Just Two Slow Dancers
“I dug my hands into the dirt and what there did I find? A root, a worm, a churning bug, all brown and long and fine. I’ll dump it all into a pot and stir it round and round, and then I’ll eat my supper hot, cooked from what I found…”
-from “Eating Worms”, Lonn children’s song
After the speeches had been given, Yan found herself sitting at one large round table sandwiched between Kino and Sid. Sandreas was beside them, though Halen was nowhere to be seen. Their table also held a few other people. From their uniforms, Yan could tell they were from the Fleet, but she didn't recognize any of them. It wasn't as though Fleet leadership was a profession that came with a lot of publicity, probably because most Fleet operations were completely secret.
The food served at the dinner was lavish, with several courses brought out by black suited waiters. Everyone was able to order drinks by filling out a card that the waiters collected, though Yan chose only a soda. She wanted to pay attention to the dinner conversation and stay alert after dinner.
Unfortunately, the dinner conversation was mind-numbingly bland. The highest ranking Fleet member turned out to be Admiral Vaalks, who Yan had heard mentioned before. Vaalks, however, kept the conversation on only the most mundane subjects possible. He spent most of the dinner describing his son's recent elaborate wedding on Lekke. Hearing the name of the planet most usually associated with drug running made Yan wonder if Vaalk's incredibly boring story was some type of code, but by the way that Sandreas seemed to be responding to Vallk in extremely polite monosyllables, she supposed it was just a real story about the wedding of two people who Yan would probably never meet.
The other people at the table were a few apprentices who Yan vaguely recognized from the Academy several years prior, as well as other Fleet officials further away from her. The table was large enough that Yan could only pay attention to the conversations of those within a few seats of her. Yan, Sid, and Kino were close enough to the Fleet apprentices that they could have their own conversation, which mainly amounted to asking if they got to travel a lot. The answer turned out to be a mixed bag: one of the apprentices, a woman by the name of Sama, was primarily planet bound, as she worked as part of a liaison team between the Fleet and the Imperial Council. The other two apprentices worked for different higher ups in the Fleet: one of them was Vaalk's apprentice, who looked about as bored of the wedding story as a person could possibly look.
After what seemed like an almost interminable amount of time, the formal dinner was over, and the dishes were cleared away. This left everyone free to socialize. As soon as Aymon stood up from the table, he was immediately accosted by several politicians that Yan didn't recognize, and he followed them away to talk. Admiral Vaalks took his leave as well, going to talk to Trade Guild representatives, with his apprentice trailing dolefully behind him. The other Fleet officials and apprentices dispersed through the room, and Yan, Kino, and Sid were left alone at their table.
"I'm going," Sid signed. He stood up and gave a jaunty wave to Yan and Kino as he headed out into the crush of people gathering on the dance floor. This gave Yan an unpleasant flashback to their little training session with Halen, where Sid had abandoned them. Yan couldn't shake the feeling of unpleasantness that it left her with.
Kino was next to her, staring blankly at the dancing and socializing, pulling on the embroidered sleeves of her cassock.
"Should we, uh, go mingle?" Yan asked her.
"You can," Kino said, once more offering no elaboration.
"Are you just going to sit here?" Yan asked.
"I don't know," Kino said. "Maybe."
"This will be one exciting party for you, then," Yan said. Kino apparently had no response to that. On one hand, Yan didn't want to abandon Kino at the table, but on the other, Yan didn't want to be trapped there with her all night long.
She settled on first deciding what she actually wanted to do with her night. Maybe she could talk to the Trade Guild delegation? Or maybe the party from Terlin, her family's ancestral home planet. Or she could just find other apprentices to hang out with, they would probably have the most in common with her, regardless of what their actual job was. That wasn't a bad idea. Yan closed her eyes briefly and stretched out with the power, lightly touching all the guests in the hall, seeing which ones were sensitives. She couldn't tell which ones were apprentices and which ones were actual... important people. Either way, if there was a large group of them gathered in one place, Yan would put money on it being the apprentices gathering together.
As she stretched out her awareness, she noticed one oddly familiar sensation. Not a sensitive, just a person that she had encountered before, recently. Yan was quite confused. Who was this person, so recognizable, but not a sensitive? It couldn't have been anyone off the Iron Dreams, and everyone she knew from the Academy was a sensitive—it wasn't as though she had a very large social circle.
"I'm gonna go," Yan said to Kino, determined to investigate.
"Have fun," Kino said.
"Will do," Yan said as she walked away. She fixed the person in her mind, feeling that they were standing over by the massive windows on one side of the hall. As she got closer, Yan could see the person was a fashionably dressed woman standing by herself. She looked to be in her mid twenties, taller than average, and she had her hair done up above her head, with a single flower tucked in it. She was wearing a green dress, flats, and had a bag on a silver chain hanging at her hip. The woman was holding a glass in her hand and watching the room like a hawk. As Yan approached, their eyes met.
"Hi," Yan said, coming up to her. "Sorry, but do we know each other from somewhere?"
The woman laughed, she had a rich and cheerful sounding voice.
"You've never met me, no," she said. "I have you at a disadvantage, Yan BarCarran."
Yan frowned slightly. It was perfectly reasonable for the woman to know her name, since Sandreas had announced it to the entire gathering, but Yan felt that she was being a little too forward.
"Oh, I just thought I recognized you from somewhere," Yan said. "My mistake." She tried to edge away, but the woman put her hand out and touched Yan's arm. Yan was shocked at the woman's forwardness and froze in place.
"Well then why don't you stay and let me have the pleasure of your acquaintance," the woman said. "I'm Iri Maedes."
Cautiously, Yan asked, "What delegation are you with?"
"Oh," she laughed, "I'm not with a delegation."
"You're a party crasher?" Yan asked with a raised eyebrow.
"I work here," Iri said with a smile. Her eyes matched her dress. There was something about her that Yan found compelling. But as Iri said this, the pieces clicked into place.
"You're the one who was following me," Yan said, shocked.
"I can neither confirm nor deny," Iri said. "Care to dance? It looks bad for us to just be standing here and not enjoying the wonderful music."
Before Yan could protest, Iri had discarded her glass, grabbed Yan's arm and was pulling her out onto the dance floor. The music, from a live band on the other side of the hall, felt like it was crashing in Yan's ears, but that might have just been the beating of her heart.
Iri had her hand on Yan's arm and another hand on her shoulder. Yan wasn't sure what to do with her body. She was uncomfortably close to this complete stranger, but not a stranger. The thoughts she had had before, about the strange intimacy of the person following her came flooding back into her mind, and her face became hot and she sweat under her cassock.
"Hey, relax," Iri said, grabbing Yan's other hand. "I'm not gonna hurt you."
Yan felt like there was an unspoken tone of 'If I wanted to, I would have already'.
"I have a girlfriend, you know," Yan said awkwardly, since it was the only thing she could think of to say.
Iri laughed again. "I am being quite forward, aren't I?" But she made no move to release Yan's hands aside from swaying gently to the music.
"I don't even know you," Yan said.
"What is there to know?" Iri asked. "I come to work, I do my job, I go home to my dog. Sometimes I get to wear nice clothing at parties that are too fancy for my blood. Sometimes I get to dance with friendly girls." Her smile was dazzling, but Yan was too caught off guard to really appreciate it.
"What do you want from me?" Yan asked, feeling vaguely trapped. She knew she could escape if she actually tried, but she didn't have the willpower to break free.
"Nothing at all," Iri said. "You don't have to dance with me." To illustrate her point, her hands loosened on Yan's, until they were barely touching, but Yan didn't back away.
"No, it's, uh..." Yan's tongue was tripping over itself. "It's fine." She finally felt like she had control back over her body and raised her hands to properly hold Iri's in the dancing position.
"Oh, wonderful," Iri said happily. They moved in time to the music for a minute or so, with Yan's face burning and Iri smiling brightly.
"Are you going to get in trouble for talking to me?" Yan managed to ask after a while.
"No, why would I?" Iri asked. "You were the one who found me, you passed the test."
"It was a test?" Yan asked.
"Not of my design," Iri said.
"Oh, it's another of Halen's clever ideas," Yan said bitterly.
"Don't badmouth my boss," Iri said as she leaned in close for the dancing step. "He has his reasons for doing things the way he does."
"I don't doubt that," Yan said, with the same amount of bitterness as before.
Following the music, they dropped their hands and both spun around individually. The dance floor was a whirl of gaudy costumes as everyone circled their partners. They linked their hands back up, holding them above their heads.
"Do a lot of dancing at the Academy?" Iri asked.
Yan had to laugh at that one. "Me? No. But when I was on my family's ship, we'd have parties on any occasion that we could."
"Ah, I forgot, the Academy doesn't like such regressive things as fun," Iri said.
"Halen's corrupted you with that line of thinking," Yan said. Her tongue was looser now. "It's not that the Academy hated fun, it's that-"
They had to break apart again and step around each other as the next phase in the dance.
"I know, I know," Iri said when they linked back up. "I'm joking."
"Oh," Yan said, unsure of how to continue.
"I'm not a sensitive, but I've worked with plenty of them," Iri said.
"Are you like," Yan wasn't sure how to phrase her next question, "Assigned to my case?"
"My dear, you're lucky to have me," Iri said. The music swelled as the song approached its ending. "I'll see you around, Yan."
"Uh," Yan started, but Iri broke their hands apart for the last time, then swirled away into the crowd of the dance floor, leaving Yan slightly dazed and very much alone.
Yan made her way out of the press of bodies and back to the relative safety of the table where Kino was still sitting, alone.
"Who was that you were dancing with?" Kino asked as Yan sat down.
"Uh," Yan said, "I'm not sure if I'm supposed to tell you?"
"Ok," Kino accepted this without further question.
"Were you watching me this whole time?" Yan asked.
Kino shrugged. "I'm just looking."
"Okaaayy..." Yan said. "Are you really planning to sit here all night?"
Kino shrugged again. The embroidery on the left sleeve of her cassock was looking rather frayed. Apparently she had been picking at it with some dedication.
"Come dance with me," Yan said after a minute, feeling bad about leaving Kino alone.
"Sounds dangerous," Kino said.
"I'll recite prime numbers and you can quote poetry, it'll be fine," Yan said. She tugged Kino's sleeve gently. "I don't want you to sit here sadly by yourself all night."
"I'm not sad," Kino said, but stood up as Yan did.
"Do you know how to dance?" Yan asked as Kino followed her over to the dance floor.
"No," Kino said.
"Just copy what everybody else is doing, and you'll be fine," Yan said. "It's not very difficult."
"How long do we have to do this for?" Kino asked as they joined hands and began to go through the steps of the dance.
"You don't have to do it at all, if you're not having fun you can stop," Yan said. But Kino didn't protest anymore, and though she lagged a little on executing the moves, she was fine at copying all the other people in the hall. Yan, obedient to her own assurances before, recited all the prime numbers she could remember. The last thing she wanted was to accidentally start meditating with Kino. The room was chaotic enough that that was unlikely to happen anyway, but it didn't hurt to be safe.
They walked together to the side of the room near the massive windows, and Sid pointed to a lit garden where a few people were walking in groups of two or three, looking absorbed in conversations.
"If we went there, we could listen to people," Sid signed.
Kino fished around in the pocket of her cassock for the glasses that Sid had given her.
Yan shook her head no emphatically. "I won't be..." She didn't know the sign for spy. "I won't."
She was tempted to take that back when she saw Sandreas walk past the window, deep in conversation with a rather plainly dressed woman. She must be a governor of a planet, as they were the only ones who didn't feel the need to dress wildly, only well. After all, governorship of a planet was the highest position most people could dream of achieving.
Yan wanted to send out a tendril of power to investigate, but she chose not to. If Sandreas wanted her to know about what he was talking to the governor about, then he would tell her later.
"Has Halen come back yet?" Sid signed, looking around the room.
"Halen left?" Yan asked. She had figured that he was only lurking out of sight. It was strange that he would leave the party, when it was a place filled with important people, intrigue, and most importantly, Sandreas.
"Didn't you see what happened when Sandreas was talking?" Sid asked Yan, looking incredulous.
Kino was looking out the window, ignoring the conversation, even though she had Sid's glasses on.
"I'll tell you later," Sid signed. "You should keep your eyes open when you pray."
Yan frowned. She had noticed Sandreas do... something with the power while he was saying the closing prayer, and she had tried to investigate, but he had closed her out. That hadn't seemed too unusual to her at the time, and she had ignored it.
Yan was finding this party to be quite the strange event. Maybe she would try to look for Halen.
"Let me see if Halen came back," Yan signed. She leaned back against the window and closed her eyes for a moment. She cast her power out in an ever expanding bubble, searching for Halen. It passed Sid and the odd hole that was Kino, brushed Sandreas on the other side of the window, she passed gently over and through all the partygoers, recognized once again Iri's lurking presence, and pushed outward into the expanse of Stonecourt proper. There were people all over the place, but it took her expanding her bubble quite far, almost to the maximum reaches of her concentration, before she found Halen.
"He's way under Stonecourt," Yan signed to Sid. "Down far."
Sid's face twisted in an odd expression that Yan couldn't interpret.
"What?" She asked him.
"Tell you later," he signed again. Yan was getting tired of that particular response.
"Why can't you say now?" Yan signed. She was keeping an eye on the rest of the room, but most people seemed to be ignoring their little group, as everyone was wrapped up in their own business.
"It's not polite," Sid signed, but with a curling of his lips and quick jerk of his head towards the party that indicated that he meant that it wasn't fit for public discussion. Yan didn't like this explanation, and didn't want to accept it, but she had no choice, unless she wanted to try to pry the information out from Kino.
Asking Kino would be a last resort, as she continued to just stare out the window at Sandreas, who either didn't notice or was ignoring his three apprentices.
Aloud, Yan changed the topic, hoping to include Kino more in the conversation. "I guess I'm glad that no one has actually tried to talk politics to me," Yan said.
"That's only because you didn't try to visit the Trade Guild," Sid said. "Nomar tried to talk my eyes off about how rerouting supplies to the outer colonies was going. It may have been a coded message, but I didn't understand any of it."
"He should have tried to find me, instead," Yan said.
"He did," Sid said, "But you were too busy dancing with your mystery woman."
"Yan won't tell me who that was," Kino said, finally rejoining the conversation.
"Ah, a secret lover," Sid said. "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone."
Yan rolled her eyes. "Only as much of a lover as Kino is," Yan said.
"What?" Kino asked.
"Nothing," Yan said. "I'm just saying that I'm allowed to dance with people without it being weird."
"Nothing weird about it at all," Sid said.
"I'm sure I'll be able to tell you at some point, just not now," Yan said.
"Oh, it's one of those things," Sid smiled brightly. "I'm patient."
"You'd already have it figured out if you were more observant," Yan said.
Sid stuck out his tongue and switched back to sign. "I can't see anything with these glasses on."
"And I can't know what you have to say because my eyes were closed, so we're even," Yan signed back.
"Let's just enjoy the party?" Kino said after a moment of awkward pause in the conversation. Since Kino looked like she was enjoying the party the least, that was an odd thing for her to say.
Despite how heavily discussed the Governor's dinner had been, Yan thought the whole thing was rather underwhelming. Sure, something weird had happened during Sandreas's speech, and she had met her secret pursuer, and she had spent a while trying to dodge conversations where people tried to engage her in politics, but none of that seemed more extraordinary than she had been prepared for.
She kept a mental eye on Halen's whereabouts for the rest of the night. He spent most of the time during the party down underneath Stonecourt, doing... something. Yan couldn't tell what. She wasn't good enough at the various pieces of farsight to investigate a totally unknown place, while also being distracted at a party. Halen returned to the event near the end, wearing a slightly different suit than he had been before and with a pensive look on his face. He had been wearing a quite nice all black ensemble at the beginning of the party, but now he had changed into a suit more like what he wore on a daily basis, with a white button down underneath. Yan saw him across the hall, but had no desire to go talk to him. Even if she did like him, which she didn't, he didn't look like he was in a good mood.
Sandreas slipped out of the party before it was properly over. Yan didn't see him go, but when she did a mental check of the room, he had gone, along with Halen. Perhaps he had gone to have a private meeting with some of the party guests, but Yan couldn't know. Not very long after that, one of the uniformed security personnel alerted the three apprentices that a car was waiting for them to take them back to their apartment.
The three escaped the party together, bidding a few polite goodbyes to people on their way out. The ride back to their apartment was quiet, but before the three went into their own rooms, Sid pulled them both into his apartment to tell them what he had seen during the prayer.
Sid's apartment was almost clinically neat, the only signs in the living room that showed that it was lived in was a sketchbook left on the coffee table, and a pair of shoes set neatly by the door. As they entered, Sid shut the door behind them. Yan sat on the couch and started paging through the sketchbook as Sid took off his shoes and lined them up next to the other pair. Kino perched like a bird on the arm of the couch, periodically readjusting the glasses Sid had given her.
Sid's sketchbook was full of complicated pencil drawings of machinery. Some of the machines looked like the real engines of cars or appliances, but some of it just looked like a mass of twisted gears and wires, like a puzzle that Sid had created out of filling up the space.
"Like it?" Sid signed as he went to sit on the other couch.
Yan nodded, closing the book. Maybe it had been rude of her to touch it in the first place, but there didn't seem to be anything too personal in there, and he had left it out.
"What did you see at the party?" Yan signed.
"When Sandreas was praying, a man at one table stood up and pointed a weapon at the Trade Guild table. Security took him away quickly," Sid explained.
"And no one else saw?" Yan looked incredulous.
"Sandreas was using the power," Sid signed.
"Yeah?" Yan asked.
"Like my project," Sid tried to explain, "And in the secret book, he can make people think things if they focus on the same thing."
It clicked into place for Yan. The prayer had been what had tied everyone's attention together, made easier by the fact that almost everyone had their eyes closed. Sandreas had used that capturing of attention to influence people to not pay attention, to stay calm, to forget.
"How did it not get you?" Yan asked.
"Hearing something said is stronger than reading words, I think. And I had my eyes open," he tapped his glasses, "I saw it happen right in front of me. Hard to forget that."
"Did you see it happen, Kino?" Yan asked out loud.
Kino nodded. "It was under control." Like she would have been able to do anything about it if it wasn't.
Yan sighed audibly. "How could this have happened in the first place?" She asked aloud.
"Are guests searched when they come in?" Sid signed. Yan shrugged.
"We weren't. But they wouldn't search the Voice..."
"Everyone should have been when they came into the grounds of Stonecourt. But it's not foolproof," Kino said. "The man probably assembled the weapon on site, with pieces he brought in hidden."
"Who even was it?" Yan asked.
"I don't know," Sid signed. "We'll have to ask Halen tomorrow."
"Ugh," Yan said aloud.
"Yeah," Sid agreed. His face looked like he was struggling with whether to say something or not. "I think..."
"What about Halen?" Yan signed, a questioning look on her face.
"Nothing," Sid shook his head.
"Really, what?" Yan asked.
"Bad thing happened at the party, Halen disappears for hours deep under Stonecourt, he comes back wearing different clothes and in a bad mood, what do you think he was doing?"
Yan frowned. "I don't want to defend Halen, but we don't know what he was doing. Could be anything."
"You're fooling yourself," Sid signed.
Yan didn't have a response to that.
"Thank you for telling me," Yan signed finally, after a long pause in the conversation.
"Now you can tell me about the woman you danced with," Sid signed with an evil looking smirk.
"Do you really want me to?" Yan asked.
Sid nodded emphatically.
"Remember when I said I was being followed?" Yan asked.
"That was her?" Sid looked incredulous.
"She works for Halen? I think," Yan signed, though she tried to put a look of uncertainty on her face that matched how she was feeling.
"What was she like?" Sid asked.
"Pushy. But not mean," Yan said. Yan still didn't know exactly how to feel about her.
"Does she just follow you or does she follow all of us?" Sid asked.
"I don't know," Yan said. "But we are being watched."
"I want my own follower," Sid signed with a smug looking grin. "You don't deserve to have all the fun."
"Less fun than it looks," Yan signed back. "Back to the party—Guildmaster Vaneik didn't come. Did he know what was going to happen?"
Sid shrugged. "I think people knew there would be trouble, somehow. Halen was prepared, Vaneik was prepared, Sandreas was prepared. Somebody must have known."
"If they knew, why didn't they stop it?" Yan asked.
"They did stop it," Sid signed. "No one got hurt, and no one knows it happened, I think."
"What about the cameras?" Yan asked.
"Every second of video from every event is looked at by the media team before it gets out. Nobody will see any of it," Kino added flatly.
"I guess," Yan responded out loud. "I just don't understand... A lot about this doesn't make sense."
"If things don't make sense, it's because we don't have all the information. We don't know why someone wanted to go after the Trade Guild, or even who they were. Was this planned? Was this a random coincidence? We don't know. We might never know," Kino's words tumbled out. She sounded both frantic and frustrated.
"Are you ok?" Yan asked.
"I don't like parties," Kino said.
"Does anyone?" Sid signed. Kino blinked at him.
"I want to get out of these clothes and go to bed," Yan signed after a moment. "I'll see you in the morning. Maybe things will make more sense then."
"Doubt it." Sid signed.
Yan got up off the couch anyway.
"Goodnight," Kino said. Sid waved goodbye to her, and she headed out back to her own apartment, leaving Kino and Sid to their own devices.
Yan was momentarily put off from her goal of getting undressed and into bed by the gentle blinking of her personal phone on the kitchen table. She had left it there before the party, since she had to keep her personal phone away from her work life. She picked it up and read her messages. There were a few normal chatty ones from Gemma and Anni, which Yan responded to mindlessly, but there was a more excited looking one from Sylva.
< Yan!! you're on tv!!
Sylva had attached a video clip. It was indeed of Yan, walking up into the Governor's Dinner behind Sandreas. It was really strange watching a video of herself. Yan thought she had too much of a scared look on her face, but it was too late to fix that now. She had been trying to have a pleasant expression. Maybe she was just reading too much into it.
< u look so good! love your outfit
These messages had been sent about an hour ago. Yan had no idea if Sylva was still awake. Probably not, since it was late even in her own time zone.
> thanks. i think i'll get to dress up fro lots of fancy parties
> perks f the position i think
> im goin to bed tho now
> hope i look flattering in all my publicity photos lol
> is yr apprenticeship going ok? let me know in the morning ig
> love u and miss u <3
Yan tossed her phone back on the table, then went to go get ready for bed. She wasn't expecting any reply from Sylva and she didn't get one. Once she was finally out of her heavy dress clothes and in in her pyjamas, Yan knelt by her window to say her nightly prayers.
She gazed out the window at the small moon passing by overhead and twisted her hands together. The words got caught on her lips and for a moment Yan felt like she couldn't remember the prayer. But then she did, and it was only a momentary lapse in ability, probably just tiredness.
After the fitful prayer, Yan climbed into bed and tossed and turned, trying to fall asleep.
"Who was he?" Aymon asked Halen, when they were both back in the private confines of Aymon's quarters.
Halen sighed and leaned back onto the couch. He closed his eyes and tilted his head up to the ceiling.
"Vinet Morche, son of an industrialist on Olar, his father paid for his ticket to the party. Unfortunately, Vinet had more connections than his father, or Governor Marquis was aware of, and he was looking to convince the Trade Guild to take back their trade restrictions on Olar. It was a poorly conceived plan, since it was baked up in about half an afternoon," Halen explained wearily.
"Did you get any names out of him?" Aymon asked. He was still in business mode, not quite ready to relax.
"The dealer who sold him the concealed weapon, and one contact back on Olar, but he didn't know very much else. He's one on the very end of the web, he's not in the middle of anything," Halen said.
"Unfortunate. I trust you sent someone after the two names," Aymon asked.
"The ICID are discreetly on it," Halen said.
"Good, good," Aymon said. "And Vinet?"
"Dead," Halen said. "It's being arranged to look like a speeder crash."
"Thank you," Aymon said, running a hand through his hair. "What distasteful business."
"Yeah," Halen said.
"And there was no one else involved? No second attack elsewhere?" Aymon asked.
"Not that we know of. We have people watching both Vaneik and all guild offices on planet. People are also trailing the entire Olar party," Halen said.
"Was Vinet's father aware of what he was doing?"
"Unknown. I sent word over the ansible for him to be discreetly investigated."
"The more important question is, was anyone else in the Olar delegation aware of what he was up to?"
"Almost certainly not. Governor Marquis is a fool who surrounds himself with fools. This seems more like the tantrum of a few rich young men who are going to be losing out on drug running money than it does a major conspiracy. We're keeping an eye on it, but..."
"I don't need to concern myself about it, I know, I know." Aymon said. He leaned against Halen's chest. Aymon could hear the beating of his heart. "I'm sorry that you had to deal with this."
"Don't worry about it," Halen said. "I do what needs to be done." Halen's voice was rough and sad. Aymon hated... Halen would know how he felt, and that was the trouble, wasn't it?
"Did the rest of the party go smoothly?" Halen asked, attempting to change the subject. "Were you able to survive without me?"
"Clearly," Aymon said. "It was fine. The major drama of the day, well, aside from that, was the separatist movement on Jenjin is planning to petition to start a colony."
"And where's that money coming from?"
"If it comes down to it, I'd rather fund a colony on the Empire's dollar rather than have to waste resources beating down an armed rebellion, which is what they vaguely mentioned was the alternative. They have connections in the Guild that will loan a ship, at least."
"Are they really willing to wait the years it takes to set up a colony?" Halen asked.
"I hope so. I think if one is promised to them with a reasonable timeline then it will prevent disaster, but there probably is a contingent there that's hoping for a miracle cure."
"Don't you mean that there's a contingent who wants there to be no colony so they have an excuse to burn their capital to the ground?"
"Yeah, that's what I mean," Aymon said with a sigh. "There's always a few of those.”
"People wouldn't be people if there weren't," Halen said. "Is there a planet that's even an option?"
"Depends on how the operations on the front are going. If they can clear Tyx III without turning it into more of a wasteland than it already is, then that's an option."
"There's no other place?" Halen asked.
"Not that I know of, but I'm not in the business of remembering every colonizable planet in the universe."
Halen laughed. "Sure you aren't."
"I never had the patience for colonization minutiae," Aymon said.
"You have patience for most other things," Halen replied.
"I'd hate to see the people you've met that make you think I'm patient," Aymon said.
"Were the kids okay at the party?" Halen asked.
"The kids, like we're some old married couple, how domestic of you," Aymon said.
"I know, I'm just an old sap," Halen said with a laugh.
"I didn't pay much attention to them, to be honest. Their minders will have reports if you want them, but since I wasn't contacted I shall assume that nothing went horribly wrong," Aymon said. "I had bigger fish to fry at the time."
"I'm sure they felt so abandoned," Halen said.
"They were probably just having fun. I saw them dancing at one point," Aymon said.
"If you ask me, they all move while walking like they have four left feet, so I'm not sure I would have liked to see them dance," Halen said.
"That's not fair to say about people who aren't here to defend themselves," Aymon said. Halen wrapped his arm around Aymon.
"Don't you defend them, you know it's true," Halen said. "You picked an awkward bunch. Ugly ducklings the lot."
"Diamonds in the rough," Aymon countered. "I wasn't much as a kid either."
"You sure you weren't always perfect?" Halen asked.
"You're ridiculous," Aymon said, and they sat in silence for a moment, just Aymon listening to Halen's strong beating heart and quiet breathing.
He loved Halen, and he loved that Halen loved him. He knew in his heart that Halen would do anything that he asked him to, but it was Aymon's love for Halen that made him hate to ask for too much.
Sometimes, Halen took it upon himself to do too much anyway. Aymon looked at Halen's big hand, his arm wrapped loosely around Aymon's shoulders, and saw that there was still blood underneath his fingernails. Aymon took Halen's hand in his.
"Thank you," Aymon said.
"Don't mention it," Halen said. "Please." His voice cracked.
Aymon kissed the knuckles of Halen's hand. How had he been so lucky to find Halen? Out of all the people in the universe, how had God been kind enough to grant him this?
The moment of peace lasted only as long as Aymon could keep his thoughts off work, but that part of his brain was unable to turn off. "I need to find a way to make them useful," Aymon muttered.
"The kids?" Halen asked, sounding grateful for the new topic.
"Yeah. They need a political education, fast. Then I can start deploying them strategically. The faster they can become agents of their own, the better," Aymon said.
"Where do you want to send them?" Halen asked.
"If anything gets worse with Olar or Jenjin, I want to be able to send one or more of them to negotiate. I'd also like to get personal eyes on the ground in the Fleet, to oversee new colony development."
"Who do you think you'd send where?" Halen asked.
"Yan is by far the most qualified to talk trade. Kino would probably understand the gravity of colonial development the most, but Sid would be the best to interface with the Fleet, I think. It depends on what falls out when. Right now, I'd be hesitant to say any of them should do anything alone, but in a few months? We'll have to see."
"Yan and Sid work well together," Halen said. "But she's also not bad with Kino. Yan's a good middle ground between the other two."
"You have a soft spot for her," Aymon said.
"Maybe. I can't understand Kino, and Sid is purposely antagonistic. Yan's just Yan. I understand her. All spacers are practical in a way that the rest of the universe isn't." Halen said. "I hope..." He stopped for a second.
"What?" Aymon asked. "You hope she stops hating you?"
"No, that doesn't matter," Halen laughed. "She can hate me all she wants. I just hope this job doesn't destroy her. Or any of them."
"You know it probably will," Aymon said.
"I know," Halen said.