Maia fumbled the token in his hand for the second time in as many minutes, dropping it off the edge of the games table. Csethiro twitched forward, as did the shadowy figure of his nohecharis at his post on the other side of the room, and Maia waved them both back. He ducked under the table himself and rescued the token.
"My apologies," he said. "I find myself--" Distracted, he thought, but the word was quickly supplanted in his mind by confused and flustered and--
"Thou find'st thyself what?" Csethiro asked, her voice both impatient and concerned.
Maia's heart twisted a little with fondness for her and he smiled. Only for a moment, though, until the reason underlying her demand reasserted itself and he blushed miserably, the smile dropping off his face.
"Serenity," she said, now sounding truly alarmed.
Maia shook his head. If she was sufficiently troubled that she called him by his title rather than his given name... Surely it was better to tell her the entire story rather than to attempt further secrecy and concealment, when he was failing so badly at the latter.
He glanced at his nohecharis--his nohecharo, for it turned out to be Kiru in the room guarding him at the moment. That was tolerable, he supposed, if not entirely comfortable. At least she wasn't Beshelar.
He wanted to reassure Csethiro that the situation wasn't as bad as she obviously feared, but could not. He didn't see it in such an ill light--despite his lingering confusion--but he'd been raised highly irregularly, and far from the court. Perhaps Csethiro would be horrified or disgusted where he was not.
So he made careful note to elide the names and identifying details of the others involved as he recounted what had happened. "Thou wilt remember I wrote to thee shortly after the incident in Amalo--"
"--when that blackguard of a governor attempted regicide," she finished for him, her eyes flashing. "How could I ever forget that letter, even if I'd received it many years ago rather than barely two months?"
He nodded acknowledgement. "I didn't like to say at the time, when I was half the country away from Cetho and unsure whether any unfriendly eyes might intercept my letter, but he came very close to success. I only managed to escape by--" He hesitated, then steeled himself to continue. "--by hiding in a marnis tavern. And pretending to be a...well...prostitute. Ou--my pursuers fell for the deception, and at last I was able to make my escape."
Maia gasped for breath while simultaneously trying to hide the fact that he was doing so. He was the only one of them experiencing such difficulties.
Beshelar's athleticism was only to be expected; he trained almost every day, during the handful of hours he had to call his own between serving Maia and sleeping. Of course running through a city with an army at his heels would barely faze him. But gawky, gangly Cala was a surprise. He loped beside them on his long legs, directing cantrips over his shoulder with surprising grace and agility.
Meanwhile, Maia had a stitch in his side and couldn't seem to draw enough air to feed his lungs, and it was mostly sheer determination that kept his feet stumbling forward at the pace Beshelar set.
A well-judged swarm of butterflies directed at their enemy allowed them to increase the distance between their two groups, and Cala and Beshelar guided their little group into an alley for a temporary stop. Maia gratefully took the opportunity to recover. He drew the line, however, at collapsing against the wall--or against one of his nohecharei--as he wished to do in his heart of hearts.
Beshelar and Cala were engaged in a hurried conference on how they might extricate Maia from Amalo. Maia knew he ought to be listening, even if he had nothing to contribute, but another thought seized him with great force, now that he was no longer running for his life and had a moment to consider the situation.
"My edocharei," he interrupted. "Did either of you see what happened to them?"
They turned to him with identical expressions of dismay (allowing for the mobility of Cala's features and the rigidity of Beshelar's). "We do not know, Serenity," Cala said: formal rather than plural. "The assault came so suddenly, and our focus all on protecting you. We did not see or hear any harm befall them, but nor did we see any indication that they were able to escape safely."
"Esha has some skill with a knife," Beshelar said unexpectedly. "He asked us for training shortly after accepting his position, and we know that he carries a knife on his person habitually. He will protect the others if he can. But the best thing any of us can do for them is to escape Amalo and for you to once more have an army at your command, Serenity."
Maia nodded, doing his best to hide his unhappiness at that answer. Beshelar's advice might dovetail neatly with his omnipresent desire to remove Maia from any danger, but it was nonetheless sound. "Then let us do that," he said, hoping he sounded resolute rather than fatuous. Cala and Beshelar had seemed far from a solution to their problem before he interrupted them; Maia's heartfelt desire to escape Amalo could make no difference to their plans.
But perhaps his words did help in some obscure fashion, for no sooner had Maia spoken, then Beshelar dropped to his knees before him and said in painfully emotional tones, "Serenity, we think we may have a solution. We weep that we must suggest such an uncouth thing to you, but for your safety, we would do anything. If you are offended, we will resign after we have seen you safely back to Cetho, and if it is your wish we will commit revethvoran as well."
Maia swallowed, troubled no less by the offer than by the depth of emotion in the stoic Beshelar's voice. "We are quite sure that will not be necessary. What is your solution, if we may ask?"
"There is a tavern nearby that we know. We could...go there."
They had passed many taverns in their flight and not attempted to hide themselves in them, but Maia trusted Beshelar's judgment. Though he continued to be puzzled by Beshelar's obvious distress. "Forgive us if we are missing something, but why should we be so very offended by such a suggestion?"
"You shouldn't be," Cala said. "Lieutenant Beshelar is overreacting, as is his wont."
Beshelar glared up at him from his kneeling position, which made Maia feel a bit better, even if he would prefer even more for Beshelar to stand upright. "Cala, you know what we--"
"What we know, Lieutenant, is that the Emperor is in dire peril. And if this...tavern is safe, we think there should be no more discussion of it, and you should take his Serenity there posthaste." His clever eyes assessed Maia from head to foot. "Though he certainly cannot go like that."
No, Maia definitely couldn't escape detection even in a large and tumultuous crowd while wearing his imperial whites.
Beshelar sighed and, thankfully, got up off his knees. He opened the rucksack that he'd slung over his back at the first sign of trouble and had carried through the streets of Amalo untiringly, while Maia had struggled to carry no more than his own body weight. Inside were a collection of brightly colored clothes--more bright than any Maia would have imagined him wearing--and a small glass jar that he passed to Cala.
Then he began to strip Maia with a brisk efficiency that nonetheless managed to feel as careful and considerate as any attention Maia had received from his edocharei.
"Kohl, Deret?" Cala asked.
"For his eyes," Beshelar muttered. Maia wondered anew at his inscrutable nohecharis, who was now revealed not only to wear bright colors when he was off-duty, but kohl. Though he supposed it was possible that Beshelar had intended the kohl for strictly martial purposes, such as shadowing his face and hair when creeping up on an enemy in the night.
Cala began to apply the kohl even as Beshelar was still dressing Maia. The tight-laced breeches and oddly loose shirt felt stranger than ever after the imperial robes to which Maia had grown accustomed, while the kohl was heavy on his lashes and made him blink more than usual.
"He looks like--" Cala began in a strange tone of voice.
"I know what he looks like," Beshelar muttered, his ears flattening, and Maia hid a wince. His imperial robes concealed many sins, it seemed, granting him a borrowed grandeur that disappeared entirely when he was clad instead in Beshelar's clothing.
Still, the important thing was that he not be recognized. But then Cala added, "The costume is good, but Deret, his coloring," and Maia felt his ears droop. He didn't expect his nohecharei to think him attractive, but for his ugliness to be so noteworthy that he couldn't even hope to pass unnoticed in a tavern...
Beshelar shook his head. "The coloring won't be a problem."
"It's somewhat distinctive, you must admit. Especially for a--"
"There are...impersonators," Beshelar said before Cala could finish his sentence. "It will not be remarked upon." The words were all right, but Beshelar's ears lowered so much they were nearly vertical.
Perhaps the ears were why Cala seemed unaccountably dismayed by that reassurance, and he looked at Beshelar with wide eyes. "Deret..."
While sharing his concern, Maia couldn't help but wonder in the back of his mind who would choose to impersonate him in a tavern. Was there a theater nearby, and the actors among the tavern's clientele?
Beshelar shrugged off their worried gazes. "His Serenity will be safe," he said in tones as fierce and solemn as a vow, though whether he was making that promise to Cala or himself, Maia couldn't tell. "Goest thou and find'st help. We will be waiting for thee."
The sudden familiarity seemed to surprise Cala no less than Maia, who hadn't realized until this very day that his first nohecharei sought each other's company when they were off-duty. Now it seemed as though they might even be friends? Or something close to it, at any rate.
"I'll return as quickly as I can," Cala answered with a brief handclasp for Beshelar and a respectful nod for Maia. Then he ducked around the corner of the alley and vanished.
"Serenity," Beshelar said, sounding dour once again, and led him to the tavern. Just outside the door, he put his arm around Maia with a muttered apology, and then they were inside.
The inside of the tavern was not at all what Maia had been imagining. The first thing he noticed--even before the patrons--was that the walls were decorated with bits of mirror affixed to the bright wallpaper. The light sparking off them drew the eye in a surprisingly pleasant fashion.
When he turned his attention next to the people in the room, however, he found himself increasingly puzzled. There were men aplenty, but nowhere near a large enough crowd to lose themselves in. Also no actors that he could see, though perhaps that was because he had a likely foolish notion that drunk actors were prone to loud declamations and standing on tables. Perhaps all of the men were actors, and he couldn't tell because they were behaving normally rather than according to the dictates of his imagination.
"They are all marnei," Beshelar murmured into Maia's ear, and one small mystery was solved.
"Oh." Maia looked around with renewed interest. Now that he was looking for it, he could see that a greater portion of the room than he might have expected was wearing lapis lazuli powder or kohl on their eyes, and that delicate hoop earrings seemed to be unusually popular, but really it was not so different from how many noblemen dressed at court. "And they will hide us?"
"We hope that the men searching for you will pass this establishment by. It is thought by many that being in the presence of marnei can...make one into a marnis as well, as it were. And soldiers especially tend to think thus."
Maia frowned. "But that makes no sense! Does a man who loves the company of women become a woman?"
"Hadra!" the barkeeper called out suddenly: an older man with golden beads braided into his thick white mustache. "It's been too long! What brings thee back to Amalo?"
Beshelar stiffened, and when Maia turned to him in confusion, he saw a dull blush spreading across his skin. "Just passing through, Paret," Beshelar said briefly and drew Maia forward, towards the back of the room.
The barkeeper clucked his tongue. "Hardly a warm welcome for an old friend."
Beshelar glanced at Maia, who was coming to some rapid conclusions about his nohecharis, and sighed. "My apologies. Of course thou art correct. Some trouble is following me, and I was hoping to find a quiet room in which to weather it."
A brief but amicable bit of haggling ensued--Paret naturally was concerned for the safety of his tavern and clientele, and Beshelar just as concerned to hide his and Maia's identities--before Maia found himself with Beshelar in a small room upstairs.
Maia sat on the narrow bed, glad to rest his aching legs. Beshelar took up a post by the door and gave Maia a quietly agonized look. "If your Serenity happens to hear anything, please don't listen," he said.
Maia, reflecting upon what sorts of sounds a man might fear to hear at a marnis tavern, agreed. Then there followed a long wait in which Beshelar stood like a stone and Maia sought to hold still and quiet and not draw Beshelar's attention away from his watch.
The change when it came was very sudden. Beshelar tensed, a hand going to the knife at his belt, before he dropped his hand reluctantly and joined Maia on the bed.
"Serenity, there are soldiers coming up the stairs. I apologize for the effrontery, but I must ask you to moan."
Maia burnt with embarrassment, but he followed Beshelar's direction and let out a small, bleating sigh.
"Not--" Beshelar began, then shook his head and let out a deep moan himself. The sound shivered through Maia and curled both ears and toes.
He couldn't hope to imitate the sound himself, but surely Beshelar's efforts would be sufficient to keep the soldiers away.
...They weren't. Footsteps came nearer, and bare seconds before the curtain to the room was pulled aside, Beshelar whispered, "Serenity, forgive me," and pressed a kiss to Maia's mouth.
The soft touch awakened Maia's senses like nothing else he'd ever felt. His lips parted against the gentle pressure, and suddenly there was not only heat but a hint of wetness and Beshelar's breath against the sensitive skin of his lips, and moaning for Beshelar was no longer difficult but a necessity.
The soldiers didn't stay to see much more than that.
When they'd departed, the heavy clomp of their footsteps indicating that they'd descended the stairs to the main floor, Maia found himself laughing unaccountably, though his nerves were still jangling and his blood felt overly hot in his veins. "Beshelar, thou art a genius," he said.
Beshelar didn't respond.
"Beshelar?" Maia asked, uncertain whether he'd done something wrong, if Beshelar was angry or disappointed in him.
The look Beshelar turned on him was positively haunted. "Serenity, we have disrespected the imperial office; we have ravished your own imperial person. We should resign. No, we should be in irons for what we've done. Or you need only speak the word, and we will commit revethvoran."
"For saving my life?" Maia asked sharply. "Beshelar. Thou hast acted with...great honor and loyalty. I am more glad than I can say to have thee by my side."
"Even though I--" Beshelar broke off, as though the words were too hard to say. Or as though he hoped that Maia might yet be ignorant of what it meant that Beshelar was a regular customer in a marnis tavern.
"Yes," Maia said, his voice firm.
A smile twitched across Beshelar's face and was gone. "Then you will always find me your loyal nohecharis, until death takes me from you."
Csethiro's eyes were very wide by the time his story had ended. For a long moment, she didn't speak. "The member of thy retinue who pretended to be thy customer--was he one of thy nohecharei?" she asked at last.
Maia nodded reluctantly, even as his face heated further at the admission. That was easy to guess; who else would have been first by his side throughout the entire incident? Though he'd been relieved to discover after the fact that his three edocharei had managed to escape the governor's palace, and even made it to the safety of Maia's army before Maia himself.
"No, I won't ask his name. I only wanted to know what role he occupies in thy life," she said in her usual forthright manner, answering his thoughts--or perhaps more accurately the expression on his face--as she did from time to time.
She was blushing, too, he noticed: a deep rose that stained her white skin far more noticeably than his blush did his own. "I--" she continued, then had to clear her throat. "I never considered that I might marry a man who was marnis."
"I'm not!" Maia burst out. He cringed a second later with embarrassment, his ears flattening. Csethiro looked startled, as well she might, but Kiru gave him a small and unexpected, yet reassuring smile. "At least, I never thought I was before," he amended. Since why else would that day have burnt itself into his memory in such detail that it haunted both his waking hours and his dream-filled nights? He wasn't repelled by the experience. He was...very much not repelled by it.
He took a deep breath and returned his gaze to Csethiro. She no longer looked so startled, but concern wrinkled her brow. Concern over what? he asked himself, putting his own problems aside for a moment, and considered more carefully the words she'd just spoken. She was obviously prepared to honor their engagement despite his recent revelation, but surely she must have...apprehensions. For the sake of the succession if nothing else, although he thought--hoped--that she had a more personal stake in the matter, as well.
He felt as though he might expire of mortification, but nonetheless he made himself say, "I still...desire thee. That hasn't changed, and I believe it never will."
A glimpse of the expression on her face--half fresh embarrassment and half relief--was all he caught before she dropped her eyes to her lap, but that was enough. "And I thee. If it matters," she said, softly but clearly.
"Always," he said around the upswelling of emotion in his throat.
"Then...what is it that troubles thee so?" Her fingers worried the silk of her skirt. "Does thy nameless nohecharis make thee uncomfortable? Wouldst thou prefer to dismiss him?"
"No, never!" Maia spared a second to regret his ill telling of the story, if that was the impression he'd given Csethiro. "He saved my life, at the risk of his own, and at the sacrifice of his pride. It is that...I cannot help but think on it, though I believe he wishes me only to forget it ever occurred."
"I doubt that very much," Csethiro said, with what Maia considered somewhat displaced loyalty.
"Ever since that day, he's been--" Maia bit back the words a clockwork soldier as too indicative of Beshelar. "--overly stiff and formal with me. And on that day in Amalo itself... Thou wert not there. He hesitated to so much as put his arm around me, and he--they--the only reason my looks were deemed acceptable for the role I played is that apparently there are men who will pay to swive an imitation emperor!" He winced and opened his mouth again to apologize for his coarseness; Csethiro ought not bear the brunt of his hurt ill humor.
But before he could say anything, she took his hands in hers and said, in obvious distress, "Maia, no. No! None of thy nohecharei would have reason to think such a thing. And if any of them did, he would certainly never indicate it by word or deed. The fact that thou thinkst thy nohecharis finds thee unattractive is almost certain proof of the reverse, since if he did find thee ill-favored, he'd be all the more careful to hide that truth from thee."
A small motion out of the corner of his eye caught Maia's attention. He squeezed Csethiro's hands gratefully, then turned to acknowledge Kiru, who said, "Forgive our intrusion, Serenity, but we believe the dach'osmin to be correct in her conclusions."
Maia's lips parted soundlessly. It was one thing to draw strength and comfort from Csethiro, who was--in the best of ways--perhaps a bit partial to him. It was quite another to receive unlooked for support from the very impartial Kiru.
"Thank you," he said to the two of them. Almost always a safe sentiment, even when his thoughts were in as great turmoil as they currently were.
"Thou...couldst take him as a lover," Csethiro said, her uncharacteristically hesitant tone doing nothing to soften the impact of her words. "If he and thou both wish it."
Despite Csethiro's and Kiru's assurances, Maia felt quite certain that Beshelar would not wish it. Yet even that humiliating reality was hardly the foremost consideration. "Surely that would be unfair to thee," he protested.
A determined yet somewhat fearful expression crossed Csethiro's face; Maia recognized it well from his own mirror in Edonomee. She leaned closer to him until their cheeks almost touched, while across the room, Kiru shifted her attention deliberately to the open window that might, after all, be the mode of ingress for any assassin choosing that moment to make his move.
"I have lain with a woman before," Csethiro said, in a whisper that Maia could barely hear despite their closeness. "I promise--I swear to thee on my life, Maia--that we did nothing together that might cast doubts upon my inviolacy. And I have not lain with her at all since signing our betrothal agreement. But I did do so for a time, and it was... I did not love her as anything more than a friend, and I believe she felt no more than the same for me, but I was gladdened by it nonetheless."
Csethiro leaned back again and concluded in a normal speaking tone, "Our wedding will not take place for several months yet. I would not have thee deny thyself to no purpose, when thy happiness might be bought so simply."
Though her voice was clear and strong, Maia could see her trembling slightly. He knew her well enough to see that it was her staunch sense of duty and fairness propelling her now, even more than her fondness for him. He took her hands once more and willed her to feel his unwavering regard for her in the warmth of their shared grasp.
Then it was his turn to lean closer for a whispered confidence. "I cannot be minded by what thou mightst have done with another before we even met. It is of no consequence to this matter. Also, the months until our wedding will be as long for thee as they will for me." He thought, in truth, that they might feel even longer, as Csethiro had a far better idea of what she was missing. But he could not bring himself to admit that out loud.
He made to draw back, but Csethiro stayed him with a brief shake of her head. She thought for a moment. "Though it may sound strange to thee," she said slowly, "I believe I would nonetheless like to give thee my blessing to lie with thy nohecharis, if that is his and thy wish. Thou hast said that thou knowest not whether thou art marnis. That seems to me something a man ought to know, and his wife also."
Maia couldn't help but see the sense in that, but he had yet one more objection, though it was not one he wished to share. Still, Csethiro had bared herself to him, and she had done so as a woman and a dach'osmin, rather than as a man and an emperor.
"Thou sayest thou didst not fall in love with thy friend," he whispered. "I do not know that I can promise the same, were I to do as thou hast suggested."
She sucked in a sharp breath, and Maia bit back the apology that sprang automatically to his lips. He had not fallen in love with Beshelar yet. Indeed, he'd taken some pains to not fall in love with him. If Csethiro should not apologize for her previous affaire with her friend, then Maia believed he was also excused from apologizing for feelings he hadn't even felt.
"It is still better to know. If thou but tryest to love me, as well, then that, too, will be all right," Csethiro said at last.
He had never said the words to her before, but suddenly his wedding day was far too long to wait. "Csethiro, I do not have to try to love thee." And he leaned even closer until his cheek touched hers, warm and velvety against his skin.
Maia still couldn't decide what he would do next--whether he would speak to Beshelar plainly, or simply continue to accept his nohecharis's allegiance with as much quiet dignity as the circumstances allowed---but in the meantime, he was grateful to no longer feel fearful and ashamed and to instead feel loved.