When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
--WB Yeats, When You Are Old
The smile started at the corner of Sophia's mouth and for a moment looked as if it would stubbornly refuse to spread, but apparently title and demeanor had no say in the matter; the Empress was helpless to stop it. Protocol might have demanded that he bow to her years ago, but time had done much to relax the formality between them. Flecks of gray shimmered in her hair; wrinkles plucked at the far reaches of her eyes.
"At ease, Admiral. What brings you here tonight?"
The palace was every bit as majestic as it had ever been, perched on its promontory above the clouds. On a clear day she could see all of Anatoray -- or what was left of it -- from this vantage point. In particular, her throne had a direct view of one of the higher hilltops, still kept from crumbling away by steel and girders. At its very end stood a single stone, weather-worn now, battered by the winds and the rain. Even though it was too far distant for her to read its inscription, she knew the words on it by heart. Even so many years later the memory caught in her throat, a wound she'd never let heal, an opportunity she'd never made up for. Over the course of the decades the weight of it had grown heavier but she'd never allowed bitterness to overtake her. Instead, she moved in a world of melancholy where decisions were just and fair, punishment when merited was even-handed, and her people thrived regardless of the happiness of their empress.
"The usual, Majesty." Well into his fifties, Vincent's voice still had the ability to captivate -- it's one thing that made him such an outstanding commander -- and his eyes sparkled. Whether that was from mischief or from a memory of long ago was something she could never fathom with certainty, but he held a dear and succinct space in her heart. He was, after all, the one who had wrenched her from the claws of death itself and seen to it that she survived and was kept strong. For nearly thirty years, he'd been her staunchest ally and strongest supporter.
"I see. You've never lost that hankering for my cooking, have you, Vincent? Make yourself comfortable."
Her private space at the palace was surprisingly sparse; she blamed life on a warship for the habit. Publicly she'd always stated that she wanted to make a break from the iron-fist rule of her father, that there was room on Anatoray for all comers, that the Disith were as welcome and entitled to a life as free of hardship and toil as anybody. As a gesture of good faith she'd halved the size of the palace, turning the rest of it into housing for Nestor Messina and his people. In a fit of comradeship she'd made him Prime Minister, despite the fact that the Guild's leadership was destroyed along with Maestro Delphine on that fateful day, and the capitol was opened up to new construction for those Disith who wanted to stay and work on government matters.
A great many people had left on Exile, Claus and Lavie and Tatiana and Alister included. Those were people she knew she'd never see again and the opportunity had presented itself to her to leave as well, but abandoning Anatoray after the sacrifices that had been made was never part of her plan. Besides, there was still one man she could never leave. He'd already been left to fate once and now... now she looked out on him every day.
Love all your subjects, not just one man, Marius had told her. The fact of the matter was that she had always loved just the one man and that was something neither time nor death had been able to strip from her. Neither had Vincent, much to his chagrin, but she'd been honest from the beginning. It was Vincent's choice to stay by her side regardless. Looking over at him -- how regal he looked, in his own military way -- Sophia smiled in earnest. "I'm far too good at dwelling on the past, Vincent. How you've put up with me all these years is beyond me."
Leaning against the wall in that almost rakish way he still had, he laughed. "Majesty."
"Sophia. Call me Sophia."
"Sophia." The name rolled off his tongue as if it belonged there and he was only loaning it out. "You know I'm just here for the coffee."
She laughed along with him, took his arm, and strolled into the kitchens at his side. "My coffee's not that good."
Peace had come at a price, an awful, awful price. Not only had she lost the one she loved, the one who had always been her guiding light, but they had all given so much. With the war at an end, their whole way of life had to be put aside; the whole military balance of their world was threatened into submission. Yes, they still had a beautiful fleet of capital ships; she certainly saw to that. The second time Vincent asked her to marry him she turned him down but gave him his very own fleet, state-of-the-art, better than Urbanus-class, as a consolation prize although she hadn't thought of it that way at the time. He'd been gone for nearly a year patrolling her skies and on his return brought reports of the glaciers melting away from Disith and the deserts receding from the reaches of Anatoray, not a Guild fortress left in the skies, and a third proposal of marriage. Again she'd said no; it wouldn't have been fair to him knowing how she still felt about Alex.
Vincent was patient, though, and when the need for airship patrols faltered he opted to stay near the palace, first training new recruits and later taking informal command of the palace guards. His first order of business had been to reinforce the secret passageway leading to the tower. He renamed it Sophia's Walk for the night he'd used it to rescue her from execution. Visitors to the palace were allowed to navigate its narrow stone steps and to read the plaques along the way illustrating the story of their beloved empress's midnight rescue.
It appealed to the vanity in both of them and it appealed to Sophia still. Filling the grinder with freshly roasted beans, she turned the crank and sneaked looks at Vincent when she thought he wasn't watching. With those freshly ground, she set the coffee to brew; the aroma filled the room quickly.
"Ah. Nothing like the smell of good coffee." Vincent breathed in deeply, a grin crooking his lips. He'd fallen for it back at the Academy when he'd learned of its value as a stimulant on those nights he had far too much studying to do. Schoolwork had never come as readily to him as to his roommate, but not many people had a mind as strategic as Alex Row's and he didn't feel too badly that he couldn't quite keep the same pace academically. No, he'd worked for everything he got -- none of it was handed to him -- but lack of being the most brilliant strategist had served him well. He was still here, wasn't he? He was the one left standing, for what it was worth. He'd given up trying to fill the void left by a dead man long ago.
As much as he'd fallen for coffee at the Academy, he'd also fallen head over heels for Sophia. She was far too young, of course, and far too unobtainable. While she'd attended classes under the simple name Sophia Forrester, a select few of them had always known she was the emperor's daughter, a princess by right, but were sworn to secrecy about it. If they were going to act their part, he figured there was little point in hiding his interest in her. Most of that came later, of course, because the difference in age never allowed for a lot of interaction. But still, he had his eye on her from the start.
Lucky bastard, he remembered thinking when he got word that Sophia had been assigned to the Silvana. He'd shaken his head, taken a bitter sip of coffee, and cursed Alex Row beneath his breath. From that point on he kept careful tabs on his old friend, even as he grew into his own command with the Urbanus, and thinking back on those days now made him shake his head. He still couldn't see what he might have done differently to keep four of his ships from sinking; he still had no strategy that would have bested Alex and the Silvana and he wondered, as always, whether or not he'd held back on Sophia's behalf. Conventional wisdom said there was no room for love in war and conventional wisdom was right; taking time to consider affection and emotion certainly had the ability to put a damper on the impartiality necessary for proper decision-making. But he'd always been one to act with his heart instead of his head and regretted nothing about his military decisions.
His only regret was that every single one of the four times he'd asked Sophia to marry him, she'd said no and he was running out of ways to rationalize her answers. At first he'd thought Alex's passing was too recent and blamed himself for bad timing. The second time, he assumed she was too busy with affairs of state for affairs of the heart; he figured it was time to take a nice long airship ride around the worlds, survey them, and report back. When she refused him a third time he told himself she simply didn't want to share her power, and the fourth time she said no he decided that maybe, just maybe, he would settle down in the outskirts, find a nice young wife, and start a family. The problem with that plan was that nobody appealed to him and besides, he was getting on in years. Life expectancy had certainly improved now that war was no longer a factor, but who wanted a fifty-three-year-old admiral for a husband? He'd given up then, resigning himself to a life spent alone.
Platonic it would be. With that weight off his shoulders, the two of them seemed to have settled into a respectably amicable friendship. From time to time over the next few years Sophia sought his advice or his shoulder; from time to time he stopped in for coffee and a smile.
Eagle-eyed, he watched as Sophia set out cups and saucers, cream and sugar, marveling that the empress herself would do this for him instead of calling on a servant. But they'd always shared quiet times together; he figured it brought her a little respite from the pomp and circumstance of the palace and royal duties and responsibilities. It was up to him now to break the silence. "How's Nestor?"
"Very frail." They both knew he was nearing the end of his days, but the knowledge didn't make anything easier. "I'd like to pay him a visit tomorrow. Will you join me?"
"Of course." With a twinge of humility he realized that any opportunity to be by Sophia's side was one he'd still jump at. Some things, he guessed, were never going to change. "What time?"
Waving off the question, she poured coffee into the two cups, set one down for Vincent and took the other for herself as she sat at the great oak table. "That's something we can decide on tomorrow." Looking up at him, shrewdness glinted in her eyes above the ever-present reading glasses. "Just once, I'd like to take a day off from duty."
Sitting across from her, he shrugged. "Even commanders are allowed to take shore leave, your majesty."
She grinned, for a moment looking impossibly young and impertinent. "I'd rather take air leave. Do you ever wonder how they're doing, Vincent? Claus and the others? Do you suppose they actually made it?"
The truth of the matter was that they would never know, and so often what was incalculable was the cause of so much anxiety. Cup and saucer in hand, he shrugged. "I like to think so."
"So do I. A whole new world: I wonder what it's like. I wonder what kind of adult Alvis grew into. I wonder about all of them. Do you suppose they think about us much?"
"Oh, yes." His answer was immediate and resolute. "How could they not?" Putting his coffee down, he reached across the table to rest his hands on hers. "I think it's our nature to be a little mired in the past. We all do it." He was never one to exclude himself from the equation and if the heavy palace walls echoed his thoughts or mocked his intent, so be it. "I think we always will."
"Drink your coffee." Sharp words from the empress; she pulled her hands away and he knew without looking that her eyes had strayed in the direction of that far-away hillside with the lone monument on top. But they only moved there for a moment and, loyal as always, Vincent did as he was bid, picking up his cup and taking a sip. It was as he was about to set it down on its saucer that he noticed.
"Hmm?" A slip of paper had been hidden beneath his cup; he picked it up, smoothed it out, and read it. Instantly his brows furrowed.
The single word yes was written on it in what he believed was Sophia's hand.
"Yes? What's this?" Turning it over revealed no further clues; he looked across to Sophia, his eyes filled with uncertainty.
Sophia swallowed hard, and it had nothing to do with the fresh bitterness of coffee as far as he could tell. But she was nothing if not regal and practiced; she cleared her throat. "It's the answer to the next question you're going to ask me, Vincent."
"I'm supposed to ask you a question?"
"Yes, but that was the wrong one. I'll give you another chance." Reaching back, she unpinned her hair and shook it out. She was no longer the youthful beauty she'd been, but she was still everything in his eyes and slowly, slowly, the light dawned for him.
A genuine smile broke out over his face. Setting the cup down, he noticed that his hands quavered slightly; he cleared his own throat. Funny, but he couldn't force the old familiar words to come and a variant on them escaped instead.
"You'll say yes this time?"
The Empress of the United Lands of Anatoray and Disith laughed quiety. "Yes."
Rising to his feet, Vincent rounded the table, rested his arms around Sophia, and kissed the top of her head. For the first time ever, he forgot all about his beloved coffee. For the first time ever, he felt his heart swell to ten times its original size. For the first time ever, he had a glimpse into the future and in it, he saw himself happy.
"It's about time."