Bauerwurst had an oily little voice; Nicholas had always thought so, and annoying as it was in ministerial meetings, it was a lot more annoying when the man was dogging his personal heels through the palace halls.
"…and the Minister trusts your judgment, your word would be of much value to us…"
Nicholas was sure it would. Right at the moment, he wished it were otherwise.
"…in return I’m sure we could do something about Herzog von Liechtenstein’s leverage against you…"
Nicholas stopped dead and finally turned around. "What?"
Bauerwurst smiled at him, nearly dripping with attempted camaraderie. "Oh, no one dares say anything openly, but I assure you my associates and I are alert to these nuances. You argue every issue with Liechtenstein, but when it comes to a vote, you vote with him each time. I don’t know what he holds over you, but I’m sure we could—" He broke off, suddenly looking less oily and more alarmed. Nicholas noted it distantly, through his rage, and took another step, catching Bauerwurst’s jacket in his fist and pinning the man against the wall. He felt weightless.
"No one holds anything over my head, you little worm," he said, level and hot as poured steel, loud enough to echo off the walls and turn the heads of the people around them. "I vote by my damn conscience and follow my brain, not my damn pocketbook. Ludwig has my loyalty because he earned it."
"I… I’m sure I didn’t mean…" The whites were showing around Bauerwurst’s eyes and Nicholas snorted with disgust, opening his hand.
"Your kind make me sick. You give government a bad name." He turned his back and strode on down the hall, turning his mind firmly to France’s last request for supplies.
He imagined there would be trouble over this, but he’d found there was trouble over everything, sooner or later, at the palace. That was apparently life.
And Lui, too.
Nicholas was stuffing papers into his briefcase, glad to finally escape for the day, when a stir at the door made him look around. Lui was standing just inside, regarding him with cool eyes and crossed arms. Nicholas’ mouth tilted.
"Wondered how long it would take before you heard."
Lui just watched him, distant as any glacier, and Nicholas snorted.
"Oh, relax, will you?" He stood up and stretched the kinks out of his back. "Honestly, I’d have thought Orphe would have gotten you used to it by now."
"Orpheus," Lui said, precisely, "is loyal to this country. Not to me."
"He will be," Nicholas pointed out, blunt and brutal. "We all know it’s coming."
He wouldn’t have thought it possible, but Lui stilled even further.
Nicholas sighed. "You won’t be able to avoid the crown, Lui, and when it comes you won’t be able to do everything by yourself. I get that you don’t like that," everyone got that, wasn’t like it took Camus to spot it, "but that’s just too bad." He slung his briefcase over his shoulder, dangling from his fingers, and shot Lui a fierce grin. "I trust you. I’ll follow where you lead this country."
Lui closed his eyes, as if weary at great foolishness, and Nicholas let his grin turn affectionate. Lui had inhuman control of his expression, but his eyes gave him away if he felt strongly enough. When he closed them, you could be sure it was to hide a strong feeling. Almost as good as Orphe’s open-book expressiveness, really.
"Come on," he jostled Lui with an elbow as he passed. "We can have a nice fight tomorrow over how many ships we can afford to send to France. Won’t that be fun?"
"I’m sure it will be most satisfying, when I win." Lui looked down his nose, collected again.
Nicholas laughed out loud. "We’ll see."
He didn’t know why more people didn’t understand Lui. All you had to do was take everything he said and turn it thirty degrees, but practically no one around here noticed. The best and brightest, in his considered opinion, could be pretty dim.
Fortunately, there were still some bright enough to light the way.