Vierran had spent weeks at Hexwood Farm; Hume and Mordion, years. The fact that in real time it only came out to less than a fortnight for any of them did not particularly help. Living every hour three times over was exhausting no matter how you sliced it, especially when you'd spent a good portion of those hours convinced they were likely to be among your last.
It had been another fortnight since then, compressed in the other direction. Every hour went by in twenty minutes, and there were not nearly enough of them in the day. In its own fashion, this was just as exhausting. “I want a vacation,” Vierran said, gloomily, and put her head down on her six-inch stack of printouts of the House of Balance's audit reports.
Nobody responded except Hume – the Prisoner – Martellian – who gave her a sardonic look. “Yes, I know,” Vierran snapped back. She was not going to get a vacation. They were none of them going to get a vacation for the next ten years. It seemed unfair, especially for Mordion, who had never had a vacation in his life.
Admittedly, the King had not had one in at least twenty years, and Martellian probably not in millenia – not unless you counted the centuries of stass, which in fairness you really could not. And for Martin being at Hexwood had probably been something like a vacation. Meanwhile, Vierran had mostly spent the last two years reading novels in the basement – an admittedly evil basement with the constant threat of execution hanging over her head, but still, a relatively low-stress environment as far as evil basements went – so who was she to complain? “All right.” Vierran pushed herself upright again. “No, go on. I'm back with you. Where were we? Has someone proposed firing all the corrupt accountants again? That's a wonderful plan, if we really want to destroy the universal economy. Accountants are clever, you know. Half of them purposely made their filing systems completely incomprehensible just so the Reigners couldn't afford to terminate them.”
The moment after she said it, she winced in her head. But it was nearly impossible to set about fixing the Reigner organization without discussing their previous policies, and over the past two weeks Mordion seemed to have constructed a cool, efficient part of himself to bring to the front in these meetings that could absorb minor blows without flinching. Vierran worried about this – he had always been so divided into pieces, and she knew there had to be a price for it – but then, there was a price to everything they were doing. And there was so much to be done, and so little time.
“It seems to me,” said Mordion, leaning forward, “that that's part of a bigger problem we've not addressed. For a thousand years, there's been no transparency – in business practices, policy decisions, or anything else. Anything can happen behind a closed door. The lies that were told on Earth were just an extreme example. If we want to effect real change, we're going to have to make it an official policy that everything happens in the open. No more secrets. People have the right to have opinions.”
The King frowned. “I'm not so sure --”
“It's a nice idea,” interrupted Martellian, “but hopelessly naive.” Vierran scowled. She did not like that patronizing note in Martellian's voice; it reminded her of Hume, halfway-grown and at his most aggravating, convinced that he knew absolutely everything about everything. She'd never had any difficulty puncturing his pride then. But that had been when she thought she'd made Hume. Martellian went on, “You must remember that a good two-thirds of the people on Homeworld have been profiting enormously off the old, corrupt system. They've no reason to support us and every reason to want us gone. Telling everyone everything we're doing is just putting weapons into the hands of our enemies.”
Martellian was several thousands of years old, with an experience of ruling that – it was true – Vierran simply did not have. But that did not mean that he was always right. Perhaps this was what the Bannus had had in mind, when it caused Vierran and Mordion to spend all that time raising the moody teenager that Hume had once been. “That's the way the old Reigners thought,” said Vierran. “I don't want any part in it. I agree with Mordion.”
“Well, there's a surprise,” said Martellian, unwisely, and, thoroughly exasperated, Vierran rounded on him.
“And why is that? Because we've both got experience working within the last Reigner organization, and know exactly what an unhealthy atmosphere that was? Or because, unlike some people, we've not had all our morals ground out of us yet? Talk about naive! What's naive is thinking that good's not worth doing just because bad might come of it!” Everyone was staring at her now. Vierran did not much care. “And if what you meant to imply, actually, was something along the lines of 'Mordion and Vierran, sitting in a tree,' then what I've got to say to you is, grow up!"
The silence that followed was broken by Martin's slow applause. Both he and the King looked like they were trying very hard not to laugh. Martellian simply seemed stunned. Vierran did not dare look at Mordion. She bit her lip and sat back in her chair.
The King leaned over and whispered, “You've no idea the number of times I've wanted to go off on him like that,” which made her feel at least a little bit better.
Mordion's voice was extremely bland as he said, “It seems we'd better put the issue to a vote. In favor of transparency, we've got myself and Vierran. Martellian – still against?”
“Yes,” snarled Martellian.
“I'm with Uncle Wolf,” said Martin. Vierran felt rather betrayed. She had not expected that. “Telling everyone everything we're doing all the time,” explained Martin, “seems like an awful lot of work.”
“Oh, well, that's a reason,” said Vierran, disgustedly. Martin shrugged.
They all looked at the King. Vierran did not feel very hopeful. Like Martellian, the King had ruled for a long time, before the Reigners put him away.
The King remarked, “You know, it's wildly foolhardy to make a decision that will affect everything we do going forward in twenty minutes.”
“So you're abstaining?” said Mordion, politely. Vierran could tell from the politeness that he thought this was rather a cheat.
“No,” said the King, and flashed a sudden, unexpected grin. “I didn't say that. I just wanted to say how much I appreciate you people. My advisers would have taken months to get to this point.” He looked around the circle. “Let's settle it, then. I'm voting with Mordion and Vierran.”
“Arthur!” protested Martellian.
The King looked at him, rather sadly. “It wasn't just the Reigners that destroyed my kingdom,” he said. “All the secrets had a hand in it as well. Some of your secrets, too, you know.”
“I couldn't tell you everything, Arthur.” Martellian looked so terribly tired as he said this that Vierran found herself feeling a little sorry for him after all.
“I know,” said Arthur. “Perhaps everything would have come out even worse if you did. Governing without secrets is nearly impossible, I know. Still – I think I'd like to try.” He smiled again, unexpectedly. In his own way, his smile was as devastating as Mordion's. “If we make a hash of it, it's only for ten years, and then someone else gets a chance.”
“Unless things turn out so badly,” said Martellian, “that we're all murdered in our beds and the entire Reigner system falls apart altogether.”
“That might not be such a bad thing either,” said Arthur, and then raised his voice. “Yam! Bannus! Are you around? I want to make sure you heard that. I said, overturning the whole Reigner system wouldn't be such a bad thing either!”
It wasn't that funny, but they all started to laugh nonetheless. Mordion, in fact, began to laugh so hard that he had to excuse himself, clutching his sides. This had happened a number of times over the last few weeks, and often he would not come back for twenty minutes. Laughter seemed to be one thing against which Mordion could not construct a defense.
“Do you think we can go on without him?” said Arthur. “What's the next item on the docket?”
Vierran, as Second Reigner, realized belatedly that he was asking her. She picked up her tablet, squinted at it, and tried not to groan. “Well, we never did finish the question of the accounting department, I suppose --”
At this, Martin did groan. There were moments when she was enormously glad to have Martin as part of their Hand. Vierran often struggled to keep her impulses in check, but it could be a huge relief to have someone around who simply did not bother with impulse control. “But,” she went on, “since we've all clearly had enough of that, and --” She checked her timepiece, and was caught between relief and horror to see the numbers it displayed. More hours going too fast! “-- it's actually rather hideously late, I say we table that for tomorrow. As Second Reigner, I formally declare this session closed for the day.” She banged her hand on the table, stood, and walked out of the room.
She found Mordion sitting on the floor in the hallway around the corner. His shoulders were still shaking a little, but the fit seemed to have subsided, mostly. He looked up when he heard her coming. There were tears of laughter in the corner of his eyes. “'Mordion and Vierran, sitting in a tree?'” he quoted.
“It's a kind of Earth taunt used by children,” said Vierran, feeling her face go hot. Mordion had certainly picked up the implication. Telling herself she was too tired to be self-conscious, she dropped down beside him and leaned her head on his shoulder.
She had done this once on that bench in the castle, after a particularly trying session with La Trey. He had not flinched then. Her memories were not quite clear, with the way the Bannus had stretched and compressed time around them – and that was one thing she didn't think she was going to forgive the Bannus for; she wanted those hours properly, not in a sort of montage – but she thought he might have put his arm around her.
This time, he did tense up, like a startled horse – or perhaps a startled camel. But he didn't move away. In fact he seemed very careful not to move at all. As if she was the startle-prone horse, she thought, and grinned in spite of herself. Maybe she should start bringing Reigner Six to council meetings. Or perhaps she should call him Sixth Reigner, now. “I know I shouldn't bait Martellian,” she said. “It's not dignified and not productive –”
“I'm glad you did,” admitted Mordion. “You losing your temper is sometimes all that saves me.” Vierran thought, so that cool, efficient First Reigner shield isn't as impervious as he pretends! “When I think of all those times chasing him around the woods when he was small, trying to stop him falling in the lake or get him to put on his trousers --”
“Yes!” said Vierran. “And it's worse when he really does know things. You just want so badly for him to be wrong.” And when they made Hume, she suddenly recalled, entirely irrelevantly, she really had been sitting in a tree. Dangling her legs down at Mordion. She meant to say something else sensible, pertinent and fair-minded about Martellian, but she couldn't think how to put it. Instead, she found herself remarking, “Your shoulder's terribly bony.”
“Oh?” said Mordion, after a slight pause. “You might try the other one, with the cloak on it.” His tone was one of carefully polite interest.
“In the spirit of experimentation,” agreed Vierran, “I might.” She could move around him, but it seemed a lot of effort. She sort of shuffled her body backwards across him instead. It wasn't a particularly graceful move, and ended, not unexpectedly, with her on his lap.
“Is that more comfortable?” said Mordion, wondering. His voice was mildly apologetic, and he sat terribly still. She could hear his heartbeat under her ear, pounding fast and picking up speed.
“Is it for you?” She shifted round a bit so she could look up at him. “I know I'm quite heavy.”
“You're wonderful,” said Mordion, “actually.” The sudden vehemence of it startled both of them. Very certain now what she wanted to do, Vierran leaned up and kissed him.
She'd known what she wanted, but hadn't been quite sure what the response would be. She was marvelously surprised to find that he leaned straight into her. With a sort of shudder, he let himself move again; one of his hands went to her shoulder, and the other cradled the back of her head, pulling her closer into him. For several glorious moments, time went at exactly the rate it should, and there was nothing that needed thinking about at all.
Then she felt him stiffen up again. He moved his head a little, and she pulled back and opened her eyes, to find him regarding her with something like alarm. The beating of his heart was like thunder. “You know,” he said, as if continuing a conversation they'd been having – and perhaps it was – “I'd really no idea, until recently, how easy it was for one part of the mind to take over all the rest.”
Vierran thought about this – about that First Reigner shield, and about Mordion going off into the hallway to laugh himself almost to sickness. There were many ways in which Mordion was still quite a new person. “Yes – I can see.” She eased herself off his lap, and tucked her legs up over his knees (also bony), careful not to dislodge the hand on her shoulder. “People's brains do work that way. Something's at the front, and everything else sort of goes to the back. It can be quite restful, actually, when all the everything else is like trying to lift ten-ton bricks.”
Mordion let out a short breath that was something like a laugh, and leaned back against the wall. “I don't know that restful is the word I would use.”
“No,” agreed Vierran, “I don't suppose you would.” The Reigners – the old Reigners – had so purposefully built him so that happiness would hurt. She could cheerfully kill every one of them all over for that.
She raised her eyes to search his face. He was thinking now. As usual, many of his thoughts were about himself, and were not pleasant. But for a few moments he hadn't been, any more than she. She could see why that frightened him – he trusted himself so little – but all the same she thought it was important. “Is it all right?” she asked.
“Impulse control,” said Mordion, and smiled, rather wryly. Even at only half-wattage, that smile did something terribly unfair to Vierran's insides, but she tried not to let that distract her. “I don't seem to seem to know how balance it right. Either it's too much, or it's not enough.” He reached up and carefully tucked a strand of wriggly hair behind her ear, and then, just as carefully, removed his hand from her face. “Yes. It's all right.”
“Good,” said Vierran. “Martellian can scoff all he likes, but I do think everyone deserves an occasional break. And,” she went on, emboldened by the hand still on her shoulder, which Mordion seemed to have forgotten about, “it would make these ten years much harder if we had to spend all of them overworked and sexually frustrated as well.”
That startled him into a laugh, a real one – though not, however, another one of those impossible ones that wouldn't stop. Those tended to happen, she thought, when he'd been working hard at locking back everything else. Which rather proved her hypothesis.
She opened her mouth to say so, when she was interrupted by Martin, coming round the corner with his hands shoved cheerfully in his pockets. “Ho, Vierran! Hugo and Alisan invited me to breakfast, and they want you there, too. And --”
He stopped to take in the scene that greeted him. His face split in a broad, terrible grin that Vierran recognized from her time as Ann Stavely, all too terribly well. She scrambled to her feet. “Martin, you are a Reigner, don't you dare --”
“Vierran and Mordion, sitting in a tree, huh?” Martin skipped lithely backwards. “K-I-S-S--”
“Martin, shut up!”
Martin fled, cackling, and Vierran turned back to Mordion. Horrified, she said, “We're never going to hear the end of it. Not for the next ten years.”
“The price one pays,” said Mordion, “for giving in to one's impulses.” But he was laughing again, too. Resigned, Vierran extended her hand, and helped him to his feet. There was a price for everything they were doing, and for everything they would have to do going on; but this was one she thought she could live with.