Seva sat by Holland’s bed, the midnight oil burning away. It cast a warm, flickering, golden light across the pair of them. The former noble wanted to take her lover’s hand, but the one remaining was so wrapped in bandages that it wouldn’t close around her own. Orobas had worked his sorcery and the elves had tried their magic. Neither could heal the wounds left by the Throne’s power. TIME, Orobas had told her, his clawed hand resting on Seva’s back to comfort her. THE FUTURE IS POSSIBILITY. HER FATE IS VEILED. She wasn’t certain if it made her feel better or worse that he wasn’t certain Holland would come back either. At least she wasn’t alone in the uncertainty. Seva stroked her lover’s hair, though some of the ashen grey strands crumbled at the touch. The hair on her burned side was silver now, as if all the color had been aged out before its time.
Blind eyes suddenly flickered open and Seva saw panic starting to form. Holland was disoriented without her vision. Maybe the penitent even thought herself dead. The blonde reached out, touching Holland’s good cheek. “‘Tis me,” Seva whispered thickly. “Thou art safe.” There were no words for how much seeing her lover’s injuries had broken her heart, but she would never stop being grateful that Holland was still alive and with her.
“Seva?” The whisper came through stiff, burned lips. It was a quiet and wondering sound.
“Aye.” The tears started and Seva couldn’t quite stem the flow. She touched her forehead to Holland’s gently, mindful of the bandaged burns. “Thou art a beautiful sight.”
“Love…” Holland drew in a shaky breath. “…you.”
“And I love thee more than life.” Seva kissed the good corner of the penitent’s mouth. It was as close to her lover’s lips as she felt like she could come at the moment. The last thing she wanted to do was injure Holland any further. Reluctantly, she remembered that someone would need to tell Orobas, on the off chance he hadn’t heard voices. “Rest. I have to—”
“Stay.” Her voice was pleading and soft. It made Seva’s heart ache.
“Anything for thee,” she said softly, stroking Holland’s cheek with her fingertips. The smile was creeping in through the tears. Suddenly, she couldn’t stop her lips from curving up at the corners. “Gods’ breath, Holland, thou dost ken how to scare a woman half to death.”
The next thing Seva knew, Holland was trying to sit up. “The others,” the penitent choked out despite the pain. It was her good side and the edges of her burns that hurt her. Most of her left side was so damaged that it was numb.
“Nay,” Seva said sharply, holding her down. At the moment, Holland was about as strong as a newborn kitten, so she had no power to resist. “Thy wounds are not ready for thee to be running about. Vladan will be here anon, once he hears thou art awake.”
The blonde’s heart twisted, but she couldn’t lie to Holland. “They fell on the field of battle,” she said softly, hearing the break in her own voice. “Thou canst see them after thou art permitted to move by the healers. The elves have given them the gift of gentle repose.” Lieren had told her that it would preserve the bodies from rot for a time, a charity the elves did not normally extend to any but their own.
Holland looked pained. “I should have—”
“Thou didst all things right, heart of mine.” Seva stroked her lover’s hair again, trying to offer what comfort she could. “Thou didst end the Princes of Iron. The Imperium fights no longer. ‘Tis a victory they would be most proud of thee for. Neither would want thee to plunge into the depths of guilt.”
Holland closed her blind eyes. She knew Seva was right, but it still hurt.
Seva heard the door open. They’d been given a room in Losena now that the city was no longer besieged, one of the few that wasn’t damaged. Seva hadn’t argued with the placement. Holland needed shelter and a bed better than a tent on the field would offer her. Orobas must have heard them talking, because he ducked in.
He was not alone.
Seva’s heart froze at the sight of matte black Imperial armor painted with symbols of different colors on each person. That was the mark of the powerful legates. The man in front carried his helm under one arm, exposing a blocky face that spoke of orc blood mingled with his human and elven heritage. He was numen, like Holland, though perhaps more mixed. His golden eyes fixed on the bed, but didn’t dare to look at Holland, reverential awe spreading across his features. All seven of the legates were here, unarmed but still armored.
Seva felt the incantations already springing to her tongue, raising her hands as she started to concentrate on her spell.
Orobas held up both clawed hands. “PEACE. THE LEGATES ARE HERE TO SPEAK FOR THE IMPERIUM. THEY HAVE NOT COME WITH WAR IN THEIR HEARTS.”
“The Invicta,” Ralla said quietly, bowing his head, “commanded the Desolate Throne. We know her voice. We know her. As Deus was, she is.” He approached the bed cautiously, trying not to prompt Seva to cast a bolt of force large enough to blow his head into splinters. He took a knee and every one of the other six legates in the room did the same. “The legions serve, Divine Imperatrix.”
Seva’s blue eyes went wide. Of all the things she had expected to come out of his mouth, those words were not among them. She looked over at Holland for guidance, not certain what to do. It was hard to read her lover’s face, however, with the bandages.
Holland turned her face towards the legates, half her mouth twisting into a rueful smile. “I destroyed the Desolate Throne, Legatus. I did not rule from it.” She gave a sigh that was half heartbreak and half laughter. “A blind, mostly dead woman makes a poor leader.”
“As far as the legions are concerned, Divine Imperatrix, your wounds are what make you divine,” Silana said in a hushed voice. As soon as Holland had spoken, the legate recognized her voice. They all did. It was definitely the same one they had heard give that single command. They had come to the right place, to the right woman. To the right goddess. “Give the word, and the legates will command them in your name.”
“You would have burned the world,” Seva said sharply.
Holland took a deep breath. “So might I have, at one point,” she said, her hand finding Seva’s clumsily. She couldn’t squeeze the blonde’s fingers, but she could brush against them. “They can help rebuild it.” Her voice seemed a little stronger now, working finally.
Ralla bowed his head in acknowledgement. “It will be done, Divine Imperatrix.” There was a murmured assent from the other legates. They all looked immensely relieved and very much determined to carry out the wishes of their new liege.
“You are excused,” Holland said. She knew they were waiting for word. She didn’t know that she wanted to be what they needed her to be, or even that she could, but she knew she was going to have to try anyway.
“THIS IS DESIRABLE,” Orobas said once the legates had filed out. “WITHOUT A LEADER, THEY WOULD HAVE FRACTURED AND WARRED, AGAINST THE FORCES OF THE EAST AND THEMSELVES. THE BLOODSHED AND FIRE WOULD HAVE CONSUMED EVERYTHING. BESIDES, I HAVE SEEN WHAT THE LEGIONS ARE CAPABLE OF WHEN THEY ARE ASKED TO BUILD. A CITY IS LITTLE DIFFERENT FROM A FORTIFICATION. THEY CAN HELP REPAIR ETHILIR.” He paused thoughtfully. “YOU WILL MAKE A FINE IMPERATRIX.”
Holland laughed. It came out as a dry, harsh sound. “Too much faith in me,” she murmured. “I’m a penitent. A terrible one, but a penitent all the same.”
“AND IF ANYONE CAN TEACH THEM THE MEANING OF ATONEMENT, IT IS THE LADY PENITENT. THIS IS YOUR CHANCE TO MAKE THE IMPERIUM WHAT IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN,” Orobas said. He nodded to the pair of them. “YOU TWO WISH TO SPEAK IN PRIVATE. I WILL GUARD THE DOOR. VLADAN WILL BE HERE ANY MINUTE, HOWEVER, AND I DOUBT I CAN BAR HIM FROM ENTERING. HE WILL BE MOST ENTHUSIASTIC.”
Seva hesitated until after the demon left, looking down at Holland. “I am going with thee to the west,” she said softly, voice resolved.
“I should hope so,” Holland said, only half her smile visible. Her bandaged hand touched Seva’s cheek carefully and slowly, guided by the other-vision that Holland still possessed. The penitent couldn’t see her expression or the features of her face, but she could see the life spark inside Seva’s body. “I was under the impression we were getting married.”
“Aye.” Seva smiled and laughed a little bit, leaning her face into Holland’s hand. “Thou art stuck with me.”
“I feel like you’re confused about who’s getting the better end of this deal.” Holland lifted her head slightly when she heard the door open and that familiar heavy tread creak across the floorboards.
“Holland, it’s…” Vladan took a deep breath. “It’s good to see you alive.”
“I said I was hard to kill.”
Vladan chuckled. “So it seems. I heard from Legate Ralla that you’re moving up in the world. Should I be calling you ‘Divine Imperatrix’ now?”
Holland scowled. “Not if you want to live.”
“Thou art in no condition to be making threats, Holland,” Seva said as a gentle reminder, smiling slightly.
“I can wait. I have a long memory,” Holland muttered, struggling to sit up despite the pain. Seva helped her reluctantly, sliding a few pillows behind her to prop her up.
Vladan’s expression grew somber. “Holland—”
She knew that tone of voice. “Seva told me.” The penitent felt the ache in her chest. “They were better friends than I could have ever hoped for. It won’t be the same without them.”
“They do not come braver,” Seva said softly. “Took an army to take them down, and they still saved us. Vladan and I have assured everyone knows what they did.”
“Good.” Holland nodded a little bit. “I don’t want them ever being forgotten.” She sighed and leaned back against the pillow, exhaustion evident in the way her eyes started to drift closed again. “When is the funeral?”
“Tomorrow at dawn,” Vladan said. “Well, they would have waited if you were still out, but now that you’ve woken up…anyway, get some rest. And don’t try getting out of bed for at least tonight, or I’ll come back here and you won’t like it.”
“Truly the voice of comfort,” Holland said dryly, trying not to think about the fact that she was going to see her friends’ funeral. There was no question in her mind that the two of them would have their bodies handled together. Everyone knew where they belonged, even in death. She sighed. “I’ll be there.”
“I’ll tell Murdak and Thadash,” the anthroparion said with a nod.
Seva sighed when the door closed. “I love thee,” she said softly, kissing Holland’s undamaged temple. “More than life. There are not enough prayers of gratitude in all the tongues of the world.”
“I love you too. I…” Holland paused and took a deep breath. “I heard you, when the void was closing in. I don’t think I could have done anything without you.”
The blonde stroked her lover’s hair. “Just sleep,” she said gently. “In the morn, we will deal with the world again.”
“Lie with me.”
Seva wanted to more than anything, but she knew she had to be careful with Holland’s broken body. Maybe she couldn’t feel the worst of the burns, but they were still there beneath the bandages. “I do not want to wound thee.” She could almost hear Holland’s argument forming, so she put a finger over the penitent’s lips. “Move over. I would lie by thy good side.”
It wasn’t until Seva was in the bed and curled into her unwounded side that Holland finally felt like she was willing to close her eyes again. She kissed the top of Seva’s head, basking in the warmth of the blonde that seemed a million miles away from the cold of the void that had done its best to rip her apart. She felt Seva’s fingers brush over the bare skin over her right collarbone, one of the few places that wasn’t covered by a bandage. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t see. Holland could feel.
She cried her tears in the night while Seva held her, grieving while she had her chance. Life and the legions would have too many demands after the funeral for her to even have the opportunity to breathe, let alone feel something this overwhelming. She slept when she was done, catching a few hours of rest before the sun began to creep over the horizon. It was red with smoke as people either burned the bodies of the fallen or buried them in long, endless rows. The legions knew the quickest ways to strip a body and ready it for unceremonious burial and so that was what they were doing for their own. Someone would say a few words, then place the body in the grave and shovel earth in over it. They had spent so long building earthen fortifications that even this many graves were easily done. The easterners spent more time with their dead, doing their best to give their friends and family proper funerals. But it was overwhelming with how many people had been lost, so many were just burned together.
Ardashir and Khagra were laid out together on their pyre, their bodies cleaned and their wounds stitched closed where possible to give the impression more of two people sleeping beside each other than laying in death. Thadash had painted both of their faces with the symbols of soul in orcish tradition, a bright white paint easily visible even from the distance. They’d brought a chair out for Holland, because there was no way she was standing. Really, she should have been in bed, but she’d insisted until even Seva gave in.
Murdak was quiet even after Thadash had finished his prayers in Orcish and then in Common, his presence felt rather than heard. The magnitude of his grief was too much for words. Holland knew the feeling—it had consumed the silence of the night before in her own heart. Eventually, he said his own goodbye, the words reserved for the greatest of warriors. “They are gone from us, full of fire, full of glory,” he said softly from his place at Holland’s wounded side. “The flames without will take the flames within home.”
“Would you say something, Goth?” Thadash asked, looking at Holland. “It would have meant a great deal to them.”
Holland cleared her throat. She knew others had probably turned their gazes her way. Between Ardashir’s fellow hooded knights and the orcs, there were countless people crowded around. Most of them wouldn’t hear what was said, at least not directly from the few here to say a few words. What could she possibly say to make this easier or better? Where could she even begin? “I have never seen anything like Ardashir Sadeghi and Khagra of the Wing before, nor do I think I will ever see anything like them now that they have left us. They gave everything they had to give and more to save all of us. They were more than courageous, more than compassionate, more than noble, more than strong. They went into battle knowing they would never be a part of the world they were creating, without hesitation or doubt or fear. They were living proof that love conquers all. What we have done would have never been possible without them. There aren’t enough ways to say thank you in the universe.”
The penitent turned her face towards the sky. “We are sorrowful because we are not with you, but we have not lost you any more than we have lost those that distance parts us from. We honor you in all things that we do from here forward, and we keep your memories enshrined in our hearts. Now sleep in peace, until we meet again.”
Thadash nodded, his eyes glimmering. Murdak reached out and gently patted Holland on the back to give her his thanks. He didn’t blame her for what had happened. It had been a good death, as much as he hated the fact that it had come before his own. “We commend them together to the care of the gods, that they may never be parted,” he intoned. It was an orcish tradition, one Holland wholeheartedly approved of.
“What is it you said once?” Vladan murmured quietly from behind Holland. “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars?”
Holland nodded as the torch touched the pyre, igniting the oil and dry wood. She couldn’t see the light, but she could feel the heat and hear the crackling as it rushed to life. She gripped Seva’s hand tightly and said a silent prayer. Despite her resolution that she wouldn’t cry where Imperial eyes might see, she felt her eyes burning and could taste salt on her lips. Holland decided in that moment that she didn’t care what everyone would think. She was not Saraqael or Deus. She thought, she felt, she hurt, and penning that imperfection up inside would only break her.
Ardashir and Khagra would have given her hell for being afraid to laugh or cry because of what someone might thing. She would follow their advice, even if they weren’t with her to give it.
Murdak and Thadash stayed with them after the funeral was over in the quiet of the room Holland and Seva had been given, when the cask was opened and solemnity became story-telling. There was a lot of tears, a lot of laughter, and more drinking than there probably should have been considering Holland’s condition. The sounds of the celebration could be heard from the city below. Everyone was doing the same, both in memory of those they’d lost and because the world was suddenly a safe place to be again. The Imperial legions had withdrawn a mile and made camp, waiting.
They were waiting for their Imperatrix.
Holland only had a day or two to recover before her rest was interrupted by her fellow commanders. With the field won, good feelings were not bound to endure. The rivalries of the human kingdoms ran too deep to ignore long and the northerners were not much more agreeable with each other. Lieren had remained, but the few elves still remaining had retreated back to the Vale. The dwarves were mustering to move. Murdak’s orcs were on the way back to the north with the ashes of their heroes, who would be scattered across their homeland.
Her wounds honestly weren’t healing well, and Seva didn’t know how they ever would. The scarring was going to be horrific no matter what Orobas did and the blonde knew her lover had to be in incredible pain, but Holland always endured the demon’s ministrations in a strong silence. Legatus Ralla was becoming a familiar figure, usually arriving just in time to ruffle the feathers of Talinese or Genevais officials. Lord Botha—Regent Botha now, as the Eth king was now Ekundayo the Younger, who was not old enough to manage a kingdom himself—had a higher tolerance for the Imperial legatus. Seva was finding it hard to not like Ralla. He was always thoughtful, always considerate, always respectful. He treated the blonde like she was a queen and Holland like she was the goddess the Imperials all seemed to think she was.
The first council of nations after the war was over did not go a long way towards inspiring hope.
“It is an unacceptable interference!” King Philippe barked, glowering at Ralla with his fists knotted at his sides. “We fought to get rid of you demon-kith!”
“I understand the concern,” Holland said. She was propped up in bed now, with Seva sitting at her side. The leaders of the world still present at Losena had clustered around. Ralla was representing the legions, though he deferred to Holland in everything that didn’t require an exacting knowledge of the condition of the Imperial armies. “This is not an invasion, Your Majesty. Some of my legions will be remaining to police the roads and combat any potential banditry as well as discourage any marauders from making their homes in the territory to harm people.” It was strange to think of the legions as hers, to do with as she pleased, but Holland was trying to take it in stride.
“His concern,” Botha said darkly, “is that you have made it more difficult for him to invade.”
“You are interfering things that are not the concern of a landless knight!” Philippe snarled at Holland.
Ralla punched him in the side of the head hard enough to drop him. “You will watch your tone when you speak to the Divine Imperatrix or I will burn your family tree from the histories!” the legate snarled with an anger that Seva had never seen from him. It elevated him more in the blonde’s esteem.
Lieren laughed. “Oh, darling, you simply must keep this one,” she said to Holland. “He and Vladan will be close as two peas in a pod before the season’s out.”
“Ethilir will remain a client kingdom of the Imperium until Ekundayo turns eighteen and assumes the throne completely,” Holland said. Her voice was a few degrees colder now. “At that point, he and I will renegotiate the terms of our relationship. You, Your Majesty, as well as your armies will be escorted to the Talinese-Eth border by Legata Silana’s legions. If you return after that point without my consent prior to the day Ekundayo turns eighteen, it will be viewed as a hostile invasion and be dealt with appropriately. The Genevais, Yssans, and Leyans will receive identical treatment, lest you think that I’m being unfair.”
“The Nejvyšši Král has consented to permit Yssa’s soldiers to return to their homeland,” Dušan said. He was speaking for the new High King—or Nejvyšši Král, in their language—now that Kajetán had finally passed on. He’d died like he wanted: in battle. “Mind, he would prefer that it happen sooner rather than later.”
“I will see them home,” Cadeyrn promised. He was missing an ear and a few fingers now, but otherwise he was as hale and hearty as he had been when they left Tamaris. He gave Holland a little bow. “If that pleases the Imperatrix, of course.”
Holland laughed. “Get out of here before I change my mind, Lord Protector. Tell Maebh and Devyn that they’re loved and missed.”
He nodded before looking at Seva. “Shall I send your love as well, my lady?”
“Aye,” Seva said, feeling her heart break a little bit at the knowledge she would never return to Yssa.
Philippe picked himself off the floor, but Ralla grabbed him bodily before hauling him out of the room. Holland had no interest in stopping him from manhandling a king. It was kind of amusing and it also made one thing abundantly clear: the Imperium was not going to tolerate anyone interfering with the rebuilding of Ethilir. She was ignoring the other unspoken point, which was that the Imperium wasn’t going to take any argument. It made her feel a little bit too much like a brutish warlord, which likely wasn’t all that far from the truth.
“I think I’ll stay in touch,” Lieren said thoughtfully. “I might want to see your wedding.”
Seva blushed slightly. “Did Vladan tell everyone that?”
“Just about,” Botha said with a grin. He offered them a bow, as did their Leyan and Genevais guests. The others excused themselves, but Botha remained. “Send me a date, and I will be present, though we might have to delay it for a while, as the rebuilding is an urgent thing.”
Holland sighed. “I know.” She turned her face towards Seva. “Would it be alright if we waited a while? I think we’re going to need a couple of years for things to return to normal.”
“Aye,” Seva said gently. “I would wait an eternity if I knew thou wouldst be at the end of it.”
“She says sweet things to you,” Vladan said, sound put out. “I show up and all she says is, ‘Get out! Holland’s in no condition to be running around with you!”
“You wanted me to go drinking with you,” Holland said with a laugh. “With ‘amicable’ brawling.”
“We should have foisted thee back off on thy former magus,” Seva said, but she couldn’t stop herself from smiling at him. “Nay, I jest. ‘Twill be most fine to have thee when we make for the Imperium.”
Vladan just chuckled. “So, you ready to go meet the legions, Holland?”
Holland sighed. “I suppose we’d better get it over with,” she said. “Let’s see if I can stay on a horse with just a leg and a half.”
“Maël would not let thee fall,” Seva murmured, trying not to worry. “Mind, I would feel better if I could ride with thee and hold on thee.”
“THEY MUST SEE HER FOR WHO SHE IS FIRST,” Orobas said as he squeezed into the room. Eth doorways were large, but they were not made for a demon of his height. “THEN WE WILL SHOW THEM THE TWO OF YOU TOGETHER.”
“Yes, the burned and blind wreck of an invalid they’ve decided to make into an empress will be an incredibly imposing sight,” Holland mumbled. She stopped when she felt Seva kiss the palm of her hand, feeling a warm reminder of the fact that her lover didn’t consider her less for lacking limbs or the beauty she’d once had.
“IT MIGHT INTEREST YOU THAT I MAY BE ABLE TO RESTORE YOUR MOBILITY AND AT LEAST SOME OF MANUAL DEXTERITY TO YOU,” Orobas said. “I HAVE BEGUN THE WORK OF CREATING REPLACEMENTS, AUGMENTATIONS. THEIR DEMONIC ORIGINS WILL BE CLEAR, BUT IT SEEMS MORE PROBABLE THAN NOT TO ME THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE A LEFT ARM AND A MORE OPERATIONAL LEFT LEG AGAIN. OF COURSE, WE WILL HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL YOUR CURRENT WOUNDS HEAL TO FIT YOU WITH EITHER.”
“You would be correct,” Holland said. She could feel her spirits lifting at the thought of being able to run again and hug Seva with both arms. She hated being trapped in a bed, and it had only been for a few days.
“YOUR RELIEF IS DESIRABLE. VLADAN WILL HELP YOU TO YOUR HORSE. GO GREET YOUR IMPERIUM, HOLLAND,” Orobas said smoothly.
My Imperium, Holland thought hours later when she was sitting on horseback in front of the assembled legions, her bandaged body trembling slightly as Maël shifted underneath her. She could just see a wall of white, sparking life in front of her rather than individual people, there were so many. It stretched as far as the eyes could see. She could feel Seva’s hand on her good leg, offering a silent strength as the magnitude of everything hit her. Here she was, in front of the largest army in the world, her wounded body wrapped in gauze beneath dark silk, a wreath of olive leaves resting on her hair.
Holland raised her good hand in greeting. She could feel the electric buzz of energy in the air as clear as sorcery, hear the thunder of the cheer that picked up the very front lines and rolled back towards the rear echelons as her greeting was answered. There was so much in that roar—hope, relief, gratitude, joy. She felt like she was right where she was supposed to be: with the people who were once again her people, right beside Seva.
The world was filled with so much light.