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The war was over. The war was over, and the Empire's black grip was shattered, and now the world could be set back to rights; that's what they all said. There were celebrations breaking out from sea to sea, and everyone from the plainest crofter child to the great lords themselves were rejoicing --

It must be nice, to just assume everything will work out.

Right now, Altena was not indulging in those victory celebrations. She had something, and someone, more important to attend to; a someone who lay still as death in an invalid's bed, tiny flowers of blood and worse seeping through the dressings that bound those frightful wounds. Her foster brother's brows were crimped -- in pain? some other distress? -- despite the fever-sleep, and Altena set immediately to work to cleanse and soothe him as best as could be done. The damned infections had set in so quickly, magic was useless. Not even Thracia's royalty were entirely free of the strain of simply surviving in Thracia.

Why, Arion?

A pointless question; she knew exactly why, would have done the same as he.

It had been the final surge of Grannvale's forces, Loptyr's forces; the dying convulsions of an empire tasting the first bitter draught of defeat. A surge that came as a volley of arrows that blackened the skies to drive her, and the dragon knights she led, to the ground broken and dying.

She'd seen her death in that black wave, her beast unable to surge skyward swiftly enough to avoid the rain of feathered death ... and then her eyesight was darkened not by pain, or that final blackness, but by the scaled bulk of Arion's own dragon.

She saw him turn to smile at her, regretfully, almost wistfully.

She saw the arrows striking home, heard his mount's scream of agony as they plummeted together, managed no more than slowing that harrowing descent with her own beast's claws sunk into the dying dragon's hide.

But Arion lived.

And with her fa- -- with Travant dead, all they had was each other now --

Except that's not true. I have Leif.

The brother she'd never known she'd had, by the parents she'd forgotten that she'd lost. She had another home, her birth kingdom ... Thracia's enemy, the green grainlands its desperate people would kill to possess. And now the war with Grannvale was over, and the King of Thracia was dead. Leonster's people cried for joy over that fact. Leif was already planning to unite the peninsula once again, and wanted her to join in its governance, and it all sounded so nice, with the crushing straits of the Thracian people no longer so ...

There was only one problem: Thracia's king was not dead.

He lay before her that very moment, shivering at every touch of cool water against too-warm flesh.

And your existence is a thorn in their hides, I know it is. Finn hasn't bothered to hide his displeasure from me, and while Seliph is far too noble -- curse him -- I've seen the looks of speculation and skullduggery on his advisor's faces.

They hoped you were killed in battle, Arion, and they're hoping you die now and save them the trouble ...

Leif, to his credit, had only protested once before, with dawning realization in his eyes, squeezing her hand -- and hugging her -- and telling her to go to him. Whether he was leaving the greater issue for after the carnival air wore off, or for after Arion's final fate played out, she didn't dare to ask; but she just could not imagine Leif planning to end her brother's life. Not like that. He'd looked too horrified when they'd both been found, Arion's shattered body cradled close as she picked her away across the bloodied battlefield.

More afraid that he'll lose me than anything else. I can't blame him for that.

The dressings were dealt with, the fever soothed as best she could; now -- with an inward wince -- she readied the drafts she needed to ease down his throat, beginning with the water she was sure he desperately needed.

I don't have an answer.

Gently, gingerly, she eased her arm under Arion's neck, brushing the fall of his hair out of the way, cradling him like a child. A faint murmur, wordless and fearful, escaped him, and her heart clenched --

I'm just tired of all the death.

Let it end; Dain, Naga, please let it end.