Your emperor is dying.
Your emperor is dying, and so you drape garlands of lavender and moonlight across the windowsills, spit the mulched flesh of a nara fruit gently into his bruised-blue-waiting lips. Smooth a wet cloth over his forehead as he tosses beside you in bed, pale as the ice of the Seething Sea.
Your emperor is dying, and so, when the strange woman knocks at the door with a bag full of bones and a mouth full of promises, you offer her a lock of your hair and pledge to her as many years as it takes.
You embark the next morning, in the blue hour before sunrise. She glides down the palace’s glossy, dew-cold slope, leaving no footprints, and you stumble after, pushing away the echo-becoming-memory of your emperor’s farewell.
Kla’raan, he gasped, his back arched across pillowed eiderdown. Beloved. Don’t go.
But the woman has promised you her deepest secrets—the ways of death, and its mastery—and you have no choice but to pay the price.
You kill for her. In a war of five clans and no victors, you slit throats until rivers run black with blood, raze cities with nothing but your blades and a scattering of metacarpals. You grow strong and fast and diamond-hard, and when they whisper about you, it is in the shadows between lanterns, lest the flames overhear and carry to you their secrets.
He is still alive, the woman tells you, every moon or so, in the quiet dark. Barely. You lie awake in your laurel bed and do not weep.
An age passes before she lets you go. In that time, you slice off your braid, take on five new swords and a bandolier of bones. Rune scars pulse, jagged and pale, at the edges of your temples—to bind power, and to commemorate comrades too soon fallen. Against the blinding shear of noonday sun, you cut a figure that has caused full battalions to cower and flee.
Yet, as you raise your hand to the palace’s polished teakwood door—the gold knocker pummeled by a thousand winter winds since you touched it last—your chest squeezes, a dread you haven’t felt since your first kill.
Still alive, the woman whispered, but how much did you truly believe? How much of your faith was a lie you told yourself, to give your heart the strength to keep beating?
What if, despite the power that now thrums through your fingers, you are still too late?
You knock. The door opens.
The old hall stretches before you, rose tiles familiar as dreaming, and your feet carry you, light as light itself, past the marble statues and up the spiral stairs. His bedroom door—the one he pressed your back against, the one you gouged with your belt buckle by accident that one time—stands ajar.
The smell of lavender blows through you like an ache.
Your Radiance, you say, the title strange on your tongue.
Who’s there? At his voice—composed, alive—your pulse quickens.
But when you step inside, your shadow across the threshold a ghost framed in sunlight, something is wrong.
The emperor is propped against the headboard, spots of color strained high in his milk-pale cheeks. But his gaze is fixed straight ahead, as if he has not seen you; when you speak his true name, the one only you have ever called him, he does not respond.
You fall to your knees at his side—not caring that, while you were living, you never dared approach without permission. When you grasp his hands in yours, they pass through like water.
Rage fills your mouth, so hot and fast you cannot breathe.
You can still save him, the woman told you, and of course you would have paid, of course you would have marched to your death with your head held high, but she has lied, and you have burned yourself down at the wrong altar, and now all you are to your emperor is gone.
You howl, and no one hears. You scream with every fiber of your rotten, contemptible being. You curse the gods and the old woman and yourself, and when a sob escapes you for the first time in an age, you no longer have it in you to feel shame.
And yet. In time, even rage burns to ash. You are acquainted with death, now—it passed over you, and you felt nothing but a brief darkness, like cloud-shadow. Presently, you rise to your feet, seat yourself on the upholstered chair in the corner of his room—the one you draped his robes over, all those years ago—and wait.
It is not so long, now that you are with him. Servants pass in and out, grinding nara fruit in stone bowls, patting his brow with damp cloths. A small child is brought, and he places his hand on them, his eyes vacant. You prop your feet on the gilded armrest and watch the hollows deepen in his face.
Soon enough, night falls.
The stars are fierce, the moon singing. A rattle edges his breath, and you kneel again by his side, sensing a season change.
Kla’raan, you whisper, though he cannot hear, and press a hand to his fevered forehead. You speak of war: all the bodies you have broken in his name, the nations you have torn apart. You tell him, weeping, that even if he passes on to the next world without you—if you are trapped here for your crimes; if, from this night onward, the memory of him is all you will ever have—even then, you will remain at his bedside, as you should have so long ago.
Kla’raan, my beloved.
It’s all right. Let go.
Finally, your emperor shudders, as if a draft has blown through the window. His body stills; his eyes close as if he has fallen asleep, or seen a great light.
Then, with a gasp, he falls into your arms.
P.H. Low is a Locus- and Rhysling-nominated Malaysian American writer and poet with work published in Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Fantasy Magazine, among others. P.H. attended Viable Paradise in 2019, participated in Pitch Wars 2021, and can be found on Twitter and Instagram @_lowpH and on the web at ph-low.com.