“Bah! They all just enjoy an excuse to fuss. You know how they are, one little cut from a slipped dinner knife and they all descend like vultures.” Lior’s laugh was loud and unapologetic. Dassah remembered being annoyed by it at first - it was the laugh of someone who didn’t worry about disturbing others in their conversations, someone who unashamedly enjoyed having the attention of the whole room. It had seemed very unkingly to her at first, more used to elders who commanded with presence and quiet voices. Now it just reminded her of how quiet the place had been in his absence. Shaking her head, she gave him a tolerant smile and sat, trying to keep out of the way of the healers who were indeed still fussing around him.
“It seemed worse than that when you arrived.” He had seemed to be leaning on the soldier with him quite heavily - had she only imagined it?
Lior waved dismissively, settling down more comfortably into the cushioned chair. He seemed in good enough shape, with only one leg bandaged and resting upon a footrest. His sandy hair was washed and combed now, just starting to dry into its usual mane of frizz, and he was dressed in clean, comfortable clothing. As he shifted, Dassah spotted bandages through the collar of his shirt and glanced away, chewing her lower lip. With the healers here it seemed impolite to fuss.
“Just don’t push yourself at the feast tonight,” she said at last. “Everyone else will also still be recovering, even if you feel as hale and hearty as when you left. Be gentle, hm?”
“Me? Gentle?” Lior pressed a hand to his heart with an injured expression. “I’m as gentle as a mother doe.” Grinning as she snorted, he waved impatiently at the healers again. “All right, that’s enough fussing now! Leave us be.”
“Thank you,” added Hadassah as the healers murmured their apologies, bowed and left. She gave Lior a scolding look and he held up his hands in surrender.
“They can fuss all they want in the morning, I promise. And I won’t even complain.”
“Good.” She hesitated, then moved her chair closer. “I’m glad to see you back.”
Not bothering with shuffling furniture about, Lior simply pulled her out of her chair entirely and into a hug; Dassah let out a brief squeak of surprise. Instead of reprimanding him she just rested her cheek against his shoulder, closing her eyes. He smelled of antiseptic herbs and himself, a mixture of soap, pipe smoke and armour polish. She didn’t open her eyes as he kissed her on the forehead, his beard and moustache tickling her skin.
“I missed you too, Dasi. Don’t worry so much. We can deal with things tomorrow.”
She turned her head to rest her forehead against him. “… all right. Just this once.”
The room returned to quiet. Just the sound of breathing, and the ticking of the old clock on the wall.
Though Hadassah had expected the feast to be something of a subdued affair, to her surprise it turned out to be as lively as the one they’d had before the soldiers set out. There were quiet periods, of course, but the overwhelming emotion seemed to be relief: they had survived where others had not. It was something to celebrate and be thankful for. As the night wore on and the wine flowed freely, the mood turned a little more sombre, though not much. Instead of rowdy merrymaking, soldiers and families swapped stories of those who’d been lost, speaking of love and bravery and determination to protect a home they loved. Through it all King Lior was a constant figure, bellowing with laughter in the cheerier moments and sharing tales with the others. Dassah listened and smiled and tried to keep an eye on him, but surrounded by his people, Lior was untouchable. He was a leader to the bone, even now.
The festivities didn’t end until the early hours of the morning, when finally it was decided by all that the time for rest and recovery was upon them once more. Even so, the king didn’t leave the hall until everyone else had departed, chatting with those who stayed behind to see him and ensuring that those who’d overindulged a little were seen home safely either by their family or by castle staff. Though she returned home and to bed, Dassah didn’t sleep until she heard him return and felt the bed dip with his comforting weight. He wrapped an arm around her belly, pulling her close, and without opening her eyes she leaned into his quiet warmth.
It couldn’t have been much later when she awoke to him coughing and struggling to breathe. Shaking off sleep she scrambled to the door, shouting for the healers, calling and calling as she ran down the corridor until she was close enough to actually be heard. Even once they arrived she paced, useless and helpless, as they worked with quiet urgency. Even from where she was standing she could tell that it was another battle they were losing.
The sun was almost risen by the time Hadassah found herself standing before the head physician. Through her shock and lack of sleep the whole scene had a dreamlike quality; she felt like a spectator to her life, standing outside and looking in through a window as the small, haggard man gripped her hands and apologised and apologised again. They had done all they could, he said. It had been like holding back the tide, but they’d done the best they could. It just hadn’t been enough. As the king’s body cooled, Dassah thought it must be drawing the rest of the warmth from the room as well. That would be the only explanation as to why she felt so cold.