Written for Yuletide 2015. Many, many thanks to NightsMistress and shadow_lover for help in bridging plot holes the width of the Istandaärtha. Any remaining issues are entirely the fault of the author.


Csevet awoke in darkness and in bonds. There was a residual fogginess in his head, a syrupy slowing of his thoughts. He had never before experienced it, but he had read that such was a common aftereffect of a sleep cantrip.

And with that thought, alertness came seeping back, as the remains of the cantrip faded away. First item on the agenda: examine his surroundings and see if he could escape. He was tied to a hard flat surface—stone, he thought—with rope wrapped around his legs and tying his arms to his sides. He turned his head as much as he could to feel the texture of the pillar against his face. The coolness of smooth stone, slightly damp. There was a coolness in the air, also, and the street noises he could hear were muffled and far away. A cellar, then. And most likely he was tied to a rectangular support pillar, such as was common in this type of construction.

Csevet shivered; the stone was leaching away his heat through his clothing. He tested his bonds carefully, but they had been tied well. He could not reach the knots. There was a small knife in his boot, but he could not reach that either. He would have to wait, then, and apply his mind.

He had gone to meet a courier friend who had an hour to spare before catching his airship. They had spent the time exchanging stories and gossip –Csevet would never reveal the emperor's private affairs, of course, but there were things one heard in the court which it did not harm to pass on—and then Csevet had taken his leave of her to return to the palace. Could Leiru have betrayed him? The thought gave him a sinking feeling. But after a moment he shook his head. He had noticed nothing amiss in Leiru's face or voice or the set of her ears. They had passed on useful information to each other, and it would take a great deal to overcome the loyalty couriers had for each other.

What then? It was the first time he had left the palace in a week. I was followed. The thought gave him a different kind of unease. He tugged at his bonds again, futilely, then rested his head against the pillar with a sigh.

Next item: find out who had captured him, and why. He called aloud. Just when he thought he would have to call again, there was a clattering at the lock, and the door opened. Csevet blinked in the sudden spill of light and had to turn his face away.

"You're awake, then." A male voice, in a servant's accent. As his eyes adjusted, Csevet could see a stocky and broad male form, dressed as one might expect of a servant who worked in the stables or grounds.

"Would you please tell me—" Csevet began, but the servant withdrew and closed the door. He heard the rattling of the lock again. Csevet had no choice but to wait.

Perhaps ten minutes later, the door opened. He could hear voice outside, but no one came in. He tilted his ears curiously toward the doorway, trying to hear as much as possible.

A male voice first, well-educated and sulky: "You said our involvement would not be known, Osmerrem. If he sees us, we risk too much."

A female voice, speaking sharply in an aristocratic accent: "Then let him be blindfolded, fool! He need not see thee." And then: "Go, blindfold him. Make sure it is done well."

Csevet felt a chill run through him. Whatever was to come next, this was not a good sign for how his captors would treat him, and he hated the idea of being helpless before them, more so than he already was. Yet if they do not wish thee to see them, they mean to keep thee alive.

The same servant from before entered the room. The set of his ears was unhappy. "Tell me," Csevet said softly, "who is she? Where is this place?"

The servant's shoulders were hunched and his eyes slid away from meeting Csevet's gaze. He said nothing, but tied a strip of dark cloth firmly around Csevet's face. While the servant tested the blindfold to see if it was secure, Csevet murmured urgently, "At least tell me what they mean to do with me." The servant hesitated, but there were other footsteps entering the room. He gave the blindfold a final tug and moved away.

There was a brightening, the light filtering through the blindfold; he thought someone had brought in a lamp. Other than levels of light and dark, he could see nothing. Csevet strained all his senses to gather as much information as he could, anything that might be of use later. If thou art alive to make use of it.

Footsteps approaching him- more than one person. He heard the click of fashionable shoes worn by a lady, and the duller sound of plainer shoes or boots. They stopped before him.

"This is the Goblin emperor's secretary, that he sets such store by!" The woman's voice was cold and mocking. "He could not have promoted one of Varenechibel's staff, but he needs must choose a courier to serve him! We suppose thou art pretty enough . . ."

Csevet forced himself to remain calm, though his stomach clenched. "Is there something you wish of us, Osmerrem?" he inquired politely. He ignored the implication; it was the usual sort of Court gossip, and without foundation. Csevet's own feelings towards the emperor he served were assuredly none of her business. He could not yet identify the lady's voice, though he was certain he had heard it at Court. He would know her if he could see her face.

"From thee?" Her tone was scornful. "We wish thy master to know that he must learn quickly. He must stop trampling everything in his path like a runaway horse, and comport himself with what grace he has. If not—"

Arasto Elenaran, his mind supplied belatedly. Among the faction of the nobility who had not committed open treason with Sheveän and Chavar, who had no love for Edrehasivar VII and resisted his policies, but would not strike directly against him. The emperor was one thing, however, and his secretary another.

"If he persists," she continued, "his course will bring him pain. For the first lesson—We are told he is fond of thee."

"We are his secretary, Osmerrem," Csevet said carefully. "His Serenity does not forget that."

A rustling of cloth as she made some movement. "Cast the azhenmaz."

Csevet tensed, and then the spell took hold, bludgeoning his body like heavy clubs. An involuntary grunt of pain escaped him. He set his teeth against further betraying noises. It stopped, and he shifted gingerly, feeling the pain still sparking in his arms and legs. An azhenmaz, meant to cause pain, rather than a revethmaz that brought death. The one could be learned as easily as the other; the azhenmaz was officially no longer used or taught at the Athmaz'are, having been forbidden by Edrehasivar II, but it was an open secret that those of sufficient rank or power could find a maza willing to admit he knew it.

"Again." The lady's voice was cold and indifferent; she might have been demanding that her maid bring her another cushion.

Again the feeling of a rain of blows thudding against him. Csevet twisted involuntarily in his bonds but could not escape it. When it stopped, he let his head fall back against the pillar. His breathing was harsh in his own ears.

"Art thou hurting him at all, fool?"

The male voice, lighter and nervous. "Osmerrem, we assure you he is suffering."

"Then adjust it—use a different effect. Let us hear him cry out."

The pain came again, this time like being stabbed with knives. Sharp bursts of pain in his arms and his chest, followed by a burning heat. Csevet made a choked sound in the back of his throat. He was clenching his jaw tightly enough that his jaw ached, and a jolt of pain stabbed through his head. She thought of him as no more than a tool to hurt the emperor. If nothing else, he would not give her the satisfaction of hearing him scream.

When the spell stopped, his skin still burned with the after-effects. His head and ears drooped, and he could feel his hair sticking to his forehead with sweat.

"Osmerrem," the maza said nervously. "The more times the azhenmaz is cast, the greater the risk to the subject."

"And therefore?"

"Plainly speaking, Osmerrem, we might kill him. If it becomes a case of murder . . . Your position protects you, Osmerrem. Ours does not."

There was a pause, and a clicking of heels as the lady paced back and forth. Csevet thought of trying to lift his head, but it did not seem worth the trouble. "It will do," she said finally. She stopped once more in front of Csevet. "We wish thee to remember," she said coldly, "that we had the power to capture thee and bring you here. And that we have the power to do so again, if need be. Do not think the Alcethmeret itself will protect thee."

The door opened, and closed again. Csevet was half-aware of being untied and carried—still blindfolded—through corridors, until he found himself outside. The breeze on his face brought a slight increase in alertness, though his legs trembled and he could not hold himself up.

He was lifted onto a cushioned surface—he heard a door close nearby—and then the jolting motion of a coach. He lifted a shaking hand to remove the blindfold. The knot was an impossibility; he tugged at the cloth and finally pulled it over his ears. He was feeling sick and dizzy from the motion of the coach, and it took longer than it should have for him to be able to look out the windows. As a courier, he had learned every twist of these streets. The coach was going back toward the palace.

A wave of relief washed over him. The Alcethmeret was safety—and the emperor— He thought he should stay alert, but he found himself slipping into a sort of doze without meaning to. He jolted back to awareness only when the coach stopped.

They were outside the Imperial palace, near a side gate of the Alcethmeret. The same servant from earlier came around to open the door and almost hauled Csevet out. "You'll be all right from here," he said quietly. "You're close enough to shout for a guard, if you can't walk." He hesitated a moment, his ears lowered guiltily, then added more quietly, "For what it's worth, I am sorry." He mounted the coachbox and drove away, while Csevet supported himself on the fence which surrounded the palace.

He made his way painfully toward the palace gate. He leaned on the wall as little as possible; it would not do for it to be rumored that His Serenity's secretary was drunk, or ill with something contagious, or—

Csevet stopped a moment and tried to roll up one sleeve. It took him three attempts to succeed. He stared blankly at the unmarred flesh of his arm. The azhenmaz had left no marks on his body. He had no doubt the emperor would believe him, but he had no proof.

He did not remember crossing the final distance to the gate and climbing the steps, but he must have, for he found himself staring at Lieutenant Echana. Good, it was someone who knew him. "Mer Aisava?" By Echana's tone, it was not the first time he had spoken.

"It is nothing to be alarmed for," Csevet pronounced distinctly, "but we may need assistance—" And then dizziness rushed over him like a wave. The last thing he saw was Echana's concerned face before he fell into darkness.

When Csevet awoke, it took him a moment to place his surroundings. He was in his own bed, in the palace. He ached all over, and when he cautiously tried to move, pain twinged in his arms and legs.

There was a blue shape in front of him, which resolved itself into a maza's robe. He tensed, until he heard Kiru Athmaza's voice: "Please don't move, until we have completed our examination." But if Kiru Athmaza was here—surely he had not lost a full day, and that meant Kiru should be on duty.

"How is he, Kiru?" And that was the emperor's voice.

"The spell is painful, Serenity, but he will recover with rest. Are you feeling dizzy?" This last was to Csevet.

"A little," he admitted, "but it is passing."

"You may feel some pain, weakness and occasional dizziness over the next few days, but there will be no permanent effects." She was quietly angry, Csevet saw.

Kiru moved away, and Csevet could see Telimezh standing by the far wall, and the emperor with his hands clasped in front of him. Once Kiru was no longer occupying the space, the emperor sat down in a chair by Csevet's bed. "Who did this, Csevet?" the emperor demanded with deep agitation. "And why?"

Csevet remained silent. Csevet had already noted Arasto Elenaran among those hostile to the emperor; her speech at court had not always been entirely discreet. It would do no good for the emperor to know.

"Csevet, we must know what happened."

And then Csevet must yield. "It was done to send a message to you, Serenity."

"To us?"

"Our captor was Osmerrem Arasto Elenaran," Csevet said quietly. "She is among those of the nobility who do not approve of the direction of your policies. She was attempting to show you that ignoring the wishes of the established families has consequences, and that you did not have the power to protect your own. And we were considered . . ." he hesitated. "Disposable."

Edrehasivar was looking deeply distressed and angry. "You were hurt because of us."

"Do not apologize for it, Serenity," Csevet said quickly. "We fear we do not have the strength to prostrate ourself."

"This will be investigated," Edrehasivar said, "thoroughly."

"It is not necessary, Serenity. Traditionally, non-permanent damage to a courier—or a former courier—is not considered worthy of notice. There will be resistance to it in the Court."

The emperor looked stubborn. "It is necessary," he said. "As it is necessary to investigate injustice done against any of our subjects. All the more so when it was done because of your service to us." His ears flicked with agitation. "They might have decided to kill you just as easily."

"We are pleased they did not. But we are not irreplaceable, Serenity."

Edrehasivar leaned forward, grasping Csevet's hand where it lay on the covers. "Thou art not replaceable," he said unsteadily.

Csevet felt himself blush. "Serenity—" It was deeply tempting, to keep hold of his hand. But one did not touch the Emperor of the Ethuveraz, no matter how much one wished to, no matter how much Csevet delighted in that touch. He reluctantly pulled his hand free. "Serenity," he said again. "If we may be permitted to return to our duties—"

"You are not in any condition to work, Mer Aisava," Kiru said firmly. "We suggest that you take the day to rest, and tomorrow as well."

"We are grateful for your help, as always," Edrehasivar said earnestly, "but surely there are others who can fulfill your duties until you are well enough."

Csevet yielded as gracefully as he could. "If a page is sent to summon our under-secretaries," he said, "we will tell them what Your Serenity needs to know. And then we will rest."

"We will have one of the palace doctors bring you something for the pain," Kiru said.

And then the emperor and his nohecharei were gone.

When the under-secretaries arrived, it did not take long to give them the proper instructions, and then Csevet had no duty but to rest. Csevet had been spending the greater part of each day in the emperor's company ever since he had arrived as a courier at Edonomee: speaking with him, or passing documents back and forth across the desk, or taking notes during audiences. Or watching him when his attention is elsewhere, thou lovesick fool. He was surprised by how much he missed it. Thou art absurd, he told himself firmly. The business of the Ethuveraz cannot stop because one secretary is indisposed. If he had to go a few days without seeing the emperor's face or hearing his voice, it was nonsensical to be put out by it.

Csevet settled reluctantly to rest and willed himself to recover as quickly as possible.

Though he was still tired, he did not sleep well that night. The pain like bruises under his skin kept him awake, and he started when the floor creaked or his bed-curtains fluttered in a draft. The light knock on his door came as a relief.

"Who is it?" he called softly, and struggled to a sitting position.

"Telimezh," the voice came through the door.

Csevet wrapped a robe around himself and went to open the door. "Has His Serenity summoned us?" He had not looked at the clock, but he thought it must be in the early hours past midnight.

Telimezh gave an apologetic flick of his ears. "We are sorry to have woken you," he said. "His Serenity had a nightmare, and he was . . . distressed. He said he wished he could see you for himself and know you were safe. He knew it was not possible, but," he cleared his throat, "since it was just before the nohecharei changed shifts, we offered to go see for ourself once Lieutenant Beshelar and Cala Athmaza came on duty, before retiring for the night."

"We see," Csevet said. He had not imagined the emperor being so distressed over his safety. Edrehasivar had a considerate nature, certainly, and was concerned for those who served him. Csevet secretly found it rather endearing.

Telimezh had an embarrassed set to his ears, as if he were having second thoughts about his errand. "We do not mind being woken," Csevet hastened to assure him. "We are pleased you were able to reassure His Serenity."

Telimezh bowed. "Since all is well, we will let you return to your sleep." He turned away.

Csevet almost called to him to wait. But what more could he reasonably say or ask? He bit back questions which would only have made Telimezh look at him oddly, such as Is His Serenity still distressed? and Does he have nightmares like this often? and let Telimezh go to seek his own rest. Csevet sat down on the bed. With all that had happened since the emperor's ascension—and before, from what he knew or guessed of Setheris Nelar— it was not surprising if the emperor sometimes had nightmares. But Maia—Edrehasivar—was not alone now. His nohecharei were there if he needed protection, counsel, or comfort.

Csevet lay down and tried to sleep, but sleep eluded him. The emperor was distressed, Telimezh had said. He had wished to see Csevet, but he knew it was not possible . . . If Csevet could, he would give the emperor anything he wished, whether possible or impossible. He reminded himself firmly that the emperor had not requested his presence, and he could not simply go wandering past the grilles of the Alcethmeret at a mere whim. Csevet remained staring into the dark for perhaps ten minutes before he rose, lit a candle, and dressed.

There were few people in the halls of the Alcethmeret at this hour. Csevet had to walk with a slow pace, and he found himself moving stiffly, but at least he was in no danger of falling headfirst, and he could lean with one hand against a wall from time to time without being observed.

When he came to the great staircase, Csevet stopped a moment, his ears flattening slightly with dismay. Csevet was used to walking briskly up and down those steps; he barely even noticed them. But now they seemed a treacherous obstacle, to be climbed only with much effort. It is for the emperor, he told himself firmly, and went up. The guards at the grilles of the Alcethmeret did not hesitate to let him through; it was not the first time Csevet had been summoned to the emperor's chambers at odd hours.

Beshelar was on duty outside the emperor's bedchamber. He frowned on seeing Csevet. "Mer Aisava. We understood that you were resting."

"We have rested," Csevet said. "But we wished to see whether the emperor had need of us." He wanted to ask Is His Serenity well? but asked instead, "Is His Serenity asleep?"

"His Serenity called for his edocharei a short time ago," Beshelar said, "and we believe he is still awake. We will inquire." He opened the door and stepped into the room. "Serenity."

"What is it, Beshelar?" Csevet could not see the emperor from this angle, but his heart lifted at the sound of his voice.

"Mer Aisava is here." Beshelar sounded disapproving; no doubt he thought that both the emperor and his secretary should be properly asleep. Beshelar would never grudge the loss of his own sleep in the emperor's service, however, so Csevet did not think he had any right to object.

"Csevet?" Csevet thought the emperor sounded surprised but pleased, even eager. "Yes, send him in."

When Csevet entered the emperor's bedchamber, Edrehasivar was wrapped in a dressing gown and seated in the room's most comfortable chair (which was not saying much). He held a book in his hands, but he gripped it too tightly in his fingers; his ears were lowered and his eyes were red as if he had been weeping. Csevet felt an odd tightening in his chest. He wept—in fear for me?

Cala Athmaza was standing nearby; he seemed calm, so whatever crisis had alarmed Telimezh was over.

Csevet bowed, careful not to show any stiffness in his motions. "Serenity."

The emperor looked dismayed. "Csevet," he said. "We did not mean for Telimezh to summon you. We are glad to see you, but we are sorry to have called you from your bed."

"We understood that we were not summoned," Csevet said quickly. "But we wished—" He hesitated a moment. "We wished to assure you, and ourself, that all was well."

"We are sorry to have troubled your rest with our fancies," Edrehasivar said earnestly. "But we are grateful that you are here."

Csevet swallowed. The emperor seemed entirely unaware of the picture he made, with the folds of his dressing gown alternately outlining and concealing the form beneath, and his dark curling hair falling in a loose braid down his back. The collar of his nightshirt, embroidered white on white, dipped in a triangular shape; it set off the emperor's skin, grey like storm clouds, and drew the eye downward. Csevet did not think the edocharei could have intended that effect. He forced his eyes resolutely back to his emperor's face.

"But now that you are here," Edrehasivar continued uncertainly, "we do not know—I cannot simply send you back again," he said in dismay. "Csevet, will you sit with me for a short time?"

"Gladly, Serenity." In truth, Csevet was not certain he could face the walk back to his own chamber without a rest. He pulled up a chair at a precisely proper distance and sat down.

"Do you have need of anything else, Serenity?" Beshelar asked. He seemed fortunately oblivious of Csevet's straying thoughts.

"No, that will be all. We thank you, Beshelar." Beshelar saluted and withdrew from the room to take up his guard position outside, leaving them alone with Cala's silent but watchful presence.

The chamber was lit only by a single candle; the room was warm and filled with wavering shadows. One could almost think it a dream, or a wonder-tale, in which impossible things became possible. It was an unexpected temptation. Csevet had seen Edrehasivar many times in his Imperial robes, with his hair in the elaborate styles of Court fashion and rows of moonstone earrings in his ears, remote and unobtainable. (Though it had not stopped Csevet from wishing.) But to see him thus unadorned, with wisps of hair escaping from his braid and his bare feet visible beneath the dressing gown—Csevet could almost imagine that the emperor of the Ethuveraz was any desirable young man of no particular rank, that if Csevet wished he could pay him compliments and engage in the sort of teasing conversation that might lead to a night of pleasure for both of them. But of course he could not, even without the reminder of Cala's silent presence in a nohecharis's usual place by the window.

Although he had asked to talk, the emperor remained silent. To break the silence, Csevet asked, "Are you often troubled with nightmares, Serenity?"

"It happens sometimes," Edrehasivar said quietly, his ears lowering. "We dream of—of our father's body, or other things."

Csevet could find no better words than, "We are sorry to hear it."

"We have dreamed of Edonomee also," Edrehasivar said more quietly.

"You are not there now," Csevet said more emphatically than he meant to.

"No," Edrehasivar agreed, and looked down at the book in his lap, though he did not truly seem to see it.

Csevet followed the direction of his gaze, and seized on the opportunity to change the subject. "What have you been reading, Serenity?"

Edrehasivar brightened slightly. "We wished to know more about opera," he said. "This is a book with summaries and the texts of famous operas. The first one we looked at is called The Clemency of Edrethelema. Are you familiar with it?" Csevet shook his head. "It is set in the reign of Edrethelema V, though there are details which seem unlikely to be true. One of the emperor's close friends conspires against him," he said wryly, "though he is not very good at it."

"And the clemency?"

Edrehasivar hesitated a moment. "The emperor survives an attempt on his life, and ends by pardoning everyone."

"Serenity . . ."

"Being emperor is not like an opera," Edrehasivar said resignedly. "We know this." He glanced down at the book again. "The next one concerns a lady who disguises herself as a boy to rescue her husband. Lenoran the Faithful."

"We have heard parts of it," Csevet said. The emperor gave him an inquiring look, so he continued, "When we were a courier, one of our friends was greatly fond of the opera. He begged his way into dress rehearsals, or bought tickets for standing room, as often as he could. He liked to learn the arias by ear and sang all his favorites for the rest of us, when we had leisure." This opera, Csevet remembered, had an aria where the tenor hero was imprisoned by the villain and chained to a rock. Parmenis used to drop his voice to a hushed tone to sing, "Gods, what darkness here!" Csevet suppressed a shiver. And there was a duet, an ecstatic outpouring of rapturous love—though Csevet had only heard Parmenis attempting both parts by himself.

"We wondered what the music was like," Edrehasivar said tentatively.

"If you wish, Serenity, we will see whether any of the opera houses are performing it this season."

"We would like that. Thank you." The emperor looked pleased; Csevet only wished he could give Edrehasivar all his desires so easily.

The emperor fell silent, and Csevet was gradually overcome by the warmth and darkness. He only realized he had begun to drowse when some small noise in the room brought him awake again. He raised his head, which had begun to droop toward his chest, and looked at the emperor with great chagrin. "Serenity, we are sorry for our inattentiveness—"

He attempted to kneel and prostrate himself. The motion was not as graceful as he would have liked –almost more of a slide from the chair—and he hissed involuntarily when the floor pressed against the sore places on his knees.

"Csevet!" Edrehasivar's ears twitched with alarm. He rose from his chair and extended a hand toward Csevet's shoulder to steady him.

Csevet looked up at the emperor. The dressing gown had slipped open in his sudden motion, revealing his nightshirt underneath. If Csevet only leaned forward—

"We are well, Serenity." Csevet took refuge in formality, to keep himself from doing something foolish.

"You are not well at all," Edrehasivar said unhappily. "I have been very thoughtless. It was a comfort to have you here, but I cannot in conscience keep you from your bed any longer." Csevet's ears dipped a little at the thought of the long walk through cold, empty corridors to his own chamber. Edrehasivar may have guessed something of his thoughts, for he continued, "And yet—Will you be able to walk so far?"

"The stairs presented some difficulty," Csevet admitted.

Edrehasivar looked dismayed, then resolute. It was the expression he had when he had decided to be especially stubborn with the Corazhas, and Csevet began to have a feeling of dread. "It is our fault," Edrehasivar said as stubbornly as Csevet expected. "We did not mean to be cruel, and we must remedy it. You must go to bed, and we cannot send you to your own. Therefore—" His ears flicked nervously. Surely, Csevet thought, surely he would not. "Our bed is here," Edrehasivar said earnestly, with a hint of nervousness. "And it is quite large enough . . ." He trailed off as he realized the implications of what he had said. His ears lowered in embarrassment. "I—" he stammered, "I did not mean— That is, I know you would not, but I only—"

Csevet's eyebrows rose involuntarily. But surely it was unkind and undutiful to leave the emperor floundering. "Serenity," he said. "Do you not know? I would do anything for you." He heard the ring of sincerity in his own voice, and now it was his turn to be flustered. He felt a blush rise in his cheeks and ears. He risked a sidelong glance at Cala Athmaza. Cala was watching the scene with mild curiosity. There was no judgement on his face, but Csevet was glad nonetheless that Edrehasivar could not see Cala from his position, and that it was Cala rather than Beshelar.

"I truly did not mean—" Edrehasivar said wretchedly. "I am—I am not Tethimar!"

"Indeed you are not," Csevet agreed. He should find a way to redirect the conversation gracefully, and that should be the end of it—but there was something in the way the emperor looked at him, he thought with sudden hope, a sense that perhaps his own desires were not as unrequited as he thought. Edrehasivar's ears were lowered and his gaze was faintly wistful, as if he were looking through a window at something he could not have.

Csevet swallowed. His voice still came out softer than he intended. "Serenity, we know you did not intend it as a proposition – nor as a command. If you were someone who would order your secretary to share your bed, and expect to be obeyed, I would not feel towards you as I do." He had leaped into it headfirst now, and there was no choice but to go on. "When I first saw you, I offered you my loyalty—although I did not know you then as I do now. And now I offer you myself, all of me, however you wish."

Edrehasivar's eyes widened. "Truly?" he stammered.

Csevet took the emperor's hand and kissed it with all his devotion. "Most truly."

Edrehasivar's face lit with dawning hope, and his ears went up. "Csevet," he said huskily, "I did not think—I did not imagine this was something I could have."

"Let us have it," Csevet said in a low voice, plural rather than formal.

Edrehasivar held out his hand again; Csevet took it and let himself be pulled to his feet. They were close together, hand clasped in hand, and Csevet felt his heart beating frantically.

Edrehasivar hesitated, his ears flicking once in embarrassment. "Cala—"

"It is our duty to guard the emperor," Cala said mildly. "But we do not see anything here that you need to be guarded from."

The emperor's face went through a series of expressions. Perhaps he was trying to determine how and under what circumstances he might order his nohecharis to leave the room.

"I fear I am not in the best state at present to do more than sleep," Csevet said apologetically. "But once I am well—"

"I do not mind waiting," Edrehasivar said quickly. "And I am not—I do not—I fear I do not know what to do," he finished in a low voice.

"It is easily learned," Csevet promised. He yielded to temptation at last, reaching out to cup Edrehasivar's face with his free hand, and leaned forward to kiss him. The emperor made a surprised noise, and his hand clutched at Csevet's shoulder. His mouth was warm and eager against Csevet's, and Csevet felt a jolt of warmth and delight run through him. When at last they broke off, Edrehasivar's eyes were bright with dazed joy, and Csevet found himself smiling.

"Will you call me by name," the emperor said quietly, "while we are together thus?"

Csevet licked his lips. "Edrehasivar?" he ventured.

"Maia," he said quietly. "Please call me Maia."

"Maia," Csevet whispered.

The emperor—Maia—shivered. "Come to bed," he said hoarsely.

Csevet took off his shoes and outer robe, draping the latter over a chair, and sank gratefully down on the bed. Exhaustion was beginning to overcome him. The room darkened, and it took a moment for his foggy brain to realize that Maia had blown the candle out.

Csevet let Maia pull the covers over them and settled against his side with a sigh. It took a few tries for them to find a position that did not press against Csevet's injuries, but at last they arranged themselves with Csevet's head against Maia's shoulder. Lying like this in the dark, feeling Maia's warmth against him and listening to the quiet sound of his breathing, Csevet was filled with a vast contentment. He reached out beneath the covers to find Maia's hand, and grasped it, feeling the answering pressure in return. He felt safe and at ease, as seldom since he was a child. The need for alertness slipped from him, and he was asleep before the spiralling smoke from the candle reached the high ceiling.


Note:

The operas mentioned are not very well disguised versions of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito and Beethoven's Fidelio.