He’d cried when he’d heard about Aro.
He wasn’t ashamed of it. When he’d reached the hospitalis in search of a healer for Zardria, and the news had been broken to him none too gently, he’d let the tears flow unimpeded down his face.
Aro had been as a brother to Caelum, the more so because Caelum’s family had fostered the other man’s sister.
No matter what the truth about the attack, he felt guilty. As if he could have prevented it.
I should have been there.
Never mind that he’d have to have been psychic to reach the hospitalis in time to save Aro’s life. Never mind that even Anala, Admiral of Athering, hadn’t made it in time, her well honed battle sense telling her something was wrong. It still felt like his fault.
He felt more alone than ever. Zardria was still bedridden, unconscious. Alive, but Goddesses knew when she’d wake again.
The only person he could talk to was Helene, when the older healer came to check on the Empress. Ghia hadn’t been around when he’d run for help, and Helene had been the only healer willing to come up.
The woman was thinner than he remembered, and she walked with a cane now, but her eyes were still bright and sharp, and she still spoke with wisdom. She’d seen Caelum was crying as she’d walked up, and she’d patted him on the shoulder – elbow, rather, for she was much shorter than he – in a kindly fashion.
“There, there, son,” she’d said, walking beside the Consort. “Aro’s spirit is with Bellona now, dining in the Last Hall – you can be sure of that.”
Caelum dried his tears with difficulty. “I know. I just wish…oh, this is selfish, but I wish he hadn’t hated me so before…I wish we could have been friends to the end.”
“He didn’t hate you,” Helene said, the mild surprise in her voice not matching the surprise he felt. “We talked, many times after his reassignment to the hospitalis. He missed you, but said he didn’t begrudge you your new life. He understood better than Anala that you only followed orders.” The older woman smiled at him.
Caelum smiled back wanly. “I wasn’t ordered to love her,” he said, and felt a shock of recognition as he said it. He did. He loved Zardria.
Helene only chuckled. “Oh, not by the Empress, no,” she said. “But can you say for sure what the Moirae have ordained for your life?”
Caelum didn’t have an answer for her.
They got to the Spire, and Caelum somehow managed to convince the stubborn woman to take the Elevator while he took the stairs, sprinting up them as fast as he’d run down. When he reached the Empress’ suite, huffing and puffing despite his good health, Helene was already at Zardria’s side, checking her over.
“She’s Goddess-touched, this one,” the healer muttered, and Caelum wasn’t quite sure he heard her right.
“I’m sorry?” he asked.
“Goddess-touched,” Helene said a bit louder, and then pointed to a spot on Zardria’s neck, behind her ear. “You never noticed this before?”
Caelum looked at the skin discolouration that formed a strange shape: Ω. “I just thought it was a birthmark,” he said, a chill running down his spine as he remembered the last place he’d seen that shape.
Helene shook her head briskly. “It’s not. I would know. I delivered her myself. No, Consort – that’s the mark of the Goddess Umbra,” she said, confirming his fears.
He swallowed nervously. “What does it mean?”
Helene shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not a priestess.”
The healer and Consort stayed silent for a while. Caelum stared at Zardria’s face, which was relaxed and made her look younger. Innocent.
What are you hiding from me, Zee?
Eventually the healer turned from the Empress and addressed Caelum directly again. “Give her fluids, if you can get her to take any. Keep her hydrated. There’s no lasting damage, so far as I can tell, so Goddesses willing, she’ll wake up. But as I said – I’m no priestess.”
Caelum rose to shake Helene’s hand gratefully. “Thank you, Healer. Do you think Umbra did this?”
Helene shrugged. “Maybe. Could just be late onset of the Zarqon family sickness.” At his look, she patted his arm again. “You didn’t know? Royal family has a disease that crops up dominant every few generations. Zora’s mother had it. Could be Zardria got it too, but usually it shows up earlier than thirty. I don’t honestly know, Caelum – just keep her hydrated. Last thing Athering needs now is for her to die.”
Caelum stood, thinking; when he turned to speak again, Helene was already at the door.
“Helene. You don’t hate her,” he said, bewildered.
“No, son. I don’t. She’s a damn sight better than Zanny.” The healer ducked through the door, leaving Caelum feeling…well, not good. Better than he had.
Helene came in to check on Zardria every day, but there was no change. Caelum knew. He’d barely left his lover’s side, getting all food brought up and only making short trips to the privy.
When he returned from one of those trips he saw her eyes were open.
“Zee,” he breathed, falling to her side and taking her hand in his.
She groaned and rubbed her face with her other hand. “What have I missed?” she asked.
He laughed. “Ever the dutiful leader,” he teased gently, and she glared at him. “Nothing much. We’re still under siege.”
“Mmmm.” Her eyes closed again, and Caelum tried to keep her engaged in the world around her. Don’t you slip away from me again.
“Do you remember what happened?” he asked.
Her eyes opened again. “Not really. I remember talking to you, and then everything faded.”
He breathed an inward sigh of relief. Maybe the mark of Umbra on her skin was just coincidence. Maybe it really was the family sickness. “You had a seizure,” he said out loud. “Helene thinks you may have a late onset of the Zarqon family sickness.” It wasn’t the total truth, but it was close enough.
Her brows knitted together as she thought about that. “Mayhap,” she said.
“Is there anything you need right now?” he asked, eager to make her feel better.
“Some willowbark tea would be lovely. I have a terrible headache.” She smiled up at him in that way that made his heart melt.
He kissed her hand and rose. “Right away, love,” he said, and headed to the door.