At the appointment ceremony Nicholas found himself kneeling beside Lui, and felt like an interloper for the first time in a long time.
Naoji was watching from the galleries.
Nicholas had heard rumors that someone in the palace had protested a (mostly) foreigner being appointed in the government, but he’d also heard Orphe mentioning Naoji’s hesitance to accept a position in a country he intended to leave. Besides being from the horse’s mouth, that seemed more like the man, to him. ‘Conscientious’ didn’t begin to describe Naoji.
And now Lui was staring straight ahead with less expression than one of the church’s statues, giving his responses in a pure and disinterested tone. No hint of his usual sly amusement and disgust over the antics of the less intelligent souls around him.
Nicholas had seen a younger student thrown from his horse, earlier that year. The boy’s leg had been broken. He’d sat and stared at it, face perfectly blank while everyone else ran around shouting.
He hadn’t screamed until they’d moved him.
Nicholas didn’t think Lui would ever scream. He respected that. But he didn’t like the way both Helmut and Camus were watching Lui lately.
As the priest raised her hands, invoking the blessing of wisdom on the newest Strahl, Nicholas, instead, prayed that Naoji would stay in the country long enough for this break to knit.
He wondered if hearts took longer than bones.
"Poland is a long way off." Bauerwurst looked around the room for support. "Germany is between us; any aid we sent would only serve to turn Germany’s attention to us, which we have thus far avoided."
Nicholas growled under his breath at such idiocy.
"Therefore, it behooves us to maintain our tradition of neutrality—"
"And die?" Lui’s cool voice sliced over Bauerwurst’s.
"We are neutral!" Bauerwurst insisted, as if the words were some kind of magic spell.
"No one else is," Lui pointed out, leaning back in his chair and folding his hands in waiting stillness. "Do you want this country to be caught in a closing net of alliances, driven into a corner at the last, allying with whoever will have us at the end?" He waited until Bauerwurst had drawn a breath to reply and added, softly, "Would you repudiate the tentative alliances His Majesty has made, at such diplomatic and personal risk?"
Bauerwurst was left with his mouth hanging open, and the truth that yes, he would if he could, written so plainly across his face that even his own allies squirmed uncomfortably.
Lui straightened, hands laid flat on the table. "This is not a time in which conservative tradition alone will serve us. Our king has pointed the way. It falls to us to follow it."
A murmur of approval and relief ran through the room and Nicholas’ mouth quirked. They might as well be back at school, the whole crowd following after the brightness of those few who shone.
He did look forward to seeing all of their faces the first time they watched Lui and Orphe have a fight, which was sure to happen just as soon as Orphe got back from his inspection of the country’s factories and they all set to over how many might be made over to war purposes, if needed.
He frowned, though, as the meeting broke up and he watched Lui leave the room, head down, with none of the air of having a personal patent on rightness that winning an argument usually brought out.
Lui’s brightness still seemed dimmed, for all his sharpness when they worked. Nicholas admitted to being impressed that Lui could work like this through whatever his private injury was, but he didn’t approve of it at all. He would, he thought, mention something to Daniel, who was better at prodding Naoji than anyone else Nicholas knew.
Nicholas was looking for Helmut, but found Daniel instead. Well, that would do. Both of them would be off to England in a few days to soothe and worry the English, respectively. He started to call out when his friend looked up sharply from the door he was lingering at and put a swift finger to his lips. His smile was wicked and bright as he beckoned Nicholas closer.
Nicholas’ mouth tilted wryly but he continued silently down the hall, wondering what trouble Daniel had found this time.
He was halfway there when he spotted who was beyond the half-closed door and stopped short.
Naoji was caught up against Lui, being kissed, from what Nicholas could see, within an inch of his life, fine hands buried in Lui’s mane of hair. They burned against the dimness of the room, the way he’d only ever seen them burn when they both had swords in their hands.
He looked away and put his hands on his hips and raised his brows at Daniel. Daniel just grinned at him, eyes alight. Nicholas shook his head and trod forward more softly than before.
"Your path will be glorious, no matter which one you walk," he heard Lui murmur, voice husky and intent in a way that nearly made Nicholas shiver. "Show me."
"Yes." Naoji’s voice was pretty husky too, he couldn’t help noticing, but it was firm, and that… that was probably what Lui needed to hear.
Lui would not be happy to know anyone else had heard it, though. Nicholas wound his fingers in the back of Daniel’s jacket and pulled him away down the hall.
"Let’s not stir them up too much," he said softly when he judged they were out of earshot.
Daniel burst out laughing. "And after setting me on them; you’re so dishonest sometimes, Nicholas."
"I was worried, sure. You want him to go off feral again, the way they say he used to be?" Nicholas paused and snorted. "Wait, never mind, don’t answer; this is you I’m talking to." He gave his friend a tolerant smile. "Come on. I’ve got the shipyard figures for you and Helmut to take with you." Tempted by the promise of new targets, Daniel went along easily enough and Nicholas smiled.
If his smile had as much to do with relief as with his friend’s bad hobbies, that was his own business.