Jainan was standing by himself outside the door, no aides or assistants. His uniform was Thean, the cut subtly different from Iskat style, and was shaded in a blue that was almost colourless enough to be mourning greys. Kiem had the photo in his head, but it was still a shock to see that grave stare just two feet away, directed straight at him, a hidden spark of electricity in a face that was otherwise entirely proper and neutral.
Jainan cut his eyes away and bowed. It was a formal bow, a shade more correct than what was required for a count to a prince. Kiem realised with a spike of embarrassment that it was probably a polite way of telling him he was staring.
He snapped himself out of his frozen moment and stepped back, bowing formally himself. “Welcome! Glad you could make it, my name’s Kiem, nice to meet you. I mean, properly. I know we’ve sort of seen each other in the distance at functions. Thanks for, um, agreeing to all this. Come in, come in.”
Jainan rose from his bow and looked at Kiem thoughtfully. Kiem wasn’t given to blushing but he almost felt his colour rise as he heard his own voice sounding even more stupid than usual. My name’s Kiem, like Jainan wasn’t aware who he was marrying. And thanks for agreeing to all this? It wasn’t as if either of them had a choice. Urgh.
But all Jainan said was, “Jainan. A pleasure, your Highness. It is more than an honour to be invited.” He stepped over the threshold and took in the room with a quick dart of his eyes. He moved gracefully, soundlessly, and Kiem suddenly felt clumsy and awkward in comparison. Even more so as he lumbered back out of Jainan’s way and Jainan’s eyes went to him briefly, then cut away again.
“Sit down, please,” Kiem said hastily, realising Jainan was politely hovering by a chair. Jainan sat on the edge, highly composed. The blue-grey of his uniform drew the colour out of his face, but didn’t take away from the smart cut of it around his shoulders— Kiem stopped staring. “I, uh. I hope you didn’t have to interrupt anything to come?”
Now he was looking at Jainan properly, he could see there was a difference between him and his photo, which must be a couple of years old. There was something more drawn about his face, and he was paler. It hadn’t been too long since Taam’s accident.
“No,” Jainan said, soft and measured. “I was at the one-month memorial for Prince Taam, but it finished fifteen minutes ago.”
Wrong question, wrong question. “I didn’t realise that was happening today,” Kiem said dumbly.
“I apologise,” Jainan said. “I should have sent you a reminder.”
Kiem winced at the quiet, deadpan barb in that. He hadn’t been close to Taam – he couldn’t remember speaking to him in years – but he probably should have gone to that ceremony. Especially as he was marrying Taam’s ex-partner. Bel had probably told him about it and it had gone in one ear and out the other. “Right. Yes. Um. Would you like a drink?”
“If you’re having one,” Jainan said politely.
Kiem was very much planning to have one, more so with every word this conversation progressed. He got to his feet, glad of the opportunity to move. It seemed wrong to have anything ordinary, so he poured a glass of pale spirits from an ornate bottle half-filled with preserved berries. “Silverberry wine? What would you like?”
Jainan glanced at the second glass Kiem was holding. “Water…?”
Kiem decided he was imagining the disapproval there, and brought a chilled bottle of water to the table with another glass. There was an awkward moment when Jainan attempted to rise to take the drink and Kiem wasn’t expecting it, but they got through it with no more than minor slops on the table. Jainan stared at the spill like it was a tragedy. Kiem winced again. He was apparently going to have to be much neater from now on. “Don’t worry, I’ll get something for it later.”
“I’m sorry,” Jainan said.
“Uh, no don’t be sorry.” Kiem said. He felt like there was a stifling layer of politeness lying over them like velvet. He sat down and put his head in his hands. “All right,” he said. “Can we speak plainly? Sorry. I’m not great at tiptoeing around things.”
What went across Jainan’s face wasn’t exactly a change of expression. It was more like looking at the surface of the harbour water and feeling somehow that something had just moved underneath. His back straightened, and he folded his hands on his knees. “Please,” he said. “Go ahead.”
Kiem took a deep breath. Right. They were going to clear the air. “I think we’ll have a better chance of making this work if we’re open with each other,” he said. “I know you’re not going to be over the moon about this. To be honest, I don’t know what her majesty was thinking.” It was probably a measure of the stress they were under that neither of them even bothered to look over their shoulder.
“The treaty,” Jainan said. His expression was entirely neutral again.
“The treaty,” Kiem agreed. “But look, this wasn’t your first choice. It wasn’t my first choice either, but we’re stuck with it. Can we at least agree we’ll try and make it work? I know you’ll need space to- to grieve. We can just act the bare minimum to sell the marriage to the palace, and drop it when we’re in private.”
Jainan smiled. It was an odd, distant smile, and didn’t seem to be particularly happy, but it was a smile. “It’s funny,” he said.
“What is?” That didn’t sound good.
“Prince Taam – we had this conversation. One very like it.”
Taam and Jainan had started off their marriage like this? Kiem felt obscurely heartened, although the circumstances weren’t exactly the same. “So… we’re okay? I promise I’m not an axe-murderer,”
“That part he didn’t say,” Jainan said.
It took a moment for Kiem to realise that was deadpan, and he grinned. “Maybe he was. I mean, you need to say these things.”
Jainan’s expression shuttered completely, and he put the water down.
“No- I- oh, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean that—” The door chime rang again. Kiem only just stopped himself throwing up his hands in frustration. There should be some kind of law against him opening his stupid mouth. “Well, it wasn’t as if we were doing anything important. Come in!” he added, triggering the audio.
It was the Head Steward, with two attendants. He bowed punctiliously. “Your Highness, the contract is prepared for signing in the West Solarium. Are you and Count Jainan ready?”
Kiem felt mutinous. “Are we?” he said, casting a glance at Jainan, who he felt was probably as unwilling about this as he was. But Jainan was already standing, which shamed Kiem into pushing himself to his feet. He offered Jainan his arm.
The moment he’d done it, he froze and wished he could take it back. He hadn’t meant to put Jainan on the spot. But before he could turn the movement into anything else, Jainan was moving over to him, and slipped a hand through the crook of his arm. His touch rested lightly, securely. Was he forcing himself? Kiem couldn’t tell. The skin beneath his uniform jacket felt hotter than it should.
“Your Highness,” the steward said again.
“We should go,” Jainan said, quietly enough to reach Kiem’s ears only. He was looking ahead.
Kiem forced his eyes away from Jainan. “Yes, right,” he said. “Look at us, punctual from the start. Oh, hey, Hren.”
The Chief Press Officer nodded at him. “Memorised your press statement yet?”
“I thought I’d just improvise,” Kiem said cheerfully, to make Hren twitch. But Hren just glared at him, and for some reason Jainan’s grip shifted on his arm. “I mean, yes,” Kiem said. “Know it back to front.” He stopped trying to make conversation.
The walk to the Solarium was enveloped in a silence that felt almost funereal. Kiem would usually have tried joking with the attendants, but it would be rude to start talking to anyone who wasn’t Jainan. But whenever he thought of something to say to Jainan, he remembered that Jainan was being walked into a forced marriage with someone who had just called the love of his life an axe-murderer and bit his tongue. He experimented silently with several phrases, but couldn’t find anything that might fix things. At the top of the white, sweeping stairs, just before the last corner, he gave up and just muttered, “Sorry.”
“For what?” Jainan said. The door slid open and Kiem lost the chance to reply in the flash of lenses.
He squinted through the first couple before automatically raising his free hand. “Hi, good morning—” There was a tiny pressure on his arm. Jainan had stopped. Surprised, Kiem tried to pause as well, but now Jainan was moving again and Kiem wondered if he’d imagined it.
The initial flurry of flashes was over. When Kiem moved his arm a fraction, Jainan removed his hand immediately and stepped a little away. Apparently he’d been steeling himself to be near him. Kiem tried not to show he’d noticed.
“Your Highness! How’s it feel to be married?”
Journalists. Kiem relaxed – journalists seemed like the least difficult thing to deal with right now. He grinned and shook a couple of hands. “’Morning. I’m not, yet. Hi, Hani – any tips? You got married last year, didn’t you? Your partner took that shot of me falling in the canal a couple of days ago.”
“Yes, which is why she didn’t get credentials for this, isn’t it?” The polished woman with silver eye implants tilted her head. “How long have you known Count Jainan?”
Kiem spread his hands disarmingly. “I don’t make the press lists. And we’ve met a few times – we’re, uh, getting to know each other.”
“How does he feel about your lifestyle?”
“Hey, aren’t you guys supposed to be the sympathetic part of the press corps?” Kiem protested. “I don’t do that anymore.” He was almost starting to enjoy himself when he glanced over at Jainan.
Jainan was holding himself stiffly, a reporter standing about half a pace too close. Jainan shook his head and said something. He wasn’t moving away, though, so Kiem was about to turn back to the others when he heard the reporter say Prince Taam.
All right, that was enough. “Oi, Dak, who let you in here?” Kiem said, cutting across Jainan. “Weren’t you behind that piece on the Emperor’s brother needing plastic surgery?”
“What?” Dak said, turning without batting an eyelid. He was a solidly built, middle-aged journalist who worked for one of the larger aggregators. “That’s quite some accusation there, your Highness. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Yeah, well, it was your phrasing,” Kiem said, by no means sure it had been. “So you’re on thin ice. Show some bloody respect for the deceased. Taam’s off the record, as is this conversation. Jainan, I think we’re starting?”
Jainan gave him a look that was no less blank than the one he’d directed at the reporter “Of course,” he said. “Excuse me.” He gave Dak a punctilious bow of the head and bypassed him. Kiem put himself on the side next to the reporters and blanked any more questions with a friendly wave, strolling up to the antique desk they’d dug out for the signing.
The Head Steward was on top form. “Ah, good. Your Highness, over here, please – and Count Jainan, this side…“
“Was that all right?” Kiem muttered, just before they parted. “You looked like you didn’t want to be in the conversation. I- uh – there’ll be opportunities to talk to them after if you want.”
“No,” Jainan said. “Thank you.” An aide bobbed up like a tugboat and piloted him to a pile of documents.
Kiem reluctantly turned to his own separate pile. There was a goose-feather quill beside it and a pot of red ink. Kiem eyed them with some misgivings. Handscribing was bad enough at the best of times, and adding pots of ink into the equation wasn’t going to make it any better.
A small knot of people at the back parted, and a dignitary in the purple robes of a judge emerged from conversation with the Thean Ambassador beside her. The Ambassador bowed to Jainan. Jainan gave him a startled glance and then looked down at the documents, deliberately ignoring him.
Kiem squinted at the Ambassador, who he had met at a couple of social occasions but didn’t remember well. What was wrong there? He tried a friendly smile. The Ambassador returned it with a shallow bow, his expression cool, and stepped back to stand against the wall with the other spectators. Jainan didn’t seem to have many friends, did he? That was weird.
“Your Worship, may we begin?” the steward said.
“Indeed.” The judge nodded to an aide, who triggered her wristband, and the sound of a gong rang through the room. Half the press corps had cameras up. Kiem tried to look appropriately solemn, but felt it came out as something of a grimace, so settled for normal. He sneaked a look at Jainan to see how he was managing it. Jainan’s face was still pleasantly blank. Kiem wondered how he did that.
The judge gave a rolling declamation of the standard wedding spiel, traditions from the foundation of the Empire, blah blah blah, valued alliance with Thea – a nod to the Ambassador – and wound it up with some non-denominational blessings that wouldn’t offend anyone’s sect. She folded her hands on the table in front of her solemnly and said, “Prince Kiem, Count Jainan, if you agree with the contract in every provision, please seal the terms.”
Kiem grabbed the quill and glanced sideways at Jainan, intending to offer him a quick smile. Jainan reached for the inkpot.
A flood of red splattered over the table, pooling over both the documents. “Shit-!” Kiem said, blocking a rivulet with the side of his hand. The pot itself rolled, smearing a dark half-crescent of red over wood and paper. It hit the carpeted floor with a faint thud.
That seemed to break the frozen moment among the onlookers. Jainan lunged after it, missed it, and knelt to pick it up. “Careful!” the steward said, bustling up. Two attendants came up to do immediate damage-reduction with handkerchiefs and pieces of paper. The judge was looking annoyed and waving at the press corps to stop the suddenly frantic photo-taking, and suddenly Kiem saw the funny side and had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop the grin. He looked around for Jainan.
Jainan was still on one knee, the pot clutched tight in one hand, frantically dabbing at the carpet with his handkerchief. He glanced up at Kiem. “S-sorry,” he said. “I don’t- I don’t know what happened.”
Kiem crouched down, abruptly sobering up. “Don’t worry about that, they’ll get it cleaned up later. Here, I’ll take the pot - it’s going all over your hand.” He nearly had to pry it out of Jainan’s grip. “Are you all right? Get much of it on you?” He stood and offered Jainan a hand.
“I’m fine,” Jainan said. He took the hand. It was warm in Kiem’s, with callouses on the fingers, and for a moment Kiem was distracted. But when Jainan was on his feet, he pulled it away as soon as politely possible. Kiem let go hurriedly. Aides were closing on them with wipes for their hands. Someone had magically produced a tablecloth to hide the stains, and there was already a fresh set of contracts out.
“We resume the ceremony,” the judge said.
“Right,” Kiem said, trying to ignore the after-impression of Jainan’s hand on his, like a ghost touch. Before there could be any more accidents, he grabbed the quill and signed his name with only a minor blot. Beside him, Jainan dipped his own quill in the remaining pot of ink, taking great care. His hands were shaking. Why were his hands shaking? It hadn’t been that embarrassing.
There was a round of polite applause. Jainan set the quill back and straightened, turning to Kiem.
Oh shit. Kiem had managed not to think about the fact he was going to have to kiss him, whether Jainan wanted it or not. All right, he told himself, taking a wary step away from the table. Just keep it impersonal. Jainan stepped in, and Kiem’s gaze was caught by the unconscious elegance of the movement, by his dark eyes and the slight natural crookedness of his mouth.
No, he told himself. Just because Jainan was his type didn’t mean he couldn’t keep himself under control.
Jainan took another step and closed the distance, his hand coming up to rest on Kiem’s chest. Desire slammed into Kiem like a generator current. He felt his breath stop under the touch, and before he knew what he was doing his hands were coming up to clasp around Jainan’s waist and pull him in – but no, that was totally inappropriate, what was he doing? He managed to stop himself getting any closer, panicked. Jainan froze as well, staring at him from a couple of inches away, as if wondering what had gone wrong. He tilted his head and leaned in dutifully. Kiem gave the whole thing up for a bad deal, leaned forward and had the most excruciatingly awkward kiss he had ever had with a person who he was extremely attracted to. Wrongly attracted to. They both tried to draw back at the first contact, then realised their mistake, and Jainan’s lip caught in Kiem’s teeth, and they both drew back again. And despite all that, even the light pressure of Jainan’s lips had Kiem’s heart hammering.
Jainan moved back a fraction. Kiem dropped his hands as if they’d been burned. He managed to catch Jainan’s eye with a grimace of apology. Jainan only looked blank.
“Gentlemen! To the front, please,” the steward said. Belatedly, Kiem held out his hand, and they both turned obediently towards the reporters.
“Your Highness? Count Jainan?” a reporter called out. “What does it feel like now to be married?”
“Wonderful,” Jainan said. Kiem felt a tremor go down Jainan’s hand.
That question had been directed at him. Kiem pulled up a smile from somewhere. He didn’t want to know what it looked like. “Great!” he said. “It’s great.”