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The Course of Honour

Chapter Text

“Well, someone has to marry the man,” the Emperor said.

She looked even more forbidding than usual. The windows of her reception rooms were heavily optimised to amplify the light from the weakening autumn sun of Iskan V; the orange rays that lit the wrinkled imperial countenance should have softened it, but apparently even the sunlight had given that up as a bad job.

Kiem opened his mouth to say I don’t see why, and then thought better and shut it again. This was how he got himself in trouble. He looked over the Emperor’s shoulder instead, then at the corners of the room, then checked behind his own gilded chair. No attendants. Then and only then he said, “Your Majesty, Prince Taam has only been dead a month.”

It sounded awful the moment it left his mouth. The man had been his cousin, after all, and all of the imperial family were technically still in mourning. Kiem had been shocked, of course, when he heard of the flybug accident, but at the last count he’d had had just over forty cousins, and he hadn’t known Taam particularly well.

The Emperor gave him a withering look. Although her intricate braids were pure white against the dark skin of her forehead, and had been ever since Kiem could remember, she never seemed to age. She only got thinner and tougher. “Do you think I am unaware?” she said. She tapped her fingertips on the lacquered table top, probably giving him a second chance to remember his manners. Kiem was too disturbed to really appreciate it. “Time grows short.”

“But- marrying his partner—” Kiem said. He had been vaguely aware of Taam’s partner. Prince Taam and Count Jainan had been one of the royal family’s more intimidatingly polished and perfect couples, like the Emperor had had them built in a synthesiser. “Ma’am, surely someone more” — dignified — “suitable. Prince Vaile, maybe. Or no one? Forgive me, I don’t see why we have to find him another partner.”

The Emperor regarded him as if painfully reminded of the differences between him and Taam. “You have not paid any attention to the political situation, then.”

Kiem rubbed a hand across his forehead unconsciously. “Sorry.”

“Of course not. I see you were drinking last night.”

“No, I—” Kiem said quickly, but not quickly enough. His head still ached from noise of the carnival the night before. Or perhaps it was a cold. “Not much.”

The Emperor glanced at the shifting pictures in the press folder on an ornate coffee table beside her. “Press Office inform me that you also joined in a carnival procession group, put on a troll costume, and fell in a canal in the middle of the dance.”

“It was a kids’ group,” Kiem said. He would have panicked about trying to explain the newslog photos, but he didn’t have any panic left over. “Their troll dropped out at the last minute. Your Majesty, I, I’m” — he cast about desperately – “too young to get married.”

“You are in your mid-twenties,” the Emperor said. “Do not be ridiculous.” She rose from her seat with the careful smoothness of someone who regularly received longevity treatments, and crossed to the window.

Kiem rose automatically when she did, but had nothing to do, so clasped his hands behind his back. His brain felt like it had been cut loose and was spinning in shock. “Ma’am,” he said, then stopped, because he didn’t have another coherent argument yet.

The Emperor paid no attention to it. She was looking out the window, at the capital, sprawled out under a pale sky. The grand stone complexes of Imperial buildings ran through it like bones and a jumble of housing and business blocks nestled around them. The first real snow of the long winter had fallen yesterday, mantling the roofs with a thin layer of white. It had already turned to slush in the streets. “It is inevitable,” she said, “that in a family as large as ours, there are some who are more capable of handling their responsibilities than others. Given your mother’s achievements, I had higher hopes for you.”

Kiem winced. He recognised this lecture; he’d last heard it after a bad night out as a student, just before he’d been exiled to a monastery for a month. “I apologise, ma’am.” He managed to keep himself quiet for all of a split second before he said, “But I still don’t understand. I do know about the Thea alliance. But the man they sent – Jainan – already married Prince Taam. Just because Taam’s dead doesn’t mean the marriage didn’t happen.”

The Emperor frowned at him. “My aides will send yours a copy of the treaty, which you will memorise.” She waited for Kiem’s hasty nod, then continued, “Thea is a vassal, not a defeated enemy. It rests on an activating clause. This requires a single current marriage, save when the principals grow elderly, when a second marriage is arranged in order that there will be no gaps.”

“Oh,” Kiem said. So that was it. People didn’t generally die violently before they were even forty, like Taam had, but on the other hand, it wasn’t unheard-of. Accidents happened. “Seems a bit short-sighted not to have a backup clause.”

“There is a backup clause,” the Emperor said, with patience that was audibly stretching thin. “It allows the currently designated representative to defer their time of mourning and remarry immediately. Hence why you will be signing a marriage contract with Count Jainan tomorrow.”

For the first time he could remember, Kiem was lost for words.

“There are no legal difficulties,” the Emperor continued. “You are of age and acceptably close to the throne. He will—”

Tomorrow?” Kiem blurted out. “I thought you meant in a year or two! The man just lost his life partner!”

The creases around the Emperor’s eyes were starting to deepen: a danger sign. “Mind your tone.”

Kiem clenched his fists, looking down at the floor. “Surely in a couple of months,” he said. He was aware his voice had turned pleading, and that the Emperor never reacted well to that, but he couldn’t just agree. “We can’t just force him into this.”

The Emperor finally snapped. “You will cease this quibbling!” She came back to her desk, propped her hands on it and leaned across, elderly and slow but somehow more terrifying for that. “You would have me break the treaty,” she said. “You would destroy trade agreements for both us and Thea, boost their internal fractures and stoke resentments on both sides. Because you do not care for duty.”

“No,” Kiem said, but the Emperor hadn’t finished.

“Jainan has already agreed. That I will say for Thea, their nobles know how to do their duty. Will you dishonour us in front of them?”

Kiem didn’t even try to hold her gaze. If she chose to make it an Imperial command, he could be imprisoned for disobeying. “Of course not,” he said. “Very happy to—to—” He stuttered to a halt. To forcibly marry someone who’s just had their life partner die. What a great idea. Long live the glorious Empire.

The Emperor was watching him closely. “To ensure Thea knows it is still tied to us,” she said.

“Of course,” Kiem said.

 

*

 

Oh hell. Oh, hell. Kiem managed to reach his rooms before he collapsed face-down onto the sofa. Summoned out of the blue today, married – married! – by the end of tomorrow. He wondered if they’d told his unfortunate prospective partner the schedule yet.

He’d always known he was going to marry at some point, and probably not for love, though he’d had some vague notions that eloping might be fun. But even in his most realistic moments, he’d thought at least he and his partner would get a few months to get to know each other. He’d been hopeful that he could get them to like him eventually, even if it wasn't love. But to convince a grieving stranger not to resent everything about him after being forced into a rushed marriage – that would take more than being persuasive. You’d need to be a bloody miracle worker.

Which meant he was going to end up shackled to someone who resented everything about him, and he was going to be the lucky one. It would be worse on Count Jainan. This wasn’t an equal partnership: as Thea was the junior partner in the alliance, Jainan was the one who’d be expected to fit his life around Kiem’s. And he was probably reading through Kiem’s press record right now and wishing it had been Kiem instead of Taam in the flybug accident.

Kiem groaned.

“Your Highness,” his aide said from the entrance, faintly disapproving. “The couch is for sitting, the bed is for lying, and the shuttleport bars are for whatever unholy combination of both you’re doing there.”

Kiem rolled over and half-sat up. “What about sprawls of despair?” he said. “Do we have special furniture for that? Put that on the list: source despair-furniture for living room. Did I tell you I’m getting married?”

“I am aware,” Bel said. She aligned her wristband to bring up a small screen in the air by her elbow, and tapped something into it. As usual, she looked like the model of a royal aide, despite the tiny med-implant scar by her sloping cheekbones that marked her as Sefalan. Her crested coat was freshly laundered and her hair was a mass of impeccable braids – when Bel had taken up her post, she had told him she would adapt to Iskat custom, and she didn’t do things by halves. “I heard twenty minutes ago.”

Kiem caught the real disapproval in her voice this time. “Hey, I only heard ten minutes ago!” He made a face. “I can’t believe you knew I was getting married and didn’t tell me.”

“You were literally in a private audience with the Supreme Emperor when I heard,” Bel said. She tucked an escaped braid back into her strict hairdo, generally a sign she was mollified. “You betrothed is Count Jainan nav Adessari of Thea, Feria clan. Twenty-seven years of age – very near you – good health, family prosperous for Theans but no property in his name. I have pulled all the files on him I can find and you will find the folder first in the queue when you open your screen.”

“You are a miracle worker without peer,” Kiem said. He pulled his hand out from under a cushion and tapped his wristband to activate it. “What the hell is a clan?”

“Are you sure the Emperor would want you to be swearing, your Highness?  They're vastly extended family groups, linked to Thean prefectures.”

“Oh shit, right, I should have known that. Argh. I don’t know the first thing about this, Bel.” Kiem dragged a hand through his hair distractedly.  What am I going to do? he wanted to say, and didn’t, because that wasn’t her job and it wasn’t fair.

The wall screen blinked on as Bel sent his calendar to it. “You will need to free up some time to read the contract papers before you sign them tomorrow. Your schedule is fairly full. You’ll need a block of time for the congratulatory calls, and the Emperor’s office has suggested you find time to receive Jainan in the half hour before the ceremony.”

“Yes. Absolutely. Do we have drinks? Make sure we have drinks. Wait, we only get half an hour?”

“Can I cancel the lunch with the school outreach group that you have at the same time?”

“Cancel it, in the name of Heaven, cancel everything,” Kiem said. “What’s everyone going to think if I’m off having lunch when I’m about to be getting married? The Emperor will skin me.”

“You have Imperial immunity,” Bel said dryly.

Count Jainan will skin me,” Kiem said. “And he’d be right. Don’t suppose we could get him to come in the morning as well, or tonight?”

“Do you want me to ask?”

Kiem keyed up the screen and stared down at it. “No,” he said. “No, actually, let’s not make any demands.”

Bel gave him a look which wasn’t quite sympathy and went into the study to make the calls away from him, always a stickler for etiquette. Kiem threw up a projection from his watch and pulled up Jainan’s files.

The man in the photo at the top was half-familiar, a face in the distance at imperial engagements. He was solemn, his features fine, his skin a shade paler than Kiem’s. Something in his grave dark eyes made the picture not unfriendly but intense, as if caught in the middle of a serious conversation. He was wearing formal Thean ceremonial uniform, which seemed to involve a lot of green and gold, and his long black hair was bound back by a spiralling cord.

Kiem stared. It was the first time he’d really looked at that face. You lucky devil, Taam, he nearly said out loud – but somewhere between his brain and his tongue he managed to censor it because what the hell was wrong with him, Jainan was in mourning. He tore his eyes away from the picture and looked down at the history.

Apparently he came from a prominent noble family on Thea, though none of the names in his ancestry rang any bells with Kiem. His marriage to Taam had lasted five years. He was highly educated—

“He has a doctorate in deep-space engineering!” Kiem called to Bel in the study. “At twenty-seven! How the hell am I going to talk to someone with brains like that?”

“You get practice with me,” Bel’s voice came floating back, amused.

“You don’t count! You get paid to dumb things down for me!” Kiem scrolled further down the page. “This says he got a planetary award for a new fuel-injection method when he was eighteen. Do you think he could marry you instead?”

“Depends. Are you going to be able to stop talking long enough to sign the contract?” Bel said, a hint of exasperation in her voice that meant she was trying to get work done. Kiem took the hint and flopped back to lie on the sofa and read the rest of the first file.

There was a short list of Jainan’s published work. He didn’t seem to have done much in the last few years, so perhaps after he’d married Taam he’d taken up something else. Maybe it was something Kiem could talk more easily about. Like dartcar racing.

It didn’t seem likely, somehow.

Kiem scrolled further down. There wasn’t a Hobbies section. Why wasn’t there a Hobbies section? Who compiled these files and left out the important bits, like what the hell they were going to talk about?

Kiem let the screen disappear and stared up at the ceiling. They’d have to split his living quarters. Jainan would probably want to have his own space as much as he could, get away from Kiem. He could have Kiem’s study, maybe, and Kiem could set up a desk area in the living room for himself. And the bedroom, he’d have to figure out what to do with the bedroom. “Bel, can we put up a wall in here?” he called. “I can just make another room, right?”

The door chimed. Kiem waved it open, then slightly wished he hadn’t when he saw who it was. The Chief Press Officer was a stout, short man with a bald head that reflected the light, and a presence like a bear in a room full of nanotech. “’Morning, Kiem.”

“’Morning, Hren,” Kiem said, but somewhat warily. Hren was the Emperor’s direct appointee, and he and Kiem had never had the best of working relationships. “Everything all right?”

“Yep,” Hren said. “Congratulations on getting hitched.”

At that moment Bel came out from the study and said, “Another room? Oh – Hren Halesar. Good morning.”

“Let’s try that again,” Hren said, ignoring her. “Congrats on your marriage.”

“Thanks?” Kiem said.

Hren sat down on the chair opposite the sofa and pushed up his shirtsleeves. “So you haven’t memorised your press statement.”

“I have a press statement?”

“I’m afraid we’ve only just had it through from your department,” Bel said coolly. “I was coming now to inform his highness.”

“Get it on his fucking wristband, then,” Hren said. “Five minutes ago. We’ve talked about this. First thing you do in any event is—?”

“I know, get the lines-to-take, I know.” Kiem hated being given press statements. You weren’t just supposed to use them to the press, but to everyone who asked you a related question, and he felt like a robot. But crossing Hren never went well. “Go on, Bel, what are they?”

“There are two pages of various statements,” Bel said. “Here it would be: you accept congratulations and you are proud to continue the alliance in memory of your revered cousin Prince Taam.”

“What about Jainan? Shouldn’t it mention Jainan?” said Kiem. “Some kind of compliment, maybe?”

“Kiem,” Hren said patiently, “He’s a diplomatic representative, not one of your fucking groupies.”

“I just thought—”

“Listen, Jainan knows this is a political arrangement and isn’t going to expect flattery. I’ve talked to him.”

Kiem winced at the political arrangement. He probably shouldn’t be visualising his oncoming marriage as a hostile council meeting, but once he’d had the image it was hard to forget. “Right.”

“So stop getting your pants in a knot,” Hren said. “What’s this about another room?”

“Nothing important,” Kiem said. “He’s going to need his own room, but I know it’ll look bad if we don’t live together. We’ll just do some remodelling in here, add a bedroom—”

He broke off at the look on Hren’s face. In the corner of his eye, he saw Bel wince.

“The fuck?” Hren said. “Did you just talk to her majesty, or not? You agreed to this marriage?”

“Yeah,” Kiem said.

“You want the press to run stories about it falling apart before it’s a week old? They can get some nice mileage out of that, link it to the weaknesses in the Thean alliance, find some of those fucking teenagers who’ve decided unification protests are the new big thing. Separate bedrooms, what the fuck.”

“I- what? You can’t expect him to sleep with me.”

“Don’t like the look of him? Too bad. Suck it up.”

“That’s not it!” Kiem said. “He’s just lost his partner, I’m pretty damn sure he’s not going to want to! Marriage, fine, but not that.”

“You start putting in new bedrooms, someone’s going to leak it,” Hren said. “That’s right out. Do what you want in bed, but you’re going to pretend to everyone else it’s happy.”

“It’s private,” Kiem said stubbornly. “Nothing’s going to leak. And this isn’t your business, anyway.”

“Staff always leak secrets.” Hren looked at Bel, just a glance.

Kiem’s eyes narrowed. “Bel’s more discreet than anyone else in this palace.”

“I can always find you someone more reliable,” Hren said, and Kiem realised he was being blackmailed. Hren had enough of the Emperor’s ear to have some pull over hiring decisions and Bel was technically paid by the palace. Prince or not, Kiem didn't have the leverage. He didn't have to look at Bel to know that she knew it too.

“No separate bedrooms,” Kiem echoed. “Right.”

“Right. I’ll release your press statement to the journalists.” Hren got to his feet. “Have it memorised by tomorrow. I’ll see you at the signing ceremony.”

Kiem saw him out. It wasn't until the door had shut that he turned to Bel, threw up his hands, and said, “How is everything somehow worse?”

 

*

 

The Head Steward came early next morning with the order of the ceremony and a mind-numbing list of details for Kiem to sign off. No sooner had Kiem dragged himself through that than the congratulatory calls started coming in.

Most of them were from people he barely knew. The people who cared about the Thean alliance were a whole different world from the people he usually talked to: nobles outside the palace called, as did foreign parliament officials and high-ranking bureaucrats. The Thean President called. The Secretary of Imperial Affairs called. Kiem took them in the formal vidchair in the study, where sensors would project a freestanding image of him, and prickled with discomfort when each new person’s projection appeared in front of him. His cousin Prince Vaile called, but because she was with three other members of the Advisory Council, she only offered a wry smile with her congratulations, as a hint that she wasn’t unaware of his situation. The other three were depressingly sincere. Kiem tried deviating from his press statement, but midway through the call with the Eisafan Consul he realised that I’m very happy wasn’t appropriate either, since Jainan almost certainly wasn’t.

By the twelfth call he was desperate enough that he declined the next person, punched the dispenser into life and coaxed it into disgorging a limp sandwich that wasn’t on its menu. He got Bel a coffee and shoved it her way as she came into the room. “I’m out,” he said. “No more calls. I’ve gone collecting for the Friends of Educationally Disadvantaged Puppies.”

“You didn’t really need to be on that last one anyway,” Bel said, shutting off the screen that floated just in front of her. “Count Jainan is due in ten minutes. What is in that sandwich?”

“Chocolate,” Kiem said, just as Bel’s wristband beeped. He groaned. “Tell me that’s not another one,” he said, but Bel was already activating her earpiece.

She slipped back into the study and held a short conversation. When she leaned out again Kiem had dialled up another sandwich and was looking mutinous. “I’m supposed to be getting ready to meet Jainan, I can’t spend the whole day—”

“Count Jainan’s sister,” Bel said. “Lady Ressid. Are you going to take it?”

Kiem swallowed, the food suddenly feeling like a solid lump in his stomach. This was the first contact from anyone who actually knew Jainan. “Put it on the vid.” He sat on the edge of the vidchair, back straight, and tried to look like someone who was thoroughly in charge of all the political sensitivities of a rushed marriage. It would help if he had any idea how that sort of person looked.

A projection flickered into life: a Thean noble, standing, her long hair swept up into one of those unbraided confections like feathers that Thean women wore. Her eyes were almost the image of Jainan’s. “Prince Kiem,” she said stiffly, and curtsied.

“An honour to hear from you, Lady Ressid,” Kiem said. He kept a wary eye on the projected caption where Bel was pointedly displaying proud to continue the alliance in memory of my revered cousin. But Ressid didn't immediately congratulate him. There was a split-second pause, and Kiem suddenly realised that the tiny crease at the corner of her mouth was visible strain.

“I am calling to formally request access to my brother,” she said. The words came out clipped and hard, like a hail of small stones. “If your Highness is pleased to grant it.”

That was a weird way of announcing a visit. “Well, of course,” Kiem said. “Glad to have you to stay. When?” The call was coming from Thea: the flight took over two weeks each way. “I thought we usually got these requests through your Foreign Affairs bureau – wait, didn’t your President say there’d be official contingent coming next month for the treaty anniversary? Aren’t you going to be with them?”

“I didn’t mean that,” Ressid said. “I meant access to call Jainan.” The line of strain hadn’t moved.

Kiem stared at her, nonplussed. He was completely at sea with Thean formalities. “That’s got nothing to do with me.” Wait, it must be a ceremonial thing. Only sporadic training in royal manners stopped him from casting an agonised look at Bel off-screen, but she was apparently just as confused, because the screen caption flickered and changed to ???. “Um, forgive me. Is there some kind of formal response?”

Now the line at the corner of her mouth creased, deepened, was erased as she forcibly calmed her expression. “It is a practical matter.”

“Oh. Then—wait, is this about him moving living quarters?” The realisation was a relief, because now he knew what the hell was going on. “There won’t be an ID problem. He’s only moving within the palace, his ID should work fine. The palace systems will route his calls to here.” Jainan should know that; Kiem had no idea why Ressid was asking him. But maybe Jainan hadn’t paid much attention to the palace systems. “And he’d have his wristband, anyway.”

Ressid drew a short, sharp breath, and Kiem couldn’t figure out why. He looked hopefully at the caption, but Bel didn’t have any helpful background information for him. “Your Highness,” Ressid said. “I would like an undertaking that I will receive a call from Jainan within the next three weeks.”

Alarm bells started ringing in Kiem’s head. So Jainan wasn’t in contact with her. Apparently he was bringing his own family problems to the marriage. Kiem could imagine how he would take it if he turned up and Kiem had already sided with his sister in their family feud – that would be a great start to a life partnership. “I can’t give you that,” he said.

Ressid recoiled, only fractionally, but Kiem could sense her anger even through the projection. Kiem wondered if he was going to get arguments. What the hell would he say? This was a semi-official call, he couldn’t exactly tell her he wasn’t going to get involved in a family feud – and if he did, it would probably have to be on his partner’s side, wouldn’t it?

There was a silence. Kiem, probably because he was what Bel called an inveterate people-pleaser, tried to fill it. “I'll tell him you called, though,” he said. No – shit – that would just be pressuring Jainan if he really had cut off contact. Jainan probably had a reason for not wanting to hear from his sister. “Uh, if he asks.”

For a moment he thought Ressid was going to shout at him. He sat up straight and set his shoulders in preparation, ready to weather it. But even the slight movement seemed to give her pause. She gave him a look that was barely short of a glare, then wiped all expression from her face and said “Allow me to offer you my congratulations, your Highness.”

“Thank—“ Kiem said automatically, but before he'd even finished, Ressid’s projection disappeared. She’d cut the call.

What was that about? he thought uneasily as he got up from the vidchair. There was something there that he could accidentally put his foot in. He'd have to see if Jainan raised it. Maybe Kiem could subtly steer him round to talking about his family by talking about his own family – no, actually, he probably shouldn’t do that. Hearing too much about Kiem’s mother might make Jainan even less inclined to marry him.

“You really have to stop now,” Bel said, finally picking up her coffee. “Jainan’s due in three minutes.” Even as she spoke, the chime sounded at the door. Bel checked the feed. “That’s him.”

“Oh, shit,” Kiem said, tugging at the jacket of his ceremonial uniform frantically. “Is this thing creased? Do I have time to change? Have we got drinks?”

“No, no, and drinks are in the cabinet as usual,” Bel said. “Just let him get the occasional word in edgeways and you’ll be fine.” She took her coffee into the study and hit the door release on the way past, leaving Kiem to hurry over to receive Jainan.

Chapter Text

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.”

Chapter Text

The empty hoverchest bobbed in the middle of Taam’s rooms, but Jainan didn’t immediately start packing when he returned. Instead he sank into a chair and held his head tightly, tightly, as if he could squeeze his skull into a better shape and relieve the pressure.

In the few words he and Prince Kiem had exchanged after the ruined ceremony, Jainan had tried to find an opportunity to apologise, but hadn’t been able to get the words out. Stupid. Useless. All he’d managed to do was turn down Prince Kiem’s offer to help with the packing and retreat, cowardly, to Taam’s rooms. Leaving Prince Kiem to think him ungrateful as well as unfit.

His head gave another stab of pain. It wasn’t really a surprise that he had made a poor impression: Prince Kiem was good-looking, charismatic, and clearly doing his best to conceal his disappointment in his marriage. Prince Kiem was at least less naïve about marriage than he had been.

Enough. This was self-pity. He had only one duty – to bind the new treaty – and even if he could never be liked he could at least be agreeable. He wouldn’t cause inconvenience by delaying his packing.

He rose to his feet and moved around the familiar rooms mechanically, gathering his possessions and fitting them into the chest. He'd always been neat and he’d tried to keep that. It surprised him, though, how little space everything packed down into. His devices, toiletries and shoes filled only a fraction of the chest. The clothes took longer, as he pulled them out of the wardrobe one by one, trying not to touch Taam’s uniforms which still hung there. He’d meant to send someone a memo about them. His head was all over the place these days.

He had run a superficial search on Prince Kiem when he’d first been given his name. What came up had at first seemed hopeless: Prince Kiem at events, parties, and one where he was apparently tipsy and climbing a statue in the main square. Jainan knew there was nothing he could do to appeal to someone like that. The only glimmer of hope had been something buried in a long profile by a gossip log, of the sort he would never usually read. Prince Kiem says he’s easy-going, it said. He likes to enjoy life. Ask him about his career, and he'll only tell you he didn’t join the army because it sounded like too much hard work. You certainly won't catch him advising the Emperor.

Jainan hadn't read further. If Kiem liked things to be easy, he could at least try to comply with that.

The room’s storage units were concealed cunningly in the Iskat style, slotted gracefully into the curved white pillars and walls, their handles invisible until you touched the right spot. Jainan opened them all, checking he had missed nothing of his among Taam’s possessions. He didn’t touch any of the contents. But in the lowest unit in the corner, which only opened halfway because of Taam’s desk, he found a box at the back with Thean scribing on it.

His hands slowed as he slid the lid away. He hadn’t seen these for years. A Thean ceremonial knife that he’d once thought he might wear at the wedding. Clan flags from his aunt, his cousin. The ornate set of nesting dishes Ressid had given him, insisting they wouldn’t be available in the Empire.

These things didn’t really have a place here. Perhaps it was finally time to clear them out. But even while he was thinking that, he found he had taken the box and packed it in the bottom of the hoverchest. There would be another corner for it, maybe. He’d probably lose it again; he seemed to have been getting steadily less organised over the past few years.

A white indicator light glowed by the door. Jainan turned and opened the door in the split second before the chime had a chance to sound.

A smartly-dressed aide with a crest-emblazoned wristband stood outside. “Count Jainan?” She bowed. “My name is Bel Siara, private secretary to Prince Kiem. His highness has sent me to assist you.”

Jainan automatically bowed back. She looked glancingly familiar – Jainan must have seen her around the palace at some point, but he was bad at remembering people and worse at making connections. This transition might have been easier if he’d known people outside Taam’s immediate circle, but just moving out of Taam’s rooms was like moving into a city full of strangers.

 “Honoured to make your acquaintance,” he said. The formal phrase came out easily, polished by use, but then he had to think of what to say next. He had to stop his breathing speeding up. Bel was in a position to do him a lot of damage if she decided she didn’t like him. “I’ve packed. I’m ready to go.” He turned, before she could reply, and keyed the chest.

The lid slid shut and it unmoored itself, bobbing towards the door as he touched the handle.

“Allow me,” Bel said, and moved in to take a pull cord instead. Jainan backed off and let her.

The chest was a new one, and easy to tow. Jainan used the walk to run over his half-formed apologies for the ceremony. He never got the chance to use them, though: when they reached Prince Kiem’s door, it opened onto an empty room.

Bel waved him in ahead of her. “He's gone out. Make yourself comfortable. I can get you a drink, unless you'd like to direct the unpacking?”

“I can unpack myself,” Jainan said. She must be busy with her duties and there was no need to give her his.

“Of course, sir,” Bel said after a moment. “Let me show you the rooms.”

The main room was tidier than it had been earlier, during his brief, panicked visit before the ceremony. Iskaners liked everything white, he knew, but he felt there had been more colour then, just because more things had been strewn around. Now it felt more like Taam’s rooms.

The bedroom was spotless as well. “Here,” Bel said, opening an entirely separate wardrobe. Two columns of drawers also stood open.

“I don’t need this much space,” Jainan said.

“We can clear more, if– excuse me?”

Jainan silently keyed open the lid of the hoverchest. It was only half full.

Bel looked at the contents. “I see,” she said. Jainan tried not to read any disapproval into it. “But we’ve cleared it now, so you might as well claim it. His highness will just fill it with his rubbish if you don’t.”

Jainan felt his entire back knot up. “I don’t – I don’t need it,” he said. “I don’t want to argue with his highness.”

Bel gave him an odd look. Jainan couldn’t meet her eyes, and instead focused on pulling his belongings out of the chest.

“Let me know if you need anything,” Bel said at last. “I’ll be in the study. Prince Kiem says don’t hesitate to ask for anything.”

“Thank you,” Jainan said.

“To be clear, that means ask me for anything,” Bel said. “Kiem doesn’t know how to work the requisition system and will just call up twenty people until someone gives him something to make him stop.”

“Thank you,” Jainan said again. He had the excuse of turning away to the wardrobe, so he didn’t have to hide his expression as she left.

If Prince Kiem had said that, Jainan could guess why. Guilt. That explained some of the things he had said at the ceremony as well. Guilt about Jainan, which led to him extending favours. And if Jainan took advantage of that, it would poison the well that much sooner. Jainan was familiar with how guilt turned into resentment. He was still naïve himself, because he was still trying to think of ways to stop it, when in fact nothing he could do would make a difference. The only thing that could be done was to make Kiem happy, and Jainan was, he knew, uniquely incapable there.

His clothes fit into half the space in the wardrobe. The box from Thea went into the back of a drawer. He emptied the chest slowly, and when it was empty he shut it down until it was just a flat block floating at chest-height. He pulled it out of the air, then hesitated. He would have taken it to Taam’s aide normally, but he didn’t want to disturb Bel.

He felt a sudden, crushing desire to be back in familiar territory. At least he’d known the rules there. His head gave another stab of pain.

Bel put her head around the door. “Message from Prince Kiem,” she said. “He’s apparently found dinner arrangements. Would you mind going to the Room of Birds in twenty minutes? Top of the Western Tower. I can show you where it is.”

“I know where it is,” Jainan said, bemused. It wasn’t a dining room. He had a recollection of it from a palace tour when he’d first arrived, formal and empty, sometimes used for receptions. The palace had more reception rooms than it knew what to do with.

“I suggest formalwear,” Bel said. “Do you need anything else? No? I’ll be off for the evening, then. I’m on call – here, I can send you my contact for your shortlist.” Her wristband threw the image of a navigation wheel just below her hand and she spun through it.

“No, I– I need mine recalibrated.” Jainan adjusted his own wristband, which had been malfunctioning ever since they’d shut off Taam’s account. Now it would need linking to Prince Kiem’s. But Bel was going off duty, and he didn’t want to keep her. “I’ll ask Prince Kiem tomorrow. I know how to get to the Western Tower.” That didn’t in any way lessen the cold lump that was sitting in his stomach.

When he reached the upper floors of the tower, he couldn’t remember exactly which of the gold-swirled doors he wanted, but it didn’t matter: the moment he stepped out of the elevator an attendant bowed to him and ushered him to the right one.

It opened onto a high-ceilinged space, with arched windows looking out onto a panoramic view of the city and the snow-covered mountains behind. The Iskat white was broken by colourful tapestries on the walls depicting Iskat bird species, predatory and alien. The rest of the furniture was carefully crafted to fit in with these antique treasures: the chairs and side tables were made of polished wood, only lightly brushed with gilt. Jainan had a vague memory of a large table in the middle, but it was gone now, and there was only a dining table set for two by the window.

Prince Kiem was rising swiftly from it, so swiftly he knocked the chair backwards. Jainan stiffened. “Ah – oh, damn – excuse me –” Kiem somehow hooked it his foot under it before it hit the floor and awkwardly flipped it up again. He turned back to Jainan and offered him a bow. “Sorry about that. Do you, er, want to sit down?”

Jainan was still frozen. The table was spread with snowy linen and glittering with twelve types of cutlery, sharp enough to stab. There was a silver candlestick clawing its way up from the table, its holo shedding a sparkling gold light. It was meant to be romantic.

He couldn’t do this.

“I, er, I mean – maybe you don’t –” Kiem spread his hands helplessly. “I didn’t mean to ambush you. If you’re not feeling well, that’s fine. You can order in food to our rooms. I can go somewhere else. Or, or something.”

Whatever happened about dinner, they were going to be sleeping in the same bed tonight. Jainan made his legs freeze in place, not letting himself step back. Running away now wouldn’t help anything. It was just a formal dinner. He had sat through hundreds of formal dinners.

“No, it’s fine,” he said. He took three steps forward and sat, stiffly, and remembered to add, “It’s lovely. I’m honoured.”

Kiem gave an exaggerated sigh of relief. A joke, Jainan thought, feeling numb, as Kiem sat down himself. “Sorry it’s not exactly a big wedding banquet. Official mourning and all that. I did get us one of the bottles of Gireshian champagne from the cellars, though.” He grabbed for the bottle by the candlestick and waved it hopefully at Jainan’s glass. “Thirty years old and spent three years on the ship here. Can I– oh, wait.” He pulled the bottle away, looking stricken. “You don’t drink, do you?”

Giresh wasn’t in-system, and Iskat’s nearest galaxy link was itself a year away. Goods from the wider galaxy were luxuries; Kiem was offering him something it would have cost him a chunk of his allowance to acquire from the cellars. Jainan pushed his glass an inch towards the bottle. “Please do.”

“Er, right,” Kiem said. He filled his glass as well, then held it up. “To Thea.”

Jainan blinked. Something in his chest ached. But it was just politeness – reputation in the news aside, Prince Kiem was a diplomat in a family of diplomats. Jainan held up his glass. “To the Empire.” He drank a third of it in a gulp. There was something satisfyingly acid in the unaccustomed burn of the alcohol in his throat. It could make tonight a disaster, but risking a disaster was almost more appealing than being clearheaded through the whole night.

A plate appeared in front of him from a waiter hovering at his elbow. Jainan automatically inclined his head and picked up the correct cutlery. He gripped it a little in preparation for speaking.

“Blizzards coming early this year,” Kiem said from across the table, at exactly the same time as Jainan said, “I would like leave to apologise.”

They both stalled to a halt. There was an awful silence. Jainan dropped his gaze to his food, his shoulders knotting up with the effort of keeping his back still and straight, and then Kiem said. “What for?”

Jainan paused. “The ceremony.”

Kiem put a hand across his face and groaned. “Oh hell, I’m sorry too. That was awful, wasn’t it, let’s never speak about it again.”

The relief sat in Jainan’s stomach like acid. He said, “Yes.”

“They could have waited a week.” Kiem said, immediately disregarding his own request. “Would a week have killed them? Hundreds of civil servants in this palace and not one of them could figure out how to suspend a treaty for a week?”

Jainan looked down at his meal and separated all the vegetable portions carefully from each other with the tip of his knife. “Mm,” he said.

“Hey, so, a metre and a half of snow this month. That’s crazy for autumn, right? That’s crazy.” Jainan blinked. But before he even had the time to say anything else, Kiem launched into a stream of consciousness that was apparently every thought he had ever had about early-winter weather. Jainan scrambled to pull himself together enough to reply. When Kiem finished on the weather there wasn’t even a break before he switched to the food (‘apparently turkey’s making a comeback – ever tried turkey?’), the latest news on Sefalan raiders (‘Bel’s from Sefala, you know, she gets her news from the Guard over there’) and the orbital shuttle gridlock (‘won’t be cleared within the week, I’ve got a bet on it with the deputy station controller’).

The stream of chatter started to become soothing.  Jainan fell thankfully into automatic pilot, dredging up opinions so bland they might as well have been cleared by the press office. Kiem was good at feigning interest: he managed to look like he was hanging on every dull word Jainan came up with. Jainan knew it was a diplomatic front, but it made it easier. Kiem’s face was more expressive than Taam’s had been, his eyes always sparking with interest about something over the clean lines of his cheekbones. He took up more space, as well, and was constantly gesturing to make a point or nearly putting his elbow in the butter. Jainan tried not to look at his body, his dark skin and the smooth curve of his forearm. It felt wrong.

The second course came and went. The sky through the windows had turned a deep, dusky blue, and Jainan’s eyes kept going back to the encroaching dark above, and the way the palace lights flickered off a few errant snowflakes. Winter came early in Iskat, always.

“—straight into a snowdrift. You’ve been skiing, right?”

Jainan struggled to pull his attention back. “Yes,” he said. “Taam took me.”

“We should go together. I mean, if you want to. Better on top of the snow than in it, though, right? Funny story from last winter—”

Try as he might, Jainan could not even understand the next thing Kiem said. It had been a long day. In the lull between crises, tiredness crept up on him like paralysing serum, making his spine ache and his mind slip. The clink of cutlery and the candlelight reflected on the dark window was too familiar – it could have been any of the hundreds of banquets he had attended with Taam since he came to Iskat. Kiem was a stranger over the other side of the table. He looked more like Taam than he should.

And then it wasn't just resemblance. The room blurred and Taam was sitting in Kiem’s place, handsome and charming, speaking to an indistinct dignitary on his right. The lump of food in Jainan’s mouth suddenly tasted of ash; he couldn’t swallow. Taam laughed at a joke and turned back. The moment the dignitary’s attention was elsewhere, the smile was gone, wiped cleanly from his face.

Let’s go home, Jainan thought. His mood would only get worse if they stayed. As if he'd heard, Taam leaned forward to him and reached out. Jainan kept his hand still on the table.

 “Jainan?” A brisk tap on the back of his wrist made him jump. It was Kiem, leaning over with an anxious expression. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Jainan said, pulling his hand away. Grief worked in strange ways. He could not, could not let Kiem know why he’d spaced out. “Fine. Just tired.”

Kiem pulled his hand back immediately. “Yeah, it’s been a long day. We can skip dessert—”

“No,” Jainan said desperately. He couldn’t ruin this as well. “It won’t be a problem. Everything is fine.”

Kiem paused. “Right,” he said. He nodded to the footman who cleared away their plates. “So, um. The little crest on your jacket – it’s some kind of Thean family crest, right?”

“This?” Jainan said, thrown by the change of direction. He touched the emblem sewn to the collar of his uniform.

“Heraldry and stuff is a bit of a, uh, hobby of mine,” Kiem said. “What’s the border mean?”

That was impersonal enough to answer. Jainan clung onto his diplomatic mode and managed to keep the conversation going long enough that it became normal again. He kept close tabs on Kiem’s body language, waiting for signs of boredom on this boring topic, but Kiem seemed entirely focused on it – if Jainan had known that was an interest of his, he could have led with it.

At some point he looked down at the remains of dessert and realised he had been doing most of the talking for the last ten minutes.

Kiem followed his gaze. “Huh. We seem to have run out of food.” He propped an elbow on the table and raised his eyes back to Jainan’s. “Coffee? We could go somewhere and get coffee. Or you could come back to my rooms – uh – dammit.” His elbow slipped off the table as he apparently heard his own phrasing, and Jainan got the distinct sense that that hadn’t gone as planned. “I mean, our rooms? I guess technically you could invite me. I mean, or we could go back and not have coffee!” He waved his hands in front of his face. “Or I could go somewhere else and you could go back– Or you could, uh–”

A flicker of amusement leapt up in Jainan. “Would you like to come back to my rooms for coffee, Prince Kiem?” he said gravely.

It came out before he could think too much about it. He stopped, almost wanting to take it back, but then Kiem gave a surprised, delighted smile. Jainan hadn’t seen that smile before. He slammed his gaze back down to the table, but someone with a laser cannon’s worth of personality was focusing it all blindingly on him and he wasn’t immune.

“Can’t think of anything I’d like better,” Kiem said, abandoning the last of his dessert. “Shall we?”

 

*

 

The euphoria from their brief accord couldn’t last. Knowing that, Jainan tried his hardest to ignore it, and he was right: by the time they reached Kiem’s rooms again it had drained away, leaving only low-level dread. Even Kiem seemed more subdued, losing the thread of what he was saying as he opened the door. That was probably for the best, since Jainan hadn’t heard a word he said in the last five minutes.

The problem was hope. If he could just reconcile himself to how badly it was going to go, he would feel – well, maybe not better, but steadier. That would be preferable.

It wasn’t even as if there was a logical reason for hope. Jainan knew from his grim foray into the gossip logs that there were at least half-a-dozen previous lovers. More women than men, and every one of them beautiful, confident, looking an effortless match for Kiem even in passing paparazzi shots. People Kiem had picked, not had forced on him. Jainan couldn’t compete.

He let go of Kiem’s arm once they were inside. Every movement he made felt awkward. He sat on the edge of a couch, to stop himself hovering irritatingly, and then realised that he was making things even more awkward – what was this, a wedding night or a polite visit? He couldn’t work out what to do with his hands.

Kiem had made a beeline for the dispenser. “Right! What would you like? Bel hooked it up so you can mix anything with anything, so if—”

“Just coffee,” Jainan said abruptly. His tongue felt thick in his mouth. He hadn’t mean to interrupt, but it made Kiem break off.

He swallowed in the silence that followed and listened to the mechanical clicks of hot water pouring. Kiem turned, a coffee cup in either hand. Jainan glanced up, trying to read his face, then wished he hadn’t. The easy smile wasn’t there anymore.

Kiem put the coffee cup down in front of Jainan. “Okay,” he said. “I think something needs to be said.”

Jainan didn’t touch the coffee. He stared at the table beside it. “Yes?”

“There’s only so far we need to go with this wedding night thing,” Kiem said. He sat down heavily. “I mean, we can’t get you separate rooms. Press Office has pretty effectively vetoed that, since they say it will get out to the newslogs. But we’re in private here.”

“You don’t want to sleep together,” Jainan said. His lips felt numb.

Kiem’s arm jerked, spilling his coffee on the table. “No! I didn’t say— Damn.” He put the cup back gingerly. “It’s not that I don’t want to. But it’s—you’re—this is obviously not the best situation and I can’t imagine you, uh. We don’t have to do anything, is what I mean. I can sleep on the couch.”

Realisation crashed into Jainan like a fist to the stomach. He had failed so badly to communicate that Kiem assumed he was rejecting him, assumed Jainan was not going to fulfil his obligations. He was going to doom this from the start by being too cold, too stiff, too uptight. It was enough to make him move. He turned, put his hand on the back of Kiem’s neck, shut his eyes and kissed him.

After a heart-stopping moment, Kiem responded. Jainan’s heart was hammering so hard it sent a wave of dizziness to his head: he couldn’t tell if it was the relief or the kiss. Concentrate. He didn’t have to be terrible at this. He knew the theory, he had enough practice. He was concentrating so hard that he almost missed the little pleased noise Kiem made when they broke apart, and stopped in shock when he realised what it was.

Luckily, it didn’t seem to matter. Kiem took a breath and bent his head, kissing Jainan’s neck. It was good – of course it was good, Kiem knew what he was doing – and for a peculiar moment, the constant tension in his head stopped. It was replaced by an odd sense of openness, like light flooding in through a window. Was that the alcohol? Jainan didn’t care. He opened the first few buttons of Kiem’s shirt, shaky with relief. It was working.

Kiem’s hands closed over his. Jainan stopped.

“Is everything all right?” Kiem said. Jainan looked up at his face. He was frowning.

The shaking. Jainan took a deep breath, made himself still. He could do this. This had worked before. “Yes?” He made his voice softer, persuasive. “Do we have to stop?”

Kiem’s broke into a smile, though it was only an echo of the one earlier. “Uh, no.” He tried to kiss Jainan again, but Jainan was already on his feet, tugging Kiem up and towards the bedroom. The quicker they could get to it the less noticeable Jainan’s problems would be. Kiem was suggestible, which made it both easier and harder than Jainan was expecting, but they had reached the bed soon enough.  Jainan slid Kiem’s shirt off, and Kiem obligingly shrugged his arms out of it and reached for the clasps of Jainan’s jacket. Jainan was so tense about failing at this that his heart felt like it was caught in a vice, but it was going to be fine—

Kiem pushed away. The air that had been too hot around Jainan was suddenly too cold. Jainan didn’t understand, until he saw Kiem’s expression, and then he understood too well. That was when he made his fatal mistake.

He should have sat up immediately and reached out. He should have acted surprised that Kiem would want to stop. But instead he just lay there, as a wave of exhausted numbness sweep over him. And in that moment, because he didn’t have the strength to fight this going wrong, he saw Kiem’s expression harden.

“I’m sorry,” Kiem said. His voice was soft. Jainan apparently wasn’t the only one who could change his voice to hide his feelings. “I’ll go.”

Jainan opened his mouth to say Don’t, and then shut it again. He couldn’t dictate who Kiem wanted to sleep with. He’d thought he could hurry him into it and hide the sliver of ice inside himself which made him disappointing, but he’d been wrong.

He couldn’t force Kiem to be attracted to him.

“I’ll go,” he said, instead.

No,” Kiem said, almost violently. Jainan held very still, but Kiem wasn’t looking at him. He was on his feet, opening drawers at random until he found some sort of cloth – a bedsheet. “Never mind. We’ll sort something out. I don’t– Make yourself at home. I’m sorry.” The door slid open, and while Jainan was still pushing himself up, protests on the tip of his tongue, Kiem had left.

The door slid shut before Jainan could reach it. He stood frozen in front of it, his hand just outside the reach of the sensor trigger, the blank white only centimetres from his face. He could go through. It wasn’t locked.

But what would he say? There was no way of fixing this.

He turned away. Kiem had made his intentions clear:  Jainan had the whole room to himself, and he would make his own arrangements. Jainan looked at the bed. His stomach curdled. He briefly entertained the thought of sleeping on a chair, or on the floor, but dismissed the idea as ridiculous. He was not someone who made dramatic gestures. He was practical, and discreet, and a dependable partner. He didn’t have to be liked.

He lay back on the bed, and stared at the white ceiling. Sleep would come. It always did.

Chapter Text

“I’m going to geo-tag you,” Bel informed Kiem when he came through the door the next morning. “I checked all your usual breakfast spots and couldn’t find you. I even checked the janitors’ canteen. Answer your messages.”

“Sorry,” Kiem said, swallowing the last of his breakfast roll. The morning light was streaming through the window, highlighting the folded bedsheet on the back of the couch more clearly than he would have liked. “I went for a walk.”

Bel gave him a disbelieving look. “By yourself?”

“Yeah,” Kiem said. Bel didn’t lose the sceptical look. He added, “I met a security guard when I was in the Ash Garden. We had a bit of a chat. Told me about tree-borers or something.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Bel said. “I was starting to think you were coming down with something.” She raised her wristband and sent his calendar to the wall screen. “Your diary for today. I cleared everything for you yesterday, but you have to tell me if you’re doing this College event today.”

“What’s Jainan got in his diary?” Kiem said. “Shit, I should have asked if he had anything booked—” He broke off, glancing at the bedroom door, which was still shut.

“He’s awake,” Bel said. “He went out to exercise in the garden.”

“He did?” Kiem said. He crossed over to the big windows and looked out into the private gardens behind, where slender trees rose from between the paths to echo the palace towers behind them.

Jainan was a whirl of movement in the space between them. He held a stick in his hands and was going through some kind of martial arts drill like it was a dance, so fast the stick was almost blurred as he spun and thrust. His T-shirt left his arms bare to the shoulder even in the morning cold. His feet crunched into the frosted grass. Kiem stared.

“Quarterstaff,” Bel said. “It’s a Thean thing. I’ll send you a primer.”

Kiem made himself turn away from the window, rubbing a hand across his forehead. He had no right to be staring, not after he had screwed up so spectacularly last night. “Right. Yeah. Thanks.” He should at least know what it was, if Jainan was that good at it.

“Headache?” Bel said. She was giving him her neutral Private Secretary look.

“Sort of,” Kiem said. He saw her glance at the folded sheet and groaned. “Oh look, fine. I might need another pillow for the couch. Don’t leak it to the newslogs.”

Bel, uncharacteristically, hesitated. “I can get you another bed.”

“Not worth the risk,” Kiem said.

“A folding bed, then,” Bel said.

“The couch is fine.”

“The couch is not fine. Nobody will see a folding bed.”

Kiem found he was leaning back against the wall. He drummed his fingers on it. He wasn’t used to feeling defensive. “Yeah, all right. Whatever.”

“Kiem,” Bel said bluntly. “Are you okay?”

Kiem opened his mouth, then shut it again. How did you say that? How did you say, my partner loathes me so much he’s actually repulsed by me, but he still tried to do his duty and sleep with me?

But that wasn’t something he could air out of the bedroom, even to Bel. “Yeah. It’s not me who you should be feeling sorry for.” He gave his best nonchalant shrug. “Could have been worse, I learned about Thean heraldry. It’s a hobby of mine,” he added. “Just so you know.”

“That's a new one,” Bel said. “I wasn't aware you knew what a family crest even was.”

“I do after yesterday’s dinner,” Kiem said. “What were you saying about today's schedule? You were going to tell me about Jainan’s diary.”

Bel sighed. She turned to the desk and picked up a transparent diagnostic shell, wrapped around a wristband that wasn’t hers. “Yes, well, there’s a problem there.” She threw the display up on the wall, where it blinked up an error. “Jainan and Prince Taam seemed to have shared accounts. Prince Taam’s has been deactivated, so the system keeps trying to wipe Jainan’s.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Kiem said, holding up his hands. “Shared personal accounts? Maybe that’s an official one it’s wiped.”

“Jainan said he didn’t have an official one,” Bel said. “This is the only one the wristband has access to.” She cancelled the error. “I can retrieve his messages, but his calendar was a subsidiary of Prince Taam’s. It’s gone.”

“Urgh,” Kiem said. “He’s going to think we’re all incompetent. Not you,” he added hastily. “The palace in general. I’ll tell him. But can you make him a new diary or whatever, and make sure he can—”

“No, I can’t,” Bel said. Kiem stopped. “Not on this account. It’s a subsidiary – I'd have to wipe everything he has on it and start again to make a main one. I could set your account up as a main if he gave me an override.” She brought up a pass screen. The error blinked up, and she dismissed it again. “But then you'd be able to see his messages.”

Kiem pressed his knuckles against his forehead. Every time he turned around he seemed to see the shadow of Jainan and Taam’s marriage. It seemed pretty unlikely that he and Jainan would ever be close enough to read each other's messages. It didn't even sound that romantic to Kiem, which was probably further proof they were badly matched.

“We're not really that close,” he said. Last night intruded on his memory again, and he winced. “We're definitely not that close. What if we—

The garden doors slid open. Kiem and Bel both turned as Jainan stopped uncertainly in the doorway. He was slightly flushed from the exercise, but he wasn't breathing heavily. He was holding something that Kiem realised was the stick, telescoped down to carry. “I'm sorry,” he said, “I was just outside.”

Kiem stared at the stick – the quarterstaff – which had folded down to something bronze-sheened and no larger than his hand. It kept his eyes away from Jainan’s face and disordered hair, which were reminding him of last night in a way they really shouldn’t be “Uh, good morning,” he said. “Nice morning for… martial art things. Right?”

There was a short pause. “Yes,” Jainan said. He sounded wary, which was understandable, because Kiem wasn't making any sense. “Did you want me? I was late getting up, and couldn't see you anywhere.”

“No, no, not at all, I mean, yes, I mean – diaries! Right!” Kiem turned to the screen, away from any thoughts he shouldn’t have been having. The screen was still showing the override form. “Your wristband—”

Jainan was already looking up at the display. “Oh,” he said. “I'm sorry.” He crossed to the table and picked up the diagnostic shell, pressing his finger through the dry gel to touch the wristband’s print sensor. “I didn’t realise it needed another pass.” He whispered a passphrase.

The pass screen cleared and the wall screen filled with messages. Kiem blinked, not understanding what he was looking at, and then realised they were Jainan’s and looked away. “Uh,” he said.

Jainan waited a moment, politely. When Kiem didn’t come up with anything else, he said, “I was just going to shower.”

“Right,” Kiem said. “We’ll – try and fix this. How do you feel about university visits?”

“I can be ready in ten minutes,” Jainan said.

That was heartening news, and distracted Kiem from the messages. At least there was something they could do together that didn’t involve romantic dinners that bored Jainan to sleep. “Take your time, it doesn’t start until eleven. Is there anything you need?”

“No,” Jainan said. It would have been abrupt, but he had an odd habit of leaving a pause just after, as if it was open to negotiation. He waited for a moment, then disappeared into the bathroom.

Kiem grabbed the wristband and pulled the messages off the wall. “Okay, obviously we don’t want to link it to my account, so how do we fix this? Can we just get him a new account?”

“Yes, but he’ll lose everything from this one,” Bel said. “I might be able to retrieve the messages.”

“Right,” Kiem said. “So get him one set up, but don’t activate it until he’s dealt with anything he needs to. And get my account taken off this. Actually, wait, I know some guys in Systems. I can take it over and see what they can do.”

Bel removed the wristband from his grip. “Or you skip the two hours you will inevitably spend gossiping with technicians, and instead you could stamp the pile of thank you letters waiting from last week. I’ll deal with this.”

Kiem deflated at the mention of the paperwork. On the other hand, he probably shouldn’t abandon Jainan when they were about to go out. “All right, all right.”

“The flitter for your visit is booked for ten forty-five,” Bel said. She glanced in the direction of the bathroom. “One more thing. You should probably see the news logs from yesterday.”

“Do I want to?” Kiem said, but it was rhetorical. He reached for the red press folder. Sometimes he read it out of curiosity, but usually he was just fine with not seeing what the press office had found written about him over the last week.

As he opened it, a fan of images reshuffled themselves above their accompanying articles. Most of them were the kiss or the official final photo – Jainan’s smile was sweet and dignified, Kiem’s was dumb, but that was normal – but a couple of the newslogs had gone with shots of them signing the contracts. Kiem’s hand still had red ink on it.

Kiem looked morbidly over the headlines that went with them. Restrained But Romantic: Prince Kiem Marries Thean Count in Discreet Ceremony. And another one: Prince K’s Royal Wedding – It’s the Perfect Match. Kiem was usually not that bothered about press coverage, unless it actually got him exiled, but he could imagine what Jainan would think when he saw those articles. Most of them had raked up Taam as well, but in a ‘tragically grieving Jainan finds love again’ way which made Kiem actually feel slightly ill. Maybe Jainan didn’t read the press notices. He could only hope.

“Turn over,” Bel said.

“There’s more?” Kiem turned the page, where the press office usually put the negatives. Two images appeared of them all trying to rescue the documents from a pool of spilled ink and Kiem looking perilously close to laughing. Luckily they hadn't got Jainan in those shots. Then the third came up.

The kiss itself was fine. There were only so many ways a kiss could photograph badly. But one of the aggregators had managed to get Kiem approaching Jainan just a few seconds before, and it was easy to read the panic on his face. Forced? the headline blared. Playboy Prince Hitched To Thean One Month After Last Partner’s Death.

Kiem slammed the folder shut and put his head in his hands. He bet that had been Dak. They’d have blacklisted whoever sold the photo on, but that didn’t help now. “Don’t show Jainan that,” he said. “Do you think he reads the news? Oh shit, of course he reads the news.”

“He hasn’t mentioned it,” Bel said. She picked up Jainan’s wristband. “Don’t think about it too hard. I only showed you in case it came as a shock later.”

“But what if—”

Letters, your Highness.”

“Right,” Kiem said. He pulled his head out of his hands. The world didn’t stop just because he was married.

 

*

 

The Imperial College, as Iskat’s principal university, was state-affiliated but not technically linked to the palace, so its premises were a short drive away in the city. Bel had booked a palace chauffeur. She had sent them off to with a briefing pack in a folder, since Jainan’s wristband wasn’t yet working, and an injunction to Kiem not to promise anyone funding under any circumstances.

Now the briefing folder lay on Jainan’s knees as he sat facing Kiem. Jainan seemed deeply immersed in the mundane details of the Imperial College, so with an enormous effort, Kiem had managed not to say anything for the last five minutes. The back seats had always seemed like more space than you really needed, but right now Kiem was acutely aware of where his feet were, and had moved them several times to avoid touching Jainan’s.

His wristband pinged again. “Oh, right,” he said, forgetting he was trying to be quiet. Jainan looked up, and since Kiem had already disturbed him, he decided to read the message off anyway. “Bel’s warning us that the College has credentialed a couple of photographers who might want shots. I suppose there’s interest because of the wedding. Sorry.”

“Is that a problem?” Jainan said.

“Nope,” Kiem said. “They’ll probably just want us and the Chancellor – or me and the Chancellor, if you don’t want to be in it. We usually only get local and specialist press, since the main ones are bored of me at events.” He realised he was being an idiot; Jainan had been a member of this court for five years. “You probably know all that. Sorry.”

“Taam didn’t do many charity events,” Jainan said. There was a brief pause, where he seemed to pick his words with his customary care. “His position was a lot of work.”

“Right, of course,” Kiem said. “He was a – a colonel, right? Or was it a major? Not much time for fundraisers.” Taam, unlike Kiem, had actually done something useful with his life and entered the military as an officer. Kiem didn’t think he’d commanded a ship, but he’d definitely been fairly high up in the on-planet hierarchy, leading some kind of army engineering project.

Jainan didn’t answer the question. He was looking out the window as they went through the Imperial College’s sweeping, spired gates, which were grey against the shower of snow they’d had that morning, and in need of recoating. “I’ve been here before,” he said. “I came to a public lecture a few years ago.”

“Wow, and you understood it?” Kiem said. “I studied here a few years ago. Dropped out before exams came round. Turns out being royal can only take you so far if you don't have the brains.”

“I’m sure you do,” Jainan said, then stopped. “You must— Well.”

Kiem realised what that had sounded like. “Oh, er, I didn’t mean— I wasn’t trying to fish for compliments,” he said. “Ask any of my ex-professors. Dumb as a rock. I got on with them all right, though, so I ended up one of the patrons anyway.”

Jainan had his finger on his place in the biography of one of Kiem’s ex-professors. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t think I can remember everything in this. Is there anything you want me to say to anyone in particular?”

“You don’t have to remember the briefing,” Kiem said, somewhat appalled. “You’d go mad if you tried to remember it. It’s just there in case you wanted to look up something. Just talk to whoever you want – wait, you’ll want to talk to professors in your degree subject, won’t you? Sorry, I’m no good at science, you’ll have to remind me what it was in.”

“Nothing important,” Jainan said as the flitter came to a halt and started to settle to the ground. He closed the folder.

“Uh,” Kiem said. “Right.” He surreptitiously checked his wristband for his own briefing.

The reception was in the College’s vast central hall, which had vaulting white roofs – also in need of repair – and an echo which magnified the conversations of the hundred or so donors and College staff mingling there. The excuse for it was the artwork from graduating students temporarily lining the walls, and Kiem made vague appreciative noises at it as their student escort towed them towards the Chancellor.

“Ah! Your Highness! Glad you could make it!” the Chancellor boomed. She was a statuesque figure in tweed and pearls and smart braids, turning away from her conversation to bow to them. “And this must be Count Jainan. Honoured by your presence, your Grace. I do apologise for the journalists. We have to let them in, you know.” She waved a hand at a short, round girl in flowing fabrics that Kiem recognised as Hani Sereson’s partner, who he'd last seen behind a cam lens when he had just fallen into the city canal. She gave them a brilliant smile and started taking rapid-fire photos. Jainan, in the corner of his vision, seemed to shift very subtly into the background. Kiem moved forward to cover him, grinned, and gave the camera a wave.

“And congratulations, may I say?” the Chancellor continued, turning to Jainan. “Let me shake your hand.” Jainan’s eyebrows raised slightly as she crushed his hand in her grip. Kiem grinned at him and also accepted a bone-bruising handshake. “Always a delight to have palace support. A delight.”

“No, no, pleasure’s all mine,” Kiem said, extracting his hand, somewhat the worse for wear. “Especially since I know several professors are thinking something about bad pennies turning up. Have you met Jainan, by the way?” The photographer finished a last set of shots and moved on. “He came to one of your lectures a while ago. Has a doctorate in deep-space engineering – extraction of something I can’t pronounce from asteroids. I can now come to this sort of thing on his coattails.”

Jainan looked embarrassed. “It was a long time ago,” he said. “And it was never – it was nothing ground-breaking.”

“Oh come on, it’s still a doctorate,” Kiem said. This just seemed to succeed in making Jainan freeze up. Kiem shut his mouth.

“Can’t have been that long ago,” the Chancellor said. “’Long ago’ is for us decrepit wrecks to use.” She caught the arm of a professor going past them in a black official gown. “Isn’t that right, Professor Audel?”

“Eh?” Professor Audel said, turning round. Her long white braid straggled down her back “Decrepit wrecks? You or me?”

“I think the Chancellor’s implying some of us are young and irresponsible,” Kiem said, holding out his hand again. “Pleased to meet you, Professor. What field do you work in?”

“Professor Audel is one of our foremost engineering experts,” the Chancellor said. “Audel, Count Jainan is an academic engineer from Thea. You three must have a lot to talk about.” She clapped both Jainan and Professor Audel on the shoulder and shook Kiem’s hand again. “Do excuse me, sire. Must get to the old meet-and-greeting. Look forward to talking to you later. I’m sure you’ll be asking all your normal questions about our outreach programmes.”

Kiem had been deputised by two separate charities to do just that, and shrugged good-humouredly. “You know me too well, Chancellor.”

“Regolith extraction, eh?” Professor Audel was saying. “Interesting, very interesting, we have four people on regolith rigs and solar shielding right now. There’s a lot of crossover with the military, who as usual have ninety-nine percent of all the available funding. And of course, the question is huge on Thea.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. “I think we have a good half of the Iskat military’s mining capability in our sector. I’m afraid I haven’t paid much attention to it in the last few years.”

“Of course,” Professor Audel said. “Politically fraught, though, isn’t it, with the revenue sharing agreement and the close-planet debris issue. Now, the equipment problem on the larger asteroids is the cracking issue in places like the Alethena Basin –”

“I don’t believe that’s actually the issue there,” Jainan said. It was diffident, but it was an actual interruption – the first one Kiem had ever heard him make. Kiem paid closer attention. “I think it was shown that the stabiliser seeding there in fact failed due to temperature and radiation differences, which is an issue with the unpredictability of the nearby belt collisions.”

“Well that’s – hm. Jainan.” Professor Audel peered at him, her dark eyes sharp in her wrinkled face. “You’re not J. Erenlith who published that thesis on regoliths, are you?”

“I –” Jainan said, then stopped, flustered. Kiem suppressed his I-told-you-so grin. “I – that was a long time ago.”

“Excellent!” Professor Audel said. “I suspected it was a nobility pseudonym. That explains why young Aret never found the author. We must get you in for a consultation.”

For some reason, Jainan glanced sideways at Kiem. “I don’t know if I can commit to that.”

“Oh?” Professor Audel said. “You’ve moved into another field? Surely you can still do a consultation.”

“That – depends,” Jainan said. He looked back at Kiem again. “Am I likely to have time?”

“Time?” Kiem said, bemused. As far as he knew, Jainan’s schedule wasn’t packed, or surely they’d have had people chasing up Bel already. On the other hand, if Jainan didn’t want to do it, the time excuse was a good one, but why ask him? “Well, depends what else you’re planning to pick up. Up to you, of course.” He couldn’t help adding, “For what it’s worth, I think it’s a good idea.”

Jainan inclined his head. “I would be glad to consult, Professor,” he said. “Though I won’t promise I will remember anything useful.”

“You never forget how to calculate,” she said. “And fresh eyes will be invaluable. Now, about the solar radiation. Did you or did you not take into account the knock-on impact of the inner system adjustment of –”

Kiem didn’t understand one sentence in three of the conversation that followed, but he watched, absorbed, as Jainan quietly but fluently rose to the Professor’s challenges with answers that Kiem couldn’t even begin to grasp. It was like watching a musician change when they picked up a violin. Kiem was mutely fascinated by the sheer array of obscure engineering facts apparently at Jainan’s fingertips. After a few minutes, though, he realised from Jainan’s sideways glances and derailing attempts that Jainan was concerned he was bored. As it would be completely inappropriate for Kiem to say, no, I could watch you do this all day, he murmured something instead about leaving them to it, and went to find the Chancellor and badger her about outreach programmes.

That led to ten conversations with other people. Kiem enjoyed these events; he did have to accept several compliments on his marriage, but somehow that didn’t feel as awkward now as it might have been. He glanced over his shoulder every so often to check that Jainan was still at ease in his engineering conversation. Jainan seemed more relaxed when he had something to distract him, which gave Kiem enough of an idea to message Bel about their afternoon schedule.

When he went to find Jainan again, at the end of the reception, Professor Audel had roped in three of her graduate students to join the esoteric discussion. Jainan was holding an untasted wine glass and listening carefully to one of them describe some kind of previous project. Whatever it was that had brought his dark eyes to life had intensified, and when he raised one slim hand to make a point, Kiem had to stop himself staring again. Kiem slowed his step, reluctant to interrupt. But when Jainan caught sight of him, he politely extracted himself from the conversation of his own accord, and was by Kiem’s arm a few moments later. “Are we leaving?”

“Well, unless Professor Audel wants to adopt you,” Kiem said. “She looked well on the way to it.”

Jainan paused. “Does that – cause any problems for you?”

“Me?” Kiem said. “Oh, you mean with the charity links and stuff? No, no, it’s great for me, the more we do for the Chancellor the more I can push her to put resources into outreach. And that gets three separate education execs off my back.”

“I’m glad,” Jainan said, and he did actually – for the first time since Kiem had met him – sound pleased.

Kiem grinned. “Roaring success,” he said. “Let’s get lunch. Did you have anything planned for this afternoon?” He didn’t realise he’d offered Jainan his arm until Jainan took it. Then it was too late, but Jainan seemed as relaxed as Kiem had ever seen him.

“No,” Jainan said. As they emerged from the hall into the courtyard, a light dusting of snow started to fall.

Kiem looked up into it. “How do you feel about skiing?”

Chapter Text

It was cold enough that the early snow was settling well, coming to rest decorously over the white-and-grey city like a blanket. On the outskirts of the buildings, at the base of the mountains, Kiem lowered their non-descript flybug into a space between a transport flitter and someone’s hoverbike. They were both in outside gear already, which made it a bit too warm, but Jainan had stayed relaxed all the way through lunch and Kiem was feeling good about this. He jumped out after Jainan and slammed the door shut. Above them, sprays of snow flew up from the skiers barrelling down the slope.

Jainan was staring up at them. Something made Kiem say, “Anything wrong?”

“No,” Jainan said. He hesitated, then half-turned to Kiem and said, “I didn’t realise you meant modern skiing.”

“Wait,” Kiem said, confused. “What did you think I meant? Not the thing with the two bits of wood?”

“Taam liked traditional skiing,” Jainan said.

Of course Jainan and Taam would have done traditional skiing. It was the elegant thing to do. It also required skill, control, patience for the boring bits, and regularly traipsing out to some cabin in the middle of nowhere. Kiem was terrible at it.

“We can take a few days to do that,” Kiem said. “Do you, uh, still want to do this? I mean, they’re expecting us. We can go in through the back entrance and everything. It’ll be fun.”

“Of course,” Jainan said. “I didn’t mean it as a criticism.”

“Didn’t take it that way,” Kiem said, somewhat relieved. “I love this place,” he added, as they ducked through the back door into a bustling confusion of hire shops and cheap restaurants. “It’s like being ten years old again.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He seemed more tense than he had in the flybug. Kiem was starting to doubt whether this had been a good idea. On the other hand, they were here now, and he didn’t think calling the whole thing off would make either of them feel better about it. Instead, he set himself to getting them what they needed as quickly as possible, and in an efficiently short amount of time they were getting out of a slope car at the top of a distant slope.

Kiem unloaded their skis, which hummed and tried to leap away from each other. “It’s a bit shallow,” he said, “but there are always fewer people on this one. We can find a steeper slope if you want more of a challenge.” He threw down his skis and stamped them on.

Jainan was looking down at his own pair of skis, which were floating a few centimetres above the snow. He steadied one with his foot. “Is this the right way up?”

Kiem stopped. Then he took one foot out of his own ski, and said, “When you said you did traditional skiing, did you mean… just traditional?”

“I thought I said,” Jainan said. “Taam thought modern skiing was vulgar.” The corner of his mouth was tight in a way that Kiem recognised – oh, fuck, that was the way he had looked at the wedding.

Kiem kicked his other ski away, put his hand over his face and groaned. “I am really sorry,” he said. “I have well and truly screwed this up.”

“No—” Jainan said, his voice strained.

“We can fix this,” Kiem said. “I can fix this, I will shut up for ten seconds and we’ll plan what you actually want to do, and I will stop being an idiot and dragging you everywhere. I just…” Jainan was staring at him. He broke off. He could feel the heat in his face, although it probably wasn’t visible. A sudden avalanche was starting to look like the only good way of finishing this conversation.

The silence stretched out. A handy avalanche didn’t come, even when he replayed the stupid sound of his own voice in his head. This was a really terrible time for his ability to talk his way out of things to fail itself. He found he had inadvertently started counting in his head. “Uh,” he said.

“Nine seconds,” Jainan said.

Twelve!” Kiem said. The sudden breath Jainan was pulling in turned into a startled huff of amusement, and Kiem felt a surge of unexpected hope.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me,” Jainan said.

Don’t apologise—” Kiem said, then realised he was interrupting again. “Sorry! Sorry. Shutting up.” He mimed zipping his mouth shut.

And now Jainan was smiling. It was a small smile, but he’d just found something Kiem said funny, and Kiem felt a glow of undeserved success. “I, I don’t,” Jainan said, “I mean. I didn’t say I thought it was vulgar.” He’d suppressed the smile in favour of his normal blank expression, but Kiem had definitely seen it. Now a small line appeared in his forehead. “I don’t mind modern skiing. I just. I will be slower than you. If you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind,” Kiem said immediately. “Do you actually want to, though? I can show you how if you do, but otherwise we might as well just go and get a drink.”

“Mm,” Jainan said. He balanced his foot on one hovering ski. Kiem held out his arm. Jainan gave him a startled look, and then carefully rested his hand on it.

He straightened up much more quickly and easily than Kiem expected. “Oh,” he said. “It’s like– ah. Is there some sort of fin?” He moved his feet experimentally, managing to keep his balance.

“Button on your glove,” Kiem said. Jainan pressed it and an edged spike lowered, giving him more traction into the snow. “That’s for hard turns.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He let go of Kiem’s hand and struck out by himself, lunging forward on one foot and then the other. He built up a little speed along the flat of the top of the slope, wobbling only once or twice, then spun at the end and turned back, speeding up. He slid to a halt in front of Kiem.

“You’ve done this before,” Kiem said.

“No,” Jainan said, “but we have something on Thea that feels very like it. River running. I used to do it a lot as a teenager.”

“Right? Right,” Kiem said. “You should show me that some time.”

“You can’t get the shoes here,” Jainan said. He looked down the slope. “I think I might be able to deal with some sort of slope.”

 Kiem stamped his skis onto his feet. “Lots of slope that way,” he said. “Let’s try it out.” He pushed off and slid over the ridge.

The movement was intoxicating. He hadn’t meant to go fast, but at the first bump he whooped and pulled his skis up for a jump: the field on their undersides crackled and sent him a metre up in the air.  He wove down the slope in slow, easy arcs, spraying up snow for fun.

This was probably a bit too fast. He cast a glance behind him. Jainan was halfway down, methodically using every metre of the slope’s width. Kiem waved and pointed down, indicating he was going to wait at the next plateau.

He was only a little way further when Jainan shot past him like a stone, knees bent, shoulders forward, pointing straight down. Kiem faltered and nearly fell, his heart in his mouth. Was he out of control? He veered around, speeding up to chase him, but at that moment Jainan swerved round to stop at the plateau with a spray of snow that nearly hit the treeline. Breathless, Kiem pulled up beside him.

Jainan’s eyes were bright and he seemed to be having some trouble holding himself still. He shifted his skis on the spot restlessly. “This is much faster than traditional style.”

Kiem slid to a halt, exhilarated. “Hey, so what was all that about being slow?”

That seemed to give Jainan pause. “I– I’m sorry. It’s– it’s really quite similar, and I– I got a little carried away–”

“It’s great,” Kiem said. The light snow had stopped, the sun was brilliant on the white mountainside and he felt too good to stay still. His skis hummed as he pushed himself off again. “This is great, your skiing is great, race you down the next one?”

Jainan didn’t even wait to answer before launching himself onto the next slope. Kiem crowed and gave chase, crossing and criss-crossing his tracks.

He passed Jainan halfway down. They didn’t bother stopping at the next plateau, but tore across it and down to the last run. Kiem was still ahead. He was just speeding down the last slope, drawing breath for a victory whoop, when there was a tearing sound by his elbow and Jainan cannoned past so close and fast he could feel the air move. Kiem yelped and swerved, righted himself, swerved again and slewed to a halt at the bottom. He was laughing so hard he could hardly keep his skis straight.

Jainan was waiting just in front of the crowds filing away to the buildings. “I,” he said, and then blinked and seemed to register that Kiem had only just managed to stop laughing. “Are you all right?”

“That was amazing,” Kiem said. “You have to show me river running. Ow, I’ve got a stitch. Give me a hand.” He steadied himself on Jainan’s shoulder to take off his skis without falling over.

Jainan began to smile, before he wiped it away again. But there was something in his eyes that hadn’t been there before. “I,” he said. “I enjoyed that.”

“It’s the adrenaline,” Kiem said.

“Yes.” Jainan picked up his skis.

Kiem attempted studied nonchalance all the way through the return of their equipment and the coffees he bought them. “So… we could do it again some time?”

“I would like that,” Jainan said.

The world was suddenly five shades brighter. Kiem was very restrained and focused on not grinning like an idiot. “We’ll have to go traditional skiing too. You can give me tips.” They sauntered towards the docking lot.

“I didn’t say I was good at traditional style,” Jainan said. “I am actually very poor at it. Is that Bel?”

Kiem followed his gaze and saw the familiar vehicle that had replaced their flybug, Bel’s head just visible through the window. “Hey, it is. Bel!” He raised a hand and hailed her.

She was sitting in the warmth of her own flybug, having obviously got someone to drive theirs home, and opened the door as they came closer. “Could you maybe shut the door,” she said, as Kiem threw himself into the back and Jainan followed. “Did you have fun?”

Kiem was already pulling his gloves off. “Yup,” he said. “Is there a crisis? I didn’t realise you were coming to pick us up.”

“Well, I assumed you might break at least one arm,” she said. “No, I just wanted to tell Count Jainan I’ve fixed his wristband.”

“Wait, already? The people in Systems always take days.”

“I know,” Bel said, “so I did it myself. It wasn’t that complicated.”

“Genius,” Kiem said, delighted. He passed the band over to Jainan. “It’s disentangled from everyone else’s account now, right?”

“Yes, though a lot of the historical messages are gone.” Bel said. “I’m not a miracle-worker. Quite.”

“Thank you,” Jainan said gravely. He turned it on.

“You’ll probably have about fifty on there just from when Bel fixed it,” Kiem said. “I don’t dare take mine off for an hour, I’d get buried under the backlog.” He slipped back into the seat as Bel powered up the flybug, supremely content. Jainan was relaxed, they’d sorted the tech problem, they’d had fun. Somewhere, a little hope was unfurling that said: it might still work.

 “Mm,” Jainan said. Kiem glanced at him. He was staring down at the screen, and it couldn’t be any more different than he had been moments ago. His shoulders were hunched, his neck was dipped down, and that line was back in his forehead.

Kiem sat up. He was an idiot, rounding off a fun afternoon by presenting Jainan with fifty new messages. “You can forward stuff to Bel,” he said. “She goes through things that you don’t need to see like a laser through tinfoil.”

“No,” Jainan said abruptly. “It’s all right. It’s only an invitation.”

“Events you don’t want to go to?” Kiem guessed.

“No, I just – it’s –” Jainan slipped the band onto his arm securely, and didn’t look up. “People from before.”

Taam. Of course. Kiem bit down I’m sorry, since that would probably only make it worse. “I can give you scheduling excuses if you want a polite ‘no’.”

“I would like to see them,” Jainan said. “Particularly – a friend of Taam’s and mine wants to meet. Aren. I mean, Colonel Saffer.”

Aren Saffer. Kiem hadn’t heard of him. But any friend of Jainan’s and Taam’s was welcome, especially Jainan hadn’t mentioned any friends up to this point. “Sounds good,” he said. “We could have him round for drinks. Or do you want me to clear out for it? Place is yours. Whatever you want.”

“No, of course not,” Jainan said. “I’ll ask Bel when it’s convenient for you.”

“I can clear anything,” Kiem said.

“That won’t be necessary,” Jainan said. “I don’t want to disrupt your schedule.”

“It’s not a– right.” Kiem scratched the back of his head. “You do have a right to my schedule too, you know. Just saying.”

There was a long pause before Jainan said, “Thank you. Sorry. This is the wrong time to bother you.”

Bel’s voice floated back from the driver’s seat. “No, it’s not, please bother him,” she said. “Kiem, how about following Count Jainan’s example and doing your own messages? You’ve got five from Aspire and three from Jakstad Primary.”

“Back to the grind,” Kiem said dismally. He carefully shifted so his hand didn’t touch Jainan’s on the seat. Jainan was hunched down again, his elbows resting on his knees. It was startling, Jainan’s ability to reduce his reactions to the politest of court manners at split-second notice. “Seriously,” he said, in case it needed repeating. “Invite your friend over. My rooms are your rooms, well, I mean, they literally are. But I’d like to meet him.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. His voice had gone back to sounding completely colourless. “Of course I will.”

Chapter Text

A week passed. Nothing happened to justify Jainan’s feelings of generalised dread, and yet they kept growing.

Kiem was, in public and in private, friendly, considerate and good-humoured. This had nothing to do with Jainan: he was friendly and good-humoured to everyone Jainan ever saw him with. Kiem was the person everyone knew, and it showed whenever he walked into a crowded room, because three people would immediately greet him like an old friend. Jainan had trouble remembering people’s names; Kiem remembered their children’s names. Every time Jainan thought about how he must look to Kiem – with his awkwardness, his stiff speech, his painful inability to say the right thing in the right situation – he felt a part of him try and spiral into self-pity again. He didn't let it.

He didn’t need to. Now, at least, he had some idea of what Kiem wanted. After watching him at work and going to several receptions with him, Jainan had ascertained he operated on favour-trading, like Taam had, only Taam’s sphere had been military and Kiem's was civil: state bodies, charities, donors. Kiem was a lot more subtle about it than Taam had been – at this thought, Jainan felt a twinge of disloyalty – but there was a similar exchange of introductions and promises.

Jainan had not been a lot of help to Taam in his business dealings. He didn't bring connections with him or have a persuasive manner. That had been one of the things he was afraid Kiem would realise soon, but the Imperial College reception had been unexpectedly helpful there: Professor Audel seemed interested in his past works. Jainan knew it annoyed people to wave that sort of thing around, but if he kept the academic discussions confined to the College, Kiem wouldn't have to hear about it and would still be able to lean on the Chancellor because of it.

In private, as well, Kiem was surprisingly easy to please. Jainan was quiet, unobtrusive, smiled politely, and that seemed to be enough for now. Jainan couldn't tell how much of it was coincidence: maybe this was a particularly good time for Kiem's work, keeping him in a good mood. Whatever it was, he was grateful for it, though a nagging itch in the back of his mind was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Kiem had a habit of asking questions that made Jainan tense – how was he supposed to know which visits and events he wanted to go to? He didn't have the information he needed. With Taam, do you want to go? in public was a signal for Jainan to politely decline, but he hadn’t worked Kiem out yet. At times, when the feeling was strongest, he suspected Kiem of testing the water to see if he could provoke disagreements.

Jainan told himself he would just do nothing that could be criticised. But he had made that promise to himself before, and it was seldom as simple as that.

“The scattering of ashes?” Kiem said over dinner, when Jainan brought up the message he’d received that afternoon. “Do you want me to come?”

Jainan breathed out, trying to dispel the tension in his back. He disliked having to refuse Kiem. “I’m sorry, it’s serving officers only. They’ve invited me as an exception.”

He made himself watch Kiem’s face for his reaction. Kiem frowned, and said, “You should take Bel as your aide. For moral support. I’ll ask her – I mean, if you want to? Sorry, got carried away there.”

“Of course,” Jainan said. He let himself relax fractionally. Bel keeping tabs on him during the ceremony wasn’t the worst outcome.

The next day he made his way to the palace shrine again, Bel at his side in sharply-tailored grey. Jainan technically followed a different sect than Taam, but in truth neither of them had paid a great deal of attention to ceremony outside of the high holidays. Jainan had spent more time in ceremonies in the last month than he had in the last year. The moment he stepped into the now-familiar echoing rotunda, he wished he had found an excuse to avoid this one.

The space for supplicants was packed, mainly with two dozen or so soldiers drawn up in regimental ranks. The shrine had been cleared of all its chairs save two rows at the front, which were occupied by very senior officers, their uniforms bristling with medals. He recognised the short, curly-haired figure of Aren among them, sitting in a chair in the second row, notably lower-ranking than the rest. Of course, he had been Taam’s closest friend.

The ceremony had not yet begun. The low-ranking soldiers remained drawn up, but the officers were still taking their seats. A few faces looked around and saw Jainan. It was perhaps his imagination, but he thought he could spot the exact moment when they looked beside him for Taam, then realised Jainan was entirely superfluous, and awkwardly turned back to their conversations. He should probably feel something about that, but all he could summon was a vague wish Bel hadn’t noticed.

“Welcoming bunch, aren’t they?” Bel murmured. Her usually flawless Iskat vowels had flattened for a moment in what must be her native accent. Her gaze had fixed on the gaunt face of General Fenrik at the front, who was apparently in the middle of an animated rant to his nearest neighbour.  “Cream of the Imperial crop.”

Jainan was saved from replying by the sound of the gong – a real one, not a recording – from a side chamber. The remaining officers took their seats. Bel gave him a quick, closed smile and went to join a handful of aides at the side, and Jainan slipped into a seat at the end of the second row.

From a couple of seats down, Aren leaned around the person between them and said, “Jainan. You’re very slow at answering your messages.”

Jainan took a breath and said, “A pleasure to see you, Colonel Saffer.”

“Oh, come, don’t be so formal.” The ceremony was actually starting: Aren’s whisper blended in with the initial chants. “I was going to drop by and see you and your new partner. How’s this afternoon?”

“Prince Kiem—” The officer in between them gave Jainan an irritated look. Jainan snapped his mouth shut, his back crawling. He had hoped to put Aren off for another few days, although he didn’t know why. His perverse tendency to avoid people was showing. Aren apparently took this as permission, and gave him a two-fingered wave before he looked back at the front.

The ceremony was like most other memorial ceremonies: chanting, music, short speeches from Taam’s commanding officers who hadn’t really known him. The main difference was the end, where at midday on the dot, a vidlink was thrown up on the expanse of wall above the main shrine. Three military gravity fighters roared past the mountains a hundred miles away. The one at the front trailed red smoke for a brief moment, the ashes invisible at this distance, and the gong sounded in the chapel, and it was over.

Jainan straightened up from his chair. He turned to catch Bel’s eye, but she was already detaching herself from the group of other aides, apparently telepathically sensing his desire to get out. “That’s how I want to go,” she said as she reached him. “Fired from the missile launcher pods. Except in space.”

“Oh?” Jainan found himself slightly nonplussed. He had endured many expressions of sympathy in the last month, and just as many awkward evasions, but nobody had expressed themselves quite like that.

“Clarification: only if I was already dead,” Bel said. “Do you want to head back? You have your College appointment in twenty minutes, and the Embassy with Kiem this afternoon.”

“Count Jainan!”

He wasn’t going to get away that easily. General Fenrik tapped him on the arm, and Jainan turned. “Sorry for your loss,” Fenrik said gruffly. “Tragic. One of the few royals who knew their duty.”

“Thank you, General,” Jainan said. “Your condolences are appreciated.” At this point, he didn’t even have to think about that phrase. Aren was beside the General, apparently having cornered him to talk.

“This boy here was saying,” – the general waved a hand at Aren, who raised his eyebrows comically at ‘boy’ – “Internal Security trying to stick their noses in as usual. Want to let you know, I’ll head them off.”

“Internal Security?” Jainan said blankly. They were the palace’s police agency. “Why?”

“Why do they do anything?” Aren said.

“Any opportunity to muscle in on our territory,” General Fenrik said. “Bureaucrats want records, it justifies their existence. Let me know if they contact you, they bloody shouldn’t.”

As far as Jainan knew, a safety investigation had already taken place on the remains of the flybug. He felt cold at the idea of dredging everything up again, but if there was anything else to find out, it should be found out. He wished they could find it out without involving him. “I see,” he said. “I am available, of course, if I can help in any way.”

“Don’t be. Anyway, wanted to let you know. Excuse me.” General Fenrik strode off, and Aren gave Jainan a grin and followed him.

“Requests can go through me,” Bel said to Jainan. Her accent sounded crisper than it had been before, and her eyes followed the two officers as they walked away. “I can filter them, if you’d like.”

Jainan pressed his finger and thumb together inconspicuously by his side, as a substitute for what he really wanted to do, which was press his hands over his eyes. “Everything must be done properly,” he said. It was wrong to want it to be over. Taam had been his partner, and deserved everything Jainan could do. He didn’t deserve help avoiding his responsibilities.

But in the meantime, he had a new marriage, and a whole new set of things to do. “Bel. Sorry to be a nuisance. Could you ask for a flyer to the Imperial College?”

 

*

 

The College felt more intimidating without Kiem there. Not only had Kiem known where to go, but his easy confidence also distracted everyone’s attention. By himself, Jainan had to shake the feeling that everyone was staring at him.

He hadn’t left the palace so much recently. It was the centre of everything that went on in politics and socialising both, and Jainan just hadn’t had reason. It was odd how he hadn’t really thought about it until now. A man at reception pointed him to Professor Audel’s office. The College became much less grand away from its main halls: Jainan got lost twice in twisty corridors, a couple of which were unheated and already below freezing.

Professor Audel’s office though, when he reached it, was in a corridor as stuffy as a sauna. There was a better-kept section adjoining it – Jainan passed three lab entrances, and glanced in with curiosity, and away with regret. The Professor’s room had a nameplate, and a doorbell. He gave it his thumbprint.

The door opened. The person behind it wasn’t Professor Audel, but one of her students.

He stared as if Jainan had just landed there on an incoming meteor. “Sweet God, you came.”

Jainan knew that accent. The student was Thean. Jainan fought the urge to step back. “Is Professor Audel in?”

“Professor!” the student yelled behind him – no, her. The way she’d tied her clan neckscarf was definitely female. Jainan had spent so long on Iskat, where only men left their hair unbraided, that he was looking for the wrong signals. An unwelcome memory rose from his first few weeks: how do you not understand what a woman is, Jainan? Do they not have them on Thea? At the time, Jainan had laughed. Now he blinked as the student called, “You were right, he’s here!”

“Yes, dear,” Professor Audel said, emerging from an inner part of the rooms. “Would you do me a favour and heat the tea. Count Jainan– do you go by ‘Count’?”

“No,” Jainan said. The Thean student had mercifully stopped staring at him and gone to unearth a battered samovar from under a pile of old lab equipment. Disconcertingly, the pattern on her twisted scarf was his clan’s. “Just Jainan, please.”

“Jainan, then – why don't you sit down.” The Professor started sorting in among more junk behind her desk. “I’m sure I had – where’s it gone?”

Jainan looked around the room. There were only two obvious chairs. One of them was behind the professor’s desk, and the other was occupied by a glass aquarium. The water in it was so dark it must have had a photoagent in it, and it was probably contributing to the faintly chemical smell that permeated the room. A leathery flipper broke the surface and disappeared again.

“Oh, that’s just our goldfish,” the Professor said. “Move her.”

“She’s in three hundred litres of water and the hover assist broke,” the student pointed out. She kicked what looked like an old china samovar, beautiful but chipped, and it emitted a faint chime. “Sit here, Count Jainan.” She met Jainan’s eyes and shoved out a crate. There was a challenge in there that Jainan didn’t understand. “Sorry it’s not the style you’re used to.”

Taam would have intimidated her into politeness by now. Kiem would have already extracted her name and exactly what was bothering her. Jainan could only look away. “It’s fine,” he said. He sat on the edge.

“Can’t find the abacus,” the Professor said, emerging with her braid askew. “I have your conclusions from the net, though. Oh dear, look at me jumping into work. One of my bad habits. Gairad, is that the tea?”

“Coming,” the student said, pouring from the samovar. She passed Jainan and the Professor cups of extraordinarily strong tea, then pulled up a beanbag and took the third cup for herself. Something about her profile was naggingly familiar.

“Now then, dear, didn’t someone say you just got married? How are you finding it?”

Jainan choked. “We’re very happy,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Well, each to their own,” the Professor said. “I tried it twice and the second time was no better than the first. Don’t let me spoil your optimism, though.”

“It’s his second marriage, Professor,” said Gairad, with the long-suffering tone of an eighteen year old who is more intelligent than everyone else around them. “I told you. He’s our treaty representative.”

“Oh, yes, well, politics,” the Professor said. “Politics. It’s such a shame you stepped away from engineering. I see you published under Bita Point University’s imprimatur, did you study there? Do you know Professor Varini?”

“I studied with him,” Jainan said.

Did you,” the Professor said. Jainan felt a sudden stab of vulnerability. “Now,” she said, “maybe you can help me with a question. I always imagined him from his papers that he must have at least three cats and drank whiskey during the daytime, is that true?”

That startled a laugh from Jainan. “I– I never saw him drink, Professor. He kept a very small dog. It used to follow him into the lab.”

Gairad look up from the dregs of her teacup. “That was him? My friend at Bita Point told me about that dog.”

“Oh yes, you’re both Theans,” the Professor said. “Maybe you know the same people.”

Gairad was looking at him. Jainan could tell. He was tense even before she opened her mouth and said, “Know the same people? Professor, we’re related.”

Cold dread went through Jainan. “Are we?” he said, trying to make it as neutral as possible.

“My aunt’s cousin is Lady Ressid’s oath-sister,” Gairad said. Now the accusation in her voice was unconcealed. “Lady Ressid came to my farewell ceremony on Thea when I left to study here.”

And that meant – though the connection was distant – Jainan had had clan duties to her he hadn’t fulfilled. Another name on the list of people he had let down. “I,” he said, then stopped. He couldn’t explain to her why he hadn’t been in contact with her. It wasn’t even a good reason, only a vague and political one, like everything in the Empire. Things that had seemed simple and clear on Thea had turned out not to be once he arrived here. But those was the sacrifices you had to make as a diplomat.

“Aha,” Professor Audel said, who had been rummaging in her desk drawer and clearly not paying attention. “Here it is. Is that enough small talk? I think is. Jainan, the project abacus.”

Jainan turned away from Gairad with relief that felt like a breath of air. Professor Audel placed an abacus cube on the desk, which lit up and started projecting models and lines in the air. Text scrolled down the side of the field.

“How much of the current thinking have you followed since your thesis?” Professor Audel said. “Not at all? Oh. Well then, you may not be following the Imperial military mining project in Thean space, and how it’s going. Or not going, I should say.”

“He should know,” Gairad said. “He was married to the man who ran it! Prince Taam, Professor, I told you.”

“Oh,” the Professor said, bemused. “So you do know, then.”

Jainan shook his head, his throat suddenly tight. “Prince Taam didn’t discuss his work,” he said. “I wasn’t following it.” His related field had been part of the reason he’d been put forward for the marriage, but that had turned out to lead nowhere. Taam had never taken interference well, especially early on, when Jainan had had an annoying habit of showing off his academic knowledge. “I only had an idea it wasn’t going as well as it could.”

“Beset with problems,” the Professor said. “One might say, riddled with them. Equipment failures, poor planning, workforce problems, supplies going missing – and two rogue solar flare incidents, which were the only things nobody can be blamed for. Heaven knows how the military organise their projects, it’s a miracle they managed to conquer anywhere.”

Jainan stared at the colourful projection. He felt a vague prickle of disloyalty at even listening to this. “And this is… a new extraction method?”

“Yes,” the Professor said. “You see, planning failures aside, we think all this type of extraction could be done with half the cost. We’ve started to reach out to the military, but you know what they’re like. The only way to get them to listen is to beat them over the head with something. So we need a regoliths expert, and then up you came – ah!” She pushed herself up from her desk. “I just remembered where your thesis abacus might be.”

She disappeared into the inner room. Jainan opened his mouth to disclaim any expertise, but she was gone before he could get it out. He became suddenly very aware that Gairad was still looking at him.

“So,” Gairad said conversationally. “Are you going to skip out on this like you’ve apparently skipped out on everything else?”

Jainan placed his hands very carefully on his knees and said nothing.

“I only ask,” Gairad said, “because I should probably warn the Professor. I told her you’ve faded out on everything you started since you came here, but you saw her. She doesn’t listen to anything that doesn’t involve pressure equations or reptiles.”

Jainan only just realised now how the nausea in his stomach had faded the last couple of days, because it was coming back now. Limit the damage. Kiem had trusted him with this and wouldn’t be pleased if he fell at the first hurdle. “Where did you get that from?”

“It’s common knowledge in the expat circle,” Gairad said. “Which you’d know if you didn’t treat all Theans like we were carrying some sort of plague.”

Jainan swallowed. “It’s not that.”

“Isn’t it? What is it, then? You’re just too good for us since you became an Iskaner?” Gairad said. She crossed her arms. “I thought you just didn’t have time for clan ties to a student, but everyone says you cut them off. Even Lady Ressid. She’s been pissed with you for three years now, by the way.”

Jainan fought the urge to put a hand over his stomach. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There have been diplomatic considerations.”

“The Ambassador didn’t believe you’d see the Professor either,” Gairad said. “He’ll be shocked.”

“I’m sorry,” Jainan said again.

Miraculously, that seemed to take some of the wind out of her sails. “You should tell Lady Ressid that.”

Jainan just shook his head. He felt his hands were perilously close to shaking; he gripped the edge of the crate to stop them.

“I don’t see why you’re so attached to the Iskaners,” Gairad said. “They’re technically our enemies. Were our enemies.”

“The unification was a long time ago,” Jainan said. He knew the lines. He had had this conversation before. “It was peaceful.”

“They run a Tau field for interrogating non-citizens.”

“They don’t any more. That was years ago, and it was never used on a Thean,” Jainan said. That was true, but Iskat’s historical expansion – and the Tau field interrogations – were a staple of a certain kind of media. This was the kind of misunderstanding his marriage had been meant to solve. He had done nothing to help, had he? “War dramas are not documentaries.”

“Whatever,” Gairad said. “You still abandoned your planet.” She got up and paced back over to the samovar to refill her tea. “Now you’re going to get me in trouble for this.”

Jainan let out a breath that was almost a laugh. “That isn’t something I’m in a position to do.”

There were long seconds of silence. They could both hear Professor Audel clattering in the inner room. Gairad seemed to remember she was getting tea, pressed the wrong hidden button, and cursed as a spray of hot tea splashed her hand. At length, she said, “Why do you look over your shoulder when you laugh?”

It took Jainan a moment to find any sort of answer to that. “I don’t,” he said. Did he?

“Both times,” Gairad said. She dabbed her hand dry with a corner of the curtain. “Ugh. At least I can tell the Ambassador I’ve seen you.”

“Don’t—” Jainan started, alarmed, but at that moment Professor Audel came back in, holding up an abacus.

“Found it!” she said. “Good thing I never clear out, eh? Let’s have a look.” She shut down the first abacus and put the new one next to it. “Now, Jainan, why don’t you talk Gairad through the basics of this. And then we can discuss the consultation work you’ll be doing on the project.”

Jainan pried his fingers away from their death grip on the edge of the crate. This, at least, was something he could do. He found himself more grateful for that than he would have thought possible. “Of course,” he said. “Happy to help.”

 

*

 

When he returned, Kiem was in for once, frowning over a reading tablet with the expression he got whenever anyone made him do extended reading. He looked up hopefully when the door opened.

“Jainan!” he said, brightening up and casting the tablet aside. “You went to the College? How was it?”

That was the helplessly compelling thing about Kiem, Jainan had found: he was always glad to see you, whoever you were. Jainan frequently had to remind himself that it wasn’t him specifically Kiem was happy to see; he just liked company over solitude. “It went… well,” Jainan said. It had, on balance. “Yes. Well.”

“Do you like it? Are you going to do the project?”

"Professor Audel has asked for further help. Yes.” Jainan expected Kiem to be pleased about that, and he was. Kiem was almost transparent when he was pleased about something.

“Let me know if you need anything, okay?” Kiem grabbed his tablet again, though he’d thrown it far away enough that this involved an undignified lunge on the couch. “Also! I wanted to tell you. I was researching Thea.”

It was oddly restful, the way Kiem would fill all the awkward spaces just by talking, if you let him. Jainan suppressed a thread of amusement at the thought and sat down. “Mm.”

Kiem waved a hand. “Well, all right, I got Bel to research Thea and send me the important bits. But listen, I was reading up about clans. Your system is really complicated, you know that? Not that that’s a bad thing,” he added hastily.

“Whereas the Imperial family system is very straightforward,” Jainan said.

Kiem’s face cracked into that smile again. “Right! Right. Nothing complicated here. I heard someone once assassinated an Emperor by dropping a full printout of Who’s Who on her.” Jainan felt his mouth quirk with the ingrained effort of not smiling. Kiem was already away again. “But listen, seriously, I read in this thing that it’s traditional to have a clan flag on the wall at home. Is that something people actually do?”

“Most people,” Jainan said. He wasn't sure where this was going. “It's not a requirement.”

“I thought maybe… there?” Kiem gestured at the blank wall opposite the desk. “I was going to message your Ambassador to get one, but I wanted to check with you. This is Feria’s design, right?” He turned his tablet around to show Jainan.

Emblazoned white on green filled the screen. Jainan reached out without thinking and took the tablet out of Kiem’s grip. The flag in the still was a standard replica from a big Thean chain, not one you could just buy here. They probably weren’t even exported here: of all the Empire’s vassal systems, Thea was the least integrated and had the smallest expat community, and besides, most people would bring their clan flags with them in their luggage.

“It’s wrong, isn’t it,” Kiem said, breaking the silence that Jainan didn’t realise had fallen. “Argh. Sorry.”

“No, that’s not—” He was aware he probably owed Kiem some sort of reaction, but anything he felt about it seemed very far away, and it was safer to keep it that way. “You don’t need to buy one. I have one.” He rose and went into the bedroom.

Kiem followed him. “You do?” He hesitated on the threshold. Kiem always paused when he came into the bedroom to get something. And every time he did it, Jainan was sharply reminded that no matter how impersonally neat he kept the bed, he had driven Kiem out of his own bedroom.

This time, though, Jainan was focused enough on pulling the box out of the drawer that he just looked over his shoulder and say briskly, “Come in. Don’t hover.”

Kiem grinned sheepishly. “Sorry.”

As he came in, Jainan lifted the lid of the box and took out the cloth. His fingers were oddly clumsy; it took two tries before he could get a proper grip. He held it up and the green tumbled down in a waterfall of stiff silk.

Now he looked at it, it would take up most of the wall. Whatever had propelled him to pull it out curdled into embarrassment, crawling at the back of his neck. He had to say the obvious. “It's too big.”

“It's amazing,” Kiem said.

The embarrassment was slow to drain away, as if it took time for it to notice it was no longer needed. Jainan said, “Oh.”

“Isn't it valuable, though? It should probably go under glass. It looks antique. I know the guy who did the framing for the tapestries. I'll give him a call.”

“It doesn't go under glass,” Jainan said. “But – are you sure? This is going to – alter your rooms significantly.”

He had said something wrong. Kiem was staring at him. “They're your rooms too.”

“Yes,” Jainan said uncertainly. “But this might be a little much.”

“Jainan, there’s hardly any of your stuff here.”

Now he had upset Kiem, and he hadn't even seen it coming. Jainan closed his eyes briefly and started folding up the flag. “I didn't mean– I'm sorry.”

“For what?” Kiem said. Jainan couldn't answer.

In the silence, Bel appeared in the door and saved him from having to come up with something. “Your Highness, do you project some sort of field around you that not only stops you checking your messages, but also infects anyone you’re with?”

Jainan jumped and went to activate his wristband, but Kiem just gave a disarming wave of his hand. “Was it important?”

“Colonel Saffer is due in three minutes,” Bel said. “Everything is ready, but you probably shouldn't let him find you arguing in the bedroom.”

Jainan tensed, but perversely that seemed to puncture all the tension in Kiem like a balloon, and he laughed.

“Can’t give a bad impression,” Kiem said. He gestured for Jainan to go out before him. “Thanks, Bel, we’ll take this one.”

“Excellent,” Bel said, “Let me know when you’re done, I need you both to sign off on the schedule for when the Thean delegation come next month.” She disappeared into the study.

Of course. There would be Theans visiting for Unification Day in just a few weeks. Jainan only prayed it was nobody he knew – it wasn’t, usually, but the Feria clan was large and well-connected, so he could never be sure. He took a deep breath as he walked back out into the main room, trying to settle himself before he had to meet Aren. Bel wouldn’t be here to coordinate. He made sure he was within reach of the door switch.

“Anything I should say to him?” Kiem said, kicking back onto the couch. “Bel gave me a briefing, but it seemed kind of weird to read it, so I didn’t.”

“No,” Jainan said, just as the light went. Aren was military, and always on time. Jainan opened the door just before it chimed.

Chapter Text

Aren stood outside the door with one hand stuck in the pocket of his uniform casuals, hair fashionably disordered. Jainan felt a jolt on seeing him, which was absurd – it had only been a week. He wanted to look over Aren’s shoulder for Taam. Aren’s sharp eyes flicked from the door panel to Jainan, and after a moment, he smiled.

“Jainan!” he said. Jainan stepped back to let him in. Aren followed him, and they clasped hands. “It’s good to see you. How are you holding up?”

Jainan nodded. It wasn’t an answer, but he couldn’t seem to find any words. He turned to Kiem, who was on his feet but hanging back.

That was apparently all Kiem needed; he took over like a tractor beam in a shuttle gridlock. One stride in and he was wringing Aren’s hand and clapping him on the shoulder. “Good to meet you! Great of you to come! How’s it going?”

Aren returned the greeting with easy confidence. “Not bad, you know. We carry on.” It made Jainan queasy, for an instant, just how alike he and Kiem were in their manner. Aren was physically different from Kiem – lanky, lighter-skinned – but he was able to meet Kiem on his level. Aren had always been cleverer than Taam about people.

“We should have invited you earlier,” Kiem said, gesturing him to a seat. “Jainan’s told me you were Taam’s closest friend. I know this must be really hard for you. Uh, for both of you.” Jainan turned away to the drinks cabinet.

“Oh, don’t be sorry,” Aren said. “I’m trying not to dwell.” He gave a lopsided smile and caught Jainan’s eye. “Right, Jainan? Taam was a damn fine officer. He wouldn’t have wanted it.”

Jainan was fairly sure Aren was more upset than he was showing. He was also sure that the unfeeling void inside himself that he skated around was unnatural, and not what Aren meant by not dwelling. “Yes.”

“Let me get you a drink—” Kiem said, but Jainan was already turning around from the drinks cabinet with a thin glass of clear liquor.

Aren looked at it as Jainan placed it in front of him. He laughed. “Jainan knows me too well,” he said. “Jainan, sit down. You don’t look so well, I don’t want to keep you standing.”

Jainan knew he didn’t look well. Taam would probably have had something to say about it. He sat.

Kiem was giving Aren an odd look. “Uh,” he said. “So. Remind me what part of the military you’re in.”

“Logistics chain, same as Taam,” Aren said. “Same as Taam was, I should say. I do the Sefalan side, he was on the Thean projects. There aren’t really any glamourous posts when there’s not an official war on, are there? Oh – sorry.” He gave Kiem a measuring look. “Don’t mean to get into politics.”

Jainan wasn’t entirely sure what Kiem’s politics were, but dreaded the imminent prospect of an argument. Luckily, after an anxious moment, Kiem shrugged good-naturedly. “I stay out of politics,” he said. “Let the clever people do the thinking.”

“Well, good to hear,” Aren said. “I know a few of Taam’s friends were afraid they weren’t going to see any of Jainan after he remarried.” He laughed, although his eyes were still on Kiem, and calculating. “I’ve asked around, but not many people in the military seem to know you well. Surprising, for General Tegnar’s son. I’m afraid we can be a bit of a closed shop.”

Kiem gave a rueful shrug. “My fault. Mother always seemed a bit embarrassed by me, to be honest, so I steered clear of her friends. Well, we can fix that. Haven’t we got an invitation to some sort of dinner in a couple of weeks?” He turned to Jainan, who nodded.

“Good! Good,” Aren said. “I know you didn’t get on with Taam. I thought that might extend to the rest of us.”

“Why would you think that?” Kiem said, sounding confused. “Did I say something? I liked Taam.” He turned to Jainan, oddly, as he said that, as if seeking some sort of input. Jainan didn’t know what he wanted, and stared back without a response. “I mean, I didn’t know him that well, but we went out drinking with the same people a few times back in university.”

Aren glanced up around the room. “Just a guess,” he said. “I noticed you don’t have a memorial.”

Kiem followed his gaze, and his puzzled expression turned guilt-stricken. “Oh shit, we don’t. Do you know, I completely forgot about—sorry, no, I— argh. We’ll get one up.”

Aren looked sideways at Jainan. Jainan thought of the Iskat custom of framed photographs and grey flowers, and didn’t answer for a moment. Something flickered across Aren’s eyes that reminded Jainan of dinners with him and Taam, and Jainan’s breath hitched. He folded his hands in his lap and said, “Yes.”

Aren rewarded him with another of those smiles that only came from one side of his mouth. Jainan found himself thinking, distantly, that those annoyed him. He repressed the thought.

“Let me know if I can help,” Aren said. “I’ve used all the pictures I can in my own.”

There were a gap in the conversation. Jainan saw Kiem turn to him hopefully and realised that that was where he should have thanked Aren. It was too late – Kiem was already doing it. Jainan’s stomach curdled. That was another thing he was going to have to apologise for. He felt detached from the conversation, as if he was floating somewhere above and behind his own head, watching them. Kiem was asking Aren about his work in the military, now, and somehow they had got onto dartcar racing. Kiem was carrying the conversation. Jainan was no use at all.

“Actually, there was something else,” Aren said. Jainan snapped back into his own head as Aren turned to him and passed over a handheld. “Sordid work details, I know, but I need access to Taam’s accounts. Project matters, I won’t bore you with it. I have permissions, but Systems need your clearance as well.”

“Wait, Taam’s accounts?” Kiem said.

You had nothing to do with Taam’s project, Jainan thought, but he didn’t have the energy to dig. He spun through the clearance form on the handheld and gave it his bios. “Here.”

“Thank you,” Aren said, accepting it back and ignoring Kiem. “There might be a couple more of Taam’s administrative matters—”

The pressure in Jainan’s head was building to an almost unbearable level. “No,” he said.

There was a short silence. Jainan waited in dread for Aren to break it, but it was Kiem who spoke.

“There’ll be someone else you can go to,” he said firmly. Jainan flinched before he realised Kiem was backing him up. “Surely you don’t have to bother Jainan with everything, not so soon after Taam. I mean, come on, how many people do we pay in this palace? They can sort it out.”

Aren opened a hand towards Jainan in mock-surprise. “Oh dear. Prince Kiem speaks for you now you’re married?”

Jainan froze. Beside him, Kiem choked on whatever he was going to say; Aren was good at silencing people when he wanted to. “No,” Jainan said. His heart was beating so hard it hurt. A further silence. Kiem was not going to break this one for him; he fought to take a breath and wet his dry lips. “But I would rather not – deal with Taam’s affairs.”

“Is something wrong?” Aren said solicitously. The flicker of his eyes took in Jainan, and Kiem, and the unfamiliar room. “I know it's hard.”

“Nothing's wrong,” Jainan said. It sounded hollow, even to himself. Nothing was wrong.

“Let me introduce you to our aide,” Kiem broke in. “She'll help you find who to talk to.” He jumped to his feet and took four nervy strides over to the study, as if the biggest hardship in this conversation had been having to sit still through it. “Bel!” He disappeared inside.

Aren also got to his feet. Jainan’s eyes automatically followed him, but Aren only stuck a hand in his pocket, casually, and strolled around the room. Aren did that. It had annoyed Taam, when Taam had been in an irritable mood, but Taam could never control Aren as much as he would have liked. Sometimes Jainan had wondered why they stayed friends.

Jainan didn’t turn as Aren leaned on the back of the sofa he was sitting on. “Such a shame,” Aren said. “Such a shame.”

Jainan folded his hands and took his time answering. It was odd, he thought distantly, how much Taam’s absence changed things. The effect of Kiem in the room wasn’t the same. He had a tenuous feeling that he had some measure of control over this conversation – an illusion, he knew, but he let the silence stretch out before he said, “Yes.”

“Did you notice anything?” Aren said, from somewhere behind his head. Jainan didn’t turn. “He didn’t seem… depressed? Ill at ease?”

The feeling of control rapidly slipped away. “No,” Jainan said. “It was an accident.” But at the question, his mind went back to that strange period before Taam’s death. It had seemed normal when he lived through it, but in hindsight it had acquired a twilight surreality as he went over it again and again. Was there something he should have spotted? Anything he could have spotted? Taam had never been happy.

He was saved from having to answer by Kiem coming back in.

“Aren, this is Bel Siara,” Kiem said. “Bel is to problems what hard vacuum is to mosquitos. Bel, Colonel Saffer. He’s been to Sefala a lot, maybe you’ve met?”

“Sefala is an entire planet, your Highness,” Bel’s voice said behind him. “Pleased to meet you, Colonel.”

Jainan did turn around, now, and saw the slight twitch of Aren’s eyebrows. “I heard you employed a Sefalan.” He turned it into a half-smile. “Interesting. You’ve entirely lost your accent, Bel Siara.”

Bel gave one of her closed, professional smiles. “Some might say I’ve gained an Iskat one, Colonel.”

“Suppose you could.” Aren looked Bel up and down. “I’ll be in touch.”

Jainan rose, sensing a gap that could be turned either way. “Thank you for coming,” he said, and stepped forward with his hand extended.

Aren couldn’t legitimately refuse. He gave a wry smile as he clasped Jainan’s hand; his grip was just a little too tight.

“Yes, a pleasure, totally a pleasure,” Kiem said, zeroing in the moment Jainan let go and pumping Aren’s hand. Jainan gave thanks for a moment that Kiem would reliably pick up any social cue that floated past him. “We’ll both see you at that dinner.”

“Sooner, I hope,” Aren said, with a smile and a bow.

“I hope!” Kiem said cheerfully. He accompanied him companionably through the door, and started chatting going down the corridor. The door shut behind them.

Jainan rubbed one hand up and down his wrist. He turned away from the door, took two steps towards the couch, and stopped, uncertain of where he was going. This was the point at which he should go over the visit in his mind, checking if there was anything that would have offended Kiem, but despite over a week of this he had still not worked out what offended Kiem.

He should be thinking of that, though. The past was the past, and Kiem was more important than Taam now. But all he could think about, at the moment, was Aren’s insidious question – did you notice anything?

“Count Jainan,” Bel said, eyeing him.

Jainan automatically separated his hands. “Yes?”

Bel hesitated, and shook her head. “Nothing.” She crossed to the door and opened it seconds ahead of Kiem. “Back already? You usually talk them all the way to the elevators.”

“He had another visit to get to,” Kiem said, coming back in. Bel opened her mouth and he waved a hand. “Right, yes, I know, Internal Security. Promise I’m all yours. Can you get me whatever file chain they’ve been shouting about?”

Finally,” Bel said. She glanced between them, picked up a folder on the desk, and went into the study.

Oddly, Kiem didn’t immediately throw himself into a chair and start talking, and that alone made Jainan tense.

“So,” Kiem said, with an uncharacteristic pause. “That went… well?”

Jainan paused. This was dangerous ground. “Did you not like him?”

“Uh, no, he’s great. A great guy,” Kiem said. “I—” He turned to the side and scratched the back of his head. “He is your friend, right? He wasn’t just a friend of Taam?”

Jainan felt a cold chill. “He was both our friend,” he said.

“And… you want to keep seeing him?” Kiem said. “I mean, I’m sure we’ll get on. He’s easy to talk to. But. Uh.”

Jainan thought of Aren’s clever eyes and his mentions of Taam’s work, and the cold chill didn’t dissipate. He met Kiem’s eyes and said, with total and utter honesty, “I would very much like you to be friends with him.”

“Right,” Kiem said, gathering certainty. “Right. Whatever you want. Where do you want the memorial?”

It was a simple question, and shouldn’t have caused the pressure in Jainan’s head that it did. They should have a photograph of Taam on the wall. He rubbed his forehead and temporised with, “I am not, technically, in mourning.”

“Nobody’s going to tell us we can’t have his picture up,” Kiem said. “Let them try.”

Jainan risked a deflection. “I need to consider it.”

“Okay. Right. Let me know. We can get whatever flowers or icons or things imported, I’ll find the money in the allowance. Just say when you’re ready.” He turned as Bel came back into the room. “All right, what’s on fire?”

Bel looked more sober now she put the document up. Oddly, the glance she gave was at Jainan. “Internal Security have decided to review the accident investigation process around Prince Taam’s death,” she said. “I’m sorry, Count Jainan, they may want to interview you again.”

“What?” Kiem said. “It’s been a month.”

Jainan shut his eyes for a moment longer than was excusable. Aren’s face swam before him. He didn’t seem depressed? Could you have done anything? It felt harder to breathe; Kiem and Bel were too close. He desperately needed some air. “Excuse me,” he said, and turned blindly. “I think I will go for a walk.”

 

*

 

The gardens were freezing. Jainan reached the end of the inner palace gardens then turned and plunged into the small paths around the edge, picking a direction at random. These paths were too familiar; he had walked them too many times with his mind in dark, pointless grooves. His breathing levelled out only slowly. His mind felt like it had cracks running through it, threatening to break apart in any one of a dozen ways.

It was pointless to think about this. Taam’s death had been an accident. It had been investigated within an inch of its life already. If there had been any hint of suicide, surely he would have known.

But would he have known? Taam had had strong opinions on what it was appropriate for Jainan to be concerned about with: sometimes innocuous questions about his work had drawn Taam’s anger, sometimes he had seemed equally irritated that Jainan apparently didn’t care about something. Jainan, always awkward, had drawn back. He was a coward when faced with uncertainties –Taam had once pointed that out – and he had eventually just stopped asking Taam about large areas of his life.

Should he have noticed something? Was it his fault?

His head hurt again. He hadn’t even realised how far the nausea had subsided in the past few days until it had come rushing back. He was expert at not thinking about things it was pointless to think about, but just when he needed that skill, it seemed to be failing him.

He and Taam had argued, the night before he died. Taam had been unhappy – he had been unhappy for the last two years – and Jainan had been entirely unable to defuse it. If he had been better, if he had been more diplomatic, if Taam had been more attracted to him, then would Taam still be alive?

No. He came to a halt and leaned his hand on the bark of an ornamental tree. The roughness under his hand was a useful focal point, and he shut his eyes to concentrate on slowing his breathing. Thinking of past failures would only stop him from completing his present duties. He must not go over and over the last few years. It must be as if they did not exist. He was a blank slate, and he could turn himself to a new task.

As his breathing slowed, the shadows drew back from the heels of his thoughts. For a moment he existed in a meditative space, similar to the middle of a quarterstaff form. He reached for it gratefully. This peace had always been hard to find, and he had no idea why it was so close to the surface now, but he wasn’t going to question it. He breathed out.

“Jainan? Count Jainan!”

Jainan’s head snapped up. He hadn’t paid any attention to where he was: he had ended up near the front of the palace complex, within full sight of the main driveway. The figure hurrying out of a glass walkway, huddled into a greatcoat against the Iskat cold, was the Thean Deputy Ambassador.

Jainan glanced behind him automatically. But though there were open paths behind him, he was socially trapped. It would be unforgivably rude to ignore him. Jainan came out to meet him instead, and bowed, stiffly. “A good afternoon to you.”

“And to you, your Grace.” The Deputy Ambassador was new, only in the post a year. Jainan only knew him by sight, but he remembered the name from the posting announcement – Suleri of the Esverani clan. Not one with links to Jainan’s, thankfully. “Are you leaving for the reception? I just had a meeting that overran, but we shouldn’t miss more than the first ten minutes. May I offer you a lift?”

The reception. Jainan swallowed on a suddenly dry throat. The reception had been in his diary. They’d received a last-minute invitation the night before, probably because Gairad had told the Ambassador that Jainan had started agreeing to appointments. He had been out here for – Sweet God, half an hour – and they should have left twenty minutes ago. “You received our acceptances?” he said pointlessly, to stall.

Suleri took it in his stride. “Prince Kiem accepted for both of you, your Grace. Have your plans changed?”

A cold wash of dread slid down Jainan’s back. This meant he had run off before a public appointment – an appointment Kiem had accepted for them on his behalf. His non-appearance would cause Kiem considerable embarrassment, and all because he couldn’t keep track of time and had run off for no good reason, like a fool. He had miraculously managed to avoid angering Kiem so far, but a display of self-obsessed emotion like this would do it. He had not yet seen Kiem angry. It wasn’t a pleasant prospect.

Lateness would also be embarrassing, but perhaps it could be smoothed over. He pulled himself together. Kiem would already have left in the official flitter, so this would be quicker than asking Bel for a backup vehicle. “No,” he said. “Our plans haven’t changed, but Prince Kiem is going straight there from another appointment.” Kiem must have already gone. The next words were hard to force out: he had been proud as a teenager, and a dislike of asking for things had been the one aspect of that he had never managed to shake. “I would appreciate a lift.”

He caught a moment’s surprise from Suleri, but Jainan was detached, now, and any embarrassment was far away. “Of course, your Grace. My flitter is just outside the gates. Do you… need a coat?”

His coat. It would be odd to go out without a coat, but they were already late. “No.”

Suleri paused, then shrugged it off with a smile. “You’re a fully-adapted Iskaner, your Grace. I freeze even in this.” He put his hands further in the pockets of his greatcoat and sauntered towards the palace entrance. They passed through the marble and white of the entranceway, and out to the front. You could hear the noise of the city from here. Jainan said the right things in response to Suleri’s small talk, mechanically, and shivered.

It wasn’t until they were in the flitter that Suleri said, “So, I was meeting Prince Vaile about the mining—”

Jainan held up a hand, the motion jerky. Suleri broke off. Jainan had to struggle for what to say, after being that rude, but he managed it. “Please,” he said. “I can’t talk about politics.”

“This is hardly politics,” Suleri said, a note of wariness in his voice. “Your Grace, this is barely even classified at the lowest level. And you have an interest.”

“I don’t,” Jainan said. There was a long, tense pause. “I have no interest,” he repeated.

“I’m sorry,” Suleri said. “I didn’t mean any offence.”

They passed the rest of the journey in an awkward silence. Jainan messaged Bel with a stilted apology. Suleri offered up the occasional comment on the weather, but Jainan was too busy wrestling with his growing sense of nausea to give any more than short replies. Theans. Dozens of Theans, including those he had defaulted on clan obligations to. And Kiem – who would not only be watching how he acted, but embarrassed and angry on top of it.

By the time they reached the reception, the wind had got up into what Iskaners called a needlepiercer: a relentless, icy wind that went straight through your clothes. The warmth of the Embassy was a shock, as was the noise of the crowded reception room. Jainan’s eyes skimmed over the assembled Theans and Iskaners, trying not to let himself be distracted by the familiar accents, or the very Thean fountains that stood in each of the corners.

“Jainan! Hey!” Kiem emerged from the crowd the next moment, as if he’d been watching for him. Behind him was the person he’d been talking to, looking taken aback. Kiem’s forehead was creased and he was more intent than Jainan had ever seen him. Jainan slammed down on the unhelpful instincts telling him to move, and instead stayed very still.

Kiem reached out to take his arm, then seemed to think better of it, and instead turned towards the cloakroom, now empty of latecomers. “Um, can we have a moment in private?”

In private. Of course. Jainan turned numbly to follow him.

Kiem led them behind a rack of coats, cast a harried look at the back of the cloakroom to check for any attendants, then said, “I got your message – you didn’t have to come, you know. Are you okay?”

There must be someone there. Jainan checked, but he couldn’t see anyone, which meant they were in for an argument. Better to cut to the end of it. “I'm sorry for the display I made back there,” he said. “I've caused you trouble. I apologise.”

Kiem grimaced. “Ouch, okay, I guess I deserved th— wait.” He broke off and looked more closely at Jainan. “You're serious? You're serious.” He looked almost lost. “You're really serious,” he said again.

Jainan realised he’d pressed a finger to his temple. He took it away. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”

“I don’t want you to say anything!” Kiem said. There was a row of fur coats behind him, and he was pressing incongruously against them. It felt faintly absurd, like they were having an argument in a closet. Taam had never shown this much emotion outside their rooms. “No, I didn’t mean – you know what I mean. Did I say something stupid, back then? I'm sorry. I was a bit stressed when we couldn’t find you. I still am a bit stressed! But I’m really sorry if it was anything I said, and if there’s any way I can fix it—”

“Will you please be clear,” Jainan said, his frustration making it come out louder than he meant it to. “I don’t. I can’t. I can’t read your mind. Will you please be clear what it is you want me to do.”

There was a silence. “What,” Kiem said. “This can’t be easy for you. Why would I want you to do anything? You could stand on your head out there and shout rude things at the Ambassador and that would still be a pretty understandable reaction!”

“Oh,” Jainan said. “This is a… grace period?” He felt somehow unclean, using Taam’s memory like that.

“A grace period?” Kiem said. “What does that mean?”

“Count Jainan? Your Highness?” Light flooded into the space as someone pushed the rack of coats aside. “Is there a problem?”

It was the Ambassador, resplendent in his ceremonial clan robes and a gold chain. An aide pulled the rack back into its original position. Kiem spun around, looking guilty. “Um – your Excellency – no, no problem, we were just, um.”

But the Ambassador wasn’t even looking at him. He was looking at Jainan. And though Kiem had nothing to feel guilty for, Jainan had a litany of dropped clan obligations and snubs which he tried not to let show on his face. “Good afternoon, Ambassador. I apologise for my tardiness to the reception.”

“Prince Kiem told us you were unwell,” the Ambassador said. His voice was neutral, but the look he directed at Kiem had something else in it. “We were not expecting you to come at all.”

Jainan took a sharp breath, trapped between Kiem’s cover story and his own stupid actions. “I was unwell,” he said. “I felt… better, unexpectedly.”

“How convenient,” the Ambassador said. “I’m glad.”

Jainan wasn’t looking at Kiem, but his skin crawled at how Kiem must be reacting. He reached at random for something which would get them out of this. “Are there refreshments?”

The Ambassador’s gaze didn’t break from his. “Indeed,” he said. “In the main room. I will be honoured to present you both. This way, Prince Kiem.”

“Right!” Kiem said. “Right. Honour to be here.” The Ambassador wasn’t looking at him. Jainan pushed aside a coat and gestured Kiem through, feeling the gaze on the side of his face. Kiem hung around politely at the door.

Jainan was going to have to face other Theans at some point, whatever he did. He arranged his face into blankness and caught up with Kiem. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Jainan’s stomach churned as they passed through a familiarly square archway – the whole of the Embassy had been built by Theans – and into the large reception room. It was full of expat Theans, most of them in Thean fashions, with clan emblems and uniforms proudly on display. The flags of all the biggest clans had been hung on the walls for the reception. Jainan felt uncomfortably like an Iskaner, despite the fact that he still wore his hair in the same long style as most people here. A few of the small groups near the door broke up to stare at them as the Ambassador personally announced their titles.

“Offer your arm,” Jainan murmured to Kiem. They were expected to be a couple. Kiem started, then obligingly held it out. Jainan took it, leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. He was steeled against the inappropriate change in his heartbeat at being so close – a physical reaction, it couldn't be helped – but he wasn’t expecting to actually feel Kiem's tremor of disgust. Kiem was too well-mannered to draw away, though, and Jainan pulled back quickly enough that nobody noticed the reaction.

“That boy over there is glaring at us,” Kiem said under his breath.

“Girl,” Jainan said. “That’s… a clan member of mine. Gairad.” He shouldn’t have come. His head was hurting enough that pleading illness wouldn’t even have been a lie. “We might have to avoid her.”

He expected to have to come up with an explanation. But all Kiem said was, “Right, can do,” and steered them into a conversation with a mix of Theans and Iskaners on the other side of the room.

It didn’t go well. Every third Thean they met had some query for Jainan on where he’d been, and how he’d been doing, and why he hadn’t been in contact. At Jainan’s silences, Kiem deflected most of the questions, but ten minutes of that apparently put Kiem on edge enough that he started to stress that Jainan was in mourning. It was going badly. Jainan knew it was his fault, and desperately started to plan how he might excuse himself and unshackle Kiem so he had a better time.

It wasn’t until the second hour of this that Kiem murmured to him, between conversations, “They really don’t like me, do they?”

Jainan suddenly felt cold. “It’s not you,” he said. They had stopped in a niche, away from the hubbub of all the conversations. Above them, a sandstone statue reached out its arms and poured water into a square stone trough beside Jainan’s hand.

“Well, you know them better than me,” Kiem said dubiously. “But I’m getting the feeling it really is.”

Before Jainan could reply, Deputy Ambassador Suleri interrupted them. “Your Highness,” he said, “Could the Ambassador and I have a quick word? With Count Jainan, as well?”

Kiem met Jainan’s eyes. Jainan said, “I’ll go.”

“The Ambassador requests Prince Kiem’s presence as well,” Suleri said firmly. “It will only take a moment of your time.”

There was no way to politely refuse, although the back of Jainan’s neck was prickling. He didn’t want to drag Kiem into this. But Kiem just said, “Of course, I’ve been wanting to speak to him anyway,” and followed Suleri into the private part of the Embassy, and to a large, well-appointed office that was obviously the Ambassador’s.

It needed to be large. There were several people in there already, not even counting the Ambassador behind his desk. Jainan was finding it harder to breathe. He recognised all of them: a scattering of important senior diplomats and three or four people wearing his own clan colours. Gairad was in the corner. If he was going to be hauled over the coals for defaulting on his social obligations, it seemed unfair to do it in public like this.

There were barely enough chairs. They had made up the numbers by dragging in a rickety plastic one obviously from a canteen. Suleri ushered Jainan to the free space at the end of the couch, and before Jainan could intervene the Ambassador had nodded Kiem to the spare plastic chair.

Jainan recoiled from the thought of how Taam would have reacted, but Kiem sat without batting an eyelid.

“Nice to see you all here,” Kiem said. “I’m afraid I don’t have many names – your Excellency, of course… Lady Fadith… and that must be Gairad in the corner.” He looked around hopefully, as if for more introductions. Gairad had looked up at the mention of her name, focusing a suspicious look on Kiem. Kiem gave her one of his disarming smiles.

It didn’t do much for the tension in the room. Suleri, still standing, didn’t offer introductions. He rested his hand on the desk beside him, and said, “I’m sorry to have to bring you up here, but you know the issue we’re going to raise.”

“Uh,” Kiem said. “Not a clue, actually.”

The Ambassador still hadn’t spoken, but watched them gravely. Jainan said, through a dry throat, “I do.”

“Mm,” Suleri said. “Your Highness understands, I assume, that though Thea is small, our relationship as a client state of the Empire requires a delicate touch and significant attention from both sides. You will also be aware,” – and now he looked from Jainan to Kiem, and back again – “that the treaty has not been ideal, from this point of view, for the last two years or so.”

Kiem frowned. This conversation must seem very odd from where he sat, Jainan thought. “You mean, you’re getting pushback?” he said. “Look, I don’t know what you’re expecting from me, but to honest with you, I’m not very deeply involved in politics.”

“It is difficult,” Suleri said, continuing as if Kiem hadn’t spoken, “when we don’t have any communication at all with our treaty principal.” He looked at Jainan.

Jainan thought of trying to explain, felt sick, and looked at the floor.

“Um,” Kiem said. “If he doesn’t want to talk to you, then I’m sorry.” There was an odd note in his voice. When Jainan looked up, Kiem was sitting up straighter, almost bristling. He looked ridiculous in his plastic canteen chair. “On the other hand, if he doesn’t, he probably has a good reason.”

The Ambassador finally spoke. “Does he?” he said. “Your Highness?”

“What?” Kiem said.

“I hesitate to imply it,” the Ambassador said, “but some would say it might be quite convenient for your side for Thea to have no representative in the palace.”

“Wait,” Kiem said. “What are you saying? That I’ve stopped Jainan from talking to you? That’s ridiculous. How would I do that? I’ve only known him a week.”

The Ambassador merely lifted his shoulders. Everyone in the room was now looking at Kiem. “All I can say is that Jainan has disengaged with everyone in this room over the last—”

“No.” Jainan forced himself to unclench his jaw, which felt like it was locked in place. “It has nothing to do with Prince Kiem,” he said. “You know it doesn’t. It’s the security clearance issue.”

“Ah,” the Ambassador said. He didn’t sound greatly convinced. “Yes.”

“What security clearance issue?” Kiem said.

“My security clearance was revoked a while ago,” Jainan said. His voice was level and only a little hoarse. He could get through this.

What? Why?”

One of the other diplomats leaned forward: Lady Fadith, the cultural attaché. She knew Ressid. “And your security clearance stopped you from speaking to us about anything?” she said mildly. “Even a message about the weather? You spoke to Lady Ressid for a while after the issue was raised.”

Jainan shut his eyes. There was no easy way to put this. “I was encouraged not to.” That was true, but it wasn’t the whole story. He’d become tired of being cross-examined over what he’d said; he’d become tired of the arguments; he’d taken the easy way out.

Kiem pushed back his chair and stood. “Encouraged not to? Who by?”

“Prince Kiem, please sit down,” the Ambassador said, his voice cutting across Kiem’s.

Jainan hadn’t even bothered to look up; he recognised Kiem’s I-can’t-sit-still jitters. “Security,” he said. “Internal Security. It was a routine thing.” He took a breath and stopped himself before he said anything else.

“So,” the Ambassador said, before Kiem could say anything. “Can I take it this will be easily resolved?”

“No,” Jainan said.

“Yes!” Kiem said at the same time, then looked at Jainan and amended it to, “Somehow. Maybe not easily resolved, but – what they hell, they told you not to talk to your family?

Jainan had pressed a finger to his temple again. This time he didn’t take it away. “Prince Kiem—” he said. He didn’t know what he was even going to say to him, but dragging everyone through his dirty laundry in public – excruciatingly in public – was more than Jainan could stand.

But just the name seemed to have an effect. Kiem raised both his hands in front of him and said, “Sorry. We’ll talk about it.” He turned back to the Ambassador. “Thank you for raising it. No, really. We’ll look into it.” There was still an odd note to his voice.

“Please do,” Suleri said. He uncrossed his arms. “Jainan, if you would like to have a word in private?”

“No,” Jainan said, for the third time, more desperately. “I am feeling slightly unwell, still. Excuse me.” He stood. “Thank you for the invitation.”

“Yes, very much!” Kiem said, shaking the Ambassador’s hand heartily. “Hope to see you at many more!”

Jainan wouldn’t have believed it was possible to extract themselves from the room and from the reception in under five minutes. But somehow Kiem did it, clapping shoulders and grabbing hands and making loud comments about the next reception, and they made it out of the office before the pain in Jainan’s head had time to grow any more. Jainan led them down a back staircase to the foyer. Kiem, unusually for him, didn’t say anything until they reached the entrance. Then he took a breath, but he was interrupted by Gairad barrelling out of the main room and nearly crashing into him.

 “Count Jainan!” she said. “Sweet God, I thought you’d gone and I’d have to trek to the bloody palace. Here.” She passed him the thumb-sized silver circle of a secure data coin. “Professor Audel asked me to give you this. It’s the files we have from the military’s side of the Thean mining project. She says to go through it and see if you can work out what extraction methods they’re using.”

Jainan stared down at the data coin. His mind was so far from the project that it took him a moment to even process what she’d said. “Thank you,” he said eventually, and slipped it into his pocket.

Gairad didn’t move. “I wanted to say,” she said, “I didn’t know about the security clearance thing.”

“No,” Jainan said. He tried to think of something else to say, and couldn’t.

“So, I’m sorry,” she said.

Jainan blinked. “What?”

Gairad drew back uncomfortably. “I’m not saying it again,” she said. She half-turned, hesitated, and then said, “I’ll tell Lady Ressid.”

Wait—” Jainan said, out of reflex, but she was already lost in the crowd.

“The Ambassador will tell Lady Ressid anyway,” Kiem said from behind him. “As will at least a dozen other people by the end of the day, if I’m reading them right. The attendants can’t find your coat.”

Jainan turned, distracted. “I came without one.”

“Why did you—okay, you know what, never mind.” As an attendant opened the door, Jainan felt warmth enveloping his shoulders, and realised it was Kiem’s coat. Kiem was still talking as he settled it around Jainan. “I told Bel I was going to walk back. I thought I was going to want to clear my head. Do you mind? The other alternative is I call her now and we wait, but it’ll take ten minutes.”

Jainan thought of staying in here where the Ambassador could pull him aside for a word. “No,” he said. “Let’s walk.” He started to shrug out of the coat.

“No. Yes. I kind of thought that—wait, what are you doing? Please wear the coat.”

“It’s your coat.”

“I’m the one who didn’t plan ahead for a lift! Look, I don’t get cold. And I’m wearing a jacket.” Jainan almost glanced at him, but stopped himself before he made eye contact, and didn’t argue further.

Outside the Embassy, the wind hit them with a flurry of snowflakes. Kiem started off at a brisk, determined pace quite unlike his usual stroll. Jainan quickened his stride to fall in beside him as his breath came faster for reasons that had nothing to do with physical exertion. He was glad of the coat, even if he wished Kiem hadn’t given it to him: his back was already tight with tension and the cold would have made it worse.

After the first exchange, Kiem said nothing for long minutes. Jainan tried to let the energy of walking blank his mind. Jainan’s stride was naturally fast, though, so even this pace didn’t give him the distraction of real exercise. All he could think of was Kiem sitting up straight on that ridiculous chair while the Ambassador and the senior staff of the Thean embassy took it in turns to reprimand him over something completely outside his control. Jainan couldn’t even think of what Taam would have done in that situation; his skin crawled trying to imagine it.

He threw a glance at Kiem, who was walking beside him with his hands shoved deep in his pockets against the cold. Kiem’s face was set in a slight frown and his gaze was fixed a few paces in front of him.

After a while Jainan couldn’t bear the waiting any more. “What are you going to do?” he said. Too direct. Much more direct than he would have been with Taam.

Kiem had started in the middle of a step when Jainan spoke, and now he turned his head. “Huh? What am I going to do?” he said. There was still something odd about his voice, and without knowing what it was, just the oddness was enough to flip all of Jainan’s danger switches. “I’m going to find Internal Security and yell at them until they fix this. Sorry, I sort of thought that was obvious. Do you want to come?”

It took Jainan a couple of steps to even begin to process this, but when he had, he forced the next words out because they needed to be said. “I don’t think it can be fixed.”

Kiem didn’t seem to notice that Jainan had directly contradicted him. “There must be a way,” he said. “What kind of information did you actually pass on to the Embassy? It can’t have been that bad, I can’t believe – I mean, you don’t seem the careless type. And Thea is our ally.”

Jainan hesitated. “Nothing,” he said finally. It sounded just as thin and insubstantial as he’d expected; perhaps he should have made something up. He pulled the coat more tightly around him with stiff fingers. “I– I suppose there must have been something, but I have very little idea what it could have been. I sometimes discussed politics with Ressid, but only what had already appeared in the newslogs, and I never discussed Taam’s work. I didn’t know enough to talk about it.” The artificially dry surface of the path they were walking on rose in front of them, arcing into a bridge to the palace estate, with a clear glass windbreak on each side. The city traffic veins weren’t allowed over the palace, so the tunnels of light arced down from the sky over the city, filled with jostling flyers, and dived into a canyon below the bridge. “I swear this is true.”

“That should make it easier,” Kiem said. The wind snaked around the sides of the windbreak and threw up goosebumps on his wrists, where the shirtsleeves met his gloves. “Don’t feel you have to come if you don’t want to.”

“I’m sorry,” Jainan said. Suddenly they were on the bridge, sheltered from the snow-laden wind by the barrier, and his voice seemed too loud in the stillness. “I don’t want to cause trouble.”

Cause trouble?” Kiem halted in mid-stride. Jainan nearly missed the cue, but managed to stop before he overtook him. Kiem turned to him, and what was on his face was close enough to anger to make Jainan go still.

“Okay, so let me check I’ve got this straight.” Kiem said. “You didn’t pass on anything sensitive to anyone, but because of some kind of error or something, the palace revoked your clearance and told you not to talk to your own family. That’s – Jainan, that’s appalling. Cause trouble? You must hate us!”

For some reason, that hurt, like scratching at a scab. “No,” Jainan said. “I don’t.”

“I don’t understand,” Kiem said, his voice changing now to bewilderment. “Why didn’t you tell someone? Why didn’t you tell me – Taam – anyone? Or did you?”

“No,” Jainan said sharply, because that hurt even more, and he wanted to head it off before Kiem went any further down that path. “No, I didn’t, and for good reason. It was a matter of security. There was nothing to be done.”

“I don’t get it.” They had come to a complete stop now. The palace was spread out over the other side of the bridge in all its crystalline glory, the towers blurring with the white-grey snow clouds and hurting Jainan’s eyes. Kiem was a dark smudge against it, staring back at him. “You got cut off from everyone. Just because it’s a security matter doesn’t mean that’s okay!”

Jainan felt a surge of something shockingly like anger. “That’s exactly what it means!” His hands had formed white-knuckled fists in the pocket of the coat. For a moment he felt almost warm, though it was a sharp, unpleasant heat. “I am a diplomat.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

Now this was near mockery. “I know what it is to do my duty by my people,” Jainan said sharply. “I have never shirked that.”

Kiem looked strange. It seemed to take him a while to form words, while Jainan waited, and tasted metal in his mouth.

“I didn't mean that,” Kiem said. “I'm sorry, I would never imply—I know you always do your duty.” He broke off. “Obviously.” He took a step forward, closing some of the distance that had opened up between them. Jainan felt a strange anger course through his body and fix his feet more firmly on the path beneath. He was a rock that the sea broke on. “But doing your duty doesn’t have to make you unhappy, does it?” Kiem said. If Jainan hadn’t known better, he would have sounded like he was pleading. He lifted his hand in an empty gesture and came no closer. “Come on. Not – pointlessly. Not like this.”

Jainan’s rock-solid certainty started to drain away. He could be stubborn in reaction to Taam’s anger, when the issue was important – it was one of the things about him that had infuriated Taam. But this wasn’t anger. He didn’t know what it was, but in the face of it his conviction was falling apart.

“It’s how it is,” he said, instead. “You know that.”

“I don’t.” Kiem said. He shut his mouth deliberately, as if challenging Jainan to fill the gap.

Jainan was silent. Kiem stared at him, still waiting for an answer, and rubbed his arms against the cold. Jainan belatedly realised they’d been standing still for too long, and the tension around Kiem’s arms and shoulders was turning into shivers.

Kiem breathed on his hands, stuck them in his pockets again and sighed. “Okay,” he said, apparently giving up on Jainan answering. “I think we might be talking about different things here. So, cutting off your security clearance—what are you doing?”

Jainan had pulled off the coat and held it out. “You’re cold,” he said before he could stop himself. Too direct: that would hit an Iskaner’s pride. “It’s my fault.” Not much better.

Kiem stared at him and the stupid coat between them. He didn’t move to take it. His eyes went back to Jainan’s face, and that odd almost-anger furrowed his forehead again. “Why does it have to be you?” he said.

“Excuse me?” Jainan said.

“You’re the one who has to uproot your life from Thea,” Kiem said. He pulled his hands out of his pocket to gesture. “You’re the one who gets forced into remarriage, you’re the one who gets your communications cut off, you’re the one who gets to freeze out here because Heaven knows I can’t survive without a coat? Am I crazy? Am I the only one seeing something wrong with this pattern?”

Jainan's hands tightened around the fur bundle. He had brought it closer to his chest without realising; he forced himself to hold it casually down by his side.

Kiem shoved his hands into his pockets again: a dark, unhappy lump against the white landscape. “I get what you're saying about the duty thing,” he said. “No, really. I'm shit at it and not exactly the pride of the family, but I get it. We’re born into this and we have to do something to be worth it. But everything you do is about you needing to be unhappy.”

The cold ate into him like acid. You’re wrong, Jainan wanted to say, but he would not say that to an Imperial prince, and even if he would, he couldn’t pick apart exactly how Kiem was wrong, only that he was. Kiem was waiting for an answer. Jainan couldn’t escape, so he held his body like a statue to stop it betraying anything, and said distantly, “I apologise, your Highness.” He saw Kiem flinch at the title, and hated himself for using formality as a weapon, but did it anyway. “I would rather not talk about this. I request.” These were underhand measures. He knew he was an underhand person.

Kiem recoiled, his hunched, unhappy posture giving way like a loosened spring. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Oh hell, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry. I don’t have any right. Forgive me.”

He had every right. But Jainan stood there for a small eternity with his reply caught between his teeth, grateful for that small mercy even as he knew he shouldn’t take advantage of it.

Movement caught his eye: a pair of fur-wrapped figures climbing up from the other end of the bridge. Every sense of danger he had flared, like someone laying their finger on an exposed nerve – he and Kiem were standing confronting each other, both as tense as unhappy cats. It looked like a public argument.

“Jainan,” Kiem said uncertainly.

The last of Jainan’s anger drained away into distant dread. “People.” He didn’t need to say anything else.

Kiem gave him a look of bafflement, then turned and realisation dawned. Jainan had already closed the gap, and he slipped his hand into the crook of Kiem’s elbow. The unwieldy bundle of coat sat incongruously under his other arm. He couldn’t speak in case they were overheard, but he tried to convey by the careful lightness of his touch that he knew he had crossed a line; that he would somehow make amends; that he would not cause further trouble. He kept his expressionless gaze to the front as they passed the other walkers.

Kiem glanced over at the pair. “What do you think,” he said under his breath, “can we sell it as performance art?”

It took a split second for Jainan to realise he was joking. Something terrifyingly like laughter welled up in him, in spite of the situation, in spite of everything. His hand tightened on Kiem’s arm. That was a mistake, because it apparently encouraged him.

“Dammit,” Kiem said, “we shouldn’t have stopped, we could have charged them for tickets.”

They’d been recognised. One of the figures raised a hand, changing their path so they cut across to Kiem and Jainan. “Kiem!” Their companion followed. “What brings you over here on foot?”

“Vaile!” Kiem said, with jollity that must be forced. “Haven’t talked to you properly in months. Didn’t the Emperor send you to Rtul or something? Who’s your friend? Jainan, this is my cousin Prince Vaile, she’s on the Emperor’s Advisory council. Vaile, this is my partner, Count Jainan. We’re just taking a walk. Seeing the city. That sort of thing.”

Prince Vaile gave Jainan a graceful bow of acknowledgement and introduced the man beside her as a colleague, but Jainan was struggling so hard to think of some sort of explanation that wasn’t arguing in public that he didn’t catch the name. Kiem was doing the honours anyway, since apparently nothing would throw him off enough that he couldn’t find some small talk.

“…both look perishing cold, though,” Vaile said on the back of something else. She gave their thin indoor clothes and the coat under Jainan’s arm a quizzical look.

Jainan tensed, but Kiem was already saying something. “It was a… dare,” he said. There was a pause. Kiem carried on further to fill it. “You see, we didn’t get a honeymoon, so we have to make up for the excitement somehow.” Jainan choked. “You know, dares, bets, extreme sports... We’re going skydiving tomorrow.”

Jainan fought against the rising tide of utterly inappropriate laughter. This must be what they meant by hysteria. His squeezed Kiem’s arm silently.

“Skydiving,” Vaile said, in the tones of one who doesn’t believe what she’s just heard.

Jainan interrupted before Kiem could commit them irrevocably. “It's still under discussion,” he said firmly. “Skydiving is very unfashionable on Thea at the moment.”

That was an impulse he should probably have quelled. “Oh?” Vaile said.

This had apparently caught the interest of her colleague, who leaned in. “I didn’t realise you had fashions in extreme sports. How fascinating. So what is fashionable on Thea right now?”

Jainan had never been able to sense Kiem’s stress or anger as he had Taam’s, and had put that down to the newness of their marriage. But now, unexpectedly, he could feel Kiem’s huge, expectant glee beside him, and he blamed that for what he said next. “Bull-wrestling.”

“Wrestling… bulls?” The man’s brow wrinkled. Kiem was overcome by a sudden fit of coughing, but Jainan kept his blandest expression on his face. “That sounds… your Highness, are you all right?”

“Oh, yes,” Kiem said. “Getting a cold. Too many dares. Do excuse us, lots of planning to do.” He clapped Vaile on the shoulder, shook her companion’s hand vigorously, and made a swift escape with Jainan’s hand still clamped on his arm. By unspoken consensus they quickened their stride until they were over the bridge.

They neared the courtyard of the main palace entrance, where there were a scattering of people but nobody nearby, and slowed down when they were definitely out of sight of anyone on the bridge. Jainan’s rapid heartbeats slowed as well, and with it the brief warmth, and they both remembered at the same time that they were in something like an argument.

They didn’t stop walking this time. The drone of traffic faded behind them as the sound-screens that protected the palace kicked in. “So,” Kiem said. “I’m going round the side entrance, if I remember right then it’s closer to Internal Security. Do you want to come?”

Jainan hesitated. From Taam, that would be the signal for him to decline. But nothing about Kiem was what he was expecting, and what he said was disconcertingly often what he meant.

Jainan thought about going back to their room and waiting dutifully while his future was decided for him. He took a breath and said, “Yes. I would like to come.”

Chapter Text

“You’re where?” Bel said through Kiem’s ear implant.

“Outside Internal Security’s offices, trying to get in,” Kiem said. He kicked his heels against the desk he was sitting on, caught Jainan’s involuntary glance and stopped. They were deep in the palace’s staffing headquarters, among a bustle of administrators and open-plan desks. Across a corridor, the guard they’d just talked to kept casting them uncomfortable looks. “They won’t let even me in without a meeting. How quickly can you set me up a meeting? I need the head person.”

“With the head of Internal Security? Not fast, their contact details aren’t even published internally.”

“Okay, give me their name and I’ll try and blag it.”             

“When I said ‘contact details’, that included their name,” Bel said. “Searching for it probably puts you on a watch list. I’ll do some digging.”

“Thanks. Message me if you get it,” Kiem said. He cut the call. Jainan had perched himself on the edge of a spare chair and was watching Kiem with the blank look that seemed to mean wariness. Kiem gave him what was meant to be a reassuring smile, though it probably didn’t work, and made another call. “Hey, uh, Roal. Yeah, it’s Kiem. Long time no see. We should catch up. Hey, quick question – you know when you moved out of the police, was that to Internal Security? Great, I thought so.” He glanced around. The nearest person to them was on their own call, and the noise of the office probably covered him, but he lowered his voice anyway. “I need a favour. I need the name of your boss, and a contact pin to their office if you have it.”

Jainan could definitely hear him. There was now a slight frown on his face. As Kiem finished the call, Jainan said, “Will that get them in trouble?”

“No,” Kiem said, “because I won’t tell them who I got it from.”

Jainan gave him a long, scrutinising look, and Kiem started to wonder if he’d done something wrong, but all Jainan said was, “How do you know all these people?”

“Just…normally,” Kiem said. “Everyone does, right?”

“No,” Jainan said. He fell in beside Kiem as they went back to Internal Security’s receptionist.

Kiem gave the receptionist his best smile. The security guard hovered by his shoulder. “Sorry, just got the details through from my aide. Chief Agent Rakal, please, and here’s the pin for their office contact.” He projected a tiny display from his wristband over the desk. “I know we’re not on the list, but let them know I’m here, would you?”

“Your Highness—” the receptionist said, after exchanging uneasy glances with the security guard.

“Just – try the call, please,” Kiem said. “Tell them I was really obnoxious. Tell them I’m going to rearrange through General Tegnar if the Agent won’t see me, and then I’ll bring the General to the meeting.” He resisted the urge to apologise. Pulling his family’s rank wasn’t the most comfortable thing to be doing, but he remembered Jainan’s resigned acceptance of what the palace had done to him, and it was enough to stifle that faint concern. “This isn’t your problem, I know. Put me through to Agent Rakal and it won’t be.”

“I’ll just – I’ll just contact their office,” the receptionist said, after trading another glance with the guard. Kiem nodded thanks and wandered away a couple of steps to join Jainan.

“Should I ask how you know a General?” Jainan murmured. “I thought you weren’t familiar with the military.”

“My mother,” Kiem said. “Really let’s try not to get her involved, she’s based off-planet anyway. Thankfully.” He probably shouldn’t have said that last part. “I don’t think she knew Taam. It will take her at least a month to find out I name-dropped her, even if Agent Rakal complains.” The receptionist was holding out a speaker. Kiem strode over and took it. “Hi!” he said. “Prince Kiem here to see you. It will only take a few minutes. I hope you’ve got a few minutes, because I’m going to be camping out here until you have.”

The voice at the other end was professionally noncommittal, but that seemed to do the trick. In a very short amount of time, a nervous-looking junior agent came out to collect them, and they were ushered inside.

It wasn’t anything exciting. Internal Security’s offices were like the administration ones outside, except slightly greyer and older-looking. Kiem’s wristband buzzed against his skin and went temporarily dead. He glanced sideways to check how Jainan was doing but he needn’t have worried. However agitated Jainan might have been on the walk back, now his face was smoothed clean of all expression and he was the picture of grace and poise. Kiem was probably embarrassing him; he straightened his own back a fraction and slowed his pace. The junior agent brought them to a door at the end of the corridor, scanned her bio, and gestured them through into a nondescript office.

There were two people waiting. The occupant behind the desk rose as Kiem and Jainan entered. “Your Highness.”

Chief Agent Rakal – that was who it must be – barely came up to Kiem’s shoulder. They were slightly built and trim in Internal Security’s black uniform, and their only ornamentation was a pair of gold beads securing the two thin braids by their face that showed their gender. They didn’t come out from behind the desk, which was probably a point of some kind; Kiem ignored it and leaned over to shake hands.

“Kiem,” he said. “You knew that, nice to meet you, this is Count Jainan, you may know him.” Your people definitely do, he nearly said, but for once managed to stop himself. He needed Rakal on their side to sort this out. “And this is…?”

He turned questioningly to the other person in the room, and said, “Wait,” just at the same moment as Rakal said, “My deputy, Agent Deln.”

“We met in the gardens last week,” Kiem said. “You told me about tree-borers – I thought you were a guard.”

Agent Deln, a huge, solid presence with her arms crossed, had the grace to look faintly uncomfortable. “The same function. On a security sweep.”

“Prince Kiem.” Rakal, short and sharp and prickly, had a presence that drew the room back to them easily. “You gave the impression this was an emergency. What is it that needs my attention at two minutes’ notice?”

“Oh, yes, sorry. Thanks for seeing us,” Kiem said, in a disarming tone that notably failed to disarm Rakal. “Not a matter of life and death, but it is important. Can we sit down?” He nodded to the couple of chairs grouped informally around a coffee table. It was an automatic move: things always went better if everyone felt more casual.

Rakal stared back at him impassively, and said, “If you like.” They didn’t move.

Kiem winced internally. “Right.” Rakal waited, palms lightly resting on the desk, and raised their eyebrows at the short silence.

Kiem only hit this sort of person occasionally, and it was abysmal luck that Rakal was one. Some people, he’d found, just didn’t like him. Most people he met for the first time were either friendly or just wary, and would warm up to him when they felt they had his measure. Every now and then, though, he came up against someone who looked straight into him and had nothing but contempt for what they saw. He was getting that feeling with Rakal. Usually Kiem could mark them down and avoid them. Avoiding this conversation was not an option.

Jainan was still as a statue beside him. Kiem took a deep breath and said, “It’s about Jainan’s security clearance. There’s been some kind of mistake.”

“What kind of mistake?” Rakal said.

“You probably didn't even see it,” Kiem said. He felt a sudden onset of doubt. If this had been a stupid mistake by someone deep in Internal Security’s hierarchy, they could probably have solved it in ten minutes with a quick message. “Your people revoked his clearance, months ago – Jainan, how long?”

“Two years,” Jainan said quietly.

“See, two y– what?”

Rakal gave Jainan a measuring look. “Naturally I am aware.”

Kiem looked at Jainan as well, still trying to process two years. Jainan was standing a step back from the table, deliberately not a part of the discussion, and his head was slightly bowed. His distant gaze was fixed on the table, as if accepting he would have no influence in whatever was decided. Kiem felt a sick lurch of something – guilt, anger – in his stomach, and didn't even try and suppress it. He leaned forward and put his own hands on the desk.  “Fix this,” he said, hearing an unexpected edge in his own voice. “He can’t talk to his family. Fix it.”

“Prince Kiem,” Rakal said levelly. “Let me make one thing very clear: I won't be drawn into melodramatics on security issues.” They stopped Kiem’s incredulous protest with a raised hand. “I am aware that Count Jainan has a level two flag on his communications. As you must also know, this does not stop him from contacting whomever he wants to outside the palace. It only means we ask him to clear it with us in advance so we can monitor it.”

“That’s not true,” Kiem said. “He hasn’t had any contact at all.”

Jainan shifted beside him, but didn’t have time to say anything before Rakal raised their eyebrows and said, “Indeed? Then someone is lying to you.”

“I am not lying,” Jainan said, low and colourless. “I was discouraged from contact – I am sorry if I gave a false impression.” Jainan’s eyes flicked between Rakal, Deln and Kiem, and then went back to the desk. “I accept the security measures the palace sees fit to apply. I apologise for bothering you.”

It would not help to shout. Kiem forced himself to breathe out and speak levelly. “It’s really not you who needs to apologise,” he said. “Agent Rakal. Your monitoring system isn’t bloody working, since your people have obviously just used it to hassle Jainan into cutting off contact. Which I’m sure made things much easier for them. Jainan is unhappy. The Thean Ambassador is unhappy. I am pissed off, and very few things piss me off. I want you to take that flag off his account.”

If Rakal hadn’t liked him before, now the hostility over the desk between them and Kiem was like something physical. “Your Highness,” Rakal said, with open dislike. “You are newly married, unversed in clearance procedures, notoriously uninterested in security affairs, and therefore will understand why I question the value of your judgement in this matter. You cannot have a decision you don’t like changed just because you want it. I answer to the Emperor, not to every royal who wants to throw their weight around.”

“I’m just trying to have a reasonable discussion!” Kiem said. He could feel Jainan had gone silently tense, in the way Jainan always seemed to go tense around conflict, and made more of an effort to modulate his voice. “Look, can’t we get to the bottom of this? Why was the flag on in the first place?”

“I would have to look up that information,” Rakal said, “and in any case, we would not be able to share it.”

Kiem threw up his hands. “Bloody wonderful. And I suppose you can’t share if you’ve ever found him passing on any actual secrets?”

From the corner, Agent Deln’s gravelly voice said, “We won’t have done.” She didn’t look at Rakal. “It would have pushed the flag up to a level three.”

Kiem gave her a grateful look and returned to Rakal. Internal Security apparently taught you not to react, since Rakal hadn’t even changed expression. “You’ve found nothing, then,” Kiem said. “So, look, I’m not trying to run down your methods or anything, but doesn’t that tell you this is pointless?”

“This is a waste of time, your Highness,” Rakal said flatly. “I am not going to be swayed by glib arguments. Internal Security is impartial.”

“I’ll take it to the Emperor,” Kiem said, but he felt the negotiation slipping away.

“Do,” Rakal said, and Kiem heard in the word the truth they both knew: Kiem didn’t have an ounce of influence with the Emperor.

Could he pull rank any further? He felt something like despair at the thought of it. It would be obvious he had no idea what he was doing. Rakal would just laugh, and they’d be right to.

And then, all of a sudden, Kiem realised he was going about it the wrong way. He met Rakal’s eyes. “You’ve got to admit,” he said, “it looks bad. Jainan gives up his family and his life on Thea to come over here, and then we isolate him. We treat him as an enemy. Cut him off from his family. People will sympathise, don’t you think?”

“I couldn’t say,” Rakal said expressionlessly. “But I would say that most people in the palace understand security threats.”

Kiem leaned in. “I have a couple of friends who might see it a different way,” he said. “Journalists. You know journalists – always obsessed with the human angle. Like I said, could get out. Could look very bad.”

Beside him, he heard Jainan’s soft intake of air. He didn’t look around; he couldn’t afford to look away from Rakal.

“You would not,” Rakal said. “You would not invite a scandal across half the royal family. The Emperor would—”

“—exile me to a monastery again?” Kiem said. “Already went, three years ago. I’m a world-class meditator. I don’t mind being in the newslogs.”

They stared at each other.

“I can give his flag a classification review,” Rakal said eventually.

“How long will that take?”

“Two months.”

“No,” Kiem said. “We’re going to walk out of here today with Jainan on the same footing as me. I’d like you to tell me he can call anyone whenever he likes, please.”

Rakal stared at him further, now not bothering to hide the flat dislike. “He may talk to whomever he wishes. I will expedite the review.”

“And you don’t bother him about whatever it is you’re doing about Taam,” Kiem said. He glanced at Jainan, who was staring straight at him in something like disbelief. “You shouldn’t need to, right? He’s already given you a statement.”

“That’s different,” Deln said, “that’s an internal process. We shouldn’t need anything more from him.”

“And if you find anything else to be concerned about, run it past me before you start messing around with his clearance levels,” Kiem said. “Let me put this diplomatically: you have done an absolutely shit job of being balanced and proportionate in how you treat Thea’s formal representative in the palace, and I don’t trust you.”

“So you have made clear,” Rakal said. “We're there any other points you wished to raise?”

“No,” Kiem said. “Thanks, though. I really am grateful. Jainan, anything you want to add?”

He looked at Jainan properly. He didn't know what reaction he'd hoped for, but Jainan barely ever reacted in public, and his poker face was intact. “No, thank you.”

Kiem offered his arm, which Jainan took, gave both agents a nod – the one to Deln somewhat apologetic – and said, “Thank you for your time.” He steered them out.

The righteous anger was fading, all the more so as Jainan was stiff on his arm. Kiem managed to confine himself to, “You okay to head back?”

“Yes,” Jainan said.

Kiem recognised that tone: it was the one where yes only covered ten percent of what Jainan might have said. The other ninety percent – or the potential of it – ate at him. He got the appeal of being angry, he really did, but he had just effectively let anger carry him into threatening someone trying to do their job. And worse than that, even thinking back over it, he couldn’t think of anything he could have done differently. He had to solve that problem. He couldn’t have just left things as they were. But as they left the admin offices, Kiem was preoccupied to the point where he barely acknowledged the offer of a cup of tea to wave it away. He could imagine how the whole confrontation would have looked to Jainan, who gave every sign of hating conflict and disturbance.

When they were in a completely empty corridor, Jainan looked over his shoulder and to either side, and said, “May I ask you something?”

“You don’t have to ask,” Kiem said automatically, even as he winced in anticipation. “I mean, go ahead.”

"I will, of course, back you up in anything,” Jainan said. There was a meticulous air to his words, as if he were laying them out very carefully on a tray. “I am at your disposal. But – I do not mean to cast any aspersions on your judgement – if there is any way to avoid a public scandal in the newslogs, I would…” He stopped, and for the first time Kiem realised the strain it was taking him to keep his voice even. “I would rather do anything else,” he finished, losing the edges of his calm. “Anything. Please.”

Kiem’s foot caught on a low stone step and he stumbled. “Jainan, that was a bluff,” he said in dismay. “I thought you knew. What did you think I'd do, just throw you to the press? You’re my partner!”

Jainan looked relieved, which made Kiem frantically try and think of what else he’d done wrong to provoke that reaction. But of course, he thought of Jainan: grave and dignified, his every public action totally correct, holding duty around him like a shield – of course public scandal would be his worst nightmare.

They were nearly outside their rooms, now. “So,” Jainan said tentatively, “I only need to clear my contacts with you?”

“What?” Kiem said. What had he missed now? “Why would you need my opinion on it?”

“Because… I thought that was the agreement we just came to?” Jainan’s inflection turned it into a question.

“No! What? No! I am not going to track who you talk to!”

“Sounds wise,” said Bel's voice, as she came in from the study. “Everything okay? After that call I was half-expecting to have to go and bail you out of a security cell.”

“Everything’s fine,” Kiem said. “I mean, I think. Am I late for something?”

“Not if you go and change now,” Bel said. “Terraforming Assistance donor gala, remember?”

“Right, right,” Kiem said. “I’ll change. Jainan, do you need the bedroom?”

“I'm going to call Ressid,” Jainan said. It sounded like a tentative kind of challenge.

Please,” Kiem said. “Study's all yours if you want the screen. Or the bedroom’s yours, of course. Or here – I don’t need to change, I can just go out. I'll go out.”

“No,” Jainan said, stopping him in mid-flow. “Thank you.” Before Kiem realised what was happening, Jainan stepped in and pressed a kiss to Kiem’s cheek, light and swift.

Jainan turned away to the study, which was a good thing, as he didn't see Kiem raise his hand to his cheek like an idiot before he caught himself.

Kiem turned away too. “Bel, Jainan's not to be disturbed unless the palace is on fire.”

“Noted,” Bel said. Her eyes were following Jainan curiously.

Jainan hadn’t remembered to shut the door. As Kiem moved to fix that, he could see the screen inside already lighting up with a connection. A face flickered into view: the Thean noblewoman who had upbraided Kiem the morning of his wedding. Now her expression was softer, more shocked than anything else. “I didn't believe the ID,” she said. “Jainan, why are you calling now? Is everything all right?”

“It's. Yes,” Jainan said. What Kiem heard in his voice made him reach more hastily for the switch: it felt like more of a violation of Jainan’s privacy for Kiem to overhear that raw, unguarded note in than anything Internal Security had done. “Yes,” Jainan said again, and swallowed audibly as the door started to slide shut and hide him from view. “I’ve missed you.”

Chapter Text

Things didn’t change much in the days after that, not outwardly. Kiem never asked what Jainan had said in that first conversation with his sister and Jainan didn’t offer the information. They carried on as they had before: Kiem made it to the usual round of charity appointments and committees, and Jainan worked on his project, visited the College, and practiced quarterstaff. They went as a couple to receptions, fundraisers, charity dinners – everything that Kiem thought Jainan might enjoy. Jainan accepted all of the invitations.

Jainan started humming to himself in quiet moments, though he didn’t seem to notice he was doing it. And a few times, in private, Kiem managed to make him laugh.

“But… ugh, I don’t know,” Kiem said. He and Bel were driving back from a charity board meeting, where Kiem’s role was usually to soothe ruffled feathers while other people said the important stuff. Bel had let him drive back, and was sitting beside him tapping through her messages. “You’ve been talking to Jainan. What do you think?”

“He’s more relaxed,” Bel said, without looking up. “He starts conversations now.”

“Yeah,” Kiem said. He'd seen Jainan talking to Bel when he thought Kiem wasn’t around. “He’s still kind of tense, though. You don't think he's tense? It might just be around me.”

“He's tense around everyone,” Bel said. “I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong.”

“It's not that,” Kiem said. “I don’t know.” He veered off the street and up into one of the city veins, joining the stream of flying traffic that shot through a guided tube of light above the buildings, and settled into the flow. Their sedate speed made Bel tap her fingers against her armrest but Kiem ignored that, preoccupied with trying to tease out what he wanted to say. “Do you get the feeling there was something weird about the security clearance thing?”

Bel looked out of the glass dome above, then down at her wristband screen, then back out in front.

“Go on,” Kiem said, recognising the signs.

“I may have done a little digging,” Bel said.

“Right,” Kiem said, leaving the space open. He didn't know where Bel got most of her information, but he wasn't going to complain.

“I wanted to know where it came from, that was all. Found nothing, though – everything was under ten layers of clearance. More layers than it should have been.”

“They are Internal Security,” Kiem said. “Saw that coming.”

“I know, what was I thinking? I should just have gone and yelled at the Chief Agent instead.”

Kiem leaned his head back and groaned, only keeping one hand in the navigation mesh. “Don't remind me,” he said. “I wish you had been there, you would have had that over in two minutes flat. I'm bringing you if I have ever have to do it again.”

“No thanks,” Bel said. “I don't particularly want Internal Security to know my face, however you want to run your own affairs.”

“I'll go round there with chocolates or something.”

“No, you won't.”

“Dare me?”

“No, it'll make you do it.” She nodded at the traffic ahead, which had slowed down. “Get past that idiot in the blue flitter.”

Kiem obligingly swerved upwards, grazing the boundaries of light so the beams broke over the stabiliser fins in rainbow prisms, and sped up. Bel relaxed once they were going faster.

“I just don't get it,” Kiem said. “You don't think Jainan was passing on any sensitive information, do you? And they basically admitted they didn't have a reason.”

“They would have had a reason,” Bel said. “No – don’t look at me like that. Keep your eyes front, you're supposed to be driving. I agree, either Jainan’s the best actor I’ve met or he was telling the truth when he said he didn't get into politics, but even if that's the case, they're still not going to do anything without a reason. They're not stupid. What about we ask: who gave them a reason to look into Jainan in the first place?”

Kiem nearly missed the turnoff moment and swore. He recovered by nipping between two slow transports and diving into a vertical line. It wasn't until they were nearly over the palace that he replied. “I don’t want to pry.”

“It’s hardly prying,” Bel said. The hover-tractor field shimmered on the rooftop ahead of them. Kiem brought them to a gentle halt in the middle of it.

“Taam must have had an aide, right?” Kiem said, trying to make it sound like a completely casual enquiry. “Someone like you. I probably should have talked to them already, even.” The tractor field drew them down into a slot in the docking hangar underground. They came to rest snugly at the end of a walkway, just a few metres from a lift waiting to whizz them up into the palace proper. Neither of them moved. “Should have found out if there was anything routine I should know,” Kiem said, as if musing out loud. “Like… if Jainan is allergic to anything.”

“Yes, maybe,” Bel said, though that was patently ridiculous. She didn’t even pretend to check on her wristband. “Prince Taam’s private secretary was Corporal Nelen Skain.”

“Corporal?”

“The senior officers draw their aides from the military. Do you want me to set up a meeting?”

“No-oo…” Kiem said. “Does he still work in the palace?”

“Yes,” Bel said. “He’s moved to the Supply and Logistics division, but they’re still based here. Fourth floor, North Quarter.”

“North Quarter,” Kiem said thoughtfully. “Bet I can guess which canteen he goes to for lunch, then. I’ll catch him there. Let’s not make this official.”

“Want me to keep doing some digging?” Bel said.

“No,” Kiem said. “This isn’t an investigation, or anything. This is just… being friendly with the people Jainan knows.”

When they got back, Jainan was out at the College, so Kiem wandered over that same day. Though he liked to change up where he ate, he hadn’t been in the North Quarter much – it was a bit out of his usual circles, as it bordered on the barracks courtyard, and the building around it mainly held Army admin offices.

As he was loading a tray with protein bits cut into seafood shapes, out of habit he scanned the room for anyone he knew. He drew a blank. He also couldn’t see Nelen, and he’d checked an up-to-date photo of him, so he should be able to recognise him. Never mind. He could wait.

“Your Highness,” said a gravelly voice beside him.

The woman in line next to him still looked like a security guard. Kiem knew better now, though, and this time he spotted the discreet rank badge. “Agent Deln,” he said. “Didn’t expect to see you here.” He paused and then said, “Sorry about last week. No hard feelings?”

Deln gave a twitch of one bulky shoulder that was probably the Internal Security equivalent of a shrug. “You’re not the first one to complain,” she said. “Everyone blames Security when they get inconvenienced, but we do our jobs. If they knew some of the things we’ve seen, they’d look at it differently.”

“Yeah,” Kiem said readily. “Happy to work with you, you know, now we’ve cleared up the clearance thing. I mean, I am. I’d take it as a favour if you didn’t bother Jainan, though.”

“So, you’ll work with us as long as we don’t interfere with you or Count Jainan in any way,” Deln said dryly. “Noted.” She lifted up her tray, but didn’t go just yet. Kiem was good at picking up when something was on other people’s minds. He concentrated on the sauces in front of him, leaving a space open.

“Don’t judge Rakal,” Deln said at last. “Taking precautions is the job of Chief Agent.”

“I don’t have anything against Agent Rakal,” Kiem said. He nearly managed to make it true by saying it. “But I’d give a lot to know why that flag was on Jainan’s account, if you hadn’t found anything that he’d actually done wrong. Any ideas?”

“I can’t discuss work details,” said Deln, which Kiem had kind of expected. “But,” she said gruffly, “one of my team is reviewing the case.”

“Let me know if you find anything?”

“All the proper procedures will be followed,” Deln said.

“Taking that for a ‘no’,” Kiem said. “Well, I don’t want to interfere with your job.” He’d have to find another way. “Shoot me a message if there’s anything you can share.”

Deln gave a short nod. “Enjoy your lunch, Your Highness.”

“You too. Hey, by the way,” Kiem added, as the thought occurred. “Not related, but I told the gardeners about those tree-borers. They’re treating the elms for them now.”

Deln turned as she walked away, and her stony expression eased slightly. “Obliged,” she said. “Hate to see good stock go to waste.”

Kiem looked around and realised that while he’d been talking he’d missed his quarry going through the line. Corporal Nelen sat at a table by himself, wiry and hunched as he’d been in the photo Kiem had seen, methodically making his way through an enormous pile of fish fillets.

“Afternoon, Nelen,” Kiem said, putting his tray down opposite. “This is free, right? Mind if I join you? Thanks.”

Nelen looked up with suspicion. “Excuse me,” he said, in a tone with the bare minimum of politeness. “I’ve forgotten your name.”

“You don’t know it,” Kiem said cheerfully. “I’m Kiem, I’m Taam’s third cousin through both our mothers. You’re Corporal Nelen, right? How d’you do.”

Nelen started back in his seat at Taam’s name, and regarded Kiem with more attention, through no less wariness. “Prince Kiem,” he said. “You’re the one he married. Jainan.”

“One and the same,” Kiem said, slightly taken aback by the lack of any title for Jainan. “Jainan had nothing but good things to say about you,” he added, which was technically true in that Jainan had said nothing about him.

Unexpectedly, Nelen barked out a laugh. “Has he? That’s a surprise.”

Kiem kept a friendly smile on his face. “How’s it a surprise?”

Nelen gave him another suspicious look, then shrugged. “We didn’t get on, that’s all. None of your business.”

“Know how that goes,” Kiem said sympathetically. “Sometimes you just don’t click with people, right?”

But Nelen took that a different way. “You too? Hah, yeah, he’s a cold bastard, isn’t he?” he said moodily, staring down at the table.

Kiem stared right at him. “Jainan?”

Nelen didn’t seem to hear him. “Never says what he’s thinking. Just stares at you and judges you.”

“That’s not—he’s not—”

Nelen looked up and the suspicious glare returned. Kiem got control of his tone again and changed the subject. “So, actually, I was hoping you would help me.”

There was an unwilling silence before Nelen said, “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Kiem said. “You see, it looks like someone” – midway, he changed what he was going to say on impulse — “tipped Internal Security off about Jainan.” Had they? Internal Security hadn’t said anything about a tip. That kind of shot in the dark was more like Bel’s tactics; he must have spent too much time with her. “Internal Security won’t talk to me. I was wondering if you knew who gave them the tip, and what they said.”

He wasn’t sure what effect he’d hoped for, but it wasn’t the effect it had. Nelen dropped his drink on the table, where it slopped over the edge of the tumbler. “I had nothing to do with anything like that,” he said. “What the hell did you want me to say? Did Internal Security send you as well?”

“Whoa, no, easy,” Kiem said, raising a hand. “Like I said, Internal Security won’t talk to me.”

“Who do you think it was, me?” Nelen demanded. “I don’t have the authority.”

“Okay, look, I think we’re off on the wrong foot here,” Kiem said, in the pacifying tone he used for irate school board members. “I know that. I’m not accusing you of anything, I was just asking if you knew who it was.”

“I don’t know who it was,” Nelen said, pushing back his chair. “I’m not going to sit here through some sort of inquisition. Jainan pissed off a lot of Taam’s friends.” He started piling his plates back on his tray.

“Pissed them off?” Kiem repeated uncomprehendingly. He thought of Jainan, and he couldn’t make the picture fit. “How?”

“He fucking judges all the time, I said,” Nelen snapped. “You can see him. I don’t have anything to do with him or Prince Taam anymore, I’ve moved posts. And listen, I’ve got to get back to work. I don’t get paid for dealing with anyone’s personal life any more, thank fuck. With your permission, your Highness.” He left, taking his still half-laden tray.

“Wait—” Kiem said, but he could see when he was beaten. He leaned back ruefully and watched Nelen dump his tray in the film-covered hopper at the other side of the canteen and stride out the door. “Did I cross a troll or something recently?” he said, to the air. “Why can’t I get anything right?”

 

*

 

The conversation nagged at Kiem as he wandered back to see if Jainan had returned from the college. Had Nelen been lying to him? The bit about his rank had a ring of truth to it – Kiem couldn’t see Internal Security revoking a diplomat’s security clearance on the word of someone who was just a corporal. But Nelen had clearly disliked Jainan, for whatever weird reason he had, and it couldn’t be easy to have your partner’s aide set against you. Maybe that was why Jainan had been distant with Bel at first. He had only had Taam, and only having one person to lean on was always going to be complicated. And who were the ‘friends’ of Taam that Nelen had said Jainan had pissed off? The only time Jainan even raised his voice was when someone pushed him to breaking point. It was hard to imagine him pissing anyone off.

Kiem’s mind automatically went to Aren. He shook his head, trying to tell himself that was just because Aren was the only one of Taam’s friends he’d met, but there had still been something odd about how he had spoken to Jainan. Kiem wondered if it would be crossing a line into invading Jainan’s privacy if he asked Bel to do some of her ‘digging’ on Aren, and then realised that even wondering that meant that it was. He needed to talk to Jainan.

Their rooms were empty. Kiem thought he heard Jainan’s voice from outside, and found him in the gardens, along with that student from the Thean embassy – Gairad, that was right. She was in his clan. It looked like some kind of lesson: Gairad was holding a quarterstaff above her head while Jainan stood in front of her and corrected her grip. His own quarterstaff was leaning against a tree a little way away.

“—can’t get it.” Kiem heard her say.

“You will. Try again.” Jainan took up his own staff and turned it crosswise in front of him. “Ten!”

It seemed to be some kind of codeword. Gairad spun, fast, brought her hands together on the staff and swung it at Jainan’s stomach. She obviously had grounding in the techniques but the strike was slow and Jainan blocked it easily. “That was better. The further down you can get your grip, the more momentum you’ll have.” He finally caught sight of Kiem standing in the door and broke off.

Kiem waved and came forward, seeing as he’d interrupted them anyway. “Looks like fun. Can I join?” he said, half-jokingly.

“Oh.” Jainan seemed surprised, but instantly recovered. “Of course. Please.” He handed him his own bronze quarterstaff. Kiem took it gingerly. It was much heavier than he’d expected. “Ah, not quite.” Jainan put his hands over Kiem’s – for once, without diffidence – and shifted his grip. “You want to hold it here.”

His touch was warm. Kiem tried not to think about that as he settled his hands around the metal. “Didn’t mean to hijack your lesson,” he said. “Just show me one move.”

“Jainan, the pair forms,” Gairad said. She seemed refreshingly unbothered by the fact Kiem was a prince. “Can we try form five?”

“Yes. Kiem, would you mind?” Jainan picked up a white handle from the ground, which folded out into something like the quarterstaff Gairad was using: cheap and flimsier-looking than his own. “Traditional quarterstaff has twenty basic moves, and one to six are for fighting with an ally. Since we have three people, Gairad’s form five could do with work.”

“I haven’t had anyone to practice with,” Gairad said defensively. Kiem spun his staff experimentally beside her, fumbled it, and lost his grip. It clattered to the ground around Gairad’s ankles. Gairad picked it up and handed it back to him with a martyred air. “At least I can be better than you. That’s motivating.”

Kiem grinned at her. “My form five’s perfect. Legendary, even. Angels weep.”

The corner of Jainan’s mouth twitched. “Of course,” he said. “But please humour Gairad’s need for practice.” Had that been a smile? Kiem wasn’t sure.

Once Kiem had his grip sorted out, the basics of quarterstaff turned out to be fairly easy to grasp. Form five meant Gairad doing a sort of crouching spin and taking their imaginary opponent out at the knees, while Kiem’s part was simpler – he just stepped forward next to her with what Jainan called a disarming strike, which meant hitting out with his staff at wrist height. They tried it a few times against thin air. Eventually, Jainan seemed satisfied with that, and readied his own staff. “All right. Kiem to hit, please.” He stepped in front of them and held up a block.

“Uh.” Kiem said. Gairad nodded and crouched, but Kiem didn’t move. “You want me to… attack you?”

There was a pause. Jainan gave Kiem a quizzical look. “I’m blocking.”

“What if I miss?” Kiem said. Swinging something heavy around had been kind of fun, but now he remembered why he’d never taken well to martial arts.

Jainan lowered the block. “I see. Gairad, why don’t you hit, then. Kiem, you can pull your strike.”

“Right,” Kiem said. Jainan politely hadn’t mentioned that there was probably no way Kiem could get past his guard, but Kiem still felt obscurely relieved. On Jainan’s snapped Five!, he swung halfway. Gairad lashed out, and her staff hit Jainan’s with a violent crack.

“Again,” Jainan said.

They did it a few more times, until Kiem accidentally stepped in front of Gairad as she started her spin. She tripped over his ankle, said, “Shitfuck,” and crashed forwards into the ground. Kiem tripped as well, catching himself with his hands as the impact jarred all the way up to his shoulders.

Jainan was there immediately, offering Kiem a hand up. Kiem took it, and was about to make a joke, before he noticed how strained Jainan’s expression was. “I’m sorry,” Jainan said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m not,” Gairad said. She rolled over and knocked snow off her knees. “Legendary, Prince Kiem.”

“Gairad, apologise,” Jainan said, as Kiem pulled himself up.

Gairad frowned and opened her mouth, but Kiem forestalled her. “My fault,” he said. “Totally my fault, I think I need to divert my legendary skills into something else. Maybe bull-wresting.” He picked up his dropped quarterstaff and handed it back to Jainan with a rueful grin. “I’ve got to call back some people. Let’s try it again another time.”

That seemed to fractionally relax the strain on Jainan’s face. “As you like. Of course.”

Kiem left them to it and went to make his calls. He could see them through the window of the study as Jainan carried on the lesson. It was obviously going a good deal more smoothly without him there. Gairad wasn’t bad, but Jainan had been training longer, and you could tell every time they clashed; however much force she put into her attacks, they glanced off his defences. Jainan’s face was intent, just as he looked when he talked about engineering, as if there was nothing you could put in front of him that he couldn’t take apart. Kiem looked down and firmly told himself to get on with his work.

When Kiem glanced up again they were taking a break. Gairad was laughing at something Jainan had said, and Jainan had that expression on which meant he was trying not to smile. At least someone could make him smile.

They were still talking a while later when they came back in. Jainan seemed to be trying to keep it quiet, but finally Kiem heard his exasperated voice say, “I told you, it doesn’t work like that in the Empire.”

Gairad sounded mulish. “Whatever. Don’t give me that. If you don’t want to do it, just say you don’t want to.”

“It’s not that,” Jainan said. He must have caught sight of Kiem, because he raised his hand in acknowledgement as he passed the door of the study. “I have to go. I’ll see you tomorrow at Audel’s.”

“Quarterstaff next week, same time, right?” Gairad held out her hand, and they clasped wrists in what must be a Thean gesture. “See you tomorrow. Don’t duck out.”

She left. Once the door had shut, Kiem stretched, and abandoned both his chair and his work. “Look at us, being virtuous,” he said. “Fresh air, work, exercise. We deserve coffee.”

Jainan turned around to face him, uncertainly. “Yes. I’ll get it.”

Kiem waved him to a chair. “Only one of us has actually done any work today, I’ve just been talking. I’ll do it.”

Jainan tilted his head in disagreement, but took the seat. “I apologise for Gairad,” he said. “I have some… clan duties that have come up, but only the quarterstaff should be here. I’ll try and keep her out of your way for everything else.”

“Nah, she’s fine,” Kiem said. “What do clan duties mean? Is it money?” He knew how Jainan liked his coffee now, and brought over a pair of cups.

Jainan shook his head. “Her close bloodline will take care of the money,” he said. “For wider clan connections, ‘duties’ mean other kinds of help. Advice and introductions, mainly. Unfortunately I’m not really qualified to give either.”

“You’re totally qualified,” Kiem pointed out. “You have the degree she’s studying for, as well as, let’s see, five years’ diplomatic experience and the ability not to insult everyone you meet. I think you should give her advice, for the sake of everyone likely to have to make small talk with her.”

Jainan cracked an unwilling smile. “She reminds me of Ressid,” he admitted. “When Ressid was about fifteen.”

“Who does she want introductions to?”

Jainan sighed. “Docking engineers. Shuttle pilots. She wants to go into commercial shipping. These are not people I know.”

“I might, though,” Kiem said, mentally scrolling through the list of likely names. “Or someone who knows someone. I bet we can dig up something.”

Jainan gave him a look somewhere between wary and bemused. “It really isn’t your problem,” he said. “I don’t want to cause any trouble for you.”

Kiem frowned. “What do you mean?” he said. “Is this some kind of Thean thing? I’m not part of your clan so all our business has to be separate, or something?” He really wished he’d learned more about Thea. A nasty thought occurred. “Is it – have I been rude, asking you to come to the receptions and stuff?”

“No!” Jainan said, now sitting up very straight. “No, that’s not– I came to live as a member of the Imperial family. Supporting your affairs is my job. You are not required to take an interest in mine.”

Kiem suppressed the instinctive, vehement denial. Jainan knew a lot more than he did about a diplomat’s duty: that much had become very clear. He hardly had any grounds to contradict him. So instead he said, “Well… can I?”

Can you?” Jainan repeated.

“I could help,” Kiem said. “I know lots of people. I’d like to meet your clan. Promise I won’t be too embarrassing.”

Jainan’s pause suggested he was considering how embarrassing Kiem might be. “You can meet whoever you like,” he said, at last, having apparently reached a favourable conclusion. “I would – I would be in your debt if you put Gairad in contact with some people.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Kiem said.

“Pardon?”

“Wouldn’t be in my debt,” Kiem said. “We’re married.”

“Oh,” Jainan said. He looked at his coffee and drunk it. They sunk into a companionable silence, while Kiem tried to work out how to raise that he’d seen Nelen.

“How was your committee?” Jainan said, before Kiem had quite found what to say.

Kiem gratefully launched into an account of his morning, mainly on autopilot, but he must have said something vaguely funny because Jainan smiled several times. It was only when he came to the end he said, “And then I ran into someone you know. Corporal Nelen.”

“Oh?” Jainan said. All the colour had gone out of his voice.

Kiem didn’t want to keep any secrets. He ploughed on. “He said you didn’t get on.”

“Did he,” Jainan said, so quietly that Kiem could barely hear him.

“I asked him about the security clearance thing.”

“Did you?”

Kiem laced his hands together behind his head and leaned back to contain some of the nervous energy. “I just think we should find out what happened,” he said. “I don’t know if I trust Rakal or Deln to tell us.”

Jainan rose. He walked over to the window and looked out, while Kiem watched, uneasy, and tried to read him from his turned back. Still Jainan said nothing.

“Was it Nelen?” Kiem said bluntly. Even as he said it, he felt as if he had just taken a pick to the thin ice under their feet.

Jainan didn’t turn. “Must we talk about this?”

“Jainan—”

“I have made one request of you in our brief acquaintance,” Jainan said distantly, apparently fixated on the view outside. “I have asked if we could not talk about the last few years. I am not a very eloquent person; I don’t know how to put it more strongly. Do you want me to beg? I warn you, I am not very good at it.”

Kiem flinched back viscerally. “No!” He had gone so wrong. “No, you’re right, we agreed.” How had he thought Jainan would react? Even if things had been complicated, he had asked Kiem not to intrude on his grief and his past – he was right, it was the only thing Kiem could remember him asking for.

There and then, Kiem resolved to drop it. He was only investigating for his own satisfaction, anyway. Jainan had made it clear it wasn’t for his sake.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I am really sorry. Not another word, promise. Forgive me?”

Jainan finally turned to face him, and the relief on his face was unmistakable. “Of course,” Jainan said. “No apology was ever necessary.”

Chapter Text

Jainan was sleeping badly again, which was inconvenient. His dreams were full of amorphous dread which he could never remember the cause of but which tended to cling over the course of the day. He was fully aware this bout was entirely self-inflicted, probably brought on by guilt. He didn’t think of himself as a manipulative person, but that was exactly what he had done to Kiem yesterday – what else was it, when you used someone's better instincts to make them do what you wanted? A kind of panic seized him whenever he thought of Kiem asking more questions about Taam. He could live with the guilt. He would have to.

When Kiem and Bel had gone out, he threw himself into working on the College project. Kiem had asked him to do that; at least he could get something useful done.

He was familiar with Professor Audel’s plan by now. She was proposing a set of radical changes to some key extraction methods and having run his own calculations on it, Jainan thought it might work. It had been oddly satisfying to go through the equations and diagram the processes out, stretching mental muscles that he hadn’t used for some time. The quiet made it easier to ignore his tiredness. He took over the main room, as Kiem and Bel were out – his calculations and images were fuzzy where the projections overlapped with the Feria flag, but there was more wall space in here. As the afternoon ticked on he worked undisturbed, losing himself in the flow of visualisations.

He was in the middle of a particularly tricky calculation, when the door slid open. “Wait a moment,” he said, in some exasperation.

The door shut. It took only a split second for realisation to flood in that he had just snapped at someone. Jainan’s heart hammered, and he reflexively cleared the wall and turned around. It wasn’t Kiem but it wasn’t much better: Bel was watching him quizzically. She said, “Didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“I thought you were at that school fete with Kiem,” Jainan said. Bel was carrying a large cone of candyfloss and a novelty balloon. Jainan took a moment to register them.

Bel looped the balloon to a chair arm and gingerly placed the candyfloss cone on a side table. “He won the tombola,” she said. “Be glad he found someone else to donate the twenty boxes of smoked fish to.”

Jainan’s mind was still half in his calculations, and half preoccupied with the panic of realising he’d snapped at his partner’s aide. He couldn’t seem to remember how to hold a normal conversation. He swallowed. “Good?”

“I should warn you, I left him at an almond-cake stall run by thirteen-year-olds trying to find a design you’d like. Do Theans eat almond-cake?”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He cleared the desk as well, and set his wristband to wipe the filter he’d put over the windows, hastily getting rid of all signs he’d occupied the room. “Doesn’t everyone?”

Bel shrugged. “I’m space-born. Home baking makes my skin crawl. Think of all those hands that have touched it. Are you all right?”

“Yes,” he said. “I’m fine. I was just working on… on Professor Audel’s project.” He gestured to the desk, forgetting it was empty.

Bel glanced at the now-bare walls. “Was that the data coin your College team gave you? About Prince Taam’s project?”

It sounded like a genuine question. “Not yet,” Jainan said warily. “I’m still tweaking Professor Audel’s extractor drill plans. I was planning to get it back to her by tomorrow. Did Kiem ask?”

“Not Kiem,” Bel said. “I was just thinking you might want to look at that particular data, maybe soon. Maybe this afternoon.”

Jainan looked up at her. For Bel to give him that sort of strong suggestion – almost an order – was unusual enough to be surprising. So far all her interactions with Jainan had been much more deferential than how she was with Kiem.

Bel seemed to know it as well, and shrugged. “Just a suggestion,” she said. “I’ve been looking into your friend Colonel Saffer.”

All thoughts of calculations fled from Jainan’s mind. “What?” he said. “You mustn’t—”

“Don’t look like that,” Bel said. “I’ve stopped; Kiem found out yesterday and pulled me off it. But have a look at the coin.” She flicked the balloon with a finger as she went past and it swayed on its tether. “Kiem wants me to fire out a bunch of today’s vids to various parents, then I’m off home. He’s got himself invited to the post-fete organisers’ dinner so he won't be back for a bit. Do you need any dinner arrangements?”

“No,” Jainan said. “Thank you. I’ll call the kitchens.”

Out of some odd instinct, Jainan waited until she had left before he pulled out Gairad’s data coin. It was only when he was turning to the door of the bedroom that he realised Bel had not objected to his use of the main room even when he’d snapped at her. Kiem probably wouldn’t mind if Jainan was using the space for the College’s project. Jainan's clan flag took up half the wall here already. Jainan felt an odd feeling of space, at that, and he wanted to reach out and stretch, marvelling at the freedom of the empty room. He placed the data coin on his wristband, where it clung, and pulled the new files onto the surface of the desk.

At one level he knew he had been putting this part of his work off because it was more complicated. He moved the file dumps around the desk, trying to make some sense of the material. Professor Audel wanted him to go through and see what he could find out about the extraction methods the military were already using, because she wouldn’t be able to make the case for her new method without that. It would be detailed, painstaking work, but he had done that sort of work before.

The other reason he had been putting it off was that this was the project Taam had run.

After just a few minutes, Jainan could see why Audel’s team hadn’t made much headway with the data dump. Gairad had said it was just the parts of the files the military had decided they could have, and Jainan could see the huge gaps where the military had obviously redacted classified sections. There were hints, drafts, early diagrams, but no current schematics.

They mentioned Taam a lot. He was somewhere on every major document, usually on the clearance list. Seeing his name down there in clear text gave Jainan an odd feeling which he only managed to shrug off by checking the next set of equations.

After some more meticulous trawling he straightened his back and sighed. There wasn’t really enough here to put together a complete picture. He idly ran through the finances instead: many of the suppliers had figures for their equipment listed on the net, or he could make educated guesses. There was at least more to work with there.

Ten minutes later, Jainan raised his head and frowned at the wall in front of him.

What he was reading didn’t make any sense. He wasn’t an accountant, but he was numerate and used to reading closely for detail, and he couldn’t make any of this add up. There was a lot of funding money going in, but the outputs weren’t commensurate with any of it, even by the most generous estimates.

Of course, there had been disasters. Jainan scanned the incident reports. He had seen Taam when he came home in the evenings after they had happened. Jainan had tried not to disturb him too much when he had been in a black mood, but sometimes he let hints drop, and once Jainan had seen a newslog report about a piece of rig that had exploded and set back work by months. But even the disasters wouldn’t account for this.

Taam had cleared every document.

He paged back through the documents projected on the desk. Usually work was a distraction, a pleasant way of losing himself in something during his solitary hours. But now all he felt was underlying discomfort and something else, something like nagging curiosity. He caught himself looking over his shoulder – Gairad was right, it had turned into a tic – and made himself turn back to the desk. Kiem was out. It was evening, and Jainan was alone. He could read what he liked.

He set himself to track every credit he could. The space by his elbow filled up with notes and copied fragments of text. There was a peculiar, visceral appeal to working like this, with his heart in his mouth and bile at the back of his throat. He tried chasing different strands, specific funding allocations. Most of them petered out somewhere in the stack of documents.

The money wasn’t necessarily missing. It might just have been classified. The military wasn’t required to hand all its secrets to academic engineers with bright ideas. But if it was missing, someone should have caught it.

Taam had been in charge of this project. Taam should have caught it.

Jainan pushed back from the desk and rose to pace across the room. There was a word for what he was doing right now, and that word was betrayal. He shouldn’t have agreed to scrutinise these files. The inner workings of the military were none of his business, even if it hadn’t been his own partner running the operations. And anyway, the military was huge and presumably run on a tight rein. What were the chances that he could spot something from an incomplete pile of files that had never been seen before? He must be missing something.

His strained hearing caught the sound of the door sliding open in the main room. He didn’t even think before he killed the files, wiped his notes and pulled the data coin off his handheld. As the study door slid open, he turned towards it with the coin hidden in his pocket, as composed as he could make himself. He only just remembered to control his breathing.

It wasn’t until he saw Kiem’s face that he realised he had been expecting Taam.

“How’s it going? Sorry it got a bit late…” Kiem broke off, belatedly taking stock of the empty room and Jainan standing in front of him. “Uh. Were you just finishing, or did I interrupt?”

Jainan knew enough to take hold of a lifeline when one presented itself. “I was just finishing,” he said. Could Kiem read his discovery on his face? He automatically tried to cover. “How was your…” He stopped. He had forgotten what Kiem had gone out to do.

“Fete,” Kiem said helpfully. “Jakstad Primary school fete. I went to dinner after with the organising committee. It was good, thanks. I came in to ask you if you wanted to come on a trip to their sister school in Braska on fifth-day? They’re having a graduation festival. I’ve already booked to go but I could add you. Not that exciting, I know, but I thought we could go over the mountains, it’s a nice flight – I’m talking too much again, aren’t I.”

“Yes,” Jainan said, without even really hearing the question. “Thank you.”

Kiem glanced at the table uneasily, and Jainan flinched, as if he’d left his documents projected over it. That just made Kiem’s eyes snap back to him. “Are you all right?”

It was a much slower, more hesitant enquiry than Bel’s, and more dangerous. Jainan’s fingers clenched convulsively around the data coin in his pocket, his mind still spinning, and he groped for an answer. “Fine.”

“Okay,” Kiem said, still slowly. His eyes didn’t leave Jainan’s face.

Jainan’s thoughts were a frantic whirl. He might not even be correct. Taam’s reputation must be protected at all costs; causing a scandal of that magnitude for the royal family would be the most damaging thing he could possibly do. It would destroy Taam’s reputation and affect the rest of the royal family – it would engulf Kiem as much as the rest of them. Jainan would be blamed, which meant irreversible damage to Thea’s treaty.

He didn’t know where his duty lay, and that was the most terrifying thing of all.

“I know you don’t like asking for help,” Kiem said carefully, “but you could just keep in mind that I’ve got a duty to you, too. Think of it like… a credit account you haven’t drawn on yet. I’m just saying that if it’s something I can help with—”

“Stop,” Jainan said abruptly, unable to bear it any more. It was a timely reminder that the last contract he had signed bound him to Kiem, not Taam, and keeping this from his partner was also a betrayal. “Sit down.”

His manners had deserted him, as they sometimes did when he was agitated enough. As usual, Kiem didn’t seem to notice. He took the chair by the sofa and looked at Jainan expectantly. His hands were resting on his knees – Jainan realised he was watching for signs of tension, and deliberately turned to the desk. It wasn’t his business how Kiem took the information. “I may be incorrect about this,” he said. He brought up the documents again. “But I must tell you something.”

It took time. Jainan was less able than usual to explain clearly. He used too much detail; he forgot Kiem was not a mathematician; he lost the thread and had to go over things twice or more. His voice was harsh in his own ears and broke on some words without warning.

Kiem didn’t understand, and still didn’t understand – and then the frown faded from his face and was replaced by dawning horror. Jainan doggedly continued, laying out every piece of evidence he had found, until he ran out of things to explain.

They sat in silence. Jainan didn’t try and add anything.

“Well, shit,” Kiem said, finally.

“I didn’t know,” Jainan said.

“That’s pretty bloody clear!” Kiem said. He reached out distractedly and moved some of the files on the desk around, apparently at random. Jainan folded his hands in his lap and suppressed the fierce itch to move them back. “Shit. We’ll have to go to the police. This isn’t something for Internal Security. Embezzlement is an actual crime.”

Jainan’s hands pressed hard against each other until he could feel the blood beating in them. Kiem was not devious. He would never even have thought something like this could happen, and so he hadn’t thought through the consequences. Jainan was not sure what it said about his own character that he felt more dread than surprise.

“Kiem,” he said. “Please think. There is a very good chance I’m somehow mistaken.” He hoped he was mistaken. He hoped desperately, but he had never placed much store in hope.

“How sure are you?” Kiem said. “Can you put, I don’t know, a number on it?”

“No more than seve— sixty percent,” Jainan said. “Not certain by any means, and a false accusation will be just as damaging as a real one.”

“Damaging.” It was more a question than a statement.

Jainan’s stomach was tying itself up in knots again. He was going to have to spell this out. “The backlash from the scandal will hit the whole royal family. I will be directly implicated in his actions and you will be dragged into it by association with me. You will be asked what you plan to do about your marriage. There will be reporters constantly trying to confront you. It will not be out of the newslogs for weeks.”

Kiem was staring at him in open shock. “You wouldn’t be implicated. You didn’t do anything.”

“We still don’t know Taam did anything,” Jainan said, still feeling sick at even implying it. “Equally, nobody will be able to prove what I knew one way or the other.” Taam had had access to Jainan’s account. “I’m not even sure why you believe me,” he added.

“Why the hell wouldn’t I?” Kiem said, as if Jainan was being the unreasonable one. He rubbed his hands over his eyes. “All right. All right. Let’s just think. So if we go to the police with this, it probably gets out – yes, I know it would leak, I’m not that dumb – and you end up at the centre of a scandal storm. If we don’t…” He stopped, and then started again. “All due respect to Taam, and I know you don’t want to talk about him, but… if he was doing this, then he’s. Uh. Not doing it anymore.”

Jainan didn’t trust himself to reply. He only nodded.

“I guess, that is,” Kiem said, a wary eye on Jainan as if he was about to go off unpredictably, “if you don’t think anyone else was involved.”

“It doesn’t seem like it,” Jainan said. He managed to make his tone very matter-of-fact. “And even if anyone else was, there’s now a new project officer who has to clear everything. Unless they’re corrupt, it must have stopped.”

“And do you think – if it were true – any of the money would still be there?”

Jainan shook his head. Taam had always been short of money; it had been one of his constant frustrations. Again, though, he had no proof, and for them to ask for access to all Taam’s accounts and records would be to blow it all open.

Kiem didn’t point that out. “Well, then,” he said thoughtfully. “If it’s in the past, there’s nothing to be done about it, and it would just make everything worse, maybe we just… leave it for a bit.”

“Yes,” Jainan said, feeling simultaneously nauseous and as if a weight had been lifted.

“We could go back to it in a couple of months,” Kiem said. “Audel might be able to get her hands on more up-to-date files from the military. We could check that nothing else had – uh – gone wrong.”

“Yes,” Jainan said again. A reprieve; nothing had to change. When it came to avoiding scandal, Taam’s interests and Kiem’s were the same.

Kiem relaxed and sat back. “That’s settled, then.” He cleared his throat. “Uh – mind if I go in the bedroom? Meant to fish out some more bedding.”

Jainan stiffened, realising it was getting late and the couch he was sitting on would be in the way of Kiem’s bed. He rose to his feet. “It’s your bedroom,” he said.

“Not really,” Kiem said. He didn’t sound as cheerful as usual. Jainan swallowed against a dry throat and nodded his assent, and Kiem disappeared into the bedroom. Jainan rose and pushed the couch back to make room for the folding bed Kiem set up every night.

For a moment it seemed absurd that they could be on the same side over something as intimate as Taam’s scandal, but still be assiduously avoiding each other at night. Jainan shook the feeling off swiftly. It was not absurd that Kiem still wanted to avoid sleeping in the same room as someone he wasn’t attracted to. Kiem had reacted to this latest piece of trouble better than Jainan had a right to expect. They were almost allies, if Jainan dared call it that. It was enough.

Chapter Text

Hundreds of light beads hung above the Royal Atrium in clusters like the dense hearts of galaxies. They turned the ceiling into a sea of pearly white and shed soft illumination on the miles of gold braid that adorned the military officers gathered for pre-dinner drinks below. Jainan, Kiem and Bel were among the few civilians there, as Jainan had known they would be. Kiem wasn’t too out of place in his Imperial family uniform, which was not quite military but showy enough that he could hold his own, while Bel wore a flowing, gold-accented coat with her usual self-assurance. Jainan faded into the background in his blue-grey Thean ceremonials. They weren’t technically correct, but his green-and-gold clan formals were aggressively Thean and would have stuck out.

Military dinners were something Jainan was used to. He even recognised a few faces, mainly friends of Taam he was superficially acquainted with. There were few people Jainan wanted to see less at the moment than people who had worked with Taam. The one mercy was they didn’t seem any more eager to talk to him. The only one who had even tried to contact him so far was Aren, and Aren was talking to someone over on the other side of the atrium.

“…I’ll tell her you said that,” Kiem was saying to the latest officer to come up to them. Jainan had barely been listening. “Sure she’ll be pleased. Absolutely. Yep. Nice to meet you.” The officer nodded and drifted on, and Kiem muttered to Jainan, “She’d take his head off. She hates flatterers.”

“Who?” Jainan said.

“Oh. Sorry. My mother.” Kiem finished his champagne and slid the glass onto a waiter’s tray. “I think I might need another one of those if I’m going to keep having these conversations.”

Jainan struggled to get up to speed. All the dress uniforms at the corner of his vision were too familiar; he kept expecting to turn and see Taam. “I’m sorry. Your mother?”

“General Tegnar. She’s out at the asteroid belt commanding the Second Division.” Kiem waved a hand at the extended gathering. “Everyone who’s ambushed us so far wants me to recommend them to her. She’d reject anyone I mentioned just on principle.” He paused. “Everything all right, Bel?”

That made Jainan pay attention. Bel was looking strange: she only occasionally attended these gatherings, and had a professional smile that she wore at all times when she did, but right now her gaze was fixed and oddly intent. She started at the sound of her name, and the foreign expression was gone. “Fine,” she said. “But look over there. Our friend Colonel Saffer.”

Jainan didn’t even have to search as he’d automatically marked Aren’s position. He took a second look at the person Aren was deep in conversation with: a heavyset man in spacer fashion of a style that wasn’t Iskat or Thean.

Kiem obviously recognised it. “A Sefalan?” he said. “Aren works with Sefala, doesn’t he? Must have invited him.”

“I know that face, though,” Bel said.

“Yeah?”

“That man is Evn Afkeli.” Bel had turned so her back was to Aren and his companion. “He runs one of the big raider congloms – the Blue Star. He’s the one who spaces merchants whose companies don’t pay ransoms.”

Raiders. Jainan had to think for a moment before he recognised what Bel was talking about: the organised crime gangs that hopped among the asteroid belts and outer worlds, hijacking ships on minor routes and running their tendrils into planet-side businesses. He remembered reading that they found an open harbour in Sefala, where the writ of the Iskat Empire ran weak.

“He invited a Sefalan pirate to dinner?” Kiem said in a murmur no louder than Bel’s. “How does that work?”

“Evn Afkeli’s a legitimate businessman on Sefala,” Bel said. “Nothing’s been pinned on him, though he runs some of the biggest protection schemes in the Outer Belt.”

Kiem grinned. “What a chance. Think I’ll go over and say hi.”

Don’t,” Jainan said, before he even really thought about it. He didn’t realise how sharply it had come out before he saw Kiem’s sideways look. “Sorry,” he said, making an effort to cover it up. Kiem would do what he liked. “Of course. Would you like me to come?” He couldn’t even explain the flood of repulsion that welled up in him at the thought of getting in a conversation with Aren and someone like that. He couldn’t remember that name in Taam’s contacts – but then, Taam had kept so much private.

“Changed my mind,” Kiem said, still giving him that look.

“You’d better not,” Bel says. “His trademark is paralysing people who don’t pay up.”

The raider’s face was set in deep, serious lines, and barely moved at all as he spoke to Aren. The lack of expression sent an unpleasant prickle down Jainan’s back. “How did you find that out?”

“Bel used to work for the Sefalan Guard,” Kiem said. “Hey, they’re opening the doors. Care to accompany me to dinner, your Grace?” He gave a mock-bow and offered his arm.

Jainan smiled mechanically and took it. Bel slipped off towards the drinks table as Jainan followed Kiem to the other side of the hall from Aren and the Sefalan, and steeled himself for the long and awkward meal that was to follow.

He hadn’t factored in how it would feel to be accompanied by a different partner. Kiem promptly made fast friends with the person on the other side of him and introduced them to Jainan as Master Sergeant Vignar, who ran logistics at the palace barracks. Ten minutes later Vignar and he appeared to have bonded for life over old dartcar races. Jainan concentrated on his food, made small talk with the colonel opposite him and monitored Kiem with half an ear. At first he split his attention, but eventually he realised he wasn’t going to have to jump in, or run two conversations simultaneously, or field Kiem’s bad mood. He could feel his own state of mind improving as the evening went on.

"Thought Bel said she’d booked herself on to the dinner list,” Kiem said between courses, craning his neck around the tables to see where she was seated. “She said she liked the look of the menu.”

“Mm,” Jainan said. Bel wasn’t visible among the diners. “She must have gone home.” He glanced around for Aren and the Sefalan raider, but they were several tables away.

Dessert came out. Jainan disliked how things got more informal when the coffee and brandy were brought out and everyone started to wander around, and he excused himself to the restroom briefly. When he came back, he found he had lost track of Kiem. He was scanning the room to find him and suggest they leave when he felt a hand on his arm.

“There you are,” Aren said. “I was looking for you.”

The skin of Jainan’s arm felt tight around Aren’s hand. “Were you?”

“I’m going a little crazy from talking shop, to be honest,” Aren said. “Join me?” He nodded towards a side door.

Jainan didn’t reply, but let Aren accompany him through. The door was already open. It led to one of the viewing glass-walled corridors that wound around the outside of the palace and looked out onto the winter gardens in warmth and comfort. It was cooler out here, and there were a few people around holding quiet conversations. Aren continued past them, his hand still on Jainan’s arm, chatting of the weather and people Taam had known. Jainan walked beside him – just a shade too slowly to be comfortable – and nodded where appropriate. He had thought for some reason he was getting better at conversation, as Kiem didn’t seem to mind him, but with Aren it was the same uncomfortable rhythm it had always been. Jainan never had the right answers, and it was painfully obviously enough that sometimes Aren pointed it out. Kiem hadn’t, yet.

They ended up at a viewing port, which was what the Iskaners called the glassed-in conservatory that rounded off the end of the corridor. Aren put up the sound-dampening static screen over the entrance. “There,” he said. “Peace and tranquillity.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He moved over to the window and looked out at the illuminated snow of the gardens and the dark mountain beyond, too far to see its ribbon-like tracks of ski runs. Snowflakes were starting to drift down past the glass again. He remembered what it had felt like to arrow down the mountainside on a pair of those silly hired skis. It had been easier to breathe.

“You’re looking better, anyway,” Aren said. “Good thing, too – last time you had a bit of a ghoulish look going on.”

Jainan didn’t reply. He could feel Aren’s gaze on his back. Taam had worked with Aren, though on different planetary briefs. If Taam had cleared all those documents, had Aren known about them?

“You were always really hard to talk to, you know that?” Aren came up beside him, looking out the window.

“Yes,” Jainan said, almost absently. “Taam said.” Aren and Taam had always been talking about work. And he had never quite worked out why they were friends, since Taam regularly complained about him.

Aren gave a long-suffering sigh and turned to face him. “Fine, fine, you haven’t changed. I need a favour.” He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a cheap, uncrested wristband. “I need your bios for access to Taam’s private account.”

Jainan’s thoughts stopped in their tracks. “What account?”

“The one on your devices,” Aren said. “Taam set it up nested within yours for security. I need access to your account to get to it.”

“Oh,” Jainan said. One of Taam’s accounts had only been accessible through Jainan’s, he knew that. He had asked how it worked, at the time, but Taam had brushed it off as a security measure required for his level of seniority, that some of his accounts weren’t tied to his own device. Jainan didn’t think it had disappeared with his normal messages.

He had never tried to see what Taam was doing. It had been a way of proving he was trustworthy.

Aren held out the wristband, which was already displaying Jainan’s familiar bio-input screen. Jainan could feel the old pattern of thought that said Taam would have wanted him to have it and it wasn’t as if your account was private in the first place. But he could feel them like a ghosts, overlaying the new, treacherous current that said, Even Kiem doesn’t have access to my accounts, so why should you?

“Jainan?” Aren said.

“Mm,” Jainan said. “Why?”

Aren gave a helpless one-shouldered shrug. “Not cleared to say,” he said. “Even Taam wasn’t cleared to talk to you about his work. Come on, Jainan, you know all this.”

“I’ve seen some of the mining project files,” Jainan said. “The finances.”

That fell into the silence of the conservatory like a dropped plate at a dinner. Aren looked at him, leaned back against the glass panes, and sighed. “So you know,” he said. “I always thought you were brighter than Taam gave you credit for. I guess you were the one who sent your aide round asking questions about it? Figures. I’m sorry you had to find out like this.”

Jainan’s voice was very steady. “Find out what?”

Aren made a wry, you know grimace. “It could have happened to anyone. Gambling debts, you know. All in the past now.”

Stray snowflakes gusted against the windowpane. It was insulated: there was no good reason for the chill in the room. “You should have told me,” Jainan said. Then, “Why do you want access to his account?”

“It needs dealing with,” Aren said reasonably. “It needs deleting, eventually. We can’t just let it stay out there.”

“I can delete it,” Jainan said.

“I’ll handle it,” Aren said. “There are some sensitivities.” He sounded genuinely regretful as he offered Jainan the wristband and said, “You wouldn’t know where to start.”

Jainan looked at the wristband Aren was offering again. He tested out the sound of the word in his head, then the shape on his tongue, and said, “No.”

He didn't know what he expected. He had never denied Aren anything – Taam wouldn’t have liked it – but Aren had barely asked more of him than another drink, before. Jainan had never seen him alone, either.

Aren smiled, which was more unnerving than it should have been. “All right, Jainan,” he said. “Let me explain the problem. If it comes out, obviously people will think you were involved.”

The dread, which had lain low like static at the edge of Jainan’s hearing, roared up again. “I wasn’t,” he said. “I didn't know anything about Taam’s work.”

Aren held a hand up. “No, no,” he said. “I know. I’m trying to help here, Jainan, I’m only telling you what’s likely to happen.”

“I can prove I wasn’t,” Jainan said, but he could already feel the conversation slipping away from him.

“Yes,” Aren said softly, “but what would have to come out to prove it?”

“I don’t—” Jainan cut himself off, trying to think through the panic. “I mean. I don't have anything to hide. There’s nothing. I. I won’t.”

“Really? Nothing?” Aren said, lightly, as if he wasn't violating the unspoken contract of the last five years. The few people who had been close to Taam had known not to say anything. They had known there were appearances to keep up.

Jainan turned his head toward the static screen at the conservatory entrance, blindly looking for a way out. "We can't talk about this here – it isn't private. People will come and see why we’ve blocked it off.”

"Is it bothering you?" Aren said. "Let me fix it. You’re right, we don’t have anything to hide," He took two strides over to the entrance, reached through the static and flicked off the screen. "It’s not unusual, is it? The fights, the things Taam used to say about you – I always thought those were over the line, by the way – or the times you slept with other people—“”

The adrenaline turned the world into background. Jainan was moving after him before he realised he was and slammed his hand on the switch. White static flooded around his arm to fill the doorway again. “I didn't!”

Aren drew his arm away from the door with a half-smile. And Jainan understood the kind of game they were playing, and that his only choice was in how he was going to lose. He shut his eyes and said it anyway. “I never slept with anyone else.”

“My mistake,” Aren said, holding up a hand in front of him, as if Jainan was being aggressive. Jainan took a step back. “I just thought, you know. That prostitute.”

Jainan had to suppress a sudden surge of nausea. That was Taam. He swallowed it and stopped himself replying, because there was no point picking over it. There was no winning with Aren. He knew that from seeing him and Taam argue: Taam had rank over Aren and could sometimes veto him through sheer force of will, but Aren could read people, could control conversations, could twist words and somehow come out on top. His version of events was always what was true. And if some of the things about Jainan and Taam's marriage got out—no.

He noticed, in a distant way, that his hand was shaking. He pressed it to the window behind him to make it stop.

“Of course, you could try and prove Taam didn’t tell you about the embezzlement because he hated you,” Aren said. “But let’s think about how that would turn out.” He raised his hand to tick items off. “Number one, huge scandal. Your picture in all the newslogs. Along with all the nasty details – what did he say to you, exactly? What did he do? What did you do to set him off? Why would he take against you like that? You know how it would go.” He raised another finger to tick off. “Number two, most of the palace don’t believe you – probably most of the public, as well. Taam was widely respected. People barely know you, do they?”

“Stop,” Jainan said. His lips felt numb. Aren was right, he'd known all of this, but that didn’t mean it was easy to hear.

“Number three,” Aren said, “Prince Kiem is thrown in it up to his neck. He doesn’t like negative press – if you plaster his face across every screen in the country, I don't think he's going to keep liking you after that. And that's even before they send you home. Could be unpleasant.” He gave Jainan a smile that might have seemed sympathetic to an onlooker. “And that's just the things that will happen. I haven’t even gone into the risks. Of course, the biggest risk is that people realise you had a grudge against Taam, realise he died suspiciously, and start to wonder if you – well.”

No,” Jainan said. “I didn’t.”

“Convincing,” Aren said, then laughed. “I believe you. Thousands wouldn’t.”

For the first time, Jainan made himself consider how bad it would look. It was impossible to consider dispassionately through the terror – because that accusation would mean everything else was already out in the open, and even the prospect of that paralysed him. He hadn’t done it, though. Didn’t that mean anything? Only a coward would let himself be blackmailed into silence over a crime he hadn’t committed.

But his duty to Taam’s memory wasn’t the only one he had to consider. He was also duty-bound Thea, and to Kiem. Both of them would be damaged by the scandal Aren was threatening. He was failing in his duties whatever he did. He didn't deserve his position. He hadn’t even deserved Taam, let alone someone like Kiem.

“Now you ask me what I want,” Aren said.

Jainan’s mouth was so dry he could barely manage the words. “What do you want?”

Aren pushed himself off the table to his feet. “Glad you asked! Stop fucking around and sign me into your account.” He slipped the wristband out of his pocket.

Jainan took it numbly. He pressed his thumb to the wristband, scanned his retina and recited his passphrase. He didn’t even bother whispering.

Aren took it back as the account screen opened and navigated to the messagebox Taam had set up. Jainan averted his eyes. But he still heard the ping when an error popped up.

“It wants a passphrase,” Aren said.

Jainan hadn’t known about the extra security layer, and felt a stab of satisfaction that startled him with its maliciousness. He repressed it and made sure his face was schooled to neutrality. “Taam would have to provide that.” He let the current unavailability of Taam speak for itself.

“Your voice would work on it, since it’s your device,” Aren said. “You know the pass?”

Taam had only used a single passphrase for anything that needed it. Jainan had a fairly good idea. “No. I’m sorry.”

Aren raised his eyes and met Jainan’s. “No guesses?”

Jainan shook his head. “Taam didn’t trust me.”

Aren spun back through Jainan’s account, annoyed. He had kept the screen small and only about a handspan in front of them; now Jainan watched his own messages fill it. They weren’t any use to Aren, of course, since most of his historical ones had disappeared, but Aren skimmed through the recent ones anyway.

“This is about asteroid mining in the Thean sector,” Aren said. “Why do you have this?” When Jainan didn’t answer, he said, “You could get in trouble for poking around Taam’s files, you know.”

Jainan had already lost, but he had no desire to give Aren more ammunition. “It’s academic,” he said. “Part of an Imperial College project.”

“Hm,” Aren said. He read over some of the messages from Professor Audel. “I think you should probably withdraw from that.”

Jainan wondered why something felt familiar, and he realised it was the tension of his shoulders. “I’ll consider it.”

“Do that,” Aren said. He lifted his eyes and smiled again, his good humour apparently restored. Jainan wasn’t fooled – Taam had had mood swings, but Aren had never been that transparent, and he still hadn’t got what he wanted. He must still have something in reserve. Jainan watched as he crossed to the entrance and flicked the screen off again. “Well, it was nice to catch up,” Aren said. He held out his arm. Jainan didn’t take it. Aren gave him a wry look, and instead fell in step beside him, their shoulders almost touching. “Oh, and one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“Bel Siara isn’t as subtle as she thinks she is,” Aren said. “Tell her to stop asking questions about Taam or I’ll have to take measures.”

A stab of anger momentarily rose from somewhere in the grey nothingness inside Jainan. “You can’t touch Bel,” he said. “Kiem outranks you.”

“Like I can’t touch you,” Aren said, smiling. “Have a good evening, Jainan.” The noise level rose as he pushed open the door back into the main hall, and he turned away and disappeared into the crowd of people.

Jainan stopped beside the door. He put up a small, private screen from his wristband. Knowing Aren could see what Jainan did on his wristband if he wanted to – knowing he might be seeing the same screen even now – felt like someone breathing down the back of his neck.

He navigated through to Taam’s account. He didn’t even have to trawl through it. He could just delete it.

But should he? That would be a declaration of open war. The message account had sat there for a month, without anyone able to access it, so there was no reason it shouldn’t be safe. Jainan could theoretically open it – but he couldn’t, now, could he, as Aren could now see everything he did. It shouldn’t feel like an invasion of privacy. Taam had been able to do that for years.

“Jainan? Hey! I was wondering where you are.” It was Kiem, with an empty coffee cup in one hand and a plate in the other. “You missed dessert. I saved you some cake?”

Jainan looked up and put something that resembled a smile on his face. “Oh. Thank you.”

They were saving Taam's reputation and preventing a scandal, and by doing that, he was doing his duty to Kiem. He was doing his duty to Thea and his clan. There was no reason for the prickly, uncomfortable feeling that sat in his chest. He looked for Aren automatically and caught a glimpse of his profile over on the other side of the room, talking to someone. The back of the other person’s head was familiar. Was that Bel?

Someone moved in front of him, obscuring his vision. Jainan turned away mechanically. He was seeing things now. “Can we go home?” he said.

He didn’t quite understand the way Kiem’s face lightened. “Yeah, let’s,” Kiem said, immediately discarding the cake. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

When their trip out to the school at Braska came around, Kiem found he was unexpectedly relieved to be getting out of the palace. He didn’t know if Jainan was preoccupied with what they had found out about Taam or if Kiem himself was just doing everything wrong at the moment, but Kiem had barely been able to get a word out of him in the last three days. And on top of that, it was grant season and five different charities had asked him for official letters of support. He was getting to the point where he never wanted to write another letter again. A couple of days of leisurely flying, mountain scenery and a kids’ festival sounded like a good idea right now.

He was so keen to get going he had his bag packed and in the flybug before he realised he was ten minutes earlier than the time he’d told Jainan. He leaned against the side of the flybug in the echoing confines of the docking hangar and killed some time by checking the dartcar results. If he went back up to the palace to get Jainan, he reasoned, there was a small but significant chance someone would find something that needed his immediate attention, and then they'd never get away. He thought of messaging, but Jainan had started to say he preferred to keep things out of his messages if Kiem could tell him in person. He had even admitted he was finding it hard to concentrate at the moment.

Damn you, Taam, Kiem thought, not for the first time that day. Jainan really was a mess, as far as Jainan ever let himself be a mess. Half the time he didn't hear you when you spoke to him and the other half he jumped. Kiem still hardly believed Taam had been stupid enough to embezzle as Jainan clearly thought he had – they got a generous stipend, as royals – but even allowing it to happen on his watch had put Jainan in an impossible position. They’d have to figure out a way to break open the whole thing that didn’t involve hauling Jainan over the coals of press attention. Maybe they should take it to the military and try and get a promise out of them they wouldn’t let it leak.

Urgh. He closed the dartcar rankings. Something else to think about when they got back. He had promised himself and Jainan three days with no palace worries, and they were going to have them, and that was that.

“’Scuse me,” a technician said gruffly. They pushed past Kiem with an armful of some kind of compressor tubes and tools to where a hoverpad was waiting.

Kiem stepped back to let them pass, but leaned down to scoop up a wire that had fallen. “Here, you dropped this,” he said. The technician glanced round, their face red and annoyed under their scraped-back hair. A single braid hung free. “Go on, I’ll follow you,” Kiem said.

“Cheers,” the technician said. They dumped the armful on a pile of similar parts a few metres down the walkway and took the wire. “Can’t get the hoverpad down any further.”

“Need a hand?”

“Nah, it’s fine,” the technician said. “Looks like some idiot was in here doing off-book maintenance last night. I’m only clearing.”

“You’d be doing me a favour,” Kiem said. “I’m early to meet someone and I’m bad at waiting.”

The technician shrugged. “Sure, your funeral.” Kiem followed them to the next stand, where a flybug was apparently in a state of maintenance, half of its panels ripped off and tools littered around. Kiem picked up spare parts as the technician morosely levered up a loose door and threw it into the body of the flybug, out of the way. “Can’t stand these amateurs,” they said. “People get contractors in to do the work, they get their friends in, they don’t understand the palace. Look at this mess. We get VIPs down here, y’know.”

Kiem didn’t feel well-placed to comment on that. “What do you think the contractors were doing?” he said, examining the flybug. “That doesn’t look like it’s flown in a while.”

The technician shrugged. “Last-ditch repair, maybe. Compression box looks old. Doesn’t mean they have to fix it in the hangar and leave this all over the bloody walkway.”

“Bit of a mess,” Kiem agreed, taking his armful of parts past to the hoverpad. One of them was hissing in a mildly concerning way.

“Prince Kiem!”

Kiem looked up from trying to steady the hissing tube without directly touching it. Bel had appeared at the lift by the walkway, carrying some sort of case. She gave his oil-stained hands an expressive look.

“Oh, hey,” Kiem said. “I was just lending a hand.” He made sure the parts were piled securely and waved to the technician, who was giving him a funny look. “Nice meeting you,” he said cheerfully, before turning back to Bel. “Any sign of Jainan?”

“He’s just coming,” Bel said. She handed him a handkerchief and Kiem dutifully wiped his hands. “This box is the prize you’re giving at the graduation. It’s just back from the engravers and I said you’d take it up, since you’re going. The school paid for it so don’t lose it.”

“Right,” Kiem said. He took the case and snapped it open out of curiosity. The thing inside was golden, but didn’t look so much like a trophy. “Uh, this is a trowel.”

“Traditional,” Bel said. “Farming area. Have you got everything you need? Message me if you need anything sent. You’ve got my contact.”

“Bel, of course I’ve got your contact,” Kiem said. He stowed the box in the flybug’s hold. “You’re my aide. We’ve messaged each other about five times a day for the last year.”

“All right,” Bel said, “I’m just checking. Have you got everything?”

Kiem looked at her more closely, and didn't say you already asked that.  It was an automatic question, but Bel didn’t get distracted like that. She’d already shifted from one foot to another a few times. “Is something up?”

Bel glanced at the technician – who was by now out of hearing distance, shepherding the hoverpad over a far walkway – and grimaced. “Sort of,” she said. She cast another look at the lift. “I’ve just heard my grandmother’s really not well.”

“Oh, shit, I'm sorry,” Kiem said. Bel’s family were all on Sefala, as far as he knew, which meant a journey of ten days just to reach the planet without even adding however long it would take at the other end. “You'll want personal leave, right?”

“So I was going to ask—” Bel said, then seemed to catch herself as she heard what he’d said. It didn’t seem to make asking any easier, though; her mouth just twisted. “Not just yet,” she said. “But I might need to make a sudden request later. I’m just letting you know in case.”

“Take it now,” Kiem said. “You should go home. Don’t wait.”

“Stop making this hard,” Bel said sharply. “You need someone to do this job.”

Kiem raised a hand in apology, but didn’t back down. “Yeah, but I can find cover from somewhere. They might not be as good but this is kind of important!”

Bel tugged at the end of her braids, disordering them – something Kiem had only ever seen her do at three in the morning in a media emergency. “She’s not in immediate danger,” she said. “It could be nothing happens for months.”

“Then take months.”

“I’ll tell you when I need to,” Bel said. She turned her head as the lift opened for Jainan. When she stepped back, something in the set of her shoulders looked like relief that the conversation was over.

Jainan’s eyes went to her as he drew nearer – how was he so good at picking up when something was even slightly wrong? – and his hand gripped his case a little more tightly. “I’m late,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Nope, I’m early,” Kiem said easily, taking his case off him. He would have to ask Bel later if he could tell Jainan, but Bel was intensely private with her own life, and he wasn’t going to air anything without asking. “It’s all good. Let’s head off, and Bel will breathe a sigh of relief and get some work done without us interrupting.”

“Don’t pretend Jainan’s as bad as you,” Bel said dryly. “Jainan, feel free to ditch him somewhere over the mountains if he’s a nuisance.”

Jainan didn’t smile, just paled. Damn Taam. “Hey,” Kiem protested, “do I pay you to gang up on me? Jainan, mind if I drive?” Jainan nodded silently and got into the passenger seat.

Bel waved from the walkway as if they were leaving at a shuttleport. “Drive safe,” she said. “Have a good time, give the prize to the right student. See you in three days.”

“I always drive safe!” Kiem called. “Later!” He set the flybug to automatic to get them out of the garage and keyed up the tractor beam.

The dome closed them into a pool of quiet. The docking hangar hadn’t been noisy, but there was a peculiar quality to the sudden silence, enhanced by the usual noise-blocking that came with flyers. Jainan stared straight ahead while the tractor field inched them delicately out of their docking space. Kiem sighed and settled back into his seat. “Right,” he said. “Mountains. Freedom. No engagements until tomorrow. This is more like it.”

“Yes,” Jainan said.

Kiem had heard that tone before. He turned to look at Jainan properly, but he was hard to read now, as he wasn’t sure how much of Jainan’s tension was just the stress about this bloody Taam thing. “You did want to come, didn’t you?” he said. The sky was opening up above them, icy and pale blue. A good day for flying. “If you’d prefer to stay and get work done, you can still go back. I can do the graduation thing easily enough by myself, I just thought it might be nice for us to get out of the palace.”

“No,” Jainan said swiftly. “I’m happy to have some time away. May I ask a question? How long does it take to get to Braska?”

“Didn’t I—” Damn, he hadn’t told Jainan. “Sorry. I put an extra day on the schedule so we could do a scenic run over the mountains. I meant to say, but…” He glanced sideways at Jainan as they emerged out into the open sky and he took hold of the controls. “All the stuff happened.”

“Yes,” Jainan said.

“It’s a nice route,” Kiem said hopefully. “I learned to fly around there. Peaceful. Dramatic crags, snow, that sort of thing.”

“Snow,” Jainan said, leaning forwards to survey the early-winter city skyline as they rose into the sky. “You do surprise me.”

It took Kiem a moment to catch on, and then he grinned in relief that Jainan’s sense of humour was apparently surfacing. “Feels good to get out, huh?”

Jainan took longer to answer than normal. “I have nothing against the palace.”

“Well, at least we have one diplomat between us,” Kiem said, pulling them up to another vein that would bring then out of the city traffic network. “I’m bloody relieved, I can tell you that. I feel like I’ve been running in circles for weeks.” The moment he’d said it, he realised how it could be interpreted, and added hastily, “Not because of you. And only a little bit the – stuff from Taam’s old project. All my committee and board stuff’s been really annoying, it's grant season, everyone’s irritable because they haven’t had a holiday yet. And the Internal Security thing…”

“I understand,” Jainan said. His voice had gone colourless again. He was watching the city recede under them, giving way to the foothills of the mountains to the west. True winter had set in now and they were covered with deep snow. The ski park they’d been to was a tiny caterpillar on the base of one of the peaks nearer to the city. There were still cabins in the foothills, but they would start to thin out soon.

Kiem sneaked a glance at him. “Want to cut out the scenic route and go straight there?”

“No, it’s– I would like to see the mountains.” Jainan was looking out of the side of the dome, his face hidden. “I admit, it feels better to be out of the palace. I’m not sure why.”

“Sometimes you just need to get away,” Kiem said.

“Mm,” Jainan said. “Abandoning all my work. I seem to be getting lazier.”

Kiem wasn’t sure if that was a joke. He could usually tell when Jainan was deadpanning and that didn’t feel like it. “Pretty sure I’m abandoning more work than you are,” he said. “You’ve got to let yourself relax sometimes, right?”

“Nobody has previously recommended I follow hedonism as a life philosophy.” This was more distant – maybe that was a joke.

“We’re being responsible,” Kiem said. “We’re going to an important public relations event!”

“Naturally,” Jainan said. “Are we staying in Braska this evening?”

“Yup,” Kiem said. “We’ll do a big loop. Have you been up this way before? There’s a few ravines big enough to fly into, they’re pretty cool.”

Jainan shook his head. “We went east for skiing, to the Fellvar range.”

“There’s an idea,” Kiem said. “We should have brought skis. Dammit. Think it’s too late to go back?”

“I preferred the flying to the skiing,” Jainan said. His eyes were starting to gleam with curiosity as they skimmed closer to the first of the real mountains. “Can you go a little lower?”

Kiem grinned. “Happily,” he said. “Probably a bit too happily, actually, tell me if you want me to veer off.” He set the controls to a more sensitive setting and dived down.

They skimmed around the sheer cliffs and falls, and into the first of the ravines. This one was too close to the city to be really wild and there were a couple of cabins nearby, but when they shot out of the first valley and into the next, Kiem got the reaction he had been hoping for. Jainan took in an audible breath.

The ground fell away beneath them into the deepest gorge on this side of the range’s spine. A river crawled far below between dark pines that weren’t yet snowed over, and mountains climbed up dramatically on either side. “It’s beautiful,” Jainan said.

“Glad you think so,” Kiem said. “Made it myself, obviously. It took me ages to get all the trees in the right place.”

“I see,” Jainan said. “What a shame you couldn’t get the river straight.”

“It’s supposed to be crooked,” Kiem protested. “It’s artistic.”

“Is it,” Jainan said. A smile was threatening to tug up the corner of his mouth. He leaned forward to get a better view of the rushing torrent below. Kiem brought them down until they could see the white foam and the chunks of ice tumbling through the current from higher up the mountains. “There’s an unwise thing teenagers do on Thea,” Jainan said, apparently as a non-sequitur.

“What’s that?” Kiem said.

“They take the flybug down as close to the water as possible, and turn it sideways to try and dip the fins.”

“That's crazy,” Kiem said. He eyes the water speculatively. “We're definitely not going to do that.”

“No,” Jainan agreed, in exactly the same tone. Out of the corner of his eye, Kiem saw his hand go up to tug his safety harness tighter.

“How long do you have to keep the fin touching the water for?” Kiem said, in the spirit of enquiry.

“I used to be able to do two-second runs,” Jainan said. “Some people got up to five.”

“Right,” Kiem said. He took a hand out of the dash to check his own harness. “Haven't tried to flip this thing in years.”

“Don’t worry,” Jainan said. “You only need to get it halfway to a full flip and balance it there.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then,” Kiem said. “No way this can go wrong.”

“If the trees look like they’re pointing downwards, you’ve gone too far.”

“You realise Bel is going to kill us if we crash out here without her,” Kiem said. He was already disabling the stabilisers.

“It shouldn’t make us crash,” Jainan said. “Although it’s true, it probably isn’t the most sensible—”

“No, I mean, she’ll kill us because we didn’t let her join in. Bel has speeding tickets from every subdistrict in the city.” Kiem firmed up his grip in the steering mesh, feeling the filaments all around his hands. “Are you holding on?” He gave Jainan a moment to grab on to something, and dived.

The river came rushing up to meet them. Kiem had set the filaments to their most sensitive, and could feel every buffet of air against the flybug’s shell through the tingle in his hands. He gripped the steering, a familiar surge of adrenaline going through him that he hadn’t felt in a while, and turned to veer sideways across the river. They tore straight at the oncoming treeline of the forest.

“Tree,” Jainan said.

“Noted!” At the last second, Kiem yanked them around to bear straight down the course of the river. The swerve took the flybug diagonal, and Kiem slammed on the manual tilt with his foot at the same time. They swerved wildly. Kiem's harness dug into his side as the world spun in front of him. He frantically kicked it back the other way as he felt them flipping and tried to steer down at the same time.

The side fin hit the water with a shock that echoed through the filaments and up his arm. Kiem whooped, but he could only hold it a moment. The buffet of the water surface on the fin physically hurt his hands through the mesh – the flybug was reaching its limits and was letting him know.

They ploughed into an eddy, bounced wildly off a piece of floating ice, and flew in a sickening arc upwards while Kiem fought for control. He just managed to pull them up in time to avoid the trees.

The flybug skimmed the treetops and climbed slowly, while Kiem let his head fall back and realised he was nearly laughing in relief.

Jainan let go his grip on the dash in front of him. He flexed out his fingers, his attempt at a thoughtful expression completely failing to hide his smile. "One and a half seconds.”

"Can’t have been. It felt like at least half an hour," Kiem said. "Maybe half a day. But, no, I've got the hang of it now. Next one will be at least three seconds. "

He half expected to be told there wasn't going to be a next one. But Jainan was clearly as bad as Bel about flying, because all he said was, "I think the next valley may have another good river for it."

“How am I the most sensible pilot in this household?” Kiem said. “How did that happen?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Jainan said mildly. “I’m sensible.”

“You only pretend to be sensible,” Kiem said.

"I never pretend," Jainan said. "Perhaps try a little more speed next run."

“Do you want a go?”

Jainan hesitated. “Maybe.”

“Maybe?”

Jainan looked torn, and then, as if he was getting away with something, said, “Yes.”

Kiem’s next attempt was topped by Jainan’s four-second run after that, which Kiem completely failed to beat in several subsequent tries. The competition eventually turned into a long, aimless meander deep into the mountains with Jainan at the helm, dipping into valleys and investigating anywhere that looked interesting. They found a frozen waterfall, and Jainan brought them close enough that Kiem could have opened the dome and touched it. Sometime around then they realised they might not make it to Braska before nightfall and Kiem took over again to steer them back towards the route on the map.

They talked, idly. At least Jainan talked idly, and Kiem, who was now aware of the rarity of that, listened with a feeling in his chest like he had been thrown a ball made of glass and tried frantically to make his own answers casual. They talked about Iskat and Thean culture, and what they’d grown up with. Somehow they got onto Thean music, and Jainan went as far as attempting to find some piece he knew on the flybug’s system before discovering they were out of signal range.

“Oh, yeah,” Kiem said, mentally cursing the signal for putting a wrench in the conversation. “Sorry about that, there’s a big black spot over the mountains. Tacime deposits near the surface. We’ve probably been out for hours.”

Jainan raised his eyebrows and look at the ground below. “Tacime?” he said. “Ah. I forgot Iskat is swimming in it. Still, I would have thought you’d have stripped it out.”

“It would have ruined the mountains,” Kiem said apologetically. “We just kind of deal with the blackspot.” In its processed form tacime did a great job at fuelling spaceships, but in its natural form its main property was blocking communications. It probably did other things; Kiem wasn’t a scientist.

“It’s not a problem,” Jainan said. He turned it to the stored music. The upbeat chiming of a popular track from some time ago came out of the hidden speakers. As soon as he heard the first few notes Kiem pulled one hand out of the steering mesh and clapped it to an ear, groaning.

Jainan looked at him quizzically. “Sorry,” he said, turning it down.

“No, it just takes me back,” Kiem said. “Not in a good way. I must have been back in university when I put that in the system.”

“Do you have… unpleasant memories of it?” Jainan said.

“Not really,” Kiem said. “Just, you know.” He waved a hand. “You know when something reminds you of how dumb you used to be. I mean, you think I’m pretty dumb now – I was even dumber back then. This was playing everywhere at one point. It was probably on the speakers when I got exiled.”

“What did you—” Jainan said, and then stopped himself.

“—get exiled for?” Kiem said, completing the question. “Uh, there was a. Um.” He tapped his feet on the floor. This was surprisingly hard. “We may have started a fire on a night out.”

“How?”

“By accident. With fireworks. A small fire.” Kiem paused. “We were drunk.”

Jainan didn’t say anything.

“I said I was stupid,” Kiem said, mainly to fill in the silence. “I really don’t do that anymore.”

Jainan was silent for a while longer, and then said, abruptly, “No, I can’t see you doing that now.”

“No,” Kiem said, immensely relieved.

“But it fits with…” Jainan trailed off. Kiem winced internally, knowing that Jainan wouldn’t have been able to avoid picking up on some of Kiem’s history with the newslogs. “Why did you change?” Jainan put his hand on the dash and said, “Wait. I said that badly. I apologise. I didn’t mean to imply anything—”

“No, when I was a student I was as dumb as hell,” Kiem said bluntly. “People could have got hurt. I dunno, I got involved in stupid stuff at university when I was bored. I dropped out after that, stayed away from bars, then a year ago I got Bel.”

“Only a year?” Jainan said. “You seem like you’ve known each other longer.”

“No, I had a couple of other aides before Bel,” Kiem said. “I was starting to get asked to do the odd event by charities and other people, but when she turned up she figured out that was where I could actually be useful, and just packed my schedule full of it. Turns out she was right.”

“I thought you interviewed for aides,” Jainan said. “I know Taam selected Nelen.”

“She came as part of one of the programmes I’m involved with,” Kiem said. “You know, bright people who don’t have the qualifications for whatever reason.” They were skimming just above the mountains, close enough to see the unevenness of the snow beneath. “The job was supposed to be to get a reference while she found a more permanent place. But she hasn’t said she wants to go yet, and I’m not bringing it up if she doesn’t.”

“Mm,” Jainan said.

Kiem cast him a sideways look, suddenly concerned. “Do you get on with her? You look like you do.” He didn’t know what he was going to do if the answer was no.

Jainan shrugged. “I like her,” he said. “She’s very good. Though I’m not sure how she copes with me.”

Kiem wasn’t sure if that was a joke. It should be a joke, but he thought he knew what Jainan’s jokes sounded like by now. “Why would she have to cope with you?” he said. “You’re easy to get along with. You’re organised. You’re about twice as intelligent as the average royal. She’s probably over the moon about you.”

“Mm,” Jainan said. That tone was definitely less encouraging. “There’s a sort of crag down there. Shall we have a look at that?”

Kiem let the subject drop and altered their course towards the peak coming up. Jainan craned forward to see the icicles hanging from the overhanging crag, and Kiem concentrated on getting them as close as he could. “Gonna take us down a bit,” he said. “This thing wasn’t built for hovering.”

They drifted past the crag at the slowest possible speed. Jainan leaned back and said, “There was something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

“’Course,” Kiem said, distracted and fiddling with the map on the dash.

“Professor Audel’s project,” Jainan said. “How would you feel if I withdrew?”

Kiem stopped looking at the map, and also stopped looking where they were going. “Withdrew?” he said. The steering mesh vibrated a warning, and he had to yank the flybug up to avoid hitting a protruding rock. “Withdrew? But… aren’t you kind of vital by now? I'm sure I heard Gairad say that.”  He pulled them up to drift at a slightly safer height. “Is this about the Taam thing? Can’t you just do the engineering side, and stay away from the military bit?”

He had said the wrong thing. Jainan’s shoulders hunched. “I don’t think so,” Jainan said. “I – I understand if this makes things difficult for you.”

“I thought you enjoyed it,” Kiem said. He cast his mind back to the times he’d seen Jainan working on it – Jainan had been relaxed, engaged, willing to explain parts of it with very little prompting. He knew he wasn’t good at reading Jainan, but surely he couldn’t have got things that wrong

“I have some alternatives,” Jainan said, “if you would be willing to consider them.”

Kiem didn’t see what he had to do with it, but that wasn’t relevant right now. “Go ahead.”

“I know you need to keep your influence in the College,” Jainan said. “There are other ways I could be useful to you. The engineering department is also conducting vacuum tests I could consult on, which would gain you capital with academics higher-ranking than Professor Audel. I could find out if the mathematics department has any relevant projects. I know this isn’t what you hoped for from it, but – please.”

Kiem had taken the flybug off its most sensitive setting some time ago, so when the shock made both his hands clench in the steering they didn’t veer off course. If he hadn’t switched it back they probably would have crashed.

He realised the next instant and relaxed his grip again, but it was a struggle. He felt as though someone had just taken a scene he was looking at and forcibly pulled it around to a new angle. “What I hoped for?” he said. “This is your project!” He hadn’t made Jainan take it on, had he? He tried frantically to remember the reception where Jainan had agreed to do it. Had he said something?

“Yes,” Jainan said uncertainly. “But these are your goals.”

Again Kiem felt that lurch, as if everything was shifting around him. He took both of his hands out of the mesh and set it to autofly, clumsier than he should have been. “They aren’t,” he said, trying to make his words level and even while his fingers fumbled. “I mean, I’ve got interests in the College, yes, but that doesn’t affect you. I didn’t want you to help out Professor Audel for my sake, and you don’t bloody need to – to make up for it, or whatever you’re offering!”

Jainan drew back from him. “I don’t know what you want from me,” he said, in a thin, blank voice that made Kiem realise he’d been raising his. “I’m sorry.”

“I – what? I don’t want anything,” Kiem said, keeping his voice down again with some effort. “That’s the point.”

The flybug beeped a warning at that point, coming up to a sharp rise that the autofly couldn’t deal with. Kiem lunged for the controls again.

“You’re angry.”

“I’m not,” Kiem said, concentrating on the steering. It was true – at least it was true he wasn’t angry with Jainan. He wasn’t entirely sure who he was angry with.

Jainan said nothing, but the quality of his silence was as good as a formally countersigned memo of disbelief.

“I’m not,” Kiem said again. “I’m – upset.” That felt accurate. “I’m upset that you’d think I’d – I’d use you like that.”

“It isn’t unreasonable,” Jainan said sharply. “I represent the junior partner in the treaty. It is reasonable to expect my help.”

“No, it’s not reasonable!” Kiem said. “That’s messed up! We’re married – even if it’s a political marriage, that doesn’t mean one of us is in charge!”

“I – of course not,” Jainan said. “No.”

Kiem raked a hand through his hair. “Expect you to do my work for me?” he said. “Where the hell did that come from? Taam?”

“No,” Jainan said, his voice suddenly harsh. Kiem raised a hand in apology but that didn’t stop him. “No, Taam would certainly not have suggested that. And I would thank you not to imply it.”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” Kiem said. “Sorry. Stupid thing to say.” He tried not to let himself be hurt that it was okay to imply it of Kiem himself. Taam had been Jainan’s beloved partner; Kiem was the one Jainan had been forced into a rushed remarriage with. It was different. It was understandable.

Jainan cast him a wary glance, “I would still like permission to withdraw from the project.”

You don’t need my bloody per Kiem started to say, but was stop by a muffled bang that shook the whole flybug.

Both of them broke off. “What was that?” Jainan said.

“No idea.” A beeping noise started to blare: an alarm Kiem didn’t recognise. He grabbed for the steering with one hand and keyed up the display with the other. “It’s not – shit, it’s not responding.” The filaments were dead and inert around his hand. And both of them felt it at the same time – the slow curve of the flybug as it lost its forward momentum and started to point inexorably downwards.

“Hell!” Kiem yanked at all the backup controls, trying to get some sort of response.

“That patch of snow,” Jainan said, leaning forward intently. “Can you land—”

“We’re too far up,” Kiem said grimly, as the sickening feeling of an uncontrolled drop took hold of his stomach. “I’ll aim for it, and maybe if the landing brakes are still—”

He didn’t even make it to the end of the sentence. Another shattering blow flung his head forward. The snowy ground spiralled up in front of him, but he wasn’t aiming, he couldn’t make his arms move. He didn’t feel the crash.

Chapter Text

Pain had its uses, Jainan thought. It put things in perspective. There was something clean about the way it cut through the emotional tangles and reminded you that things that could be worse.

He hurt quite a lot. It took him some effort to ignore it, but eventually he managed to notice there was also something clammy pressing into his shoulder. He stared at the short expanse of snow in front of him – which was inexplicably sideways – and at the icy blue sky beyond it. Everything was rather too bright. It really was very uncomfortable. He was so preoccupied with the niggling discomfort, on top of the pain, that it took him a while to realise that the wetness pressing against his shoulder was snow.

Once he had realised that everything else rushed in. The flybug was a mangled wreck around him. He was still strapped to a seat that lay among a crystal pile of safety glass shards and his security harness was a line of pain across his chest. He drew in a breath and attempted to release it; he was shaking so much he couldn’t get the button. His shoulder ached fiercely.

On the second try he managed to release the catch and tumbled the last couple of inches into the snow. The last of his breath went. He rested his forehead in the snow and reminded his lungs how to expand.

The cold wasn’t making it any easier, but it did him one favour in making the discomfort of his rapidly-soaking clothes so unendurable that it made him push himself up. He was already starting to shiver. He turned and looked for Kiem.

He wasn’t there.

Jainan stared at the wreckage of the flybug’s dome and empty seat for a full three seconds before he looked further and saw a dark form lying at the end of a track gouged in the snow. It was suddenly very hard to breathe again. His head must still be a bit hazy, because there didn’t seem to be any time at all between when he saw Kiem and when he was kneeling down next to him, shaking so badly he had to stop with his hand an inch from Kiem’s face. Kiem's eyes were shut. It wouldn't help to touch him. What would help? Jainan was useless.

As if he felt the heat from Jainan's hand, though, Kiem stirred. His eyes opened and he raised his head, pushing himself up on one elbow. “Ouch,” he said.

Jainan crouched back so suddenly out of relief that he sat down in the snow, saving himself with his hands. “Kiem.”

“Urgh. Yup. Here,” Kiem said, as if that had been some kind of request, rather than just Jainan having no control over what he said. “At least, I think I am. Ouch.” He sat up, in spite of an involuntary noise of protest from Jainan, who was thinking about broken ribs and internal injuries. But the movement didn't seem to cause Kiem any more pain. He just rubbed his head, looked around and said, "What h– oh. Shit. That happened." He jerked forward, drawing another half-formed protest that Jainan didn't mean to make, and grabbed Jainan's arm. "Are you hurt?"

"No," Jainan said, and Kiem released his grip. Jainan looked Kiem over closely. He raised his hand to a red graze on Kiem’s temple, not touching it. "You went through the dome."

Kiem started to say something but seemed to stutter. His eyes went to Jainan’s hand, and Jainan became aware he had brushed the hair away from Kiem’s forehead as if he had some sort of right to. He drew his hand back.

Kiem cleared his throat. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, that wasn’t in the plan. It’s just a graze. Could do with a stim tab, maybe.” He pushed himself to his feet, and dismay wrote itself across his face as he looked at the flybug. “Tell me this wasn’t because of the stunt we pulled with the river.”

Jainan stood as well, finding his limbs unexpectedly clumsy. It was hard to balance. “No,” he said. Planet-side craft were outside his speciality, but he knew the basics. “Nothing the stabilisers are linked to would have that effect. It sounded like a compressor malfunction.”

Kiem accepted that, like he accepted anything related to engineering Jainan said. “We were pretty lucky to be flying that low when it happened.”

They had been. If they’d been at a normal flying height they would have had no chance. Jainan tried not to think about it.

The first aid box was a bright red stain against the snow, still tangled in the wreckage. Kiem made an aha noise, pried out the sleeve of stim tabs and shoved three on his tongue. He held them out to Jainan. “Probably don’t take three.”

The tabs would give him a slow-releasing drip of artificial energy and reduce the pain in his shoulder. Jainan took the sleeve and detached one. One might not have a great effect, but he was wary of anything that interfered with his perceptions. It dissolved into bitterness on his tongue.

Kiem tramped over to the flybug and rested a hand on the intact part of the curved hull, looking into the interior. He shook his head, shot Jainan a rueful glance, and looked up ahead. “Well.”

Jainan came up beside him and followed his gaze. His heart sank.

It was a stunning view, objectively. The patch of snow they had crashed on was halfway up a mountainside. The ledge dropped away ten metres or so from the crash site, and beyond it was a tumbled progression of black rock ledges half-covered in snow drifts – and beyond that, a panorama of towering peaks and pine-clad valleys. An untouched wilderness. For miles.

It wasn’t hopeless. Jainan rubbed his upper arm convulsively, hoarding the sliver of warmth. Bel and other people knew where they’d set out from and the hotel was expecting them this evening. The crash was visible from the air. There would be shelter in the flybug. He bit down on blurting any of these thoughts out, though, since the last thing Kiem would want to hear at the moment was Jainan’s chatter.

Kiem still hadn’t said anything. Jainan’s skin crawled, and he suppressed a treacherous thought that it would be easier to be stranded on his own than with someone else. He risked a glance at him.

Kiem was staring at the expanse of wilderness with a thoughtful frown. He caught Jainan’s glance and shook himself. “Well,” he said again, “we definitely bought ourselves time to appreciate the scenery.”

“Mm,” Jainan said, gripping his other arm.

“Oh shit, you’re freezing,” Kiem said, turning to him. He made to lift his arm as if to put it around Jainan’s shoulders, then seemed to think better of it. “I’m freezing, come to think of it. I’m standing here like an idiot, sorry. There are clothes in the flybug. Let’s kit up, then we can think about moving.”

Clothes in the flybug. Of course there were. Their outdoor coats were packed in their luggage, for a start – how had he not remembered that? He must still be mildly concussed. Jainan moved mechanically back to the flybug, feeling his limbs loosen as the stim tab released into his blood, and watched Kiem wrench the hold open from the safety of the other side.

He wasn’t acting rationally. The thought scared him, but he forced himself to look at it anyway. He was examining Kiem’s every action to work out when he would snap, because Taam would have snapped. But the way Kiem lost his temper and the things he lost it over were very different from Taam. Taam would have been in a towering rage by now. Kiem… wasn’t. Yet.

“Hey! Jainan!” Kiem waved a bundle of fur above his head. “Found your coat!”

The yet echoed oddly in his mind. Jainan put it aside and went over, holding out his hands.

Kiem tossed the coat over. Jainan noticed him wince after, because apparently even three stim tabs didn’t cover all muscle pain. For some reason Kiem had pulled all the luggage out of the flybug and onto the ground, and now he half-climbed into the hold through the slightly bent hatch, so far his feet dangled in mid-air. “Nearly got it,” he said, his voice slightly muffled. “Just a – ah, here we are.” There was a scraping noise, and Kiem drew back out of the hatch with a piece of hold casing in his hand. It looked designed to detach.

Jainan leaned over to see in. “Why is there a hidden compartment in your flybug?” he said. It was filled with fluorescent fabric packs.

“What?” Kiem gave him an odd look. “This is just the – wait. I forgot you didn’t grow up here.” He reached in again and pulled out an orange and rectangular pack. “That sounded bad. I just mean you missed the survival modules back in Prime Five. I guess Thean schools don’t do them? All flycraft have this stuff built in by law.” He pulled a tab at the corner of the pack and orange fabric cascaded out, morphing into a padded, waterproof overjacket. He dropped it on top of the scattered luggage and dived in for the other packs. “Tent,” he called, throwing out another, larger pack. “Food – it’s going to taste like industrial waste, but it’s that or pine needles. Hey, a backpack! Only one, though.” He pulled himself half-out and looked around. “Sorry, this is going to take a little while. Pick out the warmest jacket. Uh… you should probably change first.”

“Change clothes?” Jainan said. It was below freezing, and thought the breeze was slight, it was turning the cold from a blunt weapon into a lethal one. “But—” He clamped his mouth shut on the last word. Iskaners from this part of the planet were experts in winter weather. Kiem didn’t need questioning.

“Your inner layer’s soaked from melting snow,” Kiem said. “That’s why you’re still shivering. Mine too. We’ve got dry clothes, might as well use them.”

“Oh.” Jainan looked down at his coat and belatedly realised what Kiem meant. His clammy clothes were a significant part of the pressing cold. He took a breath, pulled off his coat and made himself strip off his shirt methodically.

Kiem turned his back immediately, crouching down to inspect the pile of equipment. Jainan wondered if that was politeness or just a disinclination to look at his body.

Jainan made short work of it, despite the trembling and despite fingers that fumbled catches. He had to double-layer some thin fabric – he had packed for short spells outside, not the winter night it would soon turn into. A few metres away, Kiem's polite detachment had turned into a flurry of activity as he checked fabric for holes and tested straps. Jainan finished dressing and stepped away, so as not to distract him from the task that required actual knowledge.

The breeze was numbing his cheeks. He had found his outdoor gloves in his luggage; they made his hands too bulky for his pockets, so he clamped them under his arms as he wandered across the ledge and looked at the way down. It was possible to get down, he decided, even without climbing. The main challenge would be the deep snow.

His pacing took him back to the wreck of the flybug’s dome and the gaping hole around its engines, as if there was some kind of magnetic pull coming from it. The breeze had dropped. Kiem was hidden from sight at the back, but hollow banging noises rang from the hold as he moved things, reverberating from the rock slope above them. Jainan crouched down to examine the remains of the engine.

Several minutes later, Kiem popped his head over the hull. “I think we’re good,” he said. “This stuff hasn’t been checked in a while, but it looks okay. I suppose the emergency radio’s useless. The dashboard map’s not still working, is it?”

Jainan turned from the wreckage opened his hand to show the glowing hemisphere of the flybug’s map. “I was just thinking that,” he said. “It still has some charge, though no signal. I don’t know where we are.”

“Untracked wilderness,” Kiem said, incongruously cheerful. “Kind of illegally, too, since you’re not supposed to land in landscape reservations. Some hikers would kill to be us.” He inspected the map in Jainan’s hand closer. “Neat job. I didn’t know they disconnected.”

“It was brute force,” Jainan said, gesturing at the bits of wreckage he’d used as makeshift tools. “I salvaged the pyro from the engine and melted the connectors. It doesn’t project anymore.”

“Nice one,” Kiem said. He examined the tiny crystal screen. “Okay, I think I have a plan.” He pointed to a line across the map that Jainan had to look closely to see. “That has to be the rail line. It cuts east-west, so if we’re in the general area I think we are and we just head south, we should hit it within two or three days. They strip out the tacime alongside it so passengers can have signal. Our wristbands should pick up the moment we get in range. Then we call for help.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. Kiem looked at him. After a moment, Jainan said, “Was there something else?”

“Uh.” Kiem cleared his throat. “It’s just. I’m not sure if that meant, ‘Yes, that sounds good’, or ‘Yes, I suppose we could ignore the glaring holes in that plan’.”

Despite the coat and overjacket, Jainan felt suddenly vulnerable. “Pardon?” he said.

Kiem suddenly seemed to find the toggles of his wrist cuffs very interesting. “You say yes a lot like that,” he said, not looking at him. “I. Uh. I think I might be missing some cues.”

He thinks I’m lying to him was Jainan’s first, panicked thought, but he clamped down on it. Kiem said what he meant, he knew that. But what he meant was bad enough.

“Sorry,” Kiem added. “I’m kind of dumb about some stuff.”

Words had deserted Jainan entirely. He couldn’t even make himself say anything to deny that, though it wasn’t true – Kiem being too astute was how they ended up in places like this. Jainan had thought he was safe: after their argument on the way back from the Embassy, Kiem had steered clear of anything that struck too close to Jainan’s core. But now Jainan felt like one of the walls protecting him had been undermined.

“I think—” It was unexpectedly hard to continue. Jainan took a deep breath and said, “Should we really move?”

Some part of him was still waiting for Kiem to blow up at him. But Kiem scratched the back of his head. “Normally I’d say not, but we’re way off our flight plan, and we’re in the signal dead zone.”

He’d known Kiem would take the challenge calmly. He knew that, and his irritating subconscious had still not let him believe it. What was wrong with him? He had an odd moment where he felt he could see that part of him, dispassionately, like some kind of cowering animal behind glass, and he hated it. “They know where we’ve gone. Someone can track our flight path, but only if we stay.”

“Sort of, but not really,” Kiem said. “Our path stopped broadcasting when we entered the dead zone. I think – I think – we’ve been kind of drifting north all day, so we’re pretty far from the straight route. They’ll be looking for a needle in a haystack if they have to quarter the mountains for us. You’re right, though, staying is less risky in some ways. We have about four days of food. I don’t know.”

Kiem looked at him expectantly. Jainan realised he was looking for an opinion – his opinion. This was stupid, Jainan’s judgement wasn't good enough to – no. Kiem had asked. “Then let’s move,” he said. It was easier to sound decisive than he thought it would be. “No point waiting to starve. The sooner the better.”

“Right!” Kiem said, shouldering the backpack before Jainan had a chance to question why he was the one carrying it. “Okay, so let’s get down to the valley floor. We’ll be quicker without the slope, even with the trees. After you – no, wait, actually, let me go first. Might be easier to follow my tracks when it’s deep.” He sat on the edge of the ledge they’d crashed on and looked down at the tumbled progression of ledges and slopes that formed a sort of natural path. “Doesn’t look too bad.” He slithered down to the next legde, landed in the crust of snow up to his knees, and made a face. “I take that back.” He kicked his way through the drift.

Jainan followed exactly where he’d gone. Kiem waded up front through the drifts like a human snowplough, sliding down onto each ledge. “You know what they don’t put in that bloody survival kit?” he called behind him. “Snowshoes. You okay?”

“Yes,” Jainan said. “You’re making it easy.”

Kiem threw a grin over his shoulder. “I always wanted to be a snowplough driver when I was a kid,” he said. “Careful, it gets a bit steeper from here.”

The next ledges were acutely sloped and more difficult. They stopped talking. Kiem had the hiker’s knack of finding the easiest way down; he skirted drifts and found unexpected flat rocks where there shouldn’t really be any, so Jainan could just stop thinking and concentrate on where he put his feet. Kiem’s occasional clumsiness indoors translated into something much more graceful out here; his extra bursts of energy just helped him scuff through the snow and land on a hidden foothold underneath. Jainan found himself watching him. It was sensible to watch him; Jainan had to note the best way down.

The breeze had dropped completely. When Jainan paused to look behind him, the sky was a vast blue dome, clear and pristine, like some great hill reaching far above the jagged peaks. Jainan’s breath caught in his throat. He knew the Empire was beautiful on an intellectual level: there was a reason the first colony ship of Iskaners had established the capital here, and protected it all round with national parks, but this was the first time he could remember the shiver going down his back that was nothing to do with the cold.

Kiem had stopped up ahead, waiting. When he saw Jainan move, he gave him a wave. Jainan raised a hand and started moving again.

The stim tab was definitely kicking in. The pain in his shoulder had receded, and even the dizziness was giving way to a surge of energy. Jainan snatched glances up ahead at Kiem when he could spare the attention. Kiem was whistling breathlessly as he probed a suspect snow drift for footing with his boot, to all intents and purposes having a good time. Kiem had the same sense for snow as Taam – it seemed likely that most Iskaners had it, though Jainan had only known Taam closely.

Jainan remembered admiring the skill in Taam when they had first gone out skiing. Those holidays hadn’t been particularly successful otherwise, though, with both of them frustrated by Jainan’s floundering. He had held up Taam. He was holding up Kiem now, although Kiem didn’t seem visibly impatient.

Kiem looked around and smiled as Jainan slid down to land on the next patch of rock. Jainan felt a sudden intense gratitude for Kiem’s existence: for his easy-going manner, for his ability to take everything in his stride, for how he seemed to think Jainan’s opinion was important.

This was hardly new, though: Jainan knew that Kiem was too charming for his own good. As Kiem turned back round to resume the trek, Jainan realised with dismay that it was having more of an effect on him than he’d thought. Kiem obviously couldn't switch the charm off, because he had inadvertently pointed it at Jainan multiple times, and Jainan was pathetically falling for it even though neither of them wanted him to. He was getting attached to someone who had only ever wanted the appearance of a marriage. Kiem had outright told him so the first time they'd met.

He gritted his teeth and jumped down the next drop. The jarring of the rock at his feet was a welcome reminder not to get lost in introspection. He clearly needed to watch his behaviour, or he was going to end up being needy and embarrassing both of them. He had to keep a tighter hold on his emotions than he’d managed so far.

Up ahead, Kiem had stopped and was looking down. Jainan put aside his churning thoughts and increased his pace, slipping and sliding, until he caught up. He stood beside Kiem, slightly breathless in the cold, and looked at the sheer drop in front of them. “Oh.”

“This one might be a bit tricky,” Kiem said.

They had come down a long way already, but they were still about fifty metres above the valley floor, where the snow lay more thinly and patches of it were protected by pines and clumps of stranger Iskat trees. There was possibly a way down, if you squinted. It would require climbing.

“We can make it,” Kiem said. He pulled off the backpack and, before Jainan realised what he was doing, dropped it over the edge. It fell, rolling against the rock face for what seemed like a disturbingly long time until it hit the ground far below, where it bounced.

“We’ll have to, now,” Jainan said. The backpack had rolled to a halt. “I hope you wrapped up the family glassware in that.”

“Like a baby,” Kiem assured him. He was moving with a kind of nervous energy which Jainan suspected was the result of the three stim tabs. “Ready?” He pulled his heavy-duty gloves off and stuck them in his pockets, leaving himself with only the thin, flexible inner ones. Jainan did the same.

Kiem went first, by unspoken agreement, so Jainan could see where he was putting his hands and feet. He spread himself like a spider over the rock face, clumsy in his boots but somehow balancing. “Good rest point here,” he called up, when he was standing on a ledge just about wide enough for his feet. He didn’t say do you think you can make it, Jainan noted. Apparently he just assumed Jainan could.

He set off again, slower. Jainan had crawled as close to the edge as he could get to watch, but it looked like the second half was easier and his concern was unnecessary. Kiem was making such good progress that Jainan started to relax. Then Kiem reached a part near the bottom – one that looked the same as all the other parts to Jainan’s unpractised eye – and got stuck for several agonising minutes.

“Above your head to the right,” Jainan called, when he couldn’t stay quiet any longer. Kiem looked up, saw the ridge Jainan was talking about, and made a grab for it. It was just enough to get him onto the next shaky foothold. Then he went for one to the side of that – not even a ledge, just a vertical groove – and his foot slipped.

Jainan gripped the ground in front of him convulsively, but there was nothing he could do to help. Kiem slithered down the remaining distance. The base of the wall didn’t end at the ground cleanly, but broke off into a shallower slope of fractured rock and tumbled boulders, and Kiem hit them hard. He fell off one and landed on the one next to it, catching himself with his hands. After a moment, though, he pushed himself up and held his thumb up. Jainan sat back on his heels weakly and raised his hand in response.

“Not too bad!” Kiem shouted up. “Keep to the left-hand side and don’t worry about the last bit!”

He was right, worrying wouldn’t help. Jainan was at least very good at doing what had to be done; though that was hardly a talent, as by definition there was no other choice. He let himself down carefully over the side and felt for the first foothold.

It was not easy. Jainan had never climbed seriously and wasn’t accustomed to testing footholds to see if they would hold his weight. His back and shoulder twinged in a way that told him he was starting to build up stim debt. The wall was a few degrees shy of vertical, which was the only reason he was able to manage it. Kiem shouted up from below with advice and encouragement. The cold air tasted like metal in Jainan’s mouth as he took his foot off one hold slid his shoe across the rock face, feeling for another foothold that he couldn’t see.

The climb took him a lot longer than Kiem. Some mistakes he only recovered from through brute stamina, desperately clinging to jutting ridges while his foot scrabbled for somewhere to rest. He had never been so grateful that he had kept up his quarterstaff training, or else his arms would have given out long before the end. Even as it was, he was shaking from adrenaline by the time he reached the part which had defeated Kiem.

He looked down. If Kiem couldn’t make it, Jainan doubted that he could. The ground below offered no good landing place; Kiem had been lucky not to twist his ankle. And in any case Kiem himself was standing in the way. He clung tighter to the ridge through his gloves and tried to make himself think.

“Jump!” Kiem called. He was holding his arms up. “Just let go!”

“I.” Jainan said. The word got lost in the cracks of the rock in front of him. “What?”

“I’ll catch you!” Kiem’s voice was going hoarse from shouting up advice. “It’ll be fine!”

It was not going to be fine. Jainan made himself pry his fingers off the handholds anyway. He let go.

He didn’t fall, just as Kiem hadn’t fallen – it was more of a slide, painfully scraping across the rock face and gathering speed. He only had time for a moment’s panic before he crashed down on top of Kiem. Kiem staggered, but his arms encircled Jainan and his footing on the boulders held. Jainan had enough of his wits about him to jam his elbow into Kiem’s back so he stayed balanced over Kiem’s shoulder and they didn’t both fall.

There was nowhere immediate for Jainan to get down. It was not easy for a grown man to carry another one; Kiem took a couple of wobbly steps across the boulders and Jainan held on and tried not to move. His face was buried in Kiem’s shoulder. Kiem’s hair pressed against his forehead, the smell and feel of it distracting in a way they really shouldn’t be. Kiem was holding him pressed close – for balance, for balance – and Jainan could feel the press of his body even through all their layers.

Kiem came to a halt on flat ground as the boulders petered out. It took Jainan a moment to react, then his stomach lurched as he realised Kiem was trying to put him down and he was still holding on. He rolled off Kiem’s shoulder and half-fell, landing on his feet. Kiem overbalanced then stepped back very quickly.

Jainan caught his breath. Kiem looked more shaken than Jainan had realised from his shouted advice, and his hand looked like it was trembling as he lowered his arm. Jainan felt very cold. Was that an effect of the stim tabs Kiem had taken, or had it shown, what Jainan was thinking about before? Jainan had worked so hard on control of his physical reactions – did he still betray himself, when he was trying to suppress a rush of attraction rather than manufacture it?

Kiem rubbed his neck where Jainan's hand had rested. Jainan gathered his defences and swallowed the whole incident down, burying it where it would affect neither of them. “I'm not sure climbing is a sport I'm going to take up any time soon,” he said lightly. “It's getting dark. How much further do we go today?”

“Right,” Kiem said, shaking his head a little and coming back to the logistics. The mountains had long twilights even by the standards of Iskat’s long evenings, but now the deep blue above their heads was turning into dusk, and clouds were creeping up from the furthest peaks. “We should camp. Maybe not here though, the snow’s pretty deep.” As he turned to scan the valley, his eyes skated past Jainan awkwardly. “We could probably reach that pass in half an hour. There’s an overhang there that looks clear of snow.” He shouldered the backpack again.

“Let me take that,” Jainan said.

“I’m not tired yet,” Kiem said. He pushed a hand through his hair and gave Jainan a smile which had something less than his usual energy behind it. Jainan realised he was staring again, too aware now of what it actually felt like to touch Kiem’s hair. He turned his head away, disgusted with himself.

After a moment’s hesitation Kiem hitched the backpack up and struck out down the valley. Jainan fell in beside him, not too close.

The boulders at the base of the mountain gave way to rock and earth in patches visible under the thin layer of snow. This part of the small valley was more sheltered than the higher reaches, though the other side had drifts piled deep. They didn’t talk.

The snow was still deep enough to crunch beneath their feet. Jainan’s breath crystallised in front of him in white clouds in the still air, which hung and then dissipated. He found himself sinking into a rhythm of walking, eventually warming up enough that he unfastened his coat and let it flap open. Every now and then a breath of wind chilled his face.

The stillness was the stillness of a church. Apart from the brush of their footsteps and their labouring breath, absolute silence reigned. The cold against Jainan’s face was clean and purifying; he felt detached, but in a strange way, as if he could see his tiny, insignificant form moving at the centre of the huge spaces around them. Something in the space and silence was trickling into his bones, gradually filling them up with an itchiness like shoots of grass unfolding. It came with an aching feeling, and for some reason the ache felt like loss.

There is something wrong with you, he told himself, because there was no loss, and now he was sounding quite insane. But it was like an echo of someone else’s voice.

“Here?” Kiem said, startling Jainan out of his reverie. Jainan turned, still feeling himself oddly slow to react, and realised Kiem had slowed a few paces ago to inspect a patch of earth sheltered by a cliff face.

Jainan gestured assent. “Give me the tent.”

Kiem had already unshouldered the backpack and was rooting around inside it. He tossed over a dense and oddly spiny pack with a handle at the top. “You’ve done them before? White button.”

Jainan hadn’t, but he had seen it in vids. He held the handle away from him and pressed down the obvious tab. The small bundle exploded into a pincushion of plastic tubes that pistoned out like spikes, and a waterfall of fabric that chased them and covered the surface of the structure until he was holding was a reasonable-sized, rigid pod. It was lighter than he expected. He rested it down carefully on an exposed patch of rock.

“Nice,” Kiem said, looking up from where he was sleeping bags out of their sacks. “I always drop it when it unfolds. We should probably stick a couple of pegs in, though I don’t think we’re at that much risk of high wind here.”

Pegs. Jainan examined the harpoon-like gun that came with it, and after some experimentation, shot two pegs deep into the rock at opposite corners. He had to pull the ropes taut manually; there wasn’t much room for technology when everything was this lightweight. The tent was noticeably small for two people. Jainan decided not to think about that. “Is there a heater?”

“Yes, but only three canisters,” Kiem said. “Thinking we should probably save them. How’s your temperature at the moment?”

“Fine. Do we need them to cook?”

“Nope,” Kiem said. As Jainan came around the front of the tent, he saw Kiem had laid out several foil packs on the snow by the sleeping bags. “Finest gourmet choices!” he said, gesturing to them. “You can have brown sludge, brown sludge or greyish sludge. The grey one says it’s strawberry, but I’m not sure I believe it.”

Jainan picked up a piece of the brown rations. It was more like a hard cake than sludge, and crumbled like biscuit; a square broke off in his hand. “How long has this been in the hold?”

“Erm. I replaced my old flybug… six years ago, so… hm. Six years and a few months?” Kiem sat in front of the tent, wincing as he did, and stuffed three squares of the grey rations in his mouth at once. “More like cherry,” he said around it. “Not bad.”

Jainan swallowed his mouthful with difficulty and tried the grey one, on the working hypothesis that it couldn’t be worse. It wasn’t, quite. His outdoor clothes slithered against each other with the sound of plastic on plastic as he sat next to Kiem, the tent at their backs and the valley they had just trekked down folding out in front of them. It felt good to sit down. “How’s your head?”

“Getting better,” Kiem said. “I’m good. You?” The tone was casual, but the look he gave him wasn’t.

“Fine,” Jainan said. Kiem opened his mouth, but Jainan cut in before he could say anything. “I won’t give you a detailed interrogation on how much pain it takes three stim tabs to cover up, but only if you don’t blow some minor sprains out of proportion.” He could feel the adrenaline from the stim tab had nearly worn off, leaving his muscles shaky, but the pain was minor.

Kiem gave half a grin. “Fair.” He broke off another square of the grey rations and shifted to lean against the backpack. It moved as Kiem leaned against it, and Jainan saw something poking out of the top. It was wrapped in cloth, and the part that was sticking out glinted.

Jainan leaned over and disentangled what looked like a trowel. It was either made of gold metal or convincingly gilded. He raised his eyebrows at Kiem. “Gardening?”

“Ah,” Kiem said. He looked faintly guilty. “Um. That’s the school prize. I thought we’d better not lose it.”

Jainan weighed it in his hand. It had a solid heft, and must have contributed to the weight of the bag. “So we are instead… carrying it over miles of trackless tundra?”

“Well. It belongs to the school.”

“They could get a new one.”

“But this one has all the names on it, see?” Kiem took it and turned it over. “It might be important to someone.”

“A school prize.”

“Just because it’s not important doesn’t mean it’s not important to someone,” Kiem said. He must have mistaken Jainan’s look for doubt, because he looked faintly stubborn and said, “I’ll carry it.”

“Mm, no,” Jainan said. He took the trowel back, wrapped it up in the sweater, and stowed it carefully back in the rucksack. “I think it’s a good idea.” It would not have occurred to him to do it. It had obviously not occurred to Kiem not to do it.

Kiem sat back, more relaxed, and tilted his head back to look up at the sky. “I kind of forget it’s pretty out here,” he said. “Prettier when you’re not flying over it at high speed.”

“Yes.” Jainan didn’t bother to say it wasn’t exactly a conscious decision they’d made. Inside him was a deep well of contentment. It was absurd to be content, when his shoulder still ached and they were miles from anywhere, in snow and treacherous terrain, relying on reaching a rail line to get back to civilisation. He felt it anyway.

He shifted position to cross his legs and his knee came into contact with Kiem’s. He didn’t even realise he’d done it until Kiem twitched and drew up his legs to put space between them.

The contentment receded. Jainan struggled to hold onto it, then realised it was in vain, and let it go. He let out a breath and let the twinge of humiliation recede with it. He knew Kiem didn’t want to touch him. This wasn’t a surprise. “It’s been a long day,” he said, because it seemed the least awkward way to apologise.

“Very long. So long,” Kiem agreed, though he was still holding himself awkwardly to avoid them touching. He turned it into a scramble to his feet. “You know what! I think I’m going to go to bed.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He got to his feet as well. “Do you want—”

Kiem had already grabbed one of the sleeping bags. “There isn’t enough room in there,” he said. “I’ll sleep out here.”

“What,” Jainan said blankly.

“These things are rated for outdoors and there’s no wind,” Kiem said, unfolding the sleeping bag. “Perfect conditions.”

“Oh,” Jainan said, feeling leaden. It was a reasonable solution; sleeping in the same small tent would have been extremely awkward. “No, I have the bedroom at home. Take the tent.”

“This is not your problem,” Kiem said, intently not-looking at Jainan. “You’re not sleeping outside because of something that is in no conceivable universe your problem.”

It wasn’t worth fighting about. “All right. Yes”

“All right,” Kiem repeated. The relief was unmistakable; Kiem always wore his emotions on his sleeve. “I’ll just get some water. I think there’s a stream still running over there.”

Jainan turned away and crawled into the tent. He could identify the odd sadness, now. It came from the same source as the joy: life had been good to him, but it wasn’t fair to try to stretch it out. If he had any regard for Kiem, any gratitude, he would have to try and think of a way out for him. This couldn’t go on.

Chapter Text

Kiem was already sitting up and taking stock when the dawn sky started to lighten.

Not all his problems were of his own making, he had concluded. The stim tabs he’d taken were making it harder to concentrate for any length of time, but he followed his train of thought doggedly. The crash was a fault in the flybug and couldn't have been helped. Maybe if he hadn't taken them off their scheduled flight path they wouldn't have to trek to find help, but they were doing all right at the trekking. That was only partly his fault. The only problem that was really, indisputably his fault was Jainan.

It wasn’t fair to phrase it like that. The problem wasn’t with Jainan himself; it was all on Kiem’s side. If he’d managed to be less weird last night they might still comfortably be almost-friends or whatever it was they had been recently. It was hard not to be weird, though, since having Jainan land on top of him – or when he remembered, all too vividly, what it felt like to lie in bed with him – that would throw anyone. He badly needed to get a grip on himself. They’d managed to reach some kind of fragile stability, and if Kiem carried on like this he was going to screw it up for both of them.

And then there was the Taam thing still hanging over both of them like over-pressured atmosphere. Kiem absently dug up a handful of the snow beside him in his gloves and packed it into a ball. What the hell had Taam been thinking, embezzling from his job? The allowance you got as a minor royal wasn’t lavish, but it was enough, and a lot of things you did were allowed under public expenses. If Taam had just had himself to think about, it would still have been dumb and wrong. But he had a partner. Jainan had given up an entire life on Thea to come and live in the palace as a symbol of goodwill. This wasn’t treating him with respect.

There was more than that, though. Someone had managed to get Jainan’s security clearance revoked. Someone had tried to tell Jainan he should only take on work that advanced his partner’s goals. Jainan had ruled out Taam, and had been offended at even the suggestion, so it wasn’t him. Kiem didn’t know enough about Jainan’s previous circle to make a good guess – Taam’s aide, Nelen? It would have been hard for him to do it without Taam knowing.

None of those were problems Kiem had caused, either, but he had a nagging feeling he should have noticed. He’d steered clear of the military since those circles tended to get political, and too many people knew his mother, but those were dumb reasons to stay away from an entire group of people. He could have got to know Jainan before. They could have come into this as friends, rather than complete strangers. Somewhere out there in the multiverse was a timeline where he hadn’t made so many stupid mistakes in this marriage.

And now this. This was the second flybug failure Jainan had been affected by this year. He could probably be forgiven for never wanting to get in one again.

“Is this the prelude to a snowball fight?” a voice said from behind him. “I should warn you: unlike your usual school fete opponents, I am not five years old.”

Kiem grinned and tossed the snowball in his hand, banishing the introspection. “So much the better,” he said. “Have you ever faced twenty five-years-olds? They’re terrifying.” He tossed the snowball again, but it fell apart when he tried to catch it. “Dammit.”

“Structurally unsound,” Jainan said. “Blame the contractors.” One corner of his mouth was pulled up in a smile, but there was a tension underneath it. Kiem hoped he was hiding his own better. “How are we set for today?”

“Right.” Kiem scrambled to his feet and started compressing his sleeping bag. “If the terrain’s not too bad, I think we should get to the line today or tomorrow. We could get going and have breakfast later, if you’ve slept enough.”

“I’m not sleeping any more,” Jainan said. He sounded as resigned to it as Kiem had felt at four that morning. “Let’s start out.” He turned away to collapse the tent.

It was still dim. The shadow of the mountain bowl kept the snow around them dark even while the sky above lightened to powdery grey. There was a shaft of dawn sunlight on the far cliffs that picked out the wreckage of their flybug, small by now in the distance. Kiem looked at it ruefully.

No point crying over spilt milk. He and Jainan consulted over the map, which had no idea where they were but handily told them which way was south. They picked the likeliest-looking pass they could see and set out.

They ate breakfast while walking by unspoken agreement. Kiem had been hiking in winter before, but he would be lying if he said he was happy to be stranded out here on an unplanned survival trek. They’d been lucky: they were kitted up, and technically the rest of the journey should just be a matter of putting one leg in front of the other, but still, the more distance they could put behind them the better. Jainan seemed to feel the same way.

Once the light broke over the top of the mountains, mid-way through the morning, they both relaxed a fraction. Kiem was trying not to brood, and also trying not to raise anything that would make the stress worse. He and Jainan traded comments and absent half-jokes that didn’t really lead on from each other.

By the afternoon, Kiem was really feeling the walking, though it was hard to distinguish the aches from walking from the bruises he’d taken in the crash. He came to a halt as they crested another ridge. “Break?”

A weight lifted from his back as Jainan took the backpack. They’d been trading it all day. Kiem slipped out of the straps without argument. “Sorry,” Jainan said. “I should have noticed. What hurts?”

Kiem made a face. “Nothing important,” he said. “Twinge in my hip. It’ll hold.”

“Sit down,” Jainan said, abruptly.

Kiem was familiar by now with that being Jainan’s way of offering concern, and was touched, but it seemed like a bad idea. “It’s going to be hard to get up again,” he said. “How about we just stop for a moment? View in a million, right?” He gestured ahead of them, where the ridge they had painstakingly laboured up dropped away again into a series of valleys and more snowbound peaks. “I mean, apart from all those other ones like it that we’ve seen.”

“I have filled my quota of beautiful mountain scenes for the year,” Jainan said. “Possibly for the rest of my life.” Nevertheless, he joined Kiem on the promontory, a step back from the edge.

There was a long silence while they both contemplated the view and the relief of not walking, the wind occasionally gusting around them. Kiem rolled his shoulders. He meant to say something, but everything that bubbled up in his head was one of those things about Taam, or about the palace, that they’d agreed to drop for now.

“Kiem,” Jainan said.

“Yeah?”

“I was thinking about monasteries.”

“What about them?” Kiem said, bemused by the sudden change in direction. “Is this about the time I got sent on a retreat? I haven’t done anything recently, have I? The crash wasn’t me.” Well, it hadn’t been his fault, and he was pretty sure they could prove that.

“No!” Jainan said. “No. That’s not – I was just. Thinking. You know. It’s quite normal for people here to go on long meditation retreats and, and contemplation and that sort of thing, I think?”

“Well, it depends on your sect,” Kiem said dubiously. “Are you thinking about it? I mean, the meditation stuff is pretty general, but some sects have strong ideas about gods. Does yours? Uh. Sorry. That was a kind of personal question.”

“No. It’s fine,” Jainan said. “My church is quite generalist. I was just. I mean.” He looked up ahead. The wind gusted again; Kiem had to squint to look at his expression through the sudden water in his eyes, and even then couldn’t read it well. “I was thinking. It might be a good way to give us both some space, if I went off for a retreat. I could. I could do it regularly. I’d be out of your way.”

It took Kiem a couple of moments to understand what he was saying. “Right,” he managed, not quite knowing how he managed to form a coherent sentence. He should have expected this. Jainan wanted space where Kiem wasn’t there – that was completely understandable. “Right.”

Jainan was still watching him in that sideways way he had. Kiem raised a hand to his face, not knowing what he was doing, and changed the aimless gesture into trying to rub some warmth back into his cheeks. He was supposed to be good with people, dammit. He shouldn’t be blindsided by things like this.

“It might not work,” Jainan said. “It was – it was just a thought. We can talk about it later.” He looked like he might have said something more, but at that moment his eyes narrowed. He jerked his head around to look behind them. .

Kiem was slower to react, still stuck on the thought of Jainan leaving, but he heard the second sound. It was coming not from behind the ridge where Jainan was looking, but from the row of trees straggling along it from the larger grove to the side.

“There,” Jainan said, turning his head again as he triangulated. “What—“

They both saw the black shape detaching itself from the shadow of the trees at exactly the same time. It had its head down in a gesture you never wanted to see in a bear, one that meant it was speeding up to charge. Kiem’s mind seemed to move slowly and his body was sluggish. He heard himself shout “Bear!”, desperately backed into Jainan, grabbed him and threw them both off the promontory.

They landed a few feet down the slope in a thick layer of snow and rolled. The snow sheared off with them as they tumbled, clutching at each other. Snow. Sky. Snow. Sky. Rock. Kiem was pretty sure he was yelling. On one frantic, painful rotation Kiem caught sight of the black shape shooting through the air over them – it had miscalculated the tackle. He tried to yell again but the one of the rocks had knocked the breath out of his lungs. On his next glimpse he saw the bear land on the snow and scuttle away into the trees.

Jainan pushed himself up the moment they stopped, a few feet from a stand of trees. “What was that?” he said, fighting for breath. “It moved like a lizard!”

“Bear,” Kiem said, looking around warily for anything that could be used as a weapon. “Let’s back off slowly – it’s got our scent now, it’ll come back.”

“That’s not a bear!”

“Pretty sure it couldn't be anything else!” Kiem said. “Quick, we need a rock, or a–”

“Here.” Jainan pushed the end of what seemed like an entire fallen tree branch into Kiem’s hand.

“What— right,” Kiem said. He examined it, keeping a wary eye on the trees where the bear had disappeared. “I guess we can wave sticks. If we’re threatening enough it should leave us alone—Jainan?”

“Just over here,” Jainan said, from a few yards away. He had picked up another branch and was methodically stripping it of twigs and leaves.

Kiem spun around at another sound, but it was just snow shifting in the groove gouged by their fall. “Okay, I think we should really get away from the trees.” His head ached and muscles ached fiercely. The bear was presumably skulking somewhere in the copse, but they hadn’t hurt it, so it would still think of them as easy prey. “Into the open. Down here.” He pointed down the slope, where a wide swathe of open space stretched between two straggling edges of forest. There was a frozen river running along one side of it.

Jainan came away from the trees, weighing the branch in his hands. “Is that ice going to hold us?”

“We don’t have to cross it,” Kiem said. “Just follow its banks so it can’t come up behind us. Let’s go.” He waved Jainan in front of him and followed him, checking back over his shoulder every couple of steps. “If you see it, yell and look threatening. It’s not that dangerous if we can scare it off.”

“Not that dangerous,” Jainan repeated. He grounded the stick beside him as he walked, while Kiem kept his – still with the leaves on – raised by his side, in the hope that looked threatening. “But that one attacked us. Do these things kill people?”

“Sometimes,” Kiem said. “Occasionally.”

“So, yes,” Jainan said. His hand moved over the branch restlessly. “You could have mentioned these before.”

“I didn’t think we’d meet any!” Kiem said. “They’re pretty rare this far south. Don’t you have bears in the mountains on Thea?” He paused to turn back and stare at a patch of shadow by a bush that caught his eye, but after a moment was reassured it was just shadow, and turned back.

Jainan waited for him to catch up. “Bears where I grew up are shy and retiring unless they have cubs,” he said. “Also they have fur and four legs. That thing is an oversized reptile.”

“What kind of bear has fur?” Kiem thought he heard something, and turned back to scan the trees again.

“Kiem,” Jainan said sharply.

Kiem spun around. Jainan pointed to the side, far from where Kiem had been looking. A black shape was frozen just shy of the treeline, low to the ground, its blunt scaled snout pointed towards them.

“Shit,” Kiem said. “Let’s, uh, let’s move back slowly.” It only took a few steps to put himself between Jainan and the bear. He held up the branch in front of him. The leaves swayed on the twigs; he had a bad feeling that the bear wouldn’t find it that threatening. “If it comes nearer, get ready to yell.”

“There’s not much room,” Jainan said from behind him, tense. “If we move back much we’ll hit the river. The ice looks thin.”

“Then… sideways,” Kiem said, trying to keep his eyes on the bear, which was raising and lowering one of its hind legs as if testing the ground. “We heroically retreat… sideways.”

“Already on it,” Jainan said. His voice was further away than it should be, and Kiem realised he was striding away at a tangent, widening the gap between them, on a trajectory that took him diagonally away from the river.

“Wait, not closer to it!”

“We can confuse it if we separate!” Jainan called back.

“Wait! Jainan!” Kiem moved his head and, at that moment, the bear charged.

Kiem stumbled, caught off balance as he ordered his body to sprint. He saw, as if in slow motion, Jainan stop, turn towards the bear, put up his tree branch in front of him. Kiem pushed forward as if moving through treacle. Only then did he turn his head to see the bear trundle and curve in its charge.

It wasn’t going for Jainan. It was going for him.

He barely had time to realise it before it was too late. The bear was on him: a shattering impact of scales and teeth, a blast of foul breath. Kiem thrust the branch desperately between them as the impact threw him back. He tried to catch his footing, but he was already falling.

He hit the ground. There was a jarring, splintering crash that he thought for one horrible moment was his bones, but he couldn’t feel pain. Then he realised, ice, at the same moment as the cold water hit him like a weapon.

He gasped and flung himself forward at the river bank, dropping the stick. The cold was viscerally shocking, nearly stopping his heart, and for a moment he forgot about—

--the bear. The bear should have been on him. But there was no ripping pain, not yet. Instead it was several feet away, by Jainan, in a blur of movement. Kiem heard a grunt of rage and realised it was the second grunt he’d heard, his brain only now catching up with his ears. Jainan stepped back out of reach of the armoured claw, spun for momentum, and brought his makeshift quarterstaff around in another blow.

The bear reeled back. One of its paws came up to its snout while it scrabbled itself back with the other five. It and Jainan regarded each other warily.

Kiem tried to hold still in the water as he got his feet on the rocks below, panting in shallow gasps from the cold. The bear moved, but Jainan was quicker: in a blur, he stepped in and cracked the stick with surgical precision across one of the bear’s eyes.

A howl of animal pain filled the space between the trees. The bear stumbled back on its six legs, ducking its head and turning away from Jainan. Jainan was in a defensive stance, as if he expected it to spin and attack, but it was already skittering away across the snow.

Kiem pulled himself up the bank. His teeth were chattering and he still couldn’t breathe properly, but he managed to get one sodden leg out of the water. And then hands were under his arms, dragging him out until he lay on the bank in the snow.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” Jainan fell to his knees beside him. “Kiem, I’m so sorry, I thought it would go for me if it saw me moving.”

The note in Jainan’s voice galvanised Kiem to move. He sat up, shivering, and resisted the urge to curl up. “Wait – y-you meant to do that?”

“No,” Jainan said. “Yes. I don’t know. I thought I could draw it off. I didn’t mean it to be anywhere near you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Take my gloves.”

Kiem tried to wrap his arms over his chest, but it wasn’t helping. “Jainan,” he said, “it w-was awesome. You just fought off a bear. Shit, it’s cold. I d-don’t want your gloves,” he added, as Jainan tugged Kiem’s soaked gloves off his hands and replaced them with his own.

“Mm.” Jainan’s moment of talkativeness had apparently run out. He gripped Kiem’s wrists, pulling him to his feet. Kiem followed the direction clumsily, too cold and soaked to do much thinking, and wasn’t expecting a full-on embrace.

He was too surprised to even move. Jainan had his arms wrapped around him, heedless of the fact that Kiem’s dripping coat was probably soaking river water into his own clothes. Kiem was too cold to feel much. It wasn’t even noticeably warmer, except on his face, where Jainan’s presence created a shelter against the breeze. Kiem just shut his eyes and drank in the feeling of someone close to him.

It lasted only short seconds. Jainan let go and said, “We’ll need to set up the tent. At least we saved the heating canisters.”

“R-right,” Kiem said. He resisted the urge to wrap his arms around himself again and forced himself to think. “Right. Okay. Maybe not here. Let’s get a bit further.”

“Will it comes back?” Jainan said. He picked up the backpack – Kiem hadn’t noticed him shed it to fight – and hovered by Kiem’s side.

He was obviously waiting for Kiem to get his shit together and actually start walking, however much Kiem’s whole body ached. Jainan had just fought off a bear. Kiem was just cold. “Shouldn’t,” Kiem said, finally clearing the lowest bar for effort and putting one foot in front of another. “You scared it off. They only go for prey that doesn’t f-fight back.” He clamped his jaw shut to stop the shivering.

Jainan fell into a tense silence. Kiem stopped himself talking. He told himself it was easier to keep walking once he’d started, and tried to ignore the way his energy seemed to be seeping away with every step, like his freezing, soaked clothes were bleeding it out of him.

“Here,” Jainan said. Kiem stopped, pulling himself out of something close to a fugue state. He glanced around. They were some distance from any trees, on the flattish base of a long slope.

“Looks good,” he said. He held out his hands for the backpack. “Let me—”

“I’ve got it,” Jainan said, already laying out their spartan camping gear. Kiem took the sleeping bags to unpack, but his fingers were numb and clumsy, even when he slipped his hands out of his borrowed gloves. He fumbled a toggle time and time again because his hands were shaking too violently.

It slipped out of his hand for the tenth time. “Argh!”

“Are you all right?” Jainan called.

“Yes. F-fine. Ignore me,” Kiem said. He finally tugged the string free on about the tenth try and straightened up in some relief.

When he looked over his shoulder, Jainan already had the tent up and anchored – about twice as fast as he’d done it the previous evening – and had stowed most of the things inside. He came back around the front and handed Kiem a stim tab, already unwrapped. For all that Jainan hadn’t grown up anywhere near the climate, he was remorselessly efficient at getting things done, while Kiem fumbled around here like he had a faulty connection.

Jainan caught his expression. "Is something funny?”

“I was just th-thinking,” Kiem said. “that it’s lucky one of us reacts to danger by actually being competent, rather than f-falling into the nearest river.”

Jainan’s face went blank. “I am sorry if I gave that impression,” he said. “I had no intention of pretending I was better at anything.”

“What,” Kiem said. “Jainan, you f-fought off a bloody bear.” He tried to shove his hands back into his pockets: one of them, nearly numb, caught on the fabric and he suppressed a grunt of pain.

A complicated mix of emotions had risen on Jainan's face, but that wiped them away, to be replaced by concern. “You should get inside,” he said.

Out of habit, Kiem said, “We should eat out here where there's space—”

Inside,” Jainan said, with an edge to his tone than Kiem hadn’t heard from him before. Kiem half-grinned through another convulsive shiver, and did as he said.

It was no warmer in the tent, but the two sleeping bags Jainan had laid out covered the floor and made it look so inviting Kiem’s tiredness was suddenly impossibly to fight. He gave up wrestling with the door and fell from his knees face down on the cushioned fabric. It was slightly damp from snow. He didn’t care.

Behind him Jainan was politely trying to move his feet so he could fasten the door flap shut. Kiem groaned because moving seemed like a mountainous effort, but he recognised he was being a pain. He managed to roll over, sit up and make a half-hearted tug at his boot. His hands still weren’t working; it slipped out of his grasp. The friction hurt. For some reason that was the thing that tipped the tired misery he’d been trying to keep at bay into something like panic.

“Let me.”

Kiem opened his eyes from his frustrated grimace to say what, but Jainan was already crouching over his feet and freeing the fasteners. His hand slipped around Kiem’s ankle and held it while he tugged the boot free. Every movement was gentle.

You don’t have to do this was on the tip of Kiem’s tongue, but he couldn’t say it. He’d be in serious trouble if Jainan had decided not to come along on the trip in the first place.  He couldn’t even make his bloody fingers properly, and if he didn’t warm up soon he was at risk of frostbite and hypothermia. Instead he said fervently, “I’m really glad you’re here.”

Jainan stopped momentarily in the act of putting Kiem's boots to the side. Kiem worried he'd just offended him, but Jainan's glance at him was thoughtful and somehow pleased. “Mm,” he said. “You're not going to get any warmer lying on top of the cover.”

Kiem took the hint. He managed to strip off his wet trousers and underlayers himself – it hurt, but there was no way he was going to make Jainan feel he had to do that. Besides, pain was probably a good sign; at least his hands weren't entirely numb. His legs felt like lead, though. He climbed into the sleeping bag and zipped it up behind him through sheer force of will.

That was the last effort he felt he could make. He lay down on his stomach and let his face press into the cushioned ground. The dry fabric of the sleeping bag was smooth and warm against his bare skin, and it felt almost good. His limbs were too heavy to move. He shut his eyes.

After a while, Jainan started moving around. Kiem heard the rustling of waterproof fabric and clothes, and then a click and a low buzz that he recognised. Jainan had set off one of the heating cylinders. Kiem still couldn’t get up the energy to move, but he felt the warmth on his face a few moments later, way before it could get through the insulation of the sleeping bag. He shut his eyes and let himself just exist. He would warm up eventually.

“Kiem!” Jainan said sharply.

It took Kiem a moment to realise that wasn’t the first time Jainan had called. He resisted being pulled out of the fog of weariness. “Mmrf?”

“I said, can you eat something?”

Kiem managed a negative grunt. “L’ter.”

From the sound of it, Jainan was leaning over him, rustling around near the foot of the sleeping bag. “This isn’t—” he said, then broke off. “How do I turn this up? The heater.”

“Don’,” Kiem said, his eyes still shut. “Runs out sooner.”

“That is not important!” There was the same edge to his voice as when he’d told Kiem to get inside the tent.

Kiem opened his eyes. “’S fine,” he said, because apparently he wouldn’t get enough quiet to sleep until Jainan was reassured. “’Warming up. Bear’s gone. No reason to be worried.”

“Yes there is,” Jainan said. “You’ve barely said anything in the last half an hour.”

“Damning evidence,” Kiem mumbled, into the bit of cushioning that served as a pillow. He could feel the ground through it. He was too tired to solve this, surely it could wait.

More rustling, while Kiem closed his eyes again. Then Jainan said, “Excuse me,” and he felt the sleeping bag move. The zip at the side opened, and then there was the glorious warmth of someone right next to him. Kiem turned without even thinking about it, pressing himself closer. He had a horrible, nagging feeling that there was some reason he shouldn’t give himself up to the comfort of this. He ignored it.

“All right,” Jainan said quietly, somewhere that sounded very far in the distance, though the voice was right next to his ear. “Please be all right.”

Kiem tried to tell him that everything was fine, more than that, everything was for some reason perfect, but sleep was too close to claiming him, and he let himself sink into it.

Chapter Text

When Jainan woke he was warm. Faint grey light moonlight filtered in through the tent roof. He had a collection of small aches and pains trying to make themselves known, but for some reason he felt at peace.

Then he realised he was tangled up with Kiem, his bare arm over Kiem’s naked back, and he froze.

Even as Jainan’s brain was racing headlong towards panic, Kiem’s eyes opened. His gaze was unfocused and sleepy. Jainan took a breath, and that was all it took for Kiem to realise they were touching and flinch back as far as he could in the sleeping bag.

Their legs were still touching. Jainan was very aware that he only had a T-shirt on, and Kiem not even that. He tried not to let the awkwardness come through in his voice “Better?”

Kiem cleared his throat. “Uh, yeah.” He sounded more coherent than he had last night. Jainan tried not to think about the agony of mixed comfort and embarrassment that evening had been. “Yeah. Yes. Much better. See, no shivering.” He moved his hand as if to demonstrate, but that nearly brought them back in contact again and he stopped and held unnaturally still. “Um. Thanks.”

Jainan suddenly realised the fastenings were on his own side. He was an idiot. He wasted no further time in unzipping the side of the sleeping bag, rolling out, and retreating to his own cramped half of the tent. His skin felt tight with mortification even at this distance. He crossed his legs, attempting to compose himself, and picked up a rations pack for something to do with his hands.

Kiem slowly sat up and rubbed his shoulder. There was a red mark across it that must be from where he’d lain on Jainan’s arm.

“I am sorry I took the liberty,” Jainan said, focusing with all his might on the wrapper. He folded it back in small, neat squares. “I thought you were in danger of hypothermia. I may have been wrong.”

“Er– no, really don’t be sorry.” Kiem said. He was talking slightly faster than normal. “I was definitely getting that way. You did everything right – actually, my Prime Five teacher would be pretty proud of us, I guess. Of course, she never taught a module on how to win fights with bears.”

Of course Kiem knew how to paper it over. Kiem was good at smoothing away any awkwardness. “No,” Jainan said, making sure he was still looking down at his hands. He folded the wrapper back over itself again into another neat square.

Kiem grabbed the other rations pack. “I’m just gonna have a quick look around,” he said. “Scout the next move. Back in a moment.” He pulled on his trousers and coat – they looked almost dry from the heat of the tent – and climbed out into the pre-dawn dark.

Jainan looked up as he left. Sorry, he wanted to say, but his tongue was clumsy and slow. However sensible sharing their body warmth had been, he had been wrong to find it pleasant. He had taken advantage of Kiem’s incapacitation, even if it had been done unconsciously. No wonder Kiem wanted some space.

The heater capsule had run down in the hours since they’d fallen asleep. He occupied himself with changing it and organising the detritus of their bag. The stim tabs were missing; Kiem must still have them in his pocket.

It was just unfortunate, that was all. They lived in close quarters at home and they had been forced into closer quarters here. If Kiem could get the space he needed they could go back to what had developed into almost a comfortable equilibrium. Jainan tapped his wristband automatically to look up more about monasteries, but of course they were out of range. Never mind. He could ask Bel when they got back.

Jainan looked up from the heating capsule when Kiem returned. It was working now: the tent was so warm Kiem shrugged out of his coat the moment he came in. “I thought we might as well use another one,” Jainan said in explanation. “I’m not sure when you want to set off but I assumed we would wait at least until it was light enough to see, so we may as well keep warm. And I think we may be able to use this to warm water?”

“Good idea,” Kiem said. “There’s tea powder somewhere, did you find it with the food?” He seemed more energetic. He must have taken at least one more stim tab.

“Yes,” Jainan said. He shook some powder into the cup attachment, which Kiem took outside and filled with snow. Jainan paid more attention to melting it than necessary, but once it was fitted to the canister and warming, he ran out of things to do to keep himself from looking at Kiem. He ended up locking his hands together in his lap and inspecting them.

The awkward silence stretched out for long minutes, until Jainan heard Kiem take a deep breath. “So, uh,” Kiem said, sounding as if he had reached some sort of conclusion when he was outside. “Can we just talk for a moment about. Stuff.”

“Stuff,” Jainan said blankly.

“I know you didn’t choose this marriage,” Kiem said. Jainan’s back started to knot up with tension; so it was going to be that kind of conversation. Kiem carried on. “But, you know, long-term, it doesn’t have to be so much like a marriage. I mean, we’re – we’re friends, right? Sort of?” He stopped. Sort of friends echoed in Jainan’s head. It was a relief to hear it confirmed, and more than he should expect. It shouldn’t hurt. Jainan didn’t know why it did.

Kiem was still waiting. Jainan realised he was expecting an answer, and gave a slow nod.

“Right! Yeah,” Kiem said. “So we can just stay like this, can't we? Being married won't stop you doing anything you want to do. If there's someone you– if either of us was to start seeing someone on the side, that's – that's fine, right? We can both keep it quiet. So we can make sure the marriage doesn't get in the way of, of either of our lives.”

Someone on the side? Jainan realised he was staring at Kiem, groping in vain for some sort of response, and made himself look back down. “I see.” It was not his business if Kiem wanted to see someone else. He must get offers all the time. At least he was being honest about it.

“Right,” Kiem said. There was more uncomfortable silence. Kiem reached for the open rations pack and wrapped it up to put away.

Someone else. It was like an invisible splinter: Jainan didn’t want to press at it but at the same time he couldn’t leave it alone. “This is an impolite question,” he heard himself say, “but may I ask who it is?”

The wrapping in Kiem’s hands ripped.

“What? Me?” he said. “No, wait, there isn’t anyone! This isn’t me telling you I’m seeing someone!”

“Why not?” Jainan said. It was easier to sound calm and reasonable if he didn’t look at Kiem’s face. “Your marriage isn’t fulfilling. I don’t mind.”

“It wouldn’t be fair to them,” Kiem said. He sounded baffled, which didn’t make any sense. “It wouldn’t be fair to you.”

“I see,” Jainan said. He felt like he was trying to unravel a mathematics problem but he cared about it too much to have any chance of solving it. “So you would like to see someone in future.”

“I just thought—I thought you—” Kiem opened one hand in a frustrated gesture. “Look, otherwise neither of us is going to sleep with anyone else for the rest of our lives.”

Something unreasonable shot through Jainan’s chest like an energy cutter. He looked down at the tea to conceal it. It was starting to boil, but he couldn’t seem to move his hands to do anything about it. The orange light flickered on Kiem’s face, highlighting his expressive eyes and the consternation there. Jainan had somehow hurt him. He didn’t know how to fix it.

“Sorry,” Kiem said.

He apologised to make Jainan feel better when it wasn’t even his fault. Jainan’s chest hurt. Kiem meant well; if only Jainan wasn’t so inadequate. If only Jainan could be good enough for anyone. He shut his eyes. It was his cardinal rule not to ask questions in any situation like this: they tore away more remnants of his dignity and they disgusted his partner. But Kiem said everything he thought, and Jainan had to try. “Is there anything I can do,” he said, his voice coming out flat and toneless, “to make myself less repellent to you?”

“Repellent,” Kiem said, and stopped.

Jainan tried not to pay attention to the shrivelling feeling inside him. The moment’s pause seemed to stretch out to eternity.

Then Kiem said, “What?

He should never have got into this conversation. Jainan wished he could erase the last five minutes from existence, or somehow switch to a continuum where he had not asked the most inappropriate question he could possible ask. He turned away to take the water off the heater. “It doesn't matter.”

“Where the—what the—Jainan.” Kiem leaned forward on his hands in the tiny space. Jainan stopped in the middle of picking up the cup. He had seldom seen Kiem reduced to stuttering. “What do you mean, repellent? You can't mean you. We're not talking about—” His hand gesture seemed to encompass every part of Jainan’s body, but halfway through he seemed to think better of it and snatched it back.

Jainan mechanically screwed the lid on the cup, and then didn't know what to do with it. Neither of them moved to take it. He was putting off this reply and he knew it. "I know you've tried to spare my feelings and I am grateful," he said at last. "But you don't have to pretend."

Kiem groaned and dropped his face into his hands. “Jainan,” he said into his fingers. He pulled his hands down until his dark agonised eyes met Jainan’s. “You're beautiful.”

The world twisted sideways. “What,” Jainan said.

“It’s really distracting,” Kiem said. Then he added hastily, “Not that that's your problem. That really isn't your problem, sorry, I will get over it.”

“I don’t understand,” Jainan said. “If you think I’m—” He broke off, and his mouth moved but nothing came out. He tried again. “If you think – that, then why—” Another sentence he couldn’t see how to finish. “Then why?”

“You were grieving!” Kiem said. “Are grieving, I mean.”

Jainan’s thoughts were transparent and slippery, and every time he tried to face one it fled. It was true he was in mourning. Had that held Kiem back? When he looked back Kiem’s eyes were still locked on his and a jolt ran down his back: not fear, but something foreign or forgotten. He knew fear. This was something else entirely.

“I haven’t stopped living,” he said. He meant it as an explanation but it somehow came out more like a challenge. “I tried to show you. The night we were married.”

Kiem hadn’t taken his eyes off Jainan’s. Jainan could see the shallow rise and fall of his chest. “I thought you were just doing your duty,” Kiem said. His hands had clenched where they rested on his knees. “I thought you weren’t interested.”

Whatever was happening between them felt like pebbles gathering speed at the start of an avalanche. A voice in Jainan’s mind told him stop, told him that he was misreading Kiem’s intent. He deliberately blocked it out. He didn’t even let himself hear his own voice as he said, “I’m interested.”

He saw Kiem swallow. The sight of it sent a curl of warmth to Jainan’s stomach.

“So…” Kiem said. He trailed off. For once he didn’t seem to have the right thing to say.

“So,” Jainan echoed. The shadows of the tent wavered. Jainan took his courage into both hands and plunged over the edge. “Come here.”

Improbably, unbelievably, Kiem moved. He was drawing closer even before Jainan’s voice died away, as if his words had weight enough to make this happen. Jainan knelt up in the cramped space to meet him. Kiem’s mouth on his was warm and impossibly sweet. Jainan didn’t remember kissing feeling like this. He barely recognised this feeling in himself at all, not this hunger for another body pressed against his. Kiem’s hands had crept around to the small of his back, but lightly, as if he wasn’t sure he would be welcomed. Jainan leaned forward in an experiment, pressing their bodies together, and Kiem’s hands tightened convulsively.

Jainan felt his breath constrict, but in a way that set his heart speeding up with pleasure. He tugged at Kiem’s shirt and after a moment Kiem realised what he was doing and stopped kissing him just long enough to get it over his head. Jainan felt a spike of victory at the success and capitalised on it by putting his arms around Kiem, feeling his glorious, solid weight and the warmth of his skin, and pulling Kiem down with him. They fell into a tangle on top of the sleeping bags, barely cushioned from the ground below. Jainan didn’t remember consciously wanting anyone to touch him – he’d spent a long time avoiding it – so he didn’t understand why the heaviness of Kiem’s body against his was like water after a drought. He pulled him closer.

“Jainan—” Kiem caught himself with a hand either side of Jainan’s head, not quite on top of him. It cast a shadow over Jainan’s pleasure. He had misunderstood something again, somehow. Kiem was going to stop this. Jainan shut his eyes as if he could change reality by ignoring it.

He felt his T-shirt move just before he felt the warmth of Kiem’s hand resting on his stomach. It took him a moment to realise the shaking wasn’t coming from him. Kiem was trembling.

Jainan opened his eyes as his brain slammed his body with coursing emotions like molten metal: shock and need, his own desire casting off its last restraints. Kiem’s face was very close to his and his eyes were dark. Jainan said without even thinking, “You really do want me.”

“Oh fuck, yes – please – Jainan, I’m losing my mind—” Kiem broke off and swallowed, his touch still a pool of heat on Jainan’s stomach. “Not if you don’t want it,” he said. “And not. Not for duty. Never for that.”

Jainan had spent so long not knowing what to do. He had spent so long misunderstanding Kiem – wasting time – that it came as a surprise to find he had no doubt anymore. He covered Kiem’s hand with his own. “Yes,” he said. He could hear his voice, rough and edged. “Kiem. I mean it.”

That was all Kiem needed. He kissed Jainan and eased up his shirt, and Jainan lost the ability to string together words under the touch of Kiem’s hands. Shivers of pleasure went through his muscles. It was nothing like being with Taam. Kiem’s touch was light, almost wondering, and Jainan’s body answered it without Jainan even having to think. Kiem talked, but only in fragments that were barely audible, can I, and you’re beautiful, and Jainan, Jainan, his name over and over again like a prayer. Jainan tilted his head back and Kiem followed with his lips on Jainan’s neck; he read every shift of Jainan’s body like a glider read and treasured the wind.

Jainan’s hair was still bound back, out of the way. He hadn’t thought of loosening it so far, but Kiem’s hands seemed to stray there often, running over his hair, or his fingers stroking the short strands at the back of Jainan’s neck. On impulse, Jainan unwound the cord. He didn’t have any time to regret it: Kiem's breath caught and his eyes widened as if someone had handed him a revelation. When he kissed Jainan again his hands were buried in Jainan’s loose hair.

Jainan had forgotten. It was supposed to feel like this.

He only realised then that he had done almost nothing for Kiem in long minutes. It took him an effort to find his voice. “Kiem,” he said. “Should I.” Kiem raised his head from Jainan’s chest and didn’t seem to comprehend. “I don’t want to be selfish.”

“What,” Kiem said. He propped himself up on his hands. “What do you mean, I don’t get it, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to– I’m babbling, aren’t I, shit, someone please stop me talking.” Jainan felt astonishment which turned into something like a laugh – which was absurd, this wasn’t something you were supposed to take lightly, but the feeling mixed with everything else churning in his head until he felt light and giddy enough to float off the ground. “Jainan, please, anything you want,” Kiem said. “Tell me what you like.”

The question took Jainan off guard. “What?”

Kiem caught Jainan’s hand and laced their fingers together. “We’ll do what you want. What do you like?”

Jainan only just stopped himself from saying, I don’t know. But he could feel Kiem’s expectation, and the stirrings of surprise when Jainan didn’t have an answer. Something dark and defensive rose up inside him. He thought he could make Kiem move on by bringing up his last partner. He could ask if Kiem wanted to be compared. He didn’t know any other way out.

But he didn’t want to. Let Kiem think he was strange. Let him ask awkward questions tomorrow if he had to. Maybe tomorrow Jainan would find out that Kiem didn’t mean any of this as he seemed to, that he had hadn’t meant to look at Jainan as if Jainan was the only source of beauty in the world. But tonight Jainan owned Kiem’s gaze and the touch of his hands, and everything else was so irrelevant Jainan had trouble remembering it existed. Tonight he could do nothing wrong. Tonight everything divine had decided Jainan was forgiven.

Kiem was still looking down at him, a hint of uncertainty in his eyes. Jainan reached up and touched his cheek. “We could… find out.”

The words seemed to stop Kiem breathing. He leant down and kissed Jainan’s neck, so gently it was hardly a pressure. His hand slid lower. “Something like this?”

“Yes,” Jainan said, his eyes closed and his pulse racing as Kiem slid his lips across his neck. “Yes, God’s Heaven, yes.”

 

*                                

 

It was too short a time before the sky lightened around them. They were quiet and content, lying side by side half-under a sleeping bag. Jainan felt the exhaustion of yesterday in his limbs, but the heating capsule filled the tent with warmth and nothing could take the edge off his happiness. Kiem had his head propped on Jainan’s shoulder. He was pressing against Jainan’s arm – or maybe Jainan was pressing against him, because he didn’t want to leave space between them. “Mrm,” Kiem said, half into Jainan’s shoulder. “Y’know, your elbow. ‘S perfect.”

Jainan shifted his head and made an inquiring noise before he’d had time to realise that Kiem was still half-asleep, or might even be talking in his sleep. But Kiem woke up further, and seemed to take that as a request for clarification. “I mean, probably both your elbows. Can’t see the other one. Everything’s perfect.”

It took Jainan a long, startled moment to absorb that – which was absurd, because Kiem had said that and a hundred things like it last night. Jainan just hadn’t realised he would keep doing it next morning. And he knew what Kiem said was what he thought. “Really,” Jainan said aloud, his thoughts unguarded, “I think you just verbalise everything.”

“Sorry,” Kiem said, raising his head. “Stopping! Stopping. Promise.”

Jainan turned over so they were nested beside each other, his head in the hollow between Kiem’s head and shoulder. Helpless amusement settled around him like warmth. “No,” he said. “I like you talking.”

Kiem smiled that ridiculous, unfairly stunning smile. “Did I say thank you, by the way? You know, for saving my life. Possibly twice. I must have said thank you.”

Jainan just wanted to store that smile in his memory forever. He groped for a reply. “I didn’t save your life.”

“You did. You fought off a bear.”

“That was chance.”

“Fine, play it down,” Kiem said. “I’ll sell the story to a vidmaker, then you’ll see.”

The helpless amusement was getting worse. Jainan held his grave face with an effort. “It’s hardly vid material.”

“It’ll star me, falling into a river. In a T-shirt. The ratings will be off the charts.”

Jainan’s felt his face crack into a smile. “I might watch it for that.”

Kiem let his head drop back, as if Jainan smiling was all he needed to be supremely satisfied. The fabric of the tent was luminous from the sun outside. “Day’s getting on,” Kiem said lazily. “We should… go and do something.”

Something,” Jainan said. “You mean: seek rescue from our stranded situation.” He pushed himself up to a sitting position. Kiem made a noise of protest when he moved.

“Well, I dunno,” Kiem said. “I mean, being stranded: not too bad, right? Look at us.”

“So maybe we should just stay here,” Jainan said. “Just you, me, acres of snow, the bear…”

“Bears often hoard rose petals to strew on hiking couples. Little-known romantic fact.”

Jainan couldn’t stop the laugh this time. “Even so,” he said, once he had full control of his expression again. “I would like to eat something that doesn’t taste of plywood, and perhaps reassure my sister that I’m not dead.” He reached for his clothes.

Kiem groaned and rolled over. “Point. Argh. Why is moving so hard.” He pulled his T-shirt over his head and got his arm stuck in the neck hole. “Civilisation is overrated,” he said, his voice muffled. He waved his arms until he somehow sorted out the tangle and his head emerged. “We could just start again out here.”

“You will find it hard to get the dartcar results from here,” Jainan said. Kiem’s hair was disordered and his fingers itched to rearrange it. He didn’t let himself; they weren’t in bed anymore.

“I could live without them.” Kiem picked up the heating cylinder and reluctantly snapped the inner sleeve away.

“I’ll get water,” Jainan said. He pulled on his boots and coat. When he emerged from the tent it was into a glorious landscape where the sunlight reflected blindingly from the snow. He drew in a lungful of cold, fresh air, raised his hand to cover his eyes, and squinted in the direction they were travelling.

“Oh,” he said, startled. “Kiem!”

“What?” Kiem was already sitting in the tent entrance, fully clothed and putting on his boots. He followed the direction of Jainan’s pointing arm.

The dawn sun had burned off the fog. In the cleft between two valleys, just visible past a rocky shelf, pylons stretched out of the mountains like metallic trees. A silver thread of magnetised cable gleamed between them. They’d reached the rail line.

Chapter Text

The rescue flyer descended on the peaceful mountain scene like an invader, its hover drivers filling the valley with an ear-splitting whine. Its orange bulk would have been easy to spot miles away even if it hadn’t been constantly sweeping its surroundings with a rotating white light. Jainan watched it descend with mixed feelings. His emotions were raw in every way, singing with exultation and tension like taut-strung wires: he could barely deal with Kiem’s presence next to him, let alone the rest of the world. He didn’t want to let the rest of the world in. Part of him perversely wanted to stay here with Kiem in the solitude of the snow and the mountains so he had the space to sort out his bubbling feelings. He wasn’t ready for them to be rescued.

“Urgh,” Kiem said beside him. “Do you think we’re going to have to stand up?”

Jainan turned. They’d been sitting on a rock shelf for the last hour, resting while they waited. Kiem had been unusually quiet after the first twenty minutes but Jainan had just assumed he was tired from the trek. Now, though, he saw Kiem had let his head flop forward onto his knees, and Jainan realised this was more than muscle ache. “You’re stim-crashing.”

“Maybe,” Kiem said into his knees.

“How many tabs did you have?”

“Five? Uh. Six.” It sounded like it was taking him some effort to talk. “Should probably take another. Get through getting rescued.”

“No,” Jainan said. “Absolutely not.” His mixed feelings had abruptly disappeared, replaced by sheer relief that this crash hadn’t happened a few hours earlier. He raised his hand and waved needlessly at the descending craft.

The rescue craft had no need for a clear landing ground. Its whine was deafening as it finished its descent; Jainan clamped his hand over his ears, but it didn’t help much. Then the whine changed and it came to a halt in mid-air, only a couple of metres from the snow. A hatch opened and a ramp extended from it. At the top, two figures looked like they were arguing, one in the bright orange of an emergency worker, and the other – that was Bel.

Jainan pulled Kiem’s arm around his shoulder and helped him stand. Bel jumped onto the ramp as it was still extending, and as the rescuer flung out a cautionary hand she ran lightly down it and leapt off. “Two days! You idiots!” she said, and hugged both of them.

Jainan froze. Was she glad to see him as well? Why was she glad to see him? He couldn’t move; all he could think of was that he shouldn’t be touching anyone. But Kiem was right there.

Kiem didn’t seem to have noticed. He gave Bel a weak grin and said, “Didn’t mean to worry you.”

It was too late to try and act as if it hadn’t happened. Bel had already realised something was off about his response; she drew back, and her eyes met his. Jainan couldn’t look away fast enough. Too late he realised that he was abnormal. This was something normal people did. They hugged their friends, even if they were married.

But Bel said nothing, and instead rounded on Kiem. “If you don’t want to worry me, try not nearly dying!” she said. “You drive like a pensioner! How the f– how in Heaven did you crash?”

“It was only a small crash,” Kiem said. Bel dipped her shoulder under his other arm, taking some of the weight off Jainan. Kiem seemed to be getting some more strength as they made their way up the ramp. “A crash-let. A microcrash. Can I sit down now?”

A rescuer reached them with a stretcher hovering behind him. Jainan and Bel let Kiem down until he was sitting on it. “It was the stimulant tabs,” Jainan told the rescuer. “Also he fell in cold water. Yesterday.”

“This way, sir,” the rescue worker said, enveloping Kiem’s shoulders in the blanket – over Kiem’s protests that he was warm enough – and pulling the stretcher back into the flycraft. Jainan followed. Bel was giving Kiem facts about abuse of stimulants, which Jainan suspected was relieving her feelings.

Another rescue worker stopped him in the doorway and put a blanket around him. “How are you for temperature, sir?”

“Fine,” Jainan said. He caught the edges of the blanket to draw them to his throat, though he didn’t really need it. “Thank you for coming out.”

“Cold, thirsty?” the woman said. “How much water have you drunk in the last twenty-four hours?”

“Fine,” Jainan said again. “Maybe a litre – we melted some snow – and you should know, both of us have had stimulant tabs. Prince Kiem is not fine, he’s had six over the last two days.”

Six?

“We had to keep going after the crash, and then he nearly got hypothermia yesterday.”

“I see.” The rescue worker put a hand on Jainan’s shoulder to gesture him into the main transport hold. That touch felt strange as well. “You may experience some fatigue when you’re in the warmth. Pick a bunk and put on the harness. Ekar will take your bloodwork. We'll be launching in a moment. You may be feeling reasonably fine, but I strongly recommend you lie down—“

“I told you, I’m okay, check Jainan!”

“—as we apparently can’t get his highness to do,” the rescue worker finished, as they entered the small body of the craft. “Prince Kiem, please. Lie down.”

“Not until Jainan—“

“I am right here.” Jainan crossed the couple of steps to the shelf-like bed and pressed two fingers against Kiem's shoulder. “Lie down. You are being stubborn.”

He didn’t realise until the words had left his mouth that he was touching Kiem – easily, naturally – and all that happened was Kiem stopped talking and lay down. Kiem’s face was waxy with exhaustion by this point, which was probably the reason he said “Mm” and nothing else. But he caught Jainan's hand, and Jainan didn't even get around to wondering why before he squeezed it and let it go.

“Sir,” the rescue worker called Ekar said. “Please lie down, we’re launching.” He was leaning over Kiem's arm, injecting something. "Please hold still, your Highness."

"What are you giving him?" Jainan said, sharper than he'd meant to. He felt absurdly as if he didn't want anyone else touching Kiem. He just wanted to keep everyone away from him until he had recovered. He tried to stifle the feeling.

“This is glucose, sir,” the rescue worker said.

"Dn' need it," Kiem mumbled. His eyes tracked towards the man. His chest was going up and down too fast. It must be adrenaline. They'd both had rather too much of that these last few days.

“You do,” the rescue worker said disapprovingly. “Six stimulant tabs? If you hadn’t reached a signal, you would have collapsed out there.”

"If it helps, it is just glucose," Bel added, standing behind the medic with the syringe packaging dangling from one hand. "Unless this is a really nefarious assassination plot." She raised an eyebrow at Jainan over Kiem's head. 

Kiem muttered something exasperated at her, but his eyes closed and he let the medic take his arm. 

On an impulse Jainan rested his hand on Kiem’s head. The hair was soft under his hand. Kiem’s breath caught, and then he relaxed all at once, like an animal stretching out before it went to sleep. Even the lines of tension on his forehead smoothed out.

The strange feeling that had settled around Jainan like a combat shield since this morning was still there, and he found he had no fear of anyone's disapproval at all. He sat beside Kiem's bed in one of the medic chairs and slipped the harness over his shoulders.

The medic eyed both of them, apparently decided this wasn’t a fight worth picking, and put his own harness on just as the flybug rose. The floor under their feet juddered as the hover engines fought with the wind. Bel didn’t even bother to find a seat, just casually hung onto one of the fixtures and balanced against the turbulence.

The medic disposed of the syringe and fed a drop of Kiem's blood into a handheld diagnost. “Nothing to worry about,” he said to Jainan. “He’ll just need sleep and nutrients. If you won’t lie down, we might as well do yours here.”

Jainan obligingly held out his arm for the sample. Kiem opened his eyes at that, to give Jainan a look with a quirked eyebrow that Jainan knew was concern without having to ask. Something inside him felt warm. “Only one of us—”

“Took six stim tabs and fell in a river, I know,” Kiem said, the corner of his mouth twitching, but he didn’t shut his eyes again until the medic ran the diagnost and gave Jainan the all clear.

“You should both get some rest,” the medic said. “Particularly you, your Highness. It’ll take us around three hours to get back to the city, then we’ll pass you over to the palace physicians. But you’re fine. You were very lucky,” he added, as the craft levelled out and he unbuckled his harness. “You could have been in a lot of trouble out there.”

“I know,” Jainan said, meaning it. “Thank you for coming out. We appreciate it.” Kiem mumbled something which Jainan hoped backed him up.

The medic gave him a nod. “Press any of the red buttons if anything about your condition changes. Bel Siara, Tharn will have the coordinates you wanted for your report.” He held the door to the front cabin open, and Bel gave them a wave and followed him through to the front cabin.

Jainan sat by Kiem in the suddenly quiet cabin and kept his hand resting by his head, idly touching his hair. He could vaguely hear Bel and the rescue workers discussing technical things in the cabin. He felt for something in the pocket of his coat, then let it go, distracted, when Kiem unexpectedly turned his head into the palm of Jainan’s hand. Kiem didn’t even seem to have done it consciously. Without thinking, Jainan cupped his fingers around the curve of Kiem’s head. Kiem was breathing more slowly, slipping into natural sleep. Jainan felt strangely at peace.

What did it mean, what had happened that morning? Had Kiem meant anything by it? Jainan reminded himself that even Taam had seemed to enjoy some of the times they’d slept together, though they hadn’t been like that. He tried not to think too hard about where it left him and Kiem – it felt like something delicate, something he could damage if he examined it too closely. He should just be thankful Kiem had seemed to enjoy himself, and not worry about whether it would happen again, or stupid questions like what it meant. He didn't need those problems.

After some length of time the sound of the door opening shook Jainan out of his reverie.

“Oh good, he’s asleep,” Bel said. “I’ve sent the report off. I would say the Emperor can now breathe more easily, but I doubt the Emperor was that worried.”

Jainan shook his head slightly, uncomfortable at anything that smacked of lèse-majesté even in private. “I’m sure she knows what she’s doing. And the others? Kiem’s friends and – his mother?” He was sure Kiem had mentioned his mother.

“His mother’s off in a war zone,” Bel said. “I wouldn’t have written to her for another week. You weren’t due back until yesterday, anyway, so you’ve only been gone one day more than expected. We’ve kept it quiet. With a bit of luck even our friendly local journalists won’t get hold of it.”

Journalists. Jainan had been subconsciously expecting he and Kiem would have to explain themselves to palace officials or the royal family, but he had forgotten that this might be splashed all over the media. Oddly, he couldn’t feel himself panicking yet. He took a slow breath. “All right,” he said. “We just won’t give any comment if they do. It’s none of their business.”

Royals in Terrifying Mountain Ordeal,” Bel said dryly. She idly poked among the tray the medic had left. “Did they give him a sedative?”

“No – he’s just tired,” Jainan said. He had to stop himself touching Kiem’s shoulder protectively; even in this odd new world where he might be able to touch Kiem, he shouldn't wake him now. “Stimulant crash.”

“I heard. You’re not feeling it, though?”

“I had fewer tabs,” Jainan said. “I had fewer injuries. Luck.”

“Luck,” Bel said. She left the tray, apparently satisfied there wasn’t anything nefarious in there. “You were lucky, weren’t you? Kiem isn’t dumb enough to try and land a city flybug anywhere in the mountains. You crashed. You must have been flying low.”

“We were looking at the mountains.”

“No maintenance problems with the flybug, or anything?”

Jainan’s immediate impulse was to shut this line of conversation down. He was not equipped to deal with what lay at the end of it. But instead he said, with a calmness that astonished himself, “Bel, you’re fishing.”

There was a short silence. Then Bel laughed – not the polite, palace-appropriate chuckle Jainan had heard from her before, but a short, explosive laugh that sounded like something you’d hear in a dive bar. “And you’ve stopped pretending you’re stupid.”

“I wasn’t pretending,” Jainan said.

“Hoo. Pretending to be mute, then.” Bel leaned against a bright orange bulkhead. Somehow she’d managed to avoid crumpling any of her palace clothes. “So, your Grace, was it the same thing that took out Taam?”

The question had been nagging Jainan underneath everything for two days, but it was still jarring to hear it said out loud. He reminded himself he had no reason to panic. “I don’t know. It was an explosion that sounded like the compressor, but I can’t tell you more than that. My specialisation is spaceside craft.” He pulled the log chip he’d found at the crash site from his pocket. “This will show the critical failure, once an analysis team gets on it.”

Bel looked at it, nestled in the palm of his hand. Jainan half expected her to take it, to take responsibility for it, but she didn’t. Instead she said, “What are you going to do with it?”

“Hand it over to the police?” Jainan said. He put it back in his pocket.

“The police?” Bel said. At Jainan’s questioning look, she made a gesture of dismissal. “What use are they going to be? It’ll disappear into their labs and then they’ll drop the case for lack of evidence and you’ll never see it again.”

Jainan paused. Was this the reputation the police had on Iskat? Jainan had never heard of it and he had been on Iskat for years longer than Bel. “They’ll do what’s best.”

“They’ll probably leak it to the newslogs,” Bel said.

She was right about that, at least. Police cases were regularly splashed all over the media. “Internal Security, then.” They’d have access to the same analysis labs and would be more careful about leaks. “But we have to know. Even if it does cause talk.” It felt treacherous to say that.

Bel grimaced and looked over at one of the porthole-like windows on the opposite wall. “Well, you can do as you like,” she said. “I’m just saying, I wouldn’t give up control if it was me. I don’t know why you trust law enforcement so much. One of them might realise that Kiem doesn’t move in any of the same circles as Taam did, and that the only link—”

“—is me. I know.” Jainan said. He thought he would be able to say it with composure, but instead as if there were needles under his skin. This wasn’t fair, some immature part of his mind wanted to say. Everything was better now. This sort of thing wasn’t supposed to happen. “Do you think it was me?”

“As a matter of fact, no,” Bel said. “But you’re taking a risk. Guar—police will always take the easiest option. There’s no proof, of course, so you won’t get in official trouble. But then there’s the court of public opinion.” She shrugged. “You could just not hand over the chip. Say Kiem lost it in the river.”

The needle-pricks under Jainan’s skin were now almost unbearable. “No,” he said sharply, to drown out his own thoughts to the contrary. He had finished hiding. He had finished holding back out of fear. “As long as Kiem believes me, it doesn’t matter.” He made himself meet her eyes. “I would like you to believe me. I would like that badly. But you’re not the one the treaty depends on, which is the only thing that matters.”

Bel almost looked surprised, if Bel had ever looked surprised. “You think Kiem would throw you over?”

Jainan nearly said no. But Kiem owed him nothing; this was just Jainan and his wishful thinking. “For a suspicious accident? I don’t know.”

“But an accident that you had nothing to do with.”

“I didn’t.” Jainan was aware that somewhere along the line, he had lost some of the control he had always prided himself on; there was bitterness seeping into his tone that he hadn’t meant to put there. “But when has that ever mattered?”

Kiem stirred under his hand. “Ouch,” he said, his voice still a raspy mumble. “Mrh. Sounds like my cue to wake up.”

Bel snorted. “You weren’t asleep,” she said, as Kiem sat up with some effort. She sat on the other bed, cross-legged and against all safety procedures.

Kiem’s eyes opened wider, luminously innocent. “I was.” His voice wasn’t quite thick enough with sleep. “Through part of it.”

Jainan had gone still as two parts of his mind warred: one to pick over everything he’d said and make sure he didn’t mind Kiem overhearing it, and one which saw no point in that, after the last two days. Finally, he said, "You didn't have to pretend. I was going to tell you." It sounded weak, even to him. It felt a long way from when he had had Kiem in his arms that morning.

Kiem turned a guilty look on him. “I was genuinely trying to sleep. I just heard bits.”

“So?” Bel said. Her sharp eyes were now on Kiem. “What do you think? Accident?”

Kiem held up one hand, the other one massaging his forehead. “Of course it was a bloody accident,” he said. “Jainan only told me he was coming after I filed the flight plan and I never got around to adding him to it, so he can’t have been a target. And what the hell would someone want to kill me for? Not paying attention at the last school board meeting? A very angry municipal councillor?”

“Someone making an anti-royalist statement?” Bel said helpfully. Jainan’s stomach was roiling at just having to think in detail about Kiem being targeted, but Bel seemed unfazed at the assassination talk. “You are a member of the Imperial family.”

“A minor member.” Kiem said. “Anyway, Internal Security track that sort of thing. That’s their job.”

“So what if—”

“Kiem,” Jainan said, a fraction too loudly. The other two both stopped talking. “I have to know. Do you think it was me?”

Kiem’s eyes met his in indignation, now fully awake. “No, of course I don’t bloody think it was you,” he said. “Even if I’m mistaken about everything else, I know basic things about you. Like, you have a sense of duty the size of the entire Imperial Guard’s put together. There's no way you'd do that.”

Jainan swallowed with some difficulty. In his head, something that sounded like Taam said, Who would ever trust you? “How do you know?”

“Jainan!Kiem leaned forward. “I can't believe we have to argue about why I'm not going to accuse you of trying to kill me! First, I know you didn't, second, you're my partner and I like you, and third—” He suddenly grinned “—I don't believe it was that bad.”

Jainan took a moment to process that, then his eyes went to Bel.

“I’m pretending I didn’t hear that,” Bel said. “But if you want something to throw, the medical tray is right there.”

Kiem looked contrite again. “Sorry. Right. Serious. Council of war, come on.” He struggled to sit up straighter, pushing the blanket down. He still didn’t look well. “What do we want to do? I heard the bit about the chip. Smart thinking to pick that up, Jainan, I’d completely forgotten they existed.”

Jainan wasn’t even sure why he had picked it up. A recovery team would have found it. “Mm. It only saved a day or two.”

“Wrong,” Bel said immediately. Then she checked herself, and glanced between Kiem and Jainan. “I am part of this war council, aren’t I?”

“’Course,” Kiem said. He glanced at Jainan belatedly.

It took Jainan a moment to nod. This whole thing felt odd. He wasn’t used to being part of the decisions. “Bel doesn’t think it will help to hand over the chip.”

Kiem made a fist and pressed his knuckles against his head, as if that was the only thing keeping him awake. “You’re being twisty again, Bel,” he said. “And right now I have no chance of keeping up. We don’t really have a choice, do we? Well, I suppose – police or Internal Security, like you two were saying.”

“Internal Security,” Jainan said. “The police talk to the media.”

“Celebrity culture,” Kiem said. “I’m all for openness and transparency – no, I’m joking, I agree with you. This shouldn’t get out. But. I just – Internal Security? I don’t know.”

“Or neither,” Bel said. “The chip got lost.”

No,” Jainan said. “Bel, we have a duty to turn over all evidence.”

“Also, if the flight recording was missing it would blow the whole case up massively,” Kiem pointed out. “Looks bad.”

“Well, then,” Jainan said. “Internal Security.” It didn’t feel like a victory. There was a metallic taste in his mouth.

Kiem’s mouth had a stubborn slant to it which Jainan recognised. “I get why we shouldn’t give it to the police,” he said. “And of course we have to do the official thing and hand it to someone, that goes without saying. But I don’t know if I trust Internal Security either. I’m still deciding if I’ve forgiven them for the security clearance thing.”

“They said that was a mistake, though,” Bel said lightly. “No harm in cutting Jainan off for a couple of years, really.”

“A mistake—!

“Please don’t blow this out of proportion,” Jainan said sharply. “It wasn’t a mistake, just a calculation of risk. They have to do their jobs in order for the system to work. I was a risk factor.”

“A calculation that completely screwed you over!” Kiem said. “Why the hell should we trust them with this? They handle you like an enemy of the state!”

“That is not your pro—” Jainan stumbled halfway through the sentence. The look Kiem was giving him now was betrayed; Kiem was fully aware how he intended to end that word. Jainan let out a slow breath. His mind was a train running on a phantom rail; he had to stop this. He knew Kiem consistently made Jainan’s problems his own.

Trying to work out what was fair treatment of himself made Jainan’s head hurt. For the sake of convenience, though, and to do justice to Kiem’s feelings about Internal Security, they probably needed another option. “Then we – we copy it before we hand it over,” Jainan said. “That will give us leverage if, if anything goes wrong.”

“Right,” Kiem said, looking hugely relieved. “Of course! Good idea. Let’s do that.” He didn’t ask what Jainan meant by leverage, and Jainan wasn’t sure himself. But Jainan thought of Aren, and thought that it couldn’t be bad to have something he didn’t know about.

“Sneaky,” Bel said. “I like it. I’ll do it.”

“No – you’ll need specialist equipment,” Jainan said. His mind was working overtime, like this was a mathematics problem. “The College may have something. I can enquire.”

“Don’t bother the academics. I know an overnight shop I can take it to,” Bel said. “I’ll pass it to Internal Security afterwards.”

“Right,” Kiem said, at the same time as Jainan said, “An overnight shop?”

On Thea that type of machine required a government permit, and so was only likely to be found in specialist diagnostic facilities and universities. It wasn’t like getting your flybug repaired. You couldn’t take it to a hole in the wall, as Bel seemed to be proposing. Jainan wondered if he was just sounding very provincial to Iskat ears.

“Something wrong?” Bel said.

Jainan was holding everyone up. He held out the chip. “No.”

Right,” Kiem said. He rubbed his face. “If we’re going to be in the middle of… whatever this is, I think I need another stimulant tab.”

That brought Jainan back from analysis machines to the situation at hand. “Absolutely not.”

“I can’t stay awake. I’m barely thinking right now, I’ll be useless for hours if I don’t.”

“Go to sleep.”

“But!” Kiem said.

“Don’t look at me,” Bel said. “The puppy dog eyes work better on Jainan.”

Kiem turned them back on Jainan, who did not let himself laugh. He shook his head. “You need to sleep. There’s nothing we can do immediately, anyway.”

“Don’t make me blackmail you with embarrassing stories,” Bel added. “I have over a year’s worth of material.”

“I knew you were collecting it for something,” Kiem said, but he let himself flop back down on the bed. “Wake me up before we get into the city, okay?”

“I’ll try,” Bel said. “Jainan, you should get some sleep too, even if you didn’t overdose on the stim tabs like this idiot. Unfortunately I don’t have anything to blackmail you with—“

“—don’t you dare try and embarrass him, Bel—”

“—so you’ll just have to be sensible. Please tell me one of you is sensible.”

“I am sensible,” Jainan said mildly. “I am also difficult to blackmail. Though quite easy to persuade.” He stayed seated while Bel returned to the cabin. She was right, he would need sleep, but he found himself reluctant to move away from Kiem. Kiem gave him a quick smile, but by this point it seemed a lot of effort for him to even stay awake, and soon his eyes started to close and his breathing slowed. Shafts of light lay bright across the floor from the small windows set into the flyer’s sides. Jainan watched the white horizon pass under the pale blue sky, and felt the rumbling of the flyer through his body, and tried to be glad they were returning safely to the palace. They flew on.

Chapter Text

Jainan managed some sleep, though it was fitful and patchy. The vibration of flight through the hard bench masquerading as a bed warred with his exhaustion. He had the knack of pushing on through physical and mental weariness after fitful nights, but at times like this endurance just worked against you. He must have managed to doze off, though, because after some interminable period he noticed that the light through the round windows was dimmer. The early winter evening was setting in.

He sat up in silence. Bel was still gone, but there was a subtly different quality to the rumble of the flycraft that suggested they were descending. When he pushed himself up and went to the window, the city was spread underneath them.

He didn't wake Kiem until the tractor beam was pulling them into the palace. Kiem was slow and bleary, as he had predicted he would be, but could just about string a sentence together. Bel looked somewhere between impatient and worried. “There’s a palace medic meeting us,” she said – to Jainan, as if Jainan could do anything about it. “Make him get checked.”

“I’m okay,” Kiem said. “All I want is a shower.” He had managed to stand up by himself, but the moment the door opened and he saw who was waiting on the walkway he groaned and collapsed back on Jainan’s shoulder. “Nope, scratch that, I’m definitely too ill to talk.”

Of the two people waiting for them, one was a medic. The other was someone Jainan had only had very brief, unpleasant dealings with, and did not particularly want to be debriefed by.

“Trust you,” the Chief Press Officer said. He had his arms crossed and was standing in Kiem’s path as he came out of the flyer on Jainan’s arm. “Trust you to fuck up a routine trip. You really crashed?”

Kiem stopped. “Urgh,” he said. “Yes, we crashed. I fell in a river. Jainan fought off a bear. There were flights of angels. Alien invasions. Can I get my check-up and go to bed?”

“Angels my arse. Have you been talking to any journalists?”

“Yes, one popped out of the lockers on the rescue flyer,” Kiem said. He was still leaning on Jainan, and Jainan didn’t think it was all theatrics. “I just attract them. Pheromones.” Jainan choked.

“They’ll be messaging you. Don’t reply. I’ll need some detail for the—”

“Hren Halesar,” Jainan said, cutting in mid-sentence with his formal name. “His highness is tired from travel. You will kindly allow us to shower and rest before interrogation.”

Hren turned on him in astonishment, but his eyes narrowed. “I’m going need more than—”

“Oh, shit, Hren, actually,” Kiem said, interrupting him for the second time, “you’re just the person I want, come to think of it.” He bent down to pull something out of their backpack and pressed it on Hren.

Hren looked down at the golden trowel in his hands. “The fuck is this?”

“It’s a trowel,” Kiem said.

Jainan said gravely, “It’s very important.”

“Get that back to Braska primary with a good apology, would you?” Kiem said. “Prime opportunity for good press. Write them a flowery letter. Oh, and you’d better let them know I’m not dead. Tell them I’ll call them—”

“You’ll call them when you don’t look like death,” Jainan put in.

“I’ll call them when I don’t look like death. Take care of the trowel. Just the man. Knew I could count on you.”

“Excuse me,” Jainan said to the medics. “His highness has a medical condition and needs to get to the clinic.”

“No kidding,” said the medic, who had been trying to put a blood-pressure patch on Kiem’s wrist for the last two minutes. She glanced up and said, “This way, your Highness.”

“And lice. I think I’ve got lice,” Kiem said mournfully, stepping close enough to Hren to make Hren take a sharp step back. “Wouldn’t get in the elevator with me. ‘Scuse me.” He disappeared into the lift with the medic.

Jainan traded a glance with Bel, at which neither of them showed any sign of amusement, and followed Kiem. Bel went to take Hren aside and presumably give him enough information to keep him away from Kiem. “Lice?” Jainan murmured, when he followed Kiem into the elevator.

“Well-known side effect of hypothermia,” Kiem said.

“Of course,” Jainan said. “As is talking nonsense, I believe. I’ll pick up some of your clothes and meet you at the clinic.”

It didn’t feel like any kind of triumphant return. Jainan was tired to the point of exhaustion, and embarrassed to be seen by the people he passed in the corridor in the mess of clothes they’d put on after the crash. He forced himself to shut down every thought but the immediate task, but that tripped him up: he was halfway to Taam’s rooms before he realised he was in the wrong wing of the palace.

He backtracked, frustrated, and increased his pace back to Kie– to his own rooms. It took him almost the whole way back before he became aware of the footsteps that had been following him.

“Your Grace!”

Jainan turned. The person behind him was a smartly-dressed, long-haired woman with fashion-statement silver eye implants. Jainan recoiled automatically before he even realised where he knew her from.

The woman had a bright, intent smile on her face. “Sorry to chase you around, I wasn’t quite sure it was you.” She advanced with her hand out. “Hani Sereson, I’m—”

“A journalist, I know,” Jainan said. He didn’t take her hand. He was in no mood to fake pleasantries, and there was nobody to demand it of him. “I recognise you from the wedding ceremony.”

“Yes, I’m with Consult News,” Hani said. She dropped her hand in a smooth recovery that looked almost natural, and gave his dishevelled clothes an assessing look. Jainan’s skin prickled under her gaze. “Unscheduled ski trip?”

If he gave her the slightest opening, his and Kiem’s names would be all over the net tomorrow. “Why are you in here?” he said instead. “Do you have a visitor permit?”

Hani gave a slight, ironic bow. “Yes, your Grace,” she said. “As a matter of fact, Prince Kiem and I have a standing monthly meeting. Only he didn’t turn up today, and apparently he didn’t come back from his last trip on schedule. Any idea where he might be?”

The question was light, almost playful, but this wasn’t a game Jainan wanted to play. “I think you should leave, ma’am,” he said, keeping his voice neutral. This woman worked for the media. She was dangerous. “Prince Kiem isn’t available.”

Hani’s forehead wrinkled. “Nothing’s happened to him, I hope?”

Jainan was not taken in by the sincere-sounding worry in her voice. He reminded himself her job required her to fake this sort of thing. “No, ma’am. He’s just busy elsewhere. I am asking you to leave.” He glanced around for anyone to help, but they were the only ones here. “Now, please, before I have to call someone.”

“Hold your horses.” Hani held up a palm in front of her. “I’ll go, I’ll go.” Jainan didn’t like the silver sheen on her eyes. It made her harder to read as she stared at him. “But you should know, I’m not your enemy.”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Jainan said. He realised he was edging towards the door to their rooms and stopped himself. He was not going to run away from her like a child. “And really? A monthly meeting?” His let a faint thread of incredulity into his voice; surely even Kiem wouldn't voluntarily talk to the media.

Hani waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, Heavens, don’t make it sound so formal. We go out and we swap gossip off the record. He usually buys the drinks.” She eyed him again. “Can’t convince you to come? Like I said, I’m not your enemy.”

You are, Jainan said in the privacy of his head, but instead he gave her a tight smile. “Thank you, ma’am. I’m afraid I value my privacy too much.” His wristband chimed, but he ignored it.

“I’m aware,” Hani said. “You’ve turned down seventeen interviews so far. Even his highness has nearly gone dark since he married you. What damage do you think a fluff piece is going to do to you?”

Seventeen interviews? That gave Jainan pause. Bel must have turned them down before they’d even reached him. Apparently she knew him better than he’d thought. But even the thought of the requests was like a suffocating pressure. “You’ll twist it,” he said. “I’m not having this argument with you.” At the beginning of a protest from Hani, he turned away and jabbed at the door sensor to his rooms. “Please leave.”

“Well, let Prince Kiem know I was here,” Hani said. “Wherever he is.” She paused, expectantly, but Jainan wasn’t going to give her anything else. She sighed. “I’ll hold it from the rest of the press pool. As a favour.”

“Were you leaving?” Jainan said. An attendant had just rounded the corner of the corridor; he turned and raised a hand to get their attention. “Could you possibly escort this lady out?”

“I’m going!” Hani said, but Jainan didn’t care. He shut the door behind him and was enclosed safe in the oasis of calm of Kiem’s rooms, finally alone.

He expected to feel relieved. He had always counted his time alone in the palace like gold dust. But, somewhat to his surprise, he strode impatiently through the room and rooted through drawers in the bedroom to find Kiem’s clothes, not pausing even to sit down. There were still things to be done.

His wristband chimed again. He tapped it to make it stop and glanced at the messages that had come in while he was out of signal. There were more than he expected: from the College, from Gairad, from various Theans at the embassy… how had he picked up this many people?

And then there was one from himself.

Jainan stopped with one hand resting on the edge of the drawer. His stomach curdled with a feeling he couldn’t name. Only one person had access to his account apart from himself, and that was Aren. He opened it.

One line: How was your trip? We should catch up. Innocuous. Unexceptionable. If he told anyone the tightening he felt at the back of his neck on reading it, he would be put down as insane. He would be insane.

And Aren knew that, Jainan realised. Aren knew he didn’t need to send anything demanding. He just needed to tweak the leash and Jainan would do the rest himself.

His wristband wasn’t steady. He realised his arm was shaking. He made himself rest it flat on the wall, and finally recognised the feeling.

He was angry.

His hands shook so hard he had to sit down and steady them before he could operate his wristband. He set it to deny all remote access, then wiped his bio-signatures, and went through the whole process of reregistering everything. It took ten minutes and halfway through he had to find a needle from the medkit to give it a drop of his blood, but he didn’t care.

As a last swipe, he tapped out a message. He had had a lovely time. The school had been charming. He hoped Aren was well, but his schedule was full and he regretted he had no time to meet at present. He had considered the suggestion of dropping out of the College project, but he believed it was best for all, currently, if he remained.

He sent it to Aren. Then he took his wristband off, opened his drawer, and dropped it at the back for the night.

“Hey,” Kiem said from the bedroom door.

Jainan whirled round too fast. “I thought you were in clinic.” I was coming, he wanted to say, but Kiem was giving him his best hangdog look.

“I flirted my way out of it,” Kiem said. “I was shameless. I just wanted the fuss to stop. Forgive me?” His tone was half-bantering, half-serious, and the serious parts made something odd happen in Jainan’s chest.

“Now you’re trying it on me,” Jainan said, trying to repress the smile as Kiem crossed the room towards it.

“Is it working?” Kiem said, and before Jainan could reply he kissed him.

It was light and tentative, as if now they were back in the palace they had to learn how to do this all over again. Jainan took hold of Kiem’s shoulder and deepened the kiss. There was a long moment of intense silence, and then Jainan took a breath and said, “It’s working. Are you trying to bribe me into letting you use the shower first?”

“Is that working?” Kiem said. There was a laugh in his voice for no good reason. “Promise I’ll be quick.” Jainan waved him in. Kiem seemed to stumble as he took a step away, but he quickly righted himself and shot Jainan a grin. “Too much hiking. Not used to carpet.”

As Kiem shut himself in the shower, Jainan occupied himself with undressing. In the heat of the palace his outdoor layers felt grimy and unpleasant. He hung them up in the wardrobe’s cleanser and turned towards the bathroom, debating whether or not to get Kiem’s clothes. The door was shut but the light indicated it wasn’t locked. It might be an invasion of privacy.

The dilemma was solved for him abruptly when a crashing noise came from inside. Jainan opened the door without thinking. “Kiem?”

"Meant to do that," Kiem said from the floor. He had managed to get his trousers off, but was now sitting in a corner, if half-collapsed against the wall could be called sitting. One look at his face and Jainan realised Kiem had somehow been managing to hide the true extent of his exhaustion. Not anymore.

Jainan took his wrist – Kiem didn't resist – and attempted to help him to his feet. "Kiem," he said. "You're not in a state to wash. Go to bed."

"I'm showering," Kiem said to the towels. "I’m getting in the shower."

“You don’t need—” Jainan broke off. It wasn’t as if he didn’t understand the feeling. He considered whether or not he could take a liberty, and decided that he probably could. “Fine. In that case.” He pulled Kiem the rest of the way to his feet and let go of him – Kiem propped himself up against the towel rail – and stripped the rest of his own clothes off. He turned the shower on and the sensors lit up. “At least this way we don’t have to fight over who gets to go first.”

“Right! Right.” Kiem caught on to what they were doing and yanked his shirt over his head, nearly making himself overbalance again. Jainan steadied him. “More tired than I thought,” Kiem said, in what might have been an apology. He stumbled into the shower, keeping himself stable with a hand on Jainan’s arm. The way his eyes tracked to Jainan’s exposed chest on the way was gratifying even though neither of them were in much of a state to do anything about it.

The sensors beeped in confusion when they registered two people. Showers were highly personalised things, and Jainan hadn’t been using this one long enough to get to know it, but he managed to wrestle one of the jets into manual mode. Kiem sighed when the water hit him in what Jainan now recognised as exhaustion. He dropped his face into the curve between Jainan’s neck and shoulder and stood there as the water coursed down his back, his weight against Jainan.

“Kiem,” Jainan said. “Really.” It felt good in a low-key way, even through Jainan’s own fatigue, and even though it was thoroughly inconvenient he couldn’t quite bring himself to do much about it.

“Mrh,” Kiem said. “You have so much hair.” He brought up one hand and ran it through Jainan’s rapidly soaking hair – or tried, and stopped, because by this point Jainan’s hair was one big knot.  He made another wordless noise and shook his head as water ran into his face.

Jainan had to suppress the urge to laugh when it occurred to him that Kiem could very literally drown in his hair. He must be tired if he was finding that funny. He took hold of Kiem’s hand and disentangled it, inexplicably gratified. “Try not to fall over for two minutes, and I promise you can go to sleep.” Kiem made another noise which might have indicated cooperation.

He did a reasonable job of rinsing them down, given the circumstances, and managed to get Kiem dry afterwards. Drying Jainan’s hair was a lost cause even with the heater, but he was too tired to care about damp. Kiem was now unapologetically leaning on him to stand.

When they emerged from the bathroom, Jainan was tired, strangely content, and not expecting it when Kiem attempted to pull away.

“What is it?” Jainan said.

“Need to get out the bed,” Kiem said.

Jainan stopped where he was. The folding bed. He realised that he had objections. And he also realised something else: Kiem’s eyes had darted to his face as he’d said that, and Jainan was not used to reading Kiem but felt he could now take a confident guess.

“Kiem,” he said deliberately. “You’re my partner. Come to bed.”

Relief broke over Kiem’s face like sunlight. “You mean that? You mean that.”

“Obviously,” Jainan said. “Apart from anything else, you are going to be asleep before you hit the pillows.” He guided Kiem to the bed and Kiem half-collapsed on it, tugging Jainan down with him.

When Jainan hit the mattress, he knew as a certainty that he would also be asleep as soon as he closed his eyes. This was an utter waste of having Kiem in the same bed. Even so, Jainan’s last, startled thought was that there would be time. They had all the time they could want.

Chapter Text

“The humming is new,” Prince Vaile said.

Kiem broke off, startled. His cousin quirked an eyebrow at him from the other end of the flyer seat. He had met her in the city coming back from one of her parliamentary committees, and she’d offered him a lift rather than waiting to call a driver. “Huh. Must’ve picked up the habit somewhere.” He couldn’t remember where: he was tone-deaf and probably shouldn’t be inflicting his humming on people.

“I wasn’t objecting. You seem happy.”

“It’s a nice day,” Kiem said. He belatedly looked at the sleet hammering against the window. “I mean. For winter.”

“Charming! One can be soaked and frozen at the same time.” Vaile shifted delicately. Sharing a flyer with Vaile meant squeezing into a corner of the back seat while Vaile’s skirts occupied all of the available space, but Kiem had known that since they were children. “So I take it you haven’t suffered any lasting injuries from your adventure?”

“Right as rain,” Kiem said, which was only a slight exaggeration. It had been three days and the muscle aches and the headaches had faded. “Jainan did all the right things. And the medics, of course.”

“I was glad to hear Count Jainan came through unharmed,” Vaile said. “He’s very important to our relationship with Thea. How are the Theans, by the way?”

“Uh,” Kiem said. “Okay? The Ambassador’s been in touch a couple of times. Jainan’s introducing me to some people in his clan.” His mind had already wandered to Jainan, and wondering whether he was back from the College yet. It had been dark outside for a couple of hours but it wasn’t that late, and Jainan often worked right up until dinner.

“You’ll both be at the Advisory Council dinner tonight, won’t you? There are a couple of people I want to introduce you to.”

On the other hand, there was a good chance Jainan was back already. Kiem could have been with him right now, if he’d left the city earlier. “Yeah, I think we’re going,” Kiem heard himself say. His wristband chimed, bringing him back from his distraction. “Wait. Bel?”

“Your aide?” Vaile said. Her brow wrinkled. “I thought you said it was her day off.”

“It is – she wants to talk. That’s weird.” Kiem raised his head. They were passing through the palace gates and into the drive in front of the main facade, on their way to the side entrance that served the living quarters. The sleet was turning into swirling snow. “Hey, can you let me off here? She says she’ll meet me on the main steps.”

“Of course.” Vaile buzzed through to the driver. “I do hope everything is okay.”

Bel was already standing at the top of the sweeping marble steps when Kiem jumped out of the flyer and hurried up to her through the flurries of snow. Everything was not okay. He looked at the vacuum capsule hovering beside her, and her thin travel coat, and the expression on her face, and said, “Oh, shit. You heard from home.”

“My grandmother,” Bel said. “I need to go, today. Now, if it’s okay.” She brushed her braids back from her face, then did it again when they immediately fell back. “I don’t have time to arrange cover. I’m sorry.”

“Hey, no, it’s okay! Have you got a shuttle ticket? Can I get it? Should I call your family and say you’re coming? Can I—”

No!” Bel took a breath. Snow was landing on her hair and soaking into it. “I just need to go. I have a flyer booked. My shuttle leaves tonight.”

Her face was even more strained than it had been when he’d arrived. Kiem felt helpless and dumb. He held out his hand. “Well. Good luck.” That wasn’t even the right thing to say.

Bel nodded. She didn’t take his hand, but instead fished in her bag and brought out a data coin, which she dropped in Kiem’s palm. “The raw data from the crash,” she said. “It’s thousands of lines of noise to me but it might mean more to Jainan. It will take him a while to get through it. Sorry I can’t stay and help.”

“We’ve got time,” Kiem said soberly. “More than you, right? Don’t worry about it.” He wanted to offer to book her a flyer, or something stupid like buy her food for the journey, but she would already have that in hand. There was nothing he could do.

She gave him a mechanical smile and something that looked halfway to a salute, and turned and started walking to the gates. The vacuum capsule bobbed behind her.

Kiem’s good mood had been well and truly punctured. He turned away just before she reached the gates. Something made him want to avoid the bustle of the main hallways, so he took a detour straight through the rose garden, where regimented beds of dead earth formed geometric patterns in their coats of snow, designed to be beautiful even in winter. There were still dead bushes in the beds. A bulky form had knelt down in the flurries of snow to examine one of them more closely.

Kiem wasn’t really in the mood for a conversation, but the person was familiar, and it seemed rude to pass without saying anything. “Agent Deln.”

Deln straightened up. Her first look at Kiem was startled, and then she seemed to remember something, and focused on him. “Your Highness. I was meaning to catch you.”

A short pause. Kiem spread his hands, filling it. “Here I am.” He paused again, since it looked like he wasn’t getting out of this. “What did you want?”

Deln knocked some snow off the knee of her trousers. After that first moment of surprise, her face settled back into her habitual look: as if she had seen some seamy corners of the world today and was not impressed. Kiem expected something about the flybug crash. But she looked past him, at the living quarters, and said, “You remember you asked about Count Jainan? Who gave us the initial warning?”

Kiem’s back prickled. The security clearance thing. “Yeah. Did you find out?”

Deln’s usually inexpressive mouth twitched at the corner, as if in a suppressed grimace. “This isn’t information we give out, understand? Identities of sources are usually what makes information classified.”

“Yeah,” Kiem said, carefully, recognising that it could go either way. “But…?”

It seemed the wrong place to be discussing this, outside under the grey snow-laden sky. They should be in a back room somewhere. Deln seemed to know without even checking that there were no other people around, but there was no mistaking her discomfort. “There are complications,” she said. “You may be able to shed some light on it.”

“Try me,” Kiem said, when it was obvious she wasn’t going to continue immediately. A horrible suspicion was blooming somewhere behind his eyes. He didn’t want to entertain it; it was ludicrous.

“We had a character statement,” Deln said. “The whole case was based on a detailed character statement that said Count Jainan had conflicting loyalties and a habit of trading information to feel superior. The exact words,” she said, over Kiem’s involuntary noise of protest.

“Who the hell said—”

“Prince Taam’s aide,” Deln said. Brutal like a cracked rib. “Corporal Nelen.”

Kiem didn’t protest, and he didn’t demand any more. Instead he just stood, for a second, and felt the bloom of anger crystallise.

“Your Highness?”

“Thank you,” Kiem said. His tongue felt thick in his mouth. “I appreciate you telling me.”

Deln was looking at him with something like mistrust. “Well, let me know anything that occurs,” she said.

“Excuse me,” Kiem said. “I have to be somewhere.” He turned his back on her and climbed the steps back into the palace.

He didn’t see whether she left. The white stone clattered oddly loud under his boots. He was concentrating too much on the steps in front of him to look where he was going. “Sir?” a steward said at the top of the staircase. “Are you all right?”

“Fine, thank you,” Kiem said blankly. “Excuse me, I need to get to—” Where? Ah. Without finishing the sentence, he turned and walked down a corridor to the north wing.

As he walked, his hands were automatically spinning through contacts on his wristband with barely any input from his brain. He stopped on one that looked likely, and touched his ear implant. “Hi,” he said. “Sergeant Vignar? How’s it going. Yeah. No, I missed the race today. I’ll catch it later. I know this is out the blue, but I’m trying to track someone down.”

The barracks were not far from the North Quarter, the sprawling buildings separated from the rest of the palace complex by a parade ground. Kiem had been there with his mother a few times, although not in recent years. They had guards on the entrance to the secure areas. That wouldn’t be a problem. He only wanted the dormitories.

A few minutes later he was walking down the corridor looking for the room number Vignar had given him. No palace white here: the décor was grey and impersonal, but apart from that the setup reminded him of the dormitory apartments where Bel had a room. He pressed the buzzer outside the door he was looking for. A voice came out of the intercom. “What? You buggers know I’m packing, piss off.”

“Corporal Nelen?” Kiem said. “Kiem.”

There was a sharply indrawn breath, and something Kiem couldn’t make out which sounded like a curse. Then, after a long enough wait that Kiem started to think he wasn’t going to get in, the door slid open.

The small, cramped barracks room was a mess. Nelen stood in the middle of the detritus of packing: there were suitcases and vacuum capsules gaping open on the floor and the lower bunk, and clothes covered both the tiny desks. Nelen was half-out of uniform, dressed just in a T-shirt and army casual trousers bunched at the waist, hair freshly helmet-cut. He stared at Kiem with his arms crossed over his chest.

The movement of the door caused one of the precariously balanced vacuum capsules to fall. Nelen cursed and kicked at it, and it clattered against the wall and slammed shut with a violent hiss. “So he talked,” Nelen said. He shoved his heel into a pile of clothes to widen the small amount of floor he had left to stand in. “Figures. Sly fucker.”

As the door had opened, it had finally occurred to Kiem he didn’t know what he was going to say. But luckily, that wasn’t a problem anymore. “I don’t think I heard you right,” he said. Slow, banked rage unspooled itself somewhere in his chest. “I’m sure I didn’t hear you insulting Count Jainan.” He picked his way into the room, looking where he put his feet among the piles. He had to breathe carefully, because it felt like the rage unwinding inside him would overflow if he didn’t. It was an unpleasant feeling. “Did I?” He looked up from his feet and straightened, letting himself fill the space. Nelen took a step back, bristling. It felt like they were going to fight. Kiem hadn’t hit someone in anger since he was eight, and Nelen was combat-trained, but some awful part of him seemed to be welcoming it.

They both knew they weren’t going to get into anything physical. Cameras in the passage would have recorded Kiem coming in. Kiem tried to stop the feeling he didn’t care.

“He never liked me,” Nelen said, faster and a couple of tones higher. “For fuck’s sake. He’s just trying to get me in trouble. You can’t believe everything he says.”

“That’s funny,” Kiem said. “He didn’t say anything. Thanks for confirming, though, you spineless bastard.”

That was when his hindbrain expected to get hit. He even saw Nelen’s fist clench, and tensed up. Nelen said, “Don’t pretend you’d have done any fucking better. You don’t know what it was like.”

“Like?” Kiem said, taking a heavy step further into the room. “Like? You told Internal Security he was a security risk because of some stupid grudge! Do you even know what that did to him?"

He hadn’t thought he would get a full confession. But he was expecting something other than the incredulous look of disbelief Nelen gave him.

"What– Oh, for fuck's sake. You’re going on something you got from Security?”

“And from you,” Kiem said. The worm of doubt, half-ignored, was growing in his brain, but he had started and he was going to finish. “You told me you didn’t get on with Jainan. You were the one who gave the character report to Internal Security.”

Nelen began to laugh. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. Kiem waited for him to finish, but Nelen seemed to find something about that desperately funny; he bent over his stomach like it hurt and had to hold the metal post of the bunk bed to keep his balance.

"Pull yourself together," Kiem said, more for the sake of having something to say than because he expected it to be listened to.

Nelen straightened up, his expression ugly. "You shit-for-brains loose screw," he said. "I did that on Taam's orders. You don't understand, do you? Everything I did – and that wasn't much, get it – was on Taam's orders."

Kiem felt the niggling doubt grow. “I—you—that can’t be right.” But it could. “Taam was Jainan’s partner.” But there were problems. Kiem took a breath that felt like a swallow of neat liquor. "Jainan says otherwise. Give me one good reason I should believe you over him."

"Look at you. Pull yourself together," Nelen mimicked. He turned away and grabbed a stack of folded clothes from the bed, obviously what he had been doing before Kiem had walked in. “What do you think you’re going to do to me? I’m fucking leaving. Finally got posted topside.”

“I’m,” Kiem said. I’m going to destroy you and Taam and anyone who ever hurt him. He swallowed again, horrified at the strength of his anger. “This—you—”

“You think you’re just going to blow the whole thing open?” Nelen’s back was to him now, but the tension showed in how he moved. “Jainan won’t thank you. He’ll just hold a grudge if you go spreading it around – stiff bastard holds grudges about everything. He never talks to anyone. For ages even I didn’t know fucked up it was getting.”

Kiem took a very long, slow breath. It didn’t help calm whatever was inside him; it only brought it closer to the boil. Nelen’s voice was going through him electricity, making his muscles twitch, and though he had never been like this he now understood fully why it would feel good to knock someone into the wall. The urge to do it was like a coiled spring.

But he didn't have to give in. Something clicked, somewhere in his head, and suddenly the fury was – not gone, but channelled into something that felt something like calm. He smiled. It felt almost normal on his face, but not quite. “You’re being very helpful. I appreciate it. Tell me what it was you didn’t know about.”

His smile must have been further off than he thought. Nelen stopped scowling and stared at him. He looked almost spooked. “I didn’t do anything,” he said. “It wasn’t my fault.” As it was having an effect, Kiem kept up the smile. Nelen’s eyes met his for a minute and then skittered away. “Fuck this!” He lifted his hand and slammed his palm against the slat of the bunk. The whole thing shook. “I just want to get out of this pit of a city.  It’s poison. I never wanted to be caught up in politics or around you lazy titled fucks. I just wanted to be in the army.” He pushed himself away from the bunk. “To hell with it.” He grabbed an armful of clothes, tossed them aside, and delved into a standard-issue personal effects box that had been hidden underneath them.

Kiem opened his mouth, and then shut it, on a hunch. There was something different about Nelen’s movements; faster and jerkier, as if a switch had flipped somewhere.

“Where is– finally.” Nelen paused and drew something tiny and gleaming out of a compartment. It was lucky all of Kiem’s attention was on him, because he turned and tossed it at him without further warning. Kiem just caught it. A data coin.

Nelen folded the compartment layers hastily shut and tried to slam the box’s lid. It was a new one, though, and it only glided closed with a faint hiss. “Don’t ask me why I kept it,” he said. “I had nothing to do with it, okay? You don’t know how it was. I would’ve got crucified by Command saying anything about a Major. I’m just a fucking grunt. You’re never going to see me in HQ again. I give you what you want, and you don’t come after me. I didn’t do anything anyway. It’s a deal, all right? All right?”

Kiem was turning the coin over in his hands and not paying attention. His fingers were slippery on it, as if his body had produced a fine sheen of sweat without consulting him. It felt like a bomb. “What?” he said blankly, pulled out of the reverie.

“Don’t – fuck, don’t look at that in here. I’ve got to pack.” Nelen grabbed a bag as if to illustrate it and took a step towards Kiem, bristling. “I’m busy. You need to—”

Kiem wasn’t listening any more. He was vaguely aware that he was being forcibly herded out, but that was fine. He was going anyway. Nelen didn’t seem important. Nothing seemed important except the slim disc of cool metal he held in his hand.

The door shut behind him. He was aware of passing other people in the corridors, but he didn’t see their faces. He realised he was walking too fast; he was probably drawing attention, and attention was the last thing he wanted right now. He stopped in an out-of-the-way corner where two little-used corridors met and took the coin out of his pocket. It was warm from his hand; had he been holding it that tightly? He rested it onto his wristband, where it clung.

A vid. His mind was strangely blank. His movements felt mechanical.

At first, when he opened it, he couldn’t make sense of what he was seeing. Then his eyes adjusted and he realised it was a view of a corridor from the static angle of a security camera. It wasn’t a place he recognised, but it had the white walls and polished opalescent flooring of – no, he did recognise that flooring pattern, that must be somewhere in the palace. It looked like somewhere in the private living quarters.

The feed ran for a handful of seconds without any movement. Part of Kiem’s mind spun in the background, wondering if Nelen had given him something useless to fob him off, but most of his thoughts just focused on the still vid, blankly, like it was a sheer drop in front of his feet.

The film moved and two people came into view. Kiem’s stomach lurched as he recognised Jainan’s slim, straight figure. Beside him was a man his height in a gold-braided uniform with dark, close-shaven hair – that was Taam.

Even though there was no sound, it was clear something was wrong the minute they came in the picture. It must be an argument, because Taam was saying something with his face distorted into a scowl, and the expression Jainan wore was completely closed-off. Kiem was sickeningly familiar with that expression. He checked the timestamp in the corner – late at night. Both of them were in formal dress; they must be coming back from an event. Jainan said nothing as Taam pressed in close to him, clearly angry from his jerky strides down the corridor. Taam seemed to grow more and more irritated as they drew closer to the camera, and finally something he said seemed to resonate with Jainan, who turned his head and replied with something short and clipped.

In the next second, Taam had grabbed Jainan’s arm, twisted it behind his back, and shoved him against a wall. Jainan said something else. Taam backhanded him across the face.

Kiem’s fingers clenched on the insubstantial sides of the projection. He froze it, with a violent, instinctive jab, but then couldn’t move his hand again. It felt like he had ripped a scab half off.

In the frozen vid, Jainan’s expression was one of pure shock. He wasn’t even looking at Taam, but past him, to the corridor where they’d come from. He was checking if anyone had seen.

The prickling down Kiem’s spine wasn’t going to stop if he didn’t get this over with. He unfroze it.

Taam said something only inches away from Jainan’s face. Jainan was fully focused on him now: he held his head stiffly and said something in the gap between whatever Taam was saying – from the shapes of his lips, and because he was expecting it, Kiem could make out public and not here. Jainan jerked his chin to the door opposite.

Taam stopped. His lips drew back from his teeth, but Jainan had carried the point. He adjusted his grip on Jainan’s arm – Kiem let out an involuntary hiss – and shoved him towards the door. Jainan put up little resistance, only shook his arm just as Taam let go as if shaking off something unpleasant. The door opened and he stepped through it. Before Taam followed, he looked around and his eyes fixed on the security camera. Kiem felt a stupid urge to draw back, as if he’d been seen. But he carried on watching as he saw Taam call over Jainan’s shoulder to someone already in the room. That – delete – Kiem couldn’t make out any more.

Kiem recognised the place now. That must be their rooms.

The vid – the security camera footage Taam had called out to delete – ended and shrank back to a dot. That was it. The data coin held nothing else.

Kiem didn’t feel shock. That was the worst part. He felt surreal, headachey, as if his muscles weren’t under his control, but not shocked. He’d hit the replay button by mistake. It started to play again; he jabbed it to stop, and then to start, and then to stop again a second later when he couldn’t bear it. His wristband screen shut off.

All of a sudden he couldn’t stand still any more. He paced to the window and back to the wall. It felt like there were stinging insects moving under his skin, crawling inside his ribcage and pooling in his chest. This made no sense. He raised his wristband, spun through to Bel’s contact, and then violently cancelled the action. He couldn’t call anyone. This made no sense.

Jainan had loved Taam. Yes, he had dropped a hint or two that their marriage wasn’t perfect, but no marriage was, and the only times Jainan had spoken sharply to Kiem were when he had sounded like he was disrespecting Taam’s memory. Would you do that for someone who had acted like that? Jainan hadn’t fought back in the vid. He could take out a charging bear with nothing but a tree branch, but he’d done nothing. It had come from Taam.

Kiem compulsively started and stopped another sliver of the video. The two figures hung frozen at the far end of the corridor, inexorably headed to their room. Jainan had loved Taam.

No, he realised. Jainan had never said that.

It hadn’t been grief that made Jainan gaunt and drawn when Kiem first met him. He had looked the same in the vid: pinched and strained and entirely focused on Taam. Like – fuck – like he’d been entirely focused on Kiem the first few days after the wedding. Those odd pauses. The messages linked to Taam’s account. The way Jainan had never said no.

If Kiem had known him as he did now, he would have noticed that. If he’d had the intelligence of a block of wood he would have noticed it. He was the most unobservant, most world-shatteringly useless--

His wristband chimed. He nearly dropped it.

Tiny lettering projected itself over his wrist, reminding him he and Jainan were nearly late for the Advisory Council dinner. He stared at it for a long time. The stinging feeling under his skin made it a punishment to hold still.

He shoved his hands in his pockets and turned around. He needed to talk to Jainan.

Chapter Text

It was a measure of the good mood Jainan was in – the absurd, borderline improper good mood that had lasted two days – that he was humming under his breath when he returned to their rooms from the College, and that even when he realised it he didn’t stop.

The living room was empty. He listened for a moment, putting away his outdoor coat and hat in silence so he could hear any movements. Then he realised that was a lingering, nonsensical habit. What did it matter now if he heard anyone before they heard him? It was as if yet another layer shed off his old self – he was impatient, now, pushing them off just as they began to slough. He had so much time to make up.

“Kiem!” he called. “I’m back!” He was cutting it fine; they should be leaving for the Advisory Council dinner in ten minutes. His head was still full of equations. He would have to rely on Kiem for the small talk.

No reply. He had forgotten – Kiem had gone out to a fundraiser in the city, and had said he might be late to their engagement tonight. “Bel?” he said, more tentatively. Also no reply – of course, today was her day off. Bel had her own life. Jainan sighed and shut the cupboard, then smiled a fraction at his own ridiculousness. He did not need people to welcome him every time he walked in the door.

He dressed for dinner in seven and a half minutes and was out of the door in eight. The dinner was only ten minutes’ walk away in another part of the palace so he arrived well in time. Through the open doors of the dining room he could see there was already a crowd of people, none of whom he knew. The thought of going in without Kiem wasn’t that attractive. He slipped into one of the empty, elegantly-decorated anterooms off the corridor and checked the messages on his wristband while he waited.

No messages from Aren. Jainan didn’t realise how much he’d been dreading one until he saw the list, clear of Aren’s picture. Another thread of tension seemed to loosen. It was odd, he had never felt more free. There was finally nothing to look over his shoulder for. He should have cut Aren out months ago.

When someone came in it took him an idle moment to turn his head.

“Kiem?” Jainan dropped his wrist and the screen disappeared. The chair he was in skidded back an inch as he scrambled to his feet. “Is something– What’s wrong?”

Kiem didn’t answer. He was standing in the doorway so the door couldn’t close.

“Are you ill?” Jainan took a step forward. The lines on Kiem’s face were tight and strained. “I’ll – I’ll call someone.” Sit down, he wanted to say, but Kiem’s eyes on his stopped him.

And in that moment of silence, Jainan knew that his formless anxiety that had been tailing him for months had finally been proven justified. Something was terribly wrong.

Kiem tried to speak, but had to clear his throat. “I– Jainan– We need to talk. About.” He stopped.

Jainan froze, as his mind crowded with all the things he could have told Kiem but hadn’t. Some minor transgression – someone he had spoken to, or some way he had embarrassed both of them – no, that couldn’t be it. He struggled to remember that Kiem wasn’t like that. “About what?”

Kiem stepped in so the door shut behind him. “You and Taam.”

Jainan had never heard Kiem’s voice sound like that before. It could still be anything, he told himself. The air around him felt sticky. It terrified him that he was falling back so often on his last line of defence – I don’t want to talk about it – but he started framing it anyway. “I—”

“Nelen told me how things were.”

No. Jainan’s next words dried up on his tongue. Cloying shame filled his mouth, his throat; it bound his feet to the floor.

“Jainan?”

“It’s not true,” he managed.

What’s not true?” Kiem said. There was a pause, as if, in the natural flow of conversation, he expected Jainan to reply. “Jainan, I saw it!” He must have seen Jainan’s flash of panic, because he frowned and said, “You were – you were arguing. It was a security feed.” It was obvious he didn’t want to say the next bit, but Kiem had never learned to hold the slightest thing back. “He shoved you into the wall.”

It’s not what you think. It was less than a handful of times. That sounded so pathetic Jainan discarded it. He shook his head, fighting a wave of nausea.

“Jainan, come on!” Was Kiem raising his voice, or was Jainan imagining it? He couldn’t tell; his ears were buzzing. “Nelen told me Taam was the one who told them to revoke your security clearance. See, you’re not even surprised. You knew that. You knew, Nelen knew – oh, for fuck’s sake, Aren knew, didn’t he? It was staring me in the face. Fuck.”

Jainan stood like a statue, one hand resting on the back of the chair. His eyes compulsively followed Kiem as he paced from wall to wall: he was blurred, a dark shape that Jainan couldn't focus on.

“Aren knew,” Kiem said, persevering. “Why did he come to see you? To – make fun of us, or something? To play with our heads? Why didn’t you say anything?”

So Nelen had told him everything. Jainan could see Kiem and Nelen with their heads together, dissecting Jainan’s list of private humiliations. Nelen in his mind’s eye was contemptuous, Kiem as he was now: distressed and disgusted at the same time. You couldn’t love someone when you had trawled through their sordid problems like this. They were only an object of pity. He was an object of pity.

Kiem was still talking. Jainan couldn’t make sense of it any more. He imagined the garbled noise as a river below him, and he himself balanced on a mountainside dam that was cracking under his feet. Everything he’d built was falling down. Everything he had tried to do for Thea was rendered useless by his failure. He thought he’d been dignified, he thought he’d been brave – really, he had just been blind to the fact that nothing he could have done could save his dignity when people found out. Nothing could make him more than a sob-story.  

 “Jainan?” Kiem said. He had stopped; he was only a pace away from Jainan. “You look – Jainan!” The name was like a whip. Kiem reached out.

Jainan pulled away. His failure, his terror was coming to a point in his head like a blinding light. He hadn’t even moved consciously. The headache built up into layer upon layer of blind rage and panic until what came out of his mouth was, “How dare you?

Kiem’s mouth formed the start of what, but didn’t finish it.

“Do you enjoy seeing me shamed?” They were the first words to hand; Jainan flung them like stones. Kiem actually flinched. But he had stopped talking, finally, and Jainan didn’t dare let him start again. “I asked you not to! I asked you to leave it alone!” He was shaking. He couldn’t make his voice steady. “This was my marriage, my past – did you think it belonged to you just because I married you? How dare you!”

“I didn’t— I wouldn’t—” Jainan could barely see Kiem through the haze that blurred everything, but Kiem’s voice was agonised. He wasn’t used to Jainan being emotional and underhanded; Jainan was tearing him raw. The minute he stopped, Kiem would realise how unfair Jainan was being. Sweet God, it was so much easier to be angry than afraid.

“I am not your toy,” Jainan said. He didn’t know where the words were coming from but they were right to hand. “Do you think you have a right to everything I think?” He had to hold onto the back of the chair, because if he moved he was afraid the shaking would make his knees give. Kiem was shocked and silent. Of course he was shocked, he didn’t know Jainan could be like this. “I have to go,” Jainan said. It sounded lame and faltering. “I have to go and get—I have to go.”

He slipped past Kiem, striking out blindly for the exit. But Kiem reached out after him. “Wait! Jainan!” He moved as Jainan did, his arm outstretched to catch Jainan’s elbow.

Jainan sped up his pace until he was nearly running. He shoved the door aside and burst into the hallway, now crowded with dinner guests. He was aware of someone behind him, nearly on him, and he turned and flung up his hands in front of his face to protect it. “Please!”

Nothing happened. When he lowered them, there was only Kiem, staring at him with something like horror. People were looking at them. A silence had fallen: an unbreakable, unforgivable silence.

“I… I understand,” Kiem said, into it. There were tight lines at the corners of his eyes. “I’m, I’m sorry. I’ll leave you alone.”

And then he was gone.

It happened so fast that Jainan didn’t even realise it until the talking started up around him again. People’s sidelong glances were turning into outright stares. Kiem had gone, not towards their rooms, but deep into the palace in the opposite direction.

Jainan looked at the floor, reflexively straightened his shirt, and pushed through the crowd without meeting anyone’s eyes. He must have walked back home, but he didn’t remember it. The next thing he knew he was back in their rooms. Their silent, white, empty rooms, with just the ringing memory of what he had done.

Instead of taking a chair, he let his knees crumple and slid down where he stood until he was sitting against the wall. He had never let himself lose his dignity like this before, but what did it matter now? Kiem wasn’t likely to come back.

This was how he was. This was what Taam had seen in him – this vindictiveness, this poison. None of this was Kiem’s fault, Jainan had just lashed out and made a spectacle of both of them. He would deserve Kiem’s anger. He was unlikely to get it; anger would be preferable. What he had seen on Kiem’s face was more like betrayal.

Who would he tell? With Taam there had always been the safety of knowing that both of them would rather crawl over broken glass than shame themselves in public. Kiem didn’t have that safety catch. Would he talk to the press? Jainan couldn’t stop him. Jainan could not break the treaty. He could not go back to Thea. He pressed his hand over his face and tried not to think about the fact there was no way out.

He would have to talk to Kiem later and try to salvage something. He stared at the floor in front of him and felt the weight of the heated palace air on his shoulders as if it had substance and mass, pressing down. Was the marriage dissolved? Kiem knew what was wrong with him now. Even if Kiem got over that, how likely was it that he would feel charitable after Jainan had disgraced them both?

The door chimed. Jainan looked up, adrenaline surging through him, until he realised that the door would have just opened for Kiem without announcement. His head sunk again to look at the floor. Any visitor would have to come back at a different time. He was not going to receive company on Kiem’s behalf, not now.

The chime sounded again. It cut off halfway through, with a harsh beep, and the door opened of its own accord. An arm slammed against it as it drew fully aside and someone else’s hand slapped a manual lock on the side to keep it open.

Jainan was only halfway to his feet by the time the visitors entered. There were five of them: a corporal strode into the middle of the room and his four soldiers fanned out into a loose semicircle. Their incapacitator guns were out. They weren’t pointed, but everyone’s attention was on Jainan.

Jainan stopped his instinctive scramble to stand and rose the rest of the way slowly. He was in a place beyond emotion. “Ah. Good evening.”

“Count Jainan.” The corporal didn’t even incline his head. “I would be obliged if you refrained from sudden movements.”

Aren. Jainan had been a fool, denying Aren access to his account. He should never have deluded himself that breaking away would be easy. He weighed in his mind what way Aren could have found to get back at him, while his mouth formed the next words automatically. “To what do I owe this visit?”

“You are under arrest for the murder of Prince Taam,” the corporal said, “and the attempted murder of Prince Kiem.”

At that moment, Jainan realised, he was no longer capable of feeling anything other than numbness. His emotions had exhausted themselves into a pulsing tangle and were lying somewhere too deep to touch. This would have taken longer than two days to set up, so Aren must have known Kiem’s flybug was going to crash. Jainan had severely underestimated his drive and was clearly going to pay for that mistake. Oddly, Jainan’s main feeling was distant relief. It felt like a program script that had been running in the background and had finally reached a conclusion. The worst had happened. He was no longer waiting.

“I see,” he said. He should probably inform Kiem. There was very little chance he would be cleared. Aren had contacts in the military – between him and Taam, Aren had always been the one with the network, and if he had gone this far he must be confident he could influence the eventual tribunal. Maybe Kiem would see that as for the best. Jainan actually being convicted might be the neatest solution for everyone. “May I send my partner a message?”

“We will inform Prince Kiem,” said the corporal. One of the soldiers directed his capper over Jainan’s hand in case he went for his wristband. “Hand over your communications devices, please.”

Jainan drew off his wristband, slowly and in full sight of the soldier with the capper. He handed it over. “Is that all?”

“Indeed. Please.” The corporal gestured for Jainan to precede him. “I regret the inconvenience, believe me. Hopefully this will be temporary and you will be cleared quickly.”

So the corporal didn’t know what Aren was doing, or he was being subtle. “Indeed,” Jainan said. “I imagine this will clear everything up quite well.”

He passed the corporal, and turned of his own accord towards the barracks.

 

*

 

You could not be destroyed if you did not engage. It was an Iskat military mantra, and Jainan remembered it as he pulled his dignity into a small compartment in his own head, closed it securely, and left it until whatever was going to happen had played out. He had done that before. He didn’t let himself consider whether it could work here.

He walked with four soldiers around him into the palace barracks, deeper into the complex than he had ever been before. This had been Taam’s domain, somewhere Jainan had never intruded. Now here he was. He felt as if he was floating a little way behind and above his body. He saw himself incline his head politely to the duty officer and allow his hands to be cuffed in front of him.

There was some wariness among his escort, he noticed. One of them projected a small screen above their wristband and checked a newslog site. Jainan had thought he was past acknowledging fear, but was unpleasantly surprised to find he was not. There was apparently nothing there, though; the soldier only shook his head at the corporal and put the display away.

This was a handover: two different soldiers took him onwards, deeper into the complex. He drew some stares in his tailored civilian clothes – did they know who he was? He kept his face turned away as far as possible. News would spread but he didn’t have to help it. They took him through a secure door, into a corridor lined with cells, uncuffed his hands, and ushered him into the nearest one. Jainan stepped through the door alone.

There was a spartan bed, a convenience niche, and that was about it. The front was a glass observation panel. The only place to sit was on the bed, so Jainan sat there. He clasped his hands loosely between his legs and tried to blank his mind completely, but it wasn’t working. He just kept thinking, Has Kiem heard?

It was a stupid thought. There was nothing Kiem could do when he heard, even had he wanted to; Aren had obviously prepared this. Jainan realised that at some level he was expecting Kiem to just walk in, grinning that stupid, endearing grin and saying everything was sorted, he’d talked to some people, Jainan could go home.

But that wouldn’t happen. The military was Taam and Aren’s territory, a world away from the people Kiem could call in favours from. And on top of that, Jainan didn’t even know if he’d want to after the argument. Kiem wasn’t a bad person. When he found out, he would probably tell the Thean Ambassador; he’d make a fuss even in spite of Jainan’s recent actions. Jainan let himself imagine that for a moment before resigning himself to the knowledge that there would be nothing that Kiem or the Theans could practically do.

He shut his eyes and fell into a sort of meditative state. There was nothing to do, so he did nothing.

He didn’t have his wristband so it was almost impossible to tell exactly how much time was passing. It couldn’t have been too much later in the evening when the door to the cell opened.

“Good evening, Jainan. I’m sorry I find you like this.”

Jainan’s head snapped up. The tension coiled back into his shoulders and he stared up at Aren’s familiar frame in the doorway, relaxed and leaning against the strut that supported the glass panel as if he were paying a social call.

“Please, don’t get up,” Aren said, when Jainan didn’t move to rise. “I don’t want to bother you.”

Jainan disregarded why are you here as naïve. He stayed silent.

Aren gave a wide grin, came in, and perched on the side of the tiny sink. “How’s the accommodation?”

Jainan stirred. “Until you arrived,” he said, “part of me was still wondering whether this was an honest mistake.”

“I’m sure it is a mistake,” Aren said.

Jainan could have been imagining it, but he thought there was an edge to Aren’s voice; a strain that hadn’t been there before. It was nearly covered by the jocularity.  “But not an honest one?” Jainan said, and was rewarded with the first crack, a slight, angry jerk of Aren’s head.

Aren covered it up with a half-smile. “Still so combative. I’m here to help you get out of here, you know. Shall we go over why you’re here, so you can give me your version of events?”

“Will it help?” Jainan said.

“I’m sure it will. Let me lay out the case against you.” He shifted as if to make himself comfortable; how Aren could make himself comfortable on the edge of a sink was a mystery. “You are a foreign national, from a planet that was only brought into the Iskat Empire forty years ago. You’ve been married to two Imperial princes. Both of them have been involved in flyer crashes, one of them fatally.”

Jainan knew that was why he was here, but it still made his back prickle to hear it. None of this was under his control at all. “What motive would I have, in this fantasy of yours?”

The glint of knowledge in Aren’s eyes made a mockery of that. “What do you think of Prince Kiem?”

It should have been an easy answer. Jainan didn’t know why his throat constricted. “He is very kind,” he said. It sounded entirely fake. He could hear his own controlled, distant voice and wanted to shake himself. He had spent so much time making his voice emotionless that he had broken it. It was stuck that way.

“Mm?” Aren said. “A bit of a precipitous marriage, though. A bit hard on you, when you’d only just got out of the last one. This isn’t my opinion, to be clear, this is what the investigators are thinking.”

Jainan folded his hands in the lap. “I was, in fact, in the vehicle with Kiem when it crashed,” he said. “Can you convince them I meant to kill myself as well?”

“It must have been a nasty surprise,” Aren said, conversationally. “He made you come with him at the last minute, didn’t he? He booked a flight plan just for himself – the records are there – then altered his plans to take you with him. What a shock for you.”

“That isn’t true,” Jainan said, more for form’s sake than out of any notion it would change anything. “I have no quarrel with Kiem.”

“But you had a quarrel with Taam?” Aren said.

“No,” Jainan said.

“Oh, come on,” Aren said, very soft. “You had plenty of reason. I was there.”

“Taam and I had a happy marriage,” Jainan said. Somehow he had said that and meant it dozens of times before. It had never rung as hollow as it did now.

“Taam would never have admitted otherwise,” Aren said. “Not one for admitting things, really.”

Surely Aren wouldn’t pull anything detailed up from the past. He hadn’t been involved, but he had been Taam’s intimate friend, and he knew more than he should have. Surely it would reflect badly on him to bring any of it up. “I take exception to that,” Jainan said quietly. “You are libelling both me and Taam.”

“Am I?” Aren said. “Taam, who was married to an engineer he treated badly, and incidentally died from a flyer accident?”

Space-side engineer,” Jainan said, but Aren laughed and Jainan knew the distinction would be lost on any investigator. The burst of energy from their verbal sparring drained away. “Why are you here?” Jainan said. “You’ve all made up your mind. You don’t need any evidence from me.”

“Don’t be so fatalistic,” Aren said. “I believe there are things you could say to change the way this seems to be going.”

It took Jainan a moment to process that. ”Ah,” he said. “How very convenient. You still think I have the passphrase to Taam's account, and you think you can now bring a great deal more pressure to bear on me. Remind me why this is so important to you?”

“Jainan,” Aren said. “I told you.”

“To cover up Taam's activities,” Jainan said levelly. “And what was Taam doing exactly, Colonel Saffer?”

Aren hesitated, then gave a fluid shrug. “What was Taam always doing? Looking for the next way to put one over on everyone else. He always had something on.”

Jainan nodded involuntarily. Taam had always needed to be one step ahead. He had always had some scheme going, and if he was in a good mood he would tell you about it. Jainan had listened to a lot of them as a way to keep the peace for the next ten minutes.

“It was minor,” Aren said. “Just an agreement with some Sefalans. Half the army contractors do it. All the projects done out in the middle of nowhere are oversupplied. Taam just sold off some surplus equipment, that’s all. I found him some contacts, since he was so hell-bent on it.”

“Oh,” Jainan said, feeling a familiar current of tiredness even under the despair. “So those accounts were right. Petty embezzlement.” He wished he could have thought, Taam wouldn't. But he had known Taam was like that, and it felt like he had known for a very long time.

“Accounts?”

“I went through some data the College got hold of,” Jainan said.

Aren raised his eyebrows. “And you said nothing? A law-abiding citizen like you?”

“I thought there might be a mistake—” Jainan started to say, but then cut himself off. He’d known Taam. He’d known it was probable. He had only convinced Kiem it was a mistake to save Taam’s reputation. “No.” Jainan had spent so long protecting Taam’s pride. It had felt so important. “You had the contacts, though, didn’t you? You were in deeper.” Taam, like Jainan, didn’t have the knack of reaching out to people. He wouldn’t have known where to start to sell something on the black market. You would need a network for that. You would need someone sociable and ingratiating – someone like Aren. “So there was a reason you were at that dinner with the leader of the Blue Star raiders.”

Aren frowned. “How did you know– ah. Your pet secretary.”

“How much were you making?” Jainan said. Or was Aren still doing it? No – something had gone wrong, or he wouldn’t be desperately trying to access Taam’s accounts. “What happened?”

Aren hesitated, then that wry grin came back on his face. “All right, it went wrong,” he said. “Taam was involved, of course it went wrong. Taam promised more than he could sell, accepted the money for it, and then tried to say he hadn’t. You don’t cheat these sorts of people. They’re pressuring me to get the money back. I can’t put them off any more.”

“There probably is no money,” Jainan said. “You knew Taam.”

“I’ll check that for myself,” Aren said, still friendly. “And if not, I still need proof for Evn.”

So if Jainan gave him access he could continue his scam, or at least break it off with no harm to himself. “Mm,” Jainan said. “That’s a pity.”

“Come on, Jainan. You’re not really in a place to refuse.”

He wasn’t. Aren had made very sure of that, though he couldn’t possibly have known—

Oh. Jainan stared at the wall in front of him. By the sound of it, the last person who had been in Aren’s way was Taam.

Taam, who had died in a flyer accident.

“So…” Aren said, long and drawn-out.

“Taam,” Jainan said abruptly, cutting him off. “Did you– did you sabotage the flybug?” Of course. A compressor malfunction could be faked. Taam’s accident had taken him out of Aren’s way. How handy. And if that had worked so neatly, and Aren had wanted something to frame Jainan – “And Kiem?

Aren gave a non-committal shrug. Jainan couldn’t help but glance up at the corners of the room. Cameras didn’t usually record sound, in the Empire, as Iskaners considered that intrusive. But surely a prisoner wouldn’t have privacy. Surely this was being monitored somewhere.

Aren followed his gaze and sighed. “You’ve got a really low impression of my intelligence, haven’t you?” Jainan shook his head, but Aren ignored it. “This is what really pissed Taam off, you know. You get smug and you think everyone else is less clever than you. The cameras aren’t recording us. And yes, if it helps you, that was me.” He smiled. He was still leaning against the sink, but now he was coiled up like a wound spring, no longer projecting insouciant casualness. “Now, come on. I’ve told you everything. You’re on the inside now. Help me out.”

“You killed Taam,” Jainan repeated, just to make sure.

"Oh, for fuck’s sake," Aren said. He took two strides over to the bed and grabbed the front of Jainan’s jacket. Jainan let himself be pulled to his feet. “This is your last chance. Record the damn passphrase.”

Jainan could feel Aren’s fingers entangled in the front of his jacket. It was the only thing that stopped him from ignoring his body all together. He stared blankly at Aren’s shoulder and thought of mountains outside.

“No?” Aren said, at Jainan’s continued silence. “Listen, Jainan.” He released his jacket and took hold of Jainan’s wrists, almost gently, like a friend. Jainan let them hang limply. “You might be thinking you still have options, but you don’t. You think the Thean embassy will help you? Thea’s a tiny vassal planet. If they interfere, there’d be war and they would be crushed. You think Prince Kiem is coming? Kiem’s been avoiding any position of influence for years. There’s nothing he could do even if he wanted to. And I don’t know that he’ll want to.” He must have seen some reaction on Jainan’s face, because he nodded slowly, almost sympathetically. “I’m sorry. You’re not likeable, you know. You push people away. Is it a surprise you don’t have anyone who can help?”

“No,” Jainan said.

“No,” Aren echoed. “No, you’ve done a very good job of making yourself alone.” He turned over Jainan’s wrists in his hands, and one of his thumbs traced a faint line on the skin on the inside. Jainan’s skin crawled. “You’re powerless,” Aren said softly. “Unless I call some people off, you’re going to take the fall for Taam’s death.”

Jainan closed his eyes. If he concentrated, he could almost totally ignore the place where Aren’s hands touched his wrists.

“Unless you get my help, you’re finished.” Aren said. “Do you understand?”

“Mm,” Jainan said.

Aren gave his grip a slight squeeze. “Are you listening?”

“Very much so,” Jainan said, opening his eyes. “You seem to be operating on a flawed premise.”

“What?”

Jainan was so distant by now this felt easy. “You don't have to try and convince me all this is true. I know it is.” He smiled; no more than the muscles contracting as if programmed. “Do you know the only thing Taam taught me?”

“I doubt Taam was capable of teaching anything useful.” Aren was smiling, but the rest of his expression had pulled away from behind it, leaving the smile alone.

Jainan spread his fingers, his wrists still in Aren’s grip. “On the contrary. He taught me how not to care.”

For a moment Jainan felt Aren’s fingers tighten reflexively. A frisson of repulsion went up Jainan's arms.

And then the pressure was gone. “Well, then,” Aren said good-naturedly. “Sorry to have bothered you.” He stepped back, releasing Jainan's wrists.

Jainan automatically rubbed them, his eyes fixed on Aren. If he could feel anything through the distant buzzing of defiance, it would have been uneasiness. “Excuse me?”

“No, excuse me,” Aren said. “I apologise, this hasn’t been worthwhile for either of us. I won't trouble you further.” He smiled and gave Jainan a mocking courtly bow. “A more official investigator will be along later. I wish you luck.” He turned and keyed himself out.

As Jainan watched the glass door close again behind him, the uneasiness rose like an itch up his back. He’s told you too much. Everything about that had been wrong. The military would have to question Jainan as part of the investigation, but it would still have to be an official recorded session. Aren clearly had some pull over Jainan’s detention and had thought he could use it to get the passphrase. Jainan had denied him and he had left, so presumably Aren didn’t have free rein here. But he had admitted things to Jainan that could ruin him.

Jainan’s skin crawled at trying to get inside Aren’s head. He half expected an interrogator to follow on Aren’s heels with some new and worse accusation, but nobody came until some time later when a guard turned up with a tray. Jainan stared at it blankly before realising that it was evening and of course he had missed dinner.

The guard set the tray down on the foot of the bed. Jainan noted that every dish and implement on it was the kind of floppy plastic that bent under pressure. Another part of his mind noted that the guard had left the door open, and for a split second had his back to him – and there was no second guard watching the entrance

That was a treacherous train of thought. I wouldn’t even get down the corridor, he reminded himself.

By the time he had finished thinking that, the guard was gone. Jainan looked at the tray. The food was unappetising – some sort of half-liquid protein stew and a mound of pale fibre. The water was ice-cold, an unexpected luxury in the harsh air. Jainan’s throat was already dry from the industrial heater that must be powering the air circulation. He drained the cup and managed to pick at some of the food.

He would go mad, he knew from experience, if he didn’t calm down. When he had pushed the food away again, he shut his eyes and tried to meditate. The air smelt clinical and there was no soundproofing. He could hear doors slam and footsteps in corridors through the walls.

In spite of all the distractions, he started to feel calmer. The edges of his thoughts softened.

It took him the space of several long minutes, suspended in a strange pool of quiet, before he realised that his thoughts weren’t just softer, they were now hard to grasp. There was a tingling in his cheeks. As soon as he felt that he tried to panic, but his mind was slowing down like treacle.

He turned his head slowly, his vision blurring at the edges. The food still sat there, but of course the water glass lay empty. It had to be that. Even thinking that far hurt mentally, like nails down a pane of glass, and he squeezed his eyes shut to try and stop it. He felt sick. He should probably vomit, that would help. He got to his feet, turning to find the sink.

The world blurred and tilted. He didn’t realise he had fallen until he felt how much it hurt. As he lay there he heard two sets of footsteps come over. His vision was blurring, but he thought they might be guards. One seemed to be holding a second food tray.

“Well, fuck, I didn’t do anything to him,” the guard said, apparently to a companion.

“Medical issue,” a second voice said. “Thought this might happen. That’s why I brought the hoverchair. I’ll take it from here.”

“All right,” the guard said. “Not that I’m being picky, but you have authorisation?”

 “Here,” the voice said. “From Colonel Saffer.”

Chapter Text

Kiem wasn’t dressed for the outside on a winter night, not even for the shelter of the gardens. As he leant against one of the trees and spun through his wristband, his fingers were stiff and slow. He’d been out here for too long and he still hadn’t worked out what to do next. He should go inside.

He didn’t. He spun compulsively between a short list of names projected from his wristband: Bel, Jainan’s sister Ressid, a couple of people at the Thean Embassy. Bel was in the shuttleport and not answering. It wasn’t even fair to try and get hold of her when she was worried herself, but Kiem had been calling her anyway because he was desperate. He hadn’t yet brought himself to try the Theans. What could he even say? We’ve failed Jainan in every way, but I can’t tell you anything more than that?

He dropped his wristband and let it jar against his leg while it was still scrolling. The display broke up and disappeared. He was in the semi-forested area at the back of the palace, where snow piled up against trees between the carefully curated open spaces. They’d hold gatherings and events there in the summer, but nobody was out here now. The sky was inky black above him, only a few stars visible against the lights of the city.

His band lit up again. Kiem glanced briefly at the caller – not Bel or Jainan – and didn’t activate it. This was the first time in his life he’d ignored this many calls in a row.

“Is everything all right there, sir?”

Kiem looked up as a security guard loomed up out of the gloom, snow crunching heavily beneath their feet. “Everything’s – fine. Just getting some air.”

“I see.” The security guard’s voice wasn’t disbelieving – the palace was too civilised for that – but his eyes were on Kiem’s soaked indoor shoes in the snow. Then he raised his eyes to Kiem’s face again, and recognised him. “Oh – your Highness. Apologies. I’ll leave you to it.”

A laugh rose up in Kiem’s throat that felt like he choking. He should make an excuse. He didn’t.

“Your band, sir,” the guard added helpfully as he moved off again.

It wasn’t as if Kiem couldn’t see it flashing again, shockingly bright against the dark trees. He glanced down, ready to ignore it again – but it wasn’t a call, it was a message. From Bel.

He turned away, the security guard already forgotten, and jabbed again to call her. No reply. He groaned and flipped to the message.

Can’t talk, it said, but are you ignoring the Emperor or something? Her Private Office have called me four times.

“Urgh, that’s not important! Pick up your calls!” Kiem said to the screen. But he had a sudden vision of Bel’s face if she’d heard that, and he glanced at the message again, coming to his senses. The Emperor?

When he looked properly at the call list, half of them were from someone in the Emperor’ Private Office. The last time those people had called him he’d been summoned to the one of the Imperial receiving rooms and told he was getting married.

Nothing was a good enough excuse for ignoring the Emperor.

He called them back. A face appeared on the display almost immediately, in an office that was oddly busy for so late in the evening. “Your Highness,” said a very proper aide in a voice that was pointedly not impatient. “We have been trying to reach you. The Emperor would like to see you.”

“What? Why?” Kiem said. The aide’s head tilted, deflecting the question. If they were allowed to give out that information they would have given it already. Kiem amended the question. “When?”

“She expected to see you some time ago,” the aide said. Even now that caused a minor echo of panic in Kiem’s head. “Now would be a good time.”

Four and a half minutes later, Kiem was in an anteroom to the Emperor’s inner study. His shoes and the hem of his trousers were still soaked with snow, because he hadn’t been able to face going back to his and Jainan’s rooms and he would be asking for trouble to make the Emperor wait any longer. Her office told him to go straight in.

He lifted his hand up to register his bios at her study door. The door opened before he’d even touched the pad. He pulled back reflexively, screwed up so tense everything came as a shock.

The man who came through was tall and bony with white hair severely clipped in a military cut. The only sign of his rank was the six gold circles of the Supreme Commander on the breast of his uniform. Kiem stepped back to make room. “General Fenrik.”

General Fenrik turned his head stiffly as he passed, his sharp eyes immediately fastening on to Kiem. Like the Emperor, he had passed his century mark a while ago. It took him only a split second to place Kiem and the expression on his face suggested the information he was pulling up on him was not favourable. “Oh hellfire, it’s you this is all about?” he said. “Tegnar’s boy. I’d forgotten you.”

“Um,” Kiem said. “Sorry, I’m not up to speed here.”

The General snorted. “Go in. You will be.” He turned away, his back military-straight. An imperial insignia flashed on his shoulder, and Kiem was suddenly arrested, reminded of the same insignia on Aren’s uniform. Taam had had a circle of young officer friends, part of the backbone of the army. They had known Jainan. Why had nobody reported anything? What was wrong with the army this man ran?

“General,” Kiem said.

General Fenrik stopped and looked back, impatient and forbidding. “What?”

Kiem stared at him. There was nothing he could say, he realised, unless he was planning to tell Fenrik everything. And he couldn’t do that to Jainan. “No,” he said. “Never mind.” In the face of the General’s renewed frown, he turned and pressed his hand to the entrance panel to start his bio checks.

The Emperor’s inner study was unlike any room he’d seen her in before. He saw her frequently at ceremonies, of course, but even the few times he’d actually been in an individual conversation with her had been stiff, formal occasions in her receiving rooms. Every couple of months he’d be summoned with his mother, and later by himself, to sit on the edge of a gilded chair and be grilled on his educational progress, career choices, and – latterly – what he’d been thinking when he’d given an unsanctioned interview to the latest gossip columnist. But this room was different; this was the Emperor’s working room. It was severely plain, no gold at all, with unadorned walls which probably disguised some serious soundproofing. As Kiem crossed the threshold his wristband went dark. The room held just a desk and a circular table, with neat squares of projected files, at which sat the Emperor, an aide, and Chief Agent Rakal.

“There you are, Kiem,” the Emperor said, cutting across something Rakal was saying. Rakal fell silent immediately. “Where have you been? Sit down.”

Kiem bowed, muttered an apology and sat in the chair the aide pulled out for him. That wasn’t as bad as it could have been: the Emperor had once kept him standing outside for three hours after he’d been late to an appointment. But somehow that wasn’t reassuring. He sat on the edge of his seat, tense, and looked between them for clues. “May I ask why I was summoned, your Majesty?”

“I summoned you a good while ago,” the Emperor said, her tone crisp. “The armed forces have arrested your Thean partner on suspicion of doing away with that boy Taam.”

Kiem looked at her blankly. The words lined up, but they didn’t make any sense. “I don’t understand.”

“And attempting to do away with you, apparently.” The Emperor was always brusque; now there was a note of arch impatience. “Did you notice?”

“Your Majesty,” Rakal murmured, in what sounded like a protest.

“Do – what? No! Nothing like that happened! Where the hell has this come from?” Shock poured over Kiem in waves. “You've arrested Jainan?”

“The armed forces have arrested him,” the Emperor said. “How many times do you need it repeated? Compose yourself,” she added sharply, as Kiem half-rose from his chair.

Kiem’s movement was stopped by a hand on his shoulder. In the time it had taken him to rise the Emperor’s aide had somehow got behind him and pressed down meaningfully. It was like being levered by a steel bar. Kiem dropped back into his seat, realising he didn't have information he needed. “Where have you taken Jainan?”

Rakal gave a discreet cough. The table was almost too high for them; they rested their hands on the edge of it as they leaned forward.  “We have not taken him anywhere, your Highness,” they said. “The military are not the civil authority.”

Everything in Kiem’s head was protesting, but this rang a faint bell. “That’s why General Fenrik was here?” he said. “The military have got him?” He appealed directly to the Emperor. “Ma’am, you’re still the Emperor. You can order him to let Jainan go.”

It was Rakal who answered again. “Do you recall Count Jainan’s behaviour around the time of your flyer crash? I believe it was only four days ago.”

It took Kiem a moment to form words out of his shocked and furious bafflement. “Jainan was in the flybug!”

Neither the Emperor nor Rakal responded. Kiem had the feeling he wasn’t telling them anything they didn’t know. There was a moment’s silence, and in it Rakal looked at the Emperor. “You see, ma’am,” they murmured. “If the motive was as clear-cut as they’re saying, Prince Kiem should have noticed something.”

“So noted,” the Emperor said, “but not conclusive.”

“Conclusive of what?” Kiem said “This is insane! Jainan killing Taam? Trying to kill me? This is – this is bullshit!”

“Kiem, if you comport yourself like an adult who has been called in for a briefing, you will receive the briefing I summoned you for,” the Emperor said irritably. “If you insist on acting like a child in a tantrum, you may leave.”

Kiem’s mouth shaped itself around a response, but he knew she was fully capable of throwing him out. Getting himself cut out here would be putting his own stupid instincts above what Jainan needed, as he’d been doing for weeks. Jainan would have been able to control himself. He shut his mouth and put his hands on his knees. “Of course, ma’am. I would very much like to know what is going on.”

The Emperor spared him a fraction of a nod. “Jainan is currently being held in special detention in the barracks on site.  The military investigators have a case against him which rests on several pieces of incriminating biological evidence in the workings of your flybug—”

“—which could have been planted,” Kiem said, controlling his voice with a supreme effort. “Ma’am.”

“I have seen their case the military investigation team have put together,” the Emperor said. “It is… not unconvincing. Rakal here has been petitioning me to transfer Jainan and his case to civil authority. General Fenrik is convinced it will come under a military tribunal, as the murder victim was a serving officer.”

“I reiterate my opinion, ma’am,” Rakal said. “This is not legitimately a military matter.”

“Would Internal Security be any better?” Kiem said, roused. “You didn’t even realise the security clearance flag came from—” He bit his tongue, suddenly realising that wouldn’t help at all.

“Prince Taam,” Rakal said, measured. “Yes, Deln found out who it originated with. There may have been more bad blood between Prince Taam and Count Jainan than we realised.”

Bad blood. Kiem had a crushing view of how much the rest of the story would bolster the case against Jainan if it came out. “Jainan wouldn’t kill anyone,” he said. Somehow stating it baldly like that didn’t seem to have the effect he wanted. “He’s innocent. He could at least come home, couldn’t he?” His mind filled with hiring lawyers, finding evidence, maybe cornering Nelen and shaking him until he found out what was going on.

Rakal’s mouth tightened. Kiem saw the shared glance between them and the Emperor, and his stomach tightened even before Rakal said, “Not if he remains with the military. Her majesty has decided there may be advantages if they conduct an interrogation.” The Emperor appeared deep in thought and didn’t move to speak. “I am opposed to this,” Rakal added.

What advantages?” Kiem said. “The military can’t interrogate him!”

“They can,” Rakal said quietly. “Effectively.”

“And the civilian authorities legally cannot,” the Emperor said. Kiem took a breath, but he had no words. The Emperor shook her head slightly as if shaking off vacillation. “No, Rakal, I have made my decision. If the case is less clear-cut than it seems, they will get nothing usable from an interrogation and you can have Jainan. If otherwise – that will clear up this mess swiftly.” Her mouth twitched down at the corner. “And land us with a different one, of course. But that is politics.” She nodded to her aide, who made some sort of note on her special-issue wristband. “I will allow them two days. Kiem, you will cooperate with Rakal and with the military authorities when they require it. You will speak of this to no one: everything is under top level classification. Do you understand?”

“Ma’am,” Kiem said, his voice only a thread.

He barely maintained his demeanour through their dismissal. His bow was even clumsier in comparison to Rakal’s punctilious one, but the Emperor was already dictating orders to her aide and didn’t notice. As they left the room, Kiem’s wristband woke up and flared into life again. He ignored it. He wordlessly matched his stride to Rakal’s and stuck to their side, all the way through the Emperor’s outer office where her lower-ranking aides worked, all the way down the tower’s lifts and into the main corridor. Rakal didn’t try to start conversation.

When Rakal turned off down the corridor that led to Internal Security, Kiem turned with them.

Rakal stopped. They folded their arms and turned to Kiem, their chin tilted up aggressively. “Say what you’re going to say, your Highness.”

“What can they do to interrogate him?” Kiem said.

Rakal’s shoulders were tense. “They have arrested him under military law. There are very few legal limitations, though I’m sure they’re aware that if they don’t acquire damning evidence, there will be serious consequences if a Thean representative turns out to have been physically harmed. Nevertheless.”

“And you’re okay with this?” Kiem demanded. “Everyone’s okay with this? Jainan lives for duty! He’s probably never done anything illegal in his life!”

“The Emperor has given a direct order,” Rakal said. “The civilian legal process should be followed for civilians, but what are Internal Security against the old guard?” There was a note of bitterness in their voice which threw Kiem off for a moment. The Emperor had called him General Fenrik, Kiem remembered, when she barely gave anyone else their title. General Fenrik was the Emperor’s generation, back when the military had been vastly more powerful than the civil infrastructure. Rakal was young, could not be more than forty. “Jainan may not come to much harm.”

May not?”

Rakal looked to the end of the corridor, and said, “There are drugs.”

Kiem took a deep breath. “I’m not going to let this happen.”

“I will not be drawn into this line of conversation,” Rakal said. “We did not speak about this. However,” they added. “If Jainan were to somehow… walk out of military custody, I believe that would alter the situation.” They looked Kiem right in the eye. “I believe if that were to somehow happen, I would be able to keep his case under civil authority and stop him going back in.”

“Right,” Kiem said. He took another breath, and said again, “Right.” Rakal gave him a hint of a nod.

Kiem watched as Rakal walked the length of the corridor, stiff-backed, and turned a corner. Then he raised his wristband and spun up the Thean Ambassador. As he strode back to his and Jainan’s rooms, he wrote out, Jainan falsely arrested. Petition for release, and added a precis of everything the Emperor had said. He finished just as the door of his rooms shut behind him.

Then, and only then, he entered the high urgency code that was only supposed to be used for a life-or-death situation, and called Bel.

He waited so long he started counting the seconds. A minute. Ninety seconds. Eventually, though, the soft waiting pattern dissolved into Bel’s face. She was in what looked like a privacy capsule at the shuttleport, and her face looked distracted and drawn with worry. “Kiem?” She looked at him and behind him and seemed to reassure herself he wasn’t in immediate danger. “I’m literally about to get on the shuttle, they’ve just called it. I can’t talk.”

“Jainan’s been arrested,” Kiem said. He could hear his voice crack. “They think he killed Taam and tried to kill me. I need to get him out before they interrogate him. I need your help.”

Bel’s eyes widened, but only for an instant before calculation spread across her face. “Let me guess,” she said. “Colonel Saffer.”

“I’m sorry,” Kiem said. “You can still go tonight, just delay by half a day, I’ll book you on a new – what?”

“Saffer’s somewhere behind this,” Bel said. “And if you’re worried about interrogation that means the military have him. Hell fucking damn it.”

Right,” Kiem said, who had rarely heard Bel swear like that before, but at least someone was having the right reaction. “I need you. Just for half a day. A few hours.”

She paused. Kiem realised he was gripping his wristband with his other hand, a stupid habit from when he was a child and thought you needed to keep holding it to make the other person’s image stay there. The edges pressed into his fingers. “Please.”

“Kiem,” she said at last. “There’s not a lot I can do. If you wanted to bring pressure to bear, it’s not going to help if you send me to talk to people. They’ll need to hear from you. I’m really sorry.”

“I’m not going to talk to people,” Kiem said. “I’m getting Jainan out.” He lowered his voice, stupidly, as he was in his own quarters. “I’ll cover you when it comes to the legalities, I swear, but I need you. I know you can get around entrance scanners. You did it for me when I lost my wristband last year. I’m going into the barracks and I’m going to come out with Jainan.”

Bel had already covered her face with her hand. “Oh fucking hell.”

Kiem could feel his momentum crumbling away from under his feet. He barrelled on anyway, desperate. “I have to do this before they hurt him. There’s stuff you don’t know about Taam and – please. I know you need to get to your grandmother soon—”

“Stop,” Bel said. Her voice was muffled behind her hand. “Stop, shut up, for the love of everything shut up. There is no sick grandmother!”

Kiem stopped. “What?”

“I’ve been lying to you!” Bel said. Her voice was lower and faster now, almost a whisper. “I don’t know where the hell my grandmother is, she was with the Black Shells last time I spoke to her. She’s probably fine. Stop – stop sympathising!

That put a wrench even in Kiem’s current panic. “Wait, what? Black shells? Is that a temple?”

“She’s a raider!” Bel said “Do I have to spell this out for you? She runs her own conglom! Like the one I came from!”

“I don’t- You- Conglom?”

“Raider outfit!”

“Right,” Kiem said, and bit down on I knew that. His limited knowledge of Sefalan affairs wasn’t the issue here. He tried not to feel like he was talking to someone else, someone who wasn’t Bel at all. “Why did you need to lie to – no.” That was stupid. Bel was still the same person she’d been for all the time he’d known her, and she hadn’t let him down in anything yet. She would have her reasons. “You know what, if you don’t want me to know, I don’t need to. But please, can it wait for just a few hours? I’ll rebook you on the next shuttle out.”

Bel was now staring at him. “You’re an idiot. Don’t you want to know why I’m going?”

“Did I do something?” Kiem said desperately. “Can I make up for it?”

No!” Bel leaned in closer. She was still whispering, apparently not trusting the privacy capsule. “Did you hear the part where I said my grandmother split off with the Black Shells? Do you know that kind of trade usually runs in families? I was born on a Red Alpha ship! I was one of our system breakers for ten years! It was my job to break into shuttle communications networks so they couldn’t use them when our ship attacked!”

This called for thought. Thought which Kiem couldn’t really spare. “I’ve seen your resume,” he said. That hadn’t been on it.

“I faked nearly everything I gave you!” Bel said, in a whisper so vicious it was almost a hiss. “You’re not this stupid!”

“Oh, right, obviously,” Kiem said. Every minute he couldn’t get Bel to come back was a minute Jainan was still under arrest. “So…? I thought you might have some friends that weren’t totally above-board. You don’t still do that stuff, do you? I know you.”

Bel looked utterly taken aback for the first time since Kiem had known her. “So? I lied to get this job. I lied to that outfit you use to recommend people – charities are easy to fool. I used to be a raider, do you need this spelled out for you? I used you to get away and go straight!”

Kiem rubbed his hand across his forehead. “Listen, you can break the security protection on any palace system you’ve accessed,” he said. “Or you take it to dodgy back-alley shops and it magically does what I’ve asked you to make it do. Of course you picked it up somewhere, I’ve always known you had some shortcuts. You’re not doing anything bad, so I don’t know why I should have cared.”

“You will care when Saffer sends it to you and to the media!"

“You’re – wait, you’re being blackmailed?” Kiem said. “By Aren Saffer? That’s why you’re leaving?”

Bel’s mouth pursed shut. Her nod was almost imperceptible.

A wash of relief went over Kiem “Oh, well, that’s fine then.” He knew he could outmanoeuvre Aren if it came to the media. “I’ll call a journalist. We’ll make up a story for you. Come back and help me get Jainan.”

Bel looked at him, then something in her seemed to crack, and she covered her eyes with her hand. “You need help,” she said. “No, I know Jainan needs help, but so do you, because you’re clearly mad. But I’m going to come back and this is a conversation we’re going to have later. Okay?”

“Okay! Yes!” Kiem said. “Come straight. Put the flybug on account. I’ll pay speed fines.”

“And you’re still going to get me a replacement shuttle ticket even if Internal Security comes after me.”

Please don’t go, Kiem wanted to say. “No problem.” He gave her a thumbs-up. “Anonymous and first class.” She nodded and cut the call.

Raiders. Kiem let out a long breath. No wonder she hadn’t wanted to give him her real history. He couldn’t imagine Bel as part of a hijacker crew, but most of what Kiem knew about raiders came from vid dramas, so what did he know? And what did it matter? She’d come back when he needed her. He could at least keep her out of trouble afterwards. Even if it meant she was leaving for good.

It took an hour to get from the shuttleport to the palace even by the fastest route. Bel took longer. By the time she arrived, Kiem had trawled his room in the hope Jainan might have left a message, had a tense call with the Thean Ambassador, and made an exploratory trip to the main entrance of the barracks to see who was on duty. He was obsessively poring over a satellite map of the palace complex when the door finally opened.

“I’m back,” Bel said behind him. She sounded uncertain.

Kiem didn’t even think before he shoved back his chair to get to his feet and hugged her. She obviously wasn’t expecting it and it only occurred to him he probably shouldn’t have done it after he had, but Bel was already patting him cautiously on the back. “You are the only person apart from Jainan right now that could make me feel better.” Kiem said. “That wasn’t office-appropriate, was it. Sorry. I have some ideas about your blackmail thing—”

“Later,” Bel said. She let down her capsule, neatened her tunic and straightened up, gathering her confidence back with the movement. “Sorry I’m late. I stopped to pick some things up. What do you know about Jainan?”

Kiem told her. He started with the emergency conference with the Emperor and Rakal, and what Rakal had said about interrogation, but his explanation was jagged and all over the place. He skipped back to what Nelen had told him earlier that day, and his argument with Jainan. He told her about the video.

As Bel listened, her expression grew flatter. “Explains a lot,” was all she said.

“You knew?”

“No,” Bel said. “I felt something was wrong, but you can probably guess why I wasn’t going to push. We all have something to hide. I think Saffer knew, though.”

Saffer. Everything came back round to Aren Saffer, Taam’s best friend. “And he was blackmailing you?”

“All you need to know from me right now is that shithead Saffer is in deep enough with the Blue Star to pick up where I was from. All that stuff Jainan found about Taam’s embezzling? That went through Saffer, I think.”

“What was he blackmailing you for?” Kiem said. “Money?”

“Looks like he just wanted me out of the way,” Bel said. “I thought he was just scared I had enough raider connections to figure him out. I should have realised he had a reason to make me leave just now – but I didn’t know he wanted something from Jainan.” She eyed him. “Jury’s out, but I’m thinking he may have misjudged the blackmail.”

“He’s going to regret he ever tried it,” Kiem said. “If I see him on the way to get Jainan I’m going to haul him out by his stupid insignia and dump him on the Emperor’s lap so she can end him. Or on Rakal. No, he’d squash Rakal. Come and look at this.” He jabbed the screen up bigger and threw the satellite image on the wall. The labels on the various buildings that made up the barracks loomed larger.

“Where did you get this?” Bel said, leaning closer to it in fascination. “I thought aerial images of the palace were classified.”

“It’s Mother’s,” Kiem said. “Back when she was trying to get me to take an interest in our glorious heritage. I think this is a detention block. Does that look like a detention block?”

“That’s weapons storage,” Bel said. Her finger tapped a different unlabelled square. “I’d put money on this being the detention block. That kind of construction means serious shielding, and its entrances are controlled. Only—” She traced a line to another building, attached to the main complex. “This has a weird amount of shielding as well, but there are too many access points for it to be a good prison. I’d put high-value prisoners in the other one.”

Hearing high value prisoner felt like someone was scraping a nail down his spine. Kiem steeled himself not to show that. “If I get you up to the block, do you think you can break some of the entrance scanners?”

“Probably,” Bel said. “But it’s going to be tricky to get that far. There’ll be guards. How… lawful do you want to be?”

“I want Jainan back,” Kiem said. “Out. I mean. I want Jainan out.”

“Agreed,” Bel said. She leaned down to open her vacuum capsule. “I went shopping on the way back from the shuttleport.” The two lumps she brought out were protected by layers of white sheeting. She unwrapped one. “Seen one of these before? It’s an incapacitation gun.”

Kiem held out his hands and gestured for her to toss it over. “I know what a capper is.”

“From vids?”

“Not just vids.” Kiem caught it when she threw it. “My mother sent me to army cadet camp one horrible month when I was sixteen.” It was oddly light in his hands. He’d forgotten what these things felt like.

Bel eyed him dubiously. “So you can use one?”

“There was a reason they sent me home early,” Kiem said. “But good call getting hold of them – we can make a show of force just by having them to hand. I think we can bluff most of our way in.”

“We’re talking about a secure military unit,” Bel said.

“If they wanted it to be secure,” Kiem said, “they shouldn’t have tried to hold Jainan there.”

Chapter Text

The line between consciousness and sleep was very thin, and Jainan was still unsure he’d crossed it when he opened his eyes. Everything around him was blurred. He felt the press of handcuffs around his wrists and the support of some sort of padding against his back. Something dug painfully into his head. He was lying down.

What was terrifying was that the dizziness didn’t clear any further as he woke. The slightest movement of his head left him drained and sick. He forced himself to try and look around anyway.

Wherever he was wasn’t a cell. It was more like a medical bay. That explained the hardness of the bed under him, though not the odd standing spikes at intervals throughout the room. A few feet away there was a figure working at a screen on a small display table. Jainan took a deep breath against the rising nausea and concentrated hard, and it resolved into a woman in a private’s uniform, her back to him.

Jainan tried to sit up, and that was when he realised the cuffs were totally unnecessary. He could barely manage to make his muscles acknowledge him, let alone obey him. Even as he moved his head a fraction he felt a lightning stab of pain in his scalp. Something was attached to his head.

The soldier turned around at the slight disturbance. “Awake already?” she said. “You metabolise fast.” She killed the display table and turned – not to him, but to a stand nearby, where she retrieved something blurred and round, and carried it over to him. Jainan focused on it and realised it was a medical helmet. It was more complex than the ones he’d seen in hospitals.

She held up the helmet, letting him focus on it. “You know what this is? Seen the spikes around the room?”

Jainan had to take a breath before he answered. “Some kind of field?”

“Right. Tau field,” the soldier said. There was a rail on the side of the bed, like the kind used in hospitals to keep patients from rolling out. She lifted it out of its holders and left it on the bed to allow better access; Jainan couldn’t stop himself flinching away, but she didn’t move to touch him yet. Her voice was uninterested, business-like. As if this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. “Heard of it?”

Jainan had. The reality-distorting interrogation machine they used on prisoners of war. “I’m not an enemy combatant.” Even through the blurriness, he could hear the slight Thean crispness to his own accent.

The soldier shrugged. The complete lack of reaction told Jainan they were well inside Aren’s sphere of influence. “I’m told we need one passphrase out of you. You don’t have to go under the field. Between you and me, I wouldn’t recommend it. People get damaged by this thing.”

Matter-of-fact. It would have worked better if Jainan could think straight.

“No,” Jainan said. He said it out of pure stubbornness, but he realised as he said it that there was a good reason for it. Now he had seen this – now he knew they had re-activated a Tau field – Aren could no longer defend his actions in a court of law. Once Aren had what he wanted, Jainan was going to have to die here.

Jainan felt the knowledge settle into his head, and thought, That makes it simpler.

The soldier didn’t speak to him any further. It was as if the moment he refused he stopped being human. She checked some settings on the helmet and rested it on a table beside the bed, where the surface amplified its low hum. She lowered a headrest from the wall behind his head. Jainan tried to pull away, but the weakness in his muscles went so deep it was a mockery of resistance. The final strap went across his forehead. Then the helmet slid onto his head, and noise rose to fill his ears like the sea.

 

*

 

There couldn’t be this much noise in the universe. It was like standing underneath a shuttle burner as it ignited. Jainan floated paralysed in the sea of hammering sound, convinced every scrap of his consciousness was unravelling piece by piece. He tried to scream. He couldn’t tell if he’d succeeded or not, so he tried again. His throat was raw before he stopped. He shut his eyes.

When he opened them again, he was upright, and standing in front of the palace.

The sky overhead had the bright, clear blue of summer. Of course it was summer, he thought uneasily, why would it be anything else? He rubbed his shoulder as if for warmth; a nervous tic he’d developed over his first Iskat winter.

A flyer was pulling into the driveway. Jainan’s head twitched up for the dozenth time. This time he was rewarded, because when it stopped in front of the palace, the first figure that emerged was Nelen, who held the door and saluted as Taam disembarked.

Jainan pulled a smile onto his face as he went over, and found to his relief it was genuine. They had argued before Taam left – Jainan could not seem to stop causing arguments – but Taam gave a characteristic half-smile and beckoned him to hurry. When Jainan reached him, Taam slung an arm around him and clapped him on the back, then pushed him away, holding him at arm’s length. “All right, you don’t have to be all over me.”

Jainan pulled his hands back, now not sure what to do with them. In the end he let them hang at his sides. “It’s good to see you.” The minute the words were out of his mouth they sounded flat.

Taam’s eyes narrowed, half in jest. “Rehearse that, did you?”

Jainan shut his mouth. That didn’t deserve an answer. But Taam was in a good mood, and Jainan wanted to keep him that way for as long as possible. “Did your trip go well?” Nelen was already carrying Taam’s suitcase. Jainan tried to ease Taam’s personal effects bag off his shoulder.

“Don’t grab,” Taam said, freeing it and pushing it at Jainan. “It was fine. Bloody Theans obstreperous as usual, but we got round them. The drilling starts next month.”

There was a short silence, where Jainan settled the bag on his shoulder and turned towards the palace.

“Well?” Taam said from behind him. “That’s it? A month away and you can’t even pretend interest?”

When I ask questions you tell me not to pry, Jainan thought, but bit his tongue. He turned back. “Sorry,” he said, into the further silence. Taam hadn’t moved, was just standing by the drive as the flyer left. “I’m sorry. Who did you meet with?”

Taam gave him a further stare, this one of disbelief, and burst into sudden movement to walk past him. “Never mind. Nelen!”

“Sir!”

“What appointments do I have tomorrow?”

Nelen kept up with them as he carefully consulted his wristband, falling into stride with Taam, while Jainan’s footsteps echoed out of time on the marble. “Sir, tomorrow you have a 1000 debriefing with General Meriar, physical training at 1200, then you are free until the Thean Embassy reception at 1800.”

“More damned Theans?” Taam said. “Why have I got more Theans in my calendar? I’ve only just got away from them.” It was a joke, because he was in a good mood, but that mood seemed to be fraying fast.

“This was put in your calendar by your partner, sir,” Nelen said, with an expressionless glance at Jainan. He barely ever named him. Taam was unpredictably annoyed if Jainan’s Thean title was used in private, but also if Nelen used Jainan’s first name.

Jainan retreated into a statement of fact. “The Ambassador requested our presence, Taam.” He could explain further, but it seemed like wasted effort when he knew it was unlikely to help.

“So he could whinge at me about the Imperial soldiers throwing their weight around in Thean space?” Taam’s voice went high and nasal on the last part. He sounded nothing like the Ambassador. “Heaven, give me some peace here. I’m not going. Neither are you.”

“But—” Jainan said.

“Give it a rest, Jainan. Taam turned the corner to their rooms abruptly. “Anything else?”

“You were going to contact Colonel Saffer when you came back,” Nelen said. “And your partner needs to give me the passphrase.”

“Yes,” Jainan said. Taam waved an impatient hand. Jainan struggled to remember which passphrase it was, because his mind suddenly felt slippery. He couldn’t let the others see he was having trouble. Oh yes – the override passphrase for his wristband. He remembered it, but as he said the first word, something felt wrong. He broke off.

“What’s the matter?” Taam said.

“Just say it.” Nelen was at his shoulder now. “You’re holding us all up.”

Jainan stopped in his tracks. He put a hand out to the wall of the corridor: it felt smooth and solid, but his nerve endings were lying to him. “This isn’t real.” He swallowed. “Taam’s dead.”

Nelen’s face flickered, and behind it he saw the features of the interrogator, overlaid like two projections in the same space. There was a sudden stab of pain in his head and his surroundings dissolved.

 

*

 

“—the Iskat Minister for Thea decided he was coming planet-side for Unification day, which caused a huge hoopla as usual, and now he doesn’t like that we’re meeting with out-of-system representatives when he’s not in the room – oh, you know, the usual mess of my life.” Ressid’s grin over the screen was tired but wry. “But I’ve been blathering on. Tell me about your week. Your… month? Has it really been a month?”

“It was fine,” Jainan said. His head hurt, and he couldn’t remember why. It was starting to hurt all the time. “Sorry, Ressid, could you keep your voice down?” He had the bedroom door shut and the volume down, but Taam was due back soon.

“Headache?” Ressid said. She made an effort to modulate her voice from her forceful alpha-diplomat tones. “Or something else? You’re quieter every time I talk to you.”

“I haven’t been well lately,” Jainan said. “I had a virus.”

There was a pause that was at least a second too long. “I’m kind of worried about you.”

“Don’t be,” Jainan said. This had to be headed off fast. “Wasn’t there Clan business you wanted to talk about?”

“Oh, that’s right,” Ressid said. “I need the passphrase.”

Jainan’s head snapped up. She was leaning towards the screen, her elbows propped on the table.

“No, you don’t,” Jainan said, and her face flickered and disappeared.

 

*

 

Hold on to yourself, Jainan thought helplessly, as another set of lights and emotion rose up around him. It swallowed his conscious thoughts like the sea.

“Well? What did she say?” Taam demanded.

They were in their rooms. The sky outside the windows was dark. Jainan blinked and remembered what was going on: they had just come back from a commemorative dinner to mark an Iskat anniversary of some victory or other. Jainan had been seated next to High Duke Talliel, who chaired the Unity Committee – a dull name for a group with enormous power over how the Empire was run.

As the conversation came back to Jainan the muscles in his back coiled up in embarrassment. “I mentioned it.”

“Subtly?” Taam said.

“Yes.”

“You’re no bloody good at subtle,” Taam said. “What did she say?”

Taam wanted a committee seat. Jainan had at first had no idea why he wanted Jainan to make the request for him, but he’d found out soon enough: Duke Talliel was a woman of iron-clad opinions and the ones she held about Taam were scathing. Jainan hated asking favours at the best of times. He could still feel the humiliation of it pricking at his cheekbones. She hadn’t even been scathing about Jainan himself, just given him a look as if she couldn’t credit he’d had the audacity to make the request. “I don’t think she liked the idea.”

“Of course she won’t like the idea!” Taam said. He threw off his jacket. “Stupid cow can’t see past the last time we argued – you were supposed to talk her round!”

Jainan had put a stop to most of his self-destructive behaviours, but not all, and now he felt one of them rising from somewhere deep in him. “How do you expect me to do that?” he said softly. “It’s you she doesn’t like, Taam.”

There was a moment of silence, as if neither of them could believe he’d said that. Then Taam moved. He grabbed Jainan by the front of his jacket and Jainan had to fight for balance as the high collar tightened around his neck. “You’re a damned liar!”

“I tried,” Jainan said, though any apology would be too late now. He had to take breaths carefully, around the grip on his throat. “I’m sorry. I couldn’t – I’m not subtle. I’m not good at this.”

“That’s bloody obvious!” Taam said. He bore forwards until Jainan felt the back of his legs hit the desk, only just keeping his balance. “What use are you? If you can’t even talk around one old woman, what fucking use are you?” He tightened his grip.

Jainan’s jacket collar was suddenly his enemy, cutting off his air. “INo use,” he said, struggling for coherence. “III’ll try again—”

“Did you even get the passphrase?” Taam said. “Could you even manage that?”

“The passphrase?” Jainan said. For a moment his relief at having an answer warred with confusion. “I can’t – I shouldn’t tell you that.” He couldn’t remember what was wrong, not with the pressure on his neck.

“Say it!” Taam said. He gave Jainan a shake, not much, but enough to punctuate the demand. “You can’t get any more useless, can you! Say it!”

“This isn’t real,” Jainan found himself saying, but the minute he’d said the words, he couldn’t remember why he’d said them. He had thrown up a hand in front of his face. “I can’t—Taam, I’m sorry, I can’t remember.”

Taam gave him one last shove and released him. “What fucking use are you,” he said, but it was more of a rhetorical question. He had lost the edge of his rage, as he sometimes did. “Don’t flail around at me like that.”

Jainan pulled his jacket straight and didn’t rub his throat. Whatever he had been trying to remember slipped away entirely. He felt himself settling into his surroundings like a wheel in a track it had travelled before. It was almost comfortable.

Taam threw himself down on the sofa. “I just wanted someone who could pull their weight,” he said. He was staring up at the ceiling. Jainan had been monitoring his drinks and he hadn’t even drunk that much, but clearly it had been enough to make him pensive. Jainan felt a stir of pity. He didn’t let it show. “I just wanted someone I liked.”

“I’m sorry,” Jainan said. There was nothing else he could really say. He turned away to make Taam some coffee.

The cup disappeared before he could pick it up. The walls turned grey and started to dissolve, and now the whole room seemed to be fading around him. He felt himself lose a thought that had been very important. He could no longer remember what it was.

Chapter Text

“Shit, I just thought of a problem,” Kiem said, as he and Bel made their way through the snowy courtyard between the palace and the barracks. Bel had swapped her travel clothes for a loose outfit that still looked appropriate for a royal aide but seemed to have an unusual number of pockets. “They know I’m Jainan’s partner. What if I’m just outright denied entry when they see my face?”

Bel was still adjusting the extra wristband she had strapped under her sleeve. “Don’t think so,” she said. “You’re assuming they all know Jainan’s in there. No army ever won prizes for employee communication. And anyway, Saffer will probably push to keep it under wraps. The more people who know what’s going on, the more chance someone else takes charge of Jainan before he gets what he wants.”

Kiem raked a hand through his hair. “What in Heaven does he want? He can’t cover this up by abducting Jainan! That’s going to do the opposite!”

Bel shrugged. “We’ll find out.” She tugged her sleeve down as they approached the barracks. “Stop looking over your shoulder, you’ve done it three times in the last two minutes.”

“It’s hard,” Kiem muttered. “The name on the guard schedule was definitely Arnek Deran right?”

“Yes.” As the barracks’ outside door slid open to meet them, Bel fell in behind him, looking professional and bored.

The reception space was beige and utilitarian. An open corridor led to the dormitories, but the entrance to the rest of the building was blocked by a transparent gated panel with an authorisation scanner. There was a soldier on guard next to it. Kiem strode across the room, trying to act confident. “’Morning,” he said. “Corporal Deran, isn’t it? Kiem, here to see Colonel Aren Saffer.”

The soldier got the squinty look of someone trying to remember a name, and was relieved when Kiem filled it in. “Oh, right, yeah. Your Highness. I’ll call – who was it? Colonel Saffer?”

As he spun through his wristband, Bel reached casually in her pocket and adjusted something in there. Kiem swallowed, though he tried not to be conspicuous about it.

When the soldier brought up the call, it was the blank screen of someone who’d switched their visuals off. “Colonel Saffer, sir?” he said. “Your visitors are here.”

There was some kind of industrial noise nearby on the call, nearly masking all other sound. “Send them in,” a voice said over it. Kiem winced internally. Whoever Bel had paid at very short notice to do this without any questions, they had a voice that was noticeably lower than Aren’s even when it was muffled.

The soldier frowned. “You might have to come and get them,” he said. “They’re not military, dunno if the gate will let them in.”

“Just send them in,” the fake Aren said. The call was unceremoniously cut.

“We’ve got the clearance,” Kiem said, much more cheerfully than he felt. “We’re on a new project with him.” Kiem wasn’t usually a religious person, but he found himself praying Heavens, let him believe us. No one was expecting an Imperial prince to lie his way into a facility. It might work once.

The soldier gestured them towards them towards the reader at the entrance. Kiem stepped into range and scanned his retina. After a moment – longer than it normally would have taken – there was a soft ping, and his face appeared on the small screen above. Kiem stepped over the threshold sensor, his heart pounding.

Bel did the same. Kiem realised he was tapping his foot through the delay, and made himself stop.

The ping never sounded. The screen showed up blank and a warning came up on the console. The expression around Bel’s eyes tightened.

“Aw, man, wait a moment, I have to fix that,” the soldier said. He set some kind of sequence going.

“We could just try going through anyway,” Kiem suggested.

“The sensor won’t let you in,” the soldier said, bending over the table screen. “You’ll set off the alarms. Here, I think that should do it. Try again.”

Bel shot Kiem a look that he recognised as this isn’t going well. “Hey,” he said, before Bel fell back on the contents of her pockets, “Deran, I meant to say, I dug out that vid from Press Office. Did you want a copy of it?”

 “Vid?” Deran said. He was looking at Kiem now. The ping sounded again.

From where he was standing, Kiem could clearly see the face that flashed up on Bel’s screen. She’d somehow hijacked their clearance permissions from someone else, so it wasn’t Bel’s face, but someone heavyset with a fuzz of grey hair. “Here,” Kiem said, and started his backup plan playing from his wristband.

He’d made the projection larger than usual. The room suddenly brightened up with moving images of a mob of children running around on a sunny winter’s day. Jakstad Primary fete had been a noisy event; the excited screams were incongruously loud in the small room. Everyone looked at him – Bel with a what the hell are you doing look – and as they did, the display of Bel’s fake identity flashed off, and the sensor beeped to let her through.

“Yeah, that’s her,” Deran said. He was chuckling as the kid in the front stepped out of the game and tried to stick a jelly pop onto the camera lens. “Little hooligan. Good of you to remember she was mine – I gotta say, I forgot we’d even talked before.”

Kiem grinned. “I’ve got a knack for faces. She’s got your nose.” He turned off the vid clip as Bel stepped through the sensor. “I’ll get Press Office to forward you a copy. It’s a good angle.”

“Thanks,” Deran said, and gave them half a salute – apparently forgetting Kiem and Bel weren’t military – as they passed down the corridor deeper into the heart of the complex. A bright strip of colour on the wall proclaimed this as block A.

Kiem and Bel kept silent until they were out of earshot. Every door they passed was shut. Kiem tentatively tried whistling but it sounded odd, so he stopped. Bel still just looked bored, though Kiem knew her pretty well, and the way her stride hit the ground told him she was anything but.

They must be out of hearing now. “Going well,” Kiem said under his breath.

“Don’t say that, or it won’t,” Bel said. “You could have told me about your backup plan.”

“You were telling me about how we were going to use zero-day redivert exploits,” Kiem said. “It seemed dumb to say ‘let’s try a clip of his kid’.”

Bel let out a huff of breath that was her involuntary laugh. “Left here,” she said.

Left took them down another corridor and through a wide hall with exercise equipment scattered around. The wall colour had changed to a kind of brown, and the letter stencilled on this stripe was E. A couple of soldiers looked up from their treadmills. Kiem raised his hand in greeting. “How’s it going? Help us out, we’re running late. What’s the next block through here?”

One soldier just grunted, but another volunteered, “That’s G.”

Kiem gave her a thumbs-up. “Cheers.” He didn’t wait around to see if they were drawing looks, but strode confidently through the opposite door.

“I thought we were going to try not to draw attention,” Bel said once the door was shut.

“This is not drawing attention,” Kiem said. “How are we doing?”

“Nearly on top of it,” Bel said. She came to a stop near the end of the corridor, waved Kiem to a halt as well, and listened intently. Kiem couldn’t hear anything. Bel pulled a pair of thin gloves from her pocket, handed a pair to Kiem, and slid her hand into the only pocket large enough to hold her capper. “You okay?”

Kiem heard the question under it, which was Are you all-in? Once they started attacking actual members of his own planet’s military the clock would be ticking a lot faster.

“Yup,” he said. “Let’s go.”

The door to the detention cells was heavily locked. Bel pulled an innocuous-looking metal strip out of her pocket. “I think I can break this one. Just get ready to shoot.”

“That’s plan B,” Kiem said. He pressed the buzzer beside the door.

Kiem,” Bel hissed. She flung herself away from the viewing camera, pressed against the wall by the door, and drew her capper.

A soldier’s face appeared on the screen. “Authorisation?”

“This is awkward,” Kiem said cheerfully. “My mother sent me.”

“Who?” the soldier said.

“General Tegnar,” Kiem said. “I’m her son Kiem. Look, yes, I know, I’m not an officer, but listen, you try explaining to my mother why you didn’t do something she told you to do.”

“Prince Kiem?” the soldier said. “Count Jainan’s…?”

“Partner, right,” Kiem said. “But the more important thing right now is that you’re holding the General’s son-in-law. She wants me to ask him some questions.”

“Count Jainan’s not here.”

“Right,” Kiem said slowly. “Can you let me through this door, at least? We’ll figure out what to tell her.”

The soldier didn’t look any keener to have to explain things to Kiem’s mother than Kiem generally felt. “Gimme a second.”

The door slid open. In the corner of Kiem’s eye, he saw Bel lower her capper and slip it back in her pocket before she followed him in. He didn’t know what he was hoping to find when he walked in, after what the soldier had said, but the doors in the glass front panels of the cells were all deactivated. Every last one was empty.

“You’ll have to find him in the medbay,” the soldier said defensively. “He got taken away a few hours ago. Some kinda fit.”

“Fit,” Kiem said. He held tightly to his friendly, upbeat voice, because it was a thin veneer over the swirling tangle of anger underneath. “Wow. That’s bad. And you haven’t seen him since?”

“No, I handed him over,” the soldier said. “It’s on the system and everything.” He turned away to spin up the authorisations on a tiny screen on the wall. “I think it was Colonel-level authorisation. If he’s stable he’ll be back once the medics have checked him. When does the General want her report? I thought she was at the Outer Belt.”

“She’s back in relay distance,” Kiem said. “She’s told me to scramble. Where’s the medbay?”

“Second floor, back out through Block F,” the soldier said. “Look, this is all over my head. You should speak to my sergeant—” He was already raising his wristband, but he only got it halfway before a bolt of energy sizzled through the air and spun him around. He slumped to the floor.

Bel!” Kiem dropped to crouch beside him.

“He was about to call his CO!”

“No, I get it, right, sorry. Where did you hit him?” The bulk of the soldier’s unconscious body was heavy, but Kiem turned him onto his side.

“I’m a systems breaker, not a shock shooter,” Bel said defensively. “I don’t know, chest? Hip? It wasn’t the head. I don’t like shooting people.”

Capper shots to the head were lethal, but anywhere else would just knock the target out. Kiem peeled away the soldier’s uniform, and to his relief saw the burn spreading on one shoulder. “He’ll live.” He got to his feet. Colonel-level authorisation. Aren had Jainan, and Kiem was messing around and wasting time and getting things wrong. “Why the hell would Aren take him to the medbay? Is he even going to be there?”

“Medbay,” Bel said softly, as if thinking. “That other shielded area. That was next to the medbay. Worth checking out?”

“Find it for me,” Kiem said.

Bel had the schematic memorised. She hadn’t spent more than a few minutes with it, but she seemed to read the routes off a picture in her mind like she had it on a screen, and Kiem spared a moment to be thankful for long shuttleport wait times. They passed through a corridor where the stripe had changed to blue with F stencilled on it, paused in the middle of a corridor, and ducked out of a service entrance. After a brief blast of cold air, a metal delivery hatch took them into another block.

It took Kiem the length of a corridor to work out what was different about their surroundings. The walls were grey and there was no identifying letter stencilled on them, only scraped remnants of white paint where the stripe would have been. There were curtains in the doorways and a trolley was parked in an alcove. It felt medical, but not like any hospital he had known.

Something else was wrong. When he glanced down he realised his wristband had gone dark.

It didn’t take them long to come across some sort of info station. Stats were projected on the wall, many of them status reports or general directives for medical staff. There were warnings about scanner radiation and some kind of rota. Bel frowned and stopped in front of them.

Kiem didn’t have enough patience to read scanner guidelines. He roamed around the entrances leading off the bay, shoving aside curtains and pushing open doors to empty laboratories. All the rooms were dark and unlit – of course they were, it was after midnight – but somewhere in his head was a constant stream of terror that said, what if you miss him? What if Jainan was lying somewhere in the dark, and Kiem hadn’t checked the right room, and left him?

“Hey, Kiem,” Bel called softly. She tapped a schematic of what looked like a series of rooms. “Someone’s disabled the occupancy sensor for this one.” She jerked her head to a door just visible down a short length of corridor. It was heavily secured, like the one leading to the cells had been, but its activation lights were dead. “Odd, right?”

Kiem turned. But before he could even move towards the door, it opened of its own accord. A woman in uniform stepped though, peeling white non-conductive gloves away from her hands.

Don’t let her get the alarm!” Bel shouted, already at a flat run across the space, but Kiem was closer, and got between the woman and the wall button.

“Who the hell—”

Bel grabbed the woman’s arm. The woman was combat-trained and drove her elbow at Bel’s stomach, but Bel twisted and got her into a hold from behind. “Sorry,” Kiem said to the woman. She was in some kind of technician’s uniform, but she seemed to have taken off her rank and division badges. “We’re just passing through. Do you happen to have seen—”

“Oh, fuck,” Bel said softly, and something about her tone of voice made Kiem break off. “Kiem. Behind you.”

Kiem turned around. The technician tried to break away again – she hadn’t shouted for help yet – but he didn’t really have time to think about that, because now he could see the door she’d come through. At the back of a spartan laboratory there was a form lying on a bed, strapped into a helmet. Jainan.

It shouldn’t have taken Kiem as long as it did to cross the laboratory. All his movements seemed too slow. He leant over Jainan when he reached his side and touched his shoulder to wake him up. But Jainan wasn’t asleep. Through the view panel on the medical helmet, his eyes were wide open in a fixed rictus, his face drained and frozen. A wire ran from his skull underneath the helmet to a transmission spike. His shoulder under Kiem’s hand was as stiff as a board, and little tremors kept going through his taut muscles.

“Jainan. Wake up.” Kiem hadn’t ever felt fear like this, fear that gripped his back and shoulders like a paralysing current. He loosened the straps that held down the helmet. “We’re here.” His voice cracked on the last word. Jainan didn’t show any sign he’d heard. Kiem grabbed the wire running from his head, but he came to his senses in the moment it took to fold his hand around it. He was not a medic. He would do damage. You’ve done enough damage already, he thought, and turned to look for the woman.

Bel was coming through the door with the technician in a chokehold, and let it shut behind her. Her capper was pressed under the technician’s chin. “Let’s make this very simple,” she said. “Get him out of that or I shoot you.”

“I can’t,” the technician said.

“And I’m the Emperor,” Bel said. She adjusted the angle of the capper. “One more chance.”

Kiem’s head felt full of black fog. He took a breath of it, let it fill his head, let himself use it as fuel. “Wait, Bel,” he said, turning away from Jainan. He smiled at the technician – the interrogator. Bel raised her eyebrows. “I think this is the Tau field machine, isn’t it?” he said conversationally. “We all thought it was disused. You know, since it’s only supposed to be used on prisoners of war, and we don’t have any of those on the planet right now. But I get it, you’re trained on it and someone senior told you to use it. But you haven’t shouted for help, and you’ve taken off your insignia. Call me stupid, but I think you’re doing this unofficially, aren’t you? For my friend Colonel Saffer, by any chance?”

The interrogator didn’t reply. Bel’s eyes had narrowed as she looked at Kiem.

“You could come out of this so badly,” Kiem said softly. “Court martial. Execution. Did you think Aren would be able to cover up an abduction?” He was following his own line of logic at the same time, and as he said the words, something became clear, and fingers of ice trickled down his back. “Aren planned to kill him, didn’t he?” The interrogator’s expression showed no comprehension. Of course it wouldn’t. “Death in custody,” Kiem said, cursing himself for an idiot. “A big scandal, but Aren could come out untouched. You’re the perfect scapegoat, did you know?”

That got a reaction. The interrogator’s eyes widened, only slightly, but it was a crack. Kiem seized on it. “Help us out,” he said. It sounded almost reasonable, but he could hear the edge in his voice. “You’ve been told to interrogate a diplomat who’s married into the royal family. This has got way too serious for your paygrade. When the authorities come in, you don’t want Aren to leave you holding the bag.” He jerked his head, and Bel – thank Heaven – picked up the signal and slowly removed her capper.

They didn’t train interrogators that were easily thrown. The woman stood there like a statue as Kiem advanced across the floor. He held his hand out. “Help us out here,” he said. He was surprised at his voice now, which came out easy, frank. “You’ll be helping yourself.”

After a long moment, while Kiem kept his hand out, the interrogator said, “The field has to run its course. I can’t turn it off. I programmed it for eight hours.”

Kiem slowly lowered his hand. “And how long’s he been in there?” His voice wasn’t as smooth as he thought it would be: that came out like an accusation.

“Four.” The interrogator’s voice was still flat.

Control yourself. Jainan would be able to control himself. Kiem breathed in more of the black fog, thought of Jainan, and let his anger run deep and quiet. Later. “Four hours. What information were you trying to get out of him?”

“A passphrase to his wristband,” the interrogator said. “Don’t know what it’s for. I haven’t been able to get anything out of him – he’s got strong thought patterns.” In a sudden moment of animation, she looked at the console. “If we get what we need, we can sometimes go in and get them to cut the simulation short themselves.”

“How does that work?” Bel said, her voice hard and suspicious.

“Get them to believe it’s a simulation,” the interrogator said. “Most time, they sort of know. But most people want to get caught up in their memories.”

“Wrong,” Bel said, but Kiem winced.

“Human nature,” he said. “Go on. You’re saying if we convince him it’s really all fake, he wakes up?”

“He rejects the brain pattern the field overlays,” the interrogator said. “I can try.”

“And you won’t get caught in it, how?” Bel said sceptically.

“I can shape it,” the interrogator said, with an edge of almost condescension. “They’re not my memories.”

Kiem’s eyes went to Jainan’s shivering, wide-eyed form on the bed. “No,” he said roughly.

The interrogator’s eyes narrowed. “You said—”

Kiem didn’t have to look at Bel to know she shared his visceral revulsion at letting the interrogator mess around in Jainan’s head any more than she already had. “You’re going to send me instead,” he said.

The minute it came out of his mouth he knew it was a bad idea. Jainan had reacted so badly to Kiem prying into his past – justifiably, as he’d made it clear enough he wanted it to stay private. Kiem had crossed enough lines confronting Jainan that evening at dinner. Prying straight into his memories through a Tau field would be worse, and Kiem wouldn’t even be able to claim ignorance, because he knew exactly how Jainan would feel about it. Jainan would hate him. It might be the end of anything between them. Kiem wasn’t even sure what they’d had between them, but there had been something that had made Jainan smile when Kiem came into the room, something Kiem had been trying desperately not to hold too hard, in case he broke it. He might be breaking it now.

But the alternative was letting someone else – a stranger, someone who had already hurt Jainan – into Jainan’s mind again. “You’re sending me in,” Kiem repeated. “You can do that, right?”

The interrogator nodded, slowly. She pointed at a helmet resting on the side. “That will make you part of the simulation,” she said.

“Great!” Kiem said. He smiled, and for some reason her face went even stonier. “Bel—”

“Already on it,” Bel said. She rested her hip on one of the counters at the side and pointed her capper at the interrogator. “I’ll keep watch. If you’re more than ten minutes, though, I’m pulling that helmet off your head and possibly shooting someone.”

“Don’t do that,” Kiem said. “I won’t take ten minutes.” He put the helmet on.

Chapter Text

For a nauseating moment Kiem could see two rooms at once, overlapping each other. He blinked hard, suppressing the lurch in his stomach. His muscles ached in an odd way, as if he wasn’t fully using them. He stretched out his hand. It looked normal.

When he blinked again the lab had fully disappeared. In its place was a light, airy space with grand marble arches that he recognised: the lesser banqueting hall, in the middle of some sort of formal dinner. He was sitting at a long table with people around him, and at first he looked around wildly because that seemed impossible. Then he realised they must be hallucinations, laughing and talking like real people.

Now he was looking properly, he could see the gaps in his surroundings. They made his brain itch. The arches and tables were clear enough but the corners of the room were fuzzy and indistinct. When he looked at them straight on, he saw they were actually a grey, unformed fog, as if the projection didn’t reach that far, but as he looked, detail would start to creep in: a chair appeared, a patch of wall, a side table with ebony inlay. More unsettling still was the realisation that some of the people further down his table were also incomplete. They gave the impression of bright uniforms or court fashion from the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look directly at them they were only patches of colour with a grey oval for a face. Colour and features flowed across them as he watched like it was being brushed on. Kiem frowned as he placed the new faces – a friend from back in Primary school, his tutor in university. This looked like a military dinner. The Tau field was putting these people where they had no reason to be.

Wait. Wasn’t this place made from Jainan’s memories? Jainan couldn’t know those people; did that mean the Tau field was grabbing memories from Kiem’s own head now? The idea was skin-crawlingly unpleasant. He put up his hand to touch the helmet he knew he’d put on. He couldn’t feel it. His fingers seemed to graze his hair instead.

What was this event, anyway? When he looked around he saw posting insignia from Rtul, Skaan, Thea, all the inner system planets. The officers were mainly Iskaner, though, so it must be an internal military thing. Some significant date, maybe. His mother had attended dinners like this. But this one—

Kiem’s head swivelled as if it was drawn to a magnetic point, and he found Jainan and Taam sitting at one of the long tables on the dais.

He pushed his chair back and rose to his feet. One of the other diners made an incomprehensible protesting sound, so Kiem said, “Scuse me,” politely, and shoved his way between the tables until he could get within earshot of Jainan. He raised his hand to catch his attention. Jainan wasn’t looking at him. Kiem recognised the way he was sitting, taut and tense. He also recognised Taam’s manner, but only because he knew what people looked like drunk and loud at dinners. Taam looked too solid and confident to be a hallucination, and he wasn’t alone in enjoying the evening. Everyone at that end of the table was several glasses into the festivities. Except Jainan.

Then Kiem saw Aren sitting a few places down from Taam, and froze. But Aren’s gaze went right through him as if they were strangers. Kiem realised he had the only headset. This Aren was just a memory, pulled from Jainan’s recollection of the dinner.

Suddenly Jainan’s spine went rigid, and people were looking at him. Someone must have made a comment. The person next to him leaned over him and clapped him on the shoulder. Jainan flinched.

Kiem couldn’t help himself: as he reached them, he grabbed the wrist of the offending officer. “You’re drunk,” he said. “Have some bloody manners.” The officer stared at him with outraged, slightly fuzzy eyes, and Kiem remembered it wasn’t real. He dropped their hand and turned. “Jainan…?”

Jainan was real. Kiem knew every tiny line and shadow on his face as Jainan stared up at him in shock, and he knew the way Jainan wiped the shock and rapidly replaced it with a mask of blankness.

“Prince Kiem?” Jainan said. “I didn’t realise your Highness would be at this dinner.”

"Who the hell are– Kiem?” Taam said from the other side of Jainan. As he did, Jainan leaned back to allow him space. “What are you doing here? This isn’t for civvies.”

Kiem opened his mouth to say, Jainan, you’re in a Tau field. But then something odd happened. As he started to form the words, an invisible current around him seemed to take hold of them, and what came out was, “Yeah, not sure why I got the invitation.”

“Makes two of us,” Taam said. “Maybe your mother’s hoping we’ll rub off on you. What do you want?”

Kiem’s head felt fuzzy. He seemed to have forgotten his next line. He looked around for inspiration and caught Jainan’s frozen expression. Oh, yes. “I just wanted to see if Jainan was all right.”

Now Taam’s face took on a look of suspicion. “What does that mean? How do you know Jainan?”

Kiem frowned. “We’ve seen each other… around.”

“We haven’t,” Jainan’s voice said, quiet and tense. “Taam, I’ve barely met him.”

“Have you?” Taam said.

Kiem looked between the two of them. Something was wrong.

“People are looking,” Taam said. “Go and sit down, Kiem, they’re bringing out the next course.”

Kiem opened his mouth, and once again that strange thing happened where words he hadn’t planned came out. “Right,” he said. “Sorry to bother you.” He nodded – to Taam, not to Jainan – and turned away.

He was nearly back to his seat before his mind slipped out of the grip of the flowing current. He’d let himself be hijacked into being part of the scenario. Was that how Jainan saw him? Someone who’d abandon him at the first sign of trouble? He turned back, horrified, and saw Jainan hunched over his food with Taam pointedly ignoring him. “Jainan!” he shouted, throwing any attempt at subtlety to the winds. “This is the machine they put you in!”

Jainan looked up, bafflement on his face. Taam turned with an oath. “It’s called a Tau field!” Kiem said. He tried to stride back across the banqueting hall, but there were chairs in his way, and people getting up, shocked. He was making a scene. Damn right he was making a scene. “Aren put you in it for the passphrase! And where the hell does Taam get off, talking to you like that?” As he spoke, he saw Jainan mouth the word passphrase. And then everything disappeared.

 

*

 

When he next opened his eyes, he heard voices even before the dark surroundings resolved enough for him to see.

“I don’t know what it is you want.” That was Jainan’s voice. It was low and close to him.

“Will you just shut up?” That was Taam.

Someone took a heavy breath, but Kiem couldn’t tell who. The hair on the back of his neck prickled. It felt close and warm in here, but not pleasant. He started to realise that wherever the field was generating, the surroundings weren’t going to get much lighter. The murk was resolving into the faint silhouettes of a bedroom. Kiem felt a sick guilt rise. Invading Jainan’s memories was bad, but this felt like a part he should never have seen.

“Hell,” Taam muttered savagely. “Do you have to just lie there? I could pay for better.” There was a silence, and rustling in the dark. Taam made a noise of disgust and moved, and now Kiem could see him faintly outlined, rising to kneel over Jainan. “Is that why Thea sent you? Send someone to marry the Iskaner, but let’s make sure they’re like a damp flannel in bed?” Jainan said something low and inaudible. Taam cut him off. “You don’t have to talk.”

It only took Kiem three steps to get over to the bed. In the next moment he had Taam’s bare shoulder in his grip and yanked him roughly back.

Taam grunted in shock. He flailed backwards with his arms for purchase on the bed and Kiem shoved him away. The lights came up enough to see, showing Jainan half-sitting up with one hand near the light sensor, frozen in shock. He was naked and Kiem didn’t want to see; it felt like a profound violation just to be in the same room.

“Kiem?” Jainan said.

“Thethe hell!” Taam pushed himself upright, choking with rage. “Who are you? The hell do you think you’re doing?” He shoved himself up and grabbed Kiem by the collar of his shirt.

Kiem caught Taam’s arm. He went to shove him backwards, but suddenly realised that would put Taam closer to Jainan. In that moment of hesitation, he’d forgotten Taam had military training. Taam drove a punch into his stomach. Kiem doubled over.

He tried to pull back before the next punch. He didn’t have the same unarmed training Taam would have had years of, but he knew that he was in a horribly vulnerable position and a blow to his face now might knock him out.

But it didn’t come. When he looked up he saw Jainan had caught Taam’s wrist.

Taam looked as blankly shocked as if the bedspread had come to life and held him back. He tried to break out of Jainan’s grip. His muscles flexed, but it didn’t have any noticeable effect. “Let go.”

“No,” Jainan said. “Kiem, you had better leave.”

“Let go,” Taam said again, low and dangerous.

It felt like a haze around him was starting to clear. “Wait – Jainan,” Kiem said. “This is the Tau field.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Jainan said. His eyes were on Taam. “Please leave.”

“Jainan!” Kiem said. “The interrogation machine Aren put you in to get some kind of passphrase, remember? Bel and I came to get you!”

Jainan looked up in shock. With a roar, Taam broke free of his grip and swung for his face, but even as he did he was starting to become transparent. So was the bed, and the walls, and the floor beneath his feet. It all faded into black. Kiem braced himself for the next room.

It didn’t come. Instead, as he stared into the black around him, he realised it was actually a kind of grey. His feet were on what felt like solid ground but it was completely featureless. He couldn’t see more than a few metres – or maybe he could see for klicks, and it was just all unbroken grey.

“Hm,” a voice said behind him. Kiem whirled to face it – dizzyingly, because it was hard to keep your balance when it wasn’t obvious where the floor was.

Jainan was standing there, looking around him. He was wearing light-shaded casuals and seemed markedly more composed than when Kiem had seen him a couple of minutes ago. He flicked Kiem a neutral glance, then continued to examine his formless surroundings. “This is new,” he said.

Kiem felt a huge wash of relief on seeing him. He didn’t realise he’d taken a step towards him until Jainan deliberately backed a step away.

Kiem froze. Right. Lots of reasons for Jainan not to want him nearby right now. He strove to sound business-like and normal. “Yes. I think it’s still part of the field, but everything so far was illusions of real things. I mean, the two scenarios I went through. Is that what it’s been like for you?”

There was something reserved, almost sardonic, in Jainan’s look. “Of course.”

“I think we’ve half broken it,” Kiem said. He gestured at their formless grey surroundings. “This has got to be a step in the right direction. But I don’t really get it – if you know it’s not real, why hasn’t the field just broken?”

For a long moment, Jainan didn’t answer. Then he gave a half-smile and said, “If that’s how it works, then I’m most of the way there. The only thing that still needs to go is you.”

Kiem let his hand drop slowly. “Uh. No. I’m real. I thought we’d sorted that just now.”

“No,” Jainan said calmly. “You’re the technician. The interrogator.”

“I’m not,” Kiem said. “Jainan, listen, we found you and followed you in here. We took the interrogator out. Bel’s keeping guard over her.”

“How long have I been in here now?” Jainan said. “Am I to expect you to go off-shift at some point?”

Kiem stared at him, then scrubbed a hand through his hair in frustration. “No, it’s really me. Look.” He held out his hand for Jainan to take.

Jainan declined it with a slight gesture. “I am well aware this place can simulate sensation.”

Kiem recoiled, horror running down his spine at that on top of the last scenario. He dropped his hand, frantically trying to think of better arguments. “Really. I got Bel back from the shuttleport. She basically broke us in here – she says she used to be a raider? She doesn’t do that anymore. I mean, obviously. We found you already in the Tau field. We’re probably going to get arrested when we get back out, but arrested is fine as long as we get you out of here. This is classified as an instrument of torture, did you know?”

“I know,” Jainan said. His expression was preternaturally calm. “You don’t need to make things up about Bel to add colour. I am aware Kiem is not coming to get me. Nobody is. Please don’t insult us both with this tactic.”

Kiem took a deep breath. “I can prove this. Ask me a question only we’d know the answer to.”

“Everything I’ve seen so far has been from my own memories,” Jainan said. “The field clearly has access to them. You could let it play back the correct answer to anything I asked.”

“Then why do you think I’m here?” Kiem said. “I’m not even asking you for the passphrase thing!”

"I don't know," Jainan said. "It could be to get me to trust you so I slip up later. Or you may not be the interrogator; maybe she’s on a break. You may be entirely a production of my own mind.” His mouth quirked into another non-smile. “That would be depressing. I would rather not be such a sad fantasist that I hallucinate you coming to find me.”

Kiem felt a hollow open up in his belly. “That isn’t a fantasy,” he said. “Listen to yourself! Why wouldn’t I be here?”

“Mm,” Jainan said. “Now I’m back to thinking you’re my interrogator. You should really have let the field handle that response.”

“What? Why?”

Jainan sighed. “You may have been briefed, but you’re missing a vital piece of information about how I last left Prince Kiem.”

“We… argued,” Kiem said.

Jainan’s smile was brief and mirthless. “Yes, my question gave that away, didn’t it?”

“What does that have to do with anything? I was dumb,” Kiem said slowly. He could feel the edges of what Jainan was putting together, and he wished he couldn’t see how it looked. “You thought I… would just abandon you because we argued? You don’t think very much of me.”

“It’s not you,” Jainan said, his controlled voice beginning to fray around the edges. “It’s me, I know it’s me. I am not worth you risking yourself to get out of trouble, and I wish my mind had not produced this delusion of you turning up anyway!”

“Jainan—” Kiem started, but Jainan deliberately turned away. He walked a little distance, fading into the grey, but seemed to realise at the same time as Kiem did that there was nowhere for him to go. He sat down with his legs crossed, neat and self-contained.

Kiem rubbed a hand across his face, then went and sat a few feet in front of him. Jainan ignored him.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Kiem said tentatively. “I think it was mine. I mean. I don’t know if it was even an argument, really.”

“You are getting nothing out of me by playing on that,” Jainan said flatly.

“All right, have it your way if you have to,” Kiem said, exasperated. “Truce. I’m not real.”

“I know.” There was an expectant pause, as if Jainan was waiting for Kiem to disappear.

“No,” Kiem said. “It’s not going to work for you to dive back into your memories. I may be dumb, but—”

“Stop it.” Jainan said.

“What?”

Jainan looked up at the empty grey air above them. “That’s the one thing the real you does that really annoys me,” he said to the space above. “You aren’t stupid. Stop saying you are.”

Kiem stopped, thrown. “You should know. You’ve tried to explain your work to me.”

“That’s not cleverness, that’s a specific skill set,” Jainan said. “You’re manifestly better at – at life than Taam was. Than I am.”

“Not true. You—”

“Don’t,” Jainan said. He gave something that was half a laugh, half a cough. “It just makes me think of where I am right now.”

There was a long silence, while Kiem drummed his fingers on the spongy, featureless ground, and Jainan stared straight ahead. After a while, Kiem said, “Was that… something that happened to you? The Taam thing?”

“Which one?” Jainan said colourlessly.

Four hours, Kiem remembered. “The one I saw. Both of them.”

“They’re my memories.” Jainan didn’t look at him.

All of the words Kiem had were wrong. “I’m sorry,” he said. It seemed pathetically inadequate.

“Why?”

“What?” Kiem said. “Because – because I didn’t help you? Nobody helped you! Someone should have figured out what was going on and dissolved the marriage! Taam should have been – prosecuted, disgraced, stripped of his rank, all of that. Nelen, too! Anyone who covered it up!” He realised he was starting to go off and cut himself short. “Sorry. I know you don’t want it raked over. But it just makes me so angry Taam died before it came back to hurt him. You didn’t get any justice.”

Jainan was finally looking at him, his forehead creased and his lips slightly parted, as if in thought.

“I don’t know how you survived it,” Kiem said. “Being – alone, like that with all that shit happening. I wouldn’t have got through

“No,” Jainan interrupted. “No, you don’t understand. It was me.” He got to his feet in agitation, turning away from Kiem. “That wouldn’t have happened to anyone else. Taam had good intentions. He had a sense of honour. It was just unfortunate that he ended up with someone he didn’t like.”

Screw Taam’s good intentions!” Kiem said. He followed Jainan and planted himself squarely in front of him. “Nothing was good about what he did to you! Are you trying to tell me this was your fault?”

Jainan didn’t move away. “It would have worked,” he said. “It would have worked, if I’d been someone else.”

Kiem made a chopping motion with his hand. “No,” he said. “Rubbish. Bullshit. I may never be right about anything else, but I’m right about this.” Jainan hadn’t moved away. Kiem reached out, and touched his shoulder. “If he couldn’t cope with you then he couldn’t have coped with anything except curling up with one of his own rank medals. You’re amazing. Nobody could want more.”

For a moment, the grey world seemed to hang in the balance. And then Jainan raised his hand to Kiem’s wrist, and Kiem stepped forward, and Jainan let him put his arms around him. Jainan took a ragged breath and let his head drop, resting his forehead on Kiem’s shoulder. “You’re a hallucination,” he said, though he no longer sounded certain of it. “You’re telling me what I want to hear.”

“I’m not,” Kiem said. “Listen, if I’d met you before you got married I’d have fallen over my own feet trying to get you to look at me. You’re out of my league. You’re out of most people’s league, especially Taam’s. I don’t know how to say it so you’ll believe it.”

Jainan was silent for a long time. He was a solid warmth in Kiem’s arms, his head a weight on Kiem’s shoulder. Kiem shouldn’t be happy, but he was.

“These aren’t my thoughts,” Jainan said. “I don’t think you’re being puppeted, but you can’t be one of my own hallucinations. I haven’t thought that.”

“That’s because I’m real?” Kiem said. “I thought we’d sorted that.”

Jainan let out half a breath of laughter. “It’s not sorted just because you say it’s sorted,” he said.

“That’s all it should take—Kiem started.

 

*

 

His eyes slammed open into blackness. He drew a huge, painful gulp of air that felt like his first breath in minutes. There was something on his head; he clawed at it desperately for a moment before realising it was the Tau field helmet, and managed to still the panic for long enough to lift it away. His sight flooded back.

They were in the small interrogation lab again. The interrogator was slumped on the floor. There was no sign of Bel. On the other side of the room, Jainan sat up from the bed and pulled the medical helmet off. As he moved, the wire attached to his head came with him; he reached up and brushed it away. The end came away in bundles of filaments, like dead plants.

Jainan’s eyes went to the interrogator. “Asleep?” he said uncertainly.

“I don’t know,” Kiem said. “And where’s Bel? She was supposed to be watching us.” It felt like there was a lump lodged between his stomach and his throat. He knelt down to check the body. His fingers had only just touched the woman’s pulse point when the door opened.

It was such an ordinary, everyday sound that at first he didn’t even look up. He was preoccupied with trying to find any kind of sign that this wasn’t a corpse. It was Jainan’s cut-off, strangled choke that made him raise his head.

A voice Kiem had heard far too recently said, “So Aren wasn’t lying. You are here.”

The form supporting itself with one hand on the door frame wasn’t the hallucination Kiem had just seen. Taam was almost unrecognisable. He was wearing casual civilian clothes, but he didn’t fill them out any more; his body was wasted and stringy. There were the shiny outlines of burn scars on his neck. His mouth curled in a nasty echo of his previous expressions as he met Kiem’s gaze. “You might as well stare, cousin. Thought I was dead, didn’t you?”

“You are dead.” Jainan looked transfixed; his voice was strained. “You can’t be – we would have known.”

“I was in some trouble,” Taam said. “Not that you were a lot of help, were you?” His voice sounded more tired than anything.

Kiem stepped between him and Jainan. “Keep back.”

Taam’s manner turned uglier. “Keep back from your partner? Oh, no, wait, from mine. I heard about your sham of a wedding. Don’t get between me and Jainan.” He went to shoulder Kiem aside, but Kiem planted his feet and didn’t move. “I’m not going to fucking repeat myself.” Taam drew the capper at his hip.

A rustle of cloth was the only warning either of them got. Jainan swept up the loose guard rail from the bed, stepped around Kiem and cracked it down on Taam’s arm.

“Fuck!” Taam dropped the capper and grabbed his shoulder, swearing, while his wrist hung limp and at an odd angle.

Jainan faced Taam, shifting his focus away from Kiem. He pulled the makeshift staff back to the ready position. “Don’t touch him again.”

Taam stared. He didn’t seem to be able to process what was happening. “What are you doing? Put that thing—shit.” He’d tried to move his wrist. The strain of ignoring it was on his face. “Jainan!”

“Step away,” Jainan said. His voice sounded measured, though Jainan was capable of sounding measured well past when normal people would fall apart. “Three steps backwards will do.”

“Jainan,” Taam said. It wasn’t clear what he expected the word to do. Jainan didn’t move. Kiem’s fist clenched but he stayed still – Jainan was more than capable of handling things if it got physical. Taam tried again. “Jainan. Look at yourself. You’re making a scene with that ridiculous…thing.”

“Very possibly,” Jainan said. “Step back from Kiem, Taam. I will not tell you again.” His grip tightened on the length of rail.

Taam took a step back. “You need me,” he said. The edge of anger hadn’t left his voice but now there was something else there: he sounded lost. “I’m your partner. I – I need you.”

Jainan stood disturbingly still. Kiem found he was barely breathing. It was a long, long moment before Jainan said, “I’m sorry if that’s the case. The reverse is not true.”

Taam lurched towards him with a growl. “Damn y—“

Jainan’s movements were fluid, assured. He stepped to the side and swept his staff at Taam’s ankles. Taam cursed and fell, in time to meet the other end of the guard rail coming at his head. There was a sickening thunk. He slumped to the floor.

Jainan stopped, breathing heavily. “I’m done.”

Kiem looked down once more at the interrogator. She had the face of his Prime Five friend. He tried to move to Jainan. The room wavered.

 

*

 

And Kiem opened his eyes.

Chapter Text

The first thing that hit Kiem was the headache. That and the faint smell of laboratory air conditioning; he realised that though the hallucinations had been near-perfect, there had been no smell at all. He lifted the helmet off his head to see the interrogation lab as they’d left it.

“Welcome back.”

Or not quite as they’d left it. On a stool in the middle of the room sat Aren Saffer. He had a military-issue capper in his hand, and it was pointing straight at Kiem’s head.

Kiem groaned internally. He was almost sure this wasn’t another loop, but of all the things not to be a hallucination. “Thanks,” he said, to buy time. Jainan was on the bed, but his eyes were closed and he was slumped and still. The interrogator was unconscious on the floor.

Bel stood uncomfortably against the opposite wall, her hands empty by her sides. Her capper was on the floor by Aren’s feet. She looked ruefully back at Kiem. “Sorry,” she said. “He got the drop on me while I dealt with the tech. Never had the right shooter instincts.”

“Now,” Aren said conversationally, keeping the capper trained on Kiem. “I don’t mind admitting that I’m in a bit of a hole, here. No, don’t move,” he added, “I will absolutely fucking shoot.”

“You might have been able to cover up Jainan’s death in custody,” Kiem said, “but no way are you going to be able to cover up mine.”

“I don’t need to,” Aren said. “I have your handy Sefalan ex-raider to blame. Indiscriminate shooting. Don’t move.” He swung the capper back and fired a ray in front of Bel, who had shoved herself off the wall and was halfway to her own weapon. He’d shot too fast: it only hit her outstretched hand, but even that was enough for the shock to run through her. She choked and fell to her hands and knees as she fought for consciousness. Kiem started towards her instinctively but pulled back, raising his hands, as Aren turned the capper on him.

Aren got to his feet, still aiming at Kiem, and kicked the extra weapon into an empty corner of the room. “Why is everyone an idiot?” he said. “I never wanted this to escalate so far. If you hadn’t all been so stubborn we wouldn’t be here.” He swung the capper towards Jainan. Jainan had opened his eyes, and now he raised his head with what looked like painful effort. “Listen, Jainan,” Aren said. I only want one thing salvaged from this clusterfuck, then I can settle with Evn and get a ship out through the galaxy link, a.k.a. the hell away from the whole bloody Empire. For the last fucking time. The passphrase.”

“You’ve dragged him through that machine for four hours and you haven’t got anything from him?” Kiem said. It wasn’t surprising, but he felt his respect for Jainan solidify into something immovable. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re going to get anything now.”

“Handily, I think I am going to get something,” Aren said. “It took me a while to understand what was going on with him, but now I get it. He was in the flybug on your romantic mountain trip, you’ve turned up here – you two are attached, aren’t you? It’s more than shagging.” All of it sounded cheap when he said it. “So this whole thing becomes easy. He tells me, or I shoot you.”

There was an odd coughing sound from the bed. Both Kiem and Aren looked over and realised it was Jainan trying to laugh. His hands were still cuffed in front of him, but he had managed to push the helmet off his head, and was now painstakingly using both hands to try and remove the wire patch from his forehead. A trickle of blood was forming around it. “You won’t find anything useful in the account, Aren. There probably is no money. I told you.”

Aren still had a faint half-smile on his face. Kiem tried to catch Jainan’s eye and shake his head minutely without Aren noticing. He didn’t want to be the final thing that made Jainan break.

“I’ll find that out,” Aren said pleasantly. “Well?”

Jainan was silent.

“You don’t think I’ll do it?” Aren said. “I tried once already, though that worked about as well as anything else in this mess. Tell you what, though, I’ll shoot him in the neck. Not quite the head. He’ll only have, say, a sixty percent chance of dying.”

It took Kiem a moment to process that. “You sabotaged my flybug?

“Which backfired spectacularly,” Jainan said. “Since you nearly killed me as well. Though I suppose it did let you frame me.”

“You sabotaged my flybug?

Aren raised the capper negligently. “Three seconds, Jainan.”

“Please,” Jainan said. He pushed himself up as far as he could with the wire still attached to his head. “I don’t want Kiem hurt. Listen.” He took a breath, as if it was hard for him to speak. Then he raised his eyes to Kiem’s, and snapped, “Five!

Kiem felt the word settle into his brain. Jainan shoved the loose guard rail lying on the bed towards him. Understanding came as slow as treacle. But it couldn’t have been that long, because in the time it took Kiem to look around Aren was still frowning in confusion. It gave him the moment he needed to grab the rail.

Aren started to realise what was going on, but it was already too late. Jainan shoved himself off the bed so violently the wire ripped out of his head. His falling body crashed straight into Aren’s legs, just as Kiem brought the rail whistling around to smack into Aren’s wrist. It wasn’t a good blow but Aren wasn’t prepared. The capper Aren had been pointing at him skittered across the room. Aren fell heavily and sprawled across the floor, knocking over the stool. Jainan’s body landed on top of him.

Kiem abandoned the loose rail. He fought down the sick feeling in his stomach and dropped to a crouch long enough to scoop up Bel’s dropped capper. Aren was on the floor halfway between Kiem and the bed. Kiem aimed it at his chest. “Don’t move.”

By this time Aren had managed to sit up. Jainan was no longer conscious, but was still was a dead weight on his legs. “That’s a lot of blood,” Aren said. He touched the dark patches on Jainan’s scalp.

Kiem kicked Aren’s hand away and stepped back again. “Don’t do that,” he said. Jainan’s eyes were shut. How much bleeding was too much bleeding? Kiem aimed the capper very carefully with his other hand. He had never shot one of these at a person. He couldn’t risk hitting Jainan, but Aren was at an awkward angle to him, sideways on. Would hitting Aren’s arm be enough to knock him out? It had almost worked on—

Bel. The space where she had been lying was empty. She wasn’t in the room.

Aren saw the look. "Where's your pet raider gone?”

“I don’t know,” Kiem said, though he thought he had an idea.

Aren gave him a rueful smile. “So much for loyalty, eh?”

Kiem levelled the capper at him. He wasn’t going to shoot lethally, he just needed to put him out. There was no reason for his heart to be hammering this hard. His finger closed on the trigger.

“Careful,” Aren said. He wrenched Jainan’s body up to cover him. A wave of terror went through Kiem and made his arm spasm up. The capper ray passed over Aren’s head.

Aren had Jainan by the shoulders, cradling him in front of him in something like an embrace. Jainan’s eyes were closed and his head hung down on his chest. Kiem recovered his aim, but his hand was shaking now. Aren smiled at him.  “You wouldn’t want to hit someone you don’t mean to,” he said. “A capper ray would probably be really bad for Jainan right now.”

“Let go of him,” Kiem said.

“Or you’ll… shoot me?” Aren said. “No. Let’s talk.”

Kiem took a long, slow breath. The capper felt heavy in his hand. “I’m listening.”

“Of course you are,” Aren said. “You don’t want to shoot me. You’re not that kind of person, are you? You’re the kind who likes to talk. I heard your conversation with my interrogator.” He smiled at the momentary confusion in Kiem’s eyes. “I have this room bugged. You’ve got your manipulation routine down cold, haven’t you? Is there a reason you haven’t offered me a deal yet? I’m reasonable.”

“I didn’t offer her a deal,” Kiem said. “I told her what the easiest option was. She’s still going down, and so are you.”

“Yeah,” Aren said. “Then again, maybe not. You’re a long way out of your depth, aren’t you?”

Kiem’s scalp prickled, because he knew that was true. “Maybe. Only one of us is at gunpoint, though.”

Aren actually cracked a grin at that. “Touché.” It reminded Kiem that when he’d first seen Aren his instinct had been to like him. “So, let’s do this the other way around,” Aren said. “Let me offer you a deal.”

It was what Kiem would have said himself. His hand tightened on the capper. “Try putting Jainan down first.”

“So you can knock me out?” Aren said. “Not sure you really expect me to do that. Here’s your deal.” He reached a hand around to Jainan’s head and deliberately tucked a strand of hair behind Jainan’s ear. His fingertip came away with a spot of blood. “We’re both in quite a bit of trouble here. I’d say maybe you more than me. I haven’t been able to clear up this Taam business neatly, but on the other hand I haven’t broken into a classified part of a military base and assaulted serving personnel. That’s all on you. And it’s not going to look good that you tried to kill Jainan before he gave evidence. Why would you do that? Maybe because you didn’t like what he was going to say?”

“Jainan’s evidence is going to rip apart any story you make up,” Kiem said. Then he replayed Aren’s last sentence, and said, “What?”

“This is about to get very murky,” Aren said. He was smiling faintly. “Jainan’s been unconscious and hallucinating. You can try and knock me out but the moment I wake up it’s your story against mine. Why were you so desperate to stop Jainan being interrogated? Not because of a minor embezzlement scandal that only indicts someone who’s already dead.”

“What are you getting at?”                                            

“Anyone can see Jainan’s been abused if it’s pointed out to them,” Aren said softly. “Remember the show you put on at dinner this evening? It looked like he was afraid of you hitting him. It’s all around the palace already. Lots of people will already be suspecting that there’s something wrong between you and Jainan.”

Kiem’s arm lowered slowly. “What?” he said. “Jainan will—”

“Jainan will deny it?” Aren said. “Please. Jainan would die rather than comment publicly.”

“You can’t expect the law to believe you,” Kiem said. Revulsion was crawling up and down his back like a wave of mites. “Jainan would deny it in court.”

“It will never go to court,” Aren said. “Only the court of public opinion, I suppose. How much do you care about that?”

“You bastard,” Kiem said quietly. Would everyone believe it of him? No. But people had seen Jainan flinch from him earlier that evening. Some people would believe it. He was a favourite subject in the gossip logs and he knew something like this would run forever, however much he denied it. It would poison relations with Thea. It would poison his and Jainan’s lives.

He understood now why Jainan was so afraid of the press.

Aren watched him struggle. “It would be tough on you,” he said, “but it’d be tougher on Jainan, wouldn’t it? It would be a shame if you did that to him. I can see why he thinks you’re an improvement on Taam, but let’s face it, once he’s adjusted the shine’s going to wear off your marriage. What have you really got to offer? Even Taam managed to keep him from getting savaged by the press.”

“That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Kiem said. He couldn’t even make his voice sound convincing. A whisper campaign like Aren was threatening would destroy anything between him and Jainan. Because Aren was right: Jainan preferred him to Taam, but Jainan might have preferred anyone to Taam. Beyond that Kiem was just someone Jainan had ended up married to. Someone who couldn’t even protect Jainan’s privacy.

“I’ll be honest,” Aren said, with what would have been disarming frankness in another situation. “I tried to pull Jainan’s levers and I botched it. The Tau field is an ugly solution to an ugly problem – I never meant things to get this far. Let’s fix this.”

He stopped and tilted his head to one side. Kiem had heard it as well – the distant sound of an alarm.

Aren slung Jainan’s arm around his neck and pulled him up as he got to his feet. He hit a button on the wall and the door slid shut. Its lock glowed red. “Looks like we’re running out of time,” he said. “But now you know what I’m offering. We can come up with a story together where this was all a horrible mistake, no harm, no foul. Everything goes back to what it was.”

And if they didn’t, Jainan would know that Kiem had let the gossip he was terrified of leak out to the press. He’d know Kiem had let it taint their marriage and poison the tie with Thea that Jainan had worked so hard to preserve. Kiem let out a breath and straightened up from his half-crouch. “All right. We’ll make up a story.”

Aren put his hands on Jainan’s shoulders, still steadying him upright. “I would put the gun down if I were you,” he said. “You know that knocking me out isn’t going to help.”

Kiem lowered the capper completely. “No, I see that.” Everything would be the same. Everything be easy. All he had to do was accept that Aren would still have his hand on Jainan’s strings. “I think I’ve got something, but I’m not going to do this properly until you put Jainan down and move away from him.”

“I’m glad we’re on the same page,” Aren said, smiling. He lowered Jainan down to lie on the floor, and freed his legs, until he was kneeling beside him. “Better?”

Kiem flung up his hand and shot him in the chest.

Aren didn’t have time to get out any words. He just choked, his eyes wide, then slumped forward over Jainan.

Kiem dropped the capper. He had to press one hand over the other to stop them shaking. He fell to his knees beside Jainan and shoved Aren off him. Jainan was unconscious, whether it was because of the Tau field or the blood still coming from his scalp, but that was all Kiem could tell. He laid Jainan out on his side so he could breathe properly. When he touched a hand to his hair a wave of helpless despair went through him.

He couldn’t fix this. It hurt more than anything had hurt in his life. He didn’t know when Jainan had gone from someone he just wanted to draw a smile from to someone he would rather die than lose, but it was true, and he was desperately in love with someone who had no reason to be grateful any more. It didn’t matter, though. The only thing that mattered was getting Jainan to a medic and making sure he wouldn’t die.

The buzzer to the room blared. Of course, Aren had locked them in. It took Kiem a moment to get himself together enough to stand up and press the lock override.

When the soldiers burst in Kiem was crouched beside Jainan watching his chest as it rose and fell. Aren and the interrogator were slumped not far away. Kiem glanced up as the handful of soldiers poured into the room, pointing cappers at him and the unconscious forms on the floor and said, “You could have got here faster.”

That seemed to stymie the two soldiers who had their cappers trained on Kiem. The one in front of him had sergeant markings. “Hands on your head!”

Kiem lifted them without taking his eyes off the sergeant. “This man needs a hospital,” he said. “This is Count Jainan of Thea, and if you don’t get him to a hospital right now, you’ll be answering to the Emperor for the diplomatic crisis that is going to ensue at any moment now.”

“Quiet,” the sergeant said, but Kiem could hear the crack of uncertainty in it. “Everyone in this room is under arrest.”

“After you’ve answered to me,” Kiem said flatly, “the Emperor will seem like your very best friend.”

“You can’t—”

“Internal Security are already telling the Emperor you used a Tau field on a diplomat,” said a familiar voice. “They made using it a war crime for a reason.” At the back of the group, just coming through the door, a soldier was guarding Bel. She had her wrists handcuffed in front of her. “Don’t think you can cover it up, either. I called Chief Agent Rakal before I found your bunch. Even the Emperor wasn’t expecting you to go that far.” She raised her eyebrows at Kiem. “This is the first and last time I get voluntarily arrested. How’s Jainan?”

“Bad,” Kiem said. “But this man here is about to get him medical attention. Right?”

The sergeant crouched beside Jainan to check his breathing. “He’s still under arrest,” he said. “Corporal, fetch paramedics. Move!”

The corporal left at a run. “That’s Colonel Saffer,” Kiem said. “He tried to kill me. The woman was his accomplice.”

The sergeant got to his feet again. “You’re all in custody until we sort this out,” he said. “Secure the other two on the floor. The… the diplomat will have all possible assistance. Prince Kiem, will you cooperate?”

“I’m waiting until the medics come,” Kiem said. “You can arrest me after that.” He took Jainan’s hand, and didn’t move.

Chapter Text

Jainan could not get enough of a grip on his own mind to understand what was going on. There were things attached to his head again, and sometimes it was light, and sometimes it was dark, and terror was like a sea beneath his feet. Beyond that he knew very little.

People’s faces melted into other faces. They asked him about Aren, about Kiem, about himself. Jainan refused to answer. Mostly the words were indistinct, but sometimes he was nearly tricked into saying something and had to bite his tongue to stop himself. Once he bit it so hard he tasted blood, and then there was a commotion and figures leaning over him, and someone pressed something into his mouth to force his teeth apart. He swallowed, over and over again, and felt sick with the taste of copper.

Sometimes it seemed as if someone was pursuing him. He itched to turn and face them down, but every time he shifted hands turned him back over and made him lie quietly. Sometime he knew it was the skin on his head that hurt, and everything else was his imagination, but sometimes he forgot that. Once he realised he’d cried out, and a voice said, “At least he’s talking”, and another, “Wouldn’t call that talking.”

Then there was a moment when he opened his eyes and all he saw was the white ceiling of a hospital room. Pale daylight slanted in from the window.

He drew a cautious breath. There was the faint smell of antiseptic and the air had a dry, filtered feel he associated with nanocleaners. The skin on his head hurt fiercely, but there didn’t seem to be anything attached to it. There was a tube feeding into his wrist. He felt – not like death, but like death had happened several days ago, and against all odds he had recovered.

He tried to pull himself forward, and to his relief found that his body responded enough for him to sit up.

A nurse he hadn’t seen in the corner of the room lifted his head from his reading, startled. “Awake?” He propelled himself up from his bench. “Here, let’s fix the bed for you.” He adjusted it so it rose with Jainan.

“I can sit up,” Jainan said.

“Sure you can,” the nurse said cheerfully. Jainan leaned back against the upright back and chose not to pick the fight.

“Which hospital is this?” he said. His eyes went to the view outside the window. He could see the mountains south of the city – not the ones he’d flown over with Kiem – but that told him little. He hadn’t been in any of the capital’s hospitals before.

“West Quarter Hospital, your Grace,” the nurse said. The title was a perfunctory add-on. “Right on the borders of the palace.” He was taking some form of reading from the diagnost unit at the head of Jainan’s bed. “How’s the pain? Any blurriness of vision?”

“It doesn’t hurt,” Jainan said. “Does anyone know I’m here?”

“Blurriness of vision?” the nurse said, and waited expectantly until Jainan shook his head, causing himself a stab of pain. “Well, to your question, I’d say there must be fewer people who don’t know you’re here. You’ve got two security guards out in the corridor, another underneath the window, palace agencies harassing management and a visitor’s list as long as your arm.”

“Kiem?” Jainan said. “I mean – Prince Kiem?”

“I haven’t seen the list,” the nurse said. “Now, do you think you could drink some water?”

“Am I under arrest?” Jainan said.

“Under…? Nobody told me anything about that,” the nurse said. But he looked at Jainan, and Jainan could see him reassessing the security arrangements. Jainan also saw the moment when he resolved that his superiors would have told him if Jainan was a dangerous criminal, and the professional upbeat manner returned. “I wouldn’t worry, I don’t think so. At least you’ve got all the bits of your brain in working order, how’s that for luck? How about that water?”

So he wasn’t under arrest, but Internal Security had people outside his door. “Yes,” Jainan said, though his stomach felt like a shrivelled, nauseous lump. He needed to be functional. As the orderly got up and fetched a plastic cup from a tray, memories piled into Jainan’s head, feeding the sense of urgency pumping through him. “I would like to see Kiem, please.”

The orderly handed him the water. “Drink that for me,” he said encouragingly.

Something inside Jainan snapped. His fingers curled around the cup. “I have had enough,” he said, in a voice that surprised even him, “of being treated as if I am incompetent. Last time I saw my partner he was tackling a man with an incapacitator gun. Please show me the visitor list so I can ascertain if he is alive.”

The nurse seemed taken aback. “If you’ll just calm down there, sir,” he said, in a quelling voice, but he was already reaching over to program the bedside screen. “We’ll get you that.”

Kiem would have found some way to soften what Jainan had just said. Jainan raised the plastic cup to his mouth mechanically. “I appreciate the water,” he said. “Thank you.”

This seemed to mollify the nurse. “There we are,” he said, as the names flashed up. “It’s visiting hours, so if any of them are still around, your readings are stable enough to see someone.”

“Thank you,” Jainan said. He scanned the list.

Kiem’s name wasn’t on it. The omission was like a hand clenching at Jainan’s throat. He spun down to the bottom with the screen’s clumsy sensor, and then read it over again, but unless Kiem was going under an alias, he hadn’t requested a visit. Something started to make a beeping noise. Jainan realised it must be his heart rate monitor.

“Steady there,” the nurse said, and checked something in the tubes going into his wrist. Jainan swapped hands and spun back up the list.

He told himself it didn’t mean anything final. The situation was complicated; Kiem could just have been instructed not to visit him. And surely everyone in the capital would have heard if a member of the royal family had died. He glanced at the nurse, who was frowning over his readings.

He needed more information. He took a deep breath and looked down the list again. He needed someone who would help him.

Nearly every name was someone he knew. Bel. Gairad. Professor Audel. Bel again – she seemed to have called every hour. The Thean Ambassador, and the Deputy Ambassador, and the others at the embassy. He realised, with a light-headed feeling, that he could call on any of them and they would tell him what they knew and help him find out more. He didn’t understand how he suddenly had so many options.

But it was obvious whom he should talk to first. He lifted his head. “Could you see if Bel Siara is still waiting, please?”

The nurse left him in private. After much less time than he expected, a familiar face appeared in the door. “Welcome back to the world of the conscious,” Bel said.

Jainan’s neutral mask fell away in relief. Even Bel wouldn’t be using that sardonic tone if Kiem was in danger, but he asked just to make sure. “Kiem’s alive?”

“Oh, Heaven, of course he is,” Bel said. Her professional Iskat accent was back, Jainan noticed. She hadn’t sounded like that when he’d last seen her. “Alive and operating like there’s a time bomb under his feet. Are you out of danger? I’m guessing you are, since you’re talking, but the medics were making grim faces at me right up until yesterday.”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Jainan said. “You’re not hurt? You took—” He hesitated. Some of his memories were still blurry, but he could piece them together. He hadn’t been hallucinating when Aren shot Bel.

“He missed anything vital,” Bel said. “I’d bet most of the palace officers have never seen real action. I was fine by morning.”

Jainan looked at where his wristband should have been, then at the time display on the screen, and had to conceal his shock. It was the day before Ressid was due for the treaty signing. He had been unconscious for five days. “I’m glad you’re both all right.” If Kiem was fine, and working, surely he should have tried to visit him? It felt ungrateful to ask. “I was told I’m not under arrest.”

“You’re not,” Bel said. “But Kiem definitely is.”

Jainan’s hand clenched in the bed sheet. “Kiem is? Why have they arrested Kiem?” The tubes at his wrist tugged in their bandage, and he realised he was leaning forwards. “I was the one they accused! What is Aren going to charge Kiem with? Sabotaging his own flyer? Aren was the one who killed Taam! He was the one who tried to kill both of us!”

Bel held up a hand. “Saffer’s also under arrest. Sorry. I’m not explaining well. It’s been a long few days. Let’s take this back to the beginning.”

She did have the look of someone operating on too much stress and no sleep. Jainan felt a pang of guilt, and looked around for a chair. The bench the nurse had sat on was bolted to the wall, so he drew up his legs, leaving a space on the bed. “You should sit down.”

Bel looked down and hesitated. Jainan realised it was uncharacteristic of him to let anyone who wasn’t his partner that close, and felt his throat close up in embarrassment before Bel unceremoniously dropped the folder she was carrying on the end of the bed and made herself comfortable next to it. “Tell me if I’m on your feet. Okay. Let me lay this out.” She brought a foot up, resting her shoe on the bed, and slung her arm around her knee as she apparently collected her thoughts. “You didn't do anything illegal. They’re fairly sure about that – Internal Security were coming to that conclusion even when the matter was raised, but Aren managed to start up a separate military investigation before Internal Security formally claimed the case, and he used that to frame you. You definitely did get abducted from your official cell and put in a machine classed as a method of torture, though, so now everyone’s clear someone had it in for you. How are you really feeling, by the way?”

“Fine,” Jainan said. Bel raised an eyebrow, and he gave ground. “My head hurts. It’s not too bad.”

“Ye-es.” Bel said. “You know prisoners who have more than one session in that thing tend to suffer permanent brain damage?”

“That’s very reassuring,” Jainan said. “I’m glad we all went through this, or I might never have experienced your tactful bedside manner.”

“You should hear me when Kiem thinks he has a cold,” Bel said. “So, you didn’t do anything illegal. Kiem and I, on the other hand, broke into a classified facility and incapacitated three serving personnel. We definitely did that.”

“To get me.”                        

“Yes,” Bel said. “Well. That’s where it gets a bit murky. Kiem’s under arrest. Saffer’s under arrest. Kiem’s telling his side of the rescue story to anyone who asks – and a lot of people who haven’t – but the evidence against Saffer and Taam is very thin. Internal Security aren’t getting far with untangling Saffer’s dealings. It doesn’t help that Kiem won’t talk about the embezzlement, or about anything to do with you and Taam. He won’t even confirm Internal Security’s guesses – Rakal is seething. So he’s telling everyone that Saffer kidnapped you, but without the motive it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

"What?" Jainan said. He couldn’t tell if the spike of nausea was part of the field aftereffects or not. “Why is he doing that?”

Bel glanced at the door to make sure it was shut. “I think he’s waiting to see what you want to do. They’re reading all our communications so we don’t write much. If you want to write a message I can send it.”

“I—” Jainan was bad at putting his feelings into words at the best of times, and the thought of Internal Security reading them – and possibly using them in evidence – made him dry up completely. It would have to wait until he saw Kiem. “Did he say anything?”

“We didn’t have a lot of time before we got separated. He said to tell you he’s sorry.”

The idiot, Jainan nearly said, but it didn’t quite come out. His tongue felt dry. Kiem had left him with the choice. How far would it have to go? If he had to stand up in court and talk about things that had happened between him and Taam behind closed doors, could he do that? He would have to. His throat felt suddenly dry. “You’re free, though?”

“I’m out on Imperial sufferance,” Bel said. “And only because Kiem confessed to all the actual crimes and sent the Emperor a clemency plea on my behalf. The Emperor now has the real version of my career history,” she added. “Kiem says, I quote, ‘It probably tickled her’.”

“The real version,” Jainan said. He struggled to pull up his tattered memories of the Tau field. “Kiem said something about… raiders?”

“Raider,” Bel said. “Singular. Ex-raider.” She was watching him carefully.

Jainan felt a long-ago stir of suspicion rise again and take shape. “That’s how you knew the leader of the Blue Star group.” Bel nodded, only slightly. “Why are you pretending to be an aide?”

“I’m not pretending,” Bel said sharply. “I wanted to go straight. I applied for this job, I got it, and funny thing, being in the centre of the Empire’s power base means any of my old colleagues who might want to argue with that suddenly find it very hard to get to me.”

“So it’s for safety?”

“No,” Bel said. “Well, a little. But no. I’m good at this job. I enjoy getting respect that doesn’t come at gunpoint, and I don’t want to make a living out of screwing over innocent bystanders. I don’t like shooting people. I was born on a Red Alpha ship, you know, I didn’t pick it.” She added, defensively,I like it here. At least I get more career options than ‘raider captain’.”

“And all those times you solved our technical problems..?”

Bel spread her hands. “I didn’t hurt anyone.”

Jainan longed to just press his knuckles into his eyes, but held back. Kiem apparently knew all this already. And Bel had saved their lives. “Thank you,” he said, at last. “I did wonder how Kiem had broken in. It makes much more sense now.”

“Don’t get arrested again,” Bel said. There was an odd undercurrent of relief to her voice. Had she really cared what Jainan thought of her? “I can’t get an Imperial pardon twice.”

“No, I do see that,” Jainan said. “Can’t I take responsibility for this? This whole mess is—” my fault “—not your fault. Either of you.”

“Kiem said you might say that,” Bel said levelly. “And I would like you to know that if I could travel back five years with a burn gun and put a ten-centimetre diameter hole between the front of Taam’s stomach and the back of his torso, I would also have been able to solve everything. It’s Taam’s fault.”

It took a moment for Jainan to reply. “I know that.”

“Apart from the part where you got tortured,” Bel said. “That was mainly Saffer. Fenrik’s handed him over to Rakal, by the way. The military is going to be on the back foot for a while. I haven’t heard what the Emperor is going to do with him. Someone is very anxious that I don’t bug anything right now, which I’m guessing includes the Emperor’s private message branch.”

That roused Jainan from his tangled thoughts about Aren and Taam. “You should certainly not do that,” he said, then caught the gleam in her eye and realised he had risen to the bait. The side of his mouth quirked involuntarily. This should not be cheering him up.

Something else made Bel’s expression cloud. “You should probably know something else. Aren’s come up with a counter-charge.”

The urge to smile vanished. “What?”

“That Kiem’s the one who was violent to you.” Bel said.

She said something after that, but Jainan didn’t hear it. He had to stare at her, and follow her lips until his brain started to make sense of what he heard again. “…won’t stand up with so little to go on, but it’s muddied the waters, and a couple of anti-royalist newslogs got hold of it somehow…”

He ceased to hear her again. He felt as though his skin had been stripped away and every particle sleeting through the universe could hammer into his exposed flesh, tearing away what he used to defend his core. His fingers were numb; his muscles no longer worked.

“Jainan?”

Jainan realised Bel had spoken to him more than once. With an effort, he cut short the fugue state that wanted to take hold of his mind. “Oh,” he said.

“Shut the hell up,” Bel said, jabbing something beside his bed. The beeping that had filled the air stopped. “Jainan? Didn’t mean to give you a relapse.”

“It’s not a relapse,” Jainan said. Oddly, his head now felt very clear. “Bel, could I ask some of favours of you?”

“Break you out of the hospital?” Bel said, only semi-facetiously.

“Not quite,” Jainan said. “Do you still have the data from the flybug crash?”

“Of course.”

“Could you send it to Professor Audel?” Jainan said. His mind started working overtime. He didn’t have the equipment here and he might miss something in this state, but Audel could pull in Gairad and her other students. “Ask her for the quickest possible turnaround. And I would like the contact details for the Emperor’s private office.”

Bel raised her eyebrows. “Going straight to the top? Kiem’s already tried it. She mainly wants to keep the fact you were abducted out of the news. I don’t think she’ll intervene just for rumours about Kiem. She’d cause more of a stir than any of the rumours did.”

“I understand,” Jainan said. He did, that was the thing. He understood the Emperor’s situation, and the military’s, and Internal Security’s. It was a delicate matter. “I don’t plan to ask her to do that. I would like you to contact a visitor for me.”

Ten minutes and a few calls later, Bel had gone, with a message for Audel and an assurance that she would tell Kiem he was awake. Jainan waited in bed, keyed up to unbearable levels, and jumped as the door chimed.

“Your Grace?”

“Hani Sereson,” Jainan said. He held himself as straight as he could, sitting up in bed. “Do come in.”

The journalist gave him a blinding professional smile and sketched a bow. “I must say, I didn’t think I’d ever hear from you like this.” Her eyes flicked over his body and the drip in his wrist with a hungry shimmer of silver. “We heard you were ill. All of us were wondering if you were well enough for the treaty anniversary reception tomorrow.”

“I’m saving my energy for it. Forgive me for not rising to greet you,” Jainan said. “And thank you for coming in at such short notice.” He opened his hand to indicate a chair Bel had brought in from the corridor.

“Believe me, no journalist would turn down a message like the one I just received.” Hani sat down and crossed one leg over the other. “I do hope you’re recovering well from… well, it looks like you’ve been through some kind of ordeal.” Her hand hovered over an expensive mic button, which she detached from her collar and left to float in the air between them. “Do you mind if I record this conversation?”

Jainan’s smile came from some deep, sharp place within him. “Of course not,” he said. “In fact, I would be very pleased if you would.”

Chapter Text

“I understand where you’re coming from,” Kiem said into the recording. “I want you to know that. It’s not true, but I get that you have to tell reporters you’ve done something. Fine. You want me to resign as a patron, I’ll do that.” He swallowed the frustration which was in danger of leaking through. “Let me know if I can find you someone else, though. You should have someone from the palace on the board.” He paused. “Stay in touch.”

He cut the recording to the latest charity and slumped back from the tiny desk. The steel back of the chair dug into his shoulder muscles. He stretched his arms out. The room was large enough for him to do that, at least, though his knuckles grazed the frame of the top bunk bed.

But his surroundings were luxurious compared to what they might have been. Internal Security had a couple of holding rooms that it sometimes used for who-knew-what nefarious purposes, and when the military and civilian wrangling had been sorted out that was where Kiem had ended up. For a holding cell, it didn’t lack for frills: there was a tiny bathroom, an exercise machine, and even a flickering screen with hundreds of preprogrammed media in the corner.

Depending on how you looked at it, it might not even be a cell. The door wasn’t locked, just guarded by agents with instructions to keep him in and no sense of humour. Kiem had played with the idea of seeing if he could bluff his way past them to get to Jainan’s hospital, but had reluctantly abandoned it after the first unsuccessful attempt. The Emperor was already annoyed about the whole situation. It would be a very bad idea make her angrier. He had Bel and Jainan to think about.

But in a way none of this mattered. All that mattered was that Jainan was stable, and that Rakal had made good on their promise to keep the military from getting their hands on him. Kiem had it from Bel that Jainan was recovering and had Internal Security agents on his door, being useful for once and keeping unauthorised people out. And Aren was finally under arrest. Kiem would happily have gone to jail several times over if it meant Aren was locked up as well.

The other kink in the wires was the newslogs. Kiem had run compulsive searches on himself and Jainan when he’d first been detained. The big outlets, at least, had only reported on his arrest and Aren’s. By the second day the fringe ones were starting to close in on the allegations of Kiem’s abuse. Kiem didn’t run those searches any more.

His latest message of resignation – this one his third, for an education charity – hung as a small glowing circle above the table. Kiem drummed his fingers on the edge of the table, outside the sensor area, and then flicked on the recording again. “Prince Lelt might be good,” he said. “He does some charity work. Birds, I think. Natural habitats, that sort of thing. On second thoughts, that’s not very relevant. Duke Reshsen?” He paused it, then played it back. No. He erased the addition. His messages were getting more like the rantings of a babbling idiot as the days went on. He should stick to writing, but even talking to an imaginary recipient kept him saner than not having anyone to talk to. He had seen only Internal Security agents for the last six days, usually Rakal or Deln. He was going to go mad if this carried on too long.

There was no point replaying the message again. He sent it, and when it was gone he put his head down on the desk. What he wanted to do was send one to Jainan, but he knew Deln was reviewing everything that went through his account while he was in here, and he still didn’t know what Jainan wanted him to tell Internal Security. It had to wait until Jainan woke up. Whenever he did wake up.

He made himself breathe out slowly. What he needed was a fraction of Jainan’s calm. When things went wrong for Jainan, he didn’t flap around uselessly like Kiem. He just got… more focused. For a moment Kiem wasn’t even afraid for him, he just missed him. Just not having Jainan there hurt.

A message added itself to the depressingly short list in the corner of the desk. Kiem abandoned his attempt at serenity to see what it was.

It was from Bel. Kiem wasn’t expecting much: his messages to and from Bel were short and business-like, so neither of them accidentally contradicted up the details Kiem had fudged in his original story. This one was short even by her standards, though, and contained a clipping with just one line above it.

Jainan’s awake. Brace yourself before you read this.

Kiem felt a surge of joy which left as fast as it had appeared. He frowned and opened the clip.

It was a cuttings file, like Bel usually quarantined in the press folder for him. The moment Kiem recognised it as some kind of news, he nearly shut it off before it could spread over the desk. Even the first allegations had made him sick to his stomach and he had no desire to see how the story had grown. But he had left it a moment too long to cancel. The pages fanned out and settled in front of him. He froze.

Jainan’s face stared back at him from every cutting, from every newslog. The same photo: he was propped up in a hospital bed, looking directly, almost defiantly, at the camera. He had made no attempt to hide that the wrist lying across his lap was hooked up to a drip. The most shocking thing was what he was wearing – Jainan, who rarely let himself be photographed, and never in anything less than full formal dress, had let them take his photo in a hospital gown.

The first time Kiem tried to read the headlines, his brain rebelled and he didn’t take most of them in. His eyes kept going back to Jainan’s diamond-hard gaze. The biggest picture, the one Bel had placed in the centre, was under the familiar green-and-black header of the Consult. The words next to it read, Ex-Partner Accuses Prince Taam of Abuse. And then in smaller text: Embezzlement and Army Corruption: Exclusive Consult Interview.

Kiem stopped breathing for an instant.

The Consult was a restrained, respectable outlet. Their headline was the least sensational of the bunch. The rest of the articles started at FIVE YEARS IN HELL and went downhill from there. At first Kiem wondered wildly who had leaked this – who had done this to Jainan – but then he looked further down the Consult article. A smaller candid shot showed Jainan and Hani Sereson talking in the same hospital room. Jainan had done this on purpose.

Kiem should be able to read the article. He didn’t understand why he was so afraid of it. It hadn’t happened to him.

He took a deep breath, and made himself read it.

Jainan had not held back. The embezzlement. The crash data. The kidnapping and the Tau field. Aren was there too, under the epithets an unnamed military officer and Prince Taam’s accomplice, but neither Jainan nor Hani seemed to focus on him. Most of the article was about Jainan’s life with Taam.

Jainan dissected the last five years like a surgeon. Every time they quoted him he was dry and emotionless, but the details themselves were blunt weapons. Dates and times. Places. What Taam had said, what he had done. Set out in black and white like that it looked surreal, grotesque, and yet whenever it was in Jainan’s words he made it sound very ordinary, while Hani’s careful arrangement of the article threw his words into stark relief. A side article showed a set of messages from Taam, though heavily redacted, as even the Consult was wary of the palace and the law. But Hani had done her legwork: there were confirmations of the events Jainan and Taam had attended, a physician’s record, a barely-diplomatic quote from the Thean Embassy.

Why now? Hani asked, in the last column. Count Jainan seems more intense, as if this is what he has been waiting for. ‘Because the officer concerned is lying about Kiem,’ he says. “Kiem has been nothing but helpful. All of this was on Taam.” He won’t say much else about his current partner, who was unavailable for comment at time of publication, but went back to an incident six months ago…

Kiem couldn’t bring himself to read through to the end. He swept his hand compulsively across the desk. The press clippings spun and winked out, but the burst of uncontrollable energy didn’t dissipate, just propelled him pointlessly to his feet. He leant over the table and had to press on it to stop his arms shaking – with what emotion, he wasn’t sure. Jainan had done this to clear Kiem’s name. Kiem wanted to hit something. He wanted to fix the universe so it never happened. He wanted to find Jainan and kiss him.

He didn’t do any of it. Before he could get any further the door gave a perfunctory chime, and opened to admit Agent Rakal.

“Your Highness.” Rakal’s stride didn’t slow as they threw their wristband projection onto the small wall screen. “Her majesty wishes an audience with you.”

Any similarity that had to a request was purely superficial. Kiem jumped, and only had a couple of seconds to try and smooth out his hair before the Emperor’ face was on the wall.

He bowed. Rakal, somewhat unexpectedly, went to one knee.

“Oh, get up,” the Emperor said. Rakal rose. Their jaw was tightly locked in an expression which, Kiem realised, looked a lot like shame. “Assigning responsibility will come afterwards. Clean up this mess first. Kiem!”

Kiem jumped. “Ma’am?” Suddenly Rakal’s salutation didn’t seem an overreaction. Rakal had definitely made some mistakes, but from the Emperor’s point of view Kiem was the one standing by the blaze with a gas canister and an innocent expression. He was probably heading up the ‘least favourite relative’ list right now.

“Did you tell him to do this?” the Emperor said.

Kiem’s first instinct was to say do what? But Jainan had flung this up like a flare in the dark and the time for covering up was over. “No,” Kiem said. “But aren’t you glad he waited until Taam was dead before he did? Did you know Aren confessed to killing Taam, by the way?” he added. “I’ve told Agent Rakal. Several times.”

“I am well aware of the investigation,” the Emperor said. “Attend. You know the Thean contingent, including their Principal for Foreign Affairs, arrived an hour ago? They will be at the welcome reception tonight, along with their Ambassador and our Minister for Thea.”

“Oh, shit,” Kiem said, dismayed. “I – sorry. ‘Scuse the language. I didn’t realise it was that close. Is Jainan…?”

“He will be there,” the Emperor said. “So will you.” She adjusted her old-fashioned glasses, grimacing. “So, of course, will every news outlet with staff in striking distance of the capital, from across all the Empire’s planets. I have decided you are the most appropriate one to deliver the official apology.”

“Official – apology?” Kiem said, taken aback. It must be bad. Of course Jainan deserved it, but the about-face was so fast he might get whiplash. “Yes? I mean, I’d be happy to, your Majesty.”

Don’t improvise,” the Emperor said. “I will send Hren to you with a press briefing. Listen to him and to Rakal and do not even think of going off-script. You have less than an hour to prepare – the Theans are being shown to their accommodation even now and the press conference will be directly before the dinner.” She peered closer at the screen. “And what in Heaven are you wearing? Burn it immediately. Brush your hair and put on something suitable.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Kiem said, barely paying attention to the last part. “Can I see Jainan? They haven’t let me see him yet. I know he’s awake.” He glanced sideways at that, including Rakal in the request. They were looking even more mortified at the talk of the official apology, though they must have known in advance.

“You will certainly talk to Jainan,” the Emperor said. “That boy needs a leash around him. You will remind him of his duty.”

“I will?” Kiem said. “Saving your Majesty, it sounds like he’s already said what he’s going to say. You can’t wipe it off the Consult’s pages.”

Rakal said, in a low, flat voice, “It is ongoing. He leaked a security camera video and a further selection of Taam’s messages to four organisations after the initial Consult interview.”

“And how do we know, you ask?” the Emperor said. “Because the dratted man apparently requested that each of them send a copy of their article to my private office – why are you wearing that particularly vacuous grin?”

Jainan did not strike out and create a random mess, like Kiem would have done. He caused deliberate, targeted mayhem. “I love him,” Kiem said, still unable to stop smiling.

“Of course you do,” the Emperor said. “You have never made good choices. And this is a particularly poor moment for wild confessions from you, because half the population of two planets are calling for your divorce.”

The ground fell out from under Kiem’s feet. He stared like an idiot at the Emperor. “Jainan doesn’t want that. Does he? We couldn’t, anyway. The treaty—”

“Don’t be such a goose,” the Emperor said irritably. “With every newslog on this planet and on Thea baying for it? No one wants the Theans feeling martyred on a planetary level. They will provide someone new to bind the treaty.”

“He doesn’t want a divorce,” Kiem said, desperation starting to get hold of him. “He would have said – surely he would have said!” He thought back through the article. Jainan had said baldly what Kiem had done. He had said Kiem was helpful. But nowhere, come to think of it, had he implied he really wanted to be married to him.

“Would he?” the Emperor said. “Dress for the reception. And ensure nobody causes a scene.”

She cut the connection. Kiem stepped back, his mind whirling with hope and doubt, and let Rakal cut theirs.

 

*

 

Everything in the palace around the Great Banqueting Hall had been freshly cleaned and polished. The white walls glittered, a pristine runner had been laid underfoot, and the silver light fittings shone like mirrors. As Jainan turned into the sweeping stairway that led to the anterooms he was sharply visible against the pale background in the deep green of his clan uniform. Feria used several shades of green with gold patterns boldly climbing over them like vines, and whether it was the un-Iskat patterns or the fact his face was in all the newslogs, he had felt stares on him all the way from the front gate of the palace. It made him ensure his head was up and put a fraction of extra length in his stride. Let them stare.

He knew Ressid had landed, with the rest of the Thean contingent. He had kept his messages with her brief, because Hani’s interview wasn’t something he wanted to talk about unless it was in person, but he knew she had seen it. Right now Ressid would be in the routine press conference that was held at the arrival of any foreign dignitary – and according to Bel, that was where Kiem was as well. Jainan suspected that the moment he walked into the press conference he would become the centre of attention himself, but it couldn’t be helped. He had gone to the press and the world had not ended. He could weather it.

And he had waited long enough. He was well enough to walk, he was looking presentable, and he was going to find Kiem if he had to go through half the palace to do it.

The hallway and staircase leading to the hall were nearly empty, although voices came from the floor above. A couple of glamorously dressed women with newslog equipment had just reached the top of the staircase and were being ushered in by an attendant. Jainan was late; it had taken longer for the doctors to do the final checks than he had anticipated.

He slipped into the side of the hall. It had been set up for the conference with a podium on a dais at the front and rows of chairs. The first thing he saw was Ressid at the podium in the middle of an answer, her emphatic cadences so familiar it was disorientating. As Jainan silently closed the door behind him he saw the handful of Theans and Iskaners sitting behind her the stage. He barely looked at any of them except Kiem.

Kiem was on the end of the row, sitting uncomfortably on the edge of his seat. His elbows rested on his knees and his foot jiggled restlessly, as if he couldn’t bear to be in a space as confined as a chair. His face was lined with anxiousness, but he was solid and real and alive, and for a moment Jainan was an invisible observer in a private bubble of warm, helpless affection.

It only took seconds for one of the reporters in the audience to turn their head and notice the newcomer. Jainan’s arrival spread out through the crowd like a ripple. Photographers turned their cameras. At the front Ressid hadn’t yet noticed.

“…at this point considering all options,” she said. “While Thea remains committed to the treaty, this new information…” She faltered and stopped.

Jainan swallowed, ignoring all the press, and returned her gaze. He wasn’t twenty-two and newly married and naïve anymore. He wasn’t twenty-six and trying to hide. He and Ressid would have to talk, and until then, he could at least look her in the eye.

Not all of the front row had noticed. One of the reporters took advantage of the gap to jump in. “And Count Jainan’s current marriage?”

Ressid was not a trained diplomat for nothing. The steel returned to her voice as she turned her attention back to the press. “I must disclose a personal interest. You are all aware Count Jainan is my brother.” As she said my brother her eyes went briefly back to Jainan, fierce and uncompromising, and then bored into the reporter again. “We demand an immediate and clean-cut divorce, and for the Empire to release Count Jainan back to Thea.”

Jainan stopped in shock.

A murmur rose around him. On the dais behind Ressid, Kiem looked as if someone had finally landed a blow he’d been dreading. His shoulders slumped.

“Next question,” Ressid said. Jainan realised she was trying to protect him from the glare of attention.

“No,” someone said sharply. “Stop.” Jainan realised it was him.

Kiem looked up. The whole room was paying attention now, but that wasn’t important. Jainan saw the moment Kiem realised he was there. He saw the way Kiem straightened from his slump like someone had pulled him up, and he saw Kiem's whole expression light up in hope.

Jainan had never been good at communicating, but he didn’t have to be, because now his certainty was a cascading river buoying him along. As he strode up to the front camera lenses started turning on him. He ignored them. He ignored everything except the way Kiem shot out of his chair, caught his foot on the leg of it, stumbled, reached out.

Jainan caught his hands. He hadn’t meant to clutch them as tightly as he did. “Kiem.”

Jainan,” Kiem said, as if his name was like the first breath of air he’d drawn in minutes. “You- you’re- you’re—”

“What’s this about?” Jainan said.

“The – the divorce?” Kiem said. He didn’t seem to be able to string more than two words together. People had started to call questions from behind Jainan, but neither of them paid attention. “I didn’t—”

“I’m clearly not leaving now,” Jainan said. “This should be obvious. I love you.”

“You do? You do. I mean. Yes!” Kiem’s face was incredulous and joyful. “I do too! Of course I love you! I have for ages! I– Ressid thought--”

The dam inside Jainan burst. “You idiot,” he said, and grabbed his wrists. “How did they let it get this far? Let’s fix this.” Kiem came with him, confused but willing, as Jainan turned to the front of the stage.

“Your Grace!” a reporter shouted, cutting across the babble of voices. “Will you make a statement?”

“Yes,” Jainan said. He took the microphone from the podium. Elation was running through him like a drug. “I am certainly going to make a statement.” That was enough to quiet the room down. A reporter called out another question from the back, but cut off in the middle as Jainan tapped the hovering button.

“I think I may have been misleading before,” Jainan said. “I am not very good at talking about my feelings. I said in my previous interview that Kiem was a great help. What I meant was: I love Kiem, he is truly extraordinary, and there is nobody I would rather be married to. I hope this is now clear.”

A ripple went through the room – half shock, half amusement, but the only sound Jainan focused on was a low, involuntary noise from Kiem beside him, and the way Kiem pulled his wrist out of Jainan’s grip so he could take Jainan’s hand. Jainan clasped it tight and it buoyed him up like a wave. He leaned over the microphone and gave the twenty or so reporters a beatific smile. “Questions?”

“What about the divorce?” a woman called from the front row. “The Embassy filed a petition with the Emperor!”

“The divorce will not be going ahead,” Jainan said. “I was not consulted and most certainly do not agree to it.” He turned his head to Ressid, who had the same look on her face as she’d had when Jainan blew up his first experimental shuttle drive. Jainan was exhilarated enough to nearly grin, but he suppressed it and then turned his attention on Kiem. “Unless Prince Kiem has reason to file for it?”

“No!” Kiem said. “No. None. No.” He closed his hand more tightly over Jainan’s. “Wait, should I also make a statement? I can make a statement. Okay, listen, I’m the luckiest person on several planets, and I’m really sorry you’re all not me.” He was talking to the reporters, but he was only looking at Jainan, and his words were only the edges of what he was saying, like the breaking crests of waves on a tide. “Only I’m not. Stop me talking.” Jainan didn’t laugh, but only because laughter was only a fraction of what he felt. He stepped up and kissed Kiem.

It was easy to ignore the cameras this time. Jainan shut his eyes and didn’t break away even in the bustle around them, encouraged by Kiem’s arms wrapped possessively around him. They didn’t stop until the coordinating steward announced, “Honoured citizens, I believe we should suspend the conference here,” and the Ambassador coughed politely behind Jainan and said, “Your Grace?”

Jainan turned, putting his polite face on, which was hard because fireworks kept fizzing in his brain. “Yes, your Excellency?” he said. But he realised what it was the next moment, as Ressid strode across the dais towards him.

She stopped, a bare arm’s length away. Jainan searched her face, not knowing what else to do. She was achingly unchanged. All you could ever tell from Ressid was that she was in the grip of strong emotions, not which ones they were.

The press conference was breaking up. Kiem was apparently giving an impromptu interview to a journalist at the edge of the dais, so they had a small pool away from everyone’s attention. “Ressid,” Jainan said uncertainly.

“Sweet children of God,” Ressid said, and flung her arms around him in a way that was not at all commensurate with her image as a senior diplomat. “I am going to murder you,” she added, low enough not to be heard by anyone else. “Or possibly myself for being so stupid. Someone is going to get murdered. Several people.”

She’d last hugged him like this when he’d left for Iskat. He’d last heard her threaten to murder people when they were teenagers. Jainan suddenly wasn’t afraid, only elated and relieved, and he wanted badly to laugh. “I thought they’d made you tone down the death threats,” he said. “What if an Iskat diplomat hears you? How was your trip?”

Somewhat tense,” Ressid said, “because I spent most of it thinking you were either about to be arrested, under arrest, or dead. Full-blown diplomatic crisis didn’t seem to cover it.”

“Well,” Jainan said, “we solved it.” The gathered reporters and dignitaries were slowly dispersing around the plates of refreshment provided at the side of the room, but there was a reporter still hovering hopefully at Ressid’s elbow to try and get to Jainan. “Have you met Kiem, by the way?” He could have sworn Kiem’s attention was fully on his conversation with a journalist, but the minute Jainan mentioned Kiem’s name he was back beside him. His hand brushed Jainan’s and Jainan deliberately caught it again.

Kiem bowed without detaching himself. “I’ve had the pleasure over vid,” he said. “Though I think I’ve just worked out some things about our last call.”

“Yes,” Ressid said. “We must have another talk. Somewhere less public.” They stepped off the dais together and Ressid frowned at the photographer who immediately turned to them. “No photos of my brother, please.”

“A photo is fine,” Jainan said. He tightened his grip on Kiem’s hand and smiled briefly at the photographer. “But no more interviews.”

Ressid eyed the hovering journalists. “Go and get ready for dinner. I’ll hold them off. So sorry to keep you waiting,” she added loudly to the nearest reporter. “I’d be delighted to give you a statement on Thean affairs.” She took the reporter’s arm and bore them off firmly, leaving Kiem and Jainan to escape from the others. In the crowd beside her Hren Halesar was holding court with a group of other journalists, and he caught Jainan’s eye and mouthed something that looked like well fucking played.

“’Scuse me,” Kiem said, engineering a path around the back of a particularly burly reporter. “No more questions, sorry, we have to dress for dinner. Call me tomorrow. Have a good evening!”

After few more moments of Kiem’s excuses and innocent-seeming shoulderings they found themselves near the exit, where they could make a polite escape. “I am never going to read a newslog again,” Jainan murmured, as his elbow brushed Kiem’s.

“Are you kidding?” Kiem said. He was grinning at Jainan in a way that made him seem like he’d just discovered Jainan’s face and was delighted with it, which was unfair and exhilarating at the same time. “I’m going to laser tomorrow’s front page posts on our bedroom wall.”

“I will void the treaty,” Jainan threatened. Kiem laughed and bowed him through the door.

Chapter Text

When they got back to their rooms Kiem barely made it through the door before Jainan put a hand on his chest and kissed him again. It felt less urgent than the last kiss they’d had: something slow that they both delighted in. It was impossible to stop with that. Kiem said I missed you about five times, and occasionally the start of other sentences, but Jainan distracted him every time he started something and felt entirely unrepentant about it.

All of that put paid to most of the half hour they had to get ready. It was Jainan who finally came up for air, looked at his wristband and declared they would need to change right now or be late, and that Kiem wasn’t dressed formally enough for dinner. Kiem protested, then remembered that Ressid and the Thean delegation would be there and disappeared hastily into the shower. Jainan heard him turn it down to cold and swear under his breath.

Jainan was straightening his collar in the bedroom mirror, smiling discreetly, when his wristband flared into life. He frowned down at the unfamiliar sender and tapped a query. Internal Security.              

For a moment he stared down at the pulsing light and considered ignoring it. But he recognised the fear that stirred as part of an old pattern, one that he didn’t have to maintain. This didn’t feel like anything he couldn’t deal with. He left the bedroom and threw the call up on the main screen in the living room.

The face on the screen was Chief Agent Rakal in an immaculately turned-out uniform. They dipped their head punctiliously. “Your Grace.”

“Agent Rakal.” Jainan sketched a nod in return. “Do you have something to discuss? I’m afraid I don’t have long.”

Rakal hesitated. Jainan noticed that despite their ferociously neat appearance, there were shadows of fatigue under their eyes. “Something has come up. In the circumstances, I can postpone it until tomorrow. If you would let me know—”

“Tell me,” Jainan said.

“You’re aware Aren Saffer is in custody.”

Jainan could not have easily categorised his immediate reaction to hearing it said aloud. Aren had always been linked to Taam in his mind. Even everything Aren had done had felt like Taam’s hand on his shoulder. Jainan wasn’t sure he had an opinion of Aren, powerless, by himself. “I am.”

“He is allowed a certain number of monitored contact opportunities. You are one of the people he asked to call.”

“How surprising,” Jainan said. Aren had never been good at giving someone up when he still had a use for them.

Rakal seemed unsure whether to take this at face value. “Legally he is allowed to make this request.”

“I’m learning a lot about the course of Iskat justice,” Jainan said. “Why is it you coming to me with this and not the military?”

“This has been declared a civil case.” Rakal said. “The Emperor has forbidden the military to touch it.” They glanced away from the screen uncomfortably, then looked back. “Your Grace, this is not intended to pressure you. I have to make the request but you are not obliged to grant it.”

“I am fully aware of that,” Jainan said. “You have him there?” Rakal nodded. “Put him on, please. I am not planning to waste more than five minutes on him.”

The screen flickered. The next face to come up was Aren, sitting in what looked like a cell. The first thing he said was, “They’re deciding whether to execute me.”

It sounded careless, as Aren often sounded. There was a quirk of a smile at the corner of his mouth.

Jainan felt as if he was a dispassionate observer, watching the guilt-laden barb slide straight past him. The familiar room with his own clan flag on the wall, the memory of the press conference, even Kiem singing off-key in the shower – all of them made Aren’s malice seem very trivial. He found it hard to remember how it had felt, back when Aren had been able to tear his life apart. “Are they?”

“You don’t care? Cold, Jainan,” Aren said. “Cold. I suppose you’ll be in court sticking the knife in.”

Jainan watched him for a moment before answering. Aren didn’t seem to have realised that Jainan wasn’t responding to him as he had before. Or perhaps he had realised, but had no other tactics left to use. “I won’t be petitioning for your execution,” Jainan said eventually. “That would require more of my attention than I’m willing to give. If the court decides on the death penalty that’s up to them.” He checked the time on his wristband. “Did you have much to say? We’re nearly late for dinner.”

Aren pushed himself back in his steel chair. There was still that quizzical smile on his face. Jainan recognised it for what it was: a mask, the same as his own blank expression. “Sorry to hear that. Don’t want to inconvenience you, of course. I just thought you might want to lend me a hand.”

Jainan didn’t feed him the line he was fishing for, which was why would I want to do that? He just waited.

After a moment’s uncomfortable silence, Aren’s smile lessened slightly. “You’re not spotless yourself, you know.”

Ah, and there it was. A non-specific threat intended to rattle Jainan while not giving Rakal anything useful. “Do tell me how,” Jainan said.

“I know you worked with Taam,” Aren said. “You don’t think Internal Security are curious what I wanted out of you from the Tau field? I have to give evidence.”

Jainan nearly laughed. “That’s it?” he said. “Aren, I’ve already recorded the passphrase to that private account for Agent Rakal. I sent some of Taam’s messages to the newslogs. You’re clutching at straws.”

The smile had now completely disappeared. “I’m just saying,” Aren said. “You want to keep your friends on your side.”

Jainan heard a door open behind him – the main door, not the bedroom. He waved a hand to greet Bel without looking away from the screen. He wasn’t bothered about being overheard. “You aren’t my friend, Aren,” he said. “And you aren’t going to get what you want.”

The mask dropped. “I will fucking end you,” Aren said. “I’ll send Evn after you the moment I get out. Even if it’s years.”

“Oh, scary.” Bel, dressed in deep blue formalwear, had leaned on the back of a chair to get a good view of the screen. “What a threat. Evn Afkeli will definitely blame the entire Iskat establishment and not the two-timing grifter he made a deal with.”

Aren’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not even from his conglomerate.”

“Nope,” Bel said. “So here’s my promise. You know Evn won’t care about you except to space you if he finds you. But if you live and you ever get free from whatever miserable penal colony they send you to, my old conglom will care. I still have favours to call in. If you ever come near any of us again, they’ll hunt you down and shoot you like a rat in a corner. Got that?”

“Bel, Internal Security is on the audio,” Jainan murmured, just as Aren’s frozen, furious expression flickered and Agent Rakal appeared again.

Bel gave the screen a professional smile. “Agent Rakal will understand.”

“I would be grateful nonetheless if you could refrain from threatening my prisoners,” Rakal said stiffly. “Count Jainan, I have noted Saffer’s attempted intimidation and will pass it to the prosecutors.”

“Thank you,” Jainan said, but it was Bel he glanced at as he said it. “Now I am afraid I really must go.”

Rakal hesitated. “One more thing. I have drafted my resignation.”

“Oh?” Jainan said.

“It has not yet been formally tendered. If you wish to make a preference clear to the Emperor, please do so over the next couple of days.”

“I don’t think you should resign,” Jainan said.

“That’s… an unexpected opinion, from you.”

“I think,” Jainan said slowly, “that it’s very possible to spend all your energy doing the right thing but still miss something obvious. I think that doesn’t make your effort meaningless. Does that make sense?”

Bel pointedly pulled up a time display on her watch. Rakal inclined their head. “I will consider it.”

They cut the call. Bel held up a hand to stop Jainan saying anything. “I know, I know,” she said. “We should be taking the high road, intimidation is illegal, I know. But it needed saying.”

“I was going to say thank you,” Jainan said. “I was going to say watching that very nearly made up for the entirety of the last week. I am further in your debt.”

Bel gave him an irreverent smile and threw the end of her gauzy midnight scarf over her shoulder, where it winked with tiny lights. “Then it worked perfectly,” she said. “You can pay it off in full if you fish Kiem out of the shower so we can all get to dinner. Have you seen the starter menu? If you two make me miss it I will quit.”

“I’m out of the shower!” Kiem appeared at the door to the bedroom, buttoning up his jacket. “Don’t quit!” His eyes went to Jainan’s. “Did I hear Rakal just then?”

“Aren made a last attempt at contact,” Jainan said. “Bel and I dealt with him.”

“Shit,” Kiem said, then seemed to take in Bel’s air of satisfaction. “Oh. Good?” Jainan wasn’t sure if he had the same air himself. Hopefully he wasn’t quite that transparent. “Sounds like you didn’t need me.”

Of course, being transparent wasn’t the end of the world. “I didn’t,” Jainan said. “I do want you, though, so don’t hover all the way over there.” That absurd smile broke across Kiem’s face like the sun, and he came closer, and it shocked Jainan all over again that the universe could ever give him this many good things at once. He kissed Kiem and took his arm. “We’re late,” he said. “Let’s go.”

Chapter Text

Kiem was probably the smuggest person at the after-dinner drinks, but he’d decided he was fine with that.

As he and Jainan emerged from dinner into the already-crowded reception room, the Theans were bright splashes of clan patterns in among the more conventionally-dressed Iskaners. The treaty anniversary was really just an excuse for all the relevant people on both planets to hobnob with their opposite number, but it was also a chance to get dressed up and have some very good champagne, and many of the delegates were taking advantage of it. The noise level was already high.

Kiem felt bubbly and light, more than he'd expected from a few sips of his glass at dinner. Jainan was at his side, his silhouette sharp in the deep green of his clan, and a good part of Kiem’s glow came from the certainty that he had the most desirable person in the room right next to him and everyone was probably jealous. He could be magnanimous in victory. More than that, actually, he felt so bubbly that he had to sit on the urge to hug nearly everyone he met.

“The toast was probably a bit much,” Jainan murmured. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“I can propose toasts if I want,” Kiem said. “Toasting your partner is practically de rigueur. It’s what you do at dinners. Totally unexceptional.”

“That is an absolute lie,” Jainan said. “You are trying to sell me a blatant untruth.” His hand tightened on Kiem’s arm. “And giving me that smile isn’t going to help you get away with it.”

“I’m not smiling,” Kiem said, but as he said it he realised he had been, and must have been for a while. “I’m having a good time.”

“I can tell,” Jainan said. There was a thread of something in his voice, everything proper and controlled except this odd – affection? Kiem decided it was affection and felt warm all over. “You may want to steer away from that colonel up ahead,” Jainan added, in a more neutral tone. “She knew Taam. She’s probably read the interview.”

“She won’t say anything,” Kiem said cheerfully, steering them in a slightly different direction. “Not after you eviscerated that politician who mentioned it.”

“I was polite.”

“You froze him dead,” Kiem said. “I felt the temperature drop and I wasn’t even the one you were staring at.”

“Well, you somehow steamrollered him into volunteering for the Municipal By-Laws subcommittee.”

“He’s clearly not got enough to do, if he’s going around reading interviews in newslogs. Someone’s got to… by-law those municipals. And everyone says it’s the committee nobody wants to be on.”

Jainan stifled a laugh, trying to disguise it as a cough. “You’re incorrigible. You are abusing the system.”

“Very badly,” Kiem agreed. He recognised Ressid on the other side of the room, but since there were dozens of people between them Ressid only gave them a discreet acknowledging wave. Kiem found he and Jainan had floated into the orbit of the Thean Ambassador and a small circle of dignitaries. Prince Vaile was there, fashionable in gold-threaded braids and a flowing grey dress. Kiem gave the group his best court bow. “Your Excellency. Your Highness. And… ah. General Fenrik?” The General was on the other side of the Ambassador, which was a shock in itself. In fact, now Kiem cast a glance around the room, there were more very senior military figures than would normally attend a routine welcome reception for one of the smaller vassal planets.

“General,” Jainan said neutrally. His hand was no longer on Kiem’s arm. Kiem couldn’t tell if the word was a greeting or a subtle warning. Kiem had last seen General Fenrik after Jainan had been abducted, coming out of his interview with the Emperor, where he had presumably been arguing the military’s claim over Jainan. The blame had fallen squarely on Aren and Taam, but that didn’t mean the military had come out of this spotless. Kiem stopped smiling as he met the general’s eyes.

“Prince Kiem,” the general said, with a slow, painful nod. “Count Jainan.”

“Honoured,” Jainan said steadily.

“No,” the general said, still slowly. “I believe the honour is mine, and also that you are owed an apology.”

There was a long pause. Kiem looked at Jainan’s steady gaze on Fenrik and stopped himself saying anything. “Ah,” Jainan said at last, very softly.

General Fenrik cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Yes. Indeed.”

“General,” Prince Vaile murmured. “I believe you had a proposition for Count Jainan?”

“Ah! Yes, that.” General Fenrik’s face grew more animated, which was largely evident in the bristling of his eyebrows. “That project Taam was running – the asteroid mining. Thean sector. We’ve had to strip the whole team from it and get new people in, for obvious reasons. The College boffins tell me you’ve got the know-how to run it.”

“Run… the regolith mining project?” Jainan said. “Run Taam’s project?”

“Temporary civilian commission,” the general said. “We’ll get a colonel in to support you with the management. You could do a trial period of six months to start.”

“I don’t – I –”

The Ambassador coughed genteelly. “It would be advantageous to have a Thean on the project.”

Jainan glanced at Kiem. Kiem almost said something but realised he didn’t have to. Jainan was already turning his attention back on the general. “I. Yes. I’ll do it on a trial basis.” Kiem squeezed his shoulder, which was all the delight he could politely show in company. “I have some ideas. That catalytic intensifier Audel and I were…” Jainan trailed off, apparently in thought, and then focused on General Fenrik again. “I do have one request.”

“What?”

“I would like Professor Audel from Imperial College to be brought in as a consultant.” Jainan said. “Also her students. They will need clearances.”

General Fenrik’s brows started to lower at the prospect of multiple civilians. “We’ll see.”

“That is my condition,” Jainan said. “I believe we can improve the extraction rate by up to sixteen percent, but I won’t take the post if I have to work alone. Please let me know when they are all cleared and I will be happy to start.”

General Fenrik gave Jainan a hard look, and then let out a grunt that could be interpreted as agreement. “We’ll contact you.”

“Excellent,” the Ambassador said, with enough bonhomie that it was obvious he and the general – and possibly Prince Vaile, who had fingers in lots of pies – had been working out the details beforehand. “Count Jainan and I look forward to working with you, general. May this iteration of it be more successful than the last. Ah. The Emperor.”

They all turned to make their bows as an attendant opened the doors, and a wave of polite obeisances rippled out from the Emperor’s entrance. General Fenrik gave the group a nod and strode over, part of a general realignment of the room as people drifted into the Imperial orbit. “Not very anxious to see her unless you are,” Kiem said to Jainan under his breath. “She’s probably got over the worst of it, but we may not be her favourite people right now. Just a guess.”

“I imagine not,” Jainan said. “Is that Bel?”

Kiem followed his gaze. Bel was apparently deep in discussion with one of the Emperor’ soberly-clothed aides. She looked up, as if she felt their eyes on her, and gave them an unreadable look before going back to the discussion.

“None of our business, apparently,” Jainan said, dryly.

“Looks like it,” Kiem said. He had something of a premonition what they might be talking about, fuelled by the realisation that the Emperor as a matter of course employed aides with terrifying military skills. Perhaps Bel demonstrating the ability to break into a military base for the sake of her employer was not so much a problem as he had thought. The Emperor had granted that pardon to Bel without too much persuasion, now that he thought about it.

“Dammit,” he muttered. “I think we’re going to get our aide poached.”

“By the Emperor?” Jainan said, startled. “Really?”

“I’d put money on it,” Kiem said. However he felt about losing her – reluctant didn’t even cover it – it would probably be a good move for her career. The Emperor’s ex-aides went on to run advisory councils, police forces, spy networks. Bel was too clever to stay as an aide for that long.

Jainan was hailed by someone else from the Thean contingent, a woman who was wearing a jacket in the same greens as Jainan’s uniform. As they spoke, Vaile drifted up and caught Kiem’s arm discreetly. “I thought I might pass social secretary duties for the Thean embassy to you,” she said. “I’ve been organising events like this when Theans come to the palace, but I have a lot on my plate.”

Kiem blinked. “Sure. Not a big thing. Why did it end up with you?”

“You need someone to be the point person in the palace, and Taam never did it,” Vaile said. “I understand I have you to thank for not having to marry a random Thean.”

“He’s not a random—oh. The divorce. Right.”

Vaile gave him a small smile. “Nonetheless. I’m glad at least one of my family almost has themselves together. Ah,” she added, just as Kiem was trying to work out if that was a compliment or not. “Speaking of family.” She nodded over to the double doors that led out from the reception room.

The doors had just been swept open to admit a group of latecomers in military dress, bedecked with medals and rank emblems. The crowd opened like a flower around them. Kiem took one look and groaned. “Oh, great.”

“Kiem?” He heard Jainan’s low voice beside him. “What’s wrong?”

“My mother,” Kiem said, under his breath. “She’s not supposed to be here. She must have taken an earlier shuttle. Argh.” He wondered for a fleeting moment if one of the gilded chairs would give him enough cover if he concealed himself behind it and thought chair-like thoughts.

“Kiem!” A short, stout woman, her uniform bars sagging with the weight of medals on them, detached herself from the centre of the group.

Kiem raised a hand. “Welcome back, mother.” He gave Jainan a sorry-this-is-probably-going-to-be-awful look and held out his arm. Jainan took it and they approached her together.

“General Tegnar,” Jainan said, bowing. Kiem bowed as well.

Kiem’s mother looked them up and down. “Well, at least you two are in one piece,” she said. “No sooner do I hear you’re married, Kiem, than I hear you’ve lost your partner to some sort of kidnapping. Was afraid you’d married someone as wishy-washy as you.”

Kiem raised his head from his bow. “Mother!” Jainan was right there.

“He didn’t lose me,” Jainan said. Kiem tried to shoot him a sideways apologetic look, but against all odds Jainan was obviously trying to suppress a slight smile he looked down at her. “I conveniently located myself in a classified military facility, which you must admit is hard to misplace.”

Kiem’s mother snorted. “Could say that. Thean. Hm. I hear on the grapevine you’re handy with a quarterstaff.”

Jainan inclined his head. “I do my best.”

“You’ll have to show me.” Kiem’s mother folded her arms and stared at Kiem. “You broke into a military base? Not having me on?”

Kiem felt tongue-tied and lumbering and cowardly, as he usually did when confronted with his mother. “It was for a good cause.”

His mother reached up a hand and unexpectedly clapped him on the shoulder. “Bet it was. Good show. Your Thean must be a good influence. Kiem wouldn’t even shoot at a target when we sent him to camp,” she added to Jainan. “Hope you can light a fire under him. Needs some backbone. Get him to sign up?” Her voice at the end was hopeful.

“I don’t think he needs to join the army to prove any sort of backbone, ma’am,” Jainan said gravely. “And I don’t believe you seriously think he’s going to.”

“Sharp. Oh, well,” she said philosophically. “This diplomacy thing isn’t bad. Diplomat is respectable.”

“I’m… where did you get that from?” Kiem said. “I’m not in the diplomatic corps.”

His mother frowned at him. “Thought you’d taken over as liaison to the Theans. Vaile said she was going to hand it over.”

“Yes, but that’s just social secretary!”

“Soon have you out in the system representing us. Military attaché.” She swept a look up and down him, winced, and appeared to reconsider. “Cultural attaché.” Kiem felt slightly like a pebble under the exhaust of a shuttle that had just launched. He managed a cultural-attaché sort of bow, but she wasn’t looking at him. “Oh, there’s Fenrik. Must talk. Jainan, come and find me tomorrow about the quarterstaff.”

She gave them both a nod and strode off. Kiem let out an explosive breath, half frustration and half laughter. “Could have gone worse,” he said. “Sorry about that.”

The smile was still playing around Jainan’s mouth as he watched her cross the room. “I see what you meant about her,” he said. “She’s not very like you.”

“I understand her about as much as I understand the Emperor,” Kiem said. “Diplomat. Wow. There’s something to quietly duck out of.”

There was a flash of something curious in the glance Jainan gave him. “Yes, you wouldn’t enjoy that at all,” he said. “Imagine you trying to deal with all that meeting people, talking to people, persuading people to agree on things…”

“Wait,” Kiem said. “Wait, what? You think I should be doing it? Organising social stuff, fine, but I’m not clever enough for—” He broke off. “I’m not used to the other stuff. That’s politics.”

Jainan didn’t reply immediately. Instead, he took two fresh glasses of champagne off an attendant’s tray and handed one to Kiem. After taking a sip, he said, “I would like it if we went to Thea.”

Diplomatic missions went to Thea. Of course, so did tourists. “We’ll definitely go,” Kiem said slowly.

“Think about it,” Jainan said. “I suspect you would be very good at it.” He slid his arm into Kiem’s again and politely brushed off another conversation. “How many more people do you think we’re obliged to talk to?”

“None,” Kiem said, instantly. “Let’s go outside.” He steered them towards the balcony doors. Everyone was in indoor clothes and it was winter, so few people were likely to be braving the cold. Kiem felt he could trade a bit of cold for some privacy with Jainan.

“Kiem?” Bel had slipped out of crowd and stood between them and the doors. Both of them stopped. She looked unsettled, less put-together than she normally did, and her eyes on Kiem were accusatory. “Did you have anything to do with the job I just got offered?”

“What?” Kiem said. “No! Wait. So you did get offered a job.” He realised he wasn’t helping his case. “I didn’t have anything to do with it. Why would you think I had something to do with it?”

“Because it’s exactly the kind of thing you’d do,” Bel said.

Kiem cast an appealing glance at Jainan. “It is exactly the kind of thing you would do,” Jainan said.

“Hey,” Kiem protested. “It wasn’t me.” That wasn’t the thing at stake, though. He mustn’t influence Bel’s choice; he tried to make his voice completely neutral. “So the Emperor did offer for you.”

“They’re offering me a pay rise,” Bel said. “If I can ‘handle the job’.”

“Might be good,” Kiem said. “Her aides go onto big things. I heard Rakal used to work for her. I mean, obviously you can handle it. You’ve been the brains of the outfit for the whole of the last year.”

“I could,” Bel said. There was a long pause, uncharacteristic for her. “On the other hand, I also heard you might be joining the diplomatic corps.”

How did you know that?” Kiem said. “Okay, wait, first of all I’m only taking over social secretary duties for the Theans, and second, I can’t believe you knew I was joining the diplomatic corps and you didn’t tell me.” Bel sort-of smiled. Kiem knew he was putting off asking the question.

Jainan asked it instead. “What are you going to do?”

“I was thinking,” Bel said slowly, “it might be nice to see some more of the galaxy. There isn’t much chance of that, with the Emperor.”

Kiem found he was smiling again. “We could probably match the pay rise. Since there’s two of us now and all. And you could always go and work for the Emperor later.”

“I could,” Bel said. “No promises how long I’ll stay. But I did want to see how Jainan’s engineering thing works out.”

“How did you know about—”

“She asked the Emperor’s aide,” Jainan said, amusement running through his voice. “Keep up, Kiem.”

“And now I need to go and put them off for another year or so,” Bel said. “I’ll leave you to it.” She gave them a quick flash of a grin, turned away, and disappeared into the crowd again.

“And now can we get some fresh air?” Jainan murmured.

“Yes! Right. Of course.” Kiem opened the door with a flourish that he turned into a bow halfway through. “Your Grace?”

“Your Highness,” Jainan said, with a grave nod. They passed out of the fug of light and noise into the stark, clear darkness outside.

The air was shocking, cold and clean. The moons were both small, but the stars were bright around them, and light spilled out from the clear panels in the doors behind them. Neither of them really noticed, because the corner of the stone balustrade was the ideal place to lean against while Kiem kissed Jainan’s neck and Jainan laced his hands in his hair.

It was a while later that Kiem took a breath and leaned his head back. Jainan was warm and solid in his arms, and his arm around Kiem’s back was keeping both of them from getting cold.

“You know,” Kiem said, “we’ve had a shared bedroom for weeks, and instead we’ve decided to go around sneaking kisses on balconies.”

“Your mother was wrong,” Jainan said. He detached himself from Kiem and took his hand instead, leaning next to him on the rail so their bodies pressed side-by-side. “I appear to be a very bad influence.”

“I didn’t mean you to stop,” Kiem said. Jainan smiled in the moonlight, raised his hand to the back of Kiem’s neck and ran his fingertips across his skin. Kiem stopped talking, his eyes shut, and a shiver went through him. “Do that again.”

“Are you cold?”

“That wasn’t cold.”

Jainan obliged, and Kiem leaned over to kiss the corner of his jaw, and was delighted to get something of the same reaction. He was stopped from investigating further only by the doors bursting open.

“Oh Sweet God,” a Thean voice said, dismayed. “I only came out to grab Jainan. I really didn’t want to catch you necking.”

Kiem groaned theatrically and raised a hand to his forehead. “Jainan,” he said, “tell me Thean law says you’re allowed to throw members of your clan over the balcony at moments like this.”

“No,” Jainan said, but Kiem could hear him fighting down laughter. “Gairad, try opening doors more circumspectly.”

“They’re having a darts competition in there,” Gairad said. “I won my round. Go in and fight for Thea.”

“Gairad,” Jainan said reprovingly, but his heart wasn’t in it. Kiem could feel the way he half-turned his head to Kiem – not a request for permission, or to check what he was doing, but as an invitation.

Kiem grinned. “All right,” he said. “So let’s go in there and watch you win.”

“I’m not going to win,” Jainan said. “I have done it on Thea and I just think I could outperform some of the more inebriated guests—”

Kiem turned to sneak in a last kiss, extraneous clan members be damned. “You’ll be the best,” he said.

“You don’t know that,” Jainan said. His eyes in the moonlight were dark and challenging, and his breath was hot on Kiem’s cheek. Neither of them seemed to be talking about darts any more.

“I do,” Kiem said, and kissed him. “It’s going to be amazing. You’ll see.”

 

-END-