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1. Pali

Coming back to Solaara, to the Palace of Stars, was not easy. She had not expected it to be. Fitzroy had said that he would need to be the Emperor again, but also that he was naming himself, and he had. She had also expected it to be chaotic, but so far as she could tell, they were just treating him as the Emperor still, down to the formal greetings before they were separated to refresh themselves.

It was perhaps not wise of her to return so quickly to his company, but he’d smiled to see her. His guards had not, but they also had not reacted in any other way, continuing to act like very impressive statues that unfortunately had to move enough to breathe.

And of course, the next person was not another of the Red Company. It was the bureaucrat. Who greeted him as Emperor—sort of—and she turned to look out at the balcony as they moved to hug.

She had wanted someone to treat him as not just the Emperor. She had wanted to be able to admire and like this man.

She had to admit, if only in the silence of her mind, that she did not like getting what she wanted, sometimes. And so she tuned out the words, spoken in low and intimate tones, and looked at the red-tinted light on the balcony, and breathed slowly. Better to keep her face turned away while she gathered herself, and reminded herself that at least Fitzroy sounded happy.

2. Fitzroy Angursell, crashing back into His Radiancy the Last Emperor, Artorin Damara

It was harder than I wanted to think, being back here. (Even knowing that your heir was found, that in the next few months we would be turning over the government of the world to her. That we weren't making a secret of your identity as me.)

What I had not expected, and I should have, was that having the Red Company here was even harder. Pali and I had begun again getting to know each other, but I knew she still tensed each time I was more you. And I was you, and you were me. And here, you were more expected than I was, and I responded to that, of course I did. (You needed to.) Her face when the attendants, including Conju, performed the obeisance was...a study. Not that they were watching her. (Nor were you, exactly; you were responding to them, so they could rise.) But I was, and it hurt.

At least I'd had the sense not to send for my friends until I was (you were) dressed. I might be perfectly safe to touch, but (you were not properly respected if touched) that didn't mean anyone would risk touching me. And the elaborate and useless outfits were still not meant to be donned alone. But watching them dress me (you) might have been the last straw for some of my friends' tolerance.

The guards announced Cliopher Lord Mdang. I was already unsure I should have called for him. (You would formally greet my Viceroy on the morrow, so that he could hand power back to you. So that you could pass it on in turn.) I knew Pali wouldn't kill him, but I wasn't sure I'd convinced her sufficiently of his virtues. I had convinced her that hurting him would hurt me, at least.

He entered, and at my gesture bypassed the obeisance for a formal bow. There was no laughter in his eyes, but I could not regret that. Instead there was a deep joy. His face was court-calm, his breathing slow, and his eyes alight. "My Lord Fitzroy."

I was no longer practiced enough in serenity not to blink at that. He used the same tone with which he had previously called me Tor, and he said it so smoothly that he had apparently settled on that as a good form of address, at least in comparative private. (You were used to "private" not being private, but I had re-learned privacy, and this was not it.)

And I still found myself stepping forward and grasping his arms. To my surprise, instead of feeling merely tolerable, it felt comfortable, like coming home to roost. "Kip." He leaned his head forward, and without thought I mirrored him and our foreheads touched. If I was no longer afraid of touch, it was not yet this entirely comfortable, usually. "Have you been taking care of yourself, too?"

Kip smiled slightly. "Ser Rhodin and the others have made sure to remind me."

So...not without being hounded, but he had. More or less.


3. Conju

He had had time before His Radiancy returned to get used to the idea that he was also Fitzroy Angursell—and had sort of managed to make that a fact he knew and ignored. He had had time to be prepared for the idea of members of the Red Company in the Palace as honored guests.

He had managed to keep his equanimity while setting out tea and pastries. Despite Pali Avramapul—whom he'd met and served as Domina Black, for goodness’ sake!—and the look she was giving him. And then His Radiancy had dismissed him with a slight, familiar gesture, and he had gone gratefully to wait nearby for when he would be needed again.

He had been unconcerned by Cliopher joining them. That, he knew now, was a mistake. "My Lord Fitzroy" had been said, only barely loud enough that he caught it through the door. And now he was struggling to breathe, and to not cough aloud. He didn't even see which of the others stepped up from across the little room he waited in to hand him a glass of water with mint.

He managed to make a gesture to indicate everything in the other room was okay, or at least did not require one of them. Otherwise, it was all he could do to sit, to breathe, to sip, without making some noise that might carry. He was carefully trying not to think until he could refocus on something else. Anything else.

4. Cliopher

Cliopher Mdang went through the obeisances, or rather the abbreviated bow His Radiancy indicated with a gesture, automatically. Most of his attention was on the man he was bowing to. He looked good, he looked solid and healthy, his muscles more defined. Though he was now robed as the Emperor and had the familiar serene expression, his eyes were at once happy and amused. It was so good to see—and so hard to see, and think that once he hadn't understood how this Palace could be a cage.

It wasn't until later that he could describe his actions, but he knew it at the time; for all that it took a second or less, it was clear. He had sailed this ocean, watched these weathers, for centuries. He saw the beginning of withdrawal, a fading of the sun in His Radiancy's eyes, as soon as he began with "My". Once, he would have cut himself off and started again with "Tor"—but now he knew his proper name. Denying that was wrong, but so was denying that Tor, Lord Artorin, was also him. He didn't know why. He only knew that it was true, recent knowledge of currents and weather layered atop centuries of study.

Tack too hard in a storm and you could capsize the boat. He'd lived through it any number of times, and he could navigate it, but he wouldn't cause it if he didn't have to. And so what came out of his mouth was "My Lord Fitzroy," acknowledging both halves of the man before him. Not perfect, but the best he could do with the direction he'd started.

Fitzroy blinked. But he did not withdraw; he stepped forward and grasped Cliopher's arms. Something in Kip unwound a little more, to see that his friend was now so much more comfortable with touch. The fact that he had not been would always burn a little, understanding what it had meant to him, but the ease in him now was testament to how good the quest and finding his friends had been for him. "Kip."

His breath came easier, hearing his friend say his name so, and without thinking he leaned his head forward and touched foreheads.

"Have you been taking care of yourself, too?"

Kip smiled, knowing he was showing his amusement at how well his lord knew him. "Ser Rhodin and the others have made sure to remind me." It was almost idly said, most of his attention focused on the way their breathing was settling into the same rhythm, and on the comfort of this return. If it had not been for the planned retirement, he could not have been glad to see Fitzroy return here. With that on the horizon, he could. “It is good to see you again. The rest of the princes should arrive by tomorrow.”

He could give any report his friend wanted, but there were no reports that needed him yet. That was still Kip’s job until the formal return of power, and he wasn’t going to dump him back into it a moment sooner than needed. Not unless his lord asked it of him.

5. Ato

Some shifts, keeping a straight face was harder than others. This shift, his training was being tested, and he was grateful it was Elish—rather than, say, Pikabe or Ser Rhodin—on duty with him. NO ONE had kept a straight face in the barracks when they heard that His Radiancy had said he was Fitzroy Angursell. Which was, of course, why they had all been told in private and not in front of outside witnesses.

"My Lord Fitzroy" was hard to keep a straight face at, even so.

And he had to watch Pali Avramapul as if she were any guest, but with an awareness that if she did in fact attempt anything, he would have to fight her. He hoped to never need to fight her in earnest, though sparring might be interesting. But right now she was looking off at the balcony, well away from His Radiancy and from Lord Mdang, giving them as much privacy as she reasonably could. And more than the guards could, which was both unfortunate and fortunate.

Ato was not looking directly at them, of course. He was looking to one side, Elish should be looking to the other—you couldn't stand watch and not use your peripheral vision. Which meant he was aware of every nuance of position and breath, and it felt incredibly invasive to be paying such close attention.

Invasive, but also his job. Plus, well, he was sure that Féonie would be interested in hearing about this.

"Have you been taking care of yourself, too?"

Cliopher smiled slightly. "Ser Rhodin and the others have made sure to remind me."

Yes, some shifts keeping a straight face was much harder. Pali Avramapul was one thing. Kip dodging the question that neatly was another entirely. Yes, they had reminded him. Ato had been guarding him some of those times. In the middle of the night. It had been a surprise to find out that Lord Mdang could, in fact, work harder and more obsessively than he had previously. And he left out the part where Domina Audry had to treat him to prevent collapse. More than once.

Ato made a mental note; Commander Omo and Ser Rhodin should probably be told of that evasion. One of them could have that conversation with His Radiancy, if they thought it necessary.