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Dispatches from the Junior Secretariat

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The days, of course, didn’t grow any less busy. Gaudy at least had the best end of the deal, in his opinion; then again, he thought with some amusement, the fact that wrangling a near-dozen Mdangs was thought to be the easiest of the options available would make half Gorjo City breathless with horrified laughter. Some guilty part of him, the same part that had always yearned for the horizon and the places beyond it that Uncle Kip had written about, looked forward to when his family departed and Gaudy could set about exploring his new position in earnest; for the most part,though, he tried to let himself enjoy being with his family again.

It helped that Uncle Kip had planned a number of excursions, and that Gaudy knew his own favorite locations besides, so he showed his family the Imperial Gardens and pointed out the tui tree that grew there, and they went down to the public parks along the Dwahaii, and all throughout he let himself soak up familiar voices and turns of phrase, absorb stories from home like a plant drinking in sunlight after a long winter. He shared some stories of his own, although there was much about his job he couldn’t speak about, and very few ways to make “I compiled notes on a meeting of the Princes,” sound interesting. So he devoted his stories to time spent with his friends, to the things he’d seen in Solaara that were exciting, to the fact that he was happy here—and that seemed to be all his family really needed to hear, that he was happy here.

One evening Leona even cajoled him into showing her his rooms, which were—thankfully—far less ornate than Lord Mdang’s, and she’d laughed over his expanded book collection and admired the space, smiling at the fact that one of his walls was still covered in relatively cheap maps, marked in his careful shorthand and colored ink for places he had been, and places he still wanted to go. He’d done that at home, too, and she’d always tried to add additional commentary when he wasn’t looking, a small prank that involved—in true Leona fashion, for she was always a fisher by temperament—patience and waiting for the right moment to strike, and then patience again until he realized he’d been played.

And it had been nice, too, to catch up with her out of the hearing of their family—out of the hearing of their mother, in particular, because there were some things that were best kept between siblings. So Gaudy heard in person about the disastrous wreck of Leona’s best friend’s relationship and Leona’s campaign of vengeance on the young man responsible, and told her in return of evenings spent with treasonous poetry and of how the Emperor himself, of all people, had revealed Gaudy’s relationship to their uncle—something which set her into a fit of incredulous giggles, for which he couldn’t blame her.

She was still laughing when a knock came at the door, and Gaudy levered himself up from the floor and out from under the arm Leona had thrown over his shoulder to answer it.

“People really do knock all the time here, huh,” Leona muttered as he did, and he had to stifle laughter of his own as he pulled the door open. He wasn’t surprised to find Iro waiting outside; she blinked, startled, to see someone else in the room. 

“Hello, Iro.”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Iro said sheepishly. “Just wanted to see if you were around—Eldo’s supposed to come back from Amboloyo sometime this evening, and the gods willing Zaoul and Tully will get off work in the next hour, so I thought—but if you’re busy—”

“Is this for the poetry club?” Leona said from over Gaudy’s shoulder. “Because if it’s for the poetry club then I want in.”

“Leona,” Gaudy groaned, and then sighed, moving out of the doorway. “You’re not really interrupting, Iro. This is my sister Leona Vawen; Leo, this is Iro Olionnoё, junior secretary of the Offices of State.”

“Nice to meet you,” Leona said frankly, offering a decidedly informal half-bow. “I mean, officially. Gaudy writes about all of you so much I feel like I’ve met you already, so I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about me as well.”

That did get a snort of amusement from Iro, who looked as though she otherwise wasn’t sure how to handle Leona’s friendliness. “Mostly good things,” she admitted, and Leona wheeled on Gaudy with an expression of mock-outrage.

“Mostly? Gaudenius Vawen, what does she mean mostly ?”

“She means I’m completely honest when I talk about you to my friends,” Gaudy managed through his smile, and that, it turned out, was the wrong answer.

By the time Leona’s outrage had been moderated and Iro had stopped laughing at him, Tully and Zaoul were indeed off of work and came to investigate the yelling, and Gaudy realized it was more convenient just to invite everyone inside his room and accept that this was a larger gathering, now. Eldo, their usual supplier of Fitzroy Angursell poetry, hadn’t yet returned, so the conversation somehow turned to the strangest moments of their job—or, well, the strangest ones that they could tell Leona about.

Which meant, of course, the conversation circled back to the day that his Radiancy had visited the offices.

“—and then,” Tully said, “—well, Gaudy’s probably told you the bit with him, right?”

“I’d be willing to hear another version,” said Leona brightly, because she was put on the face of Zunidh to torment Gaudy in particular. He considered kicking her, but he was sitting cross-legged and it would be uncomfortable to try.

“Great!” Tully said, because she was also put on Zunidh to torment Gaudy in particular. Gaudy had the sudden horrified realization that your friends getting along with your younger sister was fantastic in theory and considerably worse in practice. “Well, then his Radiancy turned to Gaudy and laughed and commented on how he looked like Lord Mdang when he was young—”

“—which I don’t think I do,” Gaudy interrupted. Leona squinted at him.

“I mean, you kinda do. You’ve got his and mom’s nose and chin, and your hair’s short like his now.”

“—and then,” Tully continued, cutting off further bickering on the topic, because—in Gaudy’s mind—short hair and a nose and chin did not a distinct resemblance make, “—he said something about Gaudy progressing on his ambitions, which I don’t think you ever explained—”

The end of the sentence was cut off by incredulous laughter from Leona, who slumped into Gaudy’s side with the force of it. In most circumstances that would be welcome, but Gaudy was realizing where this conversation was going with a sense of growing dread and pushed her back off of him.

“He remembered?” Leona wheezed, once she caught her breath again. “He mentioned it ?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gaudy said, knowing nobody in the room would believe him. “I have no memory of this.”

“No memory of what?” Tully asked, and Leona’s eyes lit from the inside with mischief. Gaudy buried his face into his hands.

“Before she starts this story,” he said, voice muffled by his palms, “I need you all to know that Uncle Kip writes the most elliptical letters when it comes to the practicalities of his job.”

“Okay, that clarification only makes me much more curious,” Iri admitted, leaning forward.

“Alright. This was at a performance of our mother’s orchestra—I assume you all know about the orchestra—”

“We do,” Zaoul confirmed, which was—even Gaudy would admit—an understatement. Gaudy might be somewhat proud of his mother, alright?

“Gaudy did mention that his Radiancy came to the orchestra once,” Iro said, considering. “I mean, you said it in a way that could have been a joke, but—”

“It was not a joke,” Leona confirmed. “It was kind of strange the way it happened, too, because Uncle Kip—I’m not calling him Lord Mdang, I can’t do that with a straight face, I don’t know how you manage it, Gaudy—Uncle Kip showed up first, he was talking with Paulin and Hugon, and I’m fairly sure from the look on his face that he didn’t expect the Emperor to have followed him? But then Conju showed up, and then Uncle Kip and Paulin both got a very strange look on their faces and told Hugon that he had better remember the Imperial Salute—” which had not been the wording, but Gaudy was busy hoping that he would spontaneously develop a strange talent for wild magic that would allow the floor to swallow him— “and then the Emperor showed up and said Uncle Kip was going to be promoted to Lord Chancellor.”

“I had heard it had been announced somewhere before the formal proclamation before court,” Iri mused. “I didn’t know it was in the Vangavaye-ve, though, much less at your mother’s concert.”

“I hadn’t known news had spread outside of the Ring,” Gaudy admitted, still muffled by his hands.

“But before that,” Leona said with malice aforethought, “Uncle Kip introduced him to everyone standing with him—not the whole family, and I was over talking with Great-uncle Lazo, but Gaudy’s always hanging around Uncle Kip when he comes home,”

Leona ,” Gaudy managed.

“—and his Radiancy asked if Gaudy was the one who was thinking of following Uncle Kip into the Service, and Gaudy said yes,”

“How is this the time you remember exactly what happened?” Gaudy surfaced from his hands to demand. She patted him on the shoulder.

“I wrote it down when we got back and was saving it for if you ever brought home a partner,” she admitted shamelessly, which caused Gaudy to gape in outrage and Tully, who was perched as she often was on the counter, to overbalance and nearly fall off of it.

“What did I ever do to you, Leona?”

“You snuck into the kitchen and finished off the last of my birthday cake,” Leona answered, crossing her arms.

“Ten years ago!”

“Anyway,” Leona continued, ignoring Gaudy’s (alright, somewhat melodramatic) indignation. He knew that if he sincerely asked her to stop, she would; but at the same time, he also knew that nobody in this room would actually think less of him for this.

Still, he was going to kill Leona.

“And then he—uh, the Emperor—asked Gaudy what his ambitions in the service were, and Gaudy—Gaudy said—” Leona paused, marshaled herself, stifled her giggles. “He said that he wanted to surpass Uncle Kip’s position.”

“I didn’t know ,” Gaudy said, wretchedly, as everyone else in the room stared at him. “It’s not that I didn’t read his letters, I read all of them, he just—like I said, he writes the most elliptical letters. It’s like the thing with the Council of Princes fish farm meeting,” he said in a flash of connection. “Except if you didn’t have the other notes.”

“I can see how that would be misleading,” Zaoul said, and of the four others he seemed the least scandalized.

“Anyway, and then I got informed by the Emperor himself that—what was the phrase—’we should tell you, as it appears he has not, that it would be difficult to surpass your uncle’s position,’ and he launched from there into announcing the Lord Chancellorship,” Gaudy ended. “And that was the most mortifying experience of my life, actually. Thanks, Leona, for bringing it up.”

“I can’t believe the Emperor remembered it,” Leona said, and she was still taking way too much joy from this, in Gaudy’s humble opinion. He narrowed his eyes.

“And I can’t believe that when he showed up at home the next day you answered the door and screamed at the top of your lungs,” he said, stooping to retaliation, and Leona made a noise like an angry cat.


As disconcerting as his family being in the Palace was, it also had its joys. The only problem was, well. 

It was great to see them, of course, but really they’d come to visit Uncle Kip.

Uncle Kip, who Gaudy knew had tried to clear his schedule months in advance, who had been so careful about clearing large tasks out of the way in the prior weeks…but none of that mattered, because the Emperor had a heart attack, and now the entire mechanism of government risked stalling or crumbling. The sole support beam that seemed actually capable of holding it upright was the pillar of bureaucracy that, itself, rested on the shoulders of Cliopher Lord Mdang, Chief Secretary of the Lords of the Offices of State, Hands of the Emperor. Gaudy wasn’t sure his uncle slept , these days. He appeared at meals, and clearly he tried to stay for their full duration, but a letter would come from one of the Princes, or someone would be demanding that they needed to see the Emperor and would be rerouted to Lord Mdang instead, and more often than not he would be pulled away from the table, Zunidh needing him.

Every time, Gaudy saw the disappointment on the faces of his family—and worse, the resignation. Saw the way his grandmother’s eyes would narrow, for a moment, looking around at the gilt and marble of the rooms and the way her son seemed to be working himself into an early grave rather than spending time with his family, and…

…and Gaudy didn’t say anything, because he didn’t know what to say; because regardless of excuses the truth was that Uncle Kip was putting his work before his family or even himself; because after years and years of formed habit and careful avoidance of the topic like a bruise that never healed, the Mdang family was used to not talking about the fact that they missed their Kip, and now that callous seemed too thick for any words Gaudy could say. Some part of Gaudy wished his Great-uncle Tovo (well, twice-great uncle, but that had always been too much of a mouthful) was here, to calm Gaudy’s grandmother and draw everyone out of the knots they tied themselves in; but he wasn’t, too old for the journey most likely or just uninterested in travel to the fancy velioi capital, and Gaudy wasn’t as good at navigating the treacherous waters of old family hurt as he was.

So, when Gaudy arrived the day after the Helma Council to find that not only had Uncle Kip not left already, he was in fact still sleeping, it felt like stones he hadn’t known he was carrying slid off of his shoulders to the floor.

“Did Lord Mdang take the day off?” He asked Franzel, unable to quite keep the note of disbelief from his voice. Franzel didn’t snort at that, although Gaudy thought if he was less professional he might have, but he shook his head.

“No—but orders were sent from the Tower that Lord Mdang’s morning was to be cleared of all interruptions and he was to be given his rest. There was a note for him as well, for when he wakes,” Franzel added, and Gaudy nodded and tried not to show his general relief. While it would be nice to have a full uninterrupted meal with Uncle Kip, he also would be perfectly happy if he slept the entire morning away; he probably needed it.

Everyone probably needed it; Gaudy wasn’t so isolated from the other secretaries with his current work hosting the family that he didn’t know everyone was being run ragged.

The general good spirits seemed to carry to the rest of the Mdangs, as Gaudy headed back into the Tortoise Room and the beginnings of breakfast. He answered Dora’s questions about a few of the pastries she hadn’t seen before, subjected himself to his mother fussing with his hair, and was in the middle of a discussion with Leona about the relative superiority of pairing chocolate with nuts or citrus flavors when Uncle Kip emerged from his rooms, looking considerably more rested than usual.

Gaudy saw his mother smile in satisfaction; while he doubted that she personally had argued the Emperor into giving her little brother a break, after her anecdote about an interesting conversation in the gardens with the Grand Duchess of Damara he would not have put it past her.

“Good morning,” she said, standing to greet her brother. “You look as if you actually slept long enough.”

“Did you tell Franzel and Shoänie not to wake me?” Kip asked, which—now that Gaudy thought about it—he absolutely believed his mother would do, but she only laughed.

“No! I doubt they’d take orders from me, would they? Even if it were for your own good,” she added. “They must have decided on their own.”

Shoänie at that moment was arriving with more chocolate—which Gaudy angled himself to get to before Dora saw it, because she had already taken advantage of Great-aunt Oura and Zemius being deep in discussion on some book Zemius had consulted in the archives to have far too much sugar, aided and abetted by an unrepentant Quintus—and Kip looked over to her.

“Did you?” He asked, and she curtseyed and shook her head.

“No, sir—the orders came from the Tower. There was a note for you. I’ll bring it with your pastries, sir.” That got an eyebrow-raise from Kip, but he didn’t question it at the moment, sitting between Vinyё and Zemius.

“Thank you,” he said to Shoänie, and turned to the rest of the table. “What time is it, do you know?”

He truly must have needed the sleep, not to have checked the time first thing upon waking. Gaudy mentally thanked the Emperor, and let Quintus answer while he simultaneously fended off Leona’s attempt to steal one of his pastries and answered a question from Oura about the organization of the archives. By the time he returned to the conversation, it was because everyone was in a pitched description of the Liaau—which had truly been lovely—and so he could sit back and finish his breakfast, relishing the fact that for once , nobody at the table had to rush off to make sure Zunidh wasn’t collapsing.

Shoänie did bring in the note, as well as more food for Kip, and Gaudy watched his uncle’s face relax into a fond smile as he read it.

So, apparently, did the entire rest of the family, as conversation died away and was replaced by a silence full of curiosity (except for Dora, who had acquired paper from somewhere and was attempting to draw the waterfall at the Liaau). At the obvious curiosity, Kip smiled more broadly.

“My lord gave the orders,” he explained. “He felt that yesterday’s council meeting would be trying.” Which was a vast understatement for how intractable the Helma Council could be, to his understanding. “He has bidden you to play for him this afternoon, Vinyё.”

Which was, Gaudy thought, an entirely deserved high compliment; very few people were asked to perform before his Radiancy multiple times. Then again, very few performers were Vinyё el Vawen Mdang.

“I should be delighted,” Vinyё said, and Gaudy turned back to his food as the conversation turned toward the schedule again and Kip discussed the trip down the river he’d planned.

It was probably too much to hope that the Lord of Rising Stars would intervene to make sure Uncle Kip’s schedule was clear that day, as well, Gaudy thought; clearly he wasn’t alone, as his grandmother said, face carefully neutral, “Will you be able to join us?”

If Gaudy hadn’t spent almost two years in the Palace, he probably wouldn’t have noticed Uncle Kip’s usual patient smile go a little fixed. He was fairly sure that question hurt as much to have to hear as it hurt to have to ask.

“Possibly,” Uncle Kip said, diplomatically as ever. “I shall have to see what’s on my calendar now.” And even then, Gaudy knew, nothing was certain.

“Now?” Quintus asked, steering the conversation forward and past that moment with deliberate levity. “You seem far too organized not to know your schedule.”

A slightly teasing question, but Kip didn’t rise to it, instead focusing on the starfruit he was cutting, deliberately, into pieces. Perhaps during a normal week, it would have been a teasing question—or perhaps, from one of Uncle Kip’s friends here—but—

“I would be, usually, but things are topsy-turvy at the moment…I was ahead on my work, you see, in anticipation of your visit” He had been, Gaudy knew; he’d been working longer days even before this, so he could be ahead on his work. “These are all things I would not normally be obligated to deal with.”

“Because of the Glorious One being—” Quintus started.

“Yes,” Kip said, not letting him finish the statement.

“You care very deeply for your lord.”

Gaudy looked over at his grandmother, whose voice had grown softer, almost in some sort of understanding. Gaudy looked back at his uncle in time to see Kip’s eyes rest on the note from the tower.

“Of course,” he said, as if it was a fact, as evident as the sun in the sky.

“You’ve never thought of getting married,” Quintus said, and Gaudy nearly burned his tongue on his cup of chocolate in shock. Perhaps the only thing more startling than the question—because you didn’t just ask , or imply by asking, that —not about the Emperor —was the look of blank confusion on Uncle Kip’s face, as if he didn’t understand the question.

Because, well…it wasn’t something you asked. It wasn’t something you acknowledged , wasn’t something talked about , wasn’t even gossip because everyone knew, everyone knew that the Emperor was fair and the Lord Chancellor had gotten his post entirely on the weight of his own merits and work, and there was no way to imply a particular fondness between the two that did not also whisper of favoritism. And so the Offices of State—the Service as a whole—likely the entire Palace very politely didn’t talk about it.

But everyone wondered . Even Gaudy, knowing his Uncle Kip, had read through those letters and thought…well, nothing had changed and nothing had happened, over years of letters, and he’d dismissed the thoughts as those of someone who read a few too many romances about lords and their devoted servants, and moved on with his life.

And then he’d learned who his Uncle Kip’s lord was , and he’d entered the Service, and he doubly hadn’t thought about it, because if he did, he’d start reading way too much into things like proclamations about our beloved lord chancellor , which was after all a perfectly normal form of address, probably, and he did not need to deal with that during work, thanks.

Kip still seemed bafflingly unsure of what Quintus was talking about, and so—horrifyingly and unsurprisingly—Quintus continued.

“It’s not as if it was possible to…with…”

“It would be understandable,” Grandma Eidora said, which was somehow worse because Gaudy could dismiss Quintus as just wanting to cause trouble.

I’ve been very carefully not thinking this question for two entire years, Gaudy thought mournfully, taking another pastry and resigning himself to wherever this was going.

Finally, Kip seemed to get what was happening, and his face closed off into court formality with astonishing speed. “He is my lord and friend,” he said, in his Lord Chancellor’s voice. “That’s all. Quite apart from the fact that it would be edging into blasphemy .”

So is calling him your friend, Gaudy thought, and then recoiled from the thought. He was not going to wonder about this more. There was the answer: lord and friend, that’s all, nothing else to speculate about.

Of course, something as small as blasphemy couldn’t stop Quintus Mdang looking for answers. “But still, you never have—”

“She said no,” Kip said, voice short and sharp and entirely devoid of personality, and the table went silent.

Gaudy hadn’t known—he knew that Kip had dated Ghilly once, and presumably he’d had other relationships since although he’d never written about them—but he hadn’t known there had ever been anyone Kip, who was so focused on his work, had cared enough to ask—

nobody , he realized as he looked around the table, had known.

Dora looked up from her drawing at the silence. “Who said no to what?”

Kip was silent for a long moment. “A friend of mine from long ago,” he said finally, tone measured as it was in court. “I thought we might get married, but she didn’t want to.”

“Why not?” Dora asked, with a child’s unawareness of the weight hanging in the room. Uncle Kip closed his eyes, briefly; Gaudy couldn’t look at his face, its studied composure, and dropped his own eyes to his plate. He still heard the response.

“She thought I was too ambitious.”

Dora was coloring the trees in the Liaau redder than they had been in life. The water of the falls she’d colored using the same shade of blue as the sky, except for the brownish-grey of the rocks.

Gaudy wished he didn’t know that he would remember every word of this conversation later, no matter how much he focused on Dora’s drawing.

“I would have stayed in Gorjo City for her, but she thought I would never be satisfied with what I could achieve there,” Kip said, voice still even but with audible effort. “She thought…and I suppose she was right…that I wanted more. That time when I came back after the Fall…that was when I asked her…and she said no.”

“What do you want, Kip?” Vinyё asked, and Gaudy could hear the old hurt in his mother’s voice, the years of explaining that yes, her younger brother was still off in Solaara, yes she was sure he’d be back for the Singing of the Waters one year (which, Gaudy now knew, was impossible; the timing of Court didn’t care about the most important holiday in the Vangavaye-ve), how he wrote all the time, how he seemed to be doing well for himself.

Kip’s laugh was exhausted, a shuddering exhalation with little mirth. Not a proper laugh at all.

“Now? Right now I want the time to spend with my family, but unfortunately past ambition is present work.”

Gaudy pushed his plate away from him as the conversation continued, the pain in both voices—far more hidden in Kip’s—stealing his appetite. He put his last pastry on Leona’s plate and remembered asking in anguish why Kip hadn’t said anything about Gaudy wanting to join the Service.

“Gaudy,” his uncle had said to him, with a heavy sadness he hadn’t understood at the time. “I have spent my entire adult life chastised by my family for leaving the Vangavaye-ve. What do you think your mother would do if I encouraged you to leave?”

He’d seemed so stunned, when Gaudy had said it was his mother’s idea in the first place.

“What have you sought? What’s taken you from us?” Vinyё asked, her voice mournful, and Gaudy understood what his uncle had meant that day. “What did we lose you to?”

“Vinyё—” Kip tried to interject, but she wasn’t finished.

“Explain to us what’s so important, Kip. Explain to us what you do. Explain to us what is so important that you have to drop all these things that you have arranged for us. Explain to us why you are never here. Explain to us what you are always doing.”

Explain why you are never here. She didn’t just mean here , in the palace, while they were visiting. Gaudy felt he should say something, he should help explain, but getting in the way of his mother when she was focused on something was always difficult, and—and how did you say, Zunidh? The entire world? How did you make that not sound like a joke, when it had always been taken as one?

Gaudy leaned against Leona, who looked at him in concern but didn’t say anything, just put an arm around his shoulders. He wondered if she had the same horrible thought he did: that this could be them in thirty years, staring at each other across a breakfast table, hurt and hurting.

“You’ve accused me of boasting and showing off just for having you here,” Uncle Kip said, voice rock-solid with the weight of his intensity. “Do you want me—I have told you I am the Lord Chancellor of Zunidh.”

“We don’t understand what that means!”

And it was, Gaudy thought miserably, a recently-revived title, and didn’t everyone back home look at the way Princess Oriana’s titles didn’t translate to actual work or actual respect, and ignore them? It had taken Gaudy himself nearly a year to process the fact that some of the other Princes were competent at their jobs. Why should this fancy velio title actually mean something?

“The government of Zunidh,” Uncle Kip said, somewhat acidly. “Begins and ends with his Radiancy.”

“That much we do understand,” Vinyё fired back, in a similar tone. Gaudy realized abruptly he’d never seen them fight before—not like this, not with actual weight behind it. It was not a comfortable thing to experience.

“As the Lord of Zunidh,” Kip pressed on, “his Radiancy is responsible for the world’s magic. He has complex projects—” he outlined the lights, the trains, the Fens, the typhoons. “The planning and actual work of magic usually take up about a third of his Radiancy’s time. Then there is the fact that he was, of course, the last Emperor of Astandalas, and he is very highly regarded by the other lords magi for his knowledge and wisdom and authority. He is very often solicited to assist in judgments, in making important decisions of state or justice or magic or—”

“We get the picture,” Vinyё said. Kip narrowed his eyes at her.

“Do you?”

“His Radiancy spends a third of his time working magic as Lord of Zunidh, a third of his time helping other lords, and a third of his time running the government here.” At least she seemed to have calmed slightly from her earlier temper.

“Well: a third of his day to eat, hold court, to have any time to himself, to study, to be the supreme judge, to make decisions of policy, to…”

Gaudy winced. He hadn’t particularly realized how horribly overworked the Emperor was, it seemed, and he worked here.

“That doesn’t seem very much time,” Oura said. “He must be very organized.”

Or, Gaudy thought, he had a very competent secretary . But before he could say that, Kip was talking again.

“Under his Radiancy are the four pillars of government: the princes, the priests, the guards, and the civil servants.” This Gaudy knew all too well. “The princes run the provinces,” In theory , Gaudy couldn’t stop himself from thinking, “the priests are responsible for spiritual and magical health—” in theory, Gaudy thought again, perhaps uncharitably this time. “The guards keep justice and public order, and the civil service is responsible for basically everything else.”

“We learned about that in school,” Leona said from next to Gaudy. “The Council of Princes, the Ouranatha or College of Priest-Wizards, the Command Staff of the Imperial Guard, and the Lords of State are the governing bodies.”

Kip’s nod at Leona was so utterly that of a teacher at a good student that Gaudy smothered a laugh.

“Yes, exactly. His Radiancy is Chair of the Council of Princes, the Highest Priest of the College, the General Commander of the Imperial Guard, and the Great Lord of State.”

“That doesn’t seem to solve the problem of his time,” Quintus said, leaning forward in interest. “Are those just figurehead positions?”

“It would be treasonous to suggest so,” Uncle Kip said in the particular wry humor that meant yeah, kind of. “Certainly his Radiancy is the final arbiter of all decisions made by those bodies, but yes, he is willing to delegate to a certain degree. Ludvic Omo—” Who wasn’t at breakfast, but then had a habit of training in the morning and possibly also had whatever rituals he still needed scheduled for the morning, “—is the Commander of the Imperial Guard, for instance, leaving his Radiancy to focus on being the Supreme Justice and actually judge .”

“And for the priests and the Lords of State?” Quintus asked.

“He has specific ceremonies and rituals that must be done as Highest Priest,” Kip said, sidestepping the part of the question, Gaudy thought, that people actually wanted the answer to. Fortunately, Quintus was nothing if not persistent.

“But surely the civil service runs most things? I mean, that’s who we have to deal with most often. We don’t even deal with provincial authorities very often. It’s always the mundial ministries of trade we deal with. What does his Radiancy do as Lord of State?”

Kip paused, and Gaudy took the opportunity to tell the truth he wasn’t sure his uncle would say.

“He listens to his Lord Chancellor, mostly.”

There was a pause. Gaudy’s mother looked at him, and then back at her brother.

“You’re the delegate in charge of the civil service?” she asked, carefully.

“You could put it that way,” Kip responded, which was an understatement if Gaudy ever heard one, and he was friends with Zaoul , who at least had the decency to deploy them for comic effect and not self-effacement.

“But his Radiancy is abed,” Vinyё continued, and Gaudy could see her putting it together, finally. “Wait—last night you said you’d been at the Council of Princes.”

The door opened, and Gaudy saw that Commander Omo had returned, Ser Rhodin with him—done with training, then, he guessed. Seeing them, the Commanders—as Kip had just pointed out—of a quarter of the mundial government—casually visiting while his family finished breakfast was still a little jarring.

“Well, yes,” Kip answered Vinyё. “At the moment, with his Radiancy indisposed, I am—”

“Kip!” Vinyё exclaimed, tone somewhere between shock, pride, and outrage. “Are you saying you’re in charge of the government?”

Ser Rhodin let out a huge peal of laughter, which Gaudy—who had mostly seen the man on-duty—hadn’t known he was capable of. The second-in-command of the Imperial Guard wiped his eyes—Commander Omo looked somewhat long-suffering—and recovered himself enough to explain.

“Sorry, were you only just now realizing that?”

Gaudy decided that Ser Rhodin was likely his favorite of the guards based on that response alone, although Vinyё, Grandma Eidora, and Great-aunt Oura all looked varying degrees of embarrassed and offended, which was never a safe state to leave any of them in.

Rhodin ,” Kip said, a warning of some kind in his tone, and Gaudy was reminded of how he’d tried to get Leona not to tell the story of the Emperor’s visit.

“I will never understand the happily middle-class,” Ser Rhodin declared, entirely unruffled by Uncle Kip’s glare and sitting down next to Quintus, who had lit up at the prospect of more information from someone a little less circumspect than Kip. “I presume you’re all happily middle-class, you see,” he explained, waving a hand, “since Cliopher is so…very… determined…about being…” he trailed off, apparently looking for a way to put what he meant that didn’t risk the wrath of an unimpressed-looking Eidora Mdang. Gaudy could have told him to be a little more wary of Vinyё, who was sat closer to him and was prone to taking offense on behalf of her brother, but was too curious himself about where this was going to intervene.

“The scum that rises to the top of a boiling pot?” Kip suggested, voice dry, and Gaudy snorted as Ser Rhodin turned to him in surprise.

“No! Who said that?” he demanded, in a familiar tone, and Gaudy thought he could feel the room warm as a family of incurable gossips recognized a kindred spirit.

“The Prince of Amboloyo,” Kip responded, which tracked.

“The hell he said that to your face,” Ser Rhodin said, audibly both delighted and scandalized. “When has he ever seen a boiling pot, anyway?”

“Who knows? He didn’t say it directly to my face, to be fair,” Uncle Kip said. “It was more of a loud aside.”

“The Council of Princes is like a club for people with better blood than brains,” Ser Rhodin said, cementing himself with that sentence as definitely Gaudy’s favorite of the Imperial Guard, and poured himself some coffee as the conversation derailed into a tangent about his own family before rerouting to what appeared to be a common—and deserved—target of ridicule. “So the Prince of Amboloyo has progressed to name-calling, has he? He’s about the only person who seriously wants your job.”

“Some days,” Uncle Kip said with wry exhaustion, “I would be tempted to let him have it.”

“Don’t joke about that,” Ser Rhodin said as Gaudy winced at the concept, the guard gesturing with his cup of coffee. “World order would collapse with him as captain. He can’t see further than his own ambition.”

“What I need to find,” Uncle Kip started, in a thoughtful tone that Gaudy suspected meant trouble, “is something exceedingly expensive and time-consuming that he can make his pet project.”

Oh, that was devious. Gaudy grinned, waving away Leona’s questioning look—he’d explain later, probably.

“That you can make his pet project, you mean,” Ser Rhodin said, clearly amused as well, and Uncle Kip shrugged.

“The order would undoubtedly come from his Radiancy,” Commander Omo, who had been standing back for the most part and just watching the friendly banter, put in. This made Ser Rhodin laugh again, for reasons Gaudy didn’t immediately understand.

“Hah! Cliopher’s come up with the majority of public works projects,” he explained, for the benefit of the assembled family. Gaudy saw Leona blink, refocusing on him, as Quintus leaned forward again to start listening. Ser Rhodin, either not seeing this or not knowing what to make of it, returned his attention to Uncle Kip. “No brilliant ideas surfacing yet, Kip? It’s been a while since you’ve launched a major upheaval into society.”

Uncle Kip, to Gaudy’s amazement, flushed in embarrassment. Vinyё leaned forward, much like Quintus, her eyes intent but her question careful.

“What do you mean, Ser Rhodin?”

Ser Rhodin was clearly delighted to explain, setting down his cup and starting to count items off on his fingers deliberately. “Let me see…there was the sea train—”

“That was Ngalo Bargouyen,” Uncle Kip said as half the table—Gaudy included—turned to look at him in amazement. (The other half were either still focused on Ser Rhodin or were Dora, who had grown bored with the conversation, gotten up from the table, and was insisting on showing Commander Omo her drawing of the Liaau.)

“Who everyone else thought was totally insane,” Ser Rhodin continued, unfazed by the interruption. “You convinced his Radiancy and rammed the idea down the throats of every objector in the world.” Gaudy thought he saw Quintus hide a smile— that , Uncle Kip arguing for what was clearly the most sensible option no matter what anyone else thought, was all too easy to picture. Easier, somehow, than realizing that that same argumentative tendency, so restrained now around his family, had apparently been channeled into establishing the Sea Trains.

“The whole unified decimal currency,” Ser Rhodin continued on to the next finger, pressing on when Uncle Kip opened his mouth to object. “—and don’t pretend that came from his Radiancy! Finances are not his favorite part of government. I’m not sure if he’s ever personally conducted a financial transaction in his life.”

“When we were in the Vangavaye-ve,” Uncle Kip put in, apparently unable to help himself. Rhodin shook his head.

“He bartered, which as you pointed out at the time is a form of negotiation.”

“I can see why you like it here,” Leona muttered to Gaudy under her breath. “Everyone’s as pedantic as you.” He elbowed her in the side, unwilling to stop listening for as long as arguing her down about this would take.

“—which possibly is his Radiancy’s favorite part of governing,” Commander Omo—apparently freed from Dora’s attentions for the moment—said, with a rare and brilliant smile that Gaudy hadn’t known the man could produce.

“The sea train and the decimal currency?” Quintus asked, staring at his cousin. Uncle Kip, for some reason, was not meeting his eyes. “They were really your ideas, Kip?”

“He doesn’t look like he’s a brilliant statesman, does he?” Ser Rhodin smiled at Quintus, with both the glee of a gossip and the pride of a friend.

“Oh, are we discussing Lord Mdang’s contributions to world government?” A familiar voice asked, and force of habit almost compelled Gaudy to rise to greet Saya Kalikiri more formally—but she didn’t seem to expect him to, just nodding in greeting as Shoänie, who had entered in front of her, set out a fresh pot of coffee. Kiri grinned at Uncle Kip with some of the same pride and amusement that Ser Rhodin had. “Don’t look so morose, sir. There’s the tax system—”

“The housing projects,” Ser Rhodin added, picking his coffee back up.

“The postal service,” Commander Omo, of all people, put in.

Enough.” Uncle Kip said, in his voice as Lord Mdang, Lord Chancellor of Zunidh. “What did you actually come for, Rhodin? Kiri?”

Kiri’s mirth subsided, and she sighed. “The auditor’s report from the Ministry of Agriculture has come in. You’d better take a look at it.”

Gaudy winced as Lord Mdang frowned—for an auditor’s report to be passed directly up to him would mean that there was something seriously wrong with it, some problem that had to be handled as soon as possible. He cast his mind back to their review—Agriculture hadn’t seemed like there were any incipient disasters—

Hell,” Lord Mdang said, apparently sharing Gaudy’s thoughts. “Agriculture, really?”

“It’s pretty bad. They’ve been—” Kiri looked around the table, visibly realizing that she probably shouldn’t discuss much of this in front of Gaudy’s family. “You’ll need to read it, sir.”

Lord Mdang’s sigh was weary. “Of course. Rhodin?”

Ser Rhodin hadn’t quite snapped to attention, but he was sitting up straighter, and his voice was more formal when he spoke. “There are five cases due to come before his Radiancy at the Court of Final Resort next week. Are you going to be taking them?”

Gaudy was stunned for a moment at the implication—as, clearly, was Lord Mdang.

“Are you seriously suggesting that I sit in the Throne of Judgement?”

“Well…” Ser Rhodin’s shrug was just noncommittal enough to somehow speak volumes.

Uncle Kip swore at him, using several turns of phrase that Gaudy had never heard before and tucked away for future reference and a few he only knew from overhearing the guards during training. Clearly Uncle Kip would have continued, but he caught Grandma Eidora’s eye and stopped precisely mid-syllable, instead taking a sip of coffee with shaking hands.

“Perhaps you might speak to his Radiancy about it,” Commander Omo said quietly, as though that was a normal thing to suggest. Then again, Gaudy reminded himself, the three of them were of his Radiancy’s household; for them, maybe it was .

“I think that is a very good idea,” Lord Mdang said, audibly tense, so perhaps maybe it wasn’t. “There is a line, Rhodin—”

“We know where it is as well as you do,” Ser Rhodin said, watching him. “We also know where you stand.”

What, Gaudy thought to himself, curious and also wary, does he mean by that?

“What are you planning to do when his Radiancy goes on his quest? Will you refuse to sit in judgment then?” Ser Rhodin continued, reasonably. “Why would you not take this opportunity to practice when you have the finest legal mind in the Nine Worlds to give you advice?”

“I will speak to him,” Uncle Kip—Lord Mdang—it was hard, at the breakfast table but while talking business, to separate the two—said, but he didn’t sound happy about it.

“I will leave the auditor’s reports with you,” Kiri said, setting down the papers briskly—and, Gaudy noticed, moving things past Lord Mdang’s obvious upset. “Do you have any special instructions for me?”

Uncle Kip closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them. “Gaudy, could you please go to my desk and find my memorandum book? It’s got a blue and red marbled cover.”

Gaudy levered himself up from the table, nodding. “I’ve seen it.” He could feel Kiri’s eyes on him as he left, and thought he heard her saying something to his mother as he left—which was mildly terrifying on its own. One’s boss meeting their mother—or, rather, Gaudy’s former boss, given that his current boss was his uncle and thus definitely had met his mother—was a bit of a hair-raising thought.

It wasn’t far to the office, and the memorandum book was exactly where Gaudy had expected it to be, on the edge of Lord Mdang’s desk, with enough space for it to be flipped open to check the schedule for the upcoming day. Gaudy hoped that Tully wasn’t having too difficult of a time fending off people who wanted meetings this morning and early afternoon.

Then again, the combination of her resolve and the fact that the orders for Lord Mdang not to take meetings came from the Tower probably ended most arguments in moments.

When Gaudy returned, Lord Mdang thanked him and consulted the book, frowning at a few notes as Gaudy slid back into his seat at the table and listened to the list of issues for the Offices to address. Sea train extensions in Mgunai, the budget for last year, managing the transition to new ministers in departments where the old ones didn’t wish to renew their positions, negotiating with the treasury—Quintus hadn’t been lying, when he said that the civil service was most of what people interacted with on a daily basis, and this was the other end of it—all of those departments and decisions funneling ever-upward to the Offices of State, and then through them to Cliopher Lord Mdang.

What did we lose you to, Gaudy’s mother had asked in anguish earlier in the morning. Gaudy looked at his uncle, tried to hold in his mind at once both his admiration for how deftly he steered the entire craft of the bureaucratic government and awareness of how he looked tired, how it had taken orders from the Emperor to get him a morning off, how he could only come home once a year.

Maybe someone who could only see half of that, could only see the exhaustion and hadn’t spent two years in the palace learning the intricacy and artistry of the Service, wouldn’t understand why he couldn’t simply put it down. Couldn’t have left it unfinished, come home to the Singing of the Waters and a family that loved him. Gaudy could admit to wondering that at times when he was young, watching as everyone else’s favorite family members were around for every birthday, every graduation, every celebration, and his own favorite uncle was always…away.

But, Gaudy thought he could see a little more clearly now, that perhaps Uncle Kip wouldn’t have been Gaudy’s favorite uncle if he’d been the type of person to walk away from a job half-finished, a masterpiece half-completed.

Ser Rhodin’s laughter called Gaudy’s full attention back to the conversation.

“Cliopher, you sly dog,” the second-in-command of the Imperial Guard was saying. “His Radiancy’s ideas are things like ‘There are too many poor people in the slums of Csiven and New Dair. What should we do about this dreadful situation?’ Everyone else said, ‘Raze the slums’, you said, ‘Give the people money so they’re no longer poor’.”

Which, at least to Gaudy’s mind—and, he could see, the minds of pretty much the entire table—just made sense. If you had more than enough and someone else was in need, you pitched in and helped out, with the understanding that if and when they got back on their feet, if they were able they’d probably do the same for you. Gaudy was not a Mdang and hadn’t learned their dances, but he’d grown up around them, and while nobody at this table was tanà, they all knew the basics of how you kept a community strong: you looked after each other. You held the fire.

“And instituted the worldwide architectural competition to create housing so beautiful everyone else wants to live there,” Kiri added, and Gaudy realized that apparently it was common, among Uncle Kip’s friends here, to tease him by pointing out how much he’d actually achieved, if only because he got flustered about it.

Which was strange, to Gaudy’s mind. These were all things to be bragged about. But at the very least he was glad his uncle had friends who would remind him of them.

“And then did all those social programs so that people who didn’t know how to do anything could have meaningful work and artistic pursuits and get the appropriate healthcare and support,” Ser Rhodin added, catching the thread of conversation from Kiri like a child playing with a ball and passing it back to her.

“And then,” she said, as Uncle Kip started to look increasingly unamused, “decided that a basic income would mean everyone could seek out meaningful work and artistic pursuits, and thus the annual stipend was born.” Kiri’s smile was brilliant. “Which is a legacy well worth having, if you ask me. As you didn’t, and I can see you’re starting to get fractious, I’d best get to work. Let me know when you want to meet after you’ve read the auditors’ report, sir.”

“Thank you, Kiri,” Lord Mdang sighed, and Gaudy could tell that she’d cut off the teasing at the exact right moment before embarrassment turned into genuine anger.

Ser Rhodin stood as well, to open the door for her, and then offered a somewhat half-formed salute. “I’ll be off myself. There are recruits to boss around. I’ll be on duty with his Radiancy this afternoon, Cliopher.”

“To stand behind your rather sacreligious suggestion?” Gaudy’s Uncle Kip said wryly. “Very good. I’ll be coming at the first hour.”

After the pair departed, Kip looked at the stack of reports that Kiri had left for a long moment.

“Are you going to read that?” Vinyё asked.

“I should probably,” he said, and then decisively pushed it away. “But I will do so later. His Radiancy has given me the morning, and I intend to make proper use of my remaining hour. If I get my oboe to play with you, will you promise not to make too much fun of me for not practicing?”

Vinyё’s smile was radiant, even broken around her laugh as she agreed, and Gaudy felt the part of him that had been tense and unhappy since they’d started arguing relax a little.

“Is it true, what Uncle Kip’s friend—Kiri—she’s your boss, isn’t she?” Leona started as Uncle Kip left to get his oboe, and then cut herself off with the second question.

“Yes, although I work directly for the Lord Chancellor—so, for Uncle Kip—now,” Gaudy said. “Saya Kalikiri is the Minister of Public Weal and head of the Offices of State.”

Leona nodded, but Gaudy thought he saw Quintus blink at the titles. “—anyway, is it true what she said about Uncle Kip being behind the design of the Indrogan Estates?”

“She doesn’t tend to lie about things,” Gaudy said.

“We’re—I wrote a paper on the architecture of the ones in Csiven,” she said, sounding rather awed. “The architect wasn’t a well-known before then—she is now,of course!—but she won the competition anyway, somehow—”

“I don’t know for sure,” Gaudy admitted, but he remembered reading some reports on not only the design competition for the Estates but also, earlier, that for the Postal Service’s iconography and colors. “But the way those competitions are usually run by the Offices is through at least a layer of anonymity, so someone’s design doesn’t get higher placement because they’re a well-known name already or have connections in the Service. Of course if someone has a distinctive style, there’s not much you can do to hide that, but there’s an effort to make sure that the best design wins, independent of the reputation or rank of the designer.”

“…huh,” Leona hummed, the kind of sound she made when she was tucking a thought away in her mind, letting it sit until it brought in a larger, more important thought. Gaudy knew not to expect it soon; there were times Leona would come to him months or years after some initial conversation with the follow-up. She pushed herself out of her chair instead, stretching her arms above her head, her elbows popping—a sound that always made Gaudy wince and which he was pretty sure she caused for that purpose—and grinning. “Well, it’s been ages since we’ve gotten to hear mama and Uncle Kip play together. Coming?”

Gaudy hesitated—he’d planned on checking with Tully and Zaoul to see if there was a chance that Lord Mdang would be free to go to a dinner that he’d had planned for the family, and maybe dropping by the offices to see how things were progressing there—but, well.

Those could probably keep for an hour.

He took Leona’s hand, laughing as she easily pulled him up from sitting. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”