Arrhae came to wake her, which in itself was not so unusual. What was strange was the hour, long past midnight but not yet near dawn, and Ael was conscious of a sense of dread well before she was fully awake.
“Llei'hmnë,” Arrhae said. She sounded worried, even pained. Ael rubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand.
“Yes, what is it?” she asked. She waved at the light to brighten it, and realized that Arrhae was dressed—not, perhaps, suitable for public occasions, but daytime wear. She even had her hair braided.
“There’s someone to see you,” said Arrhae, grimly.
Ael did not say At this hour?, because she had taken care to surround herself with people who would only do something like this with good cause. “Do I need to be presentable?” she asked instead.
“A robe will be sufficient,” Arrhae replied, which meant, No, you need not be armed.
Ael nodded and threw back the sleeping silks.
“He’s in your sitting room,” Arrhae said.
Ael paused, half out of bed, and threw her a look. Arrhae did not shrug, nor reply, nor do anything but look serious. “Very well,” Ael said slowly. “Wait where you can hear us if there’s need.”
“Yes, llei'hmnë,” Arrhae replied.
Ael shrugged into her robe and cast about for her softshoes, but the saavir had been playing with them again and only one was visible. Her visitor, whoever he might be, would have to look at her bare toes. Arrhae trailed her at a discreet distance.
It was a surprising long walk to the sitting room; Ael had been less successful than she might have preferred at keeping her people from building her a huge and ridiculous palace. It was at least impressive, but occasionally she thought of what her father would have said of it and had to excuse herself until the blush subsided.
The lights were low in the public areas, in deference to the hour; when she entered the sitting room, at first she could see nobody at all. Then a shape turned from the wall where it had been examining something and moved into the glow of the one burning light, and Ael felt her breath catch.
“Your Majesty,” Spock said. He bowed to her, as a man bows to a respected superior; but not so deeply as to a great superior, and Ael would have smiled at his nicety save for the look on his face, his Vulcan control incomplete.
He had...changed, since last she saw him; she thought foolishly that he looked older. But of course, she chided herself. You look older as well; you are older. Absence does not protect against change.
“Ambassador,” Ael replied, as evenly as she might. “You are welcome here, as always, though I fear we did not prepare to receive you.” Matters with the Federation had been...delicate, of late, and Ael wondered if Spock might have been dispatched with some piece of shattering news, with which to prevent—or cause, perhaps—a renewal of old hostilities.
“I am not here on official business,” Spock said. His Rihannsu was precise as always, though still tinged with the merest hint of an accent. “I come to thee bearing a life.”
Ael’s heart clenched in her side, for if Spock of the Federation bore a heartstone, there was only one person it could be.
“No,” she said nonetheless, as if denial had ever changed the Universe before. Spock looked at her, steadily, his deep-set eyes even more sunken with fatigue and, she could see now, grief.
Now that she looked more closely, she realized that he wasn’t dressed in the Vulcan robes he had worn when last he visited ch’Rihan; nor the Starfleet uniform he had still been entitled to, the last she’d heard. He wore what a well-off merchant might wear, unremarkable on any street on the Two Worlds. Aware that she had taken refuge in minutia to avoid thinking about what Spock had just said, Ael forced herself to speak.
“He was attending the ceremonial first cruise of the new Enterprise,” Spock said. His voice was rough; in anyone else, Ael would have said he had been crying. “The ship encountered an anomaly and was being drawn in. To escape, they needed to perform several operations at once, and there were very few crew aboard. He.” Spock stopped talking. Ael regarded him with some concern, wondering what she ought to do; she, more than any other Rihanha, had cause to know that the Vulcans did feel, but she knew rather less about how they preferred to vent those feelings—and in her experience, those who kept the tightest hold of their emotions were liable to produce the most spectacular displays when their grips failed. After a moment the decision was taken from her as Spock continued, “He went alone into a position of danger, and when the ship was struck…”
“Did he save it?” she asked. There had been no word of the destruction of a new Starfleet flagship, but news didn’t always travel as swiftly as one hoped.
“Yes,” Spock said.
Ael’s mother had had a very old-fashioned clock in her sitting room, an ancient thing that ticked and was powered with weights; Ael had often wondered why she’d bothered to maintain the delicate machinery, which didn’t even keep very precise time compared to electronic clocks. But as she stood in the silent room, looking at Spock, Ael began to think she might understand; the old-fashioned clock had, at least, made noise.
“I would take thy burden,” Ael said, finally. It was archaic phrasing to match his, older than her mother’s clock had been, but at least she didn’t need to think about it.
Spock nodded. He drew the box from the purse that hung from his belt and offered it formally, in both hands with his head bent. She did not quite manage to take it without hesitating.
The simple magnetic latch yielded soundlessly. She turned to open the box under the light of the lamp. The stone inside was not the opaque, striated green of bloodstone, but deep red and slightly translucent. Terran blood is red, she thought, staring at it.
The name was carved twice, once in the spindly Standard characters she could read only slowly and once in a good Rihannsu approximation. She ran a thumb over the rough surface.
“Doctor McCoy is the administrator of his estate,” Spock said, after a few moments. “He found the stone among his effects with the instruction that it was to be delivered to you.”
“How did he know?” Ael asked. She would not have thought heartstones to be common knowledge in the Federation, ancient custom that they were.
“We care about things other than your secrets,” said Spock, his tone wry for the first time. Arrhae had told them, then. Well enough. “Doctor McCoy would have found a way to send it, but I thought—I thought that this was news that should come in the mouth of a friend.” His face twisted, barely perceptible. “It seemed logical.”
“I think that this is not the time for logic,” Ael said. “But I thank you.” If nothing else, he had spared her seeing the news in a prècis of Federation intelligence; individuals were small, at such a distance, but the death of an old ally, and older enemy, would have been noted. “I believe the phrase is, I grieve with thee.” She didn’t know the Vulcan words, but the meaning was what mattered.
Spock’s eyes were hooded and his shoulders minutely slumped. “That is what one says when one does not directly share the loss. You do not need to say it.”
Ael shrugged agreement. Her thumb rubbed back and forth over the carvings, restless. “Spock,” she said, hesitant. He raised his head. “I don’t know...I have…” She stopped and gathered her thoughts, which was difficult, but she had practice. “It’s been a long time, but I remember...him. You may remember too, if you wish.”
The yearning that flared in his eyes was nearly frightening, and the more so because he took a step toward her as if he had not realized he meant to. But he halted, his face settling into a stony immobility that Ael recognized, having felt it from the inside more times than she cared to remember: reveal nothing, lest you reveal everything. “Ael, I dare not,” Spock said, colorless as glass. “My controls are—weak. It is extremely likely that I would harm you.”
It did not do, Ael thought, to brush aside a magician’s cautions about his own magic; he knew it better than you did. So she did not offer again, because it seemed likely that he would be unable to refuse. Instead she closed the lid of the box, set it on the table that held the lamp, and stepped forward, closing the distance between them. Spock watched her in puzzlement that turned to wariness by the time she stopped, standing too close to him. Slowly, giving him time to draw away if he chose, she took his hand. No Rihanha could have mistaken her meaning, and she thought it quite unlikely that a Vulcan would be able to either.
For several breaths they stood as if they were both carved from stone.
“Ael,” he said again. There was warning in it.
“Oh come now,” she said wryly. “Do you think me fragile? It’s not as if you were fevered.” He blinked at her in surprise and Ael remembered that Vulcans had some odd taboo against mentioning llaiir’rhien. She plowed on. “Even if you were, I am not yet so old as that.”
Spock stood motionless for a moment more, and then his hand curved around her wrist. As he bent to her, Ael thought absently that she should have considered a bit more closely how this was going to work. Never mind. Liha was taller.
They stepped into the corridor together, Ael’s hand in her robe’s pocket clutching the box. Arrhae sat in a chair rather farther down than Ael would have expected under normal circumstances—it had not occurred to her until it was far too late to take thought for her poor servant, instructed to wait within call. Come to that, Ael was certain she looked, well, as if she’d been doing exactly what she had in fact been doing. Spock, by contrast, was as perfectly groomed as he had been when he arrived, through some Vulcan magic rather more prosaic than the mind-meld. He also, she thought, looked a little eased, and she was glad of it, though how long the improvement would last was uncertain.
“Will you guest here a few days?” she asked. “You might need to leave and return in a less...inconspicuous manner.”
For the first time, Spock’s face assumed the hint of amusement she remembered. “I thank you for the invitation, your Majesty, but I have responsibilities. Entering Rihannsu space inconspicuously, as you say, took more time than I had anticipated. I must return with all due haste.”
“Well enough,” she replied. “We can at least help speed you on your way. Arrhae!”
Arrhae rose and came down the hall. She was wearing what Ael had come to think of as her hru’hfe face, which communicated nothing except abstract willingness to serve—though to Ael’s well-practiced eye, the mask was not as perfect as it might have been. “Madam?” Arrhae asked.
“Give the Ambassador whatever assistance he may require in returning to his ship—wake t’Hwersuil if there’s need. Then attend me.” It was, at least, beginning to be late enough that the Guard Captain would not curse her name for being roused from her couch. “Ambassador...I cannot thank you for your burden, but I thank you for the bearing.” At the ritual phrase, Arrhae’s breath hissed in, just loud enough to hear.
“Your Majesty, it was my honor,” Spock replied, and bowed to her again. Ael returned the gesture, rather deeper than she would have in a public setting. As she rose he made to turn away.
“Spock,” she said. He paused. “Let yourself mourn him.”
After a moment, he nodded.
Arrhae looked up from having been elaborately busy with her handcomp and said, “Ambassador, if you will follow me?” They started down the hall. Ael went in the other direction, slowly at first, but she found her steps quickening; by the time she reached her room she was nearly running, and a good thing it was, too, as she’d barely closed the door behind her before the first tears spilled over.
By the time Arrhae returned from dispatching Spock on his long journey home, Ael had washed her face and begun to try to do something useful with her hair. She thought once again that it might be less bother to simply cut it; so many people wore the short helmet cut these days. It would make adventures like these easier, she thought as she worked the comb through a tiny, persistent knot. But then, how often does one get the chance? Arrhae crossed the room and stood next to her chair.
“Llei'hmnë,” Arrhae said hesitantly. Ael cocked an eyebrow up at her and the younger woman smiled. “Ael.” She held out her hand for the comb, which Ael passed over willingly, and nodded at the closed box that sat on the dressing-table. “It was Admiral Kirk, then?”
“Yes,” Ael said, as Arrhae gathered together her hair. It was more gray than black, these days. “Foolish of me, I suppose—I have not seen the man in...Elements, has it been twenty years?”
“Hate has a reason for everything, but love is unreasonable,” Arrhae quoted.
Ael gazed into the mirror, holding her own eyes. “Shall we call it love, then? I hated him for a long time; I endured him when he agreed to help me in my need; I came to like him for his own merits. I should not like to have it said that I loved the man for his role in setting me in this high place.” It was not impossible that they could have won without him, without the Enterprise; the great ships had been decisive in their own right. But it would have been a far more chancy thing.
Arrhae shrugged. “He knew your fourth name. That will do for love.”
Ael sighed. “I cannot very well go into public mourning.”
“I think you might wear grey for him, at least for a few days,” Arrhae said.
“That will have to be enough,” Ael replied.
Three days later, her morning briefing read James Kirk of the Federation killed in deep space accident.