151 ~ Caelum

0259 hours

It was the sound of her pacing that woke him. Rolling over, he saw Zardria was walking the length of their bed, in her robe, anger on her face. The water clock said it was thirty to three-hundred hours.

“What’s wrong, Zee?” he asked with a yawn, his voice scratchy with sleep. The nickname was a new one. He’d called her that accidentally, and when she’d not maimed or killed him – indeed, even smiled a little bit – it had stuck.

Her face softened a micro-fraction when she looked at him, and she stopped pacing long enough to tell him about the attack and the siege.

Soon he was alert and up, jumping around to get dressed. “Why didn’t you wake me? I could have helped!” he said, pulling on a pair of pants hurriedly, before tugging them off again when he realised they were hers. Her only pair – she never wore pants in sight of anyone but him. They didn’t fit him half so well.

She raised her eyebrows at his display. “With what?”

He put his hands on his hips and glared at her, wishing he wasn’t naked. Would have been a more impressive picture. Maybe. “I am a trained military officer, if you’ll remember.”

The rage hadn’t left her face in all this time, but it didn’t bother him. He knew it wasn’t directed at him. “Sure. Go help people who are no longer your friends. See how long you last.” He sighed, knowing she was right, and found a pair of his own pants – ones he used for lounging. “Besides, it’s over with now. Castle’s secured, thanks to the admiral. Remind me to give her a medal in the morning,” she added almost absentmindedly, moving to the window to gaze upon her city. “Now we just have the siege to deal with,” she sighed.

He regarded her from his seat on the footstool. The rage had left her face. Lines carved deeply into her skin, making her look very tired and far older than her thirty years. Her hands leaned on the window sill, her shoulders hunched over, and she looked smaller than her six-foot-six height. For the first time since he’d been chosen as Consort, he saw Zardria…vulnerable.

“I don’t know what to do, Caelum,” she whispered, and he could feel how much it had cost her to say. He rose from his seat and went to her, wrapping his arms around her hourglass figure.

“Whatever happens, Zee, we’ll get through it – together,” he murmured into her hair, which was unbound and wild. “Okay?”

She nodded and turned in his arms till she faced him. Her hand reached up and brushed away a loose tendril of his hair – it was getting longer, for he’d not cut it in over a month. It was only in private that she dared to show him these tendernesses. “What would I do without you?”

He smiled down at her. “Probably get more work done,” he said, with a pointed look at the bed. She smiled and shook her head at him, not responding. He took the opportunity to kiss her gently, and murmured against her lips: “For now, let’s crawl back under the covers, though. Alright, Highness?”

She gave a huff of laughter but didn’t pull back. “You truly do have a one-way mind,” she said, then stopped abruptly.

He frowned and regarded her – her face was blank, her eyes unfocused. “Zee?” she didn’t respond, and a second later her body went rigid in his arms. “Zee,” he said, truly worried now. She started to shake convulsively, her eyes going from their natural gray to black and then back again. He held her, barely knowing what to do, and then her body gave one last shake and went limp, her head lolling back, eyes closed. A trickle of blood leaked from her nose down past her lips and over the curve of her chin.

Hastily his hand went to support her head, pulling it upright even as she slid down, her body trying to obey gravity now that she was unconscious. “Zee, wake up,” he said, his heart beating wildly against its cage of ribs. He held her upright with little difficulty, for she was light, and tried to wake her up. Her chest rose and fell with gentle, shallow breaths, and he breathed a sigh of relief that she was not dead.

But he could not wake her up.

He scooped up her legs and went to place her on the bed, arranging her head on the pillows carefully. He wiped the blood from her face gently and kissed her, trying to get any sort of response.

None came.

“Okay, Zee, just wait right here. I’ll be back with a healer. Soon. I promise,” he whispered, not even knowing if she could hear him, and ran to the stairs, which he flew down with a speed that was dangerous. He didn’t trust the guards to get the right healer. Zardria desperately needed Ghia’s skills now.

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