Maia had barely stepped out of bed, ushered from the warmth of his covers to the warmth of his robe by Nemer’s deftly helpful hands, when Csevet entered his room with very little ceremony. This was highly unusual, given Csevet’s normal levels of formality. Maia was startled into stillness, unaccountably flustered at the intrusion.
And, of course, Csevet didn’t usually look grey. Pale, certainly. Flushed, occasionally. But never pasty and grey.
“Csevet,” he said blankly, brows rising. The man’s ears were flat and low, distressed.
The sound of his voice seemed to jolt Csevet into motion. With as little grace as Maia had ever seen, his secretary knelt and prostrated himself in front of him. “Serenity,” Csevet said.
Maia pretended he didn’t see Cala ghost forward into a better position to defend; unusual behavior could be suspect, but this was Csevet, and Csevet was incorruptible. He stepped forward, urging Csevet to rise. Beshelar made an aborted movement to pull him back, but stopped before his hand touched Maia.
Maia noticed how very rarely Beshelar touched him. Some days it amused him; more often, it disturbed.
He discarded the thought as Csevet rose with as little elegance as he’d knelt. “Serenity,” he repeated, “my apologies for this unreasonably early hour.” His voice began to flow into its regular, easy cadences, but stayed slow and muted. His ears did not so much as twitch at the glare Nemer was levering his way. “But this simply cannot wait.”
Maia nodded. He had not thought otherwise. “Please, Csevet. What has happened?”
“Serenity.” Csevet swallowed, and Maia realized suddenly that the man’s collar was askew. “The bridge. Something dreadful has happened to it.”
Blood drained from his face; he could see himself look ashen in the nearby mirror. “Tell me,” he demanded, foreboding coiling in his stomach. The Wisdom Bridge was over halfway finished; within months the two sides would meet for the first time, officially spanning the Istandaärtha. It would take much longer to complete, but it would not only show that he had been correct all along, but that he was a capable emperor with plans to further the empire. The opulent celebrations were already being planned, Maia knew from Csevet’s occasional updates.
“Some person or persons crashed an airship into the bridge,” Csevet said flatly. For a moment, Maia wondered at Csevet’s unemotional tones, so at odds with his disheveled appearance. He suddenly realized that the man was trying to remain detached from the feelings the news brought forth. “There has been massive damage. According to the hurried report, there is significant structural damage as well as loss of life among the workers.”
Maia thought for a moment that he had taken the news well, that he had himself completely under control. Then he swayed on his feet, feeling as though he had just been beaten. The feeling was almost foreign, half-forgotten with the time and distance since Setheris had last had his way. Or suppressed, at least.
Suddenly hands were under his elbows, supporting him, guiding him into the chair in which he always sat as edocharei did his hair. Maia blinked, his blurred vision clearing slowly.
“Serenity. Serenity!” The voices were distant, but then hands grasped his shoulders and his own large-knuckled digits were enveloped in warmth. “Maia!”
His name brought him completely back. Maia found himself peering into Csevet’s upturned face, his secretary kneeling in front of him with pale hands enveloping his grey ones. His white face was pinched with concern, and Maia felt a pang that he had so worried Csevet.
“Serenity, are you well? Do we need to call the physician?” Beshelar was to his left and behind where he sat in the low-backed dressing chair; it was his large hand on that shoulder, Maia found as he peered back. That would make the slightly smaller hand on his right Cala’s.
Maia breathed once, and then again, deeply, finding a rhythm quickly from the many times he had practiced meditation in the past couple of years. “I – we are fine,” he said, making his voice firm as he fixed his words into proper form. “No need to call anyone else.” He met Csevet’s eyes again, glad his skin would not show his flush. He squeezed those pale hands gently. “But thank you all.” He wanted, very much, to slip into the informal, here in the privacy of his quarters, but already Beshelar was withdrawing, and the disapproval would be hard to bear when he felt this fragile. “We are grateful for the concern and are sorry we concerned you. The news has shocked us greatly.”
Csevet flushed, his skin making it all too visible, and pulled away, slowly regaining his feet though his head remained bowed.
Another breath or five, and Maia found the questions that needed asking. “We need the details. Who else knows, Csevet? Tell us everything while we prepare for the day.”
But it obviously had not gone out of some others. And that had cost so many lives. Too many lives. Already Maia mourned; Edrehasivar VII mourned, black bands already adorning his otherwise pristinely white clothing.
Let them criticize, if they dared.
Plans were made, debated, voted upon. There was even more vociferous dissention than usual as things were still so uncertain. They did not break for lunch so much as they had food fit for fingers brought in, but the plates and platters merely littered the tables, competing with papers for space upon its surface.
Maia couldn’t remember if he ate anything or not. He did not particularly care as he faced down the Corazhas on whether or not Maia would go there himself to assess the damage. He felt a great need to do so – so see it himself, to show the people he cared. To comfort the people. His thought processes were jumbled, but he knew he desired to do this.
Especially to mourn for the dead. More dead, and it was all his fault. It was his bridge, when it came down to it. He had pushed for it and he had made it into a reality. If not for that, these people would all still be alive.
Guilt settled on his shoulders in a now-familiar mantle.
Dinner came and went; dishes appeared and disappeared. Maia nursed his tea, keeping his mouth moist so he could debate. Messengers and messages came and were sent, information gleaned and questions asked. A headache beat dully in his skull, and his guts continued to twist as the number of casualties reported was raised again and again.
Finally, as guilt mixed with anger and became righteous rage, Edrehasivar VII stood and his hands slammed against the table. It was so unprecedented that the Corazhas stuttered into shocked silence. He felt a brief stab of twisted satisfaction, for even this long into their acquaintance the council did not expect forcefulness from this hob-goblin.
“That is enough,” he said, his voice firm and unrelenting. His ears flicked emphatically with his statements. “This council is wise and the plans we make together are good, but you do not rule us. We shall go to the Wisdom Bridge and see to the damage ourselves.” And, still amid the shocked silence, he stalked out of the room. He knew he would never be called graceful, but he felt that perhaps this once dignity trailed behind him, riding on the long mourning bands on his arms.
For a moment, Maia forgot even his nohecharei, who had somehow managed to keep up despite the shock. Beshelar was barely ahead of him, pushing the door open in front of him only a second before Maia reached it. Cala was behind him. Somewhere farther back, he heard Csevet’s voice rise amidst the growing tide of protest.
Though he felt guilty for abandoning his secretary, he kept on moving quickly. He would brook no more protest. His course was decided.
“Serenity.” Cala’s voice was calm but somewhat hesitant, the only sound other than their feet upon the floor as Maia headed toward the Alcethmeret. From the windows he could see it was full dark, the moon already risen. He could not tell the hour, only that it was much later than he had realized.
It was only as he passed Beshelar before the gates that it occurred to him how odd it was to have these two still with him. He had been gone long enough that by rights Kiru and Telimezh should be at his side, with his firsts about to come back on shift. He had, after long familiarity, internalized their schedules.
He waited until they were just past the gates before turning on them abruptly. They barely stopped in time to keep from running him over. “Why are you still on duty?” he demanded.
“Serenity,” they chorused. Cala took up the explanation, his face and voice both calm. “Kiru and Telimezh are preparing for us all to leave with you, in the event that we cannot convince you to send someone in your stead.”
Maia’s eyes narrowed. There was more, he knew. Though all of his nohecharei were protective of him, never neglecting a moment of their duty, these two were his first. He could see in the set of Beshelar’s jaw that they would not leave him alone easily, especially not after this morning. Cala’s face was more placid but no less determined. “There will not be anyone else sent in our place,” he said stiffly.
They ducked their heads with a murmured, “Serenity.” Maia turned to continue on to his rooms, ignoring the way the room seemed to tilt for a brief moment. He knew that they would not give in that easily.
The night passed restlessly. Upon Csevet’s return, he’d ordered the man to make arrangements for the journey as well as to summon Mer Celehar from wherever he was at this moment. He would have the best man for his personal Witness for the Dead.
Now he lay, staring at the top of the bed as he failed to sleep. Kiru had already offered to sing a sleeping cantrip or send for the physician, but he had declined both things. So now there was silence in the room, broken only when he rolled over to try another position. Everything he had heard that day played through his mind, and it felt as though he feel the weight of those who had died.
Finally, as dawn barely touched the horizon, he rose again, his edocharei helping him to dress in anxious silence. Maia tried to find a reassuring smile for them, but whatever grimace he managed to produce only made Nemer frown with more worry.
Of course, the emperor going anywhere took more time and work than he expected. Maia suspected that no one was working particularly fast, still trying to talk him out of going. So another day spun by him, full of meetings, planning, and updates. Even luncheon was shortened and still full of work. Csevet ate with one hand absently as he wrote a letter; Maia himself nibbled in a desultory manner. At least Beshelar and Cala were finally taking the time to rest.
The day lasted and lasted. He could not avoid the dinner with the court today, but it was an even more awkward, stilted affair than ever. He kept his ears marginally up only with great effort. His courters were uncomfortable and restless, uncertain of what to say. It was times like this he missed Nurevis, who always found something to say, no matter the situation.
Finally he returned to the Alcethmeret, too exhausted even to sleep, but at least accompanied by his first nohecharei again, fresh from their sleep shift. Dark circles had started to smudge the smooth skin under Csevet’s eyes as well, for his secretary was still hard at work leaning over his desk. His entrance did not merit a glance, so Maia closed the distance between them and rested his fingers lightly on the other man’s shoulder. “Have you eaten yet?” Maia inquired gently.
Csevet jumped slightly and started to apologize profusely. Maia waved away those words and repeated his soft question. Csevet flushed faintly and shook his head after a moment of thought. “I have not,” he said.
“Eat, then get some rest. Tomorrow will be another long day,” Maia said. When Csevet’s mouth opened to protest, Maia shook his head slightly. “If it must be an order, we will so order it,” he teased tiredly.
“Serenity,” Csevet murmured, bowing his head, the faintest of smiles crossing his face.
Maia turned and headed toward the door, amused in a faint, tired sort of way. Between one blink and the next, the floor seemed to tilt, and the next blink brought the floor to meet his face. There was a clatter and raised voices, and then hands, soft and sure, moving him. Then his eyes were opening again, and he blinked, disoriented.
Csevet’s face loomed upside down over his own, and the hum resolved itself into the sound of his name being spoken over and over, in various tones of concern, from at least three separate throats. “Maia,” Csevet said again, this time in abject relief.
“What happened?” Maia asked dumbly. At least, it felt dumb, his head thick as cotton, his tongue likewise.
“You fainted, Serenity,” Beshelar informed him in what felt like a most disapproving voice. A glance showed both of his nohecharei crouching in front of him. “We are sending for a physician.”
“No, don’t,” Maia protested weakly. He swallowed and firmed his voice before repeating the order. “We are fine. Only tired.” He pushed himself up, and the room swooped slightly again. He found himself sagging weakly back into Csevet’s chest, the other man’s arms wrapping around him in a steadying fashion.
A cool hand pressed against his forehead. Maia’s eyes slipped closed for a moment, knowing it was Cala, remembering briefly his dear mother. “You have not eaten or slept, have you, Serenity,” Cala stated in his dry manner. It was just enough to make Maia feel very young and somewhat stupid, flushing under his grey-toned skin.
“Neither have you,” Maia retorted half-heartedly. He was just so tired, so grieved.
“More than you, Serenity,” Beshelar said, his deep voice almost… kind. Maia looked between them, seeing only stark and honest concern. Csevet’s arms tightened around him, and Maia found comfort in the protective embrace.
“And here you chide me, Serenity,” Csevet said quietly. He immediately flushed as he realized how far he’d dropped formality.
Maia smiled, small but genuine. He was even amused for a moment at the resigned expression upon Beshelar’s face as formality once again fell, as it was prone to do at times in private, amonst the three of them. “Thou art correct,” he said with a sigh. “Food has not been a priority today. But I must keep going, for I must leave on the morrow.” He gently pushed up from Csevet, feeling cold where he had been held moments before. Cala and Beshelar helped him to rise, hovering worriedly behind him once he was on his feet.
“Serenity, please. Please.” Before he knew it, tired Csevet, loyal Csevet, was prostrated fully before him. “Please, let us… let me go in your stead. I shall find out who was behind it, I swear to you.” The raw fervency in Csevet’s voice could not be faked. Csevet looked up at him, eyes desperate, rimmed with red. “Trust me with this, please, Serenity. Maia.”
Maia felt something in his heart clench and twist. Had anyone aside from his mother ever cared so deeply as this man? As all of these men? He wondered as he looked around at his two nohecharei. They did not speak, but their expressions all seconded Csevet’s desperate words.
“Oh, Csevet,” Maia sighed, falling to his knees again in front of the prostrate man, this time on purpose. He reached for Csevet’s hands, drew him up into a kneeling position. “I must see this through, canst thou not see? This was my doing.”
All formality had been discarded at this point, nothing but the raw emotion between them all. Friends, they were, of a sort; closer, in some ways.
“It was not thy doing.” It was Beshelar who spoke now, voice more forgiving than Maia would ever have thought it could be.
“Never thy doing,” Csevet agreed. Cala’s hand merely squeezed Maia’s shoulder. “I swear, Maia. I will not return until I have found the culprits. Thou shalt have thine answers. Thou shalt have justice for the lost.” Fingers squeezed his, warm comfort in the touch he so rarely received. Maia’s eyes closed under the onslaught of feeling the words and touches engendered.
He was tired. So very, very tired. But, he realized suddenly, he did not have to do this alone. This time it was Maia who bowed his head. “Yes. Have thy way, Csevet. I have every faith thou shall find out all.”
“I thank thee.” Gratitude completely colored Csevet’s words.
Maia’s eyes flew open as lips pressed against his hands, first one and then the other. Csevet’s eyes shone when Maia’s met them. “Thou art welcome,” Maia said softly. Before he could think, he leaned forward and pressed a warm kiss on Csevet’s brow, lingering for a long moment in gratitude and caring as he realized his burden was no longer so great.
He did not know if he imagined it or not, that Csevet trembled under his touch. That would be a thought for another time. Shakily, Maia rose, drawing Csevet up with him and mimicked Csevet, pressing a kiss to each of the man’s hands, still clutched in his own. “Thou hast all my trust, Csevet,” he said. “And thou shalt have all the protection I can provide. It shall be done.” He looked over at Beshelar and Cala, both of whom nodded in agreement. “All the protection that would be provided the emperor, while thou art gone. See to it,” he told his nohecharei.
“And thou shalt take care in my absence,” Csevet murmured, looking unaccountably flustered. “I shall send word every day. This shall be done quickly and thoroughly.”
“As efficiently as thou always art,” Maia agreed. “For I will be lost without thee.” Csevet flushed ever further and bowed low as he could without once again prostrating himself.
Then Maia left, with a final backward look at Csevet, for his bed. Tonight he would be able to sleep. “Make certain he shall be safe,” he murmured to his nohecharei as he slipped into bed. “No harm must come to him.” He could not do without that bridge. He could not do without Csevet. He could rebuild the Wisdom Bridge; he could not make a new Csevet.
They agreed quietly but firmly. Csevet would be protected, and with that thought firmly in place, Maia finally slept.