“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 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.
“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. “Your 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 an 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.