changed.”
“No.” His eyes raked her face. “You look the same.”
“So do you, minus the sickness. I guess we haven’t aged terribly.”
“I never thought I’d make it this far into my thirties. Father sent me to lead his troops too often for optimism.”
Caelis tucked her hair behind her ears. “I think I should call the fire priest.”
“Don’t bother Remy. He can’t help me.”
“He said you should drink some water.”
“He’s right about that, at least. Hand me that glass. I’m parched.”
Caelis waited until he’d finished the entire glass before she spoke. “Ankit said you might be disoriented, but you don’t seem to be.”
“I was when I saw you passed out on my bed.”
She swallowed, frowning. “Ishan … ”
“You’re not really dying, are you?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember a lot from … did Ankit say how long it’s been?”
“Huh. Feels like … a year. Or an hour. I’m not sure.”
She searched his face. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Plenty of things. But I seem to be ill, uyapiir.”
In any other circumstance, Caelis might have chafed at Ishan calling her darling. But it had been her first instinct, too.
“Moons, Ishan. Ankit scared me. You’re scaring me.”
He watched her for a long time without reply. Her cheeks reddened beneath his gaze. His blue eyes were so light they were almost silver.
“If you marry me now, you might be empress,” Ishan said, barely audible.
Caelis glared. “That’s not funny.”
With a raspy laugh, he said, “Perhaps not.”
“You have to get better, Ishan.” Her breath had grown short.
“I think it may be too late for that.” Ishan reached for her hand and squeezed her palm. “Caelis, listen. I’m glad you came. There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you.”
“I love you.”
Tears prickled in her eyes. “Stop. You don’t—Ishan, you take a new lover every week.”
“And none of them have ever been you.” He chuckled. “I’ve wasted the last five years of my life trying to forget you.”
She blinked, and a few tears fell. Ishan stared at the ceiling, smiling to himself.
“I wish I knew what could have made you stay,” he said.
“My people needed a leader,” she said. “If I stayed here and married you, it would have made me no better than my father.”
“What’s so bad about that? He was a good man.”
She shook her head. “But the realm. It was never his first priority. I won’t make the same mistake.”
“We both know your vassals are a nightmare. No one would blame you for running from them on occasion.”
Her lips quirked. “How do you know I don’t do that already?”
Ishan ran his thumb over her palm. “I think our time is growing short, uyapiir.”
Indeed, he sounded more tired by the minute. She wondered whether she should call for Remy.
“I love you, Caelis,” Ishan said softly. “And I’m glad you came. I hope you rule your people as faithfully as you intended when you gave up on us.”
“I never gave up,” Caelis whispered.
Ishan met her gaze, his lips twitching. “Well, then I’ve been quite a fool.”
She shook her head “What? Why?”
“All this time, I could have been begging you to take me back.” He sighed. “What a waste.”
Ishan Almad, emperor of the Seven United Realms of Northern Cerulis, died on a moonless night. The eighteenth of summer. The sky had been studded with stars.
Caelis could recall the lay of the constellations more vividly than she could remember his face.
She never really said goodbye.