There was a terrible pain in the room somewhere and a taste like salt in his mouth. His forehead ran with sweat. He tried to turn in his bed but couldn’t move. Breathing hurt. He opened his mouth, parched, and water was miraculously at his lips. There were cool fingertips on his neck as he drank and he put his face in her shoulder for a moment, unable to help it.
‘What is it?’ he managed to ask and Sophia’s voice said, from a great distance, ‘they don’t know.’
After that, time blurred. He kept waking up for a few moments and each time everything seemed to have changed around him. There was a time when there was a strong smell of camphor in the room and a man he didn’t recognise was bending over him in the bed. There was a time when it was the pitch of night and only Sophia was in the room, sitting by the bed with her lamp, her face still and watchful. Another time it was broad day and the room was crowded with people and voices and Rufus was shouting something. Then Sophia said something and there was silence and he drifted again.
It was, he found out later, some sort of fever and there was still an epidemic in the city. He had lost about a half a stone of weight and he still felt half-dead with exhaustion. But he was alive, after three solid months of no one believing he would live, and nothing had happened: no one had even tried to overthrow Sophia. She looked different, he thought, studying her across the room as she moved among his guests and murmured thanks and accepted congratulations. She carried her head differently. Imperial, he thought, and then she glanced at him briefly and he saw that she was almost as exhausted as he was. All the memories of his illness had blurred together but he remembered her presence in every single one. She could barely have slept.
‘You’re tired,’ she said afterwards, as they walked up the great stairs together.
‘A little,’ he agreed and immediately realised that he wasn’t, exactly. There was a restless itch in his blood. Two mortal months of rest was enough for any man. He took her wrist as they reached the head of the stairs and drew her to him, watching the wary set of her mouth and her darkening eyes. She really was lovely, in her strange way.
‘Empress Sophia,’ he said. She smiled a little ruefully at the title and then he kissed her. She kissed back willingly this time, no hesitation, her arms tight around his neck and her body pressed to his. He hadn’t touched her since before his illness: there had been revolts up and down the islands all summer and they had both been locked in negotiations for months before his night sweats had begun. He’d enjoyed her before, always, but tonight was different. She went up under his touch like a wildfire, utterly abandoned and eager, reaching for him every moment. Once, oddly, she kissed his hand – like a subject, on his knuckles – and it felt like his heart caving in. He couldn’t understand her in the least.
‘Don’t,’ she said afterwards, when he opened his mouth to speak and he closed it again. She lay still a few moments and then sat up and began to braid her hair.
‘We should talk about the curia,’ she said, as her fingers worked deftly through the long dark strands.
‘The curia?’ he said blankly, and she gave him a brief impatient glance: keep up. Apparently her relief that he hadn’t died could manifest itself in wild kisses but not in any sort of tolerance for slowness in understanding. He tried not to grin.
‘What did they try?’ he asked.
‘Everything,’ she said, tossing the braid over her shoulder. ‘They panicked. They wouldn’t let me hold court at first and they wanted to appoint Rufus regent. They’ll need to hear you speak, soon, or they’ll think I’m pulling the strings.’
He looked at her.
‘Don’t you want to pull the strings?’ he asked. ‘Even a little?’
She frowned, puzzled.
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I’ve been trying to make you change the grain subsidy since -‘
‘That doesn’t count,’ he interrupted. ‘I mean actual power.’
‘I have power,’ she said, still frowning in puzzlement, and he shook his head, and let it go. Her mind was shaped by her village idea of government, and she still believed power mostly meant doing things, making wells and laws and worrying about grain subsidies. She had no idea what it meant here, to Julia, to Rufus, to him. He felt unexpectedly distant from her; they were so unlike, really, for all they had in common when it came to military strategy. She was so serious. And somehow this whim of his had collided with her seriousness and now he was entangled in something he couldn’t quite understand. She frowned faintly, questioningly, and he bent to kiss her again mostly because he couldn’t quite stand to meet her eyes.