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Winter's Orbit

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Winter's Orbit

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Author: Everina Maxwell
Publisher: Tor, 2021
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Galactic Empire
Romantic Fantasy
Space Opera
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Synopsis

A famously disappointing minor royal and the Emperor's least favorite grandchild, Prince Kiem is summoned before the Emperor and commanded to renew the empire's bonds with its newest vassal planet. The prince must marry Count Jainan, the recent widower of another royal prince of the empire.

But Jainan suspects his late husband's death was no accident. And Prince Kiem discovers Jainan is a suspect himself. But broken bonds between the Empire and its vassal planets leaves the entire empire vulnerable, so together they must prove that their union is strong while uncovering a possible conspiracy.

Their successful marriage will align conflicting worlds.

Their failure will be the end of the empire.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

"Well, someone has to marry the man," the Emperor said.

She sat, severe and forbidding in a high-collared tunic, in her reception room at the heart of the warren-like sprawl of the Imperial Palace. The arching windows of the tower were heavily optimized to amplify the weak autumn sunlight from Iskan V; the warm rays that lit the wrinkled Imperial countenance should have softened it, but even the sunlight had given that up as a bad job.

Across from her, in a formal uniform that was only slightly crumpled, Kiem--Prince Royal of Iskat and the Emperor's least favorite grandchild--had been stunned into silence. He was rarely summoned to an Imperial audience unless he'd done something spectacularly lacking in common sense, so when the Emperor's aide had called him, he'd racked his brain for a cause but he'd come up empty-handed. He'd half wondered if it was about the Galactic delegation that had arrived yesterday and stirred up the palace. Kiem wasn't a natural when it came to politics; maybe the Emperor wanted to warn him to stay out of the way.

This was the opposite of staying out of the way. Kiem had braced for a dressing-down, not to walk out of the room engaged to a vassal diplomat he'd never even met.

He opened his mouth to say, I don't see why anyone has to marry him, then thought better of contradicting the Emperor and shut it again. This was how he got himself in trouble. He rephrased. "Your Majesty, Prince Taam has only been dead a month."

It sounded awful the moment it left his mouth. Taam had been Kiem's cousin, after all, and the Imperial family was technically still in mourning. Kiem had naturally been shocked when he heard of the flybug accident, but at the last count he'd had just over forty relatives ahead of him in the succession, mostly cousins, and he hadn't known Taam particularly well.

The Emperor gave him a withering look. "Do you think I am unaware?" She tapped her fingertips on the lacquered surface of the low table beside her, probably giving him a second chance to remember his manners. Kiem was too disturbed to really appreciate it. "The Thean treaty must be pinned down," she said. "We are under significant time pressure."

"But--" Kiem said. He scrabbled for an argument as his gaze followed the movement of her fingers. The low table was crowded with official gifts, mainly from vassal planets: crystal plates, a bowl of significant mosses, a horrible gold clock from Iskat's Parliament. Among them, under a bell jar, a small Galactic remnant glowed softly. It was a color Kiem's eyes couldn't process, like a shard of glass that had been spat out of another dimension. Even its presence in the room made Kiem's brain uncomfortable. He made himself look away from it, but unfortunately that meant looking at the Emperor.

He tried again. "But, Your Majesty--marrying Taam's partner--" He was vaguely aware of who it was. Prince Taam and Count Jainan, the Thean representative, had been one of the royal family's more intimidatingly polished couples, like the Emperor had ordered them built in a synthesizer. Iskat bound treaties with marriages--always had, right from when the first colonists settled on the planet--and one of the unspoken reasons that Iskat had so many minor royals was to have representatives on hand when they were needed. Kiem had nothing to disqualify him: he wasn't a parent, overly religious, opposed to monogamy, gender-exclusive, or embarrassingly hung up on someone else. That didn't mean he could stand in for Taam, Jainan's partner of five years. "Ma'am, surely you need someone more"--dignified--"suitable. Prince Vaile, maybe. Or no one? Forgive me, but I don't see why we have to find him another partner."

The Emperor regarded Kiem as if painfully reminded of the differences between him and Prince Taam. "You have not paid any attention to the political situation, then."

Kiem rubbed a hand across his forehead unconsciously. The air in the Emperor's rooms always felt dry and slightly too hot. "Sorry."

"Of course not. I see you were drinking last night. At the carnival?"

"No, I--" Kiem heard himself sound defensive and stopped. He hadn't been falling-down drunk for a long time now, but the script between him and the Emperor was apparently carved in stone from back in his student days, when every summons turned out to be an Imperial reprimand for his latest minor scandal. "I only went for the afternoon."

The Emperor glanced at the shifting pictures in the press folder on the table. "Press Office inform me that you put on a troll costume, joined a carnival procession group, and fell in a canal in the middle of the parade."

"It was a kids' group," Kiem said. He would have panicked about trying to explain the newslog photos, but he didn't have any panic left over from being summarily engaged to a stranger. "Their troll dropped out at the last minute. The canal was an accident. Your Majesty, I--I'm"--he cast about desperately--"too young to get married."

"You are in your mid-twenties," the Emperor said. "Do not be ridiculous." She rose from her seat with the careful smoothness of someone who received regular longevity treatments and crossed to the tower window. Kiem rose automatically when she did but had nothing to do, so he clasped his hands behind his back. "What do you know about Thea?"

Kiem's spinning brain tried desperately to remember some relevant facts. Iskat ruled seven planets. It was a loose, federated empire; Iskat didn't intervene in the internal affairs of its vassals, and the vassals in return kept their trade routes running smoothly and paid taxes. Thea was the newest and smallest member. It had been assimilated peacefully--the same couldn't be said of all the Empire's planets--but that had been a generation ago. It didn't usually make the headlines, and Kiem didn't pay much attention to politics.

"It has... some nice coastland?" Kiem said. All his brain could come up with were some tourist shots of green and sunny hills falling down to a cobalt-blue ocean, dredged up from some long-forgotten documentary, and a catchy snippet from a Thean music group. "I, uh, know some of its"--the Emperor didn't listen to music groups--"popular culture?" Even he winced at hearing how that sounded. That wasn't a basis for a relationship.

The Emperor examined him like she was trying to figure out how his parents' genes had produced something so much less than the sum of their parts. She looked away, back to the view outside. "Come here."

Kiem obediently crossed to the window. Below, the city of Arlusk sprawled under a snow-heavy sky, pale even through the light-optimizing glass. The grand state buildings jutted up through the city like veins of marble emerging from rock, two hundred years older than anything else in the sector, with a jumble of newer housing blocks nestled around them. The first real snow of the long winter had fallen yesterday. It was already turning to slush in the streets.

The Emperor ignored all of that. Her gaze was fixed on the far side of the city, where the spaceport spilled down the side of a mountain like an anthill. Silver flashes of shuttles came and went above it, while berthed ships were nestled in huge bays dug into the mountainside. Kiem had known the bustle of local space traffic all his life. Like most Iskaners, he'd never made the year-long journey to the far-off galactic link--the gateway to the wider galaxy--but the Empire's vassal planets were much closer, and ships hopped between them and Iskat all the time.

One ship, hovering unsupported next to a servicing tower, gave Kiem an immediate headache. Its matte-black surface sucked in all reflection and gave off rippling shimmers that had nothing to do with the angle of the sunlight. Kiem squinted at the size of it. Nothing that big should be able to float in planetary gravity. It was nothing like the shard on the Emperor's display table, but it was definitely weird shit that didn't come under the normal rules of physics. He took a stab. "The Galactics?"

"Do you read nothing but tabloid logs?" the Emperor said. It seemed to be rhetorical. "That ship belongs to the Resolution. Despite its frankly absurd size, it contains one Auditor and three administration staff. It can apparently jump through links under its own power and is impervious to mass scanners. The Auditor--whom I will admit to finding deeply unsettling on a personal level--is here to legally renew the treaty between the Empire and the Resolution. Even you cannot have missed this. Tell me you know what the Resolution is."

Kiem stopped himself from saying he didn't actually live under a rock, even if Iskat was a year's travel from any other sector. "Yes, ma'am. It runs the rest of the galaxies."

"It does not," the Emperor said sharply. "The Resolution is just that: an agreement between ruling powers. It runs the link network. Iskat and our vassals have signed our own set of Resolution terms, as have other empires and Galactic powers. As long as those are in place, we can trade through our link, keep our internal affairs to ourselves, and be certain no invading force will use the link to attack us. We are due to sign the treaty on Unification Day in just over a month. The Auditor, if all goes well, will look through our paperwork, sweep up those remnants the Resolution is so obsessed with, witness the treaty, and leave."

Kiem blinked away from the eye-watering Resolution ship and looked at her instead. Her gnarled hand briefly touched the flint pendant at her throat in a gesture that might have been stress. Kiem couldn't remember a time when her hair hadn't been pure white, but she never seemed to age. She only got thinner and tougher. She was afraid, Kiem realized. He felt a sudden chill; he'd never seen her afraid.

"Got it," he said. "Play nice with the Resolution. Give the Auditor the VIP treatment, show him what he wants, send him away again." He made a last-ditch attempt. "But what's that got to do with me and the Theans? Surely marriages are the last thing you want to worry about now."

That was the wrong thing to say. The Emperor gave him a sharp, unsparing look, turned away from the window and made her way stiffly back to her chair. She smoothed out her old-fashioned tunic as she sat. "It is inevitable," she said, "that in a family as large as ours, there are some who are more capable of handling their responsibilities than others. Given your mother's achievements, I had higher hopes for you."

Kiem winced. He recognized this lecture; he'd last heard it after his incident at university, just before he'd been exiled to a monastery for a month. "I apologize, ma'am." He managed to keep quiet for all of a split second before he said, "But I still don't understand. I know the treaties are important. But the man Thea sent--Jainan--already married Prince Taam. Just because Taam's dead doesn't mean the marriage didn't happen."

"Our vassal treaties underpin our treaty with the Resolution," the Emperor said. "They formalize our right to speak for the Empire. The Auditor will check that all the legalities are in order. If he finds out one of our marriage links is broken, he will decree there is no treaty."

Kiem had been too young to remember the last Galactic treaty renewal and had never bothered to learn much about the Resolution, but even he felt a vague sense of horror at the prospect of an Auditor scrutinizing something he was responsible for. The Auditors were supposed to be meticulous at finding mistakes and unnervingly detached from human concerns. He swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."

"You do not need to be astute or political," the Emperor said, her tone returning to normal. "You merely need to stand in the right place, mouth some words, and not offend the entire Thean press corps. Thea has recently had some internal difficulties with protests and student radicals; our political links are not as strong as we would like. A new marriage will help smooth matters over."

"What does that mean?" Kiem said.

The Emperor's lips thinned. "The Theans are dragging their feet on everything we ask. Our mining operation in Thean space provides valuable minerals; the Theans keep finding new ways to complain about it. At the moment I have one councilor advising me to give up and make Thea a special territory."

"You wouldn't," Kiem said, shocked. Iskat only installed a special governing body if the planet was too lawless to have one of its own. Sefala was the sole special territory in the Empire, and only because it was controlled by raider gangs. "Thea has its own government."

"I have no desire to," the Emperor said testily. "I have very little appetite for another war, and this would be the worst possible time. Hence you will be signing a marriage contract with Count Jainan tomorrow."

For the first time he could remember, Kiem was utterly lost for words.

"There are no legal complications," the Emperor continued. "You are of age and acceptably close to the throne. He will--"

"Tomorrow?" Kiem blurted out. He sat down hard on the uncomfortable gilded chair. "I thought you meant in a few months! The man lost his life partner!"

"Don't be absurd," the Emperor said. "We have precious little time before the treaty is signed on Unification Day. Everything must be watertight by then. On top of everything else, we agreed to rotate the planet that hosts the ceremony, and twenty years ago we held it on Eisafan, so this time it will be Thea's turn. The Thean radicals have no concept of stability. If they perceive any weakness, we can expect them to use the occasion as a focal point for discontent. The Auditor may conclude Iskat does not have sufficient control over the rest of the Empire to keep our Resolution treaty valid. There must be a representative couple in place to disprove this, with no visible concerns, smiling at the cameras. You are good at appearing confident in pictures. This should not strain your capabilities."

Kiem clenched his fists, looking down at the floor. "Surely in a couple of months," he said. The creases around the Emperor's eyes started to deepen; she never reacted well to pleading. However much effort Kiem had put into sobering up, he'd never been able to hold his ground against her. He tried one last time. "Tell the Auditor we're engaged. We can't just force Count Jainan into this."

"You will cease this quibbling," the Emperor said. She came back to her desk, propped her hands on it, and leaned across. She might be elderly and slow but her gaze reached into the squishy parts of Kiem's fear receptors like a fishhook. "You would have me break the treaty," she said. "You would destroy our tie to the Resolution and leave us cut off from the rest of the universe. Because you do not care for duty."

"No," Kiem said, but the Emperor hadn't finished.

"Jainan has already agreed. That I will say for Thea: their nobles know how to do their duty. Will you dishonor us in front of them?"

Kiem didn't even try to hold her gaze. If she chose to make it an Imperial command, he could be imprisoned for disobeying. "Of course not," he said. "Very happy to--to--" He stuttered to a halt. To forcibly marry someone whose life partner just died. What a great idea. Long live the Empire.

The Emperor was watching him closely. "To ensure Thea knows it is still tied to us," she said.

"Of course," Kiem said.

[blank]

A thin plume of smoke rose from the dome of the palace shrine. The air outside was cold and smelled faintly of ceremonial resin. Jainan nav Adessari of Feria--recently bereaved, newly betrothed--stood atop a sweep of stone stairs, looking out over the frost-touched gardens of the Imperial Palace of Iskat and forcing himself to focus. He still had duties to carry out.

The gardens' bare, elegant lines were starker now that the snows had begun and all the living plants had been cut back or buried for spring. The pale stone paths and winding marble walls lay like the quiet remains of a prehistoric creature around him, like a scattering of bleached bones merging with the hill below. Every path started and ended with the carved crest of Iskat embossed in a flagstone: the single curved line of the Hill Enduring. Jainan couldn't appreciate the gardens as he should, or even really see them. Ever since Taam's death his head had been full of fog. He methodically paced from one side of the staircase to the other to keep warm.

He felt hollowed out. The responsibility of binding the treaty between Iskat and Thea had always felt heavy on his shoulders, but now it was a solid weight on his back and in the pit of his stomach. He and Taam were symbols of the relationship between the two powers. Jainan had been honored to be picked for the role, even if it had turned out to be largely ceremonial: he wasn't an ambassador or a negotiator and wasn't supposed to involve himself in the politics. But he had known for five years that he would eventually stand in front of a Resolution Auditor to renew Thea's treaty and do his part to keep the galactic link open and the sector protected. Now that was all in doubt.

It had become increasingly difficult to concentrate in the last week as the Emperor's Private Office stepped up preparations to replace Taam. Jainan had put his stamp on the permission forms--it was unthinkable to leave Thea without a treaty pair--but they hadn't yet confirmed his Iskat partner. It could be any one of dozens of minor royals. Jainan wasn't familiar enough with Taam's cousins to even judge the possibilities. The uncertainty was like a cobweb across his face; he constantly had to brush it aside to think about anything else.

He had to focus. A stream of palace residents started to appear at the other side of the gardens, hurrying to the shrine for Taam's last memorial service, hunched against the cold. Jainan scanned their faces but none of them were familiar. Jainan was due at the ceremony as well, albeit he'd only been given the invitation yesterday. It was understandable that he'd been informed late; all the Iskaners he spoke to were busy with the Resolution visit and had more important matters to deal with. Jainan himself hadn't seen the Auditor yet. He'd been told to avoid the Resolution visitors until the new marriage was formalized and he and his Iskat partner could speak for the treaty. Jainan knew the importance of putting up a united front.

At last Jainan's wait paid off: a figure in a general's uniform appeared on the long, gravel path that led to the military headquarters and the barracks, trailed by two other officers. Jainan took a sharp breath and set off at a brisk walk to intercept him.

Taam was--had been--a colonel in the Iskat military. In the aftermath of the flybug accident, Taam's old commanding officers had swept in to take control and direct Jainan through all the funeral preparations: stand here, go to this ceremony, don't talk to the press. Jainan had complied like a man in a trance. It wasn't his role to contradict senior officers in the Empire's military.

"General Fenrik," Jainan said, stopping in the middle of the path. "Could I--" He had to catch himself. Have a moment of your time sounded presumptuous. "May I ask you something?"

General Fenrik was a broad-shouldered, austere man with clipped white hair, a cane, and the no-nonsense air of someone who had led the Empire's military forces for forty years. A polished wooden button pinned to his breast pocket was emblazoned with an old version of the Imperial crest. His gaze bore into Jainan without recognition. "Yes? What? Be quick."

One of the lower-ranking officers behind him prompted him with Jainan's name in a murmur. Jainan knew the officers Taam had worked with: this one, with a flint brooch neatly pinned to her collar and a severe, scraped-back ponytail, was Colonel Lunver, who had taken over Taam's military duties. She had little patience for civilians and less for vassal planets.

The prompt seemed to spark Fenrik's memory. "Ah. Taam's partner. What do you want?"

"About the ceremony," Jainan said. His mouth was dry. He couldn't afford to cause trouble, but he had duties other than his Iskat ones. "Prince Taam has had Iskat rites. There are also some Thean clan rituals--"

"Thean rituals?" General Fenrik's eyebrows rose. He didn't have to say, Taam was an Iskaner, or the Imperial family has to follow Imperial custom; both of them knew that.

"I can promise it will not be disruptive," Jainan said, trying to make up lost ground. He should have found a more tactful approach, but there hadn't been time. "The new Thean Ambassador will be in attendance, and the Thean press will take note of what happens at the ceremony."

"What do you need?" the third officer asked, slipping the question in deftly as Fenrik frowned. Jainan knew him as well: Aren Saffer, Taam's old deputy, breezy and nonchalant. Aren's tone was almost sympathetic, which made the back of Jainan's neck prickle with embarrassment. But Jainan was too numb to let that stop him.

Jainan rapidly calculated the minimum level of ritual observance that might avert hostility in the Thean media. "If I could just have five minutes for a recitation during the ceremony. It would be most appropriate when the funeral images are dedicated."

"Why didn't you take this to the stewards?" Fenrik said.

"They were... unhelpful," Jainan said. The shrine's stewards had flat-out refused to change the ceremony, which Jainan understood, since the request came at the last minute. General Fenrik was Jainan's last avenue of appeal.

The general examined him, as if he suspected Jainan was trying some sort of political trick. Jainan endured the scrutiny. Five minutes wasn't really enough for even a short clan recitation, but he could see even that was pushing the boundaries.

But Fenrik apparently decided five minutes was a small price to pay to end Jainan's petitioning. "Take care of it," Fenrik said to Colonel Lunver, who snapped her mouth shut on what she had been about to say and saluted. Fenrik gave Jainan the briefest of nods and moved on, clearly intending to spend no more time on it. His two officers sketched a bow to Jainan and followed.

Jainan stepped back to let the three of them pass. He ought to feel relief, but he only felt the cold prickle at his back and a distant dread of the ceremony itself. He had no room to indulge those sentiments.

He waited a moment to pace after them, keeping his distance from the gathering crowd of attendees. He couldn't face condolences. As he drew nearer to the front gates, he could see a view down the hill toward the city of Arlusk and a queue of flyers approaching the palace, waiting to disgorge their guests. The low dome of the palace shrine rose up to his right. The press had been allowed up to the doors: half a dozen aerial cameras circled around the marble dome, snapping pictures of the attendees. There was no way to avoid them. Jainan made sure his expression was neutral.

Inside the shrine, the smell of resin hung starkly in the air under the high stone rotunda. The space under the dome was at least free of aerial cameras. The spectators milled around to fill up the seats that circled the edge of the shrine; a uniform gleam came from the rows of decorated military officers, broken up by civilians in sober, light-colored clothes.

A line of seats was reserved for the twelve treaty representatives. The Eisafan representative was expansive as usual in a flurry of extravagant bronze-and-cream capes, with her royal partner beside her and a gaggle of staff standing behind. Her hair was woven through two heavy flint rings--an ostentatiously Galactic way of showing her gender. The delegates from Rtul and Tan-Sashn had chosen to dress in Iskat mourning grays like Jainan; they looked grave and impassive. Sefala's seats were both occupied by Iskaners. The Kaani representative had not even made an appearance. Jainan felt a distant admiration for their ability to find a different niche Kaani malaise every time they were disinclined to attend something.

Someone tapped his elbow. "Your Grace?"

Jainan pulled his arm away and stepped back. It was a young man, tall and skeletal, dressed in a Thean-style tunic. Jainan took a moment to realize the white and navy was a set of colors he knew: the clan style of the Esvereni. This must be the new Thean Ambassador.

"Count Jainan of Feria," the Ambassador said, and waited for Jainan's nod of confirmation. "My name is Suleri nal Ittana of the Esvereni. I was hoping to catch you here."

Jainan bowed. He and Taam were supposed to be above politics, but surely nobody could complain if he greeted the ambassador from his own home planet. "Your Excellency. Congratulations on your appointment."

The Ambassador gave him a dispassionate smile and said, "Thank you. To tell the truth, Your Grace, I was beginning to worry about you. I've invited you to the embassy several times over the last few days. You haven't responded."

Jainan took a short breath. It had taken a long time for Iskat to accept the appointment of a new ambassador, precisely because the last one had tried to interfere excessively in palace affairs. Inviting Jainan to the embassy before he even married his next Iskat partner made it look like Thea intended to start that all over again. This Esvereni should have been briefed, but then, the Esvereni had never been known for their tact and political restraint--Jainan caught the old pattern of thought and squashed it. Thean clan biases had no relevance on Iskat. "I apologize. I have been busy with religious duties."

The smile thinned. "I'm sorry to hear you're so busy, Your Grace. Unfortunately, since the Resolution is here for the treaty ceremonies, I have more to ask of you. I need to know you'll at least take part in the remnants handover. No one on my staff is authorized to interact with the Auditor."

Jainan hesitated, feeling the horribly familiar loss of a thread that had slipped out of his grip. There were several Resolution ceremonies before the treaty was renewed, he knew. One of them saw each planet hand over all the xeno remnants they had found over the last twenty years, uncovered from space junk nets and dig sites and terraforming refuse. Thea had found some minor shards which must be given up to the Resolution. Jainan would play his part, of course, but his new partner had to agree. He stepped aside to let a party of civil servants take their seats. "Yes, though I'm still awaiting the schedule--"

"Of course," Ambassador Suleri said. "I couldn't ask you to do anything without Iskat's approval."

Jainan shut his eyes for a brief moment and felt a flare of something uncharitable. A new, inexperienced ambassador from a rival clan was yet another problem to navigate, another chaotic factor in the equation. Suleri did not know how easy it would be to ruin the balance of relations. "I will send you my schedule as soon as humanly possible," Jainan said. "I promise. The wedding is tomorrow. I will know by then."

He saw something taken aback about Suleri's expression at tomorrow, but Jainan was too tired to read it. Suleri cleared his expression and bowed. "Tomorrow, then. I'll expect a message."

Jainan turned away feeling like he had just crossed a floor rigged with explosives. He took his seat with moments to spare before the ceremony started.

As a row of priests filed in, the Eisafan representative leaned over. "Your new ambassador seems to have had some difficulty getting an invitation," she murmured under the next set of chanting. "My staff had to help him. Are you having any trouble?"

Jainan stared straight ahead. "The invitations were sent out late," he said. Taam had generally handled the other treaty representatives. Jainan could feel it even now, in the way the Eisafan representative looked at the empty chair beside him before she addressed him. "Thank you for your assistance."

"Our pleasure," she said, and sat back. Eisafan was the model planet of the Empire: richer and more populous every year, integrated with Iskat at every level. Eisafan would not have had a problem getting its ambassador invited to any event.

Jainan forced himself to pay attention to the rest of the ritual. The one-month Mourning was a formal Iskat ceremony, the style of it dictated by Taam's sect. He had technically followed a different sect from Jainan, but in truth Taam had only joined one because the army expected it, and neither he nor Jainan had paid much attention to ceremony outside of the high holidays.

Jainan breathed out as the chants curled upward. This was the sixth funeral ceremony in a month. He barely remembered the details of the previous ones--they blurred into one long row of priests and grave-faced soldiers, watching while Jainan struggled to remember his part in rituals he'd never attended before.

He was at least used to that by now. He stood when one of the priests beckoned him and walked steadily up to the circle of offering tables, which were crowded with gray-framed pictures of Taam. The rotunda was quiet. The press wasn't allowed in until the end.

Jainan lit a coil of waxed rope set into a resin pot, and a thin plume of smoke rose, adding to the haze in the dome. He should feel something, but instead he was numb; the numbness had a chill and a weight like a pool of icy water. He stood with the burning taper in his hand and watched the wisp of woodsmoke spiral upward. In front of him, a priest whispered a formula Jainan was not properly allowed to hear. Taam's face looked back at him from every angle--flat, lifeless, nothing like Jainan had known him--but the soaring space above was empty and calm.

This was when he should start the recitation. Jainan realized with a jolt that he hadn't made sure that Lunver had warned the priests. She'd be seated in the front row with General Fenrik, but he couldn't turn around now to look at her, and if the priests weren't expecting it, he would make this very awkward. But Taam had married into the Feria clan, however little that meant to Iskaners, and Jainan felt deep in his bones that it would be wrong to say nothing. He closed his eyes and spoke.

It was an old chant and a simple one: it listed the names of Feria's core clan for the last few generations, spooling out one by one like a thread pulled from a tapestry. The first names dropped into dead silence. Jainan had to clear his throat several times as he recited. Even after that, his voice was still irritatingly quiet and hoarse. He had not spoken in public in a long time. He caught sight of a priest who had frozen while she collected Taam's pictures--had she been told about this? Was Jainan ruining the ceremony? He felt prickles of mortification on his temples, but he couldn't stop halfway through.

At last he came to the end of it. The final names--Jainan's parents--fell into the hush. Jainan listened to the echoes die away. His mind had gone blank with relief; he couldn't remember what he was supposed to do next. There was an awkward pause. The priest in front of him coughed.

Pressure wrapped Jainan's chest like an iron band. Iskat religious ceremonies ran on smooth rails with no pauses. The spectators would think he was going to pieces. He hurriedly looked down and remembered what he was supposed to do; he picked up the stick of charcoal that lay beside the incense burner and smudged a line on the table in front of each of the white-framed photos. Taam's image stared calmly at him, oblivious to Jainan's mistakes.

"Thank you, Your Grace," the priest said. Jainan tried not to hear the censure in it. "Please be seated."

Jainan turned away from the central table. He had to get himself together. He couldn't afford to let the palace think he was falling apart.

Before he could say the final blessing and move, there was a muted disturbance at the doors to the shrine. They opened halfway, letting in a sliver of pale light and a handful of people. Jainan felt cold; the press weren't supposed to be let in yet. He had spoiled the timing of the ceremony.

But these weren't reporters. Two of them had the oddly cut clothes and broad, folded collars of people from the wider galaxy. Each had a shimmer in front of their left eye, as if the light was diverting itself around an obstacle.

The last one must be the Auditor.

The Auditor was dressed unassumingly like his two staffers--Jainan couldn't see any ornaments from here but knew his gender from reports--but the most startling thing was the shell of soft illumination that cut off his eyes and most of his face. It wrapped around his forehead and eyes like armor, a color that Jainan's visual receptors refused to parse. Jainan thought he saw human features through it but couldn't quite make them out; he felt nauseous when he looked at it.

Jainan couldn't imagine why the Auditor had come to a religious ceremony that had nothing to do with politics. But the Auditor didn't seem to be there to make a scene; he sat in the back, nonchalantly, with the air of an anthropologist making observations. As he sat down, he moved like a person, and his head turned on his neck like a person, though his face was a stomach-twisting blank. It took Jainan a second to realize the Auditor was looking at him.

Jainan was used to spikes of panic. He knew nothing showed on his face. It was unfortunate that the Auditor had walked in to see one of the treaty representatives standing frozen, having just disrupted an Iskat ceremony by insisting on Thean customs, but it wasn't a disaster. They would have a chance to show a better picture of unity later, when Jainan's new partner was chosen. Jainan tried not to think of how his partner would view this morning's events.

He brought himself back to the duties in front of him. He turned back to the offering tables, consciously keeping every movement under control, spoke the final blessing of Taam's Iskat sect, and bowed his head correctly before he turned. He couldn't think of the future; it was a terrifying void; but if he could only control the present, he would at least do that to the best of his ability. Thea could not afford for him to falter. Whoever his partner was, they would understand the need to keep the treaty stable must override everything else.

Chapter 2

Oh hell. Oh, hell. Kiem managed to reach his rooms before he collapsed facedown onto the sofa. Summoned out of the blue today, married--married!--by the end of tomorrow. He wondered if they'd told his unfortunate partner the schedule yet.

He'd always known he would marry at some point and probably not for love, though he'd had a vague notion that eloping might be fun. It was just that even in Kiem's most realistic moments, he'd thought at least he and his partner would have a few months to get to know each other. But to convince a grieving stranger not to resent everything about the situation after being forced into a rushed marriage--that would take more than being persuasive. You'd need to be a bloody miracle worker.

Which meant he would end up shackled to someone who resented everything about him, and Kiem was going to be the lucky one in the arrangement. It would be worse on Count Jainan. This wasn't an equal partnership: as Thea was the junior partner in the alliance, Jainan was the one who'd be expected to fit his life around Kiem's. And he was probably reading through Kiem's press record right now and wishing it had been Kiem instead of Taam in the flybug accident.

Kiem let his head sink into the cushions and groaned.

"Your Highness," his aide said from the entrance, faintly disapproving. "The couch is for sitting, the bed is for lying, and the shuttleport bars are for whatever unholy combination of both you're doing there."

Kiem rolled over and half sat up. As usual, Bel looked like the model of a royal aide with a freshly laundered coat and her hair in a mass of impeccable braids. When Bel had taken up her post she had told Kiem she would adapt to Iskat custom, and she didn't do things by halves; she indicated her gender with flint-and-silver earrings, and had even switched from her Sefalan accent to an Iskat one.

The open door behind Bel let in the clatter of footsteps and background noise. Kiem had been given overflow rooms in Courtyard West, among two floors of residences in a refurbished palace wing that used to be a stable. It wasn't strictly an Imperial residence, but at times like this Kiem would have gone mad in the hushed solemnity of the Emperor's Wing. This was at least better than moping in silence. "What about sprawls of despair?" he said. "Do we have special furniture for that? Put that on the list: source despair furniture for living room. Did I tell you I'm getting married?"

"I am aware," Bel said. She shut the door behind her, reactivating the silencing seal, and gestured with one hand above her opposite wrist. Her silver wristband picked up the gesture and projected a small, glowing screen in the air by her elbow. "I heard twenty minutes ago."

Kiem caught the real disapproval in her voice this time. "Hey, I only heard ten minutes ago!" He made a face. "I can't believe you knew I was getting married and didn't tell me."

"You were literally in a private audience with the Supreme Emperor when I heard," Bel said. She tucked an escaped braid back into her strict hairdo, a sign she was mollified. "Your betrothed is Count Jainan nav Adessari of Thea, twenty-seven years of age, Feria clan. I have pulled all the files on him I can find, and you will find the folder first in the queue when you open your screen."

"You are a miracle worker without peer," Kiem said. He pulled his hand out from under a cushion and tapped his wristband to activate it. His earpiece gave a soft ping and a light-screen popped up in front of him: a glowing square that hovered at chest-height. Text began to spill over it. "What am I supposed to know about Thea? What did you know about Thea before all this?"

Bel paused for a fraction of a second. "Not a lot," she said. "I'm still reading up. Terraforming success, lots of farmland and stable seas--must be a nice place to grow up, I suppose? It used to be quiet, but I see it in the newslogs more frequently now. Clan-based culture."

"What do the clans do?" Kiem said. "Keep track of your great-aunt's birthday?"

"They govern," Bel said. "Clans are vastly extended family groups linked to Thean prefectures. Members don't even have to be from the same family. Feria would be one example."

"Oh shit, right, I should have known that. I don't know the first thing about this, Bel." Kiem dragged a hand through his hair distractedly. "What am I going to do?"

"Oh, I'm glad you asked," Bel said, in the voice that meant Kiem was about to do paperwork. "You're going to go through your schedule, like I've been trying to pin you down to do all morning."

Kiem threw up his hands in surrender. "Okay! Schedule."

Kiem's main room had picture windows opening out onto the courtyard gardens; he didn't usually keep filters on the glass, so the diffuse light from the clouds outside was pale and clear. With a gesture, Bel turned one of the windows into an opaque display wall. She made his calendar appear on it with a swift flick of her fingers. "You'll need to free up some time to read the contract papers before you sign them tomorrow," she said. "You'll need another block of time for the congratulatory calls, and the Emperor's office has suggested you receive Jainan in the half hour before the ceremony."

"Yes. Absolutely. Do we have drinks? Make sure we have drinks. Wait, we only get half an hour?"

"Can I cancel the lunch with the school outreach group that you have right before?"

"Cancel it, in the name of Heaven, cancel everything," Kiem said. "What's everyone going to think if I'm off having lunch when I'm about to get married? The Emperor will skin me."

"You have Imperial immunity," Bel said dryly.

"Count Jainan will skin me," Kiem said. "And he'd be right. Don't suppose we could get him to come in the morning as well--or tonight?"

"Do you want me to ask?"

Kiem angled his personal screen and stared down at it. "No," he said. "No, actually, let's not make any demands."

Bel gave him a look that wasn't quite sympathy and then went into the study to make the calls away from him, always a stickler for etiquette. Kiem waved his hand at the screen hovering in front of him. His wristband read the motion and opened Jainan's file.

The man in the photo at the top was half-familiar, a face in the distance at Imperial engagements. He was solemn, his features fine, his brown skin a shade paler than Kiem's. Something in his grave, dark eyes made the picture not unfriendly but intense, as if he were caught in the middle of a serious conversation. He wore a formal Thean uniform, which seemed to involve a lot of green and gold, and his long black hair was bound back. A wooden pendant was tucked discreetly into the cord that tied his hair, carved with some kind of Thean pattern that Kiem didn't recognize.

Kiem stared. It was the first time he'd really looked at that face. You lucky devil, Taam, he nearly said out loud--but somewhere between his brain and his tongue he managed to censor it because what the hell was wrong with him, Jainan was in mourning. Kiem tore his eyes away from the picture and looked down at the history file. Jainan's marriage to Taam had lasted five years. He was highly educated--

"He has a doctorate in deep-space engineering!" Kiem called to Bel in the study. "At twenty-seven! How the hell am I going to talk to someone with brains like that?"

"You have practice with me," Bel's voice came floating back, amused.

"You don't count! You get paid to dumb things down for me!" Kiem scrolled farther down the page. "This says he got a planetary award for a new fuel-injection method when he was eighteen. Do you think he could marry you instead?"

"Depends. Are you going to be able to stop talking long enough to sign the contract?" Bel said, with a trace of exasperation that meant she was trying to get work done. Kiem took the hint and flopped back to lie on the couch and read. The light-screen floated over his head.

There was a short list of Jainan's published work. He didn't seem to have done much in the past few years, so perhaps after he'd married Taam he'd taken up something else. Maybe it was something Kiem could talk more easily about. Like dartcar racing.

It didn't seem likely, somehow.

Kiem scrolled farther down. There wasn't a hobbies section. Why wasn't there a hobbies section? Who compiled these files and left out the important bits, like what the hell they could talk about? Kiem ran a quick historical search on Jainan, which turned out to be a mistake: everything public on Jainan showed his golden marriage with Taam, from wedding footage to a depressingly perfect article about their winter holiday cabin. Jainan looked young and happy in the engagement vids, starkly different from the recent picture, which Kiem now realized must have been taken after his bereavement. He and Taam had been perfect figureheads for the alliance with Thea. No wonder the Emperor was sore about losing that marriage.

Kiem let the screen disappear and stared up at the sky through the windows, watching the clouds move above the skeletal trees outside. Jainan wouldn't hold automatic rights to accommodation, so he'd be moving in with Kiem, at least until Palace Estates found them larger quarters. But that could take months. They'd have to split Kiem's living quarters for now. Jainan would probably want to have his own space as much as he could, to get away from Kiem. They'd have to figure out what to do with the bedroom. "Bel, can we put up a wall in here?" he called. "I can just make another room, right?"

The door chimed. Kiem waved it open, then saw who it was and slightly wished he hadn't.

The chief press officer was a stout, short man with a bald head that reflected the light and a presence like a bear in a room full of nanotech. He wore a thick wooden bracelet on each wrist and gave the distinct impression he would have preferred brass knuckles. "'Morning, Kiem."

"'Morning, Hren," Kiem said, somewhat warily. Hren was the Emperor's direct appointee, and he and Kiem didn't have the best of working relationships. "Everything all right?"

"Yep," Hren said. "Congratulations on getting hitched."

At that moment, Bel came out from the study and said, "Another room? Oh--Hren Halesar. Good morning."

"Let's try that again," Hren said, ignoring her. "Congrats on your marriage."

"Thanks?" Kiem said.

Hren sat down on the chair opposite the couch and pushed up his shirtsleeves. "So you haven't memorized your press statement."

"I have a press statement?"

"I'm afraid we've only just received it from your department," Bel said coolly. "I was coming now to inform his highness."

"Get it on his damned wristband, then," Hren said. "Five minutes ago. We've talked about this. First thing you do in any event is--"

"I know, get the lines to take, I know." Kiem hated being given press statements. You weren't only supposed to use them with the press but with everyone who asked you a related question, and it made him feel like a robot. But crossing Hren never went well. "Go on, Bel, what are they?"

"There are two pages of various statements," Bel said. "Here it would be that you accept congratulations and are proud to continue the alliance in memory of your revered cousin Prince Taam."

"What about Jainan? Shouldn't it mention Jainan?" said Kiem. "Some kind of compliment, maybe?"

"Kiem," Hren said patiently. "He's a diplomatic representative, not one of your groupies."

"I just thought--"

"Listen, Jainan knows this is a political arrangement and isn't going to expect flattery. I've talked to him."

Kiem winced at political arrangement. He probably shouldn't be visualizing his oncoming marriage as a hostile council meeting, but once he had the image, it was hard to get it out of his head. "Right."

"Your persona needs to change now that you're married, you understand?"

"I'm reformed," Kiem protested. "It's not a persona thing."

"Yeah, I've heard that before," Hren said. "Heard it when you and your friends flooded your school with the ice machine."

"I was fifteen," Kiem said defensively.

"Then again when you lost six months' allowance betting you could climb the dome on the shrine, and your friend told the press."

"I was seventeen," Kiem said, but realized it wasn't helping his case. "I didn't really understand money yet." That sounded even worse. He'd been properly hauled over the coals for that one, both by the media and by the Emperor, which had been somehow more painful than his fractured ankle. "Look, I know I've screwed up, but those were all years ago."

"Then you auditioned for that game show while you were at the College, and we had to force the media house to wipe the footage."

Kiem didn't have a defense for that. Hren jabbed his thumb in Kiem's direction to emphasize his point. "No more tell-alls. No more blow-by-blows of your latest hangover. You've got just under a month to sell the public on this marriage before Unification Day. The bloody Resolution takes public sentiment into account when they audit the treaty. And on the same topic, you're going to have to start taking more care over the charity groups you work with, understand? No politics."

"That's charity fundraising. Not politics."

"I'll tell you what it's not, it's not smiling at the bloody camera," Hren said. "Even if the Thean logs felt warm and fuzzy about us--which they don't--a death and a rapid remarriage would still be a tough sell. I need something that doesn't give the fringe outlets any traction. What's this about another room?"

It took Kiem a moment to recall what he and Bel had been talking about. "Nothing important," he said. "Jainan's going to need his own room, but I know it'll look bad if we don't live together. We'll just do some remodeling in here, add a bedroom--" He broke off at the look on Hren's face.

"Add a bedroom?" Hren said. "Did you agree to this marriage or not? You want the Thean press to run stories about it falling apart before it's a week old? They can get some nice mileage out of that, link it to the weaknesses in the Thean alliance, find some of those fucking teenagers who've decided unification protests are the new big thing. No construction work."

"I--what? You can't expect him to sleep with me."

"Don't like the look of him? Too bad. Suck it up."

"That's not it!" Kiem said. "He's just lost his partner, I'm pretty damn sure he's not going to want to! Marriage, fine, but not sleeping together."

"You start putting in new bedrooms, some contractor's going to tell the newslogs," Hren said. "That's out. Thanks to you, your friends, your old housemates, and everyone down to your College halls cleaner, I have detailed cuttings about every starstruck airhead you've ever jumped into bed with--"

"Hey," Kiem said, "none of them were like that."

"--which is the only part of my work-based knowledge I want to carve out of my head with an industrial laser, but you set yourself up for this. The newslogs expect to know about your sex life. You're fair game. Do what you want once the bedroom door shuts, but you're going to pretend to everyone else that you and the Thean are happily married."

"Everything in my rooms is private," Kiem said stubbornly. "Nothing's going to leak. And this isn't your business anyway."

"This palace has more leaks than a sewer pipe on a junk ship." Hren looked at Bel, just a glance.

Kiem's eyes narrowed. "Bel's more discreet than any of your press office staff."

"I can always find you someone more reliable," Hren said, and Kiem realized he was being blackmailed. Hren had enough of the Emperor's ear to have some pull over hiring decisions and Bel was technically paid by the palace. Prince or not, Kiem didn't have the leverage. He didn't have to look at Bel to know that she knew it too. Hren had never gone this far before. Kiem hadn't been worth blackmailing. Kiem felt, with some uneasiness, that he had stepped over an invisible line into a different political world from the one he'd occupied yesterday.

"No construction work," Kiem echoed. "Right."

"Right. I'll release your press statement to the journalists." Kiem considered protesting that he hadn't even read it yet, but he could recognize when he didn't have a leg to stand on. Hren got to his feet. "Have it memorized by tomorrow. I'll see you at the signing ceremony."

Kiem saw him out. It wasn't until the door had shut that he turned to Bel, threw up his hands, and said, "How is everything somehow worse?"

[blank]

It continued to get worse. The head steward came early the next morning with a program for the ceremony and a mind-numbing list of details for Kiem to sign off on. No sooner had Kiem dragged himself through that than the congratulatory calls started coming in.

Most of them were from people he barely knew. The people who cared about the Thean alliance were a world away from his life up until now: nobles outside the palace called, as did foreign parliament officials and high-ranking bureaucrats. The Thean President called. The Secretary of Imperial Affairs called. Kiem took the calls in the formal vidchair in the study, where sensors would project a freestanding image of him, and prickled with discomfort when each new person's projection appeared in front of him. The Advisory Council called from one of their meetings, his cousin Prince Vaile sitting demurely among them, and took turns congratulating him with depressing sincerity. Vaile just gave him a wry smile. Kiem tried deviating from his press statement, but midway through the call with the Eisafan Consul he realized that I'm very happy wasn't appropriate either, since Jainan almost certainly wasn't.

By the twelfth call, he was desperate enough that he declined the next person, jabbed the dispenser into life and coaxed it into disgorging a comfort-food sandwich that wasn't on its menu. He got Bel a coffee and shoved it her way as she came into the room with a light-screen floating beside her. "I'm out," he said. "No more calls. I've gone collecting for the Friends of Educationally Disadvantaged Puppies."

"You didn't really need to be on that last one anyway," Bel said, shutting off her screen and taking the coffee. "Count Jainan is due in ten minutes. What is in that sandwich?"

"Chocolate," Kiem said, just as Bel's wristband beeped. He groaned. "Tell me that's not another one," he said, but Bel was already raising a finger to activate her earpiece.

She slipped back into the study and held a short conversation. When she leaned out again, Kiem had gestured another sandwich out of the dispenser and was looking mutinous. "I'm supposed to be getting ready to meet Jainan, I can't spend the whole day--"

"Count Jainan's sister," Bel said. "Lady Ressid. Are you going to take it?"

Kiem swallowed, the food suddenly feeling like a solid lump in his stomach. This was the first contact from anyone who actually knew Jainan. "Put it on the vid." He sat on the edge of the vidchair, back straight, and tried to look like someone who was thoroughly in charge of all the political sensitivities of a rushed marriage. It would help if he had any idea how that sort of person looked.

A projection flickered into life: a Thean noble in rich cream silks and pearls, standing, her long hair swept up in an elaborate, feather-like confection anchored with a wooden comb. Kiem blinked and adjusted his perceptions just in time. Gender on Iskat was easy: anyone wearing flint ornaments was a woman, wooden ornaments signified a man, and glass--or nothing--meant nonbinary. It was a straightforward system that even Galactics used. But Bel had said sister, so Ressid must be female despite the comb. Jainan might have humored Iskat customs in his photo, but apparently that didn't mean the rest of Thea adhered to them.

"Lady Ressid," Kiem said, with a seated bow.

Lady Ressid's eyes were almost the image of Jainan's in the photo, but there was something harder in them. "Prince Kiem," she said stiffly, and curtsied.

"An honor to hear from you," Kiem said. He kept a wary eye on the projected caption to the side of Ressid's image where Bel was pointedly displaying proud to continue the alliance in memory of my revered cousin. But Ressid didn't immediately congratulate him. There was a split-second pause, and Kiem suddenly realized that the crease at the corner of her mouth was a sign of strain.

"I am calling to formally request access to my brother," she said. The words came out clipped and hard, like a hail of small stones. "If Your Highness is pleased to grant it."

That was a weird way of announcing a visit. "Well, of course," Kiem said. "Glad to have you to stay. When?" The call was coming from Thea: the flight took a few days each way. "I thought we usually got these requests through your Foreign Affairs Bureau--wait, we're going to be in Thean space next month for Unification Day. I think it's on your orbital station. Aren't you going to be there?"

"I didn't mean that," Ressid said. "I meant access to call Jainan." The line of strain hadn't moved.

Kiem stared at her, nonplussed. He was completely at sea with Thean formalities. "That's got nothing to do with me." Wait, it must be a ceremonial thing. Only ingrained training in royal manners stopped him from casting an agonized look at Bel off-screen, but she was apparently just as confused, because the screen caption flickered and changed to ??? instead of a script. "Um, forgive me. Is there some kind of formal response?"

The line at the corner of Ressid's mouth creased, deepened, and then disappeared as she forcibly smoothed out her expression. "It is a practical matter."

"Oh. Then--wait, is this about him moving living quarters?" The realization was a relief, because now he had some clue about what was going on. "That won't be a problem. He's only moving within the palace, his ID should work fine. The palace systems will route his calls here." Jainan should know that; Kiem had no idea why Ressid was asking him. But maybe Jainan hadn't paid much attention to the palace systems. "And he'd have his wristband anyway."

Ressid drew a short, sharp breath, and Kiem couldn't figure out why. He looked hopefully at the caption, but Bel didn't have any helpful background information for him. "Your Highness," Ressid said. "I would like an undertaking that I will receive a call from Jainan within the next two weeks."

Alarm bells started ringing in Kiem's head. So Jainan wasn't in contact with her. Apparently he was bringing his own family problems to the marriage. Kiem could imagine how he would take it if he turned up and Kiem had already sided with his sister in their family feud--that would be a great start to a life partnership. "I can't give you that."

Ressid recoiled, only fractionally, but Kiem could sense her anger even through the projection. There was a silence. Kiem, probably because he was what Bel called an inveterate people pleaser, tried to fill it. "I'll tell him you called, though," he said. No--shit--that would just be pressuring Jainan if he really had cut off contact. Jainan must have a reason for not wanting to hear from his sister. "Uh, if he asks."

For a moment he thought Ressid was going to shout at him. He sat up straight and set his shoulders; he didn't like shouting, but the quickest way out was usually to let people get it off their chests. But even the slight movement seemed to give Ressid pause. She gave him a look that was barely short of a glare, then wiped all expression from her face and said, "Allow me to offer you my congratulations, Your Highness."

"Thank--" Kiem said automatically, but before he'd even finished, Ressid's projection disappeared. She'd cut the call.

He got up uneasily from the vidchair. "What was that about?" he said. There was something there that he'd accidentally put his foot in. He'd have to see if Jainan raised it. Kiem wasn't the poster boy for great family relations, however hard he tried, but he'd never been involved in an actual family feud.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Bel said, finally picking up her coffee. "You really have to stop now. Jainan's due in three minutes." Even as she spoke, the chime sounded at the door. Bel checked the feed. "That's him."

"Oh, shit," Kiem said, tugging at the jacket of his ceremonial uniform frantically. "Is this thing creased? Do I have time to change? Have we got drinks?"

"No, no, and drinks are in the cabinet as usual," Bel said. "Just let him get the occasional word in edgewise and you'll be fine." She took her coffee into the study and hit the door release on the way past, leaving Kiem to hurry over and receive Jainan.

Copyright © 2021 by Everina Maxwell


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