Fucking Yaelsmuir and all its fucking rain—of all the nights for Ishmael to be caught in a storm, of course it was when he was trying to climb up the side of Illea Winter’s house. Queen Leony liked it when they lied and snuck around; she was thrilled by him and his various abilities, intrigued by the way his career was cloaked in secret even from her. When he came up with the idea of climbing up to her window, he’d only thought about the easy pleasure of seeing her eyes glitter with delight. And not about the weather.
It hadn’t been raining this hard when he left the banquet. Just a drizzle when he met Illea’s head cook in the greenhouse to smoke hashish. Savvas always had the best hashish, and they’d only smoked a little. Savvas got to bask in another job well done as the rest of the staff cleaned the kitchen of the wreckage his brilliance left, and Ishmael could kill a little time while the last of the guests left so Leony could maintain her privacy by retreating to the guest suite alone. Wasn’t until Ishmael started climbing that the clouds really opened up. Even snow would be better at this point. At least snow could be brushed off windowsills and balcony railings. But the rain sluiced off the roof and poured down Ishmael’s back, the cold making his fingers so numb that he could barely move them anymore. Every hand- and foothold became treacherously slick, and he cursed his self-indulgent stupidity with every moment he was on the side of the house in a storm. It felt a little bit like he was going to fucking die to get his prick wet.
In a strange way—probably because the hashish chipped off the edges of his good sense—the rhythm of the raindrops on his body muffled the usual tumult that existed in his mind. It didn’t go away, of course. It rarely did. Complete silence was usually only obtained with amounts of opium that made his priest nervous, so he’d given up on the idea of achieving that much peace. Reducing everything to a dull thrum was the best he could hope for. He’d only gotten home a few days ago. In time to try to help Eirdis Redbone get elected, or at least try. In time to offer Tashué up to the meat grinder that was Yaelsmuir politics. The poor bastard was the perfect choice for what Wolfe needed—steadfast, loyal to Wolfe over Elsworth, ferocious when he needed to be—but he probably had no idea what he’d agreed to. And he’d fallen so perfectly into all of it, letting Illea tempt him so Elsworth and Myron would dismiss Tashué as another of Illea’s playthings while Ishmael and Wolfe prepared him for a political career behind Elsworth’s back. It all went better than Ishmael expected. Illea’s antics had the Queen’s approval, which may well be the death knell of Myron’s career. If the people of Highfield thought Myron had fallen out of favour in the eyes of the Crowne, Rainer was likely fighting a losing battle to get his re-election. Eirdis might finally have a chance to move Myron out of the Governor’s office.
If it was anyone other than Illea, Ishmael might have left the table to join them—to hell with Dominion prudishness, especially if Illea had left her own table first. But Ishmael didn’t trust Illea, and their relationship would only get more complicated if he started sleeping with her. Besides, he knew the Queen would call for him if he left his evening open, and whatever gossip she had would be worth far more than a roll with Tashué and Illea.
He shifted his weight too fast—his hand slipped and his heart lurched and his stomach wrapped itself around his throat—but he caught himself. Fucking hell, he should have been paying attention.
A giddy laugh bubbled up from his chest. Of all the idiotic ways he’d almost died, this one had to rank among the best and most ridiculous. He could imagine the wild rumours that would burn through Yaelsmuir if he was found dead on the paving stones outside Illea’s manor. What a ridiculous legacy to leave—although fitting, given that most of the people in this country who knew his name thought of him as a useless drunk. He shifted his weight slowly, moving laterally along the house until he stood on the ledge of a windowsill, his shoulder pressed against the cold glass. Rain soaked into his clothes, but he stood a moment, savouring the strain in all his muscles and the way his heart buzzed even with the hashish in his system to slow him down. He’d been emotionally numb often enough in his life that he could enjoy the very particular oh fuck I almost died rush that filled his body. It didn’t matter how complicated things felt in this moment. It didn’t matter who he longed for or was trying to grieve. Scheming for Wolfe and Illea felt incredibly small and far away. He’d almost fallen, and he was alive. The ugly Yaelsmuir rain hadn’t conquered him this time.
Once the tremble in his arms had settled, he resumed his climb.
He hauled himself over the edge of the balcony outside the Queen’s suite of rooms. The door to the balcony was unlocked by prior arrangement, and he let himself in. He shook the water from his hair, giving Illea’s furniture a wet spray that gave him a petty sense of satisfaction. All the oil he used to tame his wild curls to fashionable smoothness would probably leave little stains on the upholstery.
The Queen’s staff populated the sitting room, a few servants to see to her needs through the night. One of them came forward to help him out of his coat, peeling it off his arms to hang it by the hearth to dry.
“Mr. Saeati,” Leony said, her voice light with her joy. The hashish billowing through Ishmael’s body caught the sound of her happiness and sent it ringing through his bones, chasing away his melancholy. She stood in the doorway between the two rooms, stripped of all the banquet finery—makeup and jewels and layers of structured clothes had all been removed. Instead, she wore a long, silk dressing gown, the hem pooling on the floor around her feet, her hair assembled in a single plait. She was a handsome woman. Strong lines in her face. Broad shoulders and a long, athletic build. “You made it.”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Ishmael said, pushing his hair out of his face. He stalked across the room to her, leaving wet footprints across Illea’s rug. “I serve at my Queen’s pleasure. Who am I to refuse when my liege lady calls for me?”
Leony smiled, retreating slowly into the bedchamber and glancing back at him as she went. “Such a humble servant you are. So very sacrificing, indulging me and my whims. You should come and warm up—your clothes look terribly soaked. I’ll get a wonderful show out of it, at least. I imagine you’ll want to get out of your wet clothes as swiftly as possible.”
Ishmael grinned, following her to the bedroom. “You know me so well, your Majesty, and you are most gracious. So considerate to allow me a moment to get more comfortable.”
Leony retreated all the way to the bed, sitting on the edge. She crossed her ankles demurely in front of her, like she couldn’t ever escape her training as to how to present herself to the world, even when she was indulging in secret sexual encounters.
His cold, hashish-numb fingers were slow as they rifled through his pockets, but he still took the time to pull all his things out, lining them up on the mantle. Yaelsmuir had officially entered ‘best not carry anything important in your pockets’ season, so hopefully he’d gotten out of the rain without anything getting too damaged. The thin-bladed knife that Deri gave him years ago was fine, of course. He’d had a bag of candy, but fortunately it was empty by the time he got stuck in the rain. The bag was soaked through. He unclipped his pocket watch from its chain to set it aside—he’d check on it later. This was why he didn’t carry emotionally significant watches anymore. Anything he was attached to was on display at the watch shop in the Boardwalk Market.
He wriggled out of his jacket, a servant helping by dragging the wet wool off his arms. The heat permeated his clothes, making his cold skin tingly and alive. It was almost painful, the rapid transition from cold to hot. But the pain helped ground him in his body and in the moment, just like the rush of fear had. His waistcoat next—the thin white linen of his shirt was soaked through and it showed the lines of his body and his tattoos, and he could feel Leony watching him. She’d seen them all before, but they still held her fascination. He opened his trousers and fought his way out of them, adding more things to the mantle: his cigarette case, a box of matches, a few spare crowns. Leony’s eyes settled on the tattoo on his thigh. The skyline of the Black Mountains, with the moon hanging between the peaks and sand dunes trailing down toward Ishmael’s knee. Of all his tattoos, it was his favourite. It represented the most painful of his assignments, only the second time in his life he’d been to the mountain range his people named themselves after—the Qasan. The whole objective went sideways. But at least he’d helped people. Not as much as they needed. Not enough to make the Qasan safe again. But he’d helped a little, even though it went against Crowne interest.
Gods, he needed to stop. He was here for fun and gossip, not to feel sorry for himself, and thinking about those mountains never led him anywhere good.
“Can I get you anything, Mr. Saeati?” the last servant in the room asked.
“Thank you, no,” Ishmael said, hanging the trousers from the coat tree beside the fire.
The servant glanced at Leony, who nodded. The servant retreated, pulling the bedroom doors closed behind her, leaving Ishmael and Leony in the closest thing the Queen ever got to privacy. Her staff would still listen from the other side of the door. They’d come at the slightest indication that the Queen needed anything. But for now, there was no one else in the room.
“This might be my last chance to entertain you, Mr. Saeati.” Leony’s voice betrayed the weight the statement carried. She hadn’t mastered the skill of hiding her emotions, especially when she felt them keenly, and Ishmael could only imagine how miserable that made her life at court. Being the Queen wasn’t the same as being the most powerful person in the room. “My family is getting increasingly impatient for me to find a husband and begin making heirs for the Crowne.”
“Surely they can’t force you,” Ishmael scoffed, stripping out of his shirt, hanging it from the hook beside the hearth. With luck, Leony would indulge his presence until morning, and his clothes would be dry by then. “There are laws that allow you to select an heir if you can’t produce children.”
Leony sighed, very softly, and arranged her features into a stiff smile. “Yes, Mr. Saeati, I’m very much aware of the laws.”
Ishmael grimaced. Maybe luck had less to do with whether she’d let him stay the night, and the deciding factor would be whether or not he could avoid insulting the Queen’s intelligence. The fire gave a loud pop, throwing embers out onto the floor in front of the hearth. Ishmael stepped on them, his socks so soggy with rainwater that the embers didn’t stand a chance—they hissed as they died out.
“Of course, your Majesty. I didn’t mean to sound like I was telling you—I was asking what excuse they are giving when the law supports your right not to.”
Leony shrugged, looking down at her hands as her fingers traced the intricate embroidery on her dressing gown. The style was vaguely Derccian, with carefully layered geometric patterns, rather than the depictions of flora and fauna as was the usual Dominion fashion for silk. “They insist that it’s only meant to be used in the case of a monarch being unable to produce an heir. And since I am not yet wed nor have I tested my capabilities to conceive rigorously, the exception does not yet apply.”
“Sounds like a pile of shit,” Ishmael muttered, sinking down on the chair near beside the fire to peel off his soggy socks. He tossed them toward the fire to dry.
Leony laughed. “Would that I could present ‘this sounds like a pile of shit’ as a legal argument, but alas I must pay a solicitor to fight it. Or cave and marry someone. It would probably be less emotionally devastating to marry someone than to pay a solicitor who knows they’ve been hired by the Queen’s purse.”
“The amount of emotional devastation you’ll get in the marriage depends entirely on who you choose, I suppose,” Ishmael said, rising to peel off his drawers next. If his socks and his drawers weren’t dry by the time he left, he’d just as well leave them behind rather than struggle back into them.
The full-length mirror in the dressing room caught his reflection, turning his body to long lines and dark forms on the silver-painted glass. He hadn’t noticed the mirror before—he must have stepped into its angle when he retreated to the chair. Catching sight of his body dragged the melancholy back. The scars and the tattoos held so many memories, snagging old pain and holding it in memoriam. More than that—he’d lost a lot of weight while he was away this time, because grief once again took up physical space in his gut and he hadn’t eaten nearly enough. His bones pushed too insistently at his skin, and his face looked haggard and worn and older than he felt. He had to constantly remind himself that he was well into his thirties, even approaching forty. Time went faster than he could feel it, especially with all the travelling he did for the diplomatic division. Even more so after the news reached him that his mentor, his handler, his lover, Gwilym Deri had died in White Crown. And Ishmael was expected to keep working, keep serving the Dominion, because individual grief was nothing in the face of sovereign stability and General Maes’s ambition.
The letter from Wolfe asking for help may well have saved Ishmael. Filing furlough and coming home—even if home was a damned mess of politics and unprocessed grief—gave him something to hang on to.
Leony was watching him, like she was waiting for him. How long had he been frozen in the moment, trying not to look at himself? He wasn’t sure. The hashish made time harder to track—and it made him more self-pitying than he’d realized.
“You haven’t any new tattoos this time.” Leony smiled when she said it and he knew she was biting back the urge to ask what they meant, what they were for. People loved to ask what they were for. “And you’ve lost a lot of weight.”
Ishmael shrugged, sliding a hand over his chest, over the snake tattoo up his ribs, mouth open and ready to strike. When was the last time he was naked for the Queen? He couldn’t even remember for sure. It had to be while Deri was still alive, so more than two years. “Nothing struck my fancy while I was away.” He didn’t say anything about his weight. Leony knew him well enough that she’d be worried if he said something flippant about not being hungry. “Any good candidates? For your emotionally devastating marriage, I mean.”
Leony smiled—she’d been waiting for this, clearly, and she was excited to deliver her answer. “The best so far is Raheem Deri.”
Ishmael almost choked on his own tongue. He tried to breathe and speak and swallow and curse and praise the gods at once but the abrupt shift in mood made his mouth too clumsy to keep up and he was left spluttering. Leony smiled. She was clearly enjoying the reaction she was getting.
“A Qasani King,” Ishmael finally said.
“Yes.” Leony lifted her chin like she was practicing the defiance she needed to make a move this audacious happen. “A Qasani King in White Crown. The first in Dominion history.”
“There hasn’t been a Qasani King anywhere since the Derccian Empire swallowed the Qasan,” Ishmael blurted. The fire heated his back, his legs turning his skin tingly and finally dry. He pushed his hands through his hair, the shock passing through him in rapidly shifting waves. “The Deri family, good gods. The whole brood is exactly as tenacious and intelligent as you would need from a husband. Raheem specifically borders on ruthless, judging by his career. I’ll wager that’s because he had to eat a lot of shit from his colleges and his superiors to climb up to General. He was so angry that Deri wouldn’t commission the General rank for him. Deri tried to explain that his name wasn’t as beneficial as Raheem thought it would be, given his rocky history with the military, but as you’ve probably already gleaned, Raheem’s always leaned rather idealistic and stubborn until reality grips him.” He was babbling, but he couldn’t stop. A Qasani King, gods, what a gift. “Deri was so proud when he got word that Raheem earned his stars on the battlefield. No one could dispute he deserved those stars. I don’t think they got the chance to see each other in person since then, but Deri talked about it endlessly. This calls for a toast or something, your Majesty. To commemorate the moment and all that.”
“A toast?” Leony asked. She rose to her feet, eyes drifting up and down Ishmael’s naked body. “A lovely idea. I’ll send for something—sparkling wine or something harder?”
“If you like,” Ishmael said, flashing his most mischievous grin. The one that made Leony blush every time, especially if he looked her in the eye. And it worked again—she blushed so hard she pressed her hands against her cheeks like she could make them stop giving her emotions away. “Certainly Illea has a fine selection of wine from every region imaginable. But Savvas sent me away with the good Ibeh hashish, and if there’s one perfect way to celebrate a marriage in the Deri family, it’s with a cloud of smoke.”
Leony laughed, shaking her head. “Well, I defer to your expertise, Mr. Saeati. Since you know the family so well.”
Ishmael went back to the mantle, snatching up his cigarette case and his matches. Both were metal and sealed well enough to protect their contents from the rain. Savvas had given him a few hashish laced cigarettes in exchange for the best gossip about Agrion, the country his parents left behind to find a ‘better life’ in the Dominion. Ishmael’s deployment in the region had been short and blessedly bloodless but wildly stressful with the Queen in the area as an arbiter for the latest peace accords. Avoiding being seen—and thus recognized—by her and her massive entourage had stretched the very limits of his skills. He’d wondered more than once if Maes had sent him there hoping he’d burn his confidentiality, which would finally give Maes an excuse to get rid of Ishmael. Maes and Deri used to split control over the diplomatic division, which gave Ishmael some measure of protection. But it had been two years now since Deri died, and the diplomatic division—arguably the most powerful military branch in the Dominion—didn’t yet have a second administrative General, leaving Maes in full control.
Even as he lit the cigarette and took the first drag of oily smoke, an echo of dread rolled through him. The thing about people who shifted the balance of power was that doing so always made the people who held the power very angry. And the Deri family had very powerful enemies already. He blew the smoke out toward the fire, watching it mix for a moment with the twisting flames before disappearing up the chimney.
“General Maes will be furious.”
Leony shrugged. “I am very aware of Maes’s inclination to throw temper tantrums, but Raheem has gold stars. He has served with honour and distinction. Maes wouldn’t dare question Raheem’s credentials out loud, so he’ll have to seethe quietly.” She padded across the room, taking the cigarette from Ishmael’s fingers. “We’ve thought about putting Raheem forward as the second diplomatic division General, but then this idea seemed like a better move for Crowne stability.”
Ishmael almost laughed as Leony took her first drag of smoke. “I think Maes would sooner chew off his own leg than allow another Deri into the division. Especially Deri’s son. But King—he can’t stop that, not legitimately anyway. Which leaves…” Unease slithered down his spine. If Maes couldn’t publicly oppose a King he didn’t want, he would resort to what he did best—scheming quietly and destroying things secretly. “A lot of illegitimate tactics.”
“Why Ishmael,” Leony scoffed dramatically, putting her free hand to her chest. “Are you implying that General Maes is the sort of man who skirts around the laws when they don’t suit him?”
Ishmael let go of a laugh that time, letting it fight the looming unease. Maes was a power-hungry murderer, but if the Queen had proof of it, she would have arrested him by now. And though Ishmael was reasonably sure Leony had nothing but distrust for Maes, speaking the truth was still a slippery slope. Talking about the ways Maes broke the law came dangerously close to talking about how Deri also broke laws. Even though he was dead, there were still plenty of people who could be held accountable for smuggling illegal goods, for the murder of Dominion citizens, and for interfering with Dominion politics when it was technically extremely illegal for members of the diplomatic division to do so. Never mind the plain old murder charges; it was against Dominion law for any branch of the foreign deployment army to engage in military action on Dominion homeland soil, and since the diplomatic division was created to shape the politics abroad by any means necessary, simply advising in an election cycle like Ishmael was doing for Wolfe was technically sedition and treason.
Leony turned back to the bed, bringing the cigarette with her, leaving a line of smoke twisting behind her. Ishmael followed, grabbing an ashtray off one of the tables near the fireplace.
“If ever General Maes wanted to shift careers,” Ishmael said finally, resting the ashtray on the bedside table, “I’m sure he would do very well as a solicitor, finding loopholes in the law for the highest bidder.”
“That’s a very measured answer,” she said, letting Ishmael pass her to get into the bed first. She took another drag from the cigarillo, smoke curling around her face as she raised an eyebrow at him. Her tightly coiled shoulders were relaxing already. “I’m impressed.”
Ishmael shrugged. He sank down into the bed, breathing a slow sigh of relief. The blankets were deliciously warmed by the coal pan down near the footboard, and the hashish made his own body feel a little bit liquid, especially the places that were tired and sore from the climb and the almost fall. Leony rested the cigarillo in the ashtray so she could shed her dressing gown, sliding under the covers next to him. She ran her fingers over the sheaf of wheat tattoo that swept across his chest, bowing over his right collarbone like the stalks were bent in some imaginary wind.
“It’s generally regarded as career suicide to speak ill of General Maes,” Ishmael muttered. He reached past her to grab the cigarette again, taking another slow drag, in and out, sending it up to the canopy over the bed where it danced beneath the silk. It was a good thing he’d only smoked a little with Savvas. “I try keep my skills at avoiding honest answers as sharp as possible, even in company as trustworthy as yours, your Majesty.”
She frowned, propping herself up on her knuckles so she could look down at his face again. “Do you think that’s what happened to Gwilym?”
Ishmael sighed. This grief wouldn’t let him go. It didn’t seem to matter what he did—whether he let himself think about it, or he numbed himself with whatever substances he could get into his body—it was stuck in his chest, half-realized, trapped by anger and too many unanswered questions. Two years on, and this was actually the first time he had the chance to talk to someone who’d been in the capital when Deri died. Ishmael had been deployed when it happened. He’d talked to Wolfe plenty, getting every detail the last time he was home, forcing Wolfe to repeat everything he knew more times than could be considered healthy. But Wolfe only had second-hand reports, and so it didn’t matter how many times Ishmael examined the details, he still knew pieces were missing.
“The official story is that he had a heart attack,” Ishmael said slowly. “I find myself wondering if someone was instructed to lie about how he died. Of all the ways I expected him to meet his end, sudden heart failure wasn’t on the list. Unless the heart failure was caused by something like too much opium at a party, which seems entirely more plausible. He was forty-six.”
Leony slid her fingers through Ishmael’s still damp hair, watching his expression again. Hers looked sad—her mouth turned down in the corners, her eyes soft around the edges. “Are you asking me if I asked someone to lie to save Gwilym’s reputation?”
“I don’t know, your Majesty,” Ishmael admitted. “Usually I’m good about accepting that some things will never have answers, but—I don’t know. It’s harder to accept unanswered questions when the person you lost…”
“Meant so much?” Leony supplied.
Ishmael nodded. He didn’t trust his voice enough.
“His healer was with him,” Leony supplied. Her fingers drifted across all the tattoos on his left shoulder, her whole hand sweeping across the intricate whorl of small tally marks that made a swirling pattern like a mosaic on his skin. She didn’t know the weight of the ink she touched, but Ishmael felt it, like those black lines sank past muscle and bone to hook themselves on his soul. He offered the cigarette to her so she’d stop touching them. “The Kaadayri man, with tattoos on the backs of his hands.”
“Eilas Kheir?” Ishmael asked. “I thought he’d retired.”
Leony nodded, blowing out another line of smoke. “He has, as I understand it. He was passing through White Crown, so he was staying with Gwilym when it happened. He’s the one who reported the death to us. I asked him to tell me the truth, at least—whatever story he wanted to offer to protect the dignity of the Deri family, I didn’t mind, but I wanted to know if it was something else. The healer swore it was heart failure. The poor man was so distraught over the whole situation.”
Something uneasy took up residence in the back of Ishmael’s throat, bitter tasting and impossible to swallow. What was Eilas doing in White Crown? Their job taught them never to believe in the appearance of coincidence. So why was Deri’s most trusted but retired healer in White Crown when Deri was experiencing sudden and catastrophic heart failure? The last words Ishmael remembered from Eilas were if I never touch another fucking unhinged diplomat until my next lifetime, it will be ten lifetimes too soon. He must have been helping Deri with something, but what?
“I understand he escorted Gwilym’s remains back to the west coast,” Leony continued when Ishmael didn’t speak. Her words lost their clipped edges, coming more freely, as they always did when they smoked together. More than once, Ishmael had wondered if she was the sort of person who enjoyed chatting but at some point convinced herself the inclination was dangerous, giving too much away, so tried to stop. “Gwilym’s wife wrote to me after, thanking me, although I couldn’t imagine what for. She said they gave his remains to the ocean because it’s the Lledewyddyd way, and they also had a Qasani priest to send the gods their prayers. I thought maybe you would like to know that. She said his conversion was meaningful to him. I have to admit, I was surprised. I never imagined Gwilym Deri to be the sort of man who would turn to faith.”
“Why?” Ishmael asked, a bit of a smile pulling at the corners of his mouth as he took the cigarette back. “Because he was irreverent?”
Leony shrugged, rolling toward him. She folded her hands together on Ishmael’s chest and rested her chin on her knuckles. “Among other things, yes. Irreverent, indulgent, stubbornly independent.”
Ishmael turned his face away from her, blowing smoke toward the window. “And you think those things made him unsuited to prayer? Those same words describe me.”
Leony laughed, her face losing the last of its tension. “It isn’t easier to imagine you praying, Ishmael Saeati.”
Ishmael grinned. He shifted one arm under the blankets so he could slide his hand down her back until he found the bottom of her chemise. He dragged it up, letting his fingers dance over the small of her back. She bit her lip, a soft groan rumbling from her throat, her back arching deliciously toward his touch. This, at least, was comfortable and familiar. This, he was good at. Touching another person, reading the cues their body gave, basking in the satisfaction of someone else’s pleasure. “That’s because you’re imagining stuffy, boring Sisters of the North Star, your Majesty. They tend to pray quietly about how grateful they are for everything. I think the people of the Dominion have forgotten what it’s like to pray to squabbling gods—the North Star and the Ash Child are liberators, of course, but ultimately they were just people, standing against the terrible might of the Godking. Qasani prayer is more… expressive, which seems to be how it was here in the Dominion before the Godking destroyed all the temples your people had. Our prayer is rather like an argument with the gods. At times, enough of a spectacle to draw an audience.” Another breath of smoke, in and out. He flicked ashes from the cigarette toward the fire, but they landed on the rug instead, sinking into one of his wet footprints. “And it involves opium for grieving and khat for celebrations and hashish for coping now and then.”
“Is that what we’re doing?” Leony grinned, taking the cigarette back. “‘Coping,’ the pair of us?”
Laughter rolled light and easy through Ishmael’s chest. He pushed his hand into Leony’s hair. He wanted to shake it loose of its plait so it would hang all about him in an auburn curtain, but Leony wouldn’t enjoy that. Maybe when the election was over, Ishmael would head west. Find the poppy farm and whichever Deri children still lived there, and pray with the Im-Aqi who served the whole family. Grieve there, with them, so that he could feel it properly instead of living his life half convinced Deri would write show up at any minute to pull him out of this whole mess.
“It only counts as coping if there’s a priest around,” he said, sending the words into the lavender scent of her hair. “Let’s call this adjusting.”
“Adjusting to what?”
“To all this cold weather,” Ishmael grunted. “I keep coming back during shit weather instead of coming back when it’s nice.”
Leony laughed. She rolled off Ishmael to rest beside him, sprawling her limbs across the bed. The wind blew rain against their window as if to demonstrate the ferocity of Yaelsmuir weather, and Leony blew a line of smoke at the glass in defiance. “That’s because the terrible weather lasts most of the year in this part of the Dominion. There are two months to the year where summer is in full force, and it reminds me of the Salt Isles of the Southern Commonwealth, but mostly it’s just rain and freezing rain and snow.”
The rain made twisting lines down the glass and dancing shadows on her face, making it seem like she was a part of the storm. Like the weather was trying to snatch them out of this comfort. But they were secure in the bed, the curtains of the canopy waiting to be pulled closed to block out the whole world. The hashish and the warmth of the bed unwound the tension from him, bit by bit. She offered the cigarette back to him, but he shook his head. Savvas’s hashish was strong, and he didn’t want to render himself fucking useless—all his fatigue was creeping up on him, settling in his joints, in his spine. It would be too easy to close his eyes and drift on the smoke a while, hover between sleep and wakefulness, sunk in half-numb oblivion, but that was a damned waste of a perfectly good night. He needed to talk, or move, or something.
“It’s a good idea,” he said, dragging himself back up out of the listlessness. “Dangerous and bold and audacious and borderline rebellious, but good. People will never stop complaining, though. It won’t be an easy life for either of you.”
Leony shrugged at that, taking a slow drag of smoke. “It never has been.”
“You should marry him in secret,” he said. “As soon as possible, preferably before anyone even notices he’s arrived in White Crown. That way, Maes can’t argue against it or conspire to send Raheem away on some far distant deployment. Is he in the Dominion?”
“He is,” Leony said. She stretched out toward the bedside table, crushing the cigarette in the heavy brass ashtray. “He’s in Teshii, ready to travel east if we come to a final decision.”
Ishmael rolled toward her, wrapping his arms around her and pressing his whole body against her back. She was so warm, her thighs strong and soft as she angled herself back toward him. She melted into his arms, leaning her head back against him, letting him press his face into the thickest part of her hair. “Is there any reason not to go through with it?”
Leony shrugged at that, her shoulders pressing against Ishmael’s chest. “‘Any’ reason? Sure. There’s a small hoard of the usual reasons. I never thought I would get married. I never thought I’d take the throne, either, so it doesn’t matter what I think. I don’t like being backed into a corner like this, and I resent the implication that my only valuable contribution to the future is making more Crowne babies. I worry about the lives I’ll upend. Raheem, for all his courage, probably doesn’t realize the scale of what he’s getting himself into. As you said, he seems rather stubbornly idealistic. Everything about his life will change, and I can’t promise him the change will be for the better, but I’m not sure he understands the gravity of it. Not just for him, but for his siblings and his mother, who will suddenly become the Royal Family. Is it true they’re all adopted, the Deri children?”
“Refugees from the Qasan,” Ishmael said with a nod. “Sadiya works with a charity that helps to direct refugees into established communities here so they have a safe place to settle. Sometimes children are orphaned by the journey over, or earlier in all the chaos—she finds them homes, too. Sometimes that home is hers.”
Leony rolled toward Ishmael, draping her arm over his shoulders. Her eyes were heavy-lidded and content, her fingers tracing lazy circles on the sensitive skin between his shoulder blades, making his skin tight with gooseflesh. “Was it ever… strange? You and him, and then his wife.”
“Strange? No.” Ishmael leaned down to kiss her shoulder, right beside the hem of her narrow sleeve. Her skin was deliciously soft beneath his lips, stirring him up out of the slow, melancholy mood, igniting his insatiable appetite. “Sadiya and Gwilym married for business. By the time I knew them, they were like-minded allies who cared for each other very deeply. Maybe it was challenging to figure out when they were younger—you know how young people are, all that passion and no sense—but by the time Deri and I started sleeping together, they had their boundaries well sorted. It’s not unusual for Qasani marriages to be layered like that. Some choose more than one zawraj—spouse-mate. Or some, like Deri and his wife, only have each other, and they’ve all their adopted Qasani children, and Deri puts his cock where it suited him.”
A fresh spasm of pain seared through Ishmael’s soul. Saying wherever it suited Deri should have been the right thing to say. The pair of them made a career of pretending not to be overly attached to people. But the truth was so much more complicated than that, as heavy truths were wont to be. Reducing their relationship to wherever it suited Deri made him feel empty and alone, even with someone in his arms.
“He was your teacher, wasn’t he?” Leony asked.
Ishmael nodded. He kissed her lips to try to reignite the fire before the grief could catch hold again and ruin the evening. She leaned into the kiss, lingering like she was savouring the taste of him. Her mouth tasted like smoke, but also sweet, like dessert wine and tart fruit, the lingering flavours of Illea’s banquet. Savvas really was brilliant. “He was. He recruited me from the Academy, and he trained me in everything we do as diplomats. People make assumptions about him because I was young, but… Well. I’m very persistent when I want something.”
She laughed at that, her head tilting back to reveal the long sweep of her throat. He kissed it, feeling her pulse race, the sound of her laughter chasing the last of the melancholy away. “You are very persistent indeed.”
Her body was so wonderfully warm in his arms, reminding him that he wasn’t alone at all. He didn’t usually launch into politics immediately after getting home, and dealing with the stupid election before having a chance to settle was fucking exhausting, leaving him especially off balance. But for now, at least, he could forget about Illea and Rainer and fucking Myron.
He propped his head up with one hand, rising up out of the comfort of his pillow so he didn’t fall asleep. He let the other find her skin, wandering down far enough to reach the hem of her chemise again and then wandering back up, dragging the silk with him so he could run his fingers over the curve of her hip and then the dip her waist made while she lay on her side, and then her broad chest. She gave a little gasp, hooking her thigh over his hip. Each moment stretched out deliciously, the flames behind his back making her eyes sparkle, the hashish rolling through him to make everything blend together. His hand moved almost without his thought, back down between her thighs. He groaned at the wetness that greeted him. He wanted to touch it more, wanted to put his mouth on it, wanted to devour her. He shifted closer to her, until his cock pressed against her leg. A little groan escaped her throat, and her hand came down, fingers sliding across the underside of him and he kissed whatever skin he could reach. Her shoulder, her throat, the sweep of her jaw. The head of his cock pressed up against her but he couldn’t quite slide into her at the angle and it made his whole body ache for her. It was incredible the difference between her now and how stiffly she held herself only a few moments ago. It made him wonder, not for the first time, who she might have been if deaths in the family hadn’t forced her to take the Crowne. But that was a dangerous line of thought because he’d start applying it to himself—how might life have been different if only.
Better to focus on this moment. Her skin was creamy and smooth and so indulgently warm. His fingers found the hem of her chemise again, pushing it up, up, his heart hammering with anticipation. How long had it been since he’d fallen into another person for company and pleasure and the thrill of release? He couldn’t even remember if he’d fucked anyone while he was away this time. Maybe he’d drifted through that whole deployment, only half-alive. Focused on the objective while pieces of him withered under the pressure of his grief and anger. But now here he was, with a familiar partner, and she was working toward a future he could almost hope for, and for the first time in a long time, he could say he was excited about something. It made him want her more. He wanted to turn this room into a shrine to her pleasure. But his treacherous, restless mind was still twisting through the future and all the ways the Dominion would change if she really married Raheem.
“You know they’re all provincialists, every last one of them. It’s writ in their bones. It’ll be the biggest argument people will use against the whole idea.”
He didn’t dare say the rest—that Deri wasn’t just a provincialist, he was a Crowne abolitionist, who thought the nation would be better off without royalty at all. At least some of his children agreed with him, though Ishmael wasn’t sure who exactly. And so did Ishmael, for all that he liked Leony specifically. The Crowne was a monument to a past that the Dominion had evolved beyond, and progress demanded governance by the people and not some family bloodline. Maybe once, Voth the Liberator had held the Dominion together after the Godking was destroyed. Revolution had a habit of making a country unstable, and Voth’s strong rule kept things relatively peaceful. But now? The Crowne no longer held the interests of the whole Dominion. Leony tried her best, but the things she said at the banquet highlighted her biggest blindspot. The Talented.
“Depends on which branch of the Deri family,” Leony said, her voice gone breathy and unfocused, but the politics of it all had her, too, and the words tumbled out of her even as he slid a finger into her. Gods, she was so wet, and it took all the self-control he had to go slowly and let her speak. “Gwilym’s brood are provincialists, but his family history lies in privateering for the Crowne. It will help smooth things over, I hope. The intention is that we can strike a balance between Crowne authority and provincial autonomy—and what better way to demonstrate it than with a marriage to the most famous provincialists in the Dominion?”
“Most infamous, I should think.” He pushed his face into her neck, kissing the spot where he could feel her pulse racing, sliding his tongue across the hollow beneath her jaw to taste her sweat. “I have to admit, I’m surprised you’re so eager to ally yourself with provincialists. I would have imagined the head wearing the Crowne would lean rather more toward Crowne loyalists.”
“A weathered eye looks toward the future, Mr. Saeati,” Leony said. The hashish and the pleasure ravaged their way through her usual prim enunciation and her words lost their clipped edges, her face flushed with pleasure and excitement. “And the easiest way to predict the future is to pay attention to the shifting politics of other countries. Power structures are shifting away from monarchies as self-governance grows in popularity. To try to fight the shift is to invite rebellion, and no one wants that. I want to pave the road to the future without the horrible bloodshed that comes with unrest. I’m hoping, by crowning Raheem Deri as King, the pair of us can strike a balance that maintains Crowne sovereignty while allowing provincial autonomy to stabilize and grow, for the benefit of every province.”
She was right, of course. The collapse of the monarchy would be bloody and ugly, even if he thought it was right. It felt so treacherous, contemplating it while his fingers were wet from her, his Queen, whom he was sworn by his military career to protect at all costs. She was gasping in his ear, and he was contemplating the dissolution of the monarchy. But this marriage, it could protect her, the most compassionate monarch the Dominion had seen in a long time. So, maybe it wasn’t such a terrible thing for her to secure her position by marrying Raheem. Maybe Raheem and Leony together could steer the Dominion toward a more equitable future without the terrible bloodshed of a coup or a civil war.
It thrummed in him with all the excitement he had early in his career, all the heady rush of shaping the world for the better, before all the cynicism and exhaustion caught up to him.
Ishmael pulled his face out of her neck so he could look her in the eye. “Has there been whispers of war?” he asked, probably too innocently.
Deri had been convinced that war was coming, but sometimes it was hard to gauge which of his opinions came from cynicism and which came from real threats. Just because I’m cynical, he’d grumble, doesn’t reduce the fact that the world is actively shit. Deri had been convinced that something was coming, something big and ugly, something that made him restless. Ishmael had thought they were in everything together, but at the end, it seemed like Deri was trying to protect him from something. And then he died. The fact that his healer was there when it happened only made him suspect that Deri was right.
“There’s always whispers,” Leony said. Ishmael hated the answer, but it was true. “I’m sure you know that. But ideally this keeps them at whisper levels instead of giving them fuel to grow into more imminent plans.”
Fucking Myron and this stupid election felt like a minor distraction compared to this. Maybe he would find time to slip down to White Crown and witness the wedding. Shake Raheem’s hand and look him in the eye and warn him about how bad his life was about to be while also congratulating him for taking the burden on himself. The Crowne family would loathe Raheem for this, but surely he knew that. He wondered if Raheem and his siblings had the same fears Ishmael did—that Deri’s heart attack was contrived somehow, or a lie to cover the truth that Maes was responsible. Maybe that was why Raheem was willing to accept the weight of the whole country onto his shoulders—maybe he was coming to White Crown to square things with Maes himself.
A shiver ran down Ishmael’s spine.
Maybe it would all result in war anyway, even though Leony was trying to prevent it. Maybe Raheem didn’t care half a wit for the Crowne or making peace. Maybe the road he was paving was one for revenge.
“Well,” Ishmael said, pushing those thoughts out of his head before he really ruined his mood, “here’s to a peaceful marriage and a stable, prosperous country.”
“Indeed,” Leony gasped. “Here’s hoping Raheem Deri is the man he needs to be to withstand the weight of it all.”
His whole body buzzed with renewed energy, even as the hashish fought to turn him sedate and too slow. He wanted to ask how long Leony and Raheem had been planning this. Had Deri known? Gods, he would be proud and furious in equal measures, as he usually was when Raheem was involved.
But she kissed him before he could find a coy way to ask more questions. Her lips were hot and tasted like wine and hashish, and he groaned against her, crushing their bodies together. She broke the kiss first to catch her breath, her whole body tense as she shifted enough to reach between them to touch his cock again, her hands trembling a little. Excitement maybe or anticipation, or the way all this future wound tightly in her bones and spilled around them both the more they talked about it, like their words made all the possibilities more real.
Ishmael rolled away from her, onto his back. She followed him, rolling on top of him without hesitating. Straddling his hips. Kissing him with hunger that hadn’t been there before. All the excitement and the hashish had her finally, stripping her out of her cage of demure restraint.
“You should come up higher, your Majesty,” Ishmael said. He slid his hands down her back again, dragging her chemise up to her waist. “Let me show you how deeply and enthusiastically I respect you.”
Leony laughed, the sound lilting and a little wild. She sat up straight, pushing the blankets off her shoulders, that braid of hers so long the end of it tickled his navel as she worked her way up his body. He watched her face as she made her slow way up, watched the way she bit her lip and the way her eyes burned with the lust that crackled in the air between them like a storm, chasing away everything except how desperately he wanted to taste her. He shifted his arm so she could get her legs around his shoulders and settle on his face.
He groaned, sliding his hands up her back, under her chemise, leaning up against her when she didn’t fully settle her weight against him. There was no better taste in all the world than that of someone’s pleasure. He licked her slowly, listening to the way her breathing changed, the way she settled against him in slow increments. Her pleasure felt so fucking good, making his body buzz with her, making his cock ache for her. He slid a finger into her as he sucked on her and that made her buck against him with delicious impatience, made her breath and her moans grow so loud that he wondered if the whole house could hear her. If servants gathered out in the hall to listen.
Louder, he wanted to tell her, louder so the whole fucking city can hear you—
And his treacherous mind wouldn’t let him escape Deri for long—he remembered too well what it was like to share lovers with him, what it was like to devour someone while Deri watched, what it was like to be so surrounded with sweat and passion and Deri’s voice in his ear, deep and rumbling and voracious. He could almost feel the weight of the bed shift, as it would when Deri crawled toward him, like the hashish in his mind trapped him somewhere between reality and his imagination, summoning Deri up out of the past to taunt him with something he couldn’t have, something he ached for with every shred of who he was.
Don’t think about Deri—think about Leony—
Her whole body trembled, rocked, her hands on the headboard above him to keep her weight still half hovering, her orgasm rolling through her in waves until she couldn’t handle the intensity anymore and she twisted away from him. Ishmael caught her thighs before he could get too far, kissing her skin, her knee, her thighs, her hips, teeth nipping softly against the sensitive skin to make her gasp and squirm. She laughed again, sweat glistening on her throat, her collarbone.
“You are too good to me,” she gasped. “So self sacrificing in your respect.”
“It is my immense pleasure, your Majesty,” Ishmael said.
He nipped her thigh again and tried to ignore all the questions still swirling through his head. He should be satisfied, should be thinking about how badly he wanted to fuck her and make her scream for him, but the politics of it all wouldn’t let him go.
She worked her way down his body, biting her lip again, watching his face. He pushed his hands up under her chemise, pushing the hem up higher as his hands climbed her body. Her chest was misted in more sweat, the beads of moisture dancing on her ribcage and along the sweep of her breasts, her nipples still deliciously hard. He sat up as she lowered herself onto him, groaning as he pushed the chemise up higher, bunching it under her arms as she wrapped them around his shoulders to hold their bodies together. His tongue found one hard nipple and she gasped, her hips rocking slowly, dragging across the whole length of him like she was teasing herself, and it took all the self-control he had not to grab her and hold her so he could fuck her harder. She didn’t like it, the pain, didn’t like control being taken away from her, didn’t like when he got rough, so he had to keep himself restrained. The pain was only fun if his partner enjoyed it, too.
But keeping his hands under control only made it harder to control his wandering thoughts. “Is it true you gave gold Captain’s bars to the first Jitabvi to ever go to the Officer’s Academy?”
Leony laughed, leaning back from Ishmael, but her hips didn’t stop. She rocked slowly, holding his shoulders for balance. “Ever the diplomat, Mr. Saeati,” she breathed. “Still fishing for the best gossip.”
Ishmael grinned, sliding his hands down her back, grabbing her ass with both hands so he could guide her just a little faster. And the hashish trapped the pleasure, sending it through him in repeating waves that didn’t obey the laws of time. “I’ve been away a whole year. I have to catch up somehow.”
Leony groaned, so deliciously loud, her head tilting back and making a long line of her neck. “You’re lucky I enjoy your company so much.”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Ishmael said. He squeezed her ass harder, pulling their bodies together and shifting his weight so he could buck his hips into her and kiss her throat, tasting the rush of her heartbeat and the salt of her sweat. She wouldn’t let him kiss her on the lips until he washed his face but he could kiss her everywhere else. “I am exceedingly fortunate. The most blessed man in the Dominion.”
She groaned and closed her eyes, clinging to him. Sweat gathered on both of them, the fire crackling beside them. “It’s true. His test scores were nearly perfect. Some people tried to accuse him of cheating, but there was never any evidence. He’s a brilliant man and he’ll be an invaluable asset to the Foreign Deployment.” She pulled him closer, pushing her face into his hair as she moved faster. “Does that satisfy your curiosity, or do you have any more questions?”
“Ah—no more questions,” Ishmael laughed, laying a kiss on her collarbone, her sweat dancing under his lips. “I promise.”
She pressed her hands against his chest and he leaned back, settling his head on the pillow. She finally lifted her chemise over her head, revealing all her skin and her scars and the beautiful deep hue of her nipples that he wanted to put his mouth on, but she rested her hands on his chest like she wanted to keep him pinned. As if that would keep him quiet.
He couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t silence the endless loop of ideas that flitted through his head, but at least he could bask in the simple and fulfilling pleasure of letting the Queen ride him in Illea Winter’s house, after that beautiful disaster of a banquet where most of Highfield glared at him as if it was a little bit his fault that Illea and Tashué made such a spectacle. The only thing that would have made the moment better was if the people of Highfield knew he was here. If they knew that the Queen of the Common Man took him to her bed because he was the most exciting person at Illea’s table, if he could watch the outrage and the scandal and the jealousy pass through their eyes.
He wasn’t going to last much longer—he closed his eyes and clenched his teeth and tried to measure his breathing to delay the inevitable, but it wasn’t working, even though Leony’s pace was fading, like she was getting tired. It had been a while since last he fucked, and now he was half drunk and mostly high and sunk into a kind of excitement he hadn’t felt in years, something that felt entirely too much like optimism. A Deri, as King. Maes would chew on his own spine with the rage of it.
He caught Leony’s hips and held her still, trying to catch his breath. But no. Even that wasn’t enough. Leony shifted her weight forward so she slid off him—they’d done this enough together that she knew. He groaned as he came, spilling hot across his own navel, across her thigh, the release rolling through his whole body.
Leony rolled off him, settling on the pillow beside him and dragging the blankets back up to cover them both. Panting, gasping, sweating, pushing her hands through her hair as she tried to catch her breath.
He should say something, maybe, or roll toward her to make sure she was satisfied, but his mind was working too much.
“Whose idea was it?” Ishmael asked.
Leony made an inarticulate noise that was pitched like a question.
“Marrying Raheem. Whose idea was it?”
“Ishmael,” she said, rolling away from him but shifting so the curve of her ass pressed against his hip, inviting him to fold himself against her. “Go to sleep.”