He lay on a bed, a very soft bed. After months of sleeping on hard ground, the bed felt like a cloud. Even the beds in Onus's sanctuary hadn't been as welcoming, especially when all he had thought about was killing the dragon. Demitri opened his eyes and saw the horizontal beams holding up the ceiling. A pair of voices spoke to his left, straining to stay low so as not disturb him. He recognized Em's voice. It hurt to turn his head, so his eyes slid in the direction from where the voices came.
The queen of Tarym and her personal physician, a sturdily-built man with a balding auburn head, stood in the threshold of the room's only door. Demitri could not see Dr. Forsythe's face, for his back was to Demitri, but he could see Em's face. Distress marred her features. She wore her sailing clothes, indicating that her visit hadn't been an official royal one, trailing with guards and servants. Demitri had no doubt she may have come on her own.
Dr. Forsythe was saying, "To be honest, Your Highness, I do not think that I can perform the surgery without upsetting the fragile equilibrium that his body has established."
"That's why there is anesthesia, doctor." The queen's voice was hard-pressed to keep a polite tone. Her hands at her sides were balled into tight fists. "He should at least be able to go with as little pain as possible."
"Yes, I would agree, but the rib is so close to his lung, 'tis a wonder that the cavity hadn't been punctured."
So that explained why it was hard for Demitri to breathe deeply without flinching. The sharp pain came near the center of his chest, close to his right lung. However, that pain was an infinitesimal microcosm in comparison to the rest of his body. His skin was very sensitive to the cotton sheet weighing down on his body. To the patient, the sheet felt like an entire body lying on top of him. Moving was not an option. His back burned, and so did his arms. And face. And legs. And almost any place where he had skin. Except perhaps his right side. He felt nothing from the limbs on his right side. Sensation stopped below the elbow and the knee. Carefully and quietly, so as not to attract his visitors' attention, Demitri slipped his right arm from out of the bed sheet. He could not stop the gasp of horror that burst out of his cracked lips at the sight of his right hand missing.
"What? Demitri!" Em was at his side in an instant, but his eyes were only for his missing limb.
"My arm," he rasped. "My hand." Now he knew why he couldn't feel on his right side. "O gods, my leg."
"No," said Dr. Forsythe when the patient attempted to raise himself up to see the other missing limb. The physician was instantly on Demitri's other side to force him gently onto his back. Demitri hissed through clenched teeth as he irritated the burns on his back.
"Demitri!" Em said urgently. She leaned over him while Dr. Forsythe scrambled around to find a chair for her. "Demitri, who am I?"
In his cloud of pain, Demitri spoke without thinking. "I have not lost my memory, if that is what you want to know."
The worry slid away from Em's face. Her lips thinned. "So, Leo has told you of what happened to Dread Robin."
Demitri lowered his eyes from her grim face. "My apologies," he gasped, "Your Majesty."
"Oh, Demitri. I was not reprimanding you." She sighed heavily. Dr. Forsythe set a chair behind her upon which she gladly sat. As the physician moved to the medical table near the door, Em fixed watery eyes on Demitri. "I've been sorely remiss without my most trusted advisor these last months, and even now I'm going to lose him."
Dr. Forsythe spun around, his eyes wide. "Your Highness!" he exclaimed at the same time Demitri felt his stomach drop.
"What?" the patient demanded. "Will I not live?"
"So much for not upsetting his equilibrium," Em muttered as her physician said, "Now, now. None of this talk." The soothing tones actually riled up the patient more than calmed him. Dr. Forsythe approached with two dried berries in his hand. He reached for Demitri's mouth, but the other man turned his head away.
"Tell me…what's happening to me," he demanded through increasingly labored breaths. When he looked toward Em, he was shocked to see tears falling from her dark brown eyes. "Em?"
She reached over and took Demitri's hand, his remaining one, in her hands. Ignoring the sharp looks that Dr. Forsythe sent her, she said, "Love, you are dying."
"Really, Your Highness! His condition is precarious as it is—"
"Doctor," said the queen. Her personal physician stiffened at the sharp tone. Her tears were gone. "You told me that nothing more can be done for Baron Phoenicus. Did you lie to me?"
Dr. Forsythe shivered. "N-No, Your Highness. I am merely suggesting that Baron Phoenicus should not be burdened with this knowledge just as he is woken up."
"How long have I been unconscious?" Demitri asked.
Dr. Forsythe looked at the queen and then turned to Demitri. "For a fortnight."
"How did I get back?"
"Doctor, give him the berries, and then you can leave us," said the queen. "I shall explain all to him—as gently as possible," she added when her physician looked ready to protest again. "Your oath under the god Esculapius says to do no harm, not keep a patient in the dark about his medical condition." The queen's personal physician obeyed, but not without showing by the stiffness in his entire body and the tight line of his lips that he disapproved of the conversation to be had between the patient and Em. When the door snapped shut behind him, Em pressed a hand to her face briefly. "I know I'll get an earful once he has a chance to pin me down alone," she muttered.
Though sympathetic, Demitri demanded, "What happened?"
Em nodded, returning her hand around his hand. "Evander saved you from that pit," she began slowly. "You are in Queen's Port."
"Evander?" Demitri repeated. "I thought—We thought he'd died first."
Em shook her head. "He says the dragon flung him off, and he cracked his head against a boulder. When he came to, the pit erupted in fire. He found Kevran first—"
Em tilted her head. Her eyes shined again with tears. Her red cheeks indicated the effort she made to hold those tears back. "Yes and no," she said gently. "He lived long enough to ensure you were cared for, and your leg"—She nodded to the missing limb—"was amputated when infection grew in the foot. He died of his own infections en route to Queen's Port." She squeezed his hand, and when he winced, she let go and placed her hands in her lap. "I am sorry, dearest," she said. "I know the pain of losing men whom you've worked and fought side by side."
Demitri swallowed hard. He heard his father speak to him again, telling him not to cry. "Raise me," he said. Demitri needed to not think about Yohan crushed underneath a shelf or Kevran never waking up from his sleep, stinking of infection. "Let me see the damage."
Em shook her head. "You don't need to. You already can feel the limbs lost and the burns on your back." Her voice thick with emotion, she said, "You did your country a great service that will be the stuff of legends. Your death—"
Demitri waved his remaining hand. "I am not distressed by my death, Em. I knew I wouldn't come back." He tried to make an effort of shrugging off his imminent demise by saying lightly, " 'Tis a pity that I will not hear the songs composed in my honor."
A corner of Em's mouth curled up. "You're not like Leo, Demitri. You didn't care when they wrote poems and sung songs about your deeds in the civil war. You had always put more concern on the lives that could have been saved than the glory."
Demitri swallowed the lump that had formed in his throat. "Leo has my will," he said.
"Ah," said Em. "He did not say."
For the first time, an awkward moment passed between them, make more uncomfortable for Demitri when he asked, "Did…Did Leo say anything strange about me lately?"
Em wiped her eyes and then tilted her head slightly. "No," she said. "Did something happen between you two?"
"No," said Demitri, hoping his response didn't come too quickly.
"Poor Leo," Em said. "He's been terribly upset since you returned. I think he refuses to acknowledge that you will die."
"He locked himself in his apartments for two days after Dr. Forsythe gave us the verdict. Since the third day, he's been visiting you constantly, impatient for you to wake up."
Demitri was then touched by Leo's grief. "He'll probably berate me for not being careful enough or not accepting more men," he said. "I'm sorry I won't be there when he marries Lady Belle." He lowered his eyes when Em gave him a long look. Had she heard the wistfulness in his voice?
"Demitri. Why don't you tell Leo—?"
"No. He's upset as it is. I don't want to make it worse for him." Unceremoniously, he changed the subject by saying, "Leo said that you are with child."
Em let the statement pass between them for a few seconds before she said in a neutral voice, "Yes. I am five months along."
"He is a Draconian—"
"Half," Em said shortly. "This child will be a quarter Draconian. What of it?"
Not deterred by the obstinacy in her tone, Demitri said, "Even diluted blood…does not negate its existence, Em. It could have Draconian features."
"I won't give it up even if it does," said the mother-to-be.
"What of the father and his amnesia? If he…If he does not acknowledge the child, it will be a bastard, Em. Whether or not it takes after the Draconian blood…it won't be able to reign after you." Demitri's breaths came hard, his chest rising and falling rapidly. His pain had dulled from the berries, but he could feel his rib poking at his lung.
Em bit her bottom lip. "Mayhap we should stop for now."
Demitri raised a hand, and she grabbed it. Looking into her dark brown eyes, he told her, "No man wants a woman with a bastard child, even if she is a queen."
At that, her dark brown eyes narrowed and she dropped his hand. "I want no other man, Demitri," she said, so softly that the words almost came as a hiss. "There will be no other man than him. If I cannot control which blood my child takes or whether it has a father, at least I can control who I will or will not marry."
"You need an heir—"
"If the issue is an heir, I plan to make Leo my heir, and if I outlive him, any child that he produces with his marriage to Lady Belle will be my heir. I've thought about this ever since I found out I was with child."
Demitri's mouth twisted, but his discomfort wasn't with Leo's marriage but with the thought of Leo's line as rulers of Tarym. He loved the man, but even he knew that Leo and his kin weren't the right family to steer the country into peace and prosperity. "No," he said. "Not Leo. It must be the Quiesco line that rules, as it has been for centuries."
Em sighed deeply. "We shall see, won't we?" She rubbed her stomach, which had finally begun to show what lay underneath. "Besides, we should be talking about a lack of an heir for the Phoenicus barony. Demitri, your family's land will revert back to the crown."
"I know," said Baron Phoenicus. "Do not worry for my lands. I have it all planned in my will." He stared up at the queen's face, noticing her contemplative expression. "You will decide for me who should inherit my lands. I trust you."
A trembling smile stretched across Em's lips. When she blinked, a tear slid down her face. In a choked voice, she said, "Thank you. You've trusted me a great deal even when I was a renegade princess. I won't let you down."
Demitri nodded. "So does Dread Robin leave soon with Captain Golomorth?" he asked in a raspy voice. He cleared it.
Em grabbed a glass full of water from the bedside table and put the cup to Demitri's lips. Once he'd taken a few sips—meager, she noticed—she placed the cup back on the table. "No. Oh Henry leaves in a week. His Long Tom will be finished by then. Dread Robin's ship won't be done for a year, eleven months to be exact." Demitri watched Em's shoulders sag forward, as if a weight had dropped on them.
"He's becoming more prone to violence," she confessed. "I can tell he's getting restless with being landlocked, and so I don't know if he will be able to stay here for the rest of the year. The original time for the ship was eighteen months, but he's demanded that production be hurried." Em rubbed her face with a hand. "Mayhap I shall lend him a ship until his is finished, but so many complications and complaints would arise."
"Don't," said Demitri immediately. "Don't give him a ship. Let him wait. You'll have plenty of time to make him remember then."
Em blinked rapidly. "What if he doesn't remember?" She pressed her hands over her stomach. In a softer voice, she said, "If Dread Robin never has his memories returned, this child will be what I'll have left of him." She bowed her head and her hair fell around her face, shielding the patient from the sight of her flowing tears. Demitri would have comforted her if the silver gleam of a new crown on her head hadn't distracted him. Sapphires the size of his thumb's fingernail glittered back at him.
"Em, where is your circlet?" He dropped his eyes to her right hand, but didn't see the great seal sapphire ring that represented the monarchy. "Where is the seal?"
The door opened, and Dr. Forsythe shuffled inside. Noticing the paleness of the patient's complexion, the physician spoke to the queen's back. "Your Highness, I think it best that you leave the baron to rest."
Demitri didn't need any more rest. He was going to die, after all. He looked up at Em. Her eyes were red but dry, as if she hadn't finally succumbed to her grief. On her lips was a lopsided smile. "Those are another story I shall tell you on my next visit," she said. "Let that be incentive to stay with us a little longer. In the meantime, rest well." She reached over to brush his hair back gently from his forehead, and then she leaned down and placed a light kiss on the tender flesh.
When she was gone, Demitri shut his eyes and finally relaxed his aching body. Yet his mind swirled with all that he discussed with the queen and his impending death. He and Em had spoken lightly about it after she had explained everything, but they both had felt his death hanging above their heads. Demitri heard the physician standing by his bedside before a hard and wrinkled-textured object was pressed against his lips. He opened his mouth and received the pain-relieving berry. With difficulty, he chewed and swallowed the tart fruit before being fed another. The physician stepped away, but Demitri's whispered words forestalled his retreat. "Wait. Paper and something…something to write with. I must rewrite my will."
"My lord, I think it best that you regain some strength first—"
"No, this cannot wait." Demitri opened his eyes. "I must utilize every space of time I have left."
Dr. Forsythe appeared to consider arguing against the request, but then he nodded. "Yes, my lord." He shuffled out of the room, returning with a piece of parchment and a stick of graphite.
Demitri had lied to Em, in his small way. He wanted her to choose the person to replace him, but that choice hadn't been allotted in the original will he had given to Leo. There were a few more changes he would like to add before his time was up. He licked his cracked lips as the physician came to stand by the bed.
"I, Demitri Archibald Phoenicus of the Phoenicus barony, as my last will and testament as the lord god Onus permits…"