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'Your work pleases me,' the Empress says.

Her voice is very beautiful even when it's cruel.

Her voice is always cruel.

'I'm going to give you a gift,' she says, those cruelest words, offered up whenever his strength begins to fail.

'I find myself growing ever more enamored with you, my helmsman,' she whispers as her icy lips move in to capture his, to breathe more borrowed life into a body that longs for an ending.

-

Whenever a new major outpost is completed, they'll dock there for anything from a perigee or two to a full sweep and a half. It depends on how long it takes for her to grow restless, to long for the stars again.

During their time in port he is taken down from his place in the tendrils of the ship's nervous system so that repairs can be done on ship and troll alike. It always feels like losing all his limbs and senses, shrinking down to a tiny crippled form. He misses being the ship, misses the stars. She's not the only one who gets restless.

He is supposed to walk on his feet, but he's long forgotten the knack of muscle and sinew in his legs. Far easier to float. His psionics are so very strong.

The area of her temporary palace that he is allowed to roam would seem large to many trolls, but for those such as her and him it's tiny.

With nothing better to do, he sits in on her meetings. He recognizes some of the dignitaries she meets. Today it's the highblood with the rumbling laugh and grinning, macabre face paint. This troll is unpredictable, kind and violent as the mood strikes him, fickle and capricious. Dangerous.

The helmsman isn't scared. He's dangerous too, and the Empress loves him best of all. If ever there was a double-edged blade of a situation, it is his.

There's a neophyte with the highblood, teal-blooded and attentive.

As the Empress and the highblood depart, off to inspect the hapless heads of the recently culled, the neophyte lingers behind for a moment and moves to the helmsman's side.

'The lessons are not forgotten,' she whispers to him, slipping a small silver charm out from beneath her collar. Two tiny manacles, a miniature symbol of a terrible, agonising way to die. This is how they remember? This is what keeps faith alive?

Perhaps he should not be so harsh, he decides. After all, there are far worse things than martyrdom.

The tealblood's lips press against his for a moment and then she is gone, following after the others.

-

This is going to kill him, very soon.

In the race to return to Alternia in time, the helmsman is giving his all. He can feel himself moving past the point of overtaxation, into the realm where there's truly nothing left of him to give.

If the Empress does not arrive very soon there will be nothing for her to revive.

He can't remember how to even hope for such a thing.

At the last moment, just as expected, he feels the touch of fingers and palms on his face.

But instead of icy, these hands are warm.

The helmsman opens his eyes, and meets the gaze of death's handmaiden.

Her horns are long and wild, curlicues gone mad over the sharp locks of her hair. Her eyes flash a dozen colors, bright and strange as his own. Stranger.

Her expression is pitiless.

'Her fate will be far harder, and far longer, than yours has been,' she hisses in a harsh rattle of a voice.

Then she kisses him, as the end begins. Blood fills his throat as his lungs collapse and he coughs against her lips, splattering bright gold against the rust of her mouth.

She swipes at it with the back of her hand, painting a smear across her cheek, and gives the helmsman a bleak, hopeless, triumphant smile.

He returns it, and then the blackness comes and he is gone.