Csethiro had once again seen to it that a light, early, lunch had been brought to their dance lesson. She had some way of knowing when Maia hadn’t been eating more than a token amount - probably through Csevet - and had taken to ensuring he could have an opportunity to eat somewhere he could be at least relatively relaxed. Although, since the Great Avar’s declaration to, at minimum, Lord Berenar and Csevet that Maia must be allowed to do things that were for himself, the relentless press of appointments, meetings, and events had eased somewhat. Maia found it a little easier to have an appetite these days.
Nemer had noted the other day, and with some satisfaction, that the Emperor’s clothes fit a touch more snugly.
“Not much, Serenity,” he had hastened to assure Maia, “not even enough to need letting out.”
“Not even enough to be noticed once thou art dressed,” Avris had added, approaching with a selection of jewelry and tashin sticks for the day.
Maia, who had always been skinny and hadn’t put on any additional weight or breadth since reaching his adult height at sixteen, wasn’t sure how he felt about this. If it should have quieted the echo of ‘scrawny, moon-witted, hobgoblin’ he heard in his mind at times when he looked at himself in the mirror, it did not. Nor was he yet sure how to feel about being surrounded by people who cared if he were too thin or not.
One more thing thou must learn, he told himself and put it aside to go down to breakfast and deal with the morning’s letters.
“I wanted to tell you,” he said to Csethiro, over after-lunch tea and tiny, crumbly, sugary, cookies, “I appreciate that you have lunch brought here. I sometimes...that is, at times I don’t want to eat, even though I know I should.”
“I had heard as much,” Csethiro said, confirming his suspicions by adding, “in truth, this was Mer Aisava’s suggestion, but I thought it a good one.”
Maia wondered, once again, if there were anything Csevet did not think of, before deciding that if Csevet didn’t think of it, no one else was likely to either.
“It is,” Maia said. “Thank you.”
“You are most welcome,” Csethiro answered, and they shared a smile.
A moment of quiet fell between them, warm and companionable and with none of the awkwardness that had tinted their early meetings. It had not been awkward between them for quite some time. Maia wasn’t sure if it could be called love, but it was definitely more than the business transaction he’d feared such a marriage would be.
Csethiro finished her tea and set down the cup. Between them, the cookies had disappeared, leaving only fragile crumbs and grains of sugar on the plate. Maia hadn’t even noticed how many he’d had.
“Shall we dance, Maia?” she asked. “You had not quite got the steps I showed you last time, I think?”
Maia agreed, and they went through the steps again, more slowly than the dance actually required. He could manage the beginning and the middle, but the inside turn at the end proved tricky. Csethiro assured him it could be difficult even for experienced dancers. She briefly let go of him to demonstrate by herself what his feet and arm needed to do, and they tried again, but without success. In fact, he managed that time to throw her off balance, and she caught herself just before she fell against him, one palm flat on his chest, his hands on her waist to steady her.
Maia’s awareness of her, of her proximity to him, suddenly sharpened. Csethiro stared up at him for what seemed an impossibly long moment, then the set of her jaw firmed decisively and she stretched up and kissed him.
Startled, Maia managed to keep enough wits, or at least instincts, about him to kiss her back. It was perhaps not the best-performed kiss, with bumping noses and uncertain mouths, and once a click of teeth, but it was Maia’s first - their first - and all the sweeter for it.
When they pulled apart, Maia had his arms locked around her and her fingers were curled in the fabric of his shirt. Was he supposed to let go now, he wondered, or wait for a signal from Csethiro? He had an idea of how it went in books, thanks to the romances Aäno and Kevo had had at Endonomee, but that was no guarantee of what a real woman would like.
Csethiro was very real.
In the end, he simply kissed her again.
He did not see Csethiro for two days after that lesson, but he did dream and woke up both hard and embarrassed, knowing one of his nohechari to be in the room. And that, he thought dismally, lying back with his eyes shut and willing himself to think of anything else, was a problem he still had to deal with. He did not think Csethiro wished for an audience on their wedding night - or any night - any more than he did himself. True, there were the screens of frosted glass to give the bed’s occupants an illusion of privacy but whoever else was in the room - please, not Beshelar - would hear. Perhaps - perhaps they could compromise with one nohecharis on the balcony, or in the dressing room?
On the evening of the third day, Csethiro accompanied him to a state dinner. She was not yet Empress, but it was time, said Csevet, that the people began to become accustomed to the idea of her, to become familiar with her.
Maia spent part of the dinner worrying he would manage something to embarrass them both, part of it being grateful for her steady, direct, presence, part simply being aware of her, and far less time than he should have paying attention to the nobility, ministers, and courtiers around them.
When at last they were able to escape, Csethiro insisted on accompanying them back to the Alcethmeret, walking with Maia perhaps just a little closer than was strictly proper. Much about Csethiro was not strictly proper, and Maia found it refreshing. She talked as they went, making sometimes critical observations of the guests, and offering amusing anecdotes from conversations that he’d not been part of.
“Serenity,” she said when they reached the great gates that barred the world from the emperor’s residence.
Maia expected her to request her leave and was about to give it when he saw the expression that meant she’d made up her mind about something. He waited instead. Her gaze was almost fierce when she met his eyes.
“If thou wish it,” she continued, back straight and shoulders set, her voice pitched for his ears alone, “we could stay with thee tonight.”
Maia was momentarily at a loss. He had known, of course, that they would have sex at some point. That was their duty, a means of ensuring the succession. And yes, he had hoped for more. He thought, after their kisses, that it might be more than duty for both of them after all. It certainly would be for him. He wanted her to stay. But her words had the sound of a prepared speech, and Emperor or no he would not bed anyone who did not truly wish it.
“We are betrothed,” Csethiro said into the silence, and he thought he saw a flicker of uncertainty in her eyes. “It is not quite improper for thou to have us stay. Thou must know, also,” she added, eyes searching his face, “that we would not offer thee anything we did not wish to give.”
“We know,” Maia hastened to assure her. “And we do wish for thee to stay. It is only...” Maia fumbled for words, acutely aware of Cala and Beshelar nearby, and terrified of making Csethiro feel rejected or, far worse, taking her to bed and hurting her in his ignorance. Finally, he gave up and mumbled to her, “I don’t know what to do.” Which was not entirely true, of course - he knew how not to sire a child, which was the precise opposite of what he should do as Emperor - but the best explanation he felt he could give.
Csethiro took a deep breath, the centering kind he recognized from his own meditations. Then she smiled and took his hands.
“Then we will find out together.”
Nervous enough his knees were trembling a little, but hopeful, Maia smiled back. “We will.”
And she led him through the gates.