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.”
“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.”