“I thought you were going to stay neutral,” Admiral Yang Wen-li said as he poured Senior Admiral Wiliabard Joachim von Merkatz a finger of whisky. The silver-haired Admiral had called on Yang unexpectedly late in the evening, looking unseasonably pale and still dressed in his uniform.
Merkatz flinched. “How did you…?”
“What else could it be?” Yang sank into the garden chair beside Merkatz. The garden of his small house was the only tidy part of his modest estate, since its care was contracted out to a gardener. While a housekeeper was paid to come by twice a week, her efforts tended to be a losing battle. “We’ve known each other for decades. I’ve never seen you look this worried.”
Merkatz tipped back the glass of whisky and said nothing as Yang poured him another finger. “Duke von Braunschweig invited me to the villa and asked me to become commander in chief of the coalition forces. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
“Even so, why would you…” Yang trailed off, his expression going hard. “He threatened your family? That bastard—”
“Enough, Yang. I’d expect theatrics from a younger soldier. Maybe even Schneider. Not you. I just wanted to come here to have a drink with an old friend.”
“A drink?” Yang said with a wry smile. “Wouldn’t Braunschweig have asked you to recruit me?”
“You’re one of the last few neutral Admirals. He did.”
“Even with you on their side, my opinion hasn’t changed. I hate war, and I particularly hate wars that are this pointless. Braunschweig will lose. Reinhard’s a tactical genius—you and I both saw that at Astarte. Besides, that social reform document he had drawn up was an interesting gesture.”
“I know. I told the Duke that you’d be unshakeable, and that you won’t be as… easily moved as I was.”
“You could side with Reinhard,” Yang said, pouring himself more whisky. “If you were to tell the Marquis that you’re only siding with the Dukes because of a threat to your family, he could take care of that. Bring your family under his protection.”
“I’ve already given my word to Duke von Braunschweig. Even with the circumstances as they are, I won’t rescind that. Besides, do you think the Marquis is going to be satisfied with just power over Imperial space? He’s too hungry, that one. He needs control over everything. Every star in the sky.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Yang said, rubbing at his jaw. “If you ask me, he’s probably in love with his sister.”
Merkatz jerked in his seat. “Yang! How could you… I may not be fond of the Marquis, and he’s now my enemy, but you’d better not be spreading such vile rumours around.”
Yang laughed, forever amused by how easy Merkatz was to rile up, given the right levers. “Yes, yes. It was just a throwaway thought. Sorry.”
“Behaviour like this is why you’d never rise higher than your current rank.”
“We both know why that’s not the only reason why I’d never rise through the ranks. I’m a commoner from a merchant family that lived in a fringe colony. One that refused to change their names to fit the Imperial standard. I’m amazed that I even made Admiral.”
Merkatz sobered uncomfortably. “Yang… never mind the Marquis, in terms of strategy, you’re the most talented person I know. I know you want to stay neutral, but if you were to side with me, I’ve been given full control over military matters. I could promote you to a rank worthy of your talents. Give you a proper fleet.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my fleet,” Yang said, “and that sounds like far too much work. If you’re here to drink, drink. If you’re here for advice… here’s what I have to say. You’re going to regret working for Braunschweig. Take your family and defect to Reinhard. Or the FPA.”
“Again with your nonsense,” Merkatz said, though he smiled wanly as he poured whisky for them both. “Drink up. Let’s stop talking about my problems and talk about yours.”
“Eh? What problems do I have?”
“Your house! Yang, aren’t you forty this year? How can you still live like a child? No, you’re worse than that. Not even my grandson is this bad. When are you getting married? A spouse would get you in line.”
“Marriage?” Yang shuddered. “Gods, no. People are far too much trouble. I’m going to be single forever.”
“That’s what you think.” Merkatz clinked their glasses together. “Drink! I regret that I might not be around when you finally meet your match.”
“We should stop trying to depress each other. How’s your grandson doing at school?”
“Show him in.” Reinhard glanced to his side. His red-headed childhood friend, Senior Admiral Kircheis, smiled but dropped his hands down loosely by the holstered gun at his hip.
Yang walked into the expansive office in a loose stroll, indifferent to the luxury in the room. The Admiral hadn’t changed much from Reinhard’s memory of him during the Battle of Astarte. He had a little silver in his hair, but he had the same warm, honest eyes, the same faint smile, as though the universe was a joke that only Yang could see. Yang had been the only Admiral from the older generation of Admirals to support Reinhard during the Battle of Astarte wholeheartedly—even Merkatz had harboured doubts. That had always made Yang stand out where Reinhard was concerned. The Westerland development was a bonus.
“Marquis… ah, it’s Duke now, isn’t it?” Yang saluted. “Well done. I told Merkatz this would happen, but he’s a stubborn one.”
“Admiral Merkatz defected to the FPA along with his fleet,” Kircheis said, looking Yang slowly over. “I’m surprised that you didn’t follow suit.”
“Defecting? What a nuisance that would’ve been. My fleet has family all over Imperial space,” Yang said.
“I didn't think that Merkatz would go to the FPA. I thought he would join forces with you to hold Westerland.” Reinhard didn’t look at Kircheis as he spoke.
After the revolt on the Braunschweig territory of Planet Westerland, Braunschweig had ordered a nuclear strike on the planet. Oberstein had counselled Reinhard to sit on the information and let the massacre take place, to cause Braunschweig’s faction to lose all popular support. Reinhard had agreed—Kircheis had not. They’d argued bitterly, only for reports to come in that the Yang fleet had appeared out of nowhere to stop the bombardment. The fleet proceeded to occupy orbital space above the planet, a position they maintained until today.
“What for? Braunschweig’s dead and our combined fleets would still be painfully outnumbered by your forces. Also, ruling over an entire planet would be such a headache; I can barely manage my fleet.”
“Is that why you’re here?” Reinhard asked. “To ask me for an alliance?”
“I’m here to surrender sovereignty of Westerland back to the Empire,” Yang said.
Kircheis blinked, startled. Reinhard leaned forward, folding his arms over his desk. “What does Westerland leadership think about this? The last I heard, they were proud of becoming a neutral territory in the conflict after you rescued them. Neither mine nor Braunschweig’s.”
“They’re not happy about it, but it isn’t as though I can keep my fleet perpetually supplied above Westerland. Besides, once you inevitably decide to forcibly repossess the planet with your full fleet, there’d be a lot of unnecessary casualties.” Yang started to approach the desk with his hand in his jacket and hesitated as Kircheis walked over to block his way. “These are the terms of surrender,” Yang said, handing over a thick envelope. “I’m unarmed.”
Kircheis glanced in the envelope, then took the bundle of documents out and handed it to Reinhard. After reading the first few pages, Reinhard said, “This isn’t an unconditional surrender.”
“The planet’s in a bad state. Resources are running low. I abolished all the new taxes that Braunschweig imposed and installed a civilian government because I couldn’t be bothered trying to run a whole planet. Still, I recognise how that might be seen to be open rebellion. I don’t want the planet to be made an example of just because I chose to save them. Not even through economic sanctions.”
Reinhard read quickly through the document, then passed it to Kircheis. “The treaty mentions nothing about yourself,” Reinhard said.
“It does. My fleet will unilaterally disarm—”
“Your fleet, yes. What about you? Will you join me? I know why you’ve never been moved past your current rank. You’re as good as Mittermeier and Reuenthal, if not better. I can’t name you to their rank immediately, but that’d likely just be a matter of time.”
“Thanks for the offer, but I’d rather retire,” Yang said with a faint smile.
“Why? You’d find me a better master than the Kaiser,” Reinhard said, surprised. “I don’t care about your bloodline or your name.”
“Merkatz defected. I don’t want to fight against my friend. Life with you will just be a hassle. Endless war…” Yang trailed off with a shudder. “No thanks.”
“I see.” That was disappointing.
“Besides,” Yang said, his smile fading, “I heard some Westerland people tried to get in contact with your Excellency. They leaked information about the nuclear strikes. Were you aware that the strikes were going to happen?”
“Yes,” Reinhard said. Kircheis paused in the middle of reading through the document.
“You didn’t mobilise your fleet. That’s when the Westerlanders got in touch with me. I was their second choice. A neutral Admiral with the smallest Imperial fleet, compared to a handsome young Marquis with more than half the power in the Empire.” With every word that Yang spoke, his voice became more and more flat. “Did you get their message?”
“I knew what Braunschweig was planning to do,” Reinhard said. He would not lie. “I was advised to wait, and at the time, I agreed with that advice.”
“Twenty million people live on Westerland, your Excellency. Was saving them too hard for you? Or not politically expedient?” Yang shook his head slowly. “You, the Dukes, the Kaiser. You’re all the same.”
Kircheis stepped forward, hands clenched tightly. “You dare—!”
“Sieg,” Reinhard said, holding up a hand. “Admiral Yang. Your current offer of surrender is rejected.”
Yang shot him a startled look. “Just because I didn’t flatter your ego and lie? When I served under you at Astarte, you didn’t strike me as such a petty person.”
“Your Excellency,” Kircheis protested, swinging from outrage on Reinhard’s behalf to the same incredulity. “This document is fairly drafted.”
“Quiet, Sieg. Admiral Yang, I’m willing to accept a surrender on your terms. However, these are mine: that you will not retire. You will serve me,” Reinhard said, staring keenly at Yang.
“I used to correct the others when they called you the golden brat,” Yang said softly after a frigid pause. “They were right, after all. May I take my leave?”
“You’re refusing?” Reinhard asked sharply.
“Why not? You’ve rejected my current terms. I’ll have to report the matter back to Westerland and my fleet. By your leave, your Excellency.”
Once the door closed behind Yang’s retreating back, Kircheis turned on Reinhard, his lips pressed tightly together. “Rein… your Excellency…”
“Did I handle that badly?” Reinhard murmured, shocked by Yang’s abrupt refusal. He’d thought that Yang would at least try to negotiate further.
“Admiral Yang is an honourable man,” Kircheis said, picking his words with care. “His loathing of war is well-known. Had it not been for that, he would likely have sided with his great friend, Admiral Merkatz. If so, we might still be embroiled in a civil war.”
“I see that.” Yang had acquitted himself well in the Battle of Astarte, but Reinhard hadn’t thought that Yang was on the same level as Reuenthal or Mittermeier, let alone Kircheis and himself. Yang’s military career had no blemishes, but it was also unremarkable. It was only when Yang had occupied Westerland that his tactical genius became apparent, as he repelled both invading forces from the Braunschweig coalition and Reinhard alike with his tiny fleet.
“Surely a potential asset of his calibre should be handled carefully, or he might decide to join Merkatz in the FPA.”
“I wouldn’t rule that out even if he retires. What’s to stop him from trying to go to Merkatz’s aid once we invade the FPA? That’s why I wanted him to work for me.” Yang would be too honourable to stab Reinhard in the back.
Kircheis set the terms of surrender down on Reinhard’s desk. “You should try talking to him again. That’s my opinion, if you want it.”
Reinhard grimaced. Kircheis had been reserved since the Westerland matter, even though the nuclear strike hadn’t even happened. Things between them had been frosty but not irreparable—and had even improved after Kircheis had stopped an attempted assassination, shooting the assassin with his gun, arms that only Kircheis was allowed to wear in Reinhard’s presence. Now, matters felt like they were icing up again. “You understand the situation well. Act as my emissary. Negotiate whatever terms you think necessary and send them to me for approval.”
“I…” Kircheis blinked. “Of course, your Excellency. I’ll do what I can.”
The doorbell startled Yang out of his dazed contemplation of the neatly folded towels in the wardrobe. Reinhard stood at the door with a wrapped box, looking uncomfortable. Behind him, Kircheis smiled and waved. The landcar they had taken idled beyond the driveway.
“Was there something you needed?” Yang asked, trying not to stare. The two gorgeous young men looked misplaced in his modest garden.
“It’s just a social visit,” Kircheis said when Reinhard stayed silent. “May we come in?” He nudged Reinhard until Reinhard offered up the gift. “This isn’t much, but we hope you like it.”
“Thanks… Tea? Coffee? A drink?”
They had coffee in the verandah, overlooking the freshly-weeded garden. “I arranged for your house to be put back in order before your arrival,” Kircheis said earnestly. “I hope nothing was misplaced. I couldn’t get in touch with your original housekeeper, only the gardener.”
“It’s in perfect condition, thank you.” Yang looked at the young Duke, who stayed uncharacteristically silent. “Surely you’re both too busy to visit an old man just for a chat.”
That got a reaction out of Reinhard—he shot Yang a startled look. “You’re not old,” Reinhard said.
“There’s no need to lie to save my feelings,” Yang said, stretching out his legs. “I’m not as old as Merkatz, maybe, but I’ve been around the block a few times. Speaking of which, his family visited me the other day.”
“And?” It was Reinhard’s turn to look earnest. The expression sat oddly naturally on his handsome face: the face of a man whose command had already caused the death of over a million people just during the Battle of Astarte alone. It was hard to reconcile.
Yang looked away. “You’ve done well. They have no complaints—they don’t even resent you at all. Marshal Kircheis paid a visit in person to reassure them that they’d be treated kindly: they appreciated that.”
“You don’t sound pleased,” Reinhard said.
“You’ve shown me that you value expediency more than human life. Someday, when Merkatz becomes troublesome where he is, wouldn’t his family be a sword that you can hold over his head?” Yang asked with a sharp smile.
“I offered them free passage to the FPA if they wished to follow him,” Reinhard said, looking visibly stung by the insinuation. “No matter what happens, I won’t threaten them in such a way.”
“That’s what I meant by you having done well. I tried to warn them not to stay, but they trust you for some reason.” Yang nodded at Kircheis. “They actually believe that you’re trying to reform the Empire. Merkatz’s wife even asked me to appeal to him, to ask him to return and throw himself on your mercy.” Yang laughed mirthlessly, rubbing his hand over his face. “I needed a drink after that.”
He didn’t miss Kircheis and Reinhard exchanging glances, or Reinhard’s dismissive gesture. Kircheis hesitated, but at another gesture, he nodded reluctantly and got to his feet, saluting them both before leaving the verandah.
“I know you have no reason to trust me,” Reinhard said once they were alone, “but I wish you did. Haven’t I agreed to your demands? Westerland reintegrated to the Empire on favourable terms, a general amnesty for your fleet, and permission for you to live how you like?”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t trust me,” Yang pointed out. “A close friend of the most high profile military defector to the FPA and a known troublemaker.”
“A man at least as popular with non-aristocrats as I am, and more deservedly so.”
“You have only yourself to blame for that. Had you rolled in to Westerland as a saviour, you’d have that popularity for yourself. Still, I understand why you did it. Popularity is fleeting; notoriety is forever. Human minds have a hard limit on compassion. The death of one or two people is a calamity, of a hundred: a tragedy; a million: a statistic.”
Reinhard picked at his sleeve. The young Duke was famous for his volcanic temper, but that temper was nowhere to be seen. He looked abashed. “This is why I want you to work for me. Sieg—Marshal Kircheis—tries his best, but sometimes deference gets in the way of his advice. You said that I’m just like the previous Kaiser. I don’t want to be.”
“Then give it all away. You’ve freed your sister, haven’t you? You’ve done what has to be done. There’s no need to conquer the FPA. Scale back your influence and break the cycle of monarchs.”
“Break it into what? You’ve seen the FPA. Do you think that democracy works any better?”
“It’s been thousands of years, and humans haven’t come up with a system robust enough to account for abuse and corruption,” Yang said, staring at his hands. “But can you blame them? The ones in power will always try to stay in power, and on and on it’ll go. This is why I hate war. It’s not just bestial; it’s pointless. I’m sorry. A man who will declare war on the galaxy is not a man I can ever trust.”
Yang thought that would be enough to drive Reinhard off—or into a fine temper. Reinhard grabbed Yang’s hand, looking determined. “I’ll prove that you’re wrong about me.”
“There’s no need for that,” Yang said, but Reinhard said a curt farewell and rushed off in high colour. After a while, the landcar pulled away from the residence. “Ah,” Yang murmured, chuckling helplessly, “if that young man weren’t who he was, that would’ve been cute.”
“Did Sieg ask you to talk to me?” Damn that man. Kircheis was away on a campaign through the Iserlohn Corridor, spearheading the FPA invasion.
“No, but I’m not that isolated. I read the news now and then, especially if it’s about my beloved brother,” Annerose said with a smile. “With you making a point of visiting him every week whenever you’re in Odin, the speculation about your relationship has been rife for months. It’s all very exciting. Maybe I should visit the Admiral myself.”
“Please don’t,” Reinhard said, stirring his tea with more force than was necessary. “It… it isn’t what everyone makes it out to be. I’m just trying to win his trust. I want him to work for me.”
“I heard you gave him a kitten?” Annerose brightened up. “Do you have a photograph? It must have been adorable.”
“I didn’t take a picture. Yang mentioned liking cats, so I adopted one from a shelter…” Reinhard exhaled, staring at his tea. Not even that had worked to thaw Yang’s reserve, even though, other than the housewarming present, it was the only gift from Reinhard that Yang had accepted. “He named it ‘Admiral’ to mock me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Why give a cat a name like that save to remind me that Yang isn’t one of my Admirals? Nothing’s working. Yang’s dislike for me is too ingrained. I even offered to pardon Merkatz for defecting, and he told me off. Gave me a lecture about pointless gestures.” Reinhard had seen Yang’s point, though. Merkatz was too proud to return to the Empire, which meant any offer of amnesty would at worst be seen as a trap and at best be seen as meaningless. Annerose giggled. “It’s true! He hates me. He’s so friendly with everyone else. It’s unfair.”
“I’ve never seen you like this before,” Annerose said, smiling gently. “It’s a relief.”
“With the weight of what you’ve brought on your shoulders… you and Sieg… I’ve spent so many nights worrying that it’d change you. Twist you into something more than human. Seeing you like this puts my heart at ease.”
“It does?” Reinhard said, puzzled. “I don’t understand.”
“Reinhard,” Annerose said, clasping his hands, “you’ve finally fallen in love with someone. I’m so glad.”
“Hate is such a strong word,” Yang said, picking up his glass and swirling the wine in it. “I don’t hate anyone.”
“Dislike, then,” Mittermeier said, sipping from his glass without going through the motions. It was increasingly rare that both Mittermeier and Reuenthal were on the same planet at the same time, but when they were, Yang’s house was now their favourite drinking spot. Bars were too visible, Yang had called Reuenthal’s place ‘too depressing’, and the presence of Mittermeier’s wife in his house made Reuenthal more reserved there.
“Should I dislike him?” Yang toasted the two Admirals at the table.
Reuenthal let out a snort, while Mittermeier said, “This habit of yours, of asking questions instead of giving answers? It’s irritating.”
“All right, all right. I’m reserving my judgment,” Yang conceded, which made Mittermeier frown. “After all, if Oskar ever decides to rebel, it’d be a serious problem if I liked both sides, hm?”
“That’s right,” Reuenthal said, chuckling. “When the time comes, you’d better side with me.”
Yang made a show of studying the bottle of wine Reuenthal had brought. “Of course. After all, you do have undeniably great taste in alcohol.”
Mittermeier blanched. “Don’t even joke about that, either of you.”
“If not us, then who? Other than Kircheis, the two of you are the most valuable members of Reinhard’s administration. While I’m a nobody who lucked into early retirement,” Yang said, gesturing idly at the garden.
“You know that’s not true,” Mittermeier said.
“Ah yes, that’s right, Oberstein’s valuable too. Did you know, he called on me the other day? I think he meant to make veiled threats about something or other maybe, but we ended up talking about the Church of Terra problem.” Yang found Senior Admiral Oberstein unsettling, but at least the man was a stimulating conversationalist.
“Veiled threats?” Mittermeier looked appalled.
“Don’t change the subject,” Reuenthal said, one of the few people Yang knew who couldn’t be shaken off topic. “If you don’t like Reinhard’s company, just tell him to leave you alone. He’ll respect that.”
“Why do you care?” Yang asked, curious.
“That habit of yours again,” Mittermeier muttered.
“As gratifying as it is not to be the main subject of tabloid speculation for once, this focus on Reinhard is damaging his image,” Reuenthal said, draining his wine. “We don’t want to constantly remind the public that he’s barely two decades old.”
“Does it matter?” Yang said, with a hint of bitterness in his voice. “Even the tabloids are subject to control in the Empire. If the coverage annoys Reinhard, all he needs to do is drop a word with Oberstein. Editors can be fired, journalists—if they can even be called that here—can disappear. Oh! He could take a wife,” Yang said as a happier afterthought. “That would change the conversation. What about Hilda? I like her.”
“Countess von Mariendorf?” Mittermeier said, scandalised.
“I’d like to see that.” Reuenthal smirked. “I’m fairly sure they’re both virgins.”
“That’s it, I’m confiscating the wine.” Mittermeier made a futile swipe for the wine glasses, which Reuenthal and Yang held out of his grasp.
“He’d much rather take you as a spouse,” Reuenthal told Yang, downing the rest of his glass and pouring himself the rest of the bottle.
“Oskar!” Mittermeier glared at Reuenthal.
“Ha! He’d have to work on that if that’s what he wants,” Yang said, tickled by the thought. “In terms of my preferences, he’s not even in my top three.”
“Given the amount of fine wine I’ve plied you with, I’d better be leading the pack,” Reuenthal said, nodding at the empty bottle.
“You’re second. It’s just wine,” Yang said, affecting disdain.
“Countess von Mariendorf?” Mittermeier guessed, caught up in the absurdity despite himself.
“It’s Fritz. He gave me a very good bottle of brandy last week,” Yang said, and was about to laugh at Reuenthal’s disgusted face when the doorbell rang. “Ah, excuse me.” He set down his glass and walked a little unsteadily around the verandah to the front gate through the small garden.
Reinhard glared at Yang through the gate, red-faced. Blinking, Yang searched his memory for anything he might have said recently that could have driven Reinhard into such a temper. “Your Excellency,” Yang said, unlocking the gate. “I didn’t realise you were back on Odin.”
“I just landed.” Reinhard started to step through and hesitated. Reddening further, he shoved the bouquet of flowers he was holding into Yang’s arms and hissed, “I’m not going to lose to Bittenfeld!” before turning and storming back to his landcar.
Yang was still scratching his head when Mittermeier and Reuenthal wandered over from the verandah. “I think he overheard us and took it seriously,” Yang said. “What a bother.”
“You weren't serious?” Mittermeier looked shocked.
“Sometimes, I don’t know why we’re friends,” Reuenthal said, patting Mittermeier on the shoulder.
“I gathered,” Reinhard said, straight-backed in Yang’s armchair, so very young and intense. “You’re still friendly to anyone who brings you alcohol but me — even Oberstein. My sister brought you green tea, and she said you spent the whole afternoon with her having a ‘delightful chat’ about classical poetry. I know you don’t drink green tea.”
“What was I supposed to do, throw it back in her face?” Yang said, amused. “She meant well.”
“So do I!”
“All right, all right,” Yang said, chuckling. “You’re now my favourite, OK? You’ve more than paid the brandy tax.”
Reinhard flushed slightly. “Do you mean that, or are you still joking?”
Teasing Reinhard wasn’t as funny somehow, with him leaning forward to catch Yang’s answer, yearning and hope naked in his eyes. Reinhard’s bright golden hair was starting to grow out over his shoulders, softening his exquisite face. “Would I joke about something like that?” Yang asked with a halfhearted smile.
“I never know when you are.” Reinhard reached over to grab Yang’s hand, holding it between his palms. “I want you to marry me.”
“Haaah?” Yang jerked back.
“I’ve been told repeatedly that I should take a spouse.” Reinhard advanced, leaning over Yang and resting a palm on his thigh. “Having thought it through, you’re the best—no, you’re my only choice. I love and admire you, I—”
“Wait, wait, just a minute,” Yang said, twitching. “I… this is too sudden. I’m twenty years older than you! Besides, wouldn’t you need an heir?”
“Machine surrogacy has been in prototype development for a while,” Reinhard said very seriously. “In any case, a child isn’t necessary. I wouldn’t want succession to pass to anyone but the most worthy. I’d rather select my successor.”
“…you’ve given this far too much thought.” Yang desperately needed a drink. “I don’t. I’d rather.” He shook his head with a weak laugh.
Reinhard grasped both of Yang’s hands. “You’ll turn me down?”
Put on the spot, Yang found himself saying, “I… this is… you’re going too fast. We haven’t even gone to bed.”
Instead of flustering Reinhard as Yang had hoped, his words only made Reinhard more determined. “Then let’s do that right now.”
“Call me Reinhard. You’re on a first-name basis with everyone but me!”
“Sit down. Deep breaths.” Yang pulled Reinhard down to sit beside him. “Did something happen?”
Reinhard looked away. “In the Ministry of War, I overheard Reuenthal and Mittermeier talking to Bittenfeld. They told him about your ranking system.”
Oh Gods. “I meant that as a joke.”
“Bittenfeld said that in that case, he was going to propose marriage to you tomorrow so that you’d deploy with him aboard the Königs Tiger.” Reinhard glowered at Yang. “I forbid you to accept.”
Petting Reinhard’s knuckles and trying not to chuckle, Yang said, “You do realise he also meant that as a joke?”
“Then Reuenthal said he’d propose first so that he can have you stay at home and never become a direct competitor,” Reinhard grit out, too furious to listen.
“I never knew I was that popular,” Yang said, pretending to look contemplative. “Maybe I should start a time-share. Or a collection of Admirals?”
“No!” Reinhard jerked up onto one knee on the couch, facing Yang. The laughter bubbled out of Yang, now uncontrollable. He laughed until his ribs ached, until Reinhard looked incandescent with jealous fury. Grabbing Yang by fistfuls of his shirt, Reinhard pulled him over for a clumsy kiss that still managed to swallow Yang’s mirth, to sober him up. Yang kissed Reinhard back, gentling him by stroking his flanks, guiding Reinhard onto his lap. Reinhard was an inexperienced kisser, but he learned quickly, eager to please.
“Good,” Yang said as they parted for breath, and blinked as Reinhard gasped and squirmed on Yang’s thigh. Did Reinhard just get hard from…?
“I like that,” Reinhard whispered, nuzzling Yang’s temple. “Hearing you speak kindly of me.”
“So I’ve noticed.” Yang brushed a playful kiss over Reinhard’s mouth as he cupped Reinhard’s arousal. “If this is going to be your general reaction to praise, I’m scaling it all back. Imagine the scandal in public.”
“Not in public. Here.” Reinhard pushed his hips into Yang’s grasp. “When it’s just us.” He stared deeply into Yang’s eyes. “Tell me that I’m better than the others.”
“This seems to have given you some kind of complex,” Yang said, stroking Reinhard’s thighs lightly.
“I want to hear it.”
“…let’s move to the bedroom.”
Yang yelped, startled awake. Sitting up, he blinked owlishly for a long moment before chuckling and rubbing his eyes. “I hate parties.”
“That’s it? That’s all you have to say?” Reinhard tossed aside his fur-lined cloak and started unbuttoning his brocade jacket. “It was a modest ceremony by any measure.”
“Everyone knows you would’ve made Kaiser in a matter of time,” Yang said, leaning back onto his elbows as he watched Reinhard strip down appreciatively. “They should’ve just handed over the crown and called it a day.”
“Now you’re just trying to annoy me.”
“You don’t like the trappings of power either.” Yang smiled as Reinhard tossed his belt aside and pulled off his boots, shucking the rest of his beautiful clothes with little care. A knot of hunger and temper both had twisted in Reinhard’s belly when he had scanned the crowd and been unable to find Yang’s face. It worsened now in the face of Yang’s utter lack of remorse. Yet it was hard to hold on to his temper as Yang pulled him down to kiss him, as Yang whispered, “Now that my lion’s been crowned King of everything, can you still be good for me?” into his ear.
Reinhard shivered. His anger fled, leaving only hunger. He shifted eagerly under the sheets to kiss Yang back, roughly unbuttoning Yang’s pyjamas. The impetus that drove Reinhard to seek Yang’s approval so desperately was tangled up through every aspect of his awkward courtship. Each time Yang laughingly changed the subject whenever Reinhard brought up marriage, Reinhard grew only hungrier.
“We should get married soon,” Reinhard said, tossing Yang’s clothes aside. “I’ve already informed my Admirals of my choice.”
“Staking a public claim? Isn’t that premature? I haven’t agreed to anything,” Yang said, chuckling as Reinhard grimaced.
Anger only amused Yang, though. “You will,” Reinhard said, reaching over to the side table drawer for supplies. Having been a regular visitor to Yang’s house over the past few weeks that Reinhard had been back at Odin, Reinhard didn’t need much prep as he slicked himself up, panting as he pushed fingers into his body to stretch himself. As usual, Yang didn’t bother to help, though he stroked Reinhard’s thighs appreciatively from knee to hip.
“You’re getting very good at that,” Yang said, grinning faintly as Reinhard twitched and moaned. In the beginning, Yang hadn’t liked to say such things even in the privacy of the bedroom, often alternatively stating that it was ‘too weird’ or ‘too much hassle’. Now, Yang was more free with it, if only because he appeared to enjoy how his words could strike a chord, could play to Reinhard’s hunger.
“That’s it,” Yang whispered as Reinhard rolled a microfilm over Yang’s cock and stroked it until it was nicely plump. “You’re already so worked up. Were you thinking about doing this with me during the ‘modest’ ceremony?” As Reinhard’s ears reddened, Yang chuckled. “How scandalous.”
“You weren’t there,” Reinhard snapped, though he knew that the only way Yang would’ve attended such a thing was if security had dragged Yang there by force. “It’s not ceremony you dislike, is it? It’s what it meant.”
Yang glanced up at Reinhard, his amusement fading. “Mein Kaiser,” Yang said, with little of his usual warmth.
As Reinhard stiffened, Yang’s smile stole slowly back onto his face. Leaning up, Yang kissed Reinhard gently on the nose and nudged his hips up to thrust his cock against Reinhard’s fingers. Getting the hint, Reinhard fed Yang into himself, throwing back his head with a moan. He’d figure out Yang’s strange mood later. Right now, Reinhard was too hungry to untangle one of Yang’s many-layered lessons.
“Gods,” Yang gasped as Reinhard sank down over him, his fingers tightening over Reinhard’s hips in a bid to stay still. “Ngh… Reinhard…”
“Good?” Reinhard whispered, grinding down until he took Yang to the hilt. It hurt a little—he’d been too impatient with prep—but Reinhard didn’t care. He loved the feeling of fullness he got when joined to Yang like this, when they were alone against the world. “Tell me.”
Yang chuckled but didn’t speak, looking Reinhard slowly over instead as they waited. Annoyed, Reinhard braced his hands on the sheets, waiting for the painful fit to ease. “Are you angry with me?” Reinhard asked.
Shaking his head, Yang spat in his palm and clenched his fingers over Reinhard’s cock, stroking him in urgent jerks. “Slow… slow down,” Reinhard said, batting at Yang’s wrist. “There’s no rush.”
“Don’t you want to be good for me?” Yang asked. He chuckled roughly as Reinhard shivered and set his hands back on the bed, his cock twitching in Yang’s grip. “That’s it. Move.” Reinhard groaned in relief as he obeyed, fucking himself between Yang’s stroking palm and the thick flesh wedged inside him.
The bed creaked uneasily beneath them as Reinhard rode Yang as hard as he could, panting in strangled gasps until his thighs were shaking from exertion, until he’d spun a wet stripe of come over Yang’s belly. Yang wiped his hand on the bed and leaned up to kiss Reinhard as Reinhard shakily slowed down. Hands closed back over Reinhard’s hips as Yang thrust up inside him, once, twice, then Yang pressed his mouth against Reinhard’s ear and whispered, “Rein… you feel great around me… so tight and—” Yang stiffened with a gasp as Reinhard clenched down, shocked into his release.
After they got cleaned up and returned to bed, Reinhard said, “I’m moving the Imperial capital to Phezzan. I want you to come with me.”
“Moving house? No. It’d be too much of a pain. I like it here. All my favourite bars are here.”
“I’ll move them too,” Reinhard said, curling his hand over Yang’s cheek. “If you don’t move to Phezzan with me, I’ll move everything you like over anyway. Then you’d have to visit Phezzan whenever you want to see them.”
“It’s only been an hour or so since your coronation, and you’ve already turned into a tyrant,” Yang said, though he chuckled and allowed Reinhard to pull him close.
“So? Will you move?”
“No. I’m going to stop drinking, swear a vow of celibacy, and become a monk.”
Reinhard grit his teeth. “…I forbid it.”