|The Trials of the Airship Brothel
Author: IceraMyst PM
Westar can't choose between his unconventional lover and his family, and Jade doesn't feel he has the right to make him stay. Their friends may plan otherwise. Snowfall/Crowned Jewel side story, slash, steampunk.Rated: Fiction T - English - Drama/Romance - Chapters: 2 - Words: 22,644 - Reviews: 12 - Favs: 6 - Follows: 13 - Updated: 03-21-11 - Published: 01-07-11 - id: 2880209
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A/N: Qui was the second tSoS contest winner, and asked for a Sebastian/Adrian story with a steampunk setting. I haven't worked with steampunk before, so I did a bunch of research and then promptly discarded all of it for the sake of just writing the story I wanted to. It might be little dark for a prize—sorry!—but I hope people enjoy it. Spoiler alert for the Crowned Jewel and Sound of Snowfall!
Oh, right, I changed a few names and titles to fit the setting a little better (and promptly gave up on others), but it should be pretty clear who is who, I hope!
When I was a small child, I used to play in the very field upon which I now stood—indeed, it was one of my few memories of that time before the door. I remembered that it had been waist-high with spindly wildflowers. Strange, that I could no longer remember what color they were, only their prickly feel against my palms and rich, heady scent.
Now the field was flattened and paved in cobbles, ringed in wrought iron and tied with fluttering scarlet streamers. I didn't mind the change that had turned it into the docking station for the Crowned Jewel. It brought my beloved to my side.
Sebastian had graced the desks of the airship brothel on its most recent tour with the express purpose of visiting his parents. When he had brought up the idea to me, tentatively, over breakfast a few weeks ago, I had immediately urged him to it. Perhaps it was a small selfishness on my part, living vicariously through him. That obtaining new parents had become nearly an obsession to a child whose most vivid memory comprised being locked into a prison by his own was almost trivial, certainly redundant. Children without parents seemed as compelled to want them as those with, alas, are to get away.
Westar had volunteered to wait with me, sweet boy that he was. He seemed in high spirits, laughing as he showed off his new spooly to several young, pretty mechanics. Their indulgent smiles were softened with a flirtation that stirred an odd jealously through me. I did not want the admiration of anyone half my age. It was their confidence, the ability to engage in such a complex social interaction so flawlessly, that left me sighing.
I could see the irony within, because there was nothing more that I or my friend desired more than knowledge, and yet it was Westar's ignorance that allowed him to engage a crowd so easily. He chattered away because he did not know that anyone would think it difficult. I, his avowed teacher, was loathe to educate him otherwise.
Instead, I smiled and wondered how different my life own would be if I did not know what could come from such idle flirtations. Perhaps it would be me chatting away as I waited for the airship to land and my love to return, or maybe I would be standing beside of one of the ladies in the crowd, lifting a child up to better see the sky.
"I just love your jacket," one of the girls smiled, reaching out to brush her hand against the gold braid on Westar's shoulder. "Where in the heavens did you find such a thing?"
Wes held out his arms and spun artfully in place, spiraling red velvet about his ivory-clad thighs. "My friend made it," he said as his audience leaned nearer for inspection. "She works at the tailor shop just around the corner from here, by the oak grove. Each piece is a guaranteed original—no machine designing at all."
"Even Rosalind has commissioned a dress from her," I said, nodding towards the flattened grass where the Crowned Jewel would land. "For the Departing Ball."
"Her taste is supposed to be impeccable." The girl pursed her lips thoughtfully. "Maybe we'll swing by after work, see what they've got."
Taste or not, the owner of the famous flying brothel—my mother-in-law—never did anything without an ulterior motive. I knew her patronage of Merilee's work had to be more than just a good eye for stitching: the year of Westar's visit was drawing to a close.
It wasn't just him and his family that we would lose. If the young man followed his parents and siblings home, no one knew if the Crowned Jewel's most popular request, the rising star that had shone in the gap of the Black Viper's retirement, would follow. Losing the inquisitive, bright-eyed young man at my side was a heartbreaking thought. If Jade, too, went—it caused such a pain in my chest that I almost wished I had never met them at all.
The topic twined around everyone's mind these days like a toxic smog. Everyone who had met the family had found joy in Merilee's eye for detail and lovely smile, Sasha's exuberance and level-headed nature, and Pitfall's unabashed spirit. Half of the repairs in town were directed by Palthos's hand, and women came from all over to tease childrearing tips from Isoldine. And the lovely crew of the Crowned Jewel had been walking around Jade as if on eggshells, trying to please his ever whim. I'd seen his cautious pleasure at this turn to unbridled annoyance, and his speech gyrate from the most obtuse simile to aching plainness, but he would answer no questioning of his plans.
So when Rosalind ordered a dress from Merrilee, she was trying to assure she—and thus Westar—and thus Jade—would stay. And that, too, had ulterior motivation. The loss of Jade's prestige may have weighed in her calculations, but could not be her entire concern.
As always, what truly moved her hand was Sebastian.
A familiar roar shook the skies, and conversation fell to silence as every eye turned upwards. I did not have the appreciation for machines that Westar did, but even I could recognize that the gold and scarlet sails of the Crowned Jewel looked lovely against the blue overhead. The ship shone like a diamond, making no pretense about the even greater treasures stored within. No few pirates had eyed the pleasure cruiser desirously, only to find out that its frilly exterior also bore some of the world's most impressive weaponry.
God help the world had Rosalind decided to invest her endless invention on behalf of crime instead of indulgence.
All hundred yards of airship settled down gracefully on the turf, and Westar's admirers excused themselves to work alongside their peers, tossing ropes and securing anchors. I found that I was holding my breath as I stared at the ornately carved hatch—a bad habit, but I could never quite believe that the ship that took Sebastian into the air would bring him back to land again. Some remnant of my childhood mind always believed that I could trade air for air, a bargain to preserve his life.
"I love docking weeks," Westar told me with a smile, leaning his weight against the guest barrier for a better vantage. "Do you think everyone will get more than a night off this time?"
"Theoretically, anything is possible," I replied, trying not to crane my neck too obviously as the hatch began to lower. "However, as so often is the case, theory is not akin to reality."
He puffed out a breath, lifting his bangs and skewing the tilt of his messenger cap. "I just don't get why they all put up with the rules without quitting. I mean, the workers certainly don't need more money, and it's not like their boss is actually going to fire any of them for observing more than one day of rest."
"Mm." I glanced at the side of his head, wondering if I was going to have to ask the uncomfortable questions.
But the entire staff of the Crowned Jewel, at some time or another, had gone out of their way to educate Westar in reading gestures, and he only had to glance at me to made a face. "Don't even," he said. "Yes, I've realized he's a courtesan. No, I'm not having jealous fits. I just hate that he's always so tired."
"Ah." Because I knew Sebastian would appreciate it, I took a breath and almost managed a casual delivery on "Too worn out for extracurricular activities of your own?"
"Wha—no! I mean," he reddened and laughed. "You've got me coming and going, haven't you. What's that called again?"
I smiled. "A Kendran trap. Or, if you ask her Lady Mayor, a guaranteed success."
"Seballe would say that, wouldn't she. And, speaking of her—" He pointed, then flicked on his spooly. I became lost to the world, every iota of being focused on that now open doorway.
Sebastian was not the first one to appear in the ship's hatchway—that honor was reserved for his mother, clothed in endless layers of blue silk that were the height of fashion, with her gray-and-scarlet hair bound in the usual multitude of braids that were decidedly not. She swept out upon the arm of a muscular, still-faced man with the easy stride of a warrior: my father-in-law, in technicality. The malfunctioning chip in his head may have been tamed through Rosalind's brilliant engineering, but the king's peerless guard still left unease in his trail.
Seeing them brought back a sudden memory. As a child, I used to watch the sun rise from my bedroom window and tell myself that this day—if I studied hard, maybe, did the best I could—loving parents would come and take me away. This was made all the more foolish by the knowledge, even at a very young age, that this could not happen, but every morning brought the same.
Certainly those idealized parents were nothing like the ones I had now acquired. Rosalind was cold as gold one moment and consumed with passionate wrath the next, scarcely the plump, smiling woman I had imagined. When Martin had control of his senses, his conversation was littered with awkward pauses and abrupt departures.
Yet the scowling woman had all but created the Crowned Jewel for the very purpose of finding me, and the oft-insane warrior had personally executed those who had sought my disgrace. They had entrusted their beloved son to my care, even knowing what a lie he would have to make of the rest of his life.
They were not what I had wanted, but surely more than I deserved.
Sebastian followed behind them, and I had to hide a grin as well as the bursting joy in my heart; he had truly outdone himself this time. The cream gown trailed behind him in a monstrosity of bunches, wound with navy bows and lace across his bustle. Strings of pearls and topaz twisted through the blond curls piled atop his head and glittered atop his shoes. The gentle whir of spoolys started to echo through the crowd, their lenses throwing light upon reporters and fashionistas alike. The Lady Mayor smiled indulgently and conducted the audience's sigh with his wave.
I was not surprised to see Jade at his side, laughing as he dodged the sweep of Sebastian's skirts. The diodes that normally lit a myriad of emerald lights at the tips of each hair on his head had been changed to match the ship's scheme, shining brilliant gold against his dark skin.
His smile warmed me as much as it added to my sorrow. After this year of smiles, I had finally gotten used to the absence of Jade's old sarcastic sneer. I wondered now if I could bear to see its reappearance, when the one who caused those smiles was gone.
"It's a strange profession for someone who doesn't like the attention," Westar remarked at my side, stretching onto his toes to wave back to them. "I know Seballe loves this kind of stuff, but I always thought Jade was joking when he said he didn't, the amount of time he spends in the spotlight. I guess you two do have that in common."
"Jade considers this crowd a fuss," I said, "whereas I find myself trapped whenever there are more people than I can tick off on my fingers."
He glanced at me askew and grinned. "In that case, shouldn't you have waited at home for Seballe to come to you?"
Sebastian had made his way down the ramp and across the flattened field to us. I broke from the conversation to take his hands and plant a light kiss on his lips; a chaste greeting, perhaps, but he gripped my hands as tightly as I held him in my heart. "Good morning, husband mine," he purred before sweeping past to plant a kiss on Westar's cheek. "Goodness, are you still growing? You'll hit Adrian's heights one of these days."
"I hope not," the boy laughed, bowing properly over Sebastian's hand. "Welcome home."
Jade swept a look over me, a smile tugging the corner of his mouth. "No knowledge tilts the scales either way as to whether we too need exchange such an undignified correspondence," he said.
"Likely not," I replied. He held out his hand and I took it, then, on sudden impulse, pulled him forward into an embrace. For a moment I thought he might push me away, but then he released a breath and placed his hands upon my back.
"Welcome home," I whispered.
"That's tight enough." Sebastian laid his fingers against the crimson corset and the spindles retracted, folding into the body of the machine like so many steel spider legs. "You do want me to breathe, don't you?"
Diamona, fussing at his hair, glared until she realized the request was not to her, then began to unpin the next roller. The papers from those she had already removed were scattered across his white boots and the rest of the floor. One had caught in the bustle of his dark skirts, and I brushed it away for the vacuum to catch later.
"All this, just for visiting a hunting lodge?" I asked.
Sebastian laughed and patted my cheek, the gold of his ring—my ring, our ring—clinking softly against the clockwork there. "Darling. Surely you don't think that you can get out of visiting the city council simply by forgetting them."
"If you don't hold still," Diamona yanked at the next roller hard enough to make him wince, "then you won't be going. There." She strode backwards in a rustle of gray silk and gestured towards Sebastian as if he were her own creation. "My dear mayor, is there not a finer sight in all of Redfort City?"
I put on a look of great thoughtfulness, until my husband tossed his head and said, "Perhaps I shall wash my hands of both of you!" He strode out the door, his friend tossing a sardonic glance my way before she hurried after him. I took a moment to gesture the watchbot to guard the house in our absence before following.
It was one of those gray days where nonetheless the air near crackled with electricity—something in the wind's scent of leaves and rain, lightning and earth. The kind of day that spoolys loved to film, when the clouds made every other color so much more vibrant. Sebastian had paused on the landing of the carriage, and he was a jewel against the dull sky and duller buildings, his curls floating around him in a fiery breeze, his navy dress billowing against his legs. If I were a braver man, a better man, I might have kissed him then and there on the streets. As it was, I fear my grin made me look a right fool.
"Please tell me that you two will not be making moon eyes at each other this entire trip," Diamona sighed, smoothing her skirts down as the carriage rumbled to a start. "I begin to feel like a third wheel on a bicycle."
"We'll be good," Sebastian replied. He folded his hands primly in his lap, a proper lady for all of three moments until he grinned and cracked his knuckles. "Admit it, though. Are you here just on a visit, or are you part of the operation?" His sky-blue eyes flickered my way, and he clarified, "Westar."
"'Operation'... are we spies now?" Diamona drawled. "No, don't answer that. Let us just say that while I would be happy merely to spend my precious day off with friends, I did agree to report on their level of happiness to those interested. Though I really should have entertained different friends, after three weeks with the Lady Mayor as my roommate." She leaned her chin against a gloved hand and patted my knee. "I must offer my deepest condolences, Adrian. I'd forgotten how she hums in her sleep."
"Oh, sometimes," I laughed. "I've never minded; I sleep deeply."
Sebastian snorted and tossed back his scarlet curls. "You both must be delusional. I'm looking forward to saner company this afternoon."
"Heaven help us, if you're considering Jade saner than we are."
The carriage rumbled to a halt in front of a white clapboard lodge—my childhood home, that place of so many memories both fond and terrible. Sasha was there to greet us, her face wreathed in a grin and her hands hooked into the belt loops of her trousers.
"Ho, travelers!" she called. As we neared, I could see the soot sprinkled atop the young woman's freckles and a patch of grease running alongside her nose.
"Good morning," Sebastian smiled, taking her offered hand and dropping lightly to the bricks underfoot. "You look like you've been hard at work."
"I wish! Or rather, it's the worst kind of work. Jade's carriage... well, the least said, the better." She wrinkled her nose as she helped Diamona down. "Wes's modifications were working just fine for months, and then kablam—and of course, it had to happen just when Jade came home, too. I'm trying to figure out what can be salvaged while my brother goes back to the drawing board. And then Pit keeps trying to help, which is why I'm the one out here, actually. He took my spanner and bolted off with it. You didn't see him on the road, did you?"
"I'm afraid not," I told her.
"He's probably in the stables then," she shrugged. "Oh well, I could use a break, anyway. Miss Diamona, have you seen the house before?"
"Only once, after Adrian and Seballe's marriage," the courtesan said, her voice warm with amusement. "I could stand another tour, though."
"I always forget you used to live here, Adrian. I think you'll find it a bit different, after last week's improvements," Sasha grinned. "Wait until you see the new automatic dish scrubber! Oh, if you want Wes, he's in the shed. Jade probably too—not like he can go anywhere until the carr' is in one piece again!"
Sebastian laid a hand on my arm as we watched the girl wave and drag Diamona off to the house. "I'm a little surprised, actually," he murmured, "that you visit them here, of all places, so often."
I glanced at the wooden door as it open and shut, and remembered lifting my husband across the landing. "Well," I replied, smiling a bit, "you were here, once."
The shed was a new addition, designed and constructed by Westar's entire family. It reminded me no small amount of their winter home. The rough hewn wooden logs were tightly secured, cut with many windows for air and bounding a large hearth for warmth. The inside was always golden with light and floating dust, and filled in every direction with more tools than I could name and whatever odds and ends were deemed most reusable.
Both he and Jade were in there, very much so; the young man was seated at his bench, his hands just rising from a pair of pliers to cradle his lover's face as they kissed. I couldn't stop the embarrassed flush from spreading over my face, nor my automatic backwards retreat.
Sebastian was smiling in the lazy manner he had that meant he was both amused and intrigued. For once I was glad not to know his thoughts.
"I hadn't realized that inventing was this interesting, or I would have begun long ago," he said, his eyes crinkling in mirth as Westar startled off his bench and Jade cast a dark look over his shoulder.
"But you hate technology," Westar said, brushing woodchips off his pants as he rose. "Even technology related to, um, canoodling."
"Not to mention getting his hands dirty." Jade scowled at Sebastian, who smiled benignly back. "What strange fancy lured you here? I would have some neural snappings that after three weeks shadowing me, you'd be well sick of my company."
"Perhaps I'm just visiting Westar." My husband slid onto the bench, wrapped his arm around the boy's waist, and cooed, "What is this tool called again?"
"Such targeted tactics," Jade muttered. When Westar nonetheless perked up and began explaining his latest project, he shook his head and came over to my side. "I suppose if they're going to be nesting doves we can flap off some other direction."
"I would love that," I said, holding the door open for him.
The garden was much the same as it was in my childhood days, the climbing pink roses still choking out the ground types, the budding cherry trees swaying in the breeze. There were a few additions that suggested much happier children lived here now: a wooden horse on a string discarded by the lilac bushes, a boot with some sort of wheels attached set sideways upon the stone bench.
"Just to put an inkling in your mind," my friend murmured, brushing past me on a beeline course for the deeper woods, "if you had some notion about inquiring ever-so-discretely about my future plans or sense of duty or tripe-fucking feelings, I'll feed you to the guardbot."
Jade swore even more seldom than Sebastian; I frowned as I followed him, considering this. "Very well," I replied. "Is there some other discussion you would prefer?"
He kicked a rock down the path ahead of us and growled, "No. There's not even something else I can think about."
Birds were calling in the trees above us, all the songs I knew by heart. I'd spent painstaking hours carving them when I was young—another foolish thing, to carve birds of the all animals, those least suited to wood and gravity. I followed one's path across the sky and said, "The weather is nice, isn't it?"
Jade stopped, and then laughed softly, his shoulders lowering from their defensive hike. "Yeah, it's just fantastic. God. Please tell me we have more topics in common than the weather and... the topic we will not be discussing."
"Sebastian?" I suggested.
"I guess that's as good as any." He paused a moment to stretch, his white silk tunic sliding down the dark skin of his thin wrists. "I thought he was simply being evasive when he said he was there to visit his parents, but it was true. Both of them, too, not just his mother. He had lunch once with his father in the common room, and everyone tiptoed around them like they were one of West's motors, thinking it might explode. Don't tell West I said that, mind you. But they were behaved the whole time; awkward as anything, of course, but civil."
My mouth twitched as I said, "I'm afraid I know all about civility with parents, and what little it might hold. I am glad to hear it, however."
"Yeah," he said, sliding his gaze over to me. "I suppose. I heard the boss is going to the theatre with them tonight."
"It wouldn't surprise me." I found myself taking Jade automatically down the path to the waterfall. I remembered looking down it once as a boy, wondering whether I would drown first or be crushed on the rocks below; I remembered Sebastian standing on the edge and demanding I put my trust in one good thing. "I've never known what to think about their friendship, what with the blood debt and how she was almost betrothed to my father once. That's without even considering how our marriage forced her to switch her son for a daughter."
"Yeah," he repeated, sounding uncomfortable. "It is on the dancing-chorus-fish side of sanity."
I smiled at him quickly, ashamed to be dragging Jade into more troubles when he had enough on his mind already. "Diamona said he was a difficult roommate. I'm surprised she put up with him the whole time without foisting him on someone else."
"I supposed it was a passing sunshine to glimmer her out of babysitting. A sympathetic friend she may be, but pleased around children, she is not."
"Is Lavender's baby as lovely as expected?" I asked. "I haven't seen either of them since the last reloading week."
"As if it could be otherwise," he drawled, but a particular softness had come across his face, the same one he had when playing with the young Pitfall.
I glanced away with a smile. It was an odd thought for me, even if it should not be—the children becoming parents themselves, discovering new joys and making old mistakes. Neither parent in the accidental genetic mishap was suited to it, truthfully, but with the entire cast of the Crowned Jewel joining together, the babe could not help but be loved.
We'd reached the waterfall and I stood as close to the spray as I dared, still unable to oppress that odd chill heights caused in my soul without Sebastian at my side. Jade touched his hand to the water, then craned his head up at me. "Aren't you worried about rusting?" he joked.
I touched my hand to the metal on my face, feeling the gears whirl and pull plates here and there in response. "Stainless steel," I replied. "And please don't start; Sebastian makes enough jokes about lubrication as it is."
The technology might exist to replace my cheek with a facsimile of the skin that had once been there, but maudlin though the thought may be, nothing of me was mine aside from that mask. My life was given by parents; my body by Rosalind, who had reconstructed it all too well after the fateful childhood accident; my soul by Sebastian. I'd set the first metal plate when I was five, and built the rest of it piece by piece in my adolescence. It was the only protection I knew I could give those around me.
It was also the only tinkering I'd ever done, but it had left me with a certain fondness for the profession. I admired the quality in Westar, and it gladdened me to know he could use his mind to make things that might secure his success in a world meant to reward those who had already started out rich.
At the same time, I empathized with Sebastian, who hated his mother-gifted implants that distorted which observation skills and social behavior aptitudes were his own, and which were hers. I knew well what it was like to doubt the me of myself.
Jade eventually protested that it was too cold to stay by the water any longer, and we began our way back along the path home. After a long silence lost to thought, he laced his fingers behind his head, leaned back, and said to the sky, "I think he's going to pick his family."
I nodded, gently. "And what will they choose?"
"Merilee wants to stay. She would be the only one. Sasha misses the village, and their parents feel they are still living off of our largess, no matter what they do." His grass green eyes were focused straight ahead, the set of his mouth off. "Pit goes with them, of course."
He laughed suddenly, his breath catching on the wind. "You know what is worst of all? If he had married Merilee, he would stay. And heaven help me, I want that to happen. I asked him if he considered it lately—and he reassured me, thought I was jealous. It wouldn't even be untrue." His lips twisted bitterly. "I had never thought there was a feeling worse than jealousy, but that's a whisper in the light compared to this damning scream."
I went to touch his shoulder but he evaded it, as he sometimes did, as if he couldn't be hurt if only he could keep everyone at a physical distance. "Then you will stay, even if he goes?"
He shut his eyes, as if seeing someone other sight, listening to some past conversation. "Yeah," he whispered. "That isn't even a dot on this universe of consideration. Five million reasons against, and only one for. The joke is that I know there could be... other people, others I could love, who'd give a damn about me, because he convinced me of it. And the punchline is that I don't want them."
"We'll always be here," I said softly, because there was nothing else to say. "Sebastian and I. When you need us."
"Mm. It helps some." He continued down the path, reaching over to snap a branch off a dead tree we passed. "You think he'd accept a position on the Crowned Jewel?"
"As quickly as I would," I replied. Jade made an effort at a smile.
"That didn't go so badly," Sebastian said, wringing another handful of water out of his hair. "It's only a shame that Diamona decided to go back to the ship. She would have had a ball."
I could only watch him and smile. Eventually, I'm sure, the memory would be lost to time—the council's dull chatter, the malfunctioning waiter-bot, the ill-placed fountain—but until then I resolved firmly to keep it from my mind.
I helped him peel off his wet skirts and undo the swelling corset laces, and was not particularly surprised when he declined dry clothes to stretch out nude on our bed, at ease with his skin and the world. He was acres of golden skin and flaming hair, more beautiful than any painting. I had fared somewhat better, and tugged off only my damp jacket before settling on the edge of the bed, resting my hand on his knee.
"Do you know," he said suddenly, in such an odd, serious voice that I could not help but freezing, "I was thinking..."
He trailed off, falling silent for so long I wasn't sure he remembered I was still there. I resisted the urge to follow the obvious straight-line, instead saying lightly, "Yes?"
"Just a strange thing for me to consider these days. Did I ever tell you why I wanted to be a courtesan?"
"I don't think so," I replied, curiosity replacing my initial unease. "The handsome young men?"
"I could get those either way," he said, his brow lifting in amusement. "No. Family honor, of all things. Nothing that makes sense for someone who gives as much as a rat's ass about his family as I do, but honor was what I was thinking of these last weeks. When I went to see my parents, I mean."
"How did family honor come into it?" I asked, scooting along the bed so that I could rest at his side. He moved over to make room for me, then rolled back immediately to curl against my chest.
"Well, when I was about, oh, thirteen or so, my father disappeared for three years. I never learned what happened to him, and he and Mother have always refused to say. All I knew was that the money, which had never been very plentiful, disappeared with him."
I glanced at him, a little startled. He'd always been so carefree about money that I would have never supposed that reason. "That led you to the profession?"
"Oh, no," he said, smiling briefly. "I doubt I even knew payment was an option. Rather, Mother started taking us to the home of every noble she knew, begging for what they would lend her. She had just started construction on the Crowned Jewel a year before, and the hanger master was threatening to send the whole thing to scrap if she didn't pay upkeep. Eventually the nobles stopped lending money, and she decided to earn it from them instead."
Sebastian brushed hair from his face and continued, "It wasn't something she liked, of course—you know how she is about my father, God knows why—but on the other hand, you also know what she's like when she focuses on a goal. I figured that if she was going to suffer through it, then so might I. Except it turned out I liked it, and was pretty damn good." He chuckled softly and said, "Mother was furious, and so were the noble parents once they started finding out, because I never was good at discretion. But I never really stopped thinking of it as the family duty, and eventually she stopped fussing."
His expression was wistful, and I started to reassess my relaxation. "Do you miss it?" I asked softly.
"Mm. The... peripherals, I suppose." He twined a hand through my hair and said, "You know you never need to doubt my love for you, or affection." His other hand sneaked down to playfully pinch my thigh. "But I do miss helping people, boosting their confidences and the like, and it's so effective. Trying to push votes through the council is a small comfort, but it's certainly not as immediate as a sexual reassurance."
Especially not facing his smile. I could say it had taken him two months to crack my heart of onyx, but that would be a lie—it was a single week, when he had insisted against all odds to stay at an invalid's side. Sebastian was a wonder. "Now that's a vote I can't see going through council."
His laugh shook my skin. "Oh yes—'Mrs. Nuara, have you ever considered passing the food bill through... negotiation?' But all joking aside, it was something that's been on my mind. I wanted to know your opinion on the matter."
"Of what, exactly?" I rolled so that I could face him, propping my head against my hand.
He wrapped a lock of my hair around his fingers, spiraling it like his own. "Well, about me returning to the business. Not sailing with the Crowned Jewel, of course—and as myself, not the Lady Mayor!—but when it was necessary. When someone really needed the help, or... or, well, if I needed to help them. I wouldn't want it to bother you, ever, so I thought we could discuss how frequently, or who absolutely not, or so on."
The word was out before I could think, without any planning. Even my hand had raised without my bidding, as if reaching to grab the word back; and yet I did not, could not, retract it. "No," I murmured again. "Never."
"No?" Sebastian echoed, a polite confusion settling over his features. I had to look away, feeling panic rising in my chest; I knew that expression too well. "Adrian, it isn't that I'm unhappy with you, or anything of the sort. But I wouldn't ask if I didn't feel it necessary."
"I know." Suddenly claustrophobic, I had to slid from the bed and go to the window. In the darkness, my reflection shone against the glass; I tried to focus outside rather than catch that shell-shocked gaze. My fingers, tightly gathered, would not stop shaking. "I wouldn't refuse unless it were necessary."
"I don't understand." I could hear him struggling to keep his tone polite, a sound that was in some ways worse than outright hostility. "You never had a problem with my job, even when it wasn't philanthropic. You certainly don't have a problem with Westar and Jade's relationship."
"It's different," I murmured. "They aren't married."
"What possible difference does that make?" I could hear the sheets rustling behind me, and knew without turning around he was twisting them around his wrists. I knew him so well, but perhaps knowing was not the same as understanding. "What is it you fear?"
I wasn't sure I could understand myself. All I knew was that I wanted to fold from the pain in my gut, wretch of the taste in my mouth. I leaned my head against the glass and looked for the answer in the dark streets below.
"There was a man on the ship, Adrian," Sebastian said, his voice quiet and unreadable even to me, who had read him so well. "A soldier who had lost a leg in a border skirmish last year. He thought that no one would ever want him again, neither as a being of worth, nor with desire."
"And you slept with him?" I asked, watching a carr' rumble past our townhouse.
"Even aboard the Jewel, there are prejudices. No one else would."
I could not say what propelled me towards the door; perhaps the rising note in my lover's voice as he cried, "Where are you going? You wouldn't—Adrian, get back here!—Coward—"
"I'm sorry for waking you," I murmured.
"Don't mention it," yawned Westar, thrusting a steaming mug of cider into my hands and readjusting a worn blue blanket around his shoulders. "I'd only just gone to bed as it was." He dropped down onto the opposite bench, blinked a few times rapidly, then added, "I don't think you're going to get the best advice from me, though, seeing as I'm not at my sharpest."
"Advice?" I glanced up from the cider.
"Well, you kind of look like that's what you're after, if you don't mind my saying." He squinted into his own mug as if unsure how to dispose of the contents. "So... yes."
"Oh, dear, it's colder out here than I expected." Merilee was framed in the doorway, dressed only in a white nightgown that accented her loveliness pristinely. Westar immediately shrugged out of his blanket and tossed it to her, which she accepted with a wry smile. "I'd try to give it back," she told me as she settled down beside the young man, "but he would refuse. Now, what is the problem?"
I had expected—as far as my dim whim had included anything like a plan—to commiserate with a friend in a similar situation, not be analyzed by a girl who, if my life had gone quite differently, was young enough to be my daughter. Still, I had no better options in the night. "A philosophical question," I replied, gesturing vaguely into the air. "What is the meaning of marriage?"
"Mentioned at midnight to Merilee in a mansion by a man with a mission," Westar murmured into his cup.
"I suppose the classic answer is that a marriage is defined by those within it," the young woman replied, giving her friend a droll look. "But that doesn't really answer anything, of course. I've always thought marriage is an agreement to be good together."
"Spiritually? Morally?" Westar asked, perking up somewhat.
"All ways," she replied, "as many as possible. I guess maybe the most possible."
The young man scratched behind his ear and said, "That sounds pretty good to me. I'd say that marriage is moral in particular, or at least from what I've seen, and as long as we're defining morals as human constructions rather than God-given ordinances. It's what represents the times. Like in the days before the Emperor, when people were expected to marry the best warrior—no one cares how good you are with a spear and shield today."
I wondered if it reflected poorly upon me, that neither thought it odd enough to question why I'd be posing such questions in the middle of the night. "But what if a marriage became immoral?" I asked slowly. "Would it still be a marriage?"
"Like if one person became a murderer?" Westar puffed out his cheeks. "I don't know. I guess as long as the other one didn't find murdering amoral, then the marriage will still be there."
"It would be difficult to match well with a murderer," Merilee said, "or so I think. I suppose it would depend why the person was murdering. Maybe if they just did it in self-defense."
"Yeah..." Westar trailed off and laughed. "Sorry, Adrian. This probably isn't helping, unless murder is what your problem is."
"No, it's... insightful," I replied. "Merilee, with your ideas of good matches, do you believe the marriage must start out that way, or can two imperfectly suited people change to be well with the other?"
She glanced at the man at her side, and I realized uncomfortably that I was treading close to their own ground; Westar had once told me about why they had not remained sweethearts. Still, her look held only fondness as she replied, "I think it makes things easier. And if you aren't well-suited, it becomes riskier that you later find someone you'd have been better off with from the beginning. Still, I think it would be foolish of me to say that everyone must have some kind of perfect coupling."
"I'm not sure I agree about the first part," Westar shook his head. "I think it would be better to make a decent match and find a way to make it work, rather than worry you're going to find someone perfect later. The very fact it was later makes them not perfect, because otherwise you'd have just sat around all that time not loving someone—" He cut off with a yawn, then said, "Am I making any sense? I can't tell if I'm insightful or babbling."
"A little of both, perhaps," smiled Merilee. "If it's not a complimentary match, though, what's to stop anyone from marrying anyone?"
"Love." They both glanced over at me and, feeling embarrassed despite myself, I hid my face briefly in my cider mug. "There are some you love and some you don't, and some you love to see smile, and some you love enough to become immoral."
"It's a way of putting it," Westar said, nodding. "I was just thinking—I love my brother very much, but I certainly don't want to marry him, and what makes that distinction? I would die for Pit if I needed to, and probably would fight in a war for him, but I wouldn't kill Adrian because Pit asked me to. Sorry, Adrian." He grinned at me, and I nodded my forgiveness. "Maybe if we were starving and needed to eat you, but that would be self-defense and isn't amoral."
"Oh dear," Merilee sighed. "Please, if we could change the subject, was there anything else you wanted to ask me? I have a little bit of embroidery left to do before I sleep."
I had seen her insight work wonders in the past, but I could not spill a private conversation's secrets so easily as to ask her the real question. "Please, go ahead," I replied. "You have helped considerably already."
"Very well." She smiled, rose, and to my surprise, came over to lightly kiss the top of my head. "Goodnight, Adrian."
"Sleep well," I replied as she dropped the blanket back onto Westar's shoulders and left.
"'Night," he called, then yawned again and stood himself. "Come on," he told me, "I want to show you something."
He grabbed an oil lamp and took me to the shed. In the darkness its interior appeared almost sinister, alien shadows cast upon the walls, but Westar settled onto his bench in apparent ease. "It's my latest project," he said, gesturing towards the metal box set on the table. He smiled at my polite observation of the befuddling mass of wires and bolts, then clarified, "It's a truth-seer. Like the implants Sebastian and Jade have, or based off of them at least, since I don't think I'll ever be up to Rosalind's level of work. I'm lucky to get something to function at all, let alone fit inside someone's head and talk to their minds."
"What prompted this?" I asked, squinting at the box in the dim light.
"Jade, actually." He smiled faintly, and said, "You know personally how he can get a bit, ah, jealous sometimes. I've given up on understanding why. But as for this... sometimes he thinks that his experience is my own, and goes to all lengths to make me believe that I have no need to be jealous of him. It's funny, because in some ways everyone should be jealous of everything about him, even though he doesn't understand why. Sorry, that wasn't very clear. I meant, he's great. I am jealous of how well he gets along with people, but I don't really care about whether or not he's seeing a princess somewhere, even though he thinks I must be."
I nodded. That had been true for me once. "But why a truth-seer?"
He placed his finger on a switch and idly pushed it back and forth. "I thought it would help his peace of mind if he knew I could tell when he's telling the truth. Does that make sense?"
"I think I understand." It was not something that could ever help in my relationship; Sebastian was nothing if not truthful, these days. I wondered what could help us—what, in all the realms of imagination—and thought of nothing.
There was no machine that would make him not want to help others. I doubted equally there was a contraption to cure my own mind of its fallacies.
I'd come to some realization during the carr' ride to my old home about why Sebastian's words had bothered me so. A foolish realization, but one nonetheless. It was the same feeling that had consumed the child watching the wooden door close. I had wished—desperately—that I was the one who had been chosen by him. No matter what kind of monster it made me, I had been jealous of a one-legged lonely soldier and any number of other unlikely, unfortunate future suitors, because it meant that they had been chosen, and I had not.
Of course, this was factually untrue in a thousand ways, one foremost being the ring on my finger, but that made no difference. I wondered privately if Westar's invention would do him no good. What I needed, and perhaps Jade as well, was conviction of the truth as true—and what kind of convoluted instrument could accomplish such a thing?
"It's funny that you mention marriage, actually," Westar said quietly, and I dismissed my thoughts at the hesitancy in his voice. "I've been thinking about it some with, you know, the year coming up. I always knew I would get marry and have a big family. It wasn't a dream, really, like being a scholar, but a certainty, just like waking up tomorrow isn't a dream of mine, but something that's going to happen."
"Oh?" I encouraged him, sitting down on the bench myself.
"Yes, and..." He took a breath. "Jade isn't really the marriage sort, you know. I can't even picture it. He does really like children, and that's good, but I think it's in more of a spoil sort of way, rather than a change-diapers sort of way. We aren't really suited by anyone's definition, either, in, well, anything really."
It was not the conversation I expected, and I found myself at a loss for all but dialogue. "And what of morally?" I asked.
He smiled, here and gone as quickly as a spring shower. "On the scale between God and murder, we're well towards the latter, I should think. I... I would murder for him, though. That's the worst of it."
"But would you leave your family?"
"I don't know. And isn't that terrible? It's funny, these circumstances that actually get us. I would kill for him, I would die for him—but would I break my mother's heart, or miss Pit's childhood, or abandon Sasha and Dad? I don't know. I wouldn't marry him, even if it were possible. But if I married someone else, would I remain his lover? I... I think I would." He sighed deeply. "None of it makes sense."
He would choose Jade—to a point. And Jade would choose him, but would not leave the Crowned Jewel. Sebastian would choose me, but not to the extent of turning away those who wanted him; I would choose him but not—what? What was the line I drew?
"I love him," Wes murmured, more unhappy than I had ever seen him. "And I think we need each other, maybe even more than we know. But..." He pushed the wires on the truth-seer and fell silent. He did not speak again.
I reached the point in the obscenely early morning where my guilt at leaving Sebastian had overtaken my hurt at what he had done, and I was ready to return home. Just at that time, though, Westar's parents trudged downstairs, rubbing sleep from their eyes. I could not miss the opportunity to speak with them.
"Good morning, Adrian!" his father rumbled, clasping my shoulder as he went to the stove. He tossed in a log, flicked on the burner, and began rummaging for a pot in the cupboard. "I thought you had the city man's appreciation for this hour."
"Normally, that would be true," I smiled briefly. "I prefer to rise with the sun whenever possible."
"An early wake gets the work done," Isoldine said, covering a yawn as she took a seat at the table beside me. "Especially while the children are still abed."
"I suppose that is something I don't concern myself with," I replied. "Though, about that—"
"No business before breakfast!" her husband said cheerfully. "Do you want two eggs or one, Adrian?"
"None, please," I demurred. "I really do have to be going soon, before Seballe begins to search the town for me."
"She isn't here, too? That's odd, I can't recall the last time I saw you two apart." The dark haired woman poured herself some of the tea from last night, sipped, and made a slight face at the chill. "Is anything wrong?"
"Nothing we can't solve," I said, "but that isn't what I wished to speak of. I wanted to know—"
"A little help never hurt to speed things along," Palthos said, knocking an egg against the counter as he shook his head. "Is it that spooly about her that came out last month? I don't think it's right, all those private details they published. That could put a strain on anyone."
And it might have, if a word of it hadn't come from Sebastian's endless imagination. "No—"
"Is she pregnant?" Wes's mother asked hopefully.
"No," I said, reddening despite the impossibility. "It's just a disagreement, nothing more."
"About whether to have children?"
"Didn't it say in that documentary," Palthos rumbled thoughtfully, "that she had that traumatic experience with her dog being run over by a cart, and she's always wondered if that influenced her wavering opinions later on..."
I pressed my thumbs to my forehead and said, "She wants to become a courtesan again." Somehow, it was easier to say such a thing to more distant acquaintances than my personal friends, and perhaps their distance could provide insight I could not.
There was silence for a few moments. "Oh dear," his mother said softly. "That is something, isn't it. A bit like our Wes, I suppose."
I never was sure how much they did or did not know about their son's complex relationship with Jade. "A bit," I replied cautiously.
"I believe our Wes has been a good influence on that boy," she continued, pressing her lips together, "but I can't imagine your wife would let anyone influence her. We're just lucky with our boy that there hasn't been much the other way around."
"We all love Jade," her husband put in quickly. "But he seems so unhappy. Nothing like Seballe, at least."
He would never know if Sebastian was unhappy. Jade, for all his training, was as transparent as his hair was bright, but my husband could fool the most discerning eyes. And that, too, was a foundation of the problem. For him to want this meant that he had been unhappy, and I had not seen it. Was it that he had lied to me, in some exclusionary way, or—worse—had I noticed and dismissed his feelings?
"Jade makes Westar happy," I said, feeling I needed to stand up for my friend in some way.
"Not as he's about to break his heart," his mother murmured.
No, perhaps not.
Finally, though, I could ask what I had wished. "Have you considered staying?" I jumped in. "So that Wes does not need to choose between you?"
Palthos sighed deeply. "We must consider all of our children," he said. "This city has not been as kind to Sasha as it has our son, and Pit deserves to grow up in the land of his ancestors. Our cabin has been in our family for generations, you know. We can't just abandon that."
"Maybe if you just stayed a little longer," I said weakly, knowing it was no argument.
His mother shook her head. "If we wait much longer, the pass will close. Besides, how could a few months make this any less painful for them?"
"But we were talking of Sebelle," Palthos gently steered us. "I'm assuming you don't want her to start, uh, courtesaning?"
"I don't know," I said, starting to regret having mentioned anything. "I'm just wondering if she's regretting choosing me, over other suitors."
"That girl?" Isoldine snorted. "She looks at you like you invented the moon and stars. If anything, it must be you she's thinking of."
"What?" I asked, startled.
"Hmm," Palthos said, flipping an omelette onto the plate. "Yes, that might be it. Maybe she thought you'd be pleased about it?"
I couldn't imagine that reasoning. Perhaps, though, if he thought I would be happy if he was—I groaned under my breath, my stomach churning worse than before. I rested my ring against the clockwork on my face and sighed.
"Perhaps," I said. "I should be going before she frets too much." I rose to my feet, then hesitated, still wishing something of this could be solved. "What if Jade were to come with you?" I asked.
"What, to work in the woods?" the woman asked in disbelief. "He'd die after a week of it of pure misery."
"Oh, I know, the Crowned Jewel could dock at Gladberry," Palthos smiled, patting my shoulder. "It could be an untapped market, all those trappers and hunters."
"I'll suggest it," I sighed.
I pushed the carr' faster than I had ever dared before, driven by a fear that I wished God had put into my mind sooner. Sebastian had named me a coward rightly; I had perhaps overstayed at Westar's home because of fear of my return, imagining the shouting, tears, and other heartwrenching commotion that would likely ensue. But I had realized only far too late that I had something much worse to face. An open door, an empty landing, blazed in my thoughts.
I could put no words to the complicated joy and trepidation I felt when I flung myself against the door and found the one I had abandoned had not abandoned me.
Nor, despite his wet, furious expression, did he turn away when I dropped to my knees before him, and though he scowled like the wrath of heaven, he did not disdain my hands when I reached for his. Truly, he was the best husband, moral or not, anyone could ask for. "I am so sorry," I whispered. "From the depths of my heart, I'm sorry."
"I know," he sighed, lofting a scarlet curl with his breath. "And?"
"And," I swallowed, casting my mind once more for where my line lay, "yes, sometimes. I cannot be specific, but when you want it for your happiness, yes." I could not morally live with any other choice.
There was still a tenseness in his shoulders, but the smile he flashed briefly was fond. "That's not what I meant. Remember?"
"I don't..." I murmured, forcing myself to silence as his brow rose in reprimand. Did it make less sense for the sinner to sin by lying, or to wrong a wronged one more? Little though I still felt I deserved his forgiveness, it, too, made him happy to think I did. "Please forgive me."
"I'll forgive you for being upset," he said promptly, "but I'm still pissed that you left." He watched me for a moment, his pale eyes troubled, before he sighed a second time. "Come inside before some early riser sees me and thinks you caught me frolicking with your wife again."
I rose and obliged, and he shut the door at my back, casting us both in darkness, as the sun was still yet beneath the horizon. "I don't need to guess to know you're giving me license just to please me."
"Well, yes," I replied, slightly surprised. "Is there any other reason?"
"Oh, Adrian." Perverse or not, I had never minded hearing my name on his tongue in such tones of mixed fondness and exasperation; it meant that I hadn't grown too boring yet. "It is your right to not want me to do this, as much as it is mine to want it. I just hoped—a little stupidly, I know—that maybe you wouldn't mind." He ran a hand through his hair, and I could see the soft curve of disappointment in his lips even in the dim light.
I caught his hand in mine again, and remembered the first brush of fingers at our introduction. "I've no doubt you're right," I said, "but I know of all people that I am capable of change. Maybe I'll need to start slowly, but as long as I know that I... that I'm yours, then I think I'll be able to find it in me."
"Hmm." A flicker of a smile lifted his lips; a small start, at least. "I'm afraid of changing you too much."
Only my clockwork face was mine, but all the rest, best parts of me were his. "I'm not," I murmured.
"I should have talked to you first. I do regret that part, but not what I did." He lifted his head, eyes searching my face. "Unless, of course, you hate me for it, in which case I do."
"It must be bad if you're already seeking compliments," I replied, trying to lift the mood slightly. "Of course I don't hate you. I do hate that I didn't notice you were unhappy."
"It's not unhappiness, precisely." He pulled away towards the parlor, but kept my hand, bringing me in his tow. I wondered if he realized his suburb night vision had to be another of his mother's modifications, as I could do little more than put faith in his path. "Maybe... jealously. In addition to everything I said before, of course."
"Jealousy?" I repeated, amazed. "Of what?"
"Oh, lots," he sighed. "I don't know if I really want to talk about it now, when I'm still trying to figure everything out myself. But I used to know my place in the world, and I never appreciated how easy that made things, now that everything's gone all... gray. I spent my life becoming the world's best courtesan, and it seems like it's a waste if I don't use this somehow." He stopped beside the bay window—I could only tell by the faint crack of light emanating from it—and pulled back the curtains, looking out at the faintest pinking of the sky. "It sounds stupid aloud," he admitted, "but I feel like I'm surrounded by impossible choices when there used to be one, clear answer."
"And none of them feel right," I murmured, suddenly feeling intensely sorry for him, and Westar and Jade—no, all of us, his parents, his family, the Crowned Jewel, the one-legged soldier, and even me in the center of it all. An observer staring up at the sky, with no right to choose, but profoundly affected by the choices all the same.
"Well, the choices that have you in them do," he said, glancing over his shoulder and smiling at me with such weary fondness that I took into him in my arms. He leaned back against me, tucking his head beneath my chin, and we watched the sun rise because some choices, at least, were easy.
A week later, we were there to watch the departures. Only Sebastian's presence kept my feet from sprinting me away, he could bear to stay only because I was there at his side, and together we were as miserable as everyone else.
Perhaps I had shown cowardice once again, but I had not come by to help Westar pack the day before. I had told him a council emergency had occurred that needed my immediate attention. I hadn't lied—even I would not stoop so low—but I could have bowed off for one day. I had not.
Nor had I gone to see Jade one last time. I told myself, over and over again, that one visit could not be more important than the thousands that had gone before.
Sebastian must have felt similarly, because while we had not discussed it, both of us had stayed in last night. We had spent a sleepless, silent night wrapped in each other's arms.
And now we stood by my childhood home, that place of so many conflicting memories, as Isoldine and Palthos secured the last few crates to a wagon while the rest of the family stood silently by.
Merilee had surprised everyone by deciding to return home, too, commissions or not, ready to bring her newfound skills to the tailor shops in Gladberry. She would, no doubt, revolutionize their industry. I wondered if Jade felt relieved when he heard, glad that he had not been able to talk his lover into marriage, or whether he just found it painfully ironic.
Sasha was standing beside her, pale-faced and gripping a wrench fiercely in both hands. I had not realized until the sight that they would be leaving their shed behind and, with it, all of the twins' inventions. While I agreed with her and her family's belief that machinery should not be a replacement for happiness and human comforts, I wondered if she was starting to doubt her decision as much as everyone else.
Westar stood with Pit in his arms, talking quietly to Jade a small distance from the others. He was turned towards the man and his expression was amiable enough, but he was holding his brother before him like a human shield separating the two. I could not see Jade's expression from where I stood. I could not bring myself to change position to find out.
"Well, that's the last of it," Palthos called, his good cheer painfully forced. "All aboard who's going aboard!"
"Nonsense," chided his wife, before she came over to the pair of us. "Lord and Lady Mayor, we cannot thank you enough for all you've done for us, and the loan of your beautiful house."
"Think nothing of it," Sebastian said, his smile diplomatic even while his shoulders trembled. He broke away from me to enfold both of the couple in an embrace. To my surprise, Isoldine turned and offered me the same afterwards. Her hair smelled like garden lavender, and I realized, achingly, too late, that parents could have been waiting behind that wooden door after all.
"You'll be just fine, never fear," she murmured, and I let her go with my heart thudding against my throat.
Her husband clapped me on the back and said, "Hope you don't mind all the additions the kids put onto the place. Wes promises that none of them should explode." I nodded, unable to speak, and his face softened. "Take care of yourselves, now, both of you."
"Of course," my husband replied for me. "Safest of journeys."
Merilee came and kissed my cheek again, smiling, but the instant she was enfolded into Sebastian's arms she bust into tears. "Oh, Seballe," she sobbed, "how am I supposed to thank you for everything?"
"There's no need," he murmured in a steady voice, but he buried his face in her hair before we could see any tell-tale tears on his face. "It was my pleasure."
"I suppose I should say the same to you."
I turned and tried to memorize the sight before me, the curl of Westar's unruly hair, the sad lift of his mouth, the expression gentling his soft brown eyes even as he tried to hide his rapid blink. The brother I never had, the son I probably wouldn't, the friend I was blessed to obtain. "I wish," I said hoarsely, "I could have done more."
"Me, too." He cleared his throat and held out his hand. I wouldn't have been embarrassed to embrace him, but even I could see the fragile air around him that threatened to break at too hard a push. I shook his hand solemnly and prayed he knew the words I couldn't figure out to say.
"Me, too!" Pit cried at his side, releasing his hold on his brother's pant leg to grab my other hand. I smiled despite myself. "We're going on an adventure and whoosh!"
"Not too windy, I hope," I told him.
He brightened and said, "Maybe it will rain! Are you coming to see the rain, Mr. Adrian?"
"I'm afraid not," I replied as gently as I could. "I'll hope for rain here instead."
"Oh." He frowned and then, capricious as a summer sky, bounded off towards his parents and the cart.
I could see Jade past Wes's shoulder, still unmoved from where he was, still turned away. His shoulders rose and fell with long, slow breaths.
"I'll do my best to write," Wes was saying. "I think it's too much to hope that there will be a spooly carrier installed in town yet, but Gladberry is due to get one eventually. You'll... write back, won't you?"
I hadn't realized how much the child in me cried at their abandonment from this family who left the door open but left me all the same. His eyes begged me for forgiveness, and, with a release of breath, I put the child aside and gave it. "Of course."
"Good." He drew the collar of his jacket closed despite the heat of the day, his gaze turning towards Jade. "Well," he murmured, "I suppose..."
"Any time now, son," his dad called, but gently. All the rest of the family were in the cart.
Jade finally turned and came a few steps towards us, his face remarkably composed and his bearing relaxed. Anyone might have thought he was coming upon something at most mildly unsettling. I wondered what it cost him.
Wes met him the rest of the way, and then did something no one expected—collapse at the ground at his beloved's feet, wracked with great, shuttering sobs. The courtesan's expression went stricken as he knelt down, awkwardly placing his hand on the boy's back in a futile attempt to console him. Wes grabbed for his jacket and cried as if the world would end.
"Jade never was very good at that," Sebastian whispered, reaching for my hand and clasping it tightly until it stopped shaking. I could not tell whose the trembling was. "We should... do something."
Build a machine of make impossible choices. Cast a magic to make all options right.
Sasha jumped down from the cart and ran over to her brother. She threw herself atop him and clutched him tightly as she too cried. Pit started wailing. Merilee pressed her knuckles to her lips and turned her head aside; even she had no right words to say.
But that which wrung my heart so tightly was the expression on Jade's face, as he realized, finally, finally, that Westar did indeed love him, and, in the same instant, was leaving.
What was the right choice: a lover, or family? Was it best to be happy today, or to look back fondly upon a lifetime of good memories? I was suddenly glad my own problem was only a matter of infidelity. I drew Sebastian closer and pressed my lips to his hair, wishing I dared close my eyes but feeling somehow it was my duty to witness this.
"Go," said Jade in that gentle tone he only ever used with his fondest lover. He rubbed the young man's heaving shoulder and said, "Go on, West. I'll be waiting here for you when you come back, I promise. Sure as the color on a butterfly's back."
The buy curled in on himself, one hand twining tightly with his sister's. "How can you know that?" he choked out. "You're the one who hates pain. You might change your mind."
"You're worth it." Jade, unaccustomed to being so blunt, looked away uncomfortably, the diodes in his hair fading to gray. "Take care of him, Sasha."
"I will," the girl said fiercely. She rose and helped her brother up, who swayed on his feet, wiping his face unsteadily. Jade kissed him then, and I did turn my face away that time.
I had never believed in choosing a future of great possibility over present realities; I could not trust in that future for long enough.
But if Jade could stand there—suspicious, cautious Jade—and bade his lover go, perhaps I had it in me to fear Sebastian's choice today but trust for a happier future; trust that he would come back and choose me again and again, and each time the better for it.
And none understood as well as we two did, I and the bright-eyed courtesan pushing Westar away even as raw longing seared his face, that we could be asked to choose again and again, and always pick the same. We might draw lines that we would not cross, yes, but we would not give up our ill-suited lovers for the world.
My parents were actually at the Departing Ball—I caught a glimpse of my mother's fair hair as she leaned back, smiling at a joke my father told. They were at one of the iron-wrought tables littered across the field that used to be flowers. They did not spot me, although I had to nearly crouch behind Sebastian to make this possible.
A mechanic led us to one of the smaller dining rooms aboard the craft, a warm affair of brass and mahogany, and showed us to our seats. Rosalind and her husband came in soon after. I felt her gaze like the weight of Justice's scales, carefully determining whether I was worth her time or not. Evidently I did not weigh too shallowly, as she sat down with a sharp jerk, Marvyn settling in more gracefully beside her.
"Good evening," Sebastian said, as calmly as if the four of us always sat down to a meal together. "I trust you are both in good health?"
"Health?" his mother repeated, her brows drawing together as she frowned. "Yes, yes. More importantly, have you passed that agriculture tax bill yet? I don't think we have a hope of revitalizing the economy otherwise."
Knowing this dull discussion could go on for hours, I looked at Sebastian's father, perhaps with more hope than I ought to have. "And have you been well, sir?" I inquired.
He blinked slowly, in that odd, unaccustomed manner of his. "I am myself," he said. "The well is outside." He stabbed a patch of salad and lifted it to his mouth.
I looked at the table and, despite everything, smiled. Such parents as these would have made even the child I was rebel. As an adult, however, I could only count myself lucky.
At some point, with Sebastian and his mother still deep into their conversation, I rose and excused myself. My husband touched my hand lightly as I sneaked from the table, managing to curl two fingers around mine with grace before I left. I could not list the ways I loved him, nor doubt the choice I'd made. My Sebastian.
Jade was in a rare pocket of quiet in the crowd, where guests edged by or politely turned their backs to his sorrow. I wasn't sure he noticed. I had expected to find him at the railing, but was surprised to find his attention caught by the stars overhead; he was more likely to be found scowling at the ground when in such a mood.
"The weather seems clear tonight," I said when I joined him, hoping at least to get a false smile. I did not, though he did glance at me briefly.
I started to feel a blush creep up on me—even after more than a year of practice, I still was at long ends when attempting to draw non-philosophical conversation from those reluctant to give it. I just had to believe that the concerns were worth the chance of getting them wrong. "I've heard the ship docks at Gladberry in a month."
That caught; he whipped towards me, the silver-cord edge of his coat flying across his knees. "What? When did you hear this?"
"Just now," I said, unable to keep from smiling. "Jade—you live in an airship, and Rosalind is not entirely heartless. Did you really think she would not give in?"
Just as quickly as it had come, the fierce joy in his face slid behind his usual cool mask, and Jade lifted his shoulders casually. "The money mistress must think the speck of gold on the horizon is funds, not the sun."
"Seballe could convince anyone of anything," I said. Earlier in the evening, a man with a timid smile had approached him, and they'd spoken in low voices until my husband had glanced at me, smiled, and shook his head. Someday, I had promised him timidly, afterwards, and he had just replied, only when you're no longer afraid. He must have seen my doubt, for he had teased me: did I doubt his abilities?
"It might be a storm in the air no matter which way the rain falls," my friend said, draping himself gracefully against the railing. "I've no beam of light to know what my country boy will think of this. He might be kneeling before some woodland beauty as we speak, dreaming of their many bouncing toddlers."
He could be right. Westar was a singularly determined young man; if he wanted his large family, he would waste no time in pursuing the idea, even—or perhaps especially—with the new anguish of leaving a beloved behind him. "And if this were true, what would be your course of action?"
His sigh was as soft as a spring breeze. "Either give my blessing," he said, "or enlist Seballe's help in kidnapping him and fleeing the country. Haven't decided."
"I'm insulted," I said as sternly as I could, glad to see him joking again even if so grimly, "that I too would not be enlisted."
Jade snorted and shoved my arm lightly. "As if you'd help," he scowled. "You'd just probably blush and stammer apologies to the bride. Although, perhaps you could have use as a distraction..."
"A beautiful distraction." Sebastian, of course, coming up to my side and linking his arms comfortably around mine. "Who are we distracting? Can it be me?"
"Westar's bride," I told him. "And no. If neither of us are eating with your parents, who is?"
"Never mind that," he said, dismissing my concerns with a wave of his hand. "I think Jade needs distraction more, and I have just the solution—" another gesture towards the crowd behind us, "finding a patron and spending a very thorough hour or two. Although, if sex is the cure..." He glanced at me, his rich eyes gleaming with amusement.
"No," I sighed, trying to match his playful tone even as I felt my skin flush, "I don't think you should sleep with Jade."
"Me? I thought you were the distraction here!"
Now I really was blushing. "I won't be sleeping with him, either."
"Who said anything about sleeping?"
"You two are impossible," the dark-skinned man grumbled, but his lips were twitching and the dark air about him had abated somewhat. "Fine. I'll go sight-see a distraction, while you two hike around here trying to avoid the park rangeress. But later, perhaps..." The pained, lost look was back in his eyes, too quickly to comfort, "planning." He tipped his hat to us, then slipped away through the crowd.
Sebastian watched him go, his lips falling into a more troubled set. "I'm not certain he'll be all right," he murmured. "I've never seen him so fragile."
"It hasn't been very long yet," I said. "It's just that he has no way of knowing if someone is there waiting for him on the other side of this—it was he that made the promise, after all, not Westar. At least this way he'll find out if it was never meant to be."
"Or if it is," my lover said softly. I pressed my lips to Sebastian's hair and watched my friend weave through the crowd until he was beyond sight. Regardless of the outcome, Jade would be convinced, at last, that the truth was true.
Wes had said that waiting for a true soul mate was a waste of time one could have spent loving some other worthy soul. I'd thrown away so many years in self-doubt and fear, erecting walls physical, emotional, and metallic between myself and others. I, too, was growing convinced of the idea that, while Sebastian and I were not perfect, we were well together. I could not deny it.
"Come," he said, tilting his head back to me, suddenly smiling again. "Come dance with me." He took my hand and led me to the dance floor, lit by the golden floodlights mounted on the bow of the Crowned Jewel—to the cobblestones upon the flattened field, where flowers used to grow. I smiled, and followed after.