Salina is dying, moment by moment, her body slowly slipping into quiescence, no matter how Desch shakes her awake at increasingly frequent intervals, forces precious water and sips of weak broth down her throat despite her weak protests that he needed it more, should eat. She tries to stay awake, for his sake, tries not to drift off against his shoulder as violent aftershocks tear the land open anew, but she knows the truth in her bones that he will not face and smiles behind her cloak's hood for him, just so he will not lose hope. He has nothing else save her and hope, now that the world has ended, and she would not take it away from him before there is no other choice, before she has something left to give him in her place.
(once, just once, she wakes before him, to a sky choked by stone, and watches him sleep, fitfully, and rests her hands over his, twines her blue crystal fingers in his. Both their hands are small, he is barely taller than she, but she can feel the strength in them, even with his fingers lax in sleep.
Please, she prays to the Mothercrystal, silent and as steady as she had once believed bedrock to be, please. Please, when I am gone, please let him keep moving forward. Please let him live for himself.)
She has always been the least of the Allagan princesses, a fragile hothouse flower from the moment she was born, her life bound to the Tower to save it. Too unimportant for the technologists to open her up on the genetic level, to unbreak what was broken, but too important to simply let die. An experiment all on her own, Amon had laughed, to see whether this was even possible, to see what would happen. (and now the little flower is eternal). A fragile girl with a crystallizing heart, who had almost never left her garden: no Doga or Unei, brave and clever and bold, whose control over the tower was effortless, who knew what they wanted and how to go about it and could travel as they will. Who were trying, trying so hard to find, to make, some kind of safeguard against the rot, the madness, at the heart of the empire.
But Doga and Unei, beloved and brave, had not survived the Calamity. Nor had any of the rest of her family: buried with the Crystal Tower, buried and gone. Only she remained - weak, ill, dying- , and only because Desch had taken her out of her garden the morning of the Calamity. Taken her to see different flowers, rare flowers, even though she should have been in the Tower, too, but she'd wanted to see him smile. So they'd snuck out, and then the whole world had come apart, in an instant-
Their survival had only been due to chance, but without the tower's light, she is dying, slowly but surely. Her hands tremble, when Desch isn't looking, another symptom of how her body is breaking down: soon, she will not be able to hide it anymore, even with her hands buried in the thick folds of her cloak. How long after that will she last, before everything fades into silence and light? Her life, ultimately, has come to very little: she does not want her death to be the same. (But what can she do, one girl with no value?) Doga and Unei would have thought of something they could have done already, surely. But she is no Doga, no Unei, and she is painfully, keenly aware of her lack, of her inadequacies, of her limitations.
(another night, she starts coughing up blood and buries her face in her cloak to muffle the sound. black hides the stains well enough.
soon enough she will not be able to hide it anymore.)
Soon enough is too soon, as it turns out, especially with the pain in Desch's eyes as he watches her cough up blood. That there is nothing, nothing, nothing he can do for her. They read stories together, when they were small children, a sickly princess and a frightened boy who would never go home, so many stories, but the one she remembers most is the boy from the sea who fell in love and died and turned to seafoam because love was not enough to save him. It's something she knows intimately, that love sometimes isn't enough to save you, and hates the fact that Desch has to learn this way, has to understand, because while he knows, he still hoped, at least when it came to her.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.
There are so many things that Salina is sorry for, and if she starts apologizing, she will never stop. She is sorry that she is a burden and sorry that Desch has to watch her die, slow and lingering, and sorry that she does not know what to do to make her lingering death into something of value, rather than come to as little as her life and sorry that she did nothing, nothing at all, to stop this. (she is not the only one, but she is the only one left alive).
She could have stopped this, couldn't she? Over the course of her life, she'd done very little with the Tower outside of her garden (her bower, her cage), the least of the Allagan princesses who had the blood in full measure but no purpose. The one thing that binding her to the Tower had given her, besides life and crystal crawling slowly up her skin, sinking into her body, was control over it that theoretically outstripped that of any of her relatives. Not in any practical way, of course - otherwise someone would have forced her to weaponize it (and her mind recoils at the possibilities at how they could have, that someone could have, would have, tortured Desch to make her sing) but the potential was there, in her songs, in her emotions, to bend the Tower to accomplish miracles no one else could.
If she'd been there, at the end, maybe, maybe, maybe, she could have wrested control, thrown the Tower between worlds with a song-
(her heart knows the truth that her mind will not face - that her songs would not work without the emotion to back them. that if she did not feel strongly enough, that it did not matter how many songs she sang, that the Tower would never have responded to her.
but it is easier to blame herself, than accept the harder truth-)
Salina finally understands what she has to do, one night. They've stopped for their few hours of rest in what was once yet another garden, one of the many planted across the empire's lands to nourish its people both body and soul long before her time, when the empire still cared to look inward at the people already cradled within its lands rather than outward at what had escaped their grasp. Desch insists on keeping her even closer - as if he realizes, down deep, what he refuses to acknowledge with his words or with his tongue and cradles her close with her head in his lap. She's mostly drifted off, despite the bone-deep pain, and the ever-present shaking, and the cold, when she hears voices. More refugees, then, who sought refuge here like them, with no other choices and nowhere else to go - and she can feel Desch's tension, even mostly asleep as she is.
"Your girl?" a voice asks, after some time has passed, raspy and worn. A old woman, she guesses, and she feels rather than sees Desch nod, in the brief motion of his body, just before he pulls her hood even further over her face. Trying to hide the telltale red eyes and the blue streak of crystal across her face - even if most people would not have heard of Salina, the least among the Allagan princesses, the red eyes would certainly give her away as Allagan royalty. She'd had nothing to do with causing the Calamity except her inaction, but easy enough to blame all their misfortunes on her regardless, and she does not want more trouble for Desch than she already causes him. "...her breathing sounds wrong." the woman says, quietly, after a moment. "Like there's something in her lungs."
"She's...ill." Desch says, carefully.
"...ah." the old woman sighs. "It's spreading."
The earthquakes at the end of the world had killed many, quickly, but still more die to the slower deaths that follow in their wake. Hunger and cold and disease.
"Once, I was a healer." the woman continues, quiet. "Though there is little enough I can do for your girl, now. The last of my medicines ran out, some time ago."
For a moment, there is silence. Desch's hand is tight - too tight- on her arm for a moment, before he forces his grip to slacken.
"Is there any advice you can give me?" he asks, his voice low and desperate. "Any at all?"
"...treasure her, for what time you have left." their fellow refugee says, and the pained little sob Desch makes hurts more than just the physical pain. Salina would have done almost anything to spare him this. "There's nowhere you can even take her. You might as well just stay here."
Desch says something, even quieter, a murmuring of words that she cannot quite make out. Salina is so very, very tired, and needs to rest. Sleep, for now, but soon. too soon.
. "Ah, I wish I could give you better news, boy." the woman says, sighing. "...I am old enough to remember when the Tower was a beacon of hope, rather than despair, and then now nothing at all. But hope is in short supply."
The conversation goes on, quiet, unhappy, but Salina cannot make out the words as the tide of sleep rises up to claim her.
A beacon of hope, Salina thinks, vaguely, as she opens her eyes to the stone-choked dawn. The idea of the Crystal Tower as a beacon of hope instead of despair, cradling and protecting instead of being used to destroy and conquer, is a beautiful one - and perhaps the way it should have been, instead of the nightmare it became. A beautiful dream, but how to accomplish such a thing? Her lifetime, of course, is useless as a measure, measured as it is in only days, but this task is beyond Desch's lifespan as well. And his children, and their children, and their children's as well, at least. The Tower lies buried and dormant far beneath the earth - but someday it will emerge back into the light again.
And someday, someone will figure out how to open it and release whatever still remains inside. Someone needs to be there to close it or control the Tower, rather than leaving it up to the vagaries of chance - but only someone who bears royal blood can control the Tower. And that is where she finds herself stuck: her family is all dead, and she is the last that remains. The last that bears the blood of the Tower, the last that could control it, if it wasn't buried thousands of malms underground. But her life is measured in only days, at best, no matter how Desch fights to keep her alive - and her bloodline will die with her. Even if she could live long enough, she cannot bear children, bound as she is to the Tower.
She knows how to pass her blood to another, of course she does, but this, too, is where she is stuck. There were machines to do it, of course, complicated technological procedures for the aetheric transfusion, steps she can recite from rote, childhood lessons, but she doesn't have access to any of those. Not now, not after the end of the world, this Calamity, all buried or broken, too fragile to endure the shattering of the earth. After a moment, she draws her knees up to her chest, her crystal bones protesting at the motion, and simply listens. Listens past the earth, the cracking, the sounds of shattering stone and a slow dying. Salina's heart is connected to the heart of the Tower, beat by beat, (until it stops) and she listens for its silence. Even in dormancy, even buried so far underground, she can hear it, silent and silent and silent, and she closes her eyes and sings a single questioning, crystalline note, reaching for its heart, trying to make it beat, even if only for a moment.
A sudden wave of pain and weakness washes over her - too much, too much, too much- and Salina almost falls in on herself. She could not do this were she not what she was, if her heart and her life were not connected to the very heart of the Crystal Tower, but she knows the price. She knows the price, one that she already is paying, and she smiles through iron blood: all she'd had to offer all along were her songs, even before the Calamity, songs that could stir the Tower to miracles even her relatives could not force it to accomplish. They hadn't wanted those songs - too uncontrolled, too dependent on her emotions, impossible miracles mean nothing if they cannot be replicated - before, but now she is dying, and impossible miracles are all she has to ensure her legacy will go on. She knows what she has to do, but knowing what she has to do and accepting the inescapable fact of her death does not mean that she is not afraid. She is willing to die (and yet unwilling), has accepted that she will, but is still afraid. (Selfish, isn't it, when so many have already died?)
Salina closes her eyes for a short time, does not wake Desch, who is asleep, for once, instead of fitfully dozing. Lets him have what little comfort he can, selfishly lets herself rest in the circle of his arms, with his red tail wound around her waist. They could never have done this, pre-Calamity, with their roles as princess and guard ground into them, not lovers and never lovers until the earth broke and the sky fell in, but even this space, this moment, is fleeting. There's so many things she's sorry for, so many regrets that she will take with her, of all the things she could have and should have and did not do, but in this moment, she thinks of regret and love and the lingering hope that someday, somehow, he will let her go.
(there is nothing she can give Desch now save her love, however little that is worth, and another purpose. give him her love and her blood and her memories but not her, never her, alive in his arms. please keep moving forward. please live for yourself, now.
maybe the last is an impossible wish, too, as impossible as living with him, of growing old, of building a new world, a new life, cradled in the ruins of the old.
but maybe, just maybe, him living would be enough-)
"Desch?" she calls for him, at last, her voice bone-tired and fraying.
"I'm here," he says, and her heart aches.
"I need you to do something for me," she continues. "It's important."
"Of course," he says, without hesitation, his devotion bone-deep. "Anything. Ask of me anything."
"Anything?" she murmurs, tiredly. He will not like what she asks of him, and -
"Anything." he confirms, blue-green eyes narrowing. "...is something wrong?"
"...I want to transfer my blood to you." she says, quietly, and he freezes, immediately. "The Tower might be buried and gone for now, but someday, it will come back into the light."
"...how? Why?" Desch asks, and his left ear twitches sharply.
"It's the only way, Desch." she says, soft and tired and resigned. "You are the only one I would entrust with this. You and your descendants."
Desch is already shaking his head desperately, eyes firmly closed.
"Please," she murmurs, and rests her trembling hand against the deceptively delicate line of his jaw, cradles his face in her fingers, the crystal intensely blue against his pale skin. Watches his ears flatten and his tail droop and hates what she is doing to him but sees no other way. "Please."
After a moment, his face falls, as a keening sob tears its way free of his throat.
"If I could stay with you, I would." she says. There are so many things that she yearns for and will never have, cannot ever have. But she is thankful, at least, to have had Desch for these years, almost her entire life as far back as she could remember, and she is thankful that he is with her now, even though it's selfish. "And I am sorry that I cannot."
He buries his head in her shoulder with a broken little sob, warm arms wrapped tightly around her, and Salina lets him cry for both of them and holds him close. Lets him cry for as long as he needs to, lets him tremble in her arms. Her tears, when she still could cry, were crystal, not water, and she has been unable to weep since even before the sky fell in.
"What do you need me to do?" he finally asks, his voice hoarse with tears, blue-green eyes red-rimmed.
"Be here with me." she says, simply. "Carry my wish into the future. Pass our legacy down to your descendants."
Desch closes his eyes, tightly, and another broken, choked sob tears itself free, his deceptively slight frame trembling. "As you wish," he says, at last, and twines his fingers with hers. "Make me the vessel for your hope."
Salina does not know what to say, for a moment. Thank you or I love you or any other words that come immediately to mind seem almost cheap, could never capture the intensity of what she feels. Thank you for saving me, twice. "I have only ever sung for you," she says, finally, because that is the truth, the truest thing she could have said. She has only, rarely, sung, despite - because - of the power in her songs, in her voice, and what few songs she crafted were for him. She would have sung down the Tower itself, if she must, could have thrown herself and it between worlds to save him.
Instead, she begins to sing, reaching out to the silent, dormant heart of the Crystal Tower for one last time, and ignores the pain and weakness that washes over her. Sings with only her own voice, frail and weak, but her own voice and her own heart are all that she needs. Sings more than a single crystalline note, offers it her voice and her determination and her love and her life to make the Tower's heart beat, one last time, puts everything she feels and hopes into her melody, gives over everything she has and everything she is and everything she feels and everything she possibly has to give. Her love and her wish and her desire that someday, someday, someday-
Desch's hand is warm and soft on her face, sword-callused fingers resting on her cheek with an infinity of gentleness. His arms are steady around her, even as she can feel that he's crying again, and she can see the blue-green of his eyes begin to bleed red. She thinks he's saying something through his sobs, but she cannot hear him, only see his lips moving, but even that is lost as her vision goes, too, and last of all, touch, as everything fades to silence and light.
(she dies with a song on her lips and a song in her heart and the hope that someday, someday, someday-)