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According to several eye-witnesses, Marshal Yang’s reaction to being told that a civilian coup had named him Chairman of the Free Planets Alliance was, “Huh? What a pain,” followed by, “Did Trunicht have a heart attack or something?”

“There was a week of protests across the FPA calling for his resignation,” his aide Lieutenant Commander Frederica Greenhill said, paging briskly through her datapad. “The High Council initiated a vote of no confidence, and he was ousted. In his place, they’ve voted you in as the Chairman.”

“How’s that even possible?” Yang complained. “Someone who holds military office can’t hold civilian office at the same time. It’s in the rules.”

“The Planetary Constitution was amended before the vote. Trunicht is in jail on charges of corruption.” Frederica couldn’t help her smile. “Congratulations?”

“What for? This is the worst thing that could’ve happened to me.” Yang buried his face in his hands. “I can barely keep track of what’s happening in this fleet without you and the others. I don’t even know the number of colonies in the Alliance. Or the names of their capitals. Or even the people in the High Council. Give me a break.”

“With all due respect, sir,” Frederica said with a stern gleam in her eyes, “you’re far better than Trunicht.”

“So are you. And Julian. Hell, even little Charlotte would do a better job than Trunicht. It’s a low bar.”

“It wouldn’t be much trouble to clear then, would it?”

“I see what you’re trying to do. No. I need to concentrate on Reinhard’s invasion right now. This is ridiculous. Draft a letter of resignation and send that back to the High Council.”

“Sir, the only way the FPA can win against the Empire is by presenting a united front. Until the threat of invasion is dealt with, why not just accept things for now? You could call yourself Acting Chairman to make that clear, and make a speech.”

“I hate speeches. Almost as much as I hate additional work.” Yang sank into his chair. “Ahh… it’s so tempting to just defect right now.”

“Reinhard makes his Admirals assume civilian governance responsibilities,” Frederica reminded him, long used to the occasional shocking aphorism from her commander.

“True, true. What a hassle… I really can’t be bothered…” Yang searched his desk for his stash of brandy and drank from it directly without bothering with tea or a cup. “Fine. I’ll think of some speech. Monitor the situation, please. And inform the fleet that celebrations are just going to depress me.”

“Very well,” Frederica said, just as footsteps thumped to a stop outside Yang’s office.

The doors whispered open, and Vice-Admiral Walter von Schönkopf burst in, grinning broadly. “Congratulations, sir!”

Yang took another long pull of his brandy and closed his eyes.

#

To everyone’s surprise, Reinhard’s fleet halted their advance and assumed a holding position back at the Gandharva Starzone. Widespread speculation in the Yang fleet veered between Reinhard having been ‘scared off’, wanting to ‘wait and see’, or ‘having food poisoning’. Yang was overheard mumbling ‘I guess food poisoning can be quite bad’ when Frederica mentioned the topic to him, which set off a further firestorm of wild conjecture.

Yang tried to manage the new so-called Yang Administration for a while from aboard the Hyperion, but the process grew annoyingly unwieldy. Still, he couldn’t relinquish his current position, in case Reinhard's forces regrouped and began their advance. The stalemate crawled through two uncomfortable weeks.

While Yang tried to read his way through an eye-wateringly dense set of new legislation involving, of all things, requested amendments to the Native Environment Protection Act, Julian let himself into the office. “Dinner,” Julian said, setting down his tray by Yang’s arm. “Eat, please. You need to take a break.”

“I will, once I come up with a suitably scathing response to Councillor Kurnig. Weaken environmental protections? Hasn’t he learned from history? Any colony that tries to terraform its environment beyond what it can tolerate inevitably fails. Is he an idiot?” Yang tossed the papers to a side and rubbed his temples. “I need a drink.”

“You need food,” Julian said, merciless where Yang’s welfare was concerned. Yang’s ascension to the summit of FPA power hadn’t fazed his young ward—Julian hadn’t even been surprised. ‘He told the other pilots that it was about time,’ Caselnes said to Yang during their last call. ‘Aren’t kids great?’

Yang stared sadly at Julian, though he grudgingly pulled the steaming hot bowl of stew over. Before Yang could speak, Julian said, “Kurnig’s the Councillor of Ryseon Colony. It’s a planet with a surface temperature so low that humans can only survive for an hour without specialised tactical gear. Everything lives underground, and the Colony survives by mining hybarite for trade. The dominant native species on the planet is the Ryseon Dragon, a giant tunnelling rock worm with corrosive, toxic spit that kills an average of twenty miners a year.”

“Relaxing NEPA just for Ryseon will set off a chain reaction,” Yang said as he spooned stew into his mouth. “Besides, the Ryseon Dragons were there first, weren’t they? They easily live for a thousand years.”

Julian nodded attentively. “I was just trying to provide some context for my suggestion. NEPA shouldn’t be relaxed. The High Council tries it now and then whenever there’s a conservative shift in its make-up, but the results are almost always disastrous for colonies that follow through. Besides, there are reports linking Dragon tunnelling to the growth of hybarite.”

“No species should have to prove their worth to humanity to be allowed to exist,” Yang said, typing a note to himself on the datapad, “but I understand your gist. I’ll tell Kurnig no, but I’ll allocate him some funding for Ryseon Dragon research. Hopefully, that’d help the Colony find a way to live with the things.”

“Do you still have funding to allocate?”

“Have you been talking to Alex? Honestly, no,” Yang admitted, eating mechanically as he got depressed all over again. “The sovereign debt that the FPA owes Phezzan is ridiculous. Reinhard annexing Phezzan did us a favour. We would’ve defaulted on our last interest payment if he hadn’t.”

“With military spending at its current rate, the FPA won’t ever have a budget surplus.”

“You should be Supreme Chairman, not me.” Every time Yang looked at the Alliance budget, his stomach cramped up. “There’s nothing left to tax. As it is, taxation needs to be scaled back, or we’ll tip right into a galactic financial crisis. Over half of the Alliance Colonies are already in recession. We can’t borrow any more money from Phezzan with its merchant banking system in disarray. Ideally, we should quit our current military campaigns and implement austerity measures.”

“If we were to scale back our military presence, Reinhard would invade,” Julian said. “Not to mention it’d be bad for Alliance morale.”

“I know, I know. I’ve been thinking myself into knots figuring it all out. Urgh. I want to resign.”

As Yang mentioned this at least six times a day on average, Julian merely smiled wryly and started tidying Yang’s office. He finished sorting out the shelves as Yang ate the last of the stew, and was preparing to clear the tray when Frederica rushed into the office.

“Oh, Julian you’re here… Marshal, I mean, Chairman,” Frederica said, flushed with excitement, “Reinhard’s forces are withdrawing back to Phezzan!”

“What?” Yang shot to his feet. This had to be a trap of some sort. NEPA document forgotten, he strode out of his office, heading for the command bridge of the Hyperion.

A brief message from Reinhard waited for Yang at the bridge. There was no video, only a flat audio statement of congratulations, nothing more. Yang sank into the captain’s seat, scratching at his head as he listened to the recording again. “Is it definitely Reinhard?” Yang asked the comms officer.

“Audio match confirmed, sir,” they said as they checked. “It was sent from his flagship.”

“How interesting,” Yang said.

“Maybe it’s a pre-recording, and he’s dead,” said one of the navigation officers. It was likely meant to be a whisper to her colleague, but it coincided with a conversational lull and carried. Excitement sparked across the bridge.

“Not possible,” Yang said, raising his voice over the fray. “If that had been his ploy, why wouldn’t he record a video transmission?”

“Sudden illness?” Schönkopf suggested, standing beside Yang’s seat.

“Hm. I’d prefer not to speculate. We should maintain a high alert over the next few days in case it’s a ploy,” Yang said, though he couldn’t quite figure out what kind of ploy that might be.

“What if it isn’t? Should we press on?” Schönkopf looked excited.

“If it isn’t, and if Reinhard withdraws back to Imperial space, I’m going to go back to Heinessen and buy a lottery ticket,” Yang said, after a moment’s thought. “And then I’m going to drink all night.” Surely fate wasn’t going to be so kind.

#

The lottery ticket didn’t amount to anything, and drinking all night meant that Yang was extremely hungover when he attended a session of the High Council in person for the first time. News of Reinhard’s withdrawal to Imperial space had put the High Council in a festive mood. They laughed off Yang’s attempt to resign, tried to shower him with commendations that he refused, and were surprised when he insisted on getting down to business.

After a month of peace with Yang as Supreme Chairman, some members of the High Council began chafing at the bit. The most hawkish, conservative members of the Council had assumed wrongly that placing a popular military leader on the Chairman’s seat would mean the immediate institution of favourable conservative policy. Yang wasn’t conservative in the least, but—the liberal members of the Council complained—neither was he particularly liberal. If anything, Yang was a deficit hawk, carefully conscious of budgetary expenditure. Government incomes were frozen, and pork-barrel projects were summarily cancelled.

Yang swiftly changed from being the most popular person in the High Council to the least popular—at least among the Councillors. His popularity with the general public was higher than ever. Yang had announced the sale of the Supreme Chairman’s residence when he had returned from the Hyperion, opting instead to live in a modest house. He instituted a system of accepting civilian petitions for review and appointed a small army to filter the messages.

All the High Council could do was unite together as a voting bloc and try to stall Yang’s occasional attempts at legislative change. A Councillor who was secretly filmed by a civilian activist group joking that he hoped Reinhard would invade again and put them all out of their misery had to resign in disgrace. Protests began to break out again on Yang’s behalf, despite his call for calm.

“It’s not a sustainable situation,” Yang liked complaining to anyone who would listen. “I’m waiting for someone to crack and poison my tea.”

After hearing this, Schönkopf had to be physically restrained from storming the nearest Councillor’s house. As the Vice-Admiral was removed from the premises and told to cool down, Yang sank deeply into his seat. The Supreme Chairman’s office was nice and comfortable, at least. Yang had sold off all the gaudy trappings of wealth within it. He’d been tempted to sell off the building as well, but that would just cause extreme disruption to the army of staffers he had inherited.

Naming Frederica his Chief of Staff had been self-indulgent, but she had risen to the job with efficient aplomb. She didn’t blink as Schönkopf’s loud protestations faded into the distance. “If you hate the job so much, you should delegate,” Frederica said.

“To who? The High Council? Most of them hate my guts. The ones who don’t are the freshmen Councillors, and they’re young puppies who’re still idealistic enough to think that they can shake things up in government.” Yang closed his eyes briefly. “The only way things can change is if the entirety of Parliament House were to sink into the sea with everyone in it when Council’s next in session. That should be fun.”

“The next election season for most of the Colonies is at the end of the year,” Frederica said, checking her notes. “You should consolidate power. Select and endorse people you believe to be worthy of representing their planet in the High Council, and help them get voted in. Once you have a majority vote in the Council, you can do what you like.”

“What I’d like is to be able to retire quietly on a nice pension,” Yang said wistfully. “Get involved in local politics? That’d be even more troublesome.”

“It’s a temporary measure. Once you can demonstrate that your approval carries enough weight to make Councillors fear for their jobs, they’d be falling over themselves to agree with you. Aren’t you a student of history?” Frederica said with a slight smile.

“You’re a scary person. You should be Supreme Chairman.” Frederica was right. Annoying as it would be, Yang was going to have to start on a local level to build enough support.

“Besides, for all your complaints, I can guess what you want to do next.”

“Oh? Do tell.”

“You’ve always complained that the current system of governance is too unwieldy and bureaucratic, with power concentrated in a tiny handful of people,” Frederica said. She lowered her voice. “You want to break all that, don’t you? Decentralise the government as it is now. Make the FPA more of an actual alliance than a governing body.”

“History hasn’t been kind to such experiments,” Yang said, steepling his fingers over his desk. “Privation and fear lead to the rise of populism and conservative ideology, and alliances of equals tend to break in ugly directions. The FPA is only a threat to the Empire because it’s still capable of providing a unified front, with a unified navy. To be honest with you, I still don’t know what to do. But I know I need to start somewhere.”

“You’ll figure it out,” Frederica said, as unsettlingly confident in him as the rest of the Yang fleet had always been. “You always do.”

“This isn’t a battle. This is a problem that humanity has faced for thousands of years,” Yang said, depressed again. “Maybe we’re not a species capable of efficient, compassionate self-rule. I should get the scientists to design an ASI to do it for us.”

“I think humans should take responsibility for their own lives.”

“You would, but I’ve met any number of grown adult humans who…” Yang trailed off, passing a hand over his face. “You’re right; there’s no use complaining. Hand me a list of the most promising candidates for the next general election. I need to make some calls.”

#

On the day that landslide victories across the FPA gave Yang supermajority support in the High Council, Reinhard put through a private, encrypted video call to Yang’s office in Heinessen. Yang would admit that he was surprised by the gesture—and relieved. Since retreating from the war front, Reinhard had made few public appearances. Rumours that he was suffering from some debilitating illness or busy dealing with internal strife were growing increasingly popular in the free press.

“You look well,” Yang said once the video resolved into a crisp image of Reinhard in a well-lit office. “I mean. Good afternoon, your Excellency.”

“As do you,” Reinhard said, ignoring the slip. He did look a trifle paler than usual, but other than that, even the measure of Reinhard’s voice was the same. “Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Yang said.

“I didn’t expect you to seize power.”

“It wasn’t me,” Yang said, startled by the statement, and despite his prepared itinerary of things he wanted to talk to Reinhard about, spent the next twenty minutes complaining about his life. Reinhard listened attentively and patiently, making no comment until Yang belatedly drew himself short with a cough.

“I see.” Reinhard’s tone grew marginally warmer. “I should have known. I’m sorry that I ever assumed otherwise.”

“Sorry? What for?” Yang said, bemused.

“At the very least, assuming the worst of my enemy is a tactical mistake.”

“Enemy?” Yang repeated, chuckling. “How harsh.”

“Isn’t it the truth?”

“You’re my opponent of necessity. If I’d met you at Vermilion as planned and defeated you, I’d probably have fired on your ship, but none of it would’ve been personal. I’d have regretted it, too. If there was a way, I’d wish for there to be peace between us.”

If you defeated me at Vermilion,” Reinhard said, with a faint smile. “I’d like there to be peace between us as well. That’s the purpose behind my call.”

Yang stared at Reinhard. “You’ve given up on conquering the FPA? Why? Are you feeling all right?”

Reinhard laughed, a warm, velvety sound. “You…! I know no one quite like you, Marshal. Forgive me; I meant Supreme Chairman.”

Yang shuddered. “Urgh, don’t remind me. I’m looking forward to the day I divest myself of that title. Which is soon, I hope.”

“Oh?” Reinhard’s mirth faded, replaced by bewilderment. “You’re going to resign?”

“I’ve already tried. That’s the ultimate plan, though. I’m not cut out for politics. Once I push through the reforms I’m thinking of, decentralise power from Heinessen, and hopefully get closer to balancing our deficit, I’m thinking of leaving the reins to the new High Council. There are quite a few up-and-coming young people in the ranks.”

“Again, you surprise me,” Reinhard murmured. His gaze across the vast distance between Phezzan and Heinessen grew intense with some sentiment Yang couldn’t parse. “Should you be telling me all this?”

“Why not? You’d have heard about it sooner or later. I’m going to make a public statement tomorrow about it when the new High Council convenes.”

“You’ll cause anarchy and civil strife,” Reinhard predicted. “If you allow every FPA Colony to govern itself. Away from a unified whole, away from structure and order and control, people become a mob.”

“I don’t think human civilisation is as fragile as all that, but I do have plans in the wing for safeguards. The main problem in democratic politics is disengagement, along with disenfranchisement in the process. If everyone's educated, if everyone has to take their role as a citizen seriously—”

“You’re assuming that the average voter is worthy of such trust. Most people are ignorant and selfish.”

“Then let us be free to be ignorant and selfish together,” Yang said, with a shrug. “I’m the same, after all. All I’ve ever wanted is to live a quiet life.”

“A man like you leading a quiet life? What a waste that would be.” Reinhard smiled, leaning a cheek on a palm. “I’ll make sure that never happens.”

The words were a threat, but given the oddly playful way Reinhard had spoken, it sounded… teasing? Instead? Puzzled, Yang said, “That’s not very kind of you.”

“You do owe me a lot of money,” Reinhard said.

“What? When?”

“The Empire annexed Phezzan, assuming all its debts and lines of credit,” Reinhard said, glancing at something off-screen. He named the current outstanding debt that the FPA owed Phezzan and smiled as Yang stiffened. “Is that the correct amount?”

“Are you serious?” Yang asked, astonished.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well,” Yang said slowly, trying to think, “even if you invade us tomorrow to try and recoup it, which would at least be a novel reason for a new galactic incursion, we don’t have the money. We can barely pay the interest.”

“Of which there appears to be a backlog, stemming from the day I took possession of Phezzan,” Reinhard said, tapping at his chin with an elegant finger.

“That’s… well… surely there’s some galactic rule against—”

“I’m inclined to forgive the discrepancy and even renegotiate the terms of payment,” Reinhard said, “but I’d like to meet you in person first. The location can be agreed on at a future date. I’ll guarantee your safety, if you like.”

“What?” Yang said in disbelief. “Meet me? What for?”

“I’d like to get your measure in person.”

“And if I refuse?”

“I’ll require immediate payment of the deficit, with interest,” Reinhard said.

“No one’s going to be happy paying the Empire anything,” Yang said slowly. “If I refuse, what then?”

“We’re poised to invade again if I wish. My fleet is fully rested, and it’s larger than it was before. Won’t that throw a wrench into your plans to reform the Alliance?”

“Why are you even giving me a choice?”

“Because I’d like to see your true measure as a leader of people,” Reinhard said, “and I’m curious to see whether your reforms will amount to anything more than chaos. However, I’m not inclined to give you a free pass. Circumstances cheated me of a grand battle with you. I don’t wish to be cheated of anything else.”

“I… I’m going to need to think about this.”

“You have a week,” Reinhard said, ending the call before Yang could say more.

“What the hell,” Yang said to the empty room.

#

Months after the new High Council was sworn in and the first raft of legislative reforms were passed, Yang declared his intention to meet Reinhard at the border of the Phezzanese Corridor and bid for peace. His observation that ‘after all, we technically now owe him a ludicrous amount of money’ was assumed to be a joke by the free press and the general public. Only a few members of the High Council and Yang’s inner circle knew better.

“You do realise that the debt is a pretext,” said the young Councillor from Irica Planet whom Yang had invited along to the negotiation.

Sandy Diaz was from the newest batch of Councillors, most of whom were aged from their late twenties to thirties. Like several of the new Councillors, she had no prior legislative experience and had been recruited into standing for election by reformists. Yang was fond of the Squad, as the new Councillors tended to call themselves. Every time Yang installed them into powerful committees, his critics accused him of favouritism.

“We do owe Phezzan a lot of money,” Yang pointed out.

“Reinhard doesn’t represent Phezzan, he annexed Phezzan. Besides, so what if we default?”

“He’ll invade…?” Yang said, amused. It was good to be back aboard the Hyperion. They were taking a limited fleet to the Phezzanese Corridor, ever since it had been broadcast that Reinhard was doing the same.

“You’d rebuff him. You have before.”

“I could, but people will die — millions, likely. The older I get, the less I want something like that on my conscience. If he’s willing to genuinely bid for peace, I want to listen.”

“He’s a dictator,” Sandy scoffed. “Why are we making dealings with dictators?”

“A dictator with a superior navy and tactical mastery,” Yang said. “We can’t afford another all-out war. The new budget is going to need cutbacks in defence spending to balance out. Especially now that we have to be self-sufficient.”

“Don’t you think that it’s strange that he suddenly wants to bid for peace?”

“I do, but that’s no reason not to give it a chance.”

Sandy nodded. “All right. I’m convinced. By the way, I thought you should know. The Squad has a betting pool going on over this.”

“I love betting pools. Can I join?” Yang asked, brightening up.

“I told Alanna you’d ask. No. You might influence the result if you did. The odds are on Reinhard being terminally ill and wanting to bid for peace on behalf of his successor, on him being a huge fan of yours and wanting to meet you in real life—” Sandy checked her datapad and rattled off a list of increasingly ludicrous guesses. “—and on him wanting to propose marriage.”

“All right,” Yang said, chuckling, “whose bet is that? Was it Alanna?”

“Not telling you. It’d influence the results.”

“Well, you can inform whoever it was that they should leave the ugly business of politics altogether and go into writing fiction. How big is the pot?” Yang asked. Sandy named a figure. “What? That much? I could buy a hundred bottles of brandy… Are you sure I can’t join in?”

#

When Yang returned grey-faced from the private negotiation, his staff converged on him in a panic. “What happened?” Sandy asked, even as Julian wanted to know if Yang was all right and Frederica wondered whether they had to make a quick getaway.

“Calm down, calm down.” Yang sat down in the stateroom aboard the Brünhilde that had been allocated for their temporary use. “I’m all right. No, we don’t have to leave.”

“What’s wrong, then?” Frederica asked, motioning for Julian to make a cup of tea from the replicator in the corner of the stateroom.

“Hahaha…” Yang tried to swallow his laughter but couldn’t. He laughed until Julian pushed the cup of tea into his hands, ignoring the worried looks that Sandy and Frederica exchanged.

“Whatever it is,” Sandy said with a determined clench to her fists, “I’m going in with you for the next session. The High Council won’t stand for any sort of mistreatment. We’re here in good faith.”

“You’ve all got it wrong.” Yang hesitated. “Other than the person who guessed marriage in the betting pool.”

“What?” Frederica asked, confused, even as Sandy yelped, “Seriously?” then “I knew it! Oh, sorry. Uh. Are you all right?”

“He offered to wipe our existing sovereign debt and loan us more money on generous terms if we wanted,” Yang said, carding his fingers through his hair.

“The joke’s on him, we can’t be bought. Right?” Sandy asked, when Yang stayed silent.

“Reinhard proposed?” Frederica asked faintly. Julian stiffened.

“The debt isn’t the issue. Though,” Yang said, with a shade of his usual flippancy, “if I were to agree to get married because of that, won’t it be the biggest dowry in human history?”

“How can you still make jokes?” Frederica said. She had to sit down.

“Because I’m thinking of saying yes,” Yang said, and sipped his tea as the others erupted.

“You’re still joking, right?” Frederica asked, wide-eyed.

“You can’t be serious, sir,” Julian said.

“Wait till Alanna and the others hear about this,” Sandy said, torn between horror and fascination. “You shouldn’t feel obliged on behalf of the FPA. Hell, I’d question his motives. Is this just a high profile way for him to poach you over?”

“No? He said he’d leave the FPA and its territories to me.” Yang wished he had some brandy right now.

“You don’t want to be Supreme Chairman forever,” Frederica said, blinking. “What then?”

“The treaty will stand,” Yang said.

“That can’t be all. He has to be getting something out of this.” Sandy stared keenly at Yang’s face. “What else?”

“I can’t tell you yet,” Yang said, with a wry curl to his mouth, “but I will on the way home.” He set down the cup and got to his feet. “I’m going to give Reinhard my answer. Don’t look so worried. Isn’t he the galaxy’s most eligible bachelor?”

“Not even funny,” Sandy said. She tried to follow Yang to the door but was waved back.

In the awkward silence that ensued without Yang, Frederica said, “Is this… is this real?”

#

For a wedding between the two most powerful people in the galaxy, it was small, private, and held at an undisclosed location. Press speculation in the FPA had run the gamut from ‘fear of assassination’ to lurid rumours of about Imperial sexual decadence. Despite himself, Yang had enjoyed reading them all. As the day approached, he’d grown more reconciled to his decision, even as the Squad tried to stage a last-minute intervention and Schönkopf half-jokingly suggested that he feign a kidnapping.

Reinhard sniffed as Yang told him this. The wedding had been held aboard the Hyperion in the Phezzanese Corridor, with the Brünhilde idling so closely by that techs had to shut off the automated battle stations Imperial enemy warning system. Yang poured Reinhard a drink in his private quarters and tried not to look as though he was checking on Reinhard’s health.

“I’m fine,” Reinhard said.

“You’ve said that no Imperial doctor knows what’s wrong with you and how to cure it,” Yang said. They sat at Yang’s private desk, with Yang having to pull up an extra chair. “We could try the doctors in Heinessen.”

“It’s just an occasional fever,” Reinhard said with a dismissive gesture.

“Serious enough that you’ve started looking for your successor,” Yang said, clinking his glass against Reinhard’s. “Isn’t that what this is?”

“I have plenty of candidates. If I’d wanted things to continue the way they were.” Reinhard sipped at his brandy, made a face, and set it down. “You want to make something different. I admire that. If your experiment works in the FPA, together, we could adapt it for use in the Empire.”

“You’d want to change the monarchy?”

“I suffered under an absolute monarchy during the early years of my life. I’ve never forgotten that. My sister was given to the Kaiser as a plaything when she was still a child, while I watched every adult in my life look the other way. Dictatorships are fragile and far too dependent on the good character of a single person. It’s obvious to anyone who isn’t a fan of cults of personality.” Reinhard tapped his fingers uneasily against his cup. “I’m aware that I’m not perfect, that I sometimes make unwise decisions. I fear getting older and growing less wise, rather than more. What will happen to the Empire then?”

Yang chuckled. “I keep forgetting that you’re only twenty-something years old.”

Reinhard frowned at him. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“It’ll make sense to you when you’re my age.”

“You’re hardly that much older.”

“Nine years is definitely ‘much’ older.” Yang drained his glass and set it aside, trying not to feel nervous. “Uh, about tonight. I know it’s tradition and all, but…”

Reinhard’s ears turned pink. “There’s no public record of you ever having a relationship.”

“I could say the same for you?”

Reinhard looked even more uncomfortable. “I just never had the time or inclination. I don’t want you to feel like you have to do anything. If you don’t prefer men.”

“Do you?” Yang asked. Reinhard pinked further. Ah hell, why not. “Reinhard… can I kiss you?”

Reinhard looked up at Yang in surprise. “You want to?”

“Well, when I get back to FPA space, every journalist is going to ask me about the wedding night, so… haha, I’m joking,” Yang said, when Reinhard looked horrified. “I won’t say a word. Let’s just do whatever we both feel comfortable with, all right?”

Reinhard’s kisses grew more confident once they were crowded onto Yang’s bed. Space was at a premium aboard a ship, and the beds were made for one. They lay on it in a crowded tangle, with Yang on top and trying not to accidentally knee Reinhard in the ribs. They kissed until they were both calmer, until the odd confluence of events that had led them to this point felt less strange.

Stripping down when already in bed turned out to be far more awkward than films made it out to be. Yang started laughing after the second time he elbowed Reinhard in the gut, and Reinhard scowled and cursed the way the Alliance uniform was made. “I could have worn a suit,” Yang said, grinning as he kissed Reinhard on the nose, “but your secretary told my aide that the occasion called for full military dress uniforms.”

“I didn’t ask for anything of the sort.”

Yang laughed. “I doubt you would’ve. They likely wanted a nice photo for the press. If we’d gotten married in suits, it’d have looked like a wedding between a handsome prince and a random accountant.”

“You don’t look like an accountant.” Reinhard cursed as he finally got Yang’s boots and pants off.

“A random mature-aged college student.”

“Does that even have a look?”

“A random—” Yang’s words stifled into a moan as Reinhard twisted them around, pulling down Yang’s underwear and grasping him with a spit-slicked hand. This wasn’t as weird as Yang thought it would be. It got better as he figured out Reinhard’s clothes, drawing out Reinhard’s cock. The fit stayed awkward until they figured out how to lock their fingers together, to move in a desperate rhythm that broke a feverish pleasure over them both, that had Reinhard panting Yang’s name against his cheek. Completion was messy, glorious, confusing.

“When will I see you again?” Yang asked as they caught their breath. He’d meant the question to sound lighthearted, but the rasp of his voice made it earnest instead.

Reinhard kissed the edge of Yang’s mouth, his golden mane tickling Yang’s cheek. “We’ll work something out. I’d like to introduce you to my sister Annerose someday.”

“I thought she would attend the wedding,” Yang said.

“She…” Reinhard looked uncomfortable. “We’re estranged.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Yang kissed Reinhard on the cheek. “It must be very lonely.”

Reinhard stiffened, jerking up to stare at Yang. “You’re the first person to say such a thing to me.”

“Is it true?”

Reinhard looked away. Thinking that he wasn’t going to answer, Yang tried to squirm into a more comfortable position, only for Reinhard to hold him still. “Truer than you would think,” Reinhard confessed.

“Then I hope we’d see each other again soon,” Yang said, and kissed Reinhard lightly on the lips. “Ah… I forgot to ask before. I don’t have to change my name, do I? ‘Wen-li von Lohengramm’ sounds too weird.”

“That’s what you’re concerned about at this stage?”

“It’s a relevant question. I guess you can be ‘Reinhard Yang’.”

“…no.”