Maia looks Chavar and Shevean squarely in the eyes. “We would speak to Idra,” he says. Chavar’s eyes bulge, and Maia finds himself detached enough to be gratified by it. “If you wish to maintain this charade of abdication, we will speak to our successor.”
His words hang in the air between him and the two traitors, and for a second he thinks he might have a chance, that Idra might come in and see this injustice and denounce it. But Shevean shakes her head suddenly as if waking from a dream, and says, “no.”
Everything happens very quickly after that.
Maia finds himself stripped of his silks and jewelries, hands bound and mouth gagged. Shevean remands him to eight mercenaries that have been appointed his jailers. And then he’s being secreted out of the palace, out of Cetho, past the farms and sleepy villages that cluster around the city until the party is well into the woods north of the city. By then the men have begun to laugh and joke to each other in low tones. No one speaks to Maia, or even looks at him.
He shivers, his breath fogging his vision as he stares down the road and into the darkness. Somewhere, very far in the distance, is the monastery that will serve as his prison. In truth Maia doubts he’ll make it there. Anyone who’s taken a cursory glance at the imperial histories knows that an Emperor’s rule is only sure when his predecessor no longer lives. Shevean will give the order in couched terms that grant her plausible deniability, and tell herself it is for the sake of her son. And Maia Drazhar, once emperor, will be found dead on the road with the sunrise, victim of an unfortunate and entirely accidental bandit attack.
When the ambush happens, Maia can’t say he’s surprised.
The men, lulled into a sense of sense of security brought on by the distance from the city, have grown lax in their guard. They banter amongst themselves, discussing how they will spend their gold. They do not watch the shifting shadows of gnarled trees and grasses that rustle at the edge of the road.
But Maia does, and so he sees the two dark shapes moving in parallel to the party. A part of him wants to call out and end this pretense; make his guards fully confront this murder they’ve lent their hands to. But some small voice stills his tongue, and so he stays silent up until the shadows burst from the undergrowth on either side of the road and all hell breaks loose.
One draws a sword, the other raises his bone-white fingers up towards the sky. And then they attack: not Maia, but his guards. One moves like water, the rippled steel of his sword glinting in the moonlight as he draws it like a dancing partner through the bodies of Maia’s jailers. The other moves like air: floating through the fray, dealing death in pale washes of green and purple light.
Two against eight is poor odds as these things go, but surprise is a powerful friend and Maia can tell these men are masters in their craft, not mere footpads.
Eight and Seven go down. Six’s head snaps back and he crumples; Five lets out a choked gasp and scrabbles at his throat. And then Four and Three fall, and as Maia watches Two turns away from the twinned shadows and races away into the woods. He dares to let out a shaky breath.
And then he feels the prick of cold steel at the side of his throat. “Enough,” the last mercenary calls. “We have him.”
He sees the swordsman lower his weapon until it hangs limp at his side. He sees the maza’s eyes go wide, catching the gleam of the moon.
He feels oddly at peace in the moment. He feels as if he’s watching the tableau unfold from above, as if Ulis has called him from his body just a moment too soon. It feels peaceful. Serene.
“No,” the maza hisses, and Maia knows that voice, would know it anywhere. Cala.
Cala clenches his hand and bites out a harsh discordance of syllables, and power flows out, not seen but felt, a bolt of acrid energy burning the air into ozone in his wake.
Maia feels the knife fall away from his neck and he hears his would-be killer’s knees hit the ground behind him but he doesn’t turn, doesn’t look, because Cala is falling too, crumpling in on himself with an unearthly cry.
Maia runs to Cala’s side. The soldier- Beshelar- is cursing next to him, sheathing his sword and asking urgently about his injuries, but Maia can’t answer, can’t do anything but cradle Cala’s head to his chest. Cala is utterly still, his skin moon pale and cold like wintered marble. Maia runs his hands over Cala’s wrists, questing for a pulse that blessedly he finds. He cannot think of what he would do, had it been missing. He hopes he never finds out. “What ails him?” he finally asks, staring at the imperceptible rise and fall of Cala’s breast.
Above him, Beshelar sighs. “A maz incurs a debt each time it’s cast. He has spent more than he had to spare.”
“But he will heal?”
Beshelar’s face is unreadable in the dark. “In time.”
In time, what does that mean? An hour, a day, a week from now? The knowledge that he is the cause of this sits bitter in his stomach. “We are sorry that he should be hurt for our sake.”
Even without turning, he can feel Beshelar tense behind him. “It is our duty, and Cala’s as well. One we gladly bear.”
An ache kindles in Maia’s chest. Duty, nothing more. Was it simply duty that kept Beshelar from joining with the conspirators? Had he an ounce less honor, would he have delivered Maia to Shevean himself? “Were you the only two that felt compelled to come?” he says, and immediately regrets the sharpness of his words.
“We would have brought more, guards and mazas both,” Beshelar says stiffly. “But time was of the essence, and… after our counterpart’s betrayal we were not sure who could be trusted with your safety.”
Maia feels the reminder of that particular betrayal like a kick in his side. “But surely some of the guards must remain loyal?” Surely he was not so very hated that they all would toss away their vows for a chance to slit his throat. Surely. But Telimezh had.
Behind him, a sputter. “No- we did not mean- well. In truth, Serenity, the plan may have been conceived with less logic and more emotion than it deserved, and for that we must beg your forgiveness.” Beshelar clears his throat. “In any case, Serenity, we dare not tarry here. The conspirators may have sent other men. We must get off the road.”
“Our duty is to guard you. Can you carry him?”
He doesn’t have Beshelar’s strength of arms or Cala’s power. But he has the steady conviction that he will drop dead before he leaves Cala behind. “We can carry him,” he says, and if his arms shake as he eases Cala over his shoulder, Beshelar has the grace not to mention it. “We are ready,” he says.
Beshelar nods, and leads them into the dark of the woods.
The forest is old: the trees stretch up endlessly, leaving vast caverns of space carpeted with pine needles at the base of their massive trunks. Maia, used to the suffocating thicket of brambles in the western marshes, can’t help but cringe away from the shadows of the trees and the vast maws of darkness in between. These woods could swallow a man. An emperor, even.
The trek is silent save for the crunch of pine needles beneath their feet and the grating rasps of Cala’s breath. Occasionally, an owl cries in the dark boughs above.
Maia is treacherously alone with his thoughts, clamoring like monsters in the dark. Chavar and Shevean’s disgust. Telimezh’s betrayal.
And Cala, Cala, Cala.
Time stretches and compresses until he cannot tell how long they’ve walked: a minute or an hour or a year in a dream.
“A cave, serenity.”
He blinks as Beshelar’s voice breaks through the quiet of the night.
Beshelar points halfheartedly, exhaustion writ in the looseness of the gesture. Maia bites down a question of concern: Beshelar would take it as a reprimand and this is not the place to argue the point.
Instead, he peers through the darkness to inspect Beshelar’s cave, though in truth it barely merits the name. Beshelar’s eyes are sharp to have spotted it: two large rocks lean against each other and the fallen root system of a tree, with a hollow space beneath them. The effect spares a few feet of earth from the worst of the wind. It’s not a palace or a bronzed airship. But it is somewhere they can stop and set down their aching bones, and for that Maia finds he cannot be anything but grateful.
“We thank you,” he murmurs to Beshelar, and carries Cala into the hollow, setting him down in a pile of pine needles that are thankfully, blessedly, dry.
Cala’s eyes are closed. “Cala,” he whispers.
There is no response. Maia reaches out to take Cala’s hands in his- and jerks back as their skin touches. Cala’s fingers are deathly cold, and the hem of his sleeve is soaked in a frigid sweat.
“He’s freezing,” he whispers to Beshelar. “Have you a flint? We think the needles would likely burn well…”
Beshelar offers him an unhappy frown. “We dare not light a fire, Serenity.”
“We cannot simply let him freeze to death!” He is immediately shocked at the outburst. This mess is certainly not of Beshelar’s making.
“He is… precious to us too. But we would not see his sacrifice made worthless by your discovery and capture.”
He resists the urge to throw something. “Surely there must be something we can do?”
“There is a protocol for this, taught in the army,” Beshelar says at length. “It is beneath your imperial person, but-“
Maia cannot help but let out a bitter laugh at that. “Our imperial person has been subject to all manner of things tonight. We can survive another.”
Beshelar sighs. “It is not a matter of can or can’t, serenity. Rather, you should not have to.” He pauses and runs a hand through his hair. “But well enough. He needs to get out of those sweat-drenched robes; they’ll leech the heat from his body. We would do it ourselves but our first duty must be to protect you.” He turns his back to Maia and Cala, planting himself firmly at the edge of the hollow and staring out into the night. “We will stand watch.”
Maia hesitates for a moment, then gets to work removing Cala’s sweat-sodden robes. The buttons are clumsy in his fingers, and he feels awkward as he eases Cala out of the sleeves. He realizes, as he pulls the robe away, that he’s never seen Cala in anything but his blue maza’s robes before. He looks strange unclothed. Vulnerable. His pale skin is smooth beneath the dappled shadows. There are a handful of strange scars that whorl over his chest like burns- lingering marks from a mazei duel, perhaps. He knows so little of Cala’s life before he became nohecharis. Does he have a family, a sweetheart or a lover? Maia he brushes a lock of hair away from Cala’s eyes, and resolves to ask all these questions when Cala wakes. Cala shivers under his touch, and Maia pulls his hand away.
“We have removed his clothes,” he says stiffly.
“Next, press as much of his skin as you can to yours.” Beshelar says without turning around. “Take the blanket from my pack and wrap it around the both of you.”
Maia fumbles around in Beshelar’s pack for an awkward minute before he finds it spreads it over Cala’s still form. He slips under the blanket beside him and presses Cala against him so that his breast is flush with Cala’s shoulder, then reaches over him to pulls the blanket tight around them both.
He lies like that, listening to the sound of Cala’s labored breathing echo against the cave walls. After a moment he dares to lay his hand on Cala’s brow again. It still feels far too cold for comfort.
“Beshelar,” he says hesitantly. “He’s not getting any warmer…”
Beshelar keeps his eyes firmly trained on the dark sky outside, but Maia can catch his worry by the way his ears pin to the side of his head.
“The standard wisdom advises that skin to skin contact is more effective. Perhaps if you rolled your sleeves up somewhat-“
Maia is already sitting up and shedding his robes, pulling his tunic and chemise over his head and tossing them on top of the blanket. He will not have this noble man suffer because of some misplaced sense of modesty.
This is apparently enough of a breech in protocol to tear Beshelar from his watch. He spins around, his face a picture of horror. “Serenity! You cannot-“
“We can and will, Lieutenant,” Maia grits out, shooting him a baleful glare. The effect is likely not so fierce as he had hoped: he’s naked as the day he was born, shivering from the sudden chill in the air. He crosses his arms over his chest. “Besides, dearest Cala has served us so faithfully with his body, in this at least we can repay him a pittance for his loyalty. Will you begrudge us this?”
Beshelar is staring fixedly at the wall of the cave behind him, and there’s a faint blush on his cheeks. “No, Serenity.”
“Good,” he says and suddenly feels very tired. “Tell us what to do next.”
Beshelar takes a deep breath. When he finally speaks his voice is at a great remove, as if he were reading the blandest, driest bit of Corazhas legislation.
“Press the front of his body against yours. The blood flows most hotly there.”
Maia slides back under the blanket and pulls Cala against him so that their chests are flush against eachother and Cala’s head rests in the crook of his neck. “Yes?”
“The extremities of the body are most at risk of frostbite. Put your feet by his. Take his hands in yours and clasp them between your chests.”
Maia does so, taking care to wrap the blanket firmly around their to trap the heat in. “And now?”
Beshelar sighs again. “Now we wait, Serenity. A maza’s chill must heal in its own time.”
“We can do nothing else until morning. Please. You must rest as well.”
Maia can’t begin to fathom resting at a time like this, not when Cala is doing so poorly. But as he tries to think of a better plan of action the weight of the sleepless night catches up to him, and his eyelids begin to droop.
He falls asleep listening as the worrisome rasp in Cala’s breath evens out into even breathing, his skin warms against Maia’s, and the shivers fade into the normal shifts and sighs of a body at rest.
Maia wakes to predawn light, perhaps a handful of hours later. Cala’s face is so close their noses almost touch, and his breath is warm on Maia’s cheek.
“Cala,” he whispers gently, “canst thou hear me?”
Cala’s long eyelashes flutter open and he looks up at Maia blearily. “Serenity… why are you tall?”
“We’re on the ground,” Maia replies, feeling a surge of fondness and a bright unbridled joy in equal measure. Cala is well. Nothing else matters.
“Ahh,” Cala says, as if Maia has imparted some deep truth of the universe to him. “So we are.” And then, almost petulantly: “our ears are cold.”
Maia eases his hands out from underneath the blanket and reaches for Cala’s ears. The tips are cast in painful shadows: bone white where the skin stretches, and dull blue where the flesh is thicker.
He skates his hand over the lobes in light ghosting touches. “We do not wish to hurt you…”
From the entrance of the cave, Beshelar clears his throat. “You must massage the blood back into them. It may hurt him at first, as feeling comes back to the flesh. But there is no help for it.”
Maia rests his hand against Cala’s cheek, hesitating. He can’t bear the thought of bringing Cala pain.
“Wrap your fingers around the shell and rub upwards towards the tip,” Beshelar says, explaining the motion with a quick gesture. Putting aside his hesitance, Maia reaches out and clasps his fingers over Cala’s ears, stroking them up the sides of and curling them around the tips.
Cala lets out a low moan, and his hands spasm where they rest against Maia’s chest.
Maia pulls his hand away. “Cala, if it pains you we will stop-“
“Are fine, Serenity. But there is no need for you to bother with- oh.“ His breath hitches as Maia slips his thumb over the lobe of Cala’s left ear.
Cala has done so much for him; here is a kindness that he can finally give back. “We will do this thing, if you let us.”
“If you wish it,” Cala murmurs hesitantly, and so Maia goes ahead with his task.
Propriety and the strict confines of his station so often keep him silent, in this, at least, he can finally speak. He pours his care for Cala into his ministrations, his awe for Cala’s quiet strength and empathy, his kindness and his devotion.
As he tends to Cala’s ears they turn pink and then a blushed rouge as the blood returns. Cala is silent, his eyelashes fluttering against his cheeks and his breath coming in hot shudders against Maia’s collarbone. The cave no longer feels cold; either by the warmth of Cala’s body or the rigor of tending to him, Maia feels quite warm. Indeed, he can feel a blush of heat on his cheeks, and he is grateful that his skin is too dark for the others to see it.
Before long, Cala begins to squirm.
Maia pauses. “Have we hurt you?”
“No-o serenity, but…” Cala looks up at him, a blush suffusing his cheeks. His eyes are lidded, his lips glisten as he licks at them. “Serenity… this is beneath your dignity. We should move and leave you to rest.”
“Nonsense. You need rest far more than we do, and besides,” Maia says, trying for levity, “we fear there is only the one blanket.”
“Well enough,” Cala says, pulling away from Maia’s embrace and avoiding his eyes. “We will replace Deret at the watch-“
“No, you will not,” Beshelar and Maia say in tandem, and Maia leans forward to pull their bodies close once again.
There’s a hard length jutting against his hip, hot against his skin. Cala lets out a shudder at the contact; he’s biting his lip and flushing the color of pomegranate juice. “We are- this is most… forgive us, Serenity?”
Maia’s cheeks are on fire and there’s heat pooling in his stomach. “There is nothing to forgive,” he manages to croak, and if nothing else makes sense at least that does: he will not allow Cala, so kind and brave, to feel shame over something so trivial.
“No, truly, we are… we don’t know what has come over us.”
Neither of them, some part of Maia’s mind idly notes, have pulled away.
“Tis a symptom of the sickness, we are sure,” he says. “We are a hobgoblin, after all, not some great beauty,” he adds, trying for humor.
But Cala is shaking his head. “You are perfect; if you believe us in anything believe us in this-“
And Maia really can’t help but kiss him.
Cala’s lips are soft beneath his, and blessedly warm. It’s a chaste kiss- until Cala deepens it.
A horrified squawk sounds behind them. “Cala-! Art debauching the emperor,” Beshelar hisses.
“We believe we are the one debauching him, actually.” Maia feels reckless and giddy and wonderful. He wants to kiss Cala again, and again, and again.
The corner of Cala’s mouth curves in a smile. “It is a mutual effort.”
Beshelar responds with a series of noises not unlike those made by a dying bit of clockwork. “Thou canst not take him like some pretty maza in a low-city tavern!”
Cala presses a lazy kiss to the side of Maia’s mouth before Maia can ask about the pretty maza in the low city tavern. “Then tell us: how should we take him?”
Beshelar’s mouth opens, closes, and opens again. His blush is so bright that Maia can make it out quite easily even in the dark, and for a moment it seems he might combust. “How shouldst-? What thou shouldst do,” he sputters, “is realize that committing such acts half-dead in the middle of the forest is the height of foolishness, and thou shouldst know better.” And Maia feels a pang, for even giddy with the heady taste of Cala’s affection, he cringes at the idea of Beshelar once more judging him and finding him wanting.
But Cala seems unconcerned; he merely arches an eyebrow. “Thy opposition is to the circumstances, then, rather than the act?”
More sputtering. “We cannot- It is not- we…”
“We suppose you are right, though,” Cala cuts in with a wink at Maia. “Twould be best to wait until safely back at the Alcethmeret to… act on these desires, that we may give the emperor the attention and care he deserves. And you may guard him, unless you object.”
Beshelar’s blush has grown even darker, a feat Maia would not have guessed possible. “Of course we will guard him.”
Cala nods with calm satisfaction. “Of course thou wilt. And then I will, and thou may take thy turn with him.” And with that Cala kisses him again: chastely but with promise, and Maia shivers, but this time not from the cold.