Stephan emerges from the bedchamber, face pale and haggard. Parisa could trace a dozen lines that had not creased his forehead half a year ago. Her stomach clenches at the visible demonstration of his grief; a hand ghosting across her skin is a stark reminder she has no such claim, and she bites at her lip from expressing anything other than vague concern.
“She’s asking for you,” he says, voice a rough scrape against his throat. It’s not difficult to figure out why. Ava’s health began a steady decline six months before and fear has become a constant companion in the interim, along with the tang of salt coloring the air.
Two days ago, Doctor Taylor came once again with his bag of clanking metal instruments and left with apologies and the smell of death clinging to him like a limpet. It lingers around Ava’s chambers, the earthy sweet of rotting fruit with notes of copper and ash, growing more intense as the clock chimes the hour. Parisa finds it surprising the odor has yet to reach the threshold of human scent. She can nearly see it by now.
“You know why.”
He levels a sharp stare at her, full of so much knowing that guilt tears at her heart. She pulls away, but a quick inhale leaves her choking on the aroma thickening the air. Before she quite realizes what is happening, Stephan’s hand rubs light circles into her back and the other squeezes her shoulder. It doesn’t take her too long to regain control of her human facilities, but Stephan doesn’t move. “If there is anything you can do, Parisa, now is the time to do it.”
“I do not know to what you are referring.” She tries to extract herself from his grip, but it grows incrementally tighter, enough to keep her grounded.
“No matter what you and my wife seem to believe, I am no fool.”
“I have never said such a thing.”
“You have never needed to. Only someone who believes me a fool could think I did not know what you two have been hiding from me these years.” His hands slide to the spot where her wings would protrude from her back, should she choose to pull them from the Aether in that moment. “My parents always told me the Fae walk among us, but I never believed them.”
Her breath hitches. That secret then. “Maybe you should have.”
“Then there has to be something you can do! Isn’t that your job?”
“I would think the Fae have better things to do than impose themselves in the affairs of humans.”
Again his fingers curl into her bodice, enough to almost sting. Had it been any other, she might find herself reaching for the wand secreted into the folds of her dress, but after nearly two decades hurling herself on his hospitality, Parisa knows Stephan will never be strong enough to hurt her.
“I am begging. If I thought it would help, I would be on my knees before you, kissing at your feet. If there is anything, godly or ungodly, you can do to save her, I would pay you a thousand times over. She is the love of my life and there is nothing I can do for her but plead with you to spare her life.”
She tenses beneath his fingers. “If I could, do you not think I would have by now? Do you believe I have not tried everything in power to try to make her well again? Unicorn hair, herbs that would break the good doctor’s imagination, the most desperate of hopes and my very blood. Nothing helps. She knows I cannot save her.”
Her voice drops to the barest whisper, so as not to disturb the woman dying a room over. “If you think you are the only one to have loved her with all your soul, you really are the fool I thought you to be.”
They don’t look at each other as she pulls away, any understanding they might gain lost in the pang of shame vibrating between them. She pushes into the bedchamber, leaving him staring after her. His eyes burn into her back like twin suns as she shuts the door behind her.
The bedchamber—death chamber, really—is a smudgy gray, as though the room was painted in ash. The only light in the room streams through a crack in the heavy black curtains affixed over the windows after Ava became confined to her bed. The drapery around the bed similarly shrouds its occupant until she looks like little more than a lump in the shadow.
“Do you think you could get those curtains, my dear? They make everything dreadfully gloomy.”
The added light doesn’t do much to help that condition. Ava is little more than skin clinging to a skeleton, her once full, dark hair sparse and stringy. Her eyes retain a dull, fevered glow and when she attempts to beckon Parisa closer, her hand raises but an inch before falling back to the sheets.
“Milady, are you alright?” she asks, kneeling by the side of the bed.
“Do we have any need to continue with such follies, my darling? In a few hours, if that, only the gods will be left to judge me.” She rests her hands atop Parisa’s. “If only I had realized they are the only judgement of consequence decades ago.”
She squeezes Ava’s fingers, trying to ignore the fact she only felt the dull protrusion of bones. “Hush. Your life has been full of love and beauty.”
“It could have been the same with you, Risa. Do not pretend otherwise.”
“You have a beautiful daughter and a husband who…loves you with every facet of his soul. I could not have given you such things.”
Ava attempts what seems a rueful chuckle, but it devolves into a hacking cough that has blood dribbling down her chin. “There are other things to give. For instance, you have wasted decades of your life helping me run my estate, waiting for me to realize my foolishness.”
“You are never foolish. Never. In any case, I had the decades to spare.” She’s trying to keep the tears out of her voice, but they choke her nonetheless. “If given the choice alongside the knowledge of how it ends, I would do it again without hesitation. Do not doubt that for a moment.”
“I do not. In fact, I have so much faith in you, I must ask you of one more great favor.”
“Anything,” she whispers, ghosting her breath across razor-sharp knuckles.
“The one thing I cannot bring myself to regret. Elena.”
Thought of the little girl, not even ten, dark-haired with a proud jut to her chin, twists Parisa’s heart. “What of her? Would you like me to fetch her for you?”
“No.” A ringing finality, as if she made her choice a long time ago. “I have no desire for her to see her mother in this state.” She coughs, and with it comes a little more blood. “We said our goodbyes yesterday. I want you to protect her. Help her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Stephan, gods help him, is not a strong man. That may have been a reason why I married him; to this day, I am unsure. But in his grief, I do not trust him not to make a mistake that will put our daughter at risk. There are women in this world keen to take advantage of a widower in his position.”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
Her voice gains the most strength it has in months and for a moment, Parisa can see the old Ava, the healthy Ava, shine though the haze of death. “Protect her. Ensure she is happy. Do whatever you have to.” She seizes Parisa’s hand this hand, this time with a grip that seems like it might break her. “I do not want her spirit to die alongside mine.”
“Of course…except, Stephan knows.”
“Everything. That I am of the Fae…that I love you. He has just discovered and he will not soon forget. I am not sure if he will let me near enough to offer my aid to Elena, should she need it.”
Ava squeezes harder, if at all possible, “Then I shall order him otherwise, if that is what it takes. Who is he to deny his wife on her deathbed?”
The conviction in her face for that moment has Parisa half-believing she will succeed. But, she has lived centuries longer than the woman before her. She knows intimately the things man will do when faced with that which he does not understand. The ends a man fooled or scorned will reach in an attempt to soothe his injured masculinity know few bounds.
She says nothing of this. Instead, Parisa takes to her feet and leans over Ava. “I promise I will do everything in my power, both on this plane and in the others, to keep Elena safe.” Brushing lips over her forehead, Parisa burns the image of Ava’s small, serene smile into her mind.
“Thank you,” the woman croaks. “For everything.”
“For you, my love, I would do anything.”
She leaves the room without looking back. As the door clicks shut on Ava for the last time, she blusters past Stephan and his questions, up to where Elena sits by the window, singing quietly. Gathering the child into her arms, they hold each other until the scent of death finally leaves their home.