Author’s Note: I didn’t feel it was necessary to draw out or dwell on how long the queen had to wear the real bindings. They were unpleasant times for her, painful, and I think that was covered already. It was time to free her.
Her eyes opened, and she reached up to her neck, wondering if she was dreaming. The bands were gone, and though she could feel their marks, she did not feel the same weight. She could not believe this. She had to wake up, had to face that it was still there. She did not want to. She would rather dream of her homeland or even nothing at all. She did not want to wake. Let it be over at last.
“Look at me, please, my esibani. I know I was late getting this to you, but you… Please. Open your eyes for me.”
She blinked, her eyes clearing as she focused on Agache. “Late?”
“You know, of course, that I had gone to meet with the other leaders—Gekin was forced to find me since the jeweler would not give the fake to anyone but me. Had I known, I would never have left, I swear. I hope it was worth the trouble that he caused us—you. As far as I can tell, the forgery is flawless. The king should not be able to tell the difference. You can take it on and off when you want from now on, and Anokii has already treated your wounds. She will do so again now that you are awake.”
The queen nodded, turning onto her side. She did not dare rise, and she wanted to be able to look at him without straining her neck. “How much longer? How long before this thing ends?”
“Not long, I promise,” Agache said, brushing back her hair with a frown. “I swear… I never meant for this to take as long as it did.”
“He used something like this on your arm, didn’t he? On more than your arm.”
Agache closed his eyes. “Yes. I… It is very painful, and I did not want you to have to suffer as I had. I am sorry. I hoped to make it so that you could avoid this.”
She sighed. “I know that I don’t… As much as it has hurt, I am aware that there were far worse things that he could be doing to me. I… I am grateful that it is this and not one of those things. I am.”
Agache’s hand took hers. “Why are you not more… angry? Should you not hate your family for sending you here to him? Should you not hate me for all I have failed to do in protecting you? I have not even been much help to you.”
“It is not your responsibility to care for me. You are leading a revolution. You are not the esibani for this queen.”
“Perhaps that is a good thing. I would have been a true failure at it, and you are in almost desperate need of a skilled esibani.”
“You have helped me. You have saved me, too. You should not have to be at my side constantly. There are other more important things for you to do. I am only one woman, and even were I to fall, it would likely aid your cause. My people would be forced to retaliate. It would mean war. In the confusion, you could do much to destabilize the kingdom, leaving him nothing to rule.”
He shook his head. “No. It should not come at the cost of your life.”
“You are willing to let it happen at the cost of yours.”
Agache grimaced. “I have, I fear, acted far too irresponsibly. I know what I should be doing, and I have failed at it each time. We share the same difficulty. I no more want to kill anyone than you do.”
“I suppose I should not like that about you. Still, I do.”
He smiled, squeezing her hand. “You should rest. Anokii is waiting to help you, and you should take this opportunity to heal as much as possible. I should not have woken you, but you worried me.”
She covered his hand with hers. “For all that you say the Gichikane in you makes you unable to, you care. You worry so much about your people. It is very admirable. You should be the king.”
“I would hate that,” he said, lowering his head. She waited, wondering why he had not left yet if Anokii was there to examine her bruises. “You know that is not much of a compliment—almost anyone would be a better king than he has been.”
She laughed, closing her eyes with a smile as Agache withdrew.