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It was a ghastly party.

Of course, Csethiro would never let an iota of that opinion appear on her face. It was Idra's birthday, and although every person in the room represented a political interest or angle to the Drazhada, they were also nearly all his own age or a little younger. He looked happy, and naturally Csethiro was pleased to see that, but - a room full of youngsters!

So tedious.

Their conversation was truly feeble: Csethiro either discoursed to blank faces or, by dint of asking questions, extracted confused giggles or arch attempts to sound adult. It was appalling and she couldn't believe how vapid they all were. Surely she had never been like that herself?

And the remaining guests were the youngesters' parents, or guardians. They were all nearly a generation Csethiro's elder, and although normally she would have had no trouble talking to them, in this setting she was painfully aware of seeming as young to them as Idra's cohort did to her.

All in all, a thoroughly grim way to spend an afternoon. What she really wanted to do was sit with Mireän and Ino, who had been permitted to sit in a corner and view their elder sibling's festivities, and share their fruit ices. Instead she went to her husband.

Maia sat on a large golden chair near the gifts table, framed by Kiru and Telimezh. He was a statue amid his silks and jewels, listening expressionlessly to a lord from Amalo telling him all about his beautiful grand-daughter, just the age of Prince Idra, such an accomplished and clever young lady -

"Excuse our interruption," Csethiro said cheerily. "Would that be Dach'osmin Robivin of whom you talk?" She glanced down the length of the room to where a tall, grinning girl dressed in northern style was juggling six oranges at once. Of course it was reprehensible behaviour for Court, but one had to admire the girl's style.

"What skill," Maia said politely. "Would you excuse us, Dach'osmer? We should like a moment with our wife."

Frowning, Dach'osmer Robivar perforce bowed farewell, and Csethiro seated herself on the small silver chair beside Maia. "Art well?" she asked quietly. Maia did not generally permit himself the luxury of time with her during social events. It was, he had explained apologetically shortly before their marriage, too easy to then ignore the claims of others upon his time.

He gave her a reassuring smile. "Quite well. But a little lost."

She waited for him to continue. Experience had taught her not to jump in while he was still forming his thoughts, even though she itched to do so. Sometimes, if he wasn't given the space to speak, the words would sink down inside him and she would never know what they would have been.

"When I was small," Maia said slowly, "my mother celebrated my birthday with me. But it was just the two of us. In later years, of course, there was no question of celebration. And then last year - it was all so unexpected."

Ah. She looked around Idra's party, and pressed her lips firmly together, because she could tell Maia still had things to say.

"Is this what it was like for thee, growing up?" Maia asked.

"Yes," she said, immediate and honest. "My sisters and I were famed for our birthday parties from a very young age, as it happens, but everyone held them. People attend from the age of ten and it's an early introduction to Court life."


They watched two boys of around thirteen scramble under the cake table with a dark green bottle. Memories arose unbidden of having done the same, once. She had been very sick into a tablecloth and, in a rare moment of helpfulness, her stepmother had been simply magnificent in helping to cover the embarrassing affair up.

"Didst thou never have any parties?" she asked, and he shook his head. "Not even one?"

"Who would have attended?"

She still sometimes found it hard to reconcile the bright, thoughtful, and respected man she had married with the isolated, lonely boy shown in his memories. It was like a rose blooming in the snow, or a spring rising in the desert.

Various trite remarks kept trying to escape her mouth. Thou hardly missed much, or How didst thou learn to take thy drink if not at a party such as this?, and she pushed them all back. She had more than once observed how remarks that seemed benign to her could wound him, and she hated that. What she hated even more was how he didn't say something hurtful back. His ability to defend his soul was half-ruined, and if protecting him meant learning to curb her tongue, that was a bargain she was happy to make.

"I think we can go now," she suggested. "All the fathers have had a chance to promote their daughters' interest to thee as prospective brides for Idra, and that was all thou wert here for, in truth. Why don't we take a quiet hour to ourselves?"

"It's not impolite to leave before it's over?"

"Not at our age." Csethiro grinned, and rose as he did. He was very, very good at keeping his face blank, but she was getting very, very good at reading even the most tiny signals from his movement and posture. He was relieved to be leaving.

She took his arm and they went out into the quieter corridor, nohecharei in their wake. They hadn't enough time before their next event to do what Csethiro really wanted, not with how time-consuming imperial regalia was to disrobe and re-dress. She would take him to a private garden, and devote herself to kissing the lost expression from his face.

And after that, she would begin planning how to celebrate his next birthday.