If there were warning signals going off in the recesses of your brain, you were too used to tuning them out entirely to pay them any heed. It didn’t matter. Emilia and Zilva were stuck trying to recover troops and morale and you, you had the strength you needed now. You had to show them—enemy and ally—that you could do it, that you were strong.
Strong enough to protect everyone. Strong enough to stop the damned kingdom and its silly princess from gathering the power they would need to become a real threat, because you couldn’t hold up every gap in the defenses on your own and still rule. It would be fine to fight back and forth and quibble over the border. Individual soldiers might get hurt, but they wouldn’t see the death that this war has piled up on both sides. Soldiers whose names you vaguely knew. Someone you were responsible for, even if you didn’t like him. And two more lives weighing your shoulders down.
No, you couldn’t risk another mass combat like that until you gave your army the time to heal. You needed to get back to the throne, sit at the top of the mountain and judge for yourself when it was time. If there was only one more Bronquian life that had to end, it would be yours, and it would be for the glory and protection of your people.
But it might not even have to come to that, because you could just kill them all here, couldn’t you? And with this power running through your veins, it was so simple to. You just had to smash them all against the ancient cobblestones of Lombardia, and kill the girl when she came back, and—it wouldn’t be too late.
You lifted your blade. Remembered the moment the messengers came to you with the news of Leon’s passage. Felt, again, the meager weight of Nessiah’s body in your arms. Saw a pale twist of fabric through the night sky of a chokingly hot night three years ago.
Siskier. I’ve never forgotten, I’ll never forget. No matter how drenched in blood I become, our dream—
And then you felt it.
Pain doubled you over from inside. You coughed and blood came up, burning the inside of your mouth and your face and steaming against the ground. Something in your veins was screaming—
You could hear Luciana screaming but couldn’t make out the words. A warning. But there was no way you could stop now. Victory was so close. All that you had to do was keep yourself from falling apart before it happened. It was a familiar battle, one Nessiah had taught you how to fight.
But as strong as you’d become, that was nothing in comparison to your opponent.
Still you fought. Blindly. Staggering. Because you couldn’t give up. You wouldn’t lose—not to the ridiculous mockery of what your army is that stands in your way, not to the howling of your ancestor in your body, not to the sudden weight of the scythe in your hand. Because if you lost, all those deaths would mean nothing. Because retreat was the same thing as failure, wasn’t it?
And before your straining heart could reach its limit and burst, your body gave. It had, perhaps, more sense than you; it could tell when any further movement would be disastrous.
Vomiting blood. Struggling to keep your head up under the metaphorical weight of all the lost lives and the failures as well as the very real weight of your own armor.
Suddenly, Emilia’s voice—shrill and scolding. You really should have listened to her. She knows more about all of this nonsense than you, doesn’t she? Her mother must have been a kind woman. Certainly a knowledgeable one. You’re glad of it. It was enough that you had to suffer. If no one else, then this girl—
Small but steady hands ripped your armor away, gave you a chance to breathe. For an instant your vision cleared enough to see your sister’s face.
And then blackness.
- - -
You dreamed of memories. Being thrown into the wall until you bled, feeling the imprint of your father’s heavy hands along your body, his fingers snarled in your hair, dragging until you felt your scalp would tear free. The way it always felt later—even breathing hurt. The way Siskier and Jenon tried so pitifully hard to help you remember how to smile.
You got it down in the end.
All your memories are of powerlessness, it seems. Too weak to protect yourself. Too stupid to realize, to save the people you looked up to before it was too late. Too young and naïve to keep from walking into every trap. And Siskier’s blood, Velleman’s blood were on your hands. You remembered, briefly, a voice you didn’t want to hear talking about the gap between your ideals and reality moving to crush you. Deliriously you order that memory to be silent. You don’t want to hear her say anything anymore. She left your life, and now her specter had really ought to leave you in peace.
Even then. How hard it was to learn to read and write, to be able to manage the slew of papers on your own. You could trust them to someone else, but that would be weakness too. You coveted their smiles, their ease. You could live on things like that. It would sustain you and keep you from drowning in all the duties that came with your new position.
You have no way of knowing how well you really did, but you always knew that you ought to be doing much better. The people needed it, even if they never asked it of you.
Leon. He’d been out of control and you weren’t strong enough to bring him back all the way. He was different when your back was turned, you heard. Nearly a monster. But as long as he was still willing to smile for you, maybe it would have been all right.
If you hadn’t let him die.
And you—you could only hate yourself when it came to Nessiah. You couldn’t keep him from crying at night, you couldn’t protect him from whatever he was hiding from, and you couldn’t gain his trust quickly enough. Now all your chances were used up and gone.
All you could do was try to make sure it wasn’t for nothing. It’s all tangled up in your heart—making sure that the world is free and the people’s lives changed… in a way it’s striving to grant Siskier and the others immortality. Their bodies are long since gone, but if they can live again in the hearts of men—
- - -
You dreamed of your body burning, of something unspeakable whispering to you, and somehow you knew that it wasn’t a dream that the land was screaming in pain. Visions of corpses in smoking heaps plagued you, along with a horrible certainty that it was reality. You struggled, tried to demand your armor and weapons and a saddled mount so that you could ride out and stop it, but countless arms caught you like a fishing net and dragged you back to your bed.
Voices, unintelligible, formed a susurrus like a windstorm, tormenting your ears. You couldn’t tell them apart, but the tone of worry and despair carried to you perfectly. And you hated it. The only one in this land that should ever suffer was you. You would bear it all for them so that they could live untroubled lives. You’re doing this for them, and for her, and so that maybe somehow you’ll be able to atone for all those failures. But you couldn’t move.
And the voices began to disappear.
- - -
And the fever broke.
You asked how long it lasted. You asked what happened. You were firmly told to leave the questions alone; your body was still too weak to withstand any heroics. You had to wait a few days, still.
The war was almost at your doorstep, they said. The battle in Lombardia, lost. Baldus and Zilva were both dead, heroes fallen in a futile attempt to keep the enemy out. Bardot, the land that used to be Balin’s duchy, had been razed. The only survivors were those too young, too old, or otherwise too infirm to hold a blade.
Even if there’s a solution to all this, how are they going to harvest this year’s crop when all the strong young men and women are gone? It hurt to imagine. When all this is over and the royal menace driven from this land (the words sounded hollow and false to you even in your mind, though you don’t yet know why), perhaps you can bring some of the soldiers with you to help them. No matter the imbalances in your body, your back is strong and you know how to cut grain.
Aegina is almost completely recovered, you were told. She’d never see out of that eye again, but her balance was almost back to normal and she’d be as hale as she ever was. It was a good thing to hear.
You asked where Emilia was. Fighting, they said. Holding the enemy at bay, waiting for the army to pick itself back up. Pride and anxiety tore at your chest.
None of it felt quite real as you wandered the castle halls like a ghost. None of it at all. You never saw Baldus, never saw Zilva, couldn’t go to their graves in your condition even if there wasn’t a fucking army standing in your way. It was like Leon, in a way. You had to keep reminding yourself that he was gone, too.
(Not so with Nessiah or Siskier, those two dearest to your heart; you held each of their broken corpses to your chest until they lost their warmth, after all. You never forgot.)
Above all, you just wished Emilia would come home. You would bandage her wounds and joke with her and mourn the fallen together. She’s the only support you had left.
After a day and a half, Brongaa’s strength swelled in you once again. You would be all right for a while, just had to be careful not to overdo it. Had to muster more will than before. It was all right. You knew what you were facing.
Drominos, you kept hearing, was a lost cause. The Scarlet Rider division would probably be on its way back soon. Flarewerk was the last gateway to the rest of the country, and like hell you would just nod your head and let that princess and her oh-so-righteous troops through to rape your land, the town you were born in.
You donned armor and found your blade, and organized troops and paced. Why in the hell weren’t they back yet? You needed her—not to stop up any gap in defense, but for you personally to fall back on. Luciana and Aegina were too consumed by the desire for revenge; Eudy had her hands full. You—you weren’t weak enough to admit to any of them that you needed help. But Emilia—she’d know.
- - -
The messenger got to you three hours later, stuttering and nervous and clearly out of sorts. You made her calm down and say it slowly.
And she told you.
You felt that unbearable weight coming down against your shoulders again.
But even as you felt yourself starting to go pale, you just nodded to her and dismissed her. It wasn’t her fault, after all; it was yours. There was no need to snap at the poor girl just because she was doing her job.
And you held it in until the door closed behind her. Held it in so tightly that when you let it go it felt like you were blacking out again. And you couldn’t stand up anymore. You couldn’t see. Tears—they burned your skin even worse than your own boiling blood.
Emilia (the sound of her name echoing in the back of your mind hurt, pounding like a headache, like a hammer on steel at the anvil)—she would forgive you. You know it to be true. She loved you and she knew how much you loved her.
You just won’t ever forgive yourself.
And it occurred to you—dully and quietly, this first ghost of an unwelcome thought—that if this went on, no one might make it out of this hell alive.