Uhra hadn't changed much.
Well, the enormous holes in the ground, those were new, and there were places where huge, clawed footprints were clearly visible in the stone. And Gongora was gone, which was a definite improvement. People were talking about King Tolten with fresh and startled respect, or else an enthusiasm prompted mostly by shame.
In the neighborhoods Jansen knew best, though, nothing was really different at all. Dust coated the yellow stone, but there was little other sign of battle. The Gohtzan army had known their targets, and unlike Gongora, they hadn't carried the fighting into the residential areas.
No, his apartment looked the same as it always had--drab, in poor repair, and small. Jansen scuffed his shoe on the dusty street, tracing the cracks between paving stones, and sighed. Just as well he was doing this alone, really. He'd seen where all his friends lived, and even the kids with their house in the ruined city had him outclassed. Sarah and Kaim had a literal mansion. Sed, well, piracy had its own standards and he had to admit the Nautilus was an impressive ship. Tolten was a proper king now, complete with palace.
He wouldn't have wanted any of them to see this. Turning down their offers of company and coming alone would definitely have been the right thing to do, no question. If anyone had, y'know, offered to come.
Jansen grimaced irritably at himself and hurried up the outside stairway. There had been a railing once, but it had been gone long before the Gohtzan attack. His apartment was on the end, and had the primary benefits of being private, and being cheap. Running errands for Gongora had never paid much until that last assignment.
He'd left the key with his landlady, he was almost sure; right before that ill-considered night at the tavern with most of the money. Hopefully the building still belonged to her, though he couldn't imagine her letting anything short of complete destruction pry it from her wrinkled fingers. He knocked at the first door, and waited, idly straightening his hair.
And knocked again, and waited.
Just as he was about to try the fourth time, the door creaked open, and the familiar wrinkled face frowned suspiciously at him. Jansen tried on a charming smile, not that it had ever worked on her before. "Hi, ma'am, I'm, uh, I'm back. Can I have my key?"
Her eyebrows went up. "Well, if it isn't Jansen Friedh, alive after all! Here all the girls were saying you'd gone to Grand Staff and got yourself killed." She scowled, absently. "Going to cost me two gold, you are. Nina bet me you'd be back."
"Really?" Jansen asked, startled. Nina, his landlady's niece, who worked at the Monorail Central Station, had always hated him.
"Oh, sure. Nina said whatever happened, you were slimy enough to wriggle out of it." She shrugged. "But I've let the room to someone else. You want your stuff? There wasn't much."
Counting back, Jansen supposed he was well past his rent period. And it wasn't as though he needed a place to spend the night; he had his pick of palace rooms, plus the White Boa. "Yeah, I'd like my stuff," he said. Everything essential had come with him, but there were a few personal things he didn't want to lose, and it would be nice to have the extra clothes. Tolten had encouraged them all to visit the palace tailors if they wanted to, but Jansen would rather wear his own clothes than have a stranger fit him for some costume more appropriate for royal guests. Most royal guests looked like idiots, in his opinion.
She shut the door in his face. Jansen flinched back from the loud thump, and wondered why he was doing this, anyway. I helped save the world. A Queen kissed me. I don't live here anymore, I don't have to be who I was anymore.
But with Kaim and Sarah doing the tourist thing with their grandkids, and Sed dashing around in search of material and people for the resupply and repair of the ships, and Ming and Tolten very busy with treaties and trade agreements and fixing the complete chaos Gongora had left of Uhra's government, there wasn't anything better to do.
If I'm not who I was, who am I?
His former landlady slammed the door open again and shoved his second-best travel bag in his direction. Someone had fit his spare clothes and the few books and pictures he owned into it, certainly without rolling them together the right way and probably without even trying, to judge by its uneven bulges. Jansen sighed. "Thank you," he said politely. "Sorry about your bet."
She huffed at him and closed her door again. Jansen trudged down the stairs.
Maybe the trouble was that he had never really expected to survive the battle. Now that he'd actually managed it, he just wasn't sure what to do next. There was Ming, who'd said, unbelievably, that she wanted to stay in this world for him; but now that they'd survived, all her focus seemed to be on making sure that Numara and Uhra weren't going to go to war, with each other or anyone else.
Which was certainly a very proper focus for a Queen, and it wasn't her fault that Jansen didn't have anything helpful to contribute. Or that all the high-level Uhrans looked at him as though he were something she'd forgotten to wipe off her boot. Most of them had known him as Gongora's messenger, and now that they'd been introduced to Gongora's true colors, none of them liked or trusted Jansen. He was sure Ming would set them straight if he mentioned it to her--okay, mostly sure--well, almost. But it was easier for everyone if he just wasn't there. Especially since he didn't understand more than one word in three once they got going on all the vitally important aspects of the treaty, like how many fish Uhran ships were allowed to take from the southern sea.
He'd hardly spoken to Ming in three days. Just that morning, Mack had informed him that Ming had been hunting Jansen down for a little private time, but that a message from Tolten had arrived and she'd had to put on her Royal face and storm off again. Well, Mack hadn't put it quite like that.
Jansen blinked, looking up, to find a familiar sign staring back. Without conscious direction, his feet apparently defaulted toward the nearest tavern. He chuckled softly. Might as well; nobody needed him for now, and a mug or two of beer wouldn't hurt anything.
It was early afternoon, past the midday crowd and well before any but the most serious drinkers were ready to begin the evening, and the tables were empty except for two men in the leather pads of off-duty soldiers. Jansen found a stool at the bar and signaled the bartender for a drink.
What he needed was a job, Jansen decided, fiddling with his hair while he waited. He'd never been a fan of volunteering for work, but not having anything to do just wasn't very much fun. There had to be something an experienced and powerful black mage could do around here, besides babysit, which was clearly out of the question and also the only thing Kaim had come up with. No, thank you, he had enough of a bruise on his leg already, why give Cooke more chances to kick him? He'd been careful not to mention his previous track record in keeping kids out of trouble.
Maybe the clean-up crews needed help. He could blow stuff up for them. That might be kinda interesting.
The bartender, a young man with stains on his apron who was clearly new at this, brought his beer with considerable slosh down the side of the mug. Jansen dragged a coin out in return. At least he had plenty of money, between the rewards they'd been getting from grateful strangers the whole trip and Tolten's insistence that all of them should have something to spend while they were here. He just couldn't think of anything he wanted to buy.
It was a very strange feeling. He took a large gulp of beer to see if being a little drunk would feel more like normal, but he rather suspected that normal had escaped him the day he'd first agreed to go with Kaim and Seth.
Behind him, one of the Uhran soldiers raised his voice to scoff, "The Queen of Numara? The thousand-year-old one who's never been married, that Queen? You better not have any more to drink, or they'll put you on report!" Jansen involuntarily pricked up his ears.
The other insisted, "No, it's true! I had it from Kyras--you know, my cousin's brother-in-law, the one in the Council guard. To seal the treaty, the Council wants King Tolten to marry the Queen."
"But she hasn't agreed to it, has she? There'd have been announcements all over the place."
The soldier clunked his mug to the table. "Just today she has. Kyras was telling me he didn't think she was very happy about it, but she signed the treaty, so there you are."
With a skeptical snort, the first man got to his feet, his chair creaking. "One of these days, someone's gonna figure out you're the one dropping state secrets everywhere you go, and they aren't gonna be real happy about that."
"Oh, come on, you and the guys are always asking me what I've heard," the well-informed soldier protested, and they both trooped out of the tavern without a backwards look.
Jansen stared at his beer without seeing it. Tolten--and Ming? It wasn't possible, she'd have told him--
He'd been making himself scarce lately. And Ming had wanted to talk with him. What if this was what she'd wanted to talk about?
This treaty was desperately important to Ming. Numara and Uhra were the only countries left with enough resources to carry on a war, and neither of them could rebuild properly if the populations were always expecting an attack. No matter how unlikely it was that Ming or Tolten would declare war on each other, their people had to see that, had to know that, which wasn't easy after all Gongora's lies and Kakanas's plots. Ming had explained all this to Jansen, and he'd even listened to most of it. She was absolutely gorgeous when she felt that strongly about something.
So Tolten was the heir to the Royal House of Uhra, and possibly the key to Numara's wellbeing, which Ming had been guarding for all her thousand years. And Jansen was a former thief who'd joined the group as Gongora's puppet and spy. Yeah. Real tough choice there.
Jansen ducked his head and signaled for another beer.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
By the fourth beer, the thought of skipping town was sounding more and more appealing to Jansen. Maybe he could sign on with Sed and be a pirate. Pirates needed mages, right? Sure. Except Sed might want to spend time in Uhra. Or Numara. Which Jansen didn't want to, though he couldn't quite remember why. Numara was nice, with the pretty white stone and the pretty sea and the pretty flowers and the pretty queen...
Oh. Right. That was why.
Not nearly drunk enough yet, Jansen thought sourly, tripping on the tavern's flat doorstep. Stupid bartender kid, kicking him out.
If he left now, he might make it out to the White Boa before they made that announcement he didn't want to hear. The trouble was, Jansen was pretty sure Ming was going to want to talk to him about it before there was any official announcement, because she was polite like that and wouldn't want him to hear this from anyone but her.
There were a whole list of things Jansen would rather do than go back to the palace, drunk and stinking of beer, to wait for the woman he loved to tell him she had to marry someone else. But if he left now, he had the feeling that for the rest of his life, the voice in the back of his head would be calling him a coward. It might be true in some cases, but not about this. Never about this.
Well, he'd be giving Ming a real good look at why she was making the right choice, anyway. Jansen braced himself on the nearest building, which was only a little crooked, and took a reading on the direction of the palace. There were two of them, overshadowing all the other buildings, but they were pretty close together, so he figured he could make it.
Reaching the palace was somewhat easier than convincing the guards that he was supposed to be there. Jansen found a handy wall to prop himself up and argued, "Seriously! I sailed 'round the world at least a couple times with your king. I am a guest." He'd never realized how hard that word was to pronounce before, and it took him three tries. The guard didn't look any more convinced when Jansen got it right, either. He was an especially large guard, and he scowled like an Arthrosaurus.
In the middle of Jansen's internal debate over whether it would be rude to cast a sleep spell, or whether casting anything would just get him beaten up by the other guards, a voice he definitely did not want to hear said, "Jansen! There you are!"
Tolten, King of the Magic Republic of Uhra, which was a stupid title, and the man that Jansen most wanted to punch, dashed out from the palace entrance in his blindingly gold armor and waved the guards away. "Are you all right? Ming's been looking everywhere for you."
"Fine," Jansen said, pushed away from the wall, and found himself leaning on Tolten's gold arm. "A little drunk," he admitted, and unwillingly let himself be guided inside. It would be so much easier to hate Tolten if the kid weren't always so blasted nice.
Maybe it wasn't true, he thought, in sudden, painful hope. People did get things wrong. Especially people who gossiped in taverns. "Listen, I heard the weirdest thing about a wedding--"
The King of Uhra looked instantly guilty. "How did you hear about that? The Council only brought it up this morning."
Hope dying, Jansen mumbled something and stepped on Tolten's foot. The armor defeated him, but it was the thought that counted.
"I know Ming didn't have a chance to talk to you yet, but the Council was so set on it, and no one knew where you were..." Tolten could look way too appealing. "I'm really very sorry."
"I'm sure you are," Jansen muttered. "Where's Ming?" Might as well get this over with. Then he could go...somewhere. Gohtza needed plenty of help rebuilding. That was nice and far from Numara.
Tolten pointed him down the corridor to the guest suites, and took his leave, sounding more awkward than ever. Jansen ignored him. He could hear Ming's harp music even from the hallway, as gentle and beautiful and sad as the first time he'd ever seen her.
He meant to open the door quietly, slip in, and listen till she noticed him. The door decided not to support him, leaping out of his grasp and closing behind him with a thud as he hit the ground hard. The music stopped abruptly and Ming turned, startled, to blink at him.
"Um, sorry?" He grinned sheepishly at her from the floor.
Ming was wearing an especially well-polished set of her usual clothes, the formal Numaran costume that was also, not by coincidence, travel wear and battle armor, but her hair was loose and fell in soft waves around her face. Jansen had to take a few moments to appreciate the effect.
She frowned at him. "Are you drunk, Jansen?" Oddly enough, it didn't sound like an accusation. Puzzled curiosity lifted her delicate eyebrows.
Jansen tried to find a way around this question, but there really wasn't one that didn't involve lying. "Yeah, I--uh, it seemed like a good idea at the time." He tried to hold the grin, but it slid away from his grasp like melting ice.
"I am glad you came," she said, setting her harp carefully aside. "I need to talk to you."
There was something cold squeezing his heart. "I thought your harp was back on the ship," he said, in a desperate play for a few more seconds.
Ming touched its smooth curve. "It was, but the last few days have been quite frustrating, and Tolten was kind enough to send for it."
And that had been no help at all. "How nice of him," Jansen growled under his breath.
Her forehead creased slightly in a frown. "I'm not sure we can talk at all if you are this drunk. Do you mind?" Magic glinted in her hand, and before Jansen could gather the wit to protest that yes, really, he'd rather be drunk for this, it washed across him, bringing an unwelcome clarity. He should've known he'd regret teaching her that use for the Cure Poison spell.
Wearily, he climbed to his feet, leaning on the doorframe, and waited for the final blow to fall. It wasn't Ming's fault. She was doing her best for her country. Tolten probably was, too. Which didn't change the fact that he'd rather be back in the deadly light from the Mirror than preparing to hear this.
Ming studied him, her eyes very sharp. "Jansen, what is the matter?"
He shrugged, looking away. "You wanted to talk to me about the wedding, right?"
"Yes. I take it you've heard about the Council's suggestion." She sighed, a long and irritated noise, and ran her hands through her long hair. "Although Tolten is recognized as the king of Uhra now, of course, the Council will probably keep most of its power locally. They've proven very capable of looking after the people, they have popular support, and it would be foolish for Tolten to make enemies of them when he can avoid it. I won't sell Kakanas's tanks, and I can't commit Numara to an exclusive trade agreement when Khent and Gohtza need aid so badly, but the Council needs some visible sign of friendship."
Jansen nodded, feeling numb. Politics. He had to go and fall in love with a Queen, and he understood politics like a rock understood sailing.
Ming continued, "I wanted to ask you about it first, but they were willing to give in on all the other points we've been arguing over for three days..." She grimaced, looking uncharacteristically old. "I am so tired of the arguing. I hoped you'd understand."
"Understand," he echoed, blankly. "Sure. Best thing for Numara. And Uhra. And all that."
"Jansen..." Ming stepped toward him, her voice low and troubled. "Please, tell me what is wrong."
He forced his head up and pasted a smile on. "Sure, no, nothing, I get it. Have to make a show for the people and all."
Ming watched him for a long moment, during which he twitched and couldn't quite look at her. "So, you're all right with Tolten performing our wedding?"
Wait. What had she-- "What?"
"Tolten is going to come to Numara and perform the ceremony when I marry you," Ming repeated, without moving. "Do you mind, Jansen? Because if you do, we could stay here another week or two and renegotiate."
He ran this through his head twice more. It didn't change. "You mean you want to marry me?" It ended in a squeak that was not at all dignified, not that he could have made himself look any more like an idiot.
"Ah," Ming breathed, and reached up to cup his face gently in her hands. "Yes, Jansen. I want to marry you, very much. I thought you knew that."
She had made some fairly mind-blowing statements back on the ship, but with the whole queen thing, it was too complicated for him to assume anything. "You, being the Queen and all, and me, it's not like I--is everyone gonna, you know, be okay with it? I thought, maybe Tolten was, you know, a better, a better king, and stuff." Honestly, he kind of figured the Numarans would hate the idea of a penniless foreign commoner marrying their queen.
Ming lifted her chin, and didn't let go of him, forcing him to meet her gaze. She'd never looked more queenly. "I have led Numara for a thousand years, and I am well able to keep my country strong without using marriage as a tool," she said fiercely. "I will marry for love, or not at all. Jansen, you are not my dirty secret, or my private shame. You are the man I love, and I want to make my vows to you before my people and live with you all your life."
Jansen felt heat rising in his face. "That's, uh...wow," he whispered, completely wordless for once in his life.
She grinned at him, a sudden, impish look that struck sparks in his heart. "And if any Numaran refuses to share my joy, they are free to leave. Gohtza is in need of immigrants."
It startled a laugh out of him. "That's better," Ming said, approvingly. "I was quite worried about you for a moment." She hesitated, and stepped back a fraction, hands dropping to her sides. "So? Will you marry me? I know it will mean less freedom than you have been accustomed to..."
"I would do anything, if it makes you happy," Jansen said, not really surprised to find the words absolutely true. "I just can't understand--why me?"
Ming's eyes went very deep, and Jansen felt for a moment that looking into them was like falling through her thousand years. "Because you were never afraid of me, but you never saw me as a path to power. Because you made me laugh," she said, with a raw honesty he hadn't expected. "You make me feel like a human and not a marble statue, and if we only have a few short decades together, I want to share everything I am with you for as long as you live, and treasure the memory all my life."
He breathed, for what felt like the first time in hours, and reached, tentatively, to thread his fingers through her hair. There was nothing he could offer her in return for words like those, no speech that would be grand enough, nothing at all except himself in return for her. "I love you," he whispered, and pulled her closer to demonstrate.
A while later, when Ming's hair was thoroughly mussed, Jansen thought of something and drew back to ask, "Do we have to tell people what I thought? Because I think I was a little stupid there...kinda pathetic, really. We don't have to tell Tolten, do we?"
Ming laughed, bright as a chiming bell, and agreed, "We don't have to tell anyone." And then went back to proving that she, at least, didn't think he was pathetic at all.
Notes: This use of Cure Poison theorized by Wei Jiangling in Midnight After, which is a very cute tag to the scene at the inn that you should go read and review. It makes so much sense to me that I couldn't not use it.
This fic is dedicated to my sister, for her birthday. Such innocent comments as "I'd like to see an actual proposal," and "Why do you think Tolten married them, anyway?" led to this prolonged torture for poor Jansen. But that was mostly my fault.
Please review! Especially if you want me to be inspired and write more.