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Empress Tarquine Iquar watched her husband sleep. He was lovely - those scrumptious shoulders, those delicious hips - but her appreciation of his beauty grew ever more overshadowed by her appreciation for his will. Jaibriol threw himself headlong into his own grave day after day - oh, he had gotten more subtle about it over the years since he first became Emperor, but he hadn't stopped. Most of the time, he let her bring him back from the brink. (But the times when he didn't, he was magnificent.)

It would not be as difficult as he believed to bring the Diamond Aristos around to opening trade with the Skolian Imperelate. But Jaibriol could never show them the respect they felt owed, because of how he coddled his providers. The Emperor's generosity would open many doors her poor, idealistic husband held closed. But he wouldn't be the man she cared for (loved) if he didn't make so many challenges for her.

An opportunity would present itself with the Diamonds. Jaibriol didn't have the patience necessary to outmaneuver her on this. She would get him his chance to trade with the Skolians.

Just like she had gotten him a Ruby heir.

Jaibriol shifted in his sleep, settled when she touched his shoulder. Her thoughts turned to her work, picking at the numbers submitted by a Silicate consortium. At first and second glance, they seemed reasonable. But she had not reigned so long as Minister of Finance by trusting anyone to show any honesty in their dealings. After all, breaking the law wasn't wrong - getting caught was.

Admiral Taratus had found that out. Sometimes, she wondered how many people cursed his name for bringing her to the Emperor's attention. More likely, they cursed him for losing Kelric Valdoria, but the smart ones should curse him for giving her Jaibriol. Owning Kelric had been a delight, but this warm marriage with Jaibriol... This was worth every penny she had as the Head of Iquar and the Finance Minister of Eube.

Kelric had been worth fourteen million. Jaibriol was priceless.

Or, rather, Jaibriol's price couldn't be paid in money. It was in the secrets she spent to bring his empire to heel, the suffering she inflicted to buy him the influence he needed. In the lies she told him so he couldn't interfere. He would be the greatest emperor in Eubian history. Because she had what it took to make his will into reality. Because she had a will as strong as his.

She could never have been happy with a man who bowed to her. Nor with a man who had no interest in her. Kelric had taught her that, but Jaibriol had driven the lesson home. He loved her, adored her. His hands on her could be fire, his words more intoxicating than transcendance. He could hold Eube in the palm of his hand if he wanted, with the wealth of the Emperor and his own charisma- but he wouldn't be her Jaibriol then.

In these first ten years, when he was at his weakest, the Aristos hadn't broken Jaibriol to playing on their level. He was too strong-willed to be broken in such a way. Neither she nor Corbal could pull his strings, and both of them- preferred this Jaibriol to one who was entirely Aristo. If the Aristos could not bring him to concord when he was weak, and neither she nor Corbal wished to bring him to concord, then Jaibriol would always be her beautiful idealist.

But just in case...

Just in case, she had secrets hidden away, secrets that could bring anyone in the Concord to their knees. They would suffer, they would beg, and the Jaibriol they had so blithely broken to their mold would give them no mercy.

A fitting punishment, and one she hoped to never need use. But she would use it if she had to. Unlike her husband, she had no mercy in her at all. Many people had discovered that to their regret and many more would in the years to come. There were always fools who underestimated her or mistook her marriage as Jaibriol having some sort of leash on her. As if he could control her. (All he had to do was say 'please'.)

(Well, she'd think about it if he said please. But ultimately, she would do what needed to be done. Jaibriol understood that. He might wish it was otherwise, but he knew how it was.)

Tarquine had not gotten to where she was by being squeamish. And Jaibriol had not gotten to where he was without learning to face the world as it was.

The more he faced her as she was, the more he could learn to outmaneuver her.

Her lips curved in a smile. Of course, there was a saying about old age and treachery... He might have an espionage technique she never would, but she had learned to defend against that. She still had over a hundred years of experience on him.

Which was why tomorrow, he would go about his duties as emperor while she disappeared long enough to check on the health of his heir. His Ruby heir, to continue Eube's secret Ruby dynasty. The child would not be an Iquar, but Eube did not need an Iquar for its emperor.

Eube needed Jaibriol. It would need Jaibriol for a long time to come if her husband managed to coax a peace between Eube and Skolia. And if he succeeded in such a thing, Jaibriol would never again have the luxury of imagining he had a future. Not with the fury he would rouse in the Aristos.

Given time, they could quell that fury. But Tarquine wasn't going to risk Jaibriol's dream on the lunatic idea that no one would try to assassinate the emperor.

Whether they wanted it or not, the Eubian Concord needed Jaibriol to rule, not her. She could make the Eubian Concord great. She could not make it better than it was.

Jaibriol could.