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Dispatches from the Junior Secretariat

Chapter Text

Gaudy had never been on the sea train before, for all that he’d watched it arrive and depart from Gorjo City for years, for all that he’d daydreamed of traveling on it to any of the far-flung and wonderful places he only heard described in stories and letters. Somehow, in all of those imaginings, he hadn’t included the cloud of relatives seeing him off—to the point he almost missed the train, as Cousin Ferry happened to be passing by the quay, caught wind that oh, today was the day Gaudy was leaving, and restarted the entire rigmarole of farewells and reminders and well-wishes—as Gaudy finally stumbled onto the sea train heavy with luggage and goodbyes. 

He also hadn’t included the sudden lurch in his chest, watching as the shore shrunk away behind him, watching as his mother’s waving arm faded into a small spot on the quay before it--and-she--vanished. In his imaginings, his heart was full of the wind and the sky and the knowledge that he was going to be part of something larger, this wider-world that he’d only been able to glimpse before. And that was true, of course—of course it was true. 

But he hadn’t realized, quite, how strange it would be to leave. Even when he’d gone to university, it had been in Gorjo City—and if you were a Mdang, or related to a Mdang, everywhere in Gorjo City was home, everywhere had a friendly face, every corner had a chance of someone calling your name. The buildings and beaches behind him were more than just an inanimate place: they were the outward form that that inward sense of belonging took, and with it now diminishing he couldn’t tear his eyes away. He never thought he’d spend the first minutes of his journey on the sea train looking behind him instead of ahead —but, he imagined his great-uncle Lazo saying, it was always important to remember where you came from. 

So he watched as Gorjo City turned from distinct buildings and familiar neighborhoods to a patchwork of indistinct stone-and-wood colors above the clear blue water of the sea, until the familiar view of Mama Ituri from below changed into the view of Mama Ituri from the side, and—eventually, slowly—to a view he’d seen painted or drawn, but never in person: Mama Ituri, from a distance. 

And then something in the air, or perhaps only in Gaudy himself, shifted and he realized that he’d been staring out the back window of the sea train, all of his luggage piled next to him, one hand pressed to the glass of the window. He swallowed, once, picked up his bag, and went in search of his berth, hoping that nobody had paid him too much notice. He thought the conductor of the sea train might have, but when he glanced to look, the man was thoroughly occupied with something in the office. 

The berth restored some of his spirits, if only because the way it used space was ingenious. Of course, space was always precious on a voyage—Gaudy knew that, every child of the Wide Seas knew that—and he knew from both studying and sense that that went double for vessels like this, which were intended to transport in relative comfort a large number of people who could be coming from anywhere and with any level of travel knowledge, most of whom would be taking it for large amounts of time. So, in the small room, everything fit together just-so; the bed folded down from the wall, and when it was up the desk and chair could be untucked from their positions so a passenger could read, write, or simply sit in peace. One wall held a window—not a large one, but Gaudy supposed that if he wanted a greater view of the journey, he could go up to the top deck. 

Instead of doing that, he packed his luggage away, smiling to see the familiar colors of home in this impersonal space, and pulled out the letter from where it was folded in his pocket. He knew he should probably have kept it in his luggage, or somewhere safe—but every time he looked away from it, some part of his mind kept trying to convince him this was all some dream. That he, like so many others, had been chasing a viau in applying. 

But no, there it was in clear, even letters: Gaudenius Vawen of Gorjo City of the Vangavaye-ve has successfully passed the Imperial Bureaucratic Examination. He is invited to present himself before the Lord Emperor to take his oath of loyalty and enter the Service. A list of instructions is enclosed. With congratulations, Cliopher Mdang, Lord Chancellor of Zunidh and Secretary in Chief of the Private Offices of the Lords of State. 

The instructions listed had involved what things should be brought to Solaara and what would be provided once there; travel times and schedules to walk each recipient through the process of getting to Solaara in the first place; instructions, Gaudy noted with amusement, for what not to bring, with an admonishment that the pages’ quarters were typically not large. Gaudy had read over them at least ten times, to the point where he thought he could list how to get from Gorjo City to Solaara in his sleep. None of that, of course, was what he was looking at. 

Below the official signature of the Lord Chancellor—how strange, seeing Cliopher Mdang written without any nickname showing which Cliopher Mdang it referred to!—was another note, this one in handwriting familiar from letter after letter arriving in Gorjo City, all of them stored in a nice stack in Gaudy’s desk at home.

Well done, Gaudy!  

He smiled, running a finger along the familiar line, in the same ink as the official signature of the Lord Chancellor. Just three words, one small addition to the form letter, but they carried the weight of his uncle’s joy and pride all the way across Zunidh to him, through the postal service that Gaudy was increasingly beginning to suspect his uncle hadn’t been as uninvolved-in as he’d thought. 

Of course, the second letter, full of the friendly but almost uncomfortably acute advice he associated so strongly with his Uncle Kip, had arrived only days later, and was in the same pocket that the acceptance letter usually rested in. (He reminded himself that once he arrived, Uncle Kip would be Lord Mdang, which would take some getting used to—but then, he had the entire long trip to Solaara to practice.) 

Still, when he tucked the acceptance letter next to the one full of advice, the folds of paper always ended up layering together, the two letters together forming a solid text of advice and pride and encouragement, which had travelled all the way from Solaara to Gaudy’s small desk at home and which Gaudy was now carrying back to Uncle—to Lord Mdang’s likely far larger desk in the palace. 

That thought in his mind, he smiled and headed out to the top deck, to go and see what the wide world coming toward him looked like. 

Days on the sea train fell into a rhythm, which was—Gaudy realized, in the middle of a letter to her—more his mother’s metaphor than his. In the morning, he tended to review the texts he’d brought as reference, going over the lines again and again as much for comfort as for study. There were worse traits for a new page to have, he figured, than being able to recite the exports of Western Dair or Xiputl by rote. In the afternoon, though, the call of the top deck was impossible to ignore, each view of the sea and islands beautiful and new, the precise kind of thing he’d left home to see. Sometimes he brought a book for casual reading to the top deck, sometimes he spoke with the other travelers and learned where they were going and why, but he always spent time on the top deck, seeing the world. 

He wasn’t even out of the Wide Seas yet, and the world was already so much better than he had even imagined. 

One night, a week or so out from Gorjo City, he found himself unable to sleep for a reason he couldn’t fully place. It wasn’t homesickness; he hoped he had at least another week in him before that hit in full. Instead something in the night air made him restless, made the berth seem too small, and his feet and heart together led him to the top deck once more.

And his breath caught in his throat, held captive by raw wonder, because the sky was alive. All above him the night was filled with shards of light, white-and-gold painting lines across the sky that vanished as quickly as they appeared. Each one was beautiful, was perfect, was so short-lived it vanished the moment Gaudy’s eyes focused enough to tell it apart from the next. 

The textbooks would probably talk about a preponderance of shooting stars in the area, spinning a theory about the magic of Zunidh interacting with some stellar phenomenon. And, Gaudy would allow later, maybe that was what was happening. But that wasn’t what he thought of that night, face turned up towards the heavens. 

He thought of the stories of viau, flitting across the sky, and the people who chased them, the people who followed them—and, he remembered suddenly, that those were different things. The viau weren’t as visible from Gorjo City, everyone said, and certainly Gaudy had never seen them as bright and beautiful as they were here, in the center of the Wide Seas. But you could see them, sometimes, on nights when the sky and the stars were right. 

On those nights, when a viau or two could be spotted in Gorjo City, Vinyë would get a certain look in her eye and then—not every time, but almost every time—she would remember another Uncle Kip story, and whoever else was in the area would pitch in with the details they had remembered. And if his mother had always seemed wistful on those nights, she had also always seemed proud of her little brother, brave and clever and perhaps just cracked enough to follow a viau out of the ring. 

Gaudy stared up at the sky, watching the viau shine, vanish, and appear again. Nobody could count them all; it would be as pointless as counting dreams. But he stayed, and he watched them, until eventually he fell asleep there on the top deck.  

A week or so later, the Sea Train paused to take on new passengers a few days after Zangoraville, and—to his surprise—one of them was headed to Solaara as well.

They would laugh later about their first meeting, when telling the story to others or just remembering it themselves. There were a number of things to laugh at, of course, but the first one that was always brought up was that Gaudy didn’t notice Tully for any of the numerous reasons she was striking and noticeable, from her lovely headdress—it had been green that day, she would inform him, crossed with a blue so pale it looked like white that had a shadow thrown on it—to the fact that she was carrying her three large bags on her own, to the fact that she’d timed her arrival so precisely that she stepped on the sea train fifteen seconds, by Solaaran time, before it pulled away from the quay. She had gone to such lengths, she would say, to make sure she looked impressive and confident and put-together, so far away from home, and then the first future co-worker she met ignored all of it to ask her about the paper of the letter she was holding. 

In his defense, Gaudy would point out, every time, the paper of the acceptance letter was very distinctive. 

“That’s the paper they use in the Imperial Bureaucratic Offices in Solaara—are you going there, too?” 

The young woman who’d stepped onto the train looked up from the letter in one of her hands, sharp eyes blinking in surprise, and then exhaled a short, amused breath through her nose. 

“The paper? Really?” She said, which was also not a polite introduction, and was usually the second thing they would laugh about later when telling the story. Gaudy flushed, realizing his rudeness, and a second later the young woman did as well. 

“Sorry—I’m Gaudenius Vawen,” he said, just as she said, “My apologies, my name is Tulliantha nai Vasiaan—” and they both lapsed into silence for another, awkward moment before the woman—Tulliantha—broke into cheerful laughter. Gaudy couldn’t help but to follow her lead, and after a moment regained his breath enough to try again. 

“Did you know, I’ve been practicing proper Astandalan greetings for weeks?” He said, the aftershocks of laughter making him candid, and Tulliantha smiled back at him, eyes still half-closed with mirth. 

“In all honesty, I have as well. I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone else going to the Service this far from Solaara, though, Sayo Vawen. Are you from Zangoraville, then, or is this your second train as well?

“No, just the first,” Gaudy admitted, “but I’m from the end of this line, so I’ve been here for a while.” And then he paused, trying to remember which of the Sea Train’s lines also connected to Zangoraville here, where this other far-flung aspirant to the Service could be coming from. She was clearly having the same thought, and finished it before he did.

“You’d be from…the end of this line would be Gorjo City, wouldn’t it?” 

“It is,” he said, unsure precisely how that would be taken. “And you would be from…sorry, I don’t have the clue of the train line.” 

“The Yenga,” Tully said, and something in her eyes told him that she, too, was trying to figure out what his reaction to that information was. “Which is a different train, but wasn’t quite so far away as the Vangavaye-ve, so I believe you are even more a seasoned traveler upon these trains than I.” 

“I wouldn’t have been half so bold as to arrive so close to the departure time, though, Saya nai Vasiaan,” he returned, and Tulliantha’s grin contained genuine delight at someone having noticed. 

“If we’re going to be on the train together all the way to Solaara, call me Tully,” she said decisively, picking up her bags again. 

“Gaudy, then,” Gaudy—who was familiar with the occasional irritation of having a long name, with the added indignity of his sister’s far-shorter Leona —said, and that, as far as formal introductions went, was that.

The trip was a long one, as Kip had warned and Gaudy had already known about before the warning, but company—consistent company, someone he knew would not be getting off the train before he did—helped ease the days into each other, helped speed the time forward. 

Csiven was huge and busy and thrilling; Gaudy was used to Gorjo City, which—he thought, with perhaps more hometown pride than factual accuracy—was not only a fine size for a city but possibly the best size one could be. In the schedule he’d been given, he had two days before the barges over the mountains would depart, so he and Tully spent their spare time exploring, Gaudy managing to lead them to the marketplace based on descriptions he’d gotten in a letter years before, Tully finding the offices of the Csiven Flyer so they could see, at least from the outside, where one of the largest newspapers in Zunidh had started. Just before leaving, he sent the first of his letters back home to Leona and his mother, because he had promised he would write them along the way somewhere in the mess of goodbye promises he had made, and settled in for a new form of transportation, a new rhythm for the days to take. 

After the barges, which were like nothing he’d ever seen at home and had warranted three pages of description in his letter to Leona, who tended to focus on the architecture of buildings but would nevertheless be fascinated by the system of locks used here, there was another sea train, this one across a different ocean than the one he loved, but beautiful all the same. He wasn’t Great-uncle Lazo or even Uncle Ki— Lord Mdang, he didn’t know the precise names or words for how the air felt different, how the winds had changed. He simply knew that this ocean was wonderful and dangerous in a different but related way to how the ocean of his home was wonderful and dangerous, the way he and Leona were both their mother’s children but in very different ways,

He kept sending letters home at the various cities the sea train stopped at to take on water or further supplies, trying to sort through his thoughts and experiences and pull out the brightest ones, the ones that his mother and Leona would love to read about again and again. He wrote as well as he could, trying his best to capture in words the things he had seen, hoping that his descriptions were half as beautiful as the pictures his Uncle Kip— no, Lord Mdang —’s words had painted in his mind that led him to dream of life outside the Ring. 

Not that he thought either his mother or his sister would be following him the way he had followed Lord Mdang , of course, but the thought that he could take some of these experiences, these sights, and capture them in words if not in truth to send back to the Vangavaye-ve was a good one. He saved some of the best ones, though, to be said in person—for stories, in his experience at least, always worked better told than read. 

For example, Tully’s stories of the Yenga were far better than any description Gaudy had read in his studies or even in Kip’s letters. It hadn’t started as swapping stories—in fact, for the first while, they’d mostly seen each other because they both preferred reading in the open air in the barges or the top deck on the sea train to doing it in their berths. Gaudy knew that they’d developed a bit of a reputation among the other passengers, and once an older traveler loudly commented to her husband about how young people these days always had their head in some novel or other and didn’t bother paying attention to the world around them, which would have irritated him had he not looked up at just the right moment and met Tully’s clearly-amused gaze. 

“Nobody tell her we’re studying to help run the world,” she had whispered, voice low, and Gaudy had needed to bite the inside of his cheek to avoid breaking out into laughter. Later, he thought about how she’d described the bureaucratic service— studying to help run the world —and hadn’t been able to let go of the thought that Uncle—that Lord Mdang would definitely like her. 

Still, that and occasional polite conversation were the extent of their interaction until Tully saw that he was reading one of Aya inDovo Delanis’s novels, at which point she’d put down her own book and informed him, deadly serious, that he had to tell her when he got to the scene with Detective Louya and the museum guard, he’d know what she meant when he got to it. And sure enough, once he got to the plot twist and realized in agony that Leona, usually his companion through these books, was half a world away, he remembered the impish look in Tully’s sharp eyes, slid into the seat across from her on the top deck, and said without either greeting or explanation, “How dare you and how dare she.”  

Tully had laughed and sympathized and then they were off, talking about the Detective Louya mysteries, which he was both surprised and delighted to learn had made it all the way to the Yenga—perhaps, the pair of them considered, even to Solaara if they were lucky. Her own book was put aside at some point during the discussion of if the family reunion murder was a better mystery than the theft from the Princess’s palace, and by the time the sun was setting and they should be heading down to dinner, Gaudy felt confident that not only would Lord Mdang probably like Tully, he certainly did, to the point where she was fast becoming someone he thought of as a friend.

 She’d asked him, eyes glittering, if the Bay of Waters truly was as beautiful as the books made it seem, and he’d been able to tell her in all honesty that, if anything, it was more beautiful. And then she’d asked about what Gorjo City was like, and he’d learned in return that while she found it embarrassing that everyone assumed she grew up in one of the park wardens’ settlements—”as if that is the only kind of person who lives in the Yenga,” she’d snapped with understandable frustration—she, in fact, had grown up in one, and Gaudy traded stories of Mama Ituri and going sailing for Tully’s descriptions of the thunder lizards, how the large predatory lizards which were most commonly depicted—”you know, the short-armed ones, you’ve definitely seen the picture”—did not in fact roar, but emitted a low growling noise so deep you felt it in your chest rather than your ears, of how she’d been able to see an egg hatching, once, the lizard inside as large as her torso even in infancy.  

It was far better than any description he’d ever read.

So they whiled away the days studying or swapping stories, practicing etiquette on each other or reading or—increasingly, as they drew closer to Solaara—watching the world around them, the world that they had both left their homes in search of and service to. 

Perhaps it was just that he had been thinking of his mother, kept reaching for her metaphors of rhythm and tune, but something of the journey put him in mind of a grand piece played by the symphony orchestra. The days, the places, were like instruments working in tandem, each one beautiful enough to take your breath away but all working together to make a common whole; the beauty and wonder of the weeks of travel, all taken together, played a symphony of anticipation, of arrival at the Palace of Stars. 

On the last day of their journey, Solaara came into view. 

Gaudy had packed already, some part of him knowing that he would not want to leave the top deck until the very moment he had to. Partially because the view would be magnificent; partially because that would mean that the journey was over, that he had arrived. 

Perhaps, the small but bright part of him that had listened every year to the Singing of the Waters said, everyone offered a challenge like this paused for a moment before singing the response, aware that in answering the call their life would change irrevocably. 

He wondered, for a moment, if Uncle Kip had paused before stepping into Astandalas for the first time. 

He wondered all of those things, and did not say them. Next to him, Tully leaned against the railing of the top deck, just as he did, eyes fixed on the same distant point, the gap between the ridges in the great plains. They would pass through, he knew, and then Solaara would be visible. Tully, he noticed, wasn’t saying anything either. 

The gap came, stony walls high around them, a brown-gray rock that was new to him and whose name he did not remember before it had passed, the boat shooting upriver and—

“Oh,” Tully said next to him. 

“Oh,” Gaudy said in return, eyes wide. 

Atop the highest hill of Solaara, the palace shone, and no daydream Gaudy had ever indulged came close to this. The palace was white and gold and gleaming, built around—he remembered—a volcanic plug, something he had once fancifully thought of as a distant Ystharan cousin to Mama Ituri who had traveled to Zunidh in the Fall. In the face of its beauty his excitement and anxiety tangled in his gut, merging into a strange creature neither one nor the other, but greater than the sum of both. He exchanged a look with Tully, and found her as wild-eyed as he felt, as though they had just come to the end of a marathon neither had been fully aware they were running. 

It was Tully, her timing—as Gaudy had come to learn—impeccable, who shook herself free first. She smiled, turning to stare at the river behind them, snaking all the way down to the sea they had crossed, and when she looked back at Gaudy her eyes were sharp and clever again and her grin matched them. 

“Well, we’re arriving in about ten minutes—I wonder,” she added, in the same tone she’d used when wondering, idly, if Gaudy had reached a particular chapter of the latest Louya novel yet, “if you could manage to get from the docks to the palace before I do?” 

Gaudy couldn’t stop a returning grin, the answer rising before he could check himself—and it turned out, in fact, that sometimes you didn’t pause before answering a challenge; sometimes you didn’t want to. 

“You are quite exact in your timing,” he allowed, biting his lip in a useless attempt to stifle his grin. “But I’m sure I know the directions better than you do. I will see you in the palace, Saya nai Vasiaan.” 

She laughed. “See you in the palace, Sayo Vawen.”

Chapter Text

Eldo was determined not to look at the crowd. 

This oathtaking was nothing like when he’d been presented to the Court. First of all, today hadn’t begun with both of his brothers quizzing him on proper etiquette, as though he were a horse and they were making sure he knew his paces; today had started alone, in the dormitories in the Palace. For a moment, his heart ached at the idea that Rufinus and Paulus might be there, in the crowd, if—

If things had gone differently. If either of them were the type of person to go against their father. If—

The crowd was the main difference from when Eldo had been presented, although he was still not looking at them. Then, the space had been full of courtiers, distant relatives who he could, if pressed, have recited the relevant lineages of and likely their precise connection to him, as well (that had been part of the early-morning quiz). Out of his peripheral vision, he could see that this crowd was far more varied, most of them in the orange-red-brown-black colors of the Imperial Bureaucratic Service. Eldo would be wearing those colors as well, soon, once he moved from the sand-colored robes of the pages into the higher echelons of the Service. 

Which he would be doing, because if he was going to throw away everything to join the Service, he had no intention of half-assing it. 

He did not look at the crowd, but focused instead on the space. He’d spent a childhood being coached in, among other things, maintaining his composure, he’d seen the Imperial Throne Room before, and still he had to work not to falter in his steps, not to stop and stare at one of the most beautiful rooms in the Nine Worlds. 

Instead of looking at the crowd, or staring like some…yokel, he remembered his mother speaking about this room. 

Geometry wasn’t her field, but she had solid knowledge of it—Lady Felicia liked to have a solid grasp of anything that so much as touched her academic interests, as part of a lifelong project to walk through life with the firm belief that she knew exactly what she was talking about at all times. It was something Eldo had always admired in her, even if it was a daunting trait to grow up around. In any case, Paulus had unwisely commented on the relative usefulness of mathematics and magic, and while he had not intended for his mother to hear, that did not spare either him or Eldo, caught in the crossfire, from the ensuing lecture. She’d brought up  the Imperial Throne Room, at one point, as an example of the deliberate application of mathematics to the surrounding world. 

Remembering that, he could see the way the room had been designed not only by an artist but also by someone with a masterful grasp of the mathematics of space. Every part of the room took into consideration both aesthetics and geometry, principles both mundane and magical, and bound all of those things together with precise and clear intent. It was not only a wonder of the Nine Worlds—those could occur naturally—but the greatest work of, likely, everyone involved in its construction. Every angle of the room, every line of the wall and floor, every inlay, every carving, every inch of space had been precisely plotted and pieced together to draw the eye and the mind to where both should have already been: the throne, and on the throne the Sun-on-Earth, the Emperor of Astandalas. 

The largest difference, to Eldo’s mind, between his presentation as a child and this, his oathtaking as a man, stood on the lower dais before that throne. The former had not called for the Hands of the Emperor to be in attendance. 

Eldo had not, up until this moment, actually ever met the man. He pushed his eyes against all the geometry and art of the room to look at him from where he stood near the end of the long line of aspirants. 

He wasn’t sure what he had expected. His father’s descriptions of Cliopher Lord Mdang—although the last time Eldo had heard them, the title Lord had not yet been awarded—had ranged anywhere from brilliant to barbaric, overly-decorated to devoid of style, offensively plain to impossible to overlook, appallingly naive to alarmingly cunning. It made it rather difficult for Eldo to form a coherent idea of what the man might actually be like. 

He was shorter than Eldo had expected. 

And, honestly, better-dressed, although he chided himself for assuming otherwise. Lord Mdang’s court robes were in iridescent cobalt-and-aquamarine; they managed to expertly walk the fine line of elegance without extravagance, meaning that not only was Lord Mdang in possession of an exceptional tailor he had the good sense to listen to them, which Eldo could not say for all of the nobility. 

At this distance, it was difficult to get a sense of the man other than from the outfit. Warm brown skin, black hair cut short in court fashion; this told Eldo very little he did not already know about the man who had, according to many sources (most more consistent than his father) utterly transformed the Imperial Bureaucratic Service. 

He would have looked more, but then the trumpeters that Eldo, and indeed the entire line of aspirants, had been following shifted from their fanfare to the Imperial Salute, and Eldo’s body moved on instinct into the proper obeisances. He saw, with a small moment of amusement, that he was by the part of the floor showing Alinor; if he looked up slightly, he was sure he would find Morrowlea, where his aunt was Chancellor.  But of course one did not look up until their name was called. 

Which, for Eldo, was going to be a while. He let out a breath, let himself settle into the posture of the obeisance, and ignored the fact that he’d been fairly sure he’d seen a splash of sky-blue among the gathered crowd. 

He’d taken a gamble, he knew, in doing this. Not that he had any regrets, he told himself. He was determined that even if he truly had lost everything else, he would do his best here, learn how to make the kind of changes that made others rant about you for three days in mixed outrage and amazement. The kind of changes, also, which demonstrably made the world better. 

(He thought of the man in front of him in the Ministry of Common Weal, the department he’d heard decried for being useless, a drain on the finances of Zunidh, a meaningless busywork project by a nobody from the islands. The way that man had, on the way to receiving the stipend, asked Eldo—who even in far from his best clothes, looked like a fashionable young man—if he had any advice for what an old man might wear to his beloved daughter’s wedding. He thought, too, of the woman behind him, of the way the weight of the world had fallen from her shoulders as she’d signed her name and received her stipend, how she looked at it as though it were the key out of a cage.) 

No, he had no regrets. 

But he had bet his home, his family, his brothers and his mother and his aunt and, yes, his father, on one thing: the fact that his father liked being challenged, in work or sport or any other facet of life. Eldo had recognized this when he was young, and had never needed to revise his hypothesis: Father respects those who challenge him. But…he didn’t know if the rules somehow changed when it was his youngest son challenging him, calling his bluff, walking out of his home and into the Service without a backward glance—or at least, he had resolved, a backward glance his father could see. 

He had gambled his past entirely on the rules not changing. For this not being a step too far. And if he lost—if he lost Silverheart, if he lost the days when Rufinus was home and Paulus wasn’t off studying and his father wasn’t in Solaara and they could all take meals together, if he lost his mother’s measured tones breaking the universe down into understandable equations, if he even lost the absolutely blistering arguments his father and aunt got into whenever she visited from Alinor—well, then that would not be the end for him. He could live with that loss, he had realized, when his father had given him that ultimatum. If he lost, he could live with it, and go on and do fantastic things, things that could change the world, and it would be his father who truly lost in the end. 

But he desperately, wrenchingly hoped he would not lose and—and it was still too soon to tell. If his father was in the audience, dressed in his sky-blue court robes, that did not necessarily mean what Eldo wanted it to mean. He could just be watching, assessing from afar, seeing if Eldo had the guts to actually go through with this. For all Eldo knew, he could have come just to glare at Lord Mdang, which would be petty of him, but not unbelievably so. 

Eldo took a breath, let it out, and filled his mind with the mathematics of space, the feeling of the floor under him, the sound of other aspirants walking toward the dais and their oaths and the Sun-on-Earth, and he did not even glance up at the crowd. 

“Eldo Vardes of Amboloyo!” 

The custom—new, Eldo had learned, since the reforms to the system had passed—was that no aspirant had a title in this ceremony, their persons and oaths all equal to the Emperor, all given the same weight. He still had his, was still Lord Eldo; that title came not only from his father but from his mother’s family, her own standing as the daughter of one of the Ten Thousand Families of Astandalas. He would not lose that unless she agreed with his father—

Which she might. 

Eldo stood and did not look behind him, following instead every line of the room’s calculated construction toward the dais, the Presence, the Sun-on-Earth. It was only a lifetime of training that kept him from trembling as he climbed the steps, knelt before the Hands of the Emperor, and offered his own. They were taken in a firm, steady pair, calloused from years with a pen and other sources Eldo did not recognize. 

“Eldo Vardes of Amboloyo, will you enter our Service and swear to serve us and our people?” 

Even knowing that the entire room was designed to amplify the Emperor’s voice did not stop it from being impressive. Despite his personal curiosity, Eldo did not glance at the Hands of the Emperor; he could not, instead staring past him to the throne, doing his best to drink in the moment, recognizing it was the closest he would come to the Emperor for…oh, years at the least. 

He took a breath in and spoke words that were no less true for having been memorized. 

“So do I swear, Glorious One. I swear by the Sun and the Moon that I will serve you and this world of Zunidh to the best of myself.” 

“Enter then our service and be welcome.” 

Eldo knew the returning words were rote, that they were the same as they were for every other member of the Service, for every aspirant. 

He thought of his father’s response to his examination scores: that no son of his would work in the Service while some ingrate commoner was running it and the Empire into the ground. The way he had expected Eldo to fold at that, and how instead it had put steel into his spine, pushed him forward. 

“Well, I will,” he had said, raising his chin to meet his father’s eyes, which Rufinus and Paulus had inherited but he had not. 

“Then you are no son of mine, and you are not welcome in my home,” his father had said, not as his father but as Prince Rufus Vardes of Amboloyo, his voice every inch the one he used to make formal proclamations. Eldo had known he was baiting his father, but the speed of the response still hurt.

Eldo had refused to cry then. Visible emotion of that sort was a display of weakness, of vulnerability, that you could not afford if you wished to succeed in court, or in life. He had not cried then, and he had not cried when Paulus came to his room while he was packing to ask him first if it was true and then to reconsider, and he had not cried when he realized his mother would not be home for four days and he would not see her before he left, and—and this had been the most difficult—he had not cried when he held the annual stipend in his hands. Even as he realized in practice what it meant to change someone’s life, even as the meaning of the words common weal hit him in a way he knew they had never struck his father, he had not cried. 

Enter then our service and be welcome.

He was somewhat glad that Tulliantha nai Vasiaan, after him, was from the distant and remarkable Yenga, and that it caused a small stir. It meant nobody was watching him as he returned to his place in line, knelt back into the proper obeisances, and then wiped his face as subtly as he could on his sand-covered sleeve. 

Zaoul had been in Solaara for four days, and it had been a decidedly mixed experience. He had learned quickly that it was best to avoid listening to the whispers that erupted when people saw him, when his name was mentioned, whenever Tkinê was brought up; all listening did was exhaust him. And it wasn’t as if he hadn’t braced himself: he had known that the comment that this was a competition no one from Tkinê had won was a warning to him as well as an explanation to his mother. 

He’d been expecting a lack of knowledge. He hadn’t prepared himself for the fact that in the absence of knowledge, people were more than happy to substitute rumor and fear. The wild speculation, any hint of fact twisted beyond recognition, was…unpleasant. Tinged with horror and laughter, uncomprehending and uninterested in learning in the slightest. 

Still, Saya Kalikiri, the woman who had spoken to the aspirants before leading them into the throne room, had seemed both kind and resolutely sensible. And while some of the other aspirants had stared or whispered, more hadn’t. The man with the room next to him—Gaudenius Vawen, he remembered, of the Vangavaye-ve—had joined him on their first evening in what he had referred to as a quest for the dining hall, which the pair had indeed found; moreover, the first time someone had faux-casually speculated about what kind of food Zaoul would be looking for, Gaudenius had revealed a surprisingly ferocious glare from someone who had seemed a relatively calm young man. 

It hadn’t been necessary. It likely wouldn’t even stop that same person from making similar comments, later. But it had been a nice moment in a tiring day, and Zaoul liked the thought that he had seen a side of the man that was not visible often. 

Seeing the palace dormitories, the dining hall, and the room he was in now in the offices of the Service was exciting, in a way that dulled if not erased the sting of whispers and stares. This placewas built-up to dazzle and stun visitors, but here he would be seeing it from the perspective of the people who made it, and the government of the entirety of Zunidh, work . It would likely be a lot less showy or beautiful than the palace’s facade, but if Zaoul wanted to see beautiful things there were plenty of them at home. None of them were the inner workings of a government on the scale of an entire world. 

At the moment, his attention—and the attention of every other aspirant in the room—was focused on one of the leaders of said government, or at least the parts that Zaoul would be interacting with. Cliopher Lord Mdang had acted as the Hands of the Emperor during the oathtaking ceremony the day prior, as Astandalas’s customs held that the Emperor could not be touched, even—in some of the older laws Zaoul had found—by his ancestors the sun and moon, as that had gone badly before. It was strange, to think that the sons of the sons of Orinara and her moon-touched lover had eventually drifted so far to the otherworldly side of their lineage that they were this alien, but many of Astandalas’s opinions on the sons of Orinara were…strange, Zaoul decided, was the tactful word. 

Returning his thoughts to Lord Mdang, Zaoul admitted with some admiration that the man was an exceptional speaker. The initial title hadn’t been one he recognized from his study— Lord Chancellor must be archaic indeed—but even without the additional unwieldy title of Secretary in Chief of the Offices of the Heads of State, it would have been clear that this man was a man who not only ran the Service but worked in it. The looks the rest of the Upper Secretariat had given him as he entered had been too respectful for this to be someone who hadn’t worked for that same respect. 

Respect and, he noticed with curiosity, some amusement; Saya Kalikiri in particular seemed to bite back a smile as the speech began, although it did not seem a mean-spirited one. Some joke, then, between people who had worked together for a long time, one where Zaoul lacked a piece of context to find the humor in it. He realized he looked forward to discovering it, should he end up working in Saya Kalikiri’s office. 

Lord Mdang’s voice was clear and audible without being strident or off-putting; he stood at the front of the room, separated from the aspirants by a few feet and many rules of courtly manners, but he spoke as though they were all sitting together, and he was not a titled noble but merely someone who had been doing this job a very long time, and wished to pass his knowledge on to people who could use it. 

Perhaps that was the joke, fond amusement at the man’s apparent lack of concern for rank between service members, just experience and—Zaoul suspected—skill. Regardless, it put some part of Zaoul that had been tense since entering the palace at ease, and he suspected that was true for the others as well. Around him, out of his peripheral vision, he could see people at first easing out of tension, then—as Lord Mdang continued—starting to stand straighter, some light entering their eyes. 

And then, just as Saya Kalikiri shifted as though to stand, Lord Mdang changed the trajectory of his speech. 

“Young men and women of Zunidh,” he said, looking across the group of them. He was not a speaker who used his notes often, although Zaoul noted he did have them; he preferred, it seemed, to look at his audience. “You are aspirants to the Imperial Service. Yesterday you gave your oaths to Artorin Damara, last Emperor of Astandalas and our beloved Lord of Zunidh. Over the course of this coming year you will learn what it is you have vowed, first as a page and then through your training in the duties of the junior secretariat.” 

“Some of you will rise speedily; some will decide this career, this vocation, is not for you; some of you will find your place quickly, and others will struggle to find their home in the Service. These are all honorable paths.” 

This was interesting; Zaoul had never heard someone put leaving a job quite in those terms, as though it was merely a case of mismatched pieces, and not some personal failing. Perhaps the key to that was also in Lord Mdang’s words: he called this not only a career but a vocation, the words carrying very different connotations in Shaian. A career was work, often for most of one’s life, but…a vocation was what one was meant to do. It was your life. Zaoul did not have to wonder if this career was also a vocation for Lord Mdang; only someone for whom it was would think to describe it as such. Perhaps someone doing what he felt he was meant to do could understand why others were not meant for the same task. 

“This past summer his Radiancy made me his Lord Chancellor, a new position in his government,” which explained why Zaoul hadn’t recognized it, but Lord Mdang was already moving on. “The reason for this is that his Radiancy is coming to the end of his reign.” 

That caused whispers throughout the room, and Zaoul himself was taken slightly aback. He’d studied Imperial history; Emperors tended not to resign. And he had no daughter or son to take up his position, although Zaoul remembered he did have a sister—but no, Astandalan Imperial inheritance likely prohibited that, although for what reason Zaoul could not imagine. 

“You, and those who are your new contemporaries in the Service, will be the ones who will help us in our work to prepare the government of Zunidh for the Lord Emperor’s successor. There has not been such opportunity, or such possibility of upheaval, since the days after the Fall. Work hard, my friends, for not only will you serve the world as it is, but you will shape the world to come.” 

And that was far from a rote entry into the Service. Zaoul could feel the ripple of surprise rush through the room, felt it move through him; it was one thing to hear that you could rise high in the Service, if you worked hard enough, but another entirely to be told the shape of the world to come was, even in a small way, being placed in your hands. 

“That is our task over the next few years. Within the decade you will be swearing to serve a new Lord Magus. It is our duty to present the world in its best state to her.”

 Not a new Emperor-- although, of course, Lord Mdang had opened the speech by saying that this was Astandalas’s last Emperor. Was that the reason that this didn’t get a reaction from the crowd the way Lord Mdang’s previous statements had? Or were the two titles so synonymous that to say one was implied to say the other? 

Zaoul considered that idea for a moment, turning it over in his head, and then discarded it. Even if that was what people heard, he doubted that someone could make a career in the Service, so dedicated to its words and descriptions, without being very intentional about which title he chose to use at any particular time. 

At home, looking over and studying the laws of the Empire so he could pass the examination, Zaoul had been struck by how many of them, particularly the ones from before the Fall, hinged on the Emperor as…well, as everything. As Paramount Chief, as god, as centerpiece, as the cornerstone behind every law’s logic. If the Emperor was the Emperor, with all that had meant to Astandalas, then all their other laws followed and were true. And Zaoul had learned that logic the way he had learned Modern Shaian, enough to be comfortable speaking and operating in it but with the constant awareness that it was not his logic. 

If there was no Emperor…the entire logic of old Astandalan law and custom began to crumble. Perhaps that was why the laws since the Fall had changed in their emphasis. Definitely that was why Cliopher Lord Mdang was telling them this, although Zaoul did not know how many were capable of hearing it. They were not simply preparing for a new leader to slide into the place of the old one; they were preparing for a new logic of government. 

He let out a breath, pulling his expression back under control. 

No wonder Lord Mdang was stressing the importance of this job, this next few years. No wonder the members of the Upper Secretariat had been watching them—all of them, not just Zaoul—closely. 

He certainly had picked the best possible time to take the exams, hadn’t he? Oh, when he managed to get a letter home about this, his mother would laugh; she had wondered, as he left, if he would truly find not only answers in the larger world but more questions, the kind that would challenge him further and push him to grow into an adult. He suspected this news would firmly put those fears of hers to rest. 


Tully was near the end of the interviews, just as she had been near the end of the oaths, because everything here was alphabetized by surname. Which was fine; it gave her time to collect her thoughts before being called in to speak to Lord Mdang. She’d heard of the man before, but there was a difference between a distant name and a person standing in front of her. When she’d pictured the head of the Service, she’d been expecting someone more…pompous, maybe, or officious, not someone with a sensible voice and a bearing that suggested he would never lose his footing, no matter where he stood. 

Also, he didn’t waste time, which she appreciated. She’d heard that the Lord Chancellor would be speaking to them and had braced herself to sit through an hour or more of meaningless prattle before she could get down to the actual business of figuring out what she’d be doing and how she’d be doing it. Instead she’d gotten a tolerably short and extremely informative speech not only laying out what she’d be doing and how she’d be doing it, but also a larger picture of the direction of the government and the work involved, and she found herself both overwhelmed and utterly impressed. And now, personal interviews, which she also hadn’t anticipated. Perhaps with Saya Kalikiri, but even she seemed a little high-ranking, but with the Lord Chancellor? 

Still, nobody who wasn’t wearing the sand-brown of the pages’ robes was acting like this was unusual in the slightest. 

The interviews were short, and everyone walking in looked about as nervous as Tully herself felt. Some of them were better at hiding it than others—the man ahead of her seemed almost calm, except for the fact that nobody was that still when they were actually calm—but Tully had grown up with a father who specialized in the study of massive carnivorous lizards, which was the kind of upbringing that taught you to watch for signs that a creature, human or otherwise, was stressed. Which was also how she noticed that people were, interestingly, less nervous when they left the room than when they entered it. 

Huh, she thought, and added apparently calming to the list of observations in her head about Cliopher Lord Mdang.  

Her name was called after a long moment, and she pulled in a breath, smiled at the encouraging look from Gaudy—who had seemed off in his own thoughts ever since the speech—and headed into the room. 

It was very blue. The walls were the pale, soft color found on the underside of navy eggshells; The floor-tiles were closer to the color of a deep pool, as were the cushions—she didn’t entirely recognize the style of the room, with a raised platform in the center and cushions to sit on. She found herself a little grateful that Cliopher Lord Mdang wasn’t in the same brilliant blue robes as he was the other day, because the effect would have been a bit much. 

Now, closer to him, she could get a better sense of him than she could when he was making speeches. He did look like someone who did actual work, which was reassuring; from this distance she could see he was probably around her father’s age, his dark hair graying at the temples and his face starting to show lines from a life full of experience. He leaned forward to look at her with warm brown eyes and offered a smile; Tully braced for it to be condescending, but it wasn’t. Even though she’d half been expecting it, she was surprised to feel her shoulders relax down from around her ears. She hadn’t even realized she’d been that tense. 

“Saya nai Vasiaan,” Lord Mdang said, with a nod to the cushions across from him. “Firstly, and in person rather than by letter, congratulations on passing the Imperial Bureaucratic Examination. Even before you begin your work here, that is an accomplishment to be proud of, and I hope you know that.” 

That had not been what she had expected, either, and she blinked as she situated herself on the cushion. 

“Thank you, your excellency,” she said. “And…yes. I do.” Because she did: because that examination had been difficult, and she’d taken notes until her hand ached, studied them until her eyes blurred, roped in anyone else in the research center who wasn’t already sick of it to quiz her on obscure laws until she knew them by heart. It had been work. 

And something in Lord Mdang’s face told her that he knew that in more than the abstract. 

“You took it yourself, then, your excellency? When you entered the service,” she said, and got a good-natured smile and soft exhale. 

“Not in its current form, no,” he allowed. “I took the examination before it was reformed in the years after the Fall. But I did take it, and started as a page in the service myself.” 

Tully tried to picture him as a page and found that the only thing she could picture was Gaudy, but shorter. Perhaps it was because something about Lord Mdang’s straightforwardness reminded her of the younger man. 

“I see,” she said, taking in, again, his fine robes. When she looked back at his face, it was to a distinct amused light in his eyes, but he didn’t comment on the silence. 

“I hope you are settling in well in the dormitories?” He asked instead, tilting his head slightly to the side, and Tully actually considered the question, rather than answering “yes” automatically. 

“The palace is very large, and somewhat confusing, but that’ll be gone by the end of the week,” she said. “And the dormitories are very nice.” 

“Good,” Lord Mdang said, with another of his smiles, and then his brown eyes sharpened. “Are there any questions you have for me, then?” 

There was only one that was near the fore of Tully’s mind, and she said it before she could second-guess herself. “Your excellency, what are the rules about contacting our families?” 

It was a long, long way to the Yenga, after all. This, for the first time, seemed to shake Lord Mdang out of his settled, calming demeanor, although the only change was his eyebrows raising and his eyes widening slightly. 

“I beg your pardon?” He said, voice light and curious, but Tully immediately replayed the question in her mind and tried to hide a wince. She was arriving in Solaara, sailing forth into the next chapter of her life, and her only question for the man in charge of the Service was how she could send letters home? 

But she wanted to know the answer, so she held his gaze. “My family is in the Yenga.” Which he hadn’t mentioned once in the interview, even though Tully had been braced for faux-casual comments about how strange that was, how far away it was. “It is a long way away.” 

“Ah, I think I see,” he said, recovering quickly, and Tully was surprised at how quickly he answered. “As a page you have the ordinary holidays and days off of the lower secretariat—you should have been given that information along with your letter of welcome.” 

She had, in fact, and had noted them all down in her mind, paying attention to which might be long enough for a trip home. Very few were. “Yes, your excellency.” 

“The longer holidays are kept to the spur weeks,” he continued, and didn’t seem to be criticizing her or implying she hadn’t read the letter well enough. “If you have any major personal concerns requiring a visit home at another time—an important religious or cultural celebration, a wedding or funeral—then you may ask me for leave.” He smiled again, and Tully blinked. He sounded like he’d actually give it, even if the holiday she was asking for wasn’t one of the ones celebrated in Solaara. 

Which was nice, but also—she’d only just arrived in Solaara. And maybe something very important would happen back home, but for the moment, she had no intention of leaving the city until she’d well and truly made a place for herself here. 

“I am from far away from Solaara, and I know how difficult it is,” the Lord Chancellor said, again making her blink. She hadn’t been expecting personal anecdotes from the man, or that soft, understanding tone. “As for letters, as a member of the Service you are permitted to make use of the Lights for your personal correspondence.” Oh, that would make things easier. They were so much faster than anything else. “You will learn how to submit letters during the course of your orientation.” 

She nodded. “Thank you, your excellency.” And then, because she felt like it needed to be said: “I am not looking to leave when I had just arrived.” She managed to remember to tack on “Sir,” at the end, in case that was too rude, but the Lord Chancellor gave another of those avuncular, warm smiles. 

“I know.” 

He paused, for a moment, and Tully wondered if she had any other questions, or if this was the end of the interview—but those sharp brown eyes came back to rest on her, this time…curious. Interesting. 

“There is a young man of the Tkinele who joined the Service this year,” He said, surprising her at the non-sequitur. She knew—probably everyone in the Palace knew, at this point. But she wasn’t sure where he was going with it. 

“I have noticed him,” she said, which seemed neutral enough until she figured out what Lord Mdang was getting at. In the back of her mind, she prepared her mental notes on the man, because no matter how this ended it would tell her something about him.

“He is the first Tkinele ever to join the Service. You are also the only one from your principality to come to Solaara, and I expect you understand the loneliness that comes with being the only one to do something.” As did he, his eyes suggested, even though his tone was still even. “The Tkinele are an isolated culture and rarely interact with the outer world. Perhaps you might do your best to help Zaoul answer any questions he might have—” and all at once, what he meant hit her, and she did her best to keep a relatively straight face. 

Out of everything the Lord Chancellor of Zunidh, the Secretary in Chief of the Offices of the Heads of State, the Hands of the Emperor might ask from her, making a new friend had not been anywhere near as difficult as she was expecting. He was continuing, about how she should be discreet, and she pulled her attention out of bemused disbelief and back into the conversation. 

“Are you…asking me to befriend him, your excellency?” she asked, just to make sure her ears were still working. 

“You may find that you do not like each other,” he said, which only added to Tully’s growing amusement. He was, indeed, asking her to make a friend and find someone to navigate this place with—and his concern was that they might not end up liking each other. Which, well, Tully hadn’t spoken with Zaoul of the Tkinele, before, but he hadn’t seemed stuck-up like some of the other pages, and she was confident in her ability to make friends. “But that doesn’t mean you cannot assist each other to negotiate the sometimes-murky world of the Imperial Service.” That was said with that same gleam of humor in his eyes, and Tully considered that the Service must be murky indeed if even the man leading it found it confusing at times. “You seem like a sensible person, and I know you are determined and intelligent, for you have made it here.” 

The compliment, plainly stated as though it were a fact, caught her by surprise. “Thank you, sir,” she said, quieter than she had meant to. 

But…something was striking her as wrong about what Lord Mdang had said. Or, rather, something he had not said. Tully was the only one from the Yenga this year—or ever —and Zaoul was the only aspirant from the Tkinele, but that did not mean they were the only people who were the only ones from their principalities. Wasn’t Lord Mdang himself from the Wide Sea? Why wasn’t he mentioning Gaudy? 

Before she could stop herself, she opened her mouth.  

“The young man after me is also the only one from his province,” she said, trying not to make it sound like an accusation. “We met on the sea train across the Wide Sea. I think he might be a good person to help Zaoul, too.” Certainly Gaudy was smart, and capable of remembering conversations like nobody else Tully had met, and friendly. And he, too, would need friends here. “His name’s Gaudenius Vawen,” she added, before realizing that of course Lord Mdang would know that. 

Lord Mdang thought for a moment, face inscrutable, and then nodded with another warm smile, although this time Tully couldn’t think what it was for. “Thank you, Saya nai Vasiaan.” 

That was a dismissal, so Tully awkwardly stood from the cushion and tried to catch Gaudy’s eye as he walked in, trying to return the reassuring look he’d given her before her interview. He wasn’t focused on her, though, looking behind her at Lord Mdang—-she hoped he would become less anxious after the conversation he had with the Lord Chancellor. Certainly she had. 

She thought of the list of observations she’d made of Lord Mdang—convincing, sensible, staggeringly competent, respected, comforting—and added, trying not to smile, prone to fretting about the pages. Even if it took her a while to get to a point where she would work with the man—even if she never got to that point—working in a department shaped by a man like that would be interesting. 

Yes, Tully thought she’d be staying in Solaara for a while

Chapter Text

The pages, Gaudy learned, did a little bit of everything, but most of what they did was run errands. 

Carrying messages between departments was the largest part of it, but fetching documents from the Service’s archives, or taking notes, or summarizing longer documents before they were passed along, were also significant parts of his day. For the first two weeks, each of the new pages was partnered with an older one so they wouldn’t get lost in the Palace; Gaudy’s had been a little irritated at babysitting, but once she realized he learned quickly, irritation had pivoted to delight, and by the time he was trusted to run messages on his own she’d shown him a handful of shortcuts she used as well. 

In fact, the only one to pick up on paths through the palace as quickly as Gaudy was…well, it was Lord Eldo Vardes. Because of course it was Lord Eldo Vardes. Gaudy wanted to attribute it to some advantage—Eldo having visited the palace more, perhaps—but he also knew that there was a large difference between the rooms used by visiting nobles and the corridors and offices of the Service where the pages tended to work. So that wasn’t it, it was just that Eldo was good at this, which only made Gaudy more determined to beat him. He resolved that he would at least memorize the archival filing system faster than the other man. That would show him. 

After those first two weeks, though, the pages were more or less on their own unless they were particularly prone to getting lost, which Gaudy wasn’t—and so he found himself pointing out directions to other people, which was how he met Iro Olionnoë, who was extremely good at summarizing messages and slightly hopeless at remembering the turns of the palace. After two days of watching her get halfway to the dining hall and suddenly freeze in mild panic, he decided that this, at least, had a fairly easy fix. The next day, he pulled Tully and Zaoul—who was quieter than Gaudy had expected, but very good at figuring people out, and had an understated sense of humor Gaudy found delightful; Gaudy hadn’t been lying to his uncle when he said he liked the other man already—over to her door and asked if she just wanted to come to dinner with them. 

She’d been a little taken aback, but then chuckled—a good sport even about her own lack of directional sense, apparently—and asked if her sister could come as well, and then somehow the Olionnoë twins were catching meals with the three of them if they had breaks together. 

It was about a month and a half into working at the Palace when Gaudy was reciting back a message to Saya Kalikiri—he’d assumed he would be telling one of the Junior Secretaries in the Offices of State, but apparently they were all off researching for what Saya Kalikiri, hilariously, called “one of Lord Mdang’s brilliant mad starts,” a phrase Gaudy would have to write his mother about—when her eyes narrowed slightly and her gaze focused on him. He finished the message, feeling slightly wrong-footed, and waited. 

“You didn’t have to write that down, did you?” she asked, and Gaudy blinked. He was so used to people just knowing about his knack for remembering words—but this was the Palace, not Gorjo City, and the only person here who knew about this was Lord Mdang, who—as he’d warned Gaudy—was so busy that the pages barely saw him unless it was for the half-minute it took to be given a message as he swept down the hallway. 

“No.” He paused, considering what to say, what wouldn’t sound like bragging. “I have a good memory for words,” he decided was an adequate explanation, and she considered him for a long moment. 

“What was the message we asked you to run last week to the barracks?” she asked, and Gaudy—who had been expecting something like this, a challenge, but had expected a harder one—swallowed his grin, thought back, and recited the question one of the Junior Secretaries, Ashendra, had given him about a budgetary note from the Imperial Guard. And then—because he was the son of Vinyë el Vawen and the nephew of Cliopher Mdang and, perhaps most tellingly, the grandson of Eidora Mdang, and he’d grown up knowing that it was fine to do well but better to do perfectly —he also recited back the response one of the guardsmen had given him, word-perfect. 

He had the distinct feeling that, by the end of it, Saya Kalikiri was also swallowing back a grin, because her eyes gave her away. 

“Good to know,” she said, nodding once, and then: “Return to your post, then, and on the way tell Aioru—he should be down by the Treasury—to head back up here when he can, there’s a new conspiracy theory come in and he’s demanded exclusive investigation rights on all the ones that make it all the way to us.” 

Gaudy blinked, glancing over at the somewhat-messy desk of the Deputy Minister of the Common Weal with a look that must have been deeply skeptical. Saya Kalikiri laughed to see it. 

“Yes, I’m serious. Mind, most of them get weeded out before they get all the way to us, but if someone mails them directly to Lord Mdang there’s not much any of us can do—and Aioru seems to enjoy point-by-point disproving them, for reasons I cannot fathom.” 

Gaudy, who had a very good idea of who would be mailing conspiracy theories directly to Cliopher Mdang, bit the inside of his cheek and desperately attempted to control his expression. Something in his face definitely gave him away, though, because Saya Kalikiri raised an eyebrow in clear amusement. 

“Yes, I know, the internal investigations of the Ministry of Common Weal are of the utmost seriousness and solemnity,” she intoned, before shaking her head. “Now that I’m done thoroughly disillusioning you about the sanctity of government work, if you managed to make it a month and a half without that happening already, we’ve both got work to do before lunch, which remains tragically distant.” 

“Yes, Saya Kalikiri,” he said, bowing and leaving, and mentally thanked the senior page who had shown him those shortcuts; they meant he could duck into a side room between the Offices of State and the Treasury and completely lose his composure. He, like perhaps everyone, had assumed that Uncle Kip just ignored Louya’s letters—that would be completely understandable. Gaudy tried to ignore her theories as much as possible, which was a lot easier now that they weren’t both in Gorjo City.  

The fact that the letters made it to the Offices of State—the fact that the Deputy Minister of the Common Weal took those letters as a personal challenge of some sort—was far, far funnier than anything Gaudy had been expecting to hear that day, or indeed that week. Yes, he had to write his mother again soon; his only regret was that he wouldn’t be able to see her face at that news. Eventually he headed back out, fairly sure that nobody knew he had just spent four minutes laughing his head off. 

The revelation about Cousin Louya’s letters had him distracted enough to forget the earlier part of the conversation for a few weeks, at least until Zaoul pointed out that Gaudy’s general assignments had shifted—more and more, he was given posts that required running complicated messages from or to the Offices of State, because Gaudy didn’t need to pause to write down the message, and could be trusted to remember every detail of the exchange. 

Which…well, it was work, of course, but it was kind of nice as well. To have something like that noticed, and appreciated. Of course, back home everyone knew about it, and it had been useful, but it had also been kind of…a party trick, something that would spur eye-rolls or good-natured ribbing for showing off again. Not something that got him noticed in particular by the Minister of the Common Weal and picked out— and trusted —for special assignments. 

Getting mostly those jobs, of course, didn’t mean that he didn’t have to do everything else as well. One of those jobs—the one he was focusing on, because he was still determined to be better at it than Lord Eldo—was sorting new reports into the massive archives for the Service. It was a daunting task; one person couldn’t carry down the reports for a full week, so it tended to be given as a job in groups of three. That day, it was Gaudy, Zaoul, and Iro working through the summaries of the week’s reports, and Gaudy was humming. 

If he had to blame his tendency to hum during busywork on anyone in particular, it would be his mother. It was just the way she existed in the world; music followed Vinyë el Vawen, whether it was her own playing, her conducting other people, her humming or tapping out rhythms with her hands; it was as much a part of the way she interacted with the world as words were for Gaudy. But then, she probably got it from Grandma Eidora, herself a musician, and when Gaudy really put his mind to it he could count on one hand the people he knew who had grown up in Gorjo City and hadn’t learned an instrument at some point. So if Gaudy had to, he would say he got the habit from his mother, but it was probably not true; it was just something that had grown in and with him, music as much a child of the Vangavaye-ve as he was. 

And, fortunately, nobody seemed to mind. Both Zaoul and Tully had said, on occasion, that it really did make the tedium of filing reports go faster, so he hadn’t bothered to stop or check himself when he realized he was doing it, unless someone asked him to—which Iri did on occasion, if the sound was getting to be a little much, but that was rare. 

But the point was, humming while he worked was so much a part of Gaudy that he didn’t actually have to pay attention to what , precisely, he was humming. That was, until Iro paused in shelving and turned such an incredulous stare on him that he faltered in his own work, fumbling a stack of papers and mentally playing back the last few bars. That cascade downward, three chords up and then sweeping in, the familiar rhythm of…


Au-ro-ra, au-ro-ra, he’d been humming, the fanfare-like center of the epic’s opening piece. Upbeat, bright as a spring morning with no clouds, as the sunlight over the Bay of Waters, as birdsong. A great song to have in your head and your mouth and your movement when things were dull or repetitive, to carry you out of yourself and into a brighter mood. 

Also, of course, illegal. 

There was silence for a long moment, as Iro and Gaudy both tried to look anywhere but at each other, and then Gaudy found his voice again.  

“...whoops,” he said, voice loud in the silence, and Iro dissolved into giggles. Gaudy followed suit after a second. 

“I feel,” Zaoul said, looking at both of them from over the stack of reports he was sorting, “like I’m missing the joke.” 

“It’s just—you know—” Iro recovered her breath in time to hum along the same Au-ro-ra fanfare that Gaudy had. “In the palace, Gaudy?” 

“It’s a good song!” Gaudy said, because it was true, although his ears were hot with embarrassment. He was very glad that, as much as he liked Zaoul and Iro, unlike his friends at home they did not know his family; if Leona heard about this he would never live it down. He might prefer the authorities heard about this rather than Leona. 

…okay, probably not, but it was a close call. 

“I really feel like I am missing the joke,” Zaoul reiterated, and Gaudy recovered himself enough to frown. 

“Do you—wait. Do you not know the song?” He asked, remembering suddenly that there was exactly one trading post in the Tkinê Islands that traded with the Empire, and that—he remembered Cousin Quintus saying, at some point—the fewer points of entry you had, the harder it was to sneak something somewhere it wasn’t supposed to be. 

Banned epics were probably pretty hard to get somewhere that had only one trading post that might receive them. 

“It’s—” Gaudy paused, looked around. They were the only ones in the Archives, now, but…he leaned over to the door, peering at it, attempting to gauge if anyone was about to come through. It didn’t look like it. 


He also really, really didn’t want to lose his job because he was talking up Fitzroy Angursell poetry in the Imperial Bureaucratic Service’s archives. 

“An extremely good and banned song,” Iro said, while he was looking, and when he wheeled around to look at her, she shrugged. “I mean, it’s not illegal to mention it. Or, technically, to talk about it. Or, strictly, to hum it, so you’re good. Just, uh…” 

“It’s illegal to sing it, or say the words, or disseminate it, or write it down in any way, or read it,” Gaudy recited, because he did in fact know the law around Aurora. “So…” 

“So not a conversation we should be having here,” Zaoul summed up, humor in his voice as he keyed in to at least that much of the joke. “One I would be interested in having, though,” he added, softer, and—well. If Gaudy’s mother ever heard that someone wanted to experience a great piece of art, one of the greatest musical epics in history (and a personal favorite of hers) and he didn’t assist them, he suspected he would never hear the end of it. 

Besides, figuring out the best way for Zaoul to experience Aurora was a challenge, and he’d been getting a little bored with just running errands. 


Of course, it was not easy to sort out the best place and time in the Palace of Stars, once the center and heart of Astandalas the Golden, to hold a reading of the banned works of the Empire’s greatest poet and most outspoken critic in recent memory. 

The first problem was location, because while Gaudy tended to take his breaks in the gardens near the tui tree, the open air was, well, open. And while Iro had suggested that they could just find a copy and pass it to Zaoul so he could read it alone, every part of that idea seemed wrong to Gaudy. Of course, the best way to experience Aurora would be sung, with a musical accompaniment—Gaudy personally thought the best way was probably the orchestral arrangement his mother kept claiming she wasn’t writing in her spare time, but then he was biased—but there was no way that would work. 

If you gave Aurora its full glory, sung, everyone in the area would know what was happening. It wasn’t a quiet epic—none of Fitzroy Angursell’s poems or songs or works were quiet. They demanded your attention, even the ones that didn't have known musical accompaniments. Listen to me, look at me, hear me, they demanded, in every word and every melody and every refrain. 

So: they couldn’t do a full musical performance of the songs, because that would definitely get them all arrested. But reading it alone also seemed wrong, although Iri and Iro admitted that was how they’d first encountered Aurora. Gaudy, who had heard it told in bits and pieces by various relatives—some of his cousins had dared each other to memorize more of it, and to this day you could get them to back-and-forth compete their way through the entirety of the epic if you had a spare evening and some alcohol on hand—held that even if you couldn’t sing the songs, you had to experience it read aloud, with other people. They were songs for sharing. 

And Zaoul had weighed into the burgeoning argument by saying that reading it as a group, aloud, sounded better to him than reading it alone, which had handily settled the issue. 

“What about the dorms?” Tully asked, at one point. “I mean, nobody other than us is really there, there’s the string of rooms that’s mine, yours, and Zaoul’s—so we wouldn’t have to worry about anyone overhearing—and the cleaning staff always tells people when there are going to be passes through.” 

“Is it safe to do it even there, in the Palace, though?” Gaudy wondered, because—well, there were plenty of old stories about the Palace, how everything that happened to it was known to the Emperor—but quiet Iri spoke up. 

“I think it should be. Spies probably have more important things to do than listen to the pages, right? And there isn’t a Department of Censorship or a Department of Internal Security anymore, after Lord Mdang got to them.” 

Gaudy blinked, turning to look at her. 

“Wait—Lord Mdang abolished two government departments? How did he manage that?” 

Iri shrugged, looking down for a second before looking back up to answer. “I mean, I don’t know how, really. I just know that they existed a while back—you can see them on some of the old records in the archives—” Gaudy took a moment to come to the amused realization that he may have been measuring his mastery of the archives on the wrong other page— “and then you find in a report something about Lord Mdang—or, well, Sayo Mdang, in those reports, making a case for why they were extraneous, and then maybe a season later they’re gone. Probably there were more arguments that didn’t make it into the report summaries, but whatever they were, it looks like he won them.” 

Which…okay. Okay, Gaudy had, in fact, realized that Uncle Kip was an extremely influential man in the government. It had taken putting his foot directly into his mouth in front of the Lord of Rising Stars, sure, in the most mortifying moment of his life, but the subsequent five minutes had made their point. (And if they hadn’t, there was the entirety of the next day’s visit— personal visit! —from the Sun-on-Earth to further make the point, and while Gaudy’s family hadn’t studied enough Imperial Etiquette to know how not done that was, Gaudy sure had.) 

But there was hearing that—even from the Emperor, which Gaudy was not thinking about because, again, mortifying—and then there was hearing that two Departments that had lasted through Astandalas and emerged after the Fall once more had fallen, because Cliopher Sayo Mdang had spoken against them. 

That was a little bit dizzying to think about, so Gaudy put it aside, to look at sidelong as though it were the sun. 

“Okay, so our rooms should work, then. And we could probably pick any evening when we’re free, it’s not that weird for a bunch of the pages to be gathering, but…” he frowned. “Do either of you have a copy?” 

And so they set out to tackle the second problem: where to get a copy of Aurora. Gaudy had never had his own, but he’d read it from his mother’s lovingly annotated copy, the pages yellowing at the edges from age and curling from frequent reading. He knew there was at least one more copy in the Mdang family house, in Uncle Kip’s old room, that was in astonishingly good condition for how often, Vinyë said, Kip had read and reread it. But Gaudy had brought neither of those, of course, and it turned out that while there had been a battered single copy at the reserve where Tully had grown up, passed between the families of the researchers and wardens from teenager to teenager like a secret treasure, she also hadn’t brought it, and Zaoul of course didn’t have a copy, and Iri and Iro had their own copy but had left it at home, and so on until—

“Found one,” Iro announced one day at dinner, and Gaudy didn’t bother to ask what she was talking about. She tended to be careful with how she said things; if she didn’t specify what she was talking about, that meant she didn’t want to in the middle of the Service’s dining hall, which meant that it was Aurora. 

“Great, whose is it?” Gaudy asked. There were a hundred-odd pages, but even still he’d been giving up hope that one of them would have the sheer guts to bring a copy of Aurora into the palace. Gaudy had to admire that kind of nerve. 

“Lord Eldo’s, actually,” Iro said, and Gaudy blinked. 

“You’re joking,” he said, desperately hoping that she was, indeed, joking. There was no way that Lord Eldo Vardes, of all people, had a copy of Aurora, let alone one that he would bring to the Palace of Stars. Although, Gaudy supposed, it was rather ridiculous to assume that someone hadn’t read Aurora just because they were noble, but…

But, a small voice in the back of his mind groaned, he didn’t like Eldo. Disliked him, in fact, although he could at least give the other man credit for not being either as useless or as prone to bullying as the nobles in Princess Oriana’s court tended to be. But on the other hand, it would be easier if he was useless, or cruel, because then Gaudy would feel less childish for disliking him. 

But no. He was competent, and mostly kept to himself—which, okay, Gaudy would take nobility that minded its own business over nobility that messed with people trying to get actual work done any day—and sure, Gaudy was determined to prove himself better than the other man in every area of secretarial work and leave him in the dust, but that wasn’t personal, that was just…what it was. No, Gaudy didn’t like Lord Eldo because Lord Eldo, for the life of him, could not seem to pronounce Gaudy’s name correctly. 

Which felt…petty, and small, and the fact that it bothered Gaudy, well, bothered him. After all, nobody in this entire palace could pronounce Mdang correctly, Gaudy had learned, and that didn’t seem to bother Lord Mdang at all. (And if that didn’t bother Uncle Kip, Gaudy wanted so badly for it not to bother him as well, but it did—it bothered him, that nobody pronounced the name of the Lord Chancellor correctly, of his Uncle Kip correctly. But Lord Mdang said nothing, so Gaudy said nothing. It gave him at least a little relief to remember that, when they had been in Gorjo City, His Radiancy had pronounced Mdang perfectly.) So Gaudy could handle Eldo’s accent adding an extra r that shouldn’t be there, on the rare occasions that the other man said Gaudy’s first name. 

Which were rare because Gaudy had been very careful to keep Lord Eldo at a firm I’m-Sayo-Vawen-You’re-Lord-Eldo distance of formality. And Lord Eldo seemed…not to mind, even though this should have been a pointed slight, it should have let him know he was doing something wrong. But the formality seemed to run off the other man like water off of a seabird; not that he didn’t follow it, but that he didn't notice. 

So: no, Gaudy was not happy about this development. 

“Dead serious,” Iro returned. “I asked and he ducked into his room and pulled out a copy with a false cover, easy as that. Seemed pretty willing to pitch in to read it, too, although he pointed out we’re not going to get through it in one night.” 

“Tully already figured that out, she’s got a schedule,” Gaudy said, because they didn’t need Lord Eldo to figure out time management. “Are you sure nobody else has one?” 

Iro looked at him for a long moment, one eyebrow raised, and Gaudy sighed. 

“Fine. Fine! Banned poetry reading hour with Lord Eldo. You know, this is not what I thought I’d be doing on my third month in the Service,” he said faux-mournfully, and Iro patted his arm while muffling laughter. 


Tully was the first to arrive to Eldo’s room, because she liked being the first to arrive anywhere she was going. He didn’t seem surprised by that, so he must have noticed, and Tully marked that as a point in his favor. Some of the Upper Secretariat she’d been running messages for still hadn’t noticed her punctuality and kept making the point that she had to be prompt, as if she didn’t know what an urgent message was. 

On the other hand, he greeted her with a full formal greeting as though they were still at work, and that was kind of hilarious. 

“Okay, no, if we’re going to be reading Angursell poetry together in the Palace of Stars, you’re going to call me Tully,” she said, because there was only so much ridiculousness a woman could take and being greeted formally as Saya nai Vasiaan just before reading Aurora was pushing the limits. “I mean, I’ll still call you Lord Eldo if you like,” she added, at his confused look. 

Eldo opened his mouth, shut his mouth, and then snorted a quiet laugh. 

“I suppose you have a point,” he said, and awkwardly straightened from his bow as she headed inside. 

She wasn’t sure what she’d expected from Eldo’s room—honestly, she’d tried not to have any expectations at all, because she didn’t know Eldo well enough to guess at his room—but, honestly, it was pretty much the same as hers. A main room with a small kitchen area, a sleeping room off to the side. The walls and floor were all fairly bare—Tully had considered getting something to hang on her walls, just to get some color, but she hadn’t had long enough off to find a place in Solaara that was both good and affordable for decorations like that, and it appeared that—if Eldo wanted additional decorations—he hadn’t either. 

The only area of the room that had managed to develop a personality was, unsurprisingly, the bookshelf. You could tell a lot about a person by their books, by the verbal environment that kept them happy and at ease. There were the books she’d expected, the texts they must have all picked up to study for the exams and kept to cross-reference even here; his copies looked like they were newer than hers were, but the wear of being read and re-read even over a short period of time hid that well. The less expected books were more interesting; there was what looked like a treatise from Morrowlea in Alinor on “the dynamics of lightning,” there were a few books of mathematical theory, and perhaps most surprisingly there was a shelf full of novels. Tully didn’t recognize most of them, but spotted a few adventure novels and at least one book she’d read because it was set in the Yenga, and had then gleefully annotated with every inaccuracy she could find. 

She decided to wait a bit longer and get more of a measure of Eldo before she informed him that the book was absolutely wrong about everything about thunder lizards. 

As she was peering around the room, other people started to trickle in; Eldo did greet them all with the same formal greeting, and it was interesting to see who responded in kind—Iri—who responded in kind but with the awareness that it was a little ridiculous—Zaoul, Iro--and finally Gaudy, who looked at the formality with the same kind of look he’d given Tully when she decided to race him to the palace and then replied with a point-perfect formal response. 

Because of course he did. 

“Alright,” Tully said, clapping once. Gaudy had asked her to figure out the way to do a reading of Aurora that made sense given how busy their lives were, and now she’d be making sure they stuck to that plan. “So we don’t have a ton of time before we all have to sleep so we’re not dead on our feet tomorrow, so let’s get this show on the road.” 

“I don’t think we have enough chairs to,” Eldo interrupted instantly, looking around the room, flushing in the strange way he did when he was embarrassed, just two points of red high on his cheeks, and Tully blinked. 

“...what?” She asked, looking around--and yeah, there were only two chairs, but…oh. She shrugged. “Well, you’ve got a perfectly functional floor.” A moment after saying it she remembered that sitting on the floor, without the cushions she’d learned were the style in Ysthar some time ago, was not really something you did, in the palace—but that was in the main palace. This was in their rooms. 

She looked at Eldo again, who looked as though the idea of sitting on the floor hadn’t even occurred to him, and realized that she’d been looking at this from the point of view of someone who hadn’t grown up near the palace, near Astandalan customs, at all. But even Iri and Iro, who had grown up in a big city in Dair, were more than willing to sit on the ground times when they’d come over to Tully’s room to talk and hang out—

—but they didn’t have Lord appended to their name, now, did they? Tully looked at Eldo again, considered that, genuinely he hadn’t thought of sitting on the floor as an option, and the brief moment of panic in his voice at the realization that he needed more chairs. 

…oh, this was something about being a host, she was willing to bet. It seemed like a Lord thing, to be upset you couldn’t give everyone in your small common room a chair to sit in even when, again, there was a perfectly serviceable floor. 

So instead of saying anything else about it, she folded her legs and dropped to the floor to sit cross-legged. 

“Well, I’m fine like this,” she said, settling with a grin, and Eldo did seem to relax a bit when nobody was mortally offended that he didn’t bring chairs. Still, he hovered, not sitting himself, until Gaudy looked up at him with a raised eyebrow. 

“What, worried you’re going to get your robes dirty?” he said, challenge clear, and to Tully’s surprise Eldo didn’t snipe back at him, or react to the rudeness, but raised an eyebrow in return and sat, albeit a little awkwardly. 

“It would never show up on these robes anyway,” he said quietly after a moment, and Tully had to laugh, because he was right, the robes were the color of dust. 

But she also had to remember the way he’d responded better to Gaudy’s barely-veiled dare than to anything else trying to put him at ease, and decided that she wouldn’t, after all, get on Gaudy’s case about the fact that he puffed up like a nesting lizard who was threatened whenever Eldo did, well, anything. It didn’t seem to be causing problems, at least, and Gaudy hadn’t been forthcoming when she’d tried to figure out if he objected to anything other than Eldo’s existence in her vicinity, so…no harm, no foul. Probably. 

“So I’ve gathered we’re going to be reading an epic called Aurora,” Zaoul said, voice quiet but still redirecting the conversation. “By Fitzroy Angursell. Now that the door is closed, can I have any other context?” He was smiling, so it was good-natured ribbing, but Tully still made herself take a mental step back, trying to figure out how to explain to someone who hadn’t heard of Fitzroy Angursell. She didn’t remember the first time she’d heard of him, didn’t have a good frame of reference, but…

“Has the Red Company come up at any point?” Iro offered, and Zaoul’s eyes widened in some recognition. 

Yes. I did hear about them, somewhat. Not…many stories. Very few people were willing to answer Red Company questions, I learned.” 

“Probably because they’re still listed as one of the Terrors of Astandalas,” Eldo said. “With..well, how deserved that was depends on who you ask, really. But most of the stories about them were written down or performed by Fitzroy Angursell, their…bard? Storyteller?” 

“Leader,” Gaudy suggested. “Who also wrote epics that were fictional. Well, I suppose some of the stories of the Red Company could have been made up as well. Some of them are really, really hard to verify.” 

“Someone did mention something about the sheep of the sun,” Zaoul said, tilting his head as if sorting through new information. “So is that why it’s banned? The poet was a revolutionary?” 

“They went a little beyond revolutionary,” Tully felt the need to point out. “I mean, there’s criticizing the government. But apparently they kidnapped Shallyr Silvertongue.” 

“What,” Zaoul said flatly. 

“Allegedly,” Iri hedged. 

“I’m pretty sure that did, actually, happen,” Eldo weighed in, gray eyes a little distant. “Stop looking at me like that,” he added after a moment, tone a little more waspish. “Just because my family is noble doesn’t mean I know the deep dark secrets of the Imperial Family, but I did hear about how all the protections on the palace got a lot stricter after that—and also after That Party.” 

“That Party can’t have been true, though,” Iri said, frowning. “I mean—we’ve been in that throne room. It’s not easy to break into.” 

“And “That Party” is?” Zaoul said, but rather than seeming irritated by the number of questions he had to ask, his eyes were warm, and he leaned forward as he listened to the answers. 

Gaudy grinned. “Oh, I know that one. It was—all of this was before Emperor Artorin took the throne, under Eritanyr. Anyway, it was Shallyr’s betrothal banquet to the Grand Duchess of Damara—” it looked as though he was starting to pull a face at that idea, and then thought better of it. “—anyway. Allegedly,” he said, a joking glance over at Iri, “the Red Company broke in, crashed the party, insulted the Emperor and Heir to their face--at least, Angursell insults them a lot in the song. And everyone else there, really. And, uh, all of their ancestors…there’s an impressive litany of former emperors and their flaws. That’s not the point. Anyway, they apparently stole the Diamond of Gaesion—which was part of the Duchess’s dowry—six bottles of fairy wine, a lady’s maidenhead, and then got out, all of them, without being caught.” 

“And the Heart of the Duchess, right?” Tully asked, and Gaudy frowned. 

“Don’t think I’ve heard that version.” 

“It’s a euphemism for the diamond,” Iro offered. “As far as I can tell, at least.” 

“That makes a bit more sense,” Tully said, considering. “At least with all the lines about physically holding it. I think that one probably actually happened, though.” 


“Well, if it didn’t, don’t you think that Eritanyr would have put it out everywhere that it didn’t happen and was a lie, instead of just hiking up the bounty?” 

“Good point,” Iri said, nodding. “You’re talking me around on this one, actually, but I’d want to go over it again now that I’ve seen the throne room to see if it seems like it was plausible. Unfortunately, it’s one of the hardest ones to get the full lyrics for.”

“Probably because if you’re right, it might include instructions for how to break into the Imperial Throne Room,” Eldo noted dryly. “Which seems like the kind of thing people are careful about publishing.” 

“I always thought it was hard to find because it called Shallyr—” Tully listed out some of the more inventive insults that had been lobbed at the Imperial Heir, grinning when she saw Eldo’s ears turn red and Zaoul’s eyes widen.

“Somehow I’d forgotten about that,” Gaudy managed to pull himself out of a bout of laughter. “Or—right, my mother caught me singing it at one point and informed me that while I was laudably in-tune, if she ever heard that language from me again she was shipping me to the Outer Ring until I learned manners, so I did my best to put it out of my mind.” 

“Yeah, that’s not one to get caught singing in front of parents,” Iro said, wincing while she laughed. “Wait. We’re supposed to be focusing on Aurora.” 

“I don’t mind the background information,” Zaoul said, from where he’d been listening to them, a more relaxed smile on his face than the polite one he usually wore, one that was careful not to reveal his eyeteeth. 

“It is important to have proper context,” Iro said, in a more-than-passable imitation of Saya Kalikiri. “Anyway, Aurora is not a story about the Red Company. It’s—well, its own cover describes it as a grand tale of romance, courtesy, and derring-do, by the one and only Fitzroy Angursell.” 

“That’s a bit grandiose,” Zaoul noted, although he didn’t sound disapproving.

“Nobody ever accused Fitzroy Angursell of modesty,” Eldo said, leaning back against a chair’s legs as though unused to sitting without back support. 

“Mostly they just accused him of treason,” Tully added. 

 "It’s an adventure and it’s a love story and I’m not acknowledging that pun, Tully, that was bad, and the music is fantastic but not quiet, most of the time. Some of the spy parts are quiet,” Iro added, and Tully cackled. 

“Some of them are very not quiet,” Gaudy pointed out, and Tully thought of the fast-paced rush of Tenebra’s Chase and nodded. 

“Fair. Anyway, Gaudy, you were the one who was humming the fanfare in the archives—” Iro continued, and Gaudy groaned at the memory. “—so you can start out reading.” 

“Here you go,” Eldo picked up one of the few books that had not been in the bookshelf, which had the same binding as the mathematics treatises—but which, when the cover and first few pages were pulled back, revealed the familiar front page of Aurora, or the Peacock. Gaudy took it, eyeing the binding and probably noticing the same thing that Tully had—this wasn’t just a swapped cover, but a book that had been printed and bound to look like a math textbook, but in fact was Fitzroy Angursell’s masterpiece. 

She’d have to get Eldo to say which printing press was pulling that move, because it was inspired. 

Gaudy started reading, though, and her attention was snapped up by the familiar voice and rhythms, the story of the princess and her companions. Gaudy had a good voice for reading it, measured and preserving the rhythm of the song even though he wasn’t actually singing. And then the book was passed on to her, and when her section was done she handed it over to Eldo, and the book had made it halfway around the circle when the last bells sounded and they were broken from the trance. 

“Well, that was about half of what I thought we’d get through,” she said mournfully, thinking of the plan she’d sketched out mentally, and Iro laughed and jostled her shoulder. 

“Oh no,” she said, rolling her eyes. “We have to spend more nights reading Aurora. Truly, a great shame.” 

And Tully jostled her shoulder back, and watched as Gaudy put back on all the formality he had learned to try to out-formal Eldo’s goodnight to them, and wondered if she could get her hands on a copy of…what was the book, again? Valiance and Shock, she thought, the complete history of the Red Company. 

Because, well, Aurora wouldn’t last them forever, after all, and even the other stories Angursell wrote about would run out eventually. And this was one of the most enjoyable evenings that she’d spent at the palace so far, and she had no desire to give that up. 

Chapter Text

Time, Zaoul knew, had been strange after the Fall, particularly in Solaara. 

Of course, everything had been strange after the Fall; everything had been off-kilter, set askew or adrift. He remembered very little of it himself, as he had been born soon before it happened; that in itself was interesting, for Gaudy had been born after, but when they compared their accounting of their ages, they were of an age. One of the first things he remembered questioning his mother about, in the implacable way that everyone soon had learned to expect from him, was what had happened in that strange, indistinct time; she had told him how the unquiet dead had seemed to fill the water, how she’d watched from the shore of their island as the sea turned into grasping hands and mouths and swallowed two islands whole. She had also told him of how time had seemed one long, eternal twilight, but he could remember that himself. His youngest memories were stained with the strange colors of that time, of watching everything cast in double, of having a sunshadow and moonshadow simultaneously. He did not have nightmares of that time—he was slightly too young for that—but he knew many did.

In any case, after the Fall and once the ships started returning to trade, they’d learned that time was still strange in Solaara. Frankly, that explained more than it confused, for it seemed every two months when a new ship arrived there was a whole year’s worth of new developments spreading from the capital outwards. Zaoul, ever-curious, had always asked every sailor for their stories of what was happening. He learned that wars had started around a place called Littleridge and then had been stopped by a treaty, that everyone called this Emperor the Last Emperor, that the parts of Zunidh once owned by Astandalas were now split into principalities, that there was a train across the sea and ships through the sky. There were new laws, new regulations, and it was happening so fast it made Zaoul’s head spin the way the sun and moon must be, to have quickened their loops around Solaara so dramatically. 

It had stabilized, after a while, but the speed at which the Imperial Bureaucratic Service worked still astounded him at times; and now, here in Solaara, he found he was considering that time still bent strangely here, at slight angles to the rest of Zunidh or at least to the Tkinê Islands. Their nearly-a-year as pages seemed to pass faster than the years of his childhood had, anyway. He learned--oh, he learned far more in one year here than he had in three years at home,although that was largely because there were few strange things to learn about at home, and he hadn’t had to push himself the same way. He could have, if he had studied something else, if his curiosity hadn’t always been aimed outward—but that was a path he had not taken, and wondering about it was wasting his thoughts. 

He learned, and he listened, and he met up with his friends—strange and wonderful friends, each of them with their own sharp curiosities pushing them forward, ones which he was only beginning to learn the shapes of after this year of learning. They read banned poetry and discussed it with each other, debated the plausibility of the Red Company’s apparently-inexhaustible list of rumored crimes and adventures (“If Aurelius Magnus was taken back to his ancestors,” Zaoul had pointed out, “and if Zelarin was truly descended from the sun and lover to the moon, why shouldn’t Angursell have also managed to earn her love?” To which Iri had pointed out that, yeah, alright, but that was legend-- and that had spurred an evening’s lively discussion about where, precisely, Astandalas drew its strange line betwixt various stories of the past, which it deemed true and which it thought possibly-allegorical. Zaoul learned that the line was deeply inconsistent), learned about each other’s families in bits and pieces. 

Zaoul’s description of his mother’s temper, on the rare occasions it was stirred to full force, led to Gaudy’s stories of his formidable grandmother, one of sixteen children and the matriarch of his family; Tully explained her father’s passion for his work, the care and detail that went into tending the thunder lizards without taming them or injuring yourself. He learned that Gaudy had an uncle in the Service, although he wasn’t sure where; the conversation had been consumed by Iri and Iro discussing their family’s lineage in the Ministry of Fabrication, the way their grandparents had been scandalized to learn that the twins wanted to serve the Bureaucratic Service, become two of the auditors who came in to tell everyone else how to do their jobs—and the way that their parents, who knew the modern Service, had been far more supportive. He learned that Eldo tended to avoid conversation about his family, although from resemblance and name everyone knew that he was the son of the Prince of Amboloyo; still, he didn’t offer anything, and Zaoul didn’t push. The other man seemed to hold himself at remove, not aloof but apart, and Zaoul supposed he probably had his reasons for it. 

Assignments were typically given at the beginning of the week, with the pages gathered and names read for various positions—message-runners for departments and ministries, people to file or summarize reports, to sort through incoming documents, to take notation for minor bureaucrats and the like. After almost a year, by the middle of the Court’s Little Season, this was routine, which was why it was surprising when Saya Kalikiri was there in person. Typically, this was something for the lower members of the Secretariat; she was rarely directly involved in page assignments. 

“Iri and Iro Olionnoë. Gaudenius Vawen. Tulliantha nai Vasiaan. Eldo Vardes. Zaoul of the Tkinele. You six, with me,” she said, and for perhaps a half-second Zaoul wondered if their “poetry club” had been discovered—but that was ridiculous. If they were in trouble for that, Saya Kalikiri would likely not be the one asking for them. 

Gaudy sent a bemused look over to him, and he shrugged one shoulder, deciding that the only real course of action was to wait and see what happened, rather than jumping to conclusions. The six of them trailed after Saya Kalikiri up to the Offices of State, where Zaoul had been sent to read messages fairly often—although not quite as often as Gaudy, whose remarkable memory and sharp mind for bureaucracy had gotten noticed quickly. 

Zaoul didn’t mind the time he’d spent in Trade and Health and Environment, though; they’d all been fascinating in their own ways, additional pieces of the puzzle that was the workings of Zunidh’s government. 

“Alright,” Saya Kalikiri said, once they’d all stopped. Her face was set in the polite smile that most people here wore to conceal what they were feeling or thinking, but amusement glimmered in her eyes, like someone who had just played a great joke on someone else—not out of maliciousness but out of joy. “Well, we don’t have many empty desks, but if you can find one that’s not taken, it’s yours. Congratulations—and welcome to the Offices of State.” 

It took a moment to process the meaning of the words, and Zaoul could see the realization hit, his own excitement and surprise reflected back at him in widening eyes, grins forming and being bitten back into more polite smiles. Zaoul had known that Gaudy was aiming for this position, had suspected the same of Eldo and Tully, and to a lesser degree the twins. He hadn’t managed to articulate to himself, until that moment, that he also wanted it; that if anywhere was the vantage point from where he could see all the workings of the government, all the pieces of the puzzle, it was these offices, these cluttered desks and piles of paper. 

“But—I thought we weren’t getting assignments until the end of the Little Season!” Tully blurted, emotion apparently overriding self-control. Saya Kalikiri’s smile grew a little more impish, and Sayo Aioru—who had stuck his head out of his office at the commotion—chuckled. 

“Kiri gets impatient,” he observed, just loud enough to be audible, and Saya Kalikiri rolled her eyes at him. 

“And I don’t want to let the best of the new secretaries go other places when we need them,” she added, tone pointedly lofty. “That said,” she said, turning back to them and growing more serious, “if any of you had your hearts set on somewhere else, let me know—I don’t want to chain you to this office. We work some of the longest hours in the Service, and I can only let that happen if everyone on this team wants to be here. So don’t stick with this because you feel like you can’t say no—I will personally write you a letter to the head of any other Ministry here, just in case they’re foolish enough not to know they’d be lucky to have you.” Zaoul catches Tully’s wide-eyed glance; a personal letter of recommendation from Saya Kalikiri, who was Minister of Public Weal on top of the Head of the Offices of State and, everyone knew, the right hand of the Lord Chancellor—well, that letter would open any door in the Service. Still, Zaoul knew, none of them would be taking it. 

“You’re all willing to work hard, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t, so I don’t worry about if you can handle it. I just want you to know this is a choice.” 

It was kind of her to offer. Still, nobody so much as glanced back at the door,. 

“I can’t speak for anyone else, Saya Kalikiri,” Gaudy said after a long moment, glancing around their group. “But if I had my heart set on any Ministry, it was this one.” 

There were a few nods, and Saya Kalikiri looked at all of them again, meeting each of their eyes. 

“Great. Glad to have all of you on the team, we’re going to be starting immediately.” She started moving through the office, the rest of them trailing behind her—Zaoul couldn’t help but think of ducklings—as she spoke. “Alongside being the Offices of State, which means we run and oversee the other Ministries, we personally run the Ministry of the Common Weal. Technically, I’m Minister, but most of the day to day functioning goes to Aioru.” Who raised a hand in recognition as he moved back into his office and the piles of documentation there. “And there are various and sundry other tasks that fall under no particular ministry or department that come to us as well—you’ll have seen some of those as pages, and will see a lot more now.” She stopped, turning to face them. Most of this, Zaoul already knew, but the re-orientation was helpful, now that he was seeing it from the inside rather than out. Some part of his mind was still processing I work in the Offices of State. 

“Also: we are Lord Mdang’s office. He ran this place before I did, and he’s the reason any of this works.” She spoke of the man, Zaoul noticed, with a fierce protective pride. “And he still works here whenever his duties let him get away with it, so you’ll be seeing more of him than pretty much any other group of Junior Secretaries. That’s not a bad thing,” she added, although nobody had suggested that it was. “But it can be intimidating until you get used to it. He is the most efficient person I’ve ever met—the most efficient man in the Service, definitely, and although it’s harder to measure, I’d put money down that he’s the smartest as well.” 

She spoke this with complete conviction, and she did not seem—to Zaoul—a woman for ridiculous claims. He thought back—it seemed so long ago now—to that eloquent speech, shorter than anyone had expected and yet telling them all exactly how important the next few years would be.

“The other thing you have to know about him is this,” she added, looking at them again. “He doesn’t take many vacations—usually only one a year—but when he does, nothing gets in the way of that. It doesn’t matter how long it is, it doesn’t matter what comes up, we handle it. The man has turned down ambassadorial appointments for those vacations,” she added, and next to him Zaoul saw Gaudy blink, eyes going wide for a moment, and he supposes he can understand why—those are serious appointments to refuse. “Probably others as well. Unless Astandalas is somehow falling again, we keep those weeks open for him, and even then you’d have to prove to me that we couldn’t handle it ourselves.”

Somewhat bemused at her vehemence, Zaoul wondered what all the unsaid things going into this were. Had someone, at some point, attempted to prevail upon Lord Mdang not to take time away from his work? Or had someone done that for Saya Kalikiri, and he had aided her and she was returning the favor? Or—because, often, the simplest solution was the most true—did Saya Kalikiri just feel that Lord Mdang deserved those breaks and might not take them if something else interfered, and wanted to prevent that before it could even start?

Regardless, would that everyone had a friend willing to be moderately tyrannical about their right to vacations.

“Right now,” she said, pivoting on her heel and her topic of conversation to head back to the desks that Zaoul presumed were for the Junior Secretaries. “We’re reviewing every Ministry of the Service, seeing how it functions now, so as Lord Mdang and His Serene Radiancy re-form the government, we know what’s working and what isn’t. Starting today, I’m unleashing you on the Ministry of Finance. Pick a facet of it—make sure you have all the major ones and aren’t overlapping—and start researching. If you need supplemental files from the archives, we have some up here, and you all should know the main Archives by now. Any further questions?” 

Last week Zaoul had been summarizing files for the Ministry of Health. Today, apparently, he was being handed the project of sorting through an entire department of the Ministry of Finance to assess it for the Lord Chancellor. Saya Kalikiri had introduced this shift to him within half an hour of the work week starting—and Lord Mdang was someone she considered terrifyingly efficient. The weight of it seemed to settle across their group of six, and then, like a tense rope snapping, they set into motion. 

Zaoul decided to set out studying the department of Tithes, and watched as everyone else settled into their roles: Eldo working on the Budget, Tully on the Mint, Gaudy on Taxes. Zaoul looked at the stack of papers in front of him—reports from tithes going back at least a decade, and this was just for the first morning of research—and picked a desk that didn’t seem overly-claustrophobic or crowded. He opened the first set of files, prepared his set of pens for notes, and started piecing together the puzzle that was the tithing system of all Zunidh.

The work went faster than he had been expecting, and people walked in and out of the Offices of State almost constantly. He’d noticed as a page that the Offices of State was the busiest part of the Service, the beating heart to the limbs of the other departments. Experiencing that in real time was daunting and exhilarating; Zaoul had thought he’d had a solid knowledge of what the main exports and luxury goods of each principality were, but after a few hours he realized that his knowledge had been, perhaps unavoidably, shallow.

Deepening that knowledge was wonderful, and the buzz and motion of the office served as a pleasant background noise for his new work. 

So he did not immediately notice when a particular newcomer arrived to the Offices, only looking up when he realized that the robes the man was wearing were not in the familiar colors of the Secretariat. Glancing up from his desk, he—like each of the other new secretaries, he noticed with peripheral amusement—paused and blinked a few times at the fact that the Lord Chancellor, who Zaoul had seen perhaps four times so far including the Oathtaking and interview, had just walked into the office. 

Apparently Saya Kalikiri had not been exaggerating. 

Zaoul turned back to his work, doing his best not to stare as Saya Kalikiri intercepted Lord Mdang and gestured him back into his office with far less formality than Zaoul would have assumed were due the Lord Chancellor. A few minutes later, whatever conversation they had was over, and he swept off to…whatever he was about to return to, doubtless something important, and Saya Kalikiri emerged a few minutes later, rattling off a list of members of the Upper Secretariat and handing them files and instructions, and the business of the office swept onwards. 

He saw Lord Mdang a handful more times in just that manner—walking in, his pace so much faster than anyone else in the palace’s, and conferring with Saya Kalikiri a few times before leaving. Zaoul couldn’t spare too much attention for that, though, because the Department of Tithes was complicated, and more than once he had to delve back into the decades of history contained in the archives, tracking when the luxuries each province could afford to provide had shifted to or fro, the mechanisms in place to petition to change tithe requirements and how they were—Zaoul noticed—streamlined over the years.

He had picked tithes for two reasons: first, because it was a good way to get to know the things made in each principality that the government treasured most (although, he was aware, it was a slant picture: one could not very well ship in a tithe of natural beauty, a tithe of history or knowledge, a tithe of community or tradition or wisdom; these things had to be translated, shifted into goods, to be treasured and offered and received). And second, because the system was utterly alien to him, to the Tkinê Islands, and he suspected that the questions he would bring to it—such as why, precisely, must this be tithed? What purpose does it go to? Does it impoverish the people making it or do they receive some benefit, material or not, in return?—would not be ones that the others would think to ask.

It was a matter of perspective; Zaoul had a different one, and one advantage of looking at something from a different perspective was that it let you see the holes that others didn’t.

So he took extensive notes, getting himself a different color of ink to denote questions he was raising rather than mere summaries. He had enough of a paycheck saved up for small luxuries such as that, and the first day he had a few moments of extra time, he amused himself by writing a letter to his mother using both colors, knowing she—like he—would be delighted by the difference such a small change could make, the way more color brightened the letter. But mostly he worked.

It took about a week for Lord Mdang to come in to actually work with them for the first time, not merely arrive for a moment’s conversation or planning with Kiri—who Zaoul found himself referring to without title, at least in his own mind, for the general atmosphere of the Offices seemed to be that everyone there was too busy for full formality to stick. Kiri and Aioru—the two highest-ranking members of the Upper Secretariat present—frequently just called each other by unadorned name. It took a bit of getting used to—he’d put a lot of effort into learning Shaian for formal contexts, and at home if he was speaking informally it was typically just in speech, not Shaian—but he found he liked it, even if he (and, he noticed, the other young secretaries) were not quite comfortable enough to forgo that formality themselves, except among each other.

Lord Mdang had arrived as Kiri was speaking to them, explaining something that Zaoul had noticed himself: that more than just rigor, this job required mental flexibility, the ability to pivot between various topics. It was a challenge, certainly, but one that Zaoul had been enjoying; he suspected, given that none of the other secretaries seemed daunted by the prospect of pivoting from issues in a Jilkanese township to archaic cattle law from Astandalas to Alinorel treaties, that they also found this something to be savored, rather than feared.

“It is our office to ensure that the government works properly,” Kiri was saying, that same fierce pride in her voice as when she’d spoken about Lord Mdang, the pride of someone who did a good job very well and refused to be abashed about it. Her expression shifted, then, amusement entering it as her gaze rose above the head of the assembled secretaries and caught on something there. “—and it is the Lord Chancellor’s to see that we are doing our job.” Zaoul—with the others—pivoted to see that Lord Mdang had entered the room quietly, and had been watching the proceedings. “Lord Mdang, I give you the newest members of the department.”

Lord Mdang’s bearing reminded Zaoul of that initial speech; despite the admittedly lovely clothing, this was not a man who saw himself the way many of the other lords did, as somehow elevated above the people around them. He met each of their eyes levelly and then smiled, a warm expression that shifted his face from that of a calm civil servant to something far more welcoming.

“You sound delighted, Kiri,” he said, aiming that comment behind the secretaries to Kiri herself. “Well, everyone, as Kiri has hopefully explained—”

And they were off, Lord Mdang needing no explanation of what they were doing or further introduction to them, addressing each of them by name as if the last time they had interacted had been the other day, rather than almost a year ago in quick formal interviews. After a moment, Zaoul realized that Lord Mdang had come to the office to get their reports specifically; he acknowledged other members of the office with nods or quick greetings, but his attention was focused on the six new recruits, asking for their views of the departments they’d been studying—and then asking questions about their conclusions, the probing incisive kind that pushed Zaoul to start thinking more about what he’d been studying, examining his own conclusions with the same critical eye he’d taken to the reports themselves.

Initially, he noticed both in himself and others that they were trying to give Lord Mdang the summarized version of what they’d learned, glossing some areas of complication. After the first round of pointed questions, each one aimed at one of those thorny, complex parts of their work, Zaoul realized that they Lord Mdang had no interest in a simplified version of the reports after all; he could see the others realize as well, and after the first few minutes they began putting forward the complications, the times when a department or another had mishandled an issue, what had been done about it, if there were clear solutions or deeper issues at hand.

And it was fascinating. Zaoul had known what the other secretaries were studying, of course, but hadn’t heard their thoughts and findings in this much detail before—and while he didn’t fully see how they pieced together with his, although he suspected if they all sat down for a few hours of free time and decided to talk about work then, they could piece something together. By the end of the first hour, Zaoul could see what Kiri had meant, about Lord Mdang’s efficiency—he didn’t waste time with his questions, answered theirs concisely and completely. About his intelligence, too—Zaoul was astonished by the fact that he could tell Lord Mdang was putting together their conclusions into a larger picture, before his eyes, even though he couldn’t quite follow the same information to the same conclusions yet. Given years and years of practice, maybe. Maybe.

By the end of the second hour, however, Zaoul was a little too exhausted to keep thinking much about Lord Mdang’s incisive and clever questioning. Not that it wasn’t interesting, but his brain was starting to lose grasp of the facts he knew he knew. It was interesting, it was fascinating, but his brain felt as though he’d been hiking for hours, mentally: a muscle-deep, foggy ache that was satisfying—it proved that he had been working hard—but also a sign he could not push himself far further without collapse.

“Very well,” Lord Mdang said, finality in his voice, and Zaoul avoided the impulse to sigh in relief. “Write me up a full summary of your reports, then we shall move on to the various Ministries of Trade, beginning with Land Transport. Stick with the equivalent sub-departments as far as possible to begin with. I want to know if you start to see any patterns forming. Is everyone clear on what they are to do?”

And that was the kind of thing Zaoul would be ecstatic about later, tracking patterns across various departments and seeing what larger picture they would paint, but he was attempting to resurrect his brain from being mush at the moment, so instead he—and everyone else—just said “Yes, Lord Mdang.”

Almost everyone else. Gaudy said it, of course, but his voice wavered, catching on the vowel as though it was a stone he stumbled over. And—yes, Zaoul had noticed that Gaudy pronounced Lord Mdang strangely, compared to the rounded way Zaoul had heard from others; his a was sharper, up in his nose, and it turned the ending of the word into a sharp -ang sound, not the -on Zaoul was more used to.

Lord Mdang must also have noticed, for he looked over and his eyes caught on Gaudy’s for a long moment, face inscrutable.

Well, it wasn’t being told off by the Emperor of Astandalas, Gaudy thought to himself miserably as Lord Mdang looked at him, one eyebrow slightly raised but otherwise unreadable. Gaudy hadn’t meant to stutter over the name, truly—he’d started out saying Mdang , properly, because of course he would, but halfway through a small part of his brain (the part that noticed the way people still looked when he mentioned being from the Vangavaye-ve, the part of him that told him to wear his necklace under his robes to avoid conversations about it, the part of him that was so, so aware that there were only two people from the Vangavaye-ve in the entire government) had informed him that nobody else, in that chorus, had said Mdang, and that his voice would be discordant, audibly different and strange.

Correct , the larger part of his brain insisted angrily. Which was true! But…out of step, nonetheless.

And now Lord Mdang was looking at him, and Gaudy could feel his face grow warm, could tell the others had noticed, were looking at him in confusion. And he was too-aware of the fact that his uncle didn’t suffer fools lightly; didn’t really suffer them at all, according to everything he’d heard about the man’s sharp tongue as a child (Uncle Bertie had been more than happy to share stories which had been funny, up until the precise moment that Gaudy was the one who had made a foolish slip in front of his uncle).

But instead of something sharp, Lord Mdang’s voice was mild and measured. “As one of the few people in this Palace or indeed on this continent who can pronounce my name correctly, Sayo Vawen, I would prefer it if you were to continue to do so.”

Gaudy looked down, relief and mortification warring—even though that had been a compliment, it was uncomfortable to be singled-out in front of everyone. But— but

The part of him that had held strong that Mdang was correct, the part of him that would keep Lord Eldo at a firm formal distance until the other man realized he was messing up Gaudy’s name, that had never liked to be told it was wrong when he knew it was right, flared up in response, the flint of his conviction hitting up against the steel of the situation, of his year of miserable confusion as to why, on earth, nobody could say Mdang correctly, why Lord Mdang had never corrected them, and—

He straightened his spine and looked Lord Mdang in the eyes, unable to not ask. “I had wondered, your excellency, since I had always heard it said ‘Madon.’”

Please , that part of him was asking, in the language of Imperial custom but the forms of home. Please, show me — he didn’t know what he was looking for, what he wanted to see, but there was something there and if he let it slip away now, it would be gone forever.

There was a moment of silence, and then Lord Mdang smiled, a slight curve and softening of the eyes that in no way tempered his gaze.

“The pressure of general opinion can be exceedingly great,” he said, and Gaudy almost wanted to snap that that wasn’t a real answer—but. But, while he had not in the end been shipped off to Loaloa to learn manners, he’d spent his time listening to his great-uncle Lazo sort through people’s problems, had been scolded for jumping to conclusions without listening to what was in front of him first—and had, rarely but memorably, seen Buru Tovo do the same to his aunts and uncles, although he was a little young and a little far away to have encountered the tana-tai himself outside of the old man’s visits to Lazo.

“Indeed,” Lord Mdang continued, “the strength of social pressure is one of the greatest forces in the world. The only force that is stronger is the individual will.”

“But—” someone Gaudy didn’t recognize the voice of said, and Tully—always quick on the uptake,sometimes a little too much so—blurted, “What do you mean?”

But Gaudy kept his eyes on Lord Mdang, knowing that an answer was coming, wanting to know what it was, held in the moment between the challenge, the question, being asked and the moment when the answer became apparent. It wasn’t something he was good at—there was a reason he’d never even thought of following Lazo, becoming the tanà—but it was something he had learned how to do from his family.

“The correct pronunciation of my name is a small matter, nearly frivolous. You may notice, Sayo Vawen, that I always introduce myself as Cliopher Mdang.” Said correctly, said with the full nasal -ang , and Gaudy—who had noticed that, who had clung to it at times—felt the correct pronunciation like cooling salve against a burn he’d decided just to live with rather than treat. “I do not insist on how others then say it. I decided long ago that it was not a battle I would fight.”

Why , Gaudy wanted to ask, but…but he knew why. Because he could hear, even veiled, exhaustion in that voice, even as Lord Mdang looked around, meeting the eyes of everyone there, not only Gaudy. Because, Gaudy realized, he wasn’t speaking only to Gaudy; with a bolt of recognition Gaudy realized it as a tactic his mother used also, when the misstep or success of one member of the orchestra became a teachable moment for everyone else. No, Lord Mdang’s behavior said, this was no frivolous matter. Not truly.

“Make no mistake: it was, and is, a battle. It is a very small thing, nearly frivolous,” he re-stated, “but. But . It is by taking stands in small matters that we change the world. Sometimes in small ways,” he allowed. “Sometimes in much larger ones.”

His gaze returned to Gaudy, who was hanging onto his words even as he realized that this would be far from the short answer he may have initially expected. But…well, what truly important question ever had a quick or easy answer?

“I am not trying to pick on you,” Lord Mdang said, with a note of apology in his voice, “but this is an occasion for certain things to become clear. One is that I do, in fact, enjoy hearing my name said correctly.” He gave Gaudy a slight nod, levity in his gaze, before returning to his prior seriousness.

“The other is more serious, and is of concern to all of you. Sayo Vawen, you know what the correct pronunciation is—what is, in this instance, right.” Gaudy thought of the part of him that was stubborn, that dug in its heels, that insisted that he knew what was correct and true and that it wasn’t what anyone in the Palace said. “You feel the weight of social opinion against you. It seems clearly opposed to you in everything you observe, in everything you hear, in everything both official and casual. And so you begin to doubt. You wonder how much it matters to let this one small thing go.”

It was one thing to notice this, to think it, in the privacy of his own mind, in his own room, in moments of weakness or frustration—it was another for Lord Mdang to lay it out, simply and powerfully, in a room full of people, as though he knew exactly what Gaudy was thinking—as if he’d experienced it himself. Which, of course, he had; of course he had. It was clear in the words he said, the understanding layered into those phrases, the quiet sigh that escaped before he went on.

“It is so much harder to stand up for a small, nearly frivolous thing. It is far easier, at least in the imagination, to stand up for the great things.” His smile was crooked, amused, wry. “One thing I have learned is how rarely we get to stand up for the great things. Or rather: how rarely we know we are standing up for the great things.” He paused.

“When I came to Astandalas, joined the Service,” he said, voice the same light tone he had begun with, the one—Gaudy was beginning to suspect—he used when speaking with full emotion would be too rough or sharp or blisteringly angry to bear. “Everyone pronounced Vangavaye-ve as Vonyabi . Everyone.”

Gaudy winced at the thought. It was bad to hear Mdang mangled and mispronounced; the idea of hearing that, and then also hearing the Vangavaye-ve curtailed and twisted into something palatable to Astandalan tongues…

“I’ve never heard that,” Aioru said, giving up all pretense of working in his office, leaning around the door. Gaudy, attention temporarily pulled away from Lord Mdang, looked around the room to see that everyone, not only the most recent secretaries, were staring at the Lord Chancellor, hanging on his words. Gaudy couldn’t blame them.

“No,” Lord Mdang said, and there was a ghost of satisfaction in the smile he had. “I let people mispronounce my name. I consciously decided that one day. There is, alas, only so much energy one has, and at the time there were other battles I chose over that one.” Like Vangavaye-ve. Like, Gaudy suspected, revolutionizing the entire function of the Service. “But I fought for the Vangavaye-ve,” he continued, and Gaudy thought about how the Sea Train came all the way out to Gorjo City, although he remembered seeing a report from decades ago about how most people wanted it to stop short; wondered about how many of the things that had been rolled out in the Vangavaye-ve came there first because, in fact, Lord Mdang fought for the Vangavaye-ve. “I always corrected it. Four and a half worlds of the Empire said otherwise: but they were wrong. I was right. I persevered.”

Lord Mdang paused, for a moment, and then met Gaudy’s eyes again. When he spoke, his words had taken on a faint but unmistakable note of home . “Public opinion is like the sea. It seems vast, primordial, unstoppable, immutable. But the individual is a stone.”

The words resonated through Gaudy like a bow across strings, for of course he knew what Uncle Kip meant; of course he did. Anyone who knew the Lays knew what he meant; the way a stone could be tumbled, worn away, worn down by the relentless ocean; but also how it could stand firm, and could be the foundation upon which everything else could turn, if only it could stand firm. He listened to Uncle Kip unspool the allusion for everyone else in the office, his eyes moving away from Gaudy, for of course he knew that Gaudy knew what he meant.

“It is a small thing, yes, but on small things hinge the turning of the world.” Yes, there it was; the familiar phrase, the familiar patterns, the familiar metaphors. Home, carried and conveyed in words. If the pronunciation of Mdang had been soothing a burn, this was closer to mending a wound Gaudy had refused to acknowledge was open, was bleeding, hurt. 

“Very rarely does the opportunity come to stand up against torture and evildoing—” but , Gaudy thought, remembering suddenly Iri’s comment months ago about Internal Security, Uncle Kip had ; he had said that it was extraneous, because on the small issue of efficiency, a department that used torture and coercion could be felled. “—or for justice and equality—” what small issue, Gaudy wondered, had he used to pivot the government into the annual stipend? What small stand had led to that great change? “—in the grand gestures most of us dream of.”

Uncle Kip’s voice went soft, reminiscent. “On the other hand, the opportunity to stand up against a small injustice, or for a small truth or a small good, comes nearly every day.” His gesture was wide, expansive, and pulled all of them into what he was saying. “The pronunciation of my name doesn’t really matter—” And just as Gaudy looked up again, incredulous, he continued— “or perhaps I should say, it hasn’t really mattered. I chose, very consciously, to fight for other things, things I considered more important to who I am.I have fought, and do fight, and will continue to fight, for other small, seemingly unimportant, even frivolous goods. But.”

And he met Gaudy’s eyes, again, fire meeting fire.

“But. Sometimes one rock holding firm attracts another, and another, and together they build something new.” The line from the Lays, rooting him so firmly in the home they shared. “Or sometimes the person who has said, ‘I will fight this battle but not that one, not today,’ realizes one day that it is time at last to fight the battle.”

…was he saying what Gaudy thought he was saying?

“And sometimes one discovers that what at one time was, or seemed,unimportant, is actually central. You know the correct pronunciation of my name, Sayo Vawen. You come from my province; you know my family,” and Gaudy had to stifle a small smile at that, because he certainly did, “you are here, far away from home, wondering what of your culture you must abandon to fit in, to succeed. And you see me.”

And Gaudy would never have articulated that, not in his letters home, not to his friends, certainly not to his uncle. But…it was true. He had wondered that. He still did, and he looked to his uncle and tried, from observation and rumor, to figure out how much Uncle Kip had left or lost or hidden, what the price of success was.

“You do not waver here, Sayo Vawen, on the small matter of what you know is correct, what is true, what is right. It may not matter, seemingly, to me; though you do not know how many bitter tears I might have shed for this small matter. But I can see very clearly in your face how much it matters to you.”

Gaudy watched his Uncle Kip, wariness pushing against a growing awareness of what he meant, of the fact that this slip, unintentional though it might be, may have been the rock his Uncle Kip was needing. His heart felt caught in his throat.

“You are in a different situation—certainly than I am now, but also than where I was when I first entered the Service, when I was a little older than you. I fought to be taken seriously, as a young man with a funny accent from very far away. I modified my accent, and let people misspeak my name, and learned to fit in.” He paused, and Gaudy’s heart ached for that long-ago Uncle Kip, young and alone.

“You do not have to.”

He paused, looked away, looked around at everyone who was hanging onto his words. left Gaudy to process the pain and pride and determination in that statement, in being told that he did not have to give up anything, anything , of home he did not want to.

“The weight of general opinion is one of the strongest forces in the world. It is the current of human society. It is the motive force of change, the thrust of what gets done. It seems unstoppable, inevitable, immutable. It is not. It is shaped by the individual will saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and holding firm. The world changes one person and one decision at a time. None of us know what decision, precisely, is the telling one.”

The silence stretched, long and unbroken, and Gaudy could almost hear everyone thinking. He wondered, suddenly, if Uncle Kip had ever spoken this plainly, even to the office which he used to run, about his name. About the battles he had chosen and the ones he had to set aside for another day.

He wondered, suddenly, when he’d started thinking of the Lord Chancellor as Uncle Kip again.

He didn’t know what to say to this, to Uncle Kip—Lord Mdang— Uncle Kip looking him in the eyes and quoting the Lays back at him, peeling back a layer of that courtly poise and control to reveal, underneath, bedrock from the Vangavaye-ve, solid and familiar as the stone from Mama Ituri, the words of the Lays that Gaudy heard, once a year, at the Singing of the Waters that Uncle Kip was always stuck in Solaara for. How long, Gaudy wondered in a burst, since Uncle Kip had heard them anywhere but in his own memory? And yet, and yet , when he reached for a metaphor, there they were.

And yet, he’d sent Gaudy an efela for his twenty-second birthday.

He swallowed hard, eyes burning, and tried to think of something to break the silence.

“When do you want the reports for, Lord Mdang?”

—he blinked. Blinked again, turning to look, because surely his ears had tricked him, right? But no, they hadn’t—that had in fact been Eldo Vardes who had broken the silence—not one of the Upper Secretariat, but Lord Eldo—and who had, also, made a solid attempt at pronouncing the Vangavayen -ang , which wavered strangely in his voice and didn’t quite settle, but nonetheless had been said.

He seemed to know that, too, those red points of embarrassment high on his cheeks, but his expression was clear and polite. Gaudy pivoted back to Uncle K—to Lord Mdang, who glanced over to Eldo with perfect courtly attention, a faint smile on his face.

“The day after next,” he said, and he was fully Lord Mdang again, except—except now, Gaudy had gotten that glimpse beneath, into the deeper waters invisible from the surface, or to someone who did not know that the ocean held its secrets deep and close to its heart. “I’ll need that report on the annual stipend tomorrow, Kiri.”

Kiri seemed to be struggling to keep a straight face, and Gaudy wondered suddenly how much of Lord Mdang’s depths she’d seen, how many moments like this—moments when a simple question turned into an impromptu explanation of a philosophy of living and existing in the world—she’d seen, in the decades they had worked together. Certainly she did not seem surprised by this.

“Of course, sir,” she said, and just as before, her eyes gave away her amusement as he left. Gaudy watched him leave, unsure what to do, and glanced back at Kiri in time to see her smile at all of them, a very understanding expression.

“Oh yes, he’s always like that,” she said, soft voice somewhat amused, somewhat proud, as Gaudy exchanged looks with his fellow junior secretaries, wondering what they had taken from this moment, wondering if it meant as much to one who didn’t know the Lays, the deep tradition that Lord Mdang was calling on. “You’ll learn. Well, he’s put you six fully through your paces—and congratulations, by the way, for sticking it out for two hours. I’m impressed—and I’m impressed at how much information you collected, as well. Take a breather to collect your thoughts, then for the rest of the afternoon work on those summaries—if you’ve figured out additional research we need, you know where to find it. Good work, don’t let me see you in here until the next bell, no arguments.”

Gaudy hid a snort—for a moment, she sounded just like his mother or grandmother, sending the kids out of the house with strict orders not to come back until dinnertime whenever they were getting too rowdy—but bowed and murmured “Yes, Saya Kalikiri,” with the others, heading out. He wasn’t sure what the others would be up to, but he knew where he was going.

The gardens with the tui tree were, in Gaudy’s opinion, the most beautiful—even though they were far from the most-visited, and did not have the widest variety of plants, or any from other worlds at all. No, they were the most beautiful because they, along the eastern edge of the Palace outside the Alinorel Wing, gave a view all the way down the river to the port and Sea Train stop, and then to the great ocean beyond, that sea both familiar and strange. He knew that Tully and Zaoul knew they could find him here, should they want to, but for the moment there was just silence, the tui tree behind him and the view in front of him.

And the sound of someone walking on the gravel pathway. Gaudy blinked, looking over—and then focusing, when his gaze took in the combination of pale skin, red hair, and the robes of the Junior Secretariat. What was Lord Eldo doing here? Sure, Gaudy didn’t know the other man particularly well—he tried not to, in fact—but he didn’t seem the type to go walk in gardens to relax. At the very least, Gaudy had never seen him here before, and Gaudy was here all the time.

“Sayo Vawen,” Eldo said, awkwardly.

“Lord Eldo,” Gaudy said in return, hoping that the man would just keep walking—but he didn’t, offering an Alinorel-style half-bow to Gaudy, who looked back at him, unsure what the proper response to that was—which, sure, should probably look at Alinorel etiquette again, but this was not the time for that. “Can I help you?” He said, after a moment, as Eldo didn’t seem either like he was moving on or like he was speaking first.

“I—” Eldo said, and then stopped. Gaudy looked at him, patience starting to wear thin. “…you are not someone who appreciates formality,” the young lord said after a moment, words still awkwardly stilted. “Which…leaves me at somewhat of a loss as to how to do this, but I am here to apologize.”


Although, Gaudy had to admit upon parsing what Eldo just said, he was glad the other man didn’t drop into any of the formal bows of apology, because then he really wouldn’t know how to react.

“What are you apologizing for?” He said, still watching Eldo, because what Eldo said next would matter.

“I…” Eldo made an aborted motion as though to move into one of those bows, stopped himself again. Gaudy supposed it meant something that the bow Eldo kept reaching for seemed like it would be one of second-degree apology, which was…well, it was serious, it was the bow the aristocracy used for apologies that meant something.

But Gaudy wasn’t aristocracy , and while they were both in the Service they were both just that—Secretaries, in the same department. Equals, who talked to each other like it.

“I’ve been mispronouncing your name,” Eldo said, after another awkward silence. It seemed to be taking him effort to keep looking at Gaudy, but he was making the effort. “I didn’t realize—well, the reasons don’t really matter. I was, however unintentionally, deeply disrespectful to you, and you have been astonishingly graceful in your response, which I did not deserve. I am truly sorry, both for my actions and for the position they put you in.”

Huh .

Okay, that was better than Gaudy had been expecting, he had to admit.

He looked away, to gather his thoughts, and a part of the apology struck him.

“…what do you mean, I’ve been graceful in my response?” He’d been so obviously snubbing Eldo for a year that Tully had threatened to make a drinking game out of it, which he was fine with because he knew, at the end of the day, that she was on his side.

Eldo blinked, genuine surprise on his face for a moment before it vanished behind his usual mildly-infuriating court expression. “You…have been? Far more gracious about it than I deserve, honestly—not giving me the cut subtle or direct, conversing with me, being…” he trailed off, seeing something in Gaudy’s face, and his gray eyes narrowed. “…or am I missing something?” he asked, and Gaudy had the abrupt realization that snubbing someone looked very different , apparently, when you were the son of a Prince.

Velioi , a voice in the back of his head that sounded like his great-great-uncle said.

“I’ve been trying to be extremely rude to you for a year,” Gaudy said, surprised into the admission, and Eldo rocked back, staring at him. “Because it was really infuriating, actually, and—did you just not notice you’re the only one I don’t let use my first name? The only one in our year who I call by title?”

Eldo seemed, in fact, like he was noticing that all precisely at that moment, mentally reviewing a full year of their interactions—as Gaudy was himself, wondering how they looked different under the context that Eldo, apparently, had no idea that Gaudy was upset with him.

“In a very weak defense,” Eldo said, after a moment, his voice unsteady. “I don’t think anyone has ever called me Lord Eldo and meant it as an insult before.”

“Maybe you just didn’t notice.” The sentence, half-joke and half-snipe, shot out before Gaudy could stop himself, and for a moment he felt bad that he couldn’t bring himself to regret it—and then Eldo let out a muffled snort, and Gaudy glanced over just in time to see the other man badly attempt to hide laughter at his own expense.

“I do have to take that into consideration now, I suppose,” he said, recovering, a hand pressed against his mouth to smooth the last of the laughter away. “But…well, I did deserve it, even if I didn’t realize you were upset with me. Which I also apologize for. I suppose I thought…well, I suppose I thought if I were doing something that truly upset you, you would correct me. I did not realize exactly how many such things you have to…either correct or endure.”

“Well, I don’t think anyone in the office is going to have any doubts about that, anymore,” Gaudy said, because that was easier than addressing the apology directly. It…helped, certainly, but the fact that Eldo hadn’t noticed it, or all the misconceptions, all the little inaccuracies, all the times someone treated the Wide Sea Islands like a monolith or assumed Gaudy was from a completely different part of the region than he was, the fact that if his voice went too Vangavayen he got strange looks—it all blended together, and it still hurt. And the fact that Eldo now knew he had the privilege of ignorance didn’t undo the fact that he had it.

But, if Eldo was actually going to put in the effort to say Lord Mdang correctly, even though he could have taken the easy out of your excellency …well. He was still going to stay at Sayo-Vawen distance for now, definitely, but maybe not forever.

“No, I don’t think we will,” Eldo said, rueful amusement in his voice. “He really is a phenomenal speaker—I’ve seen people who would go on ten times as long, with far less reason, and not convince anyone of their points a tenth as well.” He shook his head, thoughts far away for a moment.

Gaudy took that moment to pause and breathe, spreading his hand against the bark of the tui tree, listening to the wind through its leaves. It had been, all things considered, an extremely unbalancing day. Which wasn’t a bad thing, it was just…strange.

“Well, we shouldn’t be late for Saya Kalikiri,” Eldo said, after the silence, and Gaudy nodded.

“I’ll be out here for a moment longer. See you there, Lord Eldo.”

“Likewise—wait.” Eldo had started to walk away, but he paused, turned back to Gaudy, narrowed his eyes. “Was it an insult, that time?”

Gaudy couldn’t manage to fully bite back his smile, remembering that Eldo had laughed, not balked, when Gaudy had teased him earlier. “I don’t know, you tell me—have you done something to deserve one?”

Chapter Text

Eldo had spent quite a lot of time wondering what went into all of those hundred-page policy drafts, all of those bills and proposals, that his father railed against. When he was very young, and took far more things at face value than he should have, he could have believed that they were full of tedious minutiae, as his father had alleged in one of his less memorable rants on the topic. He wasn’t sure if Prince Rufus actually believed that; it was possible he had just said it in the heat of the moment upon receiving—if Eldo’s memory was correct, which it might not be—hundreds of pages on the reform of the postal service. It was possible, then, it had just been an expression of pique and not an indication that the Prince lacked the ability to parse what information was important, and what was minutia.

But Eldo didn’t feel particularly inclined to give his father the benefit of the doubt, these days. It was irrational, he knew, and petty, and bitter, so he didn’t let it leave the confines of his own mind, but if Prince Rufus wanted Eldo to assume the best of him, he could do something to earn that assumption back.

A year at the palace, and the only members of his family who had written him were his mother, who had expressed that his father’s opinions were, of course, his own but that as far as she was concerned, if Eldo ever wanted to return to her household he was more than welcome to (which was touching, but returning before his father conceded defeat felt too much like capitulation), and his Aunt Rusticiana, who had apologized for the tardiness of the letter—apparently the post in Alinor was nowhere near as competent as the post in Zunidh—and expressed her firm opinion that a sure way to tell you were doing the right thing with your life was being disowned, formally or otherwise, by at least one parent, and that she was glad that one of her nephews was upholding that proud tradition.

Eldo kept their letters, as he kept all of his letters, but if those two were read slightly more frequently than any others, well, the walls of his dormitory had far more interesting secrets to tell than that one.

In any case, and back to his original point, one of the most wonderful and taxing parts of working in the Offices of State was the chance for hands-on experience of exactly what he had spent so much time wondering about: the practical research, data collection, analysis, and pattern-finding that informed so many of the policies and actions of the Imperial Bureaucratic Service. He hadn’t expected that within the first three months of his new position, he and his fellow…co-workers? He didn’t suppose that he could call them friends, quite, despite their weekly meetings (which he’d written his aunt back about, albeit in the coded terms of them appreciating the book she’d sent him his last birthday; he knew she would know what he meant, and also that she would be delighted); and he was too aware of his misstep involving Gaudy Vawen to risk another such presumption.

So, then, he hadn’t expected that he and his fellow co-workers would have completed a survey of each ministry of the Service and delivered each report, both verbally and written, in person to the Lord Chancellor himself.

In three months. Saya Kalikiri had not been exaggerating at the efficiency of either Lord Mdang or the Offices of State.

And, almost more surprisingly, Eldo was enjoying it. Of course, he’d thought it would be important work, which—if he applied himself—he could excel at, and with which he could end up helping change things in Zunidh for the better. And all of that was true, but he hadn’t considered whether or not he would like what he was doing.

It turned out that he did. There was as brilliant satisfaction, quick and sharp as lightning, when the various data points he’d been collecting and noting down aligned, like particles in the air, and illuminated the way to a conclusion he hadn’t thought of before. Things that had seemed just obscure, strange quirks of the government fell in place with dates and news reports of the time and were revealed to be bandaid solutions during the frantic years after the Fall, which had codified and calcified to now be firm tradition despite not actually being useful. Not all of what he found were problems, either, although there was a satisfaction to finding and outlining those. Sometimes what he hit on were quietly brilliant solutions to loopholes that had either come from similar post-Fall scrambling or, more commonly than he had anticipated, holdovers from Astandalas that simply were not useful and which some clever bureaucrat had found a way to circumvent while keeping everything vital still in place.

It would be years before Eldo himself was drafting policy, if he ever would (although some part of him still did wish to), but there was a smaller, quieter satisfaction in this type of work, and in the mental exercise that it involved. It was exhausting, busy, and he was fairly sure he could keep doing it for decades and be happy, on the whole, with his life.

Additionally, he realized with considerably more embarrassment, there was something nice about working in an office that was so resolutely…casual. Well, that wasn’t quite what he meant—while some of the Upper Secretariat did forgo titles when speaking to each other, everyone was always polite and amiable and, in their own ways, welcoming. He spent a solid few weeks, though, thinking that it was the casual nature of the office that had put him so at ease, but then remembered that Lord Mdang was resolutely and politely formal even with them, the youngest members of the office—frankly, more with them than with the Upper Secretariat—and Eldo had that same level of comfort.

After those weeks, he threw out his prior conclusion as incorrect, and had to admit what he actually appreciated: nobody in the office had ever mentioned in his earshot that he was the son of Prince Rufus of Amboloyo. There were no allusions to it, as there had been sometimes as a page; there were no comments on how much he looked like his father. Even when reports back from the Council of Princes, without fail, mentioned his father’s comments, nobody seemed to look to him for explanation or even recognition. It was…

…horribly, it was nice. Nobody gave him either harder or easier assignments than anyone else to pander or punish, attempting to affect his father through him. He was almost certain the growing rapport he had with his co-workers was in no way related to an attempt to get his father’s favor (which would never have worked, not that people had been willing to believe that) or punish him for his father’s missteps. He just was Eldo Vardes, Junior Secretary with a good head for numbers and perhaps a slight fixation on putting as many points of data as possible in a clear graph before drawing any conclusions, no matter how self-evident they might seem.

(In his defense, there was something very satisfying about plotting things out in a way that made the invisible clear, definite, and visible.)

All of which was to say he wasn’t dreading the upcoming assessment of the provinces as much as he could have been, because all logic said they would likely be beginning with Amboloyo. He had braced himself for that, the first day after their survey of the Ministries was over, and had arrived to the office to be informed they would be starting with Xiputl.

Because, Lord Mdang explained, Xiputl had been astonishingly stable even throughout the Fall; much like starting with the Ministry of Finance, starting with a relatively stable but still crucial example would give them all an idea of how to go through a provincial government before they moved to more complicated or contentious regions, such as some of the Dairan inter-provincial spats that had made it into local legislation, or dealing with Nijan in Jilkano (there was no explanation about why dealing with Nijan in particular would be difficult; Eldo had no doubt that it would quickly become evident when they got there).

And then, even more astonishingly, he asked the six secretaries what they thought the best way to assess provincial governments would be.

One day, Eldo was sure, Lord Mdang would stop surprising him.

Still, he put his mind to the problem, and ventured the option that one could start with the reports from the Princes of the province, as the leader of an area tended, in many ways, to set the tone and focus for the place, and that would give a subsequent idea of where to begin looking for weaknesses or strengths. Tully nai Vasiaan had argued instead that one should go through the various local industries and major organizations, to get an idea of what things were like on the ground. Iri had agreed; Iro, on the other hand, had the idea to look at the local branches of the mundial Ministries, so differences between how they were supposed to be run and how they were actually run could illuminate further areas of interest. Gaudy, to Eldo’s lasting astonishment, agreed with him that the Princes should be a point of first investigation, and added that it might be wise to assess their efficacy at ruling as well, face almost perfectly bland. He was, Eldo noticed, getting better at that. Zaoul, who tended to wait until everyone else had offered their conclusions before voicing his own, had not spoken yet when the door opened.

Eldo glanced up, and his eye barely had time to register Imperial Guards in their full panoply before years of training took over and he sank into the proper obeisances. In the edges of his peripheral vision, he could see the others moving, as well, and he watched for the subtle gesture—there it was—saying that they could rise once more.

“It has been some time,” the Sun-on-Earth said, “since I last observed the Service at work.”

Eldo had seen the Emperor of Astandalas exactly twice before. The most recent time, of course, was when he had sworn his oaths as a member of the Service, slightly over a year ago now. The first time had been a half-decade ago, when he was formally presented at court for the first time. Both times, the layout of the Throne Room had made it clear the distance that one should keep from the Sun-on-Earth, the proper procedures delineated in the very architecture of the room. Here, in the crowded and always-busy office, Eldo couldn’t help but get the sense that he was too close, that surely there was some rule being broken here, some unspoken taboo that had been violated. Perhaps, though, that was just the strangeness of seeing the Emperor here.

Not , he told himself firmly, that that should be in any way unusual. The Emperor couldn’t be out of place, least of all in the Palace of Stars. This was his place. Just…there were parts of it, Eldo supposed, that nobody expected the Emperor to see. Saya Kalikiri’s office door was open, the half-bowl of whatever today’s snack was still perched on it. He himself had been doodling on a note as he read through reports, dividing triangles into smaller and smaller versions of themselves to quiet his mind. He had never been before the Emperor with ink-stained fingers, or indeed in any state other than perfectly polished.

At least he was confident his expression was acceptable. He spared half a sympathetic thought for the others, who had not had that same training, and whose faces ranged from open awe to mild panic—but the majority of his attention was focused, of course, on the person of the Emperor. Eldo had mostly seen him seated; standing, he was slightly taller even than Zaoul, the tallest in the office, and his Imperial Yellow robes caught the light and made it hard to look anywhere else.

“Let us not stand on ceremony,” the Emperor continued, which was such an astonishing sentence from the center and centerpiece of all Astandalan ceremony that it almost distracted Eldo from one other very particular fact: that, while they were all looking at the Emperor, almost everyone in the office had their eyes downturned, averted just enough to not risk catching the lion-eyes of the Emperor. Almost everyone, because while the Emperor was looking at Lord Mdang, as only made sense, Lord Mdang was looking back, directly into the eyes that Eldo had glimpsed, sidelong and at a distance, to truly be gold.

What .

Alright, that…was happening, he supposed. It was a flagrant breach of every piece of Imperial etiquette, but…well, his Radiancy didn’t seem to mind. Eldo chanced a glance over at the guards, who looked as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. And it couldn’t be that they did not notice, so…

Well. In instances of unclear etiquette, the higher parties set the norm. And both Lord Mdang and certainly the Emperor far outranked Eldo, so he had no place to critique them. No matter how… unusual someone—anyone—meeting the eyes of the Sun-on-Earth was.

“What are you up to today, my lord chancellor?” The Emperor said, almost casually, although of course his demeanor was serene and benevolent as ever. Nevertheless… what are you up to today? Certainly far more casual speech than…well, than Eldo had expected.

Although at this point, he should be used to radically rethinking his expectations in this office.

“We are beginning the assessment of the provinces, my lord,” Lord Mdang answered easily, not acknowledging the strange eye contact but not dropping it, either. Shouldn’t the taboos be stopping it, some part of Eldo asked in half-panic; might it be…hurting someone? Breaking something that shouldn’t be broken?

He pinned that thought down as ruthlessly as if it were a data point he had spent hours tracking down, presented it with the counterpoint that surely, the Emperor— this Emperor, specified a voice that sounded a little like his aunt—would not intentionally cause harm to his Lord Chancellor, and Lord Mdang would not do anything that might break something that did not need to be broken.

So, counter to all etiquette Eldo had ever been told and what centuries and generations had held, this was probably fine.

“With which do you begin? Amboloyo?” And there was the recognition of Eldo’s link to the province, although in a form he could not have anticipated; a sidelong glance from the Lord of Rising Stars, along with—Eldo almost glanced at his face to double-check before checking himself—what seemed to be a genuine smile. Eldo could feel his cheeks heat and, not for the first time and certainly, he suspected, not for the last, cursed the complexion that left flushes so painfully apparent on his skin.

“Xiputl, my lord,” Lord Mdang corrected, drawing those golden eyes back to himself, and Eldo was not too proud to admit that he could feel his shoulders lose tension the second the Emperor’s attention wasn’t on him. He hadn’t prepared for this! There was, of course, protocol for every meeting with the Emperor, and he knew it; what there wasn’t was protocol for when the Emperor himself seemed to be, however politely and effortlessly, stepping over several of the rules of etiquette and tradition.

Eldo pulled in a breath, resolved that he could handle this, and shoved every speck of his incredulity and panic to the back of his mind, where he could deal with them later.

“Ah, reverse alphabetical order. That appears to be your method in populating your department, as well—” The Emperor said, perfectly serene, and it was close enough to a joke to nearly undo all of Eldo’s work at holding himself together. He could see, at one of the desks across from him, Tully attempt to exchange an incredulous glance with Gaudy, who unfortunately for the attempt was not facing her. Luckily, though, neither was Lord Mdang. “Oh, except for you two, sayora—Olionnë, was it?”

To Eldo’s understanding, it was generally held that only the highest orders of office had the direct honor of speaking to the Emperor. He was, after all, the child—through generations—of the Sun and the Moon, the supreme authority of all Astandalas. Even after the Fall, that level of reverence held weight; according to the priest-wizards, he was in all ways a living god. Even in the exceedingly rare case of the Emperor directly visiting a Ministry in the Service (but then…he had commented about it having been a while since he visited the Service, implying he had before), he would speak to the Chief Ministers alone. Everyone else was, quite honestly, below his notice.

This…was not following those expectations at all.

Iro sent a quick panicked glance at the Lord Chancellor—for which Eldo could not blame her, as he would have been taken aback by the question and he had been trained in situations…at least adjacent to this. (But then, he thought at himself sharply, the others had all been in the Palace for over a year, they were far from inexperienced at etiquette.) Still, the combination of the question and the slight mispronunciation were…well, awkward. Still, Iro rallied quickly.

“Olionnoë, Glorious One.”

The Emperor tilted his head in acknowledgment. “How could I have forgotten the extra syllable? Most mellifluous were your names, I particularly noted them: Iri and Iro Olionnoë.” This time, he said it with a level of certainty, and Eldo was suddenly and astonishingly sure he would not be forgetting them again, though—again—the twins, phenomenal though their grasp of language and work in the Service had been, were leagues beneath the Emperor and thus he had no need to recall them in particular.

When Eldo was a child, he’d said something foolish about not taking the time to learn the name of one of the servants in the estate, and—in what he over time has come to consider a quite fortunate turn of events—his aunt, visiting from Alinor for a Silverheart as fractious and full of debate as any family gathering with his father and aunt in the same room, overheard him. She explained, in exquisite detail, the number of skills every servant in their house had that Eldo had not even been aware were necessary, and a theory of the dignity of work that Eldo would not come to understand for many years. When he’d asked how she knew, she’d informed him that she’d done that precise job, as well as a few others; at Morrowlea, every student was equal, and they all pitched in equally for the tasks that kept the university running. And, she’d added, she did not ask something of her students that she would not do herself. She’d ended it by swearing that if she heard him say something similar again, she would see if he was able to do the same jobs as the people he so readily dismissed. He had taken it as a threat at the time, not a learning opportunity, with the foolishness of childhood.

Perhaps this was not about a need to recall anyone’s names. But his aunt was a radical, even though she was correct, and Eldo wasn’t sure what to make of the Emperor taking actions that seemed in line with hers.

 “I was no doubt distracted by your being identical twins,” The Sun-on-Earth added, with something that Eldo would call, in anyone else, a note of amusement at his own distraction. “Do you have similar talents to each other as well as interests?”

This was the limit of Iro’s valiance, apparently. The sisters exchanged a look, and Iri shifted forward to field that question.

“Iro is better with analysis, and I with synthesis,” she said, voice soft but clear. “We are both better with words than numbers.”

Eldo repressed a wince, for of course that should have been accompanied by a title; he could see, in Iri’s face, the moment she recognized it as well. But, less astonishingly than it would have been had it happened five minutes ago, the Emperor moved past without comment or even recognition of the implicit disrespect, his manner unperturbed.

Moved past, and to the next desk over, which happened to be Eldo’s. Eldo averted his eyes with the ease of long practice.

“Whereas you, Ser Vardes, excel with numbers, as your mother before you, no?”

Eldo was, in the back of his mind, terribly grateful that Lady Felicia was the parent that the Sun-on-Earth decided to compare him to. Still, this was a question he knew how to answer; it wasn’t, in his adolescence, a rare thing to be compared to his mother, both by peers and more pertinently by various Lords and Princes. He ducked his head in an acknowledging nod.

“I am not a mathematician such as my mother, my lord, but I do enjoy numbers and quantitative analytics.”

There was another of those smiles, still distinctly impersonal and benevolent but far more human than Eldo had thought his smiles would be, and the Emperor turned his attention to Tully.

“And you are the young woman from the Yenga—Tulliantha, was it not? You’re Figar’s daughter, if I do not mistake myself. You have his look.”

Eldo wanted to ask Tully, later, how her father had come to the awareness of the Emperor; but he was not sure their acquaintance was at a point where he could offer those questions, questions about her family. And, equally, was not sure he wanted it to be, for there would be questions in return, and he did not know how he would answer those.

“My father will be very honored you know him, Glorious One,” she managed, with the same understandable edge of panic that Iri and Iro had. Unlike with Eldo, where he had moved on easily, the Sun-on-Earth lingered a moment longer.

“You have come a long way from home.”

Eldo wasn’t sure if that was sympathy, in the calm tones of the Emperor, or interest, or just his own mind projecting emotion onto a blank surface. Tully, likewise, didn’t seem entirely sure what to make of it, but Eldo had yet to see her—to see any of them, truly, but Tully tended to be almost as demonstrative as Gaudy about it—back down from a question or a challenge. Her chin came up, and Eldo could see that if this was anyone else she would meet his eyes directly.

“It was my desire to serve the wider world, my lord.”

This seemed to pass muster, as the Emperor’s attention slid along to Zaoul, who stood, eyes averted but apparently calmer than many in the room. Then again, Zaoul was quite good at looking calm and unreadable; Eldo wasn’t sure how much of that was the man’s actual personality, and how much was learned, but again—there were questions he did not think himself close enough to ask, and you could only learn so much of a person via banned poetry readings. Not everyone in the office wore their heart as close to their sleeve as Gaudy Vawen.

“Is that your motivation as well, ser Tkinele?” The question was as light and vaguely interested as the others, but Zaoul took it with all the serious consideration it was due, nodding before he spoke.

“I had many questions no one on the islands could answer.” Zaoul’s voice was as quiet as ever, but something about the answer seemed to catch the attention of the Emperor. Something happened to—the air, perhaps, set it humming and alive with energy. It wasn’t merely in Eldo’s head; he could see the others shifting, as well, and realized all at once that this was, well, the Presence. Not the theoretical Presence, or the Presence as understood in etiquette, but the metaphysical Presence of the Lord of Zunidh. He wondered, for a moment, if this sense of being alive, alight, abuzz was how the air felt in the seconds before a lightningstrike.

Zaoul met the Emperor’s gaze, not without hesitation but without fear, and Eldo realized to his shame that he’d been underestimating the other man, for he would not be able to meet those eyes.

And then the moment passed, the air was merely air, and the Presence was once more a rhetorical term used in courtly matters to denote the area within the notice of the Emperor.

“We are kin,” his Radiancy said, and Eldo couldn’t stop his sharp inhale.

The issue of kinship with the Tkinele had always been a delicate topic for the Emperors of Astandalas, and had only grown more so as the Empire had grown. Of course, it was known that Harbut Zelarin was the son of the Sun and a chief of the Tkinele, and that his mortal wife was also of the Tkinele; that was historical fact. The fact that the Tkinele were not merely a relic of history, the starting point for the line of Yr and Damar, but a living people with their own traditions, their own understanding of what happened, and—crucially—no interest in being part of the Empire that their errant sons had founded was, well, from Eldo’s admittedly meager knowledge…

…it was a bit of a sore spot.

In addition, the fact that there were, likely, living relatives of Harbut Zelarin outside of the Empire—complicated things. For if the descent of Zelarin from the Sun proved his, and thus his descendents’, right to rule, then did not his living relatives, even if not of direct descent, also deserve acknowledgement of their closeness to divinity? Or, conversely: if the Tkinele were, indeed, the kin of the line of Yr and Damar…well, that fact came dangerously close to implying that the Imperial line was…human.

Which was, of course, sacrilege, treason, and blasphemy.

So, unwilling to conquer the Islands and unwilling to admit the humanity of their Emperors, Astandalas the Golden had walked a fine line, never denying Harbut Zelarin’s well-documented origins, but never acknowledging that they may have living kinsmen outside of the Empire. Much as they were politically, the Tkinê Islands were held in a strange sort of limbo, half-in and half-out of Imperial consideration, the source of the Imperial line and yet somehow unrelated to it.

All of which Emperor Artorin Damara, hundredth and last Emperor of Astandalas, had just destroyed with a single sentence spoken to Zaoul. The implications of this, politically…well, the political implications of this depended on if anyone in the office knew to gossip about it, or perhaps more pertinently knew not to gossip about it. But the implications of this in a wider sense—

This was an Emperor who came to visit the Offices of State, who said not to stand on ceremony, who met the eyes of his Lord Chancellor with the ease of familiarity and perhaps even teased him, who asked questions about the lives of the Junior Secretariat, who acknowledged that the emperor could have kin who were not of the Imperial line, who were not even of the Empire.

Eldo could think of several Princes and Lords of far lower rank who did not see the people around them as half as human as the Sun-on-Earth seemed to find those around him.

A moment later he realized he was staring, not politely but openly, and looked away again; he thought he caught the flicker of a glance in his direction from those sun-gold eyes,but when the Emperor spoke it was still to Zaoul.

“Devoga oha hav’eghan’oa, eloyiki?”

Zaoul stared at the Emperor for a second, the bewilderment and awe on his face turning to something more heartwrenching for the moment it was visible, before Zaoul abruptly and quickly prostrated himself before the Lord of Rising Stars, staring up at him with an expression that Eldo could not look too closely at, for fear of intruding on something that was not meant for him.

“Indevoga e ngaloyiki, O rep’ekhan’oa!”

It was the most expression Eldo—or indeed, anyone in the room, from the quick expressions hidden just as quickly—had ever heard from Zaoul.

“Ega eghan’oa ne gavegharo,” the Emperor said, and made a gesture which was none of the courtly ones Eldo knew but doubtless had meaning. “You may return to your seat, Zaoul. I am afraid I do not know much more of the old tongue than that.”

“It is far more than I ever thought to hear so far from home,” Zaoul said, voice wavering in a way Eldo had never heard before, but he did return to his seat. Eldo focused on the desk in front of him, still all-too-aware of the feeling that he should not be there. “Sweet my lord, how is it known at all to you?”

Eldo could see the Emperor out of his peripheral vision alone, but out of that peripheral vision he thought he saw a wry smile on the face of his Serene and Glorious Majesty, but he didn’t dare check again to see if he was right, and when the Emperor spoke his voice was perfectly, well, serene.

“When I was a boy I, too, was afflicted with the questions no one could answer,” he replied in that calm voice, another small violation of propriety, for one typically didn’t try to acknowledge that life existed before a child was presented to the Emperor, before they could come truly into the light of the Empire. “Or would, in my case,” the Emperor added a moment later in correction. “I’m sure my tutor knew many things he was forbidden to teach me. He was forbidden to beat me, of course, and so my usual punishment for misbehaving was to learn minor languages of the Empire. He used to say that I was probably the only person still fluent in Renvoonran.”

Which was such an astonishing admission: of a past, of things that had been forbidden for the Marwn to know, of childhood misbehavior, of personhood. Eldo again felt like he was looking through a window that should have blinds drawn before it, but the blinds had been pulled back intentionally, a strange allowance of the trespass of looking.

“Antique Shaian began as one such punishment—but then I discovered the Saga of the Sons of Morning, and learned it for the sake of the poetry. When I was reviewing the treaties with Zuni peoples I discovered that modern Tkinê is very close to Antique Shaian—far closer than Modern Shaian—and I learned some of the words.”

The Emperor’s attention finally passed from Zaoul, leaving the man looking uncharacteristically shaken and Eldo’s nerves feeling similar, and settled on Gaudy—and then, the Emperor laughed.

Not politely, or quickly, but the robust laugh of someone surprised into it by delight, a sound that was rare enough that Eldo always found it startling even from his co-workers. Hearing it from the Emperor was the cap on a visit full of moments where he, against all custom and all the etiquette that Eldo had spent his life learning, proved again and again that he was human.

It was the culmination of all of the Emperor’s small actions of humanity, certainly, but that laugh somehow was not the most startling thing that Eldo heard.

“Good heavens,” The Sun-on-Earth said, voice amused and delighted, “but do you ever look like your uncle when he first came into my service! He has always looked younger than he is—no doubt to some disgruntlement when he wanted to be taken as a mature responsible individual.”

Gaudy had mentioned an uncle in the Service, once, and Eldo had assumed this uncle was out somewhere in one of the provinces, perhaps in the provicinal Service in the Vangavaye-ve. He had thought that a reasonable assumption at the time, but—this office. Assumptions. The Emperor’s words belied a far more familiar knowledge of this uncle. Eldo was watching Gaudy’s face to avoid looking too closely and rudely on the Emperor’s, and so he caught a slight, telling aside glance, as Gaudy looked at Lord Mdang.


“Of course,” his Radiancy added, his own glance traveling over to Lord Mdang, the delight softening to something else (something human, something happy) , “now he has the hat to display his respectability.” He returned his attention to Gaudy, who was visibly flushing. “You seem to be progressing with your ambition, Gaudenius. Perhaps your uncle will create a position above Lord Chancellor for you to aim at—though you will have to wait until the new government for that.”

His attention broadened to the full room, and from a glance around the room Eldo could tell that no, he was not the only one who had been taken entirely by surprise by that piece of information. Gaudy was furiously not looking at anyone; Lord Mdang’s face was entirely polite and composed, but his eyes were slightly narrowed as he continued to look directly at the eyes of the Emperor.

“Well done, all of you. My lord chancellor has spoken very highly of your many excellencies, and I am well pleased with your work.” He nodded, accepted a bow from Saya Kalikiri, and swept out once more, leaving in his wake one of the most profoundly awkward silences that Eldo had ever experienced.

Unsurprisingly, Saya Kalikiri was the one who broke it.

“You’ve kept that very quiet, sir.”

So even she hadn’t known. The part of Eldo that was bitterly aware many attempted friendships early in his life had been attempts to curry favor with his father noted that was, in fact, a wise move; it would be hard to argue that nepotism was involved if the person who actually hired Gaudy hadn’t known of the relation.

Lord Mdang met Gaudy’s eyes, and then glanced to the rest of the room, bearing entirely formal, entirely proper. “I have to admit it had not occurred to me  that his Radiancy would be the one to mention it,” he said, and his voice was entirely devoid of the irritation Eldo was completely certain he was feeling. “Well. Can we return to our work?”

“Are we just to ignore—” Saya Kalikiri said, confirming Eldo’s quiet suspicion that she and Lord Mdang were considerably closer to friends than Lords and their assistants often were, and also voicing what must be the thoughts of half the room. Eldo thought of how grateful he had been, so far, that everyone had ignored his own relation to his father, and abruptly felt very bad for Gaudy.

Then again, Gaudy probably wouldn’t appreciate his sympathy.

“Yes, Gaudy is my nephew, and yes, obviously we had decided it would be better not to mention it until he had established his own reputation,” Lord Mdang said, voice steely. “Is there anything else?”

From what Eldo could tell, Lord Mdang didn’t like to use the authority of his title. He certainly didn’t seem to hold himself higher than anyone around him, the way so many did. But that meant that when he did, clearly, speak with the power and authority of the Lord Chancellor of Zunidh, everyone listened and obeyed. He launched, after a moment, into a brief synopsis of the current state of Xiputl, and everyone did their best to forget the past fifteen minutes had ever happened.

For better or for worse, they were meeting that night. They’d already made their way well through Aurora, and Kissing the Moon, and the Company of Armed Gentlemen; they had finally managed to locate a copy of That Party , which was predictably very difficult to find in the Palace, and were planning to start it that night. Eldo wasn’t sure if the afternoon’s events had changed that plan in the slightest, but…well. He had rather come to look forward to those nights, so he hoped that that much, at least, had not changed.

They’d stopped gathering exclusively in his room after the third week; after then, there was a period of disorganized gathering in one place or another, before the randomness and lack of a strict schedule had gotten on, well, everyone’s nerves enough and three months in to their time as pages, a rotation had been set up. Perhaps fortunately, it was not Gaudy’s turn to host; they were headed to Iro’s room this time. She greeted him politely when he entered, and behind her Tully was already perched on an edge of the kitchen counter and was perusing one of the detective novels she tended to favor.

He murmured his greeting and moved into the room, placing the copy of That Party on the small table in the center of the room. After a year of having the same rooms, and meeting almost every week, Eldo had been able to watch as people accumulated small details that spoke to their style and design sensibilities. After Silverheart, the twins had each come home with a lovely rug that brightened up their rooms considerably—and, conveniently, made sitting on the floor far more comfortable, if not more dignified—which had been gifts from their family. Gaudy, Tully, and Zaoul had lived too far away to travel home for Silverheart (and Eldo…hadn’t, even if he could have), but their rooms had also gathered small accent pieces and touches that softened the space, made it more lived-in.

Of course, Iro didn’t only have a superlative rug; there were a few small painted pieces on her walls, some of which seemed to be personal studies of the landscape and others of which might have been purchased from some of the smaller and more affordable art stores around Solaara. The two chairs in her room had acquired cushions; the throw blanket that was usually around one of them was claimed by Iri when she walked in, ensconcing herself in it immediately.

“Alright, I’ve decided four people is a quorum, we can start the conversation, did anyone else expect… that to happen today?” She said, once safely contained in soft blanket. Eldo shook his head, as Tully put her book down and Iro slumped into one of the chairs.

“I…doubt it,” Tully said, after a long moment. “Seeing as even Lord Mdang seemed surprised. I’m pretty sure he would have mentioned an Imperial visit if he knew one was happening.”

“And then we could have gotten all of our panicking out of the way before it actually happened, instead of in the moment,” Iri muttered, and then shook her head. “No, I’m being ridiculous. We all would have been jumping every time the door opened, nothing would have gotten done.”

“True,” Eldo said. Another knock came at the door, and Iro pulled herself up from the chair to go answer it. A moment later, Zaoul came in, looking more tentative than Eldo had seen him for a while.

“Hello, Zaoul, we’re talking about the fact that the Emperor sprang not only a visit but a few minutes of personal conversation on all of us today,” Tully said bluntly, and Zaoul seemed to relax a little at her directness. Eldo could not relate, but whatever worked, he supposed.

“It was…certainly something,” Zaoul said diplomatically; he had, Eldo noticed, a real gift for understatement at times. “In any case, my apologies for being slightly late.”

“We’re not all here yet, anyway,” Iri pointed out, and nobody in the room said anything for a moment. Would Gaudy come by? Eldo could certainly see the impulse not to.

“I wonder if we should just be prepared for the Emperor to show up at any moment,” Tully mused into the silence and Eldo shook his head, not in disagreement but in appreciation for just how strange the day had become.

“I suspect we’re only at risk of it when we’re in the Offices,” he offered, making her snort with amusement, although it had only half been a joke.

“You’d be surprised,” a voice said from the door, as Gaudy—presumably hearing conversation from the outside—let himself in. “The first time I ever saw his Radiancy he showed up unexpectedly to a concert where we were all planning to throw a surprise celebration of my mother. Nobody even knew he was in the Vangavaye-ve.”

Eldo stared at him for a long moment. He did not appear to be joking.

Still, he looked mildly less mortified than he had earlier, and if he flushed a little under the combined gaze of the rest of the room he also didn’t back down from it. Instead, he crossed the room and dropped into his usual cross-legged seated position, muttering something under his breath that Eldo didn’t catch but made Zaoul raise an eyebrow. 

“A gift from whom?” He asked, and Gaudy blinked. 

“Oh—a saying from home about days like today,” he said. “A gift from the Son of Laughter.” At the still-confused looks from around the room, he shrugged with one shoulder. “Who has a tendency to give you exactly what you need, but not what you want, in the funniest way possible for him in particular. I’m sure, wherever he is, he’s laughing at me.” He sighed, casting his eyes vaguely west, towards the Vangavaye-ve all the way across the ocean. “I would have liked for everyone not to know for a while longer. Well, the fire’s spread now, let’s get any questions out of the way.” 

“We don’t have to,” Zaoul said, and Gaudy shrugged again. He looked far less like he was facing an inquisition than Eldo would have in the same position.

“True,” he allowed. “But I’d rather talk about it than have everyone dance around it for weeks, because that would be a nightmare, and it would be weird if you didn’t have questions. And the only part that was actually a secret isn’t anymore, so…” He trailed off. “I guess I’d rather have you just ask.” 

It was, in Eldo’s opinion, a strange position to take, wanting everything to be out on the table and explicitly asked rather than politely held back, but just because he was more than happy never talking about his family ever again didn’t mean the same held for other people.

There was another pause for a moment, and then Tully broke the silence.

“I mean, I guess I just feel silly for not realizing. Now that I know it’s pretty clear you’re related—you don’t look that different. And he even said you knew his family a few months ago—which, okay, that’s a lot funnier than I thought it was.” Her tone was light, and Gaudy’s snort of laughter broke the tension of the room.

“To be fair, that’s not actually much of a tell,” he said, tilting his head in a way that Eldo realized his uncle also did—and now that he was looking for resemblance, it was obvious, Tully was right. “If you’re from Gorjo City, you know the Mdang family.”

“Are they that highly-regarded, then?” Eldo asked. For some reason, this made Gaudy laugh again.

“Oh, no—I mean, well, I suppose so? But that’s not the reason—there are just many Mdangs. Fifty-nine in my mother’s generation. I have to be related to about a tenth of the city.” He said it casually, like a fact, and then looked around at everyone’s faces. His face twisted, betraying the fact that he was swallowing down yet more laughter.

Fifty-nine cousins,” Tully said, sounding skeptical, and Gaudy nodded.

“Of my mother’s. I don’t have any first cousins myself, but we all grew up together anyway, so we don’t tend to differentiate by degree.” He shrugged, as though that wasn’t a completely strange concept—Eldo was fairly sure he had been able to recite the precise distance between himself and any relation by age twelve. Then again, he’d had to be able to recite those things by age twelve; it had been expected. “At home, it’s hard to go a street without running into a cousin.” His voice was wistful, for a moment.

“And…your father is Lord Mdang’s brother?” Zaoul asked. “On account of your surname,” he added, when half the room looked at him. Eldo blinked—he had forgotten that, at one point, he knew that sections of the Wide Sea passed down names in a matrilinear manner. Gaudy was shaking his head, though.

“Leona—my sister—and I are a somewhat unique case,” he said. “My mother’s Lord Mdang’s older sister—she’s head of the Gorjo City Symphony Orchestra.” He’d mentioned that fact before, but it seemed new again in light of its connection.

There was another moment of silence, and Eldo found himself asking—spurred, perhaps, by Gaudy’s strange openness about all of this, or about some of the thoughts that had been stewing in his own mind for years, at this point—something he’d wondered long before today. “Is Lord Mdang different as an uncle than he is as Lord Mdang?”

Gaudy looked at him, eyes sharper than Eldo wanted them to be, but he took his time before answering.

“Less so than you’d think. He’s more…casual. And at home, he doesn’t talk about his work much—it can be like pulling teeth to get any details at all. But of course, he deals with many things that are confidential, so I can hardly blame him, and I doubt he wants to spend his one vacation a year talking about the results of the year’s audits. He offers advice to fix problems—well, he does that here, too. There’s just an official procedure for it here. At home it’s a little more like someone barging into the house and complaining and Uncle—and Lord Mdang listening and saying ‘you know,there’s something you can do about that—’ and telling them what to do.” His voice was fond, a layer of amusement to it that Eldo couldn’t quite parse—but then he thought of his aunt’s inability to stop being Domina Rusticiana, always finding the lesson in an everyday interaction with her nephews despite their many protests, and the comparison drew in understanding.

“To be fair,” Gaudy added after a moment. “He’s usually right. Always right, really. So in that there really isn’t much difference between how he is with our family and how he is with the Court—he’s just far more insistent here. Then again, few people here are as hardheaded as some of our family.” There’s that same amused fondness, returning in his voice. 

He said it—the fact that Lord Mdang was similar at home as at work—as a compliment. Eldo could describe his father the same way, certainly, but it would have been nowhere near as fond, and completely unamused. But then, if today had established anything it was how vastly different the two were; Eldo’s father had disowned him and still he heard whispers he’d only gotten in on his father’s name, while Lord Mdang had respected Gaudy’s clear wish to make his own way and not mentioned their relation until the Emperor did it for him.

Eldo had no uncles--his father was an only child, and his mother’s brother had been lost in the Fall--but he imagined growing up with a father, perhaps, who listened and respected Eldo’s decisions to that degree. He had listened to his aunt’s description of Morrowlea, where there were no titles or surnames,with an emotion he only identified years later as jealousy, bitter and unfair as it was. How could he begrudge Gaudy wanting not to be defined by his family? If there was a chance, however slim, that Eldo could have been anonymous upon entering the Service he would have taken it. 

He was drifting too close to that bitter, unfair jealousy again, he realized, and shoved the thoughts away. There was no true comparison to be drawn between their situations: Gaudy was the nephew of the most competent man in the government, and Eldo the disowned son of a prince.The lines of their lives were not parallel, could not be measured as if they were. It wasn’t fair to Gaudy, or to him, to do that. 

But Eldo let himself wish, for a single second, that he could be as proud of his father as Gaudy was of Lord Mdang. 

“That is the most terrifying thing you could have said about your family,” Tully informed Gaudy frankly, bringing Eldo back to the conversation at hand. “I did not need to know there were more stubborn people than the Council of Princes, and now I do. My horizons have been broadened and I thank you.” Her comically-formal tone made Gaudy snort again. “In any case, Gaudy’s uncle and the Emperor deciding to grace all of us with his presence to the side, we have important mildly treasonous reading to get to and we are on a schedule.”

“Stars forbid I interfere with your scheduling,” Gaudy said, clearly tempted to continue and do just that, but raised his hands in performative surrender. “Alright, alright, I actually was looking forward to That Party as well. At least we know enough about the layout now to tell if Fitzroy Angursell is describing it well enough to have actually been in the Palace at some point.”

Chapter Text

About a month after the Emperor’s impromptu visit, things had…settled. For the most part, people had stopped looking between Lord Mdang and Gaudy with the “how did I not figure this out” expression Tully had worn the evening afterward, which had gone from funny—surely they couldn’t look that similar—to irritating, and then crossed back over the line to funny again. Gaudy was glad to see it gone, though. He had work to do—they all had work to do—and that was far more important than the fact that Gaudy was related to their boss.

He had been glad to realize, though, that there had been fewer whispers of nepotism than he’d feared. Nobody in the Offices of State said anything, and he didn’t suddenly get different assignments in any major way; for a while, he wondered if his uncle had said something to that extent, but after asking around and—more importantly—listening around, he realized that the truth was a little simpler, if still (inadvertently) thanks to Lord Mdang. Frankly, the vast majority of the Service just knew that wasn’t the kind of thing the Lord Chancellor would do. Gaudy was willing to bet a few of the princes might grumble, if they even cared who worked as a junior secretary in the Offices of State, but if they did it wasn’t in the Palace, where people would point out how many of their relations worked, in some form or another, either for the Service or for them directly.

But the rest of the Service—both the people Gaudy interacted with daily and far-flung others, the heads of various Ministries, provincial officials, and the vast majority of the people who lived and worked in the Palace of Stars—seemed firmly of the mind that Lord Mdang was incorruptible. Gaudy asked after a few stories, and ended up in turns amused and horrified by the string of apparent bribes, undermining campaigns, favor-currying, and (mortifyingly) attempted seduction attempts that Lord Mdang had proven completely immune to. Regardless, after the eight-hundred-something Solaaran years of people trying and failing to provoke the Emperor’s secretary into showing any partiality or self-interest whatsoever, everyone seemed to have written it off as a complete impossibility.

Which was kind of nice. Nobody came to Gaudy trying to get him to put a good word in with his uncle; nobody implied that he only had his post because of his uncle, either, although he wondered if Kiri’s openly expressed shock after the announcement had managed to help that along. He was still just Gaudy Vawen, member of the Junior Secretariat working in the Offices of State; he just got to have dinner, a couple of times in the past few weeks, with his uncle instead of in the main cafeterias.

And the rest of the time he got to deal with the knotted tangle of administration and politics determining if Nijan should be its own province or remain under the wider heading of Jilkano, just like everyone else. It wasn’t even that that was the question, as far as Gaudy could tell; clearly the island was extremely different from the Jilkanese mainland and would operate far better if given independence. The problem, of course, was that they were a long way away from having enough data to present that as a solution to the Council of Princes and get anything close to a favorable result, and thus…research. Technically, this was still part of the survey of the provinces; it was just that this part of what was considered Jilkano was so obviously not functioning correctly that it had formed a whirlpool of reports, complaints, and attempted small solutions that sucked all their attention into its depths. It was exciting, in some ways—such a complicated problem! So many facets of it to consider, and all of them on display because, as the people didn’t trust their Prince, they wrote to the Offices with any and every complaint they had!

After the first day, Eldo had managed to find a large roll of paper that he’d spread across four desks, and they’d collated their reports to back-date the beginning of several large moments of unrest, tracking down reports from the various provincial ministries as well as any larger, mundial events that could have been affecting the situation, and began to put together a timeline of how precisely things had gotten to this state. Gaudy was sure that Lord Mdang had some similar timeline entirely in his head, but not everyone had his remarkable capacity to hold facts and plans in his own mind—and so everyone’s handwriting crowded onto the paper. This was going to be the most comprehensive report they’d put together so far, and it didn’t even touch the rest of Jilkano yet, but it was the only way they could think to actually make sense of the situation and draw reasonable conclusions from it.

Lord Mdang hadn’t commented on the large timeline, other than that he was glad to see that they grasped the intricacies of the situation, but Kiri had been impressed. Still, though, Gaudy was beginning to feel that if he read the words “Nijani police force” one more time, they would lose all meaning in his brain, melting into a nonsensical pile of letters. He watched Tully reach for the next report as though it was a crab threatening to take off a few of her fingers.

So practically everyone was grateful when one of the new pages (and wasn’t that a little strange, there were new pages, now) skidded into the room and hastily bowed to Kiri.

“What is it?” Kiri asked, bowing back politely, and the page paused to catch his breath—so he’d come up a few flights of stairs, Gaudy assumed—and managed a report.

“A delegation from the Wide Sea has arrived—from the Vangavaye-ve, bearing a petition letter for the Offices of State and his Radiancy the Emperor. They asked to speak to Lord Mdang—one of them claims kinship with him.” It’s a pretty succinct summary for a rare occurrence—someone coming all the way to Solaara, from the furthest Province moreover—with a petition, rather than just mailing it. This said it was serious—that it was important. The part of Gaudy that was registering things for work, that was learning how to parse the Service and how it functions, registered that. The rest of him skidded to a halt at the words the Vangavaye-ve.

A petition? From the Vangavaye-ve? And one of the petition-bearers claiming kinship with Lord Mdang? That was…Gaudy managed to pull his brain out of the Nijani political whirlpool in time to catch Kiri’s look over at him.

“Did they give any names?” He asked, hoping that Kiri wouldn’t mind him interfering with the conversation. The page, who clearly was new, rallied admirably.

“Jiano Delanis of Ikialo village on—Lesuia Island.” The pronunciation wasn’t perfect, but it was a solid effort for having heard the names once, Gaudy thought. “And his wife, Aya inDovo Delanis, who is the one who claimed kinship with Lord Mdang.” Gaudy heard Tully’s sharp inhale at that, and decided to file that under “problems to deal with later.” The page’s voice had raised a little, as if a question, and Gaudy nodded to Kiri’s raised eyebrow.

“She claims it rightly,” he confirmed, spending a panicked half-second in his mind trying to calculate the precise term for the fact that Aya’s great-grandmother and his great-grandmother were sisters before dismissing it as wasted time and effort. The next term he reached for, hanë, was more accurate but wouldn’t be understood—and parsing the difference for everyone in the office between hanë and wontok and the Shaian term “kinsman” was more work than he wanted that day, and left it at the confirmation. “I do not know her personally, but Lord Mdang has spoken highly of her,” he added, because it was true; Uncle Kip had been more than happy to share news of the Eastern Ring and their family there, the day that the Emperor had come to visit the Tahivoa Lagoon House himself.

Before he could stop himself, he turned to Kiri and changed the position of his hands, indicating a polite request this time. “Saya Kalikiri, may I see what business they have arrived on and then pass the message to Lord Mdang? I suspect he will want to know of their arrival immediately.” Immediately meaning before he gets sucked into the endless flow of work that is his day. Other than Cousin Zemius, who of course had been directly invited by the Emperor, this was—

—this was the first time Gaudy could remember that anyone from the Vangavaye-ve had actually come to Solaara. He’d heard that back before the Fall, before he was born, Basil and Dimiter—the uncles he’d never gotten the chance to meet—had traveled all the way to Astandalas the Golden, but since then…and Aya was hanë, their family—

She considered for a moment, and then nodded. “Yes—and show them to somewhere to wait, although I’m sure that Lord Mdang will have specific instructions when you tell him. And more of them, I expect.” There was a wave of hidden smiles through the office—it was something of a running joke, the inability to get within Cliopher Lord Mdang’s area of attention without coming away with a half-dozen additional tasks, unless you had urgent work directly in front of you.

Gaudy bowed in recognition, got directions from the page—who seemed quick on the uptake, a good sign—and headed down to where the largest commotion currently was, as everyone seemed simultaneously trying not to stare at the two Wide Sea Islanders standing politely in one of the palace’s lesser entryways, and unable to stop. The pair seemed to hold up well under the scrutiny; the man, perhaps a decade older than Gaudy, stood with a straight posture and confident bearing, while the woman looked around with eyes that struck Gaudy with a sudden pang of homesickness.

If Gaudy had not known that Aya inDovo Delanis was a relative of his, no matter how distant, he likely wouldn’t have noticed a resemblance; but as he did know, there was a part of him that recognized her eyes, the same warm brown eyes his grandmother Eidora had after her mother before her, described often—and with a healthy dose of humor—as fiery in their warmth and directness. Gaudy didn’t have them himself, taking slightly more after his father, but Leona did, as did little Dora, and Cousin Quintus, and easily a dozen or two others in the family he could mention. He had spent half the walk wondering how he should greet them; but while he knew of them, they didn’t know of him, so it would be somewhat abrupt to greet them as family. And, of course, there were court forms for greeting arriving delegations, but…

But Gaudy was one of the very few people in the Palace who would know the proper way to greet someone sent from the Vangavaye-ve to speak for the Ring, so when he saw them he bowed in the Vangavayen style, over his folded hands to show respect—as while they were perhaps a little young to be elders, they were certainly older than him, and if they were here they spoke for the elders, and everyone else besides.

“Sayo and Saya Delanis, welcome to the Palace of Stars,” he said, the words too-formal to be properly right but the best he had at the moment. Why hadn’t they been shown to somewhere to sit? He let his irritation flare for a moment, and then remembered that if Aya had declared kinship with Lord Mdang, they were probably all waiting to see what Kiri, at least, said.

It was still a little startling to have them bow in response to him, but he hoped his mild panic was off his face by the time they stood. Back home, he was still an unmarried son without a house or boat or job to his name, or he had been the last time he was there—not really the kind of person who got respectful bows.

“To whom do we have the honor of speaking?” The man—Jiano Delanis, then, who Uncle Kip had named sometime Speaker for Ikialo Village—asked, face still composed but voice—and that was distinctly an Eastern Ring accent, but still it was familiar enough for Gaudy’s heart to catch in his throat—warm and, Gaudy thought, perhaps a bit relieved to run into a fellow Islander.

“I’m Gaudenius Vawen—of Gorjo City, but here I’m a secretary for the Offices of State,” he said, and then—because he had been away from home for a long time, but not that long—added with a grin, “And before you ask, yes, I am related to the Mdangs.”

That got a snort from Jiano and a merry laugh from Aya, and Gaudy felt a part of him he hadn’t realized was tense relax at someone getting that joke, even this far from home.

“Then it is doubly good to see you, hani,” Aya said, and Gaudy couldn’t help his smile in response.

“Likewise—if you wouldn’t mind following me? I can get you to somewhere to sit and something to eat or drink, at least,” he says, remembering where the nearest moderately comfortable waiting-room would be and starting to head that direction, “—and once I have a better idea of why you’ve come I’ll run the news up to Lord Mdang immediately,” he promised.

“We’re actually here with a letter from your cousin,” Jiano explained, once the three of them could actually sit and Gaudy had sent someone for water. Gaudy bit back a look of mild horror—which he could tell that Aya at least caught, given her expression—and, fortunately, remembered which of Louya’s various projects would actually have enough backing to get all the way to Solaara.

“…Earl Baljan isn’t backing down on the fish farm, is he,” he said, and if his tone suddenly went bitter and angry at least the other two in the room clearly shared his sentiments.

The thing was, most people didn’t care about anything that happened up at Princess Oriana’s court, because it didn’t matter. Princess Oriana could have her vanity projects, her petty lordlings and their open disdain, her Jilkanese decorations in the palace of the Vangavaye-ve, and the title of Princess, because none of that really mattered. At the end of the day, it was—as several of Gaudy’s relatives had put it, at various times—just fancy velio clothes and fancy velio titles and an elaborate game of dress-up that nobody really cared about.

But this vanity project, the one that Earl Baljan had—Gaudy realized, thinking of the stack of reports that Zaoul had summarized for them regarding the workers of the Nikao River fish farm taking control of the facility—stolen wholesale from Nijan and taken somewhere he assumed nobody would care enough to stop it…

…it threatened the Bay of Waters.

And that was unacceptable.

That, more than anything else, would spur the Vangavaye-ve to send a delegation of some sort all the way to Solaara, even if “Looney Louya” was the one who wrote the petition.

“Of course he isn’t,” Jiano said, “despite everyone who lives in the area explaining why it’s a bad idea. Oriana has taken his side—of course—so…well, there aren’t many other options available to us. I think half of Gorjo City has signed on to the petition, just so nobody dismisses it as a radical idea from the Outer Ring.” He offered the petition, and Gaudy glanced at the names—and then kept reading.

“I almost feel I should sign it so it’s the whole family,” he said without thinking, seeing his mother’s name, and then shook his head. “But that would probably be considered unfairly biasing the petition, for some reason or another.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Jiano said, and Gaudy nodded.

“It is, but people have strange ideas about what you’re allowed to be partial about here. You can fight tooth or nail for ideas of familial honor, but when it comes to civic projects that affect your home, people start looking suspicious about how your personal stake in it might affect your opinion. And I and Lord Mdang are the only ones from the Vangavaye-ve…” he trailed off. “But he’ll definitely want to know about this, and he’ll also know which of the various levels of guest room to put you in,” he added, because while he could make an educated guess, it was his uncle who had nearly a thousand years of experience with courtly etiquette to draw upon.

“We don’t need anything particularly fancy,” Jiano said, and Gaudy shook his head firmly.

“It’s not about that—well, first of all, this is the Palace of Stars, you’re not going to find anything that isn’t fancy until you get down to the real lower levels. But it’s about—if you want to be taken seriously and people to accept that what you’re saying is important here,” he explained, realizing as he did that he wasn’t sure he’d ever articulated this before, “you have to act like you’re important, far more than you have to back at home. There’s a lot less—you can’t wait for people to challenge you, here, most of the time, because they won’t. If you two have rooms for, say, a minor visitor of some sort, people are going to assume that’s how important you are and treat you accordingly. Uncle Kip—” He winced, but he’d noticed his voice slipping more and more Vangavayen in the conversation, so this was bound to happen eventually— “I mean, Lord Mdang, he’ll have a better idea of where precisely would work best.”

“He is truly a Lord, then?” Aya asked, raising an eyebow. “His lord didn’t introduce him as such on Lesuia.”

Right—they’d met his Radiancy, and Gaudy remembered a few comments his uncle had made about the vacation, such as it was, being incognito.

Did they…

Did they not know who Uncle Kip’s lord was?

Well, Gaudy supposed he hadn’t either, and he’d been reading Uncle Kip’s letters full of lovingly-related details about the man for as long as he could remember, so he couldn’t fault them too much. He opened his mouth to tell them, realized he had no idea of how to, and closed it again before answering the actual question.

“It’s more recent than that—he was recently officially titled as the Lord Chancellor, which—well, I think he would have been fully happy just doing all the work without the title, but it’s like the rooms. It conveys a level of rank.”

“He didn’t seem the type overly concerned with that,” Aya said, voice amused, and Gaudy nodded.

“I don’t think he is, either, but—” he shrugged. “It was given to him by his lord, and it does make people take him more seriously.” Which reminded him, there was only a short amount of time, by his count, before Lord Mdang left his appointment with his Radiancy, and after that Gaudy would have to try to track him down—all of which would be time Aya and Jiano would be left waiting, being stared at, with people gossiping about whether or not they claimed kinship truly, about what they were here for—

Absolutely not. “Sorry to have to leave so abruptly, Speaker Jiano, hanë, but I should go let him know—”

“And while we’re here visiting, you’re still at your actual job, and not everywhere is as laid-back as Lesuia, I know,” Aya said, with a kind smile. “Go let your uncle know we’re here, and it was very good to meet you.”

“Likewise,” Gaudy said, and meant it. “And—” He paused, wondering if this was a step too far, but that was the year in Solaara talking. Back home, he wouldn’t have hesitated. “—once I am off the clock, would you mind if I visited with you? It’s been too long since I’ve gotten news in person of home.”

“Of course! You’re welcome any time, hani, you know that,” Aya said, and Gaudy beamed.

Gaudy got entirely through telling Ser Rhodin that he had an urgent message for Lord Mdang before the veiled alarm on the man’s face and the speed with which he retreated into the Emperor’s rooms told him that, perhaps, this could have been misconstrued.

Oh dear.

He hurried in, performing his obeisances to his Radiancy with only half of his mind, the rest frozen in the look of terror he had glimpsed on his uncle’s face—for even though he wasn’t supposed to look anywhere before at the Sun-on-Earth, he could not stop himself from checking, from seeing if Lord Mdang had been as alarmed as he had feared by his over-hasty words.

The study of the Emperor was doubtless a lovely place, full of priceless treasures; Gaudy saw them all out of focus, because he could not bear to see his Uncle Kip that clearly terrified. He was not to stand yet—the Emperor hadn’t signaled—so he knelt at Lord Mdang’s desk and reached for his uncle’s hands, hoping to convey apology and comfort via touch as well as words.

“Uncle Kip,” he said, and he should not be talking to his uncle before the Emperor, either, but he realized all at once that there was no way the Emperor he met, the one who titled his Uncle Kip before his entire family and went with little Dora to see her toys, the Emperor who laughed in delight at Gaudy’s resemblance to his secretary—his beloved Lord Chancellor—would mind Gaudy offering comfort before respect. “It’s all right, it’s all right.”

“My mother—your mother—” His uncle managed, voice tight and almost emotionless, which was how Gaudy could tell that he had truly made a mistake, his uncle shut as tight around his emotions as a clam around a pearl.

“They’re fine,” Gaudy said quickly. “Everyone is fine. It’s all right. Everything is all right, Uncle Kip.”

“Drink this,” another voice said, and Gaudy looked up and smiled to see that Conju, appearing out of the air as if by magic, was firmly placing a glass of water on Uncle Kip’s desk. Gaudy let his uncle’s hands go so he could take and drink the water.

“I’m very sorry,” he said, now that it looked like his Uncle was slightly less on the verge of an attack of panic, glancing between him and his Radiancy—for of course, of course, everyone would assume that only a dire emergency would be worthy of interrupting a meeting with the Emperor, but the arrival of Jiano and Aya, the abrupt shift into the voices and customs of home, had shifted something in Gaudy as well.

“I didn’t mean to alarm you so much. I didn’t realize that you would think—” he couldn’t bring himself to say what Uncle Kip must have assumed.

At last, Uncle Kip straightened up, gathering himself. “My apologies, my lord,” he said, as if he were the one who ought to be apologizing. “Gaudy, if no one is—if nothing at home is amiss, what is so urgent?”

Right. Right, he was giving an official report. Gaudy sheepishly moved back to the proper place to give a report to his Radiancy and knelt.

“My lord, your excellency, I am deeply sorry to have interrupted your meeting.” Eldo would probably know some specific phrase for the degree of embarrassment and shame Gaudy was feeling, but all Gaudy had was the color flushing his cheeks and his honest words.

“Please explain yourself,” his Radiancy said, voice serene and even, the first time he had actually spoken while Gaudy was in the room. Gaudy could feel himself flush deeper. “We presume you have a purpose in doing so.”

It probably wasn’t a subtle criticism, but Gaudy winced anyway. “My lord, there is an, er,” how to phrase it? “—embassy from the Vangavaye-ve who—whom I thought your lordship and his excellency would like to know about immediately.” The shift from familial panic to official report was giving Gaudy whiplash.

“It’s not—please tell me it’s not Cousin Louya,” Lord Mdang said, voice impressively level, and Gaudy bit the inside of his cheek hard at the image of Cousin Louya arriving at the Palace of Stars. His voice only wavered a little as he continued, which he was proud of—apparently reading That Party aloud had done wonders for his ability to talk intelligibly while suppressing laughter.

“No, although the Speaker does carry a letter from her signed by almost the entire family.” Everyone who was an adult, certainly, and who was in the Vangavaye-ve. “It is Jiano Delanis of Ikialo Village on Lesuia and his wife Aya inDovo Delanis. She claims kinship with you, Uncle—” Nope, wrong term, “—Lord Mdang—and I remembered that you spoke very highly of both of them.” He was extremely grateful that none of his friends had been there to overhear Uncle Lord Mdang.

“Jiano and Aya are here?” Lord Mdang said, astonished. “Whatever for—that fish farm?”

“Yes, your excellency,” Gaudy said, now falling back into the familiar rhythms of giving a report, of summarizing a situation. “I gather they come as Speakers for the entire Outer Ring of the Vangavaye-ve and wish to petition for an audience with his Radiancy, as they do not feel that Princess Oriana is treating them fairly.” Because she wasn’t.

“We will certainly grant them an audience,” his Radiancy said, and while he was so much harder to read than Lord Mdang, Gaudy thought he seemed…excited was too strong a word, but intrigued. “They come as Speakers for the Outer Ring? Tell the Master of Ceremonies they are to be treated as equivalent to a High Chief or a ruling Count. We must finish our deliberations this morning, but Cliopher will see them after they have refreshed themselves. He shall determine what form the audience shall take.”

A High Chief or a Count—his Radiancy was going to take this seriously. Gaudy hadn’t realized how worried he’d been about that until the concern was removed, and he prostrated himself with considerably more care than he’d made his original obeisances. “Thank you, Glorious One,” he said, and at the gesture of dismissal gratefully retreated.

He returned to the Offices of State some three-quarters of an hour later, after making sure that Jiano and Aya had been set up with a room appropriate for a High Chief and that food would be sent their way for a late lunch—and he hoped that his uncle would be eating with them, as well, because one thing he’d learned in his months working at the Offices of State and the few times he’d been able to have dinner with his uncle was that Lord Mdang’s means were often, often, interrupted by business of some sort. Gaudy had a sneaking suspicion that part of the reason Kiri often had snacks in the office was so she could foist them upon her boss whenever he visited, and mentally thanked her for it.

Still, even in the intervening time, he had not stopped feeling like he wanted the floor of the Palace to eat him alive.

“Alright, we were still on the conflict between the Prince’s daughter and the head of the police force?” he asked, dropping down on his desk and squinting again at the large timeline.

“Are you alright?” Zaoul countered his question with another question, and Gaudy sighed.

“…why do you ask?”

“No human being is that eager to wade into twenty-five reports detailing a fight between two petty officials, and I use the term “petty” advisedly,” Tully informed him, pushing over a stack of reports. “What happened—did something go wrong?”

At least this seemed to have distracted her from the fact that he’d never mentioned being related to their collective favorite author. Small mercies.

“Only the second-worst social blunder I have ever made in front of the Glorious One,” he said, caving at last and resting his head face-down on his desk.

“Ah,” Zaoul said.

“Well, it can’t have been awful, as you’re still here,” Eldo pointed out, in what he probably thought was a helpful tone, and Gaudy lifted his head enough to stare at the other man, who looked back in confusion at whatever expression was on Gaudy’s face.

“Eldo,” he said, too tired for titles, “being reminded that the person I just terrified my uncle in front of on accident could have me killed is not as reassuring as you seem to think it is.”

Eldo cleared his throat, ears going red. “…I suppose I see what you mean. But I—surely whatever you did was not drastic enough to even begin to warrant that. You mentioned the Lord Chancellor?”

“You were going to tell him that your kinswoman had arrived,” Iri noted. “What happened?”

Gaudy glanced around the office, noticing for the first time that it was almost entirely empty.

“It’s the lunch hour,” Iro said, seeing his look. “We all said we’d wait and have lunch with you when you returned, and Saya Kalikiri said that was alright as long as we kept working until then. Which we have.”

For half a second, Gaudy let himself be struck by the simple pleasure of having friends who would delay their lunch hour by, oh, fifteen minutes? Thirty? More? Just so they could eat with him. And then, because sometimes the price for those sorts of friends was letting them see into your heart, even the embarrassing parts, explained what had happened.

“…you implied that the message was urgent enough to interrupt a meeting with his Radiancy,” Eldo said, the sentence pitching up at the end like a question. Gaudy’s forehead was still planted on his desk, but he’d cushioned it with his arms.

“I am well aware, Lord Eldo.” He sighed. “And it isn’t that this wasn’t important—it was just that I didn’t realize that they would take important to mean dire. And so…” he trailed off.

“The petition is that important, then?” Iri asked, leaning forward—Gaudy could hear the shift of her robes, even if he refused to look up and see her—and he managed an uncomfortable shrug, then a shake of his head.

“No. Well, yes, but that’s not what—” This was too hard to explain with his face in the desk. Regretfully, he straightened, rolling his shoulders against the strange position he’d contorted them into. “The petition is important, because—Zaoul, do you remember the Nikao River Fish Farm?”

“The one that got seized by the worker’s co-operative, yes,” Zaoul said, nodding. “What about it?”

“Well, the project manager for it got hired by Earl Baljan—a noble of Princess Oriana’s court,” he added, and it gave him no small amount of vindictive glee to remember that outside of the Ring, many more people knew and cared who Cliopher Mdang was than Earl Baljan, “and the project in its original form is being transplanted wholesale to the Vangavaye-ve. You might,” he said, and could not bring himself to keep the bite from his words, “notice a few problems with this.”

“Such as the fact that the project in its original form was ill-handled and so obviously a money-grab that it caused a worker’s revolt?” Tully said, raising her eyebrows.

“Or the fact that it was intended for—Gaudy, it would not be being transferred to a similar river, would it,” Zaoul said, and Gaudy shook his head.

“We don’t have rivers the size of the Nikao, and from everything I heard—for everyone was upset about this even before I left—there has been no effort to change the plans to accommodate the new location, or to try to balance what would happen if the fish population in the Bay of Waters exploded—it would pollute half the Eastern Ring,” he said, vehemently. “Of the Bay of Waters, the most beautiful place in Zunidh.” Perhaps in all the Nine Worlds, but Gaudy is not quite confident enough to make that claim.

“You always said it was,” Tully said, voice soft, and Gaudy remembered the early conversations of their friendship, where she had said that surely, the Detective Louya books exaggerated the Bay’s appearance, and Gaudy had launched upon an impassioned defense. “And this…Earl whoever hasn’t listened?”

“And Princess Oriana has backed him against all complaints,” Gaudy added. “I suppose they thought, since it was far from Gorjo City, that most people would not be upset.” And why wouldn’t they? When they had never taken the time to get to know their people, when had they learned the web of relations that stretched across the Bay of Waters in all directions, so that even in the families who were three, four generations removed from their islands, everyone knew which island was theirs? For all that the Singing of the Waters was done every year, for all that it was the most important ritual in her province, Gaudy didn’t think Princess Oriana had ever once paid attention to it, and so she had no idea of the currents she had waded into by backing this plan. “Or simply that, because it was the Vangavaye-ve, no one would care.”

“That’s an interesting philosophy of governance,” Eldo said, and in almost anyone else Gaudy would have scorned it as a diplomatic refusal to state an opinion, but after two years of working with Lord Eldo he had, in fact, come to realize the particular tone the other man took when what he truly meant was “that seems like a colossally stupid idea, but it would be impolitic to say so.”

Quite,” Gaudy said, feeling needled just by the thought of Princess Oriana, her staggering incompetence, her indulgence of brutes like Earl Baljan, who everyone knew you could not cross because he was a bully and used his position to make it impossible to retaliate against him. Quite like his relative, Gaudy’s cousin Hillen, if Gaudy was being honest. “Well, unfortunately for her, half Gorjo City is on the petition.” He paused, wondering if to say it, but he wasn’t feeling given to restraint now. “As well as pretty much every member of my family old enough to understand what is happening, other than myself and Lord Mdang. It’s…an emphatic petition.”

“But that is not the reason it was important to tell Lord Mdang,” Zaoul said, voice not accusatory but curious, and Gaudy shrugged, finding it hard to explain.

“Well…if this was at home,” he said, which was easier than explaining fully, “and our hanë, our—kinswoman, I suppose—had come to the house, it would be unthinkable to wait before telling the oldest, or the most…important,” there wasn't a good way to describe, in language that people would understand, what he meant, “in the house about the arrival, to let them celebrate and come to share the news.”

“And so you were thinking along those lines,” Tully finished for him.

“Something like that,” Gaudy said, because still, it seemed too much to admit that this was the first time since the Fall that someone of their family, someone not basically ordered to appear before the Emperor, had visited Solaara. “And I wasn’t thinking of—of how things work here, at all.” He sighed. “At least they—his Radiancy and his excellency, I mean—were happy to receive the news once the initial alarm wore off.”

“And you made it out alive, as Eldo pointed out,” Tully said with a grin over at Eldo (”I truly did mean for it to be encouraging,” Eldo said, resigned),“and now you get to go to lunch with us, and not deal with the Nijani police force for at least half of one hour, and explain to me why you didn’t tell me you were related to Aya Delanis!”

“Okay, this time I wasn’t being intentionally deceptive,” Gaudy defended himself, as Iri caught his arm and started steering the group of them toward the door.

“Lunch first, argument later or during as long as I’ve gotten food,” she said, and Gaudy abruptly realized how hungry he was, after a morning of running around the palace, so he set about rebuffing Tully’s questions until after he’d managed to eat.

(”You neglected to mention that your uncle’s lord was, in fact, Emperor Artorin,” Aya said later, when Gaudy managed to extract himself from Tully’s inquisition and stop by their room.

“To be fair,” Gaudy managed, “so does my uncle, with alarming frequency.” Aya had laughed at that, a friendly warm laugh that felt like home, by the end of the conversation Gaudy was feeling so at-ease that he almost forgot to ask her to sign a book for Tully, which she did with delight.)

The meetings of the Council of Princes were, by custom and also policy, closed meetings. However, the reports saying what transpired were not closed, and were—in fact—written by the Offices of State, after a customary review by the staff of various Princes to ensure that everyone, more or less, could agree that what was in the reports was the truth. They were written based on the meeting notes taken by the participants, which—in theory—would result in many different sets of notes, all collated to form a comprehensive outline of what had happened.

In practice, what usually happened was that most of the reports were based on Lord Mdang’s notes, as he took the best and most comprehensive ones. They also were some of the first to arrive at the offices; the Grand Duchess of Damara and Princess Anastasia Yra occasionally would have notes arrive sooner, but that was possibly because Lord Mdang would also edit his, striking redundant arguments and eliding portions of the conversation with, of course, the note that should any of the Princes wish for a fuller account, he could pass along the complete meeting notes.

The fact that summarizing the notes at all was not, actually, his job was not lost on most of the office, and Gaudy had overheard Kiri grumble more than once about incorrigible workaholics who could not accept the fact that they were no longer, technically or practically, a secretary. Still, within three days’ period after the meeting—to allow for a report to be released quickly to the rest of the government and, if necessary, the provinces—all notes were in, and two days after that, the Offices of State would have their summarized report ready to be passed to the princes for additional notes.

The turnaround was brutal, but there came a rhythm to it—the most important thing was the conclusion, typically if you knew the issues going in you could figure out who would be giving the most pertinent arguments for or against, and from there it was just finding the relevant facts and then writing it all up. And also, at least to Gaudy—raised in a large family and thus an avid student of the art of the argument—it was often fascinating reading, when it was his turn to work on the drafts.

It wasn’t, this time, but he was extremely curious as to how it had turned out. Everyone was, to be fair, as apparently several of the princes had been unusually agitated after the meeting. And it was extremely rare for a personal petition to reach this level; even Nijan mostly just sent their letters (their many, many letters). Added to that, the fact that one of the speakers—although not the one putting forth the argument—was the kinswoman of Lord Mdang, the fact that they were treated as High Chiefs, and—at least among the younger secretaries—Gaudy’s explanation of what was happening had meant this was one of the most-anticipated meeting reports in a while.

After getting Lord Mdang’s notes, Kiri remained in her office for some time. When she emerged, holding the papers, she was clearly unimpressed by everyone’s attempts to look engrossed in their work.

“I shouldn’t ask which of you wants to summarize the report this time, should I?” She asked, planting her free hand on her hip to survey them. Gaudy remembered suddenly that she had raised two children; she certainly had some of the same air his mother did when she knew he was going to misbehave, and equally that there was nothing she could do to prevent it. “As you’re all going to be sharing notes anyway.”

“If it’s truly so secret that we cannot,” Gaudy started, and she shook her head.

“It wasn’t—it is not that serious, and second of all the fact that you six are a tremendously effective team is not a detriment to the office. If anything, it is a massive benefit that you work together as well as you do; the productivity of the office has never been better,” she said. “It does, however, sometimes present me with a problem when I have to pick one of you for a task I know full well will be completed by all six.”

“As Gaudy has the greatest knowledge of the context, the report should go to him,” Zaoul said softly, and Gaudy in that moment would have pledged eternal loyalty to the quiet man, would have sailed into the sky for him, for he knew Zaoul wanted this report as well.

“At the very least, you can attempt to decipher your uncle’s notes this time,” Kiri sighed, and it was so rare that she acknowledged Gaudy’s relationship to Lord Mdang that he stared at her. She placed the files down on his desk. “See the last three pages, and—you’ll see what I mean. Let’s hope that the other Princes were taking notes,” she added under her breath, and Gaudy flipped to the third to last page instantly, Tully nearly climbing over her desk to read over his shoulder.

In Cliopher Lord Mdang’s careful, even hand, Princess Oriana was recorded as saying that she was sure the various signatories of the petition—Gaudy flipped back, saw that yes, she was aware she was talking about Lord Mdang’s family, flipped forward again—were lovely people, but that they were “not exactly—that was to say, thanks to Lord Mdang’s insistence on the annual stipend, they will hardly starve—and if they persist in disobeying their ruler, well, there are laws in place, are there not?”

Gaudy sucked in a very careful breath, thought of the litany of names—of the fact that Oriana was ignorant enough of her own province to relegate the tanà, the elders, to being “not exactly—” something she didn’t want to voice clearly before the Sun-on-Earth—and read through Prince Rufus, of all people,’s interjection, and then—

There was half of Princess Oriana’s response recorded, and then a smear of ink across the page.

And then, left unadorned and unexplained: Cliopher Lord Mdang defended the people of the Vangavaye-ve against their princess.

“What,” Tully said, after a long moment, “does that mean?”

Gaudy flipped to the vote; Princess Oriana was defeated, overwhelmingly. He turned back to that page, the uncharacteristic interrupted meeting notes, the smear of ink.

“I have no idea,” he managed, staring at it again. “He definitely said something—did he ask for permission to speak? When it’s not his bills, he doesn’t—”

They’d all read the meeting notes. Lord Mdang tended not to speak unless it was one of his own proposals being discussed, at which point he would give an extremely detailed breakdown of everything inside its hundreds of pages, or someone had made a drastic factual error that would significantly derail the proceedings, at which point he would ask his Radiancy’s leave to speak and correct it, or—

—or nothing, really. There hadn’t been any other occasions. But…Gaudy looked again at what Princess Oriana had been recorded as saying. He looked at the half-obscured line of Princess Oriana’s document. She had said yes to Prince Rufus's question about her meaning, and then—something, something, anything worthwhile, anyway, and then it broke off entirely.

“The pen broke,” Iro said. “I have like three stains that look like that on some old reports I had to rewrite, when I thought I’d save money by skimping on my pens. A mistake,” she added hastily. “But—”

“—but Lord Mdang takes care with his writing set,” Zaoul said, and then made a low, considering hum, looking at the words again. “Princess Oriana must have said something truly vile for him to have broken one of his pens.”

“Okay,” Gaudy said, trying to picture what could have riled the normally-unflappable Lord Mdang, so different from the short-tempered Kip of Bertie’s stories, so much more grown-up, up to the point of breaking a pen. All of the options, it turned out, made him blindingly angry. “So Princess Oriana said something—from the gist of her earlier comments, I don’t think it’s outrageous to assume it was some sort of attack on the character of the signatories, rather than, you know, an actual coherent rebuttal to their points.”

“Because she didn’t have one other than the fact that it would make this Earl Baljan—and likely her as well—money,” Eldo said, looking at the report. “Did she assume we didn’t have the numbers from the Nikao River?”

“She assumed nobody cared about what happened in the Vangavaye-ve,” Gaudy reiterated, voice bitter. “Because it has ‘few inhabitants and those there show very little industry or interest in any form of development.’”

“I’m astonished she got as far as she did,” Iri said, and then sighed. “But we can’t very well just say ‘and then Lord Mdang happened’ without details of his argument, and then give the vote overwhelmingly against Oriana.”

Gaudy stifled a laugh at her phasing. “It does seem like it would be accurate,” he managed.

“Maybe someone else took notes,” Zaoul said, with what Gaudy considered considerably more hope than sense.

A day later, they all looked at the next set of notes to come in with some trepidation.

“When I said that perhaps someone else took notes, I was not expecting Prince Rufus to be the next to actually deliver them,” Zaoul said, considering. “I mean, I’m unsurprised that he takes extensive notes, but he seems to use them when the reports go around for editing, not when it comes to compiling them in the first place.”

“He likes to point out when we’ve missed something,” Eldo said, more to his desk than to any of them. He had started adding additional data points to the timeline of Nijani politics, his handwriting meticulous and neat as everything else about him. Allegedly he had older siblings, but Gaudy found that hard to believe; he had never met someone who seemed so much to have never had his hair ruffled or been amiably pushed into a pool, except for maybe the Emperor. Then again, Gaudy supposed he had never met many nobles, and gotten to know even fewer.

 “Of course he does,” Iri said, voice soft as ever. “Personally, I love it when he has to realize we haven’t missed anything, and sends back the report with that sulky little ‘I have no additions to make at this time’ note. I know it’s a form note that everyone uses, but I choose to believe it’s sulky when he does,” she explained, at confused looks from half of the group. “Because it brings me joy.”

“I’m choosing to believe that as well, because it’s the best thing I’ve ever heard,” Gaudy says seriously, before picking up the report and offering it in general to the room. “Anyway, he’s talking about the Vangavaye-ve, someone else take this because I’ve been thinking about what Princess Oriana was saying for nearly twenty-four hours and if I have to see the word ‘exotic,’—”

“Fair,” Tully said, taking it. “I’ll hand you anything he says about whatever Lord Mdang did.”

“Thanks,” Gaudy replied, and returned to listing the key points of Jiano’s argument. After a moment, he heard Tully make a small surprised noise, and looked up at her.

“It’s about as bad as you thought,” she admitted freely, “but I think he’s actually impressed by the Speaker’s argument. Remarkably well-reasoned, he says, which I haven’t seen in his reports much so far.”

“He’s run headfirst into enough good arguments to recognize one, I suppose,” Gaudy returned, and while Eldo was still bent over the Nijani timeline, he caught a snort of laughter from the other man. “And about Lord Mdang?”

Tully flipped a few pages, stared for a long moment, and then set the report down.

“Gaudy, I think you should come read this,” she said.

In the end, the summary of the report only said that Lord Mdang had informed Princess Oriana of all the varied industries within the Vangavaye-ve her ill-thought-out threat would have shut down (Gaudy's attempt to add that she had seemed unaware of them had been, after an hour of discussion, sadly dismissed as a little too scathing), and that the Speaker for the Outer Ring’s points as to the ecological cost of something with relatively little benefit, as well as the potential for large unrest should the project be continued, convinced the Princes that the project should, indeed, be abandoned.

Which wasn’t wrong, of course, and conveyed everything that needed to be said, and gave Jiano the credit he was due.

“Besides,” Gaudy had mused, after they’d sent the report out for the Princes’ edits, “I think if we said 'Cliopher Lord Mdang destroyed Princess Oriana’s credibility in front of the Glorious One, the Princes, and everyone, and made it clear besides that if she ever thought about threatening his family she’d rue the day she was named Princess' he would have challenged it himself for undue exaggeration.”  

“Can we challenge his notes for undue understatement?” Eldo asked innocently, and Gaudy lost his battle for composure, laid his head down on the desk again, and laughed.

Chapter Text

All in all, they’d finished the accounting of the provinces in just under six months, which Tully deemed acceptable time. It would have been faster, of course, but they’d gotten dragged into a couple of related side projects—first the in-depth study of Nijan, which had ended with them all coming to the same conclusion (namely, that Nijan really should be its own province, which everyone in the office had already known but now they had data about it), and then reviewing the more general disaster procedures in areas that had been particularly ravaged by the Fall, and then—as they worked on the Yenga—figuring out a way to assess the health and wellbeing of the vast majority of the population there, who were not humans but rather the thunder lizards. (Tully had had a few opinions on that one.) Still, even with those, they had amassed a considerable picture of how each province and ministry on Zunidh functioned and the various ways they interacted with each other in under a year. 

Not bad.

It was also good that they’d finished that project, because a few weeks after its completion Eldo had taken a leave of absence—a couple of weeks—to return home to Amboloyo. Which was notable, besides the fact that it took away a sixth of their typical cohort, because it was the first time he’d talked about home at all. Tully had been surprised to see the letter in his room sealed with the Prince of Amboloyo’s personal seal, because at some point she’d…kind of forgotten that he was related to the Prince of Amboloyo. He never spoke about his family, and she hadn’t recognized his expression when he looked at the letter—a smile she would almost call delighted, if not for the fact that his eyes seemed shadowed from the inside, like the shade cast by stormclouds gathering—and then he moved it off of the table, and got everything ready for the night’s meeting of the Treasonous Poetry Club, which was to be their last until he returned. 

The next step in the project of restructuring the government to function, ultimately, without an Emperor would be actively reworking the laws and structures of power, which was still somewhat above Tully’s pay grade. So instead of being given that project, they joined the six other members of the junior secretariat—the secretaries from the couple of years above them, those who had not moved to other departments or found permanent placings—in the general business of the Offices. Tully had worried that it would feel like being at loose ends, after so long working fixedly on one project, but the truth was that there was just too much happening in the Offices of State for anyone to be at loose ends, especially with one secretary gone.

Other than the absence of Eldo, the day was normal. Tully was reading through a treaty with Alinor, noting where she’d have to look up certain precedents or check with Saya Kalikiri before she could give it back to the Ministry of Intermundial Trade with her—and, therefore, the Offices of State’s—notes. It wasn’t a particularly weighty treaty, but a scant year ago, she would have been stunned at the very idea of getting to see this. And now, she knew enough offhand about trade relations within Zunidh itself to make suggestions about the intermundial trade in luxury foods.

Across the table, Zaoul’s pen was moving to underline a phrase; he was tasked with the latest summary of the Council of Princes meeting. Iri was editing a proclamation for conciseness; Iro was out of the room, in the smaller office archive looking up one precedent or another, and Gaudy was humming again as he worked; this time, the song was distinctly lacking in treason. Behind all of that was the soft sound of whatever conversation Kiri and Lord Mdang were having, and the other collected sounds of the office in the warm hours of early afternoon.

And then the lights went out.

Tully blinked against the darkness, echoed Gaudy’s sound of surprise— that had never happened before—and heard Kiri ask Aioru to open the blinds.

“Lord Mdang, when will—” Saya Kalikiri was saying, and then stopped. Tully watched her silhouette turn to look at the Lord Chancellor and see that Lord Mdang wasn’t moving, held in a stillness that was not just stillness.

When Tully had been a child, she had stumbled into an area of the forest that was heavily restricted, and came within sight of one of the great Royal Lizards, the massive thunder lizards so famous outside the Yenga for their intimidating, massive teeth (and tiny arms). She would never be able to forget the way she had frozen then, her very breath pulled in and still as its hunting-growl vibrated up through the ground and into her bones, her body unable to move until it left. The overwhelming awareness of a threat, a danger that she could do nothing against. One which she would only survive if, by a miracle, it did not notice her.

(She had managed to get back to the research center, and had never told anyone, because she would have never been allowed out without an escort again and because she hadn’t wanted to admit to that kind of fear. She had resolved that until she met something more fearsome than that Royal Lizard, she would not be scared again. But that was beside the point.)

Lord Mdang had frozen with that kind of stillness, the stillness of pure terror.

“—what is it?” Saya Kalikiri finished, voice sharpening.

The lights flickered back on—and then off—and then on again, unsteady in a way Tully had never seen, and in the heartbeats of light she caught Lord Mdang’s expression, the emotion too fresh to settle into anything more definite than the cold-water splash of shock.

If anyone in the office had still been moving, had still been speaking, Tully would not have heard what Lord Mdang said next. But they were not; they too were held in place in this moment under guttering lights, and so Tully clearly heard Lord Mdang half-whisper, “ my lord ,” in a tone that did not seem like prayer.

There was a tremendous susurrus of paper interrupted by a clatter, as the Lord Chancellor dropped his armful of files, his writing case , all to the ground. He turned with more speed than grace, and ran from the room.

For a moment, the office was entirely still, eyes fixed on the door through which Lord Mdang had vanished, at the papers on the floor. Gaudy, who had stood from his desk at some point in the darkness, moved forward, took a knee, and started quietly sorting the papers back into a stack. His eyes were fixed on his work, as if looking down would stop him from staring after his uncle, but the worried crease between his eyebrows did not leave.

This seemed to shake Saya Kalikiri out of her surprise as well, and she blinked firmly and looked around the office.

“Thank you, Gaudy. Everyone else—we’ll go back to work as usual, but I want someone outside to watch for a runner coming from the Imperial Apartments.” Her tone brooked no argument.

“I’ll do it,” Gaudy said, voice quieter than usual, and Tully—wasn’t sure what to say, if there was anything to say. She looked back to the treaty, over to Gaudy stacking Lord Mdang’s paperwork, reverently picking up the writing case and setting it carefully on a desk, still not looking after Lord Mdang.

“Thank you,” Kiri said, nodding at Gaudy, and then looked around the rest of the room. She seemed to soften her tone, her demeanor, with deliberate care. “If something is wrong, we will be some of the first to know. We can’t do anything until we know what’s happening, so we’ll wait for the Lord Chancellor to send word, and in the meantime we’ll do our jobs.”

Right. Right . Tully sucked in a breath, turned back to the treaty, and resolutely decided not to speculate what had made the entirely unflappable Lord Mdang look so scared .

When the news came, it wasn’t good. Kiri had been summoned by a pale-looking page, and when she returned she was worried, her brow furrowed, her hands clenching and unclenching when she wasn’t holding something. She stepped into the Offices and Tully could watch her rally, put on the face and bearing of the Minister of the Public Weal, Head of the Offices of State, one of the most powerful women on all Zunidh.

“I’m going to say this only once, and it will not leave this room until Lord Mdang announces it officially, which will be within the hour. His Radiancy has suffered a heart attack.” Her voice was resolutely practical, despite the wave of fear that rippled outward from her words. Tully could see Gaudy’s hand tighten on his pen; she didn’t know what he was thinking, but her mind pulled up unbidden the idea of the Glorious One… not recovering , she thought, skittering around the word dying .

On the practical level, Tully knew they were years away from Zunidh being in a place where it could withstand that, and that was apart from the fact that they’d need to find a new Lord Magus immediately. On another, much deeper level…

He’d come to see them at their work, he’d remembered Tully’s father’s name and said she looked like him, he’d laughed like a person with delight in the fact that Gaudy resembled his uncle. He’d smiled at Lord Mdang with genuine care. He had treated them like people, and some mildly treasonous part of Tully couldn’t help but do the same back, and on that level, she realized, she was deeply, deeply worried for him.

“He is being attended by Domina Audry,” Kiri continued with barely a pause. “And thus is getting the best care that Zunidh can provide. Lord Mdang, when he speaks to the Palace, will be announcing any updates and whatever this will end up meaning.” She took a breath in, visibly, and when she spoke again it was with some of the fierce pride she’d spoken with when she first hired Tully and her friends.

“This is what we will do until then. I want all of you to finish the projects you’re working on, or get them to a point where they can be set aside if necessary. I can’t say for certain, but I suspect the entire weight of the government of Zunidh is about to land on the Lord Chancellor, and—by extension—on us. We have to be ready to catch it.” She looked around the room and met the eyes of everyone there, and Tully—as ever—found herself admiring the other woman’s unbending, steel-strong devotion to her work. “Zunidh is going to need us.”

“Yes, Saya Kalikiri,” Aioru said, the title rare between them, but it prompted a wave of similar responses across the room. Kiri didn’t bother to hide a smile of—something. Pride? Slight relief? Tully wasn’t sure the other woman could have explained it herself, but she nodded in response, thanked them, and swept into her office.

Tully turned back to her paper with a vengeance, quickly updating her personal deadline, wondering how far she could push herself without sacrificing quality for speed. Not much faster, she thought, but she could at least get the treaty to the point where someone else would just have to research a few points before it went back to the Ministry of Trade—and that work could be done by a page, with some direction. She could make this work. That was, after all, what she was good at and why she’d left the Yenga, on some very important level: taking things, and making them work .

Still, though, as she turned to the next page, she looked up across the desk at Gaudy and saw the set of his shoulders, the fact that the worry-line between his brows had only grown deeper. He had met the Emperor more than the rest of them, she remembered, with the possible exception of the still-absent Eldo; the Emperor had visited his house. And it was Gaudy’s uncle who had run from the room when the lights dimmed, knowing—Tully still wasn’t sure how—that something was wrong with the Emperor.

That day, and the next, passed in such a blur that Tully had forgotten that monthly assignments were going to happen on the third day. She’d collapsed after both days bone-tired. There had been drafting letters to all those who would need to be informed (Kiri handled the Princes herself, but there were other officials, and ambassadors, and various other authorities across Zunidh who may have felt the ripples through the magic) and for all that Kiri took after Lord Mdang in many ways, including supreme competence and kindness to her secretaries, she did not share his unwillingness to delegate. 

So Zaoul drafted a letter to the Mother of Mountains, and Tully wrote ones for the mundial ambassadors, and after that there were the various questions and complaints already streaming in that usually would have to be filtered through various levels and perhaps reach the Emperor. And then there had been constant reports from the various mages and architects both who had been called in to ensure there was no structural damage to central areas and functions of the palace, because of course they had to be reported to some authority and, now, the Offices of State were that authority.

And the whole time, pushed to the back by tasks and files and problems, there was the sick fear that the Emperor might not be getting better. He had to be getting better—he had to be. There was no way, she told herself, that the Lord Chancellor wouldn’t be at his side if he was getting worse. They met every morning. Lord Mdang was still working, so the Emperor must be fine. She tried, very hard, to believe that.

So perhaps Tully could forgive herself, a little, for forgetting that it was the day for assignments before she made it into the Offices, saw the other various junior secretaries without clear tasks, and cut off her own irritation at the lack of motion by suddenly remembering the date.

She slid into her desk, looking over toward Saya Kalikiri’s office, which had the door shut for once.

“She’s speaking with Lord Mdang,” Iro informed her, passing over a cup of coffee. “You look like you need this, but drink fast—I think they’ll be coming out again soon.”

Right. Coffee. Tully didn’t drink it too often, a little wary of the crash it caused sometimes when the energy from it wore off, but today she figured she could use it.

“Right—he needs a new secretary again,” she remembered. “Especially with all of this happening. At least one, I’ll bet, with everyone coming to him for the problems the Emperor usually solves. Who do you think it will be?”

“Well, with Eldo gone, we have three guesses left to us,” Iri said, and when Tully looked at her in confusion, raised one eyebrow. “Tully, really? It’s going to be you, Gaudy, or Zaoul,” she said, as if this was something everyone knew. Tully stared at her; two desks down, Zaoul was too dark to visibly flush, but did duck his head.

Gaudy, who had just walked into the offices, headed over with some confusion.

“What’s going to be one of us?” He asked, and then Saya Kalikiri’s door opened and the conversation hushed quickly. Tully took the coffee like a shot and nearly burned her tongue. When she saw Lord Mdang coming out after Kiri, she did her best not to straighten noticeably in her seat, and not to look at either of the other two Iri had mentioned.

Kiri’s smile was sharp and, Tully thought, very pleased with herself, which was good to see after the last few days.

“We begin,” she said crisply, “with the positions under the Lord Chancellor.”

The entire room seemed to hold its breath, and Tully was all at once crushingly aware of being stared at—not just by Iri or Iro, but by what seemed like half the Offices.

“Giving the unusual circumstances this week,” Kiri continued with a gift for understatement, “Lord Mdang has increased the number of positions he requires from one to three.” Ruining, as Tully learned some weeks later, a small betting pool among the other secretaries. “Tulliantha nai Vasiaan, Zaoul of the Tkinele, and Gaudenius Vawen, please join his excellency now.”

Tully’s blood rushed in her ears. She could feel Iri pat her on the back, both—probably—in congratulations and also to get her to actually stand up. It felt like she picked up her writing case in a daze, walking over to the Lord Chancellor with two of her greatest friends. If she hadn’t been in front of most of the Offices (and never prone to realistic dreams) she would have pinched herself.

Lord Mdang nodded to them, handed Zaoul the files he was carrying, and started walking—and so, Tully supposed, that was that. She glanced over at Gaudy and Zaoul and found that they were all looking at each other, something between amusement, shock, and delight lurking in each pair of eyes. She had to look away; she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t be overcome and start—laughing, or crying, or something if she kept looking, which she resolutely chalked up to getting less sleep than usual and not the fact that she had gotten one of the most-vaunted jobs in the entire government alongside two people who, she felt, she could happily work alongside for decades.

Also, she had to look away because Lord Mdang walked very fast. She’d noted that years ago, known it all this time, but somehow it was a lot more real when she had to keep up with him.

Their group—Lord Mdang, and the three of them trailing him—turned a corner only to find a page stopping quickly.

“Sorry—Lord Mdang, his Radiancy has summoned you.”

This would be an interesting job, if they couldn’t make it down half a hallway before a summons came for Lord Mdang. Tully looked at him for some indication of what should be done next, as Lord Mdang nodded to dismiss the page and took the next hallway down.

“Gaudy and Tully,” he said, voice very even for his pace, “go to my apartments and sort yourselves out. Zaoul, you will attend me upstairs.”

Tully glanced at Zaoul in time to catch a moment of uncharacteristic nerves in the other man, who rallied admirably.

“Yes, sir,” he said, and seemed like he was going to be alright, so Tully turned herself back to the ambiguity of sort yourselves out.

“What would you like us to do, my lord?” she asked, looking over at Gaudy, who—now that they were out of the Offices, maybe—was looking a little less elated, some cloud of conflict passing over his expression. Alright, that would be the next problem, she decided. Figuring out what that was.

“Ah,” Lord Mdang said, acknowledging the question. “You are to be my appointments secretary. There will, I am sure, be a multitude of people craving audiences.” His voice held some wry, tired humor Tully could see herself appreciating. Appointments secretary , then? Tully considered the scope and type of person who would now be seeking an audience with the Lord Chancellor, and mentally thanked Iro for the coffee—she’d probably need it. But also—oh, that would be a challenge . “Organize them.”

“And me, sir?” Gaudy had reached for evenness in tone, Tully could tell, but hadn’t quite grasped it—a little too sullen, too quietly rebellious. Whatever it was, Lord Mdang noticed it too, for he turned with a slight flare of his robes to look at the three of them seriously, the same way—Tully remembered—he had considered her seriously during that first interview, had taken her seriously. She remembered thinking she would like to work for someone like that, someone who was brilliant and attentive and kind all together. She perhaps hadn’t expected to work directly for him, those years ago, but her thoughts on the matter hadn’t changed in the slightest.

“First of all, Kiri informs me that you three are the best of the junior secretariat to come through in five years,” he stated plainly, and Tully had to work not to exchange an incredulous stare with the other two. “I have need of the best.” She knew she was good , of course. She knew they were all good; they had to be, to get where they were. Tulliantha nai Vasiaan was extremely good at her job, thank you very much. But for Saya Kalikiri to say she was one of the best to come through the Offices of State…well. She’d just have to live up to that, now wouldn’t she?

“I expect you to work hard and demonstrate your abilities and ambition and worthiness of her regard and mine.” Lord Mdang continued, echoing Tully’s thoughts, and she nodded. “Second, the full government of Zunidh landed on my head yesterday morning, and until his Radiancy has recovered, I require the most trustworthy, loyal, and competent assistants I can muster in order to fulfill my responsibilities, and it just so happens that my nephew and his friends are among that number.”

“Yes, sir,” Gaudy said, somewhat quiet between the praise and being so roundly refuted. Tully, who on occasion had made an idle comment that Gaudy saw as a challenge (and who, moreover, had seen Eldo do the same thing over a dozen times) was somewhat amused to have it confirmed, yet again, exactly where he got it from.

“And third,” Lord Mdang said, and this time there was that wry note in his voice again, “I am ruthlessly and very selfishly making use of the fact that you are my nephew, and that we have acknowledged it, because my mother and yours arrived on the sky ship at midnight last night, and I want you to see to them.”

Gaudy’s eyes went wide; Tully imagined suddenly learning that her father and grandparents had arrived in Solaara, right now, and wanted to wince at the mixture of joy and panic.

“We will come up with other duties for you once I have spoken to his Radiancy. Now, off with you, and make sure you tell Franzel you’re my new secretaries. Tully, find a place in the outer rooms that seems useful for an appointments secretary, Gaudy, see to our family, and Zaoul, walk with me.”

And he swept off again, leaving Gaudy and Tully looking at each other for a moment before Gaudy started off towards Lord Mdang’s rooms and Tully followed, catching up quickly due to the difference in their strides.

“Alright,” she said, moving past what she had thought the next problem would be—Lord Mdang had handled that—and pressing on. “Anything I need to know about your family before I meet them?”

Gaudy blinked, looking at her. “You could probably stay to the outer rooms—they’re the ones that would make sense for an appointments secretary, and you’d be out of the…” he gestured, his smile fond and exasperated both. “Yelling.”

Well, Tully had never assumed Gaudy came from a quiet family. They rounded a corner, and Tully made a mental note to try walking everywhere at as close to Lord Mdang’s pace as she could get, so she was prepared.

“I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that I’ll walk in with you and, from what you’ve said about your family, we will instantly be accosted. Your mother and grandmother, he said?”

“It won’t be just them,” Gaudy noted. “If Mama came, there’s no way that Leona didn’t—she wouldn’t miss something like this for anything . And for Grandma—do you know how the Princes arrive with a retinue of sorts?”

“Of course.”

“If Grandma Eidora came, there’s going to be other relatives. Not formally , mind you, my family doesn’t really put much value in formality, but…well, she’s the matriarch. And his Radiancy did technically extend an open invitation to the family.”

“He what?” Tully managed, while radically expanding her idea of how many people she’d be expecting.

“It was when he was in the Vangavaye-ve—oh, here we are,” Gaudy cut himself off, nodding to the two people outside the door—footmen, Tully vaguely recognized them, she’d have to learn their names—and pulling open the door and greeting someone who, from both bearing and general air of competence, Tully assumed must be Franzel.

“Sayo Vawen,” the man said, and gestured slightly to the doors with a questioning note in his voice; Tully was instantly impressed at the implied question of if Gaudy was here to visit with the family or for something else, and resolved to speak to him more later. And then realized that, resolution or not, she definitely would be because they worked in the same set of rooms, now.

She really had to thank Iro for that coffee.

“My friend is Tulliantha nai Vasiaan—she’s to be Lord Mdang’s appointments secretary,” Gaudy explained. Franzel was too professional to show relief, but the young woman who had also entered—Shoänie, Tully would learn later, Franzel’s assistant and right hand—beamed.

“Oh good ,” she said, and Tully couldn’t help grinning back at both of them before returning her face to proper restraint.

“I’m going to need some help figuring out where to set up an appointments desk,” she said, “I take it you two are the people I should be asking?”

“Absolutely,” Franzel said, and she thought she caught a hint of approval in his tone. “And you, Sayo Vawen?”

“I’ve also been assigned to Lord Mdang, and for the moment I’m to make sure our family is being seen to,” Gaudy said, and Franzel nodded. “Although I’m sure the job will expand to cover more once they’ve left.”

Tully also assumed that. Sure, she and Zaoul were fantastic at what they did, but between taking dictation and notes and setting up appointments was a whole slew of other, important tasks. Summarizing Lord Mdang’s notes, for one thing, although hopefully they would now be Zaoul’s notes. Looking up whatever pieces of information weren’t stored in his mildly terrifying mind. Liaising with various departments. She was sure whatever his Radiancy and Lord Mdang thought up would be even more comprehensive.

“At the moment, I believe they’re in the Tortoise Room,” Franzel started, indicating down a hallway. Tully could have guessed that direction, as it was the one with audible conversation coming from it, but then one of the voices rose above the others.

“—I definitely heard—Gaudy!” A door burst open out of sight and emerging from the hallway came a curly-haired young woman with brown eyes and Gaudy’s exact smile. Before either Gaudy or Tully could move she’d crossed the distance to sweep Gaudy up into an easy hug, which was remarkable as even he had a few inches on her. “ There you are, Zemius was saying he thought we wouldn’t see you until the evening!” She put him down only to place her hands on his shoulders and rest their foreheads together for a moment, and then draw back and scrutinize him properly. “Oh, you’re looking fancy in those robes, aren’t you? Moved up from the dust-colored ones? Mama, Grandma, Gaudy’s here!”

“Hi, Leona,” Gaudy said, with something between overwhelming joy and acute exasperation, “it’s good to see you, too.”

And then around eight other people poured into the room, and Tully began to see Gaudy’s point about a retinue. An older woman claimed Gaudy back from Leona, and Tully didn’t even need Gaudy’s greeting to guess that this was Vinyё el Vawen, head of the Gorjo Symphony Orchestra; her resemblance to both her son and her brother said all of that for her. She greeted Gaudy similarly, this time first with the pressed foreheads and then with a warm hug. Tully stood to the side, smiling, and was surprised to feel a tug at her robes.

She looked down to find a child had broken off from the larger group of Mdangs and was looking up at her with warm brown eyes. She had curls like Gaudy’s, although a little longer, and an air of inquisitive challenge that was identical to her…cousin’s, Tully guessed, and tried to think of which of the many cousins Gaudy had mentioned were younger than him. He’d mentioned babysitting some of them…but ‘some of them’ was a lot , it turned out, and a half-dozen names rose to Tully’s mind with no indication of correctness.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” The child said back, still looking at her. If Tully had to guess, she was around nine, but she’d never been fantastic at age estimates. Growing up, most of the other children at the reserve had been older than her. “Are you friends with Gaudy?”

“Yes,” Tully said, figuring there wasn’t much harm in delaying finding a desk for a little while, at least. “And we also work together. I’m Tully nai Vasiaan—what’s your name?”

“I’m Dora Mdang,” The girl—Dora—informed her, tone extremely satisfied. “Gaudy’s my cousin and Leona says it’s our job to make sure he’s made good friends in the Palace, because she’s too far away to look out for him.”

Tully risked a glance at Gaudy—who was greeting someone else, and hadn’t heard—and did her best to stifle the urge to laugh.

“Well, we do our best, Sayina Dora,” she said.

“You’re very tall. That must help with looking out for people.”

“It does,” Tully confirmed, losing her battle with her grin. “Do I pass muster, then, as a good friend for Gaudy?”

She found herself assessed with a sharp, critical pair of eyes, the small girl craning upward to get a proper look at Tully, and told herself firmly that she was not nervous about meeting this child’s standards.

“You are very tall,” Dora said consideringly, after a moment. “And you said you do your best and Grandmama Oura says that’s all you can do at the end of the day. And your scarf is very pretty and matches your robes. So I think you do.” She nodded, sure of her own reasoning, as Tully realized that the headdress she had grabbed more or less without looking was indeed a black and red that worked well with her robes.

“Well, thank you for your consideration, Sayina Dora,” Tully said, charmed. “Are you going to go say hello to your cousin?”

Dora pouted at what was clearly a sore spot. “Grandma Oura said I should wait my turn while my elders get to go first,” she confided to Tully. “Because that’s manners . But everyone’s my elders and it’s annoying.”

"I understand what you mean,” Tully said. “I’m pretty close to the youngest back home, too.”

“I knew I liked you,” Dora said.

“—and my friend Tully is here as well—” Gaudy’s voice rose from the general clamor of people as Tully caught her own name and looked up to see Gaudy heading in their direction with his mother. Dora,clearly seeing her opportunity, surged forward to greet him, pulling at his robes until he laughed and leaned down to press his forehead to hers. “—and hello, Dora! You’ve gotten taller,” he said, and Dora endeavored to look both delighted and unimpressed at the same time.

“Of course I have, you’ve been gone forever ,” she informed him. “You need to write me letters, nobody else tells stories as good as yours. Uncle Quintus always just makes his up and thinks I don’t notice.”

“Hey,” One of the assorted Mdangs—apparently Quintus—protested, without any heat. “Which did you think I made up?”

“There’s no way Cousin Kip ever broke into anywhere, he works for the government ,” Dora said loftily. Tully took in the assorted expressions of amusement and muffled incredulity—Vinyë el Vawen pressed a hand against her lips to muffle a laugh—and kept her face perfectly straight with the training of two years in the Palace of Stars as Gaudy met her gaze over Dora’s head, his eyes dancing with amusement.

“That doesn’t prove much,” he managed. “I mean, I work for the government too, and—”

“And what?” Tully, incapable of not seizing the moment, grinned. “Something to share with the office, Gaudy?” She heard someone—she thought it was Leona—start to laugh as Gaudy gave her a look of feigned disdain he must have copied from some Prince or other; it was too silly not to be an imitation.

“—I have the legal right not to incriminate myself, thank you Tully,” He finished. “Mama, this is Tulliantha nai Vasiaan—Tully, this is my mother, Vinyë el Vawen of the Gorjo Symphony Orchestra.”

“As I’ve heard,” Tully said, because it was impossible to start Gaudy talking about his mother without hearing about her orchestra, how good it was and how much love she poured into it, how it had gone from height to height with her steering it. She greeted Vinyë with a bow fit for a master artist. “I’m honored to meet you, Saya el Vawen, I’ve heard a lot of great things from your son.”

“I was about to say something similar,” Vinyë said, her accent recognizable as the way Gaudy’s voice sounded off work, when he was relaxed or reading poetry, and also when he got angry enough about something. “Lovely to meet you as well, Tully—and I see you’ve met Dora already, but—”

With the ease of long practice, Vinyë swept Tully into a wave of introductions. Tully recognized most of the names from Gaudy’s stories, at least enough not to embarrass herself. It was easy, so easy to see how there were echoes of these people in Gaudy, and of him in them, and she found herself liking them on that basis alone.

“And hello, Grandmama,” Gaudy said, and she looked over to see he was greeting the last member of the Mdang group, with first a bow that she didn’t recognize—bowing with his hands folded in front of him somehow—and then with the same forehead-touch he’d used with the rest of his family. His voice was quieter than it had been before, Tully noticed, and she could feel a prickle of unease across her shoulders. “It’s good to see you again.”

“Hello, Gaudy,” Eidora Mdang said, and Tully could see what Gaudy had meant when he called her the matriarch of the family, which Zaoul had understood instantly and Tully had thought she did. It wasn’t that she was in charge in the way that a Prince or Emperor was; it was more that everyone in this noisy, loud group gave her space to speak, looked at her with a level of respect that varied, of course, but was always considerable. Tully was put in mind of the way the moon pulled and pushed at the waves, never changing what the ocean was but, even at a far remove, directing and shifting it. “It’s good to see you as well. Doing well for yourself in the Palace, then?”

There was something underpinning that question, Tully could feel; it was a challenge of some sort, of the kind that Gaudy usually thrilled towards. This time, though, he pulled in a breath first before meeting her eyes.

“I am, Grandmama.” And maybe on another day, or for another person, Tully would have understood leaving it at that, or wouldn’t have waded into a conversation where she didn’t know the underlying currents, but—well, but it was barely into the morning and the day had already been disorienting enough, and she and Gaudy and Zaoul had just been given one of the most important promotions maybe of their lives, and this was Gaudy, who had never done well when he could do perfectly .

And saying that he was doing well for himself in the palace was such a dramatic understatement—

“The Minister of Common Weal said that Gaudy is one of the greatest secretaries to come through the Offices of State in the last five years,” she said before she could stop himself. “Ma’am,” she tacked on at the end, to avoid being rude. Gaudy’s head whipped around to stare at her, and he didn’t flush as easily as Eldo but his ears were starting to look red.

“Did she now,” Eidora Mdang said, but this time her voice sounded just the slightest bit approving. “And you must be Tully, then—Gaudy has written a lot about his friends.” She glanced over to Gaudy, who had relaxed and was smiling now, albeit sheepishly. “I’m glad he brought you to meet us.”

Tully was suddenly, ravenously, curious about what Gaudy wrote about her, but pushed that down to bow again, this time almost as low as she would for a High Chief. She has no idea what the rank of “matriarch of the Mdang family” would translate to if it were a thing Imperial custom had any chance of understanding, but being one of sixteen siblings had to forge a person into something stronger than steel, let alone becoming the leader of that same family.

“It’s been wonderful to meet all of you,” she said honestly, both to Eidora and to the assorted other family members, “but I’m actually here for work—I’m Lord Mdang’s new appointments secretary, and I should get set up before he returns from speaking to his Radiancy.”

“You must start work early, then,” Vinyё said, and then looked surprised when both Gaudy and Tully failed to stifle laughter. Tully left Gaudy to explain that they’d already been at work for the better part of an hour, and went to help Shoänie locate and place her new desk.

Zaoul followed behind Lord Mdang and did his best not to be nervous.

He wasn’t overly given to nerves in general, but between the delight at being chosen as one of Lord Mdang’s secretaries and being led to the Imperial Apartments, it was difficult to avoid them. It helped, he thought, that Lord Mdang was giving him instructions—then he could focus on the work of it.

“When we get to the Imperial Apartments, I will have you wait in one of the anterooms,” Lord Mdang said, and Zaoul felt some of the nerves recede further. It wasn’t that he feared the Emperor—he still remembered the warmth of hearing his own language so far from home, that moment of bright connection from a man who admitted to once being a boy who also had questions no one would answer. No, Zaoul did not fear the Emperor.

But he was not too proud to admit he feared seeing the Emperor diminished, as he feared seeing any elder he respected brought low by ill health. He did not revere the Emperor as a god, as had become the custom on most of Zunidh after Astandalas fell; he also did not recognize him as his Emperor, for Zaoul was not, had never been, of the Empire. But he was Lord Magus of Zunidh, the world that Zaoul lived in and loved, and he was a man who seemed to understand the burning, formless curiosity that had driven Zaoul out from the shores of home and into a world he strove to understand even as it did not understand him.

He kept those thoughts to himself, as he tended to, and kept listening to Lord Mdang.

“Go through that stack of reports and organize them in order of importance, please,” his excellency added, and Zaoul considered this.

“How will I know what is most important?” he asked, as they came to the magnificent doors to the Imperial Apartments. Zaoul had been there before, had worked as a page running messages from the Apartments, and did not let himself be too impressed or intimidated by them. Lord Mdang smiled at the guards—of course, he likely knew all of the guards who served the Lord of Zunidh personally, and they knew him.

“This is Zaoul, one of my new secretaries,” Lord Mdang said, and as the great doors were opened, repeated the point to the pages, and then to the second set of guards. This was the furthest Zaoul had ever been in to the Imperial Apartments; the pages remained in the first antechamber, unless they were called in further, and he never had been.This time, they passed through the next doors, and the next, and the next—

Lord Mdang still hadn’t answered his question, and Zaoul looked at the man, rather than letting himself be dazzled by the undeniable beauty of these rooms. They were lovely; of course they were lovely, but Zaoul had to be here to do work, rather than get distracted. What would Lord Mdang find important, in a stack of reports? For Zaoul had been in the Offices long enough to know that it was difficult to be objective, even in things like this. Everyone had their own priorities. What were Lord Mdang’s?

He went over what he knew of the man, both from working with him and from reading files, going through his decisions. What did he care about? He was a man, Zaoul knew, fully willing to put aside small or personal matters in the face of larger issues; he was someone who fought for his homeland but not for his name until that came to affect Gaudy, not just himself. He prized the combination of thoroughness and efficiency, in himself and in the people he worked with. His policy decisions were as likely to cite examples from the working class—as in the Nikao River situation, which had heavily referenced interviews with the various members of the Workers’ Collective as well as the productivity numbers and the investigation for corruption—as the high-ranking, if not more so, and was someone who was dedicated to fairness—and more than that, to justice, and to the people of the world of Zunidh.

When they reached the sixth anteroom, though, Lord Mdang did answer Zaoul, while nodding toward a small desk and chair—small but, Zaoul noticed, as exquisitely-made as everything else in the room, of some snow-pale wood; the legs had been carved to resemble trees, with the branches rising to form a canopy melding seamlessly into the surface of the desk. He didn’t recognize the material—but then, it might not even be from Zunidh, might be from Alinor or Voonra or somewhere even further afield. The Throne Room apparently contained cloth from Fairyland, after all.

“Think of it as a kind of test,” Lord Mdang said, which was as Zaoul had expected, and then—of course—surprised him. “So I can see how your mind works.”

Not so he could see how well Zaoul could understand him , but so he could see how Zaoul understood the world. Zaoul watched as he moved through the last set of doors, turning that thought over in his head. But of course that was the point of this; hadn’t Zaoul just been thinking about how Lord Mdang cared about people? That care couldn’t be something that had its start and end in bureaucracy. Zaoul remembered the speech he had given, that first day—how Zaoul had realized that the Lord Chancellor, as well as their year of pages, were given the charge of stewarding a shift to a new ethos of government.

The government of Astandalas, Zaoul had seen written in every word of the history he had studied, had not cared about people . As its leaders had reached for the heights of their luminous ancestors, they had forgotten that they were also human, that Harbut Zelarin had a human mother and Yr and Damar and Lazunar had been borne by the Moon but raised by Chief Orinara. They had not cared about people, and so their Empire had not cared about people, and then it had fallen.

And now: an Emperor who acted human, and a Lord Chancellor who cared about people.

Zaoul sat at the lovely desk, looked at the files in front of him, and set to work, sorting them in the order of what his heart and head told him was the most important.

The audience with his Radiancy was not long, apparently, and so Zaoul had only made his way through half the reports when Lord Mdang re-emerged and Zaoul stood to join him, closing his writing case and allowing himself a small frown of irritation at the not-completely-sorted reports.

“You will grow faster at discerning which are of import with practice,” Lord Mdang said, noticing the expression faster than Zaoul had thought he would, but neither his tone nor his expression was criticizing, so Zaoul nodded and took that as a statement of fact—for he likely would. He had to walk quickly to keep up with Lord Mdang, and said as much after seeing Lord Mdang realize he was falling behind.

“Much to do,” Lord Mdang explained, and then his voice turned amused. “Though I didn’t think I was.”

There must always be much to do, Zaoul thought, and it would be easier to get it done if you spent as little time moving between places as possible. “Practice will make me faster in this regard, also,” he decided, and caught a smile from the Lord Chancellor.

“No doubt,” he said, nodding to his footmen as he—and Zaoul—swept into the room. “Ah—Tully, you have made yourself at home. Good.”

Tully had found a sensible large desk, more functional than lovely but well-made, and set it opposite the entrance, so she would see anyone who entered. Behind it were an assortment of other rooms, one of which looked like another office, another of which seemed to lead further back into more personal rooms. She smiled to see them enter.

“There have already been seven requests for audiences, your excellency,” she informed him, and Zaoul blinked—it hadn’t been a very long audience at all, for seven requests to accumulate was…well, he could see why Kiri had thought Lord Mdang would need three secretaries.

“I think ‘sir’ is sufficient for both of you,” Lord Mdang said, with a strange—almost nostalgic—smile. Zaoul wondered what echoes lingered around that sentence, for him to smile so. “We shall be working together a great deal.”

That was certainly true.

“Very good, sir,” Tully said, brightening further. “Do you want the list of requests? I have arranged them in order of importance, urgency, rank, and time of arrival.”

Of course she had. Zaoul looked down to disguise his smile.

“Might as well,” Lord Mdang said, with an understandable sigh. “You can make appointments starting at the fourth hour and going till the first of the afternoon, for a quarter-hour each unless they give you a very good reason why they need longer.” Tully nodded seriously. “Zaoul, you’ll be attending me for those, so you can set yourself up with a desk through here in the Orange Lily Room—” the room that Zaoul had thought looked like an office, “—did someone explain to you how the door tiles work, Tully? Good. Explain them to Zaoul, please, and make sure you both get something to eat, while I see my family. I will be with them for the rest of this hour.”

“Very good, sir,” Tully said again, and then glanced back toward the inner rooms as she handed Lord Mdang the list she’d made in her neat chancery hand. “I believe they are having breakfast in the Tortoise Room.” Lord Mdang nodded to her and headed in that direction, and Tully and Zaoul looked at each other for a minute.

“Seven requests?” He asked, after a moment, and Tully snorted.

“There were four others that should have gone to the Offices, so I sent those off and hopefully nobody will be making that mistake again. But yes—the first should be the Princess Mgunai, whose messenger was most displeased to hear that her highness’s audience would be delayed by something as inconsequential as, you know, Lord Mdang not being present.” She stood briskly. “But let’s get you set up—well, let’s find Franzel or Shoänie, they’ll know where a good desk for you is.”

They found Shoänie—Franzel was apparently seeing to breakfast for the Lord Chancellor—eating a quick meal with another of the household, who they were both informed was Féonie, the costumier responsible for many of Lord Mdang’s day-to-day outfits, and managed to not only get a desk that Zaoul could move to the Orange Lily room but also a couple of breakfast pastries, Zaoul’s filled with a sweet nut-paste he didn’t recognize but enjoyed. As he put the desk into place, he thought of something.

“Tully, could I have the list of appointments? And if they indicated a topic, that as well?”

“As if I’d let them make an appointment without an idea of the topic,” Tully said, and then rattled off the names. As Zaoul thought, he did recognize some of them, both from his own work and the reports he’d been reading just earlier that morning.

“Thank you,” he said. “I’ll prepare notes for Lord Mdang with what I know about those. It should make the interviews go more smoothly.”

“That’s brilliant,” Tully said frankly, and Zaoul shrugged. “No, don’t just shrug at that, that’s brilliant. As soon as I get the next couple of meetings, I’ll let you know in advance who they’ll be and what they’re about.”

“Thank you—” he began, and would have said something else if they hadn’t both heard the external doors slam closed, and the distinct sounds of someone in high temper.

“—did not come here to be refused audience by some secretary’s household,” a voice said with enough venom that Zaoul saw Tully bristle. He turned and headed back to the main room, arriving seconds too late and catching sight of the edge of the Princess of Mgunai’s elaborate outfit as she swept into the internal rooms of the suite. Tully was staring after her, visibly irate, but Zaoul noticed that a baffled and mildly terrified page was also in the antechamber.

“I’m, uh, I’m here with a request for an audience with the Lord Chancellor,” the page managed at Zaoul’s inquiring look, and Tully turned to look at him, clearly torn between her indignation at the Princess and her professionalism.

“I’ll deal with that,” Zaoul said quickly, for at least he was sure he would not start a fight with a ruling princess, and if Tully ignored her work for her irritation she would be furious at herself later. “You deal with this.”

She gave him an appreciative nod and then, as if it had been her plan all along, slid into the chair at her desk and looked at the page. As Zaoul followed the princess, he heard her begin to ask them for details.

Even if Tully had not explained the tiles, Zaoul would not have had to follow the tortoise tiles to find the Tortoise Room; he could just follow the Princess Mgunai’s raised voice, or looked for the cloud of people following her, most of them looking either alarmed or horribly embarrassed, and—Zaoul noticed—tired. Well, of course they would be; to have arrived in Zunidh at this hour, they would have had a long skyship flight, and launched instantly into a day of work. 

“—They are common Islanders,” the princess was saying, with such disdain that Zaoul took a moment to measure his breathing and maintain his calm. In the room, he could see Gaudy bristle visibly—but also see Lord Mdang standing, facing the princess with a courtesy as immovable as solid stone.

“They are my family,” Lord Mdang said, his voice even, his face mild. “And I am the Lord Chancellor of Zunidh, which is why you wish to see me.” Voice even, face mild, words a pointed reminder of his power, of the fact that he as a person had the same influence as the entire body politic she was part of.

She was either too angry or—Zaoul considered again her attendants—too upset and tired to pick up the hint. Which did not, Zaoul thought personally, make her conduct justified. But it helped him understand how she might be thinking.

“I wish to see the Lord Emperor, but his guards refused me admittance and informed me that I must speak to you .”

Zaoul drew level with the princess’s attendants—guards and ladies-in-waiting—and was painfully aware of the fact that they were looking at him. It had been nice, working in the Offices, not to be looked at this much. He saw Lord Mdang see him, over the Princess’s shoulder.

“And so you shall, madam, at the fourth hour,” Lord Mdang said again, and then smiled and bowed politely, turning to the door so she turned as well. It was, Zaoul noted, very deftly done. “Zaoul! See to it that the princess has all that she needs while she waits. She might be most comfortable in the First Receiving Room.” Zaoul had seen that one—it was quite nice, and also well away from the Tortoise Room.

And then he saw the way the princess was looking at him, and inwardly sighed. 

“Of course, sir,” he said, smiling at the princess, ignoring her stare with long practice. “This way, your Highness.”

“You have a cannibal ,” she said, and Zaoul—who had braced for it—managed not to change his expression. Ah , he thought again, determined that it would not bother him, would not stop him from doing his job, this again . He was coming to hate the Shaian word cannibal , not for factual inaccuracy but for the fact that all the connotations it carried were so strange to him as to be anathema.

Zaoul had controlled his expression, and he was sure Lord Mdang was even more adept than him at that particular skill. Which meant the banked glare he leveled at the princess was entirely intentional, a glimpse of a fire that could grow far larger, if given the fuel to burn.

It was, Zaoul noticed with mild fondness, very similar to the glare Gaudy had given the first person to say such things about Zaoul in his hearing. Far more controlled, of course, but that same fire.

“Madam,” Lord Mdang said, with the polite voice that was immovable as a mountain, “I bid you remember you are speaking of a member of my household.” And to insult the household, as to insult the family, was to insult the Lord, in Astandalan custom. The princess had erred twice; he was making it fairly clear that to err a third time would be a mistake. And all the while, his tone was polite. “I shall see you at the fourth hour.”

And—as she stepped back from his vehemence—he managed to close the door, leaving Zaoul with the princess and her attendants, all of whom were looking at him, wide-eyed.

He thought of the pattern of waves on the shore at home, of the even tones of the bells here, and he did not let himself get nervous at their stares. He looked the way he looked; if they did not understand what his markings meant, the honors and connections important enough to be recorded on his skin, that was the fault of their ignorance and not his appearance.

Also, while Zaoul as a rule was not a vindictive person, there was something slightly satisfying about alarming someone who had just insulted not only one of his dear friends but also a man he greatly respected. If only there was a way to only intimidate people who he wanted to intimidate.

They had been on a long flight, he reminded himself, not as a justification but rather as a piece of the puzzle, part of what he’d been tasked with sorting out. Just as he had earlier, before Lord Mdang told him the actual test of the reports, he set his mind to figuring out how the Princess Mgunai would be thinking, and how that could be changed.

It was just now breakfast-time, and she and her retinue had been traveling. That, at least, had an easy solution.

“I’m sure you have had a long journey, your highness,” he said, doing his best to echo Lord Mdang’s implacable politeness as he began to move towards the First Receiving Room. With the door she’d been going through entirely closed to her, the Princess didn’t know anywhere to go but where he indicated. “Would you prefer tea or coffee, while you wait?”

She stared at him for a moment, this time with actual surprise that lasted so long that Zaoul considered asking again.

“Her Highness will take tea,” one of the ladies-in-waiting said, recovering faster, and Zaoul nodded in understanding before looking behind him and noticing that—fortunately—Franzel had come up behind the party.

 “Tea for her highness and her retinue,” Zaoul said with more confidence than he felt, “and a breakfast, I think, on account of their voyage. Here is the Receiving Room—”

He set about making them comfortable, fetching parts of the meal himself when he needed moments to compose his expression, asking questions politely, taking mental notes. Once they were settled enough he could leave, he stopped by Tully’s desk to see if there were new appointments on the way to his own, and saw her scowl in the direction of the receiving room.

She’d moved her desk, he noticed, and instead of directly center to the room it was now to the side. There was room to move around it, of course, but anyone trying to go directly from the entrance to the antechamber to the inner rooms would have to take time to move around the desk--time Tully could use to stop them and ask their business. She had been caught unprepared once; apparently, she’d seen fit to take steps it didn’t happen again. 

She did not offer to switch their jobs, which Zaoul appreciated, and started to hand him the new list before frowning.

“There are a few other requests that are almost as high-priority as hers,” she noted, and Zaoul shook his head.

“You won’t actually reschedule her appointment just because you don’t like her.” He knows Tully would never, no matter how much she scowled. “And the first hour of your job is far too soon to go mad with power.”

“Because she was unbelievably rude to you,” Tully corrected him. “But you’re right, I wouldn’t.” She sighed, giving the list one last look before handing it to him. “Did you get enough breakfast earlier? I’m sure we could find more.”

“Thank you,” Zaoul said, but shook his head—he truly was fine—and headed to his new desk. Someone had moved it properly into the corner from where he and Tully had left it, and he resolved to figure out who it was and thank them later as he started in, again, on the reports—this time with a paper to the side, noting down anything that might be useful for Lord Mdang to know.

It wasn’t even the fourth hour, and already it felt like a full day since Kiri had announced his name as one of Lord Mdang’s secretaries.

Well, he had wanted challenges that pushed him to his limits and beyond, he thought. And he thought of the pile of reports he’d looked through, how each piece of paper had carried a part of the wide world of Zunidh to him and told him something about how it worked, how it was faring, what the people and place there were like. Another small piece, which taken with all the other small pieces could build an understanding of the entire world.

Chapter Text

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.”