Liyana waved the white flag as she walked across the expanse toward the emperor’s camp. After a while her arm ached, but she continued to hold it high. She didn’t want to be riddled with arrows.
Lowering the flag, she climbed over a cluster of rocks. She raised it up high and waved it once she reached the other side. She watched each step, veering around clumps of brittle grasses, in case not all of the snakes and scorpions had dispersed after the battle.
Ahead she saw the tents in the neat rows that she remembered. It looked as if the emperor had scooped up the encampment from its location on the border and then deposited it intact in the middle of the desert.
Guards gathered at the edge. She’d been seen.
Last time she’d told him a story. This time there was no relevant story. No one had ever done what had happened here. She caught a glimpse of a glint out of the corner of her eye. She looked up and saw two sky serpents wheeling overhead. Stars reflected off their scales. She wondered what they thought of the battle. She hoped they knew the desert people were keeping their gods’ bargain.
Liyana felt the goddess swirl inside.
Liyana approached the guards.
The guards clutched their swords. One had a bow with an arrow leveled at her chest. Liyana continued to hold the white flag. “I am here to accept the offer to parlay with His Imperial Majesty,” she said. “I come in peace, and I expect to be treated with hospitality.”
One guard had a gash on his cheek. Clotted blood still dotted his face.
Liyana spread her arms out. “I am unarmed.”
He lowered the tip of his sword.
“I am not your enemy,” Liyana said. “Take me to the emperor.”
* * *
Ringed by guards, Liyana was led through the camp. Other soldiers joined them as they marched, until she could see only uniforms in every direction. She kept her eyes straight ahead, and she gripped the truce flag so hard that the wood dented her skin.
At last the guards parted, and she saw the emperor’s tent. It matched her memory of it exactly, and for an instant she felt like she had weeks ago, when she first insisted on an audience with the emperor and demanded that he leave.
One of the soldiers bowed low. “This desert woman approached under a flag of truce. She wishes to parlay.” The soldiers parted, and she saw him. His eyes locked on hers, and she felt her heart lurch. She hadn’t expected to feel . . . She didn’t know what she felt.
The emperor rose from behind his ridiculous wooden desk. She spotted the circles under his eyes, so dark that they looked like the smudge of a thumbprint. “Liyana or Bayla?” he asked.
“Both,” she said. “But you speak to Liyana.”
“Leave us,” the emperor ordered his guards.
Bowing, the guards exited the tent. The emperor studied her for a moment and then crossed to the pillows and sat. He poured tea into two chalices.
Liyana sat across from the emperor and accepted one of the chalices.
“Your people killed many of my soldiers,” the emperor said. “I did not expect that. Congratulations.”
The tea tasted sour. She set it down. “Three other vessels were with me when I came into your camp. All of them are dead now, displaced by deities. I do not celebrate deaths, ours or yours.”
“And that is why you are here,” the emperor said. It was a statement, not a question. “We are thousands. You do not want this much blood on your hands.”
“Bayla wants me to kill you,” Liyana said.
“She should,” the emperor said without changing his expression. “I ordered her imprisonment with the intent of causing suffering to her clan.”
“But you intended to save them—and me,” Liyana said.
“Yes, I did,” he said. “Without their deities the clans would have welcomed an alliance with the empire. We could have worked together to survive the drought. It was a brilliant plan. You undid it.”
“I won’t apologize for that,” Liyana said.
A brief smile crossed his lips. “I do not expect you to, any more than I will apologize to you for trying to save my people.”
“You’re still trying,” she pointed out. “You haven’t left.”
“We are healing from the attack,” he said. “Our focus has not been on packing.”
“But you don’t intend to leave.”
“Once, there was a mosquito who—” the emperor began.
Liyana reached over and touched his hand. Inside her, Bayla crowed,
The emperor covered her hand with his. His hand was soft and warm. “It is too late for a simple peace. You saw the fear in the eyes of my people. If I do not find a way to defeat that fear, it will eat at us as surely as hunger.” His lips quirked into a smile. “When you walked into my tent that day, I never expected you held the power to destroy an empire.”
“I didn’t have a goddess in me then,” Liyana said.
“You don’t need one,” the emperor said. “You are powerful on your own.”
She looked into his eyes. He had sorrow inside, more sadness than he should have had to hold. “If our people fight again, more will die,” she said. “We have magic, but you have numbers. You don’t want more blood on your hands, either. I know that.”
“You presume to know me.”
He was silent, staring into her eyes, and she found herself holding her breath. It was presumptuous of her. Not so long ago she would not have dreamed of uttering such a statement. But it felt true.
“Become my wife,” he said.
She stared as all words fled her mind. It felt as if the world slowed and faded away beyond the tent. She heard a roar of wind.
He leaned forward and very gently kissed her. His lips felt like a butterfly on her lips. He drew back, and she touched her lips with her fingertips.
“We can save our people by uniting our people,” he said.
“We . . . my people . . .” It felt difficult to think, as if she had to swim through sand. “We value our freedom.”
“You would have it,” he said. “As empress you could ensure that your people retain the independence they need. You would be joining the empire as an equal nation, not a conquered one.”
Bayla roared inside her. Caught off guard, Liyana fell into darkness. The swirl of Bayla’s presence surrounded her, and Liyana fought her way back to feel her body. She blinked her eyes. She was lying on the blankets. The emperor bent over her, his face merely inches from hers. He clutched her shoulders. “Liyana? Liyana! Can you hear me?”
“You care,” she said, wonder filling her voice. The look in his eyes . . .
He loosened his grip and rocked back. Raising his head, he waved to the guards. “All is well. You may leave us. Tell the doctors to return to the wounded.” He bent back over Liyana. “Are you well? Was it her—Bayla?”
She nodded, and she felt tears spill out of her eyes onto her cheeks.
“No more bloodshed,” he said.
“And the lake?” Liyana asked. “You cannot enter the mountains. United or not, that must never happen. The sky serpents will attack.”
He took a deep breath. “If you can bring water to the desert, then summoning it to a once-fertile land . . . You could bring magic to the empire through what is inside you. We will not need the mountains or the lake.” Kneeling, he held both her hands in his. “Come to my empire, Liyana. Come save us.”
Liyana felt Bayla swirl faster and faster like a sandstorm. She heard the rush of wind inside of her.
Bayla swirled inside her.
Liyana felt as if her breath had been stolen away. She felt the full force of her goddess’s anger rising inside her. It threatened to engulf her, but she clung to her body as if to a tree in a windstorm.
The emperor cupped her face in his hand. “Liyana?”
She took a breath and then another. “Your Imperial Majesty . . .”
“Jarlath,” he said. “My parents called me Jarlath. You may as well.”
She liked the name. “Jarlath, I cannot marry you.” He lowered his hand, and she caught it in hers. “She will not allow it.” But Bayla could not control all of her, despite her threats. Liyana leaned forward and kissed the emperor.