A Taste of Eternity
By: Amber Michelle
This concludes the little series started by "Every Wasted Moment" ...more or less. I don't think there's anything else I can do with it. Actually, I'm surprised it went this far.
Mountains and water paved the way between Lehran's villa in Goldoa and the plains of Begnion, where he once lived with a queen in a city they built together beneath Ashera's guiding tower. His wings grew tired at short intervals when he finally determined to see Altina again. They didn't want to carry him, or he didn't want the trip to seem so easy when he'd avoided it so long - for the danger, the distance, or so he'd always claimed. Appearing at her window would have destroyed the lie they wove to explain his disappearance; a retainer would see his wings and know the truth, that he lived, and the parentage of the girl who summoned him to Begnion would be brought into question. Such revelations had the power to destroy kingdoms.
He rested among high peaks the first night, where snow stuck between the rocks and swift, cold wind made descent from the clouds perilous. His wings protected him from the chill. Second were the young trees far south of Serenes, growing where only grass had waved the last time he passed over the region. Smaller, gentler mountains welcomed him many leagues above Sienne on the third night, where pegusi gathered and bred in the sparse, rocky forest. He found the river, and the knot of trees, where he'd first met Altina, on an evening when the setting sun cast rainbows through the rain. Tears clung to her cheeks like jewels and her hair was plastered to her head, dark as dusk, tangled; muddy, yellow petals caught among the knots where she'd run afoul of a kerria bush she couldn't see. Lehran remembered it like yesterday.
Altina is dying. A new memory ate at the ragged edges of his mind: three words, a pair of golden eyes in a strange face, and a pit in his stomach nothing would fill. Wasn't this too early? He looked up at the stars every night and tried to pinpoint how much they'd drifted.
Only-- it was only thirty years, wasn't it? Perhaps forty. Among the lower classes beorc were lucky to see half a century, but Altina was a queen, and her healers were as skilled as it was possible to be with only ten or twenty years of study - he'd seen to that before he left. No wars had been reported to him; no rebellions, though he'd estimated at the outset that at least one territory was likely to chafe under her rule within the first hundred years. But if it wasn't that, what could it possibly be?
My mother is dying, the messenger had said, standing in his wild garden on the slopes of Goldoa's eastern range, and she looked so much like Altina he could only stare and feel his throat seize, a bunch of yellow kerria blossoms clenched in his hand and held to his chest. She asked for Lehran - but I was led to believe he died before I was born. Sarai's eyes raked over him, lingering on his wings, the flowers crushed in his hand, and all he could say was something to the effect that rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated, and what on earth would the queen of Begnion want with him? He was only a shadow of the past. I cannot say, Sarai answered, and her lips were turned downward, her brows knitted. Her hair drifted on the mountain wind like a violet banner. Her long white coat drifted and flapped. Will you return with me?
This was another trick. If Altina herself could not convince him, why not this child?
Lehran refused, and she turned, leaving without another word.
She would never understand. He couldn't bear to fly beside her and stay quiet. How old was she? Had she married yet? Did she have any children - and what were their names, their ages? Did they favor magic, as Altina said Sarai would so long ago, or had they taken after their grandmother and inherited the twin swords? The words piled one upon the other, clustered in his throat, choked him, until Lehran thought he would be sick simply watching her descend to flat ground, where she called her pegasus and took to the sky again. Her image had blurred white against the clear sky.
She had wings after all. He thought he might have been happy for her, if he could only breathe.
Dheginsea would have counseled against going, and Lehran waited three days and four sleepless nights before he finally spread his wings and left. There were times Altina spoke in images of sands and hourglasses when referring to their time together, and Lehran kept telling her that time counted by an hourglass was never precise, and always too fast, for the slightest of commotions could jar the grains into diminishing more quickly. You are stronger than that, he said, his hand cupping her cheek, her dark hair sliding over his fingertips. Why court despair, even with metaphors?
They had time - plenty of it, as long as they savored each moment. Again and again, he told her.
Each minute, each hour, trickled down Lehran's spine like grains of sand, dragging him down. It seemed he would never reach the capitol. But when he finally did, fate blessed him with a moonless night to glide over the walls of Begnion's capitol. The streets were lit with lanterns and made a dull white map he followed to the Mainal Cathedral, though he knew the way - could have flown it in his sleep, even, had new towers not sprung up in the open spaces he remembered being around the compound. Candlelight shined behind the windows. His maples breathed and whispered in the garden, their voices almost audible but too distant to be called words. Lehran flew to the east minaret and landed on the dark stone floor that used to be his private space, sneezed when his wings brought dust from the floor and sent dead leaves skittering. There was no lock on the door; he felt his way down the narrow staircase with his wings forced close around his shoulders, one sleeve lifted to cover his nose and mouth just in case.
Mainal was just as he remembered. The marble floors were still polished and reflective, the windows still brightly stained glass, filtering starlight in faded shades of red and yellow. He whispered a spell to hide his wings, pulled the hood of his black cloak over his head, and walked up the dark staircase.
Incense left the air smelling sweet and tasting bitter, the tang of oil and pitch from the torches beneath it. The rugs were still red and gold, perhaps a bit faded; the tapestry depicting the birth of the goddess was still hanging opposite the first landing; the marble sculpture of dolphins leaping from the sea still marked the entrance to the private corridor they used to bypass the public places on the second and third floors, where Altina, or Lehran himself, could not pass through without being interrupted. His ears made out voices in the great hallways, and as he neared the room he remembered as his own, the one he shared with her many years ago, there were low murmurs, and one of them was Sarai. Instead of leaving the corridor and knocking on the door, he remained in the shadows and waited. The hall was quiet, the voices inside hushed, so he had time; if Altina had died, there would be a commotion.
She'd finally gotten him to return. If Lehran had known she would go so far as dying--
That froze the air in his lungs. The effort of keeping silent while he gasped for breath, drawing each in quietly, slowly, until his chest burned, left him shaking. Seconds crawled by, then minutes, trying is much-celebrated patience. Once voice left - a cleric, her golden staff of healing propped upon her shoulder - and then another, a guard, in the uniform of a pegasus knight, leading a small girl away by the hand. Her hair glinted purple.
Then Sarai departed, and the whispers fell silent. Lehran waited until he couldn't hear her walking anymore, and the air hung silent and dusty between the brass lamps when he left the shadows to turn the knob. The click of the latch was so loud it sent a thrill of terror into his belly, but inside the noise was quieter, dampened by the rugs, curtains, and tapestries. He crossed the room, ignored the herbs and tools on the table, the scent of camphor - it made him sick, that scent, the way it curled in his mouth and made him taste blood and hear screams, screams that should have heralded the greatest joy in his world, and instead brought upon him the worst of curses.
The double doors to her chamber stood open, but the gossamer curtains on her bed were drawn. A lamp glowed somewhere beyond the doors, and a chair creaked. Lehran heard Altina breathing a familiar rhythm. She was still awake. Her breath hitched, her voice came, a whisper - his legs trembled at the sound, and he watched someone lean to the bedside from the doorway-- someone who stopped, glanced his way, and went ramrod straight. "Who's there?"
Lehran wanted to turn around and run, but that would only insure his capture; then all of his vows would be broken - those he made to Dheginsea, in addition to the oaths given to his wife, who did not truly belong to Lehran anymore. He cast his hood back and walked into the light. Altina's guardian made to stand, but a thin, paper-white hand grasped her sleeve and pulled her down.
His eyes followed the spidery blue veins in her wrist up to a sleeve, from there to a shoulder, a throat carved with creases and thin, loose skin, to a face unrecognizable-- but no, her eyes were the same. Still gold, still round, and the shape of her chin - the strong thrust of her nose, her high cheekbones, the hair still long, but white. Which line creased her face first? Was it the one in the middle of her forehead, or the wrinkles around her mouth, or the crows' feet at the corners of her eyes--? He should know this, he should have been here to watch them appear and smooth them away with his hands--
Altina's lips shaped his name, and her voice was the same - weaker, deeper, but the tone rang in his ears, a true chord vibrating in every cell of his body.
Lehran's knees gave way; his impact with the floor jarred his teeth, made his head ache. He tried to speak, and nothing came out - not the smallest sound, not even her name. Not my queen, not my beloved. The pressure behind his eyes increased. Her strong brows dipped just a little - still so strong, so bold - and her lips curved in understanding, marking her face more deeply and showing in her wrinkles every wasted moment, every pain and joy discarded, all the things he loved and left.
He reached out, grasped her hand-- but it was too late.