For many days after Adamie's death, Kai had thought of no other.
A lust for vengeance burned white-hot within him, the fuel and fodder of legends, the legacy of murderers. He had paced, back and forth, across his wide bedroom. He took to rising early again, if for no other reason than the fact that his weary mind would allow him no such rest. The priests had cleared Tatha of wrongdoing and she had fled the province. Perhaps the entire empire. Somewhere out there, a poisoner lurked within the inner walls.
But months passed. He could not go on thinking of nothing but Adamie's killer. Responsibilities piled up: they expected Kai to travel great distances and meet with pretentious nobles, to discuss matters of building new roads and dams and parks. His father rose out of the dark, brooding mood into which he had descended, and Kai realized that he alone continued to mourn the loss of Lord Lan Adamie.
He and Oli sat out on the veranda. Somewhere between his third meeting with the Dog representative and the second complaint about the southern bridges, they stole away to drink tea balanced on the metal guard railings.
"Heard anything interesting?" Kai asked, hands wrapped around his ceramic cup, eyes fixed dutifully on the distant downs. He saw tiny, ant-like people crawling about below them, heads down and eyes focused on the parched ground. "I've been listening, but there's nothing."
He never claimed to be good at it.
"The same," Oli confirmed with a wave of her hand. "Well, not entirely true. I've heard someone is selling night lily tea for a couple of gold coins, but I'd hardly consider that treasonous."
Night lily tea, the first choice of more unscrupulous paramours, made its rounds at the very end of summer. "Treasonous? It's practically a tradition around here."
Kai took another sip of tea. It tasted like water, weak and hot. "I'll get it taken care of. It's supposed to be restricted, anyway."
"As it should be." Oli scowled into her cup, though all she met there was her reflection. "Did Eily tell you she was getting married?"
Kai shook his head. He spoke to Eily in only the most economical of terms: she provided him with a window to the inner workings of the House, and he believed her unconditionally loyal. Such an individual materialized rarely, and so he was grateful for her presence. Yet, he couched his words carefully in speaking to her, and rarely discussed personal matters. "I did not know," he admitted, finally. Oli's stare hardened, as he knew it would. "I've been preoccupied. Do you know who it is?"
"Preoccupied." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "The surname is Penston, but they have so many children I can't keep up. It's nice that she's improving her place in society."
That's how he'd come to use Eily as his liaison to the inner workings of the servant hierarchy. Oli had known her since their childhood, and occasionally mentioned her in passing as an expert on reconnaissance. They'd grown friendly, perhaps, in the past few months. Maybe it had been years.
"She'll make a fine noblewoman," Kai said. "I'll have to find a new source of information."
Oli elbowed him in the ribs. "And here I thought you weren't sentimental." But her mouth spread into a grin of abalone teeth and he brushed his hand along her arm affectionately. "I'm sure you'll find someone who can titillate you with stories of the great unwashed."
Kai cast another sideways glance at the sprawling town beyond the downs. "I'm sure," he agreed. The great unwashed teemed around every corner, spilling into the corridors. He'd find someone else. "I wonder if she'll have her wedding this month."
"That's the typical thing to do," said Oli, her voice hinting at a note of disdain. She kept her tone mostly even, however, and that was admirable in itself. "I don't understand why everyone wants to have their wedding in the month of Ram. It's not even numerologically auspicious, you know. It's just a fad."
"A fad," Kai echoed.
He wondered about his own wedding. Already he had decided that it would take place later in the year, perhaps closer to the beginning. Kai had always held a particular fondness for the winter months. It wasn't as if they had to be outside for something as simple as a few paper signings and a party.
Wasn't that the point of having a great hall?
Oli leaned back on her hands, swinging her legs over the railing of the veranda perfunctorily. "What are you thinking about? You're a river away."
"I have a lot of things to think about," he said. Then, remembering the irritation he had felt at his fiancé's reticence, elaborated: "I don't know how I'm supposed to be handling this, you know."
"Everything. In case you forgot the past fifteen years, I'm not a particularly conventional or patient person. Politics don't interest me in the slightest. I don't do that tempered, self-controlled thing that Adamie does. Did. That Adamie did." Kai wrapped his arms around himself as tightly as he could, shivering despite the heat of the day. It always seemed hot here, except in winter.
Oli said nothing for a minute. Her lips straightened into a thin line of contemplation, unhurried or unprepared to speak. He watched her think behind the neutrality of her stare, and when she finally spoke, her voice came out like dry leaves.
"Those are orders," she said. "I think there's nothing you can do. I think you have to adapt."
"Can I do that?"
Oli slid off the railing and landed firmly on the tile of the balcony. "I have to meet with one of the royal military inspector in fifteen minutes. Which means you have a lunch date in five."
"The mayor of one of the towns cut off by the southern bridge collapse wants to meet with you to discuss restoration options. He'll probably try to get you to take responsibility for the collapse, but we're definitely not responsible for the catastrophe."
She sneered a little and then, with a mild smile in his direction, she walked off.
Oli would have made a good bride. The proper sort of choice. She always seemed to know the most about everything— her astute observations of the empire's political workings saved him from constant misstep. She kept track of the relationships amongst every province, amongst their empire and more distant ones, amongst people of every religion. If he had a question about strategy or territory or star chick mating habits, she would be the first person he would ask.
And yet, she would never mean that to him. At least, not again. He wiped sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and shuffled down the stony corridors, eyes peeled for a distraction.
But not a distraction whose name was Rictoph. Kai froze, dead in his tracks, and wondered briefly if ignoring the problem would make it go away. Perhaps Rictoph would forget about him and waddle away to harass someone else. "How is that arm of your healing?"
Kai growled in the back of his throat, but pasted on a particularly ferocious smile and turned to face him anyway. "Why, it's healing quite well. What about that pride of yours?"
Rictoph sniffed and crossed his arms. "I'll have you know that that was not my idea. I merely rose to the occasion upon being given the opportunity."
"By your father."
"Yes, by my father."
"You're a right dirt-licker, Rictoph." Kai drew himself up to full height. He stood a good two hands taller than his cousin then, and he felt a sense of triumph flood through him as he stared down at the dark, greasy man. "So you wanted to be duke. Oh well. A lot of people want to be duke."
"And most of them would do a better job than you," Rictoph replied coolly. The intensity of his eyes, however, rivaled that of a pyre, unwavering in their heat. "I want to propose a sort of...truce between us. We are, after all, blood. Both descended from the ancestors of Lan. Practically," he grabbed Kai's wrist with one of his fat-fingered hands, "brothers."
Kai jerked his arm away as quickly as possible and took two halting steps backwards. "Stay out of my way," he roared, in a way only a frightened animal can. When had his relative become so vicious? A whole new set of conspiracies took root in Kai's mind and he had to take another halting step back, and another one, and another one until he was pressed up against the wall, panting.
"What's wrong, Kai?" Rictoph's face assumed that concerned, condescending expression of which he seemed so fond. "You're looking a little peaky."
"You're looking a little too slaughtering close to me."
As if appeased by swearwords, Rictoph smiled a great white grin and took his own step backwards. "As you wish, dearest cousin."
He left Kai in the hallway. Kai, for his part, stood very still, pressed against the rough wall, surely bleeding from the scrapes across his hands and elbows. How silly, to be intimidated by an already vanquished opponent.
Kai scolded himself all the way up the staircase.
Oli had a long history with the royal military inspector, and she loathed him with every fiber of her being.
He came from the capital (of the empire, not the province) and had an aura that tasted like pine trees. She found herself inexplicably nauseated by it, no matter how many times he came to inspect the armed forces of Hare. And he had come many times.
"It's just us," she would invariably explain, gesturing to the freckled faces of the royal guard. They amassed on the downs, perhaps five hundred strong, if that. Hare had never recruited heavily, and she was thankful for that— unwilling soldiers created many more problems than they solved. "These forces have been deemed adequate to defend the province."
"And if you were to go to war?" The military inspector twirled his black mustache and sized her up with his greedy little eyes. He let his gaze linger on her finer attributes, just long enough to enrage the military captain. "Such meager forces, even under your adept command, Lady Pince Oli, could hardly withstand a major attack. Perhaps you should utilize some other assets at your disposal."
Oli's mouth dropped briefly in shock, but she recovered quickly. "We have 5,000 troops in reserve, sir. Their contracts bind only in the event of war." More than anything, she hoped never to go to war. That skirmish on the Western Plane had been nothing. She had killed a dozen good men, but what was a dozen compared to the thousands lost in a war? "I can provide a list of surnames, if you'd like to personally conduct interviews with all our reserve members. For a more complete inspection."
The royal military inspector looked decidedly uneasy. "No, madam, this has been a more than acceptable inquiry." He flashed her another one of those smiles that made her stomach so queasy and strode away across the meadow. Oli turned back to her troops for a moment to watch him go, and to hide the humiliated flush of her face. When she turned to them again, a few of the cadets in the front row snickered behind their hands.
She silenced them with a sharp crack of water magic.
"You'd do well to remember your place," she snapped, took quickly, in a voice unlike her own. Her face burned (with shame or frustration) and she forced herself to turn her back on her subordinates once again, taking many long paces towards the road before halting. "Dismissed!" she shouted, loud enough to drown out her own thoughts. And kept walking.
One of the guards fell into step beside Oli, halfway to the road. A breathless girl. Pretty eyes. Dark enough to hail from Dragon, but with the blossom-fine features of a Snake woman. Oli felt a bubble of nostalgia burst inside of her and she slowed her pace to accommodate her shorter companion.
She was nothing more than a girl, really: her uniform hung off her shoulders, too big there and in the waist, but the right length in the sleeves and too tight in the chest, and her eyes peered out from beneath a crop of dark hair that should have been cut months ago. A earth wielder, more than likely, because most foreigners were earth wielders, although Oli could imagine her coaxing water to weave or harden into pikes of glittering ice. She had that look about her.
"Wasn't that strange?" the girl said finally. "I didn't know people still said things like that."
The girl opened her mouth decisively and tried again. "I don't remember the royal military inspector being so—"
"Uncouth," Oli broke in quickly. The girl looked alternately curious and reproachful. "His behavior was ill-fitting of...anyone, really. I intend to compose a letter of complaint to his superiors."
"Do you think they'll care?" Curiosity, not incredulity, colored her tone. Oli almost would have preferred the former: the army is no place for naivety. "It was pretty sneaky."
"It doesn't matter if they care." Oli's hands tightened into fists, white knuckled and thin. "They'll give him a lecture on class struggle and his place in the family of things. The paperwork at the capital will keep him miserable for at least a few days. Such poor, poor self control."
By the time she and the cadet had reached the white staircase leading back to the House, Oli's pulse had stopped racing and her face returned to its usual cool pallor. They began their ascent, followed closely by some five hundred soldiers. Rows of two. Marching, left and then right, step after step, up a million marble stairs.
"What did you say your name was?" Oli asked, to pass the time.
"LaLopei Angelai," Angelai replied, for much the same reason.
Oli arched one slender eyebrow. She had been correct, then, in discerning the origins of this particular cadet. "You are from Snake, then. What's a daughter of LaLopei doing this far south?"
Angelai's brow crinkled. Oli watched her grasp for the right words, the correct response to whatever it was she was really asking. Oli winced at the familiarity, but quickly squashed the pity she felt. "A change of pace," Angelai managed finally. Her face flushed pink, the color of morning flowers. "And you? Daughter of Pince?"
And there was a sneer there. There always was.
"Much the same. I prefer the weather in Hare."
Seandri draped himself over Kai's wicker couch and stared up at the squiggly letters making up his novella, which was composed almost entirely in Cant. He'd borrowed it from a servant with many pockets who had recommended it with the highest esteem— the legend of the working man, the manifesto of classlessness. A nice enough concept, and the prose read quickly enough. He had relegated himself to Kai's quarters, apparently always open to him, to lose himself in the author's idealism.
But only for the quiet.
The door swung open after the sun had gone down. At first Seandri didn't look up; instead, he lay completely still, wondering if he were invisible as long as he didn't look up. The letters refused to come back into focus, the book was so close to his face, and so he just lay still. The wicker dug into his arm. He didn't move.
"Oh. You're here."
Apparently not invisible. Seandri lowered the novella and glanced across the room at a tired-looking Kai. "I am here," he confirmed. "I hope you don't mind."
"I've come to appreciate your more presumptuous side," Kai assured him quickly. His shoulders sagged and his eyes receded back into their sockets. He shed his jacket and hung it haphazardly on the hat stand. "Was your day better than my day?"
"Average. I spent most of it reading. No one seems to require my help."
Kai sit down in the other wicker chair, opposite his fiancé. His hair splayed over the crisp sheets like a dark aura. "Enjoy it while it lasts. It's a very temporary state." He propped himself up on one elbow to get a better look at Seandri. "What are you reading?"
"Repartion wivision," Seandri said, gesturing at the cover. A larger, multi-colored bird sat prominently on the front, but he could not quite discern the significance. "Repairing a Nation Without Division. It's mostly in Cant, but parts of it are in the common language. Kind of a manifesto of sorts, written by Rat farmers about five years ago. The makings of a revolution, maybe."
"Hardly. Farmers are doing quite well for themselves. They don't want a revolution."
Gritting his teeth, Seandri could feel the irritation radiating off his fiancé. "I can go, if you want. You look tired." He shut the novella and shuffled it into the canvas bag leaning against the wicker chair. He'd leave Kai to sleep off whatever bad energy clung to him, and then they could behave like adults instead of like children. Perhaps.
Kai buried his face in his pillows. "You can stay. Tell me about that book you're reading." He lay on his side, wound up like a spool of thread, a ring of long limbs the color of dark wood. And then: "I'm sorry."
"For what?" Seandri hadn't been spectacularly offended by any of Kai's more recent comments. They spoke in quick bursts, in rushed sentences. Hardly enough words passed between them to cause offense.
"I don't know. Don't leave."
Seandri stilled his movements. "All right," he said. He drew his legs up and rested his chin on his knees. Briefly, he entertained the idea of simply asking Kai about his thoughts, but doubting the answer would suffice, he let the silence overwhelm them. He could feel the churning of many emotions, blending together in a spicy, silent angst puree.
Sometimes, Seandri toyed with mentioning his odd ability to Kai. Divest the burden. He wondered if they'd know, if they'd come find him and spirit him away they did the young ones— in a flurry of scarlet robes and hands that reached up from the darkness of the fold. As he examined his shrinking fiancé, however, Seandri opted to postpone the addition of the future burden and instead stared out at the star-freckled sky.
"What are you thinking about?" Kai asked. His voice had atrophied in the minutes of long contemplation. "You're saucer-eyed."
Seandri's eyes snapped to the window. "The harvest," he lied. Not so far fetched, really: his family would be preparing their threshing tools now, fitting their gloves and the tall leather work boots with the brass buckles. In fact, he had expected the anxiety to affect him even from a distance: despair at the withered crops or surprise at the drought-defying bounty. Yet, as the harvest dates approached steadily, he found himself increasingly preoccupied with other, more urgent thoughts. "And you?"
"The Equinox," Kai replied automatically. "We'll be expected to appear at the end of summer festival. You are, after all, my fiancé."
"I've been told," said Seandri. He had suspected he might have to play some grander role in the ceremony of things. Once, he might have balked at such an expectation, but he'd come to accept such things in stride: the nobles of Hare took solace in their celebrations, their elaborate ceremonies. They took up the mantle of gaiety and light to drive away the somber shroud of murder most foul. "I look forward to it."
Surprised by the incredulity in the other's voice, Seandri slid his eyes over to Kai again. The heir had begun to recover his vibrancy: the pinkish color seeped back into his cheeks and his eyes glittered in the dim light of the bedroom. Seandri could feel the mixture of gratitude and guilt, strung tightly in the air, part his and part Kai's; it vibrated, crackling as the heat of summer or the anxiousness of the earth before long-awaited rains. "I welcome changes in my routine."
Kai's lower lip quivered. "You are most gracious," he said, in a tone better suited to formal speeches and small talk between politicians.
Abruptly, Seandri reached out with one hand — it shook, for some indeterminable reason — tangled his hands into Kai's dark hair, and gave it a sharp tug. "Gracious," he echoed, the way he'd heard others echo when they could formulate no proper response. "And what does that make you? Compliant?"
Eyes still averted, mouth set in a line of rapidly dwindling resolve, Kai murmured some words of agreement. His energy blazed magenta, wild as berries and naked as sun. "I suppose." The sounds ran together in a great smear of a word.
At first, they sat still as stones, barely touching. Seandri watched his fiancé's gaze climb from his wrist to his shoulder to his face to his eyes; abruptly, their eyes met in a spurt of invisible lightning. They came no closer to one another, no nearer, although Seandri's fingers tightened enough to make Kai wince. Brief. He tugged again. Not hard at all this time.
Seandri licked his chapped mouth and let go.
And once again, they sat on their own wicker chairs, separated by the sticky sweet fragrance of night.
Cue awkward culture-specific bonding.
Anyway. I liked getting reviews. Even awkward ones. And also adds and such.
Glad to know people are still reading ._.