The plans for the irrigation system had come from Crystalglass by swift messenger. It was the lost wisdom of the Ancients--no one in the world had needed such a thing for many years--but the principles were simple enough for Irrylath to grasp, and the necessary work not beyond the capabilities of his kingdom, meager though they were.
A project like this would have been done with slave labor, once. The furious landowners who made Irrylath’s councils a misery insisted that it could only be done with slave labor. But there were no more slaves in Avaric. That had been Irrylath’s first decree upon taking his throne. It was a small thing, and it gave him no satisfaction, when he could not free Aeriel, and he could not free himself. But it was necessary, and it was done.
What was necessary would be done. That was why the Avarclon had spared Irrylath’s life, and it was the rule he lived by now.
The irrigation system was necessary. Rain wasn’t enough to turn Avaric’s broad plain into productive farmland, not after all that the long years of the White Witch’s drought had done to destroy the fragile work of the ancients, breathing life into a dead world. And, slowly, it was coming into being, it the teeth of those who called it impossible. The people of Avaric saw their own advantage, and were willing to work for it uncompelled, and they recognized the wisdom of the Aeriel at Crystalglass, who had sent the plans to them.
And--perhaps--they gave their labor gladly at the request of their king, who had been taken from them and miraculously restored, who had faced down the darkangels, fighting at Aeriel’s side.
There was no accounting for the foolishness of people.
For the most part, Irrylath’s work on the irrigation project was done from the comfort of his palace and his council room. There were experts to be found and appointed who could direct the work, there were the laborers to be provided for, and their food and lodging arranged, there were maps to be consulted, so that the channels would be laid in the best places, there were always tempers to be soothed, so that discontent over some decision or other of Irrylath’s would not turn into outright rebellion.
But there were also times when Irrylath could set all that aside, and travel to one of the encampments where the work was being done, and dig ditches and lay tiles with the rest of the laborers. The Avarclon agreed that it gave the people heart to see their king working alongside them, and it quieted the project’s critics when they saw that it was no mere whim of the king’s, but something he was devoted to with his own sweat and sinews. And yet he felt, whenever the opportunity arose, as though he was getting away with something that he shouldn’t. The good and worthy reasons that he gave to the Avarclon were only excuses--the truth was that Irrylath cherished the heat of Solstar on his face and back, the ache of muscles worked to their limit, the dreamless sleep that came with utter exhaustion. He could almost forget himself in the sensations, almost believe that there was no such person as Irrylath, King of Avaric.
It wasn’t that Irrylath wished to be someone other than who he was. It was that he wished, at times, to be no one at all.
It was an idle wish, and, as ever, it was when Irrylath gave himself up to it that the world reminded him just how impossible it was. In this case, the reminder came in the form of a caravan of men and women arriving at the encampment, armed with food and water, shovels and trowels, in place of swords. And at their head, splendid in silk and white zinc-gold, his cousin Sabr.
Irrylath had to be fetched out of the bottom of a ditch to greet them. He was wearing only a tunic suitable for working in, and his arms were coated in clay to the elbows, and when he stood before Sabr, she fell to her knees.
“You do me too much honor, Queen Sabr,” said Irrylath. “Are we not cousins?”
“If we are only cousins,” said Sabr, “then I am no queen.”
“Sabr,” said Irrylath unhappily. They had never discussed what else they might be to each other, not once it had become a real possibility rather than an idle wish. They had not met since the White Witch’s fall, though it had been a year.
“Forgive me,” said Sabr, but she raised her head and met his eyes proudly from there on her knees, not as someone who was conscious that she was in the wrong. And she was not: Irrylath knew it very well. “I know this has been a time of bitterness and grief for you, as well as endless work. I do not mean to add to your burdens. Only to share them, if you will let me. What is in my heart has never changed, ever since we met.”
Irrylath’s heart had changed so often that it was almost a stranger to him, even though it was his own heart of flesh once more. He knew that Sabr was strong, beautiful, wise--that she had ruled his people well, or some of them at least, during the years when he had been nothing but a monster and a predator. He knew that he was drawn to her, that he had once been sure that if he were free to love, he would love her. He knew that Aeriel was lost to him forever. All these things he knew--but he didn’t know how to answer Sabr.
“We will--we will discuss it,” said Irrylath. “But this is not the time, or the place. Please, stand up.”
Sabr did, rising to her feet gracefully. “Of course. It is not for that alone that I sought you out. Have you not called for laborers, and supplies? Have you not said that land will be given to those who help reclaim it? My followers and I have given up banditry, and you will find us willing workers.”
When their conversation turned to hands rather than hearts, it was better. Dividing the work between their people, distributing supplies, setting up the camp to accommodate the newcomers--they worked easily together, just as they had on the march to war. And yet, when the time came to break for food, Irrylath could barely bring himself to eat anything, though the fresh provisions Sabr had brought were better than the camp food they’d had before. And when he returned to his tent to sleep, he doubted he could, no matter how tightly he closed the doorflap against Solstar’s light.
So he stood outside, unwilling to lie down on his mattress merely to stare awake at the wall of the tent, until he heard the Avarclon’s hoofbeats and saw the Avarclon himself approaching through the rows of tents.
The Avarclon would not fit inside Irrylath’s tent. But the workers were all either inside their own tents, or still in the eating area with the remains of the feast. It was private enough for conversation when the Avarclon said, “The lady loves you truly. Why will you not give her an answer? If it is only for cruelty’s sake, it ill becomes you.”
The Avarclon was only voicing Irrylath’s own half-formed thoughts. But though he acknowledged their justice, he couldn’t seem to stop the anger beginning to seethe in his chest. It frightened him. “You are right,” said Irrylath, managing to control his voice, and not to curl his hands into fists. “I have been selfish. It is inexcusable. I will tell her, next work shift, that we will be married as soon as it can be arranged. It will …” Irrylath faltered. Beneath his rage, there was a yawning pit of hopelessness, and he could not think why. “It will please her.”
“But not you?” The Avarclon’s tail twitched and his ears flicked back. “My king, if you do not wish to marry Sabr, then refuse her.”
“Don’t treat me like a child,” Irrylath snapped. “I know very well I cannot refuse her.”
“Why?” said the Avarclon.
It was such an obvious fact that Irrylath was at a loss for how to explain it. “Aeriel said--it was her last command to me, before she left for Crystalglass. How can I ignore it?”
“Aeriel was given the wisdom of the Ancients in order to repair our world,” said the Avarclon. “That does not make her all-wise. And if she truly meant to command your heart in such a fashion, she would be a tyrant no less than the White Witch.”
“How dare you speak of her like that? You do not know--you have no idea--”
The Avarclon danced backwards, ears laid flat against his head, great wings beating the air, eyes rolling. What was Irrylath doing? He took a deep, ragged breath, trying to still his anger, to keep it contained.
“Peace, my king,” said the Avarclon after a moment. “It is not I who thinks so ill of Aeriel. I never knew her as my companion lons did, but I know that she is kind and gentle, and treasures the happiness of others above her own. I believe she grieved to leave you, though she saw the necessity of it. It may have comforted her to think that your own sorrow was fleeting, and that your true love lay elsewhere. But she is not all-wise--she may have taken comfort in a lie.”
Irrylath shook his head. The Avarclon’s words made sense, and yet the idea that Aeriel might simply have been mistaken--it did not bear thinking about. “But what of Sabr?” he said instead. “Avaric has need of the people and the supplies she has brought. If I say I will not marry her, she will take them away again.”
“Why do you say so?”
“How not?” said Irrylath. “It is as you said--she loves me truly. If I deny her, she will punish me.”
For a minute, the Avarclon didn’t speak. He lay his head in the crook of Irrylath’s shoulder, and Irrlylath felt the soft flutter of cheek-wings against his neck, the keenness of horn against his cheek. He reached up wonderingly and stroked the Avarclon's velvety nose.
“Irrylath,” said the Avarclon. “That is not what love is.”
“I don't understand,” said Irrylath.
The Avarclon removed his head from Irrylath’s shoulder, shook out his mane, and said, “They say that when Aeriel was only a servant in your house, before you made her your bride, you set her to spinning for your wives. They say that there was never a fabric so fine and light and strong, for she spun it out of love. Tell me, did she ever demand aught of your wives, in return for her spinning?”
“No,” said Irrylath. “She did not. She demanded nothing, and I gave her nothing--nothing but a hollow marriage of bitterness and regrets.”
“And do you have anything better to offer Sabr?”
“I don’t know,” said Irrylath. “What shall I do?”
“That, I cannot answer,” said the Avarclon.
“You must,” Irrylath insisted. “You spared my life when it was yours to take, and put aside your revenge for the good of Avaric. So I must live for Avaric now and not for myself. I will do what is necessary, no matter how painful, but you must tell me what it is.”
The Avarclon snorted and stamped impatiently. “I did not spare your life that you might make of me a stick to beat yourself with. You have done that yourself.”
“Because,” said the Avarclon, “in the days when you used to climb on my back, you were small and helpless, and you trusted me.”
Irrylath closed his eyes and sighed. His anger seemed to have sunk into the sands without a trace, like unchanneled rainfall, leaving only the hopelessness behind. Perhaps it would be always with him--a poor enough thing, to share with anyone. “I will not ask you to command my heart,” he told the Avarclon. “I will give Sabr my own answer, let it please her or no. But will you stay with me?”
“Of course,” said the Avarclon. And with that solid presence standing by the door of his tent, Irrylath found sleep after all, and no dreams.