Edit May 2010: FFN decided to eat all the scene dividers so I'm having to go back and add them all in again. I'm also removing the review responses. NOTHING ELSE HAS BEEN ALTERED; if you've read this story before, you don't need to read it again (although you're more than welcome to).
This is it, folks, the epilogue at last. I was going to update yesterday, but I went to see Harry Potter instead. Sorry!
"You're right," Alanna said faintly when he was done. "I think that does beat the story of the Dominion Jewel."
"I told you so."
"You're not going to stop saying that any time soon, are you?"
"Of course I'm not. If you think it's annoying now, wait until I see Jon again. You both owe me for making me come back here and I intend to milk it for all it's worth."
She sighed. "I'd like to argue with you, but I suppose you're right. It was a mistake. How much of this did you know in advance?"
"Nothing. I knew Ozorne would try and kill me, which is why I prepared the simulacrum – I wish you could have seen it, it was probably the best work I've ever done – but everything else was a lovely surprise. Believe me, I would have told you if I'd known any of this was coming. And there would have been no way I'd have got on the ship."
"I'd like to talk to Lindhall later, but that can wait. The Graveyard Hag, huh?" She looked at the sleeping Daine. "Poor girl. The Mother Goddess was more than enough for me; somehow I don't think the Hag was as friendly."
"Actually, I think in a strange way she quite liked Daine," Numair mused, smiling. "It's a strange feeling, watching your friend argue with a goddess."
"I'll bet." Alanna looked at him. "Are you all right?" she asked softly. "I can understand why Lindhall seemed so worried about you. I've never seen you like that before either."
"I don't really know. I suppose I won't know until more time has passed. But I do feel a lot more like myself again now," he assured her. "I think I'm all right. It's been a strange and frightening few days, but it's over now, and we'll be going home soon."
"And Daine tore down half the palace to avenge you," Alanna mused. "What would you have done if she'd been killed?"
"I don't know," he replied honestly. "A lot more than that. I'd like to think I could have restrained myself, but I think her death would have sent me over the edge. I suspect I would have destroyed half the continent before the gods managed to stop me."
"You really do care for her, don't you."
"Don't you start. Lindhall's been giving me meaningful looks for days. Of course I care for her; she's my closest friend, the main part of my life. I've got no family worth speaking of, and of all my friends she understands me the best. More than even you do. So of course I care; but that's all it is."
"Hmm," she replied sceptically. "If you say so."
"I do," he said firmly, before smiling ruefully. "In any case, I think I should stay away from women – all women – for a while," he added, rubbing his cheek.
"I did notice your bruise. What happened?"
"I'd like to claim it was an honourable war wound, but sadly no. Let's just say that Varice was extremely unhappy to learn what happened." He grinned sheepishly as Alanna started to laugh. "I never realised she could hit that hard," he added, flushing slightly as he joined in her laughter.
"You do know how to pick 'em, don't you. I take it she won't be joining us?"
"Hm? Oh, no. Truthfully, it didn't occur to me to ask," he admitted. "She's happy here."
"There's no future for the two of you?"
"There never was," he replied, somewhat puzzled by the sudden interest. "I'm not blind, Alanna, and I do know what she's like. I know far too many strong heroic women; if I ever do someday settle down, it won't be with anyone like Varice. You, Thayet, Onua, Daine and Buri have made sure of that."
"So I see."
"Stop that." He shook his head. "Honestly, woman. I've just told you a wonderful tale full of gods, necromancy, battles, death and the fall of an emperor, and all you can focus on is my love life or lack thereof." He grinned in sudden mischief. "You are such a girl." Trapped by Kitten's weight in his lap, he couldn't duck out of range as she smacked him. Putting the dragon down, he scrambled up. "Wait until I tell George."
"Oh, shut up. Have you slept at all recently? You're only ever this silly when you're tired."
"Nonsense. I'm this silly all the time. Ask Daine when she wakes up."
"I've slept. Lindhall's been acting like a mother hen on your behalf. Really, I'm fine," he assured her, more seriously now. "A few nightmares, that's all, and I've been having those for months. I'll be fine once we're home."
"All right. You'd better go get some rest; Jon wants you to contact him by fire and tell him the whole story later. Are you going to be part of the negotiations this time?"
Numair smiled. "I don't think that's a good idea. I don't want to do any more damage. It's going to be fine; Kaddar wants peace as much as we do. You don't need me and I'd probably do more harm than good. I think I worry him."
"I can't imagine why," Alanna said sarcastically, shaking her head and smiling at him as she stood. "So what are you going to do with yourself?"
He shrugged. "Get some rest and then report to my king. Daine should be awake tomorrow, the next day at the latest. Truthfully, I just want to go home."
In the end Numair found himself dragged into the negotiations against his will; Alanna had decided he needed something to do to occupy himself, since clearly he could not be trusted alone. The situation was somewhat ludicrous; many of Kaddar's staff had been at his execution, and spent the entire time giving him wide-eyed looks. More than a few made the Sign against evil when he walked past, but he was used to that. Even in Tortall there were some who reacted the same way.
Four days after the fight was over, Daine finally woke up. Much to his annoyance, Numair wasn't there, and in fact didn't get to see her until that evening, being kept busy right up until the new treaty was signed. While everyone else was celebrating, he tapped at her half-open door and looked in. "Hello, magelet. Awake at last?"
Daine was sitting on the bed with Kitten and Zek. Looking up, she smiled to see him. "Hello. Yes, just about. Aren't you supposed to be with the others?"
He made a face, leaning against the doorframe. "Probably, but for some reason Kaddar and his ministers don't seem very keen on my company. Apparently faking your own death doesn't encourage making friends. Why, do you want to get rid of me already? That must be a record."
She grinned at him. "Serve you right if I did."
Numair felt his smile fade. "I know. I'm sorry. I really did think I'd told you. I would never have let you go through that if I'd realised." He had wondered briefly if the Hag had interfered again, to make sure that Daine had the incentive to go through with it at the end, but something told him that this particular piece of stupidity was all his own.
"It's all right. You had a lot else to think about. Besides, I'm used to you," she added dryly. "You're forgetful enough when you're not panicking." He smiled sheepishly at her.
"How are you feeling, anyway?"
"Relieved that it's over," she answered honestly, then shrugged and smiled. "I feel fine. I'm not really tired any more, and I wasn't hurt. You?"
"More or less the same. The treaty's just been signed, anyway, so hopefully we can start for home soon."
"That's the best news I've heard in months."
By the time the Tortallan party was ready to leave, their numbers had increased dramatically. True to form, Daine had managed to cause chaos, persuading Kaddar to free a number of slaves; the Banjiku, their animals, and the emperor's mutes. Numair had been vaguely gratified to learn that he still remembered their sign language, since he'd been called to interpret; not all of them had wanted to leave. Lord Martin was still in a state of apoplectic rage over all the trouble that had been caused; Numair was watching him now, dreaming wistfully of 'accidentally' knocking the old noble overboard once they left the harbour. Kaddar had come to see them off – to make quite sure that they were gone, Numair suspected – and was talking to Daine nearby.
"When's the coronation?" Daine asked. Numair felt a claw press lightly against his leg and bent to pick Kitten up, letting the dragon look over the rail, pretending that he wasn't listening.
"Full moon. I wish you could be there."
"I don't," Numair told the dragon quietly; apparently not quietly enough, as Daine kicked him – fortunately far more gently than on previous occasions. As far as he could judge, Kitten looked amused; he scowled at the dragon.
"You'll write?" Kaddar asked Daine as he turned to leave. "You promise?"
"I'll write," she agreed, turning to look towards the palace as the new emperor reached the dock once more. "Your Imperial Majesty? Kaddar!" she called down to him, walking to the rail and standing beside Numair.
The emperor looked up. "Yes?"
"About the palace? I wouldn't rebuild over there, if I were you. You're going to have a dreadful problem with pests, and no dogs or cats will stay in it." She sounded suspiciously innocent; Numair frowned, scanning the shore and noticing that there seemed to be an unusually large number of rats in view.
"Pests?" Kaddar repeated, looking puzzled. The captain raised his voice and called the order to cast off; Numair shifted Kitten to the crook of one arm and lifted a hand in farewell as Daine waved. The ship shuddered beneath them and began to move, running swiftly before the morning breeze as it began to rain once more.
"Where do the rats come into it?" he murmured softly, lifting his eyes to the ruined towers of the palace and watching it recede as they crossed the harbour. Daine smiled.
"The power to wake the dinosaurs came from them; it would've killed me to raise 'em all by myself. In exchange, I got the cats and dogs to promise not to hunt in the palace or on the grounds for a year."
Numair laughed softly, crouching to put Kitten down before standing once more, both hands resting lightly on the rail as he watched Carthak being left behind. "I see. Poor Kaddar. Between the palace, the treasury, the records, the slaves and what you did to the Army of the North, you've cost him a ridiculous amount of money. It's going to take years for this place to recover from our visit."
She blushed as he grinned at her. "It was partly your fault, you know."
"I'm sure that's an enormous comfort to the new emperor and his ministers," Numair replied dryly. "Besides, I'm not sure they'd dare to try and arrest me again."
She giggled. "Well, it doesn't seem to work very well." Turning, she looked up at him as the ship passed the harbour mouth and the wind freshened. "How does it feel to be leaving again?"
"Well, it's an improvement over the last time I left," he replied flippantly. Shrugging, he smiled down at her. "If you're asking whether I'll miss anything... no, I won't. I was never really happy here. I wasn't actively miserable, most of the time, but it was never home, not the way Tortall is. The only person I ever missed was Lindhall, and he's going to be joining us in a few weeks when he's organised his things."
"He is?" she asked, delighted. Numair grinned.
"Yes. Be warned, if you're still in the palace when he arrives he'll corner you and you won't get away for weeks. He's worse than I am."
"I don't believe that for a second," she retorted, and he laughed. His reply was cut off by Alanna, walking past them both and heading for the rail a little way along, her mouth clenched so tightly shut that her lips were white; catching Daine's eye, Numair grinned wryly, knowing that he'd be joining her sooner or later. They left the Lioness to her sea-sickness in peace, wandering across the deck to the far side.
"What about you?" he asked lightly. "Going to miss anything? Or anyone?"
"Shut up, Numair," she told him warningly. "Besides, what about Varice, hm?"
He made a face at her. "Fine, I'll behave. It was a serious question though, more or less."
She turned and looked back towards Carthak once more, then shook her head. "No. Like I told Alanna, I don't like the person I've been here. I'm happy it's over." Hesitating, she looked at him. "What will everyone at home say?"
"Nothing worth listening to," he replied, leaning on the rail. "There will be a lot of rumours, there's no way to avoid it, but nobody who knows the truth of what happened here will say anything, and your friends won't let it get out of hand. You know that."
"I know. I just... I don't like folk treating me like I'm something to be afraid of."
"Welcome to my life," he answered distantly, and she touched his arm in apology.
"I'm sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Numair shook his head and smiled down at her. "Don't worry about it. I'm used to it. And you won't be the only one who sparks rumours this time; at least you weren't executed. And I was acting somewhat aggressively while I tried to find out what had happened to you," he added with a sheepish smile, before turning serious and reaching for her hand.
"Daine, listen to me. You've done nothing to be ashamed of. Now, or ever. Ask Alanna; nobody can argue with what the gods decide. You had no choice, and you coped admirably. It could have been a lot worse. Yes, it was terrible, and I can only imagine how frightening it must have been, but it's over now. You couldn't have done more. I'm proud of you, and so are all your friends. Your magic will lead you down strange paths, as mine does, but you don't have to face any of it alone."
Looking up at him, she wiped rain from her face, and they both quietly pretended that it was just rain. She'd been through so much recently that she was entitled to cry if she wanted to. After a moment she smiled, a little shakily, and he squeezed her fingers before letting go.
"Come on, magelet. Let's find the others. We're on our way home."
You all know by now that I can't resist a fluffy ending! Numair's not quite as clueless as he seems – he sort of knows what some of his friends are thinking, he just doesn't realise they're right. And I know Daine's reaction is extremely mild, but remember, she's somewhat in shock as well right now – she's been through a lot recently. She needs her best friend more than she needs to be angry. As well, she knows how distracted Numair can get, and she has an idea of what it cost him to come back to Carthak. I assure you that once all the shock wears off, once they're both home and recovering, she makes him pay quite heavily for being such an idiot – but you're not going to see that story for a very long time yet. We've another book to get through first.
And so we reach the end of Emperor Mage. Next update will be a new story as we begin Realms of the Gods, so make sure you have me on author alert if you want to read it as soon as it shows up. I'm well aware of how much you've all been looking forward to it! (Psst. Don't forget to vote for Teacher and Power in the Knighthood of Ficship contest, please? Details at the bottom of Chapter 7.)
I'd just like to end by thanking you all once again for staying with me. Writing this series has been one of the best experiences of my life, because of the reception it's had from all of you. For the final book I'd like to see more reviews from those who added me to alerts and favourites but didn't say just what it was they liked about my work. Most of my reviewers have been with me right from the start, and that's absolutely wonderful. You're all utterly insane, and I adore you all. Thank you.