Even before he walked into the palace, Jade could tell that tonight was going to test him to his limits.
Theoretically, this was just a celebration in honor of His Majesty's recent engagement, but Jade knew from repeated experience that Peony's parties tended to be… excessive. Often, he didn't seem able to distinguish between formal gatherings and orgies. Immediately after Peony's ascension to the throne, Jade had formed a hypothesis that his parties usually involved both, but he'd never been able to stomach the idea of staying long enough to find out for certain. Perhaps tonight, if he was lucky, he'd be able to enlist some help in that endeavor.
The guards let him enter without so much as checking for identification, bidding him a good evening, sir. Jade smiled at their suddenly nervous mannerisms, adjusting his glasses as he glided through the door. They were either unexpectedly intelligent or predictably incompetent. Perfect. Soldiers were typically one of the two.
Jade made his disinterested way further into the palace, leaving his cloak with the legion of doormen on his way. In all likelihood, he'd forget to pick the thing up again when he left early, and Peony would never let him hear the end of it. Jade could almost hear him now, berating him for arriving fashionably late and leaving in such a hurry he forgot his cloak.
But Jade had endured Peony's lectures before, and he'd endure them again, if only for the sake of the celebration. They were going to be brothers-in-law soon, after all. Jade had never particularly wanted a brother of any kind, especially not after his sister was born, but he supposed Peony would be a better choice than the late Viscount Osborne, whose first name he never seemed to remember. Perhaps he had forgotten it out of spite.
To his muted astonishment, Jade was able to walk all the way into the ballroom before he saw even the slightest hint of drunken revelry, but the sheer volume of drunken revelers here made up for it in spades. Narrowing his eyes as he slid along the wall, Jade scanned the room for a sign of any acquaintances he knew more than superficially. Even Nephry would do, assuming Peony had remembered to bring his betrothed along.
Jade allowed himself a small smile at the possibility that he hadn't. Peony may have assumed it was obvious that his fiancée should attend his party, and forgotten to issue a real invitation. Perhaps he'd expected Jade to tell her. Perhaps he hadn't wanted her to come at all, given how his social events typically turned out. But then again, for all her prim propriety, Nephry had never been easily shocked by debauchery. She couldn't be, if she'd accepted Peony's hand in marriage. No; she must have insisted on coming.
Well, there went that little eventuality. It was only conceived in sport, anyway. (Much like Peony himself.)
For all Jade's reflections, his sister was not the person he spotted first. Instead, his eyes caught on a different, more interesting figure some distance away, and he smiled. Almost immediately after Jade recognized her back in the crowd, Natalia turned and noticed him, and her expression melted into a peculiar mixture of wariness and relief as she moved to meet him.
"Your Highness," greeted Jade, bowing briefly. "You look lovely." She had a remarkable gift for looking stunning in anything, much to be desired in a future queen.
"Is that all you have to say after a year of silence?" demanded Natalia, but her spirits seemed too high for her to be genuinely angry. Her eyes sparkled even as she crossed her arms in an artificial huff. "A year! I thought saving the world with us might convince you to keep in touch."
"And so I have been," said Jade, raising his eyebrows. "Anise came to visit me on a whim a few months ago, and it took me all evening to get rid of her." He smiled as Natalia's moue became a genuine glare. "And, as you undoubtedly know by now, Guy is one of His Majesty's most trusted advisors. We can't often avoid one another whenever I deliver a report."
Natalia rolled her eyes. "I know about Guy and his promotion because he wrote to me about it, which is more than you can say for yourself," she said, more than a little testily. "And what about Tear? She told me she's sent a letter every few months, and you haven't responded to a single one!"
It didn't exactly bother Jade that Natalia was so determined to believe he was in the wrong—most people were, really—but it was his philosophy to leave no table unturned. "Then I'll be sure to take more time to reply in the coming months. And when the replicas disappear because I was too busy with long-distance conversation to prevent their fonons from separating, I'll read my mail at their funeral. I'm sure Tear's letters will make a wonderful eulogy."
Jade's smile widened as Natalia's fingers curled into gloved fists; the Malkuthian nobility could do with a little of her honest temper. However, rather than level any further accusations, Natalia simply took a deep breath. "I really think you should explain yourself to Tear at your earliest convenience," she said, making an admirable effort at hiding her exasperation. "She's very concerned about you, you know." Though Natalia seemed to have lapsed back into a tone of cold authority, there was an undercurrent of warmth that had not been there before their journey together.
Still, the words behind her tone were somewhat worrying. "I was under the impression that Tear was invited to this… celebration," said Jade, frowning. "Has something happened to her?"
Natalia shook her head. "She's away on business of some sort, on behalf of the Oracle Knights. Though I'd imagine her business wouldn't have been quite so urgent if Guy hadn't warned her about His Majesty's decadence." She glanced around restlessly, as if the word itself were dangerous. "I'd have preferred to decline, myself, but I consider this a diplomatic obligation." The faint flush of embarrassment across Natalia's cheeks told Jade that this was not the only reason. More likely, she had only visited personally in the hopes of encountering a certain count.
"If that's the case, I hope very much that you survive the evening," said Jade, smiling, and ignored Natalia's suddenly uneasy expression. "Speaking of which, have you seen Guy?" Jade wasn't especially surprised at his absence. The probability of brushing against a woman among a crowd of scandal-hungry nobles was high, and the probability that such a gesture would be mistaken as sexual and subsequently reciprocated higher still. Guy wouldn't last five minutes in a room like this.
"Very briefly," said Natalia, and though her voice was steady enough, her blush deepened a little and she did not quite meet Jade's eyes. "Guy told me he was going to stay outside until and unless His Majesty calls him in. I thought I'd go inside and socialize, but I don't know many others here, and we have… very little in common."
That was a generous assessment. Natalia was more driven, not to mention more useful, than the entirety of the Malkuthian nobility put together—emperor included. "Not even Anise?" asked Jade, glancing around the room once more. "I thought she was coming as well. Unless, of course, she's been assigned to the same mission as Tear." Which would be unusual indeed. Anise wouldn't miss an event like this for the world.
"Oh, Anise is here. She just hasn't left Florian's side since they arrived, and I can't stay there with them the entire time." Natalia waved vaguely in the direction of the thrones. "He apparently doesn't do well with crowds in confined spaces, so they've been keeping to the back."
Jade nodded. He didn't like large gatherings either, but as a somewhat well-to-do adult, he unfortunately had little choice but to tolerate them anyway. Such was the price of class, as Natalia knew all too well. "It does take some getting used to."
"Yes, it does," agreed Natalia, her voice a sigh. "But I think you ought to greet His Majesty. He's been complaining about your lateness to anyone who will listen." Jade glanced back toward the thrones to find that Peony had taken a seat, laughing and pulling Nephry into his lap. "I'll look for you later."
"Why don't you look for Guy instead?" suggested Jade, and to his satisfaction, Natalia's countenance brightened immediately at the idea. "I'm sure His Majesty will understand. He doesn't usually approve of standing on ceremony, you know, and you've done your duty already."
Natalia's eyes shimmered with relief. "Thank you," she said, sinking into a curtsy, as though Jade had any authority to relieve her. "I'll try to believe that." Recognizing the end of their conversation, Jade bowed to bestow a light kiss to the back of Natalia's hand before turning to make his way over to the thrones.
In an environment like this, anyone walking with more purpose than a beetle was regarded with suspicion, but at least that meant no one got in his way as he crossed the room. Peony's face lit up as Jade approached. "If it isn't the former Colonel Jade Curtiss, Malkuth Imperial Forces, Third Division. About time you showed up." His mischievous grin widened. "Got something to tell me?"
Jade gave a short, polite bow in response. "May I congratulate you on your forthcoming legal union with my sister, Your Majesty. And may I also remind you that such a legal union is still forthcoming." He shifted his eyes to his sister's rosy face. "Really, Nephry, are you going to deprive your fiancé of his last real chance to enjoy company other than your own?"
Nephry had a sister's experience with Jade's manners, so her response was as disappointingly direct as he expected. "Yes, I am," she said, making herself more comfortable on Peony's lap. "I was under the impression we'd invited someone else, too. Where's Saphir?" She glanced around as she spoke, as if hoping to find him hiding somewhere behind Jade.
In an effort to maintain some semblance of cheer, Jade had avoided thinking about Dist ever since he left the house, and sighed as he was reminded of his existence. "Assuming I gave him the right dosage, the medication shouldn't wear off for another few hours. And after that, he'll have to escape the cellar. It's safe to say that if he arrives at all, it won't be for a while."
Peony laughed, apparently unconcerned. "I should have known better than to think you'd let him come along. Still, you should have brought someone with you. It's disgraceful for such a prestigious man to attend a dance all alone."
"Oh, is that what this is?" asked Jade, looking around the room. The orchestra hadn't played anything worthwhile the entire time he had been there. "No one seems to be dancing."
"They will soon enough," Peony assured him, eyes glittering like malicious sapphires, though Nephry at least had the grace to look apologetic. "And so will you."
Jade chuckled. "I'll dance as soon as someone asks me," he said, putting his hands in his pockets as though to keep anyone from taking them. That guaranteed him at least most of the night to himself, anyway. Anyone fool enough to ask him to dance would suffer for it; he hadn't danced in years.
"Traditionally, the gentleman asks the lady," said Peony, as though that mattered at all. Whether the man asked the woman or the woman asked the man, the dances Jade had seen inevitably resulted in awkward silences, uncomfortable proximity, and—more often than not—damaged relationships. Not that Jade especially cared about this last point, but awkward silences and uncomfortable proximity were not among his favorite experiences.
"It's a good thing you don't encourage tradition, then," said Jade. "Let me put it this way: I'll dance if either of our lives depend on it, and not before."
Peony gave a faint hum. "I guess that's not out of the question. And better than nothing."
Jade heaved a somewhat exaggerated sigh. "Don't you have more important things to worry about than pairing me off, Your Majesty? You may have gone back on your word never to marry, but by no means does that affect mine."
Peony's disapproving expression softened at Jade's veiled warning, and he chuckled. "Of course you'll be a bachelor all your life. You're too far above the rest of us to let anyone tie you down, aren't you?"
"And just what are you implying, Your Majesty?" asked Jade, tilting his head. "Surely you don't think I have delusions of grandeur?"
"How could you?" asked Peony, chortling. "You'd have to think you're a god to have delusions of grandeur, and you're not religious enough for that. No, I don't think you're crazy—or not as crazy as Saphir, anyway, not that that's saying much. I just think you shouldn't consider it beneath you to take a lover."
Jade smiled thinly. They'd had this argument many times before. "If everyone shared your inclinations, Your Majesty, there wouldn't be enough bodies to satisfy us all." But he could already see an all-too-familiar glint spark to life in Peony's eyes. He was going to work himself to the point of exhaustion trying to find someone who could interest Jade. Again.
Nephry seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion, glancing between Jade and Peony with undisguised apprehension in her eyes. "Please try to enjoy yourself, Brother," she said, adjusting her glasses in her usual nervous tic. "I'll do my best to keep Peony out of trouble."
"Sure you will," growled Peony, drawing Nephry closer, and she gave a girlish giggle. After offering a polite and admittedly somewhat hasty bow, Jade turned away before his gorge could rise.
Ever since the morning he'd stumbled upon the two of them entangled in her bed, he had maintained a deep distrust and dislike of Peony's fixation on women, particularly Nephry. In fact, after some hypothesizing, he'd started keeping careful track of his actions and reactions under the influence of infatuation. What Peony referred to as 'love', which was ultimately nothing more than a complex concoction of chemicals produced in the brain, proved detrimental to his productivity and rationality. A future ruler ought to have cultivated both those traits instead of suppressing them through meaningless flirtation.
Predictably, rather than engage him on an appropriately intellectual level, Peony had retaliated by expressing suspicion regarding Jade's lack of interest. Shortly thereafter, he'd begun the search to find him a partner who could arouse whatever desires he mistakenly assumed lay beneath the surface.
Peony had been desperate enough that he had enlisted Dist's help after a while, which was as terrible an idea as one might expect. Of course, Dist had thought he was the perfect prospect, and insisted on attempting to prove it every chance he got. After a few warnings as futile as the phantasm of love itself, Jade had started giving Dist a new laceration for every advance he made until he got the message. Fortunately, that didn't take too long. Unfortunately, even after Dist's repeated failures, Peony's search had never truly ended. It had just gone dormant whenever he lost interest.
Jade supposed another round was long overdue, but that didn't make the game any less tedious. At least Dist wasn't around to play it this time. But speaking of playing games, hadn't Natalia said something about Anise and Florian? It might be nice to find a few more familiar faces. Though Jade scanned the room in search of them, they'd apparently moved since she'd tried to point them out. Perhaps they'd gone outside as well. (What he wouldn't give for Guy's special dispensation to dodge the festivities.)
A tap on Jade's shoulder did not startle him, because he could tell someone was behind him. Judging by the touch of those light fingers, too insistent to be truly ladylike, that someone was Anise Tatlin. "Good evening, Anise," he said, turning around to face her and Florian. "You owe me three hundred gald."
Her bright eyes immediately dulled and narrowed. "Okay, so you're right that she left the party to be with Guy," she muttered, crossing her arms. "But that wasn't the bet! The bet was that they'd kiss before the night's out."
"Have you been keeping a close enough eye on them to say they haven't?" asked Jade, swiveling his gaze over to her quiet companion. "From what I can tell, you've been preoccupied with Master Florian, yourself."
Florian's cheeks reddened as he glanced away, and Anise rushed to his rescue. "It's not like that," she said, just a little too quickly, and Jade gave a small smile as she told him everything he needed to know. It was far more effective, and less time-consuming, to trick someone into divulging sensitive information than to sneak around trying to be in the right place at the right time. "Besides, you have no room to talk. You're popular with all the ladies in Malkuth."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Jade, his voice edged with a sigh. He hardly considered himself a mysterious person, but the distance he placed between himself and everyone else meant that he had an aura of aloofness, and most people perceived that as attractive whether he liked it or not. It had been some time since he'd been to a gathering large enough to hear anything about his admirers, but he supposed it had been unreasonable to assume they'd all come to their senses in the meantime.
Anise rolled her eyes. "It's gotten worse, if you can believe it. They never shut up about the great Dr. Curtiss and his incredible discoveries. Some of their husbands have even gotten jealous and started calling you Jade the Nec-romancer." She shook her head vigorously as if to clear it, ponytail bouncing, and pulled a face as if too disgusted to say more.
"My, my," said Jade, raising his eyebrows, and did not trouble to suppress a smile. "Boredom does produce some truly terrible things." His own accomplishments were sometimes living proof.
"Speaking of which, has His Majesty tried to set you up with anyone yet?" asked Anise, tilting her head, and Jade's smirk gave way to another sigh. Really, she was too perceptive for her own good. "He might leave you alone if you find a partner before they finish clearing the ballroom floor."
As Anise's eyes shifted to someplace behind Jade, he glanced over his shoulder to find that the crowd had already started to retreat in preparation for something more exciting than idle gossip. "Even so, I'd prefer to keep my feet to myself."
Anise nodded. "I can't imagine you dancing, Colonel," she said, slipping back into her old use of his title, and her eyes glimmered with amusement. (Jade didn't want to know what she was picturing.) "But either way, it should be an interesting evening. At least, I hope it will be." Anise frowned as if just realizing something, and bit her lip briefly. "How's Dist?"
Jade took a moment to evaluate her expression, only to find it guarded, as though she didn't really want to know the answer. At least she knew better than to ask where he was. "Better than he's been in years," said Jade, plucking up a glass of something bubbly from a platter borne by a passing maid. "How's Tokunaga?"
"Jade!" exclaimed Anise, but the flash of annoyance in her eyes lasted only an instant; she couldn't prevent herself from smiling for long. "He's… fine. I'm getting old enough that I can't carry him around all the time without drawing too much attention to myself, so I left him at home. And besides, I've been practicing fighting with just a wand, so I haven't had as much use for him lately anyway."
"I don't suppose you came here unarmed?"
Anise's mouth twitched into a mischievous smile as she procured from her purse a tube of something that looked like lipstick. "Collapsible," she said in a confidential murmur. "Nobody ever confiscates it, because everybody knows better than to take away a lady's makeup. If I'm expecting to fight, I have better options, but this one's good for occasions like this."
"His Majesty ought to invest in a few more observant guards," said Jade, taking a long sip of whatever beverage he'd acquired. (A little too sweet, but otherwise, not bad.) "As much as I hate to admit it, Malkuth needs him. If his security is this lax even at his engagement party, it's a miracle he hasn't been assassinated already."
"Yeah, well, look on the bright side," said Anise, grinning. "Even if someone gets him someday, Malkuth probably won't lose its entire royal family at once anymore. He's all set to start producing legitimate heirs any time now."
Jade grimaced. He already had little enough of an appetite without the thought of future nieces and nephews parading through the palace, demanding his time and attention whenever he was forced to visit—to say nothing of the process that would produce them all. "I'd appreciate it if you'd leave my sister out of this."
"Sorry, sorry," giggled Anise, holding up her hands in a rather charming gesture of surrender. "But seriously, you should find a partner before the dancing starts. You know it'll make things easier for all of us if you do."
"My sincerest apologies," said Jade, raising his glass innocently, "but my hands are full at the moment."
Predictably, Anise's only response was to roll her eyes and pull Florian deeper into the crowd, ignoring his yelp of surprise. Unfortunately, Jade had very little time to consider an escape route of his own before someone else made an appearance: a tall, dark-haired lady Jade didn't recognize, her pale eyes faraway and her countenance contemplative. This was not the face of someone who belonged here.
"Excuse me," said Jade, approaching the lady, and she snapped back into herself abruptly. There was no concealing that aura of wariness; she wasn't expecting her thoughts to have been interrupted. "You look as though you've lost your way. May I be of any assistance?"
The lady did not respond directly. "You're… Dr. Curtiss, right?" she asked instead, peering at him. No, he'd never met those eyes before. "I don't believe I've ever had the honor of actually meeting you."
Jade inclined his head. "Please, call me Jade. And your name is…?"
"Mara." The lady offered her name more like a title than a part of herself, proffering her hand with a slight hesitation. Her eyes were alight with curiosity, but their sparkle was as nervous as it was eager, and the veil over it just a little too dull. As Jade accepted the lady's hand and weighed it briefly in his own, he found that it was about as soft and smooth as one might expect of a noblewoman, but there was a strength about it that he didn't trust. She was accustomed to doing some sort of manual work, which was more than could be said for almost anyone else present.
Jade couldn't let this stranger slip away until he had determined why she was really here, which meant he was obliged to continue the conversation beyond the usual introductory pleasantries. "The honor is mine," he said, releasing her hand at last. "Strangers are hard to come by after so many years of attending parties like these."
"Is that so?" asked the lady, tilting her head slightly so that a lock of her perfectly curled hair fell into her face. "I would have thought that strangers would come from all over to catch a last glimpse of His Majesty before he becomes a married man."
"Is that why you're here?" asked Jade, more to see how she would answer the question than because he expected the truth.
The lady nodded. "I've admired His Majesty from a distance for a long time." Something hidden deep inside her eyes told Jade she was gauging his reaction. She was a liar and a fool, then, which was disappointing. But Jade supposed most of the people to whom she lied were fools themselves, so there was no real need for her to be much cleverer.
"Are you acquainted with His Majesty?" asked Jade, smiling faintly. The liar had backed herself into a corner with that cover story. If she said yes, she'd go against the implications of her own tale, but if she said no, she'd give him conclusive proof that she wasn't supposed to be here. Whatever the outcome, this may be some fun after all.
The liar opted for the latter and shook her head. "No, but I'd like to be," she said, searching Jade's expression, and her voice turned the slightest bit suggestive. "If you could introduce us, since you're His Majesty's friend, I'd be much obliged."
"His Majesty has many friends," said Jade, taking another nonchalant sip of his drink. "In fact, only His Majesty's friends are supposed to be here tonight. I'd ask how you got in, but it really doesn't take much to get past those guards, does it?"
The liar's lips had parted in alarm as he spoke, but she arranged them hastily into an unconvincing smile. "A pretty face works wonders. They didn't even ask to see an invitation."
Glancing behind him as she spoke, Jade noticed someone sidling along behind him, and moved his elbow a couple inches back, just far enough for him to be jostled. He allowed his glass to wobble in his fingers and loosened his grip, ready to let it spill over the front of the liar's dress—but she reached out and grasped Jade's hand immediately in both her own to stabilize it.
Though she lowered her hands again almost immediately, there was still enough time for him to register how swift and strong her touch was, and how impeccably honed her reflexes. Jade might have forgiven the liar and let her go if she had at least been telling the truth about her motivations for sneaking in, but as it was, this was no lovestruck lady. This was an extremely inexperienced and/or unlucky assassin, and there was no way he was going to let her make the emperor of Malkuth her first victim.
"Thank you," said Jade, tossing a glance backwards to find that everyone behind him seemed to be frantically trying to blame each other for bumping into Jade the Necromancer. There was no need for him even to glare in their direction. "Now, if you know His Majesty considers me a friend, clearly you've heard about me. How much?"
The liar fluttered her lashes, even though her innocent image had shattered during their very first interaction. "Enough to know you're capable of using powers others can scarcely dream of." Judging by her breathy tone, she was clearly trying to sound sultry.
Oh, so she was trying to flatter him into submission. How amusing. Jade smiled as the orchestra began a new tune, resolving to keep this up a little longer. "The dance you're leading me is enjoyable, but I've heard it said that actions speak more loudly than words. If you'd care to join me." As he bowed slightly and offered his arm, meeting the liar's eyes with the merest hint of a warning, they both knew there was no way she could refuse him.
The liar took his arm with undisguised reluctance, and Jade set down his glass lightly on the same tray from which he'd taken it as the maid made another circuit around the room. "I'm afraid I'm somewhat out of practice," he said, leading the liar toward the center of the room. "I apologize in advance for the state of your feet."
They took the floor, Jade doing his utmost to avoid Peony's line of sight. Even considering his earlier statement, he'd undoubtedly misinterpret and may even ruin the situation. "So, what has His Majesty done this time?" asked Jade, waiting a few beats before beginning the dance. To say his skills were rusty was a colossal understatement; the liar winced almost immediately. "Are you one of his spurned lovers?"
The liar's hesitation, however fleeting, did not go unnoticed. "No."
"Then you work for at least one of them."
It took the liar less time than Jade expected to recognize that he was not asking a question, but she still took a moment to weigh her options. "Yes."
"And you're working alone?" Jade tightened his hold ever so slightly on the liar's hand to let her know that it would be in her best interests to tell the truth. Not that she didn't know already, but Jade always enjoyed driving his points home.
"Yes," said the liar. "Aren't you going to ask who—?"
"For now, there are a few more important things to consider than your employers' names and titles," interrupted Jade, leading a spin. "Such as their idiocy. Hiring someone like you to kill the emperor? Alone?" He chuckled. "This is more a poorly planned practical joke than an assassination attempt."
"What do you mean?" The liar bristled as though Jade had impugned her honor, and he briefly considered apologizing. He had intended, of course, to impugn the honor of her employers instead.
"My dear lady, I have no doubt that you're more dangerous than most people in this room, but I am not one of those people." She must have known that, given her reaction when Jade had approached, so there was no point in chiding her any further. "You're obviously trained, but not subtle enough to be an assassin. Are you a soldier?"
Resentment rolled off the liar like the scent of her perfume under mild exertion, and Jade knew he had hit the mark even before she muttered, "Yes."
The liar's nationality was irrelevant for now, so Jade didn't bother asking. "Then I assume you didn't charge much for your services, so to speak." Peony's ex-mistresses had likely assumed that the liar's status as a soldier was proof enough of her suitability for the job, which meant that if the fee was comparatively cheap, they would see her as the best candidate. Whether they were rich or poor, less gald was always better. (Jade had never known anyone as pointlessly frugal as the wealthy.)
"There are a lot of nobles and hitmen out there who can never agree on a price, so nothing ever gets done," said the liar, making a valiant effort at flippancy. "You'd be surprised how many people want to kill the emperor."
"Oh, not at all. I myself swore long ago that if anyone kills the emperor, it will be me." Jade led the liar an extra twirl pointedly. "I'm afraid I cannot allow anyone else the privilege of taking his life."
That gave the liar pause. "Clever," she said, expression softening in admiration—all the more pitiable for being genuine. "Pretending to be his friend all along, only to turn on him in the end? I'm impressed."
"Mind that I did say if," said Jade lightly, and the liar's expression froze. "Unfortunately, I'm not in the mood to kill him at the moment. Things might have been different if you'd waited for the actual wedding, but as it is…" Jade smiled. The liar blanched. "I think you'll serve as a wonderful example of what happens to those who threaten His Majesty."
"I'll give you names," said the liar, her eyes glistening in fear. Jade remembered the rush he used to get, seeing that expression on his enemies, but now it simply bored him. It truly was incredible how times had changed. "As many as you want. All of them. There are at least half a dozen people who—"
"Good," said Jade, cutting her off. "That means you might avoid execution, at least. But please, save this for the interrogation. We're only dancing at the moment."
"Let me go," said the liar, more insistently, but did not dare break away from him. "I'll do anything."
There was that desperate attempt at flirtation again, the intensity in eyes that had so rarely seen rejection. Jade couldn't resist egging her on, and leaned in slightly closer. "Anything?" This was cruel even for him, but if the liar was going to offer up free entertainment, far be it from him to refuse her.
"Anything at all. Whatever you want. Please."
Jade laughed. "Then come quietly."
The music stopped just as the last glimmer of hope left the liar's eyes, and all the couples drifted off the dance floor to find new partners… except Jade and his captive. "Your Majesty," announced Jade, holding up the liar's arm, and heads turned all around the room. "May I present to you an engagement gift. The head of a would-be assassin."
A collective gasp rose from the crowd, and the liar remembered to struggle, perhaps hoping to catch Jade off-guard by breaking away suddenly. He was slightly taken aback that she'd taken so long to recognize her defeat, but it took much more pity than he was capable of feeling to simply let someone stab him.
Of course, Jade also didn't realize at first that the liar was actually trying to harm him at all. He barely registered her bringing up her other hand before he grabbed her arm and twisted, and only the clatter of steel on marble—now the only sound in the hall—told him she had been armed. (Emphasis, Jade supposed, on the past tense.)
Peony looked thoroughly unsurprised, while Nephry was no more ruffled than usual, although she did appear as angry as she ever did. "I thought my admirers had been a little quiet lately," remarked Peony, then raised his voice to address the liar more seriously. "What do you have to say for yourself?"
The liar seemed at a loss for words, and more than a little shaken by how easily she'd been caught, so Jade answered in her stead. "Hired by a few of your former sweethearts, as you so wisely assumed. I'm sure she'll be more than happy to provide you with a list." He glanced pointedly around at the motionless imperial soldiers, as frozen as the rest of the crowd.
Peony understood. "Don't just stand there, you idiots," he said, jerking his head, and his guards jolted to action to haul the liar from Jade's grasp. "Just throw her in the dungeons for now. I'll talk to her after the party." Prioritization had always been one of Peony's strong points. "Carry on, everyone. Nothing to worry about."
As the emperor signaled the shellshocked orchestra, they had no choice but to start up again, encouraging the crowd to resume their previous activities. And, as he beckoned Jade forward, he had no choice but to approach, which he did with all due apprehension. "I see you did dance after all," said Peony, fighting back a laugh. "Those might've been the smoothest moves I've seen from you yet."
"You're welcome," said Jade, choosing not to remind him of the exception he had mentioned. "More importantly, that must be the clumsiest assassination attempt I've ever had the luck to almost witness. Don't tell me you asked some old flames to hire her, Your Majesty."
Peony waved a hand, grinning. His smile was the only thing in the world Jade had ever described as 'enigmatic'. "Don't be ridiculous. Why would I risk my life and humiliate such a lovely lady at my own engagement celebration?"
"A lovely lady who would have murdered you without a second thought if my brother hadn't intervened," said Nephry, nudging Peony. "Go on. Thank him or the wedding's off."
Peony neither hesitated nor looked at Jade. "Thanks."
Jade gave a short, equally forced bow of farewell. "I'm leaving."
Peony leaned back momentarily, clutching his chest in a gesture of exaggerated shock and hurt. "Leaving? But what if someone kills me while you're gone?" It could not have been clearer that he was joking. Each of them knew from personal experience it'd take more than a knife to kill someone as tenacious as the emperor.
"Next time, I have no doubt you'll deserve it," said Jade, smiling. "In case it wasn't clear, your life was my engagement gift. Or curse," he added, glancing over at Nephry. "I'll understand if you never speak to me again."
"Then that means you didn't bring us anything else," said Peony, returning Jade's smile. "Surely you didn't count on something like this happening, either?"
"Of course not, Your Majesty. Though it seems some of my distant acquaintances may have taken my jokes about killing you, and my advice on how best to smuggle an assassin into one of your gatherings, too seriously."
Peony laughed. "You could provide a more complete list of conspirators than that poor woman," he said, leaning forward as if about to strike some sort of bargain. "Give me one reason I should let you walk after a confession like that."
Jade sighed, glancing back at the doors over his shoulder. "If you're trying to persuade me to stay any longer, Your Majesty, you're not saying much to convince me that your life is worth saving a second time."
"Are you two still looking for excuses to kill each other?" interjected Nephry, scowling. "It was bad enough when you were just a pair of unruly boys trying to get one another in trouble."
"Now, now, my love," said Peony, his expression somewhere between indignant and sulky. "We've already established that neither of us is to blame for what happened tonight. There's nothing to worry about anymore."
"That's not what I heard," muttered Nephry, but did not press her point. Instead, she cleared her throat and dipped her head to Jade. "Safe travels on your way home, Brother. Thank you for coming, even if only for a short time."
Jade bowed. "I couldn't very well refuse a royal decree." They'd had the good sense to send him an order rather than an invitation, as he had discovered upon comparing letters with Guy during their latest conversation. "Please try not to get yourself killed in my absence, Your Majesty. I'd hate all my hard work to go to waste."
Peony just laughed and waved Jade off, and he turned away with a last look at his concerned sister, who finally seemed to have some inkling of the mess into which she had chosen to marry. Taking solace in the fact that his momentary annoyance would be nothing to her more enduring frustration, he made his way across the room a last time, keeping an eye out for his acquaintances along the way.
It seemed Anise and Florian were, disappointingly, nowhere to be found, but just as Jade was ready to step out into the foyer, Natalia marched up to him, dragging Guy behind her. (Perhaps less had changed from his servant days than Jade had thought.) "I go outside for fifteen minutes and you catch an assassin?" she exclaimed, looking beyond incredulous. And a little flustered, perhaps that she'd missed some of the action.
Or perhaps because of what she'd been doing instead. Jade had no way of knowing, of course, but Guy's expression was a little too sheepish to be entirely innocent. And, upon slightly closer examination, his neck was smudged pink. "Tell Anise she owes me three hundred gald," said Jade, nodding at Guy, and he nodded back hesitantly, unnerved. "Enjoy the rest of your evening, both of you." And, leaving Natalia's question to be answered and exaggerated by the general public, he bowed his farewell and departed.
Humming faintly to himself, Jade left his cloak in the cloakroom where it belonged, striding out of the palace and gazing up at the clear night sky. Love was supposed to be written in the stars, but he loved tormenting his friends and family far more than he could ever love any one of them individually, so the stars had better be taking notes.
But Jade didn't need the stars to tell the future, anyway. If that was the engagement party, he thought he could already tell how the wedding would go.