“You’re pretty funny when you get all worked up like this. You’d think she was fighting a manticore with the way you were wringing your hands.” Vladan’s dark eyes gleamed. The sunlight was streaming through the window as cool breezes drifted in from the sea. Losena was very different than it had been a few years ago. The fortress was reconstructed and green had returned to the landscape. The old craters from hellfire had vanished beneath growth, the gentle hands of Time slowly eroding away all the battle scars. They made a point of visiting every year, which wasn’t hard to accomplish.
Half their work was still getting Ethilir back on its feet again anyway. With Botha as regent and Ekundayo waiting to take the throne, relations were plenty warm. Ethilir was now a protectorate of the Imperium, under the protection of some of its legions while other legions worked to rebuild it. Sarom was almost as large and impressive as it had once been, though it would never have the same history it once had. Losena and dozens of other cities across the country had been rebuilt. Farms were tilled again. Trade flowed, particularly now that the vast reaches of the Imperium were finally open to the wider world. Things were changing, but it finally felt like they were changing for the better. The rest of the legions had returned to the Imperium, this time to build rather than tear each other apart.
“Oh, shut up. Come talk to me in a few years when you’re wearing lace and having imaginary tea parties.” Holland gave him a crooked, worried smile. Half of her face was still immobile. The years had treated her wounds, but the scars left by the power of the Desolate Throne would never fade. Her whole left side was pale scar tissue and both her eyes were still clouded and blind. The arm that had been torn away had been replaced by a silver one worthy of a demon, fluid in its articulation. Her sense of touch in that hand was rudimentary, enough to gauge how much pressure she was exerting with her grasp and the general characteristics of what she touched. She’d become so used to it over the years that its motions were effortless, though she missed being able to feel her lover’s fingertips run up her arm and the warmth of Seva’s skin. But as Seva always pointed out, she did have a good side still that still retained its feeling. “You know you’re going to be a pet, right?”
Holland looked different now that she never wore armor. She’d kept her muscle, or at least most of it, but western-style clothes fit her better. Her dress was a dove grey, silky fabric that left her arms and most of her shoulders bare, cut to fit close to her athletic frame and slit up both sides to mid-thigh for ease of movement. She was wearing a wrap against the slight chill, no longer as resistant to it as she’d once been, a thicker sable fabric with Imperial patterns in gold embroidery. She wore a platinum wedding band on her wrist and a matching delicate band around her neck designed to look like a serpent eating its own tail, which covered Saraqael’s brand. It was the ouroboros, a symbol of rebirth in Leyan and Imperial traditions, and its eye was a flake of obsidian. She was a warrior no longer, but instead the architect of the slow transformation of an engine of relentless destruction into one of constant creation. A golden wreath made to mimic olive leaves rested on her brown hair, the symbol of everything they were building.
In many ways, being peacemaker seemed to suit her better that combat had, though not as well as it suited Seva, in the anthroparion’s humble opinion.
Vladan grinned. He perked up when the door opened to reveal Orobas’s bulk. “How’d it go?”
“HOLLAND IS REQUESTED, NOW THAT SHE IS NOT FRETTING IN SUCH A WAY THAT IT IMPEDES,” the demon said ponderously.
Holland almost bowled the hulking demon over. Her movement was a limp, no longer as graceful as it once was—her damaged leg had been repaired with the same sort of demonic augmentation that Orobas had used to replace her arm—but it was a fast one right now.
“Better give them a bit,” Vladan said with a chuckle. He looked up at the demon. “So if I’m a pet, what does that make you?”
Orobas tilted his head questioningly. “I DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION.”
The anthroparion grinned, showing all those sharp white teeth. “Don’t worry your horned little head about it, Grandpa.” He glanced through the door and chuckled again, then shut it behind the demon once Orobas was out in the hall with him.
Inside the room, Holland felt her smile growing until it hurt, deliriously happy as she approached the bed. She could hear the tiny hiccup as she sat down in the chair next to her wife’s bed. She could even see a distinct little spark with that black-and-white other-vision of life that barely remained in her blind eyes. “You scared the life half out of me, Seva,” she whispered, letting her metal hand rest on the edge of the bed while she leaned in. Holland’s good hand traced down Seva’s shoulder and along her arm, both expressing affection and using her as a guide.
Seva laughed. “I ken,” she said quietly, shifting to rest her head against Holland’s shoulder. She didn’t mind the cold touch of the metal—it was just another piece of the woman she loved, and it warmed quickly enough against her skin. At first, Holland had been terrified of Seva’s reaction, convinced that it made herself less than whole, but the blonde had been quick to assure her otherwise until the worry faded away. The pair were now a little island in the still, quiet room. “Thou art a sweet thing even when thou art a wreck, mind. And, I wanted thee to know, her eyes are much like to thine. I hope she has the rest of thy blood too. I would that mine is an afterthought.”
“I’m sure you used all your charms on Orobas to make certain she came out that way.” Holland brushed her index finger across fabric and then the incredibly soft skin of a tiny hand. As soon as she touched that little palm, the most delicate little fingers in the world closed around her own and she felt her heart swell to incredible size. There weren’t words for a long moment, that tight grip a sign of all the love in the world. She turned her face towards Seva, looking as overwhelmed as she felt. She’d never been happier. “Columba…”
“Aye. ‘Tis a beautiful little thing we’ve made. Well, Orobas. Who knew what demons could do with two drops of blood?”
Holland pressed her lips gently to her daughter’s head, a motion that was the most natural thing in the world even though the scar tissue would make it perpetually clumsy. “I love you both,” she said softly. “Still set on that name, columba?”
“Aye. I prefer Andraste,” Seva said gently, looking down into sleepy hazel eyes. She was as overwhelmed and overjoyed as Holland. It was a moment the blonde wished she could save forever.
Holland smiled. “Me too. Andraste it is.” She leaned in to kiss their sleepy child again. “Let go of my finger, Andraste. You can have it back later.”
Seva laughed. “Thou art trapped. And, like as not, ’tis a sign of things to come. I easily see thee completely beneath her sway. Demon princes have naught on little girls.”
“I…give me a minute while I think up a clever retort.” Holland was a little disappointed when those sleepy fingers were coaxed into letting go by Seva, but only for a moment. She used her freed hand to touch her wife’s cheek. “You have never been more beautiful, columba.”
“Thy words are honey.” Seva sounded pleased, though. She felt flushed and exhausted, but also glowing. “But mayhap ’tis because thou wouldst not ken either way.”
“I don’t have to see. I know.” Holland kissed her softly, feeling Seva smile into it. She drew back, brushing some of Seva’s hair back out of her face. “Get some sleep. I can take Andraste for a bit. I’ll sit here and hold her, just in case she gets hungry or decides she wants you.”
“Aye.” Seva’s own agreement was tired. It didn’t take much for her to fall sleep against the pillows propping her up once Andraste was resting along Holland’s silver forearm. Their daughter was wrapped enough that the chill of that metal didn’t disturb her and fit perfectly, her head supported in Holland’s hand with the length of her body tucked along that arm.
Holland held the tiny baby close, wrapping her good arm around her too to form a cradle. “You scared me half to death too,” she whispered. Her daughter had decided to come early, which meant she really was a little thing. But the spark inside Andraste seemed strong and the sleepy, squeaking little yawn Holland got in answer seemed utterly unconcerned by the world at large. “Everyone is going to love you. They’ve already got their own name for you, too. Andraste Cælestia has a nice sound.”
Andraste wiggled her fingers a little bit, grasping at Holland’s hair even though it was just out of reach. She was stopped by her own second, squeaking yawn. She could barely keep her hazel eyes open now. Sleep was about to claim her completely.
Holland rocked her daughter slightly and slowly until she heard that little breathing even out. “You’re going to have a world so different from the one I started in,” she murmured. “A better one.”
There were boons burning in Andraste’s blood already, the sorcery imbued just by the process of giving her life. Orobas had made certain they weren’t painful, and there would be no extensive modifications unless she injured herself badly. Holland had no intention of sending her daughter into wars where that could happen. Maybe Andraste’s name meant victory, but to Holland it represented a kind far removed from battle. If there was anything she wanted for her daughter above everything else, it was a safe, peaceful world where Andraste could create her own future without fear.
Perfect was impossible, but better wasn’t.
She had every hope that her daughter was going to be so much better than she’d ever been, free to live without the shadows that still lingered behind Holland’s eyes. The price paid for this new world had been incredibly high and the sacrifices heartbreaking, but without it, she wouldn’t have been sitting here with her daughter in her arms and her wife sleeping beside them. She still wished that Ardashir and Khagra had been here to meet her daughter, but she would always be grateful to them for what they’d done and to the thousands and thousands of other souls lost at Losena.
That was why she made the trip to Ethilir once a year, every year, on that anniversary. To give voice to her gratitude and to remember. Seeing flowers grow across the fields that had been scorched and barren was a reminder too that life could come even from death.
Because of everyone who had been there on the fields, they had this.
Holland held her sleeping daughter close and leaned in to touch her forehead to Seva’s shoulder, carefully enough to not wake either of them.
This was more than she could have ever hoped for.