The door to the bunker closed behind Zari, sweat dripping down his brown skin. Traversing two miles of forgotten underground sewers on foot took more effort than expected. Thick, old air in the bunker didn’t go far to help his recovery either.
Standing in front of him as he wiped away fresh sweat were Wordshaper As’Dina and his two nieces, Jarisay and Kedis. As’Dina’s deep, round brown eyes already knew the truth of what Zari couldn’t bring himself to say.
“They’re coming,” As’Dina said to a stifled nod from Zari. The Wordshaper turned to his two nieces, five and three. He bent down to look at them with a smile of necessary comfort. Zari wondered how he could manage such expression when death wanted all of them. Despite all the misfortune that befell them, the girls smiled with genuine happiness.
“So my beautiful Princesses, remember how I told you that you going for a ride?” As’Dina asked, his voice full of charm and kindness. Zari fell in love with the kindness in that voice many times over. By all the planets in the galaxy, he didn’t want this moment. He didn’t want any of this.
As’Dina looked back at him. “Zari here is going to take you on a very long trip and you’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Zari stepped forward. “Please As—
“You know it has to be you,” As’Dina said, his eyes pleading. He didn’t want to argue. He just wanted his last moments and Zari remained silent. How could he say he loved him and deny him that? Those girls were all he had left of his family.
Jarisay, older of the two girls, frowned. Zari always thought she possessed wisdom beyond her years. “You’re not coming with us?”
As’Dina shook his head, his eyes glossing over. “No, I can’t come. I have so much to do here. But in a way I’ll be there.” He pressed a gloved hand to each of his nieces’ hearts. “I will always be in here. Always. My love will follow you from the throne of Maghandi to all the ends of the universe.”
The girls rushed their Uncle with a long hug, burying their faces into his wide shoulders. He kissed both of their heads. “Your Uncle loves you. Please, never forget that.”
Zari turned his head to hide his own tears forming. He tried not to panic at the sound of the buzz guns boring towards their last shelter. How had it all gone so bad? He bit down on a fist to keep back an anguished cry.
“Why would we forget? You’re the best Uncle in the world,” Jarisay said, pulling Kedis close to her.
Kedis, wide-faced and happy, laughed. “Yep. Our favorite.”
As’Dina put a hand to each of their faces. In Jarisay, he saw the beautiful eyes of his Mother who always woke him up with a tender touch. His fingers traced the thick, black hair that reminded him so much of his sister. Kedis carried all the joy of his Father, who never seemed to run out of jokes to tell and people to thank. He knew they could survive what the future held because they beamed with all the strength of his brother, who never let fear keep him from following his heart. As’Dina wondered where he lived in them? It broke a part of him to know that he would never know the answer, but he so wanted to see his family again. He felt terribly selfish to want that, knowing he would be leaving Jarisay and Kedis alone.
In his mind, he tried to imagine them both older. Just as beautiful as their Mother and Grandmother. Oh, he knew they would have no problem catching the eyes of many. Jarisay would always be the tenderer of the two and despite being younger, Kedis would be her protector. One day, they would be married and he hoped that they would build the kind of family he found himself fortunate enough to have. And he hoped whatever life came after this one, that he would be able to watch it all.
He gave each of them a last kiss on their foreheads and stood up to look at Zari. The pain struck him like a dagger and Zari ran right into As’Dina’s arms. Their hug screamed desperate and furious, trying to squeeze out a lifetime of moments in those few minutes left for them. As’Dina clasped a hand around the back of Zari’s head and whispered into his ear. “I will always love you. Always. Please protect them.”
“You know I will. They’re you.” Zari couldn’t bring himself to say that it would be all he had left of him. “Why do you have to stay? Why?”
“Me dying is the only chance they have,” As’Dina said. “They think I’m the last.”
Zari barely choked back a scream. “Damn this whole Empire.”
As’Dina pulled back and looked at Zari with those enrapturing eyes that captured his heart years ago. “No. Not anger. All I need right now is your love. It’s the only way I’ll be brave enough to do this.”
Their lips met and Zari felt what he never thought he would have to go without. The roar of the buzz guns grew louder. As’Dina pulled back, his face set to determination. Cold ruthlessness, born royal training, emanated from him. Despite the sorrow threatening to swallow him, Zari laughed. “I don’t think they know what’s coming for them.”
“I take you with me,” As’Dina said, his eyes beginning to strobe blue light. Zari never got use to him calling on his power. It always felt unnatural and untrue, the parts of him called to wordshape feeling wrong. He wished he closed his eyes before the blue. This should not be his last image of his lover.
As’Dina leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. “See them to safety.”
Zari nodded, walking over to the two children. He bent down and grabbed their hands. “So how about that trip?”